The authors of MM ignore the fact that the original pendulum swing happened long before the Shepherd controversy, when John Murray reacted against dispensationalism and argued in 1953 that historic Reformed covenant theology “needs recasting”:
It appears to me that the covenant theology, notwithstanding the finesse of analysis with which it was worked out and the grandeur of its articulated systematization, needs recasting (The Covenant of Grace, 5).
But what was Murray referring to when he said that covenant theology “needs recasting”? The authors of MM claim the recasting was restricted to the narrow point of seeing covenant not as a “mutual pact” but as something God sovereignly initiates and administers (MM 15). This was certainly part of the recasting, but there was more to Murray’s agenda than that. It had to do with the very definition of “covenant.” After surveying the Noahic, the Abrahamic, the Mosaic, and the New covenants, Murray concludes as follows:
In all this we have the covenant as a sovereign administration of grace and promise, constituting the relation of communion with God, coming to its richest and fullest expression .... From the beginning of God’s disclosures to men in terms of covenant we find a unity of conception which is to the effect that a divine covenant is a sovereign administration of grace and of promise (The Covenant of Grace, 29, 31).
One of the prime implications of this definition is that even the Mosaic covenant must viewed as “a sovereign administration of grace and promise.” But it may be objected, “How does the conditionality of the Mosaic covenant, with its blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, comport with the notion that it is a sovereign administration of grace?”
The answer must follow the lines which have been delineated above in connection with the keeping of the Abrahamic covenant. What needs to be emphasized now is that the Mosaic covenant in respect of the condition of obedience is not in a different category from the Abrahamic .... There is nothing that is principially 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 (The Covenant of Grace, 22).
Murray recognized that by “recasting” of covenant theology in this way, he was distancing himself from a view of the Mosaic covenant that was widely held by mainstream covenant theologians before him:
The view that in the Mosaic covenant there was a repetition of the so-called covenant of works, current among covenant theologians, is a grave misconception and involved an erroneous construction of the Mosaic covenant, as well as fails to assess the uniqueness of the Adamic administration. The Mosaic covenant was distinctly redemptive in character and was continuous with and extensive of the Abrahamic covenants (“The Adamic Administration,” Collected Writings of John Murray, 2.50).
By defining covenant as “a sovereign administration of grace and promise,” a definition that applies to every covenant, Murray made it impossible to affirm either that the pre-Fall covenant was a covenant of works, or that the Mosaic covenant involved in some way a repetition of the covenant of works. He thereby made structural changes to covenant theology that impinged upon the Pauline law-gospel contrast and the heart of the gospel. Kline’s 1964 article, “Law Covenant,” is a response to Murray’s recasting of covenant theology in which he reduced the covenant concept to guaranteed promise. In that article, Kline wrote:
Historical exegesis, therefore, contradicts any claim that might be made for the exclusive propriety of the use of “covenant” for divine dispensations of guaranteed promise. The evidence from all sides converges to demonstrate that the systematic theologian possesses ample warrant to speak of both promise covenant and, in sharp distinction from that, of law covenant .... Rejection of the equation of covenant with the election-guaranteed promise principle is necessary to avoid the conceptual fragmentation of the theology of the covenant (“Law Covenant,” pp. 8, 17).
Why is it so important to Kline to have a definition of covenant that is broad enough to include both types of covenants? It is because he sees that if covenant is reduced to promise covenant, then there is no room for law covenant (i.e., covenants of the works variety – whether pre-Fall or Mosaic), and if there is no room for law covenant, then the obedience of Christ (and therefore the gospel) is negated. Kline says:
It is by the obedience of the one that the many are made righteous unto eternal life. Though the many inherit the blessings not by law (in the Gal. 3:18 sense) but by promise, they are not heirs at all except they are heirs in and through Christ, joint-heirs with Christ. For the promises of the covenant are yea and amen only in Christ. And therefore the promises are made secure to the many according to the principle of inheritance by law after all .... If it is the obedience of the one that is the ground of the promise-guarantee given to the many, then clearly the principle of law is more fundamental than that of promise .... The blessings of redemption are secured by the works of a federal head who must satisfy the law’s demands (“Law Covenant,” pp. 12-13).
Murray himself did not deny the active obedience of Christ, or confuse faith and works as the instrument of justification, but his successor Shepherd did. And Kline saw all this as the bitter fruit of Murray’s recasting of covenant theology (in reaction to dispensationalism) in a way that reduced all covenants to covenants of grace and left no room for covenants of the works variety as the foundation for the obedience of Christ. Shepherd’s pendulum swing away from the plumb line was initiated by Murray, who did not want to speak of covenants of the works variety, whether pre-Fall or Mosaic. Kline returned the pendulum back to the plumb line by bringing back the notion of republication into the contemporary discussion of Reformed covenant theology, an understanding that even Murray recognized was “current among covenant theologians” prior to his recasting.