Baptists Couldn’t Possibly Know What They’re Talking About: Debating Owen, Round 473 – Lee Gatiss
In the previous round we answered the objections of someone who later admitted they had not even read Owen’s argument. Here we answer the objections of someone who later admitted they had not even read our argument (though he could have spent $3.99 to do so on Kindle).
Over at Reformation 21, Lee Gatiss listened to 10 minutes of a podcast, misunderstood a joke, and judged a book by its cover. He felt it was urgent to inform baptists that John Owen was actually a paedobaptist. Of course, if he’d bothered to read the book, he’d have know that’s not the point.
The point is that Owen rejected his earlier covenantal views and the “judgment of most reformed divines” in favor of a view of the covenant of grace as promised/established. Gatiss does not address this (as is typical). In fact, Gatiss doesn’t mention anything from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13. Instead, he provides quotes of Owen affirming infant baptism, which, again, isn’t the point.
He quotes Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 4:9-10, 15 (which I also quote in my analysis of Owen’s infant baptism) as well as 6:1-2; 7:1-3, 12; 11:24-26. Gatiss concludes “Sorry folks, but these are exactly the same applications that Owen makes from his covenant theology in the earlier tract on infant baptism,” which, again, is not the point. We are well aware that Owen makes the same application (infant baptism). Our point is that his covenant theology undergirding that application changed. As Owen said elsewhere “He that can glory that in fourteen years he has not altered his conceptions of some things, shall not have me for his rival.”
In section 4.7 of Owen’s “Of Infant Baptism” he states
Seventhly, Christ is “the messenger of the covenant,” Malachi 3:1, — that is, of the covenant of God made with Abraham; and he was the “minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” Romans 15:8. This covenant was, that he would be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed.”…
It was not the covenant of works, neither originally nor essentially, nor the covenant in its legal administration; for he confirmed and sealed that covenant whereof he was the messenger, but these he abolished. Let it be named what covenant he was the messenger of, if not of this.
Occasional additions of temporal promises do not in the least alter the nature of the covenant. Herein he was the “minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” Romans 15:8; that is, undeniably, the covenant made with Abraham, enlarged and explained by following promises. This covenant was, that God would be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed;” which God himself explains to be his infant seed, Genesis 17:12, — that is, the infant seed of every one of his posterity who should lay hold on and avouch that covenant as Abraham did, and not else. This the whole church did solemnly for themselves and their posterity; whereon the covenant was confirmed and sealed to them all, Exodus 24:7, 8. And every one was bound to do the same in his own person; which if he did not, he was to be cut off from the congregation, whereby he forfeited all privileges unto himself and his seed.
- The Abrahamic Covenant was the covenant of grace.
- The Mosaic Covenant was a “legal administration” of the covenant of grace.
- Exodus 24:7-8 was a confirmation and seal of the covenant of grace.
Owen later rejected each of these three points.
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… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…
Having noted these things, we may consider that the 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…
Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.
Owen, Exposition of Hebrews 8:6
Commenting on this, James T. Dennison, Jr., Scott F. Sanborn, and Benjamin W. Swinburnson note:
Note how Owen accurately summarizes the difference between the Lutheran and the Calvinist position. The Calvinists say that the Mosaic covenant is the same as the New covenant, only administered differently. The Lutherans, on the other hand, reject that teaching, and maintain that the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant are “two covenants substantially distinct.”
Now, let us look at what Owen himself believes.
…Wherefore, we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended (714).
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.
Interestingly, Owen himself apparently recognized the tension between his unique view and that of the Reformed confessions of his day. As an Independent, he refused to accept the Westminster Confession of Faith, and instead had a hand in writing the Savoy Declaration. A comparative analysis of these two documents can be found below (pp. 88ff.), to which we direct the reader. Suffice it to say that the two documents have significantly different declarations regarding the historical administrations of the covenant of grace.
