OPC Report on Republication – Background
The OPC Report on Republication was the culmination of several decades of dispute within the OPC. The dispute is particularly interesting because it represents two divergent schools within Presbyterianism that are both fighting to uphold a particular doctrine at the expense of another particular doctrine. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Westminster Confession is contradictory in what it says about the Mosaic Covenant. It’s a very detailed argument, so please read that post. In short, it is not possible to affirm both that the Mosaic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace and that there was a Covenant of Works made with Adam.
In the previous post, I suggested that Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works was driven by his attempt to resolve this contradiction. Thus he retained the Westminster teaching that the Mosaic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace at the expense of the Westminster doctrine of the Covenant of Works.
One of Murray’s students, Meredith G. Kline demurred from Murray early on (listen to the first few episodes of the Glory Cloud Podcast for some timeline on Kline). Kline began to
move in the opposite direction, seeing the Covenant of Works as essential to the law/gospel distinction and therefore rejecting the Westminster doctrine of the Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace, arguing instead that it was a separate covenant that operated on the works principle for life in the land of Canaan. There was development in Kline’s thought over the decades on this. The OPC Report notes that
At least two controversies helped Kline sharpen his conception of the unique typological function of Abraham and national Israel, and those controversies pertain to the covenant theology of Norman Shepherd, on the one hand, and the theonomic ethics of Greg Bahnsen, on the other… Kline’s development of the typology of both Abraham and Israel depends in significant ways on his response to these controversies, as he seeks to clarify the unique features of redemptive typology pertaining to both Abraham and national Israel…
Kline offers an integration of the historia salutis and the ordo salutis, seeking to give a biblically nuanced account of the way in which the obedience of key figures in redemptive history relates to the eschatological inheritance (Adam or Christ) or the typal kingdom (Abraham and national Israel). He adds nuance and clarity to his views based in part on his polemical engagement with the theology of Norman Shepherd and theonomic ethics of Greg Bahnsen, even if those figures are not always identified…
The development from Treaty of the Great King to Kingdom Prologue and God, Heaven and Har-Mageddon turns on clarifying the works principle in Israel as it finds its genesis in Abraham and his unique obedience as a type of Christ. The controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen supplied polemical contexts for developing the unique features of redemptive typology that extend many of the insights from Vos, but in a way that does not undermine Murray’s insistence on a substantially gracious Mosaic covenant. The development of Abraham as the historical figure who supplies the redemptive historical prototype for the works principle that will come to apply to national Israel develops after the controversies with Shepherd and Bahnsen in the 1970s and 1980s, but in a way that bears organic continuity with his earlier work from the 1960’s.
For an elaboration on Bahnsen in this context, see Theonomy, Greg Bahnsen, and the Federal Vision?
Who exactly was Norman Shepherd? He too was a student of Murray’s. He was selected by Murray as his successor as professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary. Controversy arose when he students began failing their ordination exams. When asked how we are justified, they answered “through faith and works.” When asked where they were taught that, they said “Professor Shepherd.” Thus began a decade long battle to rid the seminary and the church of Shepherd’s false gospel. Surrounded by politics, Shepherd was eventually dismissed, but not officially for any theological reasons. Charges were scheduled to be brought against him in the OPC, but he fled to the CRC beforehand, where he remains today. I strongly recommend reading O. Palmer Robertson’s careful account of everything that occurred at Westminster regarding Shepherd titled The Current Justification Controversy. Shepherd is considered the godfather of the Federal Vision.
Some want to paint Shepherd as an oddity that came and went but had no lasting impact on Westminster or the OPC. However, it’s not that simple. As I said, Shepherd was selected by Murray as his successor. When Shepherd left, he was succeeded by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Gaffin is three years younger than Shepherd and was a student of Murray’s as well. He taught alongside Shepherd and was his primary defender during the controversy (see Gaffin’s open letter from 1981). In fact, he continued to support Shepherd long after he left, endorsing his 2002 book The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism with these words:
This lucid and highly readable study provides valuable instruction on what it means to live in covenant with God. God’s covenant is the only way of life that fully honors both the absolute, all-embracing sovereignty of his saving grace and the full, uninhibited activity of his people. The Call of Grace should benefit anyone concerned about biblical growth in Christian life and witness.
