“Kline so emphasized the works aspect of the Mosaic covenant that he denied that it was in any sense an administration of the covenant of grace. He overemphasized the discontinuity and downplayed or denied the continuity.”
Not true. It is true that the polemical context of Kline’s covenant thought pushed him to emphasize the works aspect of the Mosaic covenant. He was responding to John Murray’s recasting of covenant theology in which he defined the biblical concept of covenant as a sovereign administration of grace and promise. This, of course, meant that the Mosaic covenant had to be seen as a covenant of guaranteed grace, and the promises and conditions of that covenant had to be understood as no different in principle from the demand for obedience, within the context of grace, that we see in the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant. Kline was concerned that this recasting of covenant theology, by making all covenants fit into a single mold, would destroy the law-gospel contrast and have ripple effects on one’s understanding of justification (as proved true with Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision). For this reason, Kline will not make all covenants fit into a single mold and will insist that some covenants are of the works variety and others of the grace variety.
On the other hand, while insisting on upholding the law-gospel distinction in covenant theology, Kline was too careful to react the other way and completely rupture the continuity of the Mosaic covenant with the Abrahamic covenant on the one side and with the new covenant on the other side. That is what I want to address here - the perception that Kline took the law-gospel distinction so far that he denied or downplayed the continuity of the covenant of grace under its various administrations.
This relates to the second misrepresentation in which it is claimed that Kline taught that the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the Adamic covenant of works. If the Mosaic covenant were a simple republication of the Adamic covenant of works, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to see how the Mosaic covenant of works could be organically connected with the Abrahamic covenant of promise. But Kline recognized that the Mosaic covenant was an intrusion of the works principle into the midst of a fallen situation precisely for the purpose of advancing the overarching redemptive program of the covenant of grace. The introduction of the typological and hypothetical works principle did not annul the underlying Abrahamic promise. Here we must cite Gal 3:17 as Kline himself does again and again to underscore the point: “The law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void” (ESV). Indeed, the law not only does not annul the Abrahamic promise, it is actually a crucial step in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. For God put the works principle in place at the top layer precisely to provide the covenantal setting for the arrival of Abraham’s Seed who fulfills the law’s works principle in order to fulfill the underlying Abrahamic promise. As Paul says two verses later: “Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come” (Gal 3:19 NIV).
Here are some key quotes where Kline recognizes the continuities – both the continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the prior Abrahamic covenant and the continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the subsequent new covenant.
Let us begin with a general statement by Kline of the Mosaic order’s continuity with previous and subsequent administrations of the covenant of grace:
“Classic covenantalism recognizes that the old Mosaic order (at its foundation level – that is, as a program of individual salvation in Christ) was in continuity with previous and subsequent administrations of the overarching covenant of grace” (“Gospel until the Law,” 434, emphasis added).
The Mosaic covenant governing the top layer of the Mosaic economy is not itself an administration of the covenant of grace, but it is added at the top layer as part of God’s “overarching covenant of grace.”
We move, next, to the continuity from the Abraham covenant to the Mosaic covenant order:
“The old (Mosaic) covenant order, though in continuity with the Abrahamic covenant of promise and even an initial fulfillment of its kingdom promises, was nevertheless itself governed by a principle of works” (KP 320, emphasis added).
I already explained this in an earlier post on Kline’s two-layer cake, so this should not come as a surprise here. The bottom layer of the Mosaic economy is the covenant of grace.
“Paul affirmed that the Mosaic Covenant did not annul the promise arrangement given earlier to Abraham (Gal 3:17). The explanation for this is that the old covenant order was composed of two strata and the works principle enunciated in Leviticus 18:5, and elsewhere in the law, applied only to one of these, a secondary stratum. There was a foundational stratum having to do with the personal attainment of the eternal kingdom of salvation and this underlying stratum, continuous with all preceding and succeeding administrations of the Lord’s Covenant of Grace with the church, was informed by the principle of grace (cf., e.g., Rom 4:16). Because the Abrahamic covenant of promise found continuity in the Mosaic order at this underlying level, it was not abrogated by the latter. The works principle in the Mosaic order was confined to the typological sphere of the provisional earthly kingdom which was superimposed as a secondary overlay on the foundational stratum” (KP 321, emphasis added).
“It was [Paul’s] recognition of the simultaneous presence, within the Mosaic economy, of the underlying stratum with its principle of grace controlling the reception of the eternal kingdom that made it possible for him to affirm that the Mosaic Covenant had not annulled God’s promise to Abraham” (“Of Works and Grace,” 86, emphasis added).
Having looked at the continuity from Abraham to Moses, here are some Kline quotes on the continuity from Moses to the new covenant:
“We must conclude that between the old covenant and the new covenant there is contrast as well as continuum. There is a continuum of sovereign soteric grace in Christ with respect to eternal salvation and the inheritance of heaven. But there is a contrast in that the old covenant involved a secondary, typological sphere in which a principle was introduced quite the opposite of the grace-promise-faith principle” (“Of Works and Grace,” 87, emphasis added).
“The new covenant is not a renewal of an older covenant in the sense of confirming the continuing validity of the old. If we speak of the new covenant as a renewal of the old it must be to express their continuity as two administrations of the Covenant of Grace or, more specifically, the continuity of the new covenant with the underlying, foundational stratum of the old covenant, the substratum of gospel-grace as the way to the ultimate heavenly hope in Christ” (KP 345, emphasis added).
The next three quotes are from Kline’s last book, God, Heaven and Har Magedon (published in 2006, a year before he died). This book, along with Kingdom Prologue, represents his most mature thought honed over decades of teaching biblical theology and covenant theology. The formulations that Kline uses in his last book actually took me by surprise:
“The overarching Covenant of Grace ... was to unfold in several premessianic administrations (including the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants) and have its full, culminating expression in the New Covenant” (GHHM 75).
“Carrying forward the Abrahamic Covenant as they do, both the Old and New Covenants are ... administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Foundational to both these covenantal orders is the purpose and program of individual election in Christ unto salvation and the heavenly inheritance” (GHHM 96).
“The Law covenant was a sub-administration of the Covenant of Grace, designed to further the purpose and program of the gospel” (GHHM 128-29).
Kline clearly affirms that the covenant of grace unfolded in several administrations (including the Mosaic covenant!) and that this overarching covenant of grace reached its culmination in the new covenant.
I do not think Kline is contradicting himself. He is not saying that the Mosaic covenant itself (the covenant between God and Israel that was inaugurated at Sinai) was a covenant of grace. It was not. It was a covenant of the works variety. But he is saying that God’s establishment of this Mosaic covenant of works was designed to advance the covenant of grace and that therefore it was a sub-administration of the covenant of grace. To use the language of some 17th century Reformed theologians, it was a “subservient covenant” intended not to be an end in itself but to look ahead to the coming Seed who would be born under it and fulfill it and thereby bring about the consummation of the covenant of grace.