Archive for March 6, 2020

Circumcision was a Sanction of the Abrahamic Covenant—-Why I Reject Abrahamic Ecclesiology

March 6, 2020

T David Gordon, Promise, Law, Faith–Covenant Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019) 

I completely agree with Gordon’s thesis that the Sianai covenant is either ratified or revoked in its entirety. Galatians is about being free from all of  the Sinai
covenant, including Sabbath and circumcision. Gordon does much good detailed work to show the distinction between the Sinai covenant and the new covenant. But as Gordon explains the distinction between the Sinai covenant and the earlier Abrahamic covenant, he stops short of asking much about the distinction between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant.

I begin with one quotation from a footnote on p 222—“In the most technical sense, Yahweh did later require circumcision (Genesis 17) but this is not a true condition, for two reasons. First, the promises made in Genesis 12 and 15 attached no such conditions. Second, had Yahweh not given Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, there would have no Son to circumcise.

Without beginning a discussion about the meaning of the word “conditions”, I want to look more at Gordon’s two reasons. First, both Genesis 12 and 15 describe imperatives, and include sanctions for disobedience.

Genesis 12 begins with a command.
Go out from your land,
your family
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you

Did Abram fail to keep this “condition”? No, Abraham did travel out to where the Canaanites are in the land. By means of holy war and holy separation, Abram’s children eventually  take all the land. The Jewish people themselves are involved. But of course it is God who gives the land to Abram’s children and God who takes the land away from the Gentiles. Abram worries about what the Gentiles might do to him. Abram lies to the Gentiles about one of his wives (Sarah) but God keeps Sarah from becoming mother to a Gentile. There are no sanctions for Abram, only for Pharoah, even though it was Abram who did not tell the truth.

So does this prove that the Sinai covenant has sanctions but that the Abrahamic covenant does not have conditions? No. The Abrahamic covenant is not only
about blessing Gentiles some time in the future. The Abrahamic covenant is about Abram having a big family. The Abrahamic covenant is instruction about Abram’s family not co-existing  with or intermarrying other families.

Genesis 14:14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken prisoner, he assembled his 318 trained men, born in HIS HOUSEHOLD, and they went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 Abram and his slaves deployed against them by night, attacked them, and pursued them as far as Hobah to the north of Damascus. 16 Abram brought back all the goods and also his relative Lot and his goods, as well as the women and the other people….

This war is not a “condition” for the promise to Abram that Abram’s seed would bless Gentiles. It’s not even evident that what Abram did was commanded. But what Abram did there at that time was NOT YET “blessing Gentiles” (Then Abram takes some food when Melchizedek (king of Salem) gives Abram food, but Abram takes nothing from the king of Sodom. (The men who fought with Abram take stuff, but Abram only takes back what was his already before)

God uses means. God promised Abram that his seed would one day bless Gentiles. We must not be fatalistic enough to say that God would have kept that promise if Abram had not gone to war for those in his family. But then again, we must not read what did happen in history (providence)  into some conclusion that “God could not have done x if Abram had not done y.”    (Is does not mean Ought. Happened does not mean Ought.)

Gordon agrees–“in the technical sense, God did require circumcision”. But then Gordon argues that circumcision was not a condition for the promises. The problem for Gordon’s too neat distinction between Sinai and Abrahamic (which distinction is very important, and is very present in Galatians 3 and 4), is the sanctions right there in the words of God in Genesis 15.

Genesis 15: 8 Abram said, “Lord God, how can I know that I will possess the land? (Abram was not asking at that point, how will I know that my seed will
bless the Gentiles?)

9 God said to Abram, “Bring Me a three-year-old cow, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 So Abram brought all these to God, split them down the middle, and laid the pieces opposite each other, but Abram did not cut up the birds. 11 Birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

God did not do everything here. Abram brought the cow, goat, ram and the birds. Abram killed (sacrificed) the three animals.

Genesis 15: 12 As the sun was setting, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and suddenly great terror and darkness descended on Abram

Then what did Abram hear God say?  Genesis 15: 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain: Your seed will be foreigners in a land that does not belong to them. Your seed will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. 14 However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward your seed will go out
with many possessions….16 In the fourth generation your seed will return here

Again, there are no “conditions” here. God does not say that slavery in Egypt is a sanction of the Abrahamic covenant. And of course slavery in Egypt is not a sanction of the Sinai covenant (which comes after Egyptian slavery) This is “indicative”. This is “what is going to happen”. What happens in Egypt is not all of the promises. What happens in Israel is not “blessing the Gentiles”. But what will happen in Egypt is that Abram’s family becomes larger and Abram’s family STAYS SEPARATE from Gentiles.

Genesis 15: 17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals.

