"Current Study on Republication: Where Matters Presently Stand" by Dr. Mark Karlberg

November 2015

The traditional Reformed doctrine concerning the republication of the original “Covenant of Works” in modified form tells us that the covenant of law established by God with ancient, theocratic Israel (under Moses as covenant mediator) reemploys the works-inheritance principle on a limited scale, and with restricted application. More importantly, the covenants extending from Adam’s fall in the Garden to the return of Christ are unified; they set forth the Gospel-principle of salvation by grace through faith alone (this principle is antithetical to the works-principle operative in the first covenant with Adam in Eden). These redemptive covenants are subsumed under the rubric of the “Covenant of Grace.” The unique, pedagogical function of the law of Moses, applicable only to Israel in the old economy of redemption, was partly designed by God to shield the Gospel-principle of salvation by grace. Only the Holy Spirit working in the individual lives of the saints could remove the veil, and enable believers to behold Christ, Israel’s Messiah, as the true covenant-keeper and only Savior of the world. Temporal life and prosperity in the typological land of Canaan was dependent upon Israel’s own obedience to the law of Moses (the works-principle), not the imputed righteousness of Another. Eternal life for believers – then as now in the present, new economy of redemption – is solely a gift of God’s sovereign, all-merciful grace and love.


The view contained in the Westminster Standards summarizes the prevailing opinion among the Divines. During this historical period of Reformed theology, however, a new interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant was on the ascendency. Counter to the dominant teaching leading up to the Westminster Assembly, the majority of Puritans maintained that the bond of fellowship established with Israel, with Moses as covenant mediator, was an administration utilizing solely the principle of (saving) grace, with no principle of works-inheritance functioning within that covenantal arrangement. Accordingly, there was no difference, they insisted, between the old and new covenants (what, I hasten to add, is a blatant misreading of Scripture). Additionally, they regarded England, Old and New, as God’s chosen nation – analogous to theocratic Israel under Moses. (They held an early form of “Christian theonomy.”) Given the variety of opinion on the Mosaic covenant, the Confession and Catechisms do not spell out a full, definitive position regarding the old economy of redemption, other than to reiterate that the Mosaic covenant is part of the single, ongoing “Covenant of Grace.” On this all Reformed interpreters were agreed.


Complicating matters, however, the Standards relate the Mosaic Law to the original law of nature (what is yet another reference to the principle of works-inheritance). Reformed theologians uniformly taught that the Mosaic Covenant contained a reiteration of the law of nature (hence the universal, binding character of the Ten Commandments upon all peoples). A consistent, mature formulation of the theology of the covenants would require many decades of debate and discussion – what is still ongoing within the church and the academy. The current dispute within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church regarding interpretation of the covenant with Moses is deep-seated, having pervasive impact upon other Reformed communions as well. After previous efforts had failed though overtures presented to the General Assembly, the delegates at the 2014 GA were finally persuaded to establish a Study Committee (comprising five members). This committee informed the 2015 GA of its need for additional time to study and write its report. Likewise, it was reported that the disruptive controversy in the Presbytery of the Northwest had not been ameliorated to any degree, even after three visits by a special committee of the GA. Benjamin Swinburnson, one of the members of the Study Committee, pastors the church which hosts the Northwest Theological Seminary, a school opposing what has been erroneously dubbed by many as “Klinian republicationism.” For the record, the Kline-Karlberg position is, in all essential points, reflective of historic, mainstream Reformed covenant theology – despite what critics has been falsely saying.


Regarding the Presbytery of the Northwest, we are told: “The situation remains fragile” (http://www.opc.org/GA/82nd_GA_rpt.html). Clearly, there remains much upheaval and disagreement within the OPC. Kerux, at present an online journalof biblical theology published by Northwest Theological Seminary,had previously published Kline’s excellent and insightful studies in the book of Zachariah, since published as Glory in Our Midst: A Biblical-Theological Reading of Zachariah’s Night Visions (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001). Now the journal has taken a decidedly anti-Klinian stance, after mounting criticism of the Shepherd-Gaffin “biblical theology” (which Northwest Seminary heartily commends). Only one member on the Study Committee is a clear, consistent proponent of the doctrine of republication; the others either oppose or are, as yet, uncertain as to their own formulation. Illustrative of the wider situation, Westminster Seminary (East and West) remains polarized on the doctrine of republication and the related doctrine of justification by faith and final judgment according to works.


Confusion on the subject, along with a misreading of Karl Barth’s theology, continues to spread. In his doctoral dissertation Al Mohler has offered a favorable analysis of Barth for modern-day evangelicalism. Mark Devine, in “Evangelicals and Karl Barth” (a paper presented in 2001 to the Evangelical Theological Society), notes:


In 1980 Gregory Bolich published Karl Barth and Evangelicalismin which he divided evangelicals into two camps in relation to the theology of Karl Barth—namely friends or foes. Albert Mohler, now president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, further sub-divided evangelicals into three categories in his yet unpublished dissertation entitled Evangelical Theology and Karl Barth: Representative Models of Response. These two works bear witness to the inability of evangelicals, three decades after Barth’s death in 1968, even to approach consensus regarding his theology. In this paper I will suggest that Barth should not be regarded as an evangelical. His denial of Biblical inerrancy alone must exclude him from the evangelical ranks.


Barth was the major voice in the twentieth century denouncing the historic Protestant Law / Gospel contrast, the focus of the debate before us presently. He continues to gain many adherents.


The Evangelical Theological Society has been unable to hold its members to its creedal standard, namely, the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. So too, it has been unable to uphold the Biblical, Protestant doctrine of justification by faith (alone). The Society has failed on both scores, what has long been identified as the formal and material principles of the Reformation.The disputed issue regarding justification by faith in the OPC (and across the evangelical-Reformed community) relates directly to the Shepherd-Gaffin interpretation of justification, election, and the covenants. (Differences of opinion regarding the legitimacy of the “merit” concept pales to insignificance in comparison.)Crucial is the Law / Gospel antithesis. To reiterate, pivotal in the current theological debate is the proper understanding of the traditional Protestant, Lutheran and Reformed, antithesis between law and (saving) grace. The principle of law states that the inheritance of eternal life proffered to Adam at the opening of creation is obtained by means of successful completion of the probationary work assigned him in the original Covenant of Works. It was the Second Adam who alone achieved this singular work, having imputed his “one act of righteousness” in the work of redemption to the elect, and to them alone. This vital component is distinctive within the Reformed system of covenant theology. The principle of law (or works) is applicable only in a time of probationary testing. The doctrine of probation is yet another essential component in a full-orbed Biblical theology.