Critiquing the Klinean Doctrine of Republication: A review article

Critiquing the Klinean Doctrine of Republication: A review article

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Andrew M. Elam, Robert van Kooten, and Randall Bergquist. Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014. 172 pages. $16.99/£11.99

Currently, there is considerable discussion - both within the academy and within the Church - concerning the doctrine of republication.  In its most basic form, republication is the belief that "the Mosaic covenant [is] to be considered in some sense a republication of the Adamic covenant of works." (p.1)  In the opinion of those who hold republication views, such an understanding of the Mosaic covenant has been a long-held, although recently-neglected, position within Reformed covenant theology.  

Andrew Elam, Robert van Kooten, and Randall Bergquist - all of whom are ordained ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church - regularly encountered such claims as discussions about republication swirled in the OPC and thus they undertook to examine both the origins and the orthodoxy of the doctrine.  The result of these labors was the present volume - Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014). This work - offered initially as an aide to the OPC as she considers these issues - reaches a conclusion starkly different from that of republication's proponents.  Rather than addressing the whole of Kline's covenantal structure, Elam, van Kooten, and Bergquist (hereafter, "the authors") focus specifically on that system's understanding of "merit" and determine that republication emerges from the thought of Meredith Kline rather than from classical Reformed orthodoxy and that it represents a dangerous deviation from that classical Reformed doctrine.  Both in its analysis of Kline's thought and in the conclusions that it forwards, the present volume is a welcome and commendable addition to the ongoing, larger evaluation of Kline's influence on modern covenantal thought.

The authors divide their analysis and critique into three sections.  In the first section, they present a brief historical account of certain twentieth-century developments within covenant theology. Beginning with a description of John Murray's covenant theology, the authors present the subsequent formulations of Norman Shepherd as departures from both Murray and confessional orthodoxy. Then, Kline's covenantal thought is presented as a polemical reaction against Shepherd that likewise strayed from confessional norms. In this historical survey, the authors' intention is two-fold. First, in the authors' opinion, much of the republication literature distorts Murray's covenant theology and attributes to him errors that actually belonged to Shepherd.  In their attempt to exonerate Murray from some of these republication criticisms, the authors are successful.  Secondly, the authors aim to establish that the roots of the republication doctrine lie in Kline's reaction to Shepherd rather than originating in the earlier centuries of Reformed orthodoxy. Again, the authors meet with success here, convincingly tracing republication to Kline's polemical doctrine.

Having established the Klinean origins of republication, the authors proceed, in the second section of their work, to explicate the distinctive and problematic view of merit that undergirds Kline's thought and that thus suffuses the republication doctrine. As the authors explain, Reformed theology traditionally has held that two components are essential to "merit" - moral perfection and ontological equality. Given these essential components, in order for a work or action to have merit before God, two things are requisite. First, the work or action must be morally perfect in its conception and performance. Second, the work must be performed by one whose being or essential nature is equal to God (ontological equality). The necessity of this ontological equality is underscored in such places as Luke 17:7-10. When an ontologically inferior creature serves his ontologically superior Creator, that service is a performance of obligation rather than an acquisition of merit. To be properly meritorious, an act must be a morally perfect act rendered by an ontologically equal being, thus being meritorious rather than merely obligatory.

That such an understanding of merit leaves mankind without hope of personal merit before God is obvious.  However, Reformed theologians also have made a distinction between "strict merit" and "covenant merit." Strict merit is merit which meets the exacting standards of true merit - it is a morally perfect act performed by an ontologically equal person.  Covenant merit is merit deemed to be meritorious because of the gracious, condescending provisions of God's covenantal interactions with His people. The distinction between strict merit and covenant merit is well illustrated by a comparison of Christ's obedience and Adam's obedience. Christ's obedience within the covenant of grace was pristine "strict merit" - His every obedience was both morally perfect and performed by One Who was "the same in substance, equal in power and glory" with the Father. Adam's obedience within the covenant of works, had he rendered such obedience, would have been "covenant merit" - per the terms of the covenant of works, God would have rewarded that obedience with eternal life even though, since it was an obedience performed by an ontologically inferior creature, it was not purely and strictly meritorious. Although not strictly meritorious, Adam's obedience would have had merit within the covenant. In the authors' analysis, such a nuanced view of merit - a view that obviates any personal, strict merit for man before God - found clear articulation in Augustine's contentions with Pelagius and has remained embedded within Reformed orthodoxy.