This is not the same as what happens at Mt Sinai—do not touch the mountain, and “Moses be the mediator between us and keep God away from us”. But the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch (and the divided animals) of Genesis 15 are not in any obvious way signs of a substitution sacrifice which will bless some Gentiles. The next thing God says is Genesis 15: 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I will give this LAND to YOUR SEED

When the seed of Abram leave Egypt, they will “go out with many possessions”. Perhaps Abram’s seed are stewards holding those possessions in trust for the future blessing of Gentiles. But at that exodus point in history, possessions and land (which all belong to God in the first place) get handed over by the Gentile socialists in Egypt to the Jewish collective, to the seed of Abram.

Reason one. Circumcision was not a condition. There were no conditions in the Abrahamic covenant.

I will attempt to return to Genesis (and Galatians) and not  stay long with Vos and Kline. Vos–If there were no conditions, there would be no place for threats,
for threatening only makes sense to those who reject the conditions; that is to say here, those who do not walk in the God-ordained way of THE COVENANT. If there were no conditions, God alone would be bound by this covenant, and no bond would be placed on man. Thereby the character of the covenant would be lost. All covenants contain two parts.”

I agree with David Gordon. All the covenants are not one covenant. And the different covenants are not the same. When Vos writes “the covenant”, I agree with Gordon in asking “which covenant”. We must reason in a historically covenantal way.  We must be poly-covenantal.

But I do not agree that there is nothing but contrast between the Abrahamic and the Sinai covenant. And I do not agree that the
Abrahamic covenant is the same as the new covenant.

The Sinai covenant was only for Jews
The Sinai covenant was for all Jews.
Jews by birth belonged to the Sinai covenant.

But what Gordon does not say as clearly (if at all) is that the Abrahamic covenant was only for Jews. Circumcision was for all Jews.
The Abrahamic covenant was for all the circumcised. Jews by birth belonged to the Abrahamic covenant.

In the Reformed world today, if you hear about election at all, what you hear will be about “the covenant”. You will hear that 1. Jews
were elected to be in “the covenant” and 2. that this election is not only a blessing for the Jews, because the elect Jews will be (or are
supposed to be) a blessing for the gentiles, all nations, all people.

But this kind of talk about election and covenant leaves so much out (about both election and covenants) that this kind of talk about “the covenant” has nothing to do with God having elected for whom Christ would die, nor does it have anything to with God having chosen which sinners will be justified before God.

The Sinai covenant includes both elect and non-elect.
The Abrahamic covenant includes both elect and non-elect.

But only the elect come into the new covenant and are justified.

This is why we need to make a historical covenantal distinction not only between the Sinai covenant and the Abrahamic covenant. We need a distinction between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant. The Abrahamic covenant has as one of its promised blessings that the seed of Abram will bless
Gentiles.  But Christ the seed of Abraham does not bless all people in all nations. There is no such thing as “common grace” or “natural grace” or “creation grace”.

When God saved Noah and the few, God did so by destroying the many. When Christ the seed of Abram justifies Gentiles, Christ does not justify all Gentiles. Christ justifies only as many as believe the gospel. The blessing of Abraham is Christ giving the Holy Spirit to cause some Gentiles to believe the gospel (and also the blessing of Abraham is Christ giving the Holy Spirit to cause some from Abram’s Jewish race to believe the gospel).

The blessing of Abram is NOT that the seed of Abram dies for each and every sinner, both Jew and Gentile. The blessing of Abram is NOT that some are elect in order that others then become elect. The blessing of Abram is NOT that Jews are elect in order that Gentiles become elect. The blessing of Abram is that Christ (the seed of Abram) died (shed his own blood, not the blood of others, Jew or Gentile) for the sins of the elect (some Jew and some Gentile)

There is so much good to be found in Gordon’s good book on Galatians.  I hope to write several essays with things I have learned in reading. In this essay, I have not yet even arrived at the second reason given by Gordon that footnote on 222.  But I want to pause for Gordon’s excellent comments on
“sovereignty” and “grace” on p 177.

David Gordon—“Even defenders of the so-called Lutheran Paul are too generous to Sinai when they write “this law is a divine gift to Israel, a token of favor”….Yes, sovereign Yahweh elected Israel to covenant with Him. But I would not refer to a curse-threatening covenant as a gift or as an indication of God’s favor. They did not regard it as a gift when they expressed their preference to return to Egypt.

David Gordon, p 295—“Oh how I love your law. It is my meditation all the day.” Psalm 119:97 . Only in this psalm (113, 163, 165) does anyone in the entire Bible talk about loving the law. Considering how central was Torah to Israel, I regard it as surprising that there is only one chapter where anyone expresses any love for Torah. The Wisdom always had sanctions attached to it, and those sanctions were a frightening burden. 


