More Van Tillian Than Thou

The new book that critiques republication (the idea that the Mosaic Covenant had in some sense a works principle) is curious in various respects. But one of the more glaring (if the paper originally presented to the Presbytery of the Northwest upon which the book is based is accurate) is the contention that Meredith Kline botched covenant theology by regarding God’s work of creation as essentially covenantal. Here are the authors of Merit and Moses:

The republication view teaches that man was in covenant with God at the very moment of creation. This is an important shift from the traditional viewpoint. Ontological considerations demand that there be at least a logical distinction (rather than a chronological or historical sequence) between God’s creating man and his entering into covenant with him. The republication teaching now erases this confessional distinction (which is based upon the “great disproportion” between the Creator and creature), and thereby turns God’s providential work of establishing the covenant into an aspect of the work of creation. Thus, we may say that the two distinct acts have been conflated or collapsed into essentially one act in this new view. For all intents and purposes, the relationship between God and man is not first that of sovereign Creator over his finite creature, but is from the point of creation a relationship of “God-in-covenant-with-man.” For Professor Kline and those who have followed his lead in the republication position, it is improper to even consider man’s existence apart from covenant. Thus, man’s covenantal status seems to “trump” his creaturely status. (from the section, “Two Definitions of Merit, Part 2: The Republication Paradigm”)

But what if Kline was simply channeling Cornelius Van Til (who should count as much as Murray unless of course Kline compromises status purity)? Here is what Van Til had to say about creation and God’s covenants:

The philosophy of history that speaks to us from the various chapters of the Confession may be sketched with a few bold strokes. We are told that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him in nature as operating by itself. There was superadded to God’s revelation in nature another revelation, a supernaturally communicated positive revelation. Natural revelation, we are virtually told, was from the outset incorporated into the idea of a covenantal relationship of God with man. Thus every dimension of created existence, even the lowest, was enveloped in a form of exhaustively personal relationship between God and man. The “ateleological” no less than the “teleological,” the “mechanical” no less than the “spiritual” was covenantal in character. (Nature and Scripture)

So how do your reconcile competing human authorities? Maybe you appeal not to sacred cows but to sacred Scripture?

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42 thoughts on “More Van Tillian Than Thou

  1. Here’s one, once God created ‘Imago Dei’ He(God) was bound to deal with that Imago Dei creation in proportion to it’s Imago Dei-ness. We don’t worship the horror of an absolute, tyranically free deity(roughly Calvin). Maybe the Romans and Greeks but not the Jews and Xians.

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  2. Darryl,
    Love the “for thee but not for me” contradictions in this episode. Whole lotta sacred cows out there which may explain the recent concentration of methane…

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  3. They are simply arguing for the old definition of merit, which takes ontology into consideration, over the new one, which says ontology shouldn’t be a consideration in defining merit.

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  4. David R., don’t you think it a little rich that “they” who use the old terms don’t have problems with Murray who did not use the old terms (like covenant of works)?

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  5. Perhaps Scott Hahn is still channeling Van Til on the importance of covenant:

    A new, dangerous drinking game invented by Franciscan University of Steubenville sophomore Ben Johnson, known as Covenant, is sweeping Catholic universities. The game, which involves players reading any book ever published by Scott Hahn, and then taking a shot of whiskey or beer every time the word “covenant” is mentioned, is raising major concerns with university officials.

    What originally started out as fun for some has now turned dangerous, officials are reporting, with one man listed in critical condition and at least 47 others being admitted to area hospitals for alcohol poisoning. Now health professionals are warning Catholics of the dangers of playing Covenant.

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  6. See, you can’t even imagine Cross doing this. Fundy, imposter. And I’m tired of hearing otherwise, well taught and properly trained reformed pastors talk about “being sad” about all of this. Too often ‘being sad’ amounts to quitting while manning the post. Screw that. You can be sad and quit on your own dime. It’s time to deal with this openly, all of us pew sitters have to go through it whether you’re ‘sad’ or not.