Kline's notion of merit is a departure from this traditional understanding. In what the authors identify as an overreaction against Norman Shepherd's theological system, Kline forwarded a notion of "simple justice." As the name implies, in this system, justice is simple. If God declares that something is meritorious, He is just to award it as meritorious and unjust if He does not thus award it. Under this rubric of simple justice, any necessary connection between either moral perfection or ontological equality and merit is severed and merit is defined entirely covenantally.
In the republication view, merit is defined in terms of God's revealed will as specified by the terms of the covenant.  Simply stated, merit is whatever God says it is...A work is meritorious, therefore, simply when God decides to accept it as such through the stated stipulations or conditions of a particular covenantal arrangement.  Kline referred to this as simple justice (p.67).
In this, Kline's notion of merit is a melding of the traditional categories of strict merit and covenant merit. All merit is simultaneously covenant merit - defined by covenantal terms and provisions - and strict merit - essentially meritorious rather than condescendingly meritorious although divorced from the traditional moral and ontological considerations. In Kline's system, it is the terms of the Divine covenant that determine both merit and justice; if something meets covenantal terms, it is meritorious and God is just to treat it as such.

This Klinean notion of simple justice becomes deeply problematic when one turns to Kline's understanding of the Mosaic covenant. In this understanding, there are two discrete "levels" on which the Mosaic covenant operates. On the "spiritual" level (what the authors call the "lower-foundational level"), the Mosaic covenant is part of God's larger redemptive work, it deals with spiritual realities, and it is intended to draw people to the promised Messiah. However, there also is a "symbolico-typical" level to the Mosaic covenant (what the authors call the "upper-typological level"). On this level, God entered into a typological, national covenant with Israel. Under the terms of that covenant, Israel was given the Law and commanded to render obedience to it. If Israel was obedient, she would inherit and retain the land of Canaan; if Israel was disobedient, she would forfeit the Promised Land.  

Importantly, however, the obedience required of Israel in this typological covenant was not a perfect obedience. Rather, Israel was required to render only a measure of obedience. Proponents of republication speak of Israel being obligated to a "relative fidelity" - obedience was required, but that obedience did not need to mark the whole of the nation; it did not need to mark all of the actions of any one man; and it did not even need to mark the whole of any one action of any one man. Under the typological Mosaic covenant, fidelity did not have to be entire or unmixed; it needed only to be "relative." If Israel rendered this relative fidelity, Canaan would be hers; if she did not, she would be cast out. According to the Klinean perspective, the purpose of this symbolico-typical covenant was to point to the necessary connection between obedience and blessedness. If Israel rendered relative fidelity, she would know blessing; if she did not, she would know cursing. In that dynamic, the symbolico-typical level of the Mosaic covenant did at least two things. First, in underscoring the connection between obedience and blessing, it "republished" the covenant of works in some way. Secondly, it served to show men their inability to render the obedience necessary for blessing and thus revealed their need of a Messiah.

In the authors' opinion, the combination of simple justice with this two-tier view of the Mosaic covenant is disastrous. On the symbolico-typical level, the Mosaic covenant calls Israel to a relative fidelity - an obedience marked by neither moral perfection nor ontological equality with God. Yet since those are the terms of the typological covenant, simple justice declares that this relative fidelity is absolutely meritorious before God. The relative obedience of sinful men (per the symbolico-typical level of the covenant) has a merit (per simple justice) that obligates God, in His justice, to bless them. Bluntly stated, it is possible for sinful man to win merit before the holy God.  As the authors rightly conclude, this is a categorical and a toxic modification of the traditional understanding of merit.

An analysis of the pervasive and destructive influence of this new notion of merit occupies the third and final section of the authors' work. In the authors' analysis, the Klinean reconfiguration of merit distorts one's understanding of both the covenant of works and the Mosaic covenant; and it conflates works and grace within the Mosaic covenant in such a way that both concepts become unintelligible. Most troubling, however, the redefinition of merit diminishes the glory and necessity of the person and work of Christ and it alters one's view of good works and the Law in relation to the believer's sanctification. In each of these respective explorations, the authors very thoroughly and very convincingly demonstrate the wide-ranging effects of Kline's redefinition of merit.

In a systematic and careful way, the authors undertake to prove two central points - that the republication doctrine is attributable to Meredith Kline and that it enshrines a modified notion of merit that is antithetical to the traditional Reformed understanding thereof. In both instances, the authors successfully achieve their goal. The reader is left quite convinced of both the Klinean origins and the dangerous implications of the republication doctrine. In this, Moses and Merit represents an important and needed contribution to a debate that continues to rage. Moreover, it is a wonderful example of theology from the Church and for the Church - written by pastors and intended to aid the Bride of Christ in considering issues that have come before her.

