What’s foundational to the covenants? Law or grace? John Murray’s answer: The succession of covenants in the Bible was a sovereign administration of grace and promise (this includes the Mosaic covenant). Meredith Kline’s answer: Law rather than grace was foundational (including a works principle in the Mosaic covenant).
I want to outline and assess an important new book, Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication, written by three OPC pastors, Andrew Elam, Robert Van Kooten, and Randall Berquist.
Merit and Moses is a response to The Law is Not of Faith, and especially the main thesis of that book, that the Mosaic Covenant is in an important sense a republication of the Covenant of Works.
Unlike The Law is Not of Faith (TLNF), Merit and Moses (MM) is readable, brief, consistent, and relatively simple. It obviously helps to have the truth on your side.
Before you decide to switch off from what you may think is some irrelevant academic debate, note that the authors of TLNF state that if we disagree with their view of the Mosaic covenant “we will be necessarily impoverished in our faith” and “see in only a thin manner the work of our Savior.” To disagree with republication is “not optional,” they say, because it paves the way for the erosion of the Gospel and of the doctrine of justification by faith.
So what’s this all about? The question can be stated like this:
Was the covenant of works republished in the Mosaic covenant? TLNF says Yes. MM says No.
Today I want to summarize Part 1 of the book, which explains the historical context for the debate. To simplify it as much as possible, I want to set it out in a Q&A format.
The most important parties in this debate are three Westminster Seminary professors (John Murray, Norman Shepherd, and Meredith Kline) and the Westminster California faculty who authored TLNF.
1. What’s foundational to the covenants? Law or grace?
- John Murray’s answer: The succession of covenants in the Bible was a sovereign administration of grace and promise (this includes the Mosaic covenant).
- Meredith Kline’s answer: Law rather than grace was foundational (including a works principle in the Mosaic covenant).
- Kline insisted that without this works principle in the Mosaic covenant, the law/gospel distinction is lost.
- TLNF follows Kline whereas MM largely follows Murray.
2. How many tiers are there in the Mosaic covenant?
TLNF takes a two-tiered approach to the Mosaic covenant:
- On one level there is a principle of grace for the eternal salvation of the individual Israelite.
- On another level there is a principle of works, a national meritorious works level for the enjoyment of earthly blessings.
3. What is republished in the Mosaic covenant? The moral law or a meritorious covenant?
- Murray and other Reformed theologians believed that the moral law given to pre-fall Adam was re-affirmed (summarized and republished) at Sinai.
- Kline and TLNF go further and say that not only was the moral law republished but the merit-based arrangements of the covenant of works was republished, making retention of the promised land and its blessings conditional on the merit of Israel’s obedience. Israel thus becomes another Adam figure, meriting blessings from God by their works.
- This makes the obedience of OT Israel substantially different to the NT saints who are freed from this meritorious works-arrangement through the death of Christ.
4. Why do Kline and TLNF view John Murray as the bad guy? (pp. 12-14)
Kline and TLNF say:
- That Murray recast covenant theology especially the classical reformed doctrine of the covenant of works.
- That Murray rejected the notion that the Sinaitic covenant was in some sense a repetition of the covenant of works.
- That Murray was monocovenantal in that he affirmed only a covenant of redemptive grace and blurred the distinctions between the covenant of works and grace.
5. How would John Murray respond if he was alive? (pp. 15-17)
He would say something like this:
- I did want to recast one point of covenant theology, that is the idea of a covenant being a mutual agreement between two parties. It is more of a relationship initiated by God and sovereignly administered.
- I admit that I preferred the label “Adamic administration” rather than “covenant of works.” I had two reasons for that. First, I was afraid “covenant of works” would give the idea that there were no elements of grace in the pre-fall arrangements whereas all Reformed theologians have seen the “covenant of works” as a voluntary condescension on God’s part involving much grace.
- Second, I also was reluctant to use the term “covenant” for the pre-fall arrangement because I wanted to preserve the word “covenant” for all redemptive administrations of grace from God to man.
- However, although I prefer different language, I totally believe in the essence of the covenant of works.
6. What’s the verdict on Murray? (pp. 17-22)
- Although Murray quibbled unnecessarily about the phraseology of “the covenant of works” he did not reject the essence of the covenant of works that makes it distinctive from every other covenant arrangement.
- Murray affirmed that life was promised to Adam and to his posterity and guarded the substantial differences between the covenants of works and grace.
- Murray was therefore in no way to blame for Norman Shepherd’s subsequent departures from the faith and opening the door to the Federal Vision error.
7. What did Norman Shepherd believe and teach? (pp. 23-27)
- Monocovenantalism: Shepherd denied the covenant of works/grace distinction because he saw no place for merit in covenant relationships between God and man. All divine/human covenants, including the covenant of works, were like a marriage or a father/son relationship.
- Covenant condition: God required the condition of covenant faithfulness in every covenant administration, pre- and post-fall. God’s promise secured or guaranteed the believer’s covenant inheritance but that inheritance can only be received on the condition of the believer’s covenant keeping. That single condition is the same for Adam, Israel, Christ and the NT believer.
- Justification: Shepherd denied the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, and taught that only the passive obedience of Christ was imputed.
As Murray taught the opposite, he can in no way be blamed for Shepherd’s teaching or Federal Vision.
8. So how did Meredith Kline respond to Shepherd’s error? (pp. 28-38)
Kline overreacted to Shepherd’s attempted rejection of merit in any covenant relationship between God and man by arguing for works of merit in the Mosaic Covenant (and others). He taught the following:
- Disagreement with the idea of voluntary condescension: Kline refused to use vocabulary like God’s goodness, kindness, or even condescension in God’s entering in the covenant of works with Adam.
- Israel was a Corporate Typological Adam with a Merit-based Probation. Against Shepherd, Kline argued that the works principle was foundational to all of the divine covenants and therefore made Israel a second Adam figure who also had to merit divine blessings through a covenant of law.
- Israel’s Meritorious Works as Typological of Christ’s obedience: Adam’s and Israel’s meritorious works arrangements function as precursors to the meritorious work of Christ. The works principle in Israel showed the need for the active obedience of Christ to merit the reward of life.
9. Can you summarize this debate simply? (pp. 38-40)
- Shepherd rejected the covenant of works and said there was only one covenant from creation to consummation, and that this was a covenant of grace that required of Adam and all believers the gracious condition of covenant faithfulness.
- Kline and his followers rejected Shepherd’s mixture of faith and works pre-fall but have ended up with a similar mix of individual faith and meritorious works after the fall in the covenant of grace.
- This results in the imperfect works of sinners meriting or extracting a blessing from God, quite different to NT faith.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.