I have recently uploaded some new papers to my Upper Register website:
My blog posts on Adam and Evolution (PDF 18 pp.)
Kline on the Works Principle in the Mosaic Economy (PDF 17 pp.)
I have recently uploaded some new papers to my Upper Register website:
My blog posts on Adam and Evolution (PDF 18 pp.)
Kline on the Works Principle in the Mosaic Economy (PDF 17 pp.)
The fifth reason it was important to Kline to recognize the works principle in the Mosaic economy is that without it we have a less secure exegetical basis for the Reformational emphasis on the pedagogical use of the law. Defining the Mosaic law in purely gracious terms effectively annuls the pedagogical use of the law, that is, the law’s function of showing us our inability and convicting us of our guilt.
“By exhibiting dramatically the situation of all mankind, fallen in and with Adam in the original probation in Eden, the tragic history of Israel under its covenant-of-works probation served to convict all of their sinful, hopeless estate. The Law thus drove men to Christ that they might be justified by faith. All were shut up in disobedience that God might have mercy on all (Rom 11:28-36; Gal 3:19-25)” (GHHM 128-29).
“In addition to calling attention to the probationary aspect of Jesus’ mission, the works principle that governed the Israelite kingdom acted as the schoolmaster for Israel, convicting of sin and total inability to satisfy the Lord’s righteous demands and thereby driving the sinner to the grace of God offered in the underlying gospel promises of the Abrahamic Covenant” (KP 353).
Did the Mosaic law demand obedience as the legal basis of obtaining life (Lev 18:5), or is that only a Jewish misunderstanding of the law? If the latter, one cannot make sense of the teaching of Paul that the Mosaic law-covenant was Israel’s “pedagogue unto Christ” (Gal 3:24). One could try to get around this by claiming that it is not the Mosaic covenant but the universally-binding, trans-historical “moral law” that has this pedagogical function. But Paul has already blocked that move by defining what he means by “the law” (ὁ νόμος) in the context: it is the specific covenant that came 430 years after the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:17); it is the historical expression of the law accompanied by the threat of a curse to the disobedient (Gal 3:10 quoting Deut 27:26) and a promise of life to the doers of the law (Gal 3:12 quoting Lev 18:5); it is the temporary guardian set over the minor children (Israel) “until the date set by the father” (Gal 4:1-2). Of course, there is universal application of this pedagogical function, even for Gentiles, as the Spirit uses the law to convince us of our inability to keep it, but the original reference is to the historical Mosaic covenant and its pedagogical role in redemptive history.
Kline gets unfairly criticized for his understanding of the Mosaic covenant. His motive was not to be an innovator but to listen carefully to Paul’s teaching on the law and thereby provide better exegetical and biblical-theological support for the Reformation insight concerning the pedagogical use of the law.
Recognizing the works principle in the Mosaic economy enables one to see more clearly that the works principle is the bedrock judicial foundation of the gospel. As Kline put it so crisply: “Heaven must be earned” (KP 107). That is not a principle that God does away with in the gospel. Rather, he upholds it precisely through the gospel.
“Law is thus foundational to gospel; gospel-grace honors the demands of divine justice as definitively expressed in law covenant. In Rom 3:31 Paul makes this point forcefully: ‘Do we then make the law of none effect through faith? God forbid; nay we establish the law.’ The apostle is not concerned here with the normative nature of the Mosaic laws but with the law as a covenant governed by the principle of works in contrast to the gospel with its principle of grace. And even though he is arguing that we are justified not by works but by grace through faith, he insists emphatically on the continuing validity of the works principle as foundational to the gospel order. It is by the obedience of the one that the many are made righteous (Rom 5:19)” (GOM 237).
