From DGH on The Divine Acceptilatio Submitted on 2015 02 25 at 10:43 am


During this season (for some) of Lent and (for others) Fifty Shades of Gray, I wonder about the title of your post. Acceptilatio doesn’t sound Latin or learned. It sounds dirty.

But that’s a mere quibble. I am glad to know that you acknowledge that our sins (doh!) works are flawed and God accepts them despite how much they fall short of his righteous standard. But why is it so hard for you to say the j-word?

Because God accepts less – often, a lot less (i.e., “small beginnings”) – than perfection from us because of his Son and for the sake of his Son, who is glorified in us.

Is this fair? Doesn’t God accept us because of Christ’s righteousness? I mean, if being glorified in us is the standard, then what about my cats? God is glorified somehow in them. What about Saddam Hussein? Wasn’t God glorified in him sort of like the way God was glorified by Joseph being sold by his brothers into slavery?

So why do you have such a hard time saying “justification.” You seem almost as reluctant to say it as George Washington was to utter “God” (he liked divine providence, Great Parent, Supreme Benefactor but seemed to gag on God).

Again, the Belgic Confession which you also seem reluctant to quote puts the relationship between justification and sanctification so well:

These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification– for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.

So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure” — thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”

Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.

Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.

So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior. (Art. 25)

A piece of advice here — your posts on the law, obedience and sanctification toss some of your readers back and forth and undermine assurance. Do you really want to do that?

One other point. You write that God is always please with us, a point that seems to conflict with other posts you’ve written about the punishments believers receive in this life for disobedience:

God accepts imperfection because he is a gracious Father, who has a perfect Son, who sends his Spirit into our hearts (Gal. 4:6). Why are we called righteous and good? Why are our imperfect works acceptable and pleasing to God? The answer: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So does this mean that we now don’t have to worry about the sort of retribution that God’s people faced according to the Psalmist?

Yet they tested and rebelled against the Most High God
and did not keep his testimonies,
but turned away and acted treacherously like their fathers;
they twisted like a deceitful bow.
For they provoked him to anger with their high places;
they moved him to jealousy with their idols.
When God heard, he was full of wrath,
and he utterly rejected Israel.
He forsook his dwelling at Shiloh,
the tent where he dwelt among mankind,
and delivered his power to captivity,
his glory to the hand of the foe.
He gave his people over to the sword
and vented his wrath on his heritage.
Fire devoured their young men,
and their young women had no marriage song.
Their priests fell by the sword,
and their widows made no lamentation.
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
like a strong man shouting because of wine.
And he put his adversaries to rout;
he put them to everlasting shame.

He rejected the tent of Joseph;
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim,
but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loves. (Psalm 78:56-68 ESV)

If you now think that saints in Christ no longer face this kind of treatment because of their sins, I’m happy to know that. But again a word to the wise, this post doesn’t seem to cohere with your recent advocacy and rationales for obedient faith.


If the Mosaic Covenant Was So Gracious . . .

Why did the prophets bring so many lawsuits against God’s people? That was the thought I had after reading Peter Leithart:

Covenant lawsuits are embedded in Israel’s covenant-relation with Yahweh. The covenant sets up certain requirements for Israel, and positive and negative sanctions attach to these, blessings for faithfulness and curses for breaking covenant. When Israel goes astray, Yahweh sends his prophets as representatives of the divine court, and they read the charges against Israel, inform them the sentence, and urge them to repentance so that they can (cf. Judges 2:1ff; 6:8).

But then as a good flattener, Leithart portrays Paul as fulfilling the role of an OT prophet:

Paul’s letter is the lawsuit of Jesus against the Galatians, much like the letters to the seven churches in Rev 1-3. It has a structure similar to that of the prophetic lawsuits. Covenant lawsuits often begin with a historical recital of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel and the ways that they have fallen away. Paul begins Galatians with a long review of his relation to the Jerusalem church. Covenant lawsuits specify charges, and Paul brings specific complaints against the Galatians. Prophets warn of coming curses, and Paul pronounces curses against the troublers in Galatia.

