The Aquila Report, an independent web magazine containing content of interest primarily for and about those in the evangelical and confessional wings of the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches, has been publishing excerpts over the last few months from Dewey Roberts’ (PCA) […]
[Lord willing, I will further revise/expand this post in the future (feedback is appreciated). I’m posting it for now to provide context for the OPC Report on Republication.]
John Murray said he rejected the Covenant of Works for two reasons:
(1) The term is not felicitous, for the reason that the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term ‘works’.
(2) It is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Hosea 6:7 may be interpreted otherwise and does not provide the basis for such a construction of the Adamic economy. Besides, Scripture always uses the term covenant, when applied to God’s administration to men, in reference to a provision that is redemptive or closely related to redemptive design. Covenant in Scripture denotes the oath-bound confirmation of promise and involves a security which the Adamic economy did not bestow.
Some have argued that John Murray did not reject the covenant of works. They insist that all the elements of the Covenant of Works are present in his view, he just chose not to use that language. This argument has plausibility with regards to Murray’s rejection of the term “covenant.” All one has to do is point out that he defined covenant wrong. He still held to all the elements of a covenant with Adam when covenant is properly defined.
However, most tend to overlook the much more important reason Murray had for rejecting the Covenant of Works. Murray explicitly argued that the reward of eternal life would not have been by works. It would have been a gift of God’s grace, not a reward of debt according to justice. What Murray was rejecting was the concept of ex pacto or covenantal merit, known as “the works principle.” Thus, while one could argue he held to an Adamic Covenant (by rejecting Murray’s definition of covenant), he did not hold to an Adamic Covenant of Works.
Part of his argument is that there is no works principle found anywhere in Scripture – pre or post-fall. “In connection with the promise of life it does not appear justifiable to appeal, as frequently has been done, to the principle enunciated in certain texts (cf. Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), ‘This do and thou shalt live’.”
In a paper on confessional subscription, J.V. Fesko says
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…
What led Murray to reject the Covenant of Works?
Many focus on the rise of dispensationalism and Murray’s response to it as an explanation for his rejection of the Covenant of Works. In other words, he just over-reacted to dispensationalism by flattening out all of Scripture.
However, Murray actually said he was influenced by Karl Barth on this point. Ligon Duncan explains:
Now, here is the inside scoop. As Donald Macleod talked with John Murray when he came back from Scotland, there were a number of things that had made a major impact on Murray with regard to Covenant Theology. For one thing, Murray was impacted by Vos and by a guy named Adolph Desmond. Desmond was a big time German New Testament scholar at the turn of the twentieth century who had argued very strongly that Covenant should not be translated as a contract or a treaty or a mutual relationship, but it ought to be translated as a disposition or a testament, something that was one-sided as opposed to two-sided. And Desmond did this because he had uncovered all this literature from Greek legal documents contemporary to the New Testament and many New Testament scholars followed Desmond for a period of time. His views have since then been overturned, but he was very influential in the first part of the twentieth century. And so Murray was very influenced by this one-sided idea of covenant. And he found the obediential aspect of the historic Covenant of Works to be a little two-sided for his taste. So, you will see him, when he defines covenant in his little tract called The Covenant of Grace, he will define it in a very one-sided, a very monopluric sort of way. And he is following Vos there and he is following Desmond.
But, the other interesting thing is, is that Murray indicated to Macleod that he had actually been impacted a bit by Barth’s argumentation on the nature of the Covenant of Works and so although Murray would have been stridently in opposition to Barth’s doctrine of the Scripture and his doctrine of the Atonement, yet he was swayed to a certain extent by some of Barth’s arguments regarding Covenant of Works. And Macleod had opportunity to interact with him on that and argue against those particular points, but Murray held to his objections 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.
Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace (lecture)
Cornelis P. Venema elaborates in a journal article titled Recent Criticisms of the Covenant of Works in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Murray, though a faithful exponent of the system of doctrine contained in the WCF, was perhaps more critical of this aspect of the WCF than he was of any other. Based upon his own biblical-theological reflection, Murray offered several of what he believed were needed correctives to the traditional formulations of federal theology, including the classical form found in the WCF…
There are several respects in which Murray’s treatment of this Adamic administration differs from traditional covenant theology. As we have already noted, this difference is partially terminological… But the divergence is far more than terminological…
This promise [of eternal life] would not be granted upon the principle of strict justice or merit — God’s justice does not require that Adam should ever be granted the status of immutability in fellowship with God — but would be expression of God’s undeserved favor…
[In connection with the promise of life it does not appear justifiable to appeal, as frequently has been done, to the principle enunciated in certain texts (cf. Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), ‘This do and thou shalt live’. The principle asserted in these texts is the principle of equity, that righteousness is always followed by the corresponding award. From the promise of the Adamic administration we must dissociate all notions of meritorious reward. The promise of confirmed integrity and blessedness was one annexed to an obedience that Adam owed and, therefore, was a promise of grace. All that Adam could have claimed on the basis of equity was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility. Adam could claim the fulfilment of the promise if he stood the probation, but only on the basis of God’s faithfulness, not on the basis of justice.]
Murray also challenged another commonplace of the older federal theology, namely, that the Mosaic economy or covenant included within itself a repetition of the obligation of obedience, first enunciated in the covenant of works.
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 involves 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.
Apparently, because Murray wants to emphasize the gracious and sovereign disposition of the Adamic arrangement, as well as the essential graciousness of the biblical covenant of grace, he does not want to admit the legal requirement of obedience to be as integral to this arrangement or the post-fall covenant of grace, as was typically the case in the history of covenant theology.
Venema goes on to argue that WCF 7.1, which describes God’s voluntary condescension in the creation of the Covenant of Works, satisfactorily answers Murray’s concerns about the gracious nature of the promise of eternal life.
This emphasis upon all of God’s covenants as voluntary condescensions preserves, it seems to me, the WCF from the charge of depriving the original covenant of the element of God’s favor and goodness, as though it were only a matter of strict justice between a Master and his servant. Moreover, by its apparent distinction between the original natural state in which “reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him [God] as their Creator” and the covenant of works, the WCF preserves the element of unmerited bestowal and grant in this original covenant. It simply cannot be argued convincingly that the WCF neglects this component of the original covenant relationship between God and the creature before the fall into sin and the institution of the covenant of grace.
But if WCF 7.1 easily addresses Murray’s concern, why did Murray still have a concern? Did he not understand 7.1? That’s possible – after all, Van Til certainly caused some confusion. But I don’t think that was the case with Murray. As the chair of systematic theology and one acquainted with historical theology, I doubt Murray was oblivious to something that was obvious to Venema.
In fact, I think it was actually Murray’s acquaintance with the confession and his systematic concern that motivated his revision. I think Murray recognized that the Westminster Confession is self-contradictory on this point and he sought to iron it out.
If you recall Murray’s quote above about the works principle, he mentions Lev 18:5, Gal 3:12, Rom 10:5 as the texts frequently appealed to to articulate the works principle of the Covenant of Works. The WCF cites Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 as proof of the covenant of works (in the catechism as well). However, it does not quote Lev 18:5. Why not? Well, because Leviticus 18:5 states the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, which the Westminster Confession says is the Covenant of Grace. Therefore Leviticus 18:5 cannot be a statement of the terms of the Covenant of Works.
In a very helpful WTJ essay titled In Defense of Moses, D. Patrick Ramsey explains why Leviticus 18:5 was not included in the Standards as a proof-text for the Covenant of Works.
Objection 4: In expounding the covenant of works made with Adam the Westminster Confession of Faith uses Rom 10:5 and Gal 3:12 as proof texts. Both of these texts quote Lev 18:5, which refers to the Mosaic Covenant. Therefore, the Divines understood the Mosaic Covenant to be a covenant of works.
The texts that the Westminster Standards used to expound the Covenant of Works are Gen 1:26-27; 2:17; Job 28:28; Eccl 7:29; Rom 2:14-15; 5:12-20; 10:5; Gal 3:10; 3:12 (WCF 7.2; 19.1). None of these texts are from the Mosaic Covenant; however, Rom 10:5 and Gal 3:10, 12 quote verses from the Mosaic Covenant.
The reasons for appealing to these New Testament quotations of Moses vary among the writings of the Puritans.  Some believed that they taught that the Covenant of Works was renewed at Mount Sinai though with evangelical purposes and intentions…  A similar position stated that these passages taught that the Mosaic Law contained a restatement of the principle of works. It was not re-established or renewed, only republished and repeated in order to drive men to Christ…
 A third Puritan position understood the proof texts used by the Westminster Confession of Faith to refer to the Law absolutely or separated from the Gospel. When the Mosaic Law is taken out of its context, then and only then does it become contrary to the Gospel by becoming the matter (describes the righteousness required in the Covenant of Works) and/or form (offers life by works) of the Covenant of Works. Hence, passages like Deut 27:26 and Lev 18:5 did not, in their original intent, renew or repeat the Covenant of Works.
The Pharisees and Judaizers of Paul’s day distorted the Law by separating it from the Gospel and used it for their justification before God. Paul’s quotations of Moses in Romans and Galatians are thus referring to the Jews’ perversion of the Law. In so doing the apostle expounds the principle of works, which is applicable to the Covenant of Works made with Adam.
Of these three possible explanations for the use of Gal 3:10, 12 and Rom 10:5 as proof texts for the Covenant of Works, the third is the most likely. This is so because the Divines did not use Lev 18:5, Deut 27:26, or any passage pertaining to the Mosaic Covenant as proof texts. If they had understood the Mosaic Covenant to be a renewal or republication of the Covenant of Works, they probably would have appealed to the Law of Moses directly, as many Puritans did.
So, according to this view, the moral law itself, separated from the Gospel, contains the works principle. In it’s original context, Leviticus 18:5 is a statement of the moral law in the Covenant of Grace. But in quoting Leviticus 18:5, Paul abstracts the law from it’s context in the Mosaic Covenant of Grace and applies it to his situation with the Judaizers. Guy P. Waters, in his chapter in The Law is Not of Faith titled Romans 10:5 and the Covenant of Works? argues this point.
Paul considers the moral demands of the Mosaic law, in distinction from the gracious covenant in which they were formally promulgated, to set forth the standard of righteousness required by the covenant of works.
 This position for which I will be arguing is essentially that argued by Anthony Burgess, “The Law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoyned, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousnesse, holding forth life upon no termes, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of grace; take it in the later sense, as abstracted from Moses his administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but workes,” Vindiciae Legis: Or, A Vindication of the Morall Law and the Covenants, from the Errours of
Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially, Antinomians. In XXX. Lectures, preached at Laurence-Jury, London (2d ed.; London, 1647), 235. Anthony Burgess was a member of the Westminster Assembly and served on the committee that drafted WCF 19 (“Of the Law of God”).
Waters actually quotes from Murray’s Appendix B “Leviticus 18:5” from his Romans commentary at this point, demonstrating Murray has accurately pinpointed a crucial question.
John Murray observes that “[The problem that arises from this use of Lev. 18:5 is that the latter text does not appear in a context that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith.] Lev. 18:5 is in a context in which the claims of God upon his redeemed and covenant people are being asserted and urged upon Israel… [It] refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.” If the Scripture teaches that the Mosaic administration is an administration of the covenant of grace, as the Westminster divines affirm (7.5), then how could Paul have interpreted Lev 18:5 as he has? How could he have taken a passage which, in context, appears to refer to the sanctificational works of a redeemed person within the covenant community, and apply this text to individuals seeking the righteousness of justification on the basis of their performance?… Has Paul misquoted Leviticus 18:5 at Romans 10:5?
Waters’ proposed solution is that the moral law itself inherently includes the works principle (ex pacto merit) unless the works principle is stripped away by coming to us through the hand of Christ, as it did in the Mosaic Covenant. As I demonstrated in another post, the problem with this view is that it contradicts WCF 7.1, which teaches that the law itself does not offer any reward for obedience to the law and therefore does not include any works principle. The works principle is only added to the law in the Covenant of Works.
