The Covenantal Case for Catholicism

One area in which Catholics and many Protestants agree is that covenant is key to Christianity. After all, Judaism and Christianity are frequently referred to as the “Old Covenant” and “New Covenant,” and the terms Old and New Testament are also tied to the covenant. Granted, we often disagree with how the covenants should be understood, but both (or all) sides should be able to recognize the importance of the subject.

Whether you’re looking at how we’re saved, the relationship of the Old Testament Law to the Church, how Jesus is High Priest, or any of countless other areas, you’re going to need to understand what a covenant is, and how it works within Christianity. That’s one reason why covenantal theology is so important: it’s at the foundation of much of what we believe. But there’s another reason that I’m heartened to see so many Protestants with an interest in understanding covenants: the New Covenant points to the Catholic Church. We can see this from three distinct perspectives: what the covenant says about the Eucharist, about the necessity of the Church for salvation, and about the need for baptism.

I. The Covenant and the Eucharist
Joos van Cleve, Altarpiece of the Lamentation (1525)

There are literally hundreds of covenant references throughout the Old Testament, and it’s critical to understanding Christianity. Given this, you might be surprised to learn that Jesus only uses the term “covenant” once in the New Testament. Other than Zechariah’s reference to the Old Covenant in Luke 1:72, this is the only time covenant gets mentioned in any of the four Gospels.

So what does He have to say about the New Covenant? The sole covenant reference comes while He is consecrating the wine as His Blood. He says, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). So the only time Jesus talks about the New Covenant, the only time He mentions covenants at all, He’s tying the New Covenant to the Eucharist.

What’s more, He’s saying that what’s in the Chalice is His Blood, the Blood of the Covenant. So we should be asking: does He mean this literally? Or is the Eucharist just a symbol, as many Protestants hold? The clearest answer comes from Hebrews 9:18-22, by comparing the Old and New Covenants:

Hence even the first covenant was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you.” And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Hebrews tells us three things. First, that Moses used actual blood. Second, that this ratified the Old Covenant. And third, that this was absolutely necessary for there to be forgiveness of sins. If Moses had used wine instead, if he’d gone around spritzing the people with spritzer, the Covenant wouldn’t have been ratified, and there would have been no forgiveness of sins.

So that’s what happened when Moses said “This is the blood of the covenant which God commanded you” (Heb. 9:20, referencing Exodus 24:8). And there’s an obvious parallel between that proclamation, and Christ’s: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

But here, we encounter an oddity. From the Protestant perspective, Jesus isn’t using real Blood, so He’s not really ratifying the Covenant, and the Eucharist doesn’t actually bring about the forgiveness of sins in any way. In other words, in each of the three areas that Hebrews 9:18-22 highlights, Jesus’ action is inferior to Moses’.

That conclusion can’t be right. After all, the very  next verse says “Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.” (Heb. 9:23). In other words, Moses’ action foreshadows Christ’s, but Christ’s is superior. The logical conclusion is that the Protestant interpretation here is wrong: that Jesus really has turned wine into His Blood, the same Blood that He sheds for our salvation.

II. The Covenant and the Church
Matthias Gerun, John’s Vision of Heaven (Revelation 4:1-11, 5:1-14), from the Ottheinrich Bible (1532)

If you understand the Covenant, you’ll understand why the Catholic Church is indispensable to salvation. Let’s turn back to Hebrews again, specifically, Heb. 9:13-15,

For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.

In other words, God saves us through a covenant, the New Covenant. And that’s important, because covenants are contracts, and like all contracts, there are parties to them. And the parties to this covenant are Jesus and the Church. St. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 5:25-27, when he compares the marriage covenant to Christ’s covenant with the Church:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

This shows us why the Church is critically important. We like to imagine that we can simply be saved individually: me and Jesus. But this shows us why that view can’t be right: it would involve separate covenants between Jesus and each believer, and each one would need to be sealed by His shedding His blood. And Hebrews tells us that this isn’t the case (Heb. 9:25-26):

Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.

So salvation is possible only through the One True Church, the one Bride of Christ. Now, this still leaves the question of what this True Church looks like. But already, we’ve recognized that the role of the Church is more central than most Protestants (and for that matter, most ordinary Catholics) realize. After all, Christ’s first words in Mark’s Gospel are “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Salvation has always consisted of both individual belief in the Gospel and membership in the Kingdom. The covenant doesn’t make sense without this dimension.

And what else do we know about this Church? Well, in Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus says:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So Christ blesses Simon, changes his name to Peter (which means Rock), and then makes a series of promises to him (that He will establishes the Church on him, and that He will give him the Keys and the binding/loosening power). All of this neatly parallels Genesis 17, in which God creates a covenant with Abram by blessing him (Gen. 17:3-4), changing his name to Abraham (Gen. 17:5), and making a series of promises to him. So the Church necessary for salvation is the same one that Christ establishes on Peter. All of this points towards the Catholic Church.

III. The Covenant and Baptism

God Appears to Abraham Kneeling for the Second Time (14th c.)

