Soft Rain on Tender Grass

Soft Rain on Tender Grass

In a recent blog post that introduces a forthcoming series of posts on the relationship of the Second London Baptist Confession (1677 2LCF) to the recovery of Reformed confessionalism (if I understand the purpose correctly), Dr. R. Scott Clark raises the issue of covenant theology as a significant topic to be addressed in this discussion. He is certainly right to raise this issue, and it is worth investigation and further interaction. I had no part in the “friendly dialogue” to which Dr. Clark refers, so my comments should not be regarded as participating in or being privy to its content.

I’d like to offer three corrections of a clarifying nature to help those who desire sincerely to think through these issues. The first is historical, the second is theological, the third is historical-theological.

First, historical clarification:

This is not especially important, but I’ve seen it happen here and there. The post uses the date 1688 for Nehemiah Coxe’s death. Nehemiah Coxe died 5 May 1689. His second son died in 1688 and Nehemiah has been associated incorrectly with this date through internet resources.

Second, theological clarification:

Dr. Clark refers to modern inheritors of the 1677 2LCF as PB’s and speaks of their covenant theology. I assume that the 1689 Federalism project and Pascal Denault’s book are in view here. Perhaps more. While I will be quick to say that many should stop debating these topics because there is a need for more care and precision in articulating certain truths, and Baptists have often not helped themselves by diving headlong into this discussion with only an introduction to it, yet sufficient material has been articulated that some of Dr. Clark’s statements should appear to the reader to express Baptist views in a way that we would consider misrepresentation. I am not making an accusation of intentional misrepresentation. That is sin. I am saying that Dr. Clark’s comments need to be clarified for the sake of those that would consider them to be an accurate representation of PB (to use Dr. Clark’s term) covenant theology.

There are two statements I have in view:

“the covenant of grace was promised to Adam et al. but it was not actually administered under the types and shadows.” “The covenant of grace only enters history in the New Covenant.”

The problem underlying this misunderstanding and misrepresentation does not originate with Dr. Clark at all. It is the problem of the very language used in these debates, and it has been a problem ever since the debates began. The problem is the language of substance and administration.

To administer, in a covenantal context, can refer to receiving benefits, or it can refer to outward ordinances. The Particular Baptists of the seventeenth century, and the inheritors of their covenant theology today, affirm that the benefits of the covenant of grace, i.e., the substance, were appropriated by the elect in the Old Testament as they were made known in promises and types. In this sense, the Particular Baptists affirm that the substance of the covenant of grace was administered to the elect. And because of this, to say that PBs of then or now believe that the covenant of grace “was not actually administered” in the Old Testament is incorrect and takes the discussion in an extremely unhelpful, and I dare say heavily prejudiced, direction.

The promise of salvation in Christ is carried along throughout the Old Testament, a promise of a future deliverance that is not established in history until the death of Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant. This is a way of thinking and teaching in no way particular to Baptists. John Ball, following John Cameron, distinguished the covenant of grace into a pre-Messianic covenant of promise, and a post-Messianic covenant of promulgation, i.e., legal enactment.

The difference, and difficulty, arises when we discuss administration in the sense of ordinances. Were the ordinances of the Abrahamic covenant and Mosaic covenant the ordinances of the covenant of grace in older forms, or were they ordinances of covenants distinct from, yet subservient to and revelatory of, the covenant of grace? Because the Particular Baptists denied that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were the covenant of grace, they denied that they were administrations, i.e., an older form of ordinances, of the covenant of grace. But they did not deny that those covenants administered the grace of the new covenant.

The grand difference was so wonderfully summarized by John Owen in his discussion of the Mosaic covenant. Saints were saved under, not by, the old covenant. Owen distinguished via typology between the earthly old covenant with its ordinances, and the antitypical  new covenant realities to which those ordinances and promises pointed. The uniqueness of the Particular Baptists was to apply the same hermeneutics to the Abrahamic covenant. The earthly ordinances and promises pointed to antitypical realities. So the Abrahamic covenant itself is not the covenant of grace, nor is it an outward administration of the covenant of grace, yet by typology it inwardly administered the grace of the new covenant. Saints were saved under, not by the Abrahamic covenant.

Paul’s repeated arguments in the New Testament are that the new covenant was not a plan B, or a new direction, but had been made known and was always the intended destination of the Israelite covenants. Paul doesn’t tell the Galatians that the entire nation of the Jews were in the covenant of saving grace the whole time and they just didn’t know it. He tells the Galatians that the covenant of grace was present the whole time in the promises of Christ, and those who believe in Christ as Abraham did, in all ages, are the children of Abraham’s faith, born from above, the free citizens of Heaven, belonging to Christ and his new covenant. And any Jew that tries to make the old covenant something other than that which points to Christ is not truly Jewish in that sense.

To put it awkwardly, types are never not types. In other words, the Old Testament covenants may be regarded rightly as earthly in and of themselves, but they can never be regarded as divested of new covenant relation and meaning. They never existed apart from the ultimate intent to unite all peoples in one new covenant under Christ. They were designed to bring about the Christ and make his mission visible and legible! They were designed to bring about the blessing for all nations. But it was only by faith that they, then or now, would ever belong to Christ and his covenant. The purpose of the old covenant was to bring about the new covenant. But subservience is not identity.

My desire is not to prolong or provoke a discussion on these points, but to clarify the PB position and alert the reader to issues in Dr. Clark’s representation of it.

Did/do the PBs believe that the grace of the new covenant was administered under the old covenant(s) but not by the old covenant(s)? Yes.

Did/do the PBs believe that the old covenant(s) were older outward forms (an old administration) of the covenant of grace? No.

Third, historical-theological clarification:

Dr. Clark states,

“Our Baptist friends did not and do not share the Reformed way of reading Scripture (hermeneutics).”

While it is certainly true that the Particular Baptists’ view of the Abrahamic covenant distinguished them from their paedobaptist brethren (that is the fundamental difference, after all), in order to say things like Dr. Clark has, one must first appreciate the unity and diversity of Reformed covenant theology itself, then second understand the Particular Baptists’ historical and theological relation to that unity and diversity, in order to third make an informed statement about these complicated relationships.

Obviously, blog posts are not ideal places for such work. My recent book deals with this subject at length. Nevertheless, I want to alert the reader to the fact that the picture presented by Dr. Clark of the unity of Reformed covenant theology does not address its diversity, and it is precisely within the context of the unity and the diversity that the relation of the Particular Baptists to the Reformed tradition is clarified.

Rather than get into that content here, I simply want to say that apart from serious engagement with the breadth of Particular Baptist seventeenth-century literature (beyond just Nehemiah Coxe), and apart from citation of actual sources, one should postpone all judgments on others’ historical-theological descriptions of the Particular Baptists. Keep asking, “can you show this to me from the sources?”

Conclusion:

I am glad that these discussions are happening. And I am hopeful for future mutual understanding and iron-sharpening. I’ll conclude with an exhortation to us all from Thomas Manton:

Thomas Manton, Words of Peace, 35

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9 thoughts on “Soft Rain on Tender Grass

  1. Thank you for your meek and kind words. The fact that Dr. Clark holds to the subservient covenant view, but sees that as the traditional reformed Westminster view (rather than a departure from it), certainly complicates this whole discussion. With that outlook, he is unable to see the important distinctions being made by baptists and is causing him to significantly misunderstand what we are saying.

    But the opportunity to discuss, or at least clarify, to those who are interested will be a good thing, Lord willing.

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