In What Sense? A Review Article

Mark Jones

The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, eds., Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009, 358 pages, $16.99, paper.

It is true, the Lutheran Divines, they do expressly oppose the Calvinists herein, maintaining the Covenant given by Moses, to be a Covenant of works, and so directly contrary to the Covenant of grace. Indeed, they acknowledge that the Fathers were justified by Christ, and had the same way of salvation with us; only they make that Covenant of Moses to be a superadded thing to the Promise, holding forth a condition of perfect righteousness unto the Jews, that they might be convinced of their own folly in their self-righteousness. But, I think, it is already cleared, that Moses his Covenant, was a Covenant of grace.[1]

Reviewing a book with multiple authors often presents a daunting challenge, especially when the contributors manifest some disagreement with one another. Perhaps this disharmony prevents The Law is Not of Faith (hereafter TLNF) from ever setting forth a clearly stated thesis? While I am not persuaded by all of the arguments in this book, the editors to their credit provide the Reformed community with a work that will lead to more, I hope friendly, discussion on what has historically been a complicated and much-vexed issue. This review offers some analysis and asks some questions in the hope that both the authors and readers can properly assess the merit, or lack thereof, of the book's argument, namely, that the Mosaic covenant is "in some sense" a republication of the prelapsarian covenant of works (6).

TLNF is divided into three sections: 1) Historical studies by J.V. Fesko, D.G. Hart, and Brenton C. Ferry. 2) Biblical studies by Bryan D. Estelle, Richard Belcher, Byron Curtis, Guy Waters, T. David Gordon, and S.M. Baugh. 3) Theological studies by David VanDrunen and Michael Horton. The goal of the book is to show that the idea that the Mosaic covenant is in "some sense" a covenant of works has a rich Reformed history. The book is, in part, a response to John Murray's contention that to view the Mosaic covenant as a "repetition of the so-called covenant of works" is a "grave misconception" (16). Thankfully the introduction exercises some caution in applying the term "monocovenantal" to Murray (16), but T. David Gordon thinks Murray goes in that direction (254). The introduction also makes clear that the present volume is needed because the republication thesis has "received much hostility in books, peer-reviewed journals, and trials in the courts of the church" (17). The goal, then, of the book is to: 1) legitimize certain views on the Mosaic covenant as orthodox, that is, primarily with regard to the Westminster Confession of Faith; and 2) foster continuing discussion on the question of Sinai's relation to Eden.

In general, my major concern regarding this book has to do with its basic thesis. The suggestion that the Mosaic covenant given at Sinai is "in some sense" a covenant of works originally made with Adam (6) is not really disputed in the history of Reformed covenant theology, if by that we mean that the moral law first given in Eden is revived and declared at Sinai on tablets of stone. Few in Reformed circles would disagree with "that sense." The more significant question centers on how precisely the Mosaic covenant may be viewed as a covenant of works. TLNF, because of its numerous contributors, does not easily lend itself to a clearly defined thesis. In the end, readers are still left with the question: in what sense is the Mosaic covenant a covenant of works? Do we agree with Anthony Burgess—Guy Waters adopts his position (211, fn. 2)—or T. David Gordon? Actually, the agreed thesis of TLNF might be that whatever we say about Sinai, John Murray was wrong to recast covenant theology in a monocovenantal direction (16-17).

In the next place, I cannot help but feel that we need to clarify the major point of contention, and perhaps the raison d'être for this book. In this intra-Reformed debate the distinction between the covenant of works and covenant of grace is not really in question.[2] The present debate, rather, has to do with whether this bi-covenantal structure is enhanced by the view that Sinai functioned at the typological level as a means for inheritance by works in antithesis to grace. Hence the argument made by some that Sinai is in some sense a republication of the covenant of works. This precise view has caused some suspicion—perhaps even judicial action in church courts—over the language of republication. If anything, this particular view of republication might be worth considering in more detail since there would be a definite thesis to consider.

One should note that a simple appeal to WCF 19:1-2 does not establish all forms of republication. There is a significant difference between formal and material republication. The law first given to Adam was certainly "revived" or "republished" at Sinai (and even in the New Covenant), but most Reformed divines did not make the moral law coextensive with the covenant of works.[3] Critics of republication normally have in view the so-called Klinean version, and not the more typical view that states the moral law was republished on tables of stone. In other words, one may hold to a version of republication and still raise concerns about certain versions of republication, particularly those versions that include the language of merit and works in opposition to grace.

