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John Brown on Galatians 3:16-17

December 2, 2018 5 comments

In previous posts (see here, here, here, and here) I have argued that in Galatians 3-4, Paul does not identify the Abrahamic Covenant with the New Covenant and then distinguish them both from the Mosaic Covenant. His argument is much more nuanced. In short, Paul distinguishes between two different promises made to two different seed of Abraham. One promise concerned Abraham’s numerous offspring (who were circumcised and received the law to regulate their reception and retention of the promised land), the other promise concerned Abraham’s single offspring who would bless all nations.

Someone on twitter recently pointed me to John Brown’s commentary on Galatians where I found some encouraging agreement on key points (though not every point). Specifically, Brown agrees that Galatians 3:16 refers to a distinction between two different promises made to two different seed of Abraham; and he agrees that 3:17 should be translated as “concerning Christ” not “in Christ.” Furthermore, he rightly understands that circumcision was a seal of the historia salutis: a guarantee of the coming of Christ to bless all nations.

John Brown was a 19th century Scottish minister (grandson of John Brown of Haddington). Spurgeon said in his Commenting and Commentaries, ‘Brown is a modern Puritan of the utmost value.’


“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.”

The language is somewhat peculiar, but the meanhig is not obscure. That is ascribed to the Scripture which properly refers to God in that transaction which the passage of Scripture quoted describes. Similar modes of expression are to be found in other parts of the New Testament (Mark 15:28; John 7:38, 42; Rom. 4:3; 9:17). The meaning plainly is, ‘God, who foresaw that in a future period many of the Gentiles were to be received into his favour and treated like his children on their believing the revelation of mercy through his Son, gave an intimation of his design to Abraham in the promise which He made to him.’ The Syriac version reads, — “And God knowing before hand.” The phrase, “preached the gospel beforehand,” in consequence of the very definite idea we generally attach to the word “gospel” and the technical sense in which we use the word “preach” does not, I am persuaded, convey distinctly the apostle’s idea to most English readers. It is just equivalent to, ‘made known these good tidings to Abraham long before the period when they were to be realised.’ Tyndale’s version here, as in many other passages, is better than the authorised translation, — “showed beforehand glad tidings to Abraham.” And this intimation was given in these words, — “In thee shall all nations be blessed.”*1 The word translated “nations,” is the same as that rendered “the heathen [Gentiles]” in the beginning of the verse. The same word should have been retained to mark more clearly the point of the apostle’s argument.

*1 Gen. xii. 3; xviii. 18; xxii. 18. See also Gen. xxvi. 4; zxviii. 14. The words are not an exact quotation of any one of these passages, — eye vX. cV aoiy Gen. xii. 3, n. r. c.^ ori is not a part of the quotation; it marks the words quoted, as 1 John iv. 20; Rom. viii. 36 ; Matth. ii. 23 ; v. 31 ; yii. 23, etc. — See Buttmann, § 149. The Hebrew “o is used in the same way, Gen. xxix. 33 ; Josh. ii. 24.

But it may be said, What intimation is there in these words of God’s purpose to “justify the Gentiles by faith”? This will appear if we consider that the particle translated “in,” signifies, in connection with, along with, in the same manner as.*2 The declaration of the oracle, in this way of viewing it, is that, ‘all the nations,’ i.e. that multitudes of all Gentile nations, ‘shall be blessed along with Abraham.’

*2 This is a common signification of the Hebrew part [], of which [] is here the translations – Numb. 20:20; 1 Kings 10:2; Jer 11:9; Psal 99:6

“By ‘the nations’ in this promise we cannot understand all and every one in the nations; nor can we consider them as such, political bodies of men in the earth; but according to the New Testament explication, “it is a great multitude of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues.” (Rev. 7:9) This will be evident if we consider that the blessedness spoken of in this promise, is spiritual and eternal, and must be acknowledged so to be by those who take the New Testament account of it (Gal. 3:8,9,14). It is manifest no nation of this world can, in a national capacity, be the subject of justification by faith, and of the promise of the Spirit, which we receive through faith ; and it is as certain that every person in the nations of the world is not to partake of this blessedness. What remains, therefore, but that it should be those who are redeemed by Christ out of every nation? And thus we find out the intent of the writings of the prophets about the nations. For these are enlargements upon, this promise to Abraham.”
-Glas’s “Testimony of the King of Martyrs,” chap. ii. sect. i. pp. 74-76, 12mo ed. 1777

The promise is fulfilled in God’s “visiting the Gentiles to take out of them a people for his name.” (Acts 15:14) Thus, all nations shall be blessed along with Abraham, in connection with Abraham, members of the same body, possessed of the same privileges, made happy in the same way as he was made happy.

