The Myth of Covenant Membership

Armillary Sphere Antonio Santucci

Reformed theology is the best school in which to learn about covenant theology, yet it is also the worst place to learn about New Covenant theology. Why is this so?

Reading a to-and-fro between a baptist and a paedobaptist recently, it struck me that despite the fine manners and scholarly diligence on display in the responses of both gentlemen, neither of them really had a grip on what they were dealing with.

The prime example was the way in which each relied on the Abrahamic Covenant to support his case. The paedobaptist accused the baptist of spiritualising this covenant, while the baptist accused the paedobaptist of “carnalizing” it. Both of them were cherrypicking in order to support their take on God’s covenants in general.

Now, theologians love to generalise in order to avoid doing the grubby work of dealing with specifics, and one ubiquitous theological meme, dripping with clever evasiveness, is the statement that there is both continuity and discontinuity between each covenant, or each stage of the overall covenant of God with men. Apparently there is some entirely arbitrary “spectrum” of relevance in each covenant, and we are supposed to isolate the elements which are common to all covenants to discover what a covenant is. Then we can figure out whether “covenant membership” is based on faith, or heredity, or tribe, or all of the above.

“…both sides get an F when
it comes to covenant theology.”

On the “baptistic” side, things tend to slide into a realm where the physical rites, baptism and communion and even corporate worship, are considered to be less important than “my personal relationship with Jesus.” The New Covenant sign is “faith,” but since true faith expresses itself in willingness to submit to discipleship under Christ’s representatives, in examination of heart, in a desire to be with other saints, in prayer and good works and in legal testimony before the Church and the world, this error is easy to deal with.

On the “paedobaptistic” side, the focus on the rites, the “covenant signs,” leads to:

a) an illogical splitting of the sacraments in the withholding of communion until a baptised child comes of age;

b) united paedosacraments which merely serve as a legalistic “claim” upon the baptizand until they are truly born again; or

c) united paedosacraments which somehow regenerate the receiver without any requirement of actual repentance.

As I have written elsewhere, each of these three conclusions is an attempt to deal with the doctrinal fallout of the errant rite of paedobaptism in a slightly different way. The conflation of circumcision and baptism necessitates the redefinition, or scapegoating of something, somewhere. In order to preserve the tradition, the scapegoat chosen for sacrifice is either the necessity of personal conversion (and the redefinition of “faith”), or the global nature of the New Covenant, or the efficacy of the sacraments.

However, both sides, baptistic and paedobaptistic, get an F when it comes to covenant theology. The baptists are right when it comes to the necessity of hearing the Gospel and responding in faith as the defining characteristic of a Christian, but generally they have little idea of what a covenant with God actually is. “Covenant” is just a word to describe God’s “agreement” with Noah, Abraham and Moses. There is little understanding of a covenant as a process, with delegated authority, rules for success, desired results and accountability, and a use-by date. It is these “missional” elements which are the things common to every biblical covenant, yet somehow these are totally overlooked in the continuity/discontinuity debate.

“…the solution is an aspect
which both sides in this debate,
as far as I know, have either failed
to discern or failed to apply.”

The paedobaptists, generally speaking, at least understand what a biblical covenant is. The problem is that since they are stuck with their baptismal tradition, they pick the Abrahamic Covenant as their benchmark for covenants. This renders them enemies of many fundamental differences between the various covenants, which are simply the result of the fact that each covenant has a different mission. They are so keen on the maintenance of the notion of a “Covenant people” delineated by a sign that they force the covenants both before and after the Abrahamic Covenant into the Abrahamic mold. The rainbow is turned into a “sign” upon Noah and his family, when in fact it was a sign upon all creation, one which endures to this day. New Covenant baptism is turned into a “corporate” sign upon all members of a believing household, either conferring “covenant membership” (legalistic accountability) or “infusing” some level of faith without the hearing of the Gospel.

Paedobaptism is a mongrel of a doctrine, an ugly mix of conflicting designs and crossed purposes, which is why its meaning is impossible to define or agree upon even among those who practice it. But it gets worse. For some paedobaptists, the fact that there was no sign of “Covenant membership” upon females under the Abrahamic Covenant, as they believe there is under the New Covenant, means that they go looking for one. Some have suggested that the Levitical “purity rites” for Israelite women served as a sign of membership in some fashion. But although this is a rare assertion, it does demonstrate just how far off the track people will go when following an errant doctrine to its logical conclusion. Since every person within their imagined New Covenant boundary must be “stamped” by Jesus with their “hybridised” New Covenant baptism, this leads them to seek something similar under the Abrahamic Covenant when clearly there was no such thing. For a start, the Levitical rites can have no bearing on membership of the Abrahamic Covenant because they were not instituted until Moses, four centuries later. Females were under the Abrahamic Covenant without any personal sign. Even more inconveniently, there was no personal sign upon anyone whatsoever under the Noahic and Adamic Covenants. They have allowed the stipulations and purpose of the Abrahamic Covenant to distort their comprehension of the New Covenant, and then their perverted understanding of the New Covenant requires the distortion the Abrahamic Covenant. This is not “Covenant continuity” but enforced “equalisation,” the theological equivalent of gender neutrality. It is a wilful twisting of the Scripture to defend the indefensible, bordering on the brand of hermeneutical travesty committed by the Roman Catholic Church in defence of its own coercive and highly imaginative traditions. Yet regardless of how much they must sacrifice, doctrinally-speaking, and how many ludicrous notions they must consider to maintain this shibboleth, they consistently refuse to question their devotion to this age-old household god. I find this incomprehensible.