But David Gordon does seem to see the Abrahamic covenant as nothing but gift and favor. His reason one say, there were no conditions. His
reason two says, if God has not given Isaac to Abraham and Sarah, there would been no circumcision

Gordon’s argument overlooks the fact that Abram had two wives, and two sons. Abram’s son Ishmael is born in Genesis 16: 3 So Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar, her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a WIFE for Abram.. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan 10 years.

Genesis 16: 15 So Hagar gave birth to Abram’s SON …16 Abram was 86 years old when Hagar bore ISHMAEL TO HIM. .

Genesis 17: 8 And to you and your future seed I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as a lasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Note that “I will be your sovereign (I will be your God) and “I will be gracious to each and every one of you” are NOT THE SAME THING.

Genesis 17: 9 God also said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your seed after you are to keep My covenant.

Genesis 17 does not say that Abraham “keeping the covenant” is a “condition”. First, the covenant does not depend on any one human sinner. If one human sinner refuses circumcision, then that one human sinner could be cut off from the Abrahamic covenant but the Abrahamic covenant itself would continue. Second, if God had not caused Isaac to have been born, then God could have still caused Ishmael to have been born. Third, even if no sons had been born, Abraham HIMSELF (and his slaves) are COMMANDED TO BE CIRCUMCISED.

David Gordon, 138 —“It is not essential to my discussion to address whether there were several covenants with Abraham.”

Gordon, in making a distinction between the Sinai and the Abrahamic but not making a distinction between the Abrahamic and the new covenant, is depending in part on silence in his argument about the first two of the three promises to Abraham.  I will point out another more significant silence. Genesis 17 does not say that circumcision is a condition of the Sinai covenant, BECAUSE the Sinai covenant had not yet been “cut into history”. And so it seems to me
that CIRCUMCISION IS A SANCTION IN THE ABRAHAMIC COVENANT,  even when Gordon says “added after chapter 12 and 15”.

Genesis 17: 10 This is My covenant, which you are to keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: Every one of your males must be
circumcised.

Genesis 17: 18 So Abraham said to God, “If only Ishmael were acceptable to You!”

Genesis 17: 11 As for Ishmael, I have heard you. I will certainly bless Ishmael. I will make Ishmael fruitful and will multiply Ishmael greatly. Ishmael will father 12 tribal leaders, and I will make Ishmael into a great nation.

Here are some questions. Does Ishmael have part in the Sinai covenant? No.
So does Ishmael have part in the Abrahamic covenant?
What is Ishmael’s part in the Abrahamic covenant?
Is Ishmael a Gentile nation who will be blessed by the seed of Abraham?
Is Ishmael part of the seed of Abraham (who will bless Gentiles)?

How would we know?

Genesis 17: 23 Then Abraham took his son Ishmael and all the slaves born in his house or purchased with his money—every male among the
members of Abraham’s HOUSEHOLD… 24 Abraham was 99 years old when the flesh of Abraham’s foreskin was circumcised, 25 and his son Ishmael
was 13 years old when the flesh of Ishmael’s foreskin was circumcised. 26 On the same day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised

Genesis 17: 13 My covenant will be marked in your flesh as a lasting covenant. 14 If any male is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that man will be cut off from his people. That man has broken My covenant.”

When God says “my covenant”, which covenant is that? If it’s not the Sinai covenant, which covenant is it? Has the man broken himself off “the covenant” or broken “the covenant” so as to terminate the covenant” itself?

Adam’s sin did not terminate the consequences of God’s covenant with Adam. Disobedience to the Sinai covenant did not terminate either the Sinai
or the Abrahamic covenants. So in that sense, neither covenant is conditional on the sinner, but what happens to a specific sinner is conditional . Is there nothing a person in these covenants (after being circumcised) can do which would prevent their being PUNISHMENT BY THE COVENANT THEY ARE IN?

I would hope that this last question would cause us always to make a distinction between justification (or condemnation) before God and still being a church member or still “staying in the covenant”. I would hope that we would say that the new covenant is not like the Sinai covenant or the Abrahamic covenant, even though the new covenant is (indirectly?) a blessing to elect Gentiles by means of the seed of Abraham (as also the Sinai covenant was a result of the covenant promising Abraham seed.)

Meredith Kline–“How Abraham’s obedience related to the securing of the kingdom blessings in their old covenant form is a special question within the broad topic of the role of human works … Abraham’s faithful performance of his covenantal duty is clearly declared to sustain a causal relationship to the blessing of Isaac and Israel. It had a MERITORIOUS character that procured a reward enjoyed by others…Because of Abraham’s obedience redemptive history would take the shape of an Abrahamite kingdom of God from which salvation’s blessings would rise up and flow out to the NATIONS. God was pleased to constitute
Abraham’s exemplary works as the MERITORIOUS ground for granting to Israel after the flesh the distinctive role of being …the matrix from which Christ should come…

Mike Horton—To be claimed as part of God’s holy field comes with threats as well as blessings. Covenant members who do NOT HAVE FAITH are under the covenant curse. How can anybody fall under the curses of a covenant to which they didn’t belong?

