Sunday, 1 May 2016
The Call of Grace, by Norman Shepherd
Norman Shepherd, The Call of Grace: How the Covenant Illumines Salvation and Evangelism, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing
Reformed theologian Norman Shepherd was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary until 1981, when he was dismissed after a long controversy. He had been accused of denying or compromising the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The first half of this book is an exposition of Covenant Theology, explaining the place of the Biblical covenants in salvation history. The second half of the book applies the concept of covenant to several problems of praxis in Reformed theology. Shepherd argues that the Abrahamic Covenant was not unconditional, but had conditions that Abraham needed to fulfill. Likewise, the Gospel call of the Great Commission places duties and obligations on those who respond to it. While denying baptismal regeneration, he argues that baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant's blessings. He views this as very relevant to how the Gospel is preached in Reformed churches. He argues that it is unhelpful for Gospel preaching in churches to focus on regeneration, as only God can know who is truly regenerate. Instead, preachers should assume that those baptized are members of the covenant and they should be urged towards their obligations and duties under the covenant.
Regarding Catholicism, our author argues that the Catholic Church departed from an emphasis on grace at the Council of Trent by establishing salvation as a reward for good works. Catholics would of course reject his conclusion that the Council of Trent was a doctrinal departure for Catholics. Such a move is always used to try to claim the heritage of Saint Augustine and the Council of Orange, while rejecting the wicked Catholic Church. Unfortunately for such Protestants, the Church Fathers frequently speak about reward and merit. Shepherd criticizes the Catholic work/ merit paradigm, though he fails to point out that Catholic theology sees all good works as grounded in God's regenerating and enabling grace. The Council of Orange was never repudiated or Semi-Pelagianism affirmed by the Catholic Church. While criticizing Catholicism, Shepherd does see significant problems in Protestant Evangelicalism. He argues that Evangelicals have failed to find a proper place for the duties of repentance and obedience in their theology. He sees the answer to this problem in recovering a fuller concept of covenant.
While the views of Norman Shepherd are far from Catholic doctrine, he does open up avenues in this book that could provide areas for dialogue between Catholics and Reformed Evangelicals.