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John Calvin’s Integrated Covenant Theology (1):
The Nature of the Covenant

Rev. Angus Stewart

(Slightly modified from an article first published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)


While Calvin is neither the originator of Reformed covenant theology nor the author of the first book on the covenant—these honours falling to Zwingli and Bullinger respectively—he is, as Peter Lillback states, "the first … to integrate the covenant concept extensively into his theological system."1 Calvin’s longest and most detailed treatment of the covenant is found in book 2, chapters 10 and 11, of his Institutes, his greatest and most systematic work.2

The Unity of the Covenant

It is striking that Calvin’s first point, and that which he spends the whole of chapter 10 proving, is the "similarity—or rather unity" of the covenant of God, that it is one in all ages: "The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation [or administration]" (2.10.2, p. 429).3 Saints in the Old and the New Testaments share "the same law," "the same doctrine," "the same inheritance," and the "common salvation" by the grace of the "same Mediator" (2.10.1, pp. 428, 429). Calvin avers, "It is very important to make this point," adding later that the unity of the covenant is also "very profitable for us" (2.10.1, pp. 428, 429).

Calvin names the heretics he is opposing, giving them none too flattering titles: "that wonderful rascal Servetus and certain madmen of the Anabaptist sect" (2.10.1, p. 429). Their error was that the Jews were partakers only of a "carnal covenant," as Calvin dubs it (2.10.19, p. 446), consisting of "carnal prosperity and happiness" (2.10.2, p. 429) for a "carnal folk" (2.10.15, p. 441). They present "the Israelites as nothing but a herd of swine … fattened by the Lord on this earth without any hope of heavenly immortality" (2.10.1, p. 429). The Anabaptist doctrine "that the Lord promised the Jews, or that they sought for themselves, nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth, outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man prizes," Calvin calls an "insane and dangerous opinion" (2.10.23, p. 448; cf. 4.16.10, p. 1333).

Against the "carnal covenant," Calvin asserts the "spiritual covenant" (2.10.7, p. 434; 2.10.15, p. 441; etc.).4 Calvin’s doctrine of one, spiritual covenant rests upon "three main points" upon which "we must take our stand." First, Old Testament revelation proclaimed, and the elect Jews aspired to, "the hope of immortality" and not merely earthly riches. Second, the covenant was not of human merit but "solely" of God’s "mercy." Third, believing Jews "had and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share in his promises" (2.10.2, pp. 429, 430).

Calvin identifies the first of these three as "the chief point in this controversy" (2.10.10, p. 436) requiring "closer attention" (2.10.3, p. 430), and so he spends most of book 2, chapter 10, treating it, especially in sections 3, 7-23. First, sections 7-9 argue that the fathers had everlasting life because (1) they had the quickening Word, (2) they fellowshipped with the living God, and (3) God’s goodness is stronger than death. Second, Calvin describes the lives of the patriarchs in Genesis—Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph (2.10.10-14, pp. 436-441)—as so miserable that they were thereby "taught by the Lord as to perceive that they had a better life elsewhere; and disregarding the earthly life, to meditate upon the heavenly" (2.10.10, p. 436).5 Here Calvin notes Scripture’s description of the fathers as "strangers and sojourners" (cf. Gen. 47:9) and quotes at length that famous passage in Hebrews 11:9-10, 13-16 as "very beautifully" proving his point (2.10.13, p. 440). Third, he shows that in the Psalms, Isaiah, Job, Ezekiel, Daniel, etc. (2.10.15-22, pp. 441-448), "eternal life and Christ’s kingdom are revealed in fullest splendor" (2.10.15, p. 441). Calvin rightly believes that he has "blazed a trail for the moderately discerning reader" to understand the Old Testament Scriptures (2.10.20, p. 446).

Only sections 4-6 of book 2, chapter 10, are directly concerned with proving that God’s covenant, even in old testament days, was by God’s mercy through Christ. Calvin practically equates the one, everlasting gospel of grace with the covenant by speaking of "the covenant of the gospel:"

… the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it is summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares to separate the Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ? Who dares to estrange from the gift of free salvation those to whom the doctrine of righteousness by faith was imparted? (2.10.4, p. 431).

Calvin then quotes John 8:56 and Hebrews 13:8, before noting that Christ came in fulfilment of the covenant promise (Luke 1:54-55, 72-73; 2.10.4, pp. 431-432).

