Particular Baptists and the Substance/Administration Distinction (Part 2)

Some time ago, I posted a lengthy piece intending to offer some balance to the strong push with which “1689 Federalism” was being put forward. The point was to make it clear that there were some Particular Baptists who held to a more “Westminster” style of federal theology. As the examples of this other flavor I mentioned Robert Purnell, Robert Steed/Abraham Cheare, and Thomas DeLaune.

I want to reevaluate some of the thoughts in that post for three main reasons:

  1. I missed some vital elements of argumentation in those authors’ writings which yield a somewhat different picture of their federalism.
  2. I want to remind readers to be careful with the language of “administration.”
  3. I want to reaffirm that a more “Westminster” style of federalism was present among PB’s.

I consider these reasons to be “live” issues because of some recent blogs by an internet-friend of mine, Enrique Junior Duran:

I intend this post to be a friendly reply, and a help, to him. A reply because I think we both have not understood Steed/Cheare correctly, and a help because I’m adding another author that I think Junior would find a lot of agreement with.

The first source I want to return to is Robert Steed and Abraham Cheare’s “A Plain Discovery of the Unrighteous Judge and False Accuser” (1658). [The pertinent sections have been transcribed by Junior, in this document.Thanks!]

In Steed and Cheare’s work, it’s very important to keep in mind their twofold definition of the covenant of grace.

First, they define the covenant of grace “singly, and universally” as “That great mystery of the mercy of God in Christ, wherein the Father hath established Jesus Christ his Son, the head of all things, and given unto him a blessed seed of the Sons of Men, to be by him, and with him heires of the glorious inheritance of the grace of God, and the blessed consequences thereof, against all possibilities of miscarriage, according to this eternal purpose.” Still working from this aspect of the definition they go on to say, “This covenant God calls his everlasting Covenant, being still one and the same immutable from everlasting to everlasting.”

Second, they define the covenant of grace with reference to “the manner of its administration, according to divine institution” as “The whole and every part of that instituted worship whereby God doth ordinarily bring about, the purposes of the everlasting Covenant, that is, to set Christ upon his throne, and to gather to him the seed given him by his Father: And the covenant of grace under this acceptation is not one and the same alwayes, but hath passed under many great alterations and changes: the Lord suiting his ordinances and appointments, to the persons, seasons, and workes, which he had to doe, as it seemed good to his heavenly wisdom: and therefore all the force and authority of the Covenant of grace, considered under this head, to wit, according to the administration of it, dependeth intirely upon the law of its institution, and is in force as that law directeth, and not otherwise.”

Basically it boils down to 1. The benefits of the covenant (salvation to the elect), and 2. The ordinances of the covenant.

As they work with the 1st definition, they speak of the covenant “renewed and ratified” “after divers manners under divers signes, figures, and types, by promises and prophecies.” Given that they are operating under the first definition at this point, they are simply stating that the benefits of salvation were made known to and obtained by the elect in many ways at many times. As they stated in their definition of the covenant of grace, considered singly, the covenant of grace is immutable in this sense. It never changes. There is no disagreement on this point among the PB’s or paedos of a confessional sort. We can put that aside, then.

Moving on to their discussion of the administration of the covenant of grace, they speak of two times: prior to Christ’s ascension, and after Christ’s ascension. On page 10, as they discuss the “ministring before Christ” they mention that this ministry “for the nature of it,” was “the same with the law of Moses, and proportioned to it, and afterward fell in with it.” Later they say, “This administration of the Covenant of grace is usually called in Scripture the old Covenant, or…the law.” On the next page, they say, “This covenant while it stood, although it were very glorious, yet the Spirit of God never exalted it in dignity above the degree of an Handmand, appointed for the time being to minister to the everlasting Covenant.” They then use Galatians 4 to contrast the bondage covenant and the free covenant, the law and the gospel.

Steed and Cheare are saying that the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant were “one in nature.” How so? Both were legal covenants that gave the fleshly seed a claim to the covenant via circumcision. This covenant was temporal, temporary, and subordinate to the everlasting covenant. I.e., their argument is that the covenant of grace was wrapped up in a covenant of works. It could be argued that this is similar to a view that this is the covenant of grace “legally administered.” However, it’s important to note that they call the two administrations two covenants. Which is to say, the covenant of grace gets wrapped up in another covenant (or covenants).

