The Holy Spirit's Covenant
One of the things that really worked against my transition to the covenant position was my Baptistic paradigms. Contrary to popular opinion, it isn't just about "reading the Bible" and making a decision. One has to struggle to identify paradigms and lens. Everyone has them and it is always hard to break away from them (even if they are correct) to evaluate the Scriptures afresh.
One of those paradigms for me was the activity of the Holy Spirit. Now it is funny to say that because I've only come to realize this was a paradigm blocker after a couple years of holding the covenant view. In the infancy of my transition, I was convinced my struggle was against the Baptist teaching of faith and regeneration being required before baptism. There remained, and remains, something so incredibly valuable in the position. No matter their baptismal position, one must be able to look back and appreciate the importance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. The Baptist paradigm however adds systematically the subsequent baptism upon profession.
But recently I've begun to ask questions of myself. I remain unsatisfied with my understanding of certain Biblical texts and their systematic application. For instance, I am thoroughly convinced that the church today neglects the Holy Spirit to the same extent that the Jews neglected or rejected Jesus Christ. I am confident of this position in theory. But where is the Holy Spirit in my understanding of the covenant? Because of my Baptistic upbringing, I have an understanding of the Holy Spirit and His association with soteriology. But for us of the covenant sort (both Baptist and truly reformed), where does the Holy Spirit come into the covenant themes of the Scripture?
I don't presume to have all the answers. But I do have some exploring thoughts I'd like to address currently. I'm certainly attempting to encourage some brainstorming though I have arrived at some temporary conclusions. All the exploration begins in a fairly controversial passage from The Acts of the Apostles.
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” - Acts 2:38-39
Most of the focus given to this controversial passage is focused on verse 39. And it is with good intent that this passage has been dissected time and time again. Both sides of the baptism debate believe they have the hermeneutical principals on their side to decipher this critical verse. I personally am persuaded that Acts 2:39 is a recapitulation of Genesis 17 and hence an obvious Biblical commandment for infant baptism (link - warning: fairly long and technical article).
But the argument over the proper recipients of baptism (Acts 2:38) is far too often separated from Peter's sermon. The argument over the recipients can only occur within the context of Peter's sermon. This means that it is not a simple matter of imperative or didactic. Instead it is a study in Biblical Theology and what "promise" Peter is affirming. Alongside brothers on both sides of the baptism argument, I am in agreement that Peter's "promise" most likely applies to specific prophetic fulfillment found in Acts 2:17-21,
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ - Acts 2:17-21
This passage is a quotation from the prophet Joel. The reason many tie this portion toPeter's promise (and hence in a way baptism) is that it incorporates "sons and daughters" (v. 17) and salvation (v. 21). This is quite innocently building off the paradigm of the Holy Spirit's involvement in soteriology but not covenant theology. This paradigm has recently drawn my attention. This inclusion, in the dramatic form of fulfillment, in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit contains a covenantal backstory that deserves to be developed.
The first important passage corresponding to this backstory is found in the prophet Isaiah. Most presume that the latter portions of this lengthy book apply more directly to the salvific work of Jesus Christ and the events of the New Testament. The 59th chapter is of particular exception. It is so clinical in its description of God, the sinfulness of man, the necessity of Jesus Christ and our redemption that is stands as a bulwark among the Old Testament prophetic texts. But the valuable portion with respect to this discussion comes all the way at the end of the chapter,
21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” - Isaiah 59:21
It should be obvious why this text is important. All the crucial elements to this discussion are present. There is a covenant. There is the promise Holy Spirit. And there are children in the form of multiple generations. Even more directly, the promise of the Holy Spirit is a generational blessing of the covenant. This is not the only place God makes these type of comments through Isaiah (Isa 44:3) but it remains the most direct and beneficial. Since this covenant is tied to all the preceding promises for salvation this seems to be a generational blessing of the New Covenant.
But perhaps I've diverted too far from the original text. What about that passage in Joel? This was the real passage that Peter has in mind. It is right to give it priority in understanding the promises of the Holy Spirit. It is worth noting at the outset that this chapter is full of prophecy. Both the start (Joel 2:1) and the conclusion (Joel 2:31) have in mind the "day of the Lord." And hence the interjection of "and it shall come to pass" (Joel 2:28) is incredibly important. This simple conjunction certainly moves from the generation of Joel to a future generation. As a sound understanding of the Bible presents, this future generation is the generation of Peter. Thus in his sermon, Peter is picking up Joel's prophecy and saying "this is now for you as the fulfillment of that audience."
So who was in that audience? Can we postulate who was and was not present to hear the original message of Joel? Many will choose to spend their time discussing who was present for Peter's sermon. But this is losing sight of the important context. Peter is not quoting Joel because his audience matches Joel's audience. He is quoting Joel because the fulfillment is happening. Thus the "audience" are the recipients of the promise and not the people hearing Peter's sermon. And what are we to presume about the audience of this theological fulfillment? The passage itself tells us,
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
assemble the elders;
gather the children,
even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
and the bride her chamber. - Joel 2:15-16
It was at this point that the matter seemingly became settled for me. The audience of Joel explicitly included "nursing infants." They too were the recipients of the promise concerning the Holy Spirit. Is it even close to rational to think that Peter would explicitly exclude them? So Peter in the fulfillment of Joel includes "nursing infants" even if they were not physically present at the time of his sermon.
And thus this is where I currently am. Previously I had been taught to see the Holy Spirit as a special element of salvation. That is not entirely incorrect. But it would seem He is also tied strongly to the New Covenant promise to believer and their children. This New Covenant had begun at the table of the Lord's Supper, been inaugurated on the cross and proclaimed in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. The final consummation and inclusion of participants seems to occur during the subsequent fulfillment of Joel's prophecy at Pentecost. This leaves me with a couple echoing questions:
If the Holy Spirit is to be more strongly tied to the New Covenant then might not the "pouring" imagery instruct us on the proper mode of baptism?
If the Holy Spirit is the link between the New Covenant and Baptism, wouldn't this return us to a proper understanding of Jesus' baptism and instructional anointment with the Holy Spirit?
If children are the proper recipients of these promises what type of relationship do these prophecies teach that children have with the Holy Spirit?
If children are the recipients of the promise and the New Covenant (aka they have received the "pouring" of the Holy Spirit) then what is to keep them from baptism?
These are just some of the questions that I've begun asking myself. Since I already believe in baptizing infants it might seem like I've been leading the question. But in challenging those of the credo perspective I also seek to deepen the covenantal view of baptism. The questions are a stepping stone to resolving the importance of the Holy Spirit and His relationship to the New Covenant.