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Giles Fraser: Covenant theology for everyone

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Many of us have buried our heads about all this Anglican Evangelical covenant stuff (News, 22 December). For Anglicans, unlike Christians of the Reformed traditions, covenantal theology is not something they are familiar with, and I suspect most of us wish it would go away. I worry that somewhere in the dungeons of Lambeth or Abuja, a set of theological manacles is being bashed out. But the ostrich attitude won’t help. It’s time to engage: so here’s my primer.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, God makes pacts with the Jewish people, granting them security, law, prosperity, and the land of Israel. God’s covenant with Abraham was signed with circumcision. He made others with Noah, Moses, and David. But Jeremiah (31.31) hinted at a new agreement — an agreement written into hearts.

Christians have read this new testament (the word covenant being translated testamentum in the Latin Bible) as having to do with the person and teachings of Jesus. Two references are significant. The first is in the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and is the beating heart of the eucharistic prayer: “This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you.”

The other is where Paul, explaining the new covenant, writes: “For you are all children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.” Then comes that famous bit: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.26-29). The Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright — basically, Mr Covenant as far the present crisis is concerned — gets it spot on: “All those who believe in Jesus belong at the same table.”

Yet there are those for whom this new testament is not enough. They want a new new testament, creating a sub-division within the category “all those who believe in Jesus”. They want to write a new new testament that will distinguish first- and second-class Christians. And the sign of this unbiblical covenant is to be sound doctrine, as defined by a small coterie of conservative Evangelicals.

The temptations to produce a new new testament are familiar. Joseph Smith set out to restore original Christianity. He believed he had discovered a new new testament written on gold tablets. Thus he founded Mormonism.

Well, I don’t want a new new testament. I’m a baptised believer who wants to gather round the table with others. Open table fellowship was a hallmark of Jesus’s ministry. Anything more restrictive is an insult to orthodoxy.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford.

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