Gaffin theoretically distanced himself from Shepherd by participating in the OPC Report on Justification in 2006 which was critical of Shepherd, but no explicit statement and recanting of his support for Shepherd has occurred. The basis of Shepherd’s false gospel of justification through faith and works is his rejection of the “works-merit paradigm” in favor of the “faith-grace” or “covenantal” paradigm. In a 2002 lecture titled “What’s All the Fuss?”, Shepherd explains
Well the preceding is only a sampling of the problems we run into on the works-merit paradigm. We become uncomfortable expressing biblical doctrines using biblical language. Texts get bent out of shape in order to make them fit into a paradigm that does not arise out of Scripture and is foreign to Scripture. And without meaning to do so or wanting to do so we can find ourselves compromising the integrity of what is written in the Word of God.
The biblical paradigm, I would suggest to you, is one that is consistently covenantal without the schizophrenic antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace.
Mr. Shepherd rejects not only the term “covenant of works” but the possibility of any merit or reward attaching to the obedience of Adam in the creation covenant. He holds that faithful obedience is the condition of all covenants in contrast to the distinction made in the Westminster Confession. The Westminster Confession states in Chapter Vll that the first covenant “was a covenant of works wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” In contrast, in the second covenant, the covenant of grace, the Lord “freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved.”
Shepherd was clearly building upon Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works. As we saw in the last post on Murray, he slammed on the breaks when his revisions lead him straight towards a justification by faith and works, particularly in Romans 2:13, but he had no consistent reason for doing so. Murray argued 2:13 (“the doers of the law will be justified”) was hypothetical in direct contradiction to his argument in v6 that the judgment was not hypothetical. Shepherd continued the logically trajectory, further working out the implications of a rejection of the Covenant of Works. 1978 he wrote 34 Theses on Justification in Relation to Faith, Repentance, and Good Works. Note thesis 20
20. The Pauline affirmation in Romans 2:13, “the doers of the Law will be justified,” is not to be understood hypothetically in the sense that there are no persons who fall into that class, but in the sense that faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ will be justified (Compare Luke 8:21; James 1:22-25).
Many will object that Shepherd’s theology was entirely different than Murray’s. As this is not intended to be a full treatment of the issue, and it is a very detailed topic, I encourage you to look into it yourself and make up your own mind. However, for our present purpose, it is worth recalling what we read from Ligon Duncan in the post on Murray.
Murray held to his objections [to the Covenant of Works] and to this day, Westminster Seminary has tended to be a little bit skittish about the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace framework.
There is no indication that Gaffin rejected Murray and Shepherd’s rejection of the Covenant of Works and every indication that he agrees with them. A fuller treatment of Gaffin will have to await another day (something I intend to get to, Lord willing). However, I do want to mention an important point regarding continuity with and progression of Murray’s revisionism. We saw before that Murray added Leviticus 18:5 and Matthew 19:17 as proof texts for WCF 19.6. The OPC continued that work.
The Sixty-sixth General Assembly (1999) elected a Committee on Proof Texts for the Larger Catechism (consisting of Stephen A. Pribble [chairman], George W. Knight III, Steven F. Miller, and Peter J. Wallace). It presented a list of proof texts to the Sixty-seventh General Assembly (2000), and the Sixty-eighth General Assembly (2001) approved the proof texts (with corrections) for publication.
The list included the addition of Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof-texts for WLC90, which states
Q. 90. What shall be done to the righteous at the day of judgment?
A. At the day of judgment, the righteous, being caught up to Christ in the clouds, shall be set on his right hand, and there openly acknowledged and acquitted, shall join with him in the judging of reprobate angels and men, and shall be received into heaven, where they shall be fully and forever freed from all sin and misery; filled with inconceivable joys, made perfectly holy and happy both in body and soul, in the company of innumerable saints and holy angels, but especially in the immediate vision and fruition of God the Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, to all eternity. And this is the perfect and full communion, which the members of the invisible church shall enjoy with Christ in glory, at the resurrection and day of judgment.
Note particularly that v13 was included, which says it is “the doers of the law who will be justified.” Recall that Murray stopped short and claimed this was only hypothetical, not actual – but this contradicted his comments earlier in the passage. The OPC apparently recognized this and carried Murray’s logic through to v13, just as Shepherd did. At the day of judgment, the righteous will be justified because they are doers of the law and not hearers only. (Note that the OPC has since reversed this position and deleted the proof-text. See comment box below).
Another Westminster Seminary graduate (same age as Shepherd) was John Kinnaird. Kinnaird very publicly defended Shepherd during the controversy and continued to support him long after. As an elder, he taught that “It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgement.” “Inside the city are those who do righteousness and outside are those who do evil.”
