Remembering Meredith Kline

Princeton Theological Seminary was established with the intention of combining excellent scholarship with an intelligent, hearty commitment to the Reformed theology, piety, and practice summarized in the Reformed confessions. It has not always been easy to maintain that marriage. Princeton Seminary was reorganized in 1929 with the express intention of marginalizing the theology and practice of confessionalism. In effect, Princeton divorced itself from its confessional tradition.

Meredith G. Kline (1922–2007) was an Old Testament scholar, theologian, and churchman who never accepted the divorce. A graduate of Gordon College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Dropsie University in Philadelphia (Ph.D in 1955), Kline was ordained to the ministry in the Presbytery of New Jersey of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1948 and served as pastor of Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Ringoes, NJ) from 1948–50. During these years, he also received an appointment to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary where he taught Old Testament Languages and Literature, until 1965.

That year he took a position as Professor of Old Testament at Gordon Divinity School, where he taught until 1993 when he was named Professor Emeritus. From 1981, Kline held a concurrent appointment as Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California until his retirement in 2002. During his long and distinguished academic career, he also held visiting appointments at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, and the Claremont School of Theology.

A stimulating and provocative writer, his work was not always easy to read. One mischievous person is supposed to have said that “Meredith Kline brought the hyphen out of retirement.” He published seven books, contributed to several volumes including entries in major evangelical Bible commentaries on Genesis, Deuteronomy, and Job, and published numerous academic and popular essays during his career. His first major work was Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, Studies and Commentary (1963), his account of the relations between the Hittite Suzerain-Vassal treaty forms of the ancient Near East and Deuteronomy. His interest in covenant theology continued in his next volumes, By Oath Consigned (1968), The Structure of Biblical Authority (1972), and Images of the Spirit (1980). In these works he developed broader redemptive-historical themes along the lines of Geerhardus Vos and an interest in the progress of revelation and redemption that would occupy him for the remainder of his career. Telling the whole story of redemption, from beginning to end, was the focus of Kingdom Prologue (1989). In 2001, he published a series of biblical-theological studies in Zechariah, Glory in Our Midst. He returned to a more comprehensive survey of redemptive history in his last book, God, Heaven, and Har Magedon (2006). 

As a Biblical theologian and churchman, Kline was committed to preserving and defending confessional Reformed orthodoxy on the doctrines of Scripture, covenant, justification, and Christian ethics. It was particularly his commitment to the covenant theology and ethics of the Westminster Confession that led him into a decades-long controversy with proponents of theonomy beginning in 1974. His review of Greg Bahnsen’s Theonomy in Christian Ethics in the Westminster Theological Journal (1978) remains a significant contribution to that discussion.

His understanding of the correlation between the biblical and confessional doctrines of covenant and justification also brought him into conflict with Norman Shepherd, his former colleague at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. In the early 1970s Shepherd began to teach that sinners were justified through faith and works. Though no longer a full-time faculty member in Philadelphia, Kline took an active interest in the controversy by publishing a critical essay linking Shepherd’s views with those of Daniel Fuller (“Of Works and Grace” in Presbyterion, 1983). He later published a follow-up essay in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1991 that criticized the confusion by the Barthians, some evangelicals (e.g., Fuller), and some Reformed folk (e.g., Shepherd) of the biblical doctrines of works and grace.

Earlier in his career, in 1958, he published what would become perhaps his most controversial work, an article, “Because It Had Not Rained,” in the Westminster Theological Journal. Oddly, it generated little initial response. He re-stated his approach to the creation narrative relative to modern science in “Space and Time and the Genesis Cosmogeny,” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith in 1996. Here, he explained the accommodated nature of the creation story by appropriating the traditional Reformed distinction between theology as God knows it and as he reveals it to us. The “creation controversy” stimulated by the first essay did not become heated until nearly 30 years later. By the time the second essay appeared, Kline’s critics seemed to be in no mood to hear him out.

Though best known in conservative Reformed circles for his writing in these controversies, earlier in his ministry he also contended for Machen’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church, (i.e., the notion that the divinely ordained vocation of the institutional church was to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments and discipline, rather than engage in worthy relief projects that were to be carried out by Christians as private persons or through other agencies).

