Thursday, July 21, 2005

New Covenant 

When debating the subject of infant Baptism with Baptists, one of the issues that will often come up is the character of the new covenant. Baptists will frequently argue that the new covenant is made with believers alone. By ‘believers’ they generally refer to those who have arrived at a stage where they are able to articulate a clear confession of their faith. The new covenant era is an age in which the unbelief that generally characterized the individuals within the old covenant is superseded by a covenant in which all of the members are faithful. The ‘external religion’ of the old covenant is exchanged for the reality of ‘internal religion’, which we see in the new covenant. It is further claimed that one of the key changes from the old covenant to the new covenant is to be found in removal of the principle of covenant succession, seen in the old covenant practice of circumcision. In the new covenant, everyone is saved as an individual. Much could be written in response to these claims. They are quite tenuous when subjected to detailed scrutiny. However, within this post I would like to examine just a few of the issues that are raised, paying particular attention to some of the OT passages that are used in support of the Baptist position. I will say little, if anything, here that I haven’t said on many other occasions before. I was moved to post this because I haven’t posted much lately and have been asked questions on this subject by a number of people lately. I thought I might as well patch together some sent and unsent e-mails and unused material on my hard-drive to produce the following. At the outset, it is worth pointing out that, on certain issues, I have come to stand with the Baptists over against many Reformed paedobaptists. In particular, I do not believe that the NT practice of Baptism is to be understood primarily in the light of the OT practice of circumcision. There are some pretty significant discontinuities between the two practices, discontinuities that many Reformed theologians have not given sufficient attention to. In the new covenant everyone is brought in one by one, as individuals. Nevertheless, I see no reason why this admission need invalidate the Church’s practice of infant Baptism. As I have commented on this issue on other occasions, I will not write more on it here. Even though each of us is made a member of the new covenant individually, we are saved as a body, collectively. The Church is not merely the sum total of individual believers; it is a body — the body of Christ. The Church also has an inescapable institutional aspect to its character. No one can truly be a member of the new covenant apart from a baptizing community with elders that preaches the gospel and celebrates the Eucharist. This is often forgotten by evangelicals. Anyone who leaves a local church and refuses to join another church characterized by the marks listed above has apostatized from the Christian faith. Being a new covenant Christian is not reducible to a merely individual relationship with Jesus. Changing the Heart Passages such as Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 are frequently presented as evidence in favour of the Baptist position. For this reason I thought that it would be worthwhile making a few brief comments on the prophecies of the new covenant found in such places as Jeremiah 31. I do not pretend to provide detailed exegesis of any passage, just some brief comments. Perhaps I will attempt a more comprehensive treatment some day. It should be appreciated that there is an initial fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah 31 in the return of Israel from exile. Just as Solomon is not the complete fulfillment of the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7, so the restoration after exile is not the complete fulfillment of Jeremiah 31. However, as the text does refer to this as an initial fulfillment we should take it seriously. As James Jordan has observed, at the heart of the old covenant were the tablets of stone on which the Law was written. Israel’s ‘Heart of Stone’ was not merely their unbelief, but the tablets of the Law also. In Ezekiel 36:26, God promises that He will now put His Law in the hearts of His people and replace their Heart of Stone with a Heart of Flesh. The contrast is between inscription and incarnation. To the extent that the Law revealed, in a veiled form, the glory of God, it served only to bring Adamic humanity, which had fallen short of that glory, under condemnation. In the new covenant the glory of God will become embodied in a community. The new covenant promise of a changed heart is frequently misread to be a reference to individual regeneration. However, the new covenant promise focuses not so much upon a collection of individual hearts being changed, but the heart of the nation being changed. Certainly the changing of the heart of the nation will have a deep impact upon the hearts of individuals, but the relative priority must be maintained. The primary emphasis must be placed upon a radical change in the constitution of the people of God, rather than upon an increased occurrence of individual regeneration or something like that. This radical change will bring about the growth of a new principle of faithfulness in individual members of the people of God, but this is secondary. OT Israel was gathered around the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a heaven model and a model of Sinai. Israel was mostly around the base. Priests could ascend to different parts of the mountain. The glory of God dwelt between the cherubim in a realm inaccessible to the Israelite. Moses, whose face was transfigured, had to veil it. The Israelites never truly saw the glory of God. It was always veiled for them. The Law was cut from the stone that shielded Moses from God’s glory. The Law was the ‘heart of stone’ in the centre of the old covenant people. In the new covenant we have a transfigured humanity being formed. No longer is the glory of God and the Law ‘outside’ of us, as it was in the OT world model. Rather, the glory and Law of God dwell ‘inside’ us as the body of Christ. Following