On page 12, as they come to the time of Christ, they state, “There ended that Covenant; there expired the law, the force and authority upon which that administration stood. And there was the prophesie of casting out the seed according to the flesh (never more to claime a priviledge upon that account) absolutely accomplished and fulfilled.” For a time, the children could make real claims to a real covenant. But that ended. Were they making a real claim to salvation? No. However, were the ordinances/administration through which they made a claim to the legal covenant the same ordinances/administration through which believers participated in the blessings of the covenant of grace? Yes. Because the covenant of grace was wrapped up in a temporal and temporary covenant, it shared the ordinances. Circumcision for a believer and circumcision for an unbeliever would have meant different things because one participated in both the temporal and eternal aspects (believer) while the other participated in only the temporal aspects (unbeliever).

The objection then raised, paraphrasing, is, “Well if the legal covenant gives way to the gospel covenant, how does that change anything?” Or put another way, “This just means that Israel’s children laid claim to the covenant by the legal covenant, and so our children now lay claim to the covenant via the gospel covenant.”

How do Steed and Cheare reply? They state, “The Covenant of the law, and the covenant made with Abraham, in the letter of circumcision, had with them an eminent renovation, and ratification of the everlasting covenant; yet were both of one and the same nature, authority, and use.” They already argued this point on page 10. They are repeating the point that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were legal covenants, “of another nature.” Something that is “of another nature,” marked out as “legal” in contrast to “gospel” is a distinct contrast.

When they arrive at “The ministry of Christ” they say, “The last administration of the covenant of grace, usually called the new covenant…was altogether of another nature to that which went before it. This was not a covenant ministring or serving to any doctrine above or beyond it self, as was the other. But this was the mystery of the grace of God it self plainly administred.” Notice again that this new covenant is “altogether of another nature to that which went before it.” It is no longer wrapped up in another covenant and another covenant’s ordinances, but is fully unveiled in its purity.

Now, when I originally read this work I read it too quickly and assumed that it was basically defending a Westminster-ish position. Upon reevaluation of that conclusion, I was wrong. To the contrary, their federalism is very similar to their other Particular Baptist brothers. It is a standard PB move to argue:

  1. The Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant were legal covenants involving temporary and temporal promises for fleshly descendants.
  2. Believers under those covenants participated in the benefits of the CoG, not just by believing promises, but also through the very ordinances of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. In that sense the ordinances belong to the CoG also.

This same argumentation gets carried through Edward Hutchinson. His views will be helpful to flesh out the details and confirm our interpretation of Steed and Cheare.

In 1676, Edward Hutchinson wrote, “A Treatise Concerning the Covenant and Baptism Dialogue-wise, between a Baptist & a Poedo-Baptist.”

Hutchinson says on page 22, “Know then that the Covenant of grace is to be considered, either of the promise of eternal life and salvation, made to all the elect in Christ, the which remains one and the same in all ages, though variously adminstred, in the times of the old and new Testament. Or else of the manner of its Adminsitration, in which sence, its now (in respect of the old Testament administration) which was a distinct Covenant in it self (for the time being) called the new Covenant.”

Hutchinson is operating under the same definitions and parameters. The benefits of the covenant of grace never change and have always been available after the fall. However, the covenant of grace existed under an “old administration” which was “a distinct covenant in it self.”

This is where we must be careful about how we use the word “administration.” It is necessary to ask, “is the author referring to the administration of the benefits (the CoG considered in the 1st sense) or the administration of ordinances (the CoG considered in the second sense)?” Hutchinson said that the covenant of grace remains one and the same in all ages, “though variously administered.” He is referring to what Steed and Cheare argued when they said that the covenant of grace considered in the first sense was “renewed and ratified” through promises, types, etc. Once again, there is no disagreement here between confessional baptists and paedobaptists. But, we must be careful not to assume that any Particular Baptist who speaks of the covenant of grace administered differently in the Old and New Testaments is adopting a Westminster federalism. It is possible, and likely, that they are speaking in the sense of the administration of benefits.

