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A Neo-Evangelical Perspective: Daniel Fuller

In his Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? Daniel Fuller seeks to answer the law-gospel debate in the history of theology by suggesting that "the antithesis [of law and gospel] is only apparent and not real," and that both the Old and New Covenants are conditional.248 There are useful insights in his book, but Fuller leaves crucial questions unanswered and arrives at some conclusions that do considerable injustice to the clear teaching of Scripture.

Fuller has "problems" with the approach to law and gospel in both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology has historically held that law and gospel are distinct and that even the law is an administration of an alleged over-arching "covenant of grace."249 In reality, however, a kind of fusion of law and grace has dominated Covenant thought. Dispensationalism, on the other hand, has traditionally maintained the sharpest distinction between law and grace. From Fuller's perspective, however, both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology teach that "gracious revelations always appear alongside legal ones," an observation that has led him to conclude, "there is no longer any substantive difference between the two on the subject of law and gospel."250 Dispensationalist's "more recent explanations," Fuller observes, "entangle them in covenant theology's problems."251 He also notes that Covenant Theology has criticized Dispensationalism for finding "merit" in the Mosaic era, yet teaching that Adam would have merited blessing had he not fallen from righteousness under the "covenant of works."252

Fuller criticizes both Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology for teaching that law is conditional and grace is unconditional. He concludes that both law and gospel are conditional. "God's forgiveness is conditional not only on Christ's dying for our sins, but also on our repentance."253 For Fuller, therefore, "The enjoyment of grace [is] dependent on faith and good works."254 He concludes that in the final analysis, "all biblical promises (except those in the Noahic and Davidic covenants) are conditional."255

Fuller separates God's grace from its actualization when he alleges that mercy cannot be obtained unless sinners first fulfill certain "conditions," even though the New Testament teaches that God himself grants the necessary means to salvation, faith and repentance (Eph. 2:8-9; 2 Tim. 2:25). Fuller rejects the idea that faith is described as a gift from God. He asserts that such teaching "clashes with the fact that the pronoun 'this' [in Eph. 2:8-9] is neuter, whereas the preceding 'faith' is feminine in the Greek."256 But Robert Countess has shown exegetically in a paper delivered to the Evangelical Theological Society that "salvation with all its component parts is of God; even the faith with which a man subjectively appropriates the Gospel is bestowed by God."257 It remains for Fuller to explain, therefore, how men fulfill these "conditions." Do they (1) meet them in their own "free will," or, (2) does God grant them as a gift?

Even the Abrahamic Covenant is "conditional" in Fuller's view.258 But the story of the "cutting" of this covenant in Genesis 15 indicates that it was God alone who passed through the pieces of meat. It was therefore a covenant based on God's unilateral promise - not on any "conditions" imposed on Abraham. Meredith Kline has amply demonstrated that there are two kinds of covenants in the Ancient Near East and in Scripture. The Abrahamic covenant is promissory, while the Mosiac covenant is bilateral.259 This does not mean that there are no responsibilities placed on those in the covenant, but it does mean that God is committed to the success of the covenant arrangement.

Fuller misses the fact that there was indeed a legal foundation to the Mosaic covenant: "do this and live." It was a covenant that demanded absolute, unqualified obedience. Failure to walk in all of it would bring the curses of the covenant. This legal arrangement was in force until the Seed came (Gal. 3:17). Jesus was born "under law," took the curse due to us upon himself to release us from death, and fulfilled all of its righteous requirements to give us eternal life. The law said, "obey fully in order to be blessed" - a "condition" no sinner could meet (Gal. 3:11). The gospel says, "Jesus is the righteous one. Because you have already been blessed in him, obey his commands."