the work of Christ and the Day of Pentecost a new human temple has been formed. No longer does mankind dwell outside of and surrounding the temple where God’s glory dwells; now God’s temple is formed by the human flesh of Christ and His body. God’s indwelling His people is a peculiarly NT doctrine, although it is very clear that the OT is moving towards this throughout. It should also be recognized that, although each member of the body of Christ is a microcosm of the temple (John 7:37-38), such an indwelling of God only takes place within the context of the Church as the greater temple. The Holy Spirit comes to indwell us at Baptism, as we are brought to share in the blessing of Pentecost. Believers who have yet to be baptized are not indwelt by the Spirit (the case of Cornelius and his household was clearly an exceptional case, as can be seen from the reaction of Peter and those accompanying him). Readings of the promises of the new covenant that focus chiefly on an increased occurrence of individual regeneration badly miss the key point. In a number of places one could argue that the promise of a new heart only has secondary application to the faithfulness of the people; the primary force of the prophecy has to do with a far more glorious manner in which God is going to dwell in the midst of His people. Increased Faithfulness The old covenant was glorious but as long as the Law dwelt outside of flesh, it could not bring about the New Man. It merely resulted in the condemnation of the old Adamic humanity. We should expect increased faithfulness on the part of individual members of the people of God in the new covenant, given the greater outpouring of the Spirit. However, this is not that which is primarily in view when the Bible speaks about writing the Law on the heart. The emphasis is more on the formation of a new humanity constituted in the new faithful Man — Jesus Christ. The Church is summed up in Him, the One through whom Faith has come. Pietistic and ‘individual regenerationist’ readings seriously let us down here. The relationship of old covenant believers to God was inextricably bound up with the state of the nation. Old covenant believers did not think in terms of a private, individual relationship to be enjoyed with God, hermetically sealed off from the fortunes of the people of God as a whole. The relationship that they enjoyed with God was as those who shared in the relationship that Israel as a whole enjoyed with God. The Law given at Sinai was the covenant document, outlining the terms of the gracious relationship that Israel would enjoy with God. The Law should not be regarded primarily as an abstract collection of moral commandments for individuals; it was the charter for the life of Israel as a covenant body. The sacrificial worship of the Temple, the Law and the land were all aspects of the covenantal relationship that Israel as a people enjoyed with God. The old covenant was determined by unbelief, even though there were many faithful covenant members. The old covenant humanity was Adamic humanity and the Law simply led to condemnation and death. Although old covenant history was a history that was determined by disobedience and growing rebellion, in the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31, God is promising that He will break this vicious cycle of rebellion and exile and put an end to the problem of national apostasy once and for all. In the new order that will be established individuals will still perish for their iniquity, but there will be no more national apostasy, nor will the whole nation ever suffer exile again for the rebellion of unfaithful individuals (Jeremiah 31:29-30). Israel’s becoming a faithful nation is not inconsistent with the continuing sad reality of individual apostasy. Christ is the heart of the new Israel. The old Israel had a heart of stone. As the new Israel we have a heart of flesh — Jesus Christ Himself. The humanity of the new covenant is formed out of Christ’s own perfect and mature humanity. We live out of His new humanity as we are baptized into it, participate in it in the Lord’s Supper and are moulded in its shape by the preached Word. The humanity of the old covenant was determined by the principle of rebellion in Adam. The humanity of the new covenant is determined by the principle of faithfulness in Christ. We live out of His faithfulness. This is no works’ salvation. The OT gives us a history of a weak but gradually maturing form of faith (in the midst of a story that is far more characterized by unbelief). We see a summary of this story in such places as Hebrews 11. We see the OT believers gradually developing in patterns of faith that grow from generation to generation (compare the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph for an illustration of this). These patterns of faith are immature. However, from our new covenant perspective, we can see that these forms of faith are faltering prolepses of Christian faith (e.g. Romans 4:16-25; Hebrews 11:17-19). True ‘Christian’ faith is Christ’s own faith first and foremost and then our faith as we abide in Him and participate in His faith. The OT story of faith is taken up in Jesus Christ. He brings in mature Faith and perfects all that went before (e.g. Galatians 3:24-25; Hebrews 12:2). In Christ we share in the pattern of faith that He Himself worked out. In the Church we are given the mind of Christ so that we might live cruciform lives like His. Christians who live out of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ live out of a mature form of faith. This faith is a living principle (by the power of the Spirit) in the body of Christ that forms us all as a new humanity. We are conformed to Christ’s death as we are buried with Him in Baptism, take His body into us in the Supper and are moulded by the Word. All forms of faith that exist prior to Baptism and the engrafting into the body of Christ that this brings about are merely anticipatory of the Faith that has come in Christ and forms the life of the Church. Through His life, death and resurrection, Christ has established true and free reciprocity between God and man, which we enter into in our