Re: Steffaniak’s “Reforming Credobaptism”

Volume 4, Issue 2 of the Journal of Biblical and Theological Studies features an essay by Jordan L. Steffaniak titled Reforming Credobaptism: A Westminster Alternative for Reformed Baptist Identity. Steffaniak has a ThM from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK. He is also a host of the London Lyceum podcast with the tagline “Analytic Baptist & Confessional Theology.”

Steffaniak aims to demonstrate that many Reformed Baptists, including those who hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, are not Reformed.

Abstract: This paper argues that there is a pathway for Baptists to confess the spirit of the Reformed faith and the heart of the Reformed covenantal understanding while maintaining their position on credobaptism. To defend this claim, this paper defines the spirit of the Reformed faith, which is the litmus test for the legitimacy of historical and contemporary “Reformed” Baptist belief. In doing so, it analyzes the most common Baptist failures in relation to the Reformed faith. Despite their significant failures, it is argued that there is a twofold pathway for Baptists to affirm Reformed theology and credobaptism simultaneously while remaining theologically coherent.

He develops three essential convictions of Reformed theology:

•(R1): Reformed theology confesses CT. It confesses the covenant of redemption and the historical covenants subsumed under the covenant of grace and works.

••(R1*): Reformed CT confesses one substance and two administrations of the covenant of grace.

••(R1**): Reformed CT confesses the Law of God as tripartite and the moral law as perpetually binding.

•(R2): Reformed theology confesses the two sacraments as the means of God’s objective grace.

•(R3): Reformed theology confesses a visible and invisible doctrine of the church and a regulated religious worship.

Therefore, to be Reformed, one must hold to all three points at minimum—these summarize the distinctively Reformed characteristics of the unified system. One can be Reformed if and only if he holds to these, along with the first order doctrines.

He is at pains to defend the idea that

There is a safe haven for Baptists by conviction who see Westminster as largely accurate and nearly all other Baptistic revisionist attempts as crude forms of dispensationalism in disguise. Therefore, affirming (R1), (R2), and (R3) does not require conversion to paedobaptism. There is a Westminster Baptist alternative.

The essay is particularly targeted at 1689 Federalism (“[I] will refer primarily to 1689 Federalists” 288). He says

The vast majority of contemporary Baptists are not Reformed if the three Reformed identity markers are accurate… There is growing popularity of the “1689 Federalism” reading of section 7 of the 1689 confession, which i[s] very likely historically correct. However, it is a wrong reading theologically and certainly not Reformed.

I recommend reading his essay in full before reading this response.

Assessment

In my opinion, the essay suffers from an inadequate familiarity with the complexity of reformed covenant theology (there is no reference of Renihan’s From Shadow to Substance). Steffaniak’s understanding of R1 is insufficient, leading to self-contradiction. He also does not adequately understand 1689 Federalism (whether due to his own fault or the result of 1689 Federalists not adequately explaining the position). Likewise, his dismissal of 1689 Federalism’s understanding of the visible/invisible church distinction is much too casual.

Definition of Covenant Theology

Reformed theology… holds to the classical one substance and two administrations CT, rather than any revisionist version. The one substance and two administrations construction is the beating heart of Reformed CT.

282

The analysis on this point is inconsistent. The method of analysis appears to be “Whatever a paedobaptist says about covenant theology is consistent with ’the classical one substance and two administrations CT’ and is therefore within the bounds of ‘Reformed.’” However, that view, summarized in the WCF, excludes various paedobaptist covenant theologies, both modern and historic. It requires one to view the Old/Mosaic Covenant as the Covenant of Grace. Anyone who believes the Mosaic was “of works” rather than the covenant of grace does not hold to “the classical one substance and two administrations CT.”

[Jeffrey Johnson] says, “the fatal flaw of the theology behind infant baptism is this notion that the Mosaic Covenant is a manifestation of the covenant of grace.”35 But (R1*) need not deny the legal nature of the Mosaic Covenant.36 Moses is not Abraham. For example, Michael Horton argues that, “the new covenant is not a renewal of the old covenant made at Sinai, but an entirely different covenant with an entirely different basis.”37 The Baptist critique against Moses is a non-starter because the Reformed can agree and still affirm (R1*).