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  7. DGH,

    I am still reading up on republication and the issue at hand but I have a question not so much on the content of this post but on the relationships meant to be drawn:

    If you find one paragraph of an author that matches with the view of a separate group of individuals, does that mean you can call the group by the name of the author?

    By way of example, Calvin would affirm the sixth commandment means not to kill unjustly (murder). In many respects, Rome would agree. Does that make Rome Calvinistic?

    Thank you,

    B

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  8. B, that would be true if the book, Merit and Moses actually did exegesis. So far most of the objections to republication have been historical.

    As for names, almost nowhere aside from the 2kers and republicationists are Reformed folks willing to own the name Klinean.

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  9. So they’re raising to confessional status a metaphysics of ontological relations apart from covenant? Where does the Bible demand that the relationship between Creator and creature not be covenantal? The very notion of “sovereign” sounds pretty covenantal to me. These aren’t the same people who decry the use of human sciences and philosophies to control Biblical interpretations, are they?

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  10. David, thus the appeal to sacred scripture. Or at the very least a contextualization of the confessional understanding in light of medieval categories.

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  11. Sean, I’m not sure what needs to be contextualized. The distinction between the Creator and creature is such that the creature can’t merit anything from God unless God first promises him something. This does not seem so debatable to me.

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  12. What needs to be contextualized is the understanding of merit in the voluntarist and intellectualist schools. Who says merit isn’t possible once special creation is undertaken? We don’t teach a God who is absolutely(tyrannically) free. If heaven can’t be strictly merited than what of hell as commensurate to demerit?

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  13. David R.,
    Hello again. Help me with understanding something because I’m a little confused by this statement. You wrote above: The distinction between the Creator and creature is such that the creature can’t merit anything from God unless God first promises him something. This does not seem so debatable to me.

    You have said elsewhere that the problem with TLNF and Kline is that they claim Israel can ‘merit’ temporal blessings. At least that’s what I understand you to be saying. Why wouldn’t the qualification for the creature’s merit before God likewise apply to the land promises that God made to the nation of Israel? Theirs isn’t a merit intrinsically worth the land tenure, but a merit defined by the land promise held out by God base upon his conditional covenant arrangement with corporate Israel. Isn’t this then a merit defined by the promise that God gave the nation to attain to through obedience to the Mosaic covenant?

    thanks…

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  14. David, separate doctrinal statements of the confession do not demand logical distinction. Demanding such a way to read the confession would be disastrous to our doctrines, for example, of the Holy Trinity, or the Eternal Decree.

    Furthermore, requiring a particular metaphysical view, while permitting a lot of fudging around the covenant of works strikes me as a very strange and selective way of defining the boundaries of being “confessional.”

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  15. DGH, while I do believe in republication in the Vossian sense and not the Kline-version I do however prioritize logically justification to sanctification (within union) and find it hilarious that suddenly these people know what a logical versus a temporal priority is. But if you talk about logical vs temporal priority within union they act like they’ve never heard of it and its a senseless category

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  16. Darren, I don’t understand your first paragraph. As for your second, which of the published criticisms is fudging around the covenant of works?

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  17. Sean, I don’t think I buy the notion that Reformed theology needs to be extricated from a voluntarist/intellectualist mire. Why isn’t it just a corollary of the Creator/creature distinction that the creature can’t merit from the Creator? There’s also Luke 17:10.

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  18. David,
    Sorry, I wrote my last comment hastily since I’m not terribly keen on spending that much time debating this on a blog. But I’ll put in more effort here to try to clarify:

    DGH quotes the authors above, “Thus, we may say that the two distinct acts have been conflated or collapsed into essentially one act in this new view.” So I take it that you agree with them that WCF 7.1 binds us to say that God made the creature, and then covenants with it, and forbids us from saying that God created a covenantal creature.

