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«Response to Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication Charles Lee Irons, Ph.D. 8/12/2015 This document combines a series ...»

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Response to Merit and Moses: A Critique of the

Klinean Doctrine of Republication

Charles Lee Irons, Ph.D.


This document combines a series of posts originally published on my blog1 in response to the

book Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication, by Andrew M.

Elam, Robert C. Van Kooten, and Randall A. Bergquist.2


Merit and Moses began life in April 2013 as a “Booklet on Merit in the Doctrine of

Republication” presented to the Presbytery of the Northwest of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) as part of its deliberations on the overture to the OPC General Assembly to study the issue of republication. I read it when it was a booklet in 2013. Merit and Moses is a more polished book form of that booklet. I’ve carefully read the book twice. If you count the original booklet version, I’ve read it three times. I have a number of reactions and responses that I want to write up.

Let me begin by saying that I know all three authors personally, although I have not been in contact with them since leaving the OPC. Two of the authors were students at Westminster Seminary California (WSC) at the same time that I was a student there. We sat together in the same classrooms. We worshiped together in chapel. In the case of one of the authors, we were pastoral interns in the same church. We studied the Scriptures together under Kline who was one of our influential professors. There was a time (though it seems so long ago now) when we were friends. Now they have decided to launch an all-out attack Kline. They now argue in this book that Kline’s particular formulation of covenant theology is an intolerable deviation from the OPC’s confessional standards.

Because of our past friendship, I have been reluctant to respond to the attacks on Kline coming from those associated with the Northwest Theological Seminary. I do not relish theological controversy. Disputes such as this are painful. But I believe it is time for me to speak out, for several reasons.

First, I must respond simply because the charges they level are so serious and so misleading.

They say Kline’s covenant theology “will lead to catastrophic alterations within the system of doctrine” and “will inevitably damage the structure” of the Westminster Confession’s covenant http://upper-register.typepad.com /blog/merit-and-moses. See posts from 6/11/2015 through 8/7/2015. The posts are also easily accessible here: http://www.monergism.com/merit-and-moses-response-charges-againstdoctrine-republication-covenant-works Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2014. I will refer to this book using the abbreviation “MM.” Irons, “Response to Merit and Moses”– Page 2 theology (MM 65). It “disrupts the system of doctrine contained in our Westminster Standards” (MM 134). They charge that Kline’s republication doctrine, in violation of baseline Augustinian and Reformed theology, teaches that “a group of fallen sinners can merit or extract a blessing from God” (MM 39). And, even worse, Kline’s republication doctrine “serves to undermine the singular glory of Christ’s meritorious obedience” (MM 116). These charges cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Second, with the publication of Merit and Moses and the formation of the OPC Republication Study Committee, it seems their charges are beginning to get some traction. They have even managed to get respected Reformed professors, such as Robert Strimple (another former professor of mine at WSC), Cornelis Venema, and Richard Gaffin, to endorse their book attacking Kline and those of us who appreciate Kline’s biblical-theological and covenantal insights. They also were able to get OPC pastor William Shishko to write the Foreword for their book, as well as an endorsement from Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) pastor Mark Jones, author of a recent book on antinomianism.3 Seeing so many take this book seriously is troubling.

Third, I feel the need to respond since I am quoted in this book, specifically my article “Redefining Merit” in the Kline Festschrift.4 The title of my article is even used as the title of Part 2 of the book: “Redefining Merit: The Klinean Paradigm Shift” (MM 41). They seem to have taken my article as their starting point to find a foothold to make an argument that Kline’s republication doctrine is a “catastrophic” departure from orthodoxy.

No Exegetical Engagement In due course, I will attempt to summarize and respond to the book’s central argument that Klinean republication “disrupts the system of doctrine” contained in the Westminster Standards (MM 134). But before doing so, I want to articulate two criticisms about the method of MM.

My first criticism as to method is that the authors completely ignore Kline’s exegetical basis for his views, particularly his exegesis of Paul’s teaching on the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

 They never acknowledge Paul’s striking quotations of Lev 18:5, “The one who does these things [= the statutes of the Mosaic law] shall live by them” (Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12).

 They never deal with Paul’s understanding of “the curse of the law” (Gal 3:10, 13;

quoting from the curses of the Mosaic covenant to be declared on Mount Ebal, Deut 27:15-26).

Mark Jones, Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013).

Lee Irons, “Redefining Merit: An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions in Covenant Theology,” pp. 253in Creator, Redeemer, Consummator: A Festschrift for Meredith G. Kline (ed. Howard Griffith and John R.

Muether; Greenville, SC: Reformed Academic Press/Reformed Theological Seminary, 2000). Available online at http://www.upper-register.com/papers/redefining_merit.pdf Irons, “Response to Merit and Moses” – Page 3  They fail to acknowledge the crucial, architectural importance of Gal 3:15-24 as a major source for Kline’s view.5  They ignore Paul’s teaching that the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant are “two covenants” (Gal 4:24), with distinct and contrasting principles of inheritance (Gal 3:18).

This lack of exegetical engagement is puzzling. Others have recognized this weakness in the

book as well. For example, in his Reformation21 review, Stephen Myers noted:

Someone new to this entire debate could pick up Kingdom Prologue, flip through it; then pick up Merit and Moses, flip through it; and come to the conclusion that Kline’s argument is the one more self-consciously rooted in the Scriptures.6

And David Murray observed:

MM is strong on systematic and confessional theology. However it makes little or no attempt to base its arguments on exegesis of Bible verses or to deal with some of the verses that seem to support RP [the republication paradigm] (e.g. Lev. 18:5 and Gal.