If participation in the covenant is necessary for salvation, how do we enter into the covenant? Here, it helps to look back at Israel and the first Covenant. In Genesis 17:10-14, God says to Abraham:

This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised; every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house, or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he that is born in your house and he that is bought with your money, shall be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.

This is how a male entered the Old Covenant. Failing to do this meant that the covenant was broken. So what’s the New Covenant parallel? We find it in Colossians 2:9-14, while St. Paul is speaking of our relationship with Christ:

For in him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

So it’s through baptism, the New Covenant equivalent of circumcision, that we enter into the saving Covenant. This Covenant then works through faith in the working of God. And, of course, this makes sense. Baptism is the way that we enter into the Church: if the Church is the party to the Covenant, then Baptism serves as the doorway to both. And this baptism-plus-faith formula for salvation is what Christ explicitly lays out in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” And this is one of the reasons that St. Peter can proclaim to his readers that Baptism “now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).

IV. The Passover Connection
Unknown, Last Supper, Sant’Angelo (Formis) (1080)

To see how these three distinct areas (the Eucharist, the Church, and Baptism) are interrelated within the New Covenant, look at the foreshadowing of the Passover meal in Exodus 12. This ritual meal was closely restricted to the covenantal people (Ex. 12:43-49):

And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the passover: no foreigner shall eat of it; but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No sojourner or hired servant may eat of it. In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth any of the flesh outside the house; and you shall not break a bone of it. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”

In other words, a non-Jew could eat the Passover, but only by entering into the covenant first. He must be circumcised, and then he could join the Old Covenant people of God, Israel, and could partake of the Passover. This prefigures the way that believers must be baptized, and thereby join the New Covenant people of God, the Church, and can partake of Christ’s Last Supper meal, the Eucharist (Matthew 26:18; 1 Corinthians 5:7).

What’s more, all of this had to happen within one house. St. Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the early third century, highlighted this requirement:

Also, the sacrament of the passover contains nothing else in the law of the Exodus than that the lamb which is slain in the figure of Christ should be eaten in one house. God speaks, saying, In one house shall you eat it; you shall not send its flesh abroad from the house. The flesh of Christ, and the holy of the Lord, cannot be sent abroad, nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.

From the Passover, then, you can see that the three dimensions operate in a distinct but interconnected manner. To try to understand the Old Covenant without looking at sacrificial meals, Israel, or circumcision would render an inaccurate and incomplete view of the Old Covenant. So, too, would understanding the New Covenant with only a cursory consideration of the Eucharist, the Catholic Church, and Baptism.

V. Conclusion

I mentioned at the outset that the covenant is an area of interest for many Protestants as well as Catholics. And that’s great: without understanding the covenant, you don’t have a full grasp of what Christianity is all about. But to take that idea a step further, without a proper understanding of its distinct Eucharistic, ecclesiastical and sacramental dimensions, you don’t have an adequate understanding of the New Covenant. In these three ways and more, a rich understanding of the New Covenant points to the truth of the Catholic Church.

7 Comments

  1. I agree, which is why we are still part of the holy catholic and apostolic church. You had a really great point about the only time Jesus used the word covenant. I have read that passage so many times and say those words every Sunday, yet I did not know that this was the only place Jesus used that word. Good stuff! It is going into a sermon one day, but rest assure that I will give you credit for finding this.

    I would like to respond to your response from your last post. I see the responsibility for Christian unity being shared between the Lutheran church and the Roman church. I see many of the reforms of Luther alive and well in the Roman church in America today, but I see it as a failed reform movement in the sense that he was excommunicated and the separation of the body of Christ. This is a burden shared because both groups had a part in the historical split and both churches have expressed a desire for the unity of the body of Christ. It does feel that some have and do call for true unity, but neither church is all too motivated for true union. Both churches have become comfortable with the Reformation split. It always some eyebrows when I ask members about reunion with the Bishop of Roman. It sure does bring up discussion on this blog’s comment section. We are so far apart of ecclesiastical issues (woman ordained, welcoming divorced members, and the power structure of the church). We also lack a clear understanding of where doctrinal conformity, faithful disagreement, and grace for theological differences can permit a union to exist. No one even has an idea of how many doctrines there are in the Roman church or the Lutheran church! Luther said that the only doctrine that matters is the doctrine of justification, which we have some understanding and possible common ground with the JDotDJ. I do not see either church too eager to start hashing out these agreements and places for grave for disagreements in any concrete agreement. It takes two to tango, and I do not see too many rushing for the dance floor right now.

