A Critique of Professor Norman Shepherd's Theology

By Norman Jones Delivered at a meeting of Reformed ministers and elders

at Mitchell, SD, January 13, 2003

 

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Although many are not aware of it, there is a firestorm brewing in the Reformed world. The issue around which battles have started to rage is - believe it or not - justification by faith. What is this faith by which we have been justified? There are those today who are not satisfied with the Heidelberg Catechism's definition of true faith in question 21 ("a certain knowledge" and "a hearty trust"). Nor do they believe the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith ALONE is the truth of Scripture (see H. C. 60, 61).

 

For them, faith means faithfulness - living according to the commands of God. Now such obedience is indeed important According to question 86, obedient living shows our thankfulness to God, allows him to be glorified through us, assures us of our faith, and also may win others to Christ. By contrast, those who are departing from basic Reformed doctrine see faith as meaning "faithfulness," or some activity, or some action of our own. This is the error we are currently encountering.

 

One of the foremost proponents of this theology of works is Professor Norman Shepherd. He has recently written a book, "The Call of Grace-How the Covenant Illuminates Salvation and Evangelism" (New Jersey, Presbyterian & Reformed, 2000) which has influenced many conservative Reformed people to question the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The teachings of Prof. Norman Shepherd have caused a serious division in the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian seminaries and denominations. Professor Shepherd's influence also split severely the so-called Christian Reconstruction movement.

 

Professor Shepherd's Career

 

Professor Shepherd taught Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for eighteen years, from 1963 to 1981. He was considered the understudy and successor to Prof. John Murray in his student days at Westminster. Prof. Shepherd was finally removed from the faculty after seven years of controversy and investigation by both the Seminary board and the Presbytery of Philadelphia of the OPC. An RCUS minister, Rev. Norman Hoeflinger, served on the Seminary board at that time and vigorously opposed Prof. Shepherd's views. After leaving the OPC, Shepherd served two pastorates in the CRC, retiring in 1998. Apparently he was an effective teacher, as some of his students espoused infant communion as a result of his views of the covenant. And it is reported that a few students may have drifted into the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches as a result of his views on justification.

 

A Review of Professor Shepherd's Book

 

Professor Shepherd's book is divided into two main parts:

Covenant Light on the Way of Salvation and Covenant Light on Evangelism.

 

The purpose of Shepherd's book is to make his clarifications of the covenant in order to enable the churches, both Roman Catholic and Evangelical, to overcome some of their theological differences.  Shepherd definitely has an ecumenical motivation in his development of covenant theology. Shepherd seeks to resolve the conflict between faith and works; he wants to address certain unresolved problems created by the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations with respect to the Law of God. He thinks the antithesis between Antinomianism and Legalism is still a problem for Reformed Theology and evangelism. He states, "The issue can be formulated by posing these questions: How do you preach grace without suggesting that it makes no difference what your lifestyle is like [antinomianism]? On the other hand, how do you preach repentance without calling into question salvation by grace apart from works? How do you insist on obedience without being legalistic?" (pages 8-9).

 

Part I: Covenant Light on the Way of Salvation 

 

The answer to these questions, says Shepherd, is a proper understanding of the covenant (p. 9). He defines the covenant of grace as follows: "We can describe a covenant as a divinely established relationship of union and communion between God and His people in the bonds of mutual love and faithfulness" (p. 12).

 

In examining the covenant of grace with its various administrations, Shepherd does not start with the Adamic Covenant, as do most Reformed theologians, but instead starts with the Abrahamic Covenant. He then considers the Mosaic Covenant and, finally, the New Covenant in Christ. This does not mean that he denies an Adamic Covenant, but apparently he does not think it is important enough to deal with it in his book.

 

A. The Abrahamic Covenant (p. 11f)

 

Shepherd emphasises that God's covenant with Abraham was entirely gracious, as He makes certain promises to Abraham. However, at the same time, he sees that the fulfillment of the covenant promises are conditioned on Abraham's obedience (p. 13f). The conditions are: 1) circumcision, 2) a living and active faith (Hebrews 11), 3) walking before the Lord blamelessly (Genesis 17:1-2). On this point, Shepherd alludes to James 2 and asserts, without argument, that Abraham was justified by what he did and not by faith alone (p. 16), 4) the history of Israel demonstrates that the promises of the covenant were granted only as the conditions of the covenant were met
(Hebrews 3:18-19), and 5) the ultimate proof of the conditional character of the Abrahamic covenant resides in Jesus Christ: "They (the Abrahamic promises) are fulfilled through the covenant loyalty and obedience of Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:14,16),"(p. 19). Shepherd says, "(Christ's) was a living and active obedient faith that took him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited to Him as righteousness" (p. 19).

