Home > 1689 federalism, General, John Owen > A Summary of Why Baptists Appeal to Owen

A Summary of Why Baptists Appeal to Owen

In published works (see here, here, here, and here), baptists have pointed out that Owen’s covenant theology, as articulated in his commentary on Hebrews, departs from Westminster Federalism and aligns very closely with 1689 Federalism.

However, as this information has begun to reach wider audiences and become general knowledge, many people have not taken the time to understand the claims. For example, I continue to see people post links to Owen’s tract on infant baptism and to Lee Gatiss’ articles at Ref21 (the ones he wrote against Denault’s book without bothering to read Denault’s book), thinking that this addresses the claim. None of these people demonstrate they understand why baptists reference Owen, yet they are content to dismiss any such appeal as unfounded.

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.

Proverbs 18:2

I am disappointed by this, not simply because I want to win an argument, but because I genuinely value the opportunity to discuss with people I disagree with. Iron sharpens iron. But a discussion requires both parties to listen when the other speaks. Please take the time to listen to this summary. If you are then interested in discussing the claim, please take the time to read the published works. If you don’t have time, please don’t bother forming an opinion on the matter.

(Some have attempted to engage with the actual claims regarding Owen, which I appreciate. See my responses here.)

  1. Both 21st century baptists and 17th century baptists know that John Owen was a paedobaptist. No one has claimed that Owen was ever a baptist, even secretly.
  2. Owen self-consciously departed from the Westminster/Calvin/reformed view of covenant theology. Baptists appeal to him because he demonstrates that Westminster federalism, following Calvin, is unbiblical.