For he proves the necessity of the death and blood-shedding or sacrifice of Christ in the confirmation of the new covenant from hence, that the old covenant, which in the dedication of it was prefigurative hereof, was not confirmed without blood. Wherefore, whereas God had solemnly promised to make a new covenant with the church, and that different from, or not according unto the old (which he had proved in the foregoing chapter), it follows unavoidably that it was to be confirmed with the blood of the mediator (for by the blood of beasts it could not be); which is that truth wherein he did instruct them…
Wherefore this blood was a confirmatory sign of the covenant…
Moses was the internuncius between God and the people in this great transaction… A mediator may be either only an internuncius, a messenger, a daysman; or also a surety and an undertaker. Of the first sort was the mediator of the old covenant; of the latter, that of the new…
A covenant that consisted in mere precepts, without an exhibition of spiritual strength to enable unto obedience, could never save sinners. — The insufficiency of this covenant unto that end is that which the apostle designs to prove in all this discourse.
Owen, Exposition of Hebrews 9:18-21
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.
Gatiss concludes “But it simply won’t do to Baptise Owen, or imply that he perhaps wasn’t quite clever enough to see that his covenant theology led inexorably to anti-paedobaptism.” We will let the reader decide. Consider these contradictory statements from Owen (and note the progression even here from his earlier “On Infant Baptism” tract), both made near the very end of his life (if my information is correct). (Compare also with the quote directly above)
(3.) Children do belong unto and have an interest in their parents’ covenant; not only in the promise of it, which gives them right unto baptism, but in the profession of it in the church covenant, which gives them a right unto all the privileges of the church whereof they are capable, until they voluntarily relinquish their claim unto them. (4.) Baptizing the children of church members, giving them thereby an admission into the visible catholic church, puts an obligation on the officers of the church to take care, what in them lieth, that they may be kept and preserved meet members of it, by a due watch over them and instruction of them. (5.) Though neither the church nor its privileges be continued and preserved, as of old, by carnal generation, yet, because of the nature of the dispensation of God’s covenant, wherein he hath promised to be a God unto believers and their seed, the advantage of the means of a gracious education in such families, and of conversion and edification in the ministry of the church, ordinarily the continuation of the church is to depend on the addition of members out of the families already incorporated in it…Thus under the old testament, when God would take the posterity of Abraham into a new, peculiar church-state, he did it by a solemn covenant. Herein, as he prescribed all the duties of his worship to them, and made them many blessed promises of his presence, with powers and privileges innumerable, so the people solemnly covenanted and engaged with him that they would do and observe all that he had commanded them; whereby they coalesced into that church-state which abode unto the time of reformation. This covenant is at large declared, Exod. xxiv.: for the covenant which God made there with the people, and they with him, was not the covenant of grace under a legal dispensation, for that was established unto the seed of Abraham four hundred years before, in the promise with the seal of circumcision;..Upon the removal, therefore, of this covenant [Mosaic], and the church-state founded thereon, all duties of worship and church-privileges were also taken away (the things substituted in their room being totally of another kind). But the covenant of grace, as made with Abraham, being continued and transferred unto the gospel worshippers, the sign or token of it given unto him is changed , and another substituted in the room thereof. But whereas the privileges of this church-covenant [Mosaic] were in themselves carnal only, and no way spiritual but as they were typical, and the duties prescribed in it were burdensome, yea, a yoke intolerable, the apostle declares in the same place that the new church-state, whereinto we are called by the gospel, hath no duties belonging unto it but such as are spiritual and easy, but withal hath such holy and eminent privileges as the church could no way enjoy by virtue of the first church-covenant, nor could believers be made partakers of them before that covenant was abolished.Owen, John (2014-03-20). The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government (Kindle Locations 550-552). . Kindle Edition.(published posthumously – exact time of writing uncertain, but towards the very end of his life (1682), according to the editor Isaac Chaucey)
This is the meaning of the word nenomoqe>thtai: “established,” say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance unto the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by nenomoqe>thtai, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration.”Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6