Appendix 7: Meredith G. Kline: Yes and No

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

In New Testament times there is no longer a simple coalescence of the authority structure of the covenant with that of any cultural unit.

Meredith G. Kline[1]

In my development of the structure of the Biblical covenant, I have particularly relied on Meredith G. Kline. Anyone who has read his essays on the covenant structure will notice immediately that I have adopted his outline of Deuteronomy. Clearly, my book is not a commentary on Deuteronomy. It is unlike his work in the Wycliffe Bible Commentary, an insightful study well worth meditating on.[2] Rather, I attempt to isolate the various covenantal “principles.”

Kline and I disagree about the applications and implications of each of the five points of the covenant. We disagree to such an extent that my book can legitimately be regarded as a rejection of Kline in the light of Kline. Kline rejects the continuing New Testament authority of the covenant structure that he discovered in the writings of Baltzer and Mendenhall. I, on the other hand, accept it.

The enigma in Kline appears most strikingly in The Structure of Biblical Authority. On the one hand, he argues that the theme of the covenant model of the suzerain treaties appears all through the Bible; hence, it is the structure of Biblical authority. On the other hand, he believes that Deuteronomy, as part of the Mosaic economy, is an “intrusion” into history.[3] It is therefore temporary. It cannot by his definition be extended into the New Testament, that is, unless his whole intrusionary premise evaporates. So, according to him, there are only bits and pieces of the structure in other places of the Bible, even the New Testament.

As a matter of fact, his references to other segments of the Scripture triggered me to look for the Deuteronomic structure in the New Testament. But he fails to see that the five-fold arrangement of Deuteronomy is a covenant model in all of its parts in all of the Bible. Thus, he is not able to come up with a precise covenant model for all of the Scripture. Is it a five-point model? Or is it a six-point model, with “depository arrangements” added?[4] He is not sure. I am not sure either; but I can be a lot more confident than he is. I find no six-point structure anywhere in the Bible; I see a five-point structure repeatedly.

Nevertheless, I am greatly indebted to him, as I am sure he is to Baltzer and Mendenhall, upon whom he largely depended for his insights. If he can make good use of the discoveries of a pair of theological liberals, I suppose I can make good use of the work of an amillennialist who rejects (or does nothing with) all five points of the covenant. Let me make myself clear by comparing his use of each of the five points with my use of them.


One major difference is my treatment of the first part of the covenant, as indicated by the word “transcendence.” This difference is easy to pinpoint. Kline does not discuss the topic; I make it the covenant’s fundamental point: the Creator-creature distinction. He does not develop the theme that the distinction between what God said and what Moses said points to the doctrine of transcendence. He says only this: ”Ancient suzerainty treaties began with a preamble in which the speaker, the one who was declaring his lordship and demanding the vassal’s allegiance, identified himself. The Deuteronomic preamble identifies the speaker as Moses (v. la), but Moses as the earthly, mediatorial representative of Yahweh (v. 3b), the heavenly suzerain and ultimate Lord of this covenant.”[5] That is all he says – no development, nothing. This is a good insight, as I have tried to show in my book, but in Kline’s book of 149 pages, there ought to have been more, if the author intended to do anything with the insight.


He does not relate the hierarchical structure of the Mosaic court system to the rebellion of Israel. Consequently, he misses the frame of reference for this second point. He does not call it hierarchy. He includes it as part of the historical prologue. He does not see why God begins the whole section with the hierarchical passage (Deut. 1:12-18). What is crucial is the court system of Israel. He does not ask or answer the question that I regard as crucial: Why does this historical

prologue begin with a presentation of Israel’s court system?

Again, my criticism is that he only briefly mentions part two of the covenant structure, and then he does nothing with it. He does not ask the obvious question concerning the law courts. Thus, his book makes no application of his insight. All he says is, “This reason for righteous administration of justice is at the same time a reminder of the theocratic nature of the Israelite kingdom, a reminder that God was the lord who was making covenant anew with them this day.”[6]

Why does he fail to develop this them? One obvious reason is that he believes that this Israelite theocratic kingdom and its laws represented an intrusion into the plan of God for the ages – something not carried over into the New Testament. He does not want New Testament judicial reminders “that God is the lord who is making covenant anew with us this day.” I do want such reminders.


