An Eternal Covenant?
by Paul Hazelden


Introduction

This article is a direct response to a question I was asked, so the best way to start is to let you know the question.   It went as follows.

I am writing you because one of the reasons I am convinced that paedobaptism is Scriptural relates to Genesis 17:7.   However, in reviewing many believer's baptism sites, I have never seen this addressed.   I hope you can help.   My question is that since God said His covenant was everlasting, how can the new covenant not be built on the old?   How can a group (children) who were included in the old not be included in the new and better covenant?   The inability of God to rescind the old covenant seems to be further endorsed by Paul in Galations 3:17.

The question is itself a response to my article on baptism, 'The Biblical Basis of Baptism'. The answer comes in 8 parts.

1.   Biblical Interpretation
2.   Old Testament and New
3.   Built on the Old
4.   God's Inability
5.   Ways to Heaven
6.   The Position of Children
7.   How Long is Everlasting?
8.   Better in What Way?

1.   Biblical Interpretation

My first response is to observe that a failure to address a particular question or verse does not mean the position is wrong! The main criticism of my writings is that they are too long - if I were to attempt to cover every passage touching on a subject and and every question which can be asked about it, they would be much longer!

Secondly, a standard principle of Biblical interpretation is that we should interpret the obscure passages in the light of the clear ones. We should test the results of our reasoning and deductions concerning some passages against the clear and explicit statements in other passages.

We are commanded to baptise believers. We are never commanded to baptise babies. It takes a lot of reasoning and re-interpretation of numerous simple, clear and explicit passages to get around these simple truths.

I have shown how the Bible clearly teaches believers' baptism in many places, and assumes it to be the practice of the early church in other places. I have shown how the passages commonly used by paedobaptists fail to support that belief, and sometimes actually reinforce the believers' baptist position.

Given that all this is already available, I want to suggest that I have established a simple and straightforward way of understanding the position of the Biblical writers. While doing this, I have raised a number of serious questions that must be answered adequately before I grant any credibility to any method of Biblical interpretation that seeks to justify infant baptism on Scriptural grounds.

The lack of an adequate response from the supporters of infant baptism (and the lack of agreement between them on what would constitute an adequate response!) leads me to conclude that the onus is on those who support infant baptism to show how they can maintain their position while interpreting the Bible in a consistent way that is faithful to the intentions and understanding of the original writers.

Please note that I have never suggested that it is impossible, or even difficult, to argue for infant baptism - only that you cannot do so on the basis of the Biblical text. Church tradition contains ample justification for infant baptism, and for some people that is sufficient. Personally, I am only interested in what the Bible has to say on the subject.

2.   Old Testament and New

The question raises the general issue about how we should interpret the Old Testament. I do not have the time or energy to go into all the arguments here, but you should be aware that this topic has caused massive arguments over the years between people who support different approaches.

My personal position is that I am a Christian - a follower of Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, and He believed the Old Testament as the word of God. But He also re-shaped many of the doctrines His fellow Jews found in the OT, and re-interpreted many of the stories. He also claimed the authority to change clear and unambiguous teaching in the OT because God was saying and doing something different, and something new through Him. Moses allowed you to divorce, but I say to you that divorce is not part of God's plan.

So, quite frankly, I don't mind what the OT may say about baptism or children. I want to know what Jesus said, and what His first followers understood Him to mean. If the OT helps me to understand this more clearly and more accurately (which it does, in many different ways) then I will benefit from reading the NT passages in the light of the OT. But I will not allow clear teaching in the NT to be undermined by passages in the OT that suggest something different.

What would interest me would be to find an OT passage that throws a new light on the NT passages about baptism and salvation, and reveals a different way of interpreting them. If someone can offer this, then I will willingly reconsider what seems to be the clear teaching of Jesus and the whole NT.

In summary, I read the NT in the light of Jesus, and I read the OT in the light of Jesus and the way He was understood by His first followers. I am yet to be convinced there is a viable alternative - or, to be more precise, that there is a viable alternative that can be consistently applied by evangelicals.

3.   Built on the Old

I am asked, 'how can the new covenant not be built on the old?' Of course, the new covenant is based on the old. It is built on the foundation of the old. But this does not mean that every aspect of the old continues unchanged into the new, or even that every aspect of the old has a direct counterpart in the new.

If the argument being used here works at all, it must work on all the OT - or it needs to be refined, so I can understand why people think it applies to this part of the OT, and not to that part.

To help you understand the argument being used here, let us consider another simple example. We know that the Temple was uniquely important as the place where God dwelled. You could say that Christians ought to go and worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem, because that is where God promised that He would meet with His people.

Most Christians would say that this is absurd: Jesus did away with the Temple worship, and we can meet God wherever we are through Him. But if the argument 'God said it in the OT, so it must still be true' does not work for the Temple, then the argument itself does not work. If the argument does not work, then there is no argument to be answered: it is simply another aspect of the 'OT parallels in the NT' argument (or lack of argument) which I covered in the original article on baptism (section B3, Covenant Theology).

