“One would hope that a newly-appointed committee of the OPC would redress the grievous wrong that has been committed with regard to this committee’s reading of the work of Kline and restate the biblical teaching pertaining to the covenants, giving priory to Scripture rather than the Confession.”
The Report on Republication written by a committee of five and approved for distribution by the 2016 General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church is currently being read and studied by many in the Reformed community. According to the summary of the GA provided on the denominational website: “The assembly voted to distribute the report to presbyteries and other interested parties for study. The report would not carry constitutional weight, as if it were the official statement of the OPC, but the assembly determined it would be a profitable document. The report includes a list of topics pertaining to covenant theology for presbyteries to consider as they examine candidates for the ministry.”
Chief attention in this Report is given to the “controversial” views of Professor Meredith G. Kline. Judged in the light of the long-standing theological dispute within the OPC and Westminster Seminary (East and West), this focus is wholly misguided. More grievous, the committee has placed Confession above Scripture, and in so doing commends to its readers an unscriptural construct regarding the first covenant God established with Adam as federal head (the Covenant of Works). It promotes the medieval, scholastic (i.e., speculative) dichotomy between a natural (legal) state for Adam at creation and a subsequent covenantal (gracious) relationship established between the Creator and the creature, God’s image-bearer. The first covenant before the Fall affords the human race represented in Adam the opportunity of receiving eternal reward and blessing for obedience. We are told that this reward is not earned (or “merited”), but is granted as a gift of grace. The error of this formulation of the Covenant of Works shapes the committee’s understanding of the subsequent redemptive covenants, those which are part of the single, ongoing Covenant of Grace spanning the entire redemptive era from the Fall to the Consummation. Adopting this view in the Report on Republication, the committee undermines the traditional Protestant-Reformed teaching concerning the antithesis between “Law” and “Gospel.” This in turn clouds one’s understanding of the vital covenantal structure of redemptive revelation (including the way of salvation), thus opening the door to misformulation of the crucial doctrine of justification by faith alone, what has been a major bone of contention in the dispute raging ever since the days of Norman Shepherd in the mid-1970s. The doctrine of the Covenant of Works and the doctrine of soteric justification are inextricably intertwined; critical here is the opposition between principles of inheritance, that of works (“legal) and that of faith (“gracious,” in the accurate, biblical sense of the word).
It is most unfortunate that this Report was approved for distribution. For a full critique of the Report and clarification of issues (including the historical development of this unresolved debate) see my article,
It was never Kline’s intent that his work should be the center of controversy. The fact that it came to be so is more a sign of the times, a very sad development for Reformed orthodoxy indeed. Whether we consider Kline’s opposition to Gregory Bahnsen’s theonomy, the Shepherd-Gaffin reformulation of doctrine (specifically, justification by faith alone, election, and the twofold covenants), or John Murray’s recasting of covenant theology, Kline surely is to be recognized and honored for his unwavering stand for the truth of Scripture, for his life-long devotion to the Church of Christ, and for his commitment to orthodox Reformed teaching. The differences between Kline and Murray (notably, interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant) moved to the forefront only as a consequence of the dispute surrounding the teaching of Norman Shepherd.
My essay concludes: “One would hope that a newly-appointed committee of the OPC would redress the grievous wrong that has been committed with regard to this committee’s reading of the work of Kline and restate the biblical teaching pertaining to the covenants, giving priory to Scripture rather than the Confession.”
Dr. Mark W. Karlberg lives in Warminster, PA, and is an author and teacher in the Philadelphia area. He also serves on the staff of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Havertown, Penn., as a minister of worship and music.