Related to the concerns above, TLNF fails to address what version of the covenant of works Sinai replicates. Such a question is not without reason since from the late sixteenth century many Reformed theologians differed on the precise nature of the covenant of works. One only has to compare the British theologians on this issue, particularly the views of Francis Roberts, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Patrick Gillespie, and John Ball, to prove that there existed several perspectives on the covenant of works. Did Adam possess the Holy Spirit as most Reformed theologians maintained? Was Adam's faith natural or supernatural? What about Adam's potential reward? Was it heaven or life in Eden? What about Meredith Kline's own unique contributions to this doctrine (e.g., the role of merit)? Did God assist Adam in his obedience, as Burgess argued? It seems to me that the question over the precise nature of the covenant of works needs to be addressed in some detail before one can understand and formulate the so-called republication idea for the simple reason that it makes all the difference in the world if one understands the covenant of works to be based on strict justice apart from grace.

Following from the above, should we automatically assume that republication places, at the typological level, works and grace in antithesis? I am not saying all the authors do this, but I do want to make it clear that most Reformed theologians have not viewed the covenant of works as devoid of grace. Patrick Gillespie even referred to Eden as a covenant of grace, albeit with qualifications; and Francis Roberts dichotomized between a covenant of works and a covenant of faith because he wanted to maintain that God's grace was operative in both covenants.[4] The issue as I see it is not whether Sinai contains similarities with Eden. Instead, the debate has to do with whether Israel's failure as a nation to maintain a necessary level of obedience under the Mosaic economy was the reason for their exile.[5] If this is true, we might wonder what sort of existential tension this might have created in the life of believers from Moses to Christ! In connection with this, the Westminster Divine Stephen Marshall acknowledges that there was indeed a "rehearsal" of the covenant of works at Sinai. However, he makes an important point about how the Mosaic covenant relates to the New Covenant: "neither did the Lord promise them [Israel] entrance into, or continuance in that Land, but upon the same conditions upon which hee promiseth eternall life, as true Faith in the Gospel, with the love and feare of God, and obedience of his Commandments."[6] Their failure to enter the land was because of unbelief and the subsequent idolatry and disobedience that resulted from their unbelief.[7]

Regarding the "historical" analyses in the book I do not have the space here to register my concerns in any detail. However, the chapter by Brenton C. Ferry, "Works in the Mosaic Covenant: A Reformed Taxonomy," warrants a number of observations. Ferry provides us with a well-researched chapter. He clearly has done a lot of work and there are some good quotes from various seventeenth-century theologians, though at times the names and quotes just roll off each other a little too much without appropriately contextualizing their quotes. My main concern is that Ferry may have been too ambitious. The various taxonomies presented were incomplete. Moreover, Ferry was rather dismissive of past interpretations (78-80). While I agree with some of his criticisms of other writers, he should have exercised more caution in his rhetoric simply because he makes a number of his own interpretive mistakes. These mistakes are nowhere more evident than in the taxonomic chart he provides at the end of his chapter. The problem with such a wide-ranging survey of thinkers on this issue is that individual statements are often stripped from the author's broader way of thinking; the author is then pigeonholed into a category that he himself likely would not have recognized. For example, at best it is an over-simplification to suggest that Owen holds to a fourfold covenant schema; at worst it is plain wrong. The concept of "testament" and its relation to "covenant" is hugely significant for Owen. Once this is appreciated it becomes increasingly difficult to label Owen. But this is not discussed. Owen's position defies neat categorizations, and Ferry's chart only serves to obscure the matter. Importantly, even Owen's more radical position on Sinai must be qualified. He argues that the Mosaic covenant is not a revival of the covenant of works strictly (i.e., "formally"). Rather, the moral law is renewed declaratively (i.e., "materially") and not covenantally: "God did never formally and absolutely renew or give again this law as a covenant a second time. Nor was there any need that so he should do, unless it were declaratively only, for so it was renewed at Sinai."[8] In other words, as noted above, the "republication thesis" does not make Sinai co-extensive with Eden in terms of strict covenantal principles.

What is interesting about Owen is that he openly acknowledges that most Reformed Divines (e.g., Calvin, Martyr, Bucanus) did not view Sinai as "another covenant, but only a different administration of [the covenant of grace]. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant. The Lutherans on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove, that not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that two covenants substantially distinct, are intended in this discourse of the apostle."[9] Owen sides with the Lutherans on this issue: "Wherefore, we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended."[10]

The exegetical sections were for the most part well done and particularly useful polemical tools in the continuing justification debates. I want that to be clear because my concerns and questions in this review may overshadow my appreciation for a lot of the exegetical work, and I do not wish for that to happen. However, in connection with my major critique of the book, these chapters fail to establish the thesis—whatever that may exactly be—of the book. Byron G. Curtis's article provides a helpful exegetical and theological analysis of Hosea 6:7. However, I am not persuaded that his argument establishes the thesis that the Mosaic covenant is "in some sense" a covenant of works. All Hosea 6:7 teaches is that Israel, like Adam, transgressed God's covenant. It tells us nothing of the precise nature of the covenants themselves. If we were to apply Curtis's logic to Paul's writings we would have to conclude that the new covenant was a covenant of works as well. Paul appeals to Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve in Paradise as paradigmatic for the temptation of the church in the present age (2 Cor. 11:3). All these texts prove is that there is some kind of parallel between the two situations, but it does not necessarily establish that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works. The logical distinction between sufficient and necessary condition is ignored here.

