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HISTORICAL DOUBTS CONCERNING ONE "COVENANT OF GRACE"
by R. K. McGregor Wright, Th.M. Ph.D.
This three-part article is continued from:
Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" - Part One.
2) Covenant(s) of Grace?
The OT covenants as distinct from the New Covenant established by Christ are called "the Covenants of Promise" by Paul in Eph. 2:12, and "the Covenants" in Rom. 9:4. The Bible knows nothing textually about a unified "one covenant" in the OT development. In contrast with this, when the OT uses the term covenant in the singular it is either referring to the Mosaic Covenant, the Old Covenant which was abolished by the coming of the New, or to the Abrahamic Covenant which was added to and developed by the later (e.g. Davidic) covenants. The context always identifies whether the unconditional promises of God are being referred to, or the conditional elements of the Mosaic Covenant, "which covenant they broke" (Jer. 31:32).
Because all of God's movements of redemption towards us are acts of Grace, all the historic covenants in Scripture are "covenants of grace." But the Bible knows nothing of an overarching universal "Covenant of Grace" somehow underpinning and unifying all the historic covenants as if they were mere reflections or temporary manifestations or "administrations" of one unifying principle.
In particular, the relationship established by God with Adam in the Garden is never referred to as a "covenant" in Scripture, nor is the relationship between the Father and the Son in eternity past ever described in "covenantal" terms. The so-called "Adamic Covenant" or the "Covenant of Works" of traditional Covenant Theology is an artificial construction built up out of such verses as those which teach the cultural mandate. There are no literary grounds for thinking that Genesis 1-3 describes a covenant made with our first parents.
The same must be said of the promises described of God to the Son. It is hard to imagine anything less appropriate as a model for the relationship sustained between the infinite Persons of the Ontological Trinity than the idea of a covenant. Yet traditional Covenant Theology must have some point of origin for its speculative "one covenant of grace" idea, so they make it up out of teachings drawn from such very general ideas as the plan or purpose or counsels of God in eternity. But none of this is ever described in "covenantal" language in the Bible.
What unity does obtain between the several historical covenants of the Bible, is derived from such generalities as the concepts of promise, of grace, of mercy, of lovingkindness, etc., and simply means that the covenants often contain similar general subject matter and purposes. None of this justifies or requires a blurring of the specific differences between the covenants, or warrants the claim that there is "really" only one covenant. By the same syncretism, one could reason that the three divine Persons are "really" the same Person because similarities and common elements can be drawn from them, or that sanctification and justification are "really" the same things at base. But similarity is not identity, and even if it could be shown that the OT covenants amount to one single Old covenant, this would only serve to contrast the Old with the New; there would still be two covenants, not one. In any case, the Old Covenant of Hebrews is the Mosaic Covenant specifically, not the Noachic, Davidic, or Abrahamic covenants, which have never been abolished as the Mosaic was, "because of its weakness and uselessness" (or ineffectiveness, Heb 7:18).
From the Scriptures, a Covenant may be defined as an agreement initiated by God with Man, in which God makes promises and describes conditions under which his eternal purpose to save his people will develop. It may or may not be conditional at any point, may or may not have a "sign" designated and may be partially fulfilled already. It is always revealed at a specific time in history. Its precepts, promises, and conditions (if any) are clearly identified.
III. COVENANTALISM: PRESUPPOSITIONS AND METHODOLOGY
1) Abstract Methodology.
In order to establish the "one covenant idea, the method of abstraction is employed. This is an Aristotelian linguistic technique by which a universal concept is formed from particular cases. From the specific Biblical covenants, common features are selected as characteristics of the universal. The one covenant back behind everything has two parties, with promises, conditions, sanctions, blessings and curses, and finally a "sign." This abstract model is then imposed like a Platonic idea or standard upon such things as the relation between the Father and the Son in eternity past, or the relation of Adam and Eve to God before the Fall (i.e., the "covenant of works") and then after the Fall (i.e., the "covenant of grace"). This abstraction is then made the construct or framework for all further interpretation of the later covenants and is simply assumed to underlie them and give them their "covenantal" structure.
Today, modern scholarship (Kline, et al) has shown that the "covenantal structure" of the Pentateuch is borrowed from the Ancient Near Eastern cultures of Abraham's and Moses' day, and that the model was in fact the Hittite vassal or suzerainity treaties. In other words, the covenantalist speculative model is more the result of a Greek method of abstraction unknown to Scripture, while the Biblical covenants are modeled after a convenient cultural pattern among the surrounding nations which God himself selected in order to illustrate his redemptive relationship to his own people at particular moments of history. The Platonic "great Covenant in heaven" as it were, is then read back into situations to which it is both alien and irrelevant in order to force them into the model of "one covenant with successive administrations." The blanket term "covenantal" is then used at every opportunity to describe and characterize all relations between God and the various parts of his creation, including Man at every stage of the drama of redemption. Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology (pp.262-301) exhibits the method clearly.
