Home > 1689 federalism, John Owen, old covenant > Baptists Couldn’t Possibly Know What They’re Talking About: Debating Owen, Round 472

Baptists Couldn’t Possibly Know What They’re Talking About: Debating Owen, Round 472

In a recent Facebook discussion about covenant theology (I haven’t been able to join the group), someone posted some quotes from Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctive Covenant Theology of 17th Century Particular Baptists.” A paedobaptist objected, as is common, to the quotations from John Owen:

to say that Owen developed in this respect is not fair to Owen unless he himself recognized a departure from his previous statements and positions, which we have no evidence of. Rather, his words should be interpreted in light of his whole theological construct, not what statements he made in one place, unless he consciously and explicitly repudiated his prior assertions.

What would constitute evidence? Does he have to say “Dear reader, I previously held a different view, but now I have changed my mind (just in case it wasn’t obvious from what I just said)”?

A case could be made that Owen presupposed that the Mosaic economy was one of grace, rightly understood, in that he makes statements to that affect, that he presupposes it as an idea in his sermons and other theological works

So this is the question: Did Owen hold to classic WCF covenant theology? Did he believe the covenant of grace was an overarching covenant administered by the historical, biblical covenants? Did he believe the the Mosaic covenant was a gracious administration of the covenant of grace?

Before looking at his evidence, it should be noted that any attempt to place Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8 within the context of presuppositions found elsewhere in Owen’s writings still has to explain what Owen meant in his commentary on Hebrews 8 (this person never offered an explanation).

He brings forward several points of evidence:

(as his works on Christ and the Holy Spirit), and also in that, as an act,

1) Owen subscribed to and helped put together a document which was explicitly in favor of what I am advocating. He was one of the two leading theologians that helped to pen the savoy declaration, and subscribed to it as accurately representing his theological views. A mere glance at that document in reference to covenant will show that it is word for word the same as the Westminster Assembly’s confession, which is notoriously “presbyterian” in covenant theology, it articulates purely and entirely my own position on covenant theology in this respect.

2) Owen wrote favorably of books about covenant which were in favor of a traditional “presbyterian” view of covenant. He wrote the preface to and in praise of Patrick Gillespie’s work on the covenant mentioned above, the most explicit work in favor of the position I am here contending for (my favorite work on covenant as well).

3) Owen made statements which are fairly and explicitly in favor of the same view

4) Owen made statements which presuppose a view which is only consistent with the Westminster/Savoy doctrine of covenant in relation to the OC and NC

5) Owen makes statements which seem, when divorced from this other information, to be saying that the Mosaic economy was one of works or some other nonsense. I leave it to the individual to determine whether Owen was inconsistent and confused, or whether many have just misunderstood him in his commentary on Hebrews 8 [notice he offers no explanation for how to properly interpret Owen’s comments on Hebrews 8]. Either way, since he may be used by either side of the line to advocate their position, your appeal to him is trite at best.

When someone pressed him, using quotes from Owen, he responded:

again, Owen means little to me, and he may err, as I have already said. Further, I have already illustrated that, even if I have misunderstood him in these quotes, that that would only prove that he was confused himself about what he was subscribing to in the Savoy Declaration and what he was writing in favor of in the preface to Gillespie’s work.

…so, again, either you have misunderstood Owen, or Owen is really, very confused (admittedly, Owen has spoken somewhat strongly, and I would like to see him clarify his meaning and reconcile it with what he says very clearly elsewhere, but this is why I put no stock in him in this, because he can’t clarify now that he is dead: his view could be construed to be at odds with either of our views).

…I am saying that your knowledge is inadequate, you haven’t read nearly enough to prove your claims, and the claims that you have made concerning Owen are in clear contradiction with what he says elsewhere. If you wish to discuss the scriptural validity of covenant theology, great, come; but don’t come at me with caricatures of history you know very little about and maintain it in spite of other clear evidence to the contrary.

So, before this person is willing to admit development in Owen’s mind, he is willing to simply say Owen (“one of the most influential men of his generation” -Trueman) was confused and didn’t really understand what he was saying.

Since Owen “can’t clarify now that he is dead”, I’m going to help him out.