    (1) Unpacking my original complaint: these guys set up an opposition between the sovereign Creator-finite creature relation and the covenant Lord-covenant vassal relation (and yes, I intentionally phrased it that way as my own piece of propaganda to show their parallels). We can make a logical distinction, yes. But logical distinction doesn’t imply 2 separate divine acts.
    (a) Why does the covenantal creature exclude the Creator-creature distinction? I suggest that Kline’s view of the covenants, rather than “erasing,” begins with the Creator-creature distinction and highlights it.
    (b) Doesn’t the creation-then-covenant interpretation set up more than a Creator-creature distinction, a Creator-creature antithesis? I dunno, maybe an ontological antithesis is what is desired, but could you point out in Scripture where the fundamental alienation is blamed on creatureliness rather than on sin? Also recognize that ontological antithesis gives us a fundamental commonality with modernist theologies and places us legitimately back under Nietzsche’s criticisms. I find this somewhat ironic since I hear plenty of complaints about Kline setting up unwarranted dualisms.
    (c) Is it then more confessional to say that God creates the day and the night, and then makes a covenant with them? Maybe it’s my turn to appeal to “ontological considerations,” but what does that even mean? Jer 33:20, 25 seems to conflate “covenant” with the “fixed order of heaven and earth.” Are the day and the night logical entities apart from this covenant? How is it useful to speak of God creating something without ordering it?
    (d) Kline is frequently accused of being influenced too much by the science of this age. The ontological demands being made here are recognizably a science – maybe not of this age – but of a past age. Do we really want to wed our confession like that?

    (2) My snap-reply to your assertion that the metaphysics already has confessional status was poorly worded. I was reusing “logical distinction” from their use, but I realize that’s a mistake since I agree with making logical distinctions, but disagree with the consequence drawn from making it.
    (a) so WCF 7.1, asserts the Creator-creature distinction. Would you find this to be a usable, if oversimplified summary of the point: “We as creatures have no inherent rights or standing apart from what God the Creator grants us by covenant”?
    (b) Assuming I’ve made a logically distinct point that everyone here agrees with, I’m then saying that this only demands the way the creature is legitimately seen as fruitfully relating to God. It is non-sequitur to then say that the Confession *demands* that this is one act of God, separate from another act of God (making the covenant). Why is it ontologically, logically, confessionally, whateverly impossible to see the act of covenanting interwoven in the act of creation?
    (c) My point is that if we were to apply this methodology (turning logical distinctions into separate acts of God) consistently throughout the confession, we’d run into trouble extremely early. E.g. we as creatures make distinctions concerning theology proper and the Eternal Decree, but we recognize that we are speaking separately due to creaturely limits (woah, and I though Kline-types had erased that distinction! Oh bother, now I have to turn myself in to the Klinean police…) of God’s simplicity.

    (3) Which of the published criticisms? Granted, I don’t know where this publication stand on the covenant of works, but I’ve spoken to a number of opponents of Kline personally, and I’ve noted how quickly they’ll side with Murray. My point is that if the prosecution of Kline on confessional grounds is to be followed consistently, Murray should be somewhere in line in the potential excommunication list; instead, his differences from the confession are brushed aside. I personally am content to see both Kline and Murray embraced within the bounds of the confessional system. Not only am I not convinced by the arguments that Kline is out-of-confessional-boundaries, but I have yet to be convinced that those attempting to argue such are not arbitrarily selective in making this claim.

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  19. David, I got that’s where you live. I think it’s been improved upon on two scores; reimagining the imago dei in less ontological categories and sabbatical enthronement. I’ll raise you Heb 4:4-5. Rom 5:12-20, Gal 3:10-28 and Lev 18:5. But then, you knew I would.

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  20. Darren,

    Thanks for all that, it’s much appreciated. I will need to read through it another time or two, but a couple of things stood out to me the first time through, so I’ll say something now. You say:

    (a) so WCF 7.1, asserts the Creator-creature distinction. Would you find this to be a usable, if oversimplified summary of the point: “We as creatures have no inherent rights or standing apart from what God the Creator grants us by covenant”?

