The Grandeur of Covenant Theology

May 8th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Articles

All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. . . . As therefore the bell that rings a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. . . . No man is an island, entire of itself . . . [a]ny man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.1

These familiar words have been echoed by many souls in their own ways but, despite unique flairs and lilts, they challenge us all to escape a world of isolation. For my part, a childhood spent in agnosticism brought my teenage mind away from a world where I would live and die with no connection to the rest of the world, to faith in a God who loved me and gave Himself for me. In accepting Christ as my savior at a nondenominational evangelical congregation at the age of fifteen, there was an end to a world where I viewed myself as ultimately alone. Exiled from my deepest sentiments that we are not floating islands, the world of only greys and no contrast was despairing, and a relationship with the God of the universe seemed to be the panacea for the basic questions about the meaning of life.

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In coming to Christ through evangelicalism, there was a strong sense of this relationship with God. But as time passed, new islands of isolation emerged. It seemed that as much as we had fellowship groups and the like, my faith was just that: mine, with no linkages to another’s. It was all about me and Jesus. And knowing my frailties, this was not something I could count upon. Even if I were more of a steadfast believer, other implications of this “me and Jesus” mentality troubled me. My children, as yet unborn, would have been viewed as largely disconnected from me in matters of faith. One practical consequence of this is that baptism would not be bestowed on them until the point where they had made their own individual profession of faith, and it seemed preferable if said profession came after some traumatic stage of rebellion. Even the basic eschatological structure of dispensational premillenialism had a world where the Church Age was hermetically sealed from that age of Adam, as was the age of Noah, and David, and perhaps others depending on one’s affinity to C.I. Scofield, or lack thereof.

And so it was that after 6 years of wrestling with evangelicalism, I wandered into the world of Reformed Presbyterian Christianity. What I found there was refreshing–in its view of the Covenant. In fact, the grandeur of its view of the Covenant was such that while having philosophical objections to Calvinism’s view of primary and secondary causes, I was excited enough about Covenant theology to become a member of a congregation before settling those matters about free will and the like. The mere fact that we were called to be members was enthralling to me, as my former spiritual home would make the absence of membership a mark of the purity of the faith. I realized that to say truly that no man is an island, we needed accountability–we needed the Covenant.

But that is enough autobiographical thought for one article that is meant to be more of an argument than a narrative.

This article will first describe the grandeur of Covenant theology as it is embraced and explained by those Protestant Reformers and their successors. It will then compare this view with the Catholic understanding of the Covenant. Lastly, it will offer a critique of the Reformed stance of the Covenant, and leave the floor open for a discussion of whether the Church that Christ established is ultimately visible and traceable. This will serve as the focus of our next article on Called to Communion. For now, let us consider what can be said of the Covenant between our great God and man.

I would like to begin this investigation of Covenant theology by citing a document loved (to my knowledge at least) by all Presbyterians. The Westminster Confession of Faith states in precise terms that God’s Covenant is not to be changed in its essence as time passes. Instead, from Adam to the present day, there is a commonality of God’s grace being at the heart of it all. And at that heart there is also a grace which has grown in salvation history. Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession, on “God’s Covenant with Man,” states:

1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

2. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

4. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old Testament.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.2

Here in the Westminster Confession we have the outline of Covenant theology in distilled form. Unlike other theological schools such as dispensationalism or Schweitzer’s notion of a god whose Covenant evolved with himself, in Covenant theology there is an emphasis on a unity which pervades the history of salvation. Moses did not teach a works-based religion that contrasts with the grace of the gospel; instead, to a Covenant theologian, grace was and is ever-present.

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The great 19th century systematic theologian of Princeton University, Charles Hodge, clarified that while there is a fundamental unity of essence in the Covenant of God, there is still a uniqueness to the dispensation of grace after Christ’s death and resurrection, as compared to the time before Our Lord’s incarnation.

Hodge writes as follows:

The gospel dispensation is called new in reference to the Mosaic economy, which was old, and about to vanish away. It is distinguished from the old economy, —

1. In being catholic, confined to no one people, but designed and adapted to all nations and to all classes of men.

2. It is more spiritual, not only in that the types and ceremonies of the Old Testament are done away, but also in that the revelation itself is more inward and spiritual. What was then made known objectively, is now, to a greater extent, written on the heart. (Heb. viii. 8-11.) It is incomparably more clear and explicit in its teachings.