    1. Owen denied that the Old and New Covenants were two administrations of the same covenant. “Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended… This is the nature and substance of that covenant which God made with that people; a particular, temporary covenant it was, and not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace.”  p.85-93, 105 PDF; v6;2 OUTLINE
    2. Owen denied that the Old Covenant (Mosaic) was the Adamic Covenant of Works and said it was instead a covenant of works limited to Israel’s temporal blessing in the land of Canaan. “the covenant of works, absolutely the old, or first covenant that God made with men. But this is not the covenant here intended… 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… when our apostle disputes against justification by the law, or by works of the law, he does not intend the works peculiar to the covenant of Sinai, such as were the rites and ceremonies of the worship then instituted; but he intends also the works of the first covenant, which alone had the promise of life annexed to them… The covenant of works had its promises, but they were all remunerative, respecting an antecedent obedience in us; (so were all those which were peculiar unto the covenant of Sinai)… he moreover prescribed unto them laws, rules, and terms of obedience, whereon they should hold and enjoy that land, with all the privileges annexed unto the possession thereof. And these are both expressed and frequently inculcated, in the repetition and promises of the law… So did God exercise the right, and power, and authority of a husband towards a wife that had broken covenant. And herein, as in many other things in that dispensation, did God give a representation of the nature of the covenant of works, and the issue of it…” p.74, 83, 94, 103, 101, 160 PDFv6;2.2, v9;3.1.5 OUTLINE
      1. Implication of 1 & 2: Contra Westminster, there are more than two covenants in Scripture. Therefore the claim that every covenant after the fall must be the Covenant of Grace is incorrect (according to Owen).
    3. Owen said the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace. “I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called ‘the new covenant,’… The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.” p.93, 147 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2 OUTLINE
    4. Owen said the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace existed only as a promise during the Old Testament era and never as a covenant. “it was always the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning… But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect unto any other things, nor was it so under the old testament…absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16.” p.89-90 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2.1 OUTLINE
      1. This was the central crux of Owen’s 150 page exegesis of Hebrews 8:6-13, not a passing comment that can be dismissed.
    5. Owen said the Abrahamic Covenant was not the Covenant of Grace, though it was related to it. “When God renewed the promise of it [the Covenant of Grace] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise… The νομοτηετεο, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament” p.90 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2.1.1 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: Membership and ordinances of the Abrahamic Covenant do not determine membership and ordinances of the Covenant of Grace.
    6. Owen said the Covenant of Grace operated “invisibly” as a promise prior to its legal establishment in the death of Christ, at which point it took on visible ordinances of worship unique to it. “This is the meaning of the word νομοτηετεο: “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 νομοτηετεο, 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… The νομοτηετεο, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament; for it wanted two things thereunto:… (2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of all the worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properly so called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of all the worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are to restipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the new covenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is not the promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutely considered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, in its establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all its benefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship and obedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,” we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worship which by it is settled in the church.” p.78, 91 PDFv6;1.2.1.9.2.2.2.1.2 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: No ordinances in the Old Testament (i.e. circumcision) were ordinances of the Covenant of Grace. The only ordinances of the Covenant of Grace are the ordinances of the New Covenant.
    7. Owen said Abraham had a two-fold privilege that corresponded to a two-fold seed. “Two privileges did God grant unto Abraham, upon his separation to a special interest in the old promise and covenant [of grace]: — First, That according to the flesh he should be the father of the Messiah, the promised seed; who was the very life of the covenant [of grace], the fountain and cause of all the blessings contained in it… Secondly, Together with this, he had also another privilege granted unto him, namely, that his faith, whereby he was personally interested in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith… Answerably unto this twofold end of the separation of Abraham, there was a double seed allotted unto him; — a seed according to the flesh, separated to the bringing forth of the Messiah according unto the flesh; and a seed according to the promise, that is, such as by faith should have interest in the promise, or all the elect of God.” p.175 PDF (from Heb. vol I introduction, 1668 – 12 years before his Hebrews 8 commentary)
    8. Owen said this two-fold seed were mixed for a time. “both these, — namely, the carnal and spiritual privileges of Abraham’s covenant, — had been carried on together in a mixed way for many generations, coming now to be separated, and a trial to be made (Malachi 3) who of the Jews had interest in both, who in one only” p.175 PDF
    9. Owen said the privilege of the carnal seed, and the worship associated with it, ceased at the coming of Christ. “That this privilege was temporary, having a limited season, time, and end, appointed unto it, the very nature of the thing itself doth demonstrate; for upon this actual exhibition in the flesh, it was to cease… It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth. That this separation and privilege was to cease when the end of it was accomplished and the Messiah exhibited, the very nature of the thing declares; for to what purpose should it be continued when that was fully effected whereunto it was designed?… Seeing, therefore, that their other privilege was come to an end, with all the carnal ordinances that attended it, by the actual coming of the Messiah, whereunto they were subservient, if they did not, by faith in the promised seed, attain an interest in this of the spiritual blessing, it is evident that they could on no account be considered as actual sharers in the covenant of God… It is true, the former carnal privilege of Abraham and his posterity expiring, on the grounds before mentioned, the ordinances of worship which were suited thereunto did necessarily cease also… (1.) The carnal privilege of the Jews, in their separation to bring forth the Messiah, then failed; and therewith their claim on that account to be the children of Abraham.
      (2.) The ordinances of worship suited unto that privilege expired and came to an end.” p.175 PDF

