What Is the Doctrine of “Republication?”

Republication

Over at Old Life, D.G. Hart has written this piece on the recently published book Merit and Moses by Andrew Elam, Robert Van Kooten, and Randall Bergquist (Wipf & Stock, 2014). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a critique of a relatively obscure and ambiguous doctrine known as “republication.” This doctrine has been around in some form or another since the beginning of Reformed theology, but its most recent permutation is associated with Meredith G. Kline, deceased professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Kline was the father of one of two camps at WTS that divided after the time of Geerhardus Vos—the other camp following John Murray, professor of Systematic Theology. The differences between these two camps centered on questions concerning the nature of covenant theology, law, and grace.

These days, the most ardent defenders of Kline and republication can be found at Westminster Seminary California. A few years back, the faculty of WSCal published the book The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Law and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant (P&R, 2009), the main thesis of which is that the Mosaic Covenant is “in some sense” a republication of the Covenant of Works. That turns out to be a rather confusing qualifier: in exactly what sense is it a republication of the Covenant of Works? There are at least three ways (and probably more) in which the Mosaic Covenant has been said to “republish” God’s original covenant with Adam:

  1. The Mosaic Covenant republishes the same moral law that was revealed in the Covenant of Works.
  2. The Mosaic Covenant republishes the “works principle” of the Covenant of Works in the specific and typological sense that Israel’s obedience merited the reward of possession of the Promised Land, just as Adam’s obedience would have merited the reward of eternal life. But Israel’s imperfect obedience also foreshadowed the perfect obedience of the True Israelite (Jesus), just as the temporal reward of Canaan foreshadowed the eternal reward of the New Heavens and New Earth.
  3. The Mosaic Covenant republishes the “works principle” of the Covenant of Works in the general sense that God rewards perfect obedience with eternal life.

Interpretation (1) above is relatively uncontroversial; the consensus of Reformed theologians is that Adam and all his posterity are—and always have been—subject to the same unchanging moral law of God. But taken in this sense, the idea of “republication” becomes redundant; every covenant of the Bible republishes the same moral law first revealed in the Covenant of Works. Sinai is no different.

Interpretation (2) is unique to Kline and his followers. It also happens to be the view of republication that has attracted the strongest criticisms. Most Reformed theologians are leery of admitting any kind of merit into the Mosaic Covenant—even if it is of a merely typological kind—since it would undermine the sufficiency of God’s grace. Indeed, how could an Israelite not slip into a legalistic mentality, knowing that their own personal obedience was earning them a place in the Promised Land? A rebuttal to this understanding of republication can be found in Scott Sanborn’s article “Did Paul Really Teach Republication as ‘Defined’ by VanDrunen? Part 3” in Kerux 27.3 (available online here), and in Cornelis Venema’s article “The Mosaic Covenant: A ‘Republication’ of the Covenant of Works?” in Mid-America Journal of Theology 21 (available online here).

Interpretation (3) is admittedly more widespread in the Reformed tradition (Calvin himself affirmed it), although it has been increasingly challenged—or at least nuanced—in recent years. On this reading, the Mosaic Covenant presents Israel with a hypothetical offer of eternal life through works-righteousness: if they could obey God’s law perfectly, they could earn God’s favor, but since they can’t, the law only mocks them with its impossible demands. [1] Presumably, this was the same arrangement that Adam had with God before the fall, with the crucial difference that Adam was originally capable of meeting the condition of perfect obedience. Taken in this sense, the law is seen as preparatory for the grace of the gospel. It enslaves, crushes, and ultimately kills sinners, forcing them to flee to the freedom found only in the perfect obedience of Christ.

Now there are certainly elements of truth in this reading (after all, freedom is only found in Christ). But it runs into difficulties in incorporating all of the biblical data into a coherent picture. For one, how does it square with Moses’s own words in Deut. 30:11-14 that the law isn’t too hard for Israelites to obey? Or how does it square with the words of the psalmist, who claims to have received life through God’s law (Ps. 119:93)? [2] And of course, we can’t forget that in the New Testament, James calls it a “law of liberty,” not a law of slavery (Jas. 1:25). The basic error of interpretation (3) seems to stem from viewing the law’s promise of “life” in strictly forensic terms. Should such “life” be regarded as entrance into God’s favor (i.e., justification), or rather as the fullness of blessing for those already in God’s favor? If we take the latter view (as I think we should), then republication again becomes redundant, for this promise of life/blessing is found in every covenant of Scripture.

This, in a nutshell, is one of the key dividing lines between followers of Murray and those of Kline. In my humble opinion, the Murrayans are closer to the truth here. Nevertheless, I do wonder if perhaps the best way forward is to go backward. That is, it may be the case that the Murray/Kline debate has only muddied the waters, and we will only find clarity by returning to even earlier Reformed writers—ones like Robert Rollock, Thomas Goodwin, or Patrick Fairbairn, for example. To be sure, nobody’s theology is perfect, and that’s why what we need most of all is a willingness to listen—even to those on the other side of the fence, even when they criticize our most cherished theological heroes. On that point, I think that Hart is spot on.

Notes

1. For a pithy critique of the idea of “hypothetical works-righteousness,” see Walt Kaiser, “The Law As God’s Gracious Guidance for the Promotion of Holiness,” in Five Views on Law and Gospel, ed. Stanley Gundry (Zondervan, 1996), 190-92.

2. Some interpreters have suggested that this and the other psalms of the “righteous man” must be referring exclusively to Christ, the only man capable of finding life through the law. But the problem with this reading—apart from the fact that no NT author uses these psalms in such a way—is that these very same psalmists also confess their sin and guilt before God (Ps. 41:4; 119:176), something that Christ himself never could have done.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Merit and Moses (Part 1) | Allkirk Network - August 13, 2014

    […] For my own thoughts on republication, see my earlier post here. […]

  2. Patrick Fairbairn on the Law’s Promise of Life | Allkirk Network - August 31, 2014

    […] IN: Sovereign Grace, 1960), which is especially relevant for current discussions on the question of republication in the Mosaic […]

  3. What Does Republication Have to Do with Christotelic Hermeneutics? Quite a Lot, Actually | Allkirk Network - September 23, 2014

    […] by the late OT professor Meredith Kline and his followers (I have explained it in greater detail here). In short, republication is the idea that the Mosaic Covenant republishes the “works […]

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