"How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism" by Norman Shepherd

David VanDrunen
Thursday, June 7th 2007
Mar/Apr 2002

Books are never written in a vacuum, and the context of both author and audience often determines the interest that a book generates and the reception it receives. In the case of Norman Shepherd's The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism, the context can hardly be ignored. Shepherd was involved in a long-running controversy from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s while he taught systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). His fidelity to the confessional Reformed theology that he had pledged to teach was called into question, especially regarding the doctrines of faith and works, justification and sanctification, and the covenants-no small matters. Though the controversy, which ended with Shepherd's dismissal from his professorial post and a tie vote on ecclesiastical charges levied against him in his presbytery, is now twenty years old, debate over what he allegedly taught has continued to stew in many Reformed circles in America. Intelligent discussion of the issues, however, has been hampered by a paucity of written evidence of what Shepherd really believed. Those interested in the controversy have often despaired of getting to the bottom of things. Therefore, the publication of The Call of Grace promised much more than a brief look at a few important issues of Christian faith and life. It also raised hopes for a window into a nasty controversy whose aftertaste still lingers.

As the subtitle indicates, Shepherd attempts to use the idea of the covenant-an idea that has been especially important in the Reformed theological tradition-to clarify certain latent tensions that he perceives to trouble not only the Christian world generally, but the Reformed world in particular. He is especially concerned about vacillation between legalism and antinomianism and between an emphasis upon God's sovereignty and that of human responsibility. In response, Shepherd uses his idea of the covenant to chart a course between these false dilemmas and thereby to affirm the absolute importance both of God's sovereign, unmerited grace and of the obligation of human beings to respond with obedience to this grace. The first part of the book addresses the doctrine of salvation and the second part tackles the doctrine and practice of evangelism. Central to Shepherd's case is his covenantal view of faith, a faith that he repeatedly defines as "living," "obedient," and "active." Such a faith, he argues, rests solely upon the sovereign grace of God for salvation and also entails the necessary response of obedience.

The almost unavoidable question for those aware of the Shepherd controversy was whether this book would vindicate him as a Reformed theologian or justify his critics instead. Despite the hope that The Call of Grace would provide a clear answer to this question, Shepherd appears to be not terribly concerned to present this work as an apologia for his own orthodoxy. Not only is he silent on the controversies of previous years, but he also persists in leaving ambiguous many of the important issues that provoked the controversies in the first place. This ambiguity constitutes a major difficulty in the book. Of course, it would not be fair to demand that Shepherd answer his critics-an author, after all, should be able to set his or her own agenda. However, the very subtitle of this work, "How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism," promises illumination of the doctrine of salvation, the very doctrine that caused Shepherd's troubles. He, then, implicitly promises clarification of his views on these important matters; the ambiguous material that he has produced, however, lends itself more to obfuscation than clarification.

Shepherd's repeated claim that faith must be "living," "obedient," and "active" lies at the heart of the ambiguity. The theologies of the Reformation insisted that faith indeed must be living but at the same time carefully distinguished it from obedience and good works. Faith was extraspective, a trust that looked outside of oneself and rested upon the good works of Christ that earned our salvation. Obedience consisted of the good works that one produced oneself, flowing from faith and only by God's grace. By faith we are saved; by obedience we are not. This distinction between faith on the one hand and obedience and good works on the other was not a human invention, but was jealously guarded by the Apostle Paul (e.g., Rom. 3:28, 4:5; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9).

Is this what Shepherd affirms when he speaks of an active, obedient, living faith? A phrase like "obedient faith" could refer simply to a faith that is always accompanied by obedience, and this would be wholly consistent with the theology of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions. However, could it not also refer to a faith that is itself obedience, or, to put it another way, to a faith that is conceived in such broad terms that it consists not only of a humble resting upon Christ and his work for salvation, but also of our obedience and good works that God demands of those who are in covenant with him? Shepherd never carefully defines what he means. Has he overturned the Reformation understanding of salvation by retaining the orthodox language ("by faith alone") while making good works an essential aspect of what faith is? If so, then if one wishes both to follow Shepherd and to use the word "faith" as it has been traditionally understood, one must affirm that we are saved by faith and works together.

