I am very thankful for the Glory Cloud Podcast. It is dedicated to explaining the theology of Meredith Kline. The hosts (the first 60 or so episodes are co-hosted by Lee Irons and Chris Caughey and then Todd Bordow later replaced Lee Irons) have a strong grasp of the law/gospel distinction. It is very refreshing to hear and I am thankful for all their efforts in putting the podcast together.
This series of posts was actually prompted by a series of episodes (90-96ish) of the Glory Cloud Podcast. Hosts Chris Caughey and Todd Bordow walk through Kline’s understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant. Episode 93 specifically addresses the question Was the Abrahamic Covenant a Covenant of Works? They call out 1689 Federalism several times and invite baptists to interact with what they have said. So that was the motivation behind this series.
They argue that
- The Genesis 15 oath ceremony necessarily means that the Abrahamic Covenant was unconditional.
- The NT confirms this in Rom 4 and Gal 3-4 because it says the Abrahamic promise is received through faith alone by grace alone apart from works.
- There is only one Abrahamic promise: eschatological salvation in Christ through faith alone. However, this promise is realized on two levels: the typological and anti-typological. Both are realized/received by unconditional grace through faith alone apart from works.
- Therefore Israel’s entrance into the land was not conditioned upon their obedience to the law but was a gracious gift received through faith alone apart from works.
- The Mosaic Covenant did not take effect when it was established in the wilderness but only started after Israel entered the land. At that point, remaining in the land was conditioned by the Mosaic Covenant, which they eventually broke (hence their exile).
- The New Covenant is a continuation of the Abrahamic Covenant of Grace – both of which are antithetical to the Old Covenant (which was of works).
As addressed in Part 4, the analogy of Scripture is not followed on this point. Improper interpretive priority is given to the Genesis 15 ceremony – an implicit prophetic vision narrative. Assumptions about the meaning of this ceremony are used to interpret explicit, clear statements about the Abrahamic Covenant, rather than the other way around. Here are a few examples:
Imagine you’re hearing this for the first time and you’re familiar with both parties always walking through promising to do their part to fulfill the terms and how shocking it is that God walks through and promises that Abraham doesn’t have to do his half, that God is going to do it all while Abraham sleeps. (Ep. 90, 23:30)
God does not say that “Abraham doesn’t have to do his half.” That is an assumption about the meaning of the vision, not something stated in the text. As we have seen Kline taught, per Gen 22:15-18 and 26:5, that Abraham did have to do his half in order to merit the redemptive historical blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant.
It seems to me like both passages [Gen 15:1 & 22:15-18] are episodic or episode-specific. They don’t really seem to be held up as the heart of the covenant that God is making with Abraham. It’s, “Ok, what you’ve done here is going to serve as an example of what the Messiah is eventually going to do.” But if Genesis 15:1 really did characterize the Abrahamic Covenant so that we could say, “Gosh, isn’t this a covenant of works here?” we would expect Abraham to walk those slain animals as well. But we’ve already belabored the point in a previous episode that God is the only one who walks between those halves of animals, and that says a lot about the nature of that covenant. (Ep. 93, 21:00)
Our expectations of what should or should not happen in any given situation does not get interpretive priority over explicit statements in Scripture explaining the meaning of that situation.
I just think – what is the major event associated with Abraham. What stands out? I think it’s the episode in chapter 15 with splitting the animals and God making that promise, which is pure promise. But when we ask that question of Israel it’s really Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law. So, yes, we do have this interesting verse in Genesis 26:5 but it certainly is not what characterizes the covenantal arrangement that God made with Abraham. (Ep. 92, 10:45)
Again, this is not letting Scripture interpret Scripture. What “stands out” to us in a text does not have interpretive priority over what the text states explicitly. “[W]hat characterizes the covenantal arrangement that God made with Abraham” should be determined by what God says characterizes the covenantal arrangement that He made with Abraham (the “interesting” verse that is being dismissed as irrelevant to the question).
Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4
Again, as addressed in Part 4, these passages (per Kline) contrast our eternal inheritance in Christ with Israel’s tenure in the typological land of Canaan. Therefore they do not address the question of Abraham’s works relative to the typological, redemptive historical promises of the Abrahamic Covenant.
Only One Abrahamic Promise?
In response, it is argued that there is only one Abrahamic promise. It is wrong to try to divide the Abrahamic Covenant up into multiple promises.
