Augustine on the New Covenant
As I have been working out my understanding of covenant theology, I have argued that Abraham, and all saints prior to Christ were members of the New Covenant. Those who disagree argue that the New Covenant is an “historical covenant” and that it was not inaugurated until Christ’s ministry, thus it is impossible to say that Abraham was a member of the New Covenant. In light of the overwhelming rejection I have received for my opinion, I was quite surprised to find the following statement from Augustine, quoted by Calvin:
“the children of the promise [Rom 9:8], reborn of God, who have obeyed the commands by faith working through love [Gal 5:6], have belonged to the New Covenant since the world began. This they did, not in hope of carnal, earthly, and temporal things, but in hope of spiritual, heavenly, and eternal benefits. For they believed especially in the Mediator; and they did not doubt that through him the Spirit was given to them that they might do good, and that they were pardoned whenever they sinned.”
-quoted by Calvin (Institutes 2.11.10), Augustine, “Against Two Letters of the Pelagians III. iv. 6-12, esp. 11 (MPL 44. 591-597; tr. NPNF V. 346-351)
An important aspect of my argument is that the Mosaic covenant is “confined to things temporal” to use John Owen’s language. It was only about the physical promised land and physical life, not the eternal promised land, nor eternal life. And so I was quite pleased to find the following statements from Augustine concerning not only the new covenant, but the temporal, earthly nature of the old covenant as well. (I was looking for the quotation Calvin cited, but I haven’t been able to find it):
Chapter 14.—Examination of This Point.
The Phrase “Old Testament” Used in Two Senses.
The Heir of the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament There Were Heirs of the New Testament.
…”At all events, in those ancient Scriptures it is most distinctly written: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will consummate a new testament [covenant] with the house of Israel and with the house of Jacob; not according to the testament [covenant] that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” Jer. xxxi. 31, 32. // This was done on Mount Sinai. But then there had not yet risen the prophet Daniel to say: “The saints shall receive the kingdom of the Most High.” Dan. vii. 18. // For by these words he foretold the merit not of the Old, but of the New Testament [covenant]. In the same manner did the same prophets foretell that Christ Himself would come, in whose blood the New Testament [covenant] was consecrated. Of this Testament [covenant] also the apostles became the ministers, as the most blessed Paul declares: “He hath made us able ministers of the New Testament [covenant]; not in its letter, but in spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” 2 Cor. iii. 6. // In that testament [covenant], however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament [covenant]. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament [covenant]; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament [covenant], for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament [covenant], as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man. But whatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament [covenant] require the new man to give them effect. And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments [covenants] as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” Rom. ix. 8. // The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. Gal. iv. 25, 26. // Whence we can easily see who they are that appertain to the earthly, and who to the heavenly kingdom. But then the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament [covenant]; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament [covenant] to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.”
Chapter 33.—The Prophecy of Jeremiah Concerning the New Testament.
[Jer 31:31-34] One nowhere, or hardly anywhere, except in this passage of the prophet, finds in the Old Testament Scriptures any mention so made of the New Testament as to indicate it by its very name. It is no doubt often referred to and foretold as about to be given, but not so plainly as to have its very name mentioned. Consider then carefully, what difference God has testified as existing between the two testaments—the old covenant and the new.
… Chapter 36
“What then is God’s law written by God Himself in the hearts of men, but the very presence of the Holy Spirit, who is “the finger of God,” and by whose presence is shed abroad in our hearts the love which is the fulfilling of the law, Rom. xiii. 10. // and the end of the commandment? 1 Tim. i. 5. // Now the promises of the Old Testament [covenant] are earthly; and yet (with the exception of the sacramental ordinances which were the shadow of things to come, such as circumcision, the Sabbath and other observances of days, and the ceremonies of certain meats, See Retractations, ii. 37, printed at the head of this treatise. // and the complicated ritual of sacrifices and sacred things which suited “the oldness” of the carnal law and its slavish yoke) it contains such precepts of righteousness as we are even now taught to observe, which were especially expressly drawn out on the two tables without figure or shadow: for instance, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” “Thou shalt do no murder,” “Thou shalt not covet,” Ex. xx. 13, 14, 17. // “and whatsoever other commandment is briefly comprehended in the saying, Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself.” Rom. xiii. 9. // Nevertheless, whereas as in the said Testament earthly and temporal promises are, as I have said, recited, and these are goods of this corruptible flesh (although they prefigure those heavenly and everlasting blessings which belong to the New Testament), what is now promised is a good for the heart itself, a good for the mind, a good of the spirit, that is, an intellectual good; since it is said, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their hearts will I write them,” Jer. xxxi. 33. // —by which He signified that men would not fear the law which alarmed them externally, but would love the very righteousness of the law which dwelt inwardly in their hearts.”
… Chapter 40
““They shall all know me,” Jer. xxxi. 34. // He says,—“All,” the house of Israel and house of Judah. “All,” however, “are not Israel which are of Israel,” Rom. ix. 6. // but they only to whom it is said in “the psalm concerning the morning aid” See title of Ps. xxii. (xxi. Sept.) in the Sept. and Latin. // (that is, concerning the new refreshing light, meaning that of the new testament [covenant]), “All ye the seed of Jacob, glorify Him; and fear Him, all ye the seed of Israel.” Ps. xxii. 23. // All the seed, without exception, even the entire seed of the promise and of the called, but only of those who are the called according to His purpose. Rom. viii. 28. // “For whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified.” Rom. viii. 30. // “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed: not to that only which is of the law,”—that is, which comes from the Old Testament [Covenant] into the New,—“but to that also which is of faith,” which was indeed prior to the law, even “the faith of Abraham,”—meaning those who imitate the faith of Abraham,—“who is the father of us all; as it is written, I have made thee the father of many nations.” Rom. iv. 16, 17. // Now all these predestinated, called, justified, glorified ones, shall know God by the grace of the new testament [covenant], from the least to the greatest of them.”
… Chapter 41
“As then the law of works, which was written on the tables of stone, and its reward, the land of promise, which the house of the carnal Israel after their liberation from Egypt received, belonged to the old testament [covenant], so the law of faith, written on the heart, and its reward, the beatific vision which the house of the spiritual Israel, when delivered from the present world, shall perceive, belong to the new testament [covenant].”
… Chapter 42
I beg of you, however, carefully to observe, as far as you can, what I am endeavouring to prove with so much effort. When the prophet promised a new covenant, not according to the covenant which had been formerly made with the people of Israel when liberated from Egypt, he said nothing about a change in the sacrifices or any sacred ordinances, although such change, too, was without doubt to follow, as we see in fact that it did follow, even as the same prophetic scripture testifies in many other passages; but he simply called attention to this difference, that God would impress His laws on the mind of those who belonged to this covenant, and would write them in their hearts, Jer. xxxi. 32, 33. // whence the apostle drew his conclusion,—“not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart;” 2 Cor. iii. 3. // and that the eternal recompense of this righteousness was not the land out of which were driven the Amorites and Hittites, and other nations who dwelt there, Josh. xii. but God Himself,// “to whom it is good to hold fast,” Ps. lxxiii. 28. // in order that God’s good that they love, may be the God Himself whom they love, between whom and men nothing but sin produces separation; and this is remitted only by grace.