Maybe. But where did the New Testament Christians assemble at a mountain and take an oath to do everything God commanded? Sure, the Ottomans’ conquest of the Christian cities in Asia minor could be construed as a form of Christians going into exile. But Turkey was not the promised land any more than Italy was.

Is Grace Everywhere?

So Mark Jones keeps telling us and since we have no way to comment at his blog we will once again adopt the role of servants serving servers by opening up comments here.

First, Jones says that lots of Reformed theologians, backed up by Richard Muller — apparently Jones favorite strategy for finding room to affirm a contested point — said grace existed before the fall and that Adam needed grace to comply with the Covenant of Works:

Most seventeenth-century Reformed theologians understood grace in a more general sense than simply equating it with redemptive favor. But they did make important distinctions on the grace of God before and after the Fall, such as the way Adam possessed the Spirit in contrast to how we possess the Spirit.

Anthony Burgess argues that Adam needed help from God to obey the law and then notes, “Some learned Divines, as [David] Pareus…deny the holiness Adam had, or the help God gave Adam, to be truly and properly called grace.” Pareus believed that grace only comes from Christ to sinners. Burgess shies away from the dispute, but he does insist that Adam could not persevere “without help from God.” . . .

Richard Muller has suggested that not only does the language of “voluntary condescension” rule out human merit, but that the “presence of divine grace prior to the fall was a fundamental assumption of most of the Reformed thinkers of that era.” The evidence cited above sustains Muller’s contention.

“Voluntary condescension” (WCF 7.1) was consistent with the idea, espoused by William (“Exception to WCF 7.1”) Bridge, that “out of free love and grace [God] was pleased to condescend to enter into Covenant with man.”

Great. But if Adam had the Holy Spirit then how did he sin? Did God remove the Holy Spirit and thus make Adam susceptible? If so, is God implicated in the introduction of sin among his creation?

Also, I wonder if Dr. Jones has considered what the Confession of Faith says about Adam in his state of innocency:

After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls [e], endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness, after his own image [f]; having the law of God written in their hearts [g], and power to fulfill it [h]: and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject unto change [i]. Beside this law written in their hearts, they received a command, not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; which while they kept, they were happy in their communion with God, and had dominion over the creatures. (4.2)

If you had to describe this as gracious or natural, I am pressed to understand why someone would choose grace. And why did the divines, some of whom did (I gather from Dr. Jones) talk about Adam being endued with the Holy Spirit, fail to mention that in the Confession? When you look at the proof texts (supplied by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church anyway), you don’t see much that would add support to Dr. Jones’ formulation on grace before the fall:

d. Gen. 1:27. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

e. Gen. 2:7. And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Eccl. 12:7. Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. Luke 23:43. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. Matt. 10:28. And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

f. Gen. 1:26. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Col. 3:10. And [ye] have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him. Eph. 4:24. … and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.

g. Rom. 2:14–15. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

h. Gen. 2:17. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Eccl. 7:29. Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.

Yes, I do understand that the references to the Christian putting on the “new man” is a gracious work of the Holy Spirit. But surprise (and beware the valleys and mountains). I am not Adam who was without sin. I need grace and the Holy Spirit to live in a holy manner. If Adam did, what does it say about the inherent goodness of human nature at creation?

Jones’ flattening continues when he likens Christ’s experience to that of the believer:

Jesus was and is the man of the Spirit, par excellence. Christ’s obedience – all of it – was done in the power of the Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the “immediate operator of all divine acts of the Son himself, even on his own human nature. Whatever the Son of God wrought in, by, or upon the human nature, he did it by the Holy Ghost, who is his Spirit” (Owen). . . . The Second Adam, Jesus Christ, possessed the Spirit in greater measure and was, as far as I am concerned, the greatest believer who ever lived.

