Friday, October 24, 2014

The Mosaic Covenant, Venema and Republication

It was some time ago that I was given a printed copy of an interesting article by Cornelius Venema from the Mid-American Journal of Theology, on the issue of republication. I have finally taken the time to read it, and felt extremely frustrated while doing so. Venema really does not like the book The Law is Not of Faith (hereafter TLNOF), and the 60+ pages in the journal is a response to it. He is welcome to disagree with republication theories of course, but I don't see any indication that he understands what republication itself teaches.

The current controversial topic in Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in the US is the issue of "republication." It is promoted by some P&R ministers and theologians, especially those from my alma mater, Westminster Seminary California. It is opposed by quite a few people, which accuse republication as being a theological novelty and heterodox at best. "Republication" deals with the relation between the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Works. Those promoting republication teach that the Mosaic Covenant in some sense is a republication of the Covenant of Works. The question of what sense is however left rather vague and unclear, with multiple senses being promoted by various writers in TLNOF.

I have read TLNOF even before I began my studies, but held to republication before that. Of course, my "version" if you may might not be the same as what others who hold to republication hold to. My version is closer to Herman Witsius' idea of republication, although ultimately it comes from wrestling with what it seems the Scriptures teach in places like Romans 2:6-13. I will of course defend my version of republication here, but I do see in many who promote it some basic themes in common.

In that journal article, Venema defined the type of republication promoted and defended in TLNOF as being "a formal reinstitution of the covenant of works at some level" (p. 56). This is rather astonishing, since it seems to me that it is rather obvious that "republication" is not the same thing as "reinstitution." To "publish" something means that one states its content, to "institute" something means that one implements what it says. But before we go further, Venema cites Brenton C. Ferry's chapter in TLNOF with regards to the difference between "material" and "formal" republication. Supposedly, "material republication" refers to the republication of the law, while "formal republication" refers to something more definite. I however see confusion here, for if by saying "material republication" of the Covenant of Works, one refers to republicizing the "material" of the Law, then we are using "material" as a predicate adjective, i.e. republication of material (noun). However, if one understands the phrase philosophically, then "material republication," as opposed to "formal republication," refers to the actual publication of the substance of the Covenant of Works, since we are using the word "material" adjectivally. Material - substance, Formal - form, appearance! Philosophically therefore, we cannot and should not say that the Mosaic Covenant is a material republication of the Covenant of Works, since we certainly should not entertain the notion that the Mosaic Covenant in substance IS a Covenant of Works.

It is therefore rather interesting that the term Venema uses to describe "formal republication" ("reinstitution") is actually what happens in "material republication" (philosophical meaning), whereas the idea that the Mosaic Covenant in its essence is of the Covenant of Grace yet with the accidents of the principle of works is actually "Formal Republication." Now, here I think Berry is at fault, because he should have thought about Protestant scholastic usage of terms like "formal" and "material" before utilizing them in his own manner. What I would like to say here therefore is that it seems Venema has totally misunderstood what republication proponents are saying. Here, despite the difference among the contributors to TLNOF, it seems from my viewpoint that what they mean by "formal republication" is merely that the Mosaic Covenant as to its accidents seem to have a works principle to it; the Mosaic Covenant has a form that looks like the Covenant of Works. There is no "reinstitution" of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant, and thus Venema's critique on the issue of republication starts off on a wrong footing.

8 comments:

Brandon said...

I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like Venema’s review. I read it several years ago and thought it was excellent! I am much more in favor of TLNF’s attempted thesis than Venema’s position, but I thought Venema was very clear, something the book was not always.

Supposedly, "material republication" refers to the republication of the law, while "formal republication" refers to something more definite. I however see confusion here


I believe the confusion is on your end. I understand the similarity in language to the substance/form concept, but that is not in view. Ferry did not invent the words. He got the distinction from Sedgwick (1661). Ferry’s essay defines what is meant by republication for TLNF and that is the definition Venema is operating on in his review.


You are welcome to criticize the particular choice of words, but their meaning is clear. I think your attempt to redefine the terms actually confuses you. Venema is not confused about TLNF.


What I would like to say here therefore is that it seems Venema has totally misunderstood what republication proponents are saying. Here, despite the difference among the contributors to TLNOF, it seems from my viewpoint that what they mean by "formal republication" is merely that the Mosaic Covenant as to its accidents seem to have a works principle to it; the Mosaic Covenant has a form that looks like the Covenant of Works. There is no "reinstitution" of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant, and thus Venema's critique on the issue of republication starts off on a wrong footing.


