The Graciousness of the Covenant of Works: A Critique of Meredith G. Kline

Introduction

In today’s world of New Calvinism, of those who have been described as Young Restless and Reformed, a day where being “Reformed” is almost becoming fashionable[1], the notion that Covenant Theology is synonymous with Reformed theology has become a debatable idea. But traditionally it was not always so, it was always taken for granted by Reformed theologians that Reformed Theology is a theology that is a covenantal theology.  For example John Murray says, “Covenant theology is, however, a distinguished feature of the Reformed tradition . . .[2]”, or Geerhardus Vos, on his essay on the history of the doctrine of covenants, “At present there is general agreement that the doctrine of the covenants is a peculiarly Reformed doctrine. It emerged in Reformed theology where it was assured of a permanent place and in a way that has also remained confined within these bounds.[3]” Jealous therefore, to maintain this permanent position of covenant theology within Reformed theology, Reformed theologians have always fought to ward off anything, both from without and from within that sought to threaten this.

One such polemical work that has enjoyed relatively high circulation is a book review by Prof. Meredith G. Kline[4], entitled Covenant Theology under Attack[5]. In this article Prof. Kline gives a critique of Prof. Daniel P. Fuller’s book, The Unity of The Bible (Zondervan, 1992). In this critique Prof. Kline argues that the covenant of works operated purely on divine justice or merit, without grace and claims that this position is the historic Reformed position on this covenant.

The current author will argue against Kline. We will argue with two main burdens, firstly, it will be to show that contrary to his claim, Prof. Kline’s position is both non-confessional and unhistorical, i.e. his position is not consistent with Reformed confessions and it cannot be found in both formative and contemporary major Reformed theologians who have dealt with covenants through Reformed church history.  And secondly it will simply be to show that Prof. Kline is biblically incorrect in his position.

The Covenant of Works

Despite the absence of the term “covenant” before Gen. 6:18, no careful theologian denies that the Bible uses covenantal language for God’s dealing with man in the era before Noah, and this as far back to Adam.[6] The covenant that God entered into with Adam before his fall has been referred to by many terms through Reformed church history, including, the covenant of works, the covenant of life, the legal covenant[7], or as Robertson has called it, the covenant of creation[8]. In this covenant God promised man eternal life on condition of obedience and threatened him with death on disobedience and man accepted these terms[9] (Gen. 2:16-17; Hos. 6:7; Rom. 10:5). Man having been created in God’s image in knowledge, righteousness and holiness, he had an innate ability to fulfil the conditions of this covenant[10] (Gen. 1:27-28; Ecc. 7:29; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). He possessed an original righteousness, with the Law of God written in his very heart and soul[11] (Rom. 2:14). However in his original integrity, man was also free to sin as he was free to do good, and so the threat of sin and death remained real[12].

Man’s Right of Merit

There is a number of problematic statements that can be found scattered across Kline’s review. Some of course less so than others, but combined they have devastating theological implications. In fact logical inference can be made to a number of other problematic Klinean views from some of the statements that are made on his review. It is near-impossible to be incorrect at a foundational theological point (such as the covenant of works) and not find yourself wanting at several other areas that feed off your area of initial error if you are a consistent,  logical and biblical-theological thinker such as Dr Kline.  

The issue really begins with definition of terms, for Kline, grace cannot exist where there is no sin, i.e. sin necessitates grace. This is essentially why the works covenant cannot be a gracious covenant for Kline, because it was entered into with man in his primitive integrity before he sinned. According to Kline, “Properly defined, grace is not merely the bestowal of unmerited blessings, but God’s blessing of man in spite of his demerits, in spite of his forfeiture of divine blessings.[13]” Therefore since there are no demerits before the first sin, there necessarily is no grace before the fall, this is the basic premise for Kline. This is a very presumptuous understanding of grace, it has a pompous view of man as one who comes into the covenant of works as God’s equal. This is of course not spelt out, but it is presumed if it is not viewed as gracious that God came down to man to make a covenant with him. The presumption is that man deserved for the very Creator of heaven and earth to come down to him, it presumes that man deserved for God to give him an opportunity to have life eternal through the covenant of works[14]. No, this is not so, the fact is that no covenant was ever going to happen without God, to use the language of the Westminster Confession[15], voluntarily condescending to man – and that is exceedingly gracious.

