Review: Captive to the Word of God – A Particular Baptist Perspective on Reformed and Covenant Theology

captive_coverStuart Brogden has written an overview of baptist theology that is directed, as far as I can tell, towards baptists who unaware of, or are perhaps just dipping their toes into Calvinistic baptist beliefs. For that audience, the book provides a helpful overview of certain aspects of baptist beliefs. Though my review will focus on areas of concern/disagreement, there is much in the book that I agree with as well. I’d love to sit down and talk with Brogden some day. I sympathize with his journey deeper into historic baptist beliefs, even if we don’t end up agreeing on everything.

I do have to note that potential readers may be misled by the title of this book for two reasons. First, it’s not primarily a book on covenant theology. It is more broadly a book on baptist theology, with a discussion of covenants filling one section. Second, the label “particular baptist” tends to be associated with 17th century baptists. The author, Stuart Brogden, is a proponent of New Covenant Theology (NCT), not the theology of the 17th century men typically associated with the label “particular baptist.” I won’t quibble over the title only to note that some people may misunderstand what the book is about (as evidenced by the numerous times people have asked if it is a book on 1689 Federalism).

The book is divided into 4 sections: Part 1: The Baptists, Part 2: A Baptist View of Reformed Theology, Part 3: A Baptist View of Covenant Theology, Part 4: How it Works Together in a Local Church. My review will focus on Part 3 and two issues related to it (confessionalism and the law).

2nd London Baptist Confession

As a proponent of NCT, Brogden voices his problems with the 2nd LBCF and those who hold to it. First, he argues that modern churches or associations that hold to the 2nd LBCF as a confessional standard are not using the confession the way it was originally designed. Its purpose was primarily political and was never used as any kind of doctrinal standard for a church or association. He quotes ARBCA’s Constitution explaining its use of the confession and then asks “Is this the intended purpose of these aged confessions?”

Early Baptists who held to the battle cry of the Reformation were known as particular Baptists, to differentiate them from Baptists who held to general atonement. Baptists were not seeking commonality with the Presbyterians until late in the 17th century when they sought a way to make peace with the state church and government in England, weary of being persecuted. (vii)

“The Confessions published by the Baptists in the Seventeenth Century were neither creeds written to secure uniformity of belief, nor articles to which subscription was demanded.” (Goadby)… James Renihan… [agrees] with Goadby’s observation that the main reason confessions were written in this era was to tell others what the confessors thought, not to bind the confessors to an in-house creed… [W]e know that no man has pure motives and must admit that we would likely have taken some pragmatic steps to lessen the pain of constant harassment and persecution.  (93-94, 98)

The quote Brogden provides from Renihan does state that the particular baptists were interested in distancing themselves from anabaptists, but it does not say that churches did not subscribe to it or use it as a doctrinal standard amongst themselves. It is not clear that Brogden properly used Goadby’s quote either. Goadby appears to be referring to the idea of an established church demanding conformity by the use of the sword. Baptists certainly didn’t use their confession that way. But they did require those who confessed it to actually believe it and they did use it as the standard of association between each other.

Brogden suggests that the very idea of “subscription” is Presbyterian, not Baptist. He quotes ARBCA’s Constitution, stating

Confessional subscription employs three main terms in its nomenclature: absolute, strict/full, and loose. ARBCA has adopted the middle position. According to Dr. Morton H. Smith, “strict or full subscription takes at face value” the terminology used in adopting a confession of faith.

And then notes

Of interest to Baptists, I hope: Dr. Morton H. Smith, whose definition of full subscription ARBCA embraces, is a life-long Presbyterian. Their view of confessions has influenced Baptists as much as their view of covenants has. (92)

I find this comment and line of reasoning troubling. First, since Smith’s paper outlines all the various ways of subscribing to a confession, if any Baptist subscribes to a confession in any way, they must be unduly influenced by Presbyterianism. Second, the vast majority of Presbyterian churches do not hold to full subscription. Largely because of their view of ecclessiastical authority, they hold to various versions of loose subscription, including system (OPC) and good faith (PCA). Various Presbyterians, including Smith, have argued that these forms of loose subscription are incoherent and defeat the whole purpose of a confession, which is to state what you believe. ARBCA is unique in this instance and, rather than simply following Presbyterians, is actually leading them in demonstrating a more appropriate way to subscribe to a confession. And the Baptist distinctive of local church autonomy means that any particular church is free to agree or disagree with the 2nd LBCF and ARBCA without their pastors’ ordination being in jeopardy. For more on this point, see here and here and here.

These brief statements [from ARBCA] reveal deliberate use of a confession as the primary document (no matter their written protests to the contrary) that defines the doctrine and identity of the association and the churches that belong to it. The confession is “excellent” and becomes the “sum of sound doctrine” for them (as one elder in a 1689 LBC church put it to me), “founded on the Word of God”, and, in some cases, displacing it as the first line of defense and doctrine. This sad condition is well known among churches that hold to the Westminster Confession and some that hold to the 1689 LBC; and it shows up in their ecclesiology, how they function as a church, such as requiring “strict or full subscription” for serving as an elder while failing to take into account what is laid out in 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 3. (92-93)

Again, I find this kind of reasoning troubling, and perhaps not well thought out. The alternative is to not require any confession at all from an elder or church. I can certianly understand why Brogden does not think the 2nd LBCF should be the standard for a church, since he thinks it is unbiblical, but his comments here are directed at the concept of using any confession at all as a church’s standard. Brogden also quotes from Bob Gonzales arguing in favor of “something close to biblicism” rather than “confessionally colored glasses.”

A final note on this point, Brogden makes many statements throughout the book that reveal a superficial understanding of the topics he is dealing with. Here is one example:

While some within the 1689 camp insist on putting the Savoy between the Westminster Confession of Faith and the 1689 LBC, this is an argument without substance; as the Savoy was a clone of the Westminster, differing only on church government. The 1689 LBC is largely a clone of the Westminster. (104)

There are numerous important differences between Savoy and Westminster if one studies carefully. One pertinent example is the difference between the two in 19.1-2.

Chapter 19 on the Law of God

All of this is prepatory for Brogden’s criticism of the 2nd LBCF’s doctrine of the law. He argues the editors of the confession changed the obvious stuff, but were oblivious to various aspects of the Presbyterian system that were incompatible with Baptist beliefs and therefore they did not adquately revise their confession.