Grace is not that God lowers the standard to let us in to heaven despite his justice. Grace is that God provides a substitute who satisfies the just demands of the law in our place. That is why Paul says we “establish the (Mosaic) law” through the gospel (Rom 3:31). He can say that because he understands the Mosaic law fundamentally in terms of the works principle (Lev 18:5). Although we are righteous not by our own works done in obedience to the law, but by faith in Christ, Paul nevertheless “insists emphatically on the continuing validity of the works principle as foundational to the gospel order.” Because Christ was born under the law and perfectly fulfilled it, faith in Christ actually upholds the law.
Grasping the works principle in the Mosaic economy is crucial for a proper appreciation of the work of Christ, since the Mosaic law provided the historical context for the work of Christ, the fulfiller of the law. To explain this point, Kline relies heavily on Gal 4:4 where Paul says that Christ was “born of a woman, born under the law”:
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5 NKJV).
Kline sees deep significance in Gal 4:4 since it ties together all three key points where the works principle is present: Adam, Israel, Christ. The first phrase, “born of a woman,” alludes to his universal role as the second Adam. The next phrase, “born under the law,” alludes to his particular historical identity as the true Israel. But there is “congruence” (KP 352) between the two. The recapitulation of the Adamic covenant of works in the Mosaic economy is intended precisely to set the context for Christ’s incarnation so that his identity as the true, obedient Israel might be understood as pointing to his more fundamental identity as the second Adam who passes the probation and earns the eternal reward for those whom he represents.
“The function of probationer that Christ assumed as the true Israel-Servant was more basically his in terms of his identity as second Adam (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:45–47). [Note: In Gal 4:4, ‘born under the law’ identifies Christ as the second Israel, under the Torah covenant. ‘Born of a woman’ brings out his humanity and so suggests his second Adam status.] ... As advertised by his birth under the Torah covenant of works (Gal 4:4), Christ came to earth as one under the intratrinitarian covenant of works” (GOM 237 and 240 n33).
In Kingdom Prologue, Kline has another passage where he make this point under the heading “The Design of the Typal Kingdom.” This is my favorite Kline quote of all time:
“A variety of purposes can be discovered to explain the insertion of the old covenant order and its typal kingdom into the course of redemptive history. Of central importance was the creation of the proper historical setting for the advent of the Son of God and his earthly mission (cf. Rom 9:5). In accordance with the terms of his covenant of works with the Father he was to come as the second Adam in order to undergo a representative probation and by his obedient and triumphant accomplishment thereof to establish the legal ground for God’s covenanted bestowal of the eternal kingdom of salvation on his people. It was therefore expedient, if not necessary, that Christ appear within a covenant order which, like the covenant with the first Adam, was governed by the works principle (cf. Gal 4:4). The typal kingdom of the old covenant was precisely that. Within the limitations of the fallen world and with modifications peculiar to the redemptive process, the old theocratic kingdom was a reproduction of the original covenantal order. Israel as the theocratic nation was mankind stationed once again in a paradise-sanctuary, under probation in a covenant of works. In the context of that situation, the Incarnation event was legible; apart from it the meaning of the appearing and ministry of the Son of Man would hardly have been perspicuous. Because of the congruence between Jesus’ particular historical identity as the true Israel, born under the law, and his universally relevant role as the second Adam, the significance of his mission as the accomplishing of a probationary assignment in a works covenant in behalf of the elect of all ages was lucidly expressed and readily readable” (KP 352).
Conversely, denying the works principle in the Mosaic law will make it harder to see Christ’s work as a meritorious fulfilling of the law in our place in order to earn heaven for us.
The second reason it was important to Kline to recognize a works principle in the Mosaic covenant is that failure to do so will make the biblical theologian less likely to recognize a works principle in other covenants, specifically the pre-Fall covenant with Adam and the pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son, aka, the pactum salutis.
“Rejection of the works principle in the old covenant tends to degenerate into a more general denial of the possibility of merit in the religious relationship and thus to a rejection of the principle of works in the original creation covenant with Adam” (“Gospel until the Law,” 435).
For example, Daniel Fuller and Norman Shepherd took their denial of the law-gospel contrast to this next step, denying that God ever relates to humans on the basis of a works-principle, thereby denying the Adamic covenant of works and the merit of Christ.