Not only is the gospel of God’s mercy in Christ essentially the same in both testaments but also the old covenant "sacraments" (Israel’s baptism at the Red Sea, the water from the Rock that followed them in the wilderness, and the manna) were also "truly spiritual sacraments" (2.10.6, p. 433). Thus "the apostle [in I Corinthians 10:1-6, 11] makes the Israelites equal to us not only in the grace of the covenant but also in the signification of the sacraments" (2.10.5, p. 432).

It ought, however, to be noted that Calvin proves the unity of God’s covenant in book 2, chapter 10, of his Institutes, in order to establish the unity of the Scriptures. Thus this chapter is entitled, "The Similarity of the Old and New Testaments." Moreover, Calvin thereby also demonstrates the unity of the covenant people of God in all ages, for "all the saints whom Scripture mentions as being peculiarly chosen of God from the beginning of the world have shared with us the same blessing unto eternal salvation" (2.11.10, p. 459). All three—one covenant, one Bible and one church—are basic and essential aspects of covenant theology.

The Different Administrations of the Covenant

In book 2, chapter 11, of the Institutes, Calvin is not simply comparing the Mosaic covenant with the new covenant. Rather he explains the differences between God’s revelation of the covenant in the Old Testament Scriptures and in the New Testament Scriptures. Before listing and discussing the five differences which Calvin identifies, he underscores the fact that none of them individually, nor all of them together, "detract from [Scripture’s] established unity" (2.11.1, pp. 449-450). Instead, the "additions," "appendages," "accessories" and "accidental properties of the covenant" (2.11.5, p. 454) all "pertain to the manner of dispensation [or administration] rather than to the substance" of the covenant (2.11.1, p. 450). The Genevan Reformer’s Christological concern is evident: "In this way there will be nothing to hinder the promises of the Old and New Testament from remaining the same, nor from having the same foundation of these very promises, Christ!" (2.11.1, p. 450).

With this reiterated and understood, Calvin turns to the five differences. First, the Old Testament differs from the New in that it contains physical, earthly and temporal benefits which foreshadowed and mirrored spiritual, heavenly and eternal blessings (2.11.1-3, pp. 449-453). Second, the Old Testament "in the absence of the reality … showed but an image and shadow in place of the substance [whereas] the New Testament reveals the very substance of truth as present" (2.11.4, p. 453).

The third and fourth differences particularly pertain to the Mosaic covenant under which the law was given. Here Calvin, following Jeremiah and Paul in Jeremiah 31 and II Corinthians 3 respectively, "consider[s] nothing in the law except what properly belongs to it" (2.11.7, p. 456). He explains,

For example: the law here and there contains promises of mercy; but because they have been borrowed from elsewhere, they are not counted part of the law when only the nature of the law is under discussion. They ascribe to it only this function: to enjoin what is right, to forbid what is wicked; to promise a reward to the keepers of righteousness, and threaten transgressors with punishment; but at the same time not to change or correct the depravity of heart that by nature inheres in all men (2.11.7, pp. 456-457).

The third difference is that while the Old Testament law is literal (considered as in its own nature and engraved on stone), the New is spiritual, written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (2.11.7-8, pp. 456-457). The fourth difference, as Calvin notes, "arises out of the third" (2.11.9, p. 458). The Old Testament, considered from the distinctive idea of "law," is one of "bondage," whereas the New Testament is one of "freedom" through the gospel (2.11.9-10, pp. 458-460).

The fifth and last of Calvin’s differences applies to the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David, and not to those in Genesis 1-11: in the Old Testament God’s covenant of grace was with one people, the Jews, but in the New Testament, the church is catholic, embracing believing Jews and Gentiles (2.11.11-12, pp. 460-462). In former days, God "lodged his covenant, so to speak, in [Israel’s] bosom; he manifested the presence of his majesty to them; he showered every privilege upon them" but in the fullness of time elect Jews and Gentiles are "reconciled to God and welded into one people" by the blood and Spirit of Christ (2.11.11, pp. 460, 461).

For centuries Reformed Christians have agreed with Calvin’s evaluation of this chapter of his Institutes: "In these four or five points I think that I have explained faithfully and well the whole difference between the Old and the New Testaments as far as a simple statement of doctrine demands" (2.11.13, p. 462). Over against the objections of some as to why God should have ordered such variations in the administration of His covenant, Calvin rightly affirms the freedom and wisdom of God’s sovereign will (2.11.13-14, pp. 462-464).