[…]

And if, while this deed remains unrevoked, some other arrangement or disposition should take place which might seem inconsistent with it, if we have a perfect confidence in the wisdom and integrity of the author of the two arrangements, the conclusion to be come to is, the second arrangement does not really interfere with the first, and their apparent discordance must arise from our misconception of them. The application of this principle to the apostle’s object is natural and easy. God had, in the case of Abraham, showed that justification is by believing ; He had, in the revelation made to Abraham, declared materially that justification by faith was to come upon the Gentiles. This arrangement was confirmed or ratified, both by circumcision, which the apostle tells us was “the seal of justification by faith,” and by the solemn promise made to Abraham that, “in him,” along with him, in the same way as he was, “all nations should be blessed.” It follows, of course, that no succeeding arrangement of God could contradict this arrangement; and that if any succeeding Divine arrangement seemed to do so, the cause of this was to be sought in our misapprehension of its true nature and design, which, when clearly perceived, would distinctly show the perfect harmony of the two apparently inconsistent arrangements. This is the line of argument which the apostle pursuea in the following verses.

“Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises *3 made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one. And to thy seed, which is Christ.”

*3 “Plurale. Promissio saepe repetita : at lex semel data.” — BENGEL

These words admit of two renderings: either ‘Now to Abraham and his seed,’ or ‘now in, through, or in reference to Abraham and his seed.’ In either case they are expressive of a fact. “To Abraham and his seed promises were made;” or, in other words, blessings were promised. The following are examples of such promises, — Gen. xii. 3; xvii. 4-8; xxii. 16, 17. This has been generally understood to be the meaning of the apostle; and it has been supposed that his argument is, — ‘Certain blessings were by God freely promised to Abraham and his spiritual seed long before the law was given, and therefore their communication cannot be suspended on obedience to the requisitions of that law.’ The great objection to this mode of interpretation is, that it obliges us to understand the word “Christ,” not of the Messiah personally, but of the collective body of those who are saved by him.

We are rather disposed to consider the apostle as stating, ‘Now the promises were made through or in reference to Abraham and his Seed.’ Not only were blessings promised to Abraham and his seed; but blessings were promised through Abraham and his Seed to the nations (Gen 12:3; 22:18). It is to one of these promises that the apostle refers in the preceding context, verse 8. The blessing promised through Abraham and his Seed was, he informs us, the justification of the Gentiles by faith. We consider the apostle then as saying in the first clause of the verse, ‘Now the promises of justification by faith were made to the Gentiles through Abraham and through his Seed.’

The word “seed” is a word of ambiguous meaning. It may rather signify descendants generally, or one class of descendants, or a single descendant. The apostle in the concluding part of the verse tells us how it is to be understood in the passage he alludes to. “He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy Seed, which is Christ.'”

These words have very generally been understood as if they embodied an argument, — as if the apostle reasoned from the word “seed” being in the singular, inferring from that circumstance either that the word referred to one class of descendants, and not to descendants of all classes, or to one individual descendant, and not to descendants generally. That this is not the apostle’s reasoning we apprehend is certain; for it is obviously inconclusive reasoning. The use of the plural term might have laid a foundation for the inference that he spake of more than one; but seed being a collective word, its use in the singular lays no foundation for an opposite inference. Even supposing that his Jewish readers might have been imposed on by such a sophism, which is not at all probable, it would not only have been unworthy of his dignity as an apostle, but of his integrity as an honest man, to have used it.

The truth is, there is no ground to suppose that it is the statement of an argument at all. It is just as Riccaltoun observes, “a critical, explicatory remark.” It is just as if he had said, ‘In the passage I refer to, the word seed is used of an individual, just as when it is employed of Seth, Gen. iv. 25, where he is called “another seed,” and said to be given in the room of Abel, whom Cain slew. In looking carefully at the promise recorded, Gen. xxii. 16-18, the phrase “seed” seems used with a different reference in the two parts of the promise — the first part of the 17th verse plainly referring to a class of descendants; the last clause and the 18th verse to an individual, and that individual is Christ.’ There is no doubt that this is the fact — that in the promise, “In thy Seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” the reference is not to the descendants of Abraham generally, nor to his descendants by Isaac, nor to his spiritual descendants, but to bis great descendant, the Messiah.

The words will, indeed, admit of another meaning, q. d, — ‘The sacred oracle does not refer to all the descendants of Abraham, but to one particular class of them; not to his descendants by Ishmael, nor to his descendants by the sons of Keturah, nor even to all his descendants by Isaac, nor to his natural descendants, but to his spiritual descendants.’ But this obliges us to understand the word “Christ” in a very unusual, if not altogether unwarranted, sense. Besides, if the apostle alludes, as is natural, to the promise he had already quoted, there is no doubt that the reference there is to the Messiah personally considered,* We therefore prefer the former mode of interpretation. The promise of justification by faith to the Gentiles was made through Abraham and his seed, meaning by his seed, the Messiah. The reason why this is so particularly noticed will appear in the course of the discussion.