Murray was sharper than Waters on this point. I believe he recognized that Waters’ solution (repeating a historic solution) was no solution at all because it was self-contradictory in that it conflated the law and the covenant of works on this point while elsewhere necessarily distinguishing them (see the Waters post).
Commenting on Romans 10:5, Murray says that “’The man that doeth the righteousness of the law shall live thereby”, is, of itself, an adequate and watertight definition of the principle of legalism. (See Appendix B, pp. 249ff., for fuller discussion.)” In Appendix B: Leviticus 18:5 he argues that this principle is “the principle of equity in God’s government” and there are “three distinct relationships in which [it] has relevance.”
1… Wherever there is righteousness to the full extent of God’s demand there must also be the corresponding justification and life… God’s judgment is always according to truth. Perfect righteousness must elicit God’s favour or complacency and with this favour is the life that is commensurate with it. This would have obtained for Adam in sinless integrity apart from any special constitution that special grace would have contemplated.
Note well: this principle applied to Adam prior to and apart from God’s condescension to reward his obedience – that is, prior to and apart from any Covenant of Works. Recall what Murray said in his Adamic Administration essay. “All that Adam could have claimed on the basis of equity was justification and life as long as he perfectly obeyed, but not confirmation so as to insure indefectibility.” In other words, “life” according to this principle is not “eternal life” but merely “not death.”
2. The principle ‘the man who does shall live’ must be regarded as totally inoperative within the realm of sin… In alluding to Lev. 18:5 at this point he uses the formula ‘the man that doeth… shall live thereby’ as a proper expression in itself of the principle of works-righteousness in contrast with the righteousness of faith. We have no right to contest the apostle’s right to use the terms of Lev. 18:5 for this purpose since they do describe that which holds true when law-righteousness is operative unto justification and life and also express the conception entertained by the person who espouses the same as the way of acceptance with God (cf. also Gal. 3:12).
In other words, the second relationship is in reference to the first, but at a time when man has already fallen. It is a hypothetical statement of what is true if man had not fallen, but that is now “totally inoperative within the realm of sin.” This is how Paul uses it in Romans 10:5. He is adopting “the conception entertained by the person who espouses” righteousness by the law.
3… righteousness and life are never separable. Within the realm of justification by grace through faith there is not only acceptance with God as righteous in the righteousness of Christ but there is also the new life which the believer lives… So Paul can say in the most absolute terms, ‘If ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (8:13). In the realm of grace, therefore, obedience is the way of life. He that does the commandments of God lives in them. The fruit of the Spirit is well-pleasing to God… It is this principle that appears in Lev. 18:5…
Lev. 18:1-5 is parallel to Exod. 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21… The whole passage is no more “legalistic” than are the ten commandments. Hence the words “which if a man do, he shall live in them” (vs. 5) refers not to the life accruing from doing in a legalistic framework but to the blessing attendant upon obedience in a redemptive and covenant relationship to God.
Note the difference between Murray and Waters. Waters says Paul can quote Leviticus 18:5 on this point because the moral demands of the law itself set forth the works principle found in the Covenant of Works. When the gracious covenant context is added to the law, this works principle is removed. Waters notes that WCF 7.2 references Romans 10:5. Murray rejects the confession on this point arguing there is no works principle and no Covenant of Works.
The problem with Murray’s attempted explanation is that it does not sufficiently explain how Paul can quote Leviticus 18:5 as expressing law righteousness since it, in fact, does not. Paul does not say “according to a mistaken conception entertained by the person who espouses a law righteousness that no longer applies, the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” Rather, Paul says “Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” If Leviticus 18:5 “refers not to the life accuring from doing in a legalistic framework” then Moses did not “write about the righteousness that is based on the law.” Paul did not merely “allude” to Leviticus 18:5, nor did he merely “use the terms of Lev. 18:5.” Paul quoted Moses’ teaching on law-righteousness.
When the OPC was formed, it established a Committee on Texts and Proof Texts, headed by John Murray.
As a preliminary step toward the printing of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Seventh General Assembly (1940) established a Committee on Texts and Proof Texts (consisting of John Murray [chairman], E. J. Young, and Ned B. Stonehouse, who was replaced in 1941 by John H. Skilton) to study the texts and proof texts of those documents. That Committee submitted to the Eighteenth General Assembly (1951) “the text of the Confession of Faith, together with the proof texts as revised by the Committee.” The text, except for the revisions that had been adopted by the Second General Assembly in 1936, was “derived from the original manuscript written by Cornelius Burges in 1646, edited by S. W. Carruthers [in 1937] and published by the Presbyterian Church of England in 1946.” That text of the Confession, with a few corrections, was adopted by the Twentysecond General Assembly (1955), approved by nearly all the presbyteries, and adopted again by the Twenty-third General Assembly (1956). The proof texts prepared by the Committee were accepted for publication. The Confession was then published with these proof texts (as citations, not full texts) by the Committee on Christian Education and reprinted by Great Commission Publications
The Scripture proof texts were originally prepared by the Westminster divines, revised over the years by a succession of committees, and approved for publication by various general assemblies of the OPC, but are not a part of the constitution itself.
The original Westminster Confession did not cite Leviticus 18:5 anywhere. In light of the resolution that Murray arrived at, he added Lev 18:5 as a proof text to WCF 19.6.
VI. Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned;[a] yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs, and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of their nature, hearts, and lives;[c] so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin; together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of His obedience. It is likewise of use to the regenerate, to restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law. The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof;[s] although not as due to them by the law, as a covenant of works. So as, a man’s doing good, and refraining from evil, because the law encourageth to the one and deterreth from the other, is no evidence of his being under the law; and not under grace.
s. Ex. 19:5–6. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel. Deut. 5:33. Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess. Lev. 18:5. Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them: I am the Lord. Matt. 19:17. And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Lev. 26:1–13. … If ye walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them; then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall reach unto the vintage, and the vintage shall reach unto the sowing time: and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. And ye shall chase your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.… For I will have respect unto you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, and establish my covenant with you.… And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be my people.… 2 Cor. 6:16. And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Eph. 6:2–3. Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;) that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. Ps. 19:11. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward. Ps. 37:11. But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace. Matt. 5:5. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Judgment According to Works
Note that Matthew 19:17 was added as well. This raises an interesting question as to how Murray saw this principle in relation to “life” and the final judgment for the redeemed Christian. In a lecture titled “Justification” contained in his Collected Writings, Murray says
While it makes void the gospel to introduce works in connection with justification, nevertheless works done in faith, from the motive of love to God, in obedience to the revealed will of God and to the end of his glory are intrinsically good and acceptable to God. As such they will be the criterion of reward in the life to come. This is apparent from such passages as Matthew 10:41; 1 Corinthians 3:8–9, 11–15; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:7. We must maintain therefore, justification complete and irrevocable by grace through faith and apart from works, and at the same time, future reward according to works. In reference to these two doctrines it is important to observe the following:
(i) This future reward is not justification and contributes nothing to that which constitutes justification. (ii) This future reward is not salvation. Salvation is by grace and it is not as a reward for works that we are saved. (iii) The reward has reference to the degree of glory bestowed in the state of bliss, that is, the station a person is to occupy in glory and does not have reference to the gift of glory itself. (iv) This reward is not administered because good works earn or merit reward, but because God is graciously pleased to reward them. That is to say it is a reward of grace. (In the Romish scheme good works have real merit and constitute the ground of the title to everlasting life.) The good works are rewarded because they are intrinsically good and well-pleasing to God. They are not rewarded because they earn reward but they are rewarded only as labour, work or service that is the fruit of God’s grace, conformed to his will and therefore intrinsically good and well-pleasing to him. They could not even be rewarded of grace if they were principally and intrinsically evil.
He held that there was a future judgment for God’s redeemed people, but only to determine the degree of reward they will receive in glory, not whether they will enter glory. However, as we just saw, Matthew 19:17 was cited in order to explain “what blessings [Christians] may expect upon the performance” of the law. Matthew 19:17 is Jesus’ answer to the rich young man who asked “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” – that is, to enter glory, as Jesus replied “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” Thus there appears to be a bit of tension in Murray’s thought on this point. Note his commentary on Romans 2:5-16 where he rejects the hypothetical view held by older reformed theologians.
The reward of this aspiration is in like manner the eschatology of the believer, “eternal life”… Could God judge any unto the reward of eternal life (cf. vs. 7) if works are the criteria? ‘The apostle thus speaks, not in the way of abstract hypothesis but of concrete assertion… He says not what God would do were He to proceed in accordance with the primal rule and standard of the law, but what, proceeding according to that rule, He will actually do.’… The determining factor in the rewards of retribution or of glory is not the privileged position of the Jew but evil-doing or well-doing respectively.
Samuel Waldron notes
Murray’s lecture on justification contained in the Collected Writings affirms that works only have to do with the degree of reward in glory, while in his Romans commentary he affirms that the judgment by works which has the twin consequences of eternal life and wrath is not hypothetical. I see no way to evade the fact of some contradiction between the two statements…
I think a good argument could be made that the Romans commentary contains Murray’s more mature and definitive thoughts. This is so for two reasons. First, as Iain Murray notes in his introduction to CW 2 (vi-ix) Murray resisted appeals to publish the class lectures from which the article on justification in CW 2 is taken. It seems clear, then, that his commentary which he wrote for publication should be given some precedence over the lecture in CW 2. Also the commentary was published in 1959 only 7 years before his retirement from Westminster in 1966. The lecture likely dates from much earlier in his tenure at Westminster where he taught systematic theology from 1930.
So there appears to be development in Murray’s thought as he works out the implications of Leviticus 18:5. Returning to his commentary, note that verse 13 goes on to say “the doers of the law who will be justified,” which leads Murray directly towards a dangerous position. He attempts to put on the brakes
It is quite unnecessary to find in this verse any doctrine of justification by works in conflict with the teaching of 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. The burden of this verse is that not the hearers or mere possessors of the law will be justified before God but that in terms of the law the criterion is doing, not hearing. The apostle’s appeal to this principle serves that purpose truly and effectively, and there is no need to import questions that are not relevant to the universe of discourse.
This is the first occasion that the word “justify” is used in this epistle. Although it is not used here with reference to the justification which is the grand theme of the epistle, the forensic meaning of the term is evident even in this case. “Shall be justified” is synonymous with “just before God” and the latter refers to standing or status in the sight of God. To justify, therefore, would be the action whereby men would be recognized as just before God or the action whereby men are given the status of being just in God’s sight. For a fuller treatment of the nature of justification and the meaning of the terms the reader is referred to the appendix on this subject (pp. 336 ff).
Murray attempts to backpedal by arguing that “will be justified” is hypothetical, in direct contradiction to his previous statements about the passage. As a result, you will actually get two different interpretations of Murray, some saying he denied the hypothetical interpretation, others saying he agreed with it. (See here and here as examples)
In an attempt to work out the contradictions in the system of theology found in the Westminster Confession, particularly the idea that the Mosaic Covenant of Works was the Covenant of Grace, John Murray rejected the Covenant of Works on the grounds that Scripture does not teach a “works principle” in Leviticus 18:5 or anywhere else. Contrary to Guy Waters and others, Murray recognized that Leviticus 18:5 was the statement of a principle – the principle of equity – not simply the law itself. He therefore recognized that the principle found in Leviticus 18:5 and Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 must be the same. He recognized that if the principle found in Leviticus 18:5 is part of the terms of the Covenant of Grace, then that principle is not part of the terms of a Covenant of Works. Therefore the principle found in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 is not a Covenant of Works. Therefore Scripture does not teach a Covenant of Works.
As Murray began to iron out Westminster’s inconsistent appeal to Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12, he also began to iron out the implications of his view for the rest of his theology. We saw progression in his thought in the wrong direction – towards a false gospel of justification by works. He slammed on the breaks, but without a consistent explanation as to why – leaving it to his successors to work out.