For good measure, he adds a quotation from Bavinck (on the virgin birth, mind you, not on Christ’s human nature):

At this point it is important to note that this activity of the Holy Spirit with respect to Christ’s human nature absolutely does not stand by itself. Though it began with the conception, it did not stop there. It continued throughout his entire life, even right into the state of exaltation. Generally speaking, the necessity of this activity can be inferred already from the fact that the Holy Spirit is the author of all creaturely life and specifically of the religious-ethical life in humans. The true human who bears God’s image is inconceivable even for a moment without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit…. If humans in general cannot have communion with God except by the Holy Spirit, then this applies even more powerfully to Christ’s human nature.

Does this mean, as one Old Lifer asked me by email, that the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s life is comparable to mine and that we can think of Christ’s life of sanctity like the work of sanctification in the believer? Remember what the Confession says about sanctification:

2. This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part; whence ariseth a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.

3. In which war, although the remaining corruption, for a time, may much prevail; yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome; and so, the saints grow in grace, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

And is Jones aware that he may be straying into Roman Catholic territory in the way he construes the two Adams and their natures? That may seem like a stretch but if you follow Bavinck on Adam’s original righteousness as the Reformers conceived it, you may want to counsel Dr. Jones back from the ledge. First, Bavinck acknowledges that Adam’s righteousness was a free gift of God and “only possessed . . . by and in the Holy Spirit.” But Bavinck is aware of the danger of flattening:

Granted, between the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in man before sin and in the state of sin, there is a big difference. Now that indwelling, after all, is “above nature” (supra naturam) because the Holy Spirit has to come to humans as it were from without and is diametrically opposed to sinful nature. In the case of Adam that entire contrast did not exist; his nature was holy and did not, as in the case of believers, have to be made holy. . . (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 558)

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in systematic theology to think that the same contrast between Adam and us applies to Christ and us, or that Christ’s righteousness was not above nature but natural to the righteousness of an unfallen human nature.

To construe this original righteousness, furthermore, as gracious in the sense of having to right what was defective, is also a mistake of important proportions for Bavinck. He explains the nature of the dispute between Rome and Protestants over Adam’s original nature:

The dispute concerned the question of whether that original righteousness was natural or, at least in part, supernatural. . . . they used this term [natural] to maintain the conviction that the image of God, that is, original righteousness, was inseparable from the idea of man as such and that it referred to the normal state, the harmony, the health of a human being; that without it a human cannot be true, complete, or normal. . . . [Man] is either a son of God, his offspring, his image, or he is a child of wrath, dead in sins and trespasses. When that human being again by faith receives that perfect righteousness in Christ, that benefit is indeed a supernatural gift, but it is supernature “as an accident,” “incidentally”; he regains that which belongs to his being. . . (551)

For good measure, Bavinck adds that if Adam’s original humanity was incapable of obeying God’s commands, you wind up having to do what Roman Catholicism does and add grace to Adam’s original constitution:

From these two ideas, the mystical view of man’s final destiny and the meritoriousness of good works, was born the Catholic doctrine of the “superadded gift” . . . . The heavenly blessedness and the vision of God, which is man’s final destiny — and was so for Adam — can be merited ex condigno only by such good works as are in accord with that final destiny. . . . The righteousness that Adam possessed as a human, earthly being by virtue of creation was not, of course, sufficient to that end. So for Adam to reach his final destiny he too needed to be giving a supernatural grace, that is, the gratia gratum faciens (“the grace that renders one engraced or pleasing to God”), the image of God. (539-40)

Of course, simply quoting Bavinck doesn’t make any of this so. But what is instructive about Bavinck is the danger he sees in talking about grace before the fall or Adam in his original righteousness needing something extra to obey God (or by implication discussing Christ’s holy life as analogous to a believer’s sanctification). Would that Dr. Jones in his historical surveys would be that cautious.

