Republication of the Covenant of Works

Attempting to clear away some misapprehensions on both sides.

So here is where I currently am: I advocate a form of republication that is very similar to Colquhoun’s. The republication was given to Israel primarily for the purposes of the pedagogical use of the law (though not only for this purpose). Of course, it is helpful to bear in mind that in this pedagogical sense, the covenant of works is always republished throughout the entire Bible. It is always there, sometimes more in the background, sometimes more in the foreground.

 

It is rather amazing to me to see how worked (!) up people can get over the republication thesis. Is it that people just hate Meredith Kline? Or do they just hate Westminster California? I hear and read overstated cases on both sides. I have read that the republication thesis was the standard position among Reformed theologians in the post-reformation era. This is surely overstated. I have also read that not only is the republication idea heretical, but that no Reformed author ever believed it before Meredith Kline. This is also quite overstated. I have hesitated to write about it, because my own thoughts on the subject were anything but settled. They still aren’t settled. I see helpful insights on both sides (although it must be said that there are an enormous number of individual positions on the nature of the Mosaic covenant). What I am attempting to do in this post is simply to clear away some misapprehensions on both sides.

Definition of republication: that there exists in the Mosaic covenant some sort of republication of the covenant of works. Almost all advocates of the republication thesis I have read agree that the essential nature of the Mosaic covenant is that it is part of the covenant of grace, and that the republication has nothing whatsoever to do with how Old Testament Christians become saved. Most advocates of the republication thesis agree that people were saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone both before and after Christ came. This is not something that most critics of the republication thesis are willing to concede (that republication advocates actually believe this about OT believers). Little, however, is to be gained by caricature, and it is time that the critics saw this. As a matter of fact, there is no Reformed theologian I know of who believes that people in the Mosaic economy obtained eternal salvation by their works in the Covenant of Works.

Another misapprehension among critics is that the Westminster Standards explicitly forbid this notion. It does not. The relevant wording in WCF 7 is as follows: “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others…The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof; although not as due to them as a covenant of works” (section 6). The key phrases here are “under the law” and “to be thereby justified, or condemned.” Republication advocates (at least those claiming to be confessional) do not advocate that OT believers are in any way under the law as a covenant of works to be thereby justified or condemned. Unfortunately, the normally careful Cornel Venema makes a mistake concerning this point in CPJ 9 (2013), p. 161, where he states, “[T]he Confession expressly denies that the law was given through Moses ‘as a covenant of works.’” The correction that is important here is that Venema leaves out the qualifying phrase “to be thereby justified, or condemned.” With regard to the last phrase in section 6, again, most republication advocates will say that the republication does not re-obligate us to the covenant of works. As Fesko says, “[T]he Mosaic covenant is part of the Covenant of Grace but that I maintain that the former republishes, not re-administers, the covenant of works” (CPJ 9, 2013, p. 178). The key words there are “not re-administers.” In section 6 of WCF 7, in other words, the phrase “to be thereby justified, or condemned” controls the whole section. The promises of obedience to the law did not come to OT believers by way of the covenant of works. I feel sure most republication advocates would agree with this.

The fact is that republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic economy is, in the theology of most of its advocates, simply another way of talking about the pedagogical use of the law.

However, against some republication advocates, I do not believe that the WCF proves the republication thesis, either. Chapter 19 is often referenced in this regard, but chapter 19 does not say that the covenant of works was republished. It says that the moral law that was used in the Adamic covenant as the covenant of works was later given at Mount Sinai. It is that same moral law that is the subject of the sentence in WCF 19.2, not the covenant of works. Republication is therefore not proven or disproven by the Westminster Standards.

Another common misapprehension is that the republication view is quite novel and new. It most certainly is not. There probably are sources that have been “accommodated” to the modern viewpoints. Turretin’s view is, for instance, enormously complex and difficult to parse. However, James Buchanan, John Colquhoun, and the Marrow divines are not difficult to parse at all, and they quite clearly advocate the republication view, with almost all of the distinctives that the modern advocates have. Here is James Buchanan, in his monumental work on justification:

The Law-considered as a national covenant, by which their continued possession of the land of Canaan, and of all their privileges under the Theocracy, was left to depend on their external obedience to it,- might be called a national Covenant of Works, since their temporal welfare was suspended on the condition of their continued adherence to it; but, in that aspect of it, it had no relation to the spiritual salvation of individuals, otherwise than as this might be affected by their retaining, or forfeiting, their outward privileges and means of grace. It may be considered, however, in another light, as a re-exhibition of the original Covenant of Works, for the instruction of individual Jews in the principles of divine truth; for in some such light it is evidently presented in the writings of Paul (Justification, BoT edition, pp. 38-39).

