Review of “Recovering a Covenantal Heritage”

Recovering a Covenantal Heritage is a collection of essays on Covenant Theology from a Confessionally Reformed Baptist perspective. It was published in December, 2014 by Reformed Baptist Associated Press. 527 pages. Edited by Richard C. Barcellos.

Blank bookcover with clipping pathReading the book stirred up a love for and worship of the Lord. It thoroughly developed in me a desire to see the church reformed according to the Word of God (Ch. 4) because, as Michael T. Renihan notes in Chapter 6 “The recovery of right baptism was Tombes’ personal, yet godly, obsession. He was concerned with the right practice of this ordinance for the good of man’s soul, not to win a theological point. The debate that raged in the seventeenth century was more than the mere academic production of print on paper. Tombes really believed that the right doctrine would have major repercussions in the church-at-large. I believe that Tombes was right on target. These ripples still affect the churches of our day.”

James Renihan’s very helpful Introduction helps readers to understand how this rich covenantal heritage was lost to baptists in the 20th century through the combination of revivalism, modernism, fundamentalism, and dispensationalism.

Chapter 1 “A Brief Overview of Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodox Federalism” places particular baptist covenant theology directly in that stream by demonstrating that throughout the seventeenth century, covenant theologians built upon one another while refining various points. Coxe retained these orthodox advancements while refining them through his understanding that revelation was “progressive and Christo-climactic.”

Chapter 2 (“Covenant Theology in the First and Second London Baptist Confessions”) does a marvelous job of showing how central covenant theology was to both confessions as a whole, rather than simply the focus of one or two paragraphs. James Renihan also demonstrates that these confessions were reluctantly accepted as orthodox even by those looking for any excuse to persecute the baptists. A hidden gem in this chapter is footnote 21, which states “21 Much of the following material is taken from or based upon my yet unnamed, forthcoming exposition of the 2LCF.” This work will be a blessing.

I did take exception to Renihan’s brief comment on LBCF 7.1 (69). I do not believe the Confession is stating that God’s condescension in establishing the covenant of works was rooted in God’s incomprehensibility. I did not find this explanation in Coxe. Rather, I believe the Confession is simply pointing out, per it’s proof text, that man owed obedience to God as image bearers and could not expect any reward for that obedience. Thus the reward of eternal rest/life for perfect obedience was a benevolent, or “condescending” (that is, something God was not obligated to do) offer to man. Coxe: “It implies a free and Sovereign Act of the Divine Will, exerted in condescending Love and Goodness; it is not from any necessity of nature that God enters into covenant with men, but of his own good pleasure.”

Chapter 3 (“By Farther Steps: A Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology”) is a very encouraging chapter. When baptists today have struggled to work out all the knots of covenant theology, mostly unaware of historic formulations, it is exciting to work through this chapter and see how seventeenth century baptists had already thought through and answered these difficulties. The distinction between revealed and concluded, or “promise and promulgation” does not simply help baptist covenant theology make sense, it helps Scripture make sense. Much of the New Testament’s commentary on the Old Covenant, which continues to puzzle many covenant theologians, becomes rather crystal clear.

That said, make sure to take note of Richard Barcellos’ note in the preface: “It in no way pretends to be a fully worked-out Baptist covenant theology. It contains essays by thirteen different authors who do not necessarily advocate the fine details of every contribution, something that is quite common with multiple-author works.”

For example, in Chapter 3 (“By Farther Steps: A Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology”) Pascal Denault explains “Samuel Petto considered that the Old Covenant did not have the same function for Israel as for Christ. For Israel it was a national covenant by whose conditions she received blessings and curses in its land (Deut. 28). For Christ, it was a covenant of works for which he had to accomplish righteousness actively and passively (Rom. 5:18-20; 8:3-4; Gal. 3:13; 4:4-5).” And goes on to note “This explanation from Petto demonstrates how he himself, and most of the Particular Baptists, considered that the covenant of works was reaffirmed with a different goal than at its first promulgation.”

While on the other hand, in Chapter 16 (“Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology”) Micah and Samuel Renihan are clear that “tenure in the land was what was in view in the Mosaic law [and all of the Old Covenant]” (not eternal life). And in Chapter 7 (“John Owen on the Mosaic Covenant”), Thomas E. Hicks, Jr. clarifies that Owen “did not believe that the Mosaic Covenant extended the promise of spiritual or eternal life at all… The Mosaic Covenant contained a reminder of the covenant of works, announcing the terms that belonged not to itself, but to the original covenant of works with Adam… what was promised to the Israelites for their faith, love, and obedience under the Mosaic Covenant was not eternal life (spiritual reality), but temporal, earthly blessings, including land and physical prosperity (physical picture).” And thus, Christ did not fulfill the terms of the Old Covenant for believers. Christ fulfilled his own covenant of works, the Covenant of Redemption.

[Note: Most particular baptists expressed agreement with Owen on this point, rather than Petto. Pascal Denault has since changed his stance on this. See the Q&A session of his recent lectures on 1689 Federalism for the Reformed Baptist Seminary.]

