Sunday, April 05, 2015

Covenant Merit and Ontology?

The doctrine of God's voluntary condescension goes hand in hand with the distinction that developed in Reformed theology between "covenanted" merit and "strict or "proper" merit. Covenant merit is assigned to Adam in the covenant of works, whereas strict merit is assigned to Christ in the covenant of grace. ... This designation of covenant merit reflects the ontological considerations which pertain to Adam's status. It seeks to take into account the Creator-creature distinction and God's act of condescension to enter into covenant with Adam. (Andrew M. Elam et al., Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication, 52-3)

In their book, the three OPC ministers acknowledge the idea of covenant merit in the Reformed tradition especially when applied to Adam in the Covenant of Works. They then proceed to argue that the Klinean idea of merit is a novel, third kind of merit. Without going into Kline's idea of merit yet, what is concerning to me is how they do not seem to understand that they have no reason for holding on to the concept of covenant merit at all.

The three authors here defined merit ontologically. But if merit is only about ontology, then upon what basis can we talk about covenant merit? Upon what basis can Adam merit before God, that a creature can merit from the Creator? They state that it is assigned through God's act of condenscension. That is true in the sense that anything from God to Adam is condescension, but the question is not whether it is condescension but whether it is merit. Ontologically, despite Adam being sinless he is still a creature, so even before the Fall, Adam cannot merit anything from God, if one defines "merit" only ontologically.

If merit is always defined ontologically, then even Adam cannot merit anything from God, not even if one defines it a "covenant" merit distinct from strict merit. That is the argument of those like the PRCA who attack any whiff of merit, and it is valid if one defines merit ontologically. One should not speak of merit even with the idea of condescension, for how can one claim that God owes him anything just because God has condescended to Man?

The focus on ontology therefore cannot be squared with the Reformed tradition's usage of the term "covenant merit." Either one focus on ontology and discard even the notion of covenant merit, or one stop this inordinate focus on ontology.


Brandon said...

I don't think you've understood what 7.1 is teaching. It is teaching the distinction between ontological merit and covenantal merit. Look at the proof texts. Adam, as an image bearer, was obligated to obey the law of God without expecting anything in return. He could merit nothing by obeying the law.

However, God was pleased to offer Adam a reward for the obedience that he already owed. He offered the reward of eternal life to Adam on the condition of perfect obedience (which he already owed). He thus gave the law as a covenant of works (it is not a covenant of works on its own, only a perfect rule of righteousness). This is what is meant by voluntary condescension. God did not have to enter this covenant to offer a reward for obedience. But once he did, the reward would be a matter of debt/justice if Adam fulfilled the terms.

And yes, Kline's take on this was novel. He rejected 7.1 as unbiblical.

Lee Irons: I distinctly recall asking Kline in class about "voluntary condescension" in WCF VII.1 and his reply was that he thought the Confession was wrong at this point and needed to be revised. He was clearly uncomfortable with the language of "voluntary condescension" w.r.t. the Adamic covenant of works. That is what prompted me to write the "Redefining Merit" article. We had several conversations as I was working on that article and he gave me some pointers and steered me away from certain bad directions that I was initially going in. He was the one who pointed me in the direction of critiquing the medieval distinction between "condign merit" and "congruous (de pacto) merit." I believe my paper represents his thinking pretty closely.

Redefining Merit:
An Examination of Medieval Presuppositions
in Covenant Theology

"Note the fundamentally voluntarist reasoning of the Westminster Confession's opening statement on the covenants: 7.1.., If we grant the fundamental correctness and validity of Kline's concerns, what would such a systematic overhaul of the concepts of merit and justice look like in broad outline? First of all, it is clear that Kline is neither an intellectualist nor a voluntarist in his understanding of merit... Declaring a pox on both houses, Kline searches for an entirely new definition of merit: “God's justice must be defined and judged in terms of what he stipulates in his covenants.” The covenant is the revelation of God's justice... We need to be airlifted out of the medieval battlefield, leaving the embattled medieval schools to the fate of their own mutually-assured destruction. Our desired deliverance is to be found in Kline's redefinition of the very notion of merit. At times one may think that he agrees with the voluntarist position that all merit is defined by the covenant. But his understanding of that covenant is different...

Therefore, rather than making the covenant of works an expression of voluntary condescension toward unfallen man, it must be regarded as the expression of God's justice and goodness toward rational beings created in his image and created for eternal, Sabbatical enjoyment of God. The covenant of works will of necessity now be viewed not as an additional structure superimposed upon the created order, a created order that could very well have existed apart from a covenant relationship with the Creator, but as an essential part of God's creating man after his own image. The very act of endowing a rational creature with the divine image and thus placing within the very constitution of his being a God-created desire for eternal fellowship and communion with God is an act laden with covenantal overtones."

Daniel C said...


that is besides the point. My point is that, IF merit is ALWAYS defined ontologically as the three ministers claimed, THEN they cannot hold on to Adam's covenant merit. My point as a matter of fact has nothing to do with Kline, or Lee Irons for that matter.

Brandon said...

Daniel, you don't understand the point you're trying to refute.

Daniel C said...


alright, enlighten me. My argument is that, if merit is always defined ontologically, the notion of "covenant merit" makes no sense. So, which part of the argument do you disagree with and why?

Brandon said...

The quote you provided does not say that merit can only or always be spoken of ontologically. It says covenant merit must be understood against the concept of ontological merit.

"The doctrine of God's voluntary condescension goes hand in hand with the distinction that developed in Reformed theology between "covenanted" merit and "strict or "proper" merit."

They are referring to WCF 7.1:

"The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator,"

Reasonable creatures = image bearers with the law written on their heart. As such, they are servants (read proof texts).

yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward,

By obeying God's law as reasonable creatures, man can expect nothing in return. He is merely doing what is required. He can expect no reward (Luke 17:10). It simply says "Do this."

"any fruition of him as their reward" is referring to eternal life. By simple obedience to the law as reasonable creatures, Adam could not have earned eternal life.

but by some voluntary condescencion on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

God did not owe man anything in return for man's obedience to the law. However, God was pleased to offer Adam a reward for the obedience he was already due. He thus condescended to offer this reward for obedience to the law: eternal life.

"Do this and live."

So ontological or "strict" merit goes hand in hand with covenant merit in 7.1.

This is specifically what Kline rejected. He said 7.1 was unbiblical. He insisted there was only covenantal merit. He did so because he believed that any affirmation of "grace" prior to the fall would open the door to Shepherd. Many theologians have referred to this "voluntary condescension" as gracious. That is what Sheperdites and Gaffinites cling to and try to argue from. I don't agree with them at all, but Kline was rejecting the confessional view on this point in his effort to respond to them.

Daniel C said...

To quote from the book:

"This designation of covenant merit reflects the ontological considerations which pertain to Adam's status It seeks to take into account the Creator-creature distinction and God's act of condescension to enter into covenant with Adam" (p. 53)

It seems to me that the authors say that we must understand "covenant merit" in light of the ontological distinction between the Creator and the creature. "Covenant merit" is always "condescended" merit, so therefore it is defined in light of ontological considerations.

I don't see why this manner of speech does not define "covenant merit" ontologically, because condescension is due to ontological considerations

Daniel C said...

Yes, Kline didn't like the language of 7.1. But with the exception of Kline, I don't see anyone promoting Formal Republication of any sort nowadays who deny WCF 7.1. You should not assume anyone who holds to Republication is a carbon copy of Kline.

Brandon said...

Yes, we must understand covenant merit in light of ontological merit. That's the whole point of 7.1. That does not mean, contrary to Murray, that covenant merit is not merit, but grace. But it does mean that Kline was wrong.

Not sure why you're bringing up carbon copies. The book was written against Kline, so I'm discussing Kline. And no, Kline did not just disagree with the language of 7.1. He disagreed with the concept of 7.1.

Daniel C said...

Well, if "covenant merit" can only be understood in relation to ontology, THEN my point is substantiated. So I don't see why you are protesting.

And no, that is not the point of 7.1. 7.1 is not speaking about "covenant merit," but about condescension being at the basis for God communicating via covenants.

Concerning "carbon copies," my point is that besides Kline, not many disagree with the substance of 7.1. So critique Kline all you wish, but it has no bearing on most of those who hold to formal republication even of the Klinean variety.