2) Speculative Unity at the Expense of Biblical Diversity.
Once it is assumed that everything in the Bible must fit into the presupposition of "one eternal covenant of grace," this model can then he used to force such conclusions as those underlying the defense of Infant Baptism since Zwingli. It is concluded, for example, that "the people of God are one and indivisible in all ages," since this would follow from there being one saving covenant. Therefore the essential differences between the institutions of Israel as a nation under its constituent Mosaic Covenant and the Church constituted by the New Covenant in this age can be glossed over in the interests of proving that circumcision is replaced by baptism. One noticeable point of diversity ignored is that circumcision was only given to male children. Baptism should logically only be given to male children of believers if the parallel is to be maintained.
But the Bible knows of no such parallel and instead notes that the circumcision of the Old Covenant is replaced by circumcision of the heart under the New Covenant (Col. 2). The reason for Baptism being given to both males and females under the New Covenant is that it points to the reality of possessed faith as a fruit of regeneration, not to physical descent patrilinearly [lineal descent traced through the male line].
It is explicitly noted in Jeremiah 31:33-34 that the New Covenant will be "not like" the Old Covenant, in that it will be made with believers only, who "know the Lord." But in order to carry over convenient characteristics of the Old Covenant into the New to justify giving the "sign of the covenant" to babies, it is asserted that there is "really" only one covenant, that the "people of God" is "one in all ages." This also contradicts Peter in Acts 15 and Paul in Eph. 1:22-23, 2:11-16, 3:4-6, etc., who explain the Church of this age as being a new race called out of both Jews and Gentiles, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek.
Far from being a continuity of the Old Covenant, the new order replaces it with the concrete reality of which the former is the mere "shadow," which was "set aside because of its weakness and uselessness," "made obsolete and ready to disappear" (Heb. 7:18, 8:13). This is certainly not the language of a man who thought the New Covenant was basically a Revised Version of the Old!
The fact that elements of earlier covenants will come into fulfillment in the future while similar elements in the Mosaic covenant have been abolished, shows further that the various covenants are quite distinct in their contents and fulfillment, and that each has its own integrity quite apart from similarities to other covenants. Apart from this fact, the entire content of Ezekiel 40-48 is unaccountable, and must be allegorized away, as is done in Patrick Fairbaiurns commentary Ezekiel 40-48.
One is reminded of how, when the Darwinists were forced finally to admit that the Platypus actually existed, they were not thereby induced to give up evolutionism; they merely created a new taxonomical category for it, designed to contain the puzzling "special case," and blithely pressed on regardless. Chapters 40 to 48 of Ezekiel are "Playtypus passages" and their mere existence is a decisive refutation of those theories which try to ignore their future fulfillment. No amount of transformist trickery can show how the prophet could have imagined their application to the present Church age. Likewise with Zechariah 12 to 14, which teach explicitly that God's people will keep the Feast of Tabernacles from year to year after the second coming.
IV. THE COVENANTALIST USE OF SCRIPTURE
1) The Case of the Adamic Non-Covenant.
We have already noticed that there is no "Adamic Covenant" in the Bible, but that the One Covenant idea is imposed on the data of Genesis 1-3 like a cookie-cutter on dough. Difficulties include: what is the "sign" of the Adamic Covenant? Is it the Tree of Knowledge? The Tree of Life? Both? Neither? The animal coats God provided? Other things have also been suggested, none of them treated by Scripture as a covenantal sign. This is not too surprising, since no covenant is to be found in the context.
Incidentally, even if we agree with those who say that Hosea 6:7 should be translated "Like Adam, they (Israel) have transgressed the covenant," this does not prove that the Adamic covenant is the same as the Mosaic, surely. All it shows is that Adam's transgression or rebellion is repeated in later rebellions, including Israel's current covenant-breaking. The verse does not say "As Adam broke the one covenant of grace, so Israel broke the one covenant of grace." This would be the speculative conclusion from the assumption of a single unified covenant idea.
2) The Case of the Unconditional Abrahamic Elements.