Jeffery D. Johnson holds to Petto’s view, yet his excellent Chapter 9 (“The Fatal Flaw of Infant Baptism: The Dichotomous Nature of the Abrahamic Covenant”) is written broadly enough to be interpreted in light of either view, depending on how one views the typology of the Abrahamic Covenant.

For more on this point, google Republication, the Mosaic Covenant, and Eternal Life 1689 Federalism.

In Chapter 4 (“The Puritan Argument for the Immersion of Believers: How Seventeenth-Century Baptists Utilized the Regulative Principle of Worship”), G. Steve Weaver, Jr. helpfully places the particular baptists within their proper context as Puritans, not Anabaptists (see Chapter 5 fn 54 “It also shows some adaptation on the part of the author to antipaedobaptist concerns. Therein is found a repudiation of the prejudicial use of alleged connections between Continental Anabaptists and Antipaedobaptists”). As Weaver notes “These Baptist pastors sought to apply the regulative principle more thoroughly than had Calvin or Burroughs and the Reformed/ Puritan tradition which they represented.”

An interesting note not mentioned by Weaver is that the Westminster Assembly voted 25-24 in opposition to requiring immersion. Wright, D. F. (2007). Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective (250–252) notes the debate that ensued for 3 days, with comments such as “if we say dipping is necessary, ‘we shall further anabaptisme’ (John Ley, and John Lightfoot).” Again, Puritan baptists were operating within the stream of theological discourse of their day, not outside of it.

Chapter 5 (“The Antipaedobaptism of John Tombes”) from Michael T. Renihan presents a very interesting history of figure I knew nothing about. Renihan notes that “The recovery of right baptism was Tombes’ personal, yet godly, obsession. He was concerned with the right practice of this ordinance for the good of man’s soul, not to win a theological point.” What is interesting is that Tombes remained a non-separating Purtian his whole life, while urging the Church of England to abandon the practice of infant baptism through the publication of thousands of pages of argument and response, which nearly cost him his livelihood, save for God’s providence. He responded to every objection he was given, going to great lengths to find answers, including moving to London specifically to have access to people and books that could help answer his quest for the practice of true baptism. The result was that he laid much of the theological foundation for particular baptists to build upon.

Chapter 6 (“The Abrahamic Covenant in the Thought of John Tombes”) summarizes Tombes’ voluminous work under the foundational argument expressed in syllogism:

Major premise: That which hath no testimony in Scripture for it, is doubtfull.
Minor premise: But this Doctrine of Infant-Baptisme, hath no testimony of Scripture for it;
Conclusion: Ergo, it is doubtfull.

Chapter 7 (“John Owen on the Mosaic Covenant”) from Thomas E. Hicks, Jr. demonstrates that Owen does not easily fit into existing categories of covenant theology, and certainly not into Ernest Kevan’s claim that all covenant theology fits into two groups: those who affirmed the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works and those who affirmed it was a covenant of grace. Owen denied the Mosaic Covenant offered eternal life, and thus it was neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace, but was a separate covenant concerning tenure in the land of Canaan – rejecting Calvin and the Westminster formulation of the Mosaic Covenant as of the same substance as the covenant of grace.

Hicks is right on the money when he notes that “In systematic theology, the nature of the Mosaic Covenant is relevant to the doctrine of justification. If the Mosaic Covenant is strictly a covenant of grace and if justification is a verdict rendered on the basis of one’s conformity to the terms of the covenant of grace, then theologians may find sufficient warrant to conclude that it is reasonable to include good works in the verdict of justification. On the other hand, if the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant of works, and if Paul and others are arguing against justification by obedience to that covenant, then an argument against justification by good works clearly emerges in the scriptural corpus.”

I would also love to see another of his comments teased out: “Careful study of Owen’s doctrine of the Mosaic Covenant could be useful in clearly delineating his political theory and explaining some of the theological motivation for his political action.” Though I am not certain this would be the case because Owen’s defense of certain political views appear to be refuted by his more mature views on the Mosaic Covenant.

In Chapter 8 (“A ‘Novel’ Approach to Credobaptist and Paedobaptist Polemics”), Jeffrey A. Massey recounts the history of the nineteenth century use of fiction as a polemic in the debate over baptism. As a filmmaker myself, his account of the debate over the proper use of fiction to advance biblical truth was particularly relevant to me. However, upon reading his summary of the novels written to defend various views of baptism, I can say I am thankful that none of the authors of this volume resorted to such methods.

Chapter 9 (“The Fatal Flaw of Infant Baptism: The Dichotomous Nature of the Abrahamic Covenant”) by Jeffrey D. Johnson helpfully presents the biblical data showing that the Abrahamic Covenant was a single covenant with two dimensions. This is similar to, yet different from Kline’s Two Level Fulfillment, and was articulated by seventeenth century particular baptists. His comments regarding circumcision symbolizing full obedience of the law from the heart (Deut 30:6) was particularly helpful.

