A few correspondents have contacted me to ask about the continuing controversy over the doctrine of republication. It seems as if it might be useful to try to put this discussion in some context.
In its most basic form, the doctrine of republication is the teaching that the same law, in essence, that was given to Adam as part of the covenant of works before the fall (see Westminster Confession of Faith chapters 7 and 19) was, in some way, re-stated or repeated to national Israel.
From where did the doctrine of republication come? Those who hold it as a matter of biblical exegesis and theology would say that it comes from Scripture. Historians of the Reformed tradition generally admit that it was taught in the classical period of Reformed theology (16th and 17th centuries).
Despite its existence in the tradition it has become hotly controversial in Reformed theology in recent years. Why the controversy after so many centuries? Part of the explanation is that much of what was taught as Reformed covenant theology in the 20th century did not adhere closely to the older versions. For example, the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis or consilium pacis).
When I began my research into the history of covenant theology, however, I found a very different picture. I found people teaching the pactum salutis regularly and without embarrassment. I did not pay much attention because I was asking other questions but I did notice the tension between the older and modern treatments. I did not really begin to think about the covenant of redemption until my colleague, Steve Baugh, began to query me about it in 1997 or so. He was interested in it because of his research in the New Testament. He wondered if the covenant of redemption might be a way to explain some of what he was finding in Paul. At his prompting I began to work on it more diligently and found it to be taught widely in the Reformed tradition, in the classical period. In CJPM we tried to explain what happened to this doctrine and why we need to recover it.
When I came into contact with the Reformed churches I heard a little about the covenant of works but it too seemed to be regarded as controversial. In seminary it remained controversial despite the fact that it is taught explicitly and repeatedly in the Westminster Standards. It says something about the state of Reformed theology in the 1970s and 1980s that a doctrine that is expressly taught in the Westminser Confession chapter 7 and that is repeated verbatim in chapter 19 could be regarded as controversial. One could get the impression that those who held to the traditional doctrine were radicals or renegades. The historical evidence that the covenant of works was widely held, however, is overwhelming.
It is a long story as to how it was lost or obscured but the short story is that after Karl Barth (1886–1968) rejected the covenant of works it became less popular. Barth’s influence in the 20th century (and today) was immense. People were influenced by him without even knowing it because they were influenced by writers (e.g., Berkouwer) who were influenced by him. In the second half of the 20th century, the doctrine of the pre-fall covenant of works came under suspicion even in “conservative” Reformed circles.
Thus, by the 1970s fully two-thirds of what had been classical Reformed covenant theology was no longer the norm in much of the “conservative” Reformed world. Many Reformed people had a truncated covenant theology and they assumed that what they had been taught must be what Reformed folk have always believed. This was an odd situation indeed but for those who were introduced to Reformed theology in that period these revisions were accepted as the norm, as the way things have always been or as they way they should have been.
It’s well to remember here that, until very recently, it was not easy to get hold of primary sources from the classical period. In some cases it meant relying on footnotes or quotations or order micro-fiche (compressed photographs of books often done poorly) or microfilm. Today I can log on to a service that provides almost the entire Reformed tradition, in the original languages. I can do a word search to discover what they taught in the same way we use Bible software. To be sure much of the tradition is still hidden from much of the Reformed community by a language barrier but at least we have the texts before us to translate as needed.
During the 1970s and 80s another aspect of traditional Reformed covenant theology became controversial partly because it too, like the covenants of redemption and works, had been lost. When people began to speak of it again it seemed odd, even foreign and that rediscovery was taking place in a very different context than the one in which it had been originally formulated.
When the doctrine of republication was originally articulated it typically served as a proof for the doctrine of the covenant of works. This is important. When writers appeal to one truth to prove another it is because the proof to which they are appealing as evidence for the second is regarded as more evident or clearer than the other. The argument frequently was this:
1. There could not have been a republication unless there was a pre-fall covenant of works
2. There was a republication.
3. Therefore there was a pre-fall covenant of works
It would not have been a very strong argument if the middle premise were in doubt.
