Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 4: Contradiction

At this point, a tension arises in Kline’s formulation. He considers the Abrahamic Covenant a promise covenant that “connotes the principle of grace, the opposite of work,” wherein the “Inheritance of the promise was not through the works principle of the law (v.13), for that is contrary to the promise-grace-faith-forgiveness principle.” (KP 294) This holds true for Abraham at the “substratum” layer of eternal inheritance, which he receives through faith apart from works because of Christ’s work (in another covenant). However, this does not hold true for Abraham at the typological, redemptive historical level. Abraham did not receive the promised blessings at the typological, historia salutis level through faith apart from works, but rather through his works. Abraham was not made the father of the Messiah through faith apart from works, but rather through his works. How then can the Abrahamic Covenant be a pure “promise covenant” if at least some of its promises are received through the works principle?

For this reason, some Klineans have tried to argue that “Kline’s point is that though it sounds like at times Abraham is given the covenant blessings through his works, that is not the really case, for Gen. 22 occurs many years after the promise of Gen. 15.” and that a works principle “was operative in the life of Abraham, but not ‘within the Abrahamic Covenant’ itself.” But that’s simply not what Kline said, as we have seen (Abraham’s obedience was “the basis for the Lord’s bestowing on him the blessings of the covenant.” (GHHM 102), etc).

Galatians 3

They appeal to passages such as the following.

Clearly, the Abrahamic Covenant is a grace arrangement, a subdivision of the comprehensive Covenant of Grace. The apostle Paul identifies it as a covenant informed by the principle of promise, the opposite of the principle of works that was operative in the Law (Gal 3:12, 17, 18; Rom 10:4-10). According to Paul the salvation blessings offered in the Abrahamic Covenant are obtained through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:22). (GHHM 96)

However, note that Kline explains the contrast in Galatians is between tenure in Canaan (type) and the inheritance of the Messianic kingdom (antitype).

Most familiar of the instances of the introduction of a works principle in a premessianic redemptive economy is the Mosaic Covenant. According to the emphatically and repeatedly stated terms of this old covenant of the law, the Lord made Israel’s continuing manifestation of cultic fidelity to him the ground of their continuing tenure in Canaan. This was not then one of the covenants of grant; it was not a matter of Israel’s being given the kingdom originally in recognition of past meritorious conduct. But this case of the old covenant is relevant in the present context as another notable example of the pattern which finds the principles of works and grace operating simultaneously, yet without conflict, because the works principle is confined to a separate typological level. Paul, perceiving the works principle in the Mosaic law economy, was able to insist that this did not entail an abrogation of the promises of grace given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob centuries earlier (Gal 3:17), precisely because the works principle applied only to the typological kingdom in Canaan and not to the inheritance of the eternal kingdom-city promised to Abraham as a gift of grace and at last to be received by Abraham and all his seed, Jew and Gentile, through faith in Christ Jesus. The pedagogical purpose of the Mosaic works arrangement was to present typologically the message that felicity and godliness will be inseparably conjoined in the heavenly kingdom, or, negatively, that the disobedient are forever cut off from the kingdom of the eschaton. (KP 237)

According to Kline, Paul is addressing “the salvation blessings offered in the Abrahamic Covenant” not the typological kingdom blessings offered in the Abrahamic Covenant. So appeal simply cannot be made to this passage to address the question of the typological kingdom/redemptive historical blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant, for it does not speak to it.

There is, however, real contradiction in Kline’s thought here as he does argue from Galatians 3 that the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant itself is “of grace” and not “of works.” That simply cannot be reconciled with what Kline says elsewhere concerning the redemptive historical blessings granted to Abraham for his works in the Abrahamic Covenant. Kline does refer to the “double role” of Abraham “serving as the great example of justification by faith, and yet, with respect to the typological phase of the kingdom, viewed as the recipient of a divine grant based on his obedience.” (KP 239) At best it could be argued from here that the Abrahamic Covenant was mixed, partially of works, partially of grace. But that would not fit with the claim that Paul says the nature of the covenant is “of grace.”

In my opinion, Kline has simply misread Galatians 3. Paul is not at all arguing from the nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. He is not making an argument from the concept of a “promise” in general. Rather, he is making an argument from a very specific promise made to Abraham: that one of his offspring would come to bless all nations (Gal 3:8). He argues that this promised blessing to all nations is not through the law. For more on this, see Gal. 3:18 – Generic Law and Promise, or Sinai and Messiah?

Oath Ceremony

In addition to arguing from Galatians 3, Kline also argues from the oath ceremony in Genesis 15 that the Abrahamic Covenant is “of grace” and a promise covenant. A basic assumption of Kline’s is that the party who swears the oath in a covenant ceremony determines the conditionality of the covenant.

In postlapsarian history, where we encounter covenants both of works and grace, the identity of the party who takes the ratification oath is an indicator of which kind of covenant it is in a particular case. It must be noted here that not all oaths of covenantal commitment function as ratification oaths. For example, the role played by the oath ritual of circumcision (Gen 17) is that of a supplementary seal added to the Abrahamic Covenant, which had been ratified by God’s oath on an earlier occasion (Gen 15). More precisely, in the situation after the Fall it is the presence or absence of a human oath of ratification that provides the clue as to the governing principle, for divine oath is at least implicit in the ratification of all divine-human covenants, whether of works or grace. If the covenant is ratified by divine oath alone, it is a covenant of grace, either saving or common. But when the covenant-making includes a human oath of ratification, as in the case of Israel’s oath in the Sinaitic Covenant (Exod 24), the arrangement is informed by the works principle. (KP 5)


The manner of the ratification of the Abrahamic Covenant manifests its grace character. It is the Lord God who makes the solemn oath commitment that ratifies the covenant, guaranteeing the fulfillment of the promises. (GHHM 96)

How can this be reconciled with what Kline has said in Part 3? I don’t believe it can be. That’s why Klineans have tried to deny what Kline said regarding Abraham’s typological merit in the Abrahamic Covenant. If the Abrahamic promises, at the typological, redemptive historical level operated upon a works principle (as Kline said), the Abrahamic covenant was not a gracious promise covenant.

