Republication: A Doctrinal Controversy Four Decades in the Making

The dispute before the Reformed churches on covenant theology is of paramount importance and concerns one of the critical disputes of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries.

Given the history and developments of this raging debate concerning Reformed covenant theology, we can now fairly say that the two principle disputants are Gaffin (representing a radical revision of John Murray’s teaching) and Meredith G. Kline (representing historic, mainstream Reformed federalism, espoused from the time of the Reformation to the present).

 

News of the appointment of a five-member committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to study the subject of the republication of the (original) Covenant of Works – in modified form – in the covenant God made with theocratic Israel – through Moses as mediator – is now widely circulating and generating intensified dialogue. (Debate within the Reformed orthodox community began four decades ago, originating at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia with the aberrant views of Norman Shepherd and Richard Gaffin, Jr., views that continue to disturb the Reformed churches.) The thoughts expressed here build upon a previous church-news update I posted on several theological websites at the end of July and the beginning of August 2014. I have been asked here to provide more commentary and analysis for the sake of a wider lay readership which may be new to this ongoing controversy. The dispute before the Reformed churches is of paramount importance: It concerns one of the critical disputes of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries.

As the committee begins its work evaluating Reformed doctrine concerning the “republication” of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant, itself an expression of the single, ongoing administration of the Covenant of Grace (extending from the Fall to the Consummation), we take note of events leading up to the present state of upheaval within the OPC, and well beyond. Three former students of Westminster Seminary California – now members of the OPC’s Presbytery of the Northwest – submitted a paper, entitled “A Booklet on Merit in the Doctrine of Republication presented to the Presbytery of the Northwest,” for its Stated Meeting in April of 2013. This was done in conjunction with its request to overture the OPC’s General Assembly asking for a denominational study for the purpose of guiding and instructing the churches on what has become highly contentious teaching within the Reformed communion at large. That paper has been revised for publication as Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock), released on July 10, 2014 (see

https://wipfandstock.com/store/Merit_and_Moses_A_Critique_of_the_Klinean_Doctrine_of_Republication).

Book endorsements include those of Richard Gaffin and Robert Strimple, timed for the start of the study committee’s work. Let no one be confused today where Gaffin and Kline stand! Given the history and developments of this raging debate concerning Reformed covenant theology, we can now fairly say that the two principle disputants are Gaffin (representing a radical revision of John Murray’s teaching) and Meredith G. Kline (representing historic, mainstream Reformed federalism, espoused from the time of the Reformation to the present). To be sure, differences between Murray and Kline extend well into past history of Westminster Seminary. We have simply moved on to a new phase of the dispute, one bearing radically different implications and ramifications derived from Westminster’s current thinking on the subject of the covenants. (Note: Professor Kline went home to Glory in 2007; those who follow in his train are the spokespersons for the historic Reformed doctrine of the “republication” of the law of works in the Mosaic Covenant. I hasten to add that, in God’s providence, Dr. Kline and I were very close collaborators in the articulation of a clearer explanation of the biblical, Reformed doctrine of the covenants.)

According to the view of Gaffin and Strimple (summarized in their endorsement of Merit and Moses), there is no works-principle functioning in the covenant God made with Israel through Moses. This means that the sole principle governing the old covenant is the principle of (saving) grace, identical to what is the case in the new covenant. The blessings and curses of the covenant of law – fully and explicitly laid out in “the Treaty of the Great King” (the Book of Deuteronomy), as elsewhere throughout the Old Testament – are administered on the basis of Israel’s obedience or disobedience. If the position of Israel were secure in the earthly land of promise (Canaan) – which is the case for recipients of God’s saving grace with regard to reception of the heavenly, antitypical reward (life in the eternal kingdom yet to come) – there is then no place for curse and exile from the land. Such judgment upon Israel of old is, in the final analysis, inexplicable. What the Murray school of interpretation must conclude, to be theologically consistent (what is the aim of the systematician), is to say that believers under the new covenant are likewise subject to both the blessings and the curses of redemptive covenant in accordance with (non-meritorious) good works. This point is crucial: In this school of thought there is no genuine difference between the two economies of redemption, wherein reward is bestowed “on the basis of” or “in accordance with” the believer’s works of obedience. This is precisely the doctrine Shepherd and Gaffin have been eagerly advancing; and they have taken the argument one step further by eviscerating the law/grace antithesis entirely in their doctrine of the covenants (pre- and post-Fall). This is the heart of the current dispute, one that has immediate ramifications for the biblical doctrine of justification by faith (apart from good works).

