Over the last few days I’ve been outlining the new book, Merit and Moses, which critiques the idea that the Mosaic covenant is, in an important sense, a republication of the covenant of works (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). Today I’d like to offer some concluding comments about the book.

Simplicity and Clarity
The first thing that struck me about the book was its relative simplicity and clarity compared to the book it is opposing, The Law is Not of Faith (TLNF). Merit and Moses (MM) demonstrates that it is possible for complex theology to be debated in an accessible way. I found TLNF to be virtually impenetrable in parts with little evident concern to write in as simple and clear a way as possible for the benefit of the church.

I suspect that part of the reason for MM’s superiority in this area is that it was written by three pastors as opposed to professors and academics. To me, MM is a model of how to teach. It’s well-paced, not too dense, consistent in quality and content, attractively presented, uses as few words as possible, avoids unnecessarily complicated jargon and sentences, provides concise definitions, and drives home important points with repetition and summaries. In terms of tone, although firmly opposing the republication paradigm, it did not veer into any personal attacks or excessive language. In a few places, MM credits Meredith Kline and TLNF for the work they have done in guarding important areas of truth.

Danger of Over-reaction
One of the strong points of MM is that, especially in the first chapter, but also throughout, it sets the republication debate in historical context. It explains how Westminster Seminary’s Norman Shepherd rejected key aspects of covenant theology and how another Westminster professor, Meredith Kline, reacted (indeed over-reacted) to these errors. In the process MM also persuasively clears Professor John Murray from the unfair linking of him to Shepherd’s errors.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in studying church history it’s the huge danger of overreacting to one error, thus unintentionally creating another. Thus the errors of psychology swing some to the rejection of all psychology in soul care, the errors of legalism swing some to antinomianism (and vice versa), too much exemplarist preaching swings to none at all, and so on. In this case, Norman Shepherd’s error of rejecting any idea of merit in the covenant of works led to Kline’s (and TLNF’s) overreaction of teaching meritorious works in the covenant of grace.

It’s always tempting to try to make our case stronger by adding to the Bible’s teaching (in this case, adding a covenant of works to the Mosaic covenant), as if we think the Bible needs just a bit more help in stopping error. However, we then create the circumstances where other serious error can occur, as in this case. We guard the truth with the truth not by constructing some complicated system that we think helps buttress our case.

Unintended Consequences
Nobody doubts Meredith Kline’s (or TLNF’s) worthy intentions and goals. They saw serious error with many serious repercussions and acted to protect the truth by constructing this republication paradigm (RP). It’s highly doubtful that they foresaw some of the dangerous doctrinal consequences of this theory, the knock-on effect on other doctrines. But, just as we can often know if a person has true faith by their fruits, so we can often tell if a teaching is true by its fruits.

It can often take a while and it often takes other people not immediately involved in a hot debate to work out the impact of one doctrine upon others. That’s what I see MM’s role as – not saying that RP teachers also teach the errors that MM sees flowing from RP – but explaining how changing one area of the foundation can also unexpectedly bring large and important parts of the whole house down. I’m hopeful that RP supporters, including the authors of TLNF, will read MM and, instead of setting the rottweilers on it, will pause and say, “Whoa! I didn’t see that result. This makes me reconsider the whole RP idea.”

There are two responses I hope we won’t see. First, I hope RP advocates will not simply go on the attack and pounce on one or two weaknesses in the MM case. Instead, let’s see a pause for serious and prayerful consideration, with a sincere effort made to recognize and admit that MM has even one or two valid points.

Second, it’s not enough for RP proponents to quote certain older theologians who used the terminology of “covenant of works” to describe the Mosaic covenant. Usually these theologians are not advocating the RP as we know it, but using “covenant of works” terminology to speak of the republication of the law rather than of the covenant of works itself. They are certainly not speaking in the context of the current debate.

Exegetical Weakness
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 (e.g. Lev. 18:5 and Gal. 3:12). It’s a relatively short book and the authors probably decided to restrict their case to systematic and confessional theology. However, there’s still a need for a similar kind of work that presents the exegetical case for the non-RP view of the Mosaic covenant and that also takes on the RP interpretation of a few key Bible verses in both the OT and NT. Although I do not agree with all of TLNF’s exegesis, at least they make an attempt to wrestle with vital verses. I don’t believe that MM offered a convincing explanation of the covenant rewards in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

If I can get the time, I hope to return to this in the near future and present at least part of the exegetical case for the covenant with Moses being a pure administration of the covenant of grace, unmixed with any covenant of works or ideas of merit.

Practical Importance
Some may read this book or my outline of it and think, “Hey, what’s the big deal? This is just academic squabbling that has no impact on the church or my Christian life!” I think if you read MM, you’ll realize that it is indeed a big deal. Even the authors of TLNF don’t hold back in describing how central the issues are and how the Gospel and the person and work of Christ are at stake in this debate (see the summary in Part 1). Chapter 12 in MM also demonstrates how the RP not only results in a kind of spiritual schizophrenia in OT believers (where the same act of obedience is rewarded by grace on one level and by merit on another), but also distances OT saints from our own spiritual experience and therefore reduces their usefulness as heroes and heroines of the faith.

For myself, 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.

You can find Dr. Mark Jones’s review of The Law is Not of faith here, and Dr. Cornel Venema’s lengthy analysis here.

  • Patrick

    Thanks for this series. Very helpful. Here is an older journal article dealing with Kline’s view of the Mosaic Covenant from a confessional point of view: http://patrickspensees.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/in-defense-of-moses.pdf

    • R. Martin Snyder

      Patrick has also done some work on the Levitcus chapter 18.
      http://patrickspensees.wordpress.com/2011/08/09/pauls-use-of-lev-185-in-rom-105/

      I have done some work using Calvin on Galatians. But will leave that for others to seek out.