“The very idea of merit is foreign to the way in which God our Father relates to his children” (Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace, 39).
This is not a tight law of necessity. It is not as if all who reject Kline’s particular formulation of the works principle in the Mosaic economy are necessarily bound to reject the works principle in the Creator’s covenant of works with the first Adam or in the Father’s covenant of works with Christ as the second Adam. But there is a tendency in that direction – and the reason for this is biblical-theological. Paul views the obedience of Christ in terms of the fulfillment of the Mosaic law (Rom 3:31; 10:4; Gal 4:4). There are strong biblical theological linkages from Adam to corporate Israel, and from corporate Israel to Christ. The latter connection is strongly present in Matthew’s Gospel, for example (Matt 1–4). When Paul wants to articulate the works principle as the key presupposition of his doctrine of justification, he quotes the works principle, not as found in the Adamic covenant, but as found in the Mosaic law (Lev 18:5). Thus, the biblical theologian who does not recognize the works principle in the Mosaic economy is less likely to be able to recognize it anywhere else.
If the very idea of merit is rejected in principle, then we must also reject the idea that the obedience of Christ was meritorious. Denying merit is like removing a load-bearing Jenga stick. Remove that one piece and the whole superstructure crumbles.
Why was Kline so concerned to recognize that works was the controlling administrative principle of the Mosaic covenant? There are at least five reasons.
The first reason is that Kline perceived that if one denies the works principle in the Mosaic law, then one will view the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant as part of the administration of grace and promise, a mere administrative continuation of the Abrahamic covenant. Doing this will distort one’s understanding of the covenant of grace. If the conditionality of the Mosaic covenant (do this and live; blessing for obedience; curse for disobedience) is actually part of the covenant of grace, then that conditionality will change the role of good works or evangelical obedience in the covenant of grace. Good works will necessarily play more than an evidentiary role and become a condition for receiving the blessings of the covenant of grace. Making good works a condition of receiving the blessings of the covenant of grace is in conflict with the purity of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The rejection of the works principle in the Mosaic law leads logically to interpreting the blessings and curses of the law as God’s way of dealing with his redeemed people in every epoch of the covenant of grace, not just in the old covenant, but also in the new.
“As he develops the thesis that God’s covenants are characterized by a continuum of governmental principle rather than by a works-grace contrast Shepherd affirms the unity of all these covenants, preredemptive and redemptive, specifically proposing that they all have in common both demand and promise” (“Of Works and Grace,” 88).
“This tendency is displayed in the more immediate sphere of Murray’s influence. In the teaching of his successor, Norman Shepherd, preredemptive and redemptive covenants were flattened into a continuum of promise and demand” (“Gospel until the Law,” 435 and n9).
Here are some quotes from theologians whose denial of the Mosaic works principle leads them to such a continuum of promise and demand:
“The Mosaic covenant in respect of the condition of obedience is not in a different category from the Abrahamic. It is too frequently assumed that the conditions prescribed in connection with the Mosaic covenant place the Mosaic dispensation in a totally different category as respects grace, on the one hand, and demand or obligation, on the other. In reality there is nothing that is principally different in the necessity of keeping the covenant and of obedience to God’s voice, which proceeds from the Mosaic covenant, from that which is involved in the keeping required in the Abrahamic” (John Murray, “The Covenant of Grace,” 22).
“In the Mosaic covenant, the Lord did not establish a covenant of works with his people. He did not establish a covenant on the basis of a principle that is the very opposite of that on which the Abrahamic covenant is founded .... Like the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant has two parts, promise and obligation. In the Abrahamic covenant, the focus is on promise. In the Mosaic covenant, the focus is on obligation – but promise does not receded into the background .... The obedience required of Israel is not the obedience of merit, but the obedience of faith. It is the fullness of faith. Obedience is simply faithfulness to the Lord .... The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants do not exhibit opposing principles of grace and merit, or of faith and works. In both covenants there are promises, and these promises are received by a living and active faith. In both covenants, there are warnings about the consequences of unbelief and disobedience .... The penalties threatened for disobedience in the Mosaic covenant are fully in line with this provision of the Abrahamic covenant. Threatened curses for disobedience do not transform either the Abrahamic covenant or the Mosaic covenant into a covenant of works” (Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace, 38-40).
