Theology Thursday - Continuity or Discontinuity Between the Covenants?

Tags 

What’s All of the Fuss?1

“Evangelicals agree that God has spoken and that the Bible is His word. But, God has not revealed all of His word at once. How are we to relate what He has said through the prophets of old to what has been revealed through His apostles? Without an answer to this question it is difficult to know how to use both Testaments in formulating either doctrine of practice.

“An example of a doctrinal issue that hinges on this question is one’s understanding of the church. Are Christian to formulate their concept of the church on the basis of both Testaments, claiming so much continuity between the people of God that one may see the church in the OT? Or is there such discontinuity between Israel and the church that one’s understanding of the church must be formed solely on the basis of the NT?  …

“Such questions cannot be answered adequately without first addressing the more fundamental issue of how the Testaments relate.

“Theological positions can be placed on a continuum running from views which hold to absolute continuity between the Testaments to views holding to absolute discontinuity between the Testaments. The more one moves in the continuity direction, the more covenantal he becomes; and the more he moves in the discontinuity direction. The more dispensational he becomes.”

Calvin on the Relationship Between the Testaments

“Introduction, showing the necessity of proving the similarity of both dispensations in opposition to Servetus and the Anabaptists.2

“From what has been said above, it must now be clear, that all whom, from the beginning of the world, God adopted as his peculiar people, were taken into covenant with him on the same conditions, and under the same bond of doctrine, as ourselves; but as it is of no small importance to establish this point, I will here add it by way of appendix, and show, since the Fathers were partakers with us in the same inheritance, and hoped for a common salvation through the grace of the same Mediator, how far their condition in this respect was different from our own.

“For although the passages which we have collected from the Law and the Prophets for the purpose of proof, make it plain that there never was any other rule of piety and religion among the people of God; yet as many things are written on the subject of the difference between the Old and New Testaments in a manner which may perplex ordinary readers, it will be proper here to devote a special place to the better and more exact discussion of this subject.

“This discussion, which would have been most useful at any rate, has been rendered necessary by that monstrous miscreant Servetus, and some madmen of the sect of the Anabaptists, who think of the people of Israel just as they would do of some herd of swine, absurdly imagining that the Lord gorged them with temporal blessings here, and gave them no hope of a blessed immortality. Let us guard pious minds against this pestilential error, while we at the same time remove all the difficulties which are wont to start up when mention is made of the difference between the Old and the New Testaments.

“By the way also, let us consider what resemblance and what difference there is between the covenant which the Lord made with the Israelites before the advent of Christ, and that which he has made with us now that Christ is manifested.

“This similarity in general. Both covenants truly one, though differently administered. Three things in which they entirely agree.3

“It is possible, indeed, to explain both in one word. The covenant made with all the fathers is so far from differing from ours in reality and substance, that it is altogether one and the same: still the administration differs. But because this brief summary is insufficient to give any one a full understanding of the subject, our explanation to be useful must extend to greater length.

“It were superfluous, however, in showing the similarity, or rather identity, of the two dispensations, again to treat of the particulars which have already been discussed, as it were unseasonable to introduce those which are still to be considered elsewhere. What we propose to insist upon here may be reduced to three heads:

  1. That temporal opulence and felicity was not the goal to which the Jews were invited to aspire, but that they were admitted to the hope of immortality, and that assurance of this adoption was given by immediate communications, by the Law and by the Prophets.
  2. That the covenant by which they were reconciled to the Lord was founded on no merits of their own, but solely on the mercy of God, who called them; and, thirdly, That they both had and knew Christ the Mediator, by whom they were united to God, and made capable of receiving his promises. The second of these, as it is not yet perhaps sufficiently understood, will be fully considered in its own place, (Book III. chap. xv.–xviii.) For we will prove by many clear passages in the Prophets, that all which the Lord has ever given or promised to his people is of mere goodness and indulgence.
  3. The third also has, in various places, been not obscurely demonstrated. Even the first has not been left unnoticed.

“Conclusion of the whole discussion concerning the similarity of both dispensations4

“In proving the two remaining points, viz., that the Patriarchs had Christ as the pledge of their covenant, and placed all their hope of blessing in him, as they are clearer, and not so much controverted, I will be less particular:

“Let us then lay it down confidently as a truth which no engines of the devil can destroy—that the Old Testament or covenant which the Lord made with the people of Israel was not sconfined to earthly objects, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life, the expectation of which behoved to be impressed on the minds of all who truly consented to the covenant.

“Let us put far from us the senseless and pernicious notion, that the Lord proposed nothing to the Jews, or that they sought nothing but full supplies of food, carnal delights, abundance of wealth, external influence, a numerous offspring, and all those things which our animal nature deems valuable.

“For, even now, the only kingdom of heaven which our Lord Jesus Christ promises to his followers, is one in which they may sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, (Matth. 8:11;) and Peter declared of the Jews of his day, that they were heirs of gospel grace because they were the sons of the prophets, and comprehended in the covenant which the Lord of old made with his people, (Acts 3:25.)

