Republication Debates

A regrettable piece was published on the Aquila report concerning the Reformed doctrine of republication. I honestly didn't know whether to laugh or cry. In it the author claims that the views of Meredith G. Kline represent "historic, mainstream Reformed federalism, espoused from the time of the Reformation to the present," as opposed to the heterodoxy of many others, including Richard Gaffin. 

The author even manages to excoriate almost every Reformed Seminary, but lauds Westminster West "as the sole seminary promoting the biblical view (as we understand the issues)" on republication and justification. 

But is Kline's covenant theology the historic, mainstream Reformed federalism that emerged from the time of the Reformation? That's an important historical and theological question.

What is the doctrine of "republication"? 

Very simply, some people speak about the "covenant of works" (see WCF 7.2) being "republished" at Sinai - hence, the doctrine of republication. But after that, many of us are all groping around in the dark as to what some modern proponents mean by "republication." 

One of the problems concerns the way we define the covenant of works, including all of its basic elements. Even among Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century, there were disagreements on the precise nature of the covenant of works. 

What was the "life" promised? Temporal life in the Garden or eternal life in Heaven? The Westminster documents leave this question undecided. 

Was the covenant of works gracious? 

In my view, the presence of divine grace before the Fall was a basic assumption of almost all Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century. It was not a meritorious covenant, as in proper merit (i.e. condign merit). 

According to Johannes Maccovius, for something to be meritorious, four things are necessary: 1. It must be something that is not owed. 2. It should proceed from the powers of those who deserve it. 3. It must be of use to him of whom someone thinks that he deserves something. 4. The reward must not be greater than the merit. Thus, Adam clearly could not merit (eternal) life, and neither could Israel merit typological blessings (e.g., land). 

Did Adam live by faith in the Garden? Yes, just as Christ lived by faith in the wilderness. The just, including the just one (Jesus) during his life on earth, live by faith. 

Was Adam's faith natural or supernatural? Again, Reformed theologians wrestled with this question.

Was Adam's fundamental problem a failure to depend on the Holy Spirit for his obedience, as John Owen argued? 

Was the Holy Spirit or the Son the Mediator in the covenant of works? Or was there no Mediator? 

These and other questions need to be addressed before we can begin to tackle in what sense the covenant of works was "republished" at Sinai. 

Some people seem to begin with their own understanding of the covenant of works and then work from that principle to the doctrine of republication, forgetting that their view of the covenant of works (e.g., strict merit) doesn't quite have the strong Reformed pedigree they assume it has.

Once this is done, we should move on to the next question: 

How do we distinguish between formal republication and material republication? 

The moral law is not strictly co-extensive (i.e., equal to) with the covenant of works. The covenant of works was a particular, historical covenant, which involved trees, sacraments, etc. The moral law remains binding upon all humans, but that does not make the moral law the covenant of works. Formal republication almost makes the error of equating the moral law with the original covenant of works, whereas material republication simply asserts that the moral law is given afresh at Sinai on tables of stone. 

Thus, material republication of the moral law should not raise any eyebrows. And critics of republication are not (as far as I am aware) taking issue with "material republication." It has a strong historical precedent. I have certainly never denied that in my own published writings on the topic.

Formal republication is quite another thing, however. But if someone is prepared to affirm "formal" or "material" republication, they also need to explain in what sense the New Covenant may also be or not be a "formal" or "material" republication of the covenant of works. After all, the law is written on our hearts, which is (in some sense!) a return to Eden. And, as the WCF (19.6) makes clear, believers may expect "blessings" upon "performing"/keeping the moral law, as long as it is "sincere" obedience. 

Moreover, if the covenant of life (WLC Q. & A 20) demands of Adam, "personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience," may the covenant at Sinai be called a covenant of works in any meaningful sense? Remember, the Israelites were utterly unable to offer "perfect" obedience. At best, it was sincere obedience, which is the type of obedience that belongs to the covenant of grace.

As noted, it is one thing to say the moral law, given to Adam, was republished at Sinai - hardly a controversial point, to my mind - but quite another thing to say that the Mosaic covenant is a meritorious covenant based on works with regard to temporal blessings. The OPC study committee on this issue needs to settle the issue of the role of merit in the old covenant more than whether Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century spoke of "republication." 

Can sinners merit anything before God? In my view, the only person who can merit anything before God is Christ because of the infinite value of his person and work. 

However, 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? 

Retaining temporal promises in Canaan based on imperfect, meritorious obedience is not republication. The conditions and promises are fundamentally different. What Kline does is something altogether different than what even John Owen and others did. Readers should note that Klinean covenant theology is not really classical Reformed "republicationism." Talk of historical precedent is not all that relevant, as surprising as that may sound. 

The sooner we recognize that Kline's view is, historically considered, a little idiosyncratic, the sooner we can move on to discussing in more detail Kline's use of Mendenhall regarding Ancient Near Eastern Suzerain treaties. That's where published scholars of ANE history, such as Noel Weeks, have done such a good job of exposing the deficiencies of trying to understand biblical covenants as reflective of Suzerain treaties. 

Without the historical precedent, as well as the ANE treaties to buttress their case, those holding to Kline's view are left with the exegetical argument. And that may be their best bet. I'm quite willing to make the distinction between the historical and the exegetical argument.

Nonetheless, they will always have to deal with the problem of redefining merit in order to justify their view.

In sum, I am not concerned so much whether the doctrine of republication has historical precedent. Rather, I want to know what people actually mean when they talk about republication. I can heartily affirm certain forms of republication, but I cannot affirm that there is a works-principle at the typological level (that is devoid of assisting grace) and thus functions as the meritorious grounds for Israel's continuance in the land. The existential crisis this would have created for those who lived by grace through faith in Christ needs to be reckoned with. Imagine being a pastor in that context!

Indeed, if many of our finest Reformed theologians are to be believed, God provided assisting grace to Adam in the Garden (just as God provided assisting grace to Jesus during his ministry). And, to me, that doesn't sound like the type of covenant that some people think was "republished" at Sinai. 

If you are interested in this debate you can check out the following book, Merit and Moses. Also the Law is Not of Faith provides another viewpoint for people to consider alongside the aforementioned book.

Pastor Mark Jones hopes he'll never bore and confuse his congregation by speaking about ANE treaties.