worship. Our worship does not create this reciprocity; it is founded upon it. The point of the new covenant is not the regeneration of detached individuals, who will then join a church to be fed in their private faith. Rather, the point of the new covenant is the bringing in of true Faith through the work of Jesus Christ. We are drawn into the life and destiny of Christ through Baptism and subsequent participation in the life of the Church formed at Pentecost. New covenant churches often fall far short of true faithfulness and may have unfaithful members. Nevertheless, they can still be genuine new covenant churches. Describing Roman Catholic churches as ‘new covenant churches’ does not constitute approval of all that takes place within them. I can also describe a baptized individual as a ‘new covenant Christian’, even though he may be unfaithful in important respects and may finally fall away. Although new covenant membership should lead to radically increased faithfulness on the part of new covenant churches and their members it does not always do so. As I have already pointed out, apostasy continues in the new covenant. There are those who have come to enjoy the new covenant knowledge of God and have fallen away (e.g. 2 Peter 2:20). We may well debate which is the more faithful: NT Corinth or Israel under some of her godly rulers. Whilst there is certainly a generally increased faithfulness on the part of individual members of the people of God in the new covenant, our primary focus must be upon Jesus Christ — the One who brings in true Faith — in whom the new covenant people are constituted. ‘They all shall know Me…’ In Jeremiah 31 God promises that He will establish Israel so that every level of society in the restored Israel will know Him (‘from the least to the greatest’). God will form them into a new humanity that will be faithful to the covenant. Within the restored Israel every level of society will have full access to God in a manner that far exceeds the access that they enjoyed before. God would put His Spirit upon all of His people and not just upon appointed rulers (cf. Numbers 11:29). The promise that all will know God has a number of dimensions. I believe that it refers primarily to the revelation of the mystery of God in the new covenant. Within the new covenant, these mysteries are no longer covered up (as they were in the Ark of the Covenant) but are opened up to all within the Church. In the old covenant the Israelites were not able to look at the glory of God. Moses’ face was covered; rather than gaze on the glory of God (reflected in the face of Moses) they were given the inscribed tablets instead. In the new covenant we are all given to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit. The old covenant age was an age of veils; the new covenant age is an age in which those veils are removed. Prior to the removing of the veils, the role of intermediaries was far more prominent. Certain people had higher degrees of access and were given the task of instructing others. In the new covenant this is no longer the case. Although we all mediate the one Gift of the Spirit to each other in the Church — through the exercise of our various Spiritual gifts — no one of us stands as an intermediary between God and others. Now every person in the Church shares in the knowledge of God by the gift of the Spirit. In God’s new temple, which we enter through Baptism, there are no more dividing partitions. In the new covenant, as every baptized Christian has access to the formerly hidden mysteries, we partake in a knowledge that no old covenant believer enjoyed in the same measure. Although we may not be able to satisfactorily articulate our knowledge of God, we are brought into God’s very own environment (as the Church is the realm where we are ‘in the Spirit’). We have been brought into God’s own Trinitarian communion by the work of Jesus Christ. Those who abide in such an environment will develop an intuitive grasp of the truth of God. They will, for example, be well able to sniff out heresy (1 John 2:20), even if they are unable to express exactly why they believe it to be heresy. In the Church we all enjoy the presence and glory of God. The veil has been removed. The veil is also removed from the text of Scripture. Truths that were formerly obscure become clear. How can such a claim be made when so many Christians make such a mess of interpreting the Bible? Perhaps it is worth distinguishing here between relatively benign and malign cases of misinterpretation. Those who have participated in the realm of the Spirit in the Church will not easily be led astray by anti-Trinitarianism, for example. Growing in the realm of the Spirit sensitizes us to good doctrine. In the Church we become disposed to think about God correctly. Such a process is seldom brought fully into the conscious realm, but it is real, nonetheless. Although a baptized and faithful Christian may unwittingly twist Bible verses to fit his doctrine, he will instinctively tend to hold a form of doctrine that approximates to the biblical tradition of the Church. On the other hand, the Bible becomes a book of dark and impenetrable mysteries for all who leave the Church. The Bible is not clear to understand for all of its readers. Those who read the Bible outside of the Church will generally be led into deep error by it. The veil that lies over the text is only taken away when one enters into the presence of God in the new temple. Only those within the Church are truly permitted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; those outside are hardened and misled. ‘Their sin I will remember no more…’ God promises that He will deal finally and climactically with the ongoing problem of Israel’s sin. The forgiveness of sins spoken of in this passage is not some privatized blessing. Rather, the ‘Forgiveness of Sins’ was God’s eschatological restoration of Israel as His people once again, bringing them out of slavery and restoring His rule amongst them. Israel was suffering as a nation because of her sins. God was promising that He would deal with the problem of Israel’s past unfaithfulness to the covenant once and for all. God’s dealing