These issues (baptism, ecclesiology, church/civil relationships) are those which are easy to detect, above the water line one might say. What our Baptist forefathers did was to knock these matters out of the way and replace them with Baptist alternatives. What the early Baptists apparently did not do is carefully examine the foundation that was below the water line… One, perhaps the major area in which it appears the Baptists erred in cloning the Westminster regards the treatment of the Decalogue… This paedobaptist influence is found predominately in chapter 19 of the 1689 LBC, but also in one paragraph of chapter 22, addressing the “Christian Sabbath”. (104-105)

Brogden marches through Chapter 19 and its misused Scripture references (in the span of 4 1/2 pages) and quickly declares that the confession obviously contradicts itself.

Herein is a conflict within the confession…

How can the law given to Adam be the law of the Gentiles, who are without the law of Moses, then be described as the Ten Words which were given to Moses as law that the Jews had possession of? And how does using Romans 2:12a & 14-15 as the proof text prove that? Other versions of the 1689 LBC refer to Deuteronomy 10, which describes the tablets but that passage does not indicate that they are the same law as given to Adam. This is conjecture, not exegesis. And it conflicts with itself regardless of which footnotes are used in a given version of the confession…This is a sign of trouble in any document, when the Scripture passages used as references do not support the point being made. (106, 110, emphasis original)

In my opinion, his analysis is rather rash and would have been more meaningful if he had interacted with expositions or elaborations of the doctrine found in modern or historic writings, rather than just commenting on the choice of Scripture references. The meaning of the confession on this point is fairly simple: What God wrote on the hearts of all men had some level of identity with what God revealed externally and supernaturally to Israel. Gentiles do not have the law in the sense that they do not have a written copy of it revealed by God. But they do know the law because it is revealed innately within them, by which they will be judged just as Jews are judged by the written law.

Further, how could Adam know the Decalogue or any version of the “moral law” prior to having knowledge of good and evil? Only after he and Eve ate the forbidden fruit did Adam know he was naked (Genesis 3:11). Only then God said the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:22). It is clear that Adam did not know evil before he sinned, though he clearly knew the goodness of God. Since knowledge of the Law incites sin (Romans 3:20; 5:20; 7:7), one can only conclude that Adam was given the “moral law” conjunction with The Fall; not when he was created nor when he walked in innocence. There is no warrant in Scripture to take the Decalogue as an eternally binding “moral law” for all people: it was given to Moses and the infant nation of Israel (Nehemiah 9:13 & 14) and the tablets sit in an ark that is to be forgotten (Jeremiah 3:15-16). (106, emphasis original)

Just to make sure I was not misunderstanding him, I emailed the author to confirm that he does not believe man was created with knowledge of the law of God. He said that is correct. Since Adam and Eve had no knowledge of the law, they must not have been obligated to obey it. Again, Brogden confirmed via email that that is correct. No one knew or was obligated to obey the moral or universal law of God until after the Fall. The only command Adam and Eve had to obey was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

With regards to Brogden’s argument: after the Fall, with a corrupt nature, knowledge of the law incites sin. That was not the case prior to the Fall with an uncorrupted nature. The “knowledge of good and evil” did not mean “knowledge of what God requires of man.” The tree of knowledge of good and evil was symbolic. It represented man’s effort to discern good from evil apart from the help of God’s wisdom. Adam’s duty was to apply the law of God to every situation he encountered in life. If he faced a difficult situation, he was to seek wisdom from God and not rely on his own understanding, thereby growing in maturity (Prov 2:6; James 1:5; Deut 1:39; 1 Kings 3:9; Is. 7:15; Heb 5:14; Rom 12:2; Ps. 119:66; Eph 5:10). This was, in fact, Adam’s test (probation). When he had grown in wisdom and maturity, when he had grown wise enough to be judge (1 Cor 6:2-3), then he would enter God’s rest, be confirmed in righteousness, granted to eat from the tree of life and live forever with an immutable nature. But when he faced a difficult situation (the serpent’s twisted teaching about what God said), he did not ask God for wisdom, but rather relied on his own understanding of what is good and evil (Gen 3:5-6) and therefore ate of the tree. That’s what the tree symbolized.

Brogden favorably quotes John Reisinger’s simplistic linguistic objection to the term “moral law.” He offers an alternative.

Since the Hebrews under the Mosaic covenant rightly saw all the commands of YHWH as moral (why else would picking up sticks on the Sabbath be a capital offense? – Numbers 15:32-36), it dawned on me that the right nomenclature would be universal law (do not murder, marriage, etc.) and covenantal law (do not eat pork, stay in your home on the Sabbath, etc.). Many people refer to a “natural law” that applies to all people, but since such a law is instituted and communicated by Creator God, it’s a supernatural law which applies universally. Hence my preference for that label. The covenant one is in determines which laws apply, apart from the universal laws which apply to all men. (107)

This is conceptually the same as 1689 Federalism’s distinction between moral and positive law. In fact, Brogden actually quotes part of a 1689 Federalism essay to defend his view.

There is no argument that the Decalogue contains universal law, but it contains more; specific instructions and commands that are part of the Mosaic covenant with national Israel and no other nation or people. Rather than being the universal law of God, it would seem that the Decalogue is a particular application of law given in the Mosaic Covenant to the Jews.

In a critique of New Covenant Theology [in the Appendix to the Coxe/Owen volume and also found online here], Richard Barcellos quotes John Owen from his Works, 22:215… In this quote, both Owen invalidates the common assertion that what we see in Exodus 20 is nothing but the “moral” law, although he did specify the “prescriptive parts” as “absolutely moral;” which is the universal law shining through the tablets.

However, rather than recognizing that perhaps he has misunderstood the confession’s position, since both Barcellos and Owen agree with the confession’s position, Brogden declares Owen to be in support of his rejection of the confession.

Terrence O’Hare tell us that Thomas Aquinas appears to be the first to develop this line of thought, “asserting that the old law contains moral (emanating from natural law), judicial (laws regarding justice among men), and ceremonial (laws touching on worship, holiness, and sanctification) precepts; and that these three can be distinguished in the Decalogue as well.”… Accepting such a novel teaching from anyone is treading on thin ice; that the originator was a Roman Catholic makes it all the more important that we examine it closely before declaring it truth that binds everyone.  (108-109)

As someone who hold’s to the Confession’s teaching on the law, I have examined it closely (more closely than Brogden if his analysis in this book is any indication) and I find it to be biblical. Aquinas was not the first one to teach the concept of distinguishing between natural law and positive law in the Mosaic Covenant.