      I also wrote a blog speaking about the substance of the Mosaic in relation to the New Covenant. As a Reformed Baptist I used the 2 Corinthians 3 passage to show that the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant were not the same in Substance. After a bit more study on the passage a few years ago I came to a different conclusion.

      Here is what I wrote on that matter.

      “A statement was also made how the Mosaic should be viewed as an
      administration of death. I actually believe the above helps us answer
      this problem but I also saw this. We as fallen people tend to want to
      turn the Covenant of Grace into a Covenant of Works. Many people even do
      this concerning the New Covenant today when they add works to the
      equation of justification by faith.

      In light of the passage mentioned in 2 Corinthians 3, which calls the
      Old an administration of Death, one must also read the prior passages
      to understand what context St. Paul is referring to the Mosaic Covenant
      in.

      (2Co 2:14) Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth
      us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge
      by us in every place.

      (2Co 2:15) For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:

      (2Co 2:16) To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and
      to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for
      these things?

      (2Co 2:17) For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of
      God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in
      Christ.

      Christ and the Gospel were Preached in Moses and the Old Testament. In fact Jesus said as much as did the author of Hebrews.

      (Luk 24:27) And beginning at Moses and all the prophets,
      he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning
      himself.

      (Joh 5:46) For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.

      (Joh 5:47) But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

      (Heb 4:2)

      For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word
      preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that
      heard it.

      (Heb 4:3)

      For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have
      sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works
      were finished from the foundation of the world.

      The Mosaic was an administration of death the same way the New
      Covenant is to those who seek to turn the New Covenant into a Covenant
      of Works. We are so inclined to stumble because we will not believe
      Moses or Christ. We naturally tend to corrupt the Word of God and the
      Covenant of Grace by wanting to add our works into our justification
      before God. In doing so we are refusing the Cornerstone and Saviour. We
      become like those that Paul is speaking about, “to one they [Paul and
      the Apostles] are a savour of death unto death.” And how is to be
      considered that Paul and the Church is a savour unto death? They are
      because they do what Paul says he doesn’t do in the proceeding verse,
      “For we are not as those who corrupt the Word of God.” Those who
      corrupt the word are rejecting the Chief Cornerstone and depending upon
      their works or acts that contribute to their justification. The book of
      Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews have warnings and correctives for those
      who corrupt the word. But when they reject the truth they fall deeper
      into death. Even St. Paul acknowledged that the Law didn’t kill him. He
      was already dead and discovered it.

      Rom 7:13    Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no
      means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order
      that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might
      become sinful beyond measure.

      On another note I would mention that some say that the Mosaic was a
      Covenant that administered the Covenant of Grace as well as the Covenant
      of Works. Some differentiate that works was required in order for the
      Israelite’s to stay in and be blessed in the Land. They stayed in the
      Land based upon their works. Some say that this is different from the
      New Covenant. I am not seeing this difference. There are conditions set
      for us to remain in the Church even. For one thing Jesus himself said in
      Revelation 2 that he would remove a local Church’s candlestick if they
      didn’t repent. In 1 Corinthians 5 a man who was found to be exceedingly
      sinful was to be delivered to Satan and excommunicated from the Church.
      In Galatians 6:7 we are told that we reap what we sow.

      I actually see what happened to the Church in the Old Covenant to be
      very gracious and just a form of discipline. It was grace that
      chastisement happened. It was grace that brought Israel back into the
      Land. They were the Church that was redeemed from bondage. God called
      them His people. They grew from dwelling in the wilderness to possessing
      the land. If it was by works then they would have never been brought
      back as they were. It looks quite the same to me as the man in 1
      Corinthians 5. A casting out was performed. Excommunication was evident.
      Restoration by God’s grace was confirmed. The substance of both the Old
      pedagogical Covenant and the New are essentially the same. Salvation,
      regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, and sanctification for
      the Church is the same between both the old and new. It is all by God’s
      Covenant of Grace. The substance seems to be the same to me.”
      http://rpcnacovenanter.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/the-mosaic-covenant-same-in-substance-as-the-new/

  • Richard Tallach

    TLNF is highly indigestible.

  • Suffenus Redux

    I suspect the RP advocates (at least in the OPC) will “pounce on one or two weaknesses in the MM case” precisely because “one” of those weaknesses, as you yourself admit, happens to be its thorough lack of any attention to exegesis. Surely if Scripture really is our final authority for our faith and practice, the lack of attention to that is no small matter, no? Every RP advocate I know doesn’t hold to the position out of a perceived need to oppose Shepherd but rather because they believe the Scriptures teach it, and so to lay the blame at Shepherd’s feet without actually dealing with the exegetical arguments along the way is not going to move the debate forward but in a very real sense it only exacerbates it. Can you think of any examples of ministers responding ‘graciously’ when they are beaten over the head with the Confessions and told their views are out of accord with the Reformed faith?

    Given the OP’s committee make up, I certainly expect a better and balanced attention given to exegetical, theological and confessional matters.

  • Brian Rollins

    “With theology, I’ve often noticed that the more complex a system, the more likely that it’s wrong.” What a great line. So true! Another prime example of that: the Framework Hypothesis of Creation

  • Martin

    Hi David,
    You claim older theologians did not understand covenant of works as covenant of works but more as moral law – that is a huge claim. Do you have any evidence of this for Warfield, Hodge, Boettner, Berkhoff etc?? Or was it a throw away line?
    Thanks,

    Martin

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