Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Covenant with Abraham.

A fresco said to be of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

The Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3.2) Through them Christ came, who is God over all, blessed for ever. We look now at the covenant with Abraham. According to Paul’s allegory (Gal. 4. 21-31) his fathering of a child (Ishmael) through Hagar, because of his impatience at the ‘delay’ in the fulfilment of God’s promise to him through Sarah, was ‘of the flesh’, because it flouted the covenantal conditions. Abraham’s fathering a child by Sarah at long last, Isaac, the covenant child, was according to the promise. Hence the ‘law’, which came to be central to the pursuit of deliverance in a merely fleshly way, follows in time the covenant of promise. The idea is that the law was wrested from its typical and schoolmasterish role to being made a scheme of works righteousness. 


Here I suggest that circumcision has to do with that strand of the promise to Abraham that pertains to the nation-state of Israel, covered by 'the land' of the Abrahamic covenant, temporary, and which once it became perverted into a scheme of ‘works righteousness’, was futile and doomed. Paul states in Galatians 5 that accepting circumcision as a necessity commits you to keeping the whole law as a means of salvation. ‘I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision [as obligatory for the Christian, and not as typifying the putting off of the flesh] that he is obligated to keep the whole law’. (5.2) Rather, what is required is what in his free grace the Lord gives, the circumcision of the heart. (Rom.1.29) The temporal order of things is important. Circumcision was instituted after the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, the law came after the promise, Moses came after Abraham.

In support of this, we note that In Colossians Paul characterises the gospel as a reception of circumcision as understood in the New Testament. ‘In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ….And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him.’ (2.11f.) So regeneration and incorporation into Christ, epitomised by dying and rising with Christ, is described as a state of fleshly uncircumcision transformed by a circumcising made without hands.

In Romans, Paul teaches that in the case of Abraham himself, he was circumcised after he had received faith that was counted for him as righteousness. Circumcision was a seal of he righteousness he had received. So that order shows, Paul says, that Abraham was the father both of those who not being circumcised, nevertheless believed, as well as those who are circumcised and are citizens of the state of Israel, and who also had Abraham’s faith. The promise was received by Abraham through the righteousness of faith.

Undoubtedly this makes a straight comparison with old and new difficult.  It makes impossible the use of the OT theocracy in the era of Jeremiah 31.31  as it has in fact been treated Christianity or Christendom in the West. And it makes shaky those who see in the baptism of infants a follow on OT Israelitish circumcision.

So there is rather muffled, a somewhat ambiguous muzziness about the covenants, that to Abraham,  and especially that to Moses, and an especial skill or insightfulness is needed to trace the ‘line’ of the covenant of grace, of faith in the promise to Abraham, that through his seed (singular) may all the nations be blessed. This is partly because what happened in fact in the history of Israel is read back into the terms of the covenants themselves. We are required us to discern that the promises tied up in the original Abrahamic covenant and given to him, are revealed to have a different ‘weight’. They are not different facets of one covenant, it turns out, but different facets of different covenants, only one of which fulfils the promise to Abraham fully, the others having had different fulfillments in the OT, and these others are done away with the coming of Christ.

The  centre of gravity

For one further piece of this pattern we follow early Baptist theologians such as Nehemiah Cox by going for help to John Owen (one of the signatories of the Savoy Declaration), to his great commentary on Hebrews, Ch.8. John Owen stresses that  the death of Christ is the death of the testator, without which the terms of the testament will remain inoperative, null and void. (Heb. 9,17)

There are different ways in which the NT affirms these differences. In Hebrews, one way is to stress the sacrifices made every year, in which sin is remembered every year in the atonement, brought to the minds of the people, if they had thought about is a merely typical act of atonement. It is impossible for the blood of beasts can take away sin. This is sharply contrasted with that sacrifice whose efficacy is such that those who are recipients of such atonement have sins and iniquities remembered no more. Heb 10.11f

But the difference which is surely the most striking is that by the time of the coming of Christ the terms of the new covenant of Jeremiah 31.31 are not yet fulfilled, not until Christ’s death and resurrection. He is the covenant head and testator. Without and until the death of the testator the deed is not done  (Hebrews chs 9, 10.). The centre of gravity of the covenant of grace is placed firmly in the messianic era. What enables a situation in which all shall be taught of God. (John 6.45).  and the sins of men and women, of Jew and Gentile, shall be remembered no more? The answer is the death of the testator of the covenant, which occurred in the death and resurrection of the testator, Christ, according to the Letter to the Hebrews.

So what are we to say about the Mosaic covenant? That it was a national covenant, establishing Israel as a theocratic nation redeemed from the bond-slavery of Egypt. Its literature was partly typological of the world of the Messiah, and the maledictions attached to failure to keep the law were a continuous ‘preaching of the law’ to prompt the people to trust in the mercy of God and not in their own supposed righteousness. And in the mercy of God a remnant, including some Gentiles, had faith in and hope for what was to come. They did not receive what was promised (Heb 11.39).  And the entire edifice was a protective carapace to keep the Abrahamic covenant from being corrupted by alien cultures until the time of the Messiah’s coming.  Jesus was born into what remained of that carapace , hence he was circumcised. But by his death and what it effected he ushered in an era in which ‘neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation’. (Gal. 6.15)

(In trying to get clear on these matters I have been helped by some of the writings on the covenants published by RBAP, particularly Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, ed. Richard A Barcellos (2014) and the literature cited therein. Especially, in this book, 'John Owen on the Mosaic Covenant' by Thomas Hicks. There is repetition in the book, and the of nuancing of positions, as well as inexact language, which, given the difficulty of encompassing all relevant biblical data in a 'doctrine of the covenants', is hard to justify.  Nevertheless, the trajectory must be the correct one. Sometimes one has the thought that there are data staring us in the face like loose jig-saw pieces, which (if we saw them for what they are), everything would be made much plainer. But maybe not.)