Skip links

By Farther Steps – Part 5


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 Abrahamic Covenant

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. (Gal. 3:17-18)[1]

To this important passage of biblical covenant theology, the Particular Baptists applied their own paradigm of the covenant of grace (revealed/concluded). The covenant of grace was revealed to Abraham, but the formal covenant that God concluded with him at this point was not the covenant of grace, but the covenant of circumcision that the Baptists considered to be in essence a further development of the Old Covenant.[2] In harmony with the Baptist paradigm of the covenant of grace, Galatians 3:17-18 does not affirm that God gave his grace to Abraham through the covenant, but through the promise. In other words, the Abrahamic Covenant contained a promise; this promise was the revelation of the covenant of grace.

In order to properly define the Abrahamic Covenant, the Baptists insisted on the dualistic nature of this covenant: Abraham possessed a physical posterity as well as a spiritual posterity (Rom. 9:6-8; Gal. 4:22-31); there was an external circumcision of the flesh and an internal circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29); there was a promised land here on earth and a heavenly kingdom (Heb. 11:8-10). The Baptist pastor Hercules Collins taught this doctrine in his catechism. “We must know the Covenant made with Abraham had two parts: first, a spiritual, which consisted in God’s promising to be a God to Abraham, and all his Spiritual-Seed in a peculiar manner…”[3]

The paedobaptists and the Baptists mutually recognized this dualism, but in a completely different way. The paedobaptists considered this dualism within one covenant. According to them, this covenant included a physical reality, external and earthly, combined with a spiritual reality, internal and celestial, exactly as in their understanding of the covenant of grace wherein there was an internal substance and an external administration. Although they recognized that the posterity of Abraham was both physical and spiritual at the same time, the paedobaptists refused to see two posterities, because, according to them, Abraham had only one posterity made up of the mixed people of the covenant of grace. This point was crucial, because if Abraham had two distinct posterities, the Baptists were right not to mix the natural (unregenerate) posterity and the spiritual (regenerate) posterity of Abraham. Inversely, if Abraham had only one mixed posterity, the paedobaptists were right to include those who were saved and those who were not saved in the covenant of grace. Samuel Petto, a paedobaptist, had understood this critical concern:

Hence see the true meaning of Gal. 3.16. To Abraham and his seed were the Promises made: he saith not unto seeds, as of many, but as of one, and to thy seed, which is Christ: i.e. Always Abraham had but one seed, Christ, and those that are Christ’s, and are of the Faith as to Justification, he never had two seeds for that end; in the times of the Old Testament there was but one seed, not two seeds, one by the Law, and another by Promise, but only one in Christ by Promise…And so it is not in the least mentioned to exclude Infants, as a fleshly seed, from an ecclesiastical seed, nor to repeal any priviledge or limit to cut them off from what they had before the coming of Christ…[4]

The paedobaptists refused to separate the dualities of the Abrahamic Covenant in order to preserve their model of the covenant of grace which integrated them. The covenant of grace, to include children, had to include both earthly and heavenly realities at the same time. Baptist theologians understood that if they kept these dualities united in the same covenant, they no longer had any reason to reject the paedobaptist model of the covenant of grace. In fact, if the covenant of grace revealed to Abraham included both his physical and spiritual posterity at once, why would it have been otherwise under the New Covenant? Therefore, not only did Particular Baptist theology make the distinction between the physical and spiritual posterities of Abraham, but it also strictly separated them into two separate categories. The Baptists saw two posterities in Abraham, two inheritances and consequently two covenants.

Galatians 4:22-31 constitutes a key passage of Particular Baptist federalism. In it we read:

22For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. 24These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” 28Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

From this passage, Nehemiah Coxe understood, 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. He writes:

Abraham is to be considered in a double capacity: he is the father of all true believers and the father and root of the Israelite nation. God entered into covenant with him for both of these seeds and since they are formally distinguished from one another, their covenant interest must necessarily be different and fall under a distinct consideration. The blessings appropriate to either must be conveyed in a way agreeable to their peculiar and respective covenant interest. And these things may not be confounded without a manifest hazard to the most important articles in the Christian religion.[5]

This understanding was vigorously affirmed amongst all Particular Baptist theologians and characterized their federalism from its origin. Spilsbury writes, “There was in Abraham at that time a spirituall seed and a fleshly seed. Between which seeds God ever distinguished through all their Generations.”[6] On the allegory in Galatians 4, Henry Lawrence comments:

Here you have a distinction as it were of two Abrahams, a begetting Abraham, and a believing Abraham, and also of two seeds, the children of the flesh, that is by carnal generation onely, and the children of the promise… Now, saith he, those only, which according to that of which Isaac was a type, are born by promise, those & those only are counted for the seed, Rom. 9:8.[7]

