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The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology

February 22, 2013 75 comments

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!

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