      1. Implication: The relationship of Abraham’s carnal seed to Abraham has no relevance after the coming of Christ.
    10. Owen said only the spiritual seed remained and new ordinances were established fit for them. “(3.) New ordinances of worship were appointed, suited unto the new light and grace then granted unto the church.” p.175 PDF
    11. Owen said only the spiritual seed is the church of Christ. “Now, it is evident that it is the second privilege, or spiritual seed, wherein the church, to whom the promises are made, is founded, and whereof it doth consist, — namely, in them who by faith are interested in the covenant of Abraham, whether they be of the carnal seed or no… And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages. Wheresoever this covenant is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church; unto whom all the promises and privileges of the church do belong. Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one church taken away, and another set up in the room thereof; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith… But the foundation of their [carnal seed’s] plea was taken away, and the church, unto which the promises belong, remained with them that were heirs of Abraham’s faith only.” p.175 PDF
      1. Implication: Abraham’s carnal seed, as such, have never been the church.
    12. In 1668 (“Oneness of the Church”) Owen said this two-fold privilege of the two-fold seed both came from the Abrahamic Covenant, with one expiring and one remaining. In 1680 (Hebrews 8) Owen clarified that the carnal privilege & seed belonged to the Abrahamic Covenant, while the spiritual privilege & seed belonged to the Covenant of Grace/New Covenant. “When God renewed the promise of it [the Covenant of Grace] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise… The νομοτηετεο, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament” p.90 PDFv6;2.2.3.1.2.1.1 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: The idea that the Abrahamic Covenant, in its substance, was made with the elect, but in its administration it was made with non-elect (Rom 9:6), is incorrect. The substance of the Abrahamic Covenant was made with Abraham’s carnal seed. The two Israels of Rom 9:6ff refer to two different covenants.
    13. Owen said that Abraham’s carnal seed (Israel) was a type of Abraham’s spiritual seed (the Church). “The persons with whom this covenant [new covenant] is made are also expressed: “The house of Israel, and the house of Judah.”… Wherefore this house of Israel and house of Judah may be considered two ways: [1.] As that people were the whole entire posterity of Abraham. [2.] As they were typical, and mystically significant of the whole church of God.Hence alone it is that the promises of grace under the old testament are given unto the church under these names, because they were types of them who should really and effectually be made partakers of them… In the second sense the whole church of elect believers is intended under these denominations, being typified by them. These are they alone, being one made of twain, namely, Jews and Gentiles, with whom the covenant is really made and established, and unto whom the grace of it is actually communicated. For all those with whom this covenant is made shall as really have the law of God written in their hearts, and their sins pardoned, according unto the promise of it, as the people of old were brought into the land of Canaan by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham. These are the true Israel and Judah, prevailing with God, and confessing unto his name.” p. 142 PDFv8;7.1.2 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: Israel was not the church.
    14. Owen said that the New Covenant, unlike the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenant, is made with the elect alone. “The principal efficient cause of our learning the knowledge of God under the new covenant is included in this part of the promise… There is added the universality of the promise with respect unto them with whom this covenant is made: “All of them, from the least unto the greatest;” —a proverbial speech, signifying the generality intended without exception… Obs. XVIII. The instructive ministry of the old testament, as it was such only, and with respect unto the carnal rites thereof, was a ministry of the letter, and not of the Spirit, which did not really effect in the hearts of men the things which it taught. —The spiritual benefit which was obtained under it proceeded from the promise, and not from the efficacy of the law, or the covenant made at Sinai. For as such, as it was legal and carnal, and had respect only unto outward things, it is here laid aside… The proposition is universal, as to the modification of the subject, “all;” but in the word aujtw~n, “of them,” it is restrained unto those alone with whom this covenant is made… Obs. XXIV. Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the new covenant can be pretended… Obs. XXVII. Persons destitute of this saving knowledge are utter strangers unto the covenant of grace; for this is a principal promise and effect of it, wherever it doth take place… [T]he whole church of elect believers is intended under these denominations, being typified by them. These are they alone, being one made of twain, namely, Jews and Gentiles, with whom the covenant is really made and established, and unto whom the Mace of it is actually communicated. For all those with whom this covenant is made shall as really have the law of God written in their hearts, and their sins pardoned, according unto the promise of it, as the people of old were brought into the land of Canaan by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham… Obs. X. The covenant of grace in Christ is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. —For by the making of this covenant with any, the effectual communication of the grace of it unto them is principally intended. Nor can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins are pardoned by virtue thereof, and in whose hearts the law of God is written; which are the express promises of it.” p.191-204, 144 PDFv8;7.2, v11;7 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: The nature of membership in the Old and New Covenants differs. The idea of a two-sided membership in the Covenant of Grace, founded upon a substance (elect)/administration (non-elect) view of the Abrahamic and Old Covenants (Rom 9:6), is incorrect.
    15. Owen said that faith is a blessing/fruit of the New Covenant, not a condition of it. “The promises of the covenant of grace are better than those of any other covenant, as for many other reasons, so especially because the grace of them prevents any condition or qualification on our part… But those promises, namely, of the pardon of sin and writing of the law in our hearts, which the apostle expressly insisteth upon as the peculiar promises of this covenant, do take place and are effectual antecedently unto our covenant obedience. For although faith be required in order of nature antecedently unto our actual receiving of the pardon of sin… But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises… It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant… It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part… And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.” p.83, 162-6 PDFv6;1.2.1.9.3.2, v10.2.3 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: We enter the Covenant of Grace/New Covenant in the effectual call. See New Covenant Union as Mystical Union in Owen.
    16. Owen said that, unlike the Old Covenant, the New Covenant cannot be broken. “So did God exercise the right, and power, and authority of a husband towards a wife that had broken covenant. And herein, as in many other things in that dispensation, did God give a representation of the nature of the covenant of works, and the issue of it…‘This was the issue of things with them with whom the first covenant was made. They received it, entered solemnly into the bonds of it, took upon themselves expressly the performance of its terms and conditions, were sprinkled with the blood of it; but they “continued not in it,” and were dealt withal accordingly. God used the right and authority of a husband with whom a wife breaketh covenant; he “neglected them,” shut them out of his house, deprived them of their dowry or inheritance, and slew them in the wilderness.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… That covenant was broken, but this shall never be so, because provision is made in the covenant itself against any such event… the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken…”   p.160-2 PDFv10.2.3 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: There are no such things as covenant-breakers in the New Covenant, as there were in the Old (Mosaic and Abrahamic).
    17. Owen said that all Old Testament saints were saved by the New Covenant working invisibly (as promise) prior to its legal establishment in the death of Christ. “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 directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe… Obs. XVIII. The instructive ministry of the old testament, as it was such only, and with respect unto the carnal rites thereof, was a ministry of the letter, and not of the Spirit, which did not really effect in the hearts of men the things which it taught. —The spiritual benefit which was obtained under it proceeded from the promise, and not from the efficacy of the law, or the covenant made at Sinai. For as such, as it was legal and carnal, and had respect only unto outward things, it is here laid aside…”  p.104, 200 PDFv6;2.2.4.5, v11;6.2 OUTLINE
      1. Implication: Appeal to the Old Covenant to answer questions about union with Christ is unbiblical and inappropriate.
  3. Owen continued to affirm paedobaptism.