Romans 2 puts it this way. “God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil there will be wrath and anger.” Now by this we know the decision, the judgement as to who enters the city and who stays outside for eternity will be made on that great day of judgement in accordance with what you have done in this life. In fact our scripture lesson says the very same thing at verse 12. Behold I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done….
These good works are a required condition if we would stand in the Day of Judgement and they are supplied by God to all His people.
Every description of the Judgement events speak of these good works. Without them, no one will see God. Our God is not unjust. His judgements are always righteous and in accordance with the facts of the case…
Who are these people who thus benefit ‑ who stand on the Day of Judgement? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous…
There will be glory, honor, and peace on the Day of Judgement for everyone who does good. [Romans 2] verse 10. Who are these people who thus benefit – who stand on the Day of Judgement? They are those who obey the law who will be declared righteous, verse 13. When God declares them righteous, that is a forensic declaration of righteousness…. This is a judicial scene, the Day of Judgement. It is an act of God sitting as Judge. It is justification – a forensic act of God whereby he declares a person righteous. God is able to make this declaration on That Day because it is a truth. Something has happened to change those who were once sinful. What is it?… Paul says, verses 14 and 15, these are those who by nature, a new nature, do the things required by the law.
(Note the verbatim wording of Murray with regards to God’s judgment and the principle of equity).
An elderly couple in Kinnaird’s congregation brought charges against him for teaching justification by faith and works. The congregation (“session”) found him guilty. He appealed to his presbytery, which upheld the guilty verdict. So he appealed to the OPC General Assembly. The General Assembly determined that the session and presbytery had erred in convicting him. A main point in the GA’s decision to overturn the prior verdicts was that Kinnaird’s language was in keeping with the OPC’s standards – specifically WLC 90’s reference to Romans 2:13, which had just been added 2 years earlier. “There is strong evidence that it is allowable in the OPC to interpret Romans 2:13 (as Mr. Kinnaird does) as a description of something that will be done to the righteous at the day of judgment.” (GA Advisory Committee)
I encourage you to read through the trial documents yourself.
During the original trial, Gaffin was called to testify as an expert witness in defense of Kinnaird. I encourage you to read the transcript. Keep in mind Gaffin’s defense did not save Kinnaird in trial. He was still found guilty. One section is particularly pertinent.
RG: We could point up that as to the Romans (I believe Dr. Lillback did this last week if I am correctly informed) that at the …. so far as the Romans 2 passage is concerned, while a large number of Reformed exegetes have understood the scenario there, the final judgment scenario there, on the positive side, in verse 7 and 10 and 13. Have understood that in a hypothetical sense – or as we might put it – as a genuine offer of the law – not the gospel – a genuine offer of the law as a means of justification, or salvation which no one, in fact, can fulfill. While that is an established reformed understanding, there have also been other exegetes, within the reformed tradition, that have questioned that hypothetical understanding. And you see that at least for verses 6 to 11 very clearly in John Murray’s Romans commentary. And I would refer us to that discussion, if none other in that regard…
RG : Murray in his Romans commentary, the passage in Romans 2 that runs, particularly the segment that runs through verse 11. 2:6 to 11. He understands that to be describing what will actually be the case for believers. At the day of judgment they will … when God’s righteous judgment will be … when God will give to each person according to his works … that will, in terms of verse 7 … believers will be those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality. And they will receive eternal life. That is John Murray’s teaching on that passage.
AW : John Murray in commenting on Romans 2:13 … I believe probably to 15 … but it’s at least on 2:13. Here’s a quotation from his commentary. He says
It needs to be noted, however, that at this point the apostle restricts himself to the judgment of condemnation. And this advises us that he is dealing now with the equity of God’s judgment of damnation as it is brought to bear upon men who fall into these two categories. This is significant. Whatever is meant by those who are >without law’ there is no suggestion to the effect that any who are >without law’ attain to the reward of eternal life.
It’s page 69 of The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Epistle to the Romans as published by Eerdmans.
So … on the one hand … can you reconcile the two statements by John Murray here?
RG : Yeah, I think … Sorry. I didn’t bring my commentary along and … [Mr. Gaffin is given a copy of the commentary from one of the panel members.] This is from page 71 on 2:13. Let me read it, what Murray says and then comment.
It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching on this epistle in later chapters. Whether any will be actually justified by works either in this life or at the final judgment is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture.