Covenant Hermeneutics

Calvin’s treatment of the unity and the differences between the two testaments leads him set forth what may be called a "covenant hermeneutic." This, Calvin believes, provides us with the "key" for understanding the Old Testament:

Nevertheless, I shall warn my readers beforehand to remember to open up their way with the key that I previously put into their hands [cf. 2.9.1-4, pp. 423-427]. That is, whenever the prophets recount the believing people’s blessedness, hardly the least trace of which is discerned in the present life, let them take refuge in this distinction: the better to commend God’s goodness, the prophets represented it for the people under the lineaments, so to speak, of temporal benefits. But they painted a portrait such as to lift the minds of the people above the earth, above the elements of this world [cf. Gal. 4:3] and the perishing age, and that would of necessity arouse them to ponder the happiness of the spiritual life to come (2.10.20, p. 447).

Calvin speaks of the Old Testament "lineaments" or "portraits" which portray spiritual, heavenly and eternal blessings in various ways. For example, in book 2, chapter 11, he speaks of "signs," "symbols," "figures," "images," "shadows," and even a "mirror." But the word he uses most is "type" or "typify." Since God has "imprinted" "analogy and congruity" between the type and the antitype (2.11.3, p. 452), Old Testament exegesis must interpret the types which are given by God (but not invented by the exegete) typologically and not merely literally.

… the prophets more often represent the blessedness of the age to come through the type that they had received from the Lord. In this sense we are to understand these sayings: "The godly will possess the land" by inheritance [Prov. 2:21 p.], but "the wicked will perish from the earth" [Job 18:17 p.; cf. Prov. 2:22 …]. In many passages in Isaiah we read that Jerusalem will abound with all kinds of riches, and Zion shall overflow with plenty of all things [cf. Isa. 35:10; 52:1ff.; 60:4ff.; ch. 62]. We see that all these things cannot properly apply to the land of our pilgrimage, or to the earthly Jerusalem, but to the true homeland of believers, that heavenly city wherein "the Lord has ordained blessing and life forevermore" [Ps. 133:3] (2.11.2, p. 452).6

Calvin repeatedly explains the need for ceremonies and types in Old Testament days as being rooted in the "childhood" of the church when "God confined them to rudimentary teaching commensurate with their age" (2.11.13, pp. 462-463; cf. 2.11.5, pp. 454-455; 2.11.9, p. 459).

The Progressive Revelation of the Covenant

Calvin’s comparison between the Old Testament (usually taking it as a unit) and the New Testament in book 2, chapters 10 and 11, of his Institutes does not mean that he is ignorant of the various covenants within the Hebrew Scriptures. In these very chapters, Calvin speaks of the orderly, progressive revelation of the covenant of grace from post-fall Adam (Gen. 3:15) to the coming of Jesus Christ. The attractive imagery in this justly celebrated passage is that of increasing light.

The Lord held to this orderly plan in administering the covenant of his mercy: as the day of full revelation approached with the passing of time, the more he increased each day the brightness of its manifestation. Accordingly, at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam [Gen. 3:15] it glowed like a feeble sparks. Then, as it was added to, the light grew in fullness, breaking forth increasingly and shedding its radiance more widely. At last—when all the clouds were dispersed—Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, fully illumined the whole earth [Mal., Ch. 4] (2.10.20, p. 446).7

Elsewhere, Calvin identifies the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David:

He calls them "the mercies of David," because this covenant, which has now been solemnly confirmed, was made in the land "of David." The Lord indeed entered into a covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:5; 17:7), afterwards confirmed it by Moses (Ex. 2:24; 33:1), and finally ratified this very covenant in the hand of David, that it might be eternal (II Sam. 7:12). Whenever, therefore, the Jews thought of a Redeemer, that is, of their salvation, they ought to have remembered "David" as a mediator who represented Christ; for David must not here be regarded as a private individual, but as bearing this title and character (Comm. on Isa. 55:3).

Again, Calvin is quick to add that the various manifestations of the covenant do not make "void" the earlier covenants: "the covenant into which God entered with the fathers was firm, sure, and eternal, and not changeable or temporary" (Comm. on Isa. 55:3). In Christ, the one and eternal covenant is "ratified," "confirmed" and "proved:"

By calling [David’s antitype] "a witness," [Isaiah] means that the covenant into which he entered shall be ratified and confirmed in Christ … for he clearly shows that this covenant shall be proved in Christ, by whom the truth of God shall be made manifest (Comm. on Isa. 55:4).