Flattening Will Get You Nowhere

Mark Jones wonders what is so controversial about the view that the covenant with Adam was gracious:

. . . for the sake of argument, let’s say the Mosaic covenant has a meritorious element. Does that make it a republication of the covenant of works? Not necessarily. After all, you would have to re-define the covenant of works to make it a meritorious covenant. But what if you hold to the uncontroversial view that Adam, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, lived by faith in the Garden of Eden as he perfectly obeyed God’s law (for a time)? How is Sinai similar to that covenantal context and how is it different?

In other words, Adam was dependent on the work of grace to keep the law in a way comparable to what the Israelites experienced after the Mosaic Covenant. And as I gather from his interview (haven’t read his book yet), Jones also draws comparisons between Christ’s pursuit of holiness and the Christian’s similar endeavor. Lots of flattening in Jones’ reading of the Bible and history, though not much attention to Paul who may have provided a few reasons for not exalting every valley in redemptive history.

But surely Jones knows that his “uncontroversial” hypothesis is precisely has been contentious among confessional Reformed Protestants for as long as Norman Shepherd proposed the notion of obedient faith. In particular, Shepherd, if Cornel Venema’s review of The Call of Grace is a fair reading, had a similar habit of making the rough places of redemptive history plain:

. . . though this flattening of the covenant relationship throughout the course of history, before and after the fall, may have a superficial appeal, it has huge implications for the way we interpret the respective “work” of Adam and Christ, the second Adam. Shepherd makes clear that he rejects the traditional Reformed doctrine of a pre-lapsarian “covenant of works” that promised Adam life “upon condition of perfect obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. VII.ii). To say that Adam’s acceptance before God justly demanded his performance of an obligation of obedience, is, Shepherd argues, tantamount to treating the covenant relationship as though it were a contractual one, on analogy of an employer to an employee, rather than a familial one, on analogy of a father to a son (p. 39). We should recognize that God always treats human beings on the basis of his sovereign grace and promise. Just as children never “merit” their father’s favor by their good works, so human beings never “merit” God’s favor by their obedience to the covenant’s obligations. However, life in covenant with God, though not “merited,” is nonetheless obtained only by way of the obedience of faith. This means that what God required of Adam, he requires of Abraham and all believers, including Christ.

Lest this interpretation of Shepherd’s view be regarded as a misreading of his position, it should be noted that Shepherd explicitly draws a parallel between what God obliges Abraham, Christ, and all believers to do as a necessary condition for their salvation. In his description of Christ’s saving work, Shepherd uses the same language that he earlier used to describe Abraham’s faith: “His [Christ’s] was a living, active, and obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited to him as righteousness” (p. 19, emphasis mine). By this language Shepherd treats Christ as though he were little more than a model believer whose obedient faith constituted the ground for his acceptance with God in the same way that Abraham’s (and any believer’s) obedient faith constituted the basis for his acceptance with God. In his zeal to identify the covenant relationship between God and man in its pre- and post-fall administrations, Shepherd leaves little room to describe Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant in a way that honors the uniqueness, perfection and sufficiency of Christ’s accomplishment for the salvation of his people.

So we offer a warning to Jones about his flattening lest he reduce the uniqueness of Christ’s epoch-making work in contrast to Adam’s epic failure. He may want to chalk Meredith Kline’s views of Moses up to the latter’s study of the Ancient Near East. But Jones should also pay attention to the other much more significant context for his views on republication — namely, the errors of Shepherd.

Why Republication Matters

What exactly is so threatening about this?