False teacher Peter Leithart offers a helpful summary of why proponents of the Federal Vision believe in monocovenantalism (the belief that the pre-fall Adamic Covenant was essentially the same as the post-fall Covenant of Grace).
Grace and law from God’s side, and a demand for faith and obedience from man, characterize every covenant in Scripture. No covenant is exclusively legal or exclusively gracious. No one is ever called to a dis-obedient faith or a faithless obedience.
Read the rest to understand this influential error. See also Doug Wilson’s CREC “Examination” Questions 5, 8, 39-46. Compare with John Murray’s rejection of a works principle anywhere in Scripture.
John Piper recently answered a question about the use of confessions by a church. I’m thankful for several parts of his answer, and I have some comments to offer on the other parts.
First, Piper affirms and defends the validity, necessity, and value of confessions of faith:
Christianity that is unified around a written confession of faith, at its best, is the best Christianity… Confessional summaries of biblical truth really do help us in our faith, because I think faith thrives on deep, true doctrine that is brought out of the Scriptures, properly summarized, applied to peoples’ lives, and in our souls, in our families, in our churches, even in society. That kind of clear, doctrinal truth is healthy for life and for obedience to Jesus.
In light of this, Bethlehem Baptist Church created The Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith (I believe in 2003) and they modified their by-laws to state “Elders are also required to be in agreement with the Bethlehem Baptist Church Elder Affirmation of Faith” The confession states
We believe that the cause of unity in the church is best served, not by finding the lowest common denominator of doctrine, around which all can gather, but by elevating the value of truth, stating the doctrinal parameters of church or school or mission or ministry, seeking the unity that comes from the truth, and then demonstrating to the world how Christians can love each other across boundaries rather than by removing boundaries. (15:2)
The rest of Piper’s answer focuses on why they wrote a new confession rather than holding to the 1689 London Baptist Confession. Many have criticized Piper on this point, but the criticism mainly focuses on his reasons for disagreeing with the 1689. Before addressing those disagreements, we should applaud Piper. Why? Because he properly recognizes the purpose of a confession. He notes that “the elders will all be officially united under the teaching of the BBC Elder Affirmation of Faith and held accountable to maintain it through life and doctrine.” The basis of unity in their church is that the elders all confess the same doctrine. The foundational assumption here is that when people affirm a confession, they affirm a confession. That is, they don’t affirm some essence or substance or system or vitals of the faith underlying the confession. They confess the confession. That’s the whole point! They specifically wrote a confession that they could all agree on all the points, and then they use that as the basis for unity. Very straightforward.
Methods of Subscription
However, such a straightforward approach to a confession is not practiced by Presbyterians and others. In a recent helpful piece On the Need for and Practice of Confessing the Faith, Samuel Renihan notes “It is a sad day when what we confess and how we confess must be dealt with independently.” What was described above is known as “full subscription.” It is the method of subscription held to by ARBCA because it is the most logical (see James Renihan’s lecture). Everyone agrees with the document that was written to express common agreement. This was how the London Baptist Confessions were used. However, it was not how the Westminster Confession was used.
This difference goes back to the fundamental difference in ecclesiology. Presbyterians believed that the visible church was one universal institution organized geographically. The church was national and there was only one. And this national church needed a confession of faith. However, this confession of faith was not intended to be a confession of what individual ministers believed, necessarily. Instead, it was the governing standard for the national church. It was requested by Parliament so that it could be the legal basis for defrocking a minister. Specifically, it governed what could and could not be preached in the local parishes of the one national church – that is, what could be preached anywhere in the country by anyone.
If a minister wished to preach the gospel, he could only do so as a licensed minister in the national church and he was required to adhere to this confession. However, he was not personally required to agree with the confession. He was only forbidden from contradicting the confession in his preaching. This distinction between public and private reflected their view of liberty of conscience as it related to punishment by the civil magistrate. A citizen had liberty to believe what he wished in his own mind, but no citizen was allowed to publicly blaspheme God or display an idol. He was not allowed to make his beliefs public.
Eventually, because of problems with unbelieving ministers filling pulpits, the Church of Scotland began to require individual ministers to confess or subscribe to the system of doctrine underlying the confession. They did not have to confess agreement with every point, but with the essence of the faith. The confession in full still stood as the legal standard for public preaching.
Building on this, Presbyterian churches in America today (note the plural) do not require “full subscription.” Instead, they each have varying levels of requiring ministers to confess something less than the confession (i.e. J.V. Fesko’s THE LEGACY OF OLD SCHOOL CONFESSION SUBSCRIPTION IN THE OPC, & the PCA’s adoption of Good Faith Subscription and here). But because American Presbyterians reformed the British Presbyterian doctrine of liberty of conscience to be more logically consistent and more in agreement with the baptist doctrine of liberty of conscience and its necessary implication of voluntarism, they no longer require full adherence to the confession in public preaching. After all, since there is no such thing as a national church and ministers have divinely granted liberty of conscience to voluntarily be a part of whichever denomination or tradition of Christianity they believe best reflects Scripture, what basis do they have for prohibiting a minister from preaching his conscience? In other words, there was no longer any logical basis for a distinction between private beliefs and public beliefs. So the use of the confession in “full” was discarded and all that remained was the use of the underlying “system” in the confession.
A Confession within a Confession
Of course, determining what exactly constitutes this underlying system and what would constitute an actual violation of the confession has been a matter of debate since then. For example, in response to a recent post by Mark Jones on this question, D. Patrick Ramsey notes:
How do we determine whether Hypothetical Universalism (or any other controversial view) is acceptable or not? Consider the following questions:
Do we accept HU because even though it is contrary to the Confession it is an allowable exception or scruple because it doesn’t strike at the vitals of the Confession as evident by its place within the Reformed Tradition?
If so, we are compelled to ask: What are the vitals of the Confession and why don’t we make that our Confession? How do we determine what are the vitals of the Confession? How popular must a view be in the Reformed Tradition for it to be acceptable? NOTE: I realize that we all operate upon the basis of there being the vitals of the Confession unless we don’t allow for any exceptions. But still, it does seem so elusive and subjective…
The real confession seems to be the confession within the confession.
Ramsey makes an important point: if the vitals of the Confession are the true boundaries of the Confession, why don’t they just make that their Confession without all the extra stuff they don’t all agree on? Isn’t that the point of a confession? Of course doing so would be a difficult process and it would mean departing from the historic confession, but the only other alternative is to make the meaning of the Confession “elusive and subjective” which defeats the entire point of the confession, as Piper rightly explains:
Without a written summary of biblical truth we tend to be vague about what we believe. Some people think that avoiding confessions of faith provides greater Christian unity, because writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.
But the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
The purpose of a written confession is precision. If the precision of the written document is being discarded for an elusive, subjective, and vague “essence” then the entire purpose of the confession is being discarded. Samuel Renihan asks “Why hold to a confession of faith if you’re not confessing it to be true? Either remake the document or compose your own. And then confess that document. “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:37, James 5:12).”
This is precisely what Piper and his church have done. They disagree with the 2nd London Baptist Confession so they do not confess it. They wrote down what they believe and confessed that instead. That is to be applauded. We need more of that. We need both the precision of written statements of faith as well as the willingness to affirm what is actually written. Commenting on the PCA’s 2003 adoption of “Good Faith” subscription, Ryan McGraw argues
A Confession of Faith, therefore, is a written summary of doctrines that are held in common by a definite body of believers for the purpose of together confessing with their mouths what they believe in their hearts… [T]his practice [good faith subscription] has effectively abrogated the role of the Westminster Standards from being the public profession of faith of the PCA. As a result, the PCA has become a church without a Confession of Faith…
The nature of Creeds and Confessions is to be subscribed to without equivocation or reservation… if the members of the group in question do not subscribe to the Confession of Faith en toto, then the Confession has lost both its nature and its proper function…
The case would be different if the PCA subscribed to a curtailed version of the Westminster Standards, or to some other Confession of Faith that her ministers could agree upon. Instead we have an undefined Creed, which in practice amounts to no Creed… [N]o Confession of Faith is infallible and unalterable. Instead of allowing undefined “exceptions” to the doctrinal Standards of the Church, the Church ought to change the Confession to reflect agreed upon terms of unity.
In this regard, Piper and his co-elders are more confessional than most Presbyterians who “confess” the Westminster Confession.
The reason that baptists and Presbyterians approach confessions differently is because Presbyterianism is still foundationally influenced by the medieval view of the church. The Dissenting Brethren of the Assembly (Congregationalists) said “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” In short, Piper and the other elders in his church had the liberty to draft a confession that specifically reflected their actual beliefs. Their ordination and their very ministry was not tied to a confession they did not agree with. The hierarchy of Presbyterianism functionally inhibits a minister’s liberty, leading many of them to affirm a confession they don’t affirm rather than writing one they do.
Disagreements with the 2nd London Baptist Confession
Yes, Piper has disagreements with the 1689, and obviously I don’t agree with his reasons. But we can have a very meaningful conversation about those points of disagreement specifically because the differences are clearly written and articulated. Both sides agree that words have meaning. That provides the sufficient foundation for iron to sharpen iron. As Piper said “writing things down requires precision and clarity and explicitness and all of those precipitate disagreements and arguments.”
Here are his reasons:
1) The language is somewhat foreign. Its vocabulary is like reading the King James Version. And I think it is probably a mistake to try to enshrine that today as the one if you expect families to use it without any updated form.
2) While I am able to affirm that Genesis 1 refers to literal 24-hour days, I had a hard time thinking that I should make that a matter of confessional faithfulness to Christianity, and so I stumbled over that section.
Piper’s reasoning here is more commendable than those who try to argue the confession does not require one to hold to literal 24-hour days of creation.
3) The understanding of the Sabbath is, perhaps, more rigorous and narrow than my understanding of the implications of Jesus’s teaching about the Sabbath.
Despite his disagreement with the confession’s stance, there is still much to agree with in Piper over against NCT. For example, my post Resources for Studying the Sabbath opens with an affirmative quote from Piper. You can read my post there for more arguments on the topic, but again, if Piper doesn’t agree with the doctrine, then he is right not to confess it.
4) There are certain historic categories of theology, like the covenant of works and others, that have proved useful, but you might wonder: Shall I make that the structure of the theology I am going to present?
This is a huge point. Again, Piper is to be commended for recognizing that he is in disagreement with the 1689 on this point. Some, like Gregory Nichols, agree with Piper but still claim to hold to the 1689. In fact, several Presbyterians who confess the Westminster Confession are in agreement with Piper on the nature of God’s covenant with Adam (that it was gracious and non-meritorious and thus not of works) yet they still confess Westminster (see here and here, which provides context for here). That creates more problems than just disagreeing with the doctrine. Thankfully Piper’s desire for clarity and precision and his clear understanding of the words of the Confession mean we can argue and discuss whether the doctrine is biblical rather simply getting stuck arguing about the Confession and never getting to the part about the bible (as is happening in Presbyterian circles at the moment).
Second, Piper is to be commended for understanding that the covenant of works is not an accessory of the Confession but is instead part of it’s very structure. As Dr. Sam Waldron notes in his dissertation:
Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.
–Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186
Piper is to be commended over against men like Shepherd who still try to confess Westminster, but notice the context of Waldron’s comments. Notice how serious of an issue this is. Piper’s disagreement on this point means he does not hold to the Reformed Baptist system of theology. The structure of theology provided by the doctrine of the covenant of works is the ground of the Reformation’s soteriology, rooted in a contrast between law (works) and gospel (faith). Apart from the covenant of works, there is no objective difference between law and gospel, which is precisely Piper’s view.
This is why Piper agrees with Doug Wilson on the gospel, calling him “brilliant” and his critics “dumb.” Perhaps Piper thinks Wilson is “brilliant” because in his ordination examination (which Piper specifically references), Wilson specifically quotes Piper to articulate his view of the covenant of works (the “examination” was a farce put on by the denomination he started).