Similarly, the covenant with Noah, including the promise not to destroy the world with water, is a manifestation of God’s everlasting and universal covenant:

Moreover, there is no doubt that it … was not therefore a private covenant confirmed with one family only, but one which is common to all people, and which shall flourish in all ages to the end of the world … Wherefore, relying on this promise, let us look forward to the last day, in which the consuming fire shall purify heaven and earth [II Peter 3] (Comm. on Gen. 9:8-9).

Thus Calvin highlights the heavenly implications of the Noahic covenant:

For although this be an earthly promise, yet God designs the faith of his people to be exercised, in order that they may be assured that a certain abode will, by his special goodness, be provided for them on earth, until they shall be gathered together in heaven (Comm. on Gen. 9:10-11).

Calvin even observes that God "promises salvation to a thousand generations," and so the covenant with Noah refutes "the ignorance of the Anabaptists … who deny that the covenant of God is common to infants" (Comm. on Gen. 9:10-11).

Calvin scholars have found only one passage in which the Reformer speaks explicitly of God’s covenant with pre-fall Adam. In the Institutes, he writes of the "covenants" (plural) with Adam and with Noah and their respective sacraments or signs:

One is when [God] gave Adam and Eve the tree of life as a guarantee of immortality, that they might assure themselves of it as long as they should eat of its fruit [Gen. 2:9; 3:22]. Another, when he set the rainbow for Noah and his descendants, as a token that he would not destroy the earth with a flood [Gen. 9:13-16]. These, Adam and Noah regarded as sacraments. Not that the tree provided them with an immortality which it could not give to itself; nor that the rainbow (which is but a reflection of the sun’s rays opposite) could be effective in holding back the waters; but because they had a mark engraved upon them by God’s Word, so that they were proofs and seals of his covenants (4.14.18, p. 1294).8

Thus Calvin refers once to a pre-fall covenant with Adam, whereas he develops "the covenant of his mercy" (2.10.20, p. 446), manifested progressively in the covenants with post-fall Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and "ratified," "confirmed" and "proved" in Christ (Comm. on Isa. 55:4).9


1 Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2001), p. 311.
2 All citations of the Institutes are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960). All citations of Calvin’s commentaries are from the 22 volume Baker (repr. 1993) edition.
3 Cf. Westminster Confession 7:5-6; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. & A. 33.
4 Calvin often refers to the "spiritual covenant" in his writings (e.g., 3.20.45, p. 910; Comm. on Gen. 17:8). For him, the "spiritual covenant" is synonymous with Christ’s "spiritual kingdom" (cf. Comm. on Isa. 60:2; Comm. on Isa. 65:10), and the "carnal covenant" is synonymous with an "earthly kingdom" (cf. 2.10.23, p. 449).
5 Note Calvin’s striking summary of Abraham, "the father of all them that believe" (Rom. 4:11): "In short, throughout life he was so tossed and troubled that if anyone wished to paint a picture of a calamitous life, he could find no model more appropriate than Abraham’s" (2.10.11, p. 438). "As for Jacob," Calvin continues, "he is a notable example of nothing but extreme unhappiness" (2.10.12, p. 438). How different from the facile view of the Christian life proclaimed by much of Pentecostalism!
6 Here Calvin’s hermeneutic opposes not only the Anabaptists and the dispensationalists but also the "health and wealth gospel," Christian Reconstructionism and postmillennialism.
7 "Nothing surpasses" this quotation from Calvin on the progressive revelation of God’s covenant, according to John Murray ("Covenant Theology" in Collected Writings of John Murray [Great Britain: Banner, 1982], vol. 4, p. 224).
8 "The term ‘sacrament’" in this context, explains Calvin, "embraces generally all those signs which God has ever enjoined upon men to render them more certain and confident of the truth of his promises." In this broad category, Calvin includes Gideon’s fleece and Hezekiah’s sundial going back ten degrees. Thus Calvin is not referring to the tree of life as if it were the equivalent of baptism or the Lord’s Supper (4.14.18, pp. 1294, 1295).
9 For a succinct treatment of Calvin on God’s covenant with Adam before the fall, see Angus Stewart, "The Covenant with Adam—A Brief Historical Analysis."