 

A comment here may be useful. What Shepherd says about the Abrahamic Covenant is true. Abraham and all believers are saved by believing and acting upon the promises of God. He states correctly, "The blessings of the covenant are the gifts of God's free grace, and they are received by way of a living and active faith. Salvation is by grace through faith" (p. 22). Thus, the Abrahamic Covenant is neither antinomian nor legalistic. However, Shepherd ignores the deeper truth that the conditions of the covenant of grace are met by the Mediator Jesus Christ and by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, who is given only to the elect through Him. God Himself enables the elect to perform the conditions of the covenant through a God-given faith (Romans. 9,11; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 2.13). This is not discussed in Shepherd's treatment of the Abrahamic Covenant, and to my mind reveals a serious oversight in Shepherd's theology.

 

B. The Mosaic Covenant (p. 23f)

 

In my opinion, Shepherd's treatment of the Mosaic Covenant is good. He faults Charles Hodge, who saw the Mosaic Covenant as a republication of the Covenant of Works that God made with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Shepherd rightly condemns this interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant. He sees the Mosaic Covenant correctly as an administration of the covenant of grace in harmony with the Abrahamic Covenant and gives eight considerations to prove his point (p. 26f). He sees Christ as the heart of the Mosaic Covenant: "The whole sacrificial system as outlined in the Mosaic Covenant is one glorious promise concerning the redemptive work of Christ" (p. 31). This is good theology!

 

In this discussion, Shepherd is careful to emphasize that merit is never a factor in God's covenants with man. Here he does speak of the pre-fall Adamic Covenant, but emphasizes that it was not a "Covenant of Works" in the sense that Adam could earn merit before God through obedience (p. 25- 26). Shepherd does not deal with the post-fall covenant of grace, though he no doubt believes that God established it in Genesis 3:15. In his zeal to disclaim "merit theology" in the Bible [all good works are done apart from a legal reward from God the Judge, and are instead the expressions of love that a child has for his father], Shepherd startles us by saying that this principle applies also to the work of Jesus Christ! His work of redemption in obedience to His Father had no merit to it!

 

The New Covenant (p. 43f).

 

Like the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants, the New Covenant consists of both promise and obligation. The obligations of the New Covenant are 1) faith,  2) repentance, 3) obedience , and 4) perseverance (cf. the Book of Hebrews). Failure to meet these conditions will surely result in death for the false professor! (cf. Sermon on the Mount and all the warning passages). Shepherd next gives three reasons why the Mosaic covenant was abrogated in favor of grace and obligation. I find his reasons to be correct (p. 52f). The New Covenant does not favor either antinomianism or legalism.

 

With his exposition of the covenant of grace, Shepherd is hopeful that both Roman Catholic doctrine with its meritorious-works principle and Protestantism with its tendency toward antinomianism by a faulty understanding of James 2:4, Galatians 5:6 and Romans 2:7, can be brought closer together through a reexamination of the covenant of grace (p. 59f). Shepherd thinks Reformed theology is faced with a dilemma about the Gospel being both promise and obedience, both grace and faith (p. 62-63).

 

Part II: Covenant Light on Evangelism

 

Shepherd observes that as one looks at the evangelical churches, it is easy to conclude on the basis of numbers and impact that a pastor can be either a good evangelist (Arminian) or a good Calvinist (p. 67), but not both! Shepherd will seek to examine this problem and try to come up with some solutions.

 

In light of the fact that the Reformed faith (the Bible!) teaches sovereign grace and election and particular atonement, how does one preach "good news" indiscriminately? Further, how does one avoid "easy believism" in preaching the gospel of repentance and at the same time emphasize salvation by grace only?

 

Shepherd is probably correct when he accuses some Reformed preachers of holding intellectually to Calvinism and yet preaching an Arminian "gospel" in order to make it personal to their hearers. Shepherd says, "It may well be indicative of the fact that we have not used all of the resources of the Reformed faith to find satisfactory answers" (p. 70). He then proceeds to examine the Great Commission to see the relationship of election to regeneration and faith. He sees three approaches to evangelism: 1) "election-evangelism," 2) "regeneration-evangelism," and 3) "covenant-evangelism." Shepherd calls for some serious self-examination on the part of Reformed pastors. Maybe the reason we see such paucity of results from our Reformed preaching is that "we have failed to present the gospel from Reformed pulpits as genuinely good news for sinners, the good news of the grace of God for all people everywhere" (p. 71).