    Yes, I think that’s essentially what I’m saying. All I am arguing is for a logical distinction, not a chronological one. I don’t think I would want to say that there was a time when Adam was not in covenant with God (though what that relationship looked like prior to the probation command I do not know).

    Granted, I don’t know where this publication stand on the covenant of works, but I’ve spoken to a number of opponents of Kline personally, and I’ve noted how quickly they’ll side with Murray.

    On which issue? I don’t think there is anything particularly novel about Murray’s views on the Mosaic covenant (Gordon’s critique notwithstanding), do you? Though I will say I find his comments on Leviticus 18:5 puzzling.

    My point is that if the prosecution of Kline on confessional grounds is to be followed consistently, Murray should be somewhere in line in the potential excommunication list; instead, his differences from the confession are brushed aside.

    The thing is though that Kline’s idiosyncratic views are widely held, whereas Murray’s are not. For example, how many OP ministers reject the terminology, “covenant of works”?

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  21. Bravo, DGH!

    Don’t get me wrong – I like the Westminster standards. But they’re not perfect. And I never cease to be amazed at the way people talk about the divines as though they were more than human. They had blind spots and commitments to non-Reformed thought forms of which they may not have been aware – like a medieval scholastic nature/grace dualism that saw Adam being created in a pure state of nature, but requiring God’s covenant later/additionally (and pre-redemptively) in order to have fruition of God. This lies behind the WCF idea of the “great disproportion.”

    Curiously, it was not only a Reformed move, but a Lutheran one also, to understand heaven as the original goal of Adam’s creation. I know the Merit and Moses guys are all thoroughgoing Vossians, but I can’t see how eschatology preceding soteriology is terribly conducive to their attempt to use that WCF “great disproportion” idea against Kline.

    Dennison is opposed to Van Til, so that could very well account for what you are observing.

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  22. So how do your reconcile competing human authorities? Maybe you appeal not to sacred cows but to sacred Scripture?

    Even though I don’t have a dog in this horse race, since I haven’t followed the pro vs. anti-Kline arguments closely, I am somewhat confused by the push-back against the notion that creation and covenant making are so closely tied.

    For that biblical case…The Gen. 1 narrative’s repeated use of forming-distinguishing-filling language is presupposing that God’s purposes in creation are not only to the making of things, but also ensuring that the things he makes can function in their proper place. Hence the distinguishing between day-night, land-sea, etc. By the time Gen 2 rolls along, the covenantal implications are ramped-up for his image bearers. If they are to acquire knowledge – which Adam must have had a good deal of as demonstrated in his naming of the animals – it would be through through the fear of the Lord (Prov. 1:7), not from the tree of knowledge. Abiding by the distinction God had placed between the trees and adhering to the stipulation in the command to not partake of the tree of knowledge would be the only way he could maintain access to the tree of life.

    The fact that Jeremiah 33:25 makes explicit what is implicit in Gen. 1 & 2 should give some pause in making much of a distinction between creating and covenanting. Especially when read in light of Genesis 6:17- 9:17, where God’s re-ordering of creation is explicitly bound up in his covenant with Noah. In his article on berit (i.e. covenant) in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Gordon McConville notes:

