Ursinus’ Development of the Covenant of Creation: A Debt to Melanchthon or Calvin? -- By: Peter Alan Lillback

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 43:2 (Spring 1981)
Article: Ursinus’ Development of the Covenant of Creation: A Debt to Melanchthon or Calvin?
Author: Peter Alan Lillback

Ursinus’ Development of the Covenant of Creation:
A Debt to Melanchthon or Calvin?

Peter Alan Lillback


The fame and importance of Zacharias Ursinus rests chiefly in his coauthorship of the Heidelberg Catechism. Another important contribution by Ursinus to the theology of the Reformed Church has frequently been overlooked either due to preoccupation with his magnum opus or the general obscurity that surrounds the early origin and development of covenant theology. This second important contribution is the first clearly articulated statement of the covenant of works which Ursinus designated the “covenant of creation” or the “covenant of nature.” These terms are encountered for the first time in the Summa Theologiae, one of two catechisms published by Ursinus in 1562 one year before the Heidelberg Catechism. He wrote,

(10) Quid docet lex divina?
Quale in creations foedus cum homine Deus iniveriet; quo pacto se homo in eo servando gesserit: et quid ab ipso Deus post initum cum eo novum foedus gratiae, requirat; hoc est, qualis et ad quid conditus sit homo a Deo, in quem statum sit redactus: et quo pacto vitam suam Deo reconciliatus debeat instituere.

This concept is employed again by Ursinus,

(36) Quod est discrimen Legis et Evangelii?
Lex continet foedus naturale, in creations a Deo cum hominibus initur, hoc est, natura hominibus nota est; et requirit a nobis perfectam obedientiam erga Deum, et praestantibus eam, promittit vitam aeternam, non praestantibus minatur aeternas poenas….1

As Ursinus stated the covenant of nature or of creation in opposition to the covenant of grace, and defined the goal of the covenant as life by means of perfect obedience, he had laid the foundation for later covenant theologians’ discussion of this idea.

With such an important breakthrough, the question of what stimulated Ursinus to think along these lines naturally arises. The most popular position among German scholars is to attribute Ursinus’ theological development to Melanchthonian influences. Such a connection has considerable presumptive support in that Ursinus was a student of Melanchthon for seven years and enjoyed a close relationship of mutual esteem and friendship.2 It is also known that Ursinus used Melanchthon’s Examen Ordinandorum while he taught at the Elizabether Gymnasium in Wittenburg. When the Crypto-Calvinism controversy in 1559–60 brought reproach for Melanchthon, Ursinus remained faithful to his teacher’s eucharistic teaching. Ursinus only left Witt...

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