Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works (3)

Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

It may be that you do not read the comments section. That’s probably wise. Here are some revised and expanded responses to some questions/objections

1. The doctrine of the republication of the covenant of works relative to the land promise and national covenant contradicts the WCF. Owen taught republication, ergo Owen contradicts the WCF.

Respondeo dicendeum: Petitio principii. Whether the doctrine of republication contradicts the WCF is what is in question. The major premise begs the question. One prima facie evidence against the major premise is the fact that the same sorts of folks who wrote the WCF and held to republication and used it as proof of the confession’s doctrine of the covenant of works. A second piece of evidence is the language of WCF chapter 19 to which Thomas Boston appealed.

2. The doctrine of republication is implicitly Baptistic.

I don’t see how distinguishing the visible church from the invisible church helps the Baptists at all. Like Paul in Rom 2:28, the Reformed faith recognizes that there are those in the covenant of grace only visibly and those who have possession (or who will come into possession) of the substance of the covenant of grace. One of the great problems for those Baptists who would be Reformed is that, by trying to achieve an eschatological visible church in the semi-eschatological age, they muddle or implicitly reject the visible/invisible distinction. That’s why they can’t baptize children, because they can’t be sure that a baby is regenerate. Pace Abraham Kuyper, that’s why we don’t baptize on the basis of presumed regeneration. We don’t assume that only the regenerate may be baptized. God commanded that all sons of the covenant, even Esau and Ishmael, be circumcised on the 8th day. In the same way, we baptize babies on the basis of divine promise and command. God promised to be a God to us and to our children (Gen 17). That promise was repeated in Acts 2:39. God commanded that we initiate our children into the visible covenant community. The command to initiate children of professing believers into the visible covenant community still stands. Unlike the temporary and typological land promises and the temporary and typological national covenant given to Moses, the promises of Gen 17 are permanent.

It seems to me that that those who deny republication do so partly because, in reaction to the Baptist error, they conflate Moses and Abraham. In so doing they’ve actually agreed with the Baptists who do the same thing. What we want to say to our Baptist friends is that Moses is not Abraham. Moses is unique in important ways. One great Baptist assumption is that everything that happened in the typological period was Mosaic, that the NT expression “old covenant” refers to everything that happened before the incarnation/death of Christ. In fact, the expression ‘old covenant’ (2 Cor 3; Heb 7-10) does not refer to Abraham but to Moses.

Infant initiation, Baptists argue, was part of the “old covenant.” The “old covenant” has expired, therefore infant initiation has expired. On this basis they oppose infant baptism. We (should) respond by saying that, “Not only does the expression ‘old covenant’ not refer to Abraham but Paul doesn’t treat Abraham like an ‘old covenant’ figure. That’s why he’s the father of all who believe (See Rom 3-4; Gal 3-4). By distinguishing between Moses and Abraham we assign infant initiation to Abraham and not to Moses.

Because we distinguish between Moses and Abraham, and because we see that, relative to salvation and justification, Moses was an administration of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, we cannot agree at all with those Baptists (e.g. Paul Jewett) who argue that there was nothing spiritual about the Mosaic covenant. Hebrews 11 is clear that under Moses and David etc God saved his people sola gratia, sola fide, et solo Christo has he has always done since the fall.

Hodge is perfectly right to say that God made a temporary, national covenant with Moses. That temporary national covenant, which expired with the death of Christ, was the outworking of the land promises and the promise of a national people made to Abraham. The spiritual covenant, the covenant of grace, however, does not expire. The covenant of grace was temporarily administered through and alongside a national covenant. Paul seems to say something like this in Gal 3 doesn’t he? The Mosaic covenant, insofar as it was a distinct covenant, was a national, external, temporary covenant. At the same time, however, the spiritual, internal, Abrahamic covenant of grace continued and those in the Mosaic covenant who were elect, were also children of Abraham as well as children of Moses.

God said to Abraham: I will be a God to you and to your children. Adding a visible national, temporary covenant to that immutable spiritual covenant (which was repeated in Acts 2:39 – “For the promise is to you and to your children” does not change that promise. The national, temporary, land promises were administered through Moses and expired when Jesus, the true Israel went down to Egypt, came up out of Egypt, obeyed God as the Israel of God, the natural (not adopted) Son and as the 2nd Adam. When Jesus was crucified, the Mosaic covenant was crucified with him. Seems to me that’s what Paul says in Colossians.