Every Reformed minister loves preaching from Romans and Galatians. Presenting the Mosaic law as teaching a works principle really helps in explaining Paul’s doctrine of justification: what sin is all about, why people can’t rely on their own law-keeping, how faith is radically different from works, how Christ fulfilled the terms of the law so that we may be justified. That’s the gospel as I see it, but you can’t explain the gospel without understanding the law. Or take all of those Old Testament passages that call for Israel’s obedience and promise blessing and threaten curse in the land depending on their response. For example, the beginning of Deuteronomy 4, which tells Israel to follow the law so that they may live and take possession of the land. Or Deuteronomy 28, which recounts all sorts of earthly blessings in the land if the Israelites are careful to obey and all sorts of earthly curses if they aren’t. I don’t want a congregation to think that God was holding out a works-based way of salvation here, and I also can’t tell the congregation that this is the same way that God deals with the New Testament church when he calls her to obedience, for there’s nothing equivalent in the New Testament, no promise of earthly blessing for the church today if we meet a standard of obedience. Saying either of those things might by simple, but of course they’d be misleading, and damaging for the church to hear. (The Law is Not of Faith, 5)

Could it be that this view seems to allow Christians to think that law-keeping does not contribute to their salvation? Well, if the law requires “personal, perfect, and perpetual conformity and obedience thereunto, in the frame and disposition of the whole man, soul and body, and in performance of all those duties of holiness and righteousness which he owes to God and man: promising life upon the fulfilling, and threatening death upon the breach of it,” who is up to that challenge? Don’t be bashful.

Development of Doctrinal Dispute Stalled

David Murray concludes his four-part series on Merit and Moses — the book that is anti-republication — by boiling it down to this:

. . . my own concerns about RP have grown as I’ve increasingly come into contact with people who are using the RP to argue against any place of the law in the Christian life. They hear RP teachers saying that Israel obeyed the law to merit the land, but the NT believer is no longer under that arrangement. Thus they conclude, we don’t need to obey God’s law any more. Again, I know that’s not what RP intends but it is such a complex and confusing system that even those who have heard it explained many times still struggle to understand and communicate it accurately. I remember the first time I heard the RP preached, I thought, “What on earth was that?” To some degree, I still feel that sense of bafflement. With theology, I’ve often noticed that the more complex a system, the more likely that it’s wrong.

What is striking about this conclusion is that Murray (David, that is) winds up basically where Norman Shepherd started — Christians in the 1970s believed they could dispense with the law (thanks either to D. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion or Jack Miller’s Sonship Theology). Shepherd opposed such antinomianism and wasn’t even contending with republication or 2-kingdom theology. He was, of course, sorting covenant theology out to some degree with Meredith Kline, who turned out to be one of the leading opponents of Shepherd. And Kline, as David Murray points out, represents for the authors of Merit and Moses the overreaction against Shepherd.

Has anyone yet to show us what the right reaction against Shepherd is? The folks who have been most vigorous in opposing where Shepherd led (i.e. Federal Vision) were some of the people who wrote for The Law is Not of Faith. Do they get credit for that? Not much. And what about the Murrayites (not David) who didn’t go the way of Federal Vision? Were they critical of Shepherd or Federal Vision? Or did they sit on their hands? Or how about the Obedience Boys? Have they had their innings with Norman Shepherd who argued for an obedient faith?

My contention is still that the very small world of U.S. conservative Presbyterian and Reformed believers has not yet gotten over Shepherd.

The Republication-2K Connection

One of the authors cited in Merit and Moses is Patrick Ramsey, who defended Moses in the Westminster Theological Journal and included in his defense the following point about the value of the law (third use) according to the Confession of Faith (19.6):

According to this section of the Confession, the curses (“threatenings”) of the Mosaic Law teach the regenerate what temporal afflictions they may expect when they sin while the blessings (“promises”) instruct them concerning the benefits they may expect when they obey. Saving faith “trembles” at these curses and “embraces” the blessings for “this life, and that which is to come.”

“To establish a connection between obedience and blessing and disobedience and cursing is for many—notably antinomians—to establish in some sense a covenant of works. The divines were certainly aware of this possible misunderstanding. After all, they debated this issue for years. Consequently, they made it explicitly clear that such a connection does not in any form or fashion indicate that man is under a covenant of works (Ramsey, “In Defense of Moses.” Westminster Theological Journal 66 [2004]: 14-15).

