Abraham Was Not Moses

Moses Parts the WatersIn March I had the privilege of contributing to the 9 Marks blog. The point of my post there (and here) was not to argue the specifics of the paedobaptist (infant baptizing) case but, nevertheless, in response to that contribution a correspondent re-stated a frequent Baptist objection to paedobaptism. I thought it might be helpful to post part of that correspondence and my reply.

Mike writes,

I would only ask, if the children of the believer (Abraham), were in, when the promises were given, and they(the children) were included in the temporal, fleshly, conditional, out working of the old covenant, for blessing or curse.

Mike,

The covenant theology underlying the Reformed view of baptism does not understand Abraham to have been, strictly speaking, an “old testament” character. He was a typological character in the history of redemption (John 8:56; , Matt 3:9; 22:2; Acts 3;13, 22; 13:26; Rom 4; 9:6; Gal 3; Gal 4:21; Heb 2:16; 6:13-15; ch. 7; 11:8; 11:17;  but not an “old covenant” character. He lived in the period of, as Hebrews puts it, “types and shadows” (Heb 8:5;  10:1. see also Col 2:16)

We distinguish Abraham from the old covenant because Paul does so consistently. He does so in 2 Cor 3:14 when he applies the language “old covenant” not to Abraham but to Moses. Of course the pattern for this was established in Jeremiah 31:32, which describes the new covenant as not like that made with the fathers when they were led out of Egypt. In other words, Jeremiah connects the old covenant to Moses and not to Abraham. Paul also makes this identification in Galatians 3 and 4, where he explicitly distinguishes between Abraham and Moses. In Gal 3 Paul argues that the Mosaic covenant did not change the Abrahamic covenant which is fundamental to God’s administration of saving grace in the world. The Mosaic covenant was a codicil added to the Abrahamic covenant 430 years later and it has expired with the coming of Christ. The Abrahamic covenant, however, has not expired.

The NT appeals consistently to Abraham and to the promise given to Abraham, not in earthly terms but in spiritual terms. not with respect to the land promises (which has expired with the expiration of the national covenant with Israel) but it consistently regards Abraham as our spiritual father in the faith. Abraham was looking forward to the heavenly city. This is the explicit teaching of Hebrews 11:

and became an heir of  the righteousness that comes by faith.
Heb. 11:8   By faith  Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place  that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  9 By faith he went to live in  the land of promise, as in a foreign land,  living in tents  with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  10 For he was looking forward to  the city that has  foundations,  whose designer and builder is God.  11 By faith  Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered  him faithful who had promised. Heb. 11:14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out,  they would have had opportunity to return.  16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed  to be called their God, for  he has prepared for them a city.

and became an heir of  the righteousness that comes by faith.

By faith  Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place  that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in  the land of promise, as in a foreign land,  living in tents  with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  10 For he was looking forward to  the city that has  foundations,  whose designer and builder is God…..For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out,  they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed  to be called their God, for  he has prepared for them a city.

Mike says that the Abrahamic promise was “earthly” and “temporal,” and to be sure Abraham was given a land promise but please note carefully how Hebrews interprets the life and faith of Abraham. Hebrews interprets Abraham’s life and faith not int terms of the land promise. Hebrews categorically denies the very interpretation that Mike gives because it denies the very interpretation that the Judaizers were giving. Hebrews does not concede that Abraham was looking for an earthly city. Hebrews says, following our Lord’s teaching in John 8, that Abraham trusted in Jesus, just as we do. He was looking forward to the incarnation and we live in light of the fulfillment of the promises but it’s the same Savior, the same faith, and the same covenant of grace with the same promises and commands: I will be your God and a God to your children.

We also know this from Romans 3-4 where Paul makes Abraham the pattern for new covenant faith. In Rom 4 Paul writes;

What then shall we say was gained by  Abraham,  our forefather according to the flesh?   For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but  not before God.  For what does the Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

Paul’s argument is that new-covenant believers have the same faith as Abraham. Paul explicitly rejected the notion that the covenant made with Abraham or the promises given to him were merely earthly or temporary. Paul continues:

Is this blessing then only for  the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?  We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness.  How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.  He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was  to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well,  12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

The chief benefit  of the covenant of grace is righteousness with God and it is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) which looks to the righteousness of Christ alone (solo Christo). This was true for Abraham and it’s true for believers today. Abraham believed as a gentile and he believed as a Jew. Circumcision did not do anything more or less than signify and seal his faith, i.e. it was visible word or proclamation of the coming obedience and death of Jesus (through the shedding of blood) and a seal or a promise to those who believe that what the gospel offers is really true for them.

Finally, the book of Hebrews, chapters 7-10, explicitly describe the Mosaic covenant as the “old covenant.” The “better promises” of the new covenant are not contrasted with Abraham but with Moses and the Mosaic priesthood. Hebrews 8:5 makes this contrast explicitly. From 8:6 Hebrews interprets Jeremiah 31:

But as it is, Christ  has obtained a ministry that is  as much more excellent than the old as  the covenant  he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises.  For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.

