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Luther and Progressive Covenantalism

Luther and Progressive Covenantalism

As I work my way through Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker's Progressive Covenantalism, I continue to discover cute parallel nuggets with Peter Lillback's The Binding of God. My latest discovery is the ironically shared position of Luther and Jason DeRouchie on God's covenant in Genesis 17.


The Covenant of Circumcision

As I have mentioned previously, Jason DeRouchie's chapter for Progressive Covenantalism looks at the unique relationship of Abraham and Christ as father of their respective covenants. One of DeRouchie's finer exegetical contributions — though I disagree with it — is that Genesis 17 contains two epochs of covenant fulfillment,

"By treating the Abraham covenant as a monolithic reality substantially equated with the new covenant, many covenant theologians miss that Genesis seventeen distinguishes two progressive arrows for the everlasting Abraham at covenant — the first national (Gen 17:7-8) with a geological principle as its guide and circumcision as its sign (17:9-13); and the second international with the patriarch's fatherhood established by spiritual adoption and no longer bound by biology, ethnicity, or the distinguishing mark of circumcision (17:4-7)."

DeRouchie's point is that within the Abrahamic covenant, there is a biological and landmarked first epoch to which circumcision was the sign. But this covenant epoch was temporal and replaced by the fulfillment of Jesus Christ. This fulfillment is such that the Abrahamic Covenant takes on unparalleled meaning. The emphatic point for DeRouchie is that the covenants of Scripture are not "monolithic."

This is to be expected from DeRouchie. In The Binding of God, Peter Lillback shows that the Reformation strife with the Anabaptists was the impetus for a renewed covenantal reading of Genesis 17. The Abrahamic Covenant has been a staple of covenant theology. So it was rather eye-opening when Lillback showed that Luther's reading of Genesis 17 was aimed against the Judaism and Reformed thought prevalent in his day,

"There were tremendous tensions between the Zürich and Wittenberg reformations. Luther was convinced that the Swiss were teaching the same as the Pope concerning justification. Luther's conception of faith without law was countered by the reform insistence upon faith and love. This was observed in Oecolampadius' development of the covenant, Bollinger's teaching on the conditions of the covenant and Zwingli's view that the law was a gospel in its own right." (113-114)

To demonstrate this difference, Lillback contrasts the exegesis of Genesis 17 from Bullinger and Luther. I do not wish to copy the fulness of Lillback's analysis but provide a summary from his quoting of Luther. First, the covenant in Genesis 17 "does not concern the Gentiles" (115) - this is the biological rendering of DeRouchie. Luther perceived it as a temporal covenant with the sign of circumcision (115-116) - leading to the New Testament demise of circumcision. And finally, Luther clearly articulated the exitence of "two covenants" in which circumcision represented the first material covenant (116-117),

"But at this point it is proper to raise the question why in this passage God clearly distinguishes one covenant from the other, for he mentions two covenants. The first is the covenant of circumcision, to which Ishmael also is admitted, yes, the slaves to whether born in the house of Abraham or purchased…The second covenant is here established with Isaac. Ishmael is clearly excluded from it. Hence this text proves that besides the covenant of circumcision there is another, which pertains to Isaac alone and not, like the covenant of circumcision, Ishmael also." (117)

Lillback asserts that Luther puts discontinuity here to mark out circumcision as a "covenant of the law...given for our 'performance' in an established people, place and time" (118). Luther means to distance himself from the Reformed understanding of Genesis 17.

Despite Luther's conclusion that "Christ, the Founder of the new generation, did not change the covenant; He changed the sign of the covenant," he stands removed from the Reformed tradition which provides starker continuity between circumcision and baptism. This discontinuity is consistent with DeRouchie's demarcation between the material epoch fulfilled on Abraham and the spiritual epoch fulfilled under Christ. Though having different reasons entirely, the similarities are fascinating.

Call and Response

Call and Response

Continuity or Union with Christ

Continuity or Union with Christ