 

Covenant and the Great Commission (p. 73f)

 

The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), says Shepherd, must be understood against the background of the Abrahamic Covenant. Shepherd shows the correspondence between the promises made to Abraham and the promises made to the New Covenant Church, and the obligations of the two administrations of the covenant are compared. This implies that evangelistic methodology based on the Great Commission will "contrast with methodologies oriented to the doctrines of election and regeneration" (p. 77).

 

Covenant and Election (p. 79f)

 

Reformed theology teaches particularism. By this we mean that God never loved the sinful human race as a whole. Instead, by sovereign grace, he chose a specific group of individuals by name and showed them his redemptive love in Christ. For this reason, Christians evangelizing the lost cannot address each individual as one of God's elect. According to Shepherd, this makes the Gospel, as we preach it, seem more abstract and impersonal than does the Arminian gospel which tells each person that "Christ died for you." This dilemma can be avoided, says Shepherd, when evangelistic methodology is oriented to the Great Commission and God's gracious covenant rather than to election (p. 82). Shepherd appeals to John 3:16 as the gospel promise to everyone who hears it.

 

Shepherd teaches that the Reformed evangelist can and must preach to everyone on the basis of John 3:16, "Christ died to save you." The world is the world of human beings, blinded and crippled by Satan.  He died for people, for sinners, for you and for me. Looked at from the perspective of election, however, Shepherd would say this may or may not be true. However, he continues, looked at from the perspective of the covenant it is true (p. 85). Jesus has "atoned for the sins of the whole world" (p. 85). At this point Shepherd is teaching pure Arminianism! Shepherd continues to illustrate his contention that the doctrine of election can distort covenantal evangelism by examining Ephesians 1:1-14 and John 15:1-8. In the Ephesians passage, Shepherd asserts that Paul may "appear" to be addressing the Ephesians from the perspective of election (vs. 4), but careful attention to the language, however, shows that precisely the reverse is the case. "Paul looks at election from the perspective of covenant. He writes from the perspective of observable covenant reality and concludes from the visible faith and sanctity of the Ephesians that they are the elect of God.  He encourages them to think of themselves as elect"(p. 87).

 

One wonders what the problem is here! I think any Reformed minister would look at his congregation in these terms. Only the elect are true Christians, but no one has infallible knowledge as to whom they are.

 

The second passage is more problematic. How can this parable of The Vine and the Branches be squared with the doctrines of election and perseverance? The "outward" branches cannot bear fruit, and the true elect branches do not need the warning as they will persevere in fruit bearing anyway!

 

Shepherd argues that viewed from the point of view of election, the covenant is virtually dissolved into the idea of election" (p. 90). Apparently, Shepherd thinks we should ignore the subject of sovereign predestination when dealing with the warning passages. "Reformed methodology must be oriented to the doctrine of the covenant, rather than to the doctrine of election" (p. 91). Does his approach really do justice to the precious doctrine of election in the parable of the Vine and the Branches? I think not!

 

Covenant and Regeneration (p. 93f)

 

Shepherd correctly defines regeneration, but has the same criticism that he had with election in making it the starting point for evangelism. He objects that this is starting with the secret work of God, rather than the covenant with its promises and obligations (p. 93). At this point, Shepherd launches into an important discussion of the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of baptism "marks the point of conversion. Baptism is the moment when we see the transition from death to life and a person is saved" (p. 94). Shepherd, by saying this, is not espousing the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, but simply dealing with conversion from the perspective of the covenant. When a sinner confesses Christ and receives the sign and seal of the covenant, he is united to Christ in the only external manner of which we can be sure (p. 94). This is a covenantal judgment which avoids the problem of trying to discern whether one's parishioners or counselees are regenerate or not.

 

Shepherd sees another problem with regeneration evangelism. This is the attempt to get people "as close as possible" to the new birth through the application of the demands of the law or beseeching a sinner to ask God for a new heart, etc. This leads to tension for a Reformed pastor in dealing with people (p. 98). Problems of self-deception, works-righteousness and false assurance can surface when regeneration of the heart is made the focal point of conversion (p. 99).

 

In my opinion, Shepherd has put his finger on something of importance in his criticism of "regeneration evangelism" or experience-oriented evangelism. His comment is very telling: "[Great Commission evangelism] presents baptism as the transition point from death to life. The specific terms of the Great Commission describe the process of making disciples in terms of baptism and instruction in the commands of Christ. This means that evangelism does not end with regeneration, but continues as long as a person lives. Baptism marks the entrance into the kingdom of God and the beginning of the long training as kingdom subjects. According to the Great Commission, conversion without baptism is an anomaly. A sinner is not 'really converted' until he is baptized " (p. 100).