In summary, I believe the 1689 LBC suffers from paedobaptist influence in its perception of The Law, resulting in unavoidable conflicts within itself. Baptists ought not to embrace this unless we embrace their view of the covenants as well, for therein lies the basis for the view espoused in chapter 19 and chapter 22.8 of the 1689 LBC…

An astute observation from a news story wherein Paul McHugh, a respected psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, refuted self-identification of sex is most appropriate here: “gird your loins if you would confront this matter. Hell hath no fury like a vested interest masquerading as a moral principle.” So it is in discussing the “Christian Sabbath” with those who hold to it. (120-121)

Covenant Theology

Brogden expresses appreciation for 1689 Federalism. He quotes from Denault, Coxe, Owen, Keach, and Pink. He does generally hold to a similar construct regarding the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants. In this regard I am thankful that an NCT proponent is studying and recognizing the value of historic baptist views. I wish more of them would do so. However, he also quotes extensively from NCT authors. He does recognizes that aspects of his view are not shared by proponents of NCT, who reject both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, though he maintains “the differences one may have with New Covenant Theology brothers are small and deal in large part with defining our terms.” In the end, he makes it clear that the book represents his own unique perspective.

I’ve taken part of Luther’s statement as my title because while I am thankful to God for myriad men in the Reformed Baptist world that have taught me much, I cannot claim full allegiance to a document written in the 17th century; it being mostly right… It is not my intention to present the 17th century Baptist view on the covenants, as if theirs was the ultimate expression of Baptist thought. Pascal Denault’s book, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, is an excellent review of that position and the folks at have been doing a very good job explaining some of the historic Baptist distinctives and how they differ from the Westminster Confession of Faith. My intention is to present what I, a particular Baptist, see as the biblical view of the covenants. Conforming to what particular Baptist have historically believed is not my main concern. I desire to conform the Scriptures, not to 16th and 17th century brothers who no more had perfect theology than you or I. We are not to be disciples of mere men (1 Corinthians 3:1-9), but disciples of the Lord Jesus; thankful for those who have been faithful and gone before us but not trapped in their teachings. Hence the title of this part of the book: A Baptist View of Covenant Theology; not The Baptist View of Covenant Theology. There are, today, many variants of how Baptists view the covenants in Scripture; far be it from me to speak on behalf of those with whom I disagree on topics relevant to this (such as reviewed in Part 2: A Baptist View of Reformed Theology). My desire is to be captive to the Word of God; not captive to a 17th century confession nor a system of theology developed by men. (vii, 131-132, emphasis original)

The Adamic Covenant

Brogden affirms that God did make a covenant with Adam, even though the early chapters of Genesis do not explicitly call it a covenant. He also affirms that the covenant was a covenant of works (in disagreement with NCT/Progressive Covenantalism proponents like Gentry and Wellum).

The covenant made with Adam was a covenant of works which did not comprehend sin and the need for redemption… (Hosea 6:7; Jeremiah 33:19-22; Isaiah 24:5-6)… Adam was commanded by God to “do this and live” (You may surely eat of every tree in the garden, Genesis 2:16) and “do that and die” (but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. Genesis 2:17). Though very narrow in scope, this relationship required obedience by Adam for him to remain in fellowship with Creator God. And by his disobedience, death came to every man (Romans 5:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:21 & 22), Jew and Gentile without distinction. (151, 149)

Brogden appears to be in agreement with the 2nd London Baptist Confession’s teaching on the Adamic Covenant of Works (see The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis), but upon closer inspection we find that is not the case. As we saw above, Brogden rejects the idea that the law was written on the heart of man at creation, but the law is the basis of the Adamic Covenant of Works. He rejects the historic meaning of the concept while retaining the label and some aspects of it. This is very confusing and is not made clear to the reader. He approvingly quotes Owen and Keach defending the doctrine. However, both quotes do not reflect Brogden’s view since they are specifically focused on showing how the law was the basis of the Covenant of Works.

John Owen, a paedobaptist who shared much in common theologically with Baptists, agreed with Pink on this point in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6 (emphasis mine):

“There was an original covenant made with Adam, and all mankind in him. The rule of obedience and reward that was between God and him, was not expressly called a covenant, but it contained the express nature of a covenant. For it was the agreement of God and man concerning obedience and disobedience, rewards and punishments. Where there is a law concerning these things, and an agreement upon it, by all parties concerned, there is a formal covenant. Wherefore it may be considered two ways.

1st. As it was a law only; so it proceeded from, and was a consequent of, the nature of God and man, with their mutual relation unto one another. God being considered as the Creator, Governor, and Benefactor of man: and man as an intellectual creature, capable of moral obedience; this law was necessary, and is eternally indispensable.

2dly. As it was a covenant; and this depended on the will and pleasure of God. I will not dispute whether God might have given a law unto men, that should have had nothing in it of a covenant properly so called as is the law of creation unto all other creatures, which hath no rewards nor punishments annexed unto it. Yet this God calls a covenant also, inasmuch as it is an effect of his purpose, his unalterable will and pleasure, Jer. 33:20, 21.”

Benjamin Keach addressed the question of whether Adam was party to a covenant with God:

“Proposition: That the Breach betwixt God and Man, was occasioned by the violation of the First Covenant which God entered into with Adam, as the Common or Public Head and Representative of all Mankind; which Covenant was a Covenant of Works; I say, God gave a Law, or entered into a Covenant of Works with the First Adam and his Seed, and in that Covenant he gave himself to be our God, even upon the strict and severe condition of perfect Obedience, personally to be performed by Man himself, with that Divine Threatening of Death and Wrath if he broke the Covenant, In the Day thou eats thereof thou shalt surely die. Yet some may doubt (as one observes) whether this was a Covenant of Works, because here is only a threatening of Death upon his Disobedience to this one positive Law.”

In the style of 17th century apologetics (often called diatribes), Keach stated the propositions and provided the answers. This is his answer to the above proposition:

“Man in his First Creation was under a Natural Obligation to universal compliance to the Will of God, and such was the Rectitude of his Nature, it imports an exact Conformity to the Divine Will, there being an inscription of the Divine Law upon Adam’s heart, which partly still remains, or is written in the hearts of the very Gentiles (though much blur’d) which is that light which is in all, or that which we call The light of Nature.”

The fact that Brogden included these quotes in support of his view suggests to me that perhaps he did not adequately understand the quotes. He could have found other quotes dealing more narrowly with the existence of a Covenant of Works, or simply used the beginning of these ones without including the explainations of how the moral law was the basis of the Covenant of Works. Owen says “As it was a law only; so it proceeded from, and was a consequent of, the nature of God and man… this law was necessary, and is eternally indispensable.” Brogden rejects that idea. All that existed prior to the Fall was the one positive law not to eat from the tree. The subsequent “universal law” that Brogden says was written on man’s heart after the Fall was not natural, stemming from God and man’s nature as imago dei, or necessary (since it didn’t exist prior to the Fall). It must therefore have been positive law that depended only on the will and pleasure of God (note well that this means there is no law derived from God’s nature, a problem with many/most versions of NCT that reformed baptists have pointed out, leading to rejections of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, see also here). Since that is Brogden’s view, it makes little sense for him to quote Owen making the opposite point. Owen’s point was simply to explain LBCF 7.1, which says that man, by nature, owes obedience to God without expecting any reward, but that God voluntarily condescended (by His will and pleasure) to establish a covenant with Adam to offer him a reward for his obedience.