Aside from the danger of teaching a prosperity gospel (if you’re well off, you must be doing something right in God’s accounting scheme), Ramsey may have way more confidence in the Westminster Divines than he should about possible misunderstandings of obedience to the law since they lived at a time when lots of Christians regularly compared their own nation to the nation of Israel. This meant that wars were God’s judgment upon the people’s sin, and victory in war was a sign of God’s blessing. Proof of this in the case of the Assembly was their reaffirmation of the Solemn League and Covenant which more or less kicked off their deliberations of matters like covenant theology and law (and likely accounts for the confessional oddity of including an entire chapter on oaths and vows — I’d love to see a candidate for ordination pressed by a presbyter to defend Chapter 22).

Ramsey may be okay with comparing England to Israel. But I’ll take the cautions of republication about the uniqueness of the Mosaic Covenant when it comes God’s blessings and cursings upon the covenant nation. Israel was a type of the first and second Adams. England was not and still is not, no matter how much you invoke Shakespeare. And don’t get me started on the U.S. as a “Christian nation.”

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?

Hiding Behind Kilts

The release of the new book Merit and Moses, a critique of the republication doctrine (that the Mosaic covenant was “in some sense” a republication typologically of the covenant of works) got me thinking about a certain anomaly in contemporary Reformed circles regarding a certain Mr. Murray (his given name was John and he did not have the extra one of Courtney). The endorsements of this book show an arresting feature of the Westminster Seminary tradition and reception of Geerhardus Vos.

After Vos, his successors broke into two camps, one represented by Murray, the other by Meredith Kline, who took markedly different views of covenant theology. After Murray and Kline, came Norman Shepherd, Richard Gaffin, and Bob Strimple. They pretty much all sided with Murray against Kline on matters of moment. And then came VanDrunen, Horton, and Fesko. They followed Kline and have been taking their lumps ever since.

Generally speaking, the anti-republicationists are anti-Kline and pro-Murray. Here’s a sampling:

For the past thirty years, a shift in Reformed covenant theology has been percolating under the hot Southern California sun in Escondido. Atop the bluff of a former orange grove, a quiet redefinition of the Sinaitic covenant administration as a typological covenant of works, complete with meritorious obedience and meritorious reward has been ripening. The architect of this paradigm shift was the late Meredith G. Kline, who taught at Westminster Escondido (WSCal) for more than 20 years. Many of Kline’s colleagues, former students (several now teaching in Escondido) and admirers (Mark Karlberg, T. David Gordon, etc.) have canonized his novel reconstruction of the Mosaic covenant—it is “not of faith”, but of works and meritorious works at that, albeit ‘typological’. What may now be labeled the “Escondido Hermeneutic” or “Kline Works-Merit Paradigm” has succeeded in cornering an increasing share of the Reformed covenant market in spite of its revisionism and heterodoxy. This newfangled paradigm has managed to fly beneath the radar of most Reformed observers, in part because of the aggressively militant demeanor and rhetoric of its advocates and defenders. Especially vitriolic have been attacks by the Kline acolytes upon Norman Shepherd and Richard Gaffin. . . . (1)

While it is certainly true that Murray clearly and self-consciously broke with the majority of the Reformed tradition on several points of doctrine, his teaching on the nature of the obedience required in the Mosaic covenant was not one of them. In fact, a strong case can be made that his position on the essential nature of the obedience required in the Mosaic covenant represented the mainstream consensus of Reformed theologians. Furthermore, some of Murray’s key exegetical observations (which, incidentally, these authors simply pass over rather than critically engage) lend his thesis strong support. (63)

Now the endorsements for the anti-republicationist book:

“The doctrine of Republication has a Reformed pedigree. But in what sense? Recent understandings of Republication sometimes depart significantly from what one finds among Reformed theologians in the Post-Reformation periods. It is to the merit of these authors for dealing with this thorny issue by offering some important insights into the precise nature of the debate, such as discussions on merit and justice and the nature of typology. I hope all involved in the debate will give this book a careful and sympathetic reading—at least more careful and sympathetic than those who have publicly opposed Professor John Murray on this issue.”
—Mark Jones, Senior Minister, Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Vancouver, BC