That … I think is to my mind, what needs to be highlighted here. My own view would be that following … well, my own view would be … that … I think Murray is leaving it an open question here. He’s not addressing … he is saying two things. Number one, no conflict with what Paul teaches later in the letter. Number two, whether or not there will be anyone at the final judgment justified by works – as Paul expressed there – is beside the apostle’s interest and design at this juncture. I think really it’s regrettable we don’t have Professor Murray here to ask this question because I think … my own view in the light of what he has said, and said so clearly about the judgment according to works in two … in verse six … that… it … that would argue for understanding verse 13 here in the same way as describing an actual positive outcome. But he does, as you are pointing out, back away from that. But I can’t … see I think in my own view … it is Professor Murray that is in a bit of a tension here … and the question really needs … I can’t reconcile Murray for you on that regard, which is the question I heard you asking me. And I would just accent again that in his understanding of verses 6-11, he has broken with a large number of Reformed interpreters in arguing that that describes a real judgment scenario with a positive outcome. Which is also how I would understand verse 13 … and well, you can ask Mr. Kinnaird how he understands it.
AW : I guess my point would simply would be that John Murray did not definitively use this chapter in Romans 2 to teach … you know, a judgment for … let me say it this way, that John Murray did use his understanding in this to affirm a more traditional – if you want to say – a traditional or long held view that Romans chapter two was affirming universal condemnation more than any particular manner in which believers are justified.
RG : Sorry about that, I do have to differ with Y
AW : O.K., that is fine …
RG : I think in verses 6 to 11 he does break, if you will with others, Charles Hodge, Haldane, in arguing that the judgment according to works is not hypothetical on it’s positive side… but will have a positive … it’s describing a positive, a real positive scenario in the case of believers. And see that I think is really the issue here. Let’s concede what Murray says about the verse 13 which … this is not … this is not a … this is a point that I am willing to be corrected on, that verse 13 does not describe an actual, an actual scenario at the final judgment. You still have the final judgment according to works as a reality, according to Murray.
So there we see the consequences of Murray’s rejection of the Westminster Confession’s doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Meredith Kline was one of the most vocal critics of Shepherd. In 1994 he penned a very important essay for the OPC magazine New Horizons titled “Covenant Theology Under Attack” in an attempt to defend the doctrine of the Covenant of Works and its corresponding works-merit principle. However, its content was deemed too controversial and was edited for publication. The original essay can be read in full here. Kline said
Recounted in the lore about the founding of our movement is the stirring testimony of the dying Machen in a telegram sent to John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”…
The assault on classic covenant theology of which [Daniel] Fuller has become a vociferous spokesman is being endorsed by some prominent leaders within even the broadly Reformed wing of evangelicalism. And the sad fact is that this theology, which undermines the biblical truths that provided Machen with his dying comfort, has had its aiders and abettors within the very movement that Machen founded. Strangely, it was the one who received Machen’s deathbed telegram who opened the door a considerable crack for the views inimical to the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ…
The door left ajar by Murray was thrown wide open to Fuller’s theology by Murray’s successor… Though the ensuing controversy over Shepherd’s views led to his departure, his teaching was not officially renounced by ecclesiastical or seminary arms of our movement, and key elements of the Fuller-Shepherd theology continue to be advocated among us.
Regretfully, in this same essay, Kline argues that in order to defend the Covenant of Works, the concept of God’s voluntary condescension in rewarding Adam’s obedience (WCF 7.1) must be rejected. So Murray rejected 7.2 and in order to refute Shepherd, Kline rejected 7.1.
But the primary manner in which Kline sought to defend the law/gospel distinction was by recognizing the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works. Contrary to Murray, Leviticus 18:5 was in fact a statement of the principle of works in antithesis to the principle of faith – but it was limited to life and blessing in the land of Canaan, not eternal life. Thus to retain the Covenant of Works, Kline recognized it was necessary to jettison the Mosaic Covenant of Grace (thus rejecting WCF 7.5-6, 19.2).
Kline’s revisionism began to cause a stir. One of Kline’s disciples, Charles Lee Irons was brought to trial for his Klinean view of the Mosaic Covenant, specifically the relationship between the Decalogue and the moral law [Irons helpfully corrected the original wording of this section – see comment section below]. Irons lost the trial and his appeal to the GA was rejected. He chose to withdraw from the OPC and said the following in his letter of withdrawal:
I am not prepared to say that the OPC has fallen into irreparable apostasy, but something is terribly amiss with a denomination that is willing to indefinitely suspend me from the ministry for holding a position that is part of “a significant and vital stream of Reformed, Presbyterian, and confessional thought,” and then turns right around the very next day and fails to censure a man who teaches a doctrine of justification that has never been part of any stream within the orthodox Reformed tradition, indeed, that denies the very reason for the Reformation itself. The implication is staggering: Murray’s recasting of covenant theology is now an essential test of orthodoxy in the OPC, but the historic Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone is not.