His quotation of Keach is even more out of place. Keach says “[S]ome may doubt (as one observes) whether this was a Covenant of Works, because here is only a threatening of Death upon his Disobedience to this one positive Law.” That describes Brogden’s view: there is only a threatening of punishment for disobedience to one positive law. Keach says that is wrong because “Man in his First Creation was under a Natural Obligation to universal compliance to the Will of God, and such was the Rectitude of his Nature.” Keach is referring to Ecc. 7:29, which Brogden says has nothing to do with the law being written on man’s heart. These quotations are out of place and they reveal, in my opinion, that perhaps Brogden has not wrestled deeply with the doctrine.

Brogden also rejects the idea that the reward of the Covenant of Works was glorification – being made immutable.

There is nothing in the Scripture to support the notion widely held by some in the paedobaptist world of Covenant Theology that Adam had a “time of probation” that hypothetically held out access to the Tree of Life. This notion implies a “plan B” in God’s mind, which Scripture flat-out proscribes (Acts 2:23 for example) yet open theology embraces. Our God is in His heavens and does what He pleases.

This is simply a confusion of God’s revealed/preceptive will and His secret/decretive will. (see The Covenant of Works: Its Confessional and Scriptural Basis as well as Better Than the Beginning for helpful discussion of this point.)

Abrahamic Covenant

Brogden affirms the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant, noting that Abraham’s physical offspring was a type of his spiritual offspring. I will just note one aspect that I do not personally agree with.

I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Genesis 17:19). This everlasting covenant is an eternal one, established and fulfilled by God, reconciling elect sinners with holy God. This is testified to by the apostle in Galatians 4:21-31 as he identifies the covenant represented by Sarah as the covenant with the heavenly Jerusalem, which is liberty (John 8:36); sharply contrasted with earthly Jerusalem, which is slavery, condemnation, and death (2 Corinthians 3:7-9). (137)

I think Brogden’s identification of the Covenant of Circumcision with the Eternal Covenant (Covenant of Redemption) is mistaken. The use of the word “everlasting” does not sufficiently establish that view. Neither does Galatians 4:21-31, which rather teaches that two subsequent covenants (Old and New) come from the Covenant of Circumcision. This leads him to mistakenly believe Christians are under the Abrahamic Covenant.

In several places, God promised several things to Abraham and his offspring. The apostle is precise in correcting the Jewish perspective wherein they supposed all national Israel was being spoken of as that offspring. Paul has even confused some modern commentators here, but clearly he means that what was promised to Abraham’s offspring was not to national Israel and its countless members; it was promised to one offspring, the promised seed that national Israel had been formed to protect as it was delivered through 43 generations (Matthew 1:17). Here is how one commentary explains it:

promises—plural, because the same promise was often repeated (Gen 12:3, 7; Gen 15:5, 18; Gen 17:7; Gen 22:18), and because it involved many things; earthly blessings to the literal children of Abraham in Canaan, and spiritual and heavenly blessings to his spiritual children; but both promised to Christ, “the Seed” and representative Head of the literal and spiritual Israel alike (163)

I do not agree with Brogden here and I think it overlooks the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant. As Augustine explained, God made two promises to Abraham, one about the land of Canaan and his physical offspring, the other about Christ blessing all nations. In Galatians 3:16, Paul is not denying that God promised certain things to Abraham’s physical offspring (plural). Rather, he is clarifying that the promise to bless all nations was about one particular offspring, which was fulfilled in Christ. For more on this, see here.

Mosaic Covenant

In some comments Brogden rightly notes that the Mosaic Covenant was limited to temporal life and blessing in Canaan, in distinction from the Adamic Covenant.

While they lived in the flesh, they were in the Mosaic Covenant as God’s temporal people. So all national Israel was at all times members of two covenants – one identifying their spiritual condition (in Adam or in Christ), the other identifying them as God’s temporal people (under Moses). (146)

But elsewhere he argues that Christ secured eternal life and blessing for his people through the Mosaic Covenant.

Under the Old Covenant, Israel’s obedience procured God’s temporal favor: produce, favor with other nations, power, and God’s protection. Under the Old Covenant, as one born under the law, Jesus’ obedience procured spiritual and eternal favor: redemption, sanctification, righteousness, and Christ’s intercession for the New Jerusalem, sealing the New Covenant under which sinners are declared righteous (Romans 5:18-20, 8:3-4, Galatians 3:13, 4:4-5). The Old Covenant, in each of its administrations, demands much, but provides no hope of reconciliation with God.

A covenant cannot be bifurcated like that. You can’t say it means one thing to some members but a different thing to other members. That would imply two different covenants/agreements. Brogden appears to follow Jeffery Johnson here.

Some people, including Baptists (recall Spurgeon’s unclear statement in the introduction to this topic), make the error of claiming that the New Covenant was conditional for its mediator, that Jesus’ redemptive work was His part of the Covenant of Redemption. Scripture tells us Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant and earned the right to issue the New Covenant. He came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17); this phrase is commonly used “shorthand” to refer to what we call the Old Testament. (196)

Brogden also argues the Old Covenant was not the Mosaic Covenant, but was rather an umbrella covenant that embraced the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants.

The Old Covenant represents God’s relationship to national Israel, and includes the three major covenants contained therein, although the Abrahamic Covenant is only partially in this arena. This began to close with the Davidic Covenant, coming to a final close when the son of David who was his Lord fulfilled all the requirements of Moses and the prophets and cut the New Covenant (Galatians 3:24). The Old Covenant was worn out and ended. (145)

I do not agree with this articulation. I believe Scripture identifies the Old Covenant as the Mosaic Covenant, and that the Abrahamic and Davidic are different covenants. However, the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants have a great deal of overlap with the Mosaic Covenant and to the degree that they overlap, Scripture’s comments about the Old Covenant apply to them as well.

Final Note

Brogden makes some confused comments about the 2nd LBCF with regards to covenant theology.