This is a historic Reformed understanding of the covenant of works, for example Richard Muller is convinced that this can be found implicitly in Calvin, Muller says,

Calvin, without connecting the concept explicitly to covenant language, had evidenced considerable interest in the relationship between the natural order and the divine law as grounded in the goodness and sovereignty of God.[16]

I would grant that this is not entirely convincing since it is based on logical inferences which can be subjective, but Muller goes on to settle the matter with this more conclusive statement on God’s grace to the upright Adam,

. . . there was not only considerable agreement among Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century concerning the identity of the prelasarian relationship between God and Adam as a covenant, virtually all of the Reformed theologians of the era recognized , albeit in varying degrees, that there could be no relationship between God and the finite, mutable creature apart from grace.[17]

One of the more important covenant theologians of the era Muller refers to is undoubtedly Herman Witsius, he in fact is one of the major theologians that some in Kline’s camp have illegitimately appealed to as having taught a graceless works covenant to legitimise their position. However there is nothing in Witsius that would even suggest leanings towards the Klinean camp except that he grants that this matter should be approached with modesty[18]  – this merely marks him as reverent scholar and pastor, not a Klinean. His caution and modesty nevertheless does not keep him from going on to clearly state his orthodox position, which leaves no doubt in any honest reader’s mind as to where he, and his contemporaries[19] stand on this:

I lay this down as an acknowledged truth, that God owes nothing to his creature. By no claim, no law is he bound to reward it. For all that the creature is, it owes entirely to God; both because he created it, and also, because he is infinitely exalted above it. But where there is so great a disparity, there is no common standard of right, by which the superior in dignity, can become under an obligation to give any reward.[20]

Whatever then is promised to the creature by God, ought all to be ascribed to the immense goodness of the Deity. Finely to this purpose speaks Augustine, serm. xvi. on the words of the apostle, ‘God became our debtor, not by receiving anything, but by promising what he pleased. For, it was of his own bounty that he vouchsafed to make himself a debtor.’[21]

I think that at this point, the Reformed tradition has spoken for itself, from its own history, from Scotland, to Geneva, to Holland and England, spanning at least a 200 year period from the reformers to the Westminster Divines to the Dutch Second Reformers. This traditional, historical, Reformed understanding of the covenant of works has also carried on right through to our day. Closer to our day, conservative able men like Vos have held to these truths:

If his [man] natural goodness is already the creative work of God, the same can be said for the covenantal relationship in which God places him. This too is the product of a free divine deed, a gift flowing out of the condescending mercy of the Lord. Out of the nothingness from which the Almighty called him into being the creature brought along no rights, least of all the right to an unlosable, eternal life. When a way is opened by which he can attain this, then this way is a creation of God, something that, humanly speaking, could have been omitted. This point must be seen clearly. According to the Reformed view the covenant of works is something more than the natural bond which exists between God and man.[22]

So of everything that Dr Kline can claim, he has no ground to claim to stand on traditional Reformed shoulders when he teaches a works covenant devoid of the grace of God. He stands alone (with those who have follow him) outside of the Reformed tradition.

Could Adam Achieve What Christ Achieved?

As we said previously, the oneness of God’s word demands that a consistent theologian will make devastating conclusions down the line if they start off erroneously at a fundamental point, à Brakel noted this in 1700:

Acquaintance with [the covenant of works] is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works, will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect …Whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well.[23]

We believe that Dr Kline is particularly susceptible to this, the following statements by him really show how he has landed on a questionable Christology and Theology Proper, it is almost impossible to see a difference between his prelapsarian Adam and Christ.

All the arguments employed by Fuller and his followers to prove that Adam could not do anything meritorious would apply equally to the case of Jesus, the Second Adam. . . Moreover, the parallel which Scripture tells us exists between the two Adams would require the conclusion that if the First Adam could not earn anything, neither could the second. [24]

What was true in the covenant arrangement with the Second Adam will also have been true in the covenant with the First Adam, for the first was a type of the second (Rom. 5:14) precisely with respect to his role as a federal head in the divine government. Accordingly, the pre-Fall covenant was also a covenant of works, and there, too, Adam would have fully deserved the blessings promised in the covenant, had he obediently performed the duty stipulated in it. [25]

Again we must go back to some definitions. In Reformed theology, for a work to be meritorious, i.e. deserving of merit from God, it must meet the requirements of both, moral perfection and ontological equality.  Moral perfection refers to perfect execution of the work, while ontological equality means that the work has to be performed by one who is equal to God in his nature and being[26].

