Scott Clark: Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant

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Puritanboard Clerk
Clark, R. Scott. Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2005.

R. Scott Clark offers us an extended analysis of untranslated sections of Caspar Olevian's De Substantia and places it within the turbulent background of 16th century German Calvinism. The book is a model of historical theology and on how to do analysis. Throughout the book he rebuts claims that Olevian was either a rationalist who rejected Calvin, or a true disciple of Calvin who used the covenant to soften predestination.

The opening chapters give a fascinating account of the struggles of the Continental Reformed after the death of Calvin. Clark sees them as an "International Calvinism" between the often hostile forces of Lutheranism and Rome.

Caspar Olevian must be seen as a humanist and a scholastic, using the tools of both. It’s important at this point to get his Aristotelian terminology understood.

Primary substance: indivisible substances extra intellectum (Clark 60). Think this-man, that-tree.

Secondary substance: think classes and kinds. God is a primary substance. The primary substance, if you will. More importantly, “God” is not a genus, so he can’t be a secondary substance.

Olevian on Substance and God

Substance of the covenant: objective truths of the Christian religion summarized in Apostles’ Creed (67).

Olevian’s Trinitarian Doctrine of God

“Medieval soteriology….thought of infused grace (gratia infusa) as the means of final justification, Calvin made it the office of God the Spirit to infuse the elect, subsequent to justification, with the grace of sanctification” (83).

A person, as per the Trinity, is a subsistence “unsustained by any other” (97).

Trinity, Creation, and Substance

Substance is defined as “being’ because ‘being proper’ belongs to it” (101). Yet for Olevian substance is shorthand for “all that God has done for us in Christ. It was shorthand for the twofold benefit” (102). The substance of the covenant describes the special relations between God and the elect.

Justification: The First Benefit of the Covenant of Grace

Justification: First Part of the Double Benefit

  1. “Forgiveness of sins (remissio peccatorum) is the first “offered benefit” (oblatum beneficium) which is received by faith” (151).
  2. Christ’s righteousness is the ground of our justification, and is externally imputed to the believer.
Romanist View

Per Canisius:

  1. Justification is an ontological matter, a transformation (Clark 156).
  2. The beginning of justice is sufficient to satisfy God. God “holds his judgment in abeyance until final justification or sanctification is achieved” (meritum de condigno; 156).
  3. Justification is a result of the mediation of grace.
  4. These benefits are applied in baptism (158). They are complex, not duplex.
  5. Christ fulfills these internally in us. For Olevian, Christ has already fulfilled all righteousness (159).
Olevian’s Response

  1. Christ has already fulfilled all righteousness and we benefit through faith.
  2. “The voice of nature or law of the covenant requires that justice before God must be either completely proper or alien to oneself” (159).
  3. “Justification cannot be something accomplished within us, since Christ has already accomplished it externally” (160).
Sanctification: The Second Part of the Double Benefit

Our “renovatio was also promised on prevenient, unmerited divine mercy” (185).

Key point: Olevian’s Trinitarianism and “focus on God the Spirit, combined with the use of the covenant which had the effect of creating a locus in his theology for a doctrine of evangelical obedience without threatening his doctrine of justification by imputation” (187).

In other words, Olevian’s strong sanctification theology never fell to the dangers of Federal Visionism.


He held to a monergism in justification but saw a mutuality in the administration of the covenant of grace (190).

Means of Grace

“Because repentance is sanctification, it cannot be a condition of the remission of sins” (198).

There is an organic relationship between the sign and substance, so that “the signs themselves entail covenant stipulationes” (200).

Children are in the covenant, but the Lord’s Supper is a feast of covenant renewal, and infants are not eligible for it (205).


This book is key tool in grounding oneself in historic Reformed and Covenant Theology. It is a valuable rebuttal, though not primarily intended as such, in refuting the false teachings of Doug Wilson and his disciples. Clark and Olevian point out that the substance and the administration, while never separated, are distinct. That is why we don't preach the Good News of a Temporal Union with Christ, and a sort-of election.

Also, while Clark translates Olevian, he footnotes the actual Latin text, which allows the reader to work through the passages on his own.
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