This has very practical implications for preaching. How should the blessing and curse passages in the Old Testament be preached to the new covenant people of God? Do we tell them, as Shepherd would, that they must be obedient to God and if they are not, they will be cursed? I would hope not. To preach that way would be to bring the new covenant people of God back under the bondage of the law that we have been delivered from in Christ. Paul says we are free from the curse of the law. He says that we have died to the law, and are no longer under its bondage and fear. We serve God in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the letter.
“The irony of all this is that a position that asserts a continuum of ‘grace’ everywhere ends up with no genuine gospel grace anywhere. An approach that starts out by claiming that a works principle operates nowhere ends up with a kind of works principle everywhere. What this amounts to is a retreat from the Reformation and a return to Rome” (“Covenant Theology Under Attack”).
We have seen Kline’s biblical-theological argument (based on the pattern from Adam to Israel to Christ) for defining merit not in ontological terms, but in terms of simple justice. When there is a covenant of the works variety, God is offering a reward on the ground of obedience to the stipulations of the covenant. When works operate in that context as the ground of the reward, the works are meritorious, by definition. God would be unjust not reward the works. Merit arises in the context of God’s justice.
Now you might be thinking, Kline is making big-picture biblical-theological connections that seem plausible, but what if Kline is wrong? It would be nice if we could have something more explicit to go on in the text. Is there any exegetical evidence that would support the notion of merit in connection with the Mosaic covenant? At this point, I want to show that Kline did not rest his argument simply on the biblical-theological patterns, but on exegesis as well. It was Paul himself who made the point that a principle of meritorious works was operative under the Mosaic law in Romans 4:4.
Let’s back up and look at the context. Paul makes this quite clear at the end of Romans 3 and the beginning of chapter 4, when he denies that Abraham had any ground of boasting before God:
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law .... What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom 3:27-28; 4:1-5 ESV).
In the context, Paul is proving that no one is counted righteous before God by means of the works of the law (obeying the law) but rather by faith in Christ. He then explores the contrast between works and faith by using the key term “boasting” (3:27; 4:2). If we could be counted righteous before God by works, then we would have grounds for boasting. But since no one is righteous by works (not because it is impossible in theory, but because it is impossible in practice, due to universal bondage to sin), no one after the Fall has any grounds for boasting.
Paul then appeals to the example of Abraham. What about Abraham? Did he have grounds for boasting? No, for he was counted righteous by faith, not by works. In order to have grounds for boasting, he would have had to be perfectly obedient to God.
It is here that Paul lays down an axiom: “To the one who works, his wages (ὁ μισθός) are not counted as a gift (κατὰ χάριν) but as his due (κατὰ ὀφείλημα)” (Rom 4:4). What else is that but a definition of merit? Merit is when wages are bestowed, not according to grace, but according to what is owed. But here’s the point: it is a definition of merit given in the context of dealing explicitly with the question whether sinners can be righteous before God by works of the law. In context, “the one who works” (ὁ ἐργαζομένος) means “the one who does the works (ἔργα) of the law.” Paul understood that, hypothetically, the Mosaic law demanded works and offered a reward on the basis of those works, not according to grace but according to what is owed. Ergo, he understood that merit was possible in principle under the Mosaic law.
In sum, the notion of potential merit in the Mosaic economy does not rest merely on big-picture thinking (seeing the Adam-Israel-Christ narrative structure). Paul himself explicitly recognized a legal principle of meritorious works in the Mosaic law: “To the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Rom 4:4). To be sure, it was a principle of merit that was ever truly actualized except by Christ. As Paul makes clear, “none is righteous, no, not one,” for “by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom 3:9, 20 ESV), and “the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (Rom 7:10 NIV). Yet none of this undercuts the fact that the principle was there. If our theology is to be faithful to Paul, then we ought to recognize it as well.
