Meredith Kline On Breaking the New Covenant

Meredith Kline. By Oath Consigned. (Eerdmans, 1968).

Despite Kline’s use of new information about extra-biblical treaties to talk about “covenant”, his conclusions are more traditional than many Reformed writers who are now distancing themselves from ANY conditional/unconditional distinctions.

I interact with Kline because I agree with his holding the line on the law/gospel antithesis, but I will argue that his reading of the covenants makes it difficult for him to talk about God meeting all the conditions for the salvation of an INDIVIDUAL.

Kline says that water baptism only puts individuals into a conditional covenant, and introduces them to potential curse as well as potential blessing. But my focus is not baptism, but Kline’s view of covenants.

Is the new covenant ONLY about the gospel? If there is such a thing as being in the new covenant but not being in Christ, what are the blessings of being in covenant for those for whom Jesus did not die?

Exactly what is the “common grace” of being in the new covenant, if one assumes that the reprobate can be included for a time in the covenant?

Kline writes about ‘the proper purpose of the covenant, the salvation of the elect.” p 34. But Kline cautions that “we are not to reduce the redemptive covenant to that proper purpose.” Those who don’t continue to believe the gospel are condemned. (John 3:18). While people are already condemned, they are condemned even more when they reject the gospel.

Of course this is true. Unless you deny that the reprobate have the duty to believe the gospel, you will agree that-despite inability–all have a duty to believe the gospel. And you could say it this way: all have a duty to come into the new covenant in which “all know the Lord “.

But this is something different from saying that the non-elect are in the new covenant, and will be cursed and broken off if they don’t continue to believe..

All in the new covenant know the Lord. When we baptize with water , we cannot know for sure if people know the Lord. But this does not eliminate our duty to judge by the gospel. Those who do not confess with their mouth the gospel we should not presume to baptize with water. Those we do baptize with water we do so not to put into a conditional covenant but on their confession of bankruptcy which rules out past and future covenant keeping BY US as a basis for blessing.

But Kline resists the “bent toward such a reduction of covenant to election. To do so is to substitute a logical abstraction for the historical reality…”

The historical reality for Kline is the reality of covenant threats and “actual divine vengeance against the disobedience as covenantal elements”. I agree about divine vengeance but do those who are never initiated into the new covenant experience wrath? I am sure Kline would agree with me that they do. But this is something different from saying that those who experience the wrath of God were once members of the new covenant.

Those who hear the gospel and reject it face greater condemnation but this does not prove that they EVER knew the Lord covenantally. Matthew 7 teaches us that there are those who NEVER knew the Lord. There is no category of new covenant people who knew the Lord who then stop knowing the Lord.

I agree that the blessing of the new covenant comes through covenant curse on Jesus Christ.

But if Christ has kept the covenant for all those in the new covenant, then how can Kline speak of “dual sanctions” for those in the new covenant? Kline thinks that those who were never elected and those for whom Jesus never died can be initiated into the new covenant. And his pattern for this is not only the Mosaic covenant but also the Abrahamic covenant. Not all the children of Abraham are children of Abraham. It was possible to be in that covenant but not be justified like Abraham was.

Kline agrees that Jeremiah 31 sounds like “discontinuity” with earlier covenants. “Jeremiah speaks, to be sure, only of a consummation of grace; he does not mention a consummation of curses in the new Covenant.” p 76. But Kline maintains this is only a matter of focus— the emphasis is on eschatological blessing but curse is not denied. “But the theologian of today ought not to impose on himself the visionary limitations of an Old Testament prophet.”

But why should we take this (marcionite? to turn the tables!) attitude to Jeremiah? Perhaps the prophet really is seeing a new covenant which has no “dual sanctions” because it is altogether conditioned on the obedience of Christ.

Yes, there is anathema and excommunication in the New Testament. But what Kline needs to show is that those judgments are exclusions of those who are in the new covenant. Otherwise Kline simply assumes the paradigm with which he began. I John 2:19 says that those who sent out “were not of us.” But John 15 says that those who do not abide in the vine are thrown away. Is the right exegesis here that those who began to abide were later broken off from “the covenant”?