“I strongly recommend that everyone interested in the notion of Republication read the important book, Merit and Moses. By focusing on the guilt of every child of Adam and the only merit recognized by a holy God, the authors cut to the heart of Republication’s error. They show that to be the case by an insightful study of the Scriptures, of our most revered theologians—for example, John Murray, too often misunderstood and maligned by Republicationists—and of the Reformed confessions, showing that the doctrine of Republication cannot be harmonized with the teaching of the Westminster Standards.”
—Robert B. Strimple, President emeritus and Professor emeritus of Systematic Theology, Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, CA

“In recent years, a number of Reformed writers have advanced the claim that the Mosaic covenant or economy was in some sense a republication of the covenant of works. According to these writers, the Republication doctrine was a common emphasis in the history of Reformed theology, and even forms an important part of the basis for the biblical doctrine of justification. The authors of this volume present a clear and compelling case against this claim. Rather than a reaffirmation of a forgotten, integral feature of Reformed theology, the authors argue that the modern republication doctrine seems inconsistent with the historic Reformed understanding of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. A helpful contribution.”
—Cornelis P. Venema, President and Professor of Doctrinal Studies, Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Dyer, IN

“This volume addresses a relatively recent appearance of the view that the Mosaic covenant embodies a republication of the covenant of works, a view that in its distinctive emphasis is arguably without precedent in the history of Reformed theology—namely, that during the Mosaic era of the covenant of grace, in pointed antithesis to grace and saving faith in the promised Messiah, the law given to Israel at Sinai was to function pedagogically as a typological overlay of the covenant of works made with Adam, by which Israel’s retention of the land and temporal blessings were made dependent on maintaining a level of meritorious obedience (works), reduced in its demand to accommodate their sinfulness. A particular strength in my judgment is their showing that 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.”
—Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology emeritus, Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, PA

Let the reader decide.

But also consider this. Mr. Murray was a strong proponent of exclusive psalmody, arguably the lone holdout of prominence in the OPC. And yet those who follow Murray on covenant theology are willing to argue quite decidedly against singing psalms only or even singing the imprecatory psalms (about which Murray had no qualms). Dick Gaffin recently wrote:

Among my continuing reservations about the Psalter-Hymnal project (March issue), here I’m only able to raise one concern about its commitment to total psalmody. The imprecations in Psalm 137, among others, have in view the Old Testament situation, when God’s covenant people were one nation, a single geopolitical entity (Israel), and their enemies were likewise ethnically and geopolitically defined (Babylon and Edom here). But now, after Christ’s finished work, that spiritual enmity, inseparably national, has ceased. Now the realization of God’s eternal saving purpose, anticipated throughout the Old Testament, is universal. His elect are no longer found only within Israel, but within every nation. Under the new covenant, the church is “in Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13) in a way it was not under the old: no longer are Jews in holy hostility towards non-Jews; now, in Christ, they are reconciled to each other (Eph. 2:11–22).

I recognize that the ethnic references like those in Psalm 137 are not only literal but also typological. Akin to the symbolic references to Babylon in Revelation, they point forward to the final destruction of the enemies of God’s people. Still, singing explicitly genocidal curses in public worship, without a whole lot of preparatory explanation (and perhaps even with that), risks leaving the impression that the congregation is calling on God for the large-scale destruction of people with Gentile ethnicity like most of us in the New Testament church. (20-21)

(Could there be some kind of ambivalence at work here with typological readings of the OT?)

So what I am wondering is what would happen to this argument against total psalmody if Orthodoxy Presbyterians knew it departed from Mr. Murray. I mean, if it is fair game to raise concerns about views that do not follow Murray’s reading of creation or the Mosaic covenant, why is that okay when it comes to Murray’s singing of David? Maybe the OPC needs to kick away the crutches, prepare for sacred cows to be wounded, and through delegated assemblies let word and Spirit do their work.