Can anyone seriously doubt that Buchanan was an advocate of the republication thesis?

Here is John Colquhoun, in his work A Treatise On the Law and the Gospel:

The violated covenant of works, as I observed above, was not, and could not be, made or renewed with the Israelites at Sinai; for it was a broken covenant, and besides, it was a covenant between God and man as friends, whereas now man has become the enemy of God. but though it was not renewed with them, yet it was, on that solemn occasion, repeated and displayed to them. It was not proposed to them in order that they might consent, by their own works, to fulfil the condition of it, but it was displayed before them in subservience to the covenant of grace that they might see how impossible it was for them as condemned sinners to perform that perfect obedience which is the immutable condition of life in it…Now the covenant of works was displayed in this tremendous form before the Israelites in order that self-righteous and secure sinners among them might be alarmed, and deterred from expecting justification in the sight of God by the works of the law…Although the Sinaic transaction was a mixed dispensation, yet the covenant of grace and the covenant of works were not blended together in it…The law promulgated from Mount Sinai to the Israelites as the matter of a national covenant between God and them…the promises of that national covenant were promises of temporal good things to the Israelites, both as a body politic and as individuals, and of these in subservience to their enjoyment of religious privileges. The inheritance of the earthly Canaan as typical of the eternal inheritance was given to Abraham by promise (see p. 67 for a further delineation of the national promises that the republished covenant of works would give to an obedient Israel). See pages 55, 57, 61, 62, 64, and 66 of the SDG edition for the quotations.

Lastly, The Marrow of Modern Divinity:

God never made the covenant of works with any man since the fall, either with expectation that he should fulfil it, or to give him life by it…[L]et no man imagine that God published the covenant of works on Mount Sinai, as though he had been mutable, and so changed his determination in that covenant made with Abraham…[I]t was added by way of subserviency and attendance, the better to advance and make effectual the covenant of grace; so that although the same covenant that was made with Adam was renewed on Mount Sinai, yet I say still, it was not for the same purpose. (Christian Heritage edition, pp. 83-84).

On pages 81-83, there are supporting quotations from Polonus (maybe Polanus?), Preston, Pemble, and Walker that advocate a republication of the covenant of works at Sinai. Now, the idea of republication is not the view of all the Reformed fathers, and it would be difficult to say what the majority view was. A lot depends on which elements one includes in one’s definition of republication. There is the element of the covenant of works renewed as pedagogical. Then there is the element of a national covenant (which can be made for different purposes, as the Colquhoun quotation shows; i.e., not all advocates of a republication thesis believed that it was republished for the purposes of giving the land to Israel upon condition of obedience.). In Kline’s view there is the additional element of simple merit, which is certainly not something all republication advocates share.

Can the critics of republication please stop claiming that all these ideas are purely novel, and haven’t been around until Kline came on the scene? That should now be manifestly absurd.

On the other side of the coin, there seems to me to be some exaggeration on the part of republication advocates as to how widespread the view was in the Reformation era and post-Reformation era. Here is where the danger of accommodation comes in (making old authors speak with modern categories). It does not appear to me from my current vantage point that republication was the majority view. A careful reading of Turretin would seem to bear this out (Venema’s careful handling of Turretin seems mostly on target, although Fesko does have some legitimate points in response. The whole exchange in CPJ 8-9 is essential reading for this debate).

So here is where I currently am: I advocate a form of republication that is very similar to Colquhoun’s. The republication was given to Israel primarily for the purposes of the pedagogical use of the law (though not only for this purpose). Of course, it is helpful to bear in mind that in this pedagogical sense, the covenant of works is always republished throughout the entire Bible. It is always there, sometimes more in the background, sometimes more in the foreground.

There is something unique about the Mosaic economy, however. I believe that there was a national covenant made with Israel, but not for the purposes of giving them the land. That was already promised in the Abrahamic covenant. John Colquhoun’s list of privileges and promises that hinge on the obedience is more in line with what the Scripture says, in my opinion. It is, therefore, a very limited republication view that I espouse. I reject Kline’s view of simple merit, if he means strict merit. No one can merit strictly except Jesus Christ.

Lane Keister is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Lebanon Presbyterian Church in Winnsboro, S.C. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.