How Should Moses Be Read? A Debate in Contemporary Reformed Theology

Over the last half-century or more the dominant view regarding the Mosaic covenant—though by no means the only view—was that it was an administration of the overarching covenant of grace with no antithetical works-inheritance principle. Recovery of the teaching of early, historic Reformed teaching, namely, the view that the Mosaic covenant does indeed convey a works-inheritance principle, has generated a good bit of debate over the last few years. Advocates on both sides of the dispute have claimed to be the accurate interpreters of the tradition since the opening days of the Protestant Reformation. Both cannot be true. The present controversy rests partly on misunderstanding of the issues in dispute and partly on issues that entail a decidedly different reading of Scripture and tradition. At the heart of the dispute is appropriation or misappropriation of the Protestant law/gospel contrast. Simply stated, the gospel sets forth the principle of justification/salvation by grace through faith, on the merits of Christ’s righteousness accruing from his work of substitutionary atonement. The law propounds the principle of inheritance/reward on the basis of the creature’s perfect keeping of God’s commandments. This principle is formative in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, the covenant God made with Adam before his fall into sin. Those who adopt the doctrine of the covenant of works, including the idea of meritorious reward with respect to Christ’s redeeming work, yet deny the role of merit in the covenant with Adam at creation and in the Mosaic covenant, have to one degree or another undermined the doctrine of Reformed soteriology, consistently formulated.

The focus of this article is the legal feature of the covenant God made with Moses and all Israel—legal here construed as antithetical to gracious. The doctrine now widely disputed can be stated in these terms: Under Moses there is a republication of the works-inheritance principle, the principle operative in the original covenant with Adam prior to his transgression. God’s covenant with Moses is in some sense a (modified) covenant of works. In current discussion the phrase in some sense is drawn from my 1980 doctoral dissertation (“The Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of Works in Reformed Hermeneutics,” completed at Westminster Theological Seminary).
There are two aspects of the debate, biblical and historical-theological. Before addressing each of these, a word of clarification is in order: Acknowledgement of the works-inheritance principle in the covenant with Adam (reinstituted with modification in the covenant with Moses) is not optional, the present writer maintains, within the parameters of Reformed-evangelical interpretation. To be sure, the theological picture is a bit complicated and clouded. Thanks to genuine progression in theological understanding that comes over the course of the history of doctrine, it is my contention that we are now in a better position to concede that aspects of teaching found in Reformed scholastic federalism, that is, Reformed Orthodoxy in the late seventeenth century onwards, are no longer tenable and, therefore, must be rejected. To continue to hold to teachings that are speculative, not biblical, serves only to fuel unnecessary conflict and discord. Given the clarity that has now been attained in theological discourse, we are afforded the opportunity to transcend previous conflict. To that end we turn to Scripture, the source of the church’s theology.

Scripture Speaks: The Church Listens

Paramount in formulations of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is the law/gospel distinction. This distinction is of equal weight to the Creator/creature distinction within the Reformed system of doctrine. Procurement of God’s eschatological blessing—what is the consummation of God’s purposes in creation—has been granted to creatures (re)made in his own image by means of God’s covenant sovereignly administered and maintained over the course of redemptive history. The beneficiaries of this gracious disposition are the elect in Christ. Caution must be exercised against speculative notions of creaturely autonomy, on the one hand, and false dichotomizations between an alleged “order of nature” prior to and distinct from the covenant administration established in creation, on the other. This false dichotomy appears in the writings of several notable Reformed systematicians.

Prominent in the teaching/preaching of the apostle Paul is the role of the Mosaic law in the history of redemptive revelation. The law is Israel’s schoolmaster, leading her to faith in Jesus Christ as the One who alone redeems sinners from the curse of the law (see especially Gal. 3 and 4). In one of his sermons Paul declares: “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through him everyone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39 NASB). Space does not permit an exhaustive explanation of the peculiar operation of the works-principle within the Mosaic economy, except to say that the legal principle functions on the typological level of life in the land of Canaan. Blessing and prosperity in Canaan are contingent on Israel’s compliance with the law of Moses. (Spiritual blessing is contingent on the merits of Christ’s righteousness exclusively.) The works-inheritance principle explains the tutelary, pedagogical use of the law. By frustrating Israel, resulting in her exile to the land of Babylon, the law points guilty sinners to Jesus the Messiah for life and salvation. Forgiveness of sins, which comes to all who trust in Christ, is a once-for-all benefit, secure and indefectible. Unlike the temporary forgiveness experienced by corporate Israel under the provisions of the Mosaic law regulative of life in earthly Canaan, this spiritual benefit is of eternal weight and value. (True Israelites enjoyed this benefit by virtue of faith in the Messiah to come.)

Elsewhere the apostle explains: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:21–26 NASB). The righteousness of the law, a reference to the works-inheritance principle, is antithetical to the righteousness that comes by faith apart from the works of the law. The tenth chapter of Romans elaborates on these contrasting principles (uniformly referred to as the law/gospel contrast in evangelical Protestant theology). Paul makes personal application of this gospel-truth in his autobiography (Phil. 3:1–10; cf. Paul’s discussion of the role of the regenerating, illuminating Spirit of Christ in 2 Cor. 3:13–18).