Guy Waters's chapter on Romans 10:5 and the covenant of works also contributes to the value of the book. But even he seems to distance himself from the more radical position(s) of Kline and Gordon by aligning himself with Anthony Burgess (211, fn. 2) who clearly viewed Sinai as an administration of the covenant of grace and not different in kind. As noted above, this is what makes the book as a whole rather difficult to interpret in terms of its stated purpose. Nevertheless, Waters's chapter (and Horton's) provides useful arguments in the context of the ongoing justification debate.

T. David Gordon's chapter is in one respect the most satisfying of all the chapters for the simple reason that, agree or disagree with him, you are left in no doubt as to what precisely he is arguing. His argument focuses on five differences between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenant. He concludes that these two covenants are "different in kind" (251) and notes that he does not blame the first-generation Israelites for resisting Moses' efforts to engage them in the (characteristically legal) Sinaitic covenant (251). In fact, Gordon calls their decision, though rebellious, "judicious and well considered" (251). Gordon then turns his attention to John Murray and provides some reasons for why Murray misunderstood the matter so badly. Indeed, Gordon is grateful that Murray, to his knowledge, never wrote on Galatians. Why? Because Murray could make no sense of the letter and Gordon likes to think that Murray was "entirely flummoxed by Paul's reasoning" (253) and so decided not to write on Galatians. The truth is that Murray's lectures on Galatians can be found on the internet in audio and written form; and judging by his understanding of the letter he does not appear to be as flummoxed as Gordon would like to think he is.[11] Nevertheless, Gordon's chapter was certainly the most interesting of all the chapters and he is to be commended for being entirely candid about his views.

I return to a few general queries, the first of which concerns the so-called form of republication that seems to be offered by some of the authors. The WCF clearly speaks of the prelapsarian covenant of works as demanding "perfect and personal obedience" (7.2; 19.1; WLC 20; WSC 12). Does it not follow that any covenant that does not require both "perfect and personal obedience" is not a covenant of works, even at the typological level? But, in two places (137, 301) we are informed that the obedience required in the Mosaic covenant was "imperfect/sincere obedience." The WCF shows that the only covenant in which God accepts imperfect obedience is the covenant of grace (WCF 16.6). To say, then, that the Mosaic covenant is in some sense a covenant of works can be especially misleading to the average reader in light of the aforementioned concern.

The book attempts to be self-consciously confessional, which can be seen in the opening fictional story. In connection with this, I wish the book addressed which senses of republication are confessional and which are not. The sense one gets from TLNF is that almost all senses of republication are confessional, even the more radical view of Gordon, which has corollaries with the Salmurian theologian John Cameron. I do note, however, that on page 11 they speak of some unorthodox views of republication, but just which views are unorthodox seems to be left to the reader to figure out. Would one have to embrace classical Dispensationalism to finally move from the pale of Reformed orthodoxy on this matter?

Finally, considering the general trajectory of this book, TLNF lacks a chapter that could shed some important light on this discussion, namely, the influence of George Mendenhall on Meredith Kline—and perhaps Kline's obvious influence on many of the authors—with regard to Ancient Near-Eastern (ANE) Suzerain treaties. In short, Kline, following Mendenhall's research, argued that there are essentially two types of covenants: law covenants and promise covenants. In this schema, Sinai, particularly Deuteronomy, represents a "law covenant" on account of its striking parallels with ANE suzerain treaty formats. This covenant is almost always conditional, often involving curses upon those who fail to fulfill the terms of the covenant. Juxtaposed to this type of covenant is the Abrahamic covenant, which is an unconditional promise covenant that is modeled on a royal grant. Michael Horton, for example, follows this line of demarcation in several of his own works on the covenant.[12] However, ANE scholars are raising many objections to Mendenhall's thesis. Recently Dr. Noel Weeks, an expert in ANE culture, has shown that both Mendenhall's and Kline's work is not without a number of serious problems, especially in the area of methodology.[13] If the authors, particularly the editors, of TLNF wish to continue this discussion regarding the place and function of Sinai in redemptive history, they will need to reckon with the arguments of scholars like Weeks who, in my opinion, subject Mendenhall's and Kline's methodology to devastating critique.