    When 8:22-9:7 is taken as a prelude to the covenantal promise of 9:8-17, the latter has clear verbal connections with the story of creation, especially as in Gen. 1 (cf. 9:1 and 1:28; 9:2-3 and 1:29; 9:10 and 1:20-25).
    The question arises, therefore, whether the relationship between God and humanity at creation should be read as covenantal, even though the specific terminology of covenant is absent. A plausible exegetical case for creation as covenantal has been made by W.J. Dumbrell, partly on the grounds of the phrase “establish my covenant” in Gen. 6:18. The use of the vb. heqimin that place instead of the more usual vb. for initiating covenant (krt; cf. Gen. 15:18; 21:27, 32; Exod. 23:32, etc.) suggests a reestablishment of something already in place, namely “a divine relationship established by the fact of creation itself” (Dumbrell, 32)…The use of heqim rather than krt, therefore has nothing to do with the alleged differences of source (and consequently style), but arises from the fact that the covenant referred to in Gen. 6:18 is not initiated there (Dumbrell, 20-33). Dumbrell then goes on to expound the creation-covenant in terms of kingship, rest, and the covenant demand (Gen. 2:16-17; Dumbrell, 33-39). In the same connection Hosea 2:18 should be noticed, where God makes a covenant between Israel and the earth there the covenantal idea is applied to the establishment of a harmonious relationship between God and humankind in the context of their environment.

    So, if the literary and linguistic markers of covenant are present in the creation account in Gen. 1-2 even if the term is absent, and then covenant is explicit in re-creating (Gen 6-9), and in the eschatological new creation (Hos. 2:18), why the distinction. What is to be gained, even by insisting on a logical distinction, if in every instance of creation, covenant is either implicitly or explicitly present?

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  23. David, have you read the Kerux review? Lots of defense of Murray there. Not much of Kline. And for Murray’s influence in the OPC, ask Terry Gray.

    I appreciate your engagement here and even your use of my title (which you can abandon — this is only a blog). But I don’t understand your outlook except that you are anti-Kline. Why? It’s the Klineans who figured out what was wrong with Shepherd. The defenders of Murray came late to that party. Don’t the Klineans get some credit for that?

    Or is it that you are still spooked by Misty Irons?

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  24. Something from a 19th c. Scot commentator on the Westminster standards:

    It may be remarked that the law of the ten commandments was promulgated to Israel from Sinai in the form of a covenant of works. Not that it was the design of God to renew a covenant of works with Israel or to put them upon seeking life by their own obedience to the law but the law was published to them as a covenant of works to show them that without a perfect righteousness answering to all the demands of the law they could not be justified before God and that finding themselves wholly destitute of that righteousness they might be excited to take hold of the covenant of grace in which a perfect righteousness for their justification is graciously provided. The Sinai transaction was a mixed dispensation. In it the covenant of grace was published as appears from these words in the preface standing before the commandments “I am the Lord thy God which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage” and from the promulgation of the ceremonial law at the same time But the moral law as a covenant of works was also displayed to convince the Israelites of their sinfulness and misery to teach them the necessity of an atonement and lead them to embrace by faith the blessed Mediator the Seed promised to Abraham in whom all the families of the earth were to be blessed. The law therefore was published at Sinai as a covenant of works in subservience to the covenant of grace And the law is still published in subservience to the gospel as a schoolmaster to bring sinners to Christ that they may be justified by faith.

    http://heidelblog.net/2013/03/robert-shaw-on-republication-in-the-westminster-confession/

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  25. CW,

    Thanks, I have perused that quote by Shaw many times. He is one of my standard go-tos for commentaries on the WCF (it also doesn’t hurt that he can be accessed free online). I find his analysis helpful. I also much appreciate this one from Turretin:

    Meanwhile it pleased God to administer the covenant of grace in this period under a rigid legal economy–both on account of the condition of the people still in infancy and on account of the putting off of the advent of Christ and the satisfaction to be rendered by him. A twofold relation ought always to obtain: the one legal, more severe, through which by a new promulgation of the law and of the covenant of works, with an intolerable yoke of ceremonies, he wished to set forth what men owed and what was to be expected by them on account of duty unperformed…. The other relation was evangelical, sweeter, inasmuch as “the law was a schoolmaster unto Christ” (Gal 3:24) and contained “the shadow of things to come” (Heb 10:1), whose body and express image is in Christ.