Again, Ferry is clear what is meant by “formal republication” and it is not that there is merely an appearance of works in the Mosaic Covenant. Venema is correct that formal republication refers to the "reinstitution of the covenant of works at some level.”

Brandon said...


From Ferry’s thesis:
Therefore, to avoid verbal arguments it is necessary to define the sense in which the Covenant of Works might be republished in the Mosaic Covenant.

2. Material Republication (Moral Law)
The Mosaic Covenant is referred to loosely or generally as a republication of the Covenant of Works. But this is understood in a variety of ways. The principle of republication is expressed, first, in terms of moral law. Dabney says “the transactions at Sinai,” among other things, includes a “republication of the moral law.”202 This means the precepts, as a rule of life, are continuous and consistent with the prelapsarian era. When Calamay calls the Mosaic Covenant “a perfect copy of the covenant of works, yet being given to another end,” he means the ten commandments are a copy of the Covenant of Works in a very restricted way; namely to function only as a rule of life, not as a covenant.203 Calamay repeatedly calls the Ten Commandments a “copy” or a “perfect copy” of the Covenant of Works. But he qualifies this at the same time saying the Ten Commandments are neither a covenant of works nor grace, but “a rule of life for those already in covenant.” Further along he calls it “the moral law.”204

Perhaps with more precision, Sedgwick distinguishes between the matter and form of the Ten Commandments, the former referring to the precepts of the law, the latter referring to the precepts functioning as a covenant. “Though materially it [the Decalogue] respected works, yet formally and intentionally, it was not then given and established as a covenant of works, by which we should be justified and live.”205 This is soft republication, because it extracts any sense of a covenantal function or intent from the likeness between Adam and Moses admitting only a moral continuity, which can be said about every historical dispensation of time from the probation to the eschaton.



3. Formal Republication (Covenant of Works)
While some employ the matter and form designations to soften the nature of this
republication, others employ it to strengthen the republication, as if to say the Mosaic Covenant republished the Covenant of Works as a rule and a covenant. This is hard republication. William Strong (d. 1654) of the Westminster Assembly does this, though with the important qualification that the Lord never intended the Mosaic Law to be used as a mechanism for actually earning eternal life. For Strong the Decalogue was more than a republication of the moral law (the matter), but also the Covenant of Works properly speaking (the form). He says, “it was not only delivered as a rule of righteousness, but in the form and terms of a covenant.” Further along he writes, “It was delivered after a sort in the form of the covenant of works.”206
The exact nature of this hard, formal republication varies from writer to writer. We understand the following views as versions of formal republication.



Ferry then lists 5 different types of formal republication (relative, pedagogical, hypothetical, typological, complex). I don’t have TLNF anymore, so I don’t remember how much of this made it into the book (vs his full thesis paper).


See here too http://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/form-and-matter-in-covenant-theology/

PuritanReformed said...

@Brandon, my copy of TLNOF is also not currently at hand, so I'm going with what I remembered. And yes, the book is not totally clear, but the authors did admit it was an exploration of sorts.

Perhaps I am redefining the terms as they have been used, but I would like to look at the evidence(s).


I don't see anything from what you have posted supposedly from Ferry that disproves my point. It seems to me that even the wordings there could very well mean "formal republication" as in republishing the FORM (i.e. appearance) only, not the covenant itself. The link you have posted seem to take "formal" as meaning "officially stated/ instituted," which does not seem to me to be the interpretation Ferry is working with.

Brandon said...

Btw, have you read Patrick Ramsey's "In Defense of Moses"?

PuritanReformed said...

@Brandon,

unfortunately, no. I have lots of books to read, but if you recommend it, I might consider reading it in the future.

Brandon said...

I do recommend it. I don't agree with Ramsey's interpretation of the bible, but his analysis of WCF is very convincing. It's 30 pages https://sites.google.com/site/mosaiccovenant/reading

(Ferry wrote a response article (also available on that site) which was interesting in that Ferry's entire defense rested upon using Kline's 1968 view, not his more mature view)

Brandon said...

if you are interested, here are my thoughts on Fesko's use of Calvin http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/kerux-vs-tlnf/

PuritanReformed said...

@Brandon,

I don't see as much of a difference between Calvin and Fesko's interpretation of Calvin, although his language is not nuanced enough