Sacrifice and Worship After Stoicheia

Sacrifice and Worship After Stoicheia September 30, 2015

Let me begin with two starting points, too rapidly explained and defended. First: It is clear from the New Testament’s handful of uses of the phrase that ta stoicheia tou kosmou are connected with the regulations of the Torah. During her childhood (Galatians 4:3), Paul says, Israel was enslaved to the stoicheia (v. 9), and to illustrate the danger he expresses his worries about the Galatian observance of days, months, and seasons (vv. 10-11). Observing Torah’s festive calendar amounts to a reversion to stoicheic slavery. More broadly, Galatians as a whole is concerned with circumcision and table fellowship, and Paul considers those regulations also to be childish elementary things. In Colossians, Paul’s great hymn to Christ ends in a hortatory “therefore”: As in Galatians, Paul warns the Colossians not to adhere to shadowy and antiquated calendars (Colossians 2:16-17), and he exhorts them not to submit to the purity and holiness prohibitions of Torah. Having died with Christ to ta stoicheia tou kosmou, the Colossians should not be submitting to decrees (dogmatizo) such as “Do not taste, do not touch” (vv. 20-21).

A somewhat wider perspective comes into focus in Hebrews 5:12. The author is irritated that his readers have not grown up to be carnivorous teachers – mature, meat-eating adults. Instead, they still need the milk of ta stoicheia. This rebuke closes a chapter in which the writer contrasts the eschatological priesthood of Melchizedek with the old priesthood of Aaron. Fleshly priesthood is one item in the milky diet from which the author hopes to wean his readers, and elsewhere the letter binds together priesthood with sacrifice, purity, and other regulations of the Torah. Whether or not we can identify ta stoicheia tou kosmou with those ordinances, we can conclude that what I will call stoicheic religion includes adherence to purity codes, graded distinctions of holiness, feasts and appointed times, and sacrifice.

A second preliminary claim: Whatever ta stoicheia tou kosmou actually are, Jesus had them in His sights in His triumphant death on the cross. Children were in bondage to the guarding and managing stoicheia until the fullness of time when God sent forth His Son and then His Spirit, through whom minor heirs are growing up to full sonship (Galatians 4:6-7). Colossians makes the same point: Those who have died with Christ are delivered from the decrees associated with the stoicheia (Colossians 2:20-21). Christ’s own circumcision brings to life those who are dead in the uncircumcision of flesh. Through participation in the circumcision of Christ, the decrees and regulations set against us are put away (Colossians 2:11-14). I do not have to untangle any of these dense passages to draw the simple conclusion that Christ’s death delivers children from ta stoicheia tou kosmou as much as it liberates sinners from sin and death.

On the second point if not on the first, there is a wide consensus: Few Christians believe we are bound to observe Torah’s purity and holiness regulations; very few Christians throughout the centuries have performed animal sacrifices. For most Christians it is self-evidence that Jesus ended all that. About the implications of that self-evident confession, there has been continuous and sometimes acrimonious conflict, not only in theology or New Testament scholarship but in practical questions about liturgical forms.

Consider, for instance, modern debates between Baptists and paedobaptists in the light of the New Testament’s teaching about ta stoicheia tou kosmou. Simply put, the most common Reformed argument for infant baptism is this: (Male) children were included in Israel in the Old Testament and marked with circumcision; Israel and the church are the same people, bearers of the same promise; therefore, just as (male) children were marked for inclusion by circumcision in the Old Covenant, so (male and female) children should be marked for inclusion by baptism in the New Covenant. The argument for the inclusion of young children in the Lord’s Supper has the same structure: Children ate with their parents at the feasts of Israel;[1] Israel and the church are the same people; therefore, children should participate in the Christian feast.

These arguments – to which I give the shorthand designation “paedo-arguments” – assume answers to some basic hermeneutical problems, though the operative assumptions are rarely brought entirely to the surface. Among the hermeneutical assumptions that can be dredged up are the following:

1. The paedo-arguments treats Old Testament persons, institutions and events not only as types of Jesus Christ but as rules that regulate the life and worship of the church.[2] In medieval terms, the paedo-arguments assume that the Old Testament contains not only “allegories” of Christ but also moral and ritual “tropologies” applicable to Christ’s body. In Augustinian terms, the Old Testament speaks of the totus Christus, the whole Christ, both head and body. Specifically, according to the paedo-arguments, circumcision foreshadows the “cutting of Jesus’ flesh” on the cross, but also points to the baptismal rite of passage. Passover is fulfilled not only in the cross but also in the Eucharist.

