By Farther Steps – Part 3

 

A Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology

From Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology, ed. Richard C. Barcellos, RBAP, 2014. Copyright © 2014 Richard C. Barcellos. All rights reserved. (Used with permission)

 

The Particular Baptist understanding of the Covenant of Grace
The Baptist model: a covenant revealed progressively and formally concluded

In rejecting the paedobaptist model of the covenant of grace, the Baptists did not want to do as the Socinians, who had rejected the covenant of grace itself and Reformed theology as a whole. They wanted to distance themselves from the latter and identify with Reformed orthodoxy. The Baptists maintained unity with the paedobaptists by affirming the unity of the covenant of grace. Particular Baptist theology subscribed fully to the notion of their being only one covenant of grace in the Bible, which brings together all who are saved as one people. The 2LCF clearly teaches this doctrine.

First, in the 2LCF 7.2, “Of God’s Covenant,” we read:

Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ.

The Baptists considered that the covenant of grace started immediately after the fall and that the substance of this covenant, even under the Old Testament, was salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Paragraph 3 leaves no doubt that they believed the gospel started with Adam.

This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.

In Chapter 11, paragraph 6, regarding justification, the Baptists explicitly refute Socinian theology, saying, “The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament.” Then, in Chapter 21, paragraph 1a, “Of Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience,” the Baptists maintained that the substance of salvation was the same under both covenants:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel, consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the rigour and curse of the law, and in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin, from the evil of afflictions, the fear and sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation: as also in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto Him, not out of slavish fear, but a child-like love and willing mind. All which were common also to believers under the law for the substance of them…

Thirty years before the publication of the 2LCF, Henry Lawrence, in his treatise on baptism, affirmed the unity of the covenant of grace under the two testaments:

I confess there are some things of common equity, the rule of life was the same then that now, and the same Christ that now is, was the salvation of the elect, such things therefore as are of such common nature, may be illustrated and inferred from one Testament to another.[1]

Edward Hutchinson, quoting John Owen, affirmed the unity and continuity of the covenant of grace by affirming the unity and continuity of the Church of the Old and New Testaments:

Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one Church taken away and another set up in the room thereof, but the Church continued the same in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith. The Christian Church is not another Church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same Covenant.[2]

By using Owen’s words, Hutchinson demonstrated that the credobaptists shared the same conviction as the paedobaptists regarding the unity of the covenant of grace. The Baptists had this conviction from the beginning. John Spilsbury, who was the pastor of the first Calvinist Baptist Church and who published the oldest treatise of Baptist covenant theology affirmed:

The Church of God under the old testament and that now under the new, for nature are one, in reference to the Elect of God, called to the faith, and by the Spirit of grace united to Christ, as the branches to their vine.[3]

Although the Baptists believed in the unity of the covenant of grace, like their interlocutors, and though they wanted to maintain unity with them, they rejected the one covenant under two administrations model.

The Baptists saw a unity of substance in the covenant of grace from Genesis to Revelation, but they didn’t see this same unity between the Old and the New Covenants. They therefore did not accept the idea that those two covenants were two administrations of the same covenant. Nehemiah Coxe expresses this fundamental Baptist conviction well: “…the Old Covenant and the new differ in substance and not only in the manner of their administration.”[4] Consequently, the vast majority of them rejected the theology of one covenant of grace under two administrations.[5] The rejection or acceptance of this model had important repercussions on the formulation of covenant theology. John Owen writes:

Here then arises a difference of no small importance, namely, whether these [the Old and New Covenants] are indeed two distinct covenants, as to the essence and substance of them, or only different ways of the dispensation and administration of the same covenant.[6]

The understanding of the nature and function of the Old and New Covenants depended on this question.

In comparing the Confessions of Faith, it becomes evident that the Particular Baptists rejected the paedobaptist model of the covenant of grace:

1689 (7:3)

This Covenant is revealed in the Gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of Salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that Eternal Covenant transaction, that was between the Father and the Son, about the Redemption of the Elect; and it is alone by the Grace of this Covenant, that all of the posterity of fallen Adam, that ever were saved, did obtain life and a blessed immortality; Man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms, on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.

 

Savoy (7:5)

Although this covenant hath been differently and variously administered in respect of ordinances and institutions in the time of the law, and since the coming of Christ in the flesh; yet for the substance and efficacy of it, to all its spiritual and saving ends, it is one and the same; upon the account of which various dispensations, it is called the Old and New Testament.