However, for two thousand years in God’s economy (not today), one was either a Jew or a Gentile, either in Abraham or not, so there clearly was some kind of “membership.” Is there a way that we can understand the history of the greater Covenant, taking into account each of its varied stages, including the ways in which each stage uniquely complements and contrasts with the others, that enables us to discern both what is continuous or discontinuous and why? Most certainly there is, and the solution is an aspect which both sides in this debate, as far as I know, have either failed to discern or failed to apply.

“In some sense, only a twist on
the Copernican revolution in
covenant theology can unite
the schizoid sacramentology
of the modern Church.”

When Covenant history is diagrammed by the experts on both sides, it is inevitably linear. This is understandable, since history itself is linear. But a journey from the boundary of our solar system to the heart of our sun is also linear, although the solar system itself is not. My assertion here is that the various covenants throughout history are not segments but spheres, not lines but layers. Passing from the orbit of Mars to the orbit of the Earth does not render the orbit of Mars redundant or non-existent.

Likewise, we must understand that the establishing of the Abrahamic Covenant did not nullify the Noahic. The Covenant with Noah was in full force in its original form at least until the end of the Abrahamic Covenant in AD70, for the Gentiles were still obliged to keep its basic stipulations. This fact was the basis for the judgment of James at the Jerusalem Council of the Church in Acts 15. There was no need to put believing Gentiles under the Law of Moses. Nor was there any need to circumcise them as members of the Abrahamic extended family, the dispersed tribal nation of Israel. Yet, (and what follows here we must understand if the disgusting fissures in our sacramental unity are to be closed and healed) these Gentiles were still “under Covenant,” just not the Abrahamic one. This is because the Abrahamic Covenant did not exist after the Noahic Covenant, nor even alongside it, but within it, just as the orbit of the Earth exists within the orbit of Mars. In some sense, only a twist on the Copernican revolution in covenant theology can unite the schizoid sacramentology of the modern Church.

Medieval Spheres

Since Covenant history resembles the medieval concept of the celestial spheres,1See also String Theory the “outer limits” consist of the reach of the covenant intended to be ratified in Adam. The word “covenant” is never used of Adam, and this is because he failed to qualify for kingdom. The word is not used until God spoke to Noah, the first man to qualify as a righteous judge, a man who could legally represent God on earth because he was found faithful in the eyes of heaven. However, the curse of death remained. This was because the Noahic Covenant was ratified within the Adamic one. All men were still in Adam.

“…the Mosaic Covenant
was ratified not in opposition to 
but within the Abrahamic one.”

When Noah’s offspring sinned in ways that can be corresponded to the offspring of Adam, another global deluge was on the horizon, covenantally-speaking: the destruction of all flesh. To keep the promises to Noah, God divided humanity in two in Abraham. However, the Noahic order of priest-kings, such as Melchizedek and Jethro and Job, still ministered among the Gentile nations as “sons of God,” which may explain the persistence of accounts similar to the early chapters of Genesis not only in the Ancient Near East but also in just about every culture around the world. Every human being was still a “member” of Adam, and a “member” of Noah, yet only those in Abraham’s household were members of this new genealogical-tribal covenant. Noah was not replaced. Like Adam, he was “divided” that he might later be conquered and glorified.

The main players in the Abrahamic line reversed, in many ways, the failures of Noah’s sons, but in Moses they were brought to maturity, both in size (as a nation) and accountability (in ministry). Israel was baptised into Moses and another covenant was established, and here we see centuries of wasted ink revealed for what they are as we understand that the Mosaic Covenant was ratified not in opposition to but within the Abrahamic one. Every Israelite was still in Adam, and still in Noah, and of course in Abraham, but not every Israelite was a member of the tribe of Levi. The Levitical order served within Israel as yet another layer, smaller and with even more concentrated standards of purity. Within the tribe of Levi, only males of a certain physical and moral standard were permitted to serve as priests, and even then under a roster of temporary vows, a division between the common and the uncommon in holy office. Then, of course, there was the High Priest, the focal point of this particular layer, but even here, since the Aaronic order was genealogical, God made a covenant within it, giving Phinehas the succession since he was found faithful.

