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!

Click the images for a larger version.


28 thoughts on “Particular Baptists and the Substance/Administration distinction

  1. Thanks for providing this in formation. I’m missing where Purnell said that the Covenant of Grace was made with *all* the Jews. He does say it was made only with Jews. I could just be overlooking it, but I read it a couple of times and did not see the same problem you see.

    Do you think Purnell virtually identified the Covenant of Grace with the Mosaic Covenant? Or would you say he only believed that the Covenant of Grace (promise of eternal life) was revealed, published, and dispensed by the Mosaic Covenant (commands/types/shadows/earthly promises)?

    1. When he says that it was published through Moses and ‘made with the Jews’ I take that to be Israel according to the flesh. He further connects it to the Abrahamic covenant via circumcision so that those who did not receive circumcision were cut off from the old administration of it. That would also lead me to think that in such a case he is thinking of the physical seed of Abraham. Admittedly his language is rather here and there so it seems hard to pin down. What is clear from him is that believers are invincibly in the covenant of grace and always have been. But how that relates to the administrations ( whether two or three ) is unclear. What do you think?

  2. Why was the Covenant of Works modified so much in Chapter 7 of the 1689 if the doctrine was identical to the WCF?

    1. I plan to do a separate blog post on this question, but at least consider the facts that 1. The entire doctrine (and category) is taught in the confession, 2. You won’t find a single Particular Baptist rejecting it in his writing (to my knowledge), and 3. You will find it positively argued and/or assumed in their writings (once again Coxe gives it great attention which should add due weight).

      1. Thank you for the reply. I can’t speak for #2 or #3, as I have not read the Particular Baptist sources, but I don’t think #1 is true. As Greg Nichols writes, “It is also significant that the Baptist fathers entirely deleted WCF 7:2, so that LCF contains no explicit definition of the covenant of works … whenever WCF made explicit reference to a covenant of works, as something in force with Adam before the fall, the Reformed Baptist fathers deleted it while framing LCF.” (2011: 7-8).

        If the Covenant of Works is never connected historically with a prelapsarian Adam in the LCF, I find it difficult to say with you that “the entire doctrine (of the WCF covenant of works) is taught in the confession,” especially “given the preface of the confession which declares that wherever there is agreement the same words will be used,” as you wrote.

        In any case … I look forward to your treatment, and hope you address my concern. Thank you for your informative posts.

        1. It’s a good question which I hope to answer soon. But keep in mind that Nichols made those assertions about the confession but never quoted a single Particular Baptist in defense of his conclusions. Not even one. Benjamin Keach gets three mentions in his book, but only as a name contributing to the historical background of Gill. There is no evidence of rejection of the covenant of works in the writings of the PB’s, indeed quite the opposite. Why certain changes in the confession? I’ll address that soon, D.V..

  3. If the language of LBCF 7 was deliberately inclusive, would that not warrant a change of category from “1689 Federalism” which excludes the “multiple administration/one substance” view? Or have I read too much into Point #6?

    1. The confession does not confess the sub/admin framework. It moves toward asserting the opposite (when read in light of Coxe). Because of that, and because the majority of PB’s made the same move, I think it’s a fair category. I also think that it is the direction that we need to take in moving forward. But I want brothers who may not entirely agree to know that our confession seems to accommodate some diversity in light of its broad language and the history of the debate. I also want to move forward in dialogue about why the language of sub/admin is so problematic. There are better ways to get at these truths.

      Most of the feedback I have seen has involved a desire to use the term administration in relation to the benefits of Christ’s mediation being available in the old covenant. That is of course extremely important (like I said in the post, the confession confesses it), but I want to suggest avoiding that category.

  4. Don L., LBCF 20:1 explicitly refers to the Covenant of Works. Also, depending on which version of the Baptist (“Keach’s”) Catechism (intended to further explain the doctrine of the 1689) you read, the Covenant of Works is also mentioned as being made with Adam (some versions read “Covenant of Life,” but the definition and explanation of the doctrine is identical).

    Nichols thinks these references are possibly oversights on the part of the 1689 framers. Given their incredible attention to detail on these matters, I find that hypothesis unlikely.

  5. I guess what I’m saying is that if the LBC writers changed the sections on Covenant of Works, they must have had a reason. There certainly were Particular Baptists who held identical views as the WCF on the Covenant of Works, or on the Covenant of Grace, but those sections have been heavily modified.

    We need not suppose that the Particular Baptists must have held different views than the WCF. The solution may simply be #6 above, that the LBC is meant to be more inclusive. The LBC can accomodate a Particular Baptist who holds to every point of WCF chapters 7, but it can accommodate a Particular Baptist who doesn’t, with regard to either the Covenant of Works or a Covenant of Grace.

    I think we see something similar with the sacraments in Ch. 28. Particular Baptists like Keach held to every point in Ch. 28, and many Reformed Baptists today do likewise, but for whatever reason, the LBC decided to scrap that chapter entirely and replace it with something more basic.

    If you have time, I’d love to see a post on why the Particular Baptists decided to scrap Ch. 28 and the use of the term “sacraments.” It seems to me that a lot of Reformed Baptists today would have preferred that they kept it.

    1. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if it was simply a matter of using less controversial language. Some today hate the term “covenant of works” but when you ask them to explain their understanding of Adam’s relationship to God, it ends up being identical to a historical understanding of the CoW. Same with sacraments. Sacrament can be a loaded term depending very much on what context you’re in (e.g. Roman Catholicism). Ordinance serves just as well, particularly when defined as it is, and carries none of the theological baggage.

    2. Please see the most recent post on the covenant of works in the confession.

      Also, the PB’s use the term Sacrament quite a bit (including Coxe) in their writings. They weren’t afraid of the term. The most likely reason why they changed to “ordinance” is simply keeping within their polemic about positive and moral law. Sacraments are a subset of the ordinances of God which makes them “ordained” that is “depending on Christ’s positive appointment and institution.” It plays into their argument contra infant baptism, i.e. we only have command to baptize believers, etc.

  6. Thanks for the Covenant of Works post. I’ll take a look at it.

    Regarding “sacraments,” I’m more interested in why the entirety of WCF Ch. 28 was eliminated than why ordinances was preferred to sacraments. There’s more to it than just nomenclature.

      1. Yes, you are correct chapter 27 of the WCF, which was replaced in its entirety with LBC chapter 28 “Of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.”

  7. If I were Purnell, I’d probably just respond by saying the covenant in the OT was only truly made with those Israelites who were believers anyway, and cite Romans 2:28-29ff; 9:6-8. Wouldn’t that eliminate the inconsistency?

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