K: JNWTS 29/3 (December 2014): 11-15

Merit and Moses: A Review[1]

Leonard J. Coppes

The subject matter of this book may appear esoteric to many, nonetheless our authors argue and demonstrate that this topic is crucial to the history and faithfulness of the Reformed position (the tradition of the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity). This subject matter deals with the foundation of the true and reformed faith. While it may seem to be obscure to many who have read and interacted with this foundational subject matter, it is nonetheless a reality. The watchmen have seen danger approaching (and already among us) and are blowing the trumpet (Ezek. 33:7). Like so much of this kind of material, new directions in theology often involve profound, almost obscure thought framed in words that might seem familiar but which carry new definitions. It is the purpose of this book to shed light on these new definitions and this new direction in Reformed thought.

The presentation of this book is what one would expect when theologians write for theologians. The authors assume that the readers have read, studied, and that they agree with the Westminster Standards.  Consequently, the book presents profound theological thoughts in a profound manner and with relatively little Biblical argumentation. This does not lessen the usefulness of this work however, for those who have studied the Standards are, no doubt, already familiar with the Biblical foundation for those Standards. Readers who have not done such biblical studies can turn to books such as the OPC Standards with proof texts.[2] It is significant that Kline and most of the writers critiqued also adhere(d) to the Westminster Standards. Those who are familiar with theological dialogue will find this book a thorough and carefully thought out presentation of the issue(s) with which it deals. Because of the foundational nature of the subject matter (merit and Moses), those interested in Biblical and theological faithfulness will find this book very instructive. Ministers and elders will want to read and study this work carefully.

The book offers four brief and excellent favorable reviews of its contents and relevancy in the four summery reviews presented on its back cover page. Among those reviewers are three highly respected professors who spent much of their adult lives teaching theology in different Reformed seminaries, viz., Drs. Robert Strimple, Cornelis Venema, and Richard Gaffin. A fourth summary review appears in the book as its foreword. Written by Rev. William Shishko, it too summarizes and favorably evaluates the book. 

The present reviewer, like the authors of Merit and Moses, was a student of Old Testament under Dr. Meredith Kline. In addition, he was privileged to hear Old Testament instruction from Professors John Murray and E. J. Young. He was aware of some of the differences among these several professors, but did not grasp the significance of those differences. Initially attracted to the person and work of Dr. Kline, he grew to see some fatal holes in the hermeneutical, exegetical and theological dike constructed by that respected scholar. This reviewer's work at Westminster Seminary focused on the Old Testament. It became evident in the course of this and subsequent study that Old Testament studies were not only a significant and important part of the foundation to all exegetical and theological work, but that many major theological departures from orthodoxy were birthed in the arena of Old Testament studies. It appears, moreover, that there is a tendency to overlook such Old Testament departures and to discount them as insignificant. However, to do this is to open the door to significant attacks on the theology and authority of Scripture. It is the hope of this reviewer that such "winking of the eye" will not be the reaction of the church to the material critiqued in Merit and Moses.

Further motivation to read this critique of the work of Kline and his theological successors (the defenders of Klineanism) is provided by its contemporary proponents who wrote: "In short, the doctrine of republication [of the covenant of works, ljc] is integrally connected to the doctrine of justification . . . a misunderstanding of the Mosaic economy and silence on the works principle there will only leave us necessarily impoverished in our faith. We will see in only a thin manner the work of our Savior."[3] Kline and his advocates present us with a new twist on traditional Reformed theology. This new twist, like so many, is confusing to many of us. The editors of TLNF (see footnote 1 below) set before the reader a fictional story intended to defend their new position and direction. It argues that their new position is really the old position of the Reformed biblical-theological tradition, a tradition that has been derailed and forgotten by more modern theologians. TLNF holds that this derailment has especially occurred in the modern period and in particular through the work of Professor John Murray. Moreover, the proponents of this new direction maintain, by clear implication, that only the Klinean position will restore and maintain the historic doctrine of justification.

Having set forth the background to the republication paradigm and a defense of dealing with this new direction, the authors of Merit and Moses turn to rebutting the charges against Professor John Murray and his position on covenant. The Klineans charge Murray with unorthodox monocovenatalism (that there is only one covenant taught in the Bible) and thus with rejecting the Biblical and confessional doctrine of the covenant (i.e., that there are two covenants presented in the Bible). Our authors treat these charges carefully. They begin, of course, by clearly setting forth and documenting the charges from the Klineans. Then they present, in the same manner, the refutation of the charge of Murray's being soft and non-confessional on the doctrine of the covenant before the fall. Thus, our authors demonstrate that although Murray would have us use different language, he substantially accepted the idea that before the fall God related to man in a "covenant-like" relationship. The authors also state that they would disagree with Murray as to the terminology used to describe the pre-Fall relationship between God and man. Then the doctrine of justification is carefully presented and documented. After this, they document how Murray did not contradict or reject the biblical and/or confessional teaching regarding justification and specifically the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ. Indeed, they show how he upheld these doctrines. Hence, our authors help us to see that the charge against Murray (an unbiblical monocovenatalism[4]) is not supported by the writings of Professor Murray as they are compared to the Bible and the Westminster Standards.