45.Please comment on the following quote by John Piper:
“… I am hesitant to call Jesus’ obedience in life and death the fulfilment of a “covenant of works.” This term generally implies that “works” stand over against “grace,” and are not the fulfilment of faith in grace. Thus works implies a relationship with God that is more like an employer receiving earned waged than like a Son trusting a Father’s generosity. I see God’s grace as the basis of his relationship with Adam and Eve before the fall. I see this Christ, the Second Adam, fulfilling this covenant of grace (not works) perfectly by trusting his Father’s provision at every moment and obeying all his commandments by faith. His relationship to the Father was one of constant trust. His obedience was the effect of this trust. “Grace” toward Jesus was not exactly the same as grace toward fallen sinners. He never sinned (Heb. 4:15). Yet, in his human life he was dependent upon God similar to the way we are. Not only that, he took our sin on himself (Is.53:6). Thus God exerted a kind of “grace” in overcoming his curse on sin in order to exalt Christ (Future Grace, 413).
Wilson: I agree with this fully.
What is worth noting is Wilson’s answer to question 3:
3. Have you vowed to uphold and defend the system of doctrine contained in the WCF? Have you taken any exceptions to the WCF?…
… Chapter 7: Of God’s Covenant with Man— Para . 2: (cf. Chp. 19, para. 1, 6). We would clarify that the “covenant of works” was not meritorious and we deny that any covenant can be kept without faith. Good works, even in this covenant were a result of faith, as illustrated by the Sabbath rest which was Adam’s first full day in the presence of God.
So while Piper recognizes that his rejection of the covenant of works entails a rejection of the structure of the 1689 Confession, Wilson feels he can take an exception to the covenant of works and still hold to the Westminster Confession.
5. Do you have any exceptions, qualifications, or scruples to that confession in the areas of this examination? Please explain.
No, I do not have any exceptions in any area dealing with the federal vision controversy. However, one qualification I would like to note is that I believe the covenant of works mentioned in Chapter VII is badly named. I would prefer something like the covenant of life (WLC 20), or the covenant of creation. I believe that this covenant obligated Adam to whole-hearted obedience to the requirement of God. The one stipulation I would add is that, had Adam stood, he would have been required to thank God for His gracious protection and provision. And had Adam stood, he would have done so by believing the Word of God. In other words, it would all have been by grace through faith. Since Adam was not fallen, the nature of the grace would have been different than it is when dealing with mankind in sin. But it would have been gracious nonetheless.
…40.Was the covenant of works a gracious covenant? How is it to be distinguished from the covenant of grace?What is your view of the “covenant of works”?
Yes, the covenant of works was gracious in that Adam was surrounded by the goodness of a giving God. And if Adam had stood, even that standing would have been a gift from God, which he would have received by faith. But while all gifts are gifts, not all gifts are the same. The gift of preservation to an unfallen Adam is quite different than the gift of forgiveness to a rebellious and iniquitous race. The fact of giving is the same. The content of the gifts is different. I may give my wife a string of pearls one Christmas, and a coffee table the next. My desire and disposition to give is the same. But pearls are not a coffee table.
Unconfessional Doctrine and Church Courts
The method of subscription practiced by Presbyterian churches is clearly one of the factors (there are many) involved in their inability to keep Federal Vision pastors out of their churches (see Ryan McGraw’s comments on this point). Federal Vision theology clearly departs from the Westminster Confession, but departure from the Westminster Confession is not sufficient grounds to remove a minister from his office. On this very question of the covenant of works and the works principle, John Murray argued that the confessional position needed to be revised and recast in light of a better understanding of Scripture. He argued that there was no works principle in Scripture and he specifically rejected the Confession’s citation of Gal 3:12 and Rom 10:5 as proof of one.
In regards to this, J.V. Fesko argues that Murray’s rejection of the Confession on this point was acceptable because it was consistent with American Presbyterianism’s view of subscription.
Like their Old School predecessors before them, they [1st GA of the OPC] recognized that men could hold exceptions to the Standards, propagate them, and still be considered as officers in good standing…
“the commitment of oneself to every proposition [of the Westminster Standards] as the condition of exercising office in the Church is hardly consistent with the liberty of judgment on certain points of doctrine which has been characteristic of the Reformed Churches.” (Murray)
This statement, then, places Murray in agreement with his Old School predecessors as well as with the overall trajectory of the OPC on subscription. Murray does not merely allow semantic exceptions, but exceptions over entire propositions within the Standards…
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. It is important to note that this is yet another example of how an advocate of Old School ideology practices his confession subscription.
What Piper said about churches without any confession applies to churches with a confession they don’t fully confess (what Ramsey referred to as an elusive and subjective real confession within the written confession).
the alternative is to obscure those disagreements under a cloud of vagueness, and the effect of that so-called unity is that it constantly depends on keeping clarity of truth at a distance. You can’t see it with precision up close and it lets you down in the end when crucial applications and decisions have to be made on the basis of truth, and it has now been kept obscure all this time and we don’t have it there to apply in crucial cases.
While I appreciate Piper’s willingness to state clearly what he believes and does not believe, I think his disagreement with the confession on this point is unbiblical (For more on Piper’s view of the covenant of works, see here and here and here). While simply having a detailed confession of faith is a very good thing for a church, making that confession a historic confession has the benefit of leaning on many, many more men than just yourselves. While Piper and his co-elders strove to not be idiosyncratic, they could not possibly have deliberated over their confession to the same degree that historic confessions like the 1689 London Baptist Confession were simply by virtue of how many people were involved, if nothing else. Furthermore, it can be well argued that those men were much better theologians and thus more qualified to write a confession. Regardless, the takeaway is that Piper’s greatest point of departure from the 1689, and his strongest reason for not holding it, is simultaneously the most problematic aspect of his ministry.
5) This is going to sound so piddly — and yet you can’t be piddly in a confession — little things like saying that bread and wine are prescribed in the Lord’s Supper. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper. That comes as a shock to a lot of people. It doesn’t say that is what was used.
This is not a subject I’ve studied, but I have heard very good things about this sermon http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=322111921180 But once again, we should appreciate how seriously Piper takes the practice of confession. He could dismiss the issue as trivial and say he still holds to the 1689 Confession, but he doesn’t because he believes words matter.
A short demonstration on the importance of covenant theology:
John Piper denies a works principle anywhere in Scripture, including the Covenant of Works.
Has God ever commanded anyone to obey with a view to earning or meriting life? Would God command a person to do a thing that he uniformly condemns as arrogant?
In Romans 11:35-36, Paul describes why earning from God is arrogant and impossible. He says, ‘Who has first given to [God] that it might be paid back to him? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” The thought that anyone could give anything to God with a view to being paid back with merit or wages is presumptuous and impossible, because all things (including obedience) are from God in the first place. You can’t earn from God by giving him what is already his…
It is true that God commanded Adam to obey him, and it is also true that failure to obey would result in death (Genesis 2:16-17): “In the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (verse 17). But the question is this: What kind of obedience is required for the inheritance of life – the obedience of earning or the obedience of trusting? The Bible presents two very different kinds of effort to keep God’s commandments. One way is legalistic; it depends on our own strength and aims to earn life. The other way we might call evangelical; it depends on God’s enabling power and aims to obtain life by faith in his promises, which is shown in the freedom of obedience…
Adam had to walk in obedience to his Creator in order to inherit life, but the obedience required of him was the obedience that comes from faith. God did not command legalism, arrogance, and suicide… There was no hint that Adam was to earn or deserve. The atmosphere was one of testing faith in unmerited favor, not testing willingness to earn or merit. The command of God was for the obedience that comes from faith…
What then of the ‘second Adam,’ Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the obedience that Adam forsook (1 Cor 15:45; Rom 5:14-20)?… He fulfilled the Law perfectly in the way that the Law was meant to be fulfilled from the beginning, not by works, but by faith (Rom 9:32)…
We are called to walk the way Jesus walked and the way Adam was commanded to walk. Adam failed because he did not trust the grace of God to pursue him with goodness and mercy all his days (Psalm 23:6).
A Godward Life, p. 177
Piper is correct that man can never earn anything from God. But that is why our confession recognizes that God voluntarily condescended to Adam and offered him a reward for his labor that he did not deserve (LBCF 7.1). In so doing, he made Adam a wage earner. Piper rejects this. And because he rejects this, he does not believe there is any objective contrast between the law and faith.
When Paul says “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5; Lev 18:5) Piper says that refers to a subjective “legalistic” attitude towards law-keeping, and not to any objective difference between the law and faith. As a result, he says:
Let me declare myself clearly here: I believe in the necessity of a transformed life of obedience to Jesus by the power of the Spirit through faith as a public evidence and confirmation of faith at the Last Day for all who will finally be saved. In other words, I believe it is actually true, not just hypothetically true, that God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom.2:6–7).
The Future of Justification, p. 110
So Christians are called “to walk the way Adam was commanded to walk” in order that God may give us eternal life.
However, if we recognize the biblical truth taught in LBCF/WCF 7.1, we will see that God gave Adam the law *as a covenant of works* to thereby earn eternal life. This is the “works principle” articulated in Lev 18:5. This principle is quoted by Paul as a contrast to the faith principle, not because it referred to a subjective legalistic attitude in the Judaizers, but because it referred to an objectively different means of obtaining a reward: works vs faith.
Owen explains that Rom 2:6-7, 13 is a further statement of this works principle:
The words there [Rom 2:7] are used in a law sense, and are declarative of the righteousness of God in rewarding the keepers of the law of nature, or the moral law, according to the law of the covenant of works. This is evident from the whole design of the apostle in that place, which is to convince all men, Jews and Gentiles, of sin against the law, and of the impossibility of the obtaining the glory of God thereby.
We are not hereon justified by the law, or the works of it… The meaning of it in the Scripture is, that only “the doers of the law shall be justified,” Romans 2:13; and that “he that does the things of it shall live by them,” chapter 10:5, — namely, in his own person, by the way of personal duty, which alone the law requires. But if we, who have not fulfilled the law in the way of inherent, personal obedience, are justified by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ unto us, then are we justified by Christ, and not by the law.
-The Doctrine of Justification
There is also a twofold justification before God mentioned in the Scripture. First, “By the works of the law,” Romans 2:13; 10:5; Matthew 19:16-19. Here unto is required an absolute conformity unto the whole law of God, in our natures, all the faculties of our souls, all the principles of our moral operations, with perfect actual obedience unto all its commands, in all instances of duty, both for matter and manner: for he is cursed who continues not in all things that are written in the law, to do them; and he that break any one commandment is guilty of the breach of the whole law. Hence the apostle concludes that none can be justified by the law, because all have sinned. Second, There is a justification by grace, through faith in the blood of Christ; whereof we treat. And these ways of justification are contrary, proceeding on terms directly contradictory, and cannot be made consistent with or subservient one to the other.
-The Doctrine of Justification
Reading the comments online over the role of our works following John Piper’s words in his foreword for Thomas Schreiner can be a little confusing. The reality is, the comments you read are the tip of an iceberg. Under the water there is a vast labyrinth of debate over biblical, systematic, and historical theology. My goal, in this post, is to give you a snapshot of that labyrinth, as succinctly as I can. The end will include a recommended bibliography.
(Dates are approximate)
- 1954: WTS professor (1930-67) John Murray (1898-1975) in The Covenant of Grace: A Biblico-Theological Study says covenant theology “needs recasting.”
- 1958: Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) rejects the Covenant of Works because God’s dealings with his creatures are exclusively gracious, thus teaching monocovenantalism (same covenant both pre and post-fall). Gospel always precedes law.
- 1973(?): In The Adamic Administration, Murray rejects the Covenant of Works on the grounds that it does not account for the elements of grace present. Eternal life was a promise of grace to Adam, not a meritorious reward to be earned. Lev 18:5; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12 state the obedience all image bearers naturally owe, not a principle of works. Murray indicated that he had actually been impacted a bit by Barth’s argumentation on the nature of the Covenant of Works.