You cannot simply apply things in the OT, on the basis that God said it therefore it must always be true. Jesus changed the rules.

4.   God's Inability

The question comments:

The inability of God to rescind the old covenant seems to be further endorsed by Paul in Galations 3:17.

This seems to be a breathtaking position for a Christian to adopt.

I am very reluctant to talk about God's inability to do anything. Beyond, of course, the obvious: He cannot lie, He cannot deny Himself, and so on.

The whole Bible is full of examples where God changed His mind. To pick just one at random, He told Jonah to tell the people of Nineveh that they would be destroyed, then they repented, and He did not destroy them. And Jonah turns on God, and says "I knew You would forgive them!" Jonah certainly did not think God was incapable of changing His mind.

But, even if other parts of the Bible did teach us that God cannot change His mind, this passage in Galatians certainly says nothing of the sort. Paul says here that the law does not set aside the promise. To argue that because something did not happen on this occasion, it can never happen seems to be an error so obvious that it hardly needs comment. On this basis, the fact that I did not die yesterday would seem to prove that I cannot die today, or tomorrow, or ever. Paul is not saying anything of the kind in Galatians 3:17

5.   Ways to Heaven

The problem is much worse than my correspondent seems to think. The problem is not simply that God has changed the rules, but that some people have been disadvantaged by this change.

...How can a group (children) who were included in the old not be included in the new and better covenant?

I am fascinated by this 'problem'. The issue is clearly to do with the children of Christians. But the children of Christians, like the children of any non-Jew, were not accepted under the Old Covenant. So the example given is not relevant to the point being made (by implication, at least) by the question.

And if we take the question as it stands, there is a much more obvious group to worry about: the Jewish people. How can that group, who were included in the Old Covenant, not be included in the New Covenant?

There are really only two possibilities here. Either they are not included because the rules have changed, or they are included because the rules have not changed - and you can still get to Heaven if you reject Jesus, as long as you are a good Jew and keep the law. I know which of these two positions is supported in the New Testament, and believed by all the Evangelicals I know... and it is not the one that provides two different routes to Heaven.

6.   The Position of Children

The question contains another mistake, one that is so basic and so common I nearly didn't spot it.

The question assumes that I don't believe children are included under the New Covenant because I don't believe it is appropriate to baptise them. This is a standard paedobaptist mistake, and no matter how many times I try to explain that it simply is not true, paedobaptists still try to hit me with it.

You might as well accuse a vegetarian of hating animals, because if we don't buy animals to eat, the farmers will not raise them, so there will be fewer animals. Perhaps, from the perspective of the meat-eater, this would be a plausible motive for not eating meat, but it just does not make sense from the vegetarian's point of view.

Similarly, this argument may seem to make sense from a paedobaptist point of view, but it makes no sense at all from my perspective. In fact, just as with the vegetarian, precisely the reverse is the case.

Because I do not require baptism (either of children or of adults) as a pre-requisite for getting to Heaven, the door of Heaven is opened, according to my theology, to all children - both the children of Christian believers, and the children of non-believers.

I have addressed this issue at some length in the article "What Happens to Babies When They Die?" and suggest that anyone who is concerned about this point follows up the issues discussed there.

So, in brief, if the suggested reason for believing in paedobaptism is that it provides a way to Heaven for more people, then this is a very good reason not to believe it after all!

By the way - I am not comfortable with the process of evaluating a piece of doctrine according to whether it supports a conclusion I like. You cannot discover whether a doctrine is true, simply by finding out whether more people would be saved, or would be happier, if it were true. It is either true or it is not, and those people are either saved or not depending on whether it is true. Someone who is falling off a tall building may decide not to believe in gravity, because if gravity is not true then they might not be smashed to pieces... but it won't make any difference to the final outcome.

7.   How Long is Everlasting?

There is one more misunderstanding in the question we need to consider. The suggestion is that the OT doctrine can't be changed because "God said His covenant was everlasting."

When you look at what God says in the Bible, you discover that the terms "eternal" and "everlasting" do not mean what we usually think they do. We think they are primarily about chronology, when they are more accurately understood to be about purpose and the fulfillment of destiny.

I have covered this topic briefly, but I hope adequately, in section 4h of my article "What is the Fate of the Wicked?"

8.   Better in What Way?

And, finally, the question asks: "How can a group (children) who were included in the old not be included in the new and better covenant?"

From a Biblical point of view, why should 'better' have to mean 'allowing more people in'? Surely 'better' could, just as appropriately, mean 'holier' - allowing less people in? Better could mean that a better, higher standard was being applied. There seems to be all kinds of assumptions built into the question at this point, which I do not have the time or energy to explore.

But I trust that the discussion of the question presented to me helps you see that, far from providing an argument in suport of paedobaptism, the only thing it does is to reinforce the clear teaching of the New Testament - that we are commanded to make disciples, and baptise them.

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