When v. 7 says “first covenant” it means the Mosaic, not Abrahamic covenant. This is confirmed by what follows:

For he finds fault with them when he says:  “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah,  not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.  For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and  write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall  all know me from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,  and I will remember their sins no more.”

The writer to/pastor of the Hebrew Christian congregation gives us a divinely inspired interpretation (Heb 10:15 claims this explicitly) of the prophecy of Jeremiah. It speaks to the contrast and comparison between the old, Mosaic covenant and the new, better, covenant. The comparison and contrast is not between Abraham and the new covenant but between Moses and the new covenant. The covenant that God made with Abraham was a covenant of grace, the covenant he confirmed with the “blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb 13:20).

The Mosaic covenant, the old covenant, is, in the language of 2 Cor, fading. According to Hebrews 8:13 it is “obsolete.” These things are not said about Abraham’s faith or the promise of salvation given to and through Abraham.

Thus, the Reformed covenant theology sees the promises and commands given to Abraham as still in force. The typological elements (bloodshed in circumcision) have been fulfilled in Christ but the promises and commands (to initiate children of believers into the visible covenant community) remain. This is why God said through the Apostle Peter, “the promise is to you and to your children….” The promise is the very promise he gave to Abraham: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” Just because Abraham is a typological character in the history of redemption does not mean that he was an “old covenant” character. The NT consistently describes Abraham and his covenant as spiritual and perpetual and not as earthly and temporal.

19 comments

  1. Is this I would only ask, if the children of the believer (Abraham), were in, when the promises were given, and they(the children) were included in the temporal, fleshly, conditional, out working of the old covenant, for blessing or curse. a sentence?

  2. Thanks, RSC. Great post.

    As a former baptist, this was the argument that held the most weight for me as I wrestled through the issue. Another helpful passage in Hebrews I found that further strengthens your point is 6:13-18. There, not only is the Abrahamic covenant not spoken of as “vanishing” or “fading”, but exactly the opposite is claimed. The author draws this contrast between the two covenants out as he speaks of the irrevocable promises made to Abraham by an oath which gives the believer confidence as they flee to God for refuge.

    “For when God made a promise to Abraham…he swore by himself, saying, ‘Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.’ …. Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of the promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.”

    The stress on the immutability of the promises made to Abraham certainly seems to exclude the covenant made with him in the “old things” that are “ready to vanish away” (8:13).

    Just another pearl on the string that helped this baptist along the way.

  3. “I would only ask, if the children of the believer (Abraham), were in, when the promises were given, and they(the children) were included in the temporal, fleshly, conditional, out working of the old covenant, for blessing or curse” is not a sentence–in context or out of context. I have no idea what Mike is trying to say.

  4. Okay. I think I understand the question. Because of the unusual punctuation, I was reading Mike’s “If the children … ” phrase as a premise rather than as the beginning of the actual question.

    I think.

  5. Oops. I meant to say I was reading “If the children …” as a condition, not a premise.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    You can disregard my earlier comments. I don’t think they contribute much to the thread.

  7. Great post, great analysis. “The comparison and contrast is not between Abraham and the new covenant but between Moses and the new covenant.” Amen.

    Would it be better or more helpful to say that the land promise to Abe has been expanded (rather than expired) to include the whole world? Seems that is where Rom 4:13 is headed (while amplifying the distinction you make btwn Law/Moses and Abe/righteousness-by-faith), and Heb 11:8-16 as well. In other words, this apt phrase applies to the Land as well: “The NT consistently describes Abraham and his covenant as spiritual and perpetual and not as earthly and temporal.” Though I would add that the perpetual fulfillment is going to be in a new earth/cosmos (Rom 4:13)…

    • Yes, when I used “expired” I meant to describe the typological aspects of the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant as such.

      I don’t know if I would say that every aspect of the Abrahamic covenant has been expanded since Abraham was converted as a gentile so that gentiles have been in the Abrahamic covenant since the beginning, but relative to the Mosaic, the covenant has been enlarged to include “the nations.” The land promise has been transformed and the promise of a seed fulfilled in and being fulfilled in the the conversion of the gentiles since the ascension of our Lord.

  8. Hebrews 8:6 says that “he(Jesus) is the mediator of a better covenant…” And in 7:25 that “he ever lives to make intercession for them.” If through baptism the children of believers are included as members in this “everlasting covenant in Christs’ blood” (13:20), how is it possible for them to be excluded through unbelief since jesus ever lives to make intercession for them? And who is Jesus mediating for in this covenant? Thank you.

