The ‘Principle Doctrine’ of Scripture (Olevian)

 One of the lesser known but important early Reformed theologians is Caspar Olevian (d. 1587), who may have had a hand in writing the Heidelberg Catechism.  One of the many Reformed truths Olevian taught is the distinction between law and gospel.  Scott Clark summarizes Olevian’s distinction (I’ve underlined Olevian’s words for clarity):

Law and gospel perform radically different functions in the economy of justification.  It is only from the law that one knows sin and only from the gospel that one knows justification.  It was out of this very commitment that [Olevian] argued that the gospel, not the law, is the ‘principle doctrine’ of the Scriptures.  For the law does not teach ‘how sin, the wrath of God, and eternal death, are removed, but rather the principle life-giving doctrine, by the outpouring of the Spirit of God was, is, and shall be, the promise of the Gospel.’

Indeed, like Luther, Olevian interpreted the entire book of Galatians as being about nothing more than the distinction between law and gospel: ‘The sum of the Epistle is to teach what is that righteousness by which we are able to stand before God, that is to say at it is not from the law, but from the Gospel.’  Likewise, he also read the Epistle to the Romans through the lenses of his law-gospel dichotomy.  At the beginning of the commentary, he made it clear that it was at the heart of his conception of the evangelium (gospel).

Thus the Holy Spirit constantly affirms through Paul that the doctrine of the gospel about the forgiveness of sins and eternal life given freely for the sake of the Son to those who believe, is not in any new way.  But from the beginning of the world Christ was promised with his gospel.  In order that this might be understood the distinction between law and Gospel must be considered.

Olevian wasn’t at odds with Reformed theology when he taught the law-gospel distinction.  Indeed, the law-gospel distinction is a big part of Reformed/Reformation theology!

The above are found on pages 149-150 of Clark’s Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

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