Summary of Venema’s Review of TLNF

Here is an outline summary of Cornelis P. Venema’s review of The Law is Not of Faith in Volume 21 of the Mid-America Journal of Theology. I’ll be posting some comments about his review later

Update: Venema’s article can now be found online at

1. Helpful summaries/survey of the historical, biblical, and theological sections of the book

2. Critical assessment:

a) An accommodated reading of the sources

i) John Calvin “…When the law is viewed in isolation from its evangelical setting (Mosaic Covenant), it can only condemn fallen sinners who are incapable of doing what it requires. Contrary to Fesko’s reading of Calvin, there is no basis for interpreting Calvin to teach that the Mosaic administration included at some level a kind of “legal” covenant that republished the prelapsarian covenant of works.”

ii) Francis Turretin is surveyed by Venema because “Not only does Turretin offer his own conception of the unique place of the Mosaic administration within the broader history of the covenant of grace, but he also identifies the diversity of viewpoints among leading Reformed theologians of the period…Turretin affirms affirms that the law, narrowly considered, remind Israel of the requirements and consequences of obedience, and thereby closes the door to justification and life by the works of the law. In this respect, the law reiterates the demands of the covenant of works and shows why the promise of life and blessing cannot be obtained through the law. However, in doing so the law serves the gospel of God’s grace in Christ, demonstrating that the covenant of works has been wholly abrogated as an instrument for obtaining life… To view the law as though it were given covenantally as a means for obtaining the blessing of life and justification would be to “abstract” the law from the promises of grace that are an integral part of the Mosaic economy. [And this abstraction is the error of the legalists whom Paul opposes]”

iii) Herman Witsius “When Witsius describes the law of Moses as both a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, he seems to favor the second view that Turretin identifies, namely, that the Mosaic economy was an admixture of the covenant of works and grace. However, much of Witsius’ treatment of the question corresponds to the themes that we have seen previously in Calvin and Turretin, and cumulatively support the view that Witsius regarded the Mosaic covenant as substantially an administration of the covenant of grace. Among the writers we have considered, Witsius’ position does seem to anticipate some of the emphases of authors of “The Law is Not of Faith”, particularly the idea that the Mosaic economy includes in some sense a formal republication of the covenant works at the level of Israel’s corporate or national life. But in this respect Witsius differs from the views of Calvin and Turretin, and in a way that is more confusing than is clarifying.”

iv) WCF “It is difficult to see what basis the authors of TLNF have for appealing to these articles in Chapter 19 of the WCF… As a matter of fact, the Confession expressly denies that the law was given through Moses “as a covenant of works.”

v) Summary of historical “…the law is not given through Moses or under any of the administrations of the CoG as an instrument for obtaining the inheritance of life and blessing.”

b) Assessment of the Biblical Arguments

i) Paul’s use of Lev 18:5 – “When Paul adduces Lev 18:5 against his opponents, he is not offering a complete account of the law within the framework of the Mosaic covenant… In the Old Testament economy of redemption, Leviticus 18:5 does not appear in a context ‘that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith’ (quoting Murray). Rather, Lev 18:5 seems to present the law in the same way as it is presented in Ex 20, Deut 5, and in many other passages in the Pentateuch, namely, as a rule of gratitude that norms the conduct of a redeemed people in their life-fellowship with the Lord… When Paul adduces Lev 18:5 to expose the futility of any effort to obtain justification upon the basis of the works of the law, he does not thereby deny the legitimacy of an appeal to Lev 18:5 in support of a sincere and grateful obedience to the law of God. Nor does he deny the sense in which such sincere obedience is the way of life and blessing for the redeemed people of God.”

ii) Gal 3:6-14 and the Mosaic Administration – Venema appeals to Ridderbos to essentially make the same point made about Lev 18:5 above, adding that Paul’s argument is ad hominem, showing the legalists from the law itself what they must do if they abstract the law as a means of justification (they must do it all).

iii)Typology in the Mosaic Covenant – “In the usual view of Reformed covenant theology, however, the temporal blessings promised Israel are regarded typologically as a foreshadowing of the full spiritual blessing of fellowship with God in a renewed creation… In Kline’s view of the typology of the Mosaic covenant, two radically opposed inheritance principles are posited, each of which is said to operate at a distinct level of Israel’s life, the earthly and the spiritual… The problem with this conception is that the typology of the Mosaic economy does not foreshadow or prefigure, at least at the level of Israel’s existence as a nation in the land of promise, the blessings that are granted freely and graciously to the new covenant people of God. The blessings are different in kind; and the principles for inheritance of these blessings are radically different. To put the matter differently, because the Mosaic administration actually consists of two levels of covenant administration, one of works and the other of grace, it cannot function at both levels as a typological promise of the new covenant, which is essentially and exclusively a covenant of grace… The promises and demands of the Mosaic economy are “typical” of the promises and demands of the new covenant economy. The redemption promised in the covenant of grace always requires the response of faith and sincere, albeit imperfect, obedience on the part of the people of the covenant. As it was in the covenant administration of Moses, so it is in the covenant administration of Christ.”