The apostle proceeds with his argument. “And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none efiect.”

The only phrase which is obscure in this verse is the clause rendered “in Christ.” Some would render it to Christ; others till Christ, i.e. till Christ came, which is undoubtedly its meaning at chapter v. 24. I apprehend the true rendering of the particle is concerning or in reference to — a meaning which the term by no means uncommonly bears in the New Testament. I shall give a few examples, — Eph. v. 32 ; Acts ii. 25 ; Heb. vii. 14 ; Luke xii. 21 ; Bom. iv. 20 ; xvi. 19 ; 2 Cor. ii. 9. The covenant in reference to Christ is just the arrangement or settlement as to justification by faith to be extended to the Gentiles through the Messiah, which was made known in the Divine declaration to Abraham. This Divine arrangement was “confirmed of God,” ratified by God in the ordinance of circumcision which was given to Abraham as a person justified in uncircumcision, and made known as a fixed appointment in the Divine declaration so often referred to. It was “confirmed before.” That is, it was a finished, ratified deed, long previously to the law.

‘Now’ says the apostle, ‘this completed and ratified covenant or arrangement about Christ, as to the justification of the Gentiles by believing, could not be disannulled by the giving of the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, so that the promise should be of none effect.’

There is some uncertainty as to the period of four hundred and thirty years mentioned, some chronologers insisting that it is the exact period from the time the promise was given till the law was given,’ others that it refers only to a part of that period, namely, to the time of the Israelites sojourning in Egypt. In either case it is true that the law was at least four hundred and thirty years after the promise in which the covenant about Christ was exhibited as confirmed. The law being a subsequent covenant or arrangement, could not make of none effect the promise, which was a previously ratified and unrepealed covenant. The person who thinks the promise thus made void, must labour under some misapprehension with regard to the nature and design of the law.

But it might be said. How does the making the observance of the law the condition of justification disannul the covenant or make the promise of none effect? The answer to that question is to be found in the next verse. “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise : but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”

“The inheritance” here is, I apprehend, the same thing as the blessing of Abraham, which, we have seen, is justification — the being treated by God as righteous ; or, what is necessarily connected with, indeed implied in, it — the heavenly and spiritual blessings of which the possession of Canaan is the type. The “covenant,” “the promise,” and “the inheritance,” all refer to substantially the same thing ; but it would be absurd to say these three words have the same meaning. The “covenant” refers to the Divine arrangement as to conferring on men the blessings of the Divine favour, ” the promise ” is the revelation of this in the form of a promise, and ” the inheritance ” is this as enjoyed by men. It is termed ” the inheritance,” because it is as the spiritual descendants of Abraham, ” the father of the faithful,” that we come to enjoy it. Now, if the enjoyment of this inheritance be suspended on our obedience to the law of Moses, ” it is no more of promise,” i. e. it is no more a free donation in fulfilment of a free promise. But this is the character which belongs to the blessing as originally promised to Abraham. “God gave it to Abraham by promise,” i. e, ‘God freely promised it to Abraham;’ or, ‘God in promising it, acted from free favour.’ He meant to give a favour, a free favour ; not to make a bargain, however favourable. Abraham’s justification was not suspended on his circumcision ; and the justification of the Gentiles was to be like Abraham’s.

This, then, is the sum of the apostle’s argument, A ratified, unrepealed constitution cannot be set aside by a subsequent constitution. The plan of justification by believing was a ratified and unrepealed constitution. The law was a constitution posterior to this by a long term of years. If the observance of the law were constituted the procuring cause or necessary means of justification, such a constitution would necessarily annul the covenant before ratified, and render the promise of none effect. It follows, of course, that the law was appointed for no such purpose. Whatever end it might serve, it could not serve this end ; it could never be appointed to serve this end.

A Twitter Exchange on Galatians 3:16

July 26, 2017 1 comment

Galatians 3:16 is not an easy verse to understand. It has stumped many, many theologians. Paul’s argument, however, is actually very simple. He is making a distinction between the seed in Genesis 13:15 & 17:8 and the seed in Genesis 22:18. And he is, thereby, making a distinction between the promise made to the seed in 13:15 and 17:8 and the promise made to the seed in Genesis 22:18. The promise that in Abraham’s offspring (singular) all nations of the earth shall be blessed (note Gal 3:8) is different from the promise that Abraham’s offspring (plural) will inherit the land of Canaan. To see this argued and explained more fully, please see here.