As for me, I don’t see how saying that the vine is the covenant fits with Christ saying He is the true vine. Certainly there is such a thing as a false profession and assurance about Christ, but does it really answer any questions to introduce into John 15 a covenant with dual sanctions?

But Kline argues that we who say that only the elect are now in the new covenant “prematurely precipitate the age to come.” (p 77). In other words, Kline does the already/ not yet number, with an emphasis on the not yet. The new covenant is really not yet, he thinks, because now there are those in it who do not know the Lord.

Kline argues from the covenant breaking of Israelites in Romans 11:17-21. If gentiles in the new covenant are grafted into the Abrahamic covenant, then we must not say that the new convent is unconditional because the Abrahamic covenant was not unconditional. Verse 21: “he may not spare you either”.

Yes, we have the promise of Romans 8:32 that all those for whom God did not spare His Son will be spared. The condition of this blessing is Christ’s obedience (even to death) . So I think it is possible to warn and threaten folks ( he may not spare you either) without telling them that they have been initiated into the new covenant. I think Kline would agree— not all are in the new covenant, we have to be initiated.

But are there some in the new covenant who will not be spared? What good would it do to warn people in the new covenant about this if it were not possible for them to be broken off? Then again, what good would it do to warn people about any disobedience if they are so reckless as to put all their hope in Christ as the only condition of blessing?

Since I reject the theology of paradox, I seek reconciliation of all the biblical data. I don’t want a reduction which leave out the warnings. But I would argue that the issue in Romans 9 to 11 is not about our covenant keeping but about continued faith in the righteousness of Christ. When Romans 9:32 complains that some of the children of Abraham did not seek righteousness by faith, this does not mean that they did not obey the law in the right way.

Israelites who rejected the scandal of Jesus were perfectly willing to give God credit for their works. They were just not ready to be told by Jesus that their works were evil .

And the reason the works of the Israelites who stumbled were evil was not simply a lack of sincerity or moral effort. Their works were evil because they were done without faith in the gospel Abraham believed.

That gospel says that God justifies the ungodly who do not work (Romans 4:5). It was not a situation of being in a covenant but failing to meet certain legal conditions. The problem was people not believing the promise of the gospel.

Romans 10:3 “for they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. “

Can people be submitted to the covenant but not be submitted to the imputed righteousness? I say no. A person who has not submitted to the righteousness of Christ has not yet had the law written on his heart. There are no unbelievers like that in the new covenant.

This is not a “premature” anticipation of the age to come. ALREADY in Romans 9-11, Paul makes two points:

Not every Jew is elect or justified. One could be in the Abrahamic covenant but not justified by God as an individual. So far, with this even the Jew who stumbled could agree. Yes, we believe in election, and we know our works are not evil and that we are elect because God has made us able to keep the covenant. Thus we teach grace but also conditional covenant.
In Romans 9:11, and this is the one many stumble upon. Paul claims that we cannot establish our own righteousness, not even if we do so zealously and with sincerity. Not even if we give God the credit for us and our doing.

Though I agree that there is a law-aspect to the Abrahamic covenant so that we can speak of some Israel being broken off, I cannot agree that any curse hangs over those in the new covenant. Those for whom Christ died will be spared. To tell a person that “you may not be spared either” is to warn him that he may not yet be in the new covenant. This is the way I read the warnings of Hebrew 6:4 and Colossians 1:23. Also Matthew 8:12 (But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out)

I certainly don’t claim to understand everything here. But I refuse to talk out of both sides of my mouth, first about an imputed righteousness which is the condition of all new covenant blessing, but then again about a covenant which God will enable the elect to keep.

If the law is not established (Romans 3:31) by the death of Christ, what makes us think anything the Spirit does in us will secure our safety? If people in the new covenant can be broken off from the new covenant, what is the big deal about the new covenant?

Hebrews 9:14 how much shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit,offered himself without spot to God,purge your conscience from dead works, to serve the living God?

Hebrews 10:14 for by one offering He has perfected fervor those who are being sanctified

Does “living by the Spirit” mean that we are being enabled to stay in the covenant by means of covenant keeping? Or does it mean continuing by faith in the righteousness of the one who is the only condition of all our blessings?