4. It is more purely evangelical. Even the New Testament, as we have seen, contains a legal element, it reveals the law still as a covenant of works binding on those who reject the gospel; but in the New Testament the gospel greatly predominates over the law. Whereas, under the Old Testament, the law predominated over the gospel.

5. The Christian economy is specially the dispensation of the Spirit. The great blessing promised of old, as consequent on the coming of Christ, was the effusion of the Spirit on all flesh, i.e., on all nations and on all classes of men. This was so distinguishing a characteristic of the Messianic period that the evangelist says, “The Holy Ghost was not yet given, because that Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John vii. 39.) Our Lord promised that after his death and ascension He would send the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, to abide with his people, to guide them into the knowledge of the truth, and to convince the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment to come. He charged the Apostles to remain at Jerusalem until they had received this power from on high. And in explanation of the events of the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter said, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear.” (Acts ii. 32, 33.)

6. The old dispensation was temporary and preparatory; the new is permanent and final. In sending forth his disciples to preach the gospel, and in promising them the gift of the Spirit, He assured them that He would be with them in that work unto the end of the world. This dispensation is, therefore, the last before the restoration of all things; the last, that is, designed for the conversion of men and the ingathering of the elect. Afterwards comes the end; the resurrection and the final judgment. In the Old Testament there are frequent intimations of another and a better economy, to which the Mosaic institutions were merely preparatory. But we have no intimation in Scripture that the dispensation of the Spirit is to give way for a new and better dispensation for the conversion of the nations. When the gospel is fully preached, then comes the end.3

Here the increase of grace that came through Christ is shown to be more quantitative than qualitative. More grace is now given to more people in a deeper manner. Christ’s sacrifice was foreshadowed in the Old Covenant, and the way we live today has a connection to the way people have always lived throughout history. As such, when one who loves Covenant Theology considers the older dispensation, the fact that circumcision was performed upon an “unwilling” baby leads the mind to have no qualms with the idea of baptism being given to the Covenant children of believing parents. And it would appear that the Apostle Paul argues in a similar fashion when he states:

In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 4

Going to other words of Scripture, we find, if anything, even more reasons to be excited about God’s Covenant. Not only is the Covenant chronologically new, it is something which enters one’s heart more deeply, and will lead to a state where “all” shall know the Lord. As the years pass, mankind’s grasp of the goodness of God is to grow in its extent and depth. Depending on one’s eschatological school, this could mean several things at several times and locations, but the general sketch is the same. Scripture states:

But he finds fault with them and says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will conclude a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers the day I took them by the hand to lead them forth from the land of Egypt; for they did not stand by my covenant and I ignored them, says the Lord.
But this is the covenant I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds and I will write them upon their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And they shall not teach, each one his fellow citizen and kinsman, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from least to greatest.
For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sins no more.”
When he speaks of a “new” covenant, he declares the first one obsolete. And what has become obsolete and has grown old is close to disappearing. 5

The glory of the Covenant inspired a sense of awe and wonder in the great Reformed writers. What Christ established is not only greater than the Old Covenant, it is more permanent. Not only is it more permanent, the sense we have is that the Covenant will be even more broad in the extent of its being followed. Jonathan Edwards, while congregationalist in his ecclesiology, grasped this when he wrote in A History of Redemption:

We may observe its continuance, signified here by two expressions; for ever, and from generation to generation. The latter seems to be explanatory of the former. The phrase for ever, is variously used in Scripture. Sometimes thereby is meant as long as a man lives. It is said, that the servant who had his ear bored through with an awl to the door of his master should be his for ever. Sometimes thereby is meant during the continuance of the Jewish state. Of many of the ceremonial and Levitical laws it is said, that they should be statutes for ever. Sometimes it means as long as the world shall stand, or to the end of the generations of men. Thus, Eccles. i. 4. “One generation passeth away, and another cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.” Sometimes thereby is meant to all eternity. So it is said, “God is blessed for ever,” Rom. i. 25. And so it is said, John vi. 51. “If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever.“—And which of these senses is here to be understood, the next words determine, viz. to the end of the world, or to the end of the generations of men. It is said in the next words, “and my salvation from generation to generation.“ Isa li. 8. Indeed the fruits of God’s salvation shall remain after the end of the world, as appears in “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look upon the earth beneath: for the heavens shall vanish away like smoke, and the earth shall wax old like a garment, and they that dwell therein shall die in like manner, but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” Isa li. 6. But the work of salvation itself toward the church shall continue to be wrought till then: till the end of the world God will go on to accomplish deliverance and salvation for the church, from all her enemies; for that is what the prophet is here speaking of. Till the end of the world; till her enemies cease to be, as to any power to molest the church. And this expression from generation to generation, may determine us as to the time which God continues to carry on the work of salvation for his church, both with respect to the beginning and end. It is from generation to generation, i. e. throughout all generations; beginning with the generations of men on the earth, and not ending till these generations end. 6

The Covenant was established by Christ, and it will never end as long as people exist. Through every generation, He has been faithful to us. The Church will be delivered from all of her enemies. His Covenant is more stable than the material universe, because his work of salvation for the Church is a more important work than the work of creation itself. In a later part of the same work, Edwards appears to grow in boldness and amazement of God’s Covenant, when he writes:

III. Another great design of God in the work of redemption, was to gather together in one all things in Christ, in heaven and in earth, i. e. all elect creatures; to bring all elect creatures, in heaven and in earth, to an union one to another in one body, under one head, and to unite all together in one body to God the Father. This was begun soon after the fall, and is carried on through all ages, and shall be finished at the end of the world.

IV. God designed by this work to perfect and complete the glory of all the elect by Christ—glory, “such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor has ever entered into the heart of man.” 1 Cor ii. 9 He intended to bring them to perfect excellency and beauty in his holy image, which is the proper beauty of spiritual beings; and to advance them to a glorious degree of honour, and raise them to an ineffable height of pleasure and joy. Thus he designed to glorify the whole church of elect men in soul and body, and with them to bring the glory of the elect angels to its highest elevation under one head.

V. In all this God designed to accomplish the glory of the blessed Trinity in an eminent degree. God had a design of glorifying himself from eternity; yea, to glorify each person in the Godhead. The end must be considered as first in order of nature, and then the means; and therefore we must conceive, that God having professed this end, had then as it were the means to choose; and the principal mean that he adopted was this great work of redemption. It was his design in this work to glorify his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; and by the Son to glorify the Father: John xiii. 31, 32. “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God be glorified in him, God also shall glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.” It was his design that the Son should thus be glorified, and should glorify the Father by what should be accomplished by the Spirit to the glory of the Spirit, that the whole Trinity, conjunctly, and each person singly, might be exceedingly glorified. The work that was the appointed means of this, was begun immediately after the fall, and is carried on till, and finished at, the end of the world, when all this intended glory shall be fully accomplished in all things.7

God’s great work of redemption entailed this majestic Covenant–what a joy and hope for the history of the world! The ruin of the fall is to be restored through God’s Covenant with man, all to the praise and glory of the Holy Trinity! It is hard to stay calm while reading these words of Edwards.

To read these and similar words about the Covenant as a Christian struggling with evangelicalism made so much sense out of life on a conceptual level. This is not meant to be a polemic for the postmillenial mindset, which was held by Jonathan Edwards. The Reformed world is indeed mostly amillenial today, and there are those stalwart premillenialist brethren who also inhabit the Reformed trenches. But what should be kept in our consideration is that this is the Reformed view of the Covenant, irrespective of millenial particulars. As we keep this in mind, the question arises: how does the Catholic Church view the Covenant?

This question needs to be answered through a historical analysis, as well as by looking at what the Catholic Church teaches on the Covenant. Historian Jaroslav Pelikan, writing as a Lutheran (but who lived the last eight years of his life Eastern Orthodox), wrote clearly about the various views on the Covenant.

