Sunday, November 16, 2008

Unanticipated (Divine) Fingerprints

"Likewise the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God." Romans 8:26-27

God of our Fathers,

We are in continual awe of Your marvelous creativity and provision!

You ordained the rise and recession of the tides, and decreed that they should be governed by the moon's gravity. You designed plant life to rely on an annoying black and yellow bug with a stinger for pollination, and for good measure gave that same bug the ability to make honey! Only You would have thought to hide such amazing potential in fermented grape juice, and only You would have chosen this as the metaphor by which we remember Your Son's death. -- All these things You have done according to Your perfect, eternal plan, and all for Your own glory.

And yet despite all these amazing demonstrations of Your control over the universe, we still balk at giving thanks in all things! We persist in worrying over trifling matters like the latest shenanigans of the Supreme Court and whether our 401(k) numbers appear in black or red, forgetting that You are the Alpha and Omega Who has ordained the end from the very beginning. When we find ourselves surrounded by hand-wringers and brow-furrowers, help us to trust You more and more! When we are tempted to worry or doubt, remind us that You are infallibly working all things together for our good, and teach us to spot Your fingerprints as they appear in what seem the most unlikely places... elections and recessions included.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What "Old Covenant"?

A couple trips out of town and some other reading have slowed me down in The City of God, but I'm still trying to work through at least a few pages every couple of days.

Book 16 finds Augustine showcasing some scientific ignorance (such as "...The fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us..."), but this doesn't bother me too much because more or less every generation has spoken presumptuously of things they didn't fully understand. The exploits of Columbus and Magellan, the existence of giant squid, space travel, the advent of antibiotics, and the Copernican revolution have all failed to teach us any humility in the realm of science; the idiocy of evolution and global warming bear ongoing testament to this sad fact. So while Augustine certainly had a lot to learn about the world in which we live, he's certainly not alone here.

Of more interest to me are his thoughts on circumcision and the relationship between the Old and New Covenant. This partly because the terminology of "Old" and "New" as manifested in "Covenant of works" and "Covenant of grace" has, for many years, struck me as imprecise and problematic. Obviously, wiser men than I have employed these terms for years, so I'll attempt to be cautious in my criticism. But weren't the pre-Christ saints saved by grace just as we in the Church age are? We would think it heretical to suggest otherwise! Secondly, righteous works don't compete or contrast with grace at all, they showcase it (see Romans 4, 11:5-6, and James 2:18). Why then would we set up works and grace as mutually exclusive in our covenantal terminology? Of course works can be elevated to a position of primacy over faith, which is a problem... but would also disqualify them from being righteous works. All of Church history from Genesis to the present is grace upon grace, and calling the pre-Christ portion of this chronology a "Covenant of works" serves only to muddy the waters.

So how about distinguishing between the two time periods by calling them "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant" respectively? Well, I find that less problematic than "Works" vs. "Grace", as Augustine seems to agree in this quote about the birth of Isaac:

"Here there are more distinct promises about the calling of the nations in Isaac, that is, in the son of the promise, by which grace is signified, and not nature; for the son is promised from an old man and a barren old woman. For although God effects even the natural course of procreation, yet where the agency of God is manifest, through the decay or failure of nature, grace is more plainly discerned. And because this was to be brought about, not by generation, but by regeneration, circumcision was enjoined now, when a son was promised of Sarah. And by ordering all, not only sons, but also home-born and purchased servants to be circumcised, he testifies that this grace pertains to all. For what else does circumcision signify than a nature renewed on the putting off of the old? And what else does the eighth day mean than Christ, who rose again when the week was completed, that is, after the Sabbath? The very names of the parents are changed: all things proclaim newness, and the new covenant is shadowed forth in the old. For what does the term old covenant imply but the concealing of the new? And what does the term new covenant imply but the revealing of the old?"

I would take Augustine's closing observation one step further to say that the two covenants are, in fact, one. In Genesis 17:7 God established his everlasting covenant, singular, with Abraham (see also Judges 2:1, 2 Samuel 23:5, and Psalm 105:10 for other references to a single, everlasting covenant). Referencing "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant" isn't a problem in my mind, as long as we recognize this as a distinction of chronology rather than one of identity -- as if the two were completely distinct and separate compacts. This is how the terms are employed in scripture too, distinguishing between the different administrations of the same covenant. The "New" Covenant builds and expands upon the "Old" in much the same way that a knowledgeable man can build upon the talents of his youth. Or we can think of it as the unveiling of a sculpture: the whole masterpiece is the "Covenant of Grace", but the curtain is only part of the way up in the "Old" covenant, and perhaps half or two thirds of the way up in the "New". The complete unveiling will have to wait for our final glorification (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Finally, on a separate but closely related note, I had never heard "the 8th day" element of circumcision linked to Christ's resurrection in this fashion. I'm very interested to pursue this line of thinking as it relates to paedobaptism, but this will have to wait for another post.