Kline’s error is his assumption about oath ceremonies. The rationale is circular: The Abrahamic Covenant is a promise covenant. God alone swore the oath in the Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore God alone swearing the oath indicates whether a covenant is a promise covenant. In the Abrahamic Covenant God alone swore the oath. Therefore the Abrahamic Covenant is a promise covenant.

Not only did Kline make an assumption about the Genesis 15 ritual, he also made an assumption about the Genesis 17 ritual. “It must be noted here that not all oaths of covenantal commitment function as ratification oaths. For example, the role played by the oath ritual of circumcision (Gen 17) is that of a supplementary seal added to the Abrahamic Covenant, which had been ratified by God’s oath on an earlier occasion (Gen 15).” Kline’s error here is violating the rule of the analogy of Scripture. Kline allowed his interpretation of a vision (implicit) to determine his interpretation of explicit statements. “The implicit teaching passages of Scripture will shape our theology, but if we allow implicit teaching to contradict what the Bible says explicitly and directly, we will draw erroneous conclusions.” Giving these passages their proper interpretive priority we learn that both Genesis 15 and 17 are foundational components of the progressively revealed Abrahamic Covenant. Genesis 15, answering Abraham’s question of how these miraculous promises could be fulfilled, represents God’s commitment to His part of the covenant. Genesis 17, on the other hand, represents Abraham’s part of the covenant (17:1; 18:19; note that it includes sanctions, Gen 17:14 cf. Ex 4:24-26). Gen 22:15-18, as we have seen, concludes the two by confirming that Abraham fulfilled his part, resulting in God swearing that His part will therefore be fulfilled, as 26:5 summarizes.

It is worth noting that in his early work By Oath Consigned, Kline did give Genesis 17 proper weight.

It is important to recall Kline’s earlier rule of thumb that you know a covenant is a law covenant whenever the vassal takes the oath, binding himself to obedience to the suzerain under threat of a curse. Since the Kline of BOC views circumcision as the vassal’s ratification oath, by this rule of thumb (as applied to Gen 17), the Abrahamic Covenant seems to be a law covenant.

Since in this covenant [Gen 17] the Suzerain is also the divine Witness, the promissory obligations which Yahweh undertakes as Suzerain are also a blessing sanction which he will honor as the divine Witness when he beholds faithfulness in the covenant servant. Another element of the treaty pattern, viz., the sanctions, is thus included here among the stipulations. Curse sanction appears too, appended to the stipulation regarding circumcision (v. 14) … In short, the transaction recorded in Genesis 17 may be identified as a covenant of the vassal type, an administration of the lordship of the covenant Giver, binding his servant to himself in consecrated service under dual sanctions, blessing and curse. Of special importance in the establishment of vassal covenants was the function of the oath. It was by an oath that the vassal expressed his incorporation within the sphere of the lord’s jurisdiction. This oath invoked the covenant sanctions, more precisely, the curse, so that curse became a synonym for oath…

This means that circumcision was the rite by which the covenant of Genesis 17 was “cut”. It means further that circumcision symbolized the oath-curse by which the Abrahamic community confessed themselves under the judicial authority and more precisely under the sword of God Almighty.

What is suggested by the broad structure of Genesis 17 is confirmed by the particulars about circumcision given in verses 9–14. Circumcision is called God’s covenant, his covenant in the flesh of his people (vv. 9 , 10 , 13). This identification of covenant with circumcision reminds us at once of the coalescence of the covenant with its oath-curse in the extra-biblical treaties. Moreover, the meaning of circumcision as symbol of the oath-curse is actually expressed in so many words in verse 14 . There the threat of the curse sanction sounds against the one who breaks the covenant by not obeying the command of circumcision: “(he) shall be cut off”. The use of the verb kārat in this specific description of the curse clearly echoes the idiom of cutting a covenant (kārat bÿrît) and it is an unmistakable allusion to the nature of the rite of circumcision. So in this, the primary passage for the interpretation of circumcision, the general and specific considerations unitedly point to the conclusion that circumcision was the sign of the oath-curse of the covenant ratification. In the cutting off of the foreskin the judgment of excision from the covenant relationship was symbolized.

The oath whose curse sanction circumcision symbolized was an oath of allegiance. It was an avowal of Yahweh as covenant Lord, a commitment in loyalty to him. As the symbolized curse which sealed this pledge of allegiance, circumcision partook of the import of the oath. It was, therefore, a sign of consecration. Hence Israel is commanded: “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord” (Jer. 4:4). (BOC 40-41)

The broader import of circumcision is determined by the specific nature of that covenant of which it is declared to be a sign, and especially, since circumcision is a sanction sign, by the peculiar nature of the judgment in which that covenant issues. As for the covenant, it was a law covenant, not a simple guarantee of blessing but an administration of the lordship of God, a covenant therefore which confronted the servant with dual sanctions, curse and blessing (BOC 48).

Meredith Kline’s By Oath Consigned Compared with Kingdom Prologue, Lee Irons

5 thoughts on “Kline’s Abrahamic Covenant of Works 4: Contradiction

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