While the authors have done a service to the Church in their present work, there are a few items that warrant both comment and critique.

In the first instance, in their survey of the historical roots of the republication doctrine, the authors provide a very positive evaluation of John Murray's covenantal thought. The reason for this positive presentation is obvious - the republication school frequently ascribes to Murray certain views that ought rightly to be ascribed to Shepherd and the authors are seeking to exculpate Murray from errors that actually were not his own. Nonetheless, a slightly more critical eye needs to be cast on Murray's covenantal thought. Distinctive to that thought are Murray's definition of covenant as "a sovereign administration of grace and of promise" (Covenant of Grace, p.31) and his reticence to term the "Adamic Administration" a covenant based at least partly on its failure to comport with that definition. 

It is not insignificant that as Murray was articulating this self-consciously innovative formulation of covenant theology, one of the pressing issues under discussion was Karl Barth's critique that classical covenant theology, with the temporal priority that it assigned to the covenant of works, emphasized "law" over "grace." Given the context and discussion in which it occurred, Murray's recalibration of covenant theology deserves careful evaluation. While the authors are correct to defend Murray against the caricatures of many republication writers, there is perhaps a little more at issue in Murray's "recasting" of covenant theology than the authors allow and the effects of that recasting are certainly more extensive than they permit. While a thoughtful consideration of the authors' work will benefit students of covenant theology, an uncritical acceptance of Murray's system will not.

Additionally, problems emerge as the authors address republication's views of the obtaining of merit within the Mosaic covenant. In the republication understanding, on the symbolico-typical level, the Mosaic covenant held a "relative fidelity" to be meritorious toward the possession and retention of Canaan.

In the authors' analysis, the problem with such a position rests on the fact that, via the notion of simple justice and its assignation of merit to a relative fidelity, republication declares God to be just if He treats a relative fidelity as meritorious and unjust if He denies its intrinsic merit. Speaking in terms of the traditional understanding of merit (moral perfection and ontological equality), this means that God is just to treat something "unmeritorious" as if it were "meritorious." In the authors' opinion, such a position asserts God's ability to define "justice" by His covenant word; thereby tying "justice" to God's Word rather than to God's Being (see, e.g. pp.111-112, 115): "In the Republication Paradigm, God's justice is defined by his mere will: his covenant word is definitive of justice" (p.135). The implication of this is that "justice" becomes potentially variable: "If God's covenant word defines what is just, what is to stop God from making another arrangement than the one he has made with Christ for the salvation of sinners?" (p.116)

The republication doctrine holds that by the terms of the typological Mosaic covenant, the relative fidelity of Israel merited the possession and retention of Canaan; and in response to that position, the authors have critiqued simple justice's assertion of the defining power of God's covenant word; cautioning that if God is able to redefine "justice" by His bare covenantal word, the Divine essence has no role in that definition. While republication's notion of merit for national Israel within the Mosaic covenant deserves both critique and rejection, the way in which the authors have pursued this particular critique ultimately is unsatisfactory for two reasons.

First, the authors have rested their critique on the assertion that one cannot make God's covenant word definitive of justice; justice is defined by God's Being rather than by His speaking. Such an assertion, however, is troubling. Certainly, justice is defined by God's Being (Deuteronomy 32:4), but given the simplicity of God, it is impossible for His speaking to be in any way dissonant from His Being (e.g. Psalm 19:7-11; 145:17; Romans 7:12). The perfectly just God is perfectly just in all of His speaking. Therefore, it is legitimate to see God's Word as "definitive of justice," for His Word is the perfect expression of His just Being. To suggest otherwise at least implies that there is some way in which God's speaking does not perfectly and accurately reflect His just Being. 

The problem with the republication doctrine is not that it makes God's Word definitive of justice - God's Word is definitive of justice because it is the perfect revelation of the perfectly just God. The problem with the republication doctrine is that it has misunderstood that defining Word. Nowhere has God established a covenant based on relative obedience (more on this below); and so nowhere does God's covenant Word establish a standard of justice at variance with His Being. A proper critique of republication needs to focus on the misunderstanding of God's Word rather than leaving that misunderstanding both unchallenged and practically assumed in order to argue the notion that justice must be defined by God's Being rather than by His Word. While this may seem an esoteric issue, it has broad implications, particularly for one's doctrine of Scripture. The Church must be resolute that God's Word defines truth and that it defines justice rather than straying into abstruse suggestions that there is some space between God's Being and God's speaking and that justice is defined by the former in opposition to the latter. The Church must be careful not to undermine the power and the ability of God's Word to define justice.

