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My Tribute to Meredith G. Kline (1922-2007)

Lee Irons

On Friday night, April 13, 2007, Meredith went to be with the Lord. I’m happy for him, because I know in recent years, as he battled his frailty and various illnesses, that he was longing more and more to come to the end of his pilgrimage and enter glory. He wrote and taught and thought so much about heaven, about the glory of God that was indoxated in the creation of God’s original heavenly dwelling place, and about the eschatological fullness of that glory in the renewed creation. His last book, God, Heaven, and Har-Magedon, was devoted to shedding new light on the question, “What is heaven?” So it is fitting that he is now there, beholding the glory of Christ, although still waiting for the fullness of that glory in the New Jerusalem. One of the things I will look forward to when we meet again in the heavenly glory is to see him with that twinkle in his eye and to hear him say with giddy, child-like glee, “Isn’t it great? This is what I was telling you guys about! And it’s so much better than I imagined!” It will be a joy to watch him imbibing to his heart’s content the reality of that which he (and his wife with her paintings) was able only to sketch for the church with his theological scholarship.

Of all of my seminary professors, Meredith was my favorite. It was a special occasion every winter when the rumor spread around the campus of Westminster Seminary in Escondido that “Dr. Kline” had taken up residence in the Eagle’s Point Apartments on Grand Avenue not far from the seminary. He and his wife used to leave the cold east coast and come out to California for the winter quarter every year. It was an amazing tribute to his commitment that he did so even well into his 70s, when most men would be glad to be free of teaching and would begin to take their ease in retirement. Not so with Meredith. He and his wife believed he had something valuable to contribute to us uncultured heathens out in California. I’m so thankful that he made that trek every year.

My first class with him was Pentateuch in the winter of 1993. At the time I had just emerged from my dispensational upbringing, and so it was particularly helpful to have him explain the Scriptures in a way that made sense. Sitting in his class that quarter, I felt as if the Bible made sense for the very first time. The key was his chalkboard diagrams. (Yes, we used chalkboards not whiteboards back then.) It was as if he couldn’t think without simultaneously drawing and/or scribbling something on the chalkboard. As the class progressed, the board was so filled with a scramble of common grace lines, theocratic boxes, and eschatological intrusion arrows, that he had to erase little squares at a time to make room for new flashes of chalky brilliance. I can still remember the pounding sound of his blackboard poetry. By the end of each class, he was covered with dust, his chalk-holding hand leprous with the radiance of the epiphanic glory of God. It was like the rabbis who said that the Torah “defiles the hands.” Such is the danger of bodily contact with the holy architectural plans of the eschatological kingdom.

Dr. Kline influenced my theology in such a basic and global way, it is misleading to list off the things I learned, but I will mention the two most important things I learned from him.

First, as a recovering dispensationalist, I learned from him the big picture that made sense of the Bible as a whole. He explained the flow of covenant history from creation, to the fall, to the promise, followed by the two-level fulfillment of the promise, first typologically in Israel, then anti-typically in Christ. Kline also explained so many of the strange things about the Old Testament – like the destruction of the Canaanites, the scary laws of the Israelite theocracy, and why the exile had to happen. His understanding of the Mosaic covenant as a republication on the typical layer of the Adamic covenant of works was for me the linchpin that held everything together. After being raised with a dispensational understanding, he gave me back my Bible. He took all of the weird things in the Old Testament and explained them in a unified, systematic way so that the whole plot of the Bible was seen as leading on a single track to its climactic, eschatological fulfillment in Christ.

Second, he explained the gospel of justification by faith alone in a way that offered tremendous assurance. Taking up Paul’s theology of the two Adams in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Kline explained the gospel on the basis of the federal theology of the Creator’s covenant of works with the first Adam and the Father’s covenant of works with the second Adam. Kline also taught that heaven must be earned, but that by Christ’s merit heaven has been earned for his people. This understanding of the gospel is precious to me because it provides the assurance that in Christ we are “beyond probation,” since the right to heaven has been won and cannot be revoked. Christian obedience is merely the evidence of the genuineness of our faith, but not in any way the condition or means of receiving the right to heaven. There was a polemical context to Kline’s teaching on justification, but the point was his love for Christ. He wanted to make clear that there was a direct connection between the meritorious work of Christ as the last Adam and the believer’s entrance into heaven. There is nothing in between. Not even the believer’s Spirit-wrought sanctification or our perseverance in good works. Meredith wanted to say that Christ’s obedience unto death is the immediate cause and ground of our receiving the eternal inheritance. He wanted the sheep to have this full assurance by looking not to themselves or their own imperfect obedience, but to Christ and Christ alone as the all-sufficient guarantor of the new covenant. It was clear to me, as he taught this, that this understanding of the gospel was not merely a doctrine but that he had a personal relationship with Christ, and that Christ was the anchor of his soul lodged within the veil on the other side of glory, thus guaranteeing that he too would be brought safely there in due time.

Let me share some of my favorite memories. One time my friend Bill Baldwin and I were talking with our professor about some postmillennial theonomists who derided our preoccupation with heaven as “pie in the sky.” Meredith got this radiant look on his face, looked heavenward with his hands in front of his mouth grabbing for some unseen substance dropping from the sky and said, “Give me more of that pie!” It brings me great comfort to know that he is already beginning to enjoy that pie now in heaven with his Lord and Savior, and that in the resurrection he will enjoy it in fullness.

My wife Misty and I experienced a painful miscarriage when we were seminary students. In our sorrow we were looking for answers, so we went around to the various seminary professors to ask whether our baby would be in heaven. They all said Yes, of course, and offered various theological explanations. But Meredith’s answer was the best and the simplest. When I asked him why he was so sure that our baby would be in heaven, he said, “Because God is a good heavenly Father. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s knowledge.” That was it! No complex covenant theology here. Just simple, child-like trust in the heavenly Father, as Jesus taught.

It was amazing to me how Meredith with all of his profound understanding of theology combined it with such a joyful confidence in God. I will conclude with this final anecdote. One time I expressed to him that I was fretting about the state of the church with all of the confusion going around about justification. He said, “God will take care of his own truth.”