 

I think most Reformed ministers can relate to Shepherd's concerns. Shepherd points to the importance attached to baptism in the book of Acts (2:41; 8:36-38; 9:18; 16:33; 22:16) and other passages such as Romans
6:1-11, and Titus 3:5, etc. to prove his contention. I think he is correct, and that modern experience-oriented evangelism is wrong.

 

Shepherd concludes his book by showing the importance of good works. Faith, he says, "must not be isolated from obedience as if good works are a supplement to salvation or simply the evidence of salvation.  According to the Great Commission, however, they belong to the essence of salvation. All who have been baptized and are seeking in faith to do the will of God are to be regarded as Christian brothers and sisters" (p. 104).

 

With this statement, Shepherd is introducing the idea of works into the essence of salvation and this will be a major bone of contention. As Shepherd ends his book, he gives some good counsel concerning the proper procedure for church discipline based on covenantal membership in the church, and ends with a strong Reformed statement on sovereign grace and the free offer of the gospel (p. 105).

 

IV. My Evaluation

 

A.  As I consider Shepherd's book as a whole, I find some serious weaknesses along with some strengths. (We must try to treat our opponents fairly). The most serious errors which I find in Shepherd's theology in this book are:

 

1.     His failure to deal with the Adamic Covenant(s);

2.     His blasphemous view that our Lord's work as Mediator was non- meritorious before the Judgment of God;

3.     His Arminian view of preaching the gospel;

4.     His misuse of James 2:24; Rom. 2:13 and other verses to prove that justification is by both faith and "non-meritorous" works, a neo-Roman Catholic view of justification.

5.     5. His false charges against many aspects of Reformed theology.

 

B. Professor Cornelis Venema's Evaluation

 

Others, more perceptive than myself, find more error in The Call of Grace than I.   For example, Prof. Cornelis Venema of MARS has written a review in Vol. 13 (2002) of the "Mid-America Journal of Theology," pages 232-248. He finds the following problems with Shepherd's book:

 

1. Shepherd does not interact with Reformed theologians or Reformed confessions as he seeks to straighten out 450 years of Reformed theology   (Journal p. 241f).

2. Shepherd does not distinguish between the pre-fall covenant with Adam and subsequent administration of the covenant of grace. Venema says, "This flattening out or virtual identifying of the pre- and post-fall covenants has unavoidable and mischievous implications for our understanding of this way of salvation" (Journal, p. 242).

3. Shepherd identifies the way of salvation for Adam, Abraham, Christ and ourselves as the same-the way of faithfulness. Shepherd says, "His [Christ's] was a loving, active, and obedient faith that took Him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited to him as righteousness" (p. 19). This being the case, in Shepherd's view, there is never any concept of merit, in any of God's dealings with Adam, ourselves or even Christ! Venema says that "Shepherd leaves little room to describe Christ's work as Mediator of the Covenant in a way that honors the uniqueness, perfection and sufficiency of Christ's accomplishment for the salvation of His people"  (Journal p. 243f).

 

I agree with Venema. I think that denying infinite merit to the work of Christ is the most serious heretical charge that can be leveled against Prof. Shepherd. This robbing of Christ of a legal relationship to God as Judge and to God's Law and therefore His death as an atoning sacrifice for guilty sinners is to deny the very foundation of the gospel of salvation!

 

4. Though Shepherd studiously avoids the doctrine of justification by faith alone in this book, the direction of his covenant thinking points to a re-formulation of the historic Reformed doctrine of justification. Venema comments, "This kind of parallel between Christ's faith and ours would mean that the believer's inheritance in this covenant of grace finally depends upon his following Christ's example. Salvation and blessing are the non-meritorious, though earned (!) reward of the covenant for those who keep the covenant's conditions and stipulations" (Journal p. 244).

 

Shepherd says nothing about the perfect obedience of Christ as the ground of a sinner's justification/righteousness before God which is received by imputation through faith alone: See the Heidelberg Catechism questions 60 through 64 and Belgic Confession Articles 21-23. Venema states, Shepherd "fails to appreciate the classic Reformed conviction that Christ's work as Mediator of the covenant of grace constitutes the only ground for the believer's justification (and sanctification!) before God" (Journal p. 244).

