Sunday, December 23, 2012

Covenant Theology and Covenant Kids - Part II


The Covenant Sign in the Old Testament
It is in Genesis 17, that Scripture introduces us to the ancient practice of circumcision. “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you.” This is not the first or the last time the word אות is used to refer to the אוֹת בְּרִית.

אוֹת־הַבְּרִית is used in Gen. 9:12. God also gave Noah the rainbow as a sign of the covenant that he made with him. Moreover, we also see the Sabbath used as a sign between the Lord and Israel in Ex. 31:13 and Ezk. 20:12. The idea that God provides an outward sign to indicate his covenantal relationship appears on several occasions throughout redemptive history. This is a well-established and without controversy.
I should also note that God informed Abraham that any uncircumcised male would be cut off from his people because he has broken God’s covenant. (Gen. 17:14) The question enters concerning the female covenant members. What would be the sign they could carry? The answer must be viewed through the patriarchal structure of the culture. The Fathers and husbands of the daughters and wives stood as the representative head of the family and therefore, their sign was also the sign of the female(s) they represented. Circumcision was not a condition of the covenant, but rather, it was the sign that a covenant was in effect, established, in place. What we are looking for is an equivalent to the sign of the covenant in the NT, under the new covenant.

Baptism in the NT
Covenant theology holds that baptism is to the New Covenant what circumcision was to the Abrahamic covenant. It is a sign indicating God’s abiding covenantal relationship. My first question relates to the sufficiency of baptism to serve in such a role to begin with. For Noah, the sign of the rainbow would be continual. Hence, it served as a continual reminder that God would never again destroy the earth with water. The sign of the Sabbath was another covenant sign that represented a continual, on-going sign indicating a covenantal relationship was in place. Finally, circumcision was an act that permanently altered the appearance of a man. By its very nature, it also reflected the permanent nature of the sign of the covenant and the special, on-going covenantal relationship between God and His people. One has to ask if the sacrament of baptism has the same ability. Is baptism the sign of the new covenant or is it a picture of the person’s death to sin, burial with Christ, and resurrection to a newness of life? Perhaps it is both. To answer that question, we turn to the NT Scriptures.

“Rites of immersion were not uncommon in the world in which early Christianity developed. One type of symbolism with which they were frequently connected was that of purification: from sin, from destruction, from the profane sphere before entering an holy area, from something under a taboo, etc.”[1]
The idea of defilement and uncleanness was prevalent in the first century culture of Palestine. In the case of Christian baptism, it isn’t any one thing that has made one unclean or profane, but rather one’s entire existence apart from the Christian group, apart from Christ Himself, and hence without God. Perhaps this explains the connection between baptism, and the new birth, or entrance into Christ’s Church, His body. “Such cleansings can take place when one stands on the verge of a new state in life or is entering into a new community or upon a new phase of life, etc. Thus they can function as rites of initiation or as rites of passage. Depending on the way in which one regards the situation being left behind and the one being entered, such rites can be connected with ideas of a new birth, of a new life, or of salvation as contrasted to nothingness, chaos, death, or destruction.[2]

It would seem that NT baptism is more germane to the change in an individual than it is the sign of a covenant. The practice of Christian baptism is a command of the founder of Christianity, Jesus Christ Himself. Christians are commanded to be baptized as part of their public proclamation that they have left the old group, the world, behind and have entered a radical new sect known as the Christian group, the Christ-followers. Christ commanded His followers in Matt. 28:19 to preach the gospel, make disciples, and baptize converts throughout the world. Hence, Christian baptism is a momentous practice in the Christian community. Peter reinforces this command of Christ in Acts 2:38 when he commands his audience to repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.
Christian baptism follows an outward response to the gospel. In Acts 2:41, those who had received the words of Peter were baptized. Again, in Acts 8:12, when the city of Samaria received the word of God, they were baptized, women and men alike the text informs us. The Ethiopian Eunuch, after hearing Philip deliver the gospel, desired to be baptized and indeed he was baptized. (Acts 8:36-38) While I recognize the variant in v.37, the fact that the best Alexandrian witnesses omit it does little to detract from the fact that Christian baptism in fact does require Christian conversion and a public confession of faith in Jesus Christ. In essence, Christian baptism requires genuine faith. Even though the earliest manuscript that contains the verse is dated to the 6th century, the tradition of the Eunuch’s confession is attested as early as the second century, being quoted by Irenaeus in Against Heresies III.xii.8.