    According to that twofold relation, the administration can be viewed either as to the external economy of legal teaching or as to the internal truth of the gospel promise lying under it. The matter of that external economy was the threefold law–moral, ceremonial and forensic. The first was fundamental; the remaining appendices of it. The form was the pact added to that external dispensation, which on the part of God was the promise of the land of Canaan and of rest and happiness in it; and, under the image of each, of heaven and the rest in him (Heb 4:3, 9); or of eternal life according to the clause, “Do this and live.” On the part of the people, it was a stipulation of obedience to the whole law or righteousness both perfect (Dt 27:26; Gal 3:10) and personal and justification by it (Rom 2:13). But this stipulation in the Israelite covenant was only accidental, since it was added only in order that man by its weakness might be led to reject his own righteousness and to embrace another’s, latent under the law.

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  26. Alexander: Can someone explain the difference between these two views please?

    In a severe nutshell, the one view sees Adam, Israel, and Christ named as a Son of God, all 3 put on probation to obey the Law of God, with proper merit and punishment according to obedience, I won’t provide a spoiler for the outcome on all 3’s journey…

    The other view goes completely sideways over including Israel in the equation.

    And please don’t enter this discussion to the point where you can lose more skin, time and energy than you can honestly afford.

    Personally I like the first side’s advocates a lot more than the other side’s. I can see both sides though.

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  27. Jed,

    So, if the literary and linguistic markers of covenant are present in the creation account in Gen. 1-2 even if the term is absent, and then covenant is explicit in re-creating (Gen 6-9), and in the eschatological new creation (Hos. 2:18), why the distinction. What is to be gained, even by insisting on a logical distinction, if in every instance of creation, covenant is either implicitly or explicitly present?

    I always appreciate your comments. I may be missing something (not at all unlikely) but I just don’t see how it’s possible to avoid a logical distinction. Whether or not Adam is “created in covenant” and/or a “covenanted creature,” there is still the question of whether his merit is a function of his createdness or his covenantedness, isn’t there? There is also the question of the merit of a divine Person (Christ) versus that of a human person.

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  28. Darryl (thanks),

    Kline has been one of my favorite theologians for a number of years. Kingdom Prologue has influenced my theology as much as (or more than) anything I’ve read. Until recently, it would have been one of my “desert Island” books. I was militantly defending Kline’s views of Moses on blogs as recently as last November (wow, I must be fickle). I still appreciate Kline, but the critics (and especially the Kerux review, which I have read cover-to-cover) have persuaded me that Kline was wrong on this particular issue. (And one thing that really helped was gaining some rudimentary familiarity with the scholastic vocabulary and debates.)

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  29. Kent,

    I like your nutshell version.

    Personally I like the first side’s advocates a lot more than the other side’s. I can see both sides though.

    I have learned a lot recently about my own natural tendency to like those better who share my theological convictions. No doubt you would have liked me better than you do as recently as last fall, when I was in lockstep agreement on this particular issue with everyone here. (I liked you all better then as well.) Strangely (or not), since my mind has changed, I’ve come to like much better than I previously did those on the other side of the debate. I’m sure there’s a lesson there for me….

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  30. And then nutshell 2.0 is that you can dissect exactly what Adam knew and when he knew it, which seems to be the thrust of this thread’s concerns, and that’s if you accept that a Covenant of Works exists in the first place…

    David, everyone who wrote for a living said great and not so great things about their area of concern, especially in theology. It strikes me as odd that people would adopt everything that a VanTil or Bavinck said; I doubt that many honestly have read enough to be able to make a decent claim on those two (while realizing that a few on the planet actually have…)

    I have friends in all sectors of the Christian universe. Grateful it only took me 3 decades of wandering to come to Reformed Theology, but even that isn’t remotely useful for about 90% of believers.

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  31. I’m with Kent. Can see both sides.

    Though I did like this:

    But I don’t understand your outlook except that you are anti-Kline. Why? It’s the Klineans who figured out what was wrong with Shepherd.

    Thanks to those who wrote in here, especially Darren Hsuing (found that helpful)

    Grace and peace [4]

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