 

5. Shepherd's repudiation of the concept of merit in the work of Christ undermines His repair of the Fall incurred by Adam. To deny the demerit of the guilt of sin in the case of Adam, and the infinite merit in the case of the Second Adam, is to destroy the parallel and comparison between Adam and Christ as explained by Paul in Romans 5. Venema comments, "Unlike Shepherd, who seems to think grace and justice, mercy and judicial satisfaction, are at odds, the Reformed view always insisted upon and assumed their harmony" (Journal p. 246).

 

6. Venema sees many problems implicit in Shepherd's formulations of election as it relates to the historical administration of the covenant. Shepherd thinks "we should preach the gospel solely in terms of the promises, obligations and sanctions of the covenant of grace. In this approach, we should regard all baptized members of the covenant as 'elect in Christ.' However, this 'election,' which Shepherd maintains can be directly known through the promise signified and sealed in baptism, may be lost." (Journal p. 246).

 

Such a view of election "can hardly be harmonised with [the teaching] found in the Canons of Dort" (Journal p. 247). "He has no answer for the question: If I can lose my election through covenant unfaithfulness, then why is the promise of my election in baptism so reassuring?" (Journal p. 247f).

 

Venema correctly observes that "the solution, for example, to the supposed problem of faith and works is not to confuse justification and sanctification.." (Journal p. 248). "The legacy of the Reformation is not an unresolved problem of antinomianism or legalism" as Shepherd falsely asserts (Journal p. 248). Rather, the legacy of the Reformation is nicely put in Question and Answer 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism.

 

Venema has done us a good service in putting his finger on the dangerous doctrines of Prof. Norman Shepherd. For this we thank our covenant God!

 

"Salvation [is] freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits"  (Question 21, Heidelberg Catechism).

 

"Praise the Saviour, Praise Him ever, Son of God, our Lord and King.  Praise the Spirit; Through Christ's merit, He  does us salvation bring."   --Pierre, SD


APPENDIX A

 

A Chronological Guide to One Specific Controversy

over the Theology of Rev. Norman Shepherd

A specific, animated controversy over Shepherd's views was initiated by a conference in Rev. Steve Wilkins' (PCA) church in Monroe, LA in January of 2002 at its annual pastors conference.

The theme of the conference was "God's Covenant." The speakers were J. Barack, Steve Schlissel, Steve Wilkins and Doug Wilson. Rev. Shepherd was scheduled to speak also, but was prevented from doing so by the death of his wife. On the basis of listening to the tapes of the speeches, Covenant Presbytery (Morecroft's denomination) issued some resolutions condemning the errors of the pro-Shepherd speakers. This, in turn, resulted in the following exchanges:

-         "Morecraft's Warpatb" (A. Sandlin, July J, 2002)

-         "Heresy Ad-hominen--A Response by the RPCUS" by Paul McDade.

-         "Sandlin's Sidetrack-A Response" by RPCUS Donald Crowe

-         "Letter to Andrew Sandlin" by Brian Absbire

-         "Cbrist's Church's Initial Response" (D. Wilson's Church in Moscow, ID)  July 4, 2002

-         "Messiab's Congregation Initial Response" (S. Scblissel's Church), July 10,2002

-         "Toward a Catholic Calvinism" by A. Sandlin, July 17, 2002

-         "Auburn Ave. Presbyterian Church's Response," July 18, 2002

-         The New Southern Presbvterian Review. published July 19,2000 by Morcraft's church

-         "Heresy or Hearsay" by John Carswell, August 1,2000

-         The Counsel of Cbalcedon magazine released to AAPC Speakers, Prior to Publication, Aug. 19,2002

-         Andrew Sandlin's Clarification R~arding His Artkle on N. Shepherd," Aug. 21, 2002

-         "Doug Wilson's Ten Questions for the RPCUS," Aug. 23, 2002

-         Christ's Church (Wilson's Church) Web Page devoted to the ongoing discussion re:the AAPC

-         Tbe Counsel of Cbalcedon Journal officially posted on the Web, Aug 23, 2002

-         Letter from RPCUS Covenant Presbyterian Moderator re the controversy, 9-5-2000

-         Response from Doug Wilson, Sept. 5, 2002

-         Personal Response from J. D. Martin (Clerk of Messiah's Consistory), Sept. 18,2002

-         Transcripts of AAPC Conference Posted, Sept. 10, 2002

-         Steve Schlissel's letter requesting transcripts be removed, Sept. 17,2002

-         Transcripts removed, Sept. 18,2002

-         Letter from Joe Morecraft to Steve Schlissel, Sept. 18,2002

[Source: E-mail document from the RPCUS]

 

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