The following was an exchange with Brad Mason (Heart & Mouth blog). I thought it was useful in showing 1) that the paedobaptist has no coherent, logical explanation for how Paul could possibly be making an argument from the text of Genesis, and 2) that their argument that all Abrahamic promises were only made to Christ contradicts their claim that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham’s children, and thus to ours. Note Paul’s logic:

  • P1 The “offspring” in the text under discussion cannot mean both offspring plural and offspring singular (law of contradictionlaw of excluded middle).
  • P2 The text says offspring singular.
  • C Therefore the text does not say offspring plural.

The paedobaptist simply cannot affirm Paul’s syllogism (as we see below).

I did my best to format this to make it readable.


Who was the Abe Cov’t made with? Christ (Gal. 3:19). What was the sign of this Cov’t? Circumcision. Circumcision was the OT sign of Christ.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 3h3 hours ago

I’m assuming that’s a typo and you meant Gal 3:16?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 3h3 hours ago

Riffin’ off of 19, “until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made”

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 3h3 hours ago

So, just to be clear, you would say that the promise of Gen 17:7-8 was made to Christ, not to Abraham’s children?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 3h3 hours ago

To his children, by means of the Mediator, Christ.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 3h3 hours ago

Paul’s argument in v16 rests on mutual exclusivity. Was it made to Abraham’s children (plural) or to Abraham’s child (Christ)?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 3h3 hours ago

To Christ, and through Christ to Abe’s children, or also Paul contradicts himself in Rom 4, or Moses is wrong in Gen. 17.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 3h3 hours ago

So the promise says both “and to offsprings” referring to many, and “to your offspring” (singular) referring to Christ?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 3h3 hours ago

Paul’s point is not that the promises were not to Abe’s offspring, or we’d have hundreds of false statements in the Bible, even from Paul…

.. His point is that Christ is the primary recipient of these promises, and that He is the means to all the plural offspring receiving…..

…the promises, and therefore receiving the “sign” of the promises.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 3h3 hours ago

What is Paul denying in v16? “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many,”

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 3h3 hours ago

Not himself, God, or Moses, that’s for sure.
19h19 hours ago

What is Paul denying in v16? “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many,”

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 2h2 hours ago

It seems clear to me that we either have to assume Paul contradicts himself, Moses contradicts himself, or that the point is that Christ …

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 2h2 hours ago

…is and always was the sole means of anyone receiving the promise.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 2h2 hours ago

It seems to me you can’t answer the question. What is Paul denying in v16? “It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many,”

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 2h2 hours ago

It is obvious he is denying plural; what is not as obvious is what he is intending to mean by this, given that he himself often uses plural.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 2h2 hours ago

Is Paul making an argument from the text of Genesis?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 2h2 hours ago

Gen 13:15 (very next verse identifies the seed as numerous as the stars and sand)

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 1h1 hour ago

What is Paul denying Genesis 13:15 says?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

I don’t think he is. In vs. 8 he quotes Gen. 22:18. I think is welding them to make the point that the plural is and always was via the….

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

…singular, Ot and NT. Ergo, Gentiles are not excluded, which was his point from ch. 2 on.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 1h1 hour ago

What text is Paul referring to when he says
“It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many,”
?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

Closest would be Gen. 22:18, though cannot be abstracted from the others and he does not specify.

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

How about I go Socratic. Do you think his point was to exclude the plural seeds from the promises expressly given to them?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

Is his point still Gentile inclusion as in tge first half of tge chapter, or has he changed his point?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

Does he call the plural seed sons but under a guardian in the same context because he is attempting to exclude them?

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 1h1 hour ago

What is Paul denying Gen 22:18 says?
“It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many,”

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

That the promises are not via Israel, such that the Gentiles need to be circumcised to recieve them. The promises, OT and NT, are via Christ

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

The Jews made themselves the door to the Gentiles. That is why Paul wrote the letter.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 1h1 hour ago

You’re not answering the ?. What is Paul denying Gen 22:18, specifically, says?
“It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many,”

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

Is his point still Gentile inclusion as in the first half of the chapter, or has he changed his point?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

Does he call the plural seed sons but under a guardian in the same context because he is attempting to exclude them?

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 1h1 hour ago

You keep jumping 15 steps ahead. Slow down. Let me help:
Paul is denying that “offspring” in Gen 22:18 is a plurality. Agree?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 1h1 hour ago

As I have said, yes.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 1h1 hour ago

So the original text of Gen 22:18 refers to a single descendant. But the text of 13:15 and 17:8 refer to a plurality of descendants. Agree?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 59m59 minutes ago

No. I think all of them are speaking of a plurality via a singular. Can’t separate Gen 22 from 12, 13, 15, and 17, & especially not Rom 4:16

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 54m54 minutes ago

So Paul is not making an argument about what the text of Genesis says?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 52m52 minutes ago

He is making an argument from Gen, taking the collective term as singular, w/out thereby excluding the plural and contradicting himself …

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 52m52 minutes ago

…and the texts from Moses.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 51m51 minutes ago

So when he denies that it is plural, he is not denying that it is plural?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 50m50 minutes ago

He is saying that the collective is summed up in the singular, who is Christ. Or he is contradicting himself and Moses.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 45m45 minutes ago

The collective is summed up in the singular, such that the two are not mutually exclusive? Text is both singular and plural?