I read, studied and taught the 1689 London Baptist Confession and saw it had much the same view of the Mosaic Covenant as taught by the WCF; and I wondered how this could be. Then I found a book that shook me with some simple explanations from Scripture on the covenants. Jeff Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw of the Theology of Infant Baptism exposed the flawed foundation of paedobaptism, but more importantly, it explained the dichotomist nature of the covenant given unto Abraham as clearly presented by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4. (iv)

If Brogden had been reading the confession as teaching the same thing as the WCF on the Mosaic Covenant, then he was misreading it. Johnson’s book and his subsequent reading of Denault would have made that clear. Why then does he still imply the confession teaches the same thing as the WCF on the Mosaic Covenant, rather than what is found in Denault’s 17th century survey?

As Baptists learn more about the covenants of Scripture (explored in more detail in Part 3: A Baptist View of Covenant Theology), apart from the Presbyterian hermeneutic so prevalent in Reformed publications, will we be willing to examine what our confessions say about the secondary doctrines that flow out from one’s view of the covenants? We will if we are to be true to our calls of Sola Scriptura and Semper Reformanda. And we will also not be willing to defend our confession by mere argument, but with a clear conscience led by the teaching from the Word of God. (103)

Brogden seems to suggest we have two options: the Presbyterian covenant theology, or his own personal covenant theology. There is no category for 1689 Federalism, which rejects Presbyterian covenant theology, but also rejects Brogden’s covenant theology.


This is not a complete review. It doesn’t touch on everything in the book, but since readers of this blog are primarily interested in 1689 Federalism and whether this book is a good resource for it, that is what I focused on. The critical nature of this review should not overshadow many good things this brother has to say in the book. In the end, however, I would not recommend the book because its pluses do not outweigh its minuses. The helpful things in book can easily be found in other, more reliable sources. In an endorsement at the beginning of the book, Jeffery Johnson says “In my opinion, this helpful work needs to be required reading for all Baptist seminary students.” I am surprised by such a strong endorsement and do not share his assessment.

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.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

I just noticed that Stephen Cunha’s The Emperor Has No Clothes in on sale for $3.98. The book is a critique of Richard Gaffin’s doctrine of justification. I have not read Gaffin’s By Faith and Not By Sight because it was out of print – but it appears it has recently been re-published. Mark Jones wrote the forward to the second edition I’m which he calls it “a book that has been so deeply influential in my own theological thinking.”

I greatly appreciate any correction and interaction with Cunha’s critique of Gaffin. Here is my summary:

I was a bit guarded going into the book, expecting to read a very (perhaps overly) polemic work. But I was surprised to read a very simple, clear, concerned critique of Gaffin‘s view.
It stands out against the other works that have been written interacting with Gaffin because it is written by a layman (who has a firm grasp on the issues) and is thus very to the point and practical (whereas much of the writing between WS and WSC beats around the bush and requires a lot of reading between the lines).

Here are some summary quotes to give you a better idea:

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate and call attention to the fact that Dr. Gaffin is teaching a doctrine of justification that is contrary to the Westminster Standards, and, more importantly, to the Word of God. In this writer’s opinion, the key factors influencing Dr. Gaffin‘s distinctive teaching on justification are the application of the already/not yet concept to justification and, I shudder to say, a distorted understanding of the resolution between Paul’s assertion that justification is by faith alone and James’ assertion that justification is not by faith alone, which subtly, yet gravely, compromises the classic Law/Gospel antithesis taught by the Reformers (13)

The first chapter discusses Gaffin‘s view that the believer is still under judicial condemnation from the fall, and thus he dies. I found this chapter to be very worthwhile. It’s something I’ve only briefly considered. Cunha argues that our deaths are 1) not required, and 2) part of the Father’s loving process of sanctification, not condemnation. He discusses WLC Q85 in this regard.
The second chapter discuses how Gaffin‘s view of faith and works applies to his understanding of the supposed already/not yet aspect of our justification. Cunha notes:

According to Dr. Gaffin‘s view, faith and works are constituent parts of a faith/works complex that is necessary to obtain justification. Just as access to the flight is partially dependent upon the presence of a passport, so justification is made to be partially dependent upon the presence of good works. This goes beyond the traditional Protestant view that works are only evidential or declarative with respect to justification. When Dr. Gaffin refers to works as “the integral fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” in justification, he acknowledges works to be the “fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith,” but denies that works are solely evidential with respect to justification.

It is clear that Dr. Gaffin denies that works are the ground or basis of a believer’s justification. What is not so clear is how works produced through faith can be pulled within the sphere of justification in a way that is beyond purely declarative of justification and, at the same time, not share any degree of instrumentality with faith, nor be a part of what faith itself is. Unless there is a new category of description that this writer is not aware of to characterize the relationship between works and justification, we are limited to the categories of ground, instrument, and evidence. If works produced through faith are in the smallest degree beyond purely evidential of justification, it follows that they must be, to some degree, either the ground or instrument of justification.

The third chapter is the longest and it addresses Gaffin‘s denial of an absolute Law/Gospel antithesis. Gaffin says:

From this perspective, the antithesis between law and gospel is not an end in itself. It is not a theological ultimate. Rather, that antithesis enters not by virtue of creation but as the consequence of sin, and the gospel functions for its overcoming. The gospel is to the end of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer. How so? Briefly, apart from the gospel and outside of Christ the law is my enemy and condemns me. But with the gospel and in Christ, united to him by faith, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend. Why? Because now God is no longer my enemy but my friend, and the law, his will, the law in its moral core, as reflective of his character and of concerns eternally inherent in his own person and so of what pleases him, is now my friendly guide for life in fellowship with God. These observations on faith and obedience may be reinforced by referring here briefly to the perennial debate over Paul and James on faith and works. On the coherence between them, in what is sometimes taken to be their contradictory teaching on faith and works in justification, it is hard to improve on what J. Gresham Machen wrote aphoristically, “as the faith which James condemns is different than the faith that Paul commends, so also the works which James commends are different than the works which Paul commends.”

Cunha comments:

The classic Protestant Law/Gospel antithesis is that there are two antithetical ways to obtain justification. Justification is obtained either through a course of perfect obedience to the law or through faith in Jesus Christ… Dr. Gaffin says that the Law/Gospel antithesis is “not a theological ultimate” and that the Gospel “is to the end of removing an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer.” It is here where one may rightly question whether or not Dr. Gaffin truly understands the classic Protestant Law/Gospel antithesis. Understood properly, there is no need to move toward an end of removing an absolute Law/Gospel antithesis in the life of the believer because the Law/Gospel antithesis applies to justification only. Both now and throughout eternity, a believer will rejoice in the fact that he or she has been justified on the basis of Jesus’ atoning death and merits received by imputation through faith alone.