- 1976-1982: Norman Shepherd (1933-) succeeded Murray in the chair of systematic theology at WTS (began teaching there in 1963). In a 1975 faculty discussion, Shepherd affirmed that works are an instrument of justification. The “Justification Controversy” begins when Shepherds’ students affirm that we are justified by faith and works in their ordination examinations. Shepherd further develops on Murray to fully embrace monocovenantalism, rejecting a “works-merit” paradigm in favor of a “faith-grace” paradigm to describe Adam’s pre-fall relationship to God, which is the same as ours today. The “antithesis between the covenant of works and an antithetical covenant of grace” is “schizophrenic.” He rejects the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, arguing that justification is only the remission of sins, which we receive through obedient faith. The controversy raged for 6 years until Shepherd was finally let go, though not fired for his unbiblical and unconfessional views. He was never tried for heresy (he was transferred to the CRC).
- 1981: An intended merger between the OPC and the PCA failed because of the OPC’s toleration of Shepherd’s doctrine of justification.
- 1965-: Richard Gaffin, after studying at WTS, began teaching there 2 years after Shepherd (1965-2014?). Gaffin was an outspoken, ardent defender of Shepherd throughout the justification controversy. His support for Shepherd continued long after Shepherd left. In 2000, Gaffin endorsed Shepherd’s book on monocovenantalism The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, saying “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.” Gaffin has never recanted or withdrawn his support for Shepherd. Romans 2:6-16 becomes a central point for Gaffin’s theology. In his lectures on Romans, he says “It’s a life and death situation that’s in view here. Further, this ultimate judgment has as its criterion or standard… good works. The doing of the law, as that is the criterion for all human beings, again, believers as well as unbelievers. In fact, in the case of the believer a positive outcome is in view and that positive outcome is explicitly said to be justification… Eternal life follows upon a future justification by doing the law.”
- 2001: The 68th OPC GA votes to add Romans 2:6,7,13,16 as proof-texts for WLC90. It was not present in the original.
- 2002: Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church hosted its annual pastors’ conference with speakers Douglas Wilson, John Barach, Steve Wilkins, and Steve Schlissel addressing the topic “The Federal Vision: An Examination of Reformed Covenantalism.” This launched the Federal Vision movement, of which Norman Shepherd is often referred to as the father.
- 2002-03: John Kinnaird (1935-), a ruling elder in the OPC and vocal defender of Shepherd during the controversy (calling for judicial action against those who continued their opposition to Shepherd), is found guilty of teaching justification by faith and works by his session (congregation) for statements such as “[T]he pre-Iapsarian (before Adam’s sin) Covenant of Works with Adam, [is] but [a] sub-part of the Covenant of Redemption… It is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous on that Day of Judgement. WCF XXXIII.I and II Romans 2:1-16.” “On the day of judgment I will hear God declare me to be righteous… The reason will be first because it will be true because God will have changed me so that I am really and personally righteous. After all, we will be crowned with righteousness. This is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in my sanctification in this life.” The verdict is upheld by the Philadelphia Presbytery (regional rule of elders). However the verdict is then overturned by the OPC GA on the basis of the 2001 addition of proof-texts to WLC90. Richard Gaffin defended Kinnaird as an expert witness during the trial and led the move to overturn the verdict on the floor of the GA where he said “In that future aspect of justification, the sanctification of believers – by which we could also say, their obedience, the good works for which they have been created in Christ Jesus – in that future judgment, in that future aspect, the sanctification of believers over the course of their lives, however imperfect, will come into consideration. Sanctification will come into consideration at the final judgment… That’s good news.” Kinnaird recently came to Piper’s defense.
- 2004: The 2004 OPC General Assembly reversed the proof-text change as the result of an overture by the Presbytery of Connecticut and Southern New York.
- 2005: Richard Gaffin delivers lectures at the Auburn Avenue pastors’ conference, together with N.T. Wright. Gaffin’s lectures become his book By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation.
- 2012: Federal Vision proponents publish a festschrift for Norman Shepherd titled Obedient Faith.
- 2013: Mark Jones writes foreword to 2nd edition of Gaffin’s book, which was “deeply influential in [his] own theological thinking.” Asking “what could I possibly say that is not already said better in this book?” Mark answers “it ocurred to me that extensive references to early modern Reformed divines (ca. 1500-1800) were absent… So I am happy to provide some historical background, especially when some have questioned Professor Gaffin’s theology in relation to the early modern period.” Thus Jones’ work has been to establish historic precedent for Gaffin’s view of justification.
- 1980: Daniel Fuller (1925-), son of the co-founder of Fuller Theological Seminary and professor at FTS (1953-93) writes a critique of both dispensationalism and covenant theology Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum?: The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology in which he argues there is no antithesis between law and gospel. Therefore “the law and the gospel are one and the same.” In subsequent papers he affirms “Moses was justified by the work, or obedience, of faith… good works are made the instrumental cause of justification.” Fuller says the Covenant of Works is the “highest kind of blasphemy” because it puts God in man’s debt. “[T]he blessing Adam was to receive after passing his probationary test [was] a work of grace rather than the payment of debt.“
- 1991: John Piper, former student of Fuller, writes a foreword to Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible: Unfolding God’s Plan for Humanity in which he says “No book besides the Bible has had a greater influence on my life than Daniel Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible. When I first read it as a classroom syllabus over twenty years ago, everything began to change… God’s law stopped being at odds with the gospel. It stopped being a job description for earning wages under a so-called covenant of works (which I never could find in the Bible)… The whole question of how saving faith relates to obedience was transformed. Obedience is not just tacked onto faith as a disconnected evidence… The life-changing effects of Fuller’s ‘The Unity of the Bible’ are not a fluke.”
- 1995: John Piper writes Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God in which he says “Daniel Fuller’s vision of the Christian life as an ‘obedience of faith’ is the garden in which the plants of my ponderings have grown. Almost three decades of dialogue on the issues in this book have left a deep imprint. If I tried to show it with foot-notes, they would be on almost every page.”
- 2007: Piper writes The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright in which he says “Gaffin’s exegetical efforts in By Faith, Not by Sight and the careful work of many other scholars [i.e. Fuller], and my own efforts to understand Scripture persuade me that this is the true biblical understanding of the function of works in the final judgment.”
The list could go on for pages and pages, but hopefully this helps give a snapshot of what’s going on below the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t included here any of the response to this view, particularly that of Kline and his followers. Kline was the most vocal critique. However, Kline made some fundamental errors and intentionally rejected parts of the confession regarding the Covenant of Works. Thus his followers, though correct of justification by faith alone, are off the mark on other areas that make their response somewhat ineffective. A lot of what you’ll see online is argumentation between these two schools of thought, focused in WTS and WSC. I don’t fully side with either, though WSC does get sola fide correct.
In a subsequent post I will be reviewing Gaffin’s book and referring to this timeline. The key issue in this debate is the Covenant of Works/covenantal merit. The law/gospel antithesis is the Covenant of Works/Covenant of Grace distinction. When that is rejected, one must re-interpret what justification apart from works means. These men do so by arguing that the works Paul has in mind are works done with a sinful motive to earn reward. We are justified apart from those works, not because they are imperfect, but because we cannot earn anything from God. However, as James says, we are not justified by faith alone apart from works. What James is referring to is “the obedience of faith.” Paul and James are referring to the same justification, but they are referring to different works. Justification is apart from self-wrought works of merit, but not apart from Spirit-wrought works of faith (so they say).
It all starts with the rejection of the Covenant of Works.
[T]here is no place in Shepherd’s theology for anything like the dichotomy between law and gospel that lays at the foundation of justification sola fide for the Reformation. If there is no such thing as meritorious works, if Christ’s work was believing obedience, if the obedience of faith is the righteousness of faith, then we are clearly dealing with a system of doctrine that has no way to express the Reformation’s contrast between law and gospel. Such a system cannot consistently affirm the justification sola fide squarely built on this contrast.
Allegiance to The Westminster Confession is often understood as subscription to its “system of doctrine.” The Westminster Confession accurately represents the Reformation system of doctrine when it grounds its soteriology on a contrast between the law (“the covenant of works”) and the gospel (“the covenant of grace”). Shepherd has no place for such a structure in his theology and cannot, therefore, affirm consistently the “system of doctrine” taught in the Confession he cites so often in his writings.
–Faith, Obedience, and Justification: Current Evangelical Departures, p. 186
- The Current Justification Controversy O. Palmer Robertson
- A Companion to the Current Justification Controversy John W. Robbins
- Faith, Obedience, and Justification Samuel E. Waldron
- The Doctrine of Justification John Owen
- Can the Orthodox Presbyterian Church Be Saved? John R. Robbins
- Can the Presbyterian Church in America Be Saved? Sean Gerety
- The Changing of the Guard Mark W. Karlberg
- Christianity & Neo-Liberalism Paul Elliot
- The Emperor Has No Clothes Stephen Cunha
- Not Reformed At All John W. Robbins & Sean Gerety
Lord willing, this will the first in a series of four posts.
In a previous post Nehemiah Coxe on Merit in LBCF 7.1 I quoted covenant theologian Nehemiah Coxe explaining WCF/LBCF 7.1 and how it teaches the concept of covenantal merit. He was very clear about its meaning – so much so that it makes you wonder why theologians today aren’t as clear on it. Samuel Renihan has helpfully paraphrased the meaning of 7.1
But there seems to be a lot of confusion. In his critical review of John Frame’s Systematic Theology, Ryan McGraw gives us a clue as to why.
Frame’s treatment of covenant theology is more traditional in some respects than some modern approaches, and less so in others. In contrast to many contemporary authors, Frame defends an intra-trinitarian covenant (pactum salutis or covenant of redemption) standing behind all historical covenants. However, he argues for the presence of a creation covenant that is distinct from the covenant of works. This relates to the third Lordship attribute, which is God’s covenant presence. In other words, God is not Lord if he is not present, and his presence is inherently covenantal. In Frame’s view, the fact of creation results in a creation covenant.
Early Reformed orthodoxy identified two covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. High orthodoxy added the eternal covenant of redemption to this scheme. Some Reformed theologians treated the Mosaic covenant as a covenant distinct from the covenant of grace. The results were that most Reformed thinkers held either to one eternal covenant with two primary historical covenants (works and grace), or to one eternal covenant with three primary historical covenants (works, grace, and Mossaic).Reformed authors generally equated the creation covenant with the covenant of works. Some, such as Herman Witsius, argued that the covenant of works was coeval with man’s creation. Others, such as Thomas Goodwin, argued that God instituted the covenant of works when he prohibited Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Reformed writers agreed about the nature of this covenant and they did not recognize another creation covenant distinct from it. They tended to regard passages such as Jeremiah 33, in which the prophet referred to God’s covenant with day and night, as metaphorical expressions.
While Frame is not alone in identifying a creation covenant as distinct from the covenant of works, this is an appropriate place to notice the silent shift that has taken place in Reformed covenant theology. This does not make the shift right or wrong, but it raises the questions when it occurred and how it affects the system of Reformed doctrine. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 acknowledges that man could not enjoy God as his fruition or reward apart from a ‘voluntary condescension’ by way of covenant. Yet even apart from this “voluntary condescension,” mankind owed obedience to God and related to him as creature to Creator. It seems problematic biblically to equate the Creator/creature relationship with a covenant. In Scripture, all covenants involve relationships, but not all relationships are covenantal. Covenants affect the quality of the relationship between God and people, but the Creator/creature relationship would still exist without covenants. In Frame’s case, an additional creation covenant appears to be a theological result of his Lordship paradigm.
McGraw’s point is that man has a natural relationship to God apart from any covenantal condescension. Man naturally owed obedience to God and man knew God apart from any covenantal condescension. Again, see my previous post for an elaboration.