Claim 1: Savoy Declaration

Is the Savoy word for word the same as the WCF? Perhaps a mere glance will suggest it is the same, but if we give it more than a glance we will see there are two major changes in regards to covenant theology:

  1. Savoy omits WCF 7.6, which reads “…There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.”
  2. Savoy changes WCF 19.2 by deleting “as such”

The implication the first difference is obvious, since we are discussing Owen’s statement that “Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended.”

The 2009 Kerux Journal review of “The Law is Not of Faith” notes:

Much of what Savoy says subtly modifies the WCF. Both attempt to affirm the essential unity of the covenant of grace, but Savoy omits the important declaration of the WCF that “there are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under vari- ous dispensations.” In other words, the Savoy declaration refuses to exclude various views of the Mosaic covenant which construe it as a substantially distinct covenant.

And, just so that people didn’t misunderstand him, or think he was confused, Owen “explicitly” said he was rejecting the reformed view in favor of the Lutheran view:

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the Old Testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant… See Calvin. Institut. lib. 2:cap. xi.; Martyr. Loc. Com. loc. 16, sect. 2; Bucan. loc. 22, etc.

The Lutherans on the other side, insist on two argument to prove, that not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that two covenants substantially distinct, are intended in this discourse of the apostle.

Again, the authors of the 2009 Kerux Journal review of “The Law is Not of Faith” note how “conscious” Owen was of what he said:

Let the reader note carefully what Owen has just told you: even though I know that my position is in disagreement with the Reformed position, and in substantial agreement with Lutheranism, I still maintain that Scripture teaches that the Mosaic covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace, but was rather a distinct covenant. This is an honest (and honorable) admission on Owen’s part that he is departing from the Reformed consensus, represented in Calvin, Bullinger, Bucanus, and a whole host of others.

The implication of the second difference is more subtle, but still significant. In short:

in 19:2, the Savoy declaration omits the important phrase “as such,” referring to the way in which the law was given to Israel (namely, as a perfect rule of righteousness).

While subtle, this omission is important. WCF clearly defines the manner in which the law was given to Israel. In contrast to Adam (who was given the law as a covenant of works), Israel received the law as a perfect rule of righteousness for those in covenant with God. The Savoy declaration, however, leaves open the possibility that the law may have been given to Israel in some other way. In other words, Savoy leaves open the possibility that the Mosaic law was given to Israel as a covenant of works, a subservient covenant, or some other covenant.

When we compare this formulation with the various proposals of its au- thors, the reason for this omission becomes clear. Nearly half of the authors of the Savoy Declaration took a minority view of the Mosaic covenant. As noted above, the majority of divines viewed the law given at Sinai as a covenant of grace, that is, as a rule of righteousness for those already in covenant with God.

2009 Kerux Journal review of “The Law is Not of Faith”

Claim 2: Book Endorsements

It is true that Owen wrote the preface to Gillespie’s “The Ark of the Covenant Opened; or a Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace” in 1677.

I haven’t read the preface or the book, so I can’t comment directly on it. But the title suggests the focus is on defending the covenant of redemption as a foundation for the covenant of grace, a position Owen supported.

But if book endorsements are going to carry weight in this debate, then it must also be noted that Owen wrote a forward to Samuel Petto’s “The Ark of the Covenant Opened; or a Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace” in 1674. Michael Brown notesOwen called Petto a “Worthy Author” who labored “with good success,” and there is some evidence to suggest that Petto’s work may have influenced Owen’s own thinking on the subject.

Why is that significant? Because Petto’s thesis was that the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works offering eternal life to those who obey. He said “the Lord, in infinite wisdom made a revival or repetition of the Covenant of Works as to the substance of it (with a new intent) in the Covenant at Mount Sinai.” Brown comments:

For Petto, there were two possible ways of viewing the Mosaic covenant, either as a ‘Covenant of works, as to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ’ or ‘the Covenant of Grace as to its legal condition to be performed by Jesus Christ, represented under a conditional administration of it to Israel.’ Viewed either way, Sinai was a covenant of works for Christ. What the original covenant of works was to the first Adam, the Mosaic covenant was to the second Adam; it provided the temporal setting for the Federal Head to obtain eternal life for those whom he represented.

by Michael G. Brown

By the way, Petto subscribed to the Savoy Declaration.