 

Westminster (7:5-6)

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices,  circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, …and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

This is the most discordant passage of these Confessions. Knowing that the Baptists made every effort to follow the Westminster standards as much as possible when they wrote their Confession, the originality of their formulation of the covenant of grace is highly significant. It is obvious that the authors of the 2LCF completely avoided any formulation reminiscent of the one covenant under two administrations model that we find in the other two Confessions. This absence must be interpreted as a rejection of the theology behind this formulation and not as an omission or an attempt at originality. The Baptists’ opinion regarding the paedobaptist model of the covenant of grace concords exactly with that of John Owen who states it thus:

…we may consider that Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way, that what is spoken can hardly be accommodated to a twofold administration of the same covenant.[7]

We have just seen what seventeenth-century Particular Baptist federalism was not. Let us now examine what it was. By rejecting the notion of a covenant of grace under two administrations, the Baptists were in fact rejecting only half of this concept: they accepted, as we have previously seen, the notion of one single covenant of grace in both testaments, but they refused the idea of the two administrations. For a large majority of the Baptists, there was only one covenant of grace, which was revealed from the Fall in a progressive way until its full revelation and conclusion in the New Covenant. This model is clearly expressed in the 2LCF 7.3, which reads:

This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.

Upon first impression, this formulation does not seem to be radically different from that of the paedobaptists, since they also recognized the progressive revelation of the covenant of grace. However, in studying Particular Baptist theology in its historical context, it becomes evident that this formulation of the covenant of grace had a meaning that was very specific and fundamentally different from the paedobaptist understanding.

The first particularity is found in the difference between the notion of administration and that of revelation. 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 2LCF. Nehemiah Coxe explains:

It must also be noted that although the Covenant of Grace was revealed this far to Adam, yet we see in all this there was no formal and express covenant transaction with him. Even less was the Covenant of Grace established with him as a public person or representative of any kind. But as he obtained interest for himself alone by his own faith in the grace of God revealed in this way, so must those of his posterity that are saved. [8]

This specification is highly significant and plays a determining role in Particular Baptist federalism. For Coxe, the covenant of grace was not concluded when God revealed it to Adam. John Owen explains why the covenant of grace could not be considered a formal covenant before the establishment of the New Covenant, but was confined to the stage of a promise:

It lacked its solemn confirmation and establishment, by the blood of the only sacrifice which belonged to it. Before this was done in the death of Christ, it had not the formal nature of a covenant or a testament, as our apostle proves, Heb. 9:15-23. For neither, as he shows in that place, would the law given at Sinai have been a covenant, had it not been confirmed with the blood of sacrifices. To that end the promise was not before a formal and solemn covenant.[9]

… Continue reading part 4


[1] Henry Lawrence, Of Baptism (London: Printed by F. Macock, 1659 [1646]), 83.

[2] Quoted by Edward Hutchinson, A Treatise Concerning the Covenant and Baptism (London, Printed for Francis Smith, 1676), 33.

[3] John Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme (London: By me J.S., 1643), 20.

[4] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 30.

[5] It is interesting to note that John Smyth supported the doctrine of one covenant of grace under two administrations. This indicates that the General Baptists and the majority of the Particular Baptists did not arrive at credobaptism through the same reasoning nor based on the same theological foundation. Smyth writes, “Remember that there be alwaies a difference put betwixt the covenant of grace; and the manner of dispensing it, which is twofold: the form of administring the covenant before the death of Christ, which is called the old testament; and the forme of administring the covenant since the death of Christ which is called the new Testament of the kingdome of heaven.” From Principles and Inferences concerning the Visible Church, 1607; quoted in: Paul S. Fiddes, Tracks and Traces, Baptist Identity in Church and Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 26. We must, however, admit that certain Calvinist Baptist authors sometimes spoke of “the administrations of the covenant of grace,” but what they meant by this terminology was different from paedobaptist theology.

[6] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 179.

[7] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 186.

[8] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 57.

[9] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 185.

Posted in ARTICLES, By Farther Steps, Théologie
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About the Author
Pascal est pasteur de l'Église réformée baptiste de Saint-Jérôme qu'il sert depuis 2005. Il est marié avec Caroline et ensemble ils sont les heureux parents de quatre enfants. Pascal a complété un baccalauréat et une maîtrise en théologie à la Faculté de théologie évangélique de Montréal. Il est l'auteur des livres: Le côté obscur de la vie chrétienne (2019, Éditions Cruciforme) – Une alliance plus excellente (2016, Impact Académia) – Solas, la quintessence de la foi chrétienne (2015, Cruciforme) – The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (2017 Revised Edition, Solid Ground Christian Books).

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