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 43m43 minutes ago

It is, and treated as such by both Moses and Paul.

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 17m17 minutes ago

And the original point was that Gal 3:19 says the promise was made to Christ, and the children of Abraham recieved the sign of Christ.

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 16m16 minutes ago

The intricacies of how Paul uses the singular/plural is beside the point, especially since I began the argument by saying that the promise..
17h17 hours ago

…was to Christ. That was a premise of my argument. If that’s where you want to land, we are already there. The difficulty of how Paul ….

…uses a singular collective term to get there is just another discussion. We’re already there!

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 15m15 minutes ago

lol. No brother, it’s the entire point.

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 13m13 minutes ago

You’re not hearing me. I’ve granted from the start that the promise was to Christ. So, start there and make your point. I’m not willing….

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 12m12 minutes ago

…to involve Paul or Moses in contradictions in order to interpret his path to the singular, especially since it has been granted from ….

Brad Mason‏ @AlsoACarpenter 12m12 minutes ago

…the start.
17h17 hours ago

I suppose we could have this same discussion from Rom 4 which uses plural seed throughout and to much the same end.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 4m4 minutes ago

1. Paul’s argument from the grammar of singular vs plural is not “beside the point.” It is very much the point.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 4m4 minutes ago

2. “Or he is contradicting himself and Moses” Your assumptions are severely stunting your analysis.

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 4m4 minutes ago

3. In the original text, Gen 22:18 refers to a single offspring, unlike 13:15 and 17:8 https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/tb/seed_alexander.pdf and https://www.academia.edu/5312741/_Galatians_3_16_What_kind_of_exegete_was_Paul_

Brandon Adams‏ @brandon_adams 3m3 minutes ago

4. Thus Paul is making an argument about the promise to bless all nations (Christ) vs the promise of Canaan (Israel).
5. Israel and the land of Canaan are applied typologically to speak of Abe’s spiritual offspring & heaven.
17h17 hours ago

None of that is in Galatians, nor does Paul conclude that from his arguments, nor is that what he is arguing for. You have imported all …

…of that into the text. Paul is making a specific argument in those chapters, and never says any of that. It is about Jew & Gentile and…

…the place and purpose of the Law, explicitly.

At the very least, you cannot say you understand Paul’s argument if you come to completely different conclusions than does Paul.

32m32 minutes ago

1. Since you have no explanation of Paul’s line of argumentation regarding plural vs singular, you have no leg to stand on brother.

2. This is the only logical and grammatically possible explanation for Paul’s argument that has been offered 

34m34 minutes ago

3. The OT scholars I linked to who make this argument were not importing 1689 Fed. They were just reading the text.

4. All of what I said is in Galatians, and yes Paul does conclude that (see 4:21-31). Thank you for the exchange. It has been useful.

Some Disagreement with Coxe on Galatians 3:17

May 25, 2017 12 comments

Coxe’s “A Discourse on the Covenants that God Made with Men Before the Law” is densely packed with a very helpful analysis of the biblical covenants. I highly recommend that everyone give it a read. I made an interactive outline to help get the most of it. Preparing that outline allowed me to more clearly understand Coxe’s view of the Abrahamic Covenant.

Upon first reading it years ago, I walked away thinking that Coxe believed God made two covenants with Abraham in the span of Gen 12-22. I disagreed and sided with A.W. Pink, who said “There were not two distinct and diverse covenants made with Abraham (as the older Baptists argued), the one having respect to spiritual blessings and the other relating to temporal benefits.” But others insisted I had misread Coxe. Coxe believed there was only one Abrahamic Covenant, but that God also revealed the separate Covenant of Grace (New Covenant) to Abraham throughout Gen 12-22 in the midst of the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision. This outlook fits with the promised/inaugurated concept of the New Covenant, which understands the New Covenant to have been revealed in numerous ways prior to its formal legal establishment in the death of Christ.