He correctly notes “Importantly, the Mosaic Covenant did not replace, alter, or add to the condition placed upon the physical seed of Abraham in Genesis 17. It merely gave clarity to what was already required by circumcision. In other words, the Mosaic Covenant grew out of and codified the conditional side of the Abrahamic Covenant.” This is a point that is ignored by modern paedobaptist proponents of republication. On the other hand, John Murray (note mentioned in the chapter) recognized that “The obedience of Abraham is represented as the condition upon which the fulfilment of the promise given to him was contingent and the obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished. There is undoubtedly the fulfilment of certain conditions… the idea of conditional fulfilment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.” Murray greatly erred in transferring this principle to the New Covenant, yet he was faithful to the Old Testament text.

As mentioned above, I would take issue with Johnson’s statement that “the gospel that was promised in the Abrahamic Covenant was contingent upon the fulfillment of the law of the Mosaic Covenant,” depending on how it is interpreted. I do not believe Christ fulfilled the Mosaic Covenant, but rather the Covenant of Redemption. The moral law was foundational to both covenants, but I do not believe the Mosaic Covenant itself offered the reward of eternal life for obedience.

Chapter 10 (“The Difference Between the Two Covenants”) from John Owen is a helpful addition to this volume. Though it can be found in the Coxe/Owen volume, placing it here may force people to deal with his presentation within the context offered by the other chapters. I still have not seen any paedobaptists actually deal with Owen’s argument. Most seem to be entirely unaware of his unique contribution.

Chapters 11 and 12 (“The Newness of the New Covenant”) from James White is a cutting analysis of paedobaptist attempts to deal with the force of the book of Hebrews. The attempt to relegate the newness of the New Covenant to a difference in outward appearance, following Calvin, is simply untenable. White’s essay, at a couple of points portrays a slight “20th Century Reformed Baptist” view which may stand out to the careful reader (his comments regarding “extensiveness”). However, this does not detract from his superb polemic, which sufficiently demonstrates Westminster Federalism’s inability to deal with the text of Hebrews.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jamin Hubner’s two chapters (13 and 14) on Acts 2:39. He successfully demonstrates that the history of reformed exegesis of this passage has simply been loyalty to Calvin’s eisegesis, driven by a desire to defend infant baptism. I agree when he says “As a result, the Abrahamic Covenant and its features such as the recipients of circumcision are imported entirely into Acts 2:39 without any consideration as to what promise is being talked about in Acts 2:39, what the fulfillment of that promise looks like in the New Covenant, and what argument is being made in Acts 2 and how that argument is not altogether the same as Acts 3, and so on and so forth. In short, “The Paedobaptist ear is so attuned to the Old Testament echo in this text that it is deaf to its New Testament crescendo.”77 The attitude is “promise of the Spirit, Abrahamic Covenant, covenant of grace, it is all the same thing,” and “children, seed, same idea” when it comes to interpreting Acts 2:39.” In sum “An interpreter’s interest in hearing Old Testament overtones should not overthrow exegesis of the actual text.”

[Note, Hubner interacts with Owen’s exegesis of this passage at one point. It should be noted that the work quoted was written by Owen in 1644 – more than 30 years before he wrote his commentary on Hebrews 8.]

[Note again: A quote from Sam Waldron that Hubner references includes a comment that Paul did not believe the Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of works. Obviously this is in disagreement with the rest of the volume. That was not particularly the part of the quote Hubner was referencing.]

Richard Barcellos’ Chapter 15 (“An Exegetical Appraisal of Colossians 2:11-12”) was extremely helpful in making sense of the passage. He clarifies that the fulfillment of physical circumcision is circumcision of the heart, that is, regeneration. However, he then demonstrates that the baptism mentioned here is not water baptism, but spiritual baptism, which we access through faith. This spiritual baptism (vital union with Christ) is distinct from regeneration. “Baptism does not replace circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. We have seen clearly that spiritual circumcision, not baptism, replaces (better, fulfills) physical circumcision. Baptism in Colossians 2:12 (i.e., vital union with Christ) is a result of spiritual circumcision (i.e., regeneration)… Paul does not say or imply that the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism… If it implies anything about water baptism, it implies that it ought to be administered to those who have been circumcised of heart and vitally united to Christ through faith as a sign of these spiritual blessings.”

Finally, Micah and Samuel Renihan’s Chapter 16 (“Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology and Biblical Theology”) is a fitting way to end the volume. The brothers cogently summarize the particular baptist covenant theology of the volume by interacting with more modern works, appropriating their insights where valid and drawing them to the correct conclusions. “The New Covenant is the final and full accomplishment of the covenant of redemption in history” and “The covenant of grace is the in-breaking of the covenant of redemption into history through the progressive revelation and retro-active application of the New Covenant” while “The Old Covenant is coextensive with and collectively representative of theocratic Israel, defined by the Abrahamic, conditioned by the Mosaic, and focused by the Davidic Covenants. The Old Covenant, and thus each of these three covenants, differs from the New Covenant not merely in administration, but also in substance.”

And there you have it. I recommend that you purchase the book, and read it too.

7 thoughts on “Review of “Recovering a Covenantal Heritage”

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