Note that all Steffaniak does is quote a paedobaptist to affirm his assertion that R1* allows for the view that the Mosaic was not the covenant of grace but was a different covenant with an entirely different basis. But that’s just begging the question. When Horton says that the Sinai covenant is entirely different from the New with an entirely different basis, he is saying that Sinai/Old and the New differ in substance. In other words he is rejecting the “classical one substance and two administrations CT.” Note Calvin

Now, as to the new covenant, it is not so called, because it is contrary to the first [old] covenant; for God is never inconsistent with himself, nor is he unlike himself, he then who once made a covenant with his chosen people, had not changed his purpose, as though he had forgotten his faithfulness. It then follows, that the first [old] covenant was inviolable; besides, he had already made his covenant with Abraham, and the Law was a confirmation of that covenant. As then the Law depended on that covenant which God made with his servant Abraham, it follows that God could never have made a new, that is, a contrary or a different covenant… God has never made any other covenant than that which he made formerly with Abraham, and at length confirmed by the hand of Moses. This subject might be more fully handled; but it is enough briefly to shew, that the covenant which God made at first is perpetual.

Commentary on Jeremiah 31:33

That is the “classical one substance and two administrations CT,” summarized in WCF 7.5-6. And it is contrary to Horton’s statement. Steffaniak says

William J. Van Asselt concurs with the necessity of one substance and two administrations by making the substantial claim that “all federal theologians agreed on the twofold administration of the covenant of grace.”14 The word “all” needs emphasis. The Reformed universally refuse deviance from the confessional position of one substance and two administrations. Therefore, to deny this essential meaning of CT is to depart from the course of Reformed theology.

That’s simply not the case, unless one wants to exclude men like Owen and Horton (which Steffaniak does not). The 2016 OPC Report on Republication demonstrates very clearly that Horton’s view is contrary to the WCF, and therefore contrary to Steffaniak’s definition of reformed covenant theology. Horton is merely articulating what was historically known as the subservient covenant view, which was self-consciously put forward as an alternative to WCF’s view. Renihan’s dissertation From Shadow to Substance unpacks the historical theology very well on this point. It was not see referenced in the paper. It’s essential reading on the topic. If the subservient covenant tradition (including men like Owen) is within the bounds of reformed covenant theology, then one must demonstrate why 1689 Federalism’s subservient covenant view is not.

Steffaniak says

While the details may vary, the core unity of the covenants cannot be surrendered. They are the same in substance, origin, and content, only differing in form.

Note that Horton’s view is directly contrary to this.

[T]he Reformed argue for a difference in clarity and form but not in objective benefit.18 The content of salvation is the same, the means of salvation is the same, and the benefits of salvation are the same. For example, none in the Old Testament lack the internal substance or gifting of the Holy Spirit. The covenantal structure of one covenant under two administrations is necessary for Reformed identity. Reformed CT requires the oneness of God’s covenants.

1689 Federalism affirms the content of salvation is the same, the means of salvation is the same, and the benefits of salvation are the same during both Old and New Testaments. 1689 Federalism affirms the internal substance or gifting of the Holy Spirit. However, Steffaniak has confused this with the affirmation that all post-fall covenants are the covenant of grace. This does not necessarily follow.

  • P1 If members of the Old Covenant were saved in the same way that members of the New Covenant are now, then the Old and the New must be the same covenant.
  • P2 Members of the Old Covenant were saved in the same way that members of the New Covenant are now.
  • C Therefore the Old and the New are the same covenant.

P1 is false. As Owen has noted

Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the covenant. As therefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition, so I shall propose sundry things which relate unto 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

Abraham vs Moses

Baptists who desire to be Reformed frequently equate the Mosaic Covenant with the Abrahamic Covenant. Here, Baptists deny (R1*) by denying two administrations. They build their argument against (R1*) by thinking Abraham is actually Moses.

First, R1* itself equates the Mosaic and Abrahamic Covenants. R1* itself says that Abraham is Moses. Both Abrahamic and Mosaic are the same as the New. See Calvin’s statement above. The “Abraham is not Moses” retort comes from paedobaptists who hold to the subservient covenant view, not Westminster’s view (note well Steffaniak’s references to Horton and R. Scott Clark).

Second, simply equating the Abrahamic and the Mosaic is not essential to 1689 Federalism. There is a small diversity in how exactly to understand the Abrahamic. Personally, I believe the Abrahamic and Mosaic are technically distinct, though very intimately related (see my article on Galatians in the recent issue of JIRBS for an elaboration. I also deny there were two Abrahamic covenants).

On this point Steffaniak quotes Beeke & Jones’ criticism of baptists but he does not acknowledge Renihan’s response in JIRBS, nor any of the relevant material in Renihan’s dissertation which more than adequately addresses their comments.

For more on this, see

Old Testament Salvation

[M]any Baptists commonly locate regeneration/heart circumcision in the New Testament era alone.

It is unclear if Steffaniak is referring to 1689 Federalism in this comment. If so, I believe he has misunderstood whatever he has read, as I am not aware of anyone who holds to 1689 Federalism who denies regeneration/heart circumcision during the Old Testament. Such a view is contrary to 1689 Federalism. I have not read Alan Conner, whom Steffaniak quotes, but he is not necessarily a proponent of the view, having written before the term and ideas became more widely known.