The authors' focus on arguments concerning God's Being and God's speaking in these areas point, secondly, to a more systemic weakness in their work. Throughout the present volume, the authors' argumentation appeals primarily to theological categories and confessional standards and only secondarily to the Scriptures themselves. For example, in the discussion indicated above, the authors critique the republication view that within the Mosaic covenant, national Israel was held to a standard of relative fidelity and, per the terms of simple justice, God awarded that relative fidelity with the possession and retention of Canaan. In that critique, the authors present an argument that deals with God's covenant word, His justice, etc. 

It would seem, however, that a much clearer, more penetrating critique is ready to hand in the Scriptures themselves. In the Scriptural record, the supposed distinction between spiritual and symbolico-typical "levels" is nowhere to be found and God's standard in the one Mosaic covenant is not a relative fidelity, but a perfect fidelity (e.g. Exodus 24:3-8; Leviticus 18:2-5; 20:22; Deuteronomy 5:1; 10:12-17; 27:26; 30:1-10) that produces a holiness analogous to His own (e.g. Leviticus 11:44; 20:7; 20:6).  Israel was able to inherit and retain the Land not because they were meeting a lowered standard of relative fidelity, but because the God Who is merciful and gracious was restraining the judgment that ought to have consumed them (e.g. Psalm 78:38-39; 106; 136:16-26). In every respect, the Scriptures declare that Israel's enjoyment of Canaan was not a result of their acquiring merit through a lowered covenantal standard; rather, it was a display of God's power in electing; and His mercy in forgiving and sustaining, a people who rightfully deserved only His judgment (e.g. Deuteronomy 7:6-11; 9:1-6)! Israel made their home in Canaan not because Israel was relatively faithful, but because Israel's God was entirely merciful. Within the Scriptures themselves, there is a compelling refutation of the republication paradigm and it is disappointing that the authors have made no appeal to that refuting Scriptural presentation.

Regrettably, the absence of an explicitly Scriptural appeal here is not an anomaly. While a bare tally can be misleading, it also can be quite telling; and in the whole of Moses and Merit, the authors appeal to various Reformed confessional standards over 120 times, while they cite the Scriptures only approximately 20 times. While such a tally doubtlessly indicates extensive research, one cannot help but hope that such research would lead, ultimately, to an inversion of the current tally. While I disagree deeply with Meredith Kline on many of his positions, I also recognize that his works are littered with Scriptural citations and exposition. I think Kline has misunderstood the Scriptures in many important areas, but he undoubtedly has wrestled with the Scriptures. The result is that someone new to this entire debate could pick up Kingdom Prologue, flip through it; then pick up Moses and Merit, flip through it; and come to the conclusion that Kline's argument is the one more self-consciously rooted in the Scriptures. 

Certainly, the origins of Moses and Merit are important here. The authors' main "audience" was a confessional denomination and their intention was to show republication's divergence from that denomination's standards. In such a situation, argumentation from confessional standards is understandable. However, if this work is to have broader appeal and broader authority, it needs to have its arguments self-evidently rooted in the Scriptures rather than in confessional statements. Indeed, although I place a premium on full confessional subscription and fidelity, I tend to think that even within confessional denominations, doctrinal discussions always must be clearly, self-consciously, and primarily tethered to the Scriptures themselves. I love confessional theology; but confessional theology loses its power when it terminates in confessional statements rather than using those confessional statements to draw us to, and inform our reading of, the Holy Scriptures. In my estimation, Klinean republication is refuted by both the Westminster divines and Moses himself; it is regrettable that the authors have focused on the former rather than using the former to draw us to the latter.

The above comments notwithstanding, Merit and Moses is a powerful, compelling critique of Klinean republication. Therein, the authors have presented a confessional critique of the republication doctrine that cannot be ignored either by proponents of the doctrine or by those seeking to establish their position within the ongoing debate. Elam, van Kooten, and Bergquist are to be commended and thanked for their defense of sound doctrine and for their enacted example of what it means to have theology come from the Church for the Church.  I hope that many digest their work and emulate its example in the days and the years ahead.

Stephen Myers earned his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. He is the pastor of Pressly Memorial ARP Church in Statesville, N.C.; a visiting professor at RTS; and the author of the forthcoming work, Scottish Federalism and Covenantalism in Transition: The Theology of Ebenezer Erskine