Assuming neither continuity or discontinuity

I was reading this short article on Paedobaptism the other day. In fact, I read it twice. I picked it up on Tim Challies A La Carte feature and then subsequently read it again as it popped up in my own blog reader and I thought it was a different article (which it obviously wasn’t). I don’t intend to talk about baptism per se here. You can find other articles on this blog doing that.

The thing I wanted to pick up on was a comment in the article as it pertains to a much wider set of things. The author writes:

we would expect to find some mention in the New Testament if, after thousands of years of including children in the covenant community as recipients of the covenant sign, things were supposed to be so radically different in the new covenant era.

Again, let me reiterate, I don’t intend to get into a specific discussion about baptism and who belongs to the covenant here. As Tim Challies aptly noted, ‘It’s interesting to me that both sides shift the burden of proof to the other [on that question]’.

I wanted to ask a relevant, but slightly different, question. What is the ground of determining continuity or discontinuity across the covenants. And I want to do this by drawing a bounded group around my brothers and sisters who (like me) subscribe to the doctrines of grace. Within our bounded group, regardless of our differences over baptism and just who belongs to what covenant (and whether they are even different covenants at all), all of us reckon with this question of continuity and discontinuity.

For example, our Reformed Presbyterian brethren would hold to a much tighter sense of continuity than a Particular Baptist like me. They would see one covenant with different administrations whereas I see several covenants progressively revealing the New Covenant, each related to the last, but nonetheless distinct in its redemptive-historical context. But my Presbyterian friends still reckon there are discontinuities because most are not theonomists and are certainly not circumcising their children. Clearly, despite their view that the covenants are essentially alike, they recognise there are significant differences. Particular Baptists, likewise, seeing discontinuities, still affirm certain continuities. We, like our Presbyterian friends, see faith as the means – throughout the covenants – of salvation. The big question – given we all recognise continuities and discontinuities – is this: how do we determine what stays and what goes?

At one end of the spectrum, there are folks who insist that unless we see something affirmed in the New Testament, it is jettisoned. Unless the Lord and his Apostles clearly say it carries on, then it definitely doesn’t. At the other end of the spectrum, some insist that unless the New Testament affirms a specific change, then we must assume the thing continues in the same form. Some harder line New Covenant Theology advocates would affirm the former while, as effectively stated in the linked article above, many Presbyterians advocate the latter.

The problem with the former view (in my opinion) is that it effectively relegates the Old Testament to something all but redundant. It carries almost no authority whatsoever. It also runs on an assumption that the Apostles, in writing the New Testament, were doing so in a vacuum that is effectively starting with a blank slate, rather than reading the New Testament as (so far as I can see) the fulfilment and natural heir of all that has gone before.

The problem with the latter view, however, is that it doesn’t (in my opinion) reckon with the era splitting, covenant changing, epoch shattering reality of what Christ achieved on the cross. It, too, works on an assumption that the Apostles were simply expecting everyone – Gentiles included – to assume all the norms of Judaism unless and until they state otherwise. But prior to the Jerusalem Council, Paul didn’t seem overly bothered in telling the Gentile churches to maintain Jewish norms. That was specifically why that council had to be called – the Jewish believers struggled with the fact that the Gentile believers didn’t follow their customs. Paul had already called it before the council. Those demanding continuity with the Old Covenant were wrong to do so in that scenario.

It is interesting to note of the view that the covenants are alike and thus the New Covenant follows the same pattern as the Old – resting as it does on a principle of continuity that claims unless something is expressly repealed it must continue – circumcision isn’t abrogated on that ground. It is repeatedly noted that circumcision is not a salvation issue, as the Judaizers were insisting. But that, of itself, is not abrogation. This is the same point we affirm re baptism not being effective for salvation. But if there is one covenant with different administrations, and circumcision held throughout all the administrations of the Old Covenant, on a hard continuity view, what ground is there for abrogating circumcision altogether in the New Covenant and not simply adding baptism to it? Paul nowhere expressly forbids circumcision. He nowhere expressly abrogates it and, at one point, insisting Timothy is circumcised affirming the practice is certainly not wrong per se.

However, in Paul’s defence against the Judaizers, his argument rests largely on the fact that the Old and New Covenants are not alike. He appeals to different administrations to resolve the problem i.e. the covenants are significantly dissimilar to warrant separate signs, not to a fundamental continuity that links circumcision to baptism. Likewise, this is why Paul was at liberty to circumcise Timothy. If circumcision had been abrograted, this would be to put him under the auspices of the Old Covenant. But, the terms of the New Covenant insist that – as Paul puts it – ‘circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is keeping the commandments of God.’ Paul’s case rests entirely on the New Covenant being just that; new and somewhat distinct with new and distinct signs.

But given that, however we work it out, we all consider there to be continuity and discontinuity, how do we determine what continues and what doesn’t? Addressing an altogether different question in this article, I think Jonathan Leeman gives us two helpful grounds.

Firstly, he says: ‘when it comes to determining the polity and practice of God’s people throughout the Bible, including the church: first, ask WHO is authorized to do WHAT.’ Not all people are authorised by God to do the same things, he has given different offices to different people. What God authorised for Solomon, as king of Israel, is not the same as what he authorised for Paul the Apostle which, in turn, is not necessarily the same as what he has authorised for me, an elder in a church or you as a member of a church.

Secondly, he says we must pay attention to canonical horizons. He notes, ‘As the storyline of redemptive history progresses, God authorizes different groups of people differently with each covenantal administration: Israel one way; the new covenant community another.’ This means, as new covenant believers, understanding how the old covenant stipulations apply to us through the filter of how they apply first to Christ and then to those in him. Having done that, we then need to ask whether Christ demands those Old Covenant stipulations of us in the new in the same form.

In this sense, then, we are neither assuming continuity or discontinuity. What we are asking is, first, ‘who is being authorised to do what?’ and second, ‘how does that relate to me in Christ?’ It is for those reasons that Leeman states (and I share his view):

Put these two interpretive principles together… and you’ll understand why I find the following statement by B. B. Warfield defending paedobaptism somewhat strange: “God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances. Among these ordinances is baptism.”

We can’t assume one administration remains the same as the next until we’re told otherwise. At the same time, we can’t assume nothing will be the same at all. But this means the terms of the new administration must be set by the new administration itself.

Why can we be sure that circumcision is no longer a sign for Christians? If we assume continuity, we must assume circumcision continues in some form, being careful not to insist that the one who doesn’t get circumcised will not be saved as a result. But if we assume under a new administration there may be continuity and discontinuity, when we look at what Paul says about circumcision, we see that it belonged to the law of the Old Covenant that is no longer required under the new. We are free to be circumcised or otherwise, it is ultimately nothing because those who have given us the new administration have told us it is so.

The question, then, of whether children necessarily belong in the covenant or ought to be baptised depends entirely on WHO has been authorised to do WHAT, how the new administration tells us it ought to be applied and how – if there are continuities to be found with the old administration – how they first apply to Christ and, only through him, to us.