Claim 3&4 : Explicit Statements & Presuppositions

Exercitation 21

For a refutation of the idea that he thought anything contrary to traditional covenant theology, I encourage you to read Exercitation XXI, in vol. XVII of his works, for therein you will find him more fully explaining himself concerning law, covenant, and covenant continuity. The Exercitations, by Owen’s own explanation were meant to more fully and systematically handle certain issues of doctrine which he found so frequently assumed in the book of Hebrews, which, rather than to constantly go off on bunny trails, he felt should be handled in a prefatory fashion, and thus may be used to explain what Owen says in his commentary of the actual text.

I appreciate the reference, as I’m always interested in learning more about Owen’s perspective. However, Exercitation 21 (p 654) does not live up to the claims. Nowhere in the essay does Owen directly comment on the covenant continuity in question. His statements have to be read, as this person previously argued, in light of the rest of his writing. He claims that the Exercitation was written so that Owen would not have to “go off in bunny trails” to address covenant continuity. If that is the case, why did Owen bother writing 150 pages on Hebrews 8:6-13 regarding the Old and New Covenants? I think that interpretive weight should be given to the 150 pages directly on the subject rather than the two pages tangentially on the subject. Also, note that this Exercitation was written in 1668, while his comments on Hebrews 8 were written 12 years later in 1680.

To wet your appetite, after carefully defining what he meant by law, and in what way the covenant of Sinai was the covenant of grace, and in what way it could be falsely understood to be a covenant of works, he refers to the promises of the law as concerning “[life] eternal with God, as the promise or covenant of grace was exemplified or represented therein, Lev. xviii. 5; Ezek. xx. 11; Rom. x. 5; Gal. iii.12,”

I believe he has read Owen too quickly. The first and greatest error is that Owen is not discussing the covenant of Sinai in this essay. This is a complicated essay. Here is an outline. In short, when Owen mentions “covenant” in this essay he is primarily referring to the original covenant of works with Adam. When he mentions “administration of the law” he is referring to the “new end” given the original covenant of works by the promise in Gen 3:15 – that is, that Christ would fulfill it’s terms.

So when Owen says “[life] eternal with God, as the promise or covenant of grace was exemplified or represented therein…” he is referring to the “new end administration”, not to the Mosaic Covenant.

and, “there are given out of the law various promises of intervenient and mixed mercies, to be enjoyed in earthly things in this world, that had their immediate respect into the mercy of the land of Canaan, representing spiritual grace, annexed to the then present administration [!] of the covenant of grace.”

This quote is clearly referring to Israelites in Canaan during the Mosaic Covenant, but Owen makes a careful qualifying statement:

It is of the law under this third consideration [instrument of the rule and government of the people and church of Israel], — though not absolutely as the instrument of the government of the people in Canaan [Mosaic Covenant], but as it had a representation in it of that administration of grace and mercy which was contained in the promises, — whereof we treat.

Here Owen distinguishes between the law “absolutely” for Israel, which would be the Mosaic Covenant, and the law insofar as it represented the promise given out in Gen 3:15, what he calls the “new end administration” (that Christ would fulfill the original covenant of works).

This makes more sense when you read his comments on Hebrews 8:6:

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,

So again, Owen’s quote from the Exercitation is making this distinction between the law absolutely for Israel (Mosaic Covenant) and the representation in it of the grace contained in the promise (New Covenant/Covenant of Grace). The rest of his essay discusses it under this latter consideration, not how the law functioned as the Mosaic Covenant.

And there is no problem with Owen’s language of “the then present administration of the covenant of grace”. It is not debated if the covenant of grace was administered during the Mosaic Covenant. The question is if it was administered by the Mosaic Covenant, or by the New Covenant.

This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.

…No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.

A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit

For further proof that Owen did not hold such views of Covenant theology which were contrary to classic covenant theology, see Volume IV (of the Goold edition) of his works, start with page 261 and read about 3 pages, where Owen, answering an objection to the promises given to Israel (which he frequently refers to as the church) being applied to NT believers, says they are ours since the covenant has only been enlarged so as to include the Gentiles. “For the saints under the Old Testament were really made partakers of all the same graces with those under the New.” (263) He makes the difference to consist in extent and degree, and speaks of Christ bringing in an “abundant administration [!]” of “all spiritual supplies of grace.” This work, Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer, was published in 1682, two years after his commentary on Heb. 8 was published (1680). I hope this will help to put to rest the notion that Owen had a change of mind.