with Israel’s sins was the only manner in which Israel could be restored once again (cf. Isaiah 40:1-2). The problem of the old covenant was the old fallen humanity of Israel (Hebrews 8:7-8a). Israel was still in Adam and the old covenant was unable to deal with this. In fact, far from bringing blessing to Israel as it desired, the Torah found itself dealing death. A common problem when treating such passages as Jeremiah 31, is that they is not read on their own terms first and then later read in the light of such NT passages as Hebrews 8. Jeremiah 31 is addressed to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It is not primarily addressed to individuals. The passage promises to deal with the past unfaithfulness of the houses of Israel and Judah; the focus is not upon individuals detached from these nations. We should give these facts full weight before seeking to understand such passages as Hebrews 8. Israel had matured in unfaithfulness and rebellion and come under the curse of God in history. The Torah — the covenant document —brought down its curse upon persistently rebellious Israel. Although there were faithful individuals within Israel, as part of an unfaithful nation, they share in its curse of exile and faced covenantal death. Although we see an initial fulfillment of this passage in return from exile, I will not discuss that here. In Christ we see a greater fulfillment. Jesus comes as Israel’s representative Messiah, summing up the nation within Himself. On the cross of Calvary Jesus bears the curse of the Torah that has fallen upon the covenant people of Israel. In His death Christ dies bearing the penalty for the sins committed by the nation of Israel under the old covenant order (Hebrews 9:15). Following His death, Christ is raised in power by the Holy Spirit. This is the true demonstration of the eschatological ‘Forgiveness of Sins’. Resurrection is justification and vindication. In the new covenant it is impossible for the people of God ever to be exiled from God’s presence again. Christ has brought us into God’s very throne room. Individuals may fall away, but the problem of apostasy of the whole covenant people has been finally dealt with. For the new covenant people to totally fall away, Christ Himself would have to fall away for our existence as the restored Israel is found as we are found in Christ, Israel’s representative Messiah. As we abide in Christ by faith there is no possibility of coming under a curse. We are regarded by God as perfect in Him. All of the benefits of His maturity become ours. We can know continual forgiveness. We are given the house keys (the keys of the kingdom), full table rights (at the Lord’s Supper) and many other such things. Some Problems with Baptist Readings The following are some brief thoughts on what I see as the most immediate problems in the Reformed Baptist reading of such passages as Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8:— 1. I don’t believe that enough thought is given to the fact that the promises are made to unfaithful old covenant Israel. The covenantal dimensions of the passage seem to be treated poorly. I believe that regarding Christ as the heart of the new covenant humanity makes a whole lot more sense of the passage. As Christ is Israel’s representative Messiah the promises are truly fulfilled for Israel; it is Israel’s sin in particular that is dealt with by God at the cross (the sin of the world in general is also dealt with, but not in the same way as the sin of Israel). The Church is then the new Israel formed around Israel’s representative Messiah following His ascension. It is the visible Church in Christ (after Pentecost) that is the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 and not mere detached regenerated individuals. 2. The individualistic character of Baptist readings of Jeremiah 31 strikes me as quite unsatisfying a reading of the text. It tends to view redemptive history primarily from the perspective of the individual and misses much of the bigger picture. Jeremiah 31 promises that God will deal with the sin of a people as a whole and not just of detached individuals. Jeremiah 31 promises that God will establish a people that are faithful and not just a collection of detached individuals. I don’t believe that Baptists give enough attention to the ‘people-ness’ of the faithful people that God promises to establish and opt for far too individualistic an understanding of faith. 3. I see no reason why the infant seed of believers cannot be the recipients of all of the blessings spoken of in Jeremiah 31. The promised knowledge of God is not primarily intellectual knowledge. The infant child knows its mother, even though it may not yet be able to articulate its relationship with its mother. In a similar manner the infant children of believers are baptized into God’s house in which He dwells by the Holy Spirit and grow up in an environment where God speaks to them, feeds them and relates to them through others. This immediacy of this relationship to God constitutes ‘knowing’ in my books. The fact that infants brought up in the Church may one day fall away does not undermine the fact that, at least for some time, they truly knew the Lord. 4. Jeremiah 31 is a prophecy, not a passage dealing with the proper subjects of Baptism. Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 provide me with no compelling reason to argue against infant Baptism (quite the opposite!). There are plenty of arguments elsewhere in Scripture that support the practice. 5. Given the ‘people-ness’ of the restored Israel, I find it extremely hard to believe that infants would be excluded. Such an arrangement suggests a separation between nature and grace. Grace operates irrespective of and contrary to the patterns of creation. A new humanity in which the weakest and most dependent members of our human race are excluded is not much of a new humanity. It also seems to me that Baptists are establishing an unbiblical standard for true faith. The Bible seems to teach the reality of faith in infants of believers (e.g. Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6).

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