    1. Owen never published his “Of Infant Baptism” tract. Owen scholar Dr. Crawford Gribben notes “The only thing we can be sure of about “Of Infant Baptism” is that Owen did not publish this tract within his own lifetime, that it did not circulate as representing his thinking on this issue for almost 40 years after his death when it appeared in a volume alongside many other texts reconstructed from sermon notes taken by an auditor.” The statements in this tract do not reflect Owen’s mature, meticulously argued published work on covenant theology. Whatever value this tract of dubious origin may have, it does not have precedence over his Hebrews commentary, which must be dealt with. Please listen to Dr. Gribben’s lecture.
    2. Owen’s “Of Infant Baptism” contradicts his Hebrews commentary.
      1. “Of Infant Baptism” speaks throughout of “the covenant” in the singular. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen rejects this approach and proceeds to distinguish between post-fall covenants in great detail.
      2. “Of Infant Baptism” refers to the Mosaic Covenant as “the covenant [of grace] in its legal administration.” In his Hebrews commentary, Owen rejects this view.
      3. “Of Infant Baptism” says the Covenant of Grace was confirmed and sealed in Exodus 24:7-8. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen denies that the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.
      4. “Of Infant Baptism” says the Covenant of Circumcision was the Covenant of Grace made with Christ mystical. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen distinguishes between these two and denies the Gen 17:7 covenant was the Covenant of Grace made with the elect, though it contained a promise of it.
      5. “Of Infant Baptism” says the circumcision of Abraham’s offspring was a spiritual privilege of “the covenant.” In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says that the Covenant of Circumcision pertained to the “carnal privilege” given to his “carnal seed,” not the “spiritual privilege” given to his “spiritual seed” (in the Covenant of Grace).
      6. “Of Infant Baptism” says the privilege of carnal offspring has never been revoked. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says the privilege of Abraham’s carnal offspring ceased at the coming of Christ.
      7. “Of Infant Baptism” says the sign of circumcision was never revoked, only changed. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says the carnal ordinances came to an end/ceased and were replaced by new ordinances.
      8. “Of Infant Baptism” says according to the law of creation, children have a right to the privileges of whatever covenant their parents are in. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen says Abraham’s carnal offspring never had any spiritual privilege because they were his carnal offspring, and that this was the great mistake of the Jews – though they did have carnal privileges. He also says that anyone destitute of saving knowledge is an utter stranger unto the covenant of grace and without saving knowledge there is no interest in the New Covenant, unlike the Old.
      9. “Of Infant Baptism” argues that God’s promise to be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed” refers to the carnal offspring of believers. In his Hebrews commentary, Owen explained that Abraham had a two-fold seed and that his carnal seed’s status as set apart unto God ceased at the coming of Christ, while his spiritual seed (those who have his faith) alone remained – and that the two seeds have a type/anti-type relationship. He also said “This is the general expression of any covenant relation between God and men, ‘He will be unto them a God, and they shall be to him a people.’ And it is frequently made use of with respect unto the first covenant [old covenant], which yet was disannulled. God owned the people therein for his peculiar portion, and they avouched him to be their God alone.” p.185 PDF
    3. Owen affirmed paedobaptism elsewhere in his Hebrews commentary.
      1. “they are the “people of God” that are interested in this sabbatism. And the apostle makes use of this description of them upon a double account: — 1. Because their being of “the people of God,” that is, in covenant (for where a people is God’s people, he is their God, Hosea 2:23), was the greatest and most comprehensive privilege that the Hebrews had to boast of or to trust in. This was their glory, and that which exalted them above all nations in the world. So their church pleads with respect unto all others, Isaiah 63:19, “We are thine: thou never barest rule over them; thy name was not called on them;” — that is, they were never called the people of Jehovah, because never taken into covenant with him. This privilege whereunto they trusted, the apostle lets them know belongs as well to them that believe under the new testament as it did to them under the old. Abram was now become Abraham, “a father of many nations.” And as those who were his carnal seed of old were the people of God, so God had now a people in and of all those who were his children according to the faith. They may see, therefore, that they shall lose nothing, no privilege, by coming over to the gospel state by faith in Christ Jesus. Upon a new account they become “the people of God;” which interests them and their children in the