Returning to Hutchinson. On page 27, he calls the Abrahamic covenant a “mixt covenant” because it contains gospel promises and temporal blessings. This is a standard Particular Baptist distinction between temporal and eternal blessings present in the covenantal dealings with Abraham.

On page 93, when asked what he thinks about the covenant with Abraham, Hutchinson says, “But surely that Covenant made with Abraham, and his natural seed called the Covenant of Circumcision, or Covenant of the Law was not the Covenant of Eternal life and salvation, which was made with all the elect in Christ upon the condition of faith: but a distinct covenant of it self concerning the worship and service of God, and so may be called a covenant of works, rather than a Covenant of grace; though there was also grace in it, as there was in all the Covenants that God ever made with men–yet we say, it was a distinct covenant, and therefore called the old Covenant, and the Covenant of grace the new Covenant.
And if you say the Covenant of grace was the same in all ages under various administrations, we confess it, and say that the Covenant was made to Adam after the fall, to the Patriarchs, and to Abraham, before the Covenant of Circumcision was mentioned, and is the same to us now.”

Notice once again that Hutchinson says on the one hand that the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works (i.e. legal covenant) and was in it self a distinct covenant from the covenant of eternal life and salvation. Nevertheless on the other hand, Hutchinson plainly states that the covenant of grace was the same under various administrations.

Hutchinson helps us to understand Steed and Cheare. When they speak of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as being “legal” and “of a different nature” than the eternal covenant, they are calling them covenants of works, pregnant with the covenant of grace. When Christ came, the covenant of grace was born from the old covenant, quite literally. In all ages, the administration of the benefits of the covenant of grace remained the same, though being obtained through various means. And for a time, in subservience to the covenant of grace, believers were under the administration of the old covenant, participating in the ordinances of the earthly covenants while also participating in the benefits of the heavenly covenant.

The next writer to revisit is Thomas DeLaune. In 1677 he wrote, “Truth Defended” in which he defended Edward Hutchinson from Joseph Whiston. What were Whiston’s arguments against Hutchinson? DeLaune says, he “charges Mr. Hutchinson with some Contradictions and Absurdities, as his calling the Covenant of Grace and its administration two distinct covenants, and his saying that circumcision is a covenant of works, from which (says Mr. Whiston) it will follow, that a Covenant of works may be the administration of the covenant of grace, which is incongruous.”

Whiston saw Hutchinson’s view as self-contradictory. How are two administrations of one covenant actually two covenants with distinct natures? DeLaune’s defense was to copy, word for word, the majority of Steed and Cheare’s work on this point (though not mentioning their names, interestingly). DeLaune says, “To which I reply. It is before demonstrated (I hope undenyably) that the Covenant of Grace is immutable and everlasting — That in respect of its various administrations under Law and Gospel it is called two Covenants, New and Old — That the Covenant of works (so called, under the Law administred to the Covenant of Grace in Types and Figures, of which circumcision, being the head Ordinance, was synechdocally called the Covenant. And that the covenant of Grace is now under the Evangelical Dispensation administred in that purity and spirituality Typed out by the Law. Therefore, what incongruity and absurdity is to be hereon chargeable is to me unknown.”

In a way, DeLaune’s defense merely repeated the very argument that Whiston was critiquing. However, you can see DeLaune’s own interpretation of Steed, Cheare, and Hutchinson. The benefits of the covenant of grace came through an earthly covenant of works in the old testament, and now are unveiled and enjoyed in their fullness in the new covenant (the old temporal covenant having been removed).

So what? Well, if Steed, Cheare, Hutchinson, or DeLaune are to be appealed to as examples of Westminster federalism, they do not fit the mold. In fact, they contradict it because they all asserted that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were earthly covenants of works. They spoke of the administration of benefits and the administration of ordinances. The first never changed. The second did, wrapping the covenant of grace up in an earthly covenant of works for a time. This is most certainly not the view of the Westminster Confession where the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are the covenant of grace, without any distinction other than the change in ordinances.