  2. Rev Dark Hans,
    In 1964 a Faith and Order Conference of the British Council of Churches committed themselves to the visible unity of British (Protestant) Churches by 1980. It will, I am sure, not come as a great shock if I say that that aim has not yet been achieved. Now, if a group of Protestant churches are unable to achieve unity over fifty years it is hardly surprising if a Protestant church and the Catholic Church have not achieved unity during the same time. What about the Catholic Church and Anglicans, a group who are, perhaps, nearer to the Catholic Church than any other Protestant denomination? In 1967 the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission was established by Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI. The Malta Report drawn up by the Joint Preparatory Commission said, “We cannot envisage in detail what may be the issues and demands of the final stage in our quest for the full, organic unity of our two Communions.” We are now nearly fifty years on from the formation of ARCIC and what has been achieved? Lots of talk, lot of reports and very little else.
    Why has there been so little progress? May I suggest that there are four basic ways to visible (or organic) unity. One way involves one side agreeing that the other side is totally correct in all of its doctrines and that they must declare that where they disagree their own doctrine is wrong. The second way is for the two sides to reach an agreement in which both sides give up some of their doctrines. The third way is fudge. The two sides cobble together an agreement which can be interpreted by anybody in any way they wish. (This would, of course, involve the abandonment of any magisterial authority.) The fourth way is similar to the third. The churches join together on the basis that the new church is a broad church and anybody in the church can, pretty much, think whatever they want.
    So I have two questions. Firstly, can you suggest a fifth way? Secondly, which way do you support? My suggestion for why there has been no progress towards unity between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church (Churches?) is that both support only the first way and neither wish to deny any of their own doctrines. I know that you won’t agree but my belief is that those who belong to churches which broke away from the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation accept that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ and decide to come home.

    1. Highland, you make several great points and lay out the logical ways to approach unity. I must first point out that your last statement and personal beliefs reflect the first option, which we know is most suited for furthering the entrenchments.
      The first approach will not work. What is interesting is that I hear from some that the Roman church does not view it strictly as “we are right and you need to gravel back to us.” I hope they are more welcoming in statements and in actual discussion.

      The second approach appears as a very logical approach or even business like. Each church has a list of negotiable and non-negotiable items, even if we know this list or do not know this list. Given the history of the church councils, one cannot give up a piece that has been rendered from a council or from an ex cathedra statement by the Pope. One would not likely discard doctrine, but we are not sure on the entire list of doctrines (as was my point above). If there are conflicting doctrines, then that is a real problem. Luckily, they have already had serious discussion on this topic for many years and actually produced several good documents for helping us understand each other and see where unity is possible. So what happens though when church councils disagree? Martin Luther wrote at length about this, but I have never heard an answer from the Roman church on this. My personal favorite is the apparent disagreement between the results of the Council of Orange and the Council of Trent. This is normally where Joe would jump in and make a slick argument for why they actually agree and Trent “clarifies” Orange. I would snicker and make another wise crack in response. Such is life!

      The third way cannot happen because any abandonment of the magisterial authority would conflict for the same reason as the second approach (i.e. division is preferable to many over unity via sacrificing doctrine).

      The fourth way has potential. I would not classify it as wide as you did by saying “anybody in the church can, pretty much, think whatever they want.” To some degree many American Catholics already lament the “Cafeteria Catholicism” that is so present today, which I see as this exact mentality. There needs to be an understanding of where the non-negotiable doctrines are and what they are, where are the practices of the church, and where there is freedom for personal piety. A personal example would be how I feel about Mary the mother of Jesus. I, as a Protestant, have a rather narrow view of her that comes from the New Testament. I understand that the Roman church has elevated her above where the scriptures place her (again, this is where Joe would jump in with some attempt to show how she is elevated in scripture). I would not force others to take my position, but I cannot serve in a church that forces me to take a position on a teaching that does not have a strong biblical basis. I hold Mary in very high regard because she was a woman of great faith and the mother of Jesus, but I also see her as a very real Jewish mother in the first century. Unity in the body of Christ is much more important than my personal view of Mary, but can the Roman church say that? Can the Roman church lift up unity above a teaching on purgatory? on the immaculate conception (again about Mary)? on complete obedience to a bishop? This is where serious discussions about unity get sticky and bring us back to the first path you stated. Thank you for the good post and the food for thought!

  3. The last sentence should read:
    I know that you won’t agree but my belief is that the only way to unity is that those who belong to churches which broke away from the Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation accept that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church founded by Jesus Christ and decide to come home.

  4. When the Lord told Peter, “Upon this Rock I will build my Church” it can easily be understood that the construction would be solid, both in the foundation upon solid ‘Rock’ as well as in the future construction of the edifice to come: “And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”. That is to say, it is not built on sand: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock.” (Matt. 7:25)

    With all this said, is it conceivable that the Lord would allow a substantial chunk of the supporting architecture of this same building to be discarded part way through the construction? Wouldn’t that indicate that He did not know how to design and construct a suitable building (i.e.. Church) from the beginning, thereby signifying that He was basically careless and incompetent as a builder?

    It really seems that the Lord would never use such symbolism as “Rock” and “building” if He was describing the Protestant denominations as they exist today. But if we contemplate the history of the Catholic Church, we can indeed marvel at the splendor and sturdiness of this architecture and construction, as developed over the past 2 millennia. Of course this Holy construction is not yet finished, and the Lord will continue to…in His own words… “build my Church”.

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