I have summarized the argument of MM, surveying its development in three stages (Parts 1–3 of the book). I have tried to be as objective as possible in reporting and summarizing the book’s critique of Klinean republication. Now the time has come to respond. There are so many claims in this book, it is difficult to decide where to start. It is tempting to go through the book in order and respond to point-by-point to each chapter. Another approach might be to begin at the end and rebut each of the 18 charges in the Conclusion. But I think such shot-gun approaches would yield a diluted response. Instead, I’ve decided to begin by responding to their core argument.
Let’s review their core argument. The authors of MM claim Kline engaged in a two-step process: first, he redefined merit as whatever God says it is; second, based on that redefinition of merit, he argued for the possibility that a group of sinners (the Israelites) could merit temporal blessings in the land. The logic of this move is as follows: if God has the liberty to stipulate that a given act of obedience is meritorious and worthy of receiving a reward, without requiring that the act be perfect or that the doer of the act be ontologically equal with God, then he has the liberty to stipulate that sinners can do imperfect works he will deem meritorious according to the terms of the covenant. Kline’s notion that God can define merit in whatever way he wants to define it is the basis of Kline’s thesis that the Mosaic covenant republished the covenant of works with a group of sinners (the Israelites). Because of God’s freedom to ignore considerations of perfection and ontology, God was able, by his mere covenant word, to deem their imperfect and sinful works as meritorious (or at least potentially meritorious) in his sight.
This may sound persuasive to those predisposed to dislike Kline. But there is a major difficulty with it. The difficulty is that Kline never defined merit in that manner. While he would not have agreed with the authors of MM that for a work to be meritorious it must be performed by one who is ontologically equal with God, he did agree that it must be perfect, in accordance with his justice. Kline never wrote or implied that God has liberty to define merit by his mere word or will, untethered from his character as a God of perfect justice. One should be suspicious of this central claim in the book based on the simple observation that they provide hardly any quotes by Kline to support it.
They do have one lonely snippet of a quote. They quote Kline as saying: “God’s covenant Word is definitive of justice” (quoted at MM 68). But they have taken that quote out of context and twisted it to mean the opposite of Kline’s intent. Let’s read it in context, where it is clear that God’s justice (not his will) receives the emphasis:
Also involved in this radical revision of covenant theology is an assault on the justice of God, for entailed in the discounting of the merit of the act of probationary obedience is the setting up of a standard of justice above God and his judgments. To refuse to acknowledge the pure and perfect justice of God’s covenantal stipulation of a heavenly reward for the performance of the mandated probation task is to fail to recognize that God’s covenant Word is definitive of justice. It is to deny that the name of the Judge of all the earth is Just. (GHHM 64, emphasis added)
Kline did not claim that merit should be defined in purely voluntaristic terms as whatever God says it is. He closely tethered the concept of merit to the character of God, specifically, the justice of God. He viewed God’s covenant word as the revelation of God’s justice. God does not simply assign merit to some arbitrary deed by his mere will or word. Kline makes this crystal clear (and keep in mind that this paragraph is in the context of his discussion of the Adamic covenant of works, not the Mosaic covenant):
A proper approach will hold that God is just and his justice is expressed in all his acts; in particular, it is expressed in the covenant he institutes. The terms of the covenant—the stipulated reward for the stipulated service—are a revelation of that justice. As a revelation of God’s justice the terms of the covenant define justice. According to this definition, Adam’s obedience would have merited the reward of eternal life and not a gram of grace would have been involved (KP 115).
For Kline, we as creatures do not have permission from God to evaluate the terms of the covenant of works, measure things on an ontological scale of our choosing, and decide whether the terms of that covenant are just or whether the work demanded would merit the reward offered. Rather, the terms of the covenant (“the stipulated reward for the stipulated service”) reveal God’s justice. As creatures created in covenant with God, we don’t have secret access to the knowledge of God’s justice independently of the covenant.
So the first step of the core argument of MM is based on a misrepresentation of Kline’s definition of merit. It is simply not the case that Kline defined merit in a way that was based on God’s will apart from his nature as the God of justice, as if “merit is whatever God says it is” (MM 67).
GHHM = God, Heaven, and Har Magedon (2006)
KP = Kingdom Prologue (2006)