covenant, with the seals and all the ordinances of it, even as formerly. For this name, “people,” doth not firstly respect individuals, but a collective body of men, with and in all their relations. Believers, not singly considered, but they and their seed, or their children, are this people; and where they are excluded from the initial ordinance of the covenant, I know not how believers can be called “the people of God.” 2. He proceeds further, and shows them that indeed this privilege is now transferred over from the old estate and Canaan rest unto them that shall and do enter into this rest of God under the gospel. Hence, instead of losing the privilege of being “the people of God” by faith in Christ, he lets them know that they could no longer retain it without it. If they failed herein, they would be no longer “the people of God;” and as a signification thereof, they would become “no people” at all.” p.407 PDF (Hebrews 4:9)
        1. Notice carefully what Owen affirms here. He maintains his position that there was a two-fold seed of Abraham with a two-fold privilege. The Hebrews were in covenant with God on account of their being Abraham’s carnal seed. That privilege has ceased (“could no longer retain it”). They may still be considered “the people of God” but “on a new account”: faith. Owen’s argument for infant baptism here reduces to the meaning of the phrase “a people.” He argues that the Hebrews would not have to change their conception of what it means to be “a people” because “a people” must necessarily be taken in an earthly sense (even though referring to believers) and therefore must include physical offspring. But there is no reason why “a people” cannot be read in a spiritual sense as referring to Christ’s spiritual kingdom – and every reason why it must be.
      2. “And is it possible that any man should be a loser by the coming of Christ, or by his own coming unto Christ? It is against the whole gospel once to imagine it in the least instance. Let it now be inquired whether it were not a great privilege of the people of God of old, that their infant seed were taken into covenant with them, and were made partakers of the initial seal thereof? Doubtless it was the greatest they enjoyed, next to the grace they received for the saving of their own souls. That it was so granted them, so esteemed by them, may be easily proved. And without this, whatever they were, they were not a people. Believers under the gospel are, as we have spoken, the people of God; and that with all sorts of advantages annexed unto that condition, above what were enjoyed by them who of old were so. How is it, then, that this people of God, made so by Jesus Christ in the gospel, should have their charter, upon its renewal, razed with a deprivation of one of their choicest rights and privileges? Assuredly it is not so. And therefore if believers are now, as the apostle says they are, “the people of God,” their children have a right to the initial seal of the covenant.” p.409 PDF (Hebrews 4:9)
        1. This is a continuation of the above argument (2 pages later). Two things to consider. First, recall that Owen refined his view of the Abrahamic Covenant 6 years later (1674 -> 1680) in his commentary on Hebrews 8, noting that although the Abrahamic Covenant contained a promise of the future establishment of the Covenant of Grace (Abraham’s spiritual privileges), it was formally a covenant concerning Abraham’s carnal privileges. Second, Owen previously explained that the inclusion of Abraham’s carnal seed in his covenant was only a carnal privilege, not a spiritual one. “It is true, they were the children of Abraham according to the flesh: but on that account they can have no other privilege than Abraham had in the flesh himself; and this was, as we have showed, that he should he set apart as a special channel, through whose loins God would derive the promised Seed into the world. In like manner were they separated to be a peculiar people, as his posterity, from amongst whom He should be so brought forth.” (Oneness of the Church p.175 PDF). So there never was a privilege given to believers to have their children included in covenant with them and thus no privilege has been lost. There was only the carnal privilege given to Abraham to have his children included in his carnal privilege. Finally, note in the previous quote that Owen says Abraham’s carnal seed were “a peculiar people” by virtue of their carnal descent alone, apart from faith – which has now ceased.
      3. “he lets the Hebrews know that in the gospel state there is no loss of privilege in any thing as to what the church enjoyed under the law of Moses… And this is enough to secure the application of the initial seal of the covenant unto the infant seed of believers. For whereas it was granted to the church under the old testament as a signal favor and spiritual privilege, it is derogatory to the glory of Christ and honor of the gospel to suppose that the church is now deprived of it; for in the whole system and frame of worship God had ordained “the better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” p.516-17 PDF (Hebrews 4:15)