He also includes a very helpful discussion of Romans 2 in this chapter.
The fourth chapter discusses Gaffin‘s support and endorsement of Norm Shepherd and the similarities between their views of justification and works.
He concludes with some remarks about other work being done at Westminster East and its connection to Gaffin‘s view of justification, faith, and works.
Overall I found the book to be very readable and to provide a helpful summary of the concern/debate about Gaffin‘s views – much more so than what I had read previously.
If anyone has read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Review: Word Pictures

I just posted a review of Brian Godawa’s “Word Pictures” over at my film blog if anyone is interested.

The book would have much more value if the thesis was framed in terms of the interplay between literal and non-literal (artistic) expression, rather than word and image. This spectrum would remove all the confusion surrounding Godawa’s categories and retain much of the valuable insights he offers in the book while avoiding some fatal pitfalls. The solution to the use of literal vs non-literal expression would then be to prioritize literal expression, rather than granting non-literal expression equal priority in the comprehension and communication of truth. However, that does not, therefore, mean that there is no value or place for non-literal expression. “For everything there is a season” (Ecc 3:1). Context is key. Gordon Clark offers a helpful explanation:

The Scriptures contain metaphors, figures of speech, and symbolism; for the Scriptures are addressed to men in all situations – situations in which their attention needs to be aroused and their memory facilitated, as well as situations in which plain information must be conveyed. But since symbolic language and metaphor depend on literal meaning, the most intelligible and understandable expressions are to be found in the literal theological statements, such as those in Romans

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The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology

I am now able to sleep at night: Pascal Denault has written the book I’ve been looking for.

Someone has finally put in print an analysis of what 17th century particular baptists believed about covenant theology. As amazing as it sounds, no other book has done this. Of the now numerous books published on baptist covenant theology, none of them have done what Denault has done. None of them endeavored to explain what the editors and signers of the 1689 London Baptist Confession meant when they modified Chapter 7 of the LBCF. Some have written how they personally interpret Chapter 7, but not necessarily how the London baptists did. Many reformed baptists have labored hard to reconcile their credobaptism with covenant theology, but for the most part they went back to the drawing board to do so, rather than standing on the shoulders of those who came before.

But, I don’t blame them. It’s not like you can find these primary sources on Amazon, or even in your library. For the most part, they’re just not in print. Reformed Baptist Academic Press did a great service in publishing Nehemiah Coxe’s treatise on covenant theology, but before that it wasn’t available in print. And still most of the other writings are not available. Denault notes: “I spent weeks communing with seventeenth-century theologians through their writings; sometimes reading them with a magnifying glass when only the original edition existed.”

The result is a unique combination of historical survey and modern polemic against presbyterian covenant theology. The value of returning to the source of 1689 confessional covenantalism is that it is decidedly different from the covenant theology of modern reformed baptists. Only two modern books articulate the same view: Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw in the Theology of Infant Baptism and A.W. Pink’s Divine Covenants (for the most part).

The most prevalent view amongst reformed baptists today is a modified version of presbyterian federalism. This is the one covenant, two administrations view. Denault notes “the Presbyterian paradigm of the Covenant of Grace consists in seeing only one covenant administered respectively by the Old and New Covenants. This notion was definitively rooted in Presbyterian theology when it was integrated into the standards of Westminster: “This covenant [the Covenant of Grace] was differently administered in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel […]” (39). Most reformed baptists agree with this view. In his Exposition of the 1689 LBCF, Sam Waldron notes “The truth is that the way or scheme of salvation has been one and the same in all ages of the world. In the revelation of this scheme of salvation all the divine covenants were involved. They were its historical administrations.” But they disagree with presbyterians over what constitutes the difference in administration between the old and the new. They will say that the old covenant eternally saved some of it’s members, but the new covenant eternally saves all of it’s members – and this is the newness of the new covenant. As James White argues:

The point is that for Niell [his paedobaptist interlocutor], the “counter-point” to which he is responding is an either/or situation: either the elements of the New Covenant described in Heb. 8:10 were completely absent in the Old Covenant (as he understands the citations he presents to assert) or they were present and hence cannot be definitional of what is ‘new’ in the New Covenant. But it is just here that the position of Reformed Baptists in general, and that seen in our exegesis, must be allowed to speak to the issue. We must agree that considered individually, each of the elements of the New Covenant listed in Heb. 8:10-12 can be found, in particular individuals in the Old Covenant… So, if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it… Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,” 11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new. While some in the Old Covenant experienced this, all in the New Covenant do so… The newness of the New Covenant, as we have seen exegetically, is that all of these divine actions are true for all of those in it.

The Newness of the New Covenant

As White alludes, his position is representative of “Reformed Baptists in general”. The new and the old covenant do not differ in substance – they both renewed hearts, forgave sins, and saved eternally. They only differ in administration – some received this blessing in the old covenant, but all receive this blessing in the new covenant. But as Denault demonstrates, this view is not representative of seventeenth-century baptists.

Coxe summarizes the Baptist distinction as follows: “the Old Covenant and the new differ in substance and not only in the manner of the administration.”… his federalism can practically be considered as the standard of Calvinist Baptists [of the seventeenth-century]. (18) … Consequently, none of them endorsed the theology of one Covenant of Grace under two administrations (58). [Note: apparently 1 or 2 Calvinist Baptists did endorse the two administration theology]

Instead of the one covenant under two administrations view, seventeenth-century baptists held to “one covenant revealed progressively and concluded formally under the New Covenant” (61).

“[Chapter 7] is the most discordant passage of the confessions of faith. Knowing that the Baptists made every effort to follow the Westminster standards as much as possible when they wrote their confession of faith, the originality of their formulation of the Covenant of Grace is highlight significant. It is obvious that the authors of the 1689 completely avoided any formulation reminiscent of the “one covenant under two administrations” model that we find in the other two confessions of faith. This absence must be interpreted as a rejection of the theology behind this formulation and not as an omission or an attempt at originality.” (60-61)

The Baptists believed that before the arrival of the New Covenant, the Covenant of grace was not formally given, but only announced and promised (revealed). This distinction is fundamental to the federalism of the 1689 (62)… The Baptists considered that the New Covenant and it alone was the Covenant of Grace. In Baptist theology we find an equivalency between the Covenant of Grace and the New Covenant (63)…The Baptist understanding rested on another fundamental distinction: one between the phase where the Covenant of Grace was revealed and the phase where it was concluded. The revealed phase corresponded to the period preceding the death of Christ and the concluded phase corresponding to the time that followed. Therefore, Baptists considered that no other covenant, besides the New Covenant, was the Covenant of Grace.