I have finished answering five common misrepresentations of Kline’s view. I’m sure there are others too, but these are five that seem to be in the air at the moment.
Next, I want to ask, “Why was Kline so concerned about this issue?” It is clear that he saw the issue of works in the Mosaic economy as an important theological issue that had bearing on many issues in biblical theology and even practical implications for the life of the church. I will spell out five reasons it was important to Kline. I will take a break for a few days before launching into these five reasons.
Kline’s biblical-theological rationale for speaking of potential merit in reference to the Mosaic economy is that he feels compelled to do so because of the parallels between Adam and Christ, and between Adam and Israel. There are three places where Kline sees “merit” as present or potentially present: the Creator’s covenant of works with the first Adam, the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam (the pactum salutis), and Yahweh’s covenant of works with Israel as a recapitulation of Adam (the Mosaic covenant).
Obviously, Adam and Israel were supposed to obey God under their respective covenants and earn the offered reward, but failed to do so. Only with Christ do we see obedience actually earning the reward, that is, only with Christ does merit actually accrue.
Some reject the concept of merit for all three (even Christ). Others accept the merit of Christ, because of his deity (which makes his obedience ontologically equal to the reward), but deny that Adam and Israel could have merited anything because they were mere creatures. Others are on board with the notion that Adam’s obedience, had it been forthcoming, would have been meritorious, but reject it for Israel since they were sinners utterly incapable of meriting anything.
We can set aside the first group (those that reject merit in all cases including Christ) as outside the pale, since they would also logically deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Kline has no patience with this group:
“If the obedience of Jesus has no meritorious value, the foundation of the gospel is gone. If Jesus’ passive obedience has no merit, there has been no satisfaction made for our sins. If Jesus’ active obedience has no merit, there is no righteous accomplishment to be imputed to us. There is then no justification-glorification for us to receive as a gift of grace by faith alone” (“Covenant Theology Under Attack”).
With regard to the second group (who accept only the merit of Christ), Kline does not buy into the medieval ontological scheme for measuring merit. (I have addressed this at length in my paper, “Redefining Merit” in the Kline Festschrift.) He would also point out the inconsistency involved in rejecting the potential for Adamic merit while accepting the merit of Christ, since Paul says that Adam in his role as a federal head or representative was a type of Christ (Rom 5:14):
“The parallel which Scripture tells us exists between the two Adams would require the conclusion that if the first Adam could not earn anything, neither could the second” (“Covenant Theology Under Attack”).
But what about the third group – those who accept the Adam-Christ parallel but question whether the concept of merit is applicable in the Mosaic economy, which was post-Fall?
In this case, Kline would appeal again to the Adam-Israel parallel in which Israel in the land is a recapitulation of Adam’s probation in the garden under a covenant of works. If Israel is a recapitulation of Adam under a covenant of works, then it stands to reason that Israel, like Adam, would have had the possibility of earning the reward offered in that covenant – in Israel’s case, the reward of continuance in the land and divine blessing in the land. Of course, the “merit” of Israel would have been typological merit, since it would have been imperfect obedience measured according to the standard of national fidelity and typological legibility. Nevertheless, it would have been a matter of simple justice for God to honor the terms of the covenant and grant the reward on the ground of their obedience.
This, then, is Kline’s biblical-theological rationale for speaking of merit in connection with Israel. In effect, he reasons backwards and forwards. He begins by reasoning backwards, from Christ to Adam: we know that Christ merited the reward under his covenant of works (the pactum salutis), and since Adam was a type of Christ in that they were both federal heads, we can conclude that Adam would have merited the reward under his covenant of works. Then, he reasons forwards, from Adam to Israel: if Israel is a recapitulation of Adam, both being under covenants of the works variety, then Israel must have had the opportunity of meriting a reward under her covenant of works as well.