I know some don’t want to see the Covenant of Grace with Abraham and they want to simply focus on Abraham’s national election as a people. But the New Testament doesn’t let you do that. The New Testament points to Abraham’s election as an individual unto eternal salvation and all those in him – in Christ – who have the same faith as Abraham receive the same promise. So Paul doesn’t say “promises” as if there are separate promises to Abraham that don’t relate. Paul calls it all one promise. And yet there’s a promise that is symbolized in the Old Testament but then fulfilled eternally in Christ. One promise with a temporary fulfillment and then an eternal fulfillment. And that’s the way to understand these two elections – not as two separate promises but as one promise in symbolic form and then in ultimate form. (Ep. 91, 18:15)
Note, however, that co-host Todd Bordow directly contradicts himself when explaining Kline’s interpretation of Genesis 22:15-18.
So on an eternal level, Genesis 15 and the ritual is really pointing beyond the typology to what Christ will do to save Abraham and his offspring – his spiritual descendants. But here, just focusing on the typology alone, not looking past it, Abraham’s works will come into play, and they will have a typological, meritorious purpose… What God grants Abraham is to be a Christ figure in rewarding his works with the typological kingdom only. So for example, in Genesis 22, when the Lord said “Because you have done this, I will bless you and I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven,” he’s not looking ahead to the New Covenant at this point. He’s only speaking of how that will in a very temporary, typological way be fulfilled with the nation of Israel. Abraham’s descendants, his natural descendants, would be multiplied and there would be so many that they couldn’t count. And his offspring would possess the gates of his enemies throughout Old Testament episodes. He’s not talking about the church here in the New Covenant at all. So he’s speaking only on the typological level. So Kline writes – I really love this statement – “Salvation would not come from Abraham’s obedience. But salvation would come from Israel because of Abraham’s obedience.” So Israel was granted – because of Abraham’s obedience – they’re granted a temporary place in the history of salvation, but not an eternal place. Only Christ can bring about that. (Ep. 93, 21:30)
If there is only one indivisible Abrahamic promise then Bordow cannot make a distinction between New Covenant promises and typological promises in the Abrahamic Covenant. But in order to properly classify Abraham’s meritorious works, Bordow distinguishes between promises made about Abraham’s natural offspring and Abraham’s spiritual offspring. Again, that can’t be done if there is only one Abrahamic promise. Note that Kline saw multiple Abrahamic promises. “Thereupon, the Lord swore by himself that he would surely perform the full complement of covenant promises, culminating in the gospel promise of the blessing of the nations through Abraham’s seed (Gen 22:15-18).” (KP 300) Note well that Kline said the Genesis 22 covenant blessings that God swore to fulfill because of Abraham’s obedience included “the gospel promise,” which presents tremendous problems for his system.
In Galatians 3, Paul refers to “the promise” not because there is only one Abrahamic promise, but because he is referring to one specific Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:8), which brings up a crucial point: In Galatians 3:8, Paul quotes Genesis 22:18. This simply does not fit Bordow’s Klinean framework. Remember, they interpret Paul’s appeal to the Abrahamic Covenant in Galatians 3 as teaching that eternal salvation in Christ, in the ordo salutis, comes from the Abrahamic Covenant – and therefore the Abrahamic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. The text Paul relies on is Genesis 22:18, but Bordow says Genesis 22:18 is not talking about the ordo salutis! It is only talking about the historia salutis.
From one perspective, Kline points out, Abraham’s works demonstrate his faith. So now he’s speaking of what we call the ordo salutis… James points out from that perspective, Abraham’s obedience only demonstrate his faith. They’re not a means to obtain the promise. And James is very clear, as Paul is. But here we have another perspective, it’s the perspective of the historia salutis, over the history of salvation as it works out in the different covenants.
And so the problem is obvious. How then is this different from Israel? The text seems like Abraham is being blessed based on his own obedience. Kline’s solution is that in the historia salutis, or in what we would call typology, there is a meritorious character to Abraham’s works. Not in the ordo salutis, but in the typology of the Old Testament, God will use Abraham as a Christ figure. Therefore he will reward his works with only the typological promises. Not the eternal promises that were his in the ordo salutis. But, in the typology, which means just with national Israel in the Old Testament, just with the land of Canaan, Abraham’s work will have a means to an end. He will be sort of a federal head in a typological sense. His work will bring about the blessings for God’s people only on a typological level. And that is how Kline explains – and I think really the only way to understand this.
The “only way” to understand Genesis 22:15-18 is that the blessings are limited to the historia salutis and do not include ordo salutis blessings. If that is the case, then Paul’s appeal to Genesis 22:18 in Galatians 3 cannot mean that Paul understood the Abrahamic Covenant to include ordo salutis blessings – that is, it cannot mean that Paul saw the Abrahamic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace. I believe that Kline and Bordow are correct here. I believe that the blessings of Genesis 22:15-18 are confined to the historia salutis. As Kline put it “Salvation would not come because of Abraham’s obedience, but because of Abraham’s obedience salvation would come of the Abrahamites, the Jews (John 4:22).” (KP 325)
[Side note: Bordow interprets Gen 22:17b “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies” as a reference to Israel in Canaan. Note, however, that this reference is singular (“his”) not plural (“their”). This is specifically why Paul argues in Gal 3:16 that “the promise” (Gal 3:8/Gen 22:18) referred to one single offspring, not numerous offspring. For a more detailed analysis, see Galatians 3:16.]
