Particular Baptists and the Substance/Administration distinction

Given recent interaction in a variety of places related to in general, and the video on “20th century Reformed Baptists” in particular, I thought that it would be helpful to provide some data and reflections for those interested.

Given the preface of the confession which declares that wherever there is agreement the same words will be used, we have to realize that if the editors of the London Baptist Confession wanted to confess WCF 7, they would have done so. Instead we see heavy changes. Now, what is the nature of these changes? This is not like the covenant of works in the confession. The covenant of works may have its name erased in chapter 7 and a few other places, but all of its parts are taught and the category itself is used throughout the confession. So in the case of the covenant of works, the LBCF does not deviate from the Westminster doctrine at all. But, in the case of the way that it treats the covenant of grace it most definitely departs from the Westminster Confession. Is the substance and administration setup taught elsewhere in the confession? No, it isn’t. So when you see an edit like that, it would indicate that the Baptists are at least declining to confess the Westminster model (one substance/two administrations) and perhaps rejecting that model.

This should lead us to say, “well, what do their writings demonstrate, following the WCF model or departing from it?” This blog has been largely dedicated to showing that the majority of Particular Baptists self-consciously rejected the “one substance/two administrations” model. However, Particular Baptist federal theology was not monolithic. Not all Particular Baptists agreed on all points, nor was federal theology articulated in monolithic ways (on either side of the debate). So, do not conclude that the Particular Baptists rejected the ideas of “the substance of the covenant” or the “administration of the covenant.” What the majority of them rejected was that the old and new covenants were simply “administrations” of the one covenant of grace. In a nutshell, because the new covenant was established on “better promises” the old and new could not be the same covenant. Nevertheless, there were Particular Baptists who adopted the WCF model, in a sense. We will return to that.

The language of administration is extremely nebulous and problematic. Many responses to the above videos and data have pushed back by saying that the old covenant(s) were means through which OT believers obtained salvation, and thus were “Administrations” in the sense of “getting thing A to person B.” Surely that is the case. LBCF 8.6 confesses this, “Although the price of redemption was not actually paid by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefit thereof were communicated to the elect in all ages, successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices wherein he was revealed, and signified to be the seed which should bruise the serpent’s head; and the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, being the same yesterday, and to-day and for ever.”

But while the use of administration in the WCF includes the notion of “getting thing A to person B,” its use of “Administration” refers more fully to “a diverse manner of dispensing, and outward managing the making of the covenant with men, but the covenant was still one and the same, clothed and set forth in a diverse manner, and did no other ways differ then and now, but as one and the self same man differeth from himself, cloathed sutably one way in his minority, and another in his riper age.” [David Dickson, Therapeutica Sacra (Edinburgh: 1697), 142.] The administration is the outward visible form of covenantal life and organization. With that definition, the covenant of grace simply has two outward visible forms: Israel and the church. With that kind of setup, “believers and their children” are covenant members. And whatever the administration is, it belongs to them both. Israel and the church worshiped God in the same covenant, differing only in the outward “administration” the outward form of covenantal and organizational life. There is the church under the law and the church under the gospel.

The question is, was the old covenant a visible organizational form of covenantal life for the covenant of grace? The question is not, were the benefits of Christ’s mediation available in the old covenant? All are agreed on the second question. It is the first question that needs careful answering. This is the difference between the substance of the covenant of grace being revealed in the old covenant and actually being the old covenant in an older form.

So how did the Particular Baptists who adopted this “one Covenant of grace, multiple administrations” setup make their arguments?

Robert Purnell wrote in 1657 and argued for a threefold administration: before the law, under the law, and under the gospel.
Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 35
Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 36
Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 37-38

Thus far, Purnell has said that the covenant of grace has three administrations, then later speaks of two (old and new). He also says that the covenant of grace was made with all Israel, but does not explain how that fits with his later statements about being in the covenant by faith.

Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 38

How the covenant of grace was made with all Israel and yet cannot be broken is not explained.

Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 41

Entering into the covenant is a matter of faith, but how that fits with his previous statements is unexplained.

Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 44

Once again, how this fits with his previous assertions is left unresolved.

Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 47

I repeat the same difficulty.

Robert Purnell, A Little Cabinet, 56

If you’re an unbeliever you’re still under the covenant of works.

In all of this, Purnell never addresses infant inclusion, nor explains how all Israel is in the covenant in light of his other assertions. There are many wonderful truths to be gleaned from his writings on this, but the way he puts it together is inconsistent.

Next we have Robert Steed and Abraham Cheare. In 1658 they argued for a two-fold administration of the covenant of grace and then made an argument from positive law based on the fact that the administration of the covenant of grace by Christ in the new testament annulled the previous administration and did not admit infants to it.

They begin with an objection that children belong to the covenant of grace today, then respond to it by distinguishing between the covenant of grace universally or singly considered, and the covenant of grace in its administration:
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 8
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 9
Then they describe the administration of the covenant of grace which rests entirely on positively instituted worship.
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 9(2)
“Hating” should be read as “suiting.” It is corrected in the Errata page.
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery,10
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 11
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 12
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 13
Here is the administration under Christ.
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 14
After defining their terms, they make an argument based on positive institution and administration.
Robert Steed, A Plain Discovery, 15

Parts of this should sound very much like the Westminster Confession, “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.” (WCF 7:5 WCS)

Nevertheless, this presentation has one main strength. Steed and Cheare are certainly right that positive institution depends on God’s revelation alone and thus if infant baptism is repealed in the shift from the old administration to the new, and not reinstated, it is illegitimate. (They respond to the Acts 2:39 argument at this point.) However, their presentation has weaknesses as well. Their own brothers would argue that the two covenants from Galatians 4 cannot be redefined as two administrations of one covenant. Steed and Cheare seem to agree in that they talk about the legal covenant under the old administration and the gospel covenant under the new administration. However, that is only accomplished by conflating the covenant of redemption and the new covenant into the covenant of grace such that it’s simply a somewhat abstract source of salvation throughout history. The new covenant is undervalued and is simply the new administration of the covenant of grace.