The silent shift that McGraw is referring to is the idea that everything about man’s relationship to God via creation is covenantal, including his knowledge of God – that all his revelation is covenantal condescension, apart from which man can have no knowledge of God. But that is not the historic reformed position at all. An example is found in this brief article from David B. Garner commenting on 7.1:
Yielding to the Bible’s teaching on God’s transcendence—He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, the Confession rightly affirms the infinite incongruence between God and man… Apart from the Creator God establishing a covenant, we remain outside the fruition zone! Even before the corruption of sin, mankind’s essence as creature disqualifies him to expect anything from God, to hope for anything from God, or to aspire to any sweet fellowship with his Maker. No covenant, no relational realization. No covenant, no hope. No covenant, no sweet fruition. Creator and creature remain out of reach.
While Garner is mostly on point, but he makes a common slip. 7.1 is referring to the reward that Adam could expect for his obedience. By creation, he could expect nothing, but God voluntarily offered Adam a reward via covenant. Garner correctly captures this aspect by recognizing that the reward was “permanent fellowship with the Creator,” that is, confirmation in righteousness. However, that is all it is talking about. 7.1 does not teach that “Creator and creature remain out of reach” apart from covenant. It teaches the exact opposite. They have a relationship apart from covenant: man is a slave to God (he knows God and what is required of him) and can expect no reward for doing what is required. Perhaps Garner only meant to imply that permanent fellowship with the Creator remains out of reach for the creature, but it is not clear, and it is further confused by what he says later. Garner continues:
Since we could in no way get to him, he came to us. He chose to lower himself to our level, and did so out of his own pleasure and wisdom (see Ephesians 1:3–14). His stooping instrument of choice was the covenant…
Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden fellowship with their Creator came because God stooped down to his image-bearers by a creation covenant. Like a nanny whispering into the ear of a small child in words the young one could understand, God bends over, speaks to Adam and Eve understandably, warmly, and meaningfully.
 John Calvin employs this nanny-with-child metaphor as an analogue to God speaking with us. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John D. McNeill; 2 Volumes; Philadelphia, 1960), 1.13.1.
Notice Garner’s attempt to connect 7.1 to Calvin’s concept of God’s revelatory stooping. This is the heart of the confusion and the silent shift. Garner is claiming that God’s voluntary condescension in the Adamic Covenant refers not simply to the generous reward for obedience Adam already owed, but also to God’s manner of revelation to mankind. God must reveal Himself covenantally in order to bridge the Creator/creature gap so that “the young one could understand.” But this is not what 7.1 is referring to. Neither is it what Calvin is referring to.
1. The doctrine of Scripture concerning the immensity and the spirituality of the essence of God, should have the effect not only of dissipating the wild dreams of the vulgar, but also of refuting the subtleties of a profane philosophy. One of the ancients thought he spake shrewdly when he said that everything we see and everything we do not see is God (Senec. Praef. lib. 1 Quaest. Nat.) In this way he fancied that the Divinity was transfused into every separate portion of the world. But although God, in order to keep us within the bounds of soberness, treats sparingly of his essence, still, by the two attributes which I have mentioned, he at once suppresses all gross imaginations, and checks the audacity of the human mind. His immensity surely ought to deter us from measuring him by our sense, while his spiritual nature forbids us to indulge in carnal or earthly speculation concerning him. With the same view he frequently represents heaven as his dwelling-place. It is true, indeed, that as he is incomprehensible, he fills the earth also, but knowing that our minds are heavy and grovel on the earth, he raises us above the worlds that he may shake off our sluggishness and inactivity. And here we have a refutation of the error of the Manichees, who, by adopting two first principles, made the devil almost the equal of God. This, assuredly, was both to destroy his unity and restrict his immensity. Their attempt to pervert certain passages of Scripture proved their shameful ignorance, as the very nature of the error did their monstrous infatuation. The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.
Calvin is very clear that he is not speaking about all of God’s revelation to man, but specifically dealing with that portion of revelation which “treats sparingly of his essence.” His comments about God “stooping” to “lisp with us as a nanny” do not refer to all of God’s revelation with creatures, but only with “certain passages of Scripture” that describe God after the manner of men via anthropomoprhism. (For an excellent discussion of passages like these, including anthropopathisms, and how to approach them, please see A Position Paper Concerning Divine Impassibility, ARBCA).
Garner is not alone in his mistaken application of Calvin’s comments to all of God’s revelation to his creatures. It is commonplace today. In his essay “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology” R. Scott Clark claims:
John Calvin (1509-64) accepted Luther’s fundamental distinction tinction between God hidden (Deus absconditus) and God revealed (Deus revelatus). In Institutes 1.17.2 he argued from Deuteronomy 29:29, 30:11-14, and Romans 11:33-34 (among other places) that there is a distinction to be made between God’s will as it is revealed and his will as it is hidden (voluntatem abscon- ditam) from us. Whereas the hidden, secret, providential, decretive, tive, mysterious will of God is like an abyss (abyssus), such is not the case with God’s revealed will, which becomes to us a “school of truth” (veritatis schola ).19 The Sophists (i.e., the Roman Catholic theologians of the Sorbonne) argue about God’s “absolute will” (absoluta voluntas), in which they “separate his justice from his power,” but we respect the boundary between the secret and the revealed.20 Thus, Calvin required the Christian theologian to adhere to the “rule of modesty and sobriety” (modestiae et sobri- etatis regulam), that is, those things revealed in Scripture.” According to Calvin, religion is either true or false.22 That which is according to the Bible is true; that which is not according to the Bible is false. We only know what God has willed to reveal to us, and all revelation is accommodated to our weakness: it is “baby talk.”23 Despite the fact that all revelation is necessarily accommodated and analogical, it is nevertheless true and that theology that conforms to Holy Scripture is also true.
 Calvin, Institutes 1.13.1. “Quis enim vel parum ingeniosus non intelligit Deum ita nobiscum, ceu nutrices solent cum infantibus, quodammodo balbutire?” (OS, 3.109.13-15). See Ford Lewis Battles, “God Was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity,” Interpretation 31 (1977): 19-38.
That is certainly not what Calvin said in 1.13.1.
Paul Helm notes:
[I]t is clear, as we have already seen, that Calvin does not hold that all language about God is non-literal, for the accommodated language is controlled by literal truths about God’s essence. So in highlighting the place of divine accommodation Calvin is not claiming that we will not be able to speak of or understand God at all unless he accommodates himself to our understanding and refers to himself in human-like, activistic and inter-activistic ways…
So it would be wrong to think of Calvin’s remarks about accommodation as signalling a reductionist thesis, as if all expressions about God as he is in himself [much less all revelation about anything] must be translated into anthropomorphic terms before they can be understood.
Another contemporary theologian, K. Scott Oliphint, mis-reads Calvin’s comments in 1.13.1. Here we can begin to see the direct misapplication to WCF 7.1
That distance, the Confession notes, was so great that we as God’s human (“reasonable”) creatures could not even render the obedience due him, nor could we enjoy him as our Creator, unless he determined to be known and to be in a relationship with us. He did so determine, and that determination is helpfully set out in this section as “voluntary condescension.” I will elaborate more on this as we go along, but I should affirm here that any relationship we have to God, and he has to us, we have only because of his free (“voluntary”) choice to come down to us (“condescension”)12 and thus to establish a relationship with us. It is only by virtue of God’s activity, therefore, and his initiation that we are able to be in a relationship with him.13
 In this first section of chapter 7, the Confession is not yet concerned with our sinful rebellion against God. It will begin to address that problem in section 3. We should keep in mind, therefore, that our relationship to God, quite apart from sin, depends on God’s activity, not ours, given his absolute uniqueness and our inability as creatures to comprehend who he is. The problem of sin greatly complicates this inability, but it does not initiate it.
What, then, is the principle of the covenant? In order for God to relate to us, in order
for there to be a commitment on the part of God to his people and more broadly to
his creation, there had to be a ‘voluntary condescension’ on God’s part. In order for
us to have anything to do with God whatsoever, God had first to ‘come down,’ to
stoop to our level. So, says Calvin:
‘For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking,
lisps with us as nurses are won’t to do with little children? Such modes of
expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of being God is, as
accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must,
of course, stoop far below his proper height.’
God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (14)
Elsewhere, he summarizes:
What the Confession asserts in section one of Chapter 7 has massive and profound implications, first, for theology proper, then for our understanding of God’s activity in history, and the order of these two is crucial…
As infinite in being, as immutable, immense and eternal, God is wholly other; he is beyond anything that mere creatures can think or experience. We cannot conceive of what God’s infinity is; our minds cannot grasp or contain what God’s eternity is…
It is incumbent on the Christian to recognize this before, and in the context of, our thinking about God’s covenantal relation to creation.
It is worth noting, as we saw yesterday, and it is a master-stroke of theological genius, that the Confession begins its section on covenant, as it must, with the majestic and incomprehensible character of God. This must be the starting place for all thinking about God and his relationship to creation…
We have seen, in the last two posts, that the Confession rightly begins its discussion of covenant with the incomprehensibility and aseity of the Triune God. That must be affirmed before anything else can be understood, especially with respect to God’s relationship to creation and to His creatures…
When the Confession affirms God’s voluntary “condescension,” then, this is, in the main, what is meant. It means that God took on characteristics, properties and attributes that He did not have to take on (remember this condescension is voluntary) in order that He might relate Himself to the creation, and to His creatures…
Oliphint mis-reads Calvin’s comments about “certain passages of Scripture” and applies it to all of God’s dealings with creation. He then misapplies that to WCF 7.1 and thereby misunderstands 7.1, claiming it is a statement about our inability to comprehend God, rather than a statement about our inability to earn reward for obedience to God’s commands.
James Dolezal explains:
WCF 7.1 is about the disproportion between God and the obedience rendered to him by creatures. No amount of creaturely obedience (to which man is obligated as creature) can naturally enable him to obtain an infinite God as his reward and eschatological beatitude. In order to give himself to man as man’s eschatological blessing, God lovingly condescends to inaugurate a covenant that gives a reward (i.e., himself) infinitely disproportionate to man’s obedience. A finite obedience could only be properly proportionate to a finite reward. This is why the article opens with an emphasis upon the “distance between God and the creature.” God, as divine creator, has a natural right to possess the creature, but man has no natural right to possess God, not even if he perfectly fulfills his natural obligation to obey God.
There is nothing in WCF 7.1 that suggests ontological condescension on God’s part, but only the condescension of offering (via covenant) a reward disproportionate to natural human action. This is called “voluntary condescension” because God is in no way naturally obligated–not even by the fact that he has created man–to offer himself as man’s reward. The content of the entire chapter suggests this article is about how man might receive God as his eschatological beatitude. The point, then, is not about the Creator-creature relation as such. That relation is presupposed in the article. Moreover, insisting that it is about the creator-creature relation in general, as Oliphint does, (10) tends to obscure the clear emphasis upon the disproportionality between creaturely works and divine reward. The condescension spoken of is meant to address that particular situation and is not intended here as a framework for explaining God’s relationship to the world generally or ontologically. Plainly put, the ratification of the covenant (of works) by which man might receive infinitely more than he could ever naturally lay claim to as an obedient creature simply is the condescension of God spoken of in this article. Indeed, the plainest reading of this text would seem to indicate that this wonderful condescension is something God undertakes beyond the establishment of the created order as such. (11) This covenantal action may very well be coincident and concomitant with God’s act of creation, but it does not appear to be coextensive with it according to this article. (12)
Richard Barcellos likewise offers helpful comments on WCF/LBCF 7.1 in response to Oliphint:
Some argue that, in order for God to relate to creation, He had to assume or take upon Himself the means to do so… Dr. Oliphint bases his position, in part, on the WCF. By attempting to ground his proposal of voluntary condescension by God in the WCF at this point, it may be contended that he misuses it… God’s “voluntary condescension” is not an act of pre-creation (i.e., the creation of the covenantal properties of God), the act of creation itself, or other subsequent acts of creating, but the revelation of a covenant—the covenant of works (cf. WCF 7.2). God’s first covenantal act toward Adam as a public person (i.e., a federal head) was one of revelation, not the creation of properties for Himself that would enable Him to reveal Himself or to create. Dr. Oliphint seems to confuse categories, utilizing the WCF in a manner not intended by that confession.