In conclusion let me summarize what I think are the main points in this discussion. To say that the Mosaic covenant is "in some sense" a covenant of works may not be all that helpful in the final analysis if we are not more specific about what this means. I think the thesis needs to be defined more narrowly, perhaps by asking the following questions:

1. Is the Mosaic covenant distinct from the covenant of grace? Or, is it an administration of the covenant of grace? With the Lutherans, John Owen viewed it as distinct; the vast majority of the Reformed orthodox did not. The authors in TLNF do not seem to agree on this point. But, I think it is an important matter that needs to be settled.

2. If Sinai is "in some sense" a republication of the covenant of works at the typological level then we need to define what is meant by the "covenant of works." Is not Meredith Kline's view of Eden a lot different from, say, Francis Roberts's understanding of Adam's prelapsarian state? Thus, these two writers might agree with each other that Sinai is "in some sense" a covenant of works, but in the end they could still have very different views of the Mosaic covenant and its function.

3. Is the works-principle at Sinai, at the typological level, totally devoid of assisting grace? Or did it (as Estelle and Kline have argued) function in such a way as to provide the "meritorious grounds for Israel's continuance in the land?" (136)

4. In relation to Kline's dependence upon Mendenhall, and Horton's dependence upon them both, can we divide biblical covenants up into two categories of law covenants (e.g., Sinai) and promise covenants (e.g., Abrahamic)? How reliable is Mendenhall's methodology?

5. Does the WCF tolerate Kline's view of a works-principle? D. Patrick Ramsey's work on this was never really engaged by the authors who referenced him but simply dismissed his argument (11, 43).[14] Or, what views of Sinai are confessional and what views are not?

I hope that this review helps us to better understand and address this intra-Reformed debate. To argue that the giving of the law at Sinai has similarities with the covenant of works is not, to my mind, controversial in Reformed circles. To argue that a meritorious works-principle operated at the typological level in the Mosaic covenant—because Sinai is viewed as a law covenant—is, however, a serious point of contention. The Lutherans and some of our Reformed brethren may be right about Moses; but TLNF has perhaps raised more questions than it answers. That is not a necessarily a bad thing, of course. Therefore, I hope that future discussions on this topic will be enhanced because of this work; and perhaps, on a lesser level, my own review will provide the authors of TLNF with some further food for thought.


[1] Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis (London, 1647), 251.

[2] I recognize that some of the authors might feel uncomfortable with what they perceive to be "monocovenantal" tendencies in thinkers like Murray. For my own part, I fail to see how Murray can be described as a monocovenantalist. While he rejects the terminology of the covenant of works, he nevertheless affirms the substance of the doctrine. See "Adamic Administration" where he argues: "The condition was obedience" (http://www.the-highway.com/adamic-admin_Murray.html). That he "flattens" out the covenant of grace does not make him a monocovenantalist, though it may make him orthodox. See also Ch. 8 in Murray's Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) titled "Law and Grace" (57ff).

[3] WCF 19.5-6 clarifies this point.

[4] Patrick Gillespie, The Ark of the Testament Opened (London, 1661), 221; Francis Roberts, The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible: viz. God's Covenants with Man (London, 1657), 26ff. I could give many more quotes on the presence of grace in the covenant of works, but I will hold them back for my forthcoming work on Westminster covenant theology.

[5] In addition, the land argument based on works seems to suffer from the problem that Israel was later restored to the land as a sign (type) of restoration in Christ, and yet the covenant of works does not make provision for restoration.

[6] A Sermon of the Baptizing of Infants (London, 1644), 11-12.

[7] 2 Kings 17:14 reads "But they would not listen and were as stiff-necked as their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God." The Hebrew here for "believe" ("amin") is also used in Gen. 15:6. See also Heb. 3-4.

[8] The Works of John Owen, 23 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Edition), V.244.

[9] Works, XXII.71.

[10] Ibid., 76. I would point the reader to the quote by Anthony Burgess at the beginning of this review for further confirmation of the Lutheran-Reformed divide on this issue.

[11] http://sites.google.com/site/themosaiccovenant/john-murray

[12] See God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 35ff.

[13] Admonition and Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty/Covenant Form as a Problem in Inter-Cultural Relationships (T&T Clark, 2004). See also idem, "Mari, Nuzi and the Patriarchs," Abr-Nahrain 16 (1975-6), 73-82. Important to note for those who have not read Weeks's work is his unflinching commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture from a classical Reformed perspective. Moreover, I sometimes wonder whether those who adopt Kline's view of Suzerain treaties, and their influence on how we understand biblical covenants, have actually read any recent scholarly literature that dissents from Kline's findings.

[14] See D. Patrick Ramsey, "In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg," Westminster Theological Journal 66 (2004): 394ff.

Mark Jones is the senior minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), and research associate at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein). Ordained Servant Online, April 2010.

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Ordained Servant: April 2010

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