The doctrine of republication was also an attempt by Reformed theologians to explain the obviously legal character of the Mosaic (Old) covenant without undermining the essential unity of the covenant of grace in redemptive history and without subverting the biblical and confessional Protestant doctrine of free acceptance with God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone, received through faith alone.
Those who appealed to republication, to my knowledge, did so on the assumption of the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace. For most of the classical writers, the Mosaic covenant was both an administration of the covenant of grace and a republication of the covenant of works. They could think this way because they were not thinking about republication of the law as contradictory to the covenant of grace. The law was never intended to be an actual or even hypothetical alternative to grace as the basis for salvation or acceptance with God.
Perhaps one reason why this is difficult for us is that among the inheritances that we have lost in the modern period is the distinction between law and gospel. For most of the classical writers, the notion that we can preach both the law and the gospel at the same time, to different ends, was utterly plain. In the course of the modern period and particularly in the 20th century, Reformed folk lost track of this distinction. We’ll explore some of the reasons for this loss below but one of them is the influence of Karl Barth. He turned on its head the traditional Reformed doctrine of law and gospel and that influence permeated even the conservative Reformed world while they were at war with Barth’s doctrine of revelation. Thus, many modern Reformed folk are shocked to find the degree to which they’ve imbibed and assumed Barthian novelties, since they see themselves (and they are) staunch opponents of Barth on other issues.
By the time the doctrine of republication began to be rediscovered those doing it were not in European or British state churches. They were not in the majority anywhere. It was largely rediscovered by Americans who were already cut off from the older Reformed tradition and who were surrounded intellectually and socially by theologies that had more in common with the early Anabaptist movements than with historic Reformed theology. For more on this see the essay on Sister Aimee in Always Reformed.
The American hero of the conservative Reformed and Presbyterians in the first half of the 20th century was J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936). He was a Princeton theologian and a sort of American aristocrat. He represented acceptance of Reformed theology in elite social and religious circles. His opinions were widely published in leading magazines and newspapers during his life. His exclusion from the mainline Presbyterian church (PCUSA) in 1929 and his death in 1936 signaled the marginalization of the conservative and confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches and their exile from the corridors of influence perhaps forever. The seminary he founded in 1929, Westminster, became the home of the conservative resistance to liberalism but within two decades those evangelicals who wanted to return to influence, who were not satisfied to plant and serve small, socially marginal congregations, abandoned Westminster to establish a new beachhead in Pasadena, CA. Those fundamentalists who also hankered to return to influence, abandoned Machen’s movement early on.
By the middle of the 20th century, most “evangelicals” read the history of redemption in a way that was quite different from the way the Reformed had read it in the classical period. Few evangelicals had any awareness or sympathy for the ideas of a pre-temporal covenant of redemption or a covenant of works or a unified covenant of grace with multiple administrations. Under the influence of Dispensationalism they tended to make a sharp dichotomy between the old testament and the new and they made no clear distinction between Moses and Abraham. As a result the entire typological period of the history of redemption, including the ten commandments, was essentially discarded. The OT served mainly as source material for discussions of prophecy and moral examples.
In reaction, many American Reformed (and Presbyterian) folk, socially and ecclesiastically isolated and feeling beset by enemies liberal, fundamentalist, and Dispensational, so emphasized the unity of the covenant of grace that any distinctions within that unity or any emphasis on the progress of redemption and revelation came to be viewed with suspicion as if it might be latent Dispensationalism or antinomianism.
Not only did much evangelical theology sound quasi-Marcionite in the ears of many Reformed folk but the evangelicals were also dominated by an Arminian view of salvation, that grace initiates a process of salvation but that we must do our part and are able to do our part if only we will. In light of the widespread influence of such a soteriology, it is not surprising that, when the doctrine of republication began to come to light again in the 1970s and 80s it might be viewed by some as idiosyncratic and even dangerous.
To be sure, not every Reformed theologian, in the classical period, articulated the exact same view of the Mosaic covenant. How to explain the nature of the Mosaic covenant has always been a difficult question but certainly the idea that the giving of the law at Sinai was, in some sense, a re-statement of, an expression of, a republication of the same law that was given to Adam was not considered idiosyncratic. In the 18th century, the chief of the “Marrow Men,” Thomas Boston (1676–1832) could not understand how anyone could not see the doctrine of republication implied clearly in WCF 19. By the mid-20th century, however, it was not a matter of drawing inferences. It was a matter of rediscovering a way of interpreting the history of redemption that had been more or less forgotten.