After his conversion and subsequent healing of blindness, Paul was immediately baptized by Ananias. (Acts 9:18) Peter baptized the gentile coverts of Cornelius’ house immediately after they received the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 10:48) Lydia was baptized after the Lord opened her heart to respond to the gospel. (Acts 16:15) The Jailer who expressed faith in Christ was immediately baptized along with his house. (Acts 16:33) The connection between faith and baptism emerges once more in Acts:18:8 where Crispus and his house believed as well as a number of Corinthians and were baptized. The final record of baptism in Acts is located in 19:5 where John’s disciples were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. All throughout the historical record of the NT Church, baptism followed quickly the outward sign of conversion to the Christian group.
The spiritual parallel of water baptism is our baptism into the body of Christ by His Spirit. Romans 6:4 states it clearly, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Water baptism is an official proclamation by the individual that they have been spiritually baptized into the body of Christ. They have died to the rudimentary elements of this fading world, and now live a new life devoted entirely to Christ. The believer is submerged into the watery grave, and raised again in a newness of life. This is the picture. The whole point seems to be that water baptism is a depiction of something that has already taken place in the heart. Paul says, “having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

In I Cor. 10:2, Paul provides the OT type for the NT antitype. It was not circumcision at all. According to Paul, the exodus was the type, which pointed to Christian baptism in the NT. The evens of Exodus 13-14, according to Paul are a picture of the NT sacrament of baptism. The OT presents the picture of baptism in the presence of God witnessed in the cloud and in the miracle of the parting of the sea as the Children of Israel passed through the waters. Just as the exodus was a baptism into Moses, who stood for the law and liberty in God, freedom from Egyptian bondage, so too does NT baptism depict the exodus of the new believer as they are delivered from sin to come under the law of Christ.

The question of the salvation of covenant children is a very serious one. If covenant theology is correct in its understanding of the covenantal arrangement, it follows that to leave children out of the equation and to deny their guaranteed salvation, and not to include them in Christian baptism as early as possible is a serious and grievous error. This is a matter of exceptional significance. The practical implications are far reaching if the covenant view is correct. It is fundamental to our Christian walk as believers in the Christian community and especially as parents.
There are a number of opportunities for the NT writers to have recorded the baptism of children with absolute clarity. Luke was clear when he recorded the baptism of women in Samaria. He stated clearly that both men and women were baptized. He went out of his way to record the baptism of Lydia, a female convert to Christ. He was clear when he informed Theophilus about the baptism of the Samaritan believers as well as the Gentiles. He even went out of his way to mention followers of John. Luke was a very precise historian who gave careful attention to the details. Yet, in all his records of the NT Church, Luke never once recorded the baptism of a child. It seems quite natural to me that the record in Acts 8 of the Samaritan baptism was a perfect opportunity for Luke to add children to the men and women being baptized. However, there is no mention of children in Luke’s record. Every use of household assumes the presence of children. This assumption has little to go on. Moreover, we do not build theology on assumptions and we certainly do not dogmatize views based off it. Since the belief that children of covenant parents are elect and guaranteed salvation is basic, it would seem to me that the doctrine of perspicuity would provide direction on the subject in the revelation of the NT. However, the record is far from clear. The lack of clarity itself serves as a devastating blow against the covenant argument. The baptism of children, according to covenant theology, must fall into the category of basic Christian praxis. Hence, basic Christian praxis is always, always treated with great clarity in the NT teachings.

