Sunday, April 05, 2015

John Murray and the Covenant of Works

What is important to underscore is that, while Murray preferred the use of different labels, he affirmed the essential parts of substance of the covenant of works and of the covenant of grace, as outlined in the Westminster Standards. In fact, his rejection of the term covenant of works" to describe what he called "the Adamic administration" stemmed, in part, from his desire to preserve its unique character. Since the term "covenant" was (according to Murray) a sovereign administration of grace and promise in a specifically redemptive context, such an idea would be inappropriate in Adam's thoroughly non-redemptive situation. Read in this light, Murray's preference to restrict the term "covenant" to the post-fall situation is actually indicative of his concern to preserve the non-redemptive "legal" character of Adam's original situation. [Andrew M. Elam, Robert C. Van Kooten, Randall A. Bergquist, Moses and Merit: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 17]

John Murray, a Reformed theologian and one of the founding generation of the OPC, has become something like a whipping boy in certain circles for the way he construes the Covenant of Works. John Murray denied the terminology of the Covenant of Works, preferring to call it an Adamic administration with works aspects in it. Now, at least some of his critics acknowledge that Murray held to the essential elements of the Covenant of Works, although he denied its terminology. Therefore, the argument put forward by the three presbyters in the OPC Pacific Northwest Presbytery is rather old news. The question however to ask is: Is holding on the elements of the Covenant of Works sufficient for a confession of the truth of the Covenant of Works? I would assert not.

The meaning of words are basic and foundational for understanding and communication. When terms are given new meanings, the same words or phrases will differ in meaning. If the shift of meaning is not made clear, misunderstanding will abound. When we come to Murray's teaching concerning the Covenant of Grace, we see such redefinition occur. Murray redefined the word "Covenant," and he defines "merit" in a way to exclude the concept of "covenantal merit"(meritum ex pacto). For whatever reason Murray does it, by the redefinition in a manner closer towards something that looks more like the "gracious" understanding of God taught by luminaries like Karl Barth and Daniel Fuller, Murray's framing of Covenant Theology is the gateway that allows error to enter, although he himself is orthodox. By the emphasis on grace to the denigration of works, the road towards monocovenantalism is paved, for others will not stop at mere terminology but will go on to be consistent with the shift in terminology.

It is actually not a hard thing to do. If one starts out with the preconceived, aprioristic notion that covenants are always grace, and one does not nuance that view further, it is easy to subsume the works principle under grace, so that works serve the purpose of grace in a flattened one-dimensional manner. The Adamic administration becomes essentially gracious, and therefore the essence of the traditional Reformed doctrine concerning the Covenant of Works is denied. Since there is an undeniable works principle in the Adamic administration, grace cannot be contrary to works in some sense, and thus works is smuggled in through the concept of "faithfulness." According to this view, Federal Vision, the Adamic administration is one of grace, but Adam has to be faithful to God's graciousness in keeping the condition of the covenant. If Adam failed to be faithful to God in this gracious covenant, he would be a covenant breaker and suffer the penalties of the covenant. Likewise, in the New Covenant, believers are under a gracious covenant but they need to continue to be faithful, or suffer the penalties of breaking the covenant.

It is good that Murray affirmed the elements of the Covenant of Works. But that is not sufficient for confessing the full teaching and orthodoxy of the Covenant of Works, as traditionally understood in the Reformed tradition. The move to make everything of grace will always result in the smuggling of works somewhere. Far better it is to acknowledge works as works, instead of calling it somehow part of grace and then subverting the graciousness of grace. So although Murray is orthodox, his manner of reframing the doctrine has opened the way for Norman Shepherd and Federal Vision, who will go on to be more consistent with Murray's terminology while rejecting what he means by it.

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