This is where the four-decade-old controversy now rests. The Reformed community awaits the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s study on the doctrine of Republication: The members of this study-committee have an exceedingly difficult assignment, given the history of the seminary dispute and the deep-seated divisions which have impacted schools and churches associated with Reformed orthodoxy the world around.
Commendable is the valiant effort put forward by Daryl Hart to confront the self-assured opinions of Mark Jones, lead spokesperson for the Shepherd-Gaffin school. To his credit it was Hart who organized and convened the so-called “Covenant Roundtable” (November 1995), for the purpose of achieving a reconciliation – or at least a mediating position (in line with the teaching of the Westminster Standards) – between the views of Dick Gaffin and Meredith Kline on the covenants. That goal was not met: What the forum did accomplish was a clear and decisive identification of the underlying issue in dispute, namely, the traditional Protestant law/gospel antithesis (or the principle of works-inheritance as applicable to the original covenant God made with Adam as federal head of the human race). Agreement on the doctrinal issues in dispute was not reached to the satisfaction of all parties, but all were united at the close of the Roundtable in their admonition to Gaffin to hold fast to historic Reformed doctrine by “toting the line.”
In response to some of the internet exchanges, I offer at this time the following comments to my readers/inquisitors: As noted in numerous published writings of mine, the position of Kline and myself differs from the Westminster Confession of Faith on several minor (not substantive or essential) points of doctrine – including the nature/covenant dichotomy often employed by scholastic federalists in the seventeenth century, the (now) mature formulation of the so-called “doctrine of Republication” which Kline and I have contributed to Reformed theology (recognizing intimations of the biblical teaching in the Confession and in writings of theologians of the period), and exception to the Puritan doctrine of the Christian Sabbath (including its theonomic overtones regarding the relation between church and state).
Readers are referred to Edmund Clowney’s analysis of Shepherd’s teaching on The Aquila Report (March 9, 2011), entitled “Edmund Clowney on Norman Shepherd’s Controversial, Distinctive Theology,” posted posthumously. These views of Shepherd were aggressively supported and defended by Gaffin (among many others on the Westminster faculty, board, and administration at that time). Gaffin has never denounced Shepherd’s teaching on the covenants, justification (by faith and good works), and election – not to any significant degree. Beyond that, Gaffin has on numerous occasions (in the classroom and in published writings) offered his own formulations which likewise call into question traditional (orthodox) Reformed teaching.
This is where the four-decade-old controversy now rests. The Reformed community awaits the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s study on the doctrine of Republication: The members of this study-committee have an exceedingly difficult assignment, given the history of the seminary dispute and the deep-seated divisions which have impacted schools and churches associated with Reformed orthodoxy the world around. The committee has only this opportunity to get it right for the sake of this generation and potentially future generations of students of the Word of God.
Will Neo-orthodoxy (i.e, Barthianism) win the day with regard to the church’s understanding of justification and the covenants? That is the question which lies before us. May those faithful to Scripture rise now to the occasion. Special thanks and appreciation to The Aquila Report for serving its readers well in addressing this ongoing, disruptive controversy openly and fairly.
ENDNOTE: Many and various insights into the seminary controversy are offered in the writings (beginning with Gospel Grace: The Modern-Day Controversy) cited in my September 4, 2014 post on The Aquila Report.
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.