More Questions From Ginger: Why Is Republication So Controversial?

mt_sinaiAs a follow-on to the post on the covenant of works, Ginger asks,

You said: “Several have said that their status as a national people and their tenure in the land was affected by their obedience or disobedience. This view, however, has become hotly controversial in recent years.”

Would you elaborate on this sentence?

In the history of Reformed theology there have been a variety of ways of talking about the Mosaic covenant. Reformed folk have generally agreed that it was an administration of the covenant of grace. The controversy begins when we begin to try to describe the way in which it relates to the covenant of works.

In the 16th and 17th centuries it was common for Reformed writers to speak of the Mosaic/old covenant as a “legal” covenant and to connect it to the covenant of works made with Adam. Indeed, it seemed so obvious to them that the Mosaic covenant had a prominent legal quality that they appealed to it as proof that there must have been a covenant of works with Adam before the fall. Because of their historical proximity to the Reformation, they were quite conscious legal covenants since they had just emerged from a system that, for the better part of 1000 years, had said that we are accepted by God on the basis of grace and cooperation with grace (or works). Despite the medieval emphasis on grace, it was ultimately a legal covenant for acceptance with God since our cooperation, our works were of the essence of the covenant. This remains the Protestant critique of Rome.

The Reformed affirmed the law in its proper uses but they knew a legal arrangement when they saw one and they saw a lot of legal, conditional language in the Mosaic covenant:

Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law. That’s law and a legal condition (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10).

So, there was general agreement that there was a certain legal quality to the Mosaic covenant but they could not say that acceptance with God (justification) was legal under Moses. Most all agreed that the point of the legal quality of the Mosaic covenant (e.g. 613 laws) was to point sinners under Moses, David, and the prophets (about 1500 years) to Christ. We call that the first use of the law. They agreed that the civil laws were intended to regulate Israel’s civil life. That’s the second use of the law. They agreed that the moral laws, including the moral aspect of all the laws, were intended to govern the lives of believers. They all agreed that, in Christ, the civil and ceremonial laws were abrogated and fulfilled and that the ceremonial and civil aspects of the 10 commandments were abrogated and fulfilled but the moral law summarized in the 10 commandments remains in force because it is grounded in creation.

Some writers, as reflected by the quote from James Buchanan and others published on the HB over the years, spoke of the Mosaic covenant not only as a republication of the covenant of works but said that Israel’s status as a national people and their stay in the promised land was, to some degree, contingent upon their obedience to the law. Not all of the 16th and 17th-century writers agreed with this view.

In the 19th century, however, the Dispensationalists began to divide the Scriptures in a fairly radical way, into 7 dispensations. These dispensations were not just administrations of the covenant of grace—Reformed writers had spoken of “dispensations” or administrations of the covenant of grace (e.g., Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) for centuries by the time Dispensationalism was first formulated in the 1830s but dispensations were regarded as distinct periods of history in which God was said to have different ways of dealing with man and wherein there were different ways of salvation.

Reformed writers have reacted strongly to these way of tearing apart the unity of fabric of redemption. Since that time, Dispensationalism has gone through at least a couple of major revisions: modified dispensationalism (e.g., Charles Ryrie) and “Progressive Dispensationalism.” The last two agree with the original version that there are two parallel peoples of God, Israel and the church.

In response to this very popular approach to Scripture, many Reformed writers have, in the 20th and 21st centuries, downplayed the distinctions between Moses and the new covenant. At the same time Reformed folk began to lose track of their older covenant theology (covenant of redemption, covenant of works, covenant of grace). The covenant of grace began, as it were, to swallow up the other two. In the 20th century it became very difficult to find any of our writers still articulating the covenant of works or the covenant of redemption. By the 1970s and 80s it was taken as orthodoxy, in some places, to deny the covenant of works. So, to talk about the Mosaic covenant as being a “republication” of the covenant of works seemed improbable and even, to some, outrageous.

Some have said that how one thinks about republication depends on how one thinks about the covenant of works. If this analysis is correct then, those who strongly favor the covenant of works tend to favor republication. Those who don’t favor the covenant of works tend, naturally, to be suspicious of any doctrine of republication. I’m not sure if this analysis is entirely true but it does seem to be true in some cases.