Entrance into Canaan
Because of their misreading of Gal 3, they believe the Abrahamic Covenant, a promise covenant, promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s offspring unconditionally: that it would be received through faith alone apart from works.
Kline’s response to that was the the promise that God would give them [Israel] the land on the typological level only is to bring them into the land and to bare seed. And so when we get to the book of Joshua when the conquest happens, it actually says at the end of Joshua that God’s promise to Israel has been fulfilled… Kline points out that there’s no promise of an unbroken continuance in the land simply by God’s promise, and there’s no promise, as Kline puts it, of a harmonious transition that when Christ comes they would still be God’s people and they would not be judged based on a promise. And so the promise only gets them to inherit the land and to have seed fill in the land, but at that point their tenure in the land is based on a national covenant of works between God and Israel… So that covenant of works is introduced once that promise is fulfilled. (Ep. 91, 25:30)
[I]f the ground of Israel’s tenure in Canaan was their covenant obedience, their election to receive the typological kingdom in the first place was emphatically not based on any merit of theirs (cf. Deut 9:5,6). Their original reception of this kingdom, as well as their restoration to it after the loss of their national election in Babylonian exile, is repeatedly attributed to God’s remembrance of his promissory commitments of grace to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod 2:24; 3:6ff.; 6:2ff.; 32:13; Deut 9:27; 10:15; Lev 26:42), pointing to the coming Messiah and the new covenant. (KP 323)
In sum, it is argued that the works principle (obedience to the law) did not take effect until after Israel entered the land – that is, the Mosaic Covenant did not take effect until after the conquest by Joshua (40 years after Mt. Sinai). Until that point, the promise-grace principle determined their inheritance of Canaan. It is argued that the reason the first generation died was because they did not have faith, whereas the second generation was given the land because they had faith. Therefore the land was inherited through faith alone apart from works.
The truth of this framework should be doubted, however, given all that we have seen above. The Abrahamic Covenant simply was not a promise-grace covenant, opposite in kind to one of works. The Klinean framework, on this point, does contain a partial (and important) truth: Abraham, a federal head, did earn the typological reward of Canaan for his descendants. However, Scripture never says that this reward was to be received by his descendants through faith alone apart from works. In fact, it says the opposite.
First of all, Scripture nowhere teaches that the Mosaic Covenant commenced or took effect only after the Israelites entered the land under Joshua’s leadership. The Mosaic Covenant was in effect from the moment the oath was sworn, when the people said “All this we will do.” That is specifically why they offered sacrifices according to Mosaic law and why the first generation experienced so many curses and eventually death (Num 14:22-23, 29-30, 33; Deut 1:35; Ps 95:10-11). As T. David Gordon notes “While the land was eventually given to the Israelites, the terms of the Sinai covenant delayed their inheritance by forty years.” The role of the Abrahamic Covenant was to preserve the people as a whole despite their disobedience to Mosaic law. While they did experience the curses of Mosaic law in the wilderness, they were not utterly destroyed (per Mosaic law) because the Abrahamic promise had not yet been fulfilled (Ex 32:10, 13; Num 14:20; Deut 9:5-8, 13-14, 19, 25, 27-28; 28:26; Jer 7:33; Ps 106:8, 23, 44-45).
Second, when we look at explicit statements about the Abrahamic Covenant, we see that its fulfillment is conditioned upon Abraham’s obedience (Gen. 17:1-2, 9, 14; 22:15-18; 26:5). But we also see that its fulfillment is conditioned upon Abraham’s offsprings’ obedience (Ex. 19:5-8; 23:20-22; Deut 4:1; 6:3, 17-18, 24-25; 7:12; 8:1-2; 11:8, 22-24; 29:13; Jer 11:5).
Ex 19:5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”
Ex 23:20 “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
22 “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries.
Deut 4:1 “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.
Deut 6:3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey… 17 You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his testimonies and his statutes, which he has commanded you. 18 And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may go well with you, and that you may go in and take possession of the good land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers 19 by thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised… 24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’
Deut 7:12 “And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers.