Hebrews 10:22-23 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience…let us hold fast the confidence of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.

But is it not possible, as Hebrews 10:29 warns, to “count the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a communion thing”? Does not this verse teach that those who are threatened with “worse punishment” are presumed to be already in the covenant? Even if you are not elect, you are not common, but are in the covenant? I could ask: which covenant? But instead I deny that you have to be in a covenant to dishonor it. The “him” who is sanctified by the blood is Christ, not us. Those who have not submitted to the covenant are not yet in the covenant.

I certainly agree with Kline that there are many professing Christians who are not really Christians. Kline assumes that to avoid being premature, we need in this age to agree with these folks that they are in the covenant. But I disagree. I will not agree that all those in any community which professes to be Christian are in the new covenant.

To those who will not take sides with God against themselves, we must say: God may not spare you either. Of course we cannot know that a person will not later come to faith in the gospel. But we do know that those who do not trust the gospel will NOT be spared.

Christ has authority over all human creatures. Nobody has to be initiated into the new covenant in order for God to have greater jurisdiction over him! God owns even those Jesus did not buy, and their inability is no barrier to God judging them. We do not need to put them into some covenant to give God a basis for cursing them. When we pledge ourselves to the new covenant, we do not confess our hope that we will be able to do what we promise, or cursed if we fail. Instead we confess a hope in the God who conditioned all the blessings of the new covenant on the obedience of His Son.

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6 Comments on “Meredith Kline On Breaking the New Covenant”

  1. wellthmaker Says:

    I don’t like Kline’s explanation of covenants. It seems to me the best understanding is the invisible visible distinction. Jews were in the visible covenant of that time, had the visible sign of circumcision. Today many are in the visible covenant, church membership, have been baptized, but are not in the invisible covenant of the elect. So the administration of the 1 Covenant of Grace is new, in its outward administration through churches of all nations rather than through a theocracy, and also new in the inward work of the law written on hearts, in some way different.
    But there is only one body of elect, one temple, one body of Christ one bride etc. All saved the same way by Christ’s atonement which fulfilled the Covenant.
    Why would you not see this as the reason for the language that seems to be applied to all Jews and then only to those of faith in union with Christ.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Owen: “It is not, therefore, the peculiar command for the institution of the legal priesthood that is intended, but the whole system of Mosaic institutions…..Nor is it the whole ceremonial law ONLY that is intended by “the command” in this place, but the moral law also, so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered… By all these ways was the church of the Hebrews forewarned that the time would come when the whole Mosaic law, as to its legal or covenant efficacy, should be dis-annulled. ” Exposition of Hebrews 7:12, 18-19 ↩

    John Owen, comments on Hebrews 8:6-13)—This Sinai covenant thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, OR perished for ever, BUT MOT BY VIRTUE OF THIS SINAI COVENANT. IT…. was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the new covenant promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law to Adam. …No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.

    http://andynaselli.com/carson-mystery-and-fulfillment

    Peter Lillback—-“One last matter of importance for Calvin’s understanding of the relationship of the Old and New Covenants must be examined in relation to the letter–spirit distinction. If these two are really one and the same covenant that are different only in externals, then does the mass defection of Israel also imply that there can be a mass defection of the New Covenant era saints? …If this is denied, then does not the letter–spirit distinction actually prove that they are two different covenants having a different substance?”

    Peter Lillback–“Does the New Covenant allow for such covenant-breaking as the Old Covenant experienced in light of the former’s being only of the letter and the latter’s being of the Spirit? How can Calvin’s claim that the only difference between the two is with respect to the extent and power of the Spirit’s work explain this dilemma? ” Christianity and Civilization #1 – Failure of the American Baptist Culture. Edited by James B. Jordan and Gary North, “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism.”

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Meredith Kline—The overarching Covenant of Grace … was to unfold in several pre messianic administrations and have its full, culminating expression in the New Covenant” (GHHM 75).

    Mk—“The Law covenant was a sub-administration of the Covenant of Grace, designed to further the purpose and program of the gospel” (GHHM 128).

