Meredith Kline’s career was spent developing a more biblical understanding of God’s covenants. He broke new ground for Presbyterians in his magnum opus “Kingdom Prologue,” first published in 1993. There, Kline refers to “The two-stage pattern of the unfolding of the kingdom, which is such a major feature of the historical-eschatological projections in the Abrahamic Covenant” (328). He traces “the two-level structure with respect to the kingdom components of king, people, and land.” (332) (Here is an excerpt of the relevant sections of KP)
The promised king. “If Abraham was to be a father of a great nation and even a multitude of nations, then naturally he would number kings among his descendants (Gen 17:6)… Two levels of kingship were present in this prophetic blessing. Judah assumed the royal supremacy in Israel in the appointment of David as king. He, with his successors under the old covenant, were level one. Then David’s dynasty reached a distinctive second level of kingship in the coming of Jesus Christ, Shiloh, the universal Lord, and his inauguration of the new covenant in his blood… [I]n the course of biblical revelation two distinct levels of fulfillment, one provisional and prototypal, the other messianic and eternal, are clearly distinguishable in the king promise given to Abraham.”
The promised kingdom-people. “[T]he corporate seed, and the promised seed in this corporate sense is interpreted by the Scriptures as being realized on two levels… Development of the twelve sons of Jacob into the twelve-tribe nation of Israel of course constituted a fulfillment of the promise of the kingdom people at one level… (cf. 2 Sam 17:11; 1 Chr 27:23f.; 2 Chr 1:9)… Equally obvious is the Bible’s identification of a realization of the promise of the Abrahamic seed at another level… (Rom 9:7,8; cf. Rom 4:16; Gal 3:7)… Confirming the distinction made in the promise of the seed between literal and spiritual Israelites and pointing particularly to the second, spiritual level of meaning was the inclusion of the nations of the Gentiles among Abraham’s promised seed (Gen 17:4,6,16; Rom 4:11,12,16,17).”
The promised kingdom-land. “Step by step what was included in the promised kingdom land at the first level of meaning was more precisely defined. It was a land to be designated later as Abraham followed the Lord (Gen 12:1); the land of Canaan (Gen 12:7)… That the territory eventually occupied by Israel fully corresponded with the geographical bounds defined in the promise is explicitly recorded in Joshua 21:43-45 and 1 Kings 4:20,21 (cf. Num 34:2ff.; 1 Chr 18:3; Ezek 47:13-20)… Fulfillment of the land promise at the old covenant level (cf. 1 Kgs 8:65; 1 Chr 13:5; 18:1-12; 2 Chr 9:26)… The Canaanite, first level fulfillment of the land promise served the pedagogical purpose of pointing beyond itself to the second level fulfillment, intimated by the “everlasting” nature of the promised possession… with surprising abruptness the New Testament disregards the first level meaning and simply takes for granted that the second level, cosmic fulfillment is the true intention of the promise. In keeping with Old Testament prophecies that Messiah, the royal seed of Abraham, would receive and reign over a universal kingdom (e.g., Pss 2:8; 72:8; Zech 9:10), Paul identifies Abraham’s promised inheritance as the world (kosmos, Rom 4:13).”
Old vs New Covenants. “While the first level kingdom under the old covenant was itself a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises, it had the character of prophetic promise when viewed in relation to the second level fulfillment under the new covenant… Kingdom level one is identified with the old covenant and level two with the new covenant… The new covenant is not a renewal of an older covenant… with respect to the old covenant as a typological realization of the promised kingdom realm, the new covenant does not confirm the continuing validity of the old but rather announces its obsolescence and end. Necessarily so. For, as the Jeremiah 31:31-34 prophecy indicated, the old covenant in its typological kingdom aspect was not a permanent order of the grace-guarantee kind but a probationary arrangement informed by the works principle, hence breakable. And having been broken, it was perforce terminated.”
In 1809, James Haldane articulated the same two-level fulfillment concept. He said “Many precepts and promises in the Old Testament had both a literal and a spiritual meaning. The literal accomplishment was both a representation and pledge of the spiritual… Some have argued, that the covenant with Abraham was carnal, others that it was spiritual. Both are true. The covenant was, that Christ should spring from him. Three promises were then given, in order that this might be accomplished, and they were fulfilled both in a literal and spiritual sense.” (66-67) Haldane does not deliniate the three promises exactly the same as Kline, but they amount to the same idea.
That he should be the father of many nations. “This was literally fulfilled in his descendents by Keturah, Gen. xxv. 1. 4. and by Hagar, chap. xvii. 20.; but the promise referred particularly to his seed in the line of Isaac, Gen. xxi. 12, and the number of his descendents is well known, Num. xxiii. 10… We have seen that Abraham was literally the father of a multitude of nations, but the apostle informs us, that this promise referred to his being the father of all believers, Rom. iv. 16, 17; Gal. iii. 29. Here the apostle shews how men now be come Abraham’s seed. His descendents were his children, and even the children of God in a certain sense, by their birth, Exod. iv. 22. But in a higher and spiritual sense, they could only become the chil dren of Abraham and of God by faith… John i. 11. 13.”