Other critics of the what might be called the probationary model fear that it introduces into Reformed theology the same sort of Dispensationalism that they’ve been opposing since the 19th century. This objection, however, fails to account for the distinction that proponents of the probationary model (that land tenure/status was, in some way, contingent upon obedience to the law) distinguishes between justification sola gratia, sola fide and Israel’s land tenure/status.

One of the criticisms made of the notion that Israel’s land tenure and national status was, in any way, contingent upon obedience is that it is a form of Pelagianism, i.e., of the notion that sinners can earn favor with God. The critics believe that the idea that Israel’s land tenure/status was contingent upon obedience reintroduces the idea of human merit into Protestant theology and that any talk of merit of any human kind is a corruption of Reformed theology. It is said by some that this merit was on account of his deity rather than his obedience. This claim is not clearly articulated, however, by the Reformed confessions nor was it taught widely (if at all) by the Reformed orthodox in the classical period. Here is an example of the way the Reformed orthodox wrote about Christ’s merits.

I think that most people, on both sides of this question, recognize that a probationary land tenure could not have been completely legal. It’s probably true that some proponents of the probationary model have emphasized so strongly the legal aspect that they have downplayed the role of grace in the land tenure. Israel sinned too much and the Lord was too gracious and patient with them for us to think of the land tenure as strictly legal. Were it strictly legal Israel would never have entered the land in the first place and they would not have stayed very long at all. Surely that tenure was not strictly a matter of merit and yet there is strict legal language in the Torah regarding what Israel must do to remain in the land and what will happen when and if she does not obey. That language seems probationary.

Some critics of the probationary model assume that the only way on which God can relate to sinners is by grace, whether relative to justification or relative to Israel’s land tenure/national status. Thus, in this view, any talk of status/tenure being contingent upon obedience is necessarily a denial of grace.

So, what was not controversial in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries, what was all but forgotten in the 20th century, has become controversial for a variety of reasons.

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  1. It almost reads as though you are saying (It’s not clear to me whether this is your own view or not) about Israel’s “land tenure” what the NPP people say about being in the church & even about salvation: you must obey in order to continue to have it, even though you originally got it through grace alone.

    • Hi Dan,

      I being descriptive in this post. I didn’t indicate my own view but only tried to answer Ginger’s question.

      Does it matter that in the probationary view described land tenure/status only illustrative of Christ, that it has nothing to do with justification? Do you see the distinction that is intended?

  2. Outstanding…..This clears up the questions that still lingered.

    Thank you for your time,

  3. Hi Dr. Clark,
    What about gentile unbelievers both after the fall in the OT and now in the NT? What covenant were/are they under? Is it the original covenant of works made with Adam? The only specific description I could find, although I admit my research is far from exhaustive, was from a commentary of the Westminster Larger Catechism by Johannes G. Vos. His commentary is found under Q #33 concerning the covenant of grace, not the place I would have thought to find it. Anyway, his commentary is in q and a form as is:
    “1. When did the covenant of works come to an end as a way by which men could attain to eternal life?” The covenant of works, as a possible way of attaining eternal life can to an end when our first parents ate the forbidden fruit. While the covenant of works is still in force today in that unsaved sinners are under the curse of the broken covenant, still no one can attain eternal life by the covenant of works today.”
    Thank you for having you answer my questions so completely. It’s a challenge for me to even formulate in my mind what my questions so I apologize if it isn’t clear what I am asking.


    • WSC Question 16. Did all mankind fall in Adam’s first transgression?
      Answer. The covenant being made with Adam, not only for himself, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him, in his first transgression.

      WLC Question 22: Did all mankind fall in that first transgression?
      Answer: The covenant being made with Adam as a public person, not for himself only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression.

      WCF 7:2 The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

      WLC Question 30: Does God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
      Answer: God does not leave all men to perish in the estate of sin and misery, into which they fell by the breach of the first covenant, commonly called the covenant of works; but of his mere love and mercy delivers his elect out of it, and brings them into an estate of salvation by the second covenant, commonly called the covenant of grace.

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