This post will take up the issue of the covenant of works. TE Rayburn’s argument is many-faceted, and will require careful thought.
The first point he makes is that even someone denying the covenant of works is not out of accord with the fundamentals of the system of doctrine. As an example, he adduces John Murray. However, John Murray’s position on the Covenant of Works is not usually well-understood in these debates. Murray argues that the term “Covenant of Works” is infelicitous, because it does not provide for the elements of grace (see volume 2 of his works, p. 49), and because it is not so called in Scripture. However, the structure of the covenant of works is still present in Murray’s theology. Consider the following quotation (I have added emphasis in bold):
Analogy is drawn between Adam and Christ. They stand in unique relations to mankind. there is none before Adam-he is the first man. There is none between-Christ is the second man. There is none after Christ-he is the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:44-49). Here we have an embracive construction of human relationships. We know also that in Christ there is representative relationship and that obedience successfully completed has its issue in righteousness, justification, life for all he represents (1 Cor. 15:22). So a period of obedience successfully completed by Adam would have secured eternal life for all represented by him.
The Adamic administration is, therefore, construed as an administration in which God, by a special act of providence, established for man the provision whereby he might pass from the status of contingency to one of confirmed and indefectible holiness and blessedness, that is, from posse peccare and posse non peccare to non posse peccare. The way instituted was that of ‘an intensified and concentrated probation’ (the quotation is from Vos, LK), the alternative issues being dependent upon the issues of obedience or disobedience.
From this statement, taken in context, Murray is intending to set forth the parallel federal headship of Adam and Christ. From this, he comes to the conclusion that Christ’s righteousness results in justification for all He represents, and so it would have been with Adam. Of course, Murray goes on to delineate the elements of grace present in the Adamic administration, but do not miss this point: the basis for obtaining life under the Adamic administration was works, not grace. This is crucial for understanding the SJC’s decision, actually.
TE Rayburn claims that the SJC’s decision is wrong in claiming that TE Leithart’s view of the covenant of works and covenant of grace has no discontinuity. TE Rayburn brings forth as evidence TE Leithart’s view of covenantal headship changes (from Adam to Christ). TE Rayburn also adduces TE Leithart’s advocation of grace in the covenant of works, and claims that this is a commonplace in Reformed theology. This latter claim is correct. However, it misses the point at issue, which is this: on what basis would Adam have obtained eternal life? Works or faith? Not even Murray supports the latter position, but rather the former, that Adam would have obtained eternal life on the basis of his works. Of course, this is not condign, or even congruent merit, but merit improperly so-called, or pactum merit (for a discussion of these different kinds of merit, see this post). TE Rayburn fails to address this point. The reason that this is important is that the claim of the SJC is that TE Leithart does not have discontinuity in his theology of CoW/CoG when it comes to the basis for obtaining eternal life. That TE Leithart posits no discontinuity in the matter of soteriology is crystal clear in his letter, quoted by the SJC’s decision. TE Leithart says:
The differences between Adamic and post-lapsarian covenants are not at a “soteriological” level (ie., not a contrast of a “legal” versus a “gracious” covenant), but at the level of covenant administration.
I don’t think TE Leithart could be any clearer. The basis for having eternal life both before and after the fall would be by grace through faith, according to TE Leithart. This is not only contrary to chapter 7 of the standards, which posits a different basis for obtaining eternal life as one goes from the CoW to the CoG, but it is also contrary to Murray, whom TE Rayburn cites in support of TE Leithart’s position.
TE Rayburn also adduces Palmer Robertson in support of the point that the term “Covenant of Works” has limitations. Quite apart from the issue of whether Robertson would feel that this is a fair use of his name in defense of TE Leithart, it is fairly clear that the structure of the Covenant of Works according to the Westminster Standards is upheld by Palmer Robertson (see Christ of the Covenants, pp. 85ff). The question is not whether there are any traces of grace in the Covenant of Works. In other words, this is not an issue of Klinean views on merit versus other confessional Reformed views. Rather, it is the view of the basis of obtaining eternal life by Adam that is the proper view here. To close, I would like to remind us of what Wilhelmus a’Brakel said when he opened his discussion of the Covenant of Works:
Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works, will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, because they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the covenant of grace as well.