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Works in the Mosaic Covenant

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Works in the Mosaic Covenant: A Survey of Major Covenant Theologians Lee Irons One of the distinctive aspects of Meredith G. Kline’s covenant theology is his identification of the Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the works-principle of inheritance. He writes: The Sinaitic administration … Paul interpreted as in itself a dispensation of the kingdom inheritance quite opposite in principle to inheritance by guaranteed promise: “For if the inheritance is by law, it is no longer by promise” an
  Works in the Mosaic Covenant:A Survey of Major Covenant Theologians Lee IronsOne of the distinctive aspects of Meredith G. Kline’s covenant theology is hisidentification of the Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the works-principle of inheritance. He writes:The Sinaitic administration … Paul interpreted as in itself a dispensation of thekingdom inheritance quite opposite in principle to inheritance by guaranteed promise: “For if the inheritance is by law, it is no longer by promise” and “the lawis not of faith; but, he that doeth them shall live in them” … The unquestionablefact emerges in Galatians 3 that Paul saw in the Old Testament alongside thecovenant of promise another covenant which was so far from being anadministration of promise as to raise the urgent question whether it did notabrogate the promise. 1  The purpose of this paper is to show that Kline’s formulation of covenanttheology, specifically his Pauline construction of the works element of the MosaicCovenant, is neither eccentric nor recent, but stands foursquare within the mainstream of historic covenant theology. With respect to the validity of seeing a works element in theMosaic Covenant, there has been, until recently, a relatively united conviction amongReformed theologians as they affirmed the ground of the Law-Gospel contrast and itsimplications for   sola fide .Study of the literature of the classic Reformed covenant theologians shows thatthere were two historic positions within mainstream Reformed covenant theology on thesubject of the Mosaic Covenant. The first position is that the Mosaic Covenant isessentially a gracious covenant administered in a legal manner. The second, quite 1 Meredith G. Kline,  By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and  Baptism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 22-24.  Works in the Mosaic CovenantPage© 2007 Lee Irons widespread opinion is that the Mosaic Covenant is essentially a republication of theAdamic covenant of works. They held that the Mosaic Covenant was a “subservientcovenant,” since it was not set up as a competing means of salvation but as subservient tothe covenant of grace. Both historic Reformed positions held that there is a works aspectin the Mosaic administration, focused primarily on the Law’s function as a pedagogue tolead Israel to Christ.It would appear that the viewpoint dominant in Reformed circles today, that theMosaic Covenant is merely an administration of the covenant of pure grace, devoid of anyworks element, is a modern reaction against dispensationalism, and can claim very fewadvocates within the ranks of the covenant theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenthcenturies. It is true, as Karlberg points out, that there were a few Puritan theologians, likeDavid Dickson, who held that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of pure grace, andthat Paul in Galatians 3 was merely refuting a Jewish misinterpretation of the Law. 2 Butthis viewpoint was not dominant until recently. John Murray, for example, recognizedthat his gracious construction of the Mosaic Covenant represented a departure fromclassic covenant theology: “The view that in the Mosaic covenant there was a repetitionof the so-called covenant of works, current among covenant theologians , is a gravemisconception and involves an erroneous construction of the Mosaic covenant.” 3  Unfortunately, not all recognize that they are moving away from the historicReformed tradition. A good example of this is Ernest F. Kevan whose thesis is evident in 2 Mark Karlberg, “Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant,” WTJ  43:1 (1980): 29-30. 3 John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 2:50.  Works in the Mosaic CovenantPage© 2007 Lee Irons the title of his book, The Grace of Law . 4 But Karlberg has argued persuasively that Kevanfundamentally “misreads the Puritan literature,” capturing “only one aspect of the Puritanteaching on the biblical doctrine of law.” 5  In view of the tendency today to view the Mosaic Covenant as solely gracious,and in view of the influence of theologians like Murray and Kevan, I have gatheredtogether some significant quotes from important Reformed covenant theologians in order to demonstrate the existence of a Reformed consensus on the Law-Gospel contrast. Thiscontrast was not understood by the Reformed in an abstract Lutheran manner, but as ahistorico-covenantal contrast between the Old (Mosaic) and New Covenants. Althoughwithin traditional covenant theology there are two distinct (but not entirely incompatible)formulations of the works aspect of the Mosaic Covenant, these differences are minor when compared with their overarching agreement. This tradition stands as a firmtestimony against the gracious construction of the Law that is currently playing itself outin the Reformed community to the detriment of the clarity of our witness to the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ. The Mosaic Covenant as a Covenant of Grace Legally Administered We begin our survey by noting the formulation which states that the MosaicCovenant is a covenant of grace administered legally. On this view, the essential nature of  4 Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology (repr. Soli Deo Gloria Publications,1993). 5 Mark Karlberg, “Moses and Christ: The Place of the Law in Seventeenth-Century Puritanism,” TrinJ  10 NS (1989): 26 n. 49.  Works in the Mosaic CovenantPage© 2007 Lee Irons the Mosaic Covenant is that it was a gracious covenant, but as to form, it wasadministered in a legal manner that the grace of the New Covenant might shine forthmore clearly.William Ames (1576-1633)The scholastic distinction between essence and form is appealed to by thetheologians of this school. For example, in his  Marrow of Theology (1629) WilliamAmes argued in typical scholastic fashion:The testament is new in relation to what existed from the time of Moses and inrelation to the promise made to the fathers. But it is new not in essence but in  form . In the former circumstances the form of administration gave some evidenceof the covenant of works, from which this testament is essentially different. 6  In order to explain in what sense the New Covenant is new in contrast with theOld Covenant, Ames argued that the New Covenant is not new in essence, but in form, because the form in which the Old Covenant was administered “gave some evidence of the covenant of works.” In the New Covenant, by contrast, the doctrine of grace is given a“more distinct expression than heretofore,” as a result of the “doing away with … theintermixture of the covenant of works” which held the people of God “in a certain bondage” in that former age.Since the complete difference between the new covenant and the old appearedonly in the administration which came after Christ, this administration is properlytermed the covenant and testament which is new. This differs also from theformer administration in quality and quantity. Its difference in quality is in clarityand freedom. Clarity occurs, first in the more distinct expression than heretoforeof the doctrine of grace and salvation through Christ and through faith in him …Freedom comes, first, in doing away with government by law, or the intermixtureof the covenant of works, which held the ancient people in a certain bondage. The 6 William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (transl. John Dykstra Eusden; Durham, N.C.: The Labyrinth Press,1968), 206.
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