Hide the Women and Children!

As I suspected, the review that Cornel Venema wrote of The Law is Not of Faith is not nearly as damning as various and sundry critics of Westminster California have let on. I figured that if Venema had written anything really juicy – like this is view that needs to be purged from our churches – Rabbi Bret would have quoted it by now, especially that – ahem – his Advent and Christmas duties are well behind.

Although Venema criticizes the book, its arguments and authors, he actually writes sensibly and in a guarded manner (unlike some on his faculty):

Here are some examples, all from the conclusion:

Viewed against the background of the history of Reformed covenant theology, the particular question of the distinctiveness of the Mosaic administration posed by the authors . . . is a legitimate one, and one with a long pedigree in the history of Reformed theology. That some contemporary Reformed theologians find the question itself to be puzzling or problematic does reflect, as the editors . . . observe, a loss of historical awareness and appreciation for the complex history of Reformed reflection on the covenant.

So some of the reactions to the book could actually be ignorant.

Though my review . . . offers a number of criticisms of the author’s arguments, I fully concur with the authors’ aim to uphold and teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone upon the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone. As I put it in my description . . . on the book jacket, the “authors ably refute recent attacks on the classic Reformed understanding of the grace of free justification on the basis of the entire obedience and sacrifice of Christ alone.”

Yes, that’s right, Venema wrote a blurb for the book that he supposedly found devastating in review.

Rabbi Bret and others seemed to miss that Venema actually did recommend this book for publication and to readers to read – that’s why the publisher printed this on the back cover by the president of Mid-America:

This provocative volume makes a historical and biblical-theological case for understaning the Mosaic administration in the covenant of grace as in some sense a “republished” covenant of works, which teaches that only perfect obedience to the requiremetns of the law is sufficient to secure the covenant promise of life in communion with God. The authors ably refute recent attacks upon the classic Reformed understanidng of the grace of free justification on the basis of the enire obedience and sacrifice of Christ alone. Though I am not persuaded by every forumulation here, this volume deserves the careful attention of anyone who prizes the bilical teaching that the believer’s justification rests not on any works of his own, but solely on the full obedience of Christ.

What is curious is that Venema could endorse a volume that he would later critique for over seventy pages. The ethics of endorsing and reviewing hold that once you add your name to a book’s set of endorsers, you refrain from reviewing the book – since your review would not be credible as representing an impartial judgment (oh, that’s right, no neutrality). What we have here is a case of recommendation followed by critique, which is one of the odder turns in the publishing world. The endorsement is also a fact that critics of Westminster California have selectively left unnoticed.

Venema also adds in the conclusion of his review:

. . . while I recognize the manifest diversity of opinion on the question of the distinctive nature of the Mosaic economy in the history of Reformed theology, my primary objection to the arguments of the authors . . . is to what I have termed an “accommodated” reading of the sources.

In other words, this is a debate among historical theologians. On the matter of correctly exegeting Paul, Venema comes to no conclusion. Last I knew, a minister’s historical theology was not the basis for his standing in the church.

. . . in my critical assessment of the republication thesis . . ., I have intimated that the historic Reformed distinction between the “three uses” of the law provides a better answer to the complexx question that this thesis aims to resolve.

So we are in the realm of a better explanation of the Mosaic administration, not a heterodox point of doctrine.

The implication of the republication thesis, as is stated by some of the authors, seems to undermine the positive function of the law within the administration of the covenant of grace.

“Seems to undermine” is a long way from this by Rabbi Brett:

Dr. Venema’s work in the Mid-America Journal of Theology is one more effort to pull back the curtain to expose a committee of Ozzes who are working overtime to infect the whole Reformed Church with their virus theology.

But when you are prone to seeing the world populated not by people who study and teach but either by angels or demons, Communists or the liberated, you think that evaluation of an argument is the same thing as drawing up charges.