That God would be a God to him and to his seed. “The term God is relative, and the promise implied that he would stand in a peculiar relation to him and to his seed… He brought them out of the house of bondage [in Egypt] (Exod. 2:24-25; 6:6-7; 19:4-6)… He delivered to them the law from Sinai, and gave them right judgments and true laws, good statutes and commandments. Here they entered into covenant with him, and became his, Ezek. xvi. 8. Hence the Lord is represented as the husband of Israel, and their children are called his, Ezek. xvi. 21. This was a new thing on the earth, for the Lord to take to him a nation from the midst of another nation, in the manner he had taken Israel, and to make them hear his words out of the midst of the fire, Deut. iv. 32-37… Deut 29:10-13. Here then we see the accomplishment of his promise to be a God to the seed of Abraham. He dwelt in the midst of them; he was their God, their judge, their lawgiver, and their king (Psalm 147:19-20; Amos 3:1-2; Hos 1:9)… We have seen how Jehovah was a God to the nation of Israel; but there is a higher sense in which he is the God of his people, Heb. xi. 16; viii. 10. 1 Pet. ii. 9. 10… the prophet Hosea foretold the rejection of Israel according to the flesh, and at the same time declared, that the number of the children of Israel should be as the sand of the sea. “Then said God, Call his name Lo-ammi: for ye are not my people, and I will not be your God. Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured nor numbered: and it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God,” Hos. i.9, 10. The believing Gentiles are here called the children of Israel; for this passage is quoted by the apostle in proof of the calling of the Gentiles, Rom. ix. 26. consequently every argument in favour of infant-baptism, drawn from the promises made to the children of God’s ancient people must be altogether inconclusive.”
That he would give the land of Canaan to him and to his seed for an everlasting possession. “This he did when he drove out the Canaanites before them (Psalm 105:8-11)… The inheritance of Canaan also was but the let ter, while the spirit was the heavenly inheritance, Heb. xi. 10. 16. Col. iii. 24. Gal. iif. 29.”
“Thus we see, that the three promises, Gen. xvii. had both a primary and ultimate meaning, the one being the shadow of the other. 1st, A numerous seed; this prefigured Abraham’s spiritual seed, who should be numerous as the drops of dew. 2d, A God to him, and to his seed in their generations, fulfilled in their preservation in Egypt, receiving the law at Sinai, and in all his dealings with that extraordinary people; this prefigured the peculiar care and affection which the spiritual seed should experience, and the new and better covenant which should be given them. 3d, The land of Canaan, which prefigured the heavenly inheritance, Eph.i. 3. Col. iii. 24… As the promises made to Abraham had both a letter and a spirit, no doubt Abraham and others, whose minds were enlightened by God, discerned more in them than appeared to the carnal eye… One great means by which Satan has succeeded in corrupting the Gospel has been the blending of the literal and spiritual fulfilment of these promises, – thus confounding the old and new covenants. The former was a type of the latter, and to this the Apostle refers, in speaking of the revelation of the mystery ‘which was kept secret since the world began, but now is made manifest, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith’ (Rom 6:26). The mystery here spoken of is, the hidden meaning of God’s dealings with the posterity of Abraham, to which, in his epistles, Paul frequently refers.”
Haldane, a Scottish Presbyterian, made these observations when he began lecturing through Genesis. “For the first time [I] began to enter seriously into the argument for infant baptism.” The result was that James and his brother Robert became baptists. He explained that previously, he “explained the covenant with Abraham as the gospel, or covenant of grace, and overlooking in a great measure the temporal promises, dwelt on the spiritual meaning, which I thought I proved from Scripture. –Indeed there was much truth in what was said, but it was only part of the truth. The literal meaning and accomplishment of the promises were overlooked, and only the spiritual part insisted on.”
How did Kline seek to defend his paedobaptism in light of his correct understanding of the two-level fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant? At least two reasons.
First, Kline mistakenly equated the Abrahamic Covenant with the New Covenant (over against the Old), rather than recognizing, per Galatians 4:21-31, that the Old and the New covenants both flowed from the Abrahamic Covenant. Haldane correctly noted that “although an oath was made to Abraham, securing the blessing to all families of the earth through him, this does not prove that the covenant made with him was the new covenant… This was a promise that the Saviour, revealed immediately after the fall, Gen. iii. 15. should spring from him… To call this the covenant of grace, is only calculated to mislead; for surely it was peculiar to Abraham that Christ should spring from him.”
[Note that Augustine also recognized this two-level fulfillment: “[T]hat divine oracle to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the other prophetic signs or sayings which are given in the earlier sacred writings… pertain partly to the nation of Abraham’s flesh, and partly to that seed of his in which all nations are blessed as fellow-heirs of Christ by the New Testament, to the possessing of eternal life and the kingdom of the heavens… Therefore prophetic utterances of three kinds are to be found; forasmuch as there are some relating to the earthly Jerusalem, some to the heavenly, and some to both… [W]hat we read of historically as predicted and fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, we must also inquire the allegorical meaning of, as it is to be fulfilled in the seed of Abraham according to faith.”]