Regarding Deut 7:12, recall Kline:
The term `eqeb, “because,” used in Genesis 26:5 (and already in the original revelation to Abraham in Gen 22:18) signifies recompense, reward (cf. Ps 19:11; Prov 22:4; Isa. 5:23). This strengthens the case for understanding this as a matter of meritorious works. Moreover, Genesis 26:5 describes Abraham’s obedience in language surprising in the Genesis context, the divine demand being denoted by a series of legislative categories such as are later applied to the laws of Moses. A particularly interesting combination of such terms together with `eqeb, “in recompense for,” is found in Deuteronomy 7:12 (cf. 8:20). Quite possibly then, Genesis 26:5 employs the terminology of covenant stipulations from the Sinaitic Covenant, where it describes an arrangement governed by the meritorious works principle, to reenforce the point that Abraham’s obedience was also to be understood as having such a meritorious character and that, as such, it was the ground of the reward enjoyed by his descendants.
Deut 7:12 teaches that the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise to Abraham’s descendants was conditioned upon their obedience to the law, which Kline identified as the meritorious works principle, and he said it functioned in the same manner as Abraham’s meritorious obedience. Therefore Abraham’s offspring had to obey, like Abraham, in order to enter and possess the land God swore to give them.
Deut 8:1 “The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the Lord swore to give to your fathers. 2 And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.
Deut 11:8 “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong, and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess… 22 For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. 24 Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea.
Deut 29:10 “You are standing today, all of you, before the Lord your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, 11 your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, 12 so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is making with you today, 13 that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Jer 11:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 “Hear the words of this covenant, and speak to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 3 You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who does not hear the words of this covenant 4 that I commanded your fathers when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, from the iron furnace, saying, Listen to my voice, and do all that I command you. So shall you be my people, and I will be your God, 5 that I may confirm the oath that I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as at this day.”
Dennis Johnson comments
On the other hand it also is true to say that Israel, though small and stubborn, is receiving the land through obedience. Moses has already drawn a connection between obedience and conquest of the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 4:1. “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possesion of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you.” Israel is to hear and to do the Lord’s commands “that” the promised consequences might follow, namely life and possession of the land. Israel’s reception of the relative and temporal/temporary possession of life and land as a reward for relative fidelity to the law of the Lord foreshadows a covenantal principle of reciprocity that the apostle Paul will articulate in its eschatologized, absolutized form: “The one who does [God’s commands] shall live by them” (Gal 3:12). (Him We Proclaim 298)
Richard Pratt, Jr. summarizes
Abraham’s personal reception of the promises made to him in covenant were contingent on his loyalty… Despite the fact that God promised Abraham’s descendants the land, this promise did not guarantee this promise for particular individuals, families or groups… In sum, there were senses in which the covenant with Abraham was both unconditional and conditional. Abraham was promised by divine oath that in one way or another his descendants would come out of Egypt and possess the land of Canaan. But at the same time, for particular individuals, families and groups to enjoy this promise, they had to fulfill covenant obligations.
One passage seems to contradict this clear teaching. Kline references Deut 9:4-6
4 “Do not say in your heart, after the Lord your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out before you. 5 Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. 6 “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.
It is argued that this passage teaches that the second generation entered the land not through obedience to the law but through faith alone apart from works. At first glance it certainly seems to teach that. However, note that this passage calls them a stiff-necked people (v6). That is a label for unrepentant, unbelieving people. So if this passage refers to the second generation, it must mean they were a rebellious, unbelieving people just like their parents, and that they entered the land through rebellious unbelief (which would contradict the Klinean view). I do not believe that is what the passage means. Rather, “you” is simply a reference to Israel corporately, including the first generation. This is clear from the rest of the chapter. Moses likewise uses “you” to refer to Israel corporately, including the first generation (despite the fact that they were all dead at the time), in Deut 3:26 and 4:21.
The point of Deut 9:4-6 is that Israel collectively, as a nation, deserved to be utterly destroyed according to the terms of the Mosaic Covenant that God made with them, which would include the children. But because God had sworn to fulfill his promise to Abraham (because of Abraham’s loyalty/obedience), he spared the children. This is not what the nation deserved, therefore they should not be prideful. But he spared the children to see if they would obey, unlike their parents (Deut. 8:2 “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.”). This is how the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants relate. The Mosaic covenant simply elaborated upon the obedience required by the Abrahamic Covenant. But Abraham’s obedience as the federal head of the Abrahamic Covenant guaranteed that his offspring would not be utterly destroyed until they entered the land (through obedience to the law).
New Covenant = Abrahamic Covenant?
All of this provides sufficient reason to reject the claim that the Abrahamic and the New Covenant are the same covenant: the Covenant of Grace. As we will see in the next part, the Abrahamic Covenant did not include any ordo salutis blessings.
I had a chance to discuss all of these matters with Todd Bordow in the Meredith Kline Facebook group, if you are interested in reading further. After this post was published, we also discussed these issues on Twitter.