Upon reviewing Coxe again, it appears (in my opinion) that his view actually lies somewhere in between. First, Chapter 4 is titled “The Covenant of Grace Revealed to Abraham: God Specially Honors Abraham by this Covenant.” The [new] covenant of grace that was first revealed in Genesis 3:15 was “made with Abraham.” (71, see editorial note) Second, God made more than one covenant with Abraham. Coxe refers to “the covenants made with him” and “the covenants given to him.” (73) Third, “Abraham is to be considered in a double capacity: he is the father of all true believers and the father and root of the Israelite nation. God entered into covenant with him for both of these seeds.” (72) “The covenant of grace [w]as made with Abraham” for his spiritual offspring and “The covenant [of circumcision was] made with him for his natural offspring.” (73)

The covenant of circumcision

The covenant of circumcision promised Abraham numerous carnal offspring that would possess the land of Canaan. This covenant was revealed by degrees in several parts from Gen 12 to Gen 17. (83) The restipulation (required response on man’s part) of this covenant was circumcision, representing the obedience to the law required for one to have a covenant interest to inherit the covenant blessings (“Do this and live.”). (90-91) “[I]n the covenant of circumcision were contained the first rudiments of the one in the wilderness [Mosaic covenant], and the latter was the filling up and completing of the former.” (99) “This covenant of circumcision properly and immediately belongs to the natural seed of Abraham and is ordered as a foundation to that economy which they were to be brought under until the times of reformation.” (91)

The new covenant of grace

“[T]he covenant of circumcision… was not that covenant of grace which God made with Abraham for all his spiritual seed, which was earlier confirmed of God in Christ.” (116) The new covenant of grace is union with Christ and is made with all believers, including Old Testament saints. (133) “The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself… but it pleased God to transact it with him as he had not done with any before him.” (75, 72) “[T]his covenant was made with Abraham as a root of covenant blessings and the common parent to all true believers.” (78) The restipulation of this covenant is believing. (79) “There is but one covenant of spiritual and eternal blessing in Christ Jesus, founded in the eternal decree and counsel of God’s love and grace, which is now revealed to Abraham.” (79) “This covenant of grace… by which Abraham was made the father of the faithful… was confirmed and ratified by a sure promise to Abraham. This was a considerable time (about twenty five years) before the covenant of circumcision was given to him.” (80)

Galatians 3:16-17

Galatians 3 is central to Coxe’s understanding of the covenant of grace revealed to Abraham. “[T]hat the gospel was preached to Abraham and the covenant of grace revealed to him, is asserted in such full terms in this context that no one can rationally doubt it. Furthermore, in verse 17 we have the time of God’s establishing this covenant with him exactly noted. The text says it was 430 years,” which Coxe calculates to refer to Genesis 12:2-3. (74) “[I]n the transaction of God with Abraham recorded in Genesis 12 he solemnly confirmed his covenant with him.” (74) “[T]he sum and substance of all spiritual and eternal blessings was included in the covenant and promise given to Abraham (Genesis 12) in these words: ‘I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.'” (75)

[T]his covenant was made with Abraham in and through Jesus Christ. It is not Abraham but Christ that is its first head… The apostle asserts this most clearly (Galatians 3:17) and argues it from the form of the promises made to Abraham (verse 16)… I conceive the apostle here has a direct and special view to that promise found in Genesis 22:18,* “In your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed.” This runs directly parallel both in terms and sense with the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 which was pleaded by him earlier (Galatians 3:18 [I believe this reference is to Gal 3:8]). *This promise is particularly cited by Peter as a summary of the covenant of grace made with Abraham, Acts 3:25.” (76)

Thus Coxe divides out the promises in Genesis 12:2-3. Some of the promises are promises of the covenant of grace, some are promises of the covenant of circumcision. (83) He maintains this division in all its elaborations and repititions through to Genesis 22.

“[B]y way of preface to it [the covenant of circumcision] in Genesis 17:4, 5, you have a recapitulation of former transactions and a renewed confirmation of one great promise of the covenant of grace given earlier to Abraham, that is, ‘A father of many nations have I made you.’ This is principally to be understood of his believing seed collected indifferently out of all nations as appears from Romans 4:17. That Abraham was constituted the father of the faithful before this covenant of circumcision was made and did not obtain the grant of this privilege by it, has been proven before from Moses’ history.” (91)

(Interesting note: Gill seems to largely follow Coxe in this. See his comments on Gal. 3:16 and 3:17)

Confirmed, Ratified, and Established

Coxe does say that the covenant of grace was “revealed” to Abraham in Genesis 12. But, as we saw above, based on his reading of Galatians 3:15-17, Coxe also says that the covenant of grace was “confirmed,” “ratified,” and “established” in Genesis 12. These are all synonyms for the official, legal institution of a covenant, and that is precisely how Paul uses the term “confirmed” in Galatians 3:15-17. “Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it… [T]he law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before.” How is this consistent with the idea that the new covenant of grace was not established until the death of Christ? Note Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6.