This Facebook commenter does not understand the position of 1689 Federalism. Understanding what he is trying to refute would be the first step. There is nothing in this essay that disagrees with anything that has been argued. There is nothing in it that a baptist would disagree with either. This essay is not commenting on all the differences between the Old and New Covenants. It is addressing one specific issue regarding the Holy Spirit during the Old Testament and during the New Testament.

There is no disagreement so long as we understand that Owen believes it was only the New Covenant that administered the Holy Spirit during the Old Testament. It administered it by way of the promise, rather than by way of a covenant (which was yet to be formally inaugurated). Owen (Hebrews 8):

two objections must be removed, which may in general be laid against our interpretation.

First, ‘This covenant is promised as that which is future, to be brought in at a certain time, “after those days,” as hath been declared. But it is certain that the things here mentioned, the grace and mercy expressed, were really communicated unto many both before and after the giving of the law, long ere this covenant was made; for all who truly believed and feared God had these things effected in them by grace: wherefore their effectual communication cannot be esteemed a property of this covenant which was to be made afterwards.’

Ans. This objection was sufficiently prevented in what we have already discoursed concerning the efficacy of the grace of this covenant before itself was solemnly consummated. For all things of this nature that belong unto it do arise and spring from the mediation of Christ, or his interposition on the behalf of sinners. Wherefore this took place from the giving of the first promise; the administration of the grace of this covenant did therein and then take its date. Howbeit the Lord Christ had not yet done that whereby it was solemnly to be confirmed, and that whereon all the virtue of it did depend. Wherefore this covenant is promised now to be made, not in opposition unto what grace and mercy was derived from it both before and under the law, nor as unto the first administration of grace from the mediator of it; but in opposition unto the covenant of Sinai, and with respect unto its outward solemn confirmation.

Secondly, ‘If the things themselves are promised in the covenant, then all those with whom this covenant is made must be really and effectually made partakers of them. But this is not so; they are not all actually sanctified, pardoned, and saved, which are the things here promised.’

Ans. The making of this covenant may be considered two ways:
1. As unto the preparation and proposition of its terms and conditions.
2. As unto the internal stipulation between God and the souls of men.

In this sense alone God is properly said to make this covenant with any. The preparation and proposition of laws are not the making of the covenant. And therefore all with whom this covenant is made are effectually sanctified, justified, and saved.

Claim 5: Statements to the Contrary

Here an attempt is made to explain away Owen’s statements to the contrary:

the more I read of what you say, the more I am convinced that the facts have been misconstrued for you. “They saw one Covenant of Grace revealed from the Fall in a progressive way until it’s full revelation and conclusion in the New Covenant,” so far we agree, “but this covenant was not the same in substance as the Old.” This is where the confusion comes in. There is a real and true sense in which I can say that it is not the same for substance, for we have the fullest revelation of the covenant, the fulfillment of the promises, we have the substance revealed in Christ, rather than typified obliquely. In this way, I freely speak of a New Covenant. What we have now is radically different from that Old Covenant which has faded to nothing. But I mean this in the same way as we speak of, say, a new model of an old car being “new and improved,” which readily admits of speaking in terms of two different things (the old car and the new, or the old model and the new, makes no difference) and comparing different things together. However, beyond this, I don’t see anything new for substance per se. Had not the Israelites prophets, priests, kings? Had they not the promise that God would be there God and they should be his people? And did not all these things substantially point them to Christ, the substance of the covenant? Did they not have Christ? Then what did they lack? They lacked Christ come. For when he came, he did away with all the types, for he was the substance of those shadows, the thing towards which they pointed. He was the better sacrifice. He was all they were looking for. You see then, in one sense, the substance of the two covenants was different, for they lacked Christ’s actual appearing to accomplish his work; but in a totally different sense, the substance of the one covenant was the same in both administrations, for they had Christ, really and truly; and all the things ordained to point towards him, were but parts of the administration given until Christ should come.

