Sociology and the New Covenant – 2

or Shekinah People

“The solution here is not, as Calvin believed, to dress the New Covenant’s ethical maturity in the puerile clothing of paedobaptism.”

In The Failure of the American Baptist Culture [PDF], James Jordan, Ray Sutton and others expose the rot at the heart of baptistic theology, which is inherently man-centred. The authors call us from a view of salvation in isolation to a wider vision of the meaning of baptism, which signifies the broader realities of the Covenant of Grace. I learned a great deal about history and Reformed theology, and thoroughly recommend it to you. In my view, however, they don’t go far enough. A call to understand the vital historical connection between circumcision and baptism certainly deals with the errors of the Anabaptists, but when rightly understood, the progressive nature of revelation also exposes the use of paedobaptism as a connection with the Old Covenant as entirely bogus.

Fractal Nature

We have discussed the process of maturity as consisting of physical, social and ethical. This occurs at many levels. In each case, one is given being, then one is given authority by Covenant (a legal and relational contract, consisting of Law and Love), and finally one is called to nurture and protect those in one’s care. We see this threefold pattern in the Garden of Eden. Then we see it multiplied (as a 3 x 3) in the three domains of Garden, Land and World. Each domain has a “horizontal” progression and a “vertical” one. [1]

In the chapter “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism,” Peter Lillback notes that Calvin rejected credobaptism because it classified circumcision and baptism as “carnal” and “spiritual” signs respectively.

Since this rejection demanded that the Old Testament covenant be made into a material or carnal covenant – circumcision was not a spiritual symbol – several important doctrines associated with the covenant were as a result severely injured. If the Anabaptist basis for rejecting infant baptism prevailed, then there would be no Old Testament progressive revelation and preparation for the Messiah. Since the Old Testament covenant was only material, Christ would be never present before them, and so God would in essence have mocked them by withholding salvation from them. Just as serious, there would have been no Old Testament counterpart of the grace of justification which was founded upon Christ. If such a carnal covenant were correct, Paul’s argument on the example of Israel’s punishment for disobedience supported by the equality of sacraments of the Old and New Covenants would be utterly in error. And every bit as unthinkable, the Word of God present in the covenant formula would be severed from eternal life. It is because of these resulting errors that Calvin can speak of infant baptism as a safeguard of Scripture and doctrine. If it is taught, the continuity of Scripture in the one divine covenant of grace is affirmed. For Calvin, there is one covenant which is constant throughout Scripture. To reject infant baptism is to deny the unity of the covenant and thus to result in such confusion. (p. 193) [2]

How can I maintain that, even before the Fall, nature and “supernature” were distinct elements and avoid the severance of the Old Covenant from the New? It seems to me that the problem lies in a failure to understand organic growth. At every point in my life, I am complete, and yet, throughout the process of life, there is progress, there is continuity. A male is a boy, an adolescent and then a man. But a man is not a boy, and a boy is not a man. The prelapsarian world, the Old Covenant world, the New Covenant world, are all stages in a single process, growing like a body. At every stage, the Covenant is complete. Each stage is physical, social and ethical. And yet, like a human life, the early stages are predominantly physical, the middle stages predominantly social, and the final stages predominantly ethical. The solution here is not, as Calvin believed, to dress the New Covenant’s ethical maturity in the puerile Mosaic clothing of paedobaptism. That is not continuity; it is retardation. In this respect, paedobaptism is like the modern habit of men dressing as boys to express their shirking of adult responsibilities.

So, the key is to understand the fractal nature of the life of the Covenant, which brings us to the real solution to the problem.

Ray Sutton rightly makes much of the objective standard of the Covenant being the fix for the subjective spirituality of fallen human beings. Forming always comes before filling. The hard edges of the walls of the house make for the comfort, safety and freedom of those within. But the hard edges of the Mosaic Law have been replaced by the Law of the Spirit. The letter of the Law, written on stone under Moses, then written on flesh after the captivity (Jer. 31:31-34 [3]), is now alive in the Spirit. If this is the case, what exactly are the hard edges of the New Covenant house?