This is the meaning of the word nenomoqe>thtai: “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 unto 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. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by nenomoqe>thtai, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration…

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though that were not before in being and efficacy, before the introduction of that which is promised in this place. For it was always the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, do grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation unto the church, from the first entrance of sin. But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect unto any other things, nor was it so under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16. The apostle indeed says, that the covenant was confirmed of God in Christ, before the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. And so it was, not absolutely in itself, but in the promise and benefits of it. The nomoqesi>a, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament; for it wanted two things thereunto: —

(1.) It wanted its solemn confirmation and establishment, by the blood of the only sacrifice which belonged unto it. Before this was done in the death of Christ, it had not the formal nature of a covenant or a testament, as our apostle proves, Hebrews 9:15-23. For neither, as he shows in that place, would the law given at Sinai have been a covenant, had it not been confirmed with the blood of sacrifices. Wherefore the promise was not before a formal and solemn covenant.

(2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of all the worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properly so called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of all the worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are to restipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the new covenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is not the promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutely considered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, in its establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all its benefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship and obedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,” we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worship which by it is settled in the church.

3. Whilst the church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant of grace was contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring it under any other covenant, or prescribe unto it what forms of worship he pleased.

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If the new covenant of grace was not “legally established,” “ratified,” and “solemnly confirmed” until the death of Christ, then it was not “confirmed,” “ratified,” and “established” in Genesis 12. If that is the case, then what are we to make of Galatians 3:17? Note that Owen wrestles with it as well. His comment is sparse, but he appears to argue that the “promise and benefits” of the new covenant of grace were “confirmed of God in Christ” but the new covenant of grace itself, as a covenant, was not legally established and confirmed until the cross. In my opinion, this distinction does not hold, especially since Paul specifically argues on the basis of a covenant that has been legally established and confirmed.

The Covenant Concerning Christ

Coxe interprets Galatians 3:17 (“the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ”) as referring to the new covenant of grace. “[T]his covenant was made with Abraham in and through Jesus Christ. It is not Abraham but Christ that is its first head… The apostle asserts this most clearly (Galatians 3:17) and argues it from the form of the promises made to Abraham (verse 16).” Commenting on Hebrews 4:2, Owen argued

That the promise made unto Abraham did contain the substance of the gospel. It had in it the covenant of God in Christ, and was the confirmation of it, as our apostle disputes expressly, Galatians 3:16-17. He says that the promise unto Abraham and his seed did principally intend Christ, the promised seed, and that therein the covenant was confirmed of God in Christ. And thence it was attended with blessedness and justification in the pardon of sin, Romans 4; Galatians 3:14-15. So that it had in it the substance of the gospel, as hath been proved elsewhere.

Both Coxe and Owen are following Westminster’s interpretation of the verses.

Q. 31. With whom was the covenant of grace made?

A. The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.[114]

[114] Galatians 3:16. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. Rom 5:15-21; Is. 53:10-11

It is a principle argument from Westminster that the Abrahamic Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. Coxe agrees with their interpretation of the verse, but argues it does not have reference to the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision, but to the New Covenant. I think Coxe was misled. I do not think that is best way to understand the verse. Consider these comments:

[in Christ] … should be rendered, “unto (i.e. with a view to) Christ”.
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

In Christ – With respect to the Messiah; a covenant relating to him, and which promised that he should descend from Abraham. The word “in,” in the phrase “in Christ,” does not quite express the meaning of the Greek εἰς Χριστὸν eis Christon. That means rather “unto Christ;” or unto the Messiah; that is, the covenant had respect to him. This is a common signification of the preposition εἰς his
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible

 

And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God {m} in Christ

(m) Which pertained to Christ.
Geneva Study Bible

 

The only phrase which is obscure in this verse is the clause rendered “in Christ.” Some would render it to Christ; others till Christ, i.e. till Christ came, which is undoubtedly its meaning at chapter v. 24. I apprehend the true rendering of the particle is concerning or in reference to — a meaning which the term by no means uncommonly bears in the New Testament. I shall give a few examples, — Eph. v. 32 ; Acts ii. 25 ; Heb. vii. 14 ; Luke xii. 21 ; Bom. iv. 20 ; xvi. 19 ; 2 Cor. ii. 9. The covenant in reference to Christ is just the arrangement or settlement as to justification by faith to be extended to the Gentiles through the Messiah, which was made known in the Divine declaration to Abraham. This Divine arrangement was “confirmed of God,” ratified by God in the ordinance of circumcision which was given to Abraham as a person justified in uncircumcision, and made known as a fixed appointment in the Divine declaration so often referred to. It was “confirmed before.” That is, it was a finished, ratified deed, long previously to the law.
John Brown

 

The only difficulty lies in the words “in Christ.” Inasmuch as “the covenant” here mentioned was confirmed only four hundred and thirty years before the law (at Sinai), the reference cannot be to the everlasting covenant—which was “confirmed” by God in Christ ere the world began (Titus 1:2, etc.). Hence we are obliged to adopt the rendering given by spiritual and able scholars: “the covenant that was confirmed before of God concerning Christ”—just as eis Christon is translated “concerning Christ” in Ephesians 5:32 and eis auton is rendered “concerning him” in Acts 2:25. Here, then, is a further word from God that His covenant with Abraham concerned Christ
Pink

There was a covenant that God made with Abraham about Christ. In his comments on 3:17, Chrysostom helpfully states what should be obvious, but is sometimes overlooked.