3. The doctrine of republication leads to antinomianism by making the Mosaic covenant merely temporary and typological

Unless one is a theonomist, antinomianism is denial of the abiding validity of the moral, natural law of God. That law was given in creation in the covenant of works. Our Lord Jesus summarized it in Matt 22:37-40. It came to expression in Israelitish terms in the decalogue. Unless one wants the national covenant today, one has to recognize that the Mosaic theocracy was temporary and typological. The Westminster divines certainly recognized that fact in ch 19. Does the fact that the national Israelite, Mosaic covenant was temporary and typological mean that we lose the decalogue and a reign of antinomianism is unleashed? No. That’s the beautiful thing about the Reformed faith. We don’t ground the decalogue purely in Moses. We ground it in nature. That’s why VanDrunen’s work on natural law is so important and useful. That’s why Barth’s and the theonomic/reconstructionist rejection of natural law is do damaging to Reformed Christianity. The substance of the decalogue persists because it is natural or creational and a reflection (analogue) of the divine nature. The land promises and saturday sabbath expired with Moses but the promise of heaven and the Christian sabbath persist because we live in a semi-eschatological age. The consummation is not here yet.

This is why the older Reformed theologians appealed to republication to prove the pre-lapsarian covenant of works; not relative to justification or salvation but relative to the national covenant. They believed in natural law. They frequently called the covenant of works a “covenant of nature.” Maybe part of the problem some folk have today with republication and the covenant of works is that they no longer believe in nature/creation and the natural law thus they don’t believe that the decalogue reflects the creational law? For the older Reformed theologians, the national covenant illustrates the covenant of works. If there could be a temporary, legal, national covenant, mutatis mutandis post lapsum then there could be a pre-lapsarian covenant of works.

It is odd that some who position themselves as staunch defenders of confessionalism are laying siege to one of the chief traditional proofs for the confessional doctrine of the covenant of works. Maybe our ostensible confessionalists are just that?

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. God commanded that all sons of the covenant, even Esau and Ishmael, be circumcised on the 8th day. In the same way, we baptize babies on the basis of divine promise and command.

    Amen! But Hodge’s cleaver (at least in that one quote you gave us back in part 2) left circumcision on the floor with the rest of the national covenant, separated from the New Covenant. It seems that perhaps we should use a scalpel to “cut off” Mosaic circumcision (sign of the national covenant) from Abrahamic circumcision (sign of New Covenant heart circumcision)

  2. Rube,

    Yes, I agree that, if Hodge wholly identified circumcision with Moses, he erred. I doubt that is what Hodge was doing.

    Let’s stipulate that circumcision is Abrahamic and initiation into the visible people of God precedes Moses.

  3. To be clear, whatever Bruce was arguing, I wasn’t arguing that republication is implicitly baptistic; it ain’t! I firmly believe that Sinai involved a republication of the covenant of works (I librate somewhat on the details).

    My sole concern was the Hodge quote, and it was my twin contention that Hodge was reading republication back into Abraham, and that this is implicitly baptistic. In fact, I would want to argue that it’s *his* position which removes all the distinctions and discontinuities between Abraham and Moses.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate the series, very helpful.

    I’m wondering if you saw this article:
    from Kerux (NWTS). The newly expanded Kerux archive has made it available electronically for the first time. It’s in the form of a dialogue – perhaps so that the author could claim it’s a hypothetical if ever cornered on it.

  5. Philip,

    Was thinking about this over lunch.

    However infelicitous Hodge’s language might be in the passage quoted, shouldn’t we distinguish between the promises made in Gen 12 with the promise made in ch 17? I’m not saying that there’s no overlap, but it does seem that there is some distinction. E.g. Gen 12:1-9, the focus there is on heirs and land. It’s true that, spiritually considered, we are Abraham’s children and that, in Christ, we are all part of the fulfillment of that promise. It’s true that, in Christ, the land promise becomes a promise of heaven.

    In 15, of course, there is a royal-grant covenant but in 15:7 the concern is about the land. vv. 18-21, the focus is definitely on the land.

    In ch 17, however, even though the land and offspring are in view (e.g. vv. 2, 8), they seem more incidental or accidental to the covenant promise than in ch’s 12 and 15.

    At any rate, even if all the chapters are substantially promising the same thing, is it not the case that we should distinguish the land/inheritance promise from the spiritual promise (“I will be your God and your children’s God?”). If we can make that distinction then we can connect that aspect of the promise to Abraham to the national covenant in Moses. In other words, Hodge’s language, however incautious, is attempting to account for a real distinction.

  6. Philip:
    I think you were seeing what I was seeing, and neither of us was trying to make Hodge into something he wasn’t, just noting an apparent… !?!… “wouldn’t-that-create-real-problems-if-he-isn’t-careful-to-qualify” moment.

    I mean, if circumcision is to the “land” promise like a ritual badge of ownership, that indeed is what the 17th century baptists have been arguing for a long time now, namely that circumcision is not a sign of the CoG, except possibly as an after-effect. It is unfair perhaps to Hodge, given an isolated quote, but it sounded like he threw caution to the wind with that concession!