This layered “geocentric” process can also be observed in the developments or refinements in the sacrificial praxes. Adam was to offer himself, but judgment for his failure was stemmed by God‘s mercy in the first substitutionary sacrifices. They were slain and offered whole but not burnt. The first burnt offering — or “ascension” — was presented by Noah, picturing his office as a mediator with authority from the heavenly court. Humans were now permitted to eat flesh, but not blood. In Abraham, picturing the division between Jew and Gentile, certain animals were chosen by God and cut in half by Abraham. Under the Levitical Law, animals were not only presented and cut to be offered by fire, but the various parts were allocated to different purposes, places and people. In a sense, the move towards the High Priesthood of Aaron was a cutting away at the flesh of Adam (or his substitutes) to get to the heart of the matter.

But of course, history did not stop there. The temple and priesthood were glorified under the inspired administration of King David, and here we observe yet another “eternal” covenant. Of course, you should by now understand that the Davidic Covenant existed within Adam, Noah, Abraham, and the Law of Moses (as expressed in the Psalms), being “under”, that is, accountable, to all of them, as they related to, operated within, mediated for and expounded upon each other. The holy center of this new, smaller, even purer, orbit, was not the hearing of the laws under priesthood but the incarnation of the law in true kingdom.

Following the failure of Israel’s kings, there was another division, and another covenant, this time with Jeroboam. His “orbit” was actually outside, larger than, the covenants with Levi and David, and his envy of their centrality was at the heart of his rebellion and idolatry. This envy was also at the heart of the rebellion of Korah, who apparently believed that every tribal leader in Israel should be a priest-king after the order of Melchizedek/Noah.

After the exile, a “new covenant” was established under Ezra and Nehemiah, Zechariah and Haggai, as predicted by Jeremiah.2See Jeremiah”s New Covenant. The priesthood would serve as keepers for the Davidic line, and now every Israelite, not just the priests, was required to prove his genealogical heritage. The latter prophets rail against the sins which led to the downfall of the previous kingdom, and this newly restored Israel, like the second generation in the wilderness, avoided the idolatries and adulteries of their forefathers. But the point here is that even this “new” covenant was ratified within all the previous ones.

Now we reach the center of this grand celestial construct, and it is of course the New Covenant in the blood of Christ, a covenant which was ratified within all the other covenants and yet fulfilled and succeeded them. In His baptism He was Noah, with the witness of the dove (Creation – Day 1). In His death, He was the circumcision of Abraham, cut off for the world (Division – Day 2). In His Ascension (Day 3), as the Lamb worthy to open the scroll, He was Moses on the mountain, receiving the Law of the Spirit. At Pentecost, He brought the kingdom of God, the law in the hearts of men (Testing – Day 4). In the testimony of the apostles, He was Israel scattered among the Gentiles, establishing New Covenant synagogues (Maturity – Day 5). In the destruction of Jerusalem, He was a new Israel freed from idolatry and adultery under “Babylon” (Conquest – Day 6). And with the covenantal knife finally reaching the heart of the matter, the construction of the Bride was complete, and it is in this light that we must understand the marriage feast of the Lamb in Revelation 19 as already fulfilled in history (Glorification – Day 7). All the old demarcations were eradicated, or more correctly, transformed.

Since our High Priest has entered into and recast the fiery center of the system, the entire Old Testament history is now a magnificent, seven-ringed “armillary sphere,” wheels within wheels, an apparatus of heavenly measurement which incorporates and employs in perfect harmony the specific authority of each of Jesus’ major Covenantal predecessors. It is now we who must follow Him from that center, from personal conversion into our families, tribes and nations to the outer limits, where the final enemy, death, will be destroyed, and the universe will be renewed. But all of these elements are already “in Christ” and thus already in our hands. In Emmanuel, God is with us, not only in our hearts, but to go up and possess our inheritance.

“All men, women and children
were always under covenant
with God in some form…”

The conclusion concerning “Covenant membership” and the concept of “Covenant children” in the binary sense as understood by many paedobaptists is that these were uniquely Abrahamic features and obligations, earthly stoicheia, carnal elements serving as stand ins for the heavenly parts of a much greater picture. Now it makes sense why God kept “moving the goal posts,” each level of promise and inheritance becoming redundant with the call to sacrifice it for something greater. Even Abraham understood that Canaan and his offspring were only object lessons for the possession of a heavenly country as tried, qualified and glorified sons of God, enthroned with Christ for rest and rule.

All men, women and children were always under covenant with God in some form, and the notion that baptism, especially paedobaptism, puts people “into the covenant” is absurd. Baptism is the foundation not for life, but for a life of service, of ministry, of accountability and discernment as a “son of God,” just as it was for the world under Noah, and for Israel under Moses.

All people, including all children, even the yet unborn (who cannot be paedobaptized if miscarried), have everything they could possibly have in the Gospel of Christ. The death of Jesus put them into this covenant, under obligation to the great High Priest and King of Kings, and also under His mercy. To limit His jurisdiction to some renovated or hybridised version of the Abrahamic demarcation is to grossly misunderstand Covenant history, defining the glorious New Covenant by one facet of its construction. Our “Covenant community” is not in here. It is out there.

This is why Reformed theology is the best school in which to learn about covenant theology, yet it is also the worst place to learn about New Covenant theology.

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