Calvin on the newness of the new covenant

I’ve been working my way through the Institutes. It just so happens that I recently finished reading Douglas Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations, a defense of paedobaptism according to the unity of the covenant made with Abraham and the covenant with Christ. So, I’ve been pondering the relation of the old and new testaments: law and gospel, circumcision and baptism, promise and fulfillment, etc. In my reading of the Institutes, I’ve come up to Book II, chapter XI, where Calvin gives a brilliant exposition of the unity of faith under the law of Moses and the Church of Christ. However, he then gives an equally brilliant exposition of the differences. I was surprised by how strongly expressed are the differences. After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin explains:

The Old Testament is of the letter, for it was published without the working of the Spirit. The New is spiritual because the Lord has engraved it spiritually upon men’s hearts. The second antithesis is by way of clarification of the first. The Old brings death, for it can but envelop the whole human race in a curse. The New is the instrument of life, for it frees men from the curse and restores them to God’s favor. The Old is the ministry of condemnation, for it accuses all the sons of Adam of unrighteousness. The New is the ministry of righteousness because it reveals God’s mercy, through which we are justified.

…Scripture calls the Old Testament one of “bondage” because it produces fear in men’s minds; but the New Testament, one of “freedom” because it lifts them to trust and assurance. [Calvin goes on to explain this using Romans 8:15, Hebrews 12:18-22, and Galatians 4:22-31.] …To sum up: the Old Testament struck the consciences with fear and trembling, but by the benefit of the New they are released into joy. The Old held consciences bound by the yoke of bondage; the New by its spirit of liberality emancipates them into freedom.

But suppose that our opponents object that, among the Israelites , the holy patriarchs were an exception: since they were obviously endowed with the same Spirit of faith as we, it follows that they shared the same freedom and joy. To this we reply: neither of these arose from the law. But when through the law the patriarchs felt themselves both oppressed by their enslaved condition, and wearied by anxiety of conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel. It was therefore a particular fruit of the New Testament that, apart from the common law of the Old Testament, they were exempted from those evils. Further, we shall deny that they were so endowed with the spirit of freedom and assurance as not in some degree to experience the fear and bondage arising from the law. For, however much the privilege that they had received through the grace of the gospel, they were still subject to the same bonds and burdens of ceremonial observances as the common people. They were compelled to observe those ceremonies punctiliously, symbols of a tutelage resembling bondage; and the written bonds, whereby they confessed themselves guilty of sin, did not free them from obligation. Hence, they are rightly said, in contrast to us, to have been under the testament of bondage and fear, when we consider that common dispensation by which the Lord at that time dealt with the Israelites.

(pp. 457-459, McNeill edition)

Calvin’s point about the OT patriarchs and prophets is highly interesting. They were given a measure of freedom, but not complete freedom. They lack the freedom of a pure conscience, which is only given with the complete abolition of law-sin-death by Christ. How does this relate to baptism? If baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), then baptism is a mark of an accomplished regeneration for the individual. Thus, the credobaptists are seemingly correct for their emphasis on Jeremiah 31, and the “now” (not just “not yet”) of a redeemed people as an essential mark of the new covenant, as distinct from the old covenant. Of course, if circumcision is understood as an appeal to God for a good conscience (i.e., forgiveness), then the symmetry between circumcision and baptism can be upheld, allowing the baptism of infants.

I’m still working through this issue, but those are some of my thoughts for now. Doug Wilson’s book, by the way, is very well done.


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