Part 3. The first two in this line of thoughts on covenants, community and our relationships are here: Anti-Covenant and Individualism and I Might Just Need To Be A We
At first, this may appear to be more of a formal apology for Covenant Theology, but bear with me. Also, I’m quite sure this has all been said before, so I can’t claim any originality here. That’s safer anyway since any time we deny the last 2,000 years of church history, we’re claiming that our current religion is the only one that is Christian throughout all history. Scary thought, eh? And what I’m about to discuss reaches back just a bit farther than Tertullian or Irenaeus or even Pentecost. Maybe a few thousand years past that. This is long, but I hope it has good returns. And I hope I’ve portrayed this accurately and understandably.
This doctrine of covenants is not pure theology. It’s not a tight, air-less doctrine that we can take or leave and not be deeply affected by the ramifications of the choice. It is hugely important. Once the barrier of modern presupposition is torn down, the other conflicts will start to resolve themselves fairly easily. That’s my own experience, at least.
Let me make the claim about this presupposition thing. There’s all sorts of discussion about presuppositional hermeneutics and theology. And it is absolutely correct to presuppose there are presuppositions required in the study of the Word. Which presupposition, or assumption if you will, is correct is vital, of course. And here’s the basic premise: The Bible is not speaking in the context of the 21st Century, modernity, the Reformation or even back in the days of Augustine. The Bible’s context is the Biblical eras. Get that and you’re on your way to 1st base.
Next, the Bible itself is filled with assumptions. Do you know the importance of Boaz heading out to the city gate when he’s checking on the status of Ruth’s availability? The Bible doesn’t add a footnote or aside comment to plumb the depths of this significant event. It assumes the reader knows what’s going on. The history and cultural importance of what’s going on at the city gate amongst the elders of the community is far more than what some consider just a civil affairs court setting. Lot’s story was another one with that gate thing going on. But let’s put all that in the back of our minds. We’ve got to go deeper to make better sense of this.
The Bible assumes Covenant Theology. Really. No joke. It assumes the stuff I’ve been writing about in the last few days. We’ve heard all the debate over baptism, the Lord’s Table and Israel’s future so many times. There are conflicts that are so persistent they’ve lasted hundreds of years. I think they’re more heated today than ever. And it’s because, primarily, we have lost the sense of community and covenantal relationships that are assumed in the Bible.
Look at this language:
The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.
When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
And then look at this list: And Your Children and Household
Everybody wonders or fights over these sorts of passages. The Covenant guys extrapolate a connection to things like baptism of infants and the Baptist guys extrapolate the non-existence of infants. All sorts of ideas come up to try to explain this. Sometimes, I wonder if some of the Covenant guys are just as disrespectful of the text as the Baptists when trying to explain their position through use of household and your children. Does the Bible explain what is meant by these sorts of terms? No, not any more than with the gate-court thing in Ruth or Genesis.
Here’s why it’s confusing in the New Testament: When these terms are used, they’re repetition of Old Testament Language. And no, that’s not to “bring” the Old Testament way of thinking back to these Jews of the first century. It was to remind them of the significance of events past that correlate to current events. In all that was changing around in the New Covenant, there was going to be some conflict. Pharisaical law, gentile inclusion, realized forgiveness and justification, missionary trips, diaspora – all these things were new and scary and confusing. People needed to, get this, hear that everything hadn’t just stopped or fundamentally altered!
Peter and his fellow apostles were using this language because the Jews understood it. This means that we cannot presuppose our own 21st century opinion, which is grounded not in the Scriptures but in modern, pagan, non-covenantal thinking. We must look at this language as the Jews did. That’s why we don’t get an explanation in the Bible about what gate-courts, households and your children mean. And that’s why we don’t get a greater development of what the Table and Baptism mean right out of the text. It’s in there, absolutely, but in a, wait for it… presupposition.
I’ll say it again. This is all so hard because we aren’t looking in the right place. The Bible started out its narrative in the context of covenants – relational, promise-keeping, life-sharing, trust-bearing covenants. We are the ones who have changed over the millennia, not the Bible and not at the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ whose birthday celebration we are fast approaching. We have lost the perspective the Jews had.
I’m not calling for a return to Judaism or tossing our technology so we can wear robes to tear each time we’re cut to the heart. I’m not interested in raking dust for a few measly rows of fava beans and wheat sheaves. I like my Pollo Loco too much and I’d much rather have easy access to the last 2,000 years of theology right here on my infernal machines. I’m calling for us to look at Scripture in the historical, cultural frame in which it’s set. No helicopters in Revelation. No civil affairs court for the young moabitess. No ditching of infants until they’re old enough to say they believe.
Side comment: Refusing baptism of our kids is telling them that they are no different from the other kids across the block (the ones who have Wiccan parents right over there). We’re destroying their identity in a Christian family! No sacraments = no sense of being in the family of God.
A few weeks ago, I put up a little bit about how painful it must have been to be one of the convicted Pharisees at Peters Big Sermon at Pentecost (I should rename the post “Cut To The Heart Thrice“). Think about this:
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
Those Pharisees were almost certainly thinking of what they had done to their families! When Peter said this (emphasis mine):
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
We know what happened:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Now look again at Peter’s response:
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
That’s reaching all the way back to things like:
They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune; for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
The OT said this in Deuteronomy 12:
Be careful to obey all these regulations I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD your God.
Here’s what changed when Christ fulfilled the Law, died in our place and rose again: I’ll grossly paraphrase this:
Be careful to believe this good news I am giving you, so that it may always go well with you and your children after you, because you will be doing what is good and right in the eyes of the LORD your God.
Nowhere is the concept of covenants, community and our relationships altered in the New Testament. It’s ratified by simply not changing the language.
End of story? We have to look at the Bible and realize that our presuppositions that make us unwilling to include our children in sacraments, unwilling to include them in worship are modern insertions to the Scriptures. Also, equally important are the concepts of family solidarity, congregation solidarity, discipline, submission, faithfulness and loyalty to our heads, elders and rulers. These things are assumed to be normal in the Scripture even more than they are overtly commanded. Dropping the concept of covenantal theology kills more than just National Israel’s future and sprinkling babies. It can kill our faith, folks – by confusing the message and hiding the promises God has made to us (and our children).