Kline does not discuss the whole principle involved in Biblical ethics, namely, that there is an ethical cause-and-effect relationship. Kline does not believe that such a relationship is visible in history. Whatever cause-and-effect relationship there is, is known only to God. To mankind, such relationships supposedly are inscrutable. I think it is appropriate here to cite Gary North’s observations concerning Kline’s view of ethical cause and effect:

If you preach that biblical law produces “positive feedback,” both personally and culturally – that God rewards covenant-keepers and punishes covenant-breakers in history – then you are preaching a system of positive growth. You are preaching the progressive fulfillment dominion covenant. Only if you deny that there is any long-term sustainable relationship between external covenant-keeping and external success in life – a denial made explicit by Meredith G. Kline – can you escape from the postmillennial implications of biblical law.

North then observes in a footnote that

Kline says that any connection between blessings and covenant-keeping is, humanly speaking, random. “And meanwhile it [the common grace order] must run its course within the uncertainties of the mutually conditioning principles of common grace and common curse, prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious ways.”[7] Dr. Kline has obviously never considered just why it is that life insurance premiums and health insurance premiums are cheaper in Christian-influenced societies than in pagan societies. Apparently, the blessings of long life that are promised in the Bible are sufficiently non-random and “scrutable” that statisticians who advise insurance companies can detect statistically relevant differences between societies.[8]

It is precisely the cause-and-effect relationship between external covenant-keeping and external success, and external covenant-breaking and external judgment, that the Book of Deuteronomy’s ethics section is all about (Deut. 8). It is also what God’s judgments in history are all about (Deut. 28:1-14): sanctions.


Let Kline speak for himself (though he is not very clear at this point):

The kingdom of Israel was, of course, not another Caesar-kingdom but, uniquely, the kingdom of God institutionally present among the nations. Its earthly and cultural form was symbolic of the ultimate integration of culture and cult in the world of the consummation. The judicial infliction of cultural sanctions by its officers typified the final messianic judgment of men in the totality of their being as cultural creatures. This institutional symbolization of the final judgment and eternal kingdom disappeared from the earthly scene when the Old Covenant gave way to the New. In this age of the church, royal theocratic authority with its prerogative of imposing physical-cultural sanctions resides solely in Christ, the heavenly King. The judicial authority of the permanent special officers whom Christ has appointed to serve his church on earth is purely spiritual-cultic.[9]

Here is where Kline’s implicit antinomianism becomes explicit. What about Romans 13? What about the ministers of justice appointed by Christ to protect His Church, as well as to protect all men in their “non-cultic” activities? Paul writes of God’s appointed authorities, which includes (though is not limited to) civil magistrates:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation unto themselves (Rom. 13:1-2).

When Paul reminds us that rebels will receive condemnation, he is reminding us, using Kline’s words, that the kingdom’s “earthly and cultural form was symbolic of the ultimate consummation. The judicial infliction of cultural sanctions by its officers typified the final messianic judgment of men in the totality of their being as cultural creatures.” The State legitimately inflicts sanctions, acting as God’s appointed agent. These sanctions point directly to God as the final Judge. This did not end with the Old Testament. This is why Paul calls the civil authority a minister of God. “For he [the authority] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword for nothing; for he is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).

The problem is this: What is the nature of the sanctions in the New Testament age? Kline cannot show why or how something in the New Testament restricts to the Mosaic economy the dual sanctions of Deuteronomy 27-28. My question is simple: What principles govern God’s historical judgments in this New Testament era? Silence in this case is not golden. Kline does not see any New Testament civil applications. Specifically, he does not see the civil sanctions as being tied to a system of covenantal adoption. (He does make one important covenantal application of his insights regarding the dual sanctions of the covenant: the covenantal basis of New Testament infant baptism.)[10] It is his intrusionist thesis again – an outworking of his self-conscious rejection of Biblical law in the New Testament.