There is even stronger evidence that when Shepherd says we are saved by a living and obedient faith, he means a different kind of faith from that of the Reformation tradition. He says that Christ himself has "living and active faith." Christ's faith, then, becomes the model for our own faith. What could be objectionable about this? Consider a standard Reformation definition of faith found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (XIV.2): "The principal acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life." Of course, it is nonsense to say that Christ accepted, received, and rested upon Christ for justification, sanctification, and eternal life. Christ did not need a mediator in whom to put his faith-he is the mediator. Therefore, when Shepherd refers to Christ himself as exhibiting the living and obedient faith that we are to emulate and by which we are saved, he obviously has a kind of "faith" in mind that is different from the "faith" of the confessional statements of the Reformation. The implications? We are saved by a faith whose principal acts are not accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ. Traditionally (and biblically), we affirm salvation to be by Christ's works (as the ground of justification) and through our faith (as the instrument or means of justification). In Shepherd's treatment, works and faith are bundled together, displayed first in Christ and then imitated by us.

Does the author really intend to diverge from the tradition and attempt something new? If not, he should clarify his views and express his fidelity to the common formulations of doctrine, especially in light of the quarter century of accusations against him. On the other hand, if he does intend to be so different, is it unreasonable to expect a forthright admission of his differences? It is his own tradition, and the tradition of most of his readers. Certainly one's spiritual heritage deserves a fair, honest, and respectful treatment. If one is to depart from his tradition and encourage his readers to do the same, one ought to have mastered that tradition first and be clear about the grounds for disagreement.

However, on the one point of traditional Reformed doctrine at which Shepherd's disagreement is explicit (the idea of the covenant of works, especially in regard to the Mosaic covenant), and on the one occasion when he briefly interacts with a specific Reformed theologian (Charles Hodge), Shepherd caricatures the tradition. The Reformed tradition has held consistently that the Old Testament saints were saved by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone. Some Reformed theologians have indeed spoken of the covenant of works (originally established with Adam) as being "republished" in the Mosaic covenant. But this republication served only the interests of the gospel. Negatively, it demonstrated to people their complete inability to satisfy the demands of God's Law by their own works. Positively, it pointed them to Jesus Christ, who could and would satisfy the demands of God's law in their place and reap for them all of the blessings promised upon obedience. At one point in the book, Shepherd appears to understand this historical fact. Nevertheless, he goes on to refute a phantom Reformed doctrine, namely, that the idea of the republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic covenant taught an alternative way of salvation, a salvation by one's own works. Not a difficult target for Shepherd's polemics, to be sure. But the Reformed tradition certainly has not taught any doctrine of the kind.

The author's rude handling of his own tradition raises questions about how he views other Christian traditions. Given the historical battles of the last half millennium, his perspective on the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is undoubtedly of interest. In the book's opening pages, Shepherd refers to the important debates of the past decade engendered by "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (ECT). He displays his own ecumenical interests when stating that a covenantal approach (such as his own) to issues of salvation offers a "glimmer of hope" for reconciling Protestants and Roman Catholics. He suggests that his own approach is a kind of meeting ground between Evangelicals and Catholics, neither of whom talk much, if at all, about the importance of the covenant for one's understanding of salvation. However, the problem, again, is that Shepherd wants to "illuminate" salvation without dealing with specifics. After raising the specter of ECT at the book's beginning, he states abruptly that he won't discuss the "nuances" of the arguments that have been made in its wake. What could be more important, however, than the nuances? Grace, faith, Christ, good works-all of the parties, Catholic as well as Protestant, affirm them. The differences are in the details. Questions such as the precise nature of saving faith and its relationship with good works may indeed be nuances, but they are nuances upon which people have staked their eternal destinies and have offered up their lives.

To note one other point very briefly, interestingly Shepherd does not interact with the recent, and very influential, New Perspective on Paul. In a book that seems to be written more for a popular than scholarly audience, this perhaps does not deserve much criticism. His views appear to this reviewer, however, to resemble the New Perspective in some important ways, and it would be informative to know if he would agree. Perhaps Shepherd taught a precursor to the New Perspective before the New Perspective as such was unveiled, but failed to receive proper credit for it.

In one sense, of course, Shepherd is correct: Covenant theology does illuminate salvation (and evangelism). The Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works and covenant of grace-in all its nuances-supported and en-riched the biblical distinc-tions between law and gospel and between faith and works. These distinctions have illuminated the hearts and gladdened the souls of countless Christians in the Reformation and beyond. Shepherd's covenant theology, with its persistent ambiguities, does not brighten this light, and, therefore, his book cannot be recommended.

Thursday, June 7th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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