Mike Horton—Faith is not the only way into membership in the covenant. If faith were the only way into membership then why all the warnings to members of THE COVENANT COMMUNITY to exercise and persevere in obedience to the end?

The Sinai covenant did not threaten Gentiles. I mostly agree with David Gordon about that (despite the holy wars and the holy divorces of Gentile wives –never really wives, the fathers of their children said.)

But what can or must be said about how the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant compare and contrast? The new covenant only threatens those outside the new covenant. The Abrahamic covenant threatened those in the Abrahamic covenant..

Genesis 22: 14 And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide. 15 Then the Angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven
16 and said…“BECAUSE YOU HAVE DONE  this thing and have not withheld your only son 17 I will make your seed as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore…. All the nations will be blessed by your seed BECAUSE YOU HAVE OBEYED MY COMMAND. ”

David Gordon, p 138 –Though Paul in Galatians 3:16 refers to the “promises”, the only specific reference Paul makes to Genesis here is the pledge to bless the nations through the seed in Genesis 22:18.

Galatians 3: 19 The Sinai law was added … UNTIL the Seed to whom the promise was made would come

Did God make the promise to those who believe in Christ?
Did God make the promise to Christ?
God God make the promise about Christ to the biological children of Abraham?

Exodus 4: 19 Now in Midian the Lord told Moses, “Return to Egypt, for those who wanted to kill you are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and sons, put them on a donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt. …. 22 Then you will say to Pharaoh: This is what Yahweh says: Israel is My firstborn son. 23 Let My son go in order that my son worship Me, but you refused to let him go. Now I will kill YOUR firstborn son!”

Exodus 4: 24 On the trip to Egypt it happened that the Lord confronted Moses and sought to put Moses to death. 25 So his wife Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw the foreskin at Moses’ feet.Then his wife said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So the Lord let Moses alone.

The Abrahamic covenant points to justification through faith in the seed of Abraham. But he Abrahamic covenant is NOT new covenant ecclesiology.

The same people (troublers) in Galatians who wanted to have a Jewish ecclesiology (circumcising children and those who had not been circumcised as children) were also people tempted to “want to be justified by works of law”.  (assured by obeying Sinai)

Even though Paul teaches in Galatians 2:16 that Jews know that justification is not by works, Paul also warns that “Christ will be of no advantage” for those “who want to be justified by works”. Paul is not saying (and probably doesn’t know) if these people are a majority or a minority, but Paul is not ruling out the idea that some of the Jewish “Judiasers” are not only wrong about the covenants but also wrong about the gospel.

The problem is not only that some Gentiles are being persuaded or manipulated into becoming circumcised. The problem is some who were born circumcised
who are insisting on an Abrahamic ecclesiology and an Abrahamic definition of covenant (conflating the new covenant with the Abrahamic covenant)

Galatians 4: 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ;. You have fallen from grace.

The righteousness of God does not only mean that those who trust in Christ’s death alone are justified. The righteousness of God also
means that those who DO NOT TRUST Christ’s death alone will not be justified. Therefore the problem in Galatians is not only an ethical problem for people we know who are already justified (because they were born Jews, or because they were born Christians). There is an ethical problem (living in hypocrisy instead of in line with the gospel) but that ethical problem cannot be “segregated” (distinguished) from a doctrinal problem about the gospel.

All Jews were born not only in the Sinai covenant but also in the Abrahamic covenant. Even though Romans 9 and Galatians teach that Abraham had more than one son, and even though these two texts define children of Abraham as those who believe the gospel, if we include that definition of
Abraham’s children but also include (without antithesis) the children of the children (who did not yet believe the gospel), we bring confusion not only to the new covenant but also to the gospel. (Was it important for the prophet Jonah to teach those in the Ninevah that his children and family back in Israel were “elect and in the covenant”? )

Election to justification does NOT MEAN “born justified”
Even God’s elect to justification are born condemned in Adam.
Even God’s elect to justification are not born in the new covenant.

Certainly David Gordon should in no way be held accountable for my conclusions against “Abrahamic ecclesiology”.  Let me end now with a quotation from Gordon which gives us his thesis (not my thesis in response to his thesis) 


David Gordon, p 296—NT Wright’s “the covenant” is virtually identical with what the Reformed tradition ordinarily calls “the covenant of grace” and is no better than that common convention. Such a definition uses a biblical term unbiblically. . In the Bible, a berith or a diatheke is always a historical treaty of some kind, enacted in space and time with particular parties.”