Again, just to note the contrast between seventeenth-century baptists and modern reformed baptists, Waldron states

“Each use of the term to refer to a divine covenant in the bible refers to a covenant made by God at some specific historical epoch. None of these covenants may simply be equated with what the [London Baptist] Confession describes as ‘the covenant of grace’… The New Covenant has sometimes been equated with the covenant of grace. As the Confession remarks, ‘the full discovery’ of the covenant of grace ‘was completed in the New Testament.’… If this theological terminology [covenant of grace] is used, however, it must be guarded carefully in two ways. First, the distinction between the divine covenants [ie new covenant] and the covenant of grace must be maintained jealously. (107-110)

I don’t mean to criticize White and Waldron and others who hold their view. I only wish to make it abundantly clear what is being said in Denault’s book. It is easy to read another book on baptist covenant theology and categorize it with the others without realizing it’s uniqueness and it’s disagreement with other reformed baptists. Greg Nichols’ “Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants” has been lauded as a hallmark point for reformed baptists. Derek Thomas notes “Baptists who embrace their historic Calvinistic and Covenantal roots have long since needed a robust and comprehensive treatment of Covenant Theology that includes the nuanced interpretations of the biblical covenants that a baptistic hermeneutic requires. This treatment by Greg Nichols does just that and more.” The oddity is that this treatment that has long been needed, has long existed! And Nichols’ modern treatment is not representative of the older treatment already given. Whereas Denault spends the entire book explaining the meaning of the change in LBCF 7.3, Nichols gives it a paragraph and barely mentions any disagreement. This is fine if Nichols’ main focus is to explain his personal beliefs about covenant theology, but it is lamentable that paedobaptist scholars like Thomas inevitably see it as representing the Calvinistic and Covenantal roots of the 1689.

There is a lot to be learned from seventeenth-century baptists. In particular, Denault’s book helped iron out a few wrinkles in my understanding of baptist covenant theology.

His discussion of the Abrahamic covenant and clarification as to what Coxe said about it was very helpful. He shows how the baptists answered the claims of Petto and others who saw the Abrahamic covenant as unconditional but the Mosaic as conditional (a view echoed by Meredith Kline and Michael Horton). They answered Petto’s primary text for this view (Gal 3:16-17) by appealing to Galatians 4:22-31.

“The Baptists saw two posterities in Abraham, two inheritances and consequently two covenants… Not that the posterity of Abraham was of a mixed nature, but that Abraham had two distinct posterities and that it was necessary to determine the inheritance of each of these posterities on the basis of their respective promises… This understanding was vigorously affirmed amongst all Baptist theologians and characterized their federalism form its origin” (119-120).

But, very helpfully, Denault clarifies that this did not mean they saw two formal covenants with Abraham. They saw only one formal covenant – the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17). The other was seen only as a promise (Gen 12) (a footnote interacts with Jeffrey Johnson’s disagreement on this point, and is very helpful as well).

Denault also does an excellent job of illuminating the precise nature of the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works, according to the baptists. I have previously objected to John Owen’s remark that the Mosaic Covenant law demanded perfect obedience. I preferred A.W. Pink’s explanation that only outward, national, general conformity to the Mosaic Covenant was required, since it was a national covenant. However, Denault notes that these two views are in harmony:

“In agreement with the Covenant of Works, the Old Covenant demanded a perfect obedience to the Law of God, but contrary to the Covenant of Works, the Old Covenant was based on a sacrificial system for the redemption of sinners… The slightest disobedience to the Law constituted a sin punishable by death (Rom 6:23), but not necessarily a transgression of the Old Covenant. It is necessary to make the distinction between the requirements of the Law of works affirmed under the Old Covenant and the requirements of the Old Covenant itself towards Israel. The maintaining of the Old Covenant depended on the Levitical priesthood (Heb 7:11) and not on absolute obedience… the obedience required was general and national in character. God graciously overlooked the many offenses. However, the covenant would be broken if Israel habitually sinned and were marked nationally as a rebellious people who disregarded God’s Word” (137-138).

There is much to be gained from Denault’s work. It fills a very necessary gap in the existing literature on baptist covenant theology. The work addresses many of the objections and concerns raised by modern paedobaptists against modern Calvinistic baptists. For example, the recently published “Kingdom Through Covenant” defense of “progressive covenantalism” is seen by many as “the” covenantal answer to paedobaptists by modern Calvinistic baptists. But Kingdom Through Covenant really looks very little like the seventeenth-century baptists. And what’s more, these older baptists avoided the pitfalls that Kingdom Through Covenant is precisely being criticized for (see my next post). Sadly, I doubt that Denault’s work will get the attention that Kingdom Through Covenant did, although it deserves to.

Enough already: go read it!

The Circle Maker (Review)

I gave my pentecostal neighbor a copy of Walter Chantry’s book “Today’s Gospel” and he in turn gave me a copy of a book he just read and was excited about called “The Circle Maker“. I knew nothing about the author, Mark Batterson, and I didn’t research anything about him before reading, as I didn’t want to bias my reading in any direction. With that said, I found the book to be moderately helpful, but perhaps not in the way Batterson intended, or to the extent he hoped. Let me explain.

Batterson’s basic premise is that we don’t pray bold enough nor big enough for people who believe in an all powerful King of the Universe. He uses an old story of an Israelite named Honi (taken from “The Book of Legends” from the Talmud and Midrash) who prayed for rain during a drought and would not settle for less than what he knew God was capable of. It was a bold prayer, emboldened by his refusal to move from the circle he drew around himself until God answered his prayer. I found this a helpful reminder of a sermon I heard a few years ago from Tim Conway titled “The Art of Pleading With God“. The sermon, and Batterson’s book, urge us beyond timidly running down a list of things we’d like God to do “if its His will.” I agree with Batterson when he notes “Of course, I threw in the obligatory ‘if it be Your will’ at the end. That tagline may sound spiritual, but it was less a submission to God’s will and more a profession of doubt. If you aren’t careful, the will of God can become a cop-out if things don’t turn out the way you want.” However, I found Conway’s (echoing Spurgeon) solution to be much more biblical than Batterson’s.

But first, more of what I appreciated. I think the primary benefit of this book is biographical. In his book “The Pursuit of Holiness”, Jerry Bridges notes that an aid in the pursuit of holiness is finding motivation in the stories of others – be it in Scripture or history. Batterson’s book was helpful in that it showed how a particular person sought God in prayer and how God answered. I found similar encouragement in Wes Lane’s “Amazingly Graced” when he talks about beginning to pray with the boldness of David in the Psalms. What I did not find encouraging was Batterson’s methods or explanation of the success of his prayers. I see this as an example of God answering in spite of us, not because of us – of the Holy Spirit aiding our prayers.