“Kline taught that Israel as a nation merited the land and God’s blessings in the land, thus contradicting baseline Augustinian and Reformed orthodoxy which says that sinners can never merit anything with God.”
Not true! As a covenant of the works variety, the Mosaic covenant necessarily offered a reward on the ground of obedience, which means the Israelites were required to merit a reward. Hence merit was possible in principle in the Mosaic economy. But while recognizing the principle of merit in the Mosaic economy, Kline thought that it applied only to Israel’s retention of the land, not to her initial reception of the land. Consider these quotes:
“If the ground of Israel’s tenure in Canaan was their covenant obedience, their election to receive the typological kingdom in the first place was emphatically not based on any merit of theirs (cf. Deut 9:5, 6)” (KP 323).
“Israel’s restoration to the land, like their original reception of it after the exodus, was a gift of grace” (GOM 39).
Not only did they obtain the land as a gift of grace, but God’s appointment of national Israel to be a type of Christ’s probation under the works principle was itself a privilege of grace.
“The Old Covenant order, theirs by national election, was one of highest historical privilege. And while a works principle was operative both in the grant of the kingdom to Abraham and in the meting out of typological kingdom blessings to the nation of Israel, the arrangement as a whole was a gracious favor to fallen sons of Adam, children of wrath deserving no blessings, temporal or eternal” (GHHM 128, emphasis added).
Not only was it an act of grace for God to set up the typological kingdom in the first place, it was precisely in order to highlight and manifest his grace that God did so. The presence of the works principle in the Mosaic economy was not contrary to but actually subserved God’s plan of grace to be fulfilled in Christ:
“The Law covenant was a sub-administration of the Covenant of Grace, designed to further the purpose and program of the gospel” (GHHM 128).
How did the law “further the purpose and program of the gospel”? Kline echoes Paul’s own answer in Gal 3:21-24:
“By exhibiting dramatically the situation of all mankind, fallen in and with Adam in the original probation in Eden, the tragic history of Israel under its covenant-of-works probation served to convict all of their sinful, hopeless estate. The Law thus drove men to Christ that they might be justified by faith” (GHHM 128-29).
Thus, rather than contradicting baseline Augustinian and Reformed orthodoxy which says that sinners can never merit anything with God, Kline’s understanding of the works principle in the Mosaic economy strongly supports Augustinian and Reformed orthodoxy and gives all the glory to Christ who alone merited the eternal kingdom for his people.
A principle of merit
But now let’s go back to this notion that merit was possible in principle, after they received the land. One may grant that Kline did not think Israel merited the land in the first place, but then continue to have questions about the notion that a principle of merit governed Israel’s retention of the land. Here are two quotes by Kline where he says this:
“As Paul’s appeal to Lev 18:5 shows (Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12), a legal principle of meritorious works was operating in the Torah covenant opposite to the gospel principle of grace” (GOM 239 n32).
“At the level of the secondary, typological stratum of the Mosaic order, continuance in the election to kingdom blessings was not guaranteed by sovereign grace on the basis of Christ’s meritorious accomplishments. It was rather something to be merited by the Israelites’ works of obedience to the law” (KP 322).
Does this violate baseline Augustinian and Reformed orthodoxy? No, and the reason is that recognizing a “principle” is not the same thing as affirming that anyone after the Fall actually fulfilled it or could fulfill it. Israel was required to obey God as the legal ground of the temporal blessings of the Mosaic covenant (long life in the land, fertility, etc.), but Israel never did obey in any real sense. And to the degree that they did, it was only through the representative obedience of their covenant heads who, as types of Christ, kept the law and led God’s people in righteousness, for a time (e.g., a David, or a Hezekiah, or a Josiah). Time and time again, the Israelites were in danger of losing the land because of their rebellion and sin, and yet God had mercy “for the sake of my servant David” (1 Kings 11:13, 32,34; 2 Kings 19:34; 20:6; Isaiah 37:35).