What the first generation of New Englanders had held,” together with their Puritan colleagues in old England, was a system that came to be called “covenant theology” or federal theology. Yet it is important to remember that the theme of “covenant” was one that Roman Catholic theologians also found useful; and before it became the watchword of a theology that was somehow set against Calvinism, the covenant of grace, and God’s declared ends in the appointment and constitution of things in that covenant was, for orthodox Calvinism as it was to be again for Edwards, an authentic way of describing the will of God for the world, a way that took its place within the context of the doctrine of election in the total body of Reformed teaching.8

The Reformed view of the Covenant has its own parallels and uniqueness among Roman Catholic theologians? It was useful to them? But wasn’t their faith one of empty rituals? Wasn’t the claim of Rome that we must work our way to God? I asked myself these kinds of questions when I first took the claims of Rome seriously. To get beyond the Reformed attacks on Rome, one must turn to a primary source, and not to caricatures or emphases upon those poor examples who admittedly tarnished the Church’s reputation. Let’s read from Article I of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the Revelation of God, for guidance on the Catholic Church’s stance.

I. GOD REVEALS HIS “PLAN OF LOVING GOODNESS”

51. “It pleased God, in his goodness and wisdom, to reveal himself and to make known the mystery of his will. His will was that men should have access to the Father, through Christ, the Word made flesh, in the Holy Spirit, and thus become sharers in the divine nature.”

52. God, who “dwells in unapproachable light”, wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created, in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son. By revealing himself God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity.

53. The divine plan of Revelation is realized simultaneously “by deeds and words which are intrinsically bound up with each other” and shed light on each another. It involves a specific divine pedagogy: God communicates himself to man gradually. He prepares him to welcome by stages the supernatural Revelation that is to culminate in the person and mission of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure.

II. THE STAGES OF REVELATION
In the beginning God makes himself known

54. “God, who creates and conserves all things by his Word, provides men with constant evidence of himself in created realities. And furthermore, wishing to open up the way to heavenly salvation–he manifested himself to our first parents from the very beginning.” He invited them to intimate communion with himself and clothed them with resplendent grace and justice.

55. This revelation was not broken off by our first parents’ sin. “After the fall, [God] buoyed them up with the hope of salvation, by promising redemption; and he has never ceased to show his solicitude for the human race. For he wishes to give eternal life to all those who seek salvation by patience in well-doing.”

Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death. . . Again and again you offered a covenant to man.9

Later in the catechism, we read this statement on the culmination of the Covenant.

III. CHRIST JESUS — “MEDIATOR AND FULLNESS OF ALL REVELATION”

God has said everything in his Word

65. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one. St. John of the Cross, among others, commented strikingly on Hebrews 1:1-2:

In giving us his Son, his only Word (for he possesses no other), he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word–and he has no more to say. . . because what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son. Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty.

There will be no further Revelation

66. “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet even if Revelation is already complete, it has not been made completely explicit; it remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its full significance over the course of the centuries.10

In considering the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are, of course, differences between it and my former stance as a Reformed believer. The same could be said, however, about a comparison between my particular views on the Covenant versus the views of Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, John Calvin, or the Westminster divines. What is crucial to keep in mind is that the concept of Covenant has the same fundamental importance to Catholics, and it has the same view of the source of all blessings–our Blessed Lord. Indeed, there is a place for the Catholic to show his love and appreciation for God’s Covenant, and this can be held in unison with one’s consideration of the past, present, and future of the Church. Despite our wanderings and failings as people, God’s faithfulness in the Covenant is unending and undeniable. For the Catholic, there is an unending chain of believers throughout all of Church history, and there are successors to the Apostles in this New Covenant era, just as Joshua succeeded Moses in the Old Covenant times.