    • Hi John,

      The Reformed understanding of Scripture is that there are two ways of relating to the one covenant of grace. Jesus is interceding for those who are in the covenant of grace internally (Rom 2:28). He is not interceding merely for those who have “tasted of the powers of the age to come” or for those who have “trampled under foot” the blood of Christ. These had only an external relation to the covenant of grace. They were in the covenant of grace but not of it. Here is a resource on this question:

      http://www.wscal.edu/bookstore/store/details.php?id=1341

  9. There is nothing good like theology. It makes life have its reality before God where man understands GOD through scripture.
    I encourage all to read and study God’s word diligently.
    Through it there is abundant wisdom.

  10. Peter Leithart for continuity, against Calvin: “Calvin was fatally wrong in suggesting that Galatianism was found wherever there is an emphasis on ritual. Calvin not withstanding, the redemptive-historical move that the New Testament announces is not from ritual to non-ritual, not from an Old Covenant economy of signs to a New Covenant economy beyond signs.” Against Christianity, p 80

  11. At first I though Peter Leithart (Against Christianity, p75) was talking about us fundies and our resistance to ritual gestures. But it turns out the PCA pastor is being critical of the Reformed tradition:

    “First, a spiritualizing reading of redemptive history. ‘When Jesus
    removed the special status of Jerusalem as the place where God was to be worshipped, he abolished all the material forms that constituted
    the typological OT system.’ (Terry Johnson, p157, in With Reverence
    and Awe, ed Hart and Muether).”

    “Second, Israel’s prophets inveighed against empty formalism, and some conclude that from this that the prophets condemned ritual as such.”

    “Third, the Reformers taught that the Word has priority over the
    Sacraments. Salvation comes by hearing the Word with faith, not by
    mechanical adherence to the sacramental system of the church.
    Sacraments are an appendix to the faith.”

    “Finally, privatization. Religion is a matter of ideology, ideas and
    belief. Public rituals can be faked, and so those who tie religion to
    public rituals tempt us to be hypocrites.

  12. Covenant theologians are not content to talk about one gospel for all time, because they want to talk about one covenant for all time. Even though they must say that the Mosaic covenant is part of their “one covenant of grace, some of them also want to insist that the Mosaic covenant was typological (with many aspects now fulfilled and ended) in a way that the Abrahamic covenant was not.

    Of course, even between the Abrahamic and the new covenant, they know there have been changes, since there was some typology. Though every son was circumcised during the Abrahamic covenant, those who speak of “the one covenant of grace” will now only “baptize” infant sons with one parent judged to be a believer. But this difference is regarded as “administrative” and not of the essence of “the one covenant of grace”.

    So the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant are of one “substance” but not so much as the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant.
    And the goal is to get to where you don’t talk about “covenants” at all, but simply reduce all the promises in all the covenants down to one gospel promise. But somehow, the “covenant promise” to “covenant children” is different from the “gospel promise” to those outside the covenant, to those without one Christian parent.

    We need to say clearly that the Abrahamic covenant is NOT the new covenant, despite the continuity between one of the promises to Abraham and the gospel promise to those effectually called into the new covenant. Of course these theologians do not actually say that the Abrahamic covenant is the new covenant. By talking about “the one covenant of grace, they implicitly agree that the Abrahamic covenant is not the new covenant.

    One of the promises to Abraham is fulfilled in the birth and circumcision of Christ on the eighth day (Luke 2). The sign of circumcision was not only about pointing to the bloody sacrifice of Christ, which cuts the justified elect off from legal solidarity with Adam. Circumcision was an initiation rite for every male in Abraham’s family (even if one parent did not go testify before the session). And what belonging to Abraham’s family means now and what it meant then is not the same thing.

    We need to stop “cherry-picking” (to suit our theology) out from the covenants what’s typological and what’s of the “substance”.

    To rightly understand the advance of redemptive history is to see the new covenant as one of the fulfillments of promises to Abraham. There is only one way now to be children of Abraham, and those who are non-elect and who do not believe the gospel cannot and will never be in the new covenant.

    Now that Christ has been born and circumcised, it’s not possible for infants to be born as types of the birth of Christ to come. The solution is not to divide the Abrahamic laws and promises into parts, some cherry-picked as “ceremonial” with other parts “moral”, some as “administrative” and others as “the one covenant of grace”

    The children of Abraham used to put non-Abrahamic people out of the territory to make room for the biological-political heirs of Abraham. Everybody but theonomists now agrees that this is no longer part of “the one covenant of grace”. Now, the people without a Christian parent are simply told that they are outside the new covenant, but if they believe, then their infants will be born inside the new covenant.

    Of course, as I suggested before, they don’t say “the new covenant”. The new covenant, though contrasted with the Mosaic, is never really new. If anything, the story is told that the new covenant is older than the Mosaic covenant. They don’t say “new covenant” because instead they say “the one covenant of grace”. Instead of saying that the promise of the gospel to Abraham is older than the giving of the Mosaic covenant, they say “the covenant”.

    And how could they expect the uninformed anabaptists to know these things? Most of their own people could not tell you which covenant they are talking about when they say “the covenant”.

Comments are closed.