An Indispensable Guide To Understanding Shepherd’s Theology

For those interested in the modern context of the current controversy over justification and sanctification it is essential to understand what Norman Shepherd taught and, to the degree possible, why and how. To that end this essay is essential: Guy Prentiss Waters, “The Theology of Norman Shepherd: A Study in Development, 1963–2006,” in Robert L. Penny, ed., The Hope Fulfilled: Essays in Honor of O. Palmer Robertson (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008), 207–231. It’s a clear, accessible survey of Shepherd’s career and writing. In it he identifies a “crucial and transitional piece,”1 if ignored, from 1974. In this article Shepherd argues that the first resurrection does not refer to conversion but rather to “the experience of baptism,” which, he writes, “is even more properly resurrection than is the resurrection of the body.”2

According to Shepherd, both the cosmic and the personal realities of regeneration are “to be understood as ‘grounded in union with Christ.'” It is, Waters writes, “this common foundation that establishes a genetic tie between the ‘personal’ and ‘cosmic’ transformations envisioned within both sets of categories.3

For Shepherd, baptism is genetic. Regeneration is reserved for the consummation. Baptism is inaugural. Why the distinction? “Shepherd is undoubtedly driven by a biblicistic concern to limit modern theological vocabulary strictly to the biblical incidences of those words. It is clear, however, that Shepherd’s understand of what happens at an individual’s baptism is what Reformed theology has historically called “regeneration.” In his understanding of baptism as a transformational event whereby the believe is inwardly or morally changed, Shepherd does not entirely shed the traditional language.”4

This construction means that the traditional Reformed ordo salutis must be revised. Waters writes: “At the very least, we may conclude that Shepherd evidences a marked departure from the conventional Reformed ordo salutis maintained by his predecessor at Westminster Theological Seminary.”5

For Shepherd, we ought to speak to people “not int terms of decretal election or reprobation” but rather “in terms of their covenant faithfulness.”6 “The decree,” Waters concludes, “has no meaning full connection with or relationship to Shepherd’s covenantal perspective.”7


1. Waters, 213.

2. Waters, 214; Norman Shepherd, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974–75), 37.

3. Waters, 214–15; Shepherd, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20,” 29.

4. Waters, 215.

5. Waters, 216.

6. Waters, 218.

7. Ibid.

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  1. Bavinck:“…When the covenant of grace is separated from election, it ceases to be a covenant of grace and becomes again a covenant of works. Election implies that God grants man freely and out of grace the salvation which man can never again achieve in his own strength. But if this salvation is not the sheer gift of grace but in some way depends upon the conduct of men, then the covenant of grace is converted into a covenant of works. Man must then satisfy some condition in order to inherit eternal life.

    “So far from election and the covenant of grace forming a contrast of opposites, the election is the basis and guarantee, the heart and core, of the covenant of grace. And it is so indispensably important to cling to this close relationship because the least weakening of it not merely robs one of the true insight into the achieving and application of salvation, but also robs the believers of their only and sure comfort in the practice of their spiritual life.”

    Notice how far reaching this is – reformulating the reformation truth of the covenants leads to a confused view of election (saying there are different degrees of election), justification (injecting our works there where they do not belong), and sanctification (making justification dependent on sanctification). It also throws our salvation back into stormy waters, teaching that only those who make it to the life raft will get out of the seas of death. Who can be truly pious when their salvation depends on something they do?

    Our Reasonable Faith 260

  2. Sinclair Ferguson— Shepherd appears to adopt the view of the prevailing academic critique of the covenant theology of the seventeenth century (forcefully presented decades ago by Perry Miller), which suggests that the doctrine of covenant somehow makes God’s secret counsels less harsh. We ought therefore to look at covenant, and not at election. This analysis, both historically and biblically we reject… To use Shepherd’s own citation – the fact is that some passages, e.g. Ephesians 1:1-14, do employ the mode of looking at covenant from the viewpoint of election. Indeed, in that passage it is necessary for the reader to look for covenant in the context of election

    • markmculley (and others)–When studying the political ideas of George Buchanan, Samuel Rutherford, and James Dalrymple, First Viscount Stair, I had to dust off the divinity I had learned. Many historiographers and scholars of political theory uncritically seemed to accept that covenantalism was somehow an anodyne to decretal theology (probably because they were reading the liberal academic theology you note above). However, I came to the conclusion that decretal and covenantal theologies are all of a piece–the covenant being the way God’s eternal decree to save the elect moves from eternity to be applied to time-bound elect people.

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