But what of the Reformed view of its historical predecessor, from which the protests of the Protestant Reformation are made? How, according to the Reformers, does the Covenant actually exist or subsist in Catholicism, if at all? To answer this question, consider these words of John Calvin, from his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Whoever will duly examine and weigh the whole form of ecclesiastical government as now existing in the Papacy, will find that there is no kind of spoliation in which robbers act more licentiously, without law or measure. Certainly all things are so unlike, nay, so opposed to the institution of Christ, have so degenerated from the ancient customs and practices of the Church, are so repugnant to nature and reason, that a greater injury cannot be done to Christ than to use his name in defending this disorderly rule. We (say they) are the pillars of the Church, the priests of religion, the vicegerents of Christ, the heads of the faithful, because the apostolic authority has come to us by succession. As if they were speaking to stocks, they perpetually plume themselves on these absurdities. Whenever they make such boasts, I, in my turn, will ask, What have they in common with the apostles? We are not now treating of some hereditary honour which can come to men while they are asleep, but of the office of preaching, which they so greatly shun. In like manner, when we maintain that their kingdom is the tyranny of Antichrist, they immediately object that their venerable hierarchy has often been extolled by great and holy men, as if the holy fathers, when they commended the ecclesiastical hierarchy or spiritual government handed down to them by the apostles, ever dreamed of that shapeless and dreary chaos where bishoprics are held for the most part by ignorant asses, who do not even know the first and ordinary rudiments of the faith, or occasionally by boys who have just left their nurse; or if any are more learned (this, however, is a rare case), they regard the episcopal office as nothing else than a title of magnificence and splendour; where the rectors of churches no more think of feeding the flock than a cobbler does of ploughing, where all things are so confounded by a confusion worse than that of Babel, that no genuine trace of paternal government is any longer to be seen.11

Despite the greatness of the Covenant, it is clear that the 16th century Catholic Church was not a partaker of this greatness, in the mind of Calvin at least. He considered the practices of the Church of his day to be opposed to the heart of the Covenant which inspired the martyrs whose blood was the seed of the Church’s growth, and the Apostles who are Her foundation. It was this striking conflict between a high view of the Covenant that spoke so deeply of the riches of Christ and His Church, and the words of Calvin and others, that led me to wonder about how Covenant theology could be held by one who essentially thought that the Covenant faltered to the point of being unrecognizable, to the point where the Church needed to be re-formed by Luther, Calvin and others.

The words of Scripture that inspired Jonathan Edwards and the like to say that Christ would save men through all time from generation to generation seem not to cover the notion that Christ’s Church would persist through all time, if we are to take Calvin at his word. It reminded me of another man’s struggle with Christianity, written in the United States almost 200 years ago. He wrote as follows:

My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? . . . I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”12

Of course, the one speaking in this instance was not a Reformed scholar. He was definitely not an advocate of Covenant theology. Instead, these words were written by Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, writing in the autobiographical document known as the History of Joseph Smith.

It is undeniable that Smith’s view of the Church (and the Covenant undergirding it) becoming so corrupt fewer than 300 years after the Reformation is remarkably similar to Luther’s and Calvin’s view of the Church roughly 1500 years after Her birth. The idea that there was no place to go to worship God would mean that whatever the Covenant accomplishes, it does not provide us with a sure grasp of how or where to worship. Because this view is rejected by Catholics, it would seem that Catholicism actually has a higher view of the Covenant. In fact, when the data of Scripture are compared to history, the Catholic can say something that cannot be said by the Reformed person (or the Mormon)–the Covenant is so powerful that the Church will not be lost in the passage of time. The “Dark Ages,” with all of their flaws, were not ages without the Covenant. The 16th century was not an age in which “no genuine trace of paternal government” could be found, as Calvin said in the quotation above. Instead, to the Catholic, the words of Hebrews have a tangible application to all of history– “And they shall not teach, each one his fellow citizen and kinsman, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for all shall know me, from least to greatest. For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sins no more.13

Of course, objections will arise: perhaps the Covenant was never meant to be manifested in a visible kingdom? Perhaps there were only a very small minority who believed as Calvin did in the 1500 or so years prior to the Reformation? Is this talk of the Covenant and the Catholic Church all Pollyanna-esque thinking? To answer these questions rightly, we need to consider whether the Church is ultimately both visible and invisible, or whether the Church is merely ultimately invisible. This will be the focus of my next article on Called to Communion.