This idea was less difficult for the classical Reformed theologians because one of the assumptions on which it was based is the idea that the law that God gave to Adam before the fall was the “natural law” and thus, the Ten Commandments given at Sinai were simply a re-articulation of this same law, albeit in Mosaic terms. The classical Reformed theologians were used to distinguishing between that which makes a thing what it is and that which is incidental to a thing. This was an old distinction which they learned as boys in grammar school: the distinction between substance and accidents.
They saw the substance of the natural law in the Ten Commandments. They understood that the Saturday Sabbath and the promise of the law were accidents—not mistakes but properties that were temporary and that could fall away without changing the law itself. The essence of the law itself is to love God with all one’s faculties and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matt 22:37–40).
Virtually all those who taught a version of republication saw it as a sort of intensification of the original, natural law given to Adam. The function of the 613 commandments was to point the Israelites to Christ. The 613 commandments (mitzvoth) were an elaboration of the law specific to the Israelites. Some of the law was religious and ceremonial, having to do with the sacrifices etc. Some of the law civil, having to do with the Israelite state. The Ten Commandments were regarded as moral law, which they treated as an expression of the natural or moral law given to Adam. Because the moral law is natural they understood that it was the same law which is written on the consciences of all humans everywhere. This was the magisterial Protestant doctrine and the heritage of Reformed orthodoxy.
Again, however, partly because for many Reformed in the modern period the idea of “natural law” came to associated with Remonstrants and others such as Hugo Grotius and was also stoutly rejected by Karl Barth it too fell into neglect and yet another basic building block of the classical Reformed covenant theology was lost.
So, when we consider the state of Reformed covenant theology from the middle of the 20th century forward it’s no wonder that the attempt to recover the classical formulations of it, including the covenants of redemption and works and some idea of recapitulation of the covenant of works would be met with opposition.
We can understand why Reformed folk, cut off from the tradition, in a context were the basic building blocks of the classical period were lost, would object to the doctrine of republication on theological or exegetical grounds. It’s a thorny question and we all come to it from different backgrounds and in different contexts. Those backgrounds and contexts color the way we look at it. Those who come from or who are responding to some form of Dispensationalism are apt to look less favorably on any version of the doctrine of republication because it may seem to weaken the unity of the covenant of grace and provide an opening for those who want to marginalize (or reject) the Decalogue because it was given under Moses. In that case the specter of antinomianism appears.
There are also concerns about Pelagianism. According to some, who reject any idea of republication, the very notion that the covenant of works given to Adam was republished to the Israelites is inherently Pelagianizing. This concerns the teaching of a 4th and 5th century British monk who denied original sin and taught the ability of humans to obey the law for acceptance with God.
To be clear, the Reformed churches have rejected Pelagianism as heresy. We also reject semi-Pelagianism, the doctrine that grace comes first but that we must cooperate with it unto salvation, as a gross error. This was the work of the Synod of Dort (1618–19).
To the best of my knowledge, none of the various versions of the doctrine of republication ever held that somehow, under Moses, sinners were able to earn either their salvation or their justification. The earliest versions of republication treated the Mosaic law as a re-statement and intensification of the natural law for the purposes of pointing the Israelites to Christ. In other words, the law was republished for pedagogical purposes. There were (many) other views articulated in the classical period, including those that connected the republication of the natural law/covenant of works with Israel’s status as a national people, but the classical Reformed covenant theologians would be surprised at the degree to which an idea they largely took as a given is now considered controversial.
If we consider the tortuous (as distinct from torturous) history of Reformed theology in the modern period, it is a marvel that any of the tradition survived at all. The recovery of that tradition will continue to be difficult but we should persevere because those goods are ours and they are inherently valuable. As we take them out of the attic and dust them off we will need to explain to our brothers and sisters what they are, what they do, and why they’re still useful in our late modern age.