    “the non-elect who are temporarily members of the New Covenant fail to believe in Christ and thus fail to receive the blessings purchased by Christ under the pactum salutis. But just because they fail to receive the blessings of the New Covenant, that does not mean they are cursed by the New Covenant. When they are finally removed from the New Covenant by excommunication, they are taken out to be judged by God. But then the curse comes from God himself according to the terms of the broken Adamic covenant of works, not from the New Covenant per se. So excommunication from the church of the New Covenant is not a covenant curse. It is merely an administrative act of being removed from the New Covenant by the officers of the visible church. Barring repentance and restoration, such apostates will indeed suffer an eschatological curse, but the curse comes from a separate covenant, the Adamic covenant of works.”

    http://www.upper-register.com/blog/?p=44

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Mark Karlberg—We now come to that section of the report that attempts to distill Kline’s theology of circumcision and baptism. According to Kline, the initiatory signs of the redemptive covenant, sacramentally speaking, convey blessing to the elect and curse to the non-elect. Consistent with the teaching of historic Reformed theology, Kline maintains that redemptive covenant is broader than election. That is to say, the proper purpose of redemptive covenant is salvation in Christ. But the administration of God’s covenant in the life of the church as the community of faith, across the old and new economies of redemption, is broader than securing the salvation of all those elected in Christ.
    Karlberg– The historical administration of redemptive covenant includes the non-elect, who for one reason or another are numbered among the people of God (and so this circumstance will persist until the return of Christ and the final separation of the wheat from the tares on the Day of Judgment). None of this teaching in Kline’s work is brought to the reader’s attention in the report. But it is only from this standpoint that one can make sense of what the report explains in Kline’s writings when it states:
    The Republication Report—” Kline believes that apostasy is possible under the covenant of grace. Such a belief coheres with a theology admitting to dual sanctions of blessing or curse appended to the sacraments of circumcision/baptism. Those under the Lordship of God in the covenant of grace face a judgment according to works if they fail to walk by faith in the Messiah, who bears judgment for them. Kline says, “Moreover, the NEWNESS of the New Covenant does not consist in a REDUCTION of the Covenant of Redemption to the principle of election and guaranteed blessing. Its law character is seen in this too that it continues to be a covenant with dual sanctions…having, in particular, anathemas to pronounce and excommunications to execute.”
    Karlberg—Kline’s theology of the sacraments becomes a critical focusing lens by which we can distinguish and relate corporate and individual apostasy… http://www.trinityfoundation.org/latest.php

    https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2016/08/27/they-are-not-all-israel-who-are-of-israel/

  5. markmcculley Says:

    https://oldlife.org/2010/01/18/right-chronology-wrong-westminster-professor/#comment-147952

    Who decided that this would be about Kline, and never about Norman Shepherd and John Murray? Must the confessional tradition now be read in light of or in reference to puritans who refuse the law/grace distinction?

    Mark Karlberg–“They have even managed to get respected Reformed professors, such as Robert Strimple ,Cornelis Venema, and Richard Gaffin, to endorse their book attacking Kline and those of us who appreciate Kline’s biblical-theological and covenantal insights. … After engaging Frame on the California campus, Kline found it necessary “to sound the alarm against the Shepherd-Gaffin theology more loudly and pointedly than ever” in the classroom and beyond (letter of 3/15/98).

    Dennison, Sanborn and Swinburnson– “In fairness to Fesko and Ferry, we are encouraged that they have recognized many of the historical-theological errors in Karlberg’s analysis (78-79)—one that has played a large role in shaping many Klineans’ understanding of the Reformed tradition. Still, they do not seem to be as forthright as they might have been about the source of many of these basic errors, namely, Karlberg’s attempt to vindicate Kline’s construction of the Mosaic covenant. Although (relatively speaking) their analysis is an improvement on Karlberg, they still do not seem to have moved beyond his basic commitment to reading the tradition in light of or in reference to Kline” (39 n. 40)

    Mark Karlberg–“The OPC is a failed experiment in American Presbyterianism. Pride and failure to hear and act upon valid criticism offered by others sympathetic to the Reformed cause has led to her downfall. What the report on republication proves is that the OPC is incapable of correction and truth-telling. She remains resolute in her refusal to repent of error and deceit. Most notably with respect to the controversy over justification and the covenants, the OPC sees herself as above reproach. Upon the dismissal of Shepherd from Westminster, Robert Strimple decided to turn a blind eye to Gaffin’s formulations, not wanting another agonizing round of controversy and ecclesiastical disruption to impede the work and witness of Westminster.”