Continuity means continuity over time. But he has already said that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the covenant and historical sanctions in New Testament times, which he defines strictly as an era of “common grace.” So, if there are no personal cause-and-effect relationships, then there certainly are no “cultic” cultural relationships.

This means that there can be no earthly progress over time. One generation does not bequeath God-sanctioned blessings in a system of positive, long-term growth and development. There is no “positive feedback” economically, politically, or culturally. Remember his position: “And meanwhile it [the common grace order] must run its course within the uncertainties of the mutually conditioning principles of common grace and common curse, prosperity and adversity being experienced in a manner largely unpredictable because of the inscrutable sovereignty of the divine will that dispenses them in mysterious ways.”[11]

Inscrutable sovereignty in this case means “no growth, no judgments, and no predictability” in the historical working out of the kingdom of God. In short, no postmillennial hope. He is adamant about this, as he insisted in his ill-fated attempt to cross intellectual swords with Greg Bahnsen.[12]

I have already indicated that the Book of Revelation is divided into the five-point covenant model. It is highly significant for the proper use of Kline’s insights that David Chilton asked me in the fall of 1985, “Do you think that the Book of Revelation is divided into this five-point structure?” I thought that it was, and the two of us worked through the Revelation together. I highly recommend the reader to Chilton’s monumental book, The Days of Vengeance, in which he states the postmillennial position as eloquently as anyone ever has.


Kline wants to ignore the effects of the Gospel over time. He especially wants to destroy cause and effect in God’s judgments in history. His rejection of the New Testament validity of points two through five of the covenant is grounded in his hostility to Biblical law (#3), law courts governed by Biblical law (#2), the judgments of God in history based on Biblical law (#4), and the success of covenant-keeping societies over generations (#5).

For these reasons, I take issue with Kline’s work on the covenant. He vaguely – and I stress vaguely – refers to the five points of the covenant, but he refuses to draw any implications. Why? Because the only believable implications point directly to the theological system developed by his theological rivals, the “theonomic postmillennialists,” or Christian Reconstructionists. This is why I depend on Kline in order to reject Kline’s conclusions – or lack thereof.

Hence, “Meredith Kline: Yes and No.” Mostly “no.” In terms of New Testament Biblical social theory in general, completely “no.”

[1] Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 100.

[2] Rev. James B. Jordan informed me about Kline’s chapter back in the early 1980s.

[3] Meredith G. Kline, “The Intrusion and the Decalogue,” The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, [1972] 1978), pp. 154-71.

[4] Ibid., pp. 49-51.

[5] Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 50.

[6] Ibid., p. 53.

[7] Kline, “Comments on the Old-New Error,” Westminster Theological Journal, XLI (Fall 1978), p. 184.

[8] Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), p. 138.

[9] By Oath Consigned, pp. 100-1.

[10] Kline, By Oath Consigned, ch. 5.

[11] Kline, “Comments on the Old-New Error,” Westminster Theological Journal, XLI (Fall 1978), p. 184.

[12] “Along with the hermeneutical deficiencies of Chalcedon’s millennialism there is a fundamental theological problem that besets it. And here we come around again to Chalcedon’s confounding the biblical concepts of the holy and the common. As we have seen, Chalcedon’s brand of postmillennialism envisages as the climax of the millennium something more than a high degree of success in the church’s evangelistic mission to the world. An additional millennial prospect (one which they particularly relish) is that of a material prosperity and a world-wide eminence and dominance of Christ’s established kingdom on earth, with a divinely enforced submission of the nations to the world government of the Christocracy…. The insuperable theological objection to any and every such chiliastic construction is that it entails the assumption of a premature eclipse of the order of common grace…. In thus postulating the termination of the common grace order before the consummation, Chalcedon’s postmillennialism in effect attributes unfaithfulness to God, for God committed himself in his ancient covenant to maintain that order for as long as the earth endures.” Meredith G. Kline, “Comments on an Old-New Error,” pp. 183, 184. Cited by North, Dominion and Common Grace, p. 90.