That some of the elements of the covenant with Abraham were unconditional and therefore did not even require faith for their fulfillment is proved by the fact that they were fulfilled in the case of the descendents of Ishmael who was specifically excluded from the other blessings (Gen. 21:13,18, 25:12-18 etc.) In other words, the numerous Ishmaelites surrounding Israel today are in fact a sovereign fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham, despite their paganism (and later Islamic) beliefs, all incompatible with both Judaism with Christianity.
3) The Case of the Not-Very-New Covenant.
To assert that there is "really only one" covenant is to imply that the New Covenant is "really only" a modified edition of the Old. This leads the Theonomists to treat New Covenant Law as if it were merely Old Covenant Law, and then try to impose the old Law in all its detail upon the New Covenant people. But the essential supporting dynamic of New Covenant Law is our union with the Messiah in his death and resurrection, an impossibility before the Incarnation.
In the New Testament era, New Covenant Law is called the Royal Law (Jas. 2:8), the Law of Liberty (Jas. 1:25), the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), "the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:2) and "his commandments" (1John 2:3). New Covenant Law is simply the ethical content of Jesus' teaching and includes all that he taught through (say) Paul after his resurrection. According to Paul, it replaces the Old Testament Law (Rom. 7:9-11 and 8:2), which was unable to sanctify (Heb. 7:11-12,19, 8:6-7, 10:9-14), being "weak through the flesh" (Rom. 8:3). This issue was the whole point of Paul's outburst in Galatians, that the Law could not sanctify the Christian believer.
In sum, the Old Covenant Law said "This do and thou shalt live" and therefore failed (Gal. 3:12, Rom. 10:5, Lk. 10:28, all reflecting such verses as Leviticus 18:5). The New Covenant Law says "You are alive; therefore do" (Gal. 2:20, Rom. 8:12-13, 6:5-14, etc.) These are incompatible because they are opposite ethical principles.
4) Specific Verses Under The "One Covenant" Treatment.
Certain verses in the New Testament take on a peculiar importance for Paedobaptists [believers in infant baptism], since the greatest weakness by far for their position is the total absence of precept for or example of infant baptism in the NT text. But the Westminster Confession notes (1:6) that we are not only bound by whatever is expressly laid down for our instruction in Scripture, but also "by whatever by good and necessary consequence may be deduced" therefrom. Certain verses therefore become the basis for such deductions. We must always ask whether the inferences drawn from these verses may be reasonably thought of as "good and necessary (i.e., logically unavoidable) consequences" lest they not pass muster as "deductions" at all.
a) Acts 2:39
These verses contain the phrase "For the promise is unto you and to your children." This part of the verse is often repeated out of context in such a way as to give the impression that a promise has been made to the children of Christian believers. Exactly what this "promise" is supposed to consist of is usually left vague. Paedobaptists rarely quote the whole verse, for that does not suit their purpose, as we shall soon see. A look back at the context is instructive here. Peter has just told the Jews at Pentecost (v.38) that in response to their rejection of the Messiah, they should "Repent and be baptized." They will then "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Then he says "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call."
The "promise" clearly is the promised Holy Spirit. Far from indicating that something is promised to the children of believers particularly, the "children" here are simply the descendants standing before Peter, of the Jews to whom the promises of the Holy Spirit were first made. Even if the content of the promise here referred to was as broad as "salvation or covenant blessings" as the Paedobaptist wants to have it, the recipients are severely restricted to those descendants of the Jews plus anybody else "afar off," presumably meaning Gentiles like me, who are called of God.
This verse is one of those many predestinarian passages which show that God chooses and calls certain ones and that it is to these and to these alone that the promise of salvation is made. It is the calling of God that presages faith in Christ, not one's being born of believing parents (John 1:13). No rational deduction whatever can squeeze Infant Baptism out of this verse, however often the Paedobaptists quote it in the context of administering this rite to babes-in-arms. Naturally, (vv.41-42ff) only those who believed were baptized on that first Pentecost. Clearly the "children" of verse 39 are the "sons and daughters" of Joel 2:28 upon whom the promised Spirit was even then being poured out in at least partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. (See also Isa. 57:19, Joel 2:32).
The verse provides no evidence for any supposed "covenant promises" made to the parents or children of Christians. One can conclude from the passage that New Covenant blessings accrue to believers, and that "by good and necessary consequence" from the passage. One might say that verse 39 of Acts 2 supports Infant Baptism in the same way that Rev. 3:20 supports mass invitation in revival meetings. If a verse is repeated in a foreign and irrelevant practical context often enough, the verse will eventually be thought of as somehow supporting that context and practice.
b) Col 2:8-13
This chapter is a bastion of paedobaptism, and is supposed by many to contain a proof for it. Having said that we have been made complete in Christ, Paul adds that "in him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands in the putting off of the body of flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism. . . when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive together with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions."