c) Theological Ambiguities or Problems

i) One in Substance, Diverse in Mode of Administration – “Though the authors of the volume profess their adherence to the historic Reformed theology of the covenants, they offer an account of the Mosaic economy that seems at odds with the classic Reformed position that there are only two covenants, a prelapsarian covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace, of which the Mosaic covenant is a particular administration. The traditional formula of Reformed covenant theology, that the covenant of grace is one in substance though diverse in administration, entails that the Mosaic covenant was substantially a covenant of grace and only accidentally distinct from other administrations of the covenant of grace. This means that the distinctive features of the covenant of grace, which distinguish it in substance from the covenant of works, characterize the Mosaic administration in its entirety. It also  means that whatever features of the Mosaic administration distinguish it from other administrations of the covenant of grace belong to the category of adjuncts or accidents, which do not materially affect its nature or character.
The theological problem posed by the republication thesis can be stated rather simply. If what belongs to the substance of the covenant of works does not belong to the substance of the covenant of grace in any of its administrations, it is semantically and theologically problematic to denominate the Mosaic administration as in any sense a covenant of works.”

ii) The Covenant of Works, Voluntary Condescension, and the Covenant of Law – “the tendency of some authors to equate the moral law of God as such with the covenant of works… There is little evidence that many covenant theologians in the orthodox period simply identified the covenant of works with man’s creation in God’s image and subjection to the moral law of God… on this as well as a number of other features of TLNF, the authors tend to accommodate their reading of the history of Reformed theology to contemporary theological concerns, especially the distinctive formulations of Meredith Kline.”

iii) The Abiding Validity of the Moral Law (Uses of the Law) – “Because the authors of TLNF view the moral law of GOd to express necessarily the “works principle” of the covenant of works, they do not have a stable theological basis for affirming the abiding validity of the moral law as a rule of gratitude. The argument of the authors seems to be something like the following: because the moral law of God, rooted as it is in God’s holy and righteous character, always requires perfect obedience, and because God’s moral government requires that obedience be rewarded and disobedience be punished – the moral law is essentially a covenant of works. For this reason, VanDrunen seems compelled to conclude that the moral law of God is no longer the rule of conduct for believers in relationship to each other within the “spiritual kingdom” of the church of Jesus Christ. VanDrunen even goes so far as to suggest that the law that is “written upon the heart” of the new covenant people of God is not substantially the same moral law that was promulgated in the Decalogue through Moses.”

3) Concluding observations

i) “Viewed against the background of the history of Reformed covenant theology, the particular question of the distinctiveness of the Mosaic administration posed by the authors of TLNF is a legitimate one, and one with a long pedigree in the history of Reformed theology. That some contemporary Reformed theologians find the question itself to be puzzling or problematic does reflect, as the editors of TLNF observe, a loss of historical awareness and appreciation for the complex history of Reformed reflection on the covenant.”

ii) Though my review of TLNF offers a number of criticisms of the authors’ arguments, I fully concur with the authors’ aim to uphold and teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone upon the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone. As I put it in my description of TLNF on the book jacket, the “authors ably refute recent attacks upon the classic Reformed understanding of the grace of free justification on the basis of the entire obedience and sacrifice of Christ alone.” [I’m not sure how he can say this in light of the fact that he criticizes the foundational arguments they make in this respect]

iii) “While I recognize the manifest diversity of opinion on the question of the distinctive nature of the Mosaic economy in the history of Reformed theology, my primary objection to the arguments of the authors of TLNF is to what I have termed an “accommodated” reading of the sources… Though it is difficult to determine the pedigree of the version of the republication thesis with which the authors of TLNF identify, it seems to be a view that finds its origins more in the recent writings of Meredith Kline than in the writings of theologians of the orthodox period.”

iv) “In my critical assessment of the republication thesis of TLNF, I have intimated that the historic Reformed distinction between the “three uses” of the law provides a better answer to the complex question that this thesis aims to resolve.”

v) “The tendency to identify the holy law of God with the covenant of works or what the authors of TLNF term the “works principle” of covenant inheritance, creates an instability with respect to the Reformed view of the third use of the law.” [primarily has VanDrunen in mind here]

5 thoughts on “Summary of Venema’s Review of TLNF

  1. Pingback: Clarification on the Mosaic Covenant and Eternal Life | Contrast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s