Excommunication as Architecture

One thing I have really appreciated from these authors is their revival of an understanding of New Covenant excommunication. The problem is, according to them, one can be born physically into the New Covenant and then excommunicated “spiritually” for an unwillingness to repent of unethical behavior. Conflating generation with regeneration might appear to solve some problems that credobaptists have, but it causes untold problems elsewhere.

The walls and gates of the New Covenant are Spirit-filled people. The dividing line between those inside and those outside is ethical maturity. It is the understanding that I am sinful and Jesus Christ is righteous. This can only be revealed by the Spirit. More than that, however, it goes beyond this objective legal truth to a subjective relational truth, completing the Covenant process, and uniting Old and New as necessary parts of the whole. Church membership requires an ethical response, which begins with repentance and confession. In confession, I stand with God, legally, and in His court, against myself and against the devil.

This means that excommunication is simply identifying someone who has wittingly or unwittingly masqueraded as an angel of light. It means they are bread that is not cooked through and must be returned to the oven, put once again under the sound of the Gospel: repent and believe. If they will not be cut ethically (“cut to the heart”), then they must be cut away socially. If they still do not repent, God will cut them off physically.

Guarding the Spring of Life

The New Covenant gathering is an ethical gathering. It is all of the previous Covenant eras snowballed into one. It is most certainly physical, a visible body of gathered people. It is most certainly social, because we are to be mediators in prayer and care for each other, for our children and for the helpless. But it is predominantly ethical and the change in the Covenant sign communicates that progression. This means that baptism to circumcision is as a judge’s gown to a family likeness. Each of us was formed to be filled. The fact that there are truly retarded people who may not be able to understand or confess is no excuse to retard the process of Covenant maturity. We minister to them as God’s mediators and leave them to His mercy, because, believe it or not, He is merciful. We must not lower the bar for the New Covenant to mere physical attendance or social interaction. The divisions of flesh are torn away and God is after our hearts.

Still Cutting the Flesh

We see this threefold process in the Tabernacle and in the sacrificial rites. The animal “is” (being), then it is “set apart” (sanctified) and cut (social – circumcision), and finally the holy fire descends to “transform” it. If we maintain a “social” baptism, our understanding of Covenant is no better, typologically speaking, than the priests of Baal or the first century “mutilation.” Paul wished that they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves. I don’t believe that paedobaptists are like these godless people. What I am saying is that our use of the New Covenant sign should clearly reflect the ongoing ethical maturity, received by faith, which we are teaching and preaching.

The Ark Carried on Human Legs

Israel’s festal calendar, like the Creation week, moved from physical light to social light to ethical light. [4] The final step is Sukkoth, Clouds, God’s people as miniature glory clouds, with bridal fire visible from within. God’s law has been satisfied and He is now pleased to dwell within each individual and gather them as His cloud, a corporate dwelling. He smells a pleasing aroma and feels at home. Only the regenerate person is on the same page as God. The only baptism that makes sense of all the biblical types and patterns is credobaptism, a rite that makes one a righteous judge, one of the elohim, who have the mind of God and are therefore many but one. Under the New Covenant, it is our “ethical” (spiritual) sameness which brings about our physical and social unity, not the other way around. We meet with the saints because, like God, we discern a spiritual likeness. That, and only that, is the sociology of the New Covenant. Baptism is for the Shekinah people, those with permanent access to the Cloud. A New Covenant saint is a union of heaven and earth, of flesh and of Spirit, a living sacrifice. To divorce these with either baptistic gnosticism (Spirit) or paedobaptistic carnality (flesh) is to put asunder what God finally joined together in Christ.

The Two Births as Architecture

Finally, here is another diagram which I hope explains the “fractal” nature of the Covenants, and allows both a continuity and a discontinuity.

