The Alleged Necessity of Christ’s Divine Nature
After applying their first criterion of merit to the merit of Christ in the Republication Paradigm, they proceed to apply their second criterion to the merit of Christ. According to their second criterion, for obedience to be meritorious (in the strict sense) it must be offered by one who is ontologically divine. Here is how they explain this:
Within an Augustinian-Reformation paradigm, merit in the “strict” or “proper” sense is possible only for Christ. In his sinless, pre-fall condition, Adam was only capable of an improper “covenant merit.” This was a “lesser” category of merit because it required God’s voluntary condescension. Christ’s merit is “strict” and “proper” merit because it does not require such condescension, as it is intrinsically infinite in worth and value because of Christ’s divine nature .... Because of his divine nature, only Christ’s obedience was inherently worthy of the reward of eternal life .... No mere creature can perform a work by which he can inherently obligate God—“who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (MM 57-58).
But Kline rejects such an ontological definition of merit. He thinks the covenant, not ontological considerations, reveals God’s justice and defines what obedience would be meritorious in his sight. Here is a quote by him where he addresses a related ontological argument. The particular ontological argument he is responding to here did not claim that only a being that is ontologically equal with God could attain strict merit, but it did claim something very similar, namely, that only an act of obedience that is ontologically equal with the reward could be considered as strictly meritorious:
Another form of the attack on the Covenant of Works doctrine (and thus on the classic law-gospel contrast) asserts that even if it is allowed that Adam’s obedience would have earned something, the disproportion between the value of that act of service and the value of the proferred blessing forbids us to speak here of simple equity or justice. The contention is that Adam’s ontological status limited the value or weight of his acts .... The disproportionality view’s failure with respect to the doctrine of divine justice can be traced to its approach to the definition of justice. 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. Refusing to accept God’s covenant word as the definer of justice, the disproportionality view exalts above God’s word a standard of justice of its own making. (KP 114-15)
The authors of MM are right, then, when they say Kline does not agree that the one offering the obedience (or that the act of obedience itself) must be ontologically equal with God in order for his obedience to be intrinsically meritorious. The authors of MM then draw out an implication from Kline’s non-ontological, covenantal definition of merit that supposedly shows that Klinean Republication is guilty of serious theological error. They argue that because of his non-ontological, covenantal definition of merit Kline is unable to affirm the necessity of Christ’s divine nature.
Ontological considerations have been removed from the definitions of merit and justice. The infinite, eternal character of God’s being no longer play[s] any role in our understanding of justice, merit, or (by implication) sin. If God is free to “covenantally” define merit in such a way that Adam’s finite obedience could be truly worthy of an infinite reward, what absolute need is there for Christ to be truly God? (MM 115).
Their charge is that the Republication Paradigm can only affirm the weaker statement that Christ’s obedience was the obedience of a divine person, not that it had to be the obedience of a divine person in order for it to be meritorious.
How shall we respond? Well, to begin, let’s remind ourselves of the reason why Kline didn’t believe ontological equality with God is necessary for merit. The reason is fairly straightforward: if it were true that only a being that is ontologically equal with God can merit before God, that would mean Adam, by definition, could not have merited the reward of eternal life by passing the probation. (Indeed, the authors of MM admit this and say Adam, if he had obeyed, would only have achieved “covenant merit” not “strict merit.”) But if that is the case, then we have a very odd situation: we must deny the merit of the first Adam and only admit the merit of the second Adam. But why was it necessary in the first place for Christ to merit as the second Adam? Because the first Adam failed to obey and merit the reward of eternal life! But if the merit of the first Adam was impossible to begin with, what need was there for the vicarious, substitutionary merit of the second Adam?
The whole point is, “Where the first Adam failed, the second Adam prevailed,” as the ditty goes. But if the first Adam wasn’t supposed to merit in the first place, indeed was ontologically incapable of meriting, then Christ’s role as the second Adam is left hanging without a foundation or rationale. It is not clear how the first Adam could serve as “a type of the one who was to come” (Rom 5:14), or why Paul would call Christ “the last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45). As Kline argued:
What is true in the covenant arrangement with the second Adam will also have been true in the covenant with the first Adam, for the first was a type of the second (Rom. 5:14) precisely with respect to his role as a federal head in the divine government. Accordingly, the pre-Fall covenant was also a covenant of works and there too Adam would have fully deserved the blessings promised in the covenant, had he obediently performed the duty stipulated in the covenant .... 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. But, if the obedience of Jesus has no meritorious value, the foundation of the gospel is gone. (Meredith G. Kline, “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” New Horizons 15.2 [Feb 1994]: 3-5.)