However, many of these Baptists do not deny regeneration in principle to saints of old. Most Baptists who argue against (R1) by using these remarks do backtrack and agree that some experienced these blessings.45 But this remains confusing if Jeremiah 31 is a future prophecy. If it truly is referencing a change of heart alone, then Old Testament saints should not be regenerate at all. And that poses a major problem for any saint of old to experience salvation.

Steffaniak has significantly misunderstood one of the principle positions of 1689 Federalism. Yes, Jer. 31 does teach that regeneration is unique to the New Covenant. However, OT saints received this benefit of the New Covenant in advance of its formal establishment in the death of Christ/Pentecost. This is no more confusing than saying OT saints were atoned by Christ’s blood prior to Christ dying. When pressed, reformed paedobaptists affirm this same point. Commenting on Heb. 8:11, Calvin said

[W]hatever spiritual gifts the fathers obtained, they were accidental as it were to their age; for it was necessary for them to direct their eyes to Christ in order to become possessed of them… There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.

That’s all we’re saying and it is a very old view held by Augustine, Aquinas (even quoted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in #1964), and many others prior to the reformation (See Joshua Moon’s dissertation “Jeremiah’s New Covenant: An Augustinian Reading”). See:

If 1689 Federalism intends to rename the covenant of grace as the New Covenant and have it functionally equivalent, there is no problem.66 However, they are less clear than that. Many who follow 1689 Federalism intend to remove the covenant of grace from the Old Testament despite giving it retroactive power.

Then there is no problem. Our position is that the Covenant of Grace = the New Covenant. See

Furthermore, regarding the timing of Jer. 31 (Steffaniak says the New Covenant will consist of the elect alone only in the eschaton), please see Owen’s comments on Hebrews 8:11.

This text hath been looked on as attended with great difficulty and much obscurity; which expositors generally rather conceal than remove… Howbeit some learned men have been so moved with this objection, as to affirm that the accomplishment of this promise of the covenant belongs unto heaven, and the state of glory; for therein alone, they say, we shall have no more need of teaching in any kind. But as this exposition is directly contrary unto the design of the apostle, as respecting the teaching of the new covenant and the testator thereof; when he intends only that of the old, and exalts the new above it; so there is no such difficulty in the words as to force us to carry the interpretation of them into another world

Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

Steffaniak’s analysis on this point has a similar weakness as his analysis regarding the definition of covenant theology. He assumes one particular understanding of the visible/invisible church distinction is the only reformed view. Most paedobaptists view the visible/invisible church distinction as related to an external and internal covenant of grace such that the unregenerate are objectively members of the church in the eyes of God by means of an external covenant. However, numerous reformed paedobaptists reject that view. Instead, they recognize that the visible/invisible distinction is simply a matter of perspective: our fallible perspective and God’s infallible perspective. There is only one church consisting of one membership, but that membership is either seen through our perspective or God’s. This view has been held by a Brakel, John Murray, Charles Hodge, Jean Claude, JI Packer, James Currie, etc.

So Reformed Baptists recognize that there may be unregenerate members of our local churches. All that means is that we don’t have God’s infallible perspective and we mistakenly consider them to be Christians based on their profession of faith (the means God has given us to act upon in this world).

For more on this, see:

Conclusion

In sum, Steffaniak’s essay falls short in that it fails to properly understand reformed covenant theology as well as 1689 Federalism. Hopefully he will have opportunity to more thoroughly study the subject and interact with those who hold to the position (Jordan – I’d love to discuss with you in the comments below!).

2 thoughts on “Re: Steffaniak’s “Reforming Credobaptism”

  1. Thank you for this post. I encounter all kinds of litmus tests from paedobaptists, yet they are inconsistent with themselves on who is actually Reformed, for as you pointed out, there are many among them who do not hold to all which is found in the WCF.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chris Cutler

    I always thought it was the funny the way Presbyterians say Baptists aren’t reformed, because “In order to be reformed you need to be ‘this, this, and that.'” And when we say, “We are ‘this, this, and that,'” they say, “But your view of CT doesn’t suffice; you need to adhere to our view of CT” which is somewhat question-begging and a little petty. Because, for the sake of argument, say that the 1689 Fed view is the right one, then what Presbyterians are essentially saying is, “in order to be reformed, you need to hold to our erroneous view of CT.” Since there is a legitimate debate to be had regarding CT, I don’t see why CT can’t be understood more broadly (within reason) when talking about meeting the criteria to be “reformed.”

    Like

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