When I explained my position to a friend recently, he commented that it is “the Federal Vision on steroids,” which describes it perfectly. The Federal Vision has understood the Old Covenant structures but applied them as an inherently social sign rather than an inherently ethical sign. In the diagram on the left, the blood is the blood of the sacrifice applied to the four horns of the Altar. The altar symbolized Israel, a single nation, and in that case it was the blood of circumcision. You might notice the correspondence between the firstborn male (corners) and the firstborn animal (horns). Circumcision divided Israel from the other nations. When Christ came, that division was torn down. The four cornered altar gave way to a round laver. But the altar was not removed, only displaced and enlarged. All nations are now being offered to God in Christ.

This brings us to the second diagram, where the four horns are now the entire social world, Jew and Gentile, all nations. The blood is now the blood of Christ. This means that, and please listen here, all nations are now under Covenant. All men everywhere are commanded to repent. All children in every nation are Covenant children. All men, women and children across the world are now under the obligations of the New Covenant. The New Covenant sign marks out the priesthood within this new global “Land,” the regenerate within the merely “generate.”

For the Federal Vision crowd, this means that your baptism is redundant. It also means that the Covenant realities you have unearthed for us from the Old Testament put both baptistic and paedobaptistic errors to death. And yet, it is Good News.

[1] This chart is from Bible Matrix III: The House of God. It shows that the threefold Ethics stage of the Covenant is a microcosm of, and contained within, the fivefold Social Covenant and the sevenfold Physical Creation. (This also destroys Covenant Creationism, which conflates the physical and social rather than the social and ethical, but that’s another story.)
[2] Lillback does in fact go on to share Calvin’s many reasons for the obvious discontinuities, and they align in with what I have presented here. Yet in all this he fails to grasp the individual experience as an expression of the macrocosmic history, an observation which would unite all of his isolated observations together as descriptions of a single organism, and also explain why there was no “Covenant sign” required before the circumcision of Abraham. It also leaves him with no sound explanation for the move from one Covenant sign to another.
[3] Calvin mistakenly sees the citation of this text in Hebrews as interpretation rather than application. Its context is clearly the Restoration Era.
[4] This supports James Jordan’s assertion that Adam and Eve sinned on Day 6, failing to enter into God’s rest on Day 7.

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4 Responses to “Sociology and the New Covenant – 2”

  • Matt Caslow Says:

    Instead of asking probing questions let me give some observations.

    “The problem is, according to them, one can be born physically into the New Covenant and then excommunicated “spiritually” for an unwillingness to repent of unethical behavior.”

    You assume infants are BORN christian. This is not my position nor many other paedobaptists. Children of Christians are in covenant because of baptism not because of some kind of “Christian blood” that they inherit.

    “[P]aedobaptism is like the modern habit of men dressing as boys to express their shirking of adult responsibilities.”

    Here you assume we paedobaptists hold to a strict and simplistic correspondence to baptism; a lethal misrepresentation that probably not even anti-federal vision paedobaptist hold.

    “The New Covenant gathering is an ethical gathering… it is predominantly ethical and the change in the Covenant sign communicates that progression.”

    This is very strange. You are seriously downplaying the ethical role in the Old Covenant in order to make your case. Israel as a body was identified by God’s mercy and their life in Him Ex. 20; Lev; Deut. The Old Covenant was as ethically important and demanding as the New. Of course the New takes on more dynamic and changes under Christ but there is nothing like a “confessional” ethic that was absent in circumcision that is present in baptism. To make that claim is to beg the question.

    Finally, it sure would be nice to read your explanation on the “rot at the heart of baptistic theology, which is inherently man-centered.” I’ve asked this of you before but only got blank pages. If the theology of “I am in the covenant because of MY abilities and maturity to make a believable confession to men that baptized me” is NOT man-centered then I certainly cannot believe your claim that the paedobaptist theology of “I am in the covenant, not due to anything about me, but because of baptism in Christ alone” is.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Hi Matt – thanks for the interaction. I’l do my best to answer your welcome objections briefly.

    1 – It seems to me that other paedobaptists water down baptism. I respect the Federal Vision because they understand the import of baptism. The problem is they have moved from wrong to half-right.

    2 – If children of Christians are not “in Covenant” by blood, what are they in Covenant by? I know it is not purely blood, because adopted children are also baptized. But Covenant succession becomes fundamentally social rather than fundamentally spiritual. The social succession was cut off in AD70. Succession is now purely spiritual/ethical, which makes it impossible to cut off. Baptism must communicate this, not rebuild a wall of enmity between divided flesh.