The third Particular Baptist of which I am aware who used the substance and administration setup was Thomas DeLaune. In 1677, he simply reproduced Robert Steed’s work, and made the same kind of argument from positive law.
Thomas DeLaune Truth Defended, 7
Here he summarizes:
Thomas DeLaune Truth Defended, 19-20

Why were their arguments unconvincing to the paedobaptists? Joseph Whiston, who wrote quite a bit against the Particular Baptists, attacked DeLaune (and thus Steed and Cheare) on this point. In 1678 he wrote “Infant Baptism Plainly Proved.” According to Whiston, the children belong to the substance of the covenant by virtue of their relation to their parents. So whatever the administration is, it belongs to them. It doesn’t matter if the administration changes.
Joseph Whiston, Infant Baptism Plainly Proved, 107-108

For Whiston, as long as the substance of the old and new covenants is the same, the children are included.
In that same work, Whiston wrote an epistle to the authors of the late confession of faith (he wrote in 1678, the confession was published the year before).
Joseph Whiston, Infant Baptism Plainly Proved, 91
While he commended the irenic and orthodox nature of the confession, he also insulted the intelligence of the Particular Baptists and attacked the argument for believers’ baptism appended to the confession.
Joseph Whiston, Infant Baptism Plainly Proved, 92

In 1681, one of the most likely editors of the confession, Nehemiah Coxe (See responded to Joseph Whiston directly.
Nehemiah Coxe, Discourse, Preface, 1-2

He did not repeat the arguments of Purnell, Steed, and DeLaune. His self-conscious purpose was:
Nehemiah Coxe, Discourse, Preface, 4

So then, what should we conclude from all of this data?
1. There were Particular Baptists who expressly adopted a Westminster style setup of federal theology. Robert Purnell’s work was insufficient and inconistent. Robert Steed, Abraham Cheare, and Thomas DeLaune found themselves in problems of their own.
2. Nehemiah Coxe participated in this very same debate and clearly rejected the Westminster type model.
3. If he is one of the editors of the confession, his work needs to be taken seriously as a significant piece of the background of the confession.
4. The confession declines to confess the Westminster model of one covenant of grace under two/multiple administrations, when in the preface it is stated that the same words will be used where agreement exists. It does not teach, employ, or endorse this distinction anywhere else in the confession.
5. The confession does not state a difference of substance between the old and new. While that is the best explanation for the changes from WCF 7 to LBCF 7, it is not explicitly asserted.
6. While the confession positively supports that notion (that the old and new differ in substance), it is probable that it also remains broad enough to accommodate some of the variety within Particular Baptist federal thought.
7. From my reading, the majority opinion of the Particular Baptists was a self-conscious rejection of the Westminster model. And in my opinion, making a Baptist argument within the Westminster Paedobaptist framework is fraught with problems, nor does it take advantage of the rich heritage that our forefathers left us in their writings on this topic.

Ad fontes!

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The textual history of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Alexander Mitchell, in The Westminster Assembly (1883), tells us a little bit about the textual history of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Contrary to popular assumption, the Westminster Confession as we know it today is not authentic in the sense that it is not the parliamentary approved version. The Westminster Assembly was called by Parliament, and was thus accountable to Parliament for authorization of its work. As you will see below, the version we know today is the version that was illegally reprinted and distributed in Scotland. The parliamentary approved version makes edits which Mitchell points out below.

Alexander Mitchell, Westminster Assembly, 366-367

Alexander Mitchell, Westminster Assembly, 368-369

Here you can see the clear instructions not to reproduce this work because it is not the final or parliament-approved version. Note the date, April 29, 1647, this is the version mentioned by Mitchell.

Westminster Confession Original Form

Review copy of Westminster Confession

Apparently, the Scots had a hard time submitting to the civil magistrate.

This is the title page of the parliamentary approved Westminster Confession
WCF Authorized

What does this mean? Your copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith are illegal!

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Nehemiah Coxe: Cordwainer and Confession-maker

If you’d like to know a little more about Nehemiah Coxe and the probability of his involvement in the editing of the 1677 confession, the following data will be of interest to you.
The first two entries are from Thomas Pottenger, an English Baptist minister, published in the May, 1845 edition of “The Church.”

The Church, Thomas Pottinger, pdf pg 182

The Church, Thomas Pottinger, pdf pg 182 (2)

Pottenger is almost certainly reproducing the earlier work (1823) of Joseph Ivimey who, speaking of Nehemiah Coxe and his co-pastor William Collins, said:

Joseph Ivimey, Vol. III, 332

For curious readers, the background image of this blog is the Petty France church book opened to the page containing that entry.

With no other viable theory as to the identity of the editor(s) of the confession, this material provides a “strong possibility” that Coxe and Collins were indeed the co-editors of the confession. Comparison of the confession with the works of Coxe as well as Collins’ relation to the catechism bolster this possibility. For more information, see Dr. James Renihan’s introductory biography of Nehemiah Coxe in Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ (eds., Ronald D. Miller, James M. Renihan, and Francisco Orozco; Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 7-24.