Within the context of covenant theology, “substance” has a very specific meaning. It’s not silly puddy we can make into whatever we want. Owen said he was disagreeing with the WCF view of one substance two administrations. Patrick Ramsey’s “In Defense of Moses” does a good job of explaining what is meant in WCF by “substance”. Here is a short blog post from Ramsey summarizing the “substance” issue.

Also, here is Owen directly disagreeing:

On this declaration, God promiseth to make another covenant with them, wherein all these evils should be prevented. This is the covenant which the apostle designs to prove better and more excellent than the former. And this he cloth principally from the mediator and surety of it, compared with the Aaronical priests, whose office and service belonged wholly unto the administration of that first covenant. And he confirms it also from the nature of this covenant itself, especially with respect unto its efficacy and duration. And hereunto this testimony is express, evidencing how this covenant is everlastingly, by the grace administered in it, preventive of that evil success which the former had by the sin of the people.

Hence he says of it, Ouj kata< th>n, —”Not according unto it;” a covenant agreeing with the former neither in promises, efficacy, nor duration. For what is principally promised here, namely, the giving of a new heart, Moses expressly affirms that it was not done in the administration of the first covenant. It is neither a renovation of that covenant nor a reformation of it, but utterly of another nature, by whose introduction and establishment that other was to be abolished, abrogated, and taken away, with all the divine worship and service which was peculiar thereunto. And this was that which the apostle principally designed to prove and convince the Hebrews of.

Continuing from Facebook:

“They found the hermeneutic of Promise/Fulfillment to be more faithful to the biblical data than that of one substance/two administrations.” If you have read what I just said rightly, then you will see that there is no difference with us between promise/fulfillment and one substance/two administrations. The promise, until fulfilled, was administered by legal rites in Moses, but once fulfilled, was administered by Christ: but, and this is important, *the promise was the same all along.*

All I can say is, please read Owen on Hebrews 8:6-13 more carefully. This outline may be helpful. Owen saw a difference and spent a great deal of care explaining that difference. Owen specifically rejects this person’s view and gives many reasons why.

Covenant of Works?

Owen clearly distinguished between the covenant of grace and the Mosaic Covenant. But did Owen believe the national Mosaic Covenant was “of works”, or “of grace”? These quotes should suffice:

5. They differ in their subject-matter, both as unto precepts and promises, the advantage being still on the part of the new covenant. For, —

(1.) The old covenant, in the preceptive part of it, renewed the commands of the covenant of works, and that on their original terms. Sin it forbade, — that is, all and every sin, in matter and manner, — on the pain of death; and gave the promise of life unto perfect, sinless obedience only: whence the decalogue itself, which is a transcript of the law of works, is called “the covenant,” <023428>Exodus 34:28. And besides this, as we observed before, it had other precepts innumerable, accommodated unto the present condition of the people, and imposed on them with rigor. But in the new covenant, the very first thing that is proposed, is the accomplishment and establishment of the covenant of works, both as unto its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator. Hereon the commands of it, as unto the obedience of the covenanters, are not grievous; the yoke of Christ being easy, and his burden light.

(2.) The old testament, absolutely considered, had,
[1.] No promise of grace, to communicate spiritual strength, or to assist us in obedience; nor,

[2.] Any of eternal life, no otherwise but as it was contained in the promise of the covenant of works, “The man that doeth these things shall live in them;” and,

[3.] Had promises of temporal things in the land of Canaan inseparable from it. In the new covenant all things are otherwise, as will be declared in the exposition of the ensuing verses.

God used the right and authority of a husband with whom a wife breaks covenant; he ‘neglected them,’ shut them out of his house, deprived them of their dowry or inheritance, and slew them in the wilderness.


When confronted, this individual confessed that he has not even read Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8. Yet he was still adamant that baptists misunderstand it.

See also: Owen on Changing His Mind

  1. October 6, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you for this thorough point-by-point refutation! That was extremely helpful!


    • October 6, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      You’re welcome Frankie. Glad it helped. The great thing is that Owen’s works are all available online.


  1. October 6, 2014 at 11:16 am
  2. January 29, 2015 at 3:28 pm
  3. January 30, 2015 at 7:03 am

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