    “The authors of “Merit or ‘Entitlement’ in Reformed Covenant Theology: A Review” (Kerux: The Journal of the Northwest Theological Seminary, 24/3 [ 2009]) —“In a recent review of Michael Horton’s Covenant and Salvation, Gaffin expressed his concern regarding Horton’s view that under the Mosaic economy the judicial role of the law in the life of God’s people functioned, at the typological level, for inheritance by works in antithesis to grace. Gaffin sees this position as creating ‘an uneasy tension, if not polarization, in the lives of his people between grace/faith and (good) works obedience….” http://theaquilareport.com/addendum-to-the-republication-controversy/

    It’s not about the doctrine, but about the messengers who still won’t even agree that Norman Shepherd was orthodox.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    DGH—Although the committee that visited the PNW acknowledged that the doctrine of republication was the “presenting cause” of conflict, their report also indicated that the “more fundamental cause” was the failure of the PNW to use the pastoral and ecclesiastical means available for addressing differences. In so many words, the visitation committee discovered a failure among presbyters to COMMUNICATE ADEQUATELY either the nature of concerns or answers to objections…. the doctrine of republication attempts to explain the legal aspects of the Mosaic law (which resonate with the commands and sanctions of God’s original covenant with Adam), while also understanding God’s relationship with the Israelites as gracious. The committee’s report took its bearings from the Confession of Faith’s teaching about the covenants and the distinction between substance and administration.

    DGH–The Assembly’s discussion of the report included remarks about the NOVELTY of THESE views. At the same time, the report provided valuable assistance by showing that discussions of the doctrine of republication, though revealing no consensus, were part and parcel of the development of Reformed theology from the Reformation to the nineteenth century…..the commissioners received the report, and after mild discussion about DISSEMINATING it, concluded their consideration of the doctrine of republication.https://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=895

    The Republciation Report asserts: “Our standards affirm that the merit of Christ, the God-man and mediator, consists in his perfect, personal, proportional, profitable, and free obedience. Christ offers his covenant-obedience and sufferings as the representative head of the elect. He thereby fulfills the requirements and removes the penalty of the original covenant of works. Precisely because fallen man cannot fulfill these conditions, he is unable (properly speaking) to merit a reward from God of any kind.”

    Mark Karlberg—“This is the very argument that Gaffin has been maintaining since the beginning of the theological controversy in the 1970s. And it has been Gaffin’s insistence that Kline’s views not be taught at Westminster (Philadelphia); likewise, Kline’s teaching is not welcome in the OPC. Gaffin’s position has been honored in this Report on Republication. The jury is in––Professor Meredith G. Kline, the troubler of Israel, is out!”

    Mark Karlberg—Though Gaffin served as one of the members of the study committee on justification, it would be a great mistake if one were to infer from this circumstance that Gaffin himself agreed with those aspects of the discussion that impinged upon the views of Norman Shepherd . Three factors must be taken into account: (1) …General Assembly reports “do not have the force of constitutional documents, namely, our Confession of Faith and Catechisms and Book of Church Order,” and therefore are not binding (Gaffin recognizes that the committee report on justification bears the input of the several members, and all do not necessarily agree in toto); (2) despite private conversations individuals have had with Gaffin, any comments he has made distancing himself from Shepherd are to be questioned (Gaffin has never made a public statement denouncing any of Shepherd’s heterodox views–he has never recanted heretical teaching); and (3) Gaffin’s active involvement in supporting Shepherd throughout the seminary controversy, leading up to Shepherd’s dismissal from the faculty, and his own writings bear witness to the fact Gaffin is the co-author, if not father, of Westminster’s deviant teaching on justification .”


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