While not having time to revisit Robert Purnell in detail, it would seem that his federalism is much closer to Westminster than the authors I had placed at his side previously. I assert this primarily because when asking whether the covenant of grace is the same under the Old and New Testaments he says that the covenant of grace was “given by Moses and made with the Jews.” It is important to raise the question in which sense Purnell is thinking of the covenant of grace: the administration of benefits or the administration of ordinances. Purnell seems to conflate the two (as do the paedobaptists), which makes the most sense of the way that he makes his arguments. I need to go back and read him more carefully.

So then, our three reasons for talking about this were:

  1. I missed some vital elements of argumentation in certain authors’ writings which yield a somewhat different picture of their federalism.
  2. I want to remind readers to be careful with the language of “administration.”
  3. I want to reaffirm that a more “Westminster” style of federalism was present among PB’s.

As to the first, I have shown that while Steed, Cheare, Hutchinson, and DeLaune speak of the covenant of grace under two administrations, they are not following a “Westminster” style of federalism.

As to the second, I have laid emphasis on the twofold definition of the covenant of grace used by the authors, and thus spoken about the administration of benefits and the administration of ordinances. If a Particular Baptist speaks of either of these, he is not necessarily endorsing a “Westminster” style of federalism. There is universal agreement on the administration of benefits. And many Particular Baptists speak of the Old Testament as an administration of the covenant of grace because they see it wrapped up in and sharing the ordinances of an earthly covenant of works.

As to the third, I have not changed my opinion of Robert Purnell, and I would take this moment to add Thomas Hardcastle to the list of those with a “Westminster” flavor covenant theology. Hardcastle was a university trained man, and an elder at the Broadmead Bristol Church from 1671-1678. In 1676 the Broadmead Bristol church asked William Kiffin, Nehemiah Coxe, and three other London pastors to ordain Hardcastle when they came nearby, but they were unable to oblige due to the pressing nature of their travels (dealing with Thomas Collier).

In a manuscript copy of his exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism he asks, “Were those under the old Testament; the Jews under a Covenant of works?” And answers, “No, Adam was under a Covenant of works, but the Jews were under a Covenant of grace, Adam was under a covenant of works, Do this and live, the Jews were under a covenant of grace, which was obscured [i.e. revealed darkly] by types, sacrifices, and figures which did signifie and prefigure Christ, and those sacrifices was the gospel they had, through this they did look to a Christ to come, through the type they could behold the antitype, through the blood of beasts they would see the blood of the lamb, though many of them very obscurely: the Spirit applyeth redemption by uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”

Later he asks, “How many covenants did God make?” And he answers, “Two, a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, the covenant of works that was made with man before the fall, pray observe it, the tenor of that was do this and live, oh beloved there would have been no life without doing, and here let me add this: what a sad condition would poor creatures be in now, if God should deal with them by a covenant of works, if you should have no more than you earned would be a poor miserable life if you had no more than you wrought for.”

And he explains further, “There is a covenant of grace, and there is a twofold administration of this covenant of grace. There’s the old administration which is called the old testament. The new administration which is called the new testament; both one the covenant, though called old and new, though called two commonly but one covenant: although the old administration was such, as made it to be looked upon (the outside of it) as a covenant of works, if you look to Mount Sinai, there you find nothing but working: if you look to the sacrifices there you have a glimpse of some relief by a Savior; it is a great dispute whither the law that was given upon Mount Sinai was a covenant of works or of grace, I shall not trouble you with Arguments on either side, only this seems to be clear: those that will have it a covenant of works, yet confess there was the relief of a Savior at the end of it, and those that will have it a covenant of grace, yet confess it was clothed like a covenant of works, so the dispute will not seem to have much difficulty.” (Side note: Hardcastle’s reference to disputes on the issue of the Mosaic law is most likely referring to the state of covenant theology in general, not Particular Baptists. However prominent and politically fueled and armed the Westminster Confession may have been, it in no way commanded a consensus on the issue.)

And there you have it. Particular Baptist covenant theology was not monolithic. There was a clear majority on certain issue, but not on all issues. I would conclude by repeating something from my first post on this issue: While the confession positively supports the notion that the old and new differ in substance and not just in administration, it is probable that it also remains broad enough to accommodate some of the variety within Particular Baptist federal thought.

John Humfrey, Animadversions and Considerations, Titlepage-1