If Abraham had two distinct posterities, and they were non-mixed, and if they were in a relationship with God by way of covenant, these two posterities had to find themselves in two distinct covenants. Consequently, several Particular Baptists considered that God had concluded two covenants in Abraham: the covenant of grace in Genesis 12 with Abraham and his spiritual posterity (the believers) and the covenant of circumcision in Genesis 17 with Abraham and his natural posterity (the circumcised, which included believers). This does not mean that the Baptists saw two formal Abrahamic Covenants. The Baptists, as we have seen, considered that the covenant of grace did not manifest itself as a formal covenant before the establishing of the New Covenant. They did not consider that the covenant of grace was formally established with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, or 17, but that it was only revealed and promised to him. They saw only one formal Abrahamic Covenant: the covenant of circumcision established in Genesis 17, all the while clearly differentiating this covenant from the promise (i.e., the covenant of grace) that God had previously made. This distinction between the promise revealed to Abraham and the covenant concluded with Abraham is unequivocal for John Spilsbury:

Again, its called the promise, and not the Covenant; and we know that every promise is not a covenant: there being a large difference between a promise and a covenant. And now let it be well considered what is here meant by the promise, and that is Gods sending of the Messias, or the seed in whom the Nations should be blessed; and so the sending of a Saviour or Redeemer unto Israel.[8]

It is in this way that the Particular Baptists understood that there were two covenants with Abraham, not two formal covenants, but a promise that revealed the covenant of grace followed by the covenant of circumcision. In light of Galatians 4:22-31, the theologians of the 2LCF considered that the two covenants that came from Abraham (Hagar and Sara) were the Old and New Covenants. The covenant of circumcision, Hagar, corresponded to the Old Covenant; a covenant of works established with the physical posterity of Abraham. The covenant of the promise, Sara, corresponded to the New Covenant; the covenant of grace revealed to Abraham and concluded with Christ and the spiritual posterity of Abraham (Gal. 3:29).

The fundamental divergence between the paedobaptists and the Particular Baptists regarding the Abrahamic Covenant was found here. The first did not view Ishmael and Isaac, Hagar and Sara, the promise and circumcision, the Old and the New Covenant separately. They united these dualities within the same covenant of grace that possessed at the same time a physical and spiritual reality, an internal substance and an external administration. This system was self sufficient, but it could not harmonize itself naturally with the biblical data, in particular, to the fact that there was not one, but two covenants in Abraham (Gal. 4:24).

The second, basing themselves on the exegesis of Galatians 4:22-31, separated the dualities contained in Abraham in such a way as to recognize that two covenants came from the patriarch.

It is also important to explain how the intertwinement of Abraham’s seeds worked in the Baptist understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant. Nehemiah Coxe explains how certain promises made to the spiritual posterity of Abraham were sometimes presented in terms which led to the expectation of an immediate blessing for his natural posterity:

It will readily be granted that some of those promises that ultimately respect the spiritual seed and spiritual blessings are sometimes given to Abraham under the cover of those terms that have an immediate respect to his natural seed and temporal blessings as types of the other. …But only this much will fairly follow from it: that the apostle argues from the carnal seed as typical to the spiritual seed as typified by it.[9]

The posterities of Abraham were, therefore, often intertwined in their manifestation, but they were always ontologically distinct. Another reason for this intertwining comes from the fact that the posterities of Abraham were not necessarily distinct when it came to their subjects. One and the same person could be both a physical and spiritual heir of Abraham. This explains that two categories of promises could be made to the same people without these promises being the essence of the same covenant of grace.

That the physical and spiritual descendents of Abraham had received common promises did not mean that these promises had the same value for each of these posterities. For example, the promise of being their God had a different meaning for each posterity, as Edward Hutchinson writes, “Now to both seeds, doth God promise to be a God, but in a different manner and respect.”[10]

Another important reason, we believe, that the covenant of grace was intertwined with the covenant of circumcision comes from God’s placing his promise under the custody of the Old Covenant in order to preserve it (Gal. 3:23). From this moment, the promise (i.e., the covenant of grace) could no longer be separated from the covenant of circumcision (i.e., the Old Covenant). We will develop this point further as we examine the Mosaic Covenant.

… Continue reading part 6

[1] Scripture citations are from the NIV.
[2] See below under the heading “The Particular Baptist understanding of the Mosaic Covenant” for an explanation.
[3] Collins presents the physical and natural aspect of the Abrahamic Covenant. Cf. “An Orthodox Catechism: Being the Sum of Christian Religion, Contained in the Law and Gospel” in Renihan, True Confessions, 257.

[4] Samuel Petto, Infant Baptism of Christ’s Appointment (London: Printed for Edward Giles, 1687), 37-38.

[5] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 72-73.

[6] Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme, 6.

[7] Lawrence, Of Baptism, 90, 91.

[8] Spilsbury, A Treatise Concerning the Lawfull Subject of Baptisme, 26.

[9] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 76.

[10] Hutchinson, A Treatise Concerning the Covenant and Baptism, 26.

Laisser un commentaire

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.