In addition, nowhere in the NT is the Greek word σημεῖον used with διαθήκη to signify that there is a sign of the new covenant. However, the sign of the covenant was significant enough that in Noah’s case, and in Abraham’s case, and even in the case of Moses, God spells out clearly signs for those respective covenants: the rainbow, the Sabbath, and circumcision. Providing signs for a divine covenant is God’s prerogative. The point is that a sign is rudimentary, central, and unequivocal. There should be no room for reasonable dispute based on rigorous exegesis or interpretive principles. This is clearly not the case when we come to the subject of baptism standing in place of circumcision as the sign of the new covenant.
Suffer the Children to come to me

Covenant theologians are famous for using Jesus’ blessing of the little children to demonstrate that infants are or can be elect. Mark’s record (10:13-16) is probably the most detailed with Luke giving us the added detail that these children were babies (βρέφη). Jesus tells us that unless we receive the kingdom of God like a child, we will in no wise enter into it. This gives us a hint as to what godly faith and trust looks like. No one believes like a child believes. No one trusts quite like a child trusts. Is it any wonder that we are called children of God? Hence, we are called to believe and trust like little children. There is rich theological truth in these passages, but none that would support the idea of covenantal election. There is no relationship mentioned between the faith of the parent and that of the child. In other words, if we were to interpret this text as covenant theologians do, it would seem to point toward the salvation of all infants because Jesus did not bother to provide any qualifications or distinctions. The parents’ status is nowhere mentioned by any NT writer and thus, seems irrelevant. If the NT authors were writing with divine election of covenantal children in mind as they recorded this event, which is what covenant folks seem to believe, they certainly left much to the imagination. Again, we come back to the point of severe or extreme ambiguity.
I Cor. 7:14

The last piece of examination is the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:14. Paul writes, “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.” It is illegitimate exegesis to characterize this pericope as dealing with the question of children in spiritually mixed or even unmixed marriages. The subject of I Corinthians 7 is marital relations, not the election of covenant children. Moreover, the family is not coming into anywhere in this text. Paul begins the discussion talking about sexual relations and moves quickly into marital relations in the covenant community. The immediate context of this passage concerns divorce, not covenantal children.
The use of the perfect tense indicates a stative aspect in Paul’s thinking. The state of the unbelieving husband is sanctification. However, is this sanctification in terms of individual sanctification or should it be viewed as sanctification in the context of marriage? Whatever the meaning, one must consider the that this same sense extends to the children of such a relationship as well. “The perfect tense indicates that the unbeliever has become and will continue to be a part of the marriage unit on which God has his claim [EBC].”[3]

The context of this passage is within the area of the institution of marriage. It is best to understand this sanctification within the unit of the marriage, the husband wife relationship. God has set apart the unbelieving husband for the believing wife, and vice-versa. Therefore, the believing spouse has no cause to worry about separating from the unbelieving partner. There are no contamination fears with which to be concerned. The Corinthians were concerned with what defiled a person. Sexual relations with an unbelieving spouse do not defile the believing spouse.
Paul then argues that if the Corinthian believers were correct about such defilement, then it would mean their children are also defiled in the sense that they are outside of the bounds of the Christian community like any other unbelieving family. The idea is that your children, by nature of your covenantal relationship to Christ are indeed in an advantageous position. They are within the circle of the Christian community in the sense that they are surrounded by believers. They are in the presence of the word. They experience the gatherings of the Christian group. The holy are children in the same way that the unbelieving spouse is holy. Does it follow then that God promises to save the spouse of the believer because Paul uses such language to describe them? I do not think any covenant theologian would agree.



[1] Lars Hartman, "Baptism" In , in , vol. 1, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 583.
[2] Lars Hartman, "Baptism" In , in , vol. 1, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 583.
[3] Ronald Trail, An Exegetical Summary of 1 Corinthians 1–9 (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2008), 268.

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