        1. As above, according to Owen’s explanation of Abraham’s two-fold privilege corresponding to a two-fold seed, there was never any spiritual privilege given to believing Abraham to have his children in covenant with him. That was a carnal privilege given to Abraham according to the flesh, which has now ceased. That privilege was never given to the church.
      4. “For whereas there were two sorts of persons that were baptized, namely, those that were adult at their first hearing of the gospel, and the infant children of believers, who were admitted to be members of the church; the first sort were instructed in the principles mentioned before they were admitted unto baptism, by the profession whereof they laid the foundation of their own personal right thereunto; but the other, being received as a part and branches of a family whereupon the blessing of Abraham was come, and to whom the promise of the covenant was extended, being thereon baptized in their infancy, were to be instructed in them as they grew up unto years of understanding. Afterwards, when they were established in the knowledge of these necessary truths, and had resolved on personal obedience unto the gospel, they were offered unto the fellowship of the faithful. And hereon, giving the same account of their faith and repentance which others had done before they were baptized, they were admitted into the communion of the church, the elders thereof laying their hands on them in token of their acceptation, and praying for their confirmation in the faith. Hence the same doctrines became previously necessary unto both these rites;–before baptism to them that were adult; and towards them who were baptized in infancy, before the imposition of hands. And I do acknowledge that this was the state of things in the apostolical churches, and that it ought to be so in all others.” p.70 PDF (Hebrews 6:1-2)
        1. See above.
      5. “Parents bless their children by endeavouring to instate them in their own covenant-interest. God having promised to be a God unto believers, and to their seed in and by them, they do three ways bless them with the good things thereof: first, By communicating unto them the privilege of the initial seal of the covenant, as a sign, token, and pledge of their being blessed of the Lord; secondly, By pleading the promise of the covenant in their behalf; thirdly, By careful instructing of them in the mercies and duties of the covenant.” p.390 PDF (Hebrews 7:1-3)
        1. See above.
      6. “Obs. III. Divine institutions cease not without an express divine abrogation. — Where they are once granted and erected by the authority of God, they can never cease without an express act of the same authority taking them away. So was it with the institutions of the Aaronical priesthood, as the apostle declares. And this one consideration is enough to confirm the grant of the initial seal of the covenant unto the seed of present believers, which was once given by God himself in the way of an institution, and never by him revoked.” p.530 PDF (Hebrews 7:12)
        1. See above. God never gave circumcision to the seed of believers and Owen said carnal ordinances ceased along with the carnal seed.
      7. “He [Moses] found himself circumcised, and so to belong unto the circumcised people. Hereon God instructed him to inquire into the reason and nature of that distinguishing character. And so he learned that it was the token of God’s covenant with the people, the posterity of Abraham, of whom he was. It was a blessed inlet into the knowledge and fear of the true God. And whatever is pretended by some unto the contrary, it is a most eminent divine privilege, to have the seal of the covenant in baptism communicated unto the children of believers in their infancy; and a means it hath been to preserve many from fatal apostasies.” p. 182 PDF (Hebrews 11:24-26)
        1. See above. Circumcision was given to the carnal posterity of Abraham on account of Abraham’s carnal privileges, which has ceased.
    4. Owen affirmed paedobaptism in True Nature of the Gospel Church (which was written sometime in the latter half of his life and published posthumously).
      1. “(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. The church is not to be like the kingdom of the Mamalukes, wherein there was no regard unto natural successors, but it was continually made up of strangers and foreigners incorporated into it; nor like the beginning of the Roman commonwealth, which, consisting of men only, was like to have been the matter of one age alone.” (Kindle Locations 417-427).
        1. See above. Here Owen acknowledges that carnal privileges via carnal generation have ceased. God’s promise to be a God to Abraham’s seed has a two-fold fulfillment: one to each of his two seeds. As Owen has said above, Israel was made a peculiar people to God on account of their carnal descent from Abraham, not on account of spiritual descent from Abraham, and that privilege ceased at the coming of Christ.