But a few more positives first: “Who you become is determined by how you pray [or how others pray for you].” “Our dreams are as nebulous as cumulus clouds… Keep a prayer journal… The more faith you have, the more specific your prayers will be and the more specific your prayers are, the more glory God receives.” He notes our problems in prayer are often 1) We don’t know what we want 2) We quit too early.

So there is much encouragement in the book, but ultimately I cannot recommend it because the main premise is not biblical and because Batterson demonstrates little desire to root anything he says in Scripture. He spatters some passages throughout his book, but there is no exposition of any passage, not even a passage on prayer. When he does quote a passage, he never tells you what passage it is (unless you look in the back of the book, even though there is no endnote telling you to) and he almost never says anything about what the passage actually says. Most of the time, as other reviewers have noted, Batterson simply draws speculation out of accounts that are not from Scripture, or he completely mis-uses/interprets the passage. After I began reading the book, I noted to my wife that I just can’t think like people like Batterson. I can’t come to a text and come up with the things they do because it is so foreign to the context and meaning of the passage, and I couldn’t understand how he was able to do it.

As I read more of the book, I began to understand how Batterson was able to (mis)interpret the Bible the way he does. I noted at the beginning that this book was recommended to me by a pentecostal neighbor. I mentioned this because Batterson is a pentecostal as well (his church is officially non-denominational but is “closely aligned” with Assemblies of God). A key part of Batterson’s prayer system is his belief that the Holy Spirit gives prophecy and revelation to Christians today. Nearly every example in the book was of someone receiving revelation of what God promised them, if they would only pray. An example is:

“One day, as I was dreaming about the church God wanted to establish on Capitol Hill, I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to do a prayer walk. I would often pace and pray in the spare bedroom in our house that doubled as the church office, but this prompting was different. I was reading through the book of Joshua at the time, and one of the promises jumped off the page and into my spirit: ‘I’m giving you every square inch of the land you set your foot on – just as I promised Moses.’ As I read that promise given to Joshua, I felt that God wanted me to stake a claim to the land He had called us to and pray a perimeter all the way around Capitol Hill. I had a Honi-like confidence that just as this promise had been transferred from Moses to Joshua, God would transfer the promise to me if I had enough faith to circle it.”

This is the introduction to a chain of events accounted throughout the rest of the book that ends up with Batterson’s church owning a lot of property in Washington D.C. and growing very large. Despite the apparent success of Batterson’s prayer walk, I hope you noticed the great problem with what he just said. He believes that Joshua 1:3 was a promise to him. And as he tells his readers to do, he circled that promise in the Bible, and then prayed in confidence because it was a promise. Later in the book he explains how he feels justified in doing this:

“Notice that the promise was originally given to Moses. The promise was then transferred to Joshua. In much the same way, all of God’s promises have been transferred to us via Jesus Christ. While promises must be interpreted and applied in an accurate historical and exegetical fashion, there are moments when the Spirit of God quickens our spirit and transfers a promise that He had originally given to someone else. While we have to be careful not to blindly claim promises, I think our greatest challenge is that we don’t circle as many promises as we could or should.”

When I read this, I began to see how Batterson could so egregiously mis-read Scripture. His belief that the Holy Spirit reveals extra-biblical information to Christians today trains him to think extra-biblically. This pattern is repeated throughout the book time and time again. And Batterson encourages Christians to do this by reading through the Bible and circling promises they see, believing they apply to themselves. The most egregious example of this is a story he tells of a couple whose young son becomes mute due to a severe case of autism:

“During those desperate days, they went to visit their pastor for counsel and encouragement. While praying for them, the pastor received a promise from God. He jotted Isaiah 59:21 on a sticky note and handed it to them. ‘As for me, this is my covenant with them,’ says the LORD. ‘ My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants – from this time on and forever,’ says the LORD.’ The pastor shut his Bible and said, ‘I guess that settles it. Your child will talk.'”

In my opinion, Batterson’s belief in this extra-biblical “revelation” warps his view of Scripture such that it becomes putty in his hands to mean whatever he “feels” the Holy Spirit is telling him it means. Faithfully interpreting and applying what the Bible actually says takes a back seat to reading through your Bible and circling any time any promise is made to anyone and then “naming it and claiming it” as your own (see another Amazon reviewer’s comments about the prosperity gospel in relation to this book). Batterson explains:

One thing is certain: Our most powerful prayers are hyperlinked to the promises of God. When you know you are praying the promises of God, you can pray with holy confidence. It’s the difference between praying on thin ice and praying on solid ground. It’s the difference between praying tentatively and praying tenaciously. You don’t have to second-guess yourself because you know that God wants you to double-click on His promises.

The fatal flaw of “The Circle Maker” is that it takes this view of the Holy Spirit’s work today and combines it with a misinterpretation/application of 2 Cor 1:15-20. “By the most conservative estimates, there are more than three thousand promises in Scripture. By virtue of what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross, every one of them belongs to you. Every one of them has your name on it. The question is: How many of them have you circled?” The proper way to apply 2 Cor 1:15-20 is to take promises like those made to Abraham about the promised land and recognize how they are fulfilled in Christ by His return and the establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth, and to see how we are blessed in that. Note, we do not take a passage about the promised land, and because of the work of Christ, “claim it” for a piece of real estate we want. God blessed Batterson with property in Washington D.C., but he never promised him that property. Especially not in Joshua 1:3.

Tragically, Batterson’s view ends up defaming God. Near the end of the book, Batterson notes

“When you live by faith, it feels like you are risking your reputation. You’re not. You’re risking God’s reputation. It’s not your faith that is on the line. It’s His faithfulness. Why? Because God is the one who made the promise, and He is the only one who can keep it.”

Batterson admits his method of prayer risks God’s reputation. But because it is built upon unbiblical foundations, it really is a risk to God’s reputation. What does this teach people who mistakenly claimed a promise God never made to them and thus never fulfilled? As of the writing of this book, the couple’s autistic son is still mute. Falsely claiming promises that were never made can do real damage to God’s reputation.

We are much better off diligently studying the Bible to understand it in its proper context and then praying bold prayers that plead with God. The idea of arguing with God in prayer is really a better explanation of what Honi, the old Israelite who prayed for rain, was doing. Batterson could have used this story and written a great book based upon the examples of David’s recorded prayers in the Psalms, as others have done (see the mentioned Conway sermon on, or Spurgeon on Job 23:3-4). This would have been edifying to God’s people. Instead, Batterson wrote a book that misguides our faith and truly does risk God’s reputation.

Book Recommendations

If you had $20 to spend at Monergism Books (I do), what would you spend it on?

Some possibilities: