Andrew McGowan is a Reformed theologian who gives me a lot of hope. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him and hearing him preach on two occasions, and I’ve been trying my best to read everything that he writes. He is well grounded in the Reformed tradition, but he also sees the messiness of its history and the need to push forward in its thought. In his article “In Defence of ‘Headship Theology,’” McGowan describes the two schools that have formed within Reformed theology. The one, in his opinion, is primarily committed to law, while the other is committed to grace. He begins in the 18th century:
As the federal theology developed through the seventeenth century, tensions began to develop between those whose emphasis was on law and those whose emphasis was on grace. In Scotland this came to a head in the Marrow Controversy at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The two positions that collided in this dispute may be represented by considering two of the leading protagonists, Principal James Hadow of St. Andrews University and the Revd. Thomas Boston, Church of Scotland minister in Ettrick. (pg. 183 in The God of Covenant ed. Grant and Wilson)
McGowan explains how Boston’s thought centered on the person of Christ. With the doctrine of union with Christ at the forefront, Boston was able to point all men, indiscriminately, to salvation. His opponents protested that this was a violation of limited atonement and that he should first wait to see signs of election. In other words, his opponents started with the secret decree, whereas Boston started with the revealed salvation in Christ.
McGowan finds a similar dichotomy in the 20th century with the figures of John Murray and Meredith Kline. Of this he writes:
In the middle of the twentieth century no-one espoused the gracious federal theology of Thomas Boston more clearly than the late Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary. He was opposed, however, by his pupil (and later, his colleague), Meredith Kline, who wanted to emphasize the starkness of the contrast between law and grace. This debate has rumbled on below the surface since Murray died but has come to a head more recently with one of Kline’s disciples, Mark Karlberg, claiming that Westminster Theological Seminary, in following Murray, Norman Shepherd and Richard Gaffin, has abandoned the legacy of Clavinistic theology and has become Barthian! (185-186)
Now it is true that Karlberg is one of the more radical of Kline’s disciples. Kline has a few radical disciples though, and so we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss Karlberg as a representative. My OPC friends in California remember Lee Irons, and they tell me that a consistent outworking of Kline’s ethical formulation leads to some rather undesirable results. We can also take note of T. David Gordon’s willingness to refer to John Murray as the drunk uncle of Reformed theology.
Of course we do not have to merely point out slippery slopes within Kline’s legacy. McGowan maintains that the key issue is law and grace, and I believe that he is correct. McGowan quotes from Kline’s By Oath Consigned to show the priority which Kline gives to law over grace. He quotes Kline saying:
Historical priority belongs incontestably to law covenant since pre-redemptive covenant administration was of course strictly law administration without the element of guaranteed, inevitable blessings. By the same token promise covenant is disqualified from the outset as a systematic definition of covenant because it is obviously not comprehensive enough to embrace the pre-redemptive covenanted revelation. It remains, however, to show that law constitutes the ground structure of redemptive covenant administration and thus that a definition of covenant as generically law covenant would be applicable over the whole range of history as is necessary in a systematic theology of the covenant. (187)
So Kline says that law has a historical priority, and he plans on explaining how it constitutes “the ground structure” of redemptive history. Not too long ago, Michael Horton wrote that humans are “wired for law” and that law was our original state of being.
This also works its way into (or perhaps it works its way out of?) theology proper. Kline says that God the Father and God the Son exist in a suzerain-vassal treaty. This is how he understands the covenant of redemption, which is a covenant of works within the Godhead. Peter Leithart has explored how Cal Beisner and Fowler White work this concept out here. I am told that he also has an essay on this in A Faith That is Never Alone which I plan to get very soon.
And so this makes sense of the statement, that we recently heard, which said that God cannot forgive without impugning His justice. In order to solve this dilemma, the Father sends the Son to merit for the Elect, and thus He can then forgive the Elect without violating the law. This is a very different concept that Murray’s legacy. Following in that legacy is Andrew McGowan. He wants to preserve the graciousness of grace. He even says that we should not speak of law prior to the fall. While I have some disagreements with McGowan on why we should not do this, I am in fundamental agreement with his point. I think it is very Pauline, for the law was added because of transgressions (Romans 5:20; Galatians 3:19). The works-principle system would need to say the exact opposite. For them, grace was added.
I think that McGowan is also right about the two schools of theology that are competing in these disputes. I would perhaps want to take it further than even he does, seeing Boston as a transition figure, pulled in two directions. I think we need to do more with theology proper, and we must understand that grace is simply what God is. The patristics understood this, especially in their formulation of creation ex nihlio. Nature could not even exist if it were not for the constant preservation of grace. Ultimately Jesus Christ is the grace Who comes and fully unites to nature.
I sometimes make bold statements about the current debate in the Reformed Churches, however, I also try very hard to stress that the debate is actually much bigger than any of the parties might realize. “The gospel” probably is at stake, and indeed, so is our continuity with the larger catholic Christian tradition. Of course, one side is quite clear that such a connection is an undesirable thing. They view such a connection as compromise.
I view it as historical self-consciousness.
I’ll take my stand with men like McGowan. In doing so, I believe I’m taking my stand with the Church.