Thus God made a covenant with Abraham, promising that in his seed the blessing should be bestowed on the heathen; and this blessing the Law cannot turn aside… It was promised Abraham that by his seed the heathen should be blessed; and his seed according to the flesh is Christ.

This actually fits very well with what Owen says about the Abrahamic Covenant.

When God renewed the promise of it [the covenant of grace] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins.

Scottish Presbyterian turned baptist James Haldane explains

It is indeed said, that “the scripture foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith preached before the gospel to Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed,” Gal. iii. 8. But this was merely a declaration of all nations being blessed in Jesus, who was Abraham’s seed. The covenant is said to have been confirmed of God in (rather concerning, eis Christon*) Christ; for there is no doubt that Christ, springing from the loins of Abraham, was the great promise made to him. Hence, it is opposed to the law, and called the promise, Gal. iii. 18… This was a promise that the Savior, revealed immediately after the fall, Gen. iii. 15. should spring from him. To this promise the apostle alludes, when he says “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many, but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ,” Gal. iii. 16.

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… [A]lthough 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

*See Whitby, Macknight, &c. The covenant of God concerning Christ was the promise, that in Abraham all families of the earth should be blessed, Gen. xii. 3. This was afterwards confirmed by an oath, Heb vi. 17.

Thus 3:17 is not referring to the New Covenant of Grace. It is referring to the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision wherein God promised that Abraham would be the father of the Messiah, who would bless all nations. (For more on this see, my post on Galatians 3:16 and my post on 3:18). This covenant was “confirmed,” “ratified,” and “established” by God 430 years before the Mosaic Covenant (Gill argues this refers back to Gen 15, not Gen 12, which does make more sense). The Abrahamic Covenant revealed the Covenant of Grace insofar as it repeated the Genesis 3:15 promise that there would be a seed of the woman who would bless all nations. But, as Owen explained, it was uniquely an Abrahamic promise, and thus particularly the Abrahamic Covenant, that Abraham would be the father of this seed.

When we look at Abraham’s personal salvation, we see that it was the same as ours. He heard the gospel (that a Messiah would come, in fulfillment of Gen 3:15 to bless all nations) and believed that gospel, and was thus counted righteous. Thus Abraham looked forward and we look back. But that salvation was not strictly a promise of the Abrahamic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant did not promise “I will put a new heart within you and remember your sins no more.” The Abrahamic Covenant promised “you will be the father of the Messiah” who will bless all nations by establishing the New Covenant, by which “I will put a new heart within you and remember your sins no more.” Thus Abraham was saved just like us, but just like us, it was through the New Covenant (which is union with Christ).

Two Abrahamic Promises

As I explained in my post on Galatians 3:16, Paul is making an argument about two different promises given in the Abrahamic Covenant of Circumcision. I think that Augustine captured this well.

Now it is to be observed that two things are promised to Abraham, the one, that his seed should possess the land of Canaan, which is intimated when it is said, “Go into a land that I will show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation;” but the other far more excellent, not about the carnal but the spiritual seed, through which he is the father, not of the one Israelite nation, but of all nations who follow the footprints of his faith, which was first promised in these words, “And in thee shall all tribes of the earth be blessed.”… “And the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said unto him, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” (Gen 12:7) Nothing is promised here about that seed in which he is made the father of all nations, but only about that by which he is the father of the one Israelite nation; for by this seed that land was possessed… After these leaders there were judges, when the people were settled in the land of promise, so that, in the meantime, the first promise made to Abraham began to be fulfilled about the one nation, that is, the Hebrew, and about the land of Canaan; but not as yet the promise about all nations, and the whole wide world, for that was to be fulfilled, not by the observances of the old law, but by the advent of Christ in the flesh, and by the faith of the gospel.

When the second promise is fulfilled in Christ, it richochets back through the first promise, showing how the carnal offspring (Israel) as numerous as the stars and their inheritance of the land of Canaan were types of those redeemed in Christ (true Israel) and given an inheritance in the new heavens and earth. It does not mean God did not make any promises to Abraham’s carnal offspring about Canaan. It simply means that the first promise is eclipsed by the fulfillment of the second promise. (See They Are Not All Israel Who Are of Israel).

Conclusion

Coxe is correct when he says “The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself,” but Coxe is incorrect to say that “You will be the father of the Messiah” is also a New Covenant promise. It is a promise of the Covenant of Circumcision. I see this as an important, but minor disagreement with Coxe, and one that I think actually further strengthens the rest of his observations and arguments.