The Transtestamental (Retroactive) New Covenant
I recently read W. Gary Campton’s new book “From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism.” You can find my first post on it here. Crampton does a great job of very clearly communicating a wide range of issues in this important debate.
One of the key issues in Reformed arguments over baptism is properly understanding the New Covenant; both the nature of the New Covenant as well as the scope of its effect in redemptive history.
Regarding the nature of the New Covenant, Crampton argues
The fact is that in the Old Covenant era, unbelieving Jews by right (de jure) were part of the nation of Israel. But in the New Covenant community it is different. As the author of Hebrews, citing Jeremiah 31:31-34, writes, the New Covenant is “not like the covenant” God made with the Old Testament fathers (8:9). In the New Covenant they “shall all know Me from the least of them to the greatest of them” (8:11). In the New Testament era, says Jesus, “they shall all be taught by God” (John 6:45; compare Isaiah 54:13). As state by John Owen, it is the “church of the elect believers,” consisting of both “Jews and Gentiles, with whom this [New] Covenant is made and established, and unto whom the grace is actually communicated”:
“For all those with whom this [New] Covenant is made shall as really have the law of God written in their hearts, and their sins pardoned, according unto the promise of it, as the people of old were brought into the land of Canaan by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham. These are the true Israel and Judah, prevailing with God, and confessing unto His name. (Owen, Hebrews Commentary V1:118)
Regarding the scope of the effect of the New Covenant, Crampton states:
This is not to say that persons under the Old Covenant administration did not “know the Lord.” Clearly, there were many who did. There were numerous persons who had their sins forgiven (Psalm 32:1-2), the law of God written on their hearts (Psalm 40:8; 119:11; Isaiah 51:7), and who had professed saving faith in the Messiah to come (John 8:56; Hebrews 11:24-26).* But the great majority of the Old Covenant community did not possess such faith (1 Cor 10:1-11), and membership was not restricted to those who “know the Lord.” The Old Covenant was a breakable covenant, whereas the New Covenant is not (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:8-12).
*[footnote] In this sense, as Calvin pointed out, all persons who are saved, both Old and New Covenants (the elect), are saved under the New Covenant; that is, Christ is the only Savior of all the elect (Hebrews 10:5-18; 12:10) (Institutes II: 11:10).
This last footnote from Crampton is extremely important and I wish he had spilled more ink elaborating on it. Crampton quotes both Calvin and Owen in these few pages. Calvin and Owen both say that anyone who has ever been elect has been saved by the New Covenant. However, they provide two very different reasons for this. And I think Owen’s reason is what allows him to say the New Covenant is made of the elect alone, while Calvin does not.
Calvin was careful to insist that “all these [differences between the Old and New Testaments/Covenants] pertain to the manner of dispensation rather than to the substance.” (II:11:1)
This is very specific language used during the time when discussing covenant theology. Most argued that the substance of the covenants remained the same, but only their outward appearance and administration/”manner of dispensation” were different. However, this is precisely what Crampton implies against in his footnote when he says “that is, Christ is the only Savior of all of the elect.” Per my reading, Crampton essentially said the Old Covenant elect must have been saved “under the New Covenant” because the substance of the New Covenant is altogether different from the Old (ie it had a different mediator/Christ is the Great High Priest of the New Covenant, not the Old).
Regarding the difference in substance between the two, John Owen noted:
This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works. (comments on Hebrews 8:6-13)
“No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.” (ibid)
This very difference in substance is what Calvin actually denied, not affirmed. Calvin said the opposite of Owen:
The Old Testament fathers had Christ as pledge (mediator) of their covenant… The Old Testament or Covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites had not been limited to earthly things, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life. (2.10.23)
The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation. (2.10.2)
Owen said the Old Covenant elect were saved by the promsie, and that the promise was separate from the Old Covenant. Calvin also said they were saved by the promise, but he said the promise was the very substance of the Old Covenant, not separate from it. Also, Owen said Christ’s mediation was limited to the New Covenant, while Calvin said Christ was mediator of the Old Covenant. You may be tempted to brush this aside as useless splitting of hairs, but this is a very nuanced debate and thus we must be very nuanced in our discussion of it – because it does have very serious ramifications.
Commenting on the same passage as Owen, Hebrews 8:6-13, Calvin reaches a very different conclusion:
Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which is is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. [Here Calvin magically combines the two distinct covenants under discussion in the passage into one covenant]. While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it [as opposed to the substance of it]. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices.
Because nothing substantial underlies this unless we go beyond it, the apostle contends that it ought to be terminated and abrogated, to give place to Christ, the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant [cf. Heb 7:22]; whereby he imparts eternal sanctifications once and for all to the elect, blotting out their transgressions, which remained under the law. Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant [the eternal covenant] wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the Supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples “the cup of the New Testament in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal.
Wow. Look at how radically different Calvin’s conclusion is from Owen’s when commenting on the same passage of Scripture. Calvin strips Scripture of its plain teaching and insists that “Old Covenant” in Hebrews 8 actually means “Old Covenant Ceremonies” because the Old Covenant is really the same covenant as the New Covenant, they just look different. According to Calvin, they are both the same eternal covenant. The Old “becomes” the New. They are the same.
This is drastically different from Owen’s more biblically faithful conclusion that these are two separate covenants, and that only one of them saves. “Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant.”
This difference between Owen and Calvin is important, because it is precisely (in my opinion) why Crampton can rely upon Owen to provide the excellent quote about the New Covenant being made of elect, regenerate members only.