From these criteria it is clear that only God or one who is equal to him can do anything that is really meritorious. So Reformed theologians further distinguished between strict merit and covenantal merit, where strict merit has to meet both the moral and the ontological equality requirements as given above. Covenantal merit on the other hand is only deemed meritorious by God’s gracious condescension. God, as it were, lowers his standards to accommodate man, receiving as meritorious what strictly speaking isn’t.

This is the kind of merit that Adam would have achieved – in his state of integrity he had the ability to meet the requirements of moral perfection, but since he was a creature (Gen. 2:7) he could have never met the ontological equality requirements of merit. Luk. 17:10; Ps. 16:2-3; Isa 64:6; Rom. 3:12 and many other parts of Scripture, testify to the worthlessness of our works by themselves, apart from God making them worthy by his grace to be of any merit whatsoever. In his grace he receives our prayers and answers them, he receives our praises and worship, he receives our thanksgiving, and he allows us to come to him as our Father. So really even with his covenantal merit, man would have still fell so far short of strict merit because a finite creature would have never been able to satisfy an infinite God. Even the most perfect work of a finite being does not even appear on the infinite scale, not even as an iota. As Boston pit it, “There was no proportion between the work and the promised demand.[27]” So ultimately God was not only gracious to enter into this covenant with man – an undeserving creature in the first place, but he was gracious in equipping man with the natural righteousness required to fulfil the work of this covenant. He then further went on to make disproportionate promise to man, in favour of man – a promise of eternal life for doing what the very same God had adequately equipped him for. Can any agreement be more gracious?

In this connection the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck contributes this,

A creature as such owes its very existence, all that it is and has, to God; it cannot make any claims before God and it cannot boast of anything; it has no rights and can make no demands of any kind. There is no such thing as [strict] merit in the existence of a creature before God, nor can there be since the relation between the Creator and a creature radically and once-and-for-all eliminates any notion of merit. This is true after the fall, but no less before the fall, then too human beings were creatures: without entitlements, without rights, without merit.[28]

On the other hand Christ being God in the flesh (WCF. VIII.2), he was able to meet the criteria for strict merit, such that what was achieved by Christ is not comparable with what Adam could not achieve. Kline has missed all of these distinctions in his unorthodox, unreformed redefinitions.

The Employer Metaphor

Kline then appeals to what he calls “The Employer Metaphor” or the parable of the labourers in Mat. 20:1-16, mainly to try and undergird his ideas of justice and grace. He could have not chosen a more contrary text to his ideas. From this parable he tries to argue that since there is no demerit, then there is no grace, that even the workers who only work a portion of the day receive justice. This is contrary to a definition of justice which even Kline himself holds, as one of his disciples says, “The principle of justice is simple: you get what you deserve.[29]” (Mal. 1:10). The workers who started work later in the day did not receive justice because they did not get what they deserved, they got more than they deserved. The first group that worked a full day is the only group in the parable that received justice. They are the only group who are promised a denarius, and received exactly what was promised – that is justice. The other groups are only promised what is “right”, and Kline tries to squeeze water out of a rock here by implying that “right” means just, but that is absurd.

“Right” only means that what they were promised and received was not unjust, but it does not mean that it was just. What they received was by any standard, outside of the realm of justice, to borrow from R.C. Sproul, “there is justice and there is non-justice. Non-justice includes everything outside of the category of justice. In the category of non-justice we find two sub-concepts, injustice and mercy.[30]” So though the workers who worked only a portion of the day did not receive justice in the sense that they did not get what they deserved, they however did not get injustice, but mercy, which is still non-justice, but not injustice. They got more than they deserved. The employer himself is aware of this, he asks the complaining workers if they “begrudge his generosity” (v.15). Because this wage was clearly not a “right” wage in the sense that it was a normal, expectable wage, but it was a generous wage, a gracious wage. A wage that was “right” only in the sense that it was not unjustly wrong.