The significance of Meredith Kline’s life and work cannot be measured fully by internecine conflicts within conservative Reformed circles, but rather it lies behind them. First, Kline was a theologian of the biblical doctrine of the covenants. It is one of the strongest threads running through all his teaching and writing. There have been a number of significant covenant theologians in the history of Reformed theology, but Kline is particularly important because, at the same time Kline was receiving his theological training, the spirit of revisionism had re-shaped significant features of the classical Reformed covenant theology. By the middle of the 20th century when Kline began his academic career, few Reformed theologians could be found on any continent teaching the classical three-covenant theology (covenants of redemption, works, and grace). Though Barth revived interest in covenant theology early in the 20th century and called attention to the older covenant theologians, it was with a view to radical revision of the tradition. Among Reformed conservatives, the spirit of revision was also at work. Apart from Louis Berkhof almost no one could be found to defend all three covenants (Vos had done this, but his 19th century lecture, delivered in Dutch to the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church, remained untranslated for decades.) Further, Old Westminster, perhaps in reaction to Dispensationalism, tended to downplay the legal elements of the prelapsarian covenant of works and the Mosaic (Old) covenant. Nevertheless, despite all these impediments, in a period when it was acceptable, even fashionable, to dismiss Westminster Confession chapter 7 as a relic, Kline re-stated the prelapsarian covenant of works and the old Reformed doctrine of the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works, and grounded his teaching in the Scriptures as given in their ancient Near Eastern setting. The theological function of his use of the Hittite treaty pattern (many scholars once didn’t even accept the existence of Hittites!) was to preserve the notion of the covenant of works in exegetical and systematic theology. He made it possible for many to take up the notion that the Mosaic covenant was, relative to the Israelite national covenant, a legal arrangement.

Today, despite the revisions proposed in the 20th century, contemporary Jewish, Roman Catholic (even Benedict XVI), and mainline Protestant scholars agree, on one level or another, that there are two kinds of covenants in the Old Testament: legal and gracious. The Westminster divines expressed this difference by speaking of the difference between the covenants of works and grace. It is ironic that one must appeal to Roman, Jewish, and mainline writers against ostensibly Reformed revisionists to defend the substance of the theology of the Reformed tradition. When Kline’s covenant theology is read, fair-minded historians will see that—as Cocceius was caricatured by Voetians during his life and by lazy historians afterward—Kline has often been misrepresented by critics. We can hope that Meredith Kline doesn’t have to wait for a Willem van Asselt to set the story straight several hundred years later.

Second, Kline’s significance lies in the remarkable courage of his convictions. There is a great temptation in scholarship and ministry to say the things that folk want to hear. Meredith Kline did not succumb to that temptation. In Geerhardus Vos’ latter years and in the decades following, Biblical theology became largely the domain of Barthian neo-orthodoxy. Most conservatives were understandably occupied through the first two-thirds of the 20th century defending the citadel of inerrancy. 

It is not that Kline was uninterested in the battle with liberalism. In different ways he spent fifty years defending the truthfulness, reliability, and coherence of the Scripture. He defended the early date of the Exodus and his appeal to the Suzerain-vassal pattern helped to anchor that conviction. He undermined the documentary hypothesis at every turn and his students can testify that he insisted that they read every single page of R. K. Harrison’s massive (and sometimes tedious) introduction to the Old Testament. Though his fundamentalist critics never seemed to understand it, one of the chief motivations behind the so-called Framework Interpretation was to point critics to the theological and literary interests of the narrative rather than to Archbishop Ussher’s now ridiculous theories about the time of day, day, and month of creation 6,000 years ago. 

Meredith Kline’s influence is evident in the generations of scholars and ministers who have followed him. Everyone who has benefited from the work of Robert Godfrey, Michael Horton, and Darryl Hart (to name just three) have Meredith Kline to thank. Either directly or indirectly, each of these men was his pupil and they have spent much of their career elaborating on things learned from Kline. Godfrey studied with Kline at Gordon Divinity School in the 1960s. He defended the gospel against moralism (with Kline) during the Shepherd controversy and the spirit of Kline was upon him as he defended orthodoxy against the incursions of broad evangelicalism in the Christian Reformed Church and later in the United Reformed Churches. Horton has done the same and capitalized on Kline’s covenant theology in several books. Kline was defending the “two kingdoms” more than forty years before Hart’s worthy Secular Faith.  

Kline’s academic work marked something of a transition. He engaged the mainstream academy with more sophistication than some earlier conservative scholars had done. In so doing, he perpetuated the vision that Machen had established for Old Westminster. Kline didn’t just stake out orthodox positions and then find evidence to defend them. He worked through the difficult issues, sifted the evidence, and found that Machen was right: We need not fear good scholarship. Like Machen, Kline found that good scholarship supports the reliability of God’s Word. Always a Van Tillian, Kline recognized that there is no such thing as neutrality, there are no brute facts, that evidence must be interpreted. Nevertheless, he never used that conviction as an excuse to take intellectual shortcuts. I recall asking a colleague, an Old Testament scholar in another school, what he thought of Kline’s work and he politely dismissed Kline’s work in way that I still find remarkable. He may not have earned praise from all of his evangelical and mainline peers but he never relented from his insistence on the historicity of the creation account, the fall, his opposition to Barth and to the higher critical establishment.

Meredith Kline was a gifted scholar and a faithful minister of the gospel. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.

This essay first appeared in Nicotine Theological Journal 11.2 (April 2007): 1–3.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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