    If the sign is tied directly to the land, and derives mystical significance from the CoG through the typological land-LINK (and a good many of them say it was only such a sign to Abraham, and nobody else), then the baptists have a much more well-founded argument (even if it is wrong in the end) that once the land is gone, and all the types are absorbed into the Seed, the sign naturally goes too because the LINK is gone. The sign (it would be argued) can only be reestablished in the Seed. Thus the rationale for believer’s only baptism is strengthened on this supposition.

    The sign has got to go straight to the CoG, and not as mediated through the typological land. The sign is supposed to connect them to Abraham, and because of being united to him (by faith, not biology), then they have an inheritance in his land (which is a heavenly land), and by derivation to the earthly typological land.

    And I’m not expecting give-and-take with RSC here (especially since he’s on the clock). I basically can agree to the proposition that once you are talking about the “typological land” (earthly) in and of and for itself, AS IF it were just another real-estate transaction, when you expand the one-to-one relationship of God-Abraham to God-Israelites, changing the form of their relationship to the land, and predicating it upon an obedient (law/CoW), suzerain (lord-vassal) relationship seems perfectly reasonable to me.

    It’s the “AS IF” part that I’d fight to ensure was never far from the conversation. I simply can’t speak of Israel in a healthy or helpful way if I view them abstracted from what they were ideally intended to be, not from what they actually were. At the end of the day, it WAS a religious commitment that the people made, in which the heart was obliged to engagement. The national covenant surrounds the religious heart of the national civic law, the ceremonies of Leviticus at the core.

    The church was central to that state, uniquely so. And if simply maintaining the liturgy could have saved Judah in the end, then “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord,” would have been a most reasonable statement of faith in the days of Jeremiah. But plainly, ritual confession, sacrifice, forgiveness, and purity was not a sufficient atonement.

    Regarding the covenant with Abraham:
    it seems quite inapt to take Gen 12, 15, and 17 and divide them. Sure, they are stretched out over real time over 25 years. But it is too obvious to me that they are one, continuous covenant inaugural.

    Gen12: God makes Abraham a promise.
    Gen15: Same promise guaranteed by God with a ceremonial oath.
    Gen17: Same promise with accompanying oath, marked by the sign for “faithful Abraham,” and for his seed (of faith).

    This is a package, a single package. That should be the starting point for closer analysis.

    We’re so used to human timetables, projects accomplished in hours or days, occasionally months or years, but decades? “C’mon now, life’s too short…” Right. The fact that this is stretched out is itself part of the education. Abraham’s location and circumstances keep changing–in Gen 15 he’s now IN the land, where we might expect something concrete stated in reference to that–so that goes a long way to explaining why we find an added “what I started talking about when you were in Ur, now that you’ve basically arrived, let me get specific: I am giving you these lands, those others, these here, them there,…”

    And, Abraham isn’t OLD ENOUGH in Gen 12, and still later in Gen 15, for the child (who is to be born exclusively according to Promise and contrary to biological norms) to arrive, so the time isn’t right to get the sign either. And knowing what comes in ch.16, we can see that God doesn’t want to give the sign prior to the Ishmael development.

    The three covenant moments aren’t merely sequential, but a tightly integrated and closely related sequence.

    That’s how I see it. Peace.

  7. Bruce: I thought as much. It was just I hadn’t read your comments carefully enough to work out whether that was what was going on, and didn’t much care to paint myself into a corner. (I am currently on holiday and am therefore doing this on the fly.)

    RSC: From my perspective, the problem with separating out the land promise the way Hodge does is that Paul tells us that God promised Abraham the entire world, not of the law but by the righteousness that is of faith (Rom. 4:13). So that’s the land promise, amplified and transparent. And yet it’s plainly an “evangelical” and “spiritual” promise, not a legal and fleshly one. On the other hand, it’s clearly the case that Israel’s faithfulness was what maintained her in the land of Israel.

    I think the key point is where circumcision fits into that picture, but as I say, I’m not giving this an awful lot of thought at the moment!

    Was encouraged to be able to worship with the URCNA congregation in St Cat’s, ON yesterday. Grace and love be with you.

  8. Dear Scott (Clark),

    A problem I have with the RoCoW is that if the Israelites had managed to observe it and remain in the Land of Israel, they would have done that by grace and not works.

    The “RoCoW” was a typological teaching aid for the childhood Church, but it was not a Republication of the Covenant of Works, as it could only be attained by sinful Israelites by grace.

    Therefore, to avoid confusion, win friends and not make enemies, you should find another name for this doctrine.

    • I don’t really want to argue about verbiage, but it’s significant to me that the doctrine of republication was one of the chief arguments for the existence of the covenant of works. In other words, most of our theologians thought that the works element in the Mosaic covenant was so clear that they could base their argument for the prelapsarian covenant of works upon it by analogy.

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