The works principle was never fulfilled by Israel, because Israel never did yield the obedience required. Instead, the works principle led only to Israel’s condemnation:
“The old covenant was law, the opposite of grace-faith, and in the postlapsarian world that meant it would turn out to be an administration of condemnation as a consequence of sinful Israel’s failure to maintain the necessary meritorious obedience” (KP 109).
Thus, temporal blessing in the land was something “to be merited” (KP 322) by Israel’s obedience in principle, but as a matter of fact we know that Israel failed “to maintain the necessary meritorious obedience.” The principle of merit was there, but it was never fulfilled by Israel.
But how could sinners merit anything from God, even potentially?
So we have seen that Kline affirmed that Israel received the land initially by grace not merit. We have seen that Kline affirmed a principle of merit that was never fulfilled by Israel. That is all well and good, and it certainly helps to see that Kline does not violate baseline Augustinian and Reformed orthodoxy. Yet you might still be troubled by the idea that he even granted the very possibility of Israel meriting anything. The Israelites were fallen sinners, laboring under the guilt of Adam’s sin. How on earth could they possibly merit any reward? Wouldn’t their obedience be imperfect? Indeed, wouldn’t it be the case that any obedience that the Israelites offered would have been the result of God’s grace working in them and causing them to be obedient? Wouldn’t any rewards they the Israelites have received for their obedience have been given according to grace, not according to strict merit?
Indeed. All of that is true. In fact, it is all perfectly consistent with the sort of covenant of works that governed the Mosaic economy. As we saw when dealing with the second misrepresentation, it was not the actual works principle but a typological works principle, operating at the typological layer, on the basis of typological legibility, given for pedagogical purposes to establish man’s inability to obey the law and to prepare for the advent of the Messiah who alone keeps the law. Therefore, the obedience of national Israel under the typological covenant of works governing the top layer would not have been meritorious in the same way that Adam’s could have been or that Christ’s was. Rather, any obedience that Israel did have would have been reckoned as having “merit” only in an analogical sense. It would have been “accorded by God an analogous kind of value with respect to the typological stage represented by the old covenant” (KP 325).
This makes sense when we go back to a quote earlier and remember that the very reception of the typological kingdom was a gift of grace. “The arrangement as a whole was a gracious favor to fallen sons of Adam” (GHHM 128). It was a gift of grace that Israel was even put in this position in the first place of being appointed by God to participate in this great typal kingdom governed by the works principle, all for the purpose of setting the stage for the coming of the Messiah who will fulfill it.
As Kline uses the term, “merit” does not imply ontological equality between the obedience and the reward. For Kline “merit” can arise whenever there is a covenant of the works variety in which God offers a reward on the ground of obedience. Merit is a matter of “simple justice” (KP 107). Affirming the potential merit of Israel, then, is only affirming that if they had maintained “the appropriate measure of national fidelity” (KP 322) they would have merited the reward of continuance in the land, since God would have been obligated to keep his side of the covenant.
This may be an idiosyncratic definition of “merit,” but Kline defines “merit” this way because he feels the shape of the Adam-Israel-Christ narrative is pushing in that direction. He uses it precisely in order to be able to use the term “merit” in reference to the three covenants of the works variety – the Creator’s covenant of works with the first Adam, the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam, and Yahweh’s covenant of works with Israel as a recapitulation of Adam.
I’m not finished dealing with this fifth misrepresentation. In parts 2 and 3, I will explain further Kline’s rationale for speaking of a principle of merit in reference to the Mosaic economy. In part 2, I’ll explain his biblical-theological rationale (already touched on in the previous paragraph). In part 3, I’ll show that Paul himself recognized the concept of merit with respect to the Mosaic law (Rom 4:4), so that Kline isn’t doing this simply for the sake of systematic consistency but out of fidelity to Paul’s own teaching.
“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.