    3 – I made it clear that paedobaptism misrepresents what paedobaptists teach on other issues. Their baptism should be brought into line with their gospel preaching.

    4 – I also make it clear that every Covenant was physical, social and ethical, but that the entire history of the Covenants moves from fundamentally physical to social to ethical. Also, as I have written elsewhere, biblical structure corresponds baptism to the Covenant Oath (Sanctions). Every baptism story in the book of Acts follows the Covenant pattern, so confession is tied to baptism. The Law has done its work, and the evidence is a profession of faith. More posts on this under the baptism link at top. A move to a fundamentally ethical standard meant that the social/Land promises to Israel were transcended.

    5 – “The rot at the heart of baptistic theology, which is inherently man-centered” is an observation found in “The Failure of the American Baptist Culture.” The New Covenant is fundamentally ethical, so there is no merely “social body” into which one can be placed by baptism. All men are under Covenant. Because Jesus is king of all nations, not just ancient Israel, you and your children are already in the New Covenant, so paedobaptism is redundant. What it supposedly does has already been done. True baptism is not a sign that someone is under the gospel but a vindication that the gospel has done its work. Again, for the difference between Covenant delegation and Covenant vindication, see the posts at link at top. It’s the difference between being under the sword (Adam cut/Passover) and qualifying to bear the sword as an image, a representative of God (Adam invested/Jericho). The Bible is entirely consistent on this process, and it means that paedobaptistic practice violates the intention of the New Covenant sign. If Adam refuses to hide and presents himself to God for atonement and clothing, that is not man-centred. It is an act of faith.

  • Chris W Says:

    Hi Mike,

    This is fascinating stuff, though it leaves me with some questions.

    1) What exactly do you mean by the New Covenant being primarily ethical/spiritual rather than social? Isn’t the New Covenant about adoption into a family?

    2) Why do you interpret the ethics stage so individualistically? Maturity is about a glorified, obedient Adam, granted. But if Adam had obeyed, not only him, but also his ‘household’ (Eve) would have been robed with righteousness (clear from the fact that both of them were clothed with skins after the fall).

    3) My understanding was that we are now in a ‘social’ era. I see it all looking like this:

    Creation: Old Physical world (4000 BC)
    ..Social: Old Covenant Church (2000 BC)
    ….Personal/ethical: Jesus Christ (4 BC)
    ..Social: New Covenant Church (30-70 AD)
    Creation: New Physical world (?? AD)

    On what basis do you say we are now in an ‘ethical’ era, rather than a glorified ‘social’ one?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks Chris – excellent questions.

    1) The move is always from physical to social to ethical. We have to be before we can know, and we must know before we can minister to. Jesus made plain what kind of family the New Covenant would be – a lot more like the angels, but with a “spiritual/ethcial” version of pro-creation: begetting by the gospel. This is a Covenant Succession that Satan cannot cut off with death. In fact, persecution and bloodshed only expands the kingdom.

    2) The Old Covenant Church was predominantly social, that is, under the sword (Pass-over). The New Covenant Church is predominantly ethical in character, that is, as grown ups, its membership consists of those who can bear the sword. Pre-Christ was all about forming. Post-Christ is about filling. The New Covenant has changed the definition of “child.” We represent God not simply physically but ethically as ambassadors who have the same mind (see ) So even though Social and Social match each other chiastically, there is progress, as there was between Egypt and Jericho. Who bears the sword now? Not angels but angelic (“messenger”) men.

    3) Under the Old Covenant, men fought against flesh and blood (beginning with the serpent) because they were not mature enough to “see,” to discern the spirits animating flesh. Since Pentecost, the regenerate can do that. Hence we no longer fight flesh and blood. We fight to expel and replace the animating spirit in men with the Spirit of God.

    4) The new physical world is yet to come. We do see the triple process in the first century, but in the big picture, the physical restoration will come with God’s full presence, a world-wide Shekinah.

    I hope that helps.