2. More specifically, the paedo-arguments assume that Old Testament ritual patterns have regulatory authority over the church’s worship. The requirement to circumcise male children on the eighth day and the rules of access to the Israel’s feasts were ritual ordinances, governing the form of Israel’s liturgical and sacramental ceremonies. If we appeal to those rituals to justify our own practice, we must assume that “ceremonial” regulations of the stoicheia continue to have “ceremonial” import after the stoicheia.[3] The paedo-arguments reason from ceremony to ceremony.

3. Paedo-arguments do not, of course, claim that there is total continuity between the institutions of Old and New. All Christians accept that the menu at Passover was different from that of the Supper, and baptism differs from circumcision because it does not involve a cut in the flesh and includes women. In the midst of these self-evident discontinuities, the paedo-arguments locate specific features of Old Testament rites that retain liturgical force. Paedo-arguments assume that we can determine which features are common to stoicheic rites and Christian rituals, and which are not.

For Baptists, I imagine, some of these assumptions look deeply suspect. From a Baptist perspective, it might well appear that paedo-arguments depend on adherence to ta stoicheia tou kosmou from which Paul says we have been liberated. Baptists will want to ask, Why should Israel’s regulations about access and inclusion regulate the church’s liturgy and sacraments? Though Baptists are unusually too polite to express their disgust, paedobaptists can smell like Judaizers to a Baptist nose.

As a convinced paedobaptist, I do not believe I exude the aroma of a Judaizer, but I acknowledge that paedobaptists have been neither consistent nor clear about the hermeneutical logic of their liturgical and sacramental theology. In this paper I attempt to assess that logic in the light of the New Testament’s own explicit appeals of stoicheic ceremonies. No doubt you will be relieved to know that I will not rehearse – once again! and inconclusively! – the debate about baptism. I raise the baptism issue only to highlight more general issues and to probe paedobaptist as well as Baptist hermeneutics. My paper focuses instead on sacrifice, and my question can be put this way: Paedo-arguments reason from the ceremonial regulations of the old to ceremonial regulations of the new. If that form of argument applies to Genesis 17, does it also apply to Leviticus? Can we pick out features of Levitical sacrificial and purity regulations that still regulate our worship? If “regulate” is too strong, does stoicheic worship inform worship after the stoicheia? If so, how so? Most importantly, does the New Testament justify such a procedure? Do the apostles ever reason this way?

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[1] For the purposes of this essay, I take it as proven that children participated in the feasts of Israel. In addition to other resources, especially Tim Gallant’s Feed My Lambs: Why the Lord’s Supper Should Be Restore to Covenant Children (Pactum Reformanda, 2002), I point to reader to my own contributions to this question: “A Reply to ‘1 Corinthians 11:17-34: The Lord’s Supper’” in E. Calvin Beisner, ed., The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), pp. 297-304.

[2] For the purposes of this essay, I assume the legitimacy of a typological hermeneutic that sees all the Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus. I have defended some aspects of typological interpretation in the introductions to my A House for My Name (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2000), pp. 17-42, and A Son To Me (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003). See also James B. Jordan, Through New Eyes (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2000), and Richard M. Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical TYPOS Structures (Andrews University Seminary Doctoral Dissertation Series; Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1981).

[3] For the sake of argument, I assume here that distinctions can readily be made between “moral” and “ceremonial” rules, though I am deeply skeptical about the usefulness of that distinction. Markus Bockmuehl is correct to insist that “the very distinction between moral, civil, and ceremonial laws, aside from being unknown to the Old and New Testaments and to Judaism, is legally unworkable and practically awkward. Who would confidently classify the laws about gleaning or the taking of a bird’s nest, not to mention the Sabbath and the command about images?” (Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000], p. 149, fn. 14). In this essay, “ceremonial” regulations have to do with liturgical forms and patterns, while “moral” covers all other spheres of life.


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