Below is the section from Calvin that Crampton cites – and I think it makes much more sense if interpreted along Owen’s view of the covenants. Remember that Calvin believes the Old and New Covenants are actually the same covenant, they just look different:
The three latter comparisons to which we have referred are of the law and the gospel. In them the law is signified by the name “Old Testament,” the gospel by “New Testament.” The first extends more widely, for it includes within itself also the promises published before the law. Augustine, however, said that these should not be reckoned under the name “Old Testament.” This was very sensible. He meant the same thing as we are teaching: for he was referring to those statements of Jeremiah and Paul wherein the Old Testament is distinguished from the word of grace and mercy. In the same passage he very aptly adds the following: “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.” It is that very point which I intend to affirm: all the saints whom Scripture mentions as being particularly chosen of God from the beginning of the world have shared with us the same blessing unto eternal salvation. This, then, is the difference between our analysis and his: ours distinguishes between the clarity of the gospel and the obscurer dispensation of the Word that had preceded it, according to that statement of Christ, “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the Kingdom of God is proclaimed” [Luke 16:16]; Augustine’s division simply separates the weakness of the law from the firmness of the gospel.
We must also note this about the holy patriarchs: they so lived under the Old Covenant as not to remain there but ever to aspire to the New, and thus embraced a real share in it.
If you look at what Augustine said in its original context, you can see that Augustine actually shared Owen’s view of the covenants, not Calvin’s. Augustine said:
In that testament [covenant], however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised… 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];
In my reading, Calvin does not quite take it as far as Crampton would imply, though close. Calvin attempts to save himself from contradiction by saying he does not agree with Augustine’s statements absolutely, but only insofar as they apply to the administration/appearance of things (“ours distinguishes between the clarity of the gospel and the obscurer dispensation…”). In other words, Calvin appears to be saying that the Old Covenant elect looked through the shadows of the Old Covenant to see the more clearly revealed gospel of the New Covenant, and thus shared in this clearer gospel dispensation, for Calvin continues:
The apostle condemns as blind and accursed those who, content with present shadows, did not stretch their minds to Christ.
In the footnote, Crampton’s point (per my reading) is that OT saints must have been saved by the New Covenant because Christ is mediator and priest of the New Covenant – but Calvin disagrees. I believe there is warrant for claiming Calvin meant something different from Crampton because Crampton’s comment “that is, Christ is the only Savior of all of the elect” and his reference to Hebrews 10:5-18; 12:10, are not found in the Calvin reference he provides.
In sum: Calvin said Christ is the mediator of both the Old and the New because they are the same. But Owen disagreed with Calvin, saying that Moses was the mediator of the Old while Christ is the mediator of the New.
You may be thoroughly confused by now – which is why I wish Crampton had elaborated on this footnote 🙂 However, I think this is an important topic worth pressing and clarifying further. Hopefully I was able to do that to an extent. I welcome all comments, critiques, and corrections.
A common objection to the idea that the Old Covenant elect were actually members of the New Covenant is the idea that the New Covenant was not inaugurated until Christ’s sacrifice. To that, I have previously answered as follows:
I don’t think that we need to break the bounds of cause-and-effect in time.
The OT saints looked forward to the formal inauguration of the NC in the death of Christ as their Mediator, and thus were made partakers of, heirs of, or members of the New Covenant.
How is that possible if the NC was not inaugurated until Christ’s death?
(1) I think we need to acknowledge that the OT saints did not consider their Mediator, their Redeemer, as having already come and accomplished their redemption. For them it was yet future. Thus the cause-and-effect in time aspect is still in force for them.
(2) I think the reason this is possible is because the New Covenant is founded upon that eternal transaction (LBC 7.3) between the Father and the Son (I would equate what is commonly called the Covenant of Redemption with the New Covenant). The Father promised to give the Son a people of His choosing upon the condition of the Son dying on their behalf. And Christ promised to do so. Titus 1:2 says “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.” (cf. Heb 6:17-18)
The Son promising to do something is enough to make it a reality. Thus OT saints could look forward to their Savior who had not yet come, yet benefit by that coming and dying because it was a certainty. It was a legal certainty they could bank on because it was sworn by the Son. This is consistent with what one may read from someone like Berkhof in regards to Christ as surety:
The position of Christ in the covenant of redemption is twofold. In the first place He is Surety (Gr. egguos), a word that is used only in Heb 7:22. The derivation of this word is uncertain, and therefore cannot aid us in establishing its meaning. But the meaning is not doubtful. A surety is one who engages to become responsible for it that the legal obligations of another will be met. In the covenant of redemption Christ undertook to atone for the sins of His people by bearing the necessary punishment, and to meet the demands of the law for them. And by taking the place of delinquent man He became the last Adam, and is as such also the Head of the covenant, the Representative of all those whom the Father has given Him… [An uncondintional] surety takes upon himself unconditionally to pay for another, thus relieving the guilty party of his responsibility at once.
-Systematic Theology p. 267 (Banner of Truth)
Commenting on Heb 8, Owen puts it this way:
This is the meaning of the word “established”, say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance to the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood.
Note O. Palmer Robertson’s comment regarding the Mosaic Covenant:
“Interestingly, the prophet does not refer (Jer 31) specifically to the formal inauguration of the covenant that occurred at Sinai. Instead, he refers to the covenant established on the day in which the Lord brought Israel out of Egypt. This lack of preciseness does not mean that Jeremiah did not have the Mosaic covenant itself in mind when he developed this contrast. He speaks too specifically of a law written in the heart, implying a contrast with law written in stone. His allusion to the Mosaic covenant by reference to the exodus from Egypt simply conforms to a repeated pattern found in Scripture with respect to the covenants. Historical events associated intimately with the covenant often precede the formal inauguration of the covenantal relationship. According to E. W. Hengstenberg:
‘The substance of the covenant evidently precedes the outward conclusion of the covenant, and forms the foundation of it. The conclusion of the covenant does not first form the relation, but is merely a solemn acknowledgment of a relation already existing.’”
(Christ of the Covenants, pp 280-281)