When it Occurred
Since WCF/LBCF 7.1 is quite clearly referring to reward in the covenant of works, not to all of God’s dealings with creation with regards to his incomprehensibility, McGraw asks when this shift occurred.
Our first clue is R. Scott Clark’s previously mentioned essay. He opens the essay with the following:
It is a pleasure to contribute to a festschrift for my teacher, colleague, league, and friend, Bob Strimple. One of the most important moments in my theological education was hearing him present the exegetical and biblical-theological case for the well-meant offer of the gospel. His explanation of the 1948 majority report to the Fifteenth teenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) by John Murray (1898-1975) was a turning point in my hermeneutic, doctrine of God, and theology of evangelism.’ He helped me to appreciate Scripture as an accommodated revelation, the distinction between God “in himself” (in se) and “toward us” (erga nos), and that the proper motivations for the free, serious, well-meant meant offer of the gospel are God’s glory and the salvation of the lost. The Murray-Strimple approach provided a clear biblical, exegetical, and theological rationale for the proclamation of the gospel.
It seemed impossible to me, a naive student, that confessional Reformed folk should not embrace the doctrine of the well-meant offer, but as influential as it has been among some of us, it has not found universal acceptance in either contemporary Reformed theory or our practice. In the Three Points of Synod Kalamazoo (1924) the Christian Reformed Churches in North America (CRC) came out solidly for the well-meant offer of the gospel.’ In reaction, the well-meant offer came under sustained criticism from Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) and his followers, who contended that the well-meant offer is a form of Arminianism.’ One of their theologians recently identified this issue as “the chief point of controversy” between themselves and proponents of common grace.’ The doctrine of the well-meant offer has also been rejected by the followers of Gordon Clark (1902-85), and his opposition to the well-meant meant offer played a major part of the Clark-Van Til Controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1940s.5
Note well: the well-meant offer drove R. Scott Clark’s mis-reading of Calvin and it played a major part of the [Gordon] Clark-Van Til controversy. Gordon Clark comments:
I’ll make a little remark there. As you know, there has been a little rather theological upheaval at Westminster in the recent past over Professor Shepherd. And I have read some of the published material and the actual doctrine which is under discussion with Dr. Shepherd is the doctrine of justification by faith. But those who are opposing him have tried to tie this in with the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. I think this is one of their pet themes at Westminster and they drag it in whenever they think they can even though it doesn’t have much bearing on the subject matter.
I mention this only to show that Clark saw this misapplication of the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility as a distinguishing mark of Westminster Seminary – and something they misapplied in a variety of contexts.
Oliphint tells us where he learned his mis-reading of 7.1.
Because what Van Til was arguing had its roots in historic, Reformed theology, it would be natural to delineate his apologetic approach simply as Reformed. However, there is a breadth and depth to the adjective Reformed that may make it too ambiguous as a modifier for apologetics. I propose, in light of the above, that the word covenantal, properly understood, is a better, more accurate, more specific term to use for a biblical, Reformed apologetic. I hope in what follows to explain Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics and in the process to make a case for a terminology switch, a switch to a covenantal apologetic.
To understand this approach to apologetics, as well as to justify the change in terminology, we need a clear understanding of the word covenant. For that, we begin with the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1, “Of God’s Covenant with Man”:
The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.
We need to highlight the most important ideas in this section. First of all, we are reminded that, in the beginning, and quite apart from the entrance of sin, the distance between God and the creature is “so great.” But just what is this distance? Is it an actual spatial distance between God and humanity? That doesn’t seem possible, given that God is everywhere; there is no place where he is absent. So the “distance” referred to here must be metaphorical. It should not be interpreted as primarily spatial.
Rather, it might be best to think of it as a distance based on the character of God himself in relation to the character of man. The “distance,” in other words, might be analogous to the distance between man and a snail. There are similarities between a man and a snail—both are capable of physical motion, both depend on the necessities of life. But it is not possible for a snail to transcend its own character in a way that would allow it to converse, communicate, and relate to man on a human level. We could call this an ontological difference; a difference according to the being of the snail relative to the being of man. Or, perhaps better, there is a necessary and vast distinction between the two kinds of beings.
This is the case as well with respect to God and man, according to this section of the Confession. There is a vast, qualitative distinction between God’s character and ours, between God’s being and the being of man. God is One “who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible . . .” (WCF 2.1). He is not restricted or confined by space; he is not subject to the passing of moments; he is not composed of anything outside of his own infinite character; he does not change; he cannot be fully understood.
We, however, are none of those things. We have no analogies of what those attributes are, and we are unable completely to comprehend them. We are finite, bodily, mutable, and constrained by time and space. This disparity is impossible to state adequately, but it is a difference, a vast difference, and one that includes a kind of “distance” between us and God.
There is a great chasm fixed between God and his creatures, and the result of such a chasm is that we, all of humanity, could never have any fruition of God, unless he saw fit, voluntarily (graciously), to condescend to us by way of covenant. 5 That condescension includes God’s revealing himself in and through his creation, including his word, to man. We begin, therefore, with respect to who we are and to what we can know, with a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature.
Contrary to some opinions, God is in fact Totally Other. But there is nothing intrinsic to this truth that would preclude God from revealing himself to his creatures. Since God is Totally Other from creation, our understanding of him and our communication and communion with him can take place only by his initiative. That initiative is his condescension, including his revelation. Such revelation, as the exclusive means of knowledge of and communion with God, assumes rather than negates God’s utter “otherness.”
In 1946, P&R published The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary as a collection of essays on the Westminster Confession. Van Til’s essay “Nature and Scripture” attempts to expound upon the doctrine of revelation found in the Confession. His burden is to repudiate the natural theology of Aquinas (“the natural theology of Greek origin”) with the natural theology of the Confession. His basic argument is that Greek natural theology errs because it looks to natural revelation in isolation from special revelation, which contradicts the Confession’s view that the two have always been given together as God’s single covenant revelation.
It is therefore of the utmost importance that the two forms of revelation—revelation through nature and revelation in Scripture—be set in careful relationship to one another… It is well known that Reformed theology has a distinctive doctrine of Scripture. It is our purpose in this chapter to show that for this reason it has an equally distinctive doctrine of natural revelation. To accomplish this purpose we shall limit ourselves largely to the Westminster Standards.
Oliphint notes (in a discussion on the Reformed Forum) “Van Til is framing all of his discussion about revelation and theology and everything else in that covenantal context. Anything that’s not covenantal is, by definition autonomous… So one of the first things he wants to do, you can see it in the language, he’s actually jumping to Confession 7.1 in order to articulate Confession 1.4-5. So he actually moves to the covenantal categories in order to articulate what natural theology and natural revelation is. And I think that has to be highlighted in what Van Til is doing.”
The first point that calls for reflection here is the fact that it is, according to Scripture itself, the same God who reveals himself in nature and in grace…
Saving grace is not manifest in nature; yet it is the God of saving grace who manifests himself by means of nature. How can these two be harmonized? The answer to this problem must be found in the fact that God is “eternal, incomprehensible, most free, most absolute.” Any revelation that God gives of himself is therefore absolutely voluntary. Herein precisely lies the union of the various forms or God’s revelation with one another. God’s revelation in nature, together with God’s revelation in Scripture, form God’s one grand scheme of covenant revelation of himself to man. The two forms of revelation must therefore be seen as presupposing and supplementing one another. They are aspects of one general philosophy of history.
Note: Though convoluted, Van Til’s argument is that the same God is revealed in nature and in Scripture, but Scripture contains information about God that nature does not. Therefore, in order for nature to reveal the same God, it cannot be understood on its own. Natural revelation must be interpreted with special revelation, from the beginning of creation, otherwise it will only reveal an idol, a false god (which is precisely his argument against Greek natural theology). And natural revelation with special revelation together form God’s one covenant revelation of Himself.
The philosophy of history that speaks to us from the various chapters of the Confession may be sketched with a few bold strokes. We are told that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him in nature as operating by itself. There was superadded to God’s revelation in nature another revelation, a supernaturally communicated positive revelation. Natural revelation, we are virtually told, was from the outset incorporated into the idea of a covenantal relationship of God with man. Thus every dimension of created existence, even the lowest, was enveloped in a form of exhaustively personal relationship between God and man. The “ateleological” no less than the “teleological,” the “mechanical” no less than the “spiritual” was covenantal in character.
Being from the outset covenantal in character, the natural revelation of God to man was meant to serve as the playground for the process of differentiation that was to take place in the course of time…
Here then is the picture of a well-integrated and unified philosophy of history in which revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture are mutually meaningless without one another and mutually fruitful when taken together…
Proceeding now to speak of the sufficiency of natural revelation as corresponding to the sufficiency of Scripture, we recall that revelation in nature was never meant to function by itself. It was from the beginning insufficient without its supernatural concomitant.
Thus Van Til argues that the natural theology of the Confession teaches that natural revelation is “insufficient” to reveal the same God found in Scripture. What is necessary is God’s voluntary condescension to covenantally reveal Himself.
Without commenting on the debate regarding the timing of natural revelation vs God’s revelation of the covenant of works (see here), the precise point at hand is that Van Til has misunderstood and misapplied the Confession. His essay is about our knowledge of God Himself (and thus anything at all, per his critique of Greek philosophy). He argues that natural revelation itself is insufficient to give us knowledge of God (and thus anything at all) and he calls upon 7.1 for support: “We are told that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him in nature as operating by itself.” Natural revelation was “insufficient” to give us knowledge of God and was therefore “meaningless” by itself. God’s solution was to voluntarily condescend by providing a “covenant revelation of himself to man.” That is not what 7.1 says, contrary to Van Til’s claim.
Note the confusion in the comments section of the Reformed Forum episode trying to reconcile this with what 7.1 actually says. Note also that many of the comments are arguing about the timing of the revelation of the covenant of works when the real issue in 7.1 is what is being revealed (Barcellos: the revelation of a covenant—the covenant of works; Oliphint/Van Til: the revelation of God’s incomprehensible essence and everything else).
As this was a foundational element of Van Til’s thinking, he addressed it throughout his works, but most notably in the collection of essays titled Common Grace and the Gospel where he expounds his conception of this “covenant revelation” as wholly accommodated and therefore wholly anthropomorphic. In the Foreword to the recent republication, Oliphint explains
To reiterate our point above, when VanTil encourages fearless anthropomorphism, he is not using that phrase in a vacuum. The notion itself, as he reminds us, must be understood within the context of a Reformed doctrine of God and of his covenant with man: “A fearless anthropomorphism based on the doctrine of the ontological trinity, rather than abstract reasoning on the basis of a metaphysical and epistemological correlativism, should control our concepts all along the line” (p. 111). The “fearless anthropomorphism” of which Van Til speaks has its foundation in the ontological Trinity.
Van Til’s presuppositional critique of natural theology argued that the solution to the philosophical problem of finding truth (problem of the one and the many) is found in presupposing God in all our reasoning. If we do not presuppose God, we cannot know anything at all. However, God (the “ontological trinity” in whom we find the unity of the one and the many) is incomprehensible to man. Therefore, in order for man to know anything, God must condescend covenantally to reveal Himself. But because man cannot know God as He is, this covenantal revelation is an accommodation: an analogy of the truth. This does not simply apply to God’s revelation of Himself, but to God’s revelation of anything at all, since everything finds its foundation in Him, and He is incomprehensible.
With this in mind, Oliphint notes (again in the Foreword)
it is a masterstroke of theological genius, that the Confession begins its section on covenant, as it must, with the majestic and incomprehensible character of God. This must be the starting place for all thinking about God and his relationship to creation… His three-in-oneness is the foundation for the interplay in creation of the one (universal categories) and the many (particular things). The triunity of God is indeed a mystery, and that mystery has its analog in all of creation as his creatures recognize both unity and diversity in the world God has made. Creation, then, is mysteriously analogous to the triune God’s character.