Reformed Dogmatics: The Church Responds

All of the Reformed confessions adopt the Protestant law/gospel antithesis, which antithesis has immediate ramifications for the Reformed doctrine of the covenants, the covenant of works (with Adam before the fall) and the covenant of grace (extending from the fall to the consummation). This is the unanimous consensus of the Reformed churches since the Protestant Reformation, extending into the period of scholastic Orthodoxy and well into the twentieth century (at which time the doctrine of the covenant of works has come under attack within the “orthodox, evangelical” camp). How important is this doctrine? And what are the issues at stake?

Diversity of opinion surrounds the interpretation of the Mosaic covenant, whether or not there is a works-principle functioning at some level within the old economy of redemption. Despite the clarification that has come in recent years, Reformed interpreters (exegetes and dogmaticians) remain polarized. Are we guilty of imposing a false schematization on the biblical text, in either affirming or denying the two-covenant doctrine (the covenant of works and the covenant of grace)? This is the question today. Space here does not permit a defense of one side or the other. We can only raise the question to those who deny the works-principle in the Mosaic covenant: How can we explain the exile of Israel to Babylon if the house of Israel had been the beneficiary of God’s saving work (by virtue of all the benefits under the covenant of grace)? How can we explain Moses’ exclusion from entrance into the land of promise (following his disobedience to God)? Is not something else at work within the old, Mosaic economy, which comes to a decisive end/abrogation with the coming of Christ and the establishment of the new and better covenant?

Far more serious is repudiation of the doctrine of the covenant of works on the part of some. The issue came to a head in the teachings of Norman Shepherd at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia back in the mid-1970s (a dispute that extends to the present). If there is no principle of works-inheritance in the first covenant at creation, then obviously there is no works-principle in any of God’s covenants. It was John Murray who first attempted to recast Reformed covenant theology by distinguishing between the original Adamic administration (which he preferred not to call a covenant) and the covenant of grace (which manifested God’s gracious, redemptive provisions to fallen humankind). Despite the oddities of Murray’s formulations, he did not deny the works-merit principle in regards to the conditions defining the Adamic administration (specifically, Adam’s time of probation). He did entertain the Mosaic covenant as a purely gracious arrangement (recall that Murray preferred to define covenant as redemptive provision exclusively). All told, Murray vigorously upheld the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Such was not the case with Murray’s successor at Westminster. Shepherd views both faith and the good works of those united with Christ as “instruments” in the appropriation of justification, that is, the “way of salvation.” Hence, the believer is justified by faith and good works. Together faith and good works weigh in on the final day of judgment (justification/judgment according to works). Shepherd’s theology continues to have its passionate advocates among those who first stood beside him in the seminary controversy and those who espouse a form of “multiperspectivalism” to justify Shepherd’s theologizing. (More on this is closely detailed in my trilogy: Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective, Gospel-Grace: The Modern-day Controversy, and Federalism and the Westminster Tradition, all published by Wipf and Stock; 2000, 2003, and 2006 respectively).

Throughout international Calvinism, past and present, the theological tradition under study has indisputably recognized itself to be “reformed and always reforming.” While sharing high regard for the church’s creeds and confessions, the Reformed tradition readily acknowledges that these confessional statements are neither infallible nor inerrant (Scripture alone bears these traits). Not only are there elements of confessional teaching subject to ongoing debate—for example, the Puritan versus Continental understanding of the Christian Sabbath, the meaning and length of the “days of creation” in Genesis 1—there are also more weighty, foundational issues in dispute today, such as the doctrine of justification by faith alone (bringing into view differing assessments of the role of good works, if any, in the procurement of justification/final vindication) and the legal covenant of works with Adam and with Israel at Sinai. These latter two are of great theological consequence.

Expressed in other terms, essential to the doctrine of justification and the covenants is the historic Protestant law/gospel antithesis. This subject addresses doctrines intimately related to one another in the biblical text, most notably in the writings of the apostle Paul. When we rightly maintain that perfect obedience is required of the first and second Adams in their probationary role, and when we say that this perfect obedience is necessary for the attainment of consummate, eschatological blessing (eternal enjoyment and fellowship with God), we are essentially adopting the “merit” principle. It is by the merit of Christ’s righteousness (or the merit of Adam’s righteousness, had he passed probation in Eden) that all those represented in federal headship are confirmed in righteousness for all eternity. This reward of the covenant is freely granted by God to the creature, the son of God, fashioned in God’s own image. (See my previous article, “The Glory of God: Archetypal and Ectypal—Part Two: The Image of God.” The Outlook [July-August 2010] 9–12.)

For many, lurking behind the modern-day view regarding the Mosaic covenant as a pure administration of redemptive grace is disdain for the law/gospel antithesis, traditionally understood. The Shepherd dispute has served to advance the age-long debate among the churches of the Reformation regarding what is the heart of the gospel, justification by faith alone, apart from works of the law. The spiritual blessings of redemptive covenant are indefectible. Christ in his saving work has secured these benefits to all those united to him by grace through faith. Resolution of the current debate awaits an outcome faithful to Scripture, devoid of speculative notions and false schematizations. May God be pleased to bring unity in the truth in our day.

Dr. Mark W. Karlberg obtained three theological degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, including a doctorate in Reformation/Post-Reformation Studies. He is the author of Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective (2001) and Gospel Grace: The Modern-Day Controversy (2003), both published by Wipf & Stock.