The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism Of Caspar Olevian -- By: R. Scott Clark

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 61:1 (Spring 1999)
Article: The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism Of Caspar Olevian
Author: R. Scott Clark


The Catholic-Calvinist Trinitarianism Of Caspar Olevian

R. Scott Clark*

Since Johannes Cocceius (1603–69) first laid claim to the heritage of Caspar Olevian’s covenant or federal theology over against Cartesian rationalism, the interpretation of Olevian’s theology has been inextricably bound to larger issues.1 In the nineteenth century, scholars generally agreed that whereas Martin Luther’s Zentraldogma was justification, Calvin’s was predestination and the later Calvinists were thought to be, in the main, faithful to their master. In this century, however, John Calvin’s image in the scholarly literature has undergone a remarkable transformation. The search for Calvin’s central dogma seems to have been abandoned by most, and he is now routinely described with terms once reserved for Luther. The later Calvinists, however, have not fared as well as Calvin. The propagators of the central dogma theory, having turned their attention to the epigones, found them fashioning a determinist predestinarian theology starting from the eternal divine decrees rather than sacred Scripture.

Because of his connection with covenant theology however, Caspar Olevian (1536–87) has received more favorable treatment at the hands of historians, though they have not agreed on whether he represented a reaction to or repristination of Calvin.2 Heinrich Heppe interpreted Olevian as a part of an allegedly Melanchthonian German Reformed reaction to Calvinist determinism.3 On the other hand, Karl Barth said that Olevian was

*R. Scott Clark is academic dean and assistant professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.

one in whom he could “hear the voice” of Calvin again in distinction from the Reformed scholastics.4

Whether by Heppe or Barth, Olevian has been interpreted primarily as a covenant theologian, but this view needs to be questioned. In fact, Olevian was as much a theologian of the Trinity as he was a federal or covenant theologian. Indeed, he was a federal theologian because he was a trinitarian theologian. In his mind, to exposit the Trinity, or the ancient trinitarian creeds, was to teach the doctrine of the covenant, since the covenant is nothing more than a way of describing the relations which obtain between the triune God and his elect.

Olevian wrote his theology in a pedagogical, controversial, and creedal context. His use of the doctrine of the Trinity allowed him to accomplish several things s...

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