Another reason from the text itself that shows that we are not dealing with “simple justice” here as Kline would have us believe is that there would have to be a prior agreement between the two parties, the employer and the employee on a just wage, before the employee begins the work. In this case the employee is only happy to be employed and there is no agreement about wages, the employer is in fact so casual as to use the words “whatever is right”, in other words the employee is happy with the employer’s discretion. There is nothing just about that situation, justice remember is receipt of what is deserved, not what one party decides. God could punish Adam’s injustice because there was a prior agreement that was violated, God would have been equally culpable of injustice if Adam had successfully completed his probation and not receive his eternal life. What I am saying is that justice has to have boundaries, there were no boundaries here, the employee was going to take anything given him.

Justice or Grace

In addressing what we have addressed from Kline’s views we are wary, especially since we have seen it happen to others, that we could be accused or maybe just misunderstood to emphasise grace to the harm of God’s justice. But as we have said earlier, the Law of God is present in the covenant of works, and again as we said on the previous section, if there is a Law, there must be justice. So we are not opposed to God’s justice in general or even in the covenant of works in particular. We said earlier that Kline’s theology suffers many resultant blows because of his errors in the works covenant and we mentioned both Theology Proper and Christology as some areas that suffer. We have already shown how his Christology suffers in his misunderstanding of the ontological chasm between Christ and Adam and therefore what they could do or not do for those they represented.

We saw also saw something of his Theology Proper problems in his attitude of presumption as a creature, demanding a right to earn merit and therefore eternal life from the Almighty. One more area in Theology Proper that we see as problematic is in the area of the attributes of God. Kline’s fervent insistence on “simple justice”, i.e. justice and justice alone without grace seems to miss a classic Reformed teaching that God’s attributes are identical with his essence[31]. That means that God is all of his attributes at the same time, all the time.

As a predestinarian, Kline is surely aware of the simultaneous truthfulness of both God’s sovereign election and man’s obedience in regeneration, or other antinomies found in the realm of theology in general such as God’s will and prayer; God’s will and human evil, providence and human will and many others. So our contention is that in the covenant of works also, it was not an “either / or” situation, but rather a “both / and”, where God was clearly both just and gracious simultaneously without contradiction. There should be no attempt to separate the two, for God is most glorified when both have their proper place in our understanding, a removal of either is not just an unfaithfulness to the Scriptures, but a violation of the nature of God himself. Parker explain the phenomenon like this:

For the whole point of an antinomy – in theology, at any rate – is that it is not a real contradiction, though it looks like one. It is an apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable. There are cogent reasons for believing each of them; each rests on clear and solid evidence, but it is a mystery to you how they can be squared with each other. You see that each must be true on its own, but you do not see how they can both be true together. . . . What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it. Refuse to regard the apparent inconsistency as real; put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of you own understanding; think of the two principles as, not rival alternatives, but, in some way that at present you do not grasp, complementary to each other.[32]

Conclusions

Reformed church history is long, detailed and nuanced, and that is precisely why it is difficult to make a theological case from it. Every minute point has been viewed by many from many perspectives and this is really where it is wise and helpful to stick close to the Scriptures and the standards, and this is what we have sought to do here. We have argued against Prof Kline from the shoulders of a small sample of trustworthy Reformed theologians from Reformed church history right through to our day. We have exegetically exposed as fallacious his treatment of the text in Mat. 20: 1-16 to support his definitions of grace and justice and have made use of the standards to show his neglect of the ontological distance between God and man.

We have done all of this because of Dr Kline’s influence within Reformed circles. It pains us to see the promotion of his writings and teachings, the positive quoting of his words so widely and so perpetually especially in these days of internet, not because of anything personal against Dr Kline or his scholarly success. But because of our love and concern for the Word of God and his flock that he purchased with his own blood now at the mercy of fierce wolves among them (Act. 20:28-32). That Kline and others may be seen for what they really teach is our only concern.

For Further Reading

Bavinck, Herman. In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology. Baker Academic, 1999.

Boston, Thomas. Human Nature in its Fourfold State. Edinburgh, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964.

Caughey, Chris. The Tale of Two Adams. Cedar Ridge, California: MGK Press, 2008.

Hansen, Collin. “Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church.” Christianity Today Magazine (Christianity Today) 50, no. 9 (September 2006): 32.

Kline, Meredith G. “Covenant Theology Under Attack.” New Horizons Magazine (Orthodox Presbyterian Church (America)), February 1994.