In Romans 10:5-8 and Galatians 3:10-12 Paul is not dealing with the law itself, according to Fuller, but with twisted interpretations advanced by the Pharisees and Judaizers.260 There were indeed perversions of the law by false teachers. In his book, however, Fuller fails to make an important distinction. The word "law" in the New Testament can refer to either the Mosaic code or to what we would call the Old Testament. The term "law," when referring to the legal contract delivered at Sinai is narrow and specific. In this sense it demands "do this and live" and is described by New Testament writers as "not of faith." But "law" as Old Testament literature is filled with truth about the person and work of Christ, faith, and the gospel (Rom. 1:2; 3:21). In this broader sense - by far the most frequent usage in the New Testament - "law" refers to a corpus of truth that ultimately taught that salvation was based on the unilateral promise to Abraham, "the just shall live by faith." Fuller, in fact, admits that if the word "law" in Galatians 3:18 refers to "revelatory law," and not to a "legalistic frame of mind . . . then the crucial thesis of [his] book would be invalid."261

Interestingly, Fuller does see that the problems at Galatia had to do with sanctification.262 "The Galatians had commenced the Christian life properly; the whole issue had to do with sanctification, as to how one progresses in the Christian life."263 Fuller rightly observes that "to the extent that one uses the law - understood as what a workman does for an employer - to aid in sanctification he is submitting to that which is contrary to faith."264 Thus,

Paul would be as angry with modern dispensationalism (and also covenant theology) as he was with the Galatian churches, who were at fault for wanting to add works to their faith . . . Calvin could never predicate sola fide to sanctification, as well as to justification, and thus he is guilty of the Galatian heresy.265

The most significant failing in Fuller's perspective is his failure to properly differentiate the Mosaic and New Covenants. Since he posits that all covenants are conditional (except the Noahic and Davidic), he cannot do justice to the superiority of the New Covenant. To say "the law and the gospel are one and the same"266 contradicts many Scriptures. Yet, Fuller dogmatically asserts that,

the only difference between the New Covenant and the old Mosaic covenant which it replaces is that people under the New Covenant are given a new heart which has the inclination . . . to want to keep God's law.267

But there are other differences Fuller overlooks. First, God states that Israel "broke" the Mosaic covenant (Jer. 31:32). But the action of God in giving a new heart ensures that the New Covenant will not be broken. This certainly raises questions about the "conditionality" Fuller imputes to the New Covenant. Second, the Old Covenant was incapable of effecting righteousness. But in the New Covenant God effects a reign of righteousness "written . . . not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Cor. 3:3). Third, the Old Covenant was national and required only birth for membership. Personal faith was not a requirement in order to be part of the covenant community. But in the New Covenant personal knowledge of God is the basis for covenant participation. Fourth, the Old Covenant could not make anyone perfect, and there was continual remembrance of sins. The New Covenant takes away sin and effects an eternal reconciliation with God.

What the law could not do, God did in the New Covenant. All of this seriously challenges Fuller's thesis that the New Covenant depends on people fulfilling conditions. The New Covenant emphasizes God's effectual initiative.

The New Testament answer to Fuller's dilemma is to couch the categories of law and grace in redemptive history, not in subjective considerations. John 1:17, for instance, clearly teaches a significant difference in law and grace. There was an administration of law that Israel was indeed "under." But in the Gospel age God's people are under an administration of grace and truth. The false teachers in Galatia were asking the believers to go back "under the law." Paul answers them by reviewing redemptive history, proving that salvation is based on the promise to Abraham, not on the temporary "do this and live" code added 430 years later. The Mosaic law-covenant is simply not the "same" as the Abrahamic promise-covenant. To go back under the "beggarly elements" of the Mosaic covenant is a fatal blow to the gospel (Gal. 4:8-10).


Footnotes:

248. Daniel Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 63, 103, l05.

249. Fuller, pp. 17, 20.

250. Fuller, p. 45, 49.

251. Fuller, p. 46.

252. Fuller, p. 34.

253. Fuller, p. 62.

254. Fuller, p. 63.

255. Fuller, p. 121, p. 109.

256. Fuller, pp. x, 109.

257. Robert Countess, "Thank God for the Genitive!," Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society, XXI:2, Sp, 1968, p. 121.

258. Fuller, pp. 137ff.

259. Meredith Kline, "Law Covenant," Westminster Theological Journal, XXVII:1, 1964, pp. 1-20.

260. Fuller, pp. 70, 80, 98.

261. Fuller, pp. 199-200.

262. Fuller, p. 114.

263. Fuller, p. 115.

264. Fuller, p. 117.

265. Fuller, pp. 116, 117.

266. Fuller, p. 103.

267. Fuller, pp. 143-144.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 64-67.


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