3:12).7 As David Murray admitted, there are “verses that seem to support republication.” And yet they avoid exegetical engagement with these verses and focus almost exclusively on attempting to make the case that Klinean republication is ruled out by the Westminster Confession.

Kline’s critics need to wrestle with Paul’s teaching on the Mosaic covenant (“the law”) with the same energy that they spend on the Confessional question. This is not to demean the latter question. There is a place for asking it. But to only ask that question without looking at the exegesis behind Kline’s covenant theology produces a skewed result. It is imperative for the critics to engage Kline’s exegesis of key passages like Galatians 3, because even if they don’t agree at the end of the day, they would see that Kline’s republication doctrine is well-grounded in the text. And that would make it harder to claim that it “disrupts the system of doctrine” contained in the Westminster Standards.

No Historical-Theological Engagement Since the MM authors have chosen not to engage the underlying exegetical issues and have opted to focus almost exclusively on the Confessional question, one might expect their handling of the Confessional question to be well executed. But here too their method leaves something to be desired.

Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 22-25; idem, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 320-21.

http://www.reformation21.org/articles/critiquing-the-klinean-doctrine-of-republication.php http://headhearthand.org/blog/2014/08/14/merit-and-moses-part-4 Irons, “Response to Merit and Moses” – Page 4 This is my second criticism about method: the authors do not acknowledge or engage the variety of Reformed thought in the 17th century, and this leads them to unduly narrow the circle of orthodoxy permitted by the Confession. It is becoming increasingly well known that Reformed theology in the time of early and high orthodoxy (from the last few decades of the 16th century to the end of the 17th century) was not a monolithic entity.

Many contemporary historical theologians are making this point with increasing clarity. For example, John Fesko, in his detailed study Beyond Calvin, has demonstrated this diversity, focusing particularly on the topic of the order of salvation (ordo salutis).8 In relation to debate over the Mosaic covenant, Brenton Ferry has shown just how thick was the underbrush of views on this topic. Ferry notes: “During the seventeenth century in England there was no shortage of debate about the Mosaic covenant.”9 Or consider the multi-author volume, Drawn into Controversie, which opens with a major introductory chapter by Richard Muller titled “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition.” 10 The volume covers a number of 17th century Reformed debates, but most relevant here is Chapter 8, “The ‘Old’ Covenant,” in which Mark Jones provides another taxonomy of views of Mosaic covenant, recognizing both dichotomist (covenant of works and covenant of grace) and trichotomist (covenant of works, covenant of grace, and subservient covenant) approaches within Reformed orthodoxy.

Yet the authors of MM seem unaware of this burgeoning academic discussion of Reformed diversity. They claim, without providing historical-theological evidence, that the Westminster Confession presents an airtight, single position that excludes not only Klinean republication but any version of republication. The authors claim that the Westminster Standards have “carefully,” “clearly,” “exactly,” and in a “precise way,” defined all the issues surrounding covenant theology, so that there is a “long-established consensus viewpoint” from which no deviation is allowed.

The church has in its possession a carefully crafted and long-established consensus viewpoint that has emerged from the historical discussion on the covenants. The creeds and confessions of the Reformed churches have carefully defined exactly in what sense a covenant may be called a covenant of works or covenant of grace, and exactly how merit, justice and good works are to be defined. To argue that the Reformed tradition can affirm that the Mosaic covenant is in some undefined sense a covenant of works belies the truth that there is already a clearly defined understanding of Scripture’s teaching in our hands.

To simply reiterate the “in some sense” thesis constitutes a failure to demonstrate the J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517 – 1700) (Reformed Historical Theology 20; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012).

Brenton Ferry, “Works in the Mosaic Covenant: A Reformed Taxonomy,” pp. 76–105 in The Law is Not of Faith (ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen; Phillipsburg: P&R, 2009); see p. 77. Cp. Ferry’s more extensive ThM thesis available at http://www.mtairyopc.org/mtairyopc.org/Library_files/Ferry'sThesis_2.pdf Michael A. G. Haykin and Mark Jones, eds., Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and

Debates Within Seventeenth-century British Puritanism (Reformed Historical Theology 17; Göttingen:

Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011).

Irons, “Response to Merit and Moses” – Page 5 precise way in which the republication view accords with the clear consensus view of the Westminster Standards (MM 81).

But is it really plausible to claim that the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) has defined covenant theology so exactly that no areas are left undefined? This is very hard to believe, given the fact that there were many areas that were left undefined by the divines so as to allow multiple orthodox positions. On many points that were controverted by the orthodox, the Westminster Assembly tended to seek formulations that would allow multiple views so as to reach consensus.

And we know that in the 17th century there were multiple views of the nature of the Mosaic covenant and its relationship to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. It is more reasonable to believe that the WCF was a consensus document that staked out the boundaries of orthodoxy widely enough to allow a variety of ways of formulating the presence of a works principle in the Mosaic economy.

Before one can conclude that the Confession has ruled out a view, one must examine the intent of the Confession, and that can only be done by means of detailed, historical spadework. One must engage the 17th century Reformed sources that would shed light on the Confession’s language. I do not have the expertise or access to the sources to do that well, but all the reading I have done suggests there were a variety of ways of formulating the works principle in the Mosaic economy held among orthodox Reformed theologians of the time. It is difficult to believe all of these formulations were intentionally excluded by the Westminster divines, and the only position allowed was the one held by John Murray and the authors of MM, namely, that the Mosaic covenant is a “pure covenant of grace” that “excludes any element” (MM 99-100) of a covenant of works.

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