 

That is why 17th century and 21st century baptists have appealed to Owen’s covenant theology while knowing full-well he was still a paedobaptist.

“And if our opponents think Dr. O. injured (as they are apt to clamour to that purpose) for our improvement of his words to our advantage…we say, that they are at liberty to reconcile his words to his practice if they can, to do which they have need of a considerable stock (but they are seldome unfurnisht) of artifice, and distinction, to help at this dead lift.”

Edward Hutchinson, A Treatise Concerning the Covenant, 1676, quoted in Samuel Renihan’s JIRBS 2015 article “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, a must read for anyone studying this debate.

There are strong tendencies in Owen’s thinking on the Covenant of Grace to restrict it just to Christ and his elect. Owen is a paedobaptist. But there is a lot in Owen’s thinking that I think pushes in a Baptistic direction. For Owen, the visible manifestation of the Covenant of Grace is not entirely clearly worked out in terms of children being embraced (as I read him). It’s not an area I have looked at in great detail, but I see tendencies in Owen’s ecclesiology and his understanding of the covenants that push it in a Baptistic direction.

-Carl Trueman, “Session 5 – John Owen on the Holy Spirit” @31:00

Paedobaptists may be shocked by how bold Owen’s statements above are with regards to the establishment of the New Covenant. He says that

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… 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 νομοτηετεο, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship… But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship.

The knee-jerk reaction is that baptists must be reading Owen wrong. There is no way he could mean what he said. That would entirely undermine the grounds for infant baptism. However, an alternative perspective is that Owen meant exactly what he said, but the issue of baptism was not his primary concern. If it was, he would not have stated things so boldly. However, as a Congregationalist, Owen’s primary concern at this point was to demonstrate that the government of the church of Christ is to be found in the New Testament, not in the Old via Israel.

This was the divide between Presbyterians, who modeled the church after Israel, and the Congregationalists, who said we may not. The Five Dissenting Brethren (Congregationalists) at the Westminster Assembly wrote “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves. And it may without prejudice to them, or the imputation of Schism in us from them, be thought, that they coming new out of Popery (as well as England) and the founders of that reformation not having Apostolic infallibility, might not be fully perfect the first day.” During the debate that ensued, the Presbyterians warned the Congregationalists that

The analogy betwixt Jewish & Christian church, little question of that little question… If this faile, the argument of Baptisme from circumcision will faile also… For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism? (See Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity).

But the Congregationlists ignored the warning and pressed on, insisting that the New Testament must determine the government of the church. It is in this vein that Owen, held captive to the Word of God in Hebrews 8, declared “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.”

Ergo, credobaptism.

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  1. January 28, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    a Dogmatic Anglican, sectarian in his anti-sectarianism http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2016/01/john-owen-was-an-anglican.php

    Like

  2. January 30, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    http://headhearthand.org/blog/2016/01/29/international-conference-on-john-owen/ I know some baptists who are some kind of puritans, but I wonder if a baptist will be presenting a paper at this conference

    Like

  3. February 1, 2016 at 7:23 am

    Lee Gatiss (on Reformed Anglican facebook)— What an amusing article. It repeats the falsehood that I have not read Denault’s book. It also repeats the nonsense that “The statements in [Owen’s infant baptism] tract do not reflect Owen’s mature, meticulously argued published work on covenant theology.” In my so-quickly dismissed articles on Ref21, I countered this with many quotes from the Hebrews commentary which show the same “my covenant theology *demands* infant baptism” line from Owen.

    By the way, the last volume of Owen’s Hebrews commentary was not published before he died. So if all posthumously-published works must be discounted from this argument, then you can’t appeal to that volume. Just saying.

    Like

    • February 1, 2016 at 7:26 am

      So he didn’t even bother to read the post? Since I included each one of his Owen quotes in the post…

      And the fact he is so cavalierly dismissing another Owen scholar’s research offhand (Gribben) says a lot. Owen wrote his Hebrews commentary to be published. He did not ever write the tract on infant baptism to be published (if he wrote it). Post-humously is not the issue (which he would know if he bothered to listen to the lecture).

      A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
      but only in expressing his opinion.

      Proverbs 18:2

      Liked by 1 person

  1. January 27, 2016 at 11:43 am
  2. January 27, 2016 at 3:26 pm
  3. January 30, 2016 at 4:46 pm

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