I’m still working my way through the middle section of BOC (chs. 3-5), the chapters where Kline deals with the topic of baptism and circumcision as judicial ordeals. I’ve explained the three areas of continuity with KP. Now it’s time to turn to the areas of discontinuity, that is, the things that Kline would have wanted to revise in light of his mature thought.
(1) Description of the Abrahamic Covenant
The first thing in this section of BOC that Kline would have wanted to revise is his description of the Abrahamic Covenant as fundamentally or generically a law covenant, with a promise covenant core that applies only to the elect who experience the curse in Christ. It’s important to recall Kline’s earlier rule of thumb that you know a covenant is a law covenant whenever the vassal takes the oath, binding himself to obedience to the suzerain under threat of a curse. Since the Kline of BOC views circumcision as the vassal’s ratification oath, by this rule of thumb (as applied to Gen 17), the Abrahamic Covenant seems to be a law covenant.
BOC, pp. 40-41:
Since in this covenant [Gen 17] the Suzerain is also the divine Witness, the promissory obligations which Yahweh undertakes as Suzerain are also a blessing sanction which he will honor as the divine Witness when he beholds faithfulness in the covenant servant. Another element of the treaty pattern, viz., the sanctions, is thus included here among the stipulations. Curse sanction appears too, appended to the stipulation regarding circumcision (v. 14) … In short, the transaction recorded in Genesis 17 may be identified as a covenant of the vassal type, an administration of the lordship of the covenant Giver, binding his servant to himself in consecrated service under dual sanctions, blessing and curse.
BOC, p. 48:
The broader import of circumcision is determined by the specific nature of that covenant of which it is declared to be a sign, and especially, since circumcision is a sanction sign, by the peculiar nature of the judgment in which that covenant issues. As for the covenant, it was a law covenant, not a simple guarantee of blessing but an administration of the lordship of God, a covenant therefore which confronted the servant with dual sanctions, curse and blessing.
In KP, Kline shifts his position and argues that the ratification ceremony of the Abrahamic Covenant is recorded in Gen 15 (not Gen 17), when God took the self-maledictory oath on himself. Circumcision as revealed in Gen 17 is merely a “supplementary seal” added to the already-ratified Abrahamic Covenant. Therefore, on this view, the Abrahamic Covenant is fundamentally a covenant of grace, not a law covenant.
KP, p. 5:
It must be noted here that not all oaths of covenantal commitment function as ratification oaths. For example, the role played by the oath ritual of circumcision (Gen 17) is that of a supplementary seal added to the Abrahamic Covenant, which had been ratified by God’s oath on an earlier occasion (Gen 15).
In keeping with his later emphasis on Gen 15 (rather than 17) as the ratification ceremony, Kline argues that the Abrahamic Covenant is fundamentally equivalent to the gospel of grace. It is a pre-Messianic version of the New Covenant.
KP, pp. 294-95, 302:
God’s promise arrangement with Abraham is made synonymous with the gospel of grace … By its identification with the gospel of Jesus Christ the Abrahamic Covenant is seen to be a promissory anticipation of the new covenant … Considerable emphasis falls on the divine sovereignty in the revelation of God’s grace in the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant.
However, a couple of qualifications must be added.
First, this emphasis on the grace-character of the Abrahamic Covenant should not be taken as implying that all members of this covenant are elect. Membership in the Abrahamic Covenant is broader than the circle of election which is contained within it:
KP, pp. 306-7:
Not all who were of covenant status were children of the promise, chosen according to the purpose of grace. The eternal promise commitment to Abraham coincided not with the bounds of the community established by the Abrahamic Covenant but with the bounds of the Father’s commitment to the Son as second Adam in the prior covenant in heaven, the commitment to give him the elect people for whom he should become surety … Promise, in its true and final meaning, coincides with election and election is a narrower circle within the broader circle of the covenant as historically administered.
Second, although it is a covenant of grace, there are stipulations in the Abrahamic Covenant, like the command to “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen 17:1), as well as the necessity of circumcision (Gen 17:14). Kline agrees that obedience is necessary, but not on the basis of the works principle:
KP, pp. 319-20:
Under the Abrahamic Covenant human obedience was indispensable … Such indispensability of obedience did not, however, amount to the works principle. For in the Abrahamic Covenant, human obedience, though indispensable, did not function as the meritorious ground of blessing. That ground of the promised blessings was rather the obedience of Christ, in fulfillment of his eternal covenant with the Father. And man’s appropriation of salvation’s blessing was by faith …
Now, the obedience indispensable to reception of the ultimate blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant is the inevitable accompaniment of the faith through which the righteousness of God is appropriated. For it is included as a fruit of the same divine work of spiritual renewal from which springs faith … And because of this inevitable connection of obedience with faith, obedience functions with respect to the acquisition of the promises as a criterion of the validity of confessed faith. It is a confirmatory witness of the presence of the genuine faith which appropriates the promised gift of grace. Absence of obedience would betray absence of faith.
Thus, the Abrahamic Covenant is not a generic law covenant that happens to become a promise covenant for those who are elect. Rather, it is fundamentally a promise covenant. But this promise covenant is not equivalent to election, even though the salvation of the elect is its main purpose. The Abrahamic Covenant is not unconditional. It is conditional upon faith. And even obedience is necessary, not as the legal ground of receiving the blessings, but as the necessary fruit and evidence of the genuineness of one’s faith. The necessity of obedience is consistent with its character as a promise covenant, since the blessings are received by faith alone. Nevertheless, because the Abrahamic Covenant is conditional, and not all members of this covenant are elect, apostasy is possible.
Here are the summary points from the Kline of KP regarding the Abrahamic Covenant:
(1) The Abrahamic Covenant is not a law covenant but a promise covenant.
(2) Circumcision is a supplementary seal, not the formal ratification oath of the Abrahamic Covenant.
(3) The formal ratification oath of the Abrahamic Covenant is God’s self-maledictory oath in Gen 15.
(4) The Abrahamic Covenant is a promissory anticipation of the New Covenant.
(5) The Abrahamic Covenant is synonymous with the gospel of grace, the blessings of which are received by faith alone.
(6) The Abrahamic Covenant also demands obedience as the fruit of faith.
(7) The Abrahamic Covenant establishes a visible community marked out by circumcision, thus making its membership larger than the circle of election.