Although Infant Baptism is not once referred to in the passage, it is claimed that the phrase "the circumcision of Christ" should be rendered "Christian circumcision" (e.g., J.O. Buswell), which is then assumed to be the baptism of the next verse. It is next suggested that just as circumcision is the "sign" of the Old Covenant, so baptism is the sign of the New Covenant and because circumcision was given to believers and their children, baptism must likewise be given to the children of believers also.
There are so many faults in this reasoning that the following barely scratches the surface of the difficulties involved:
1) If the term "circumcision of Christ" refers to baptism, it would still not follow that an infant could be a candidate, since the act involves our "putting off the body of the flesh." If for circumcision this meant removing the foreskin, how could a believer, much less a non-believing infant, be said to do so?
2) If the phrase about "putting off" is to be understood of the previous mention of literal circumcision (i.e. "a circumcision made not with hands in the removing of the flesh of the body") then the "Christian circumcision" is being contrasted with the original fleshly circumcision, not compared with it.
3) In any case, the "Christian circumcision" is stated to be "not with (human) hands" ---i.e., it is not a human act. But baptism is a human act, whether of a believer or an infant. Ergo, it is not the "Christian circumcision."
4) The context following clearly understands the "circumcision not made with hands" to be regeneration. In other words, circumcision as a shadow is replaced (i.e. "fulfilled" as in "ye are complete in him," v.10) by regeneration, not by baptism. There is not a line of the Bible to suggest that circumcision is replaced by baptism. The uniform testimony of the Word is that the shadow is fulfilled in the reality, the promise satisfied in the spiritual possession. The possession in this case is life in Christ, not baptism. Types are fulfilled by their corresponding realities, not by being replaced by another mere type.
5) If the phrase "circumcision of Christ" is identified with the phrase "having been buried with him in baptism," the passage is thereby made to teach baptismal regeneration. In fact, this equation is one of Catholicism's strongest exegetical "proofs" of that ancient heresy. But this is not required by the grammar.
6) If Paul intended to indicate that baptism replaces circumcision in the "new administration" of a perpetual "covenant of grace," the perfect place to say it would be in just such a context as this one in Col. 2. But neither here nor elsewhere in the NT is this argument used. The passage does seem to imply that circumcision and baptism both point to and illustrate the need for a real soul-cleansing and regeneration, but if this is true, still nothing can be necessarily deduced about whether all infants of believers should be given the rite, while the close connection Paul always maintains between baptism and faith (in this passage, as always) tells strongly against it.
c) 1Cor 7:14
"For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy."
The context of this statement is verses 10 to 13 in which Paul warns that marriages between believers and unbelievers may not be dissolved merely because one spouse is not a believer. Marriages are valid because marriage is a creation ordinance whose validity precedes conversion and is not invalidated by it. Otherwise (he notes), your children would be "unclean," i.e., illegitimate. On the contrary, he argues in verse 14, the legitimacy of the child is derived from the fact that only one Christian parent is enough to separate that marriage and its offspring to God's purposes whatever those purposes may be.
Paedobaptists often assume that "holy" must mean some kind of "covenant holiness," although in an unbeliever's case they cannot manage to explain what this might be, apart from proximity to gospel blessings. Nothing is said here about any covenant, but they simply read it into the passage because this is logically necessary in order to introduce the subject of Infant Baptism which is so conspicuously absent from the passage.
But even more curious results follow from the paedobaptist use of these verses. If the child of such a mixed marriage is "covenantally holy" and must therefore be baptized, the same argument holds true for both older unbelieving children and the unbelieving spouse as well. No rational argument can safely restrict the passage to infants. Seed is seed, surely, and "covenantal holiness" would necessarily include the unbelieving spouse.
The paedobaptist Albert Barnes was no doubt wise and candid when he warned his fellow Presbyterians in his famous Commentary on Acts, that the passage has no bearing on the support of Infant Baptism. The objections to such a use are "insuperable" he said, and he noted that neither the "covenant" or baptism appear in the passage. But if Paul believed in either of these ideas, this is once more the perfect time to bring them forward. He could have assured the believing spouse that his or her offspring are "covenant children" and that the "sign of the covenant" secures both their legitimacy and their "covenant holiness." Once more the silence is deafening; it is hard to believe that if Paul recognized Infant Baptism he would not have mentioned it here where he most needed it.
This three-part article is concluded at:
Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" - Part Three.
Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" © January 1996 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center.
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The above article was posted on this Web site September 3, 1999.
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