Van Til elaborates in Common Grace and the Gospel (page references are to this PDF version):
God dwells in light that no man can approach unto. This holds of His rationality as well as of His being, inasmuch as His being and His self-consciousness are coterminous. It follows that in everything with which we deal we are, in the last analysis, dealing with this infinite God, this God who hideth Himself, this mysterious God. In everything that we handle we deal finally with the incomprehensible God. Everything that we handle depends for what it is upon the counsel of the infinitely inexhaustible God. At every point we run into mystery. (10)
The ontological trinity will be our interpretative concept everywhere. (46)
That is to say, it then appears that all the facts of this world, including the facts of man’s own consciousness as well as the facts of his environment, must be seen in the covenantal perspective in which, as was pointed out, the Scriptures put them in order to exist at all. (76)
From the beginning all the facts surrounding any man in the entire course of history were set in the framework of the covenant that God made with man. If they are in any wise separated from the framework then they become subject to the manipulation of the false logical and experiential requirements of the apostate man. (77)
We need at this point to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. Our basic interpretative concept, the doctrine of the ontological trinity, demands of us that we should be so… we would say that we are entitled and compelled to use anthropomorphism not apologetically but fearlessly. We need not fear to say that God’s attitude has changed with respect to mankind. We know well enough that God in himself is changeless. But we hold that we are able to affirm that our words have meaning for no other reason than that we use them analogically. (52)
Van Til took Calvin’s concept of accommodation with regards to anthropomorphisms and applied it to all of revelation, making all of revelation anthropomorphic and therefore “analogical.”
Summing up what has been said in this section, we would stress the fact that we tend so easily in our common grace discussion, as in all our theological effort, to fall back into scholastic ways of thinking. If we can learn more and more to outgrow scholasticism in our notions about natural theology and natural ethics, we shall be perhaps a bit more careful both in our affirmations and in our negations with respect to common grace. We shall learn to think less statically and more historically. We shall not fear to be boldly anthropomorphic because, to begin with, we have, in our doctrines of the ontological trinity and temporal creation, cut ourselves loose once and for all from correlativism between God and man. (65)
Van Til’s Source
In a 1973 essay “Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism” in the WTJ, William Young argues that one slight error in Kuyper’s thought departed from Historic Calvinism and has led, over the years, to the apostasy of Neo-Calvinists. He qualifies that “A distinction must be made between Kuyper’s own views and the consequences of a certain line of thought emphasized by him.”
What differentiates Neo-Calvinism in Kuyper’s line from historic Calvinism? The presumptivist [regeneration] system stands out most prominently, but it is simply the visible appearance of a life-and-world view that often parades itself as the Christian life-and-world view, but which may with propriety be named Hyper-Covenantism, a synonym for Kuyper-Calvinism or Neo-Calvinism. As the name suggests, Hyper-Covenantism is an exaggeration of the historic Calvinist doctrine of God’s covenant with man, a classical formulation of which is to be found in the Westminster Confession, chapter VII…
Thesis I: Covenant is a metaphysical category, under which all relations between man and God, man and man, and man and nature, may be subsumed.
This thesis may not previously have been formulated in these terms and is not being ascribed as such to any member of the Hyper-Covenant school. Yet on reflection one can discern this thesis to be the metaphysical presupposition of Hyper-Covenantism, metaphysical both in the sense of defining a category of being taken universally, and consequently in the sense of transcending the limits of created or temporal being. It is not to be condemned simply because it is metaphysical, but it ought to be subjected to scrutiny in the light of Scripture and with due regard to the historic Reformed confession as to God’s covenant with man…
Thesis II: The covenant relation between God and man was an essential element of man’s original state entailed by the creation of men in God’s image.
This thesis is a theorem necessarily following from thesis I. It is, however, contrary to the historical account in Genesis, where the covenant of works is represented as, in G. Vos’ terms, ‘pre-redemptive special revelation’,(24) or, one may say, as a positive divine institution, presupposing a natural law according to which man is under obligation to obey all the commandments of God. The Westminster Confession provides a scriptural philosophy of the covenant relation, in which justice is done both to the sovereignty of God and to the antecedent obligation of the moral law, prior to the covenant of works. “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”
Young notes that this thesis is not clearly formulated by Neo-Calvinists, but upon analysis is found to be a presupposition foundational to their entire outlook. Young specifically mentions that this Hyper-Covenantism is present in Van Til’s thought.
Van Til makes reference to Vos with regards to his view of natural and special revelation:
Whether he reasoned about nature or whether he looked within, whether it was the starry heavens above or the moral law within, both were equally insistent and plain that God, the true God, stood before him. It should also be recognized that man was, from the outset, confronted with positive, as well as with natural, revelation. Dr. Vos speaks of this as pre-redemptive special revelation. (Notes on Biblical Theology of the Old Testament) God walked and talked with man. Natural revelation must not be separated from this supernatural revelation. To separate the two is to deal with two abstractions instead of with one concrete situation. That is to say, natural revelation, whether objective or subjective, is in itself a limiting conception. It has never existed by itself so far as man is concerned. It cannot fairly be considered, therefore, as a fixed quantity, that can be dealt with in the same way at every stage of man’s moral life. Man was originally placed before God as a covenant personality.
But Vos was not making Van Til’s point (as Young noted above). Vos was simply articulating the correct understanding of 7.1: that man was created to obey, but a covenant of works was added to reward this created obligation. In The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology, Richard Barcellos succinctly states:
Pre-redemptive Special Revelation for Vos involves the disclosure of the covenant of works. Concerning the content of pre-redemptive Special Revelation, Vos says:
We understand by this, as already explained, the disclosure of the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.*
*Vos, BTV, 27. Here Vos clearly articulates concepts (i.e., probation and Edenic eschatology) already noted in the doctrine of the covenant of works in various federal theologians of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy. Cf. Lawrence Semel, “Geerhardus Vos and Eschatology,” 28-30 for a brief discussion of the content of pre-redemptive Special Revelation in Vos.
Furthermore, Jim Cassidy notes:
Fast forwarding to Van Til, the great apologist built on his professor’s work and showed how the Bible does not allow for any “brute facts.” That is to say, God does not give us uninterpreted facts. But Van Til went deeper than Vos. He applied the latter’s insights about God’s redemptive-historical events to God’s act of creation. So, not only does God interpret his acts in redemptive history, but he also interprets his act of creation. In his great article “Nature and Scripture,” Van Til pushed God’s covenantal, revelatory Work back before the fall.
So we cannot find precedent for Van Til’s interpretation of 7.1 in Vos.
Van Til does appeal frequently to Bavinck in support of his doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility. However, Bavinck correctly interprets 7.1 as dealing with man’s fellowship with God and the question of merit (RD, II, 570), not the question of incomprehensibility. While Van Til’s view of incomprehensibility and accommodation does find precedent in Bavinck, his application of it to 7.1, and thus to covenant, does not.
Van Til’s unique contribution was his version of presuppositionalism. On this point he sees himself building upon elements in his predecessors, but also necessarily rejecting some of their views and replacing it with his own construct.
It appears anew from this treatment of the “proofs” that Bavinck has not altogether cut himself loose from non-Christian forms of reasoning… This position of Bavinck, it will be noted, is very similar to the old Princeton position, and both are very similar to the Scholastic position… For all his effort to the contrary, Bavinck sometimes seems to offer us a natural theology of a kind similar to that offered by the church of Rome… We must, accordingly, frankly challenge the Roman Catholic notion that the natural man knows truly of God. And we should challenge the procedure by which the natural theology of Rome is obtained. (Common Grace and the Gospel PDF 35-36)
And the solution to Bavinck’s error, the error of all natural theology, is to presuppose God’s covenant revelation.
it is well that a word be said here as to what Christian apologists were doing during the period of rationalism and empiricism. The answer is that by and large Protestant apologists followed closely after the pattern set by Thomas Aquinas… Whatever there is of true Christianity in Rome, or in such positions as those of Butler and Paley, is there in spite of rather than because of the Aristotelian form-matter scheme that controls the formation of their natural theologies. A true Biblical or covenant theology could not be based upon such foundations as Butler and Paley laid… The natural theology of the Confession, derived as it was largely from the theology of Calvin, stands over against the natural theology as it has come from Aristotle through Rome into much of Protestant, even orthodox Protestant, thought. These two types of natural theology are striving for the mastery in our day. (Nature and Scripture, 17)
Thus the evidence suggests that the silent shift on 7.1 began with Van Til. More precisely it began with the application of his view of God’s incomprehensibility to his presuppositionalism, rooted in the assumed Hyper-Covenantism of his Dutch tradition.
The system of Reformed doctrine
We have answered McGraw’s question of when the shift occurred, but he also asks “how it affects the system of Reformed doctrine.” To this, we will let “the first and foremost Van Tillian scholar” answer:
This insistence on being fearlessly anthropomorphic is virtually absent in the history of theology proper. There have been many, I think too many, who call themselves reformed, or in some cases Augustinian, but who have not been careful to insist on a fearless anthropomorphism… We have to ask why these solid and orthodox, brilliant theologians want to speak in such terms about God. The reason, at least in part, is In each of the examples cited, each of these theologians failed to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. They committed themselves, even if inadvertently, to abstract thinking… We have, even in the reformed tradition, I think, failed to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. And so, much of systematic theology that’s done, especially in theology proper,needs a complete revision and re-write.
K. Scott Oliphint lecture Theological Principles from Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel
At the conclusion of the Reformed Forum episode on Van Til’s Nature and Scripture, Camden Bucey notes
It’s very important to get our prolegomena correct… If you don’t get those things right, those foundational items, you’re just going to go all over the place.
In the next post we will look at Van Til’s presuppositional critique of natural theology to see if presuppositionalism necessarily entails Van Tillianism or if there is a presuppositionalism that also affirms and retains the system of Reformed doctrine.
Some might ask how Kline’s view of covenantal creation fits in with all of this. Jim Cassidy explains:
Kline dedicated his great work The Structure of Biblical Authority to his professor, Cornelius Van Til. That was appropriate as the work was thoroughly Vosian and Van Tilian. But while he hints at how God’s Word and creation relate in that book (thinking here of chapter 2), the full development of his thought would have to await his Kingdom Prologue. In that book, very early on (i.e., pp. 14-41 of the W&S edition), Kline introduces the concept of God’s “covenantal fiat” in the act of creation. This means, in short, that God’s act of creation IS covenantal. To create is to reveal himself in and to the very creature he calls into existence by the mere power of his Word. So, for Kline, he advances Van Til even further.
The difference is that Kline knew he was rejecting 7.1. “It is not the case, as some theological reconstructions would have it, that the covenant was superimposed on a temporally or logically prior noncovenantal human state.” (KP 17) See Kline’s Covenant Creation & WCF 7.1. However, although Kline (at least late in his life) properly understood and therefore rejected 7.1, most disciples of Van Til continue to be confused by Van Til’s misunderstanding. They believe 7.1 is merely a statement about God’s revelation, not about merit, so they cannot understand why some critics of Kline argue that he is unconfessional on this point. David VanDrunen is one of the leading Klineans today. Note what he says in a bizarre essay arguing that “covenant” must be the unifying architectonic structure that undergirds systematic theology:
All of the basic realms that systematic theology investigates are defined in covenantal terms… The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1, for example, speaks of the impossibility of finite man bridging the chasm between himself and an infinite God. He has no knowledge, no relationship with God by his own efforts or by any resource in nature, abstractly conceived. Man does enjoy knowledge of and relationship with God, however, because he never exists according ing to nature in the abstract; instead, God has been pleased to condescend to man “by way of covenant.” From the very outset of history, God has relationship with man, and covenant is the way in which this relationship functions. Covenant defines all relationship with God, and thus all knowledge of God – which is precisely what “theology” is – is necessarily covenantal… In this light, prolegomenon is thoroughly covenantal. Human beings know God in covenantal relationship by means of covenantal revelation.
“A System of Theology? The Centrality of Covenant for Westminster Systematics” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries (Kindle Location 2054).
And to bring this full-circle: John Frame, like Kline, was a student of Van Til.