Fundamental to the position of Shepherd and Gaffin is aversion to the works-inheritance principle, that which is antithetical to the faith-inheritance principle. With respect to the idea of the principle of works operating on the symbolico-typological level of temporal life in Canaan, Gaffin asserts: “the abiding demands of God’s holiness preclude meritorious obedience that is anything less than perfect, and so the impossibility of a well-meant offer to sinners of the covenant of works in any sense.” This view implicitly rejects the long-standing Reformed teaching that after the fall there remains the hypothetical principle of salvation-by-works, antithetical to the principle of salvation-by-faith (grace) alone. Of course, the demand of God’s law, subsequent to Adam’s fall into sin, can only be met by Adam’s federal substitute, Christ the Second Adam. In terms of the doctrine of New School Westminster, the real question, however, is whether perfect, meritorious obedience was required of the First Adam in accordance with the probationary test given him in the original Covenant of Works at creation. As leading spokesmen, Gaffin and Shepherd vehemently deny this to be the case. Had Adam kept covenant with God, not yielding to the temptation of Satan in assuming equality with God (specifically in regards to the knowledge of good and evil), he would not have “earned” or “merited” divine blessing, so Gaffin and Shepherd contend. Only the Second Adam, we are told, can merit the reward of the covenant made with his Father on behalf of God’s elect by his own obedience. Hence, Gaffin and Shepherd’s renunciation of the Reformed-Protestant law/grace antithesis, what is essential to teaching concerning the Gospel of justifying grace. The Gaffin-Shepherd contention is nothing other than the dogma of Neo-orthodoxy, now one of the doctrinal planks in New School Westminster.

From this theological point of view, Westminster has moved well beyond Murray’s prior “recasting” of covenant theology. Yet, at the same time, Murray remains the sacred cow. (The argument of Shepherd-Gaffin school entails a complete distortion of the views of the “republicationists” as regards Murray’s role in this dispute.) Clearly there is nothing but disdain for “public” opposition to the teaching of Murray on the covenants, Westminster’s most revered systematician. There is unity of mind within this school of thought today regarding “the reactionary development of the Klinean republication doctrine” (from the book description on the Wipf and Stock website), including what is seen as an over-reaching assault on Murray’s reformulation of covenant theology and an unwarranted, wholesale repudiation of Shepherd’s theology of the covenants (notably, the doctrines of baptism, election, justification, and union with Christ). On the matter of the history and development of Reformed teaching, the Shepherd-Gaffin school is flatly wrong. To reiterate: The chief dispute is not between Murray and Kline, but between Gaffin and Kline. Murray advocated a revision of Reformed covenant theology, one that was not helpful, but rather misconceived and confusing. Shepherd and Gaffin have advocated a radical revision of covenant theology, one that undermines the Gospel of saving grace and decretive election (different from ancient Israel’s national, theocratic election). Setting aside questions pertaining to what individual Reformed expositors did or did not teach, past and present, both sides agree that the final arbiter is the Spirit of God speaking through the Scriptures. How then is Scripture to be interpreted in light of today’s contentious debate? The answer remains, as always, faithfulness to the teaching of Scripture as self-interpreting (free of human speculation and opinion).

A final word of caution: Do not be misled or misinformed. Read carefully and thoroughly, including writers on both sides of the controversy. If properly and faithfully conducted, the work of the OPC study committee should lead to trials in the courts of the denomination regarding the teachings of those holding heterodox opinions, notably as regards the doctrine of eschatological justification/judgment in accordance with faith and (good) works.

Endnote:

For a full account of developments at Westminster Seminary regarding the doctrine of the covenants and justification by faith (among other cardinal doctrines), see Mark W. Karlberg, Gospel Grace: The Modern-Day Controversy (2003), Federalism and the Westminster Tradition (2006), and Engaging Westminster Calvinism (2013). Foundational to these studies is my prior work Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective (2000). All are published by Wipf and Stock. For a summary review of the controversy at Westminster Seminary, see also my essay published as the Special May 2014 Issue of The Trinity Review (posted at www.trinityfoundation.org).

The recent four-part analysis posted by David Murray in The Aquila Report (“Merit and Moses: Was the covenant of works republished in the Mosaic Covenant? ‘The Law is Not of Faith’ says Yes, ‘Moses and Merit’ says No”) is a good example of a misreading of the view of the “republicationists,” as well as a faulty grasp of several theological issues in this dispute. Such includes a defective understanding of the merit-principle in the Covenant of Works and how that informs the task given to the federal heads, the First and Second Adams. Secondarily, Scripture clearly teaches that the merit-principle likewise informed the old (Mosaic) covenant, in distinction from the new covenant. In the covenant inaugurated by Christ the (prior) covenantal, administrative principle of works is wholly abrogated – specifically, the merit-principle no longer functions on the temporal level of life in earthly Canaan, as was (most certainly) the case in the Mosaic economy of redemption. The ancient Israelite theocracy comes to a complete end with the arrival of Israel’s true Messiah, Jesus the Christ (the true “Servant of the Lord”). The old covenant was terminated (with respect to the peculiar and distinctive administrative principle of works-inheritance operative on the typological level only); the new is eternal (for those who are the proper beneficiaries of Christ’s covenant, namely, the elect of God, those chosen in Christ and united with him in the bond of the Holy Spirit). David Murray’s misreading underscores the urgency of my word of caution, sounded above; it is all the more necessary and crucial for a successful resolution of this debate, if such is to be forthcoming.

For the record, it appears that the following Reformed seminaries oppose the republication view: Covenant, Greenville Presbyterian, Mid-America Reformed, Reformed (largely as a result of John Frame’s tenure), Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter), Puritan-Reformed, Northwest, and Westminster East (read in light of the Shepherd-Gaffin proponents). This leaves Westminster West as the sole seminary promoting the biblical view (as we understand the issues).

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.



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