  1. John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII (1624). []
  2. Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. VII. []
  3. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3.2.7 (1873). []
  4. Colossians 2:11-12. []
  5. Hebrews 8:8-13. []
  6. Jonathan Edwards, The History of the Work of Redemption, available here. []
  7. Id. []
  8. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 4, 240 (1985) (quotations omitted). []
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) (footnotes omitted). []
  10. Id. (footnotes omitted). []
  11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.5.13. []
  12. Joseph Smith, History of Joseph Smith, available here. []
  13. Hebrews 8:11-12. []
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  1. For the sake of argument, couldn’t we say that the pre-Reformation church (in its structure and authority) was an historical necessity, like God’s own 1500 year invasion of Normandy? In my experience, this is the necessary Reformed view, that a highly visible and hierarchical church was necessary to establish the beachhead, but that the Reformation signalled Christ’s intention to take the gospel “all the way to Berlin.” (OK, I’ll stop with the D-day analogy now).

    I guess this begs the question of just how the Catholic views the Reformation in light of salvation history? I’ve read one of Pope Benedict’s comments where he just seems to throw his hands up in the air about the whole thing and confess, “I don’t know.” The quandry is of course that their are arguably millions of children of the Reformation who for all intensive purposes appear to be true followers of Christ. The only explanation I can come up with, when I put on my Catholic hat, is that the Reformation shot off a bunch of bonfires from the divine flame of the Catholic church that have slowly been burning down for the last five hundred years. Is this too extreme?

    Looking forward to the next article, thanks for this.

  2. John,
    Thanks for your thoughts. I think the analogy may have validity though in my mind it would show the faults with Protestant thinking. Regarding Pope Benedict’s statement, I’d like to read the statement where he sounds confused, because it doesn’t ring a bell. (My first thought is that he may have been expressing his lack of knowledge of why God in His providence would allow the amount of schism in our day, but that’s just a guess.) I think our Catechism is quite clear on what we should think about the Reformation, as it pertains to the issue of their genuine spirituality, as well as on the issue of unity, or the lack thereof.

    See below.
    Blessings,
    Jonathan

    816 “The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”267

    The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism explains: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God.”268

    Wounds to unity

    817 In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.”269 The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body – here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism270 – do not occur without human sin:

    Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.271

    818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”272

    819 “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth”273 are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.”274 Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him,275 and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”276

    Toward unity

    820 “Christ bestowed unity on his Church from the beginning. This unity, we believe, subsists in the Catholic Church as something she can never lose, and we hope that it will continue to increase until the end of time.”277 Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and perfect the unity that Christ wills for her. This is why Jesus himself prayed at the hour of his Passion, and does not cease praying to his Father, for the unity of his disciples: “That they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, . . . so that the world may know that you have sent me.”278 The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit.279

    821 Certain things are required in order to respond adequately to this call:

    – a permanent renewal of the Church in greater fidelity to her vocation; such renewal is the driving-force of the movement toward unity;280

    – conversion of heart as the faithful “try to live holier lives according to the Gospel”;281 for it is the unfaithfulness of the members to Christ’s gift which causes divisions;

    – prayer in common, because “change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism;”‘282

    – fraternal knowledge of each other;283

    – ecumenical formation of the faithful and especially of priests;284

    – dialogue among theologians and meetings among Christians of the different churches and communities;285

    – collaboration among Christians in various areas of service to mankind.286 “Human service” is the idiomatic phrase.

    822 Concern for achieving unity “involves the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike.”287 But we must realize “that this holy objective – the reconciliation of all Christians in the unity of the one and only Church of Christ – transcends human powers and gifts.” That is why we place all our hope “in the prayer of Christ for the Church, in the love of the Father for us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.”288

  3. “The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one. Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of ‘heresy’ is no longer of any value. Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries-old history, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy. Perhaps we may here invert a saying of St. Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy. The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one. Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic. This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole. The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.”

    -Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, pp. 87-88

    This is the quote I was referring to, Jonathan.

  4. The citations from the Catechism are helpful (just got my physical copy in the mail yesterday, BTW), but I am equally as interested in the history of it all. Can you suggest a book that presents a solid Catholic perspective on the events of the Reformation?

  5. Hi John,

    This document produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last year, does a very good job outlining the position in which protestant communities find themselves.