“And that this might not be attested by words merely, our Lord also approved it by act, (Matth. 27:52.) At the moment when he rose again, he deigned to make many of the saints partakers of his resurrection, and allowed them to be seen in the city; thus giving a sure earnest, that every thing which he did and suffered in the purchase of eternal salvation belonged to believers under the Old Testament, just as much as to us. Indeed, as Peter testifies, they were endued with the same spirit of faith by which we are regenerated to life, (Acts 15:8.)

“When we hear that that spirit, which is, as it were, a kind of spark of immortality in us, (whence it is called the ‘earnest’ of our inheritance, Eph. 1:14,) dwelt in like manner in them, how can we presume to deny them the inheritance? Hence, it is the more wonderful how the Sadducees of old fell into such a degree of sottishness as to deny both the resurrection and the substantive existence of spirits, both of which were attested to them by so many striking passages of Scripture.

“Nor would the stupidity of the whole nation in the present day, in expecting an earthly reign of the Messiah, be less wonderful, had not the Scriptures foretold this long before as the punishment which they were to suffer for rejecting the Gospel, God, by a just judgment, blinding minds which voluntarily invite darkness, by rejecting the offered light of heaven. They read, and are constantly turning over the pages of Moses, but a veil prevents them from seeing the light which beams forth in his countenance, (2 Cor. 3:14;) and thus to them he will remain covered and veiled until they are converted to Christ, between whom and Moses they now study, as much as in them lies, to maintain a separation.”

Notes

1 This introduction is a short excerpt from John Feinberg (ed.), Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1988), xi-xiii.  

2 This excerpt from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012), 2.10.1.

3 Ibid, 2.10.2.

4 Ibid, 2.10.23.

Covenant confusion

Calvin "temporal opulence and felicity was not the goal to which the Jews were invited to aspire, but that they were admitted to the hope of immortality, and that assurance of this adoption was given by immediate communications, by the Law and by the Prophets."

He's quite wrong on this point. There is nothing but temporal promise in the Mosaic Covenant. "Hope of immortality" is Abrahamic, not Mosaic. It's in the part of the Bible we call "the Old Testament" but it's not "the Old Covenant." The Mosaic arrangement is a layer on top of the Abrahamic. The Mosaic was concluded. The Abrahamic is not.

Galatians 3:8–21 ESV... 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. ....16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. ...17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. 19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.

Paul's argument is that righteousness, in the case of the Abrahamic promises, came by faith and still does. The Mosaic Covenant was a temporary addition to a still-living Abrahamic Covenant... and the addition was never intended to be a means of justification.

Aaron

You wrote:

There is nothing but temporal promise in the Mosaic Covenant. "Hope of immortality" is Abrahamic, not Mosaic. It's in the part of the Bible we call "the Old Testament" but it's not "the Old Covenant."

I believe you're right. The Old Covenant was given to teach God's people how to govern themselves, how to worship Him, and about God's moral standards - until Christ would come. In and of itself, it is not a covenant of eternal life at all. It was a covenant for people who confess Yahweh as Lord, to tell them how to live until Christ sets everything right - and to point the way to Christ through the object lessons of the ceremonial laws.

Calvin wrote:

Let us then lay it down confidently as a truth which no engines of the devil can destroy—that the Old Testament or covenant which the Lord made with the people of Israel was not sconfined to earthly objects, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life, the expectation of which behoved to be impressed on the minds of all who truly consented to the covenant.

Consider his points:

  1. The OC contained a promise of spiritual or eternal life. No. The Abrahamic Covenant did this; the Mosaic Covenant told God's people how to govern themselves while they awaited the Son's advent. This is a massive disconnect. Wasn't this Paul's entire point in Gal 3-4? He consistently pointed beyond the OC to the Abrahamic Covenant.
  2. The Israelites who consented to the OC expected spiritual and eternal life. Was this because of the Mosaic Covenant, or was this expectation predicated on the Abrahamic Covenant? In Hebrews 11, Abraham clearly longed and looked for the New Jerusalem, from which God would reign. He was waiting for God's Kingdom. This is pre-Moses. It's the Abrahamic Covenant, folks - not the Mosaic.

The Mosaic Law itself pointed backwards to the Abrahamic Covenant as it's foundation (Deut 9:5). We need to have a structure larger than "Old Covenant vs. New Covenant." Christians should have a chronological framework like this in their minds:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Cain, Seth and Corruption
  • Flood and Covenant with Noah
  • Babel and Disaster
  • Covenant with Abraham
  • Covenant with Moses (i.e. Old Covenant)
    • Covenant with Phineas (thanks, Bro. Henebury for pointing this out to me!)
  • New Covenant
    • Church (New Covenant applied to Church)
    • Christ's Rule in the Millennium (New Covenant applied to all Israel)
    • Satan's Defeat, New Creation and Eternity

There's a whole lot more going on here than Old Covenant vs. New Covenant.

TylerR is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs here.


▴ Top of page

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.