Next, in a chapter entitled "Recasting Covenant Theology", they turn to the Klinean charge that Professor Murray's position was fertile ground for the errors of Professor Norman Shepherd and the Federal Visionists.  This, too, is shown to be a false charge. It is argued and documented that Professor Shepherd deviated from what Professor Murray taught and deviated into error.  Had he held to Murray's position, or so it is implied, he would have avoided his own errors. So Murray did not leave the door labeled "covenant" ajar, or release the theological clutch, and so allow or encourage Professor Shepherd's creative covenantal view. In a second chapter on this topic, "Recasting Covenant Theology," our authors carefully analyze and document Dr. Kline's involvement in the Shepherd controversy. They carefully demonstrate from Kline's writings how he upheld his republication view as the response to Professor Shepherd's thought regarding the nature of covenant. Significantly, our authors commend Kline and his theological successors for their help in analyzing and countermanding Professor Shepherd's work. On the other hand, they add that Kline went too far afield in what he said in seeking to set forth the true and Biblical definition/description of covenant. They perceptively list, document and analyze the following theological errors in Kline's new definition of covenant as: (1) "disagreement with the voluntary condescension of God"[5] in making the pre-Fall covenant (they set forth the position of the Scripture and of the Westminster Standards); (2) presenting "Israel as a corporate typological Adam with a merit-based probation"[6] (i.e., that Israel was divinely instructed to do meritorious works); and (3) teaching that Israel's divine call to produce meritorious works was typological of Christ's obedience. Our authors apply this analysis to demonstrate that "Kline is the source of the Republication view in TLNF."[7] In concluding this first part of their book, our writers point us to the Westminster Confession of Faith as the faithful "plumb line" for the church in its theological reflection. This age-old statement of Christian doctrine has stood the test of time and the challenges and debating over its statements since 1660. If past debates were as careful and thorough as those in our young Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Standards have been carefully defended from the Scripture.

Part 2 of Merit and Moses is, in keeping with all that precedes it, a careful, calm, and thorough analysis and rebuttal of the Klinean redefinition of the concept of merit in distinction from the traditional (Biblical) concept. This shift or "pendulum swing" is presented as Kline's reaction/response to Professor Shepherd's views. The present writer would suggest that it was also Kline's reaction/response to the theonomy position espoused by Dr. Greg Bahnsen, and to Kline's commitment to applying the implications of the parallels he saw between second millennium Hittite law treaties and Biblical covenants.

Our authors set forth the two different concepts of merit (that of the Westminster Standards and that of Dr. Kline and his adherents). They rightly emphasize that one significant, if not the most significant, difference is that the Standards and the Bible do not teach that there is such a thing as meritorious works, i.e., the Bible nowhere suggests or teaches that men other than Christ are able to do good works in order to merit or earn blessings, or anything else, from God. Having demonstrated that there are two different concepts of merit being used in this debate, they proceed to demonstrate and document that one of these definitions is what one finds in the historic documents and is known as the "classic Augustinian-Reformation theology of the Westminster Confession."[8] In a separate chapter, they present, document and discuss the new definition (direction) set forth in the republication theory of the Klineans (those repeating Dr. Kline's position). The Klinean new direction "has redefined merit in a particular way, in contrast to—and over against—the Confession's earlier definition of merit." The final chapter in this second part of Merit and Moses more closely investigates and evaluates this Klinean "reformulation" of "merit." It demonstrates and documents the new (novel) understanding of the Mosaic covenant. It should be understood as presenting, so the Klineans say, two levels of application of God's revealed law: (1) a grace level "for the eternal salvation of the individual;"[9] and (2) a "national, meritorious-works level"[10] teaching Israel what was required of them to remain in the Promised Land. Some of the language and/or concepts proffered here may require the reader to think carefully, but this distinction lies at the root of the Klinean system. This new way of analyzing Old Testament law is neither a hidden treasure nor insignificant detail of exegesis. Our authors imply that the Klinean system of interpretation revolutionizes the heart of both Old Testament and New Testament theology and it does this to the detriment of the gospel.

The last section of Merit and Moses is entitled "The Instability of the Republication Paradigm." Our authors set before us additional dangers in this new direction.  They demonstrate how it redefines major concepts within covenant theology such as the covenant of works, the nature of the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of grace, merit and its relationship to divine justice, and what constitutes a good work. They suggest that not only are these changes contrary to Scripture and the hard won structure and underpinning of traditional Reformed theology, but represent significant changes in fundamental doctrines and concepts that constitute the very fabric of that theology. Our authors imply that although these changes are for the present limited in their application, accepting them portends the possibility, if not probability, of a more thorough-going recasting of at least the whole of the doctrine of justification. Once foundational changes are accepted, adherents will ultimately apply those changes throughout the intellectual superstructure. The history of Christian theology is full of examples of sincere men who make what seem to some to be minor changes in doctrine and whose intellectual successors work out the thoughts of the "masters" into disastrous paths.

This is a very helpful work in view of the present debates within the Reformed churches. Truly, the authors have done a great service for God's church. For the more general Reformed audience, it would be helpful to have the ideas presented as true and right defended from the Scripture more thoroughly. For purposes of communicating to that more general audience, it would have been helpful to have more explanation of some of the ideas not frequently mentioned publicly, e.g., God's pre-Fall condescension, etc. 

[1] Andrew M. Elam, Robert C. Van Kooten, and Randall A. Bergquist, Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014. 155pp. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-62564-683-5. $20.00.

[2] The Committee on Christian Education, The Confession of Faith and Catechisms of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church with Proof Text, (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2005).

[3] Estelle, Bryan, et. al., eds., The Law Is Not Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009) 19.  Hereafter this work will be referenced as TLNF. 

[4] We note that Westminster Confession of Faith 7.6 teaches that after the fall there was one covenant of grace that included both the old covenant and the new covenant. 

[5] Merit and Moses, 32.

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Ibid., 37.

[8] Ibid., 42.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.