These two rulings of the 70th GA have caused me great sadness, but perhaps they will become a wake-up call to the OPC. I hope and pray that the OPC corrects its course and renews its commitment to the doctrine of justification as clarified by the Law-Gospel contrast taught by Paul and reaffirmed by the Reformers.
Several men began working to demonstrate historical precedent for Kline’s view. In his popular thesis paper “WORKS IN THE MOSAIC COVENANT: A REFORMED TAXONOMY” Brenton C. Ferry explains that he began working on the thesis
during the time of the Lee Irons’ trial in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Lee was proposing and affirming Samuel Bolton’s (1606-1654) view of the Mosaic Covenant, creating the assumption that this was Meredith Kline’s view, which it is not. Worse, Lee was portrayed by men in our denomination as an antinomian, which he is not. The result: he was wrongly deposed. I was a delegate at the General Assembly when Lee lost his appeal. It was most disheartening, but also confirmation that the church needs an accessible outline which reflects the contours of our tradition’s conception of the Mosaic Covenant.
He also recounts his ordination exam.
The research for this thesis began following my ordination exam by the Presbytery of the Southeast in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in October 2000. Towards the end of an otherwise mundane exam, a minister named Patrick Ramsey asked if the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works or a covenant of grace.1 “A covenant of works,” I answered. The room became enlivened. My exam was sustained on condition that I study this issue.
A simplified summary of Ferry’s thesis became a chapter in the Westminster Seminary California-led book “The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant” (2009). The book opens with a 6-page “fictional” narrative of the ordination examination of someone who follows Kline’s view (the intro is written by Westminster Seminary California faculty Bryan Estelle, David VanDrunen, and J.V. Fesko). “The preceding fictional narrative introduces the real issue with which the book deals, namely, the doctrine of republication, which holds that the covenant of works was, in some sense, republished in the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai.” Thus “republication” became code for Kline’s view, even though Kline never used the term, and at the same time introduced considerable confusion by the qualifier “in some sense.” Because it was “in some sense” republished, they could call upon historic support from men who were diametrically opposed to Kline’s view, yet who also affirmed the works principle in the Adamic Covenant of Works in opposition to John Murray. Thus “republication” became the historic idea that Murray rejected, and at the same time the new revision Kline introduced. The book caused more heat than light, largely because of its intentionally vague thesis (“in some sense”).
Many, many more writings have been published that are either directly or tangentially related to this dispute in the OPC over the works principle and the corresponding law/gospel distinction. Just as Ferry and others sought to find historical precedent for Kline’s theology, Mark Jones and others took on the task of finding historical precedent for Gaffin’s theology. The debate has largely centered around Westminster Theological Seminary (representing Murray) and Westminster Seminary California (representing Kline) – or East vs. West as it is referred. The debate often becomes quite heated.
So that is what has led to the OPC Report on Republication. Two leading reformed theologians of the 20th century attempted to retain different aspects of Westminster’s contradictory view of the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works, leading each theologian to reject other essential aspects of Westminster’s system of theology. In an attempt to save their own confessional skin, Klinians have mistakenly conceded that Murray’s rejection of the Covenant of Works did not affect Westminster’s system of theology.
Murray did not accept the Standards’ teaching regarding the Covenant of Works… Murray did not believe that he held to the common Reformed position that was historically advocated by Reformed theologians or by the Westminster Standards. In fact, he saw himself as a self-avowed revisionist on the subject of covenant theology…
Recall that the principle of Old School subscription states that a subscriber may take exception to propositions in the Standards. The subscriber may take exceptions to propositions so long as those exceptions do not undermine the overall system. With this in mind, we can see that though Murray reconstructs the Confession’s doctrine of the covenant, his reconstruction still retains the integrity of the overall system…
This is how, then, Murray can still subscribe to the Standards—his conclusions, though through a reconstructed and revised route, do not affect the overall system.
Opponents of Kline have not made the same mistake. They recognize that his rejection of several points of the Westminster Standards do affect the system of theology. The OPC Report states
One may hold that the Mosaic covenant differs in substance from the covenant of grace, without necessarily compromising the idea of the one way of salvation throughout history. The question our report is addressing is whether one can hold to such positions without compromising the system of doctrine taught in our standards…
in the case of substantial republication, an aggregation of tensions has arisen at times such that, when taken together, they create dissonance that begin to reverberate system-wide