    The problem to which then Cardinal Ratzinger refers is that most protestants today are not Catholics who understood and rejected the teachings of the Catholic faith. They are people who have learned what they know of Jesus outside of the Catholic Church and are trying to be faithful to what they know.

    As “Responses to Questions…” makes clear, the Church does know what protestant communities are, they are communities of Christians who do not have the fullness of the Church’s teachings and benefits, usually through little fault of their own.

    The Church’s ongoing mission, then, is to bring the fullness of Christian teaching to these Christians and eventually draw all Christians into unity.

    As for a Catholic view of the Reformation, I would certainly recommend Hillaire Belloc’s “Heresies” which provides a wonderfully exhaustive treatment of the spiritual and social causes of the schism.

  6. Thanks for the quote John. Re: history, I too would recommend Belloc, but would emphasize “How the Reformation Happened” over Heresies as it’s more focused on the events surrounding the 16th century.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  7. I’ve recently discovered that your blog title is actually a book that the Pope has written. I’ve ordered it and will look forward to its perspective. God bless.

  8. Ah, mea maxima culpa, I got the title of the book wrong anyway. The book I was recommending is called “The Great Heresies.” But I’ll concur with Jonathan, “How the Reformation Happened” is excellent as well.

  9. Jonathan,

    Great piece. It was Covenant Theology that paved the way for my return to Rome especially the way Covenant Theology manifested itself in the lived experience of the Church most particularly in the Liturgy.

  10. […] Jonathan Deane placed an interesting blog post on The Grandeur of Covenant Theology: A Catholic Perspective | Called …Here’s a brief overviewUnlike other theological schools such as dispensationalism or Schweitzer’s notion of a god whose Covenant evolved with himself, in Covenant theology there is an emphasis on a unity which pervades the history of salvation. … It is more spiritual, not only in that the types and ceremonies of the Old Testament are done away, but also in that the revelation itself is more inward and spiritual. What was then made known objectively, is now, to a greater extent, written on the … […]

  11. Awesome video. Very well done.

  12. Thanks! Feel free to pass it along.

  13. Hi there, I’m no Theologian, but even I can see the following recent blog video seems like a total ‘dog’s dinner’ in terms of Covenant Theology:

    http://tinyurl.com/35rkbht

    What’s more, Greg Koukl is a highly respected teacher! After all, he co-authored a book with Frank Beckwith.

    The strangest thing for me was the disconnectedness – and total absence – of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant, and although he uses ‘New Testament’, he simply means ‘Paul’s Epistles’.

    What do you think?

  14. Hi Paul,
    The precise connection between Old Testament and New varies even within advocates of Covenant Theology. Thus you have some who are more literalistic in the continuity, as can be seen in Theonomy. On the other hand, a more Two-Kingdoms focused mentality sees continuity in distinction from dispensationalism, but it does not see the Laws given to Moses as universal. The issues surrounding salvation are still in harmony between Old Testament and New Testament, whereas in Dispensationalism we are purportedly in a “Church” Age that is completely different from the salvation offered during the Old Testament Times. And thus in Dispensationalism, that OT form of salvation will come back during the “tribulation” and the “millennium”.

    Now going to your question about disconnectedness–the strongest disconnection that remains for Protestants, irrespective of their views on OT/NT, actually is something that I think you’re pointing to—Paul’s Epistles predominate in discussions by most Protestants. The writings of St. James, and more importantly, the Holy Gospels, have much to say about our labors in Christ (though one can find the same things in places like 1 Corinthians and Galatians). In that sense, there is a disconnect even within the NT narrative for most Protestants.

    I think this issue is secondary to things mentioned in other articles–namely, things like the nature of ordination, the visibility of the Church. These are more tangible matters that are more interesting. Nevertheless, I think I see where you are coming from.

    Blessings,
    Jonathan

  15. Heh. I was just looking at this article, and the first thing that happened is I saw the picture of that island and thought, man, I would like to live someplace like that, “island of isolation” and all. Grace builds on nature, no doubt, but it also has to transform and / or overthrow certain certain “natural” inclinations and longings. Oh well. (Could I just build a little chapel and have a priest row out once in a while to say Mass?)

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