Kline, Meredith M. Meredith G. Kline Funeral Remarks. August-September 2007. http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=54 (accessed April 13, 2015).

Muller, Richard A. “The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in the Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy: A Study in the Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus a Brakel.” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 75-101.

Murray, John. Covenant Theology. Vol. IV, in Collected Writings of John Murray: Studies in Theology, by John Murray, 217. Banner of Truth, 1983.

Myers, Stephen. “Critiquing the Klinean Doctrine of Republication.” Reformation 21. Stateville, March 2015.

Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. IVP Books, 2008.

Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God. Tyndale House Publishers, 1994.

Vos, Geerhardus. Monergism. Monergism Books. August 2011. http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/vos_covenant.html (accessed April 14, 2015).

Watson, Thomas. A Body of Divinity. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965.

Williamson, G.I. The Shorter Catechism For Study Classes. Vol. I. II vols. Phillipsburg: P&R, 1970.

Witsius, Herman. The Economy of Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. 1822. Translated by William Crookshank. Vol. I. II vols. London, 1693.


[1]   This refers to contemporary Calvinistic movements who view themselves as Reformed in that they hold to the five points of Calvinism, however they do not see Covenant Theology as a necessary bound to understand their theology within. Some of them for an example are Charismatic with regards to their view on spiritual gifts, a point ironically, at which Calvin himself would disagree with these New Calvinists. See for example, Hansen, C. (2006, September 22). Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church. Christianity Today Magazine, 50(9), 32. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html

[2]   Murray, John. Covenant Theology. Vol. IV, in Collected Writings of John Murray: Studies in Theology, by John Murray, 216. (Banner of Truth, 1983). 216

[3]   Vos, G. (n.d.). The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology. (Grand Rapids. Retrieved November 14, 2014), from http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/vos_covenant.html

[4]   Prof. Kline (1922-2007) really needs no introduction to many in reformed theology circles, he was an ordained minister in the O.P.C and an able Old Testament professor at three major Reformed seminaries in the U.S. for more than five decades.

[5] Kline, Meredith G. “Covenant Theology Under Attack.” Horizons, (February 1994)

[6] Robertson makes a strong exegetical case for this on his careful treatment of the doctrine of Covenants, The Christ of the Covenants, (P&R, 1980). 17-25

[7] Murray, 217

[8] Robertson, 67

[9] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 12

[10] Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 10

[11] Boston, Thomas. Human Nature in its Fourfold State. Edinburgh, Pennsylvania: (Banner of Truth Trust, 1964). 40, 46

[12] Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold Estate, 44. Man had a mutable righteousness.

[13] Kline, Covenant Theology Under Attack

[14] Those following in the line of Dr Kline will do well to remember that presumption was king Saul’s most besetting vice (1 Sam. 15:23).

[15] Westminster Confession, VII.1

[16] Muller, Richard A. “The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in the Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy: A Study in the Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel.” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 75-101. 88

[17] Ibid., 91

[18] Witsius, Herman. The Economy of Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. (1822). Translated by William Crookshank. Vol. I. II vols. London, 1693. I.IV.10. Also see Muller’s fuller treatment of Witsius’ covenant of works as per note 16.

[19] See quotation related to note 17

[20] Witsius, Herman. The Economy of Covenants between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity. 1822. Translated by William Crookshank. Vol. I. II vols. London, 1693. I.IV.11

[21] Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I.IV.11

[22] Vos, The Doctrine of The Covenant in Reformed Theology

[23] Quoted by Muller, The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in the Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy,  76

[24] Kline, Covenant Theology Under Attack

[25] Ibid.

[26] Myers, Stephen. “Critiquing the Klinean Doctrine of Republication.” Reformation 21. Stateville, (March 2015).

[27] Boston, Human Nature in its Fourfold State, 49

[28] Bavinck, Herman. In the Beginning: Foundations of Creation Theology. (Baker Academic, 1999). 205

[29] Caughey, Chris. The Tale of Two Adams. Cedar Ridge, California: MGK Press, 2008. 21 & 204 and Watson, Thomas. A Body of Divinity. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965). 87

[30] Sproul, R.C. Chosen by God. (Tyndale House Publishers, 1994). 26

[31] Watson, A Body of Divinity, 87

[32] Packer, J.I. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. (IVP Books, 2008). 26

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