Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Exploring the Covenant of Works

Aaron C. Denlinger, Omnes in Adam ex Pacto Dei: Ambrogio Catarino’s Doctrine of Covenantal Solidarity and its Influence on Post-Reformation Reformed Theologians. Reformed Historical Theology, vol. 8. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010. Pp. 306. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

This is a very significant study on the development of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works. The topic is highly important both in terms of tracing the historical development of Reformed orthodoxy and in light of contemporary theological debates over this doctrine. This work focusses on the relationship between the covenant theology of the Catholic theologian, Ambrogio Catarino, and the Reformed concept of covenantal solidarity between Adam and the human race (28). This author treats the neglected area of overlap and influence between post-Reformation Roman Catholic and Reformed theology. The broad educational background that stood behind seventeenth-century Protestant scholasticism makes this study tremendously fruitful.

Catarino was a Catholic counter-Reformation theologian who wrote two polemical treatises against Martin Luther (24). Denlinger’s introduction stresses the fact that Catarino published material regarding a pre-fall covenant twenty years prior (1541) to Reformed thinkers, such as Zacharius Ursinus (12). Chapters 2 and 3 assess previous theories concerning the origins of the pre-fall covenant in Reformed theology as well as the general neglect of Catarino’s covenant theology.

Chapters 4 and 5 outline Catarino’s covenant theology and his doctrine of the pre-fall covenant. Catarino and later Reformed thinkers held in common the imputation of Adam’s guilt to his posterity by virtue of his covenantal solidarity with humanity. However, they differed widely as well. Catarino believed in three eternal covenants. The first was with Christ and it bridged the ontological gap that existed between God and humanity. Christ’s coming was not necessitated by man’s sin (110-121). The next two eternal covenants were with Mary as the bride of Christ (121-124) and with the church as the fruit of her union with Christ (124-126). The pre-fall and post-fall covenant fulfilled these eternal covenants (125, 130). Through his fall, Adam lost the superadded gifts of justice and grace. These gifts would have lifted him above his natural limitations as a creature (156, 159). Faith and works were the means of obtaining eternal life, both before and after the fall. Sin only made this process more difficult (130).

After exploring the medieval background of covenantal solidarity in Chapter 6, Denlinger treats his primary question in chapter seven: Did Catarino influence Reformed orthodox covenant theology? Denlinger’s arguments here are largely circumstantial and inconclusive. Similarities between Catarino and Reformed writers on the pre-fall covenant may be explained more easily via Denlinger’s excellent treatment of their common medieval roots than by direct influence. His most significant argument relates to the similarities between Robert Rollock and Catarino, but even here Denlinger noted that the evidence for dependence is “rather tentative” (270). His research does not necessitate the conclusion that Catarino influenced Reformed authors. His concludes with Chapter 8 by arguing that Catarino was one of many indirect influences upon Reformed thinkers.

This book makes at least two highly significant contributions to the history of Reformed theology. First, Denlinger makes the astute observation that most previous studies of the origins of the pre-fall covenant have searched mistakenly for a single source for the doctrine (29). Instead of looking for a “fountainhead” of the doctrine, he looks for “tributaries” that converge in developing the idea of Adam’s covenantal solidarity with humanity (30). This approach avoids looking for an evolution of thought through a select set of authors, such as Calvin and Ursinus (47). While this method is more complex than searching for a single source of the covenant of works, it is more fruitful and convincing (63). This method bucks the trend of most of the current secondary literature on the origins of the covenant in Reformed orthodoxy.

Second, he places the “intellectual roots” of Reformed covenant theology in late-medieval nominalism (32). The significant point is that both Reformed and Catholic authors developed ideas from medieval nominalism in ways that both differed and overlapped at times (289). This common pre-Reformation background is important even apart from considering the connection between Catarino and the Reformed (193). In particular, Denlinger observes that Catarino developed his idea of covenantal solidarity via medieval sacramental views of “covenant causality” (215). “Covenant causality” taught that God made the sacraments efficacious by creating a covenantal bond between the sign and the thing signified (225). This furnished Catarino and later authors with a foundation for the imputation of Adam’s sin.

This reviewer has one minor criticism for this work. Denlinger is likely correct in asserting that early Reformed authors did not explicitly teach a covenantal solidarity between Adam and his posterity. However, he oversimplifies the matter by arguing that while sixteenth-century authors stressed realistic solidarity between Adam and mankind, seventeenth-century writers shifted towards covenantal solidarity (186). This is the hinge of his argument for connecting Catarino to the Reformed (247). It is more accurate to say that many seventeenth-century authors affirmed physical descent from Adam was the cause of inheriting a corrupt nature, but that the covenant was the ground for imputed guilt. However, it is not clear that this position was unanimous. Such a black and white contrast is rarely accurate in historical theology.

One further comment is in order. Denlinger argues that the Westminster divine Anthony Burgess had Catarino in view when he rejected the idea that Christ was a medius or ontological bridge between God and man instead of a Mediator (184). Denlinger’s connection is plausible. However, it is important to note that it was a common view that Christ was an ontologically intermediate figure between God and man in Eastern Orthodoxy as well. The broad educational background of Protestant scholasticism included the Greek fathers as well as a broad range of contemporary theology. This point merits further research.

Denlinger’s book is a vital addition to the small, but growing, body of literature on Reformed orthodox covenant theology. It will help students expand the theological context of post-Reformation theology both in terms of medieval and Catholic sources.


The preceding review was first published in the Westminster Theological Journal.