Are the Covenant Promises Definite? A Pædobaptist Discussion

In the debates of credobaptism vs. pædobaptism in the seventeenth century, a great number of books and pamphlets were produced. These, in turn, have led to a corresponding quantity of secondary literature about the two sides of the debate. When looking at the sides as opposites, one of the features that can disappear from view is the diversity of each side.

It has been my experience (and this is a vague generality) that pædobaptists are often unaware or at least disinterested in the diversity of their own tradition. Baptists are equally liable to this deficiency, but in this post I want to present a pædobaptist speaking to pædobaptists in the context of the credo vs. pædo debates.

Joseph Whiston (d.1690), a Congregationalist (or Independent) minister of Lewes, Sussex wrote several works advocating pædobaptism and criticizing credobaptism. He interacted with Henry Danvers (not a Particular Baptist), Edward Hutchinson, Thomas Delaune, and Nehemiah Coxe (all three were Particular Baptists). John Flavel commended Whiston’s contribution to this ongoing debate.

In one such work published in 1676, An Essay to Revive the Primitive Doctrine and Practice of Infant-Baptism, Whiston initiated a discussion about the definiteness of the covenant. Are the promises made definitely or indefinitely to the infant-seed of believers? The context of this discussion was the Baptist criticism of the pædobaptist covenantal system that if the promise is made to the children, and yet not all children come to faith and salvation, then God is unfaithful to his promises and the covenant is not sure.

Whiston’s solution is surprising, and I believe that most, if not all, my pædobaptist friends today would reject it. But what is equally surprising is that for Whiston, the model that I would consider the common position then, and now, is untenable. Whiston considers it indefensible. I am genuinely curious to know how my modern pædobaptist friends would respond to Whiston. And, without desiring to be provocative, I also wonder to what extent my pædobaptist friends have faced the issue Whiston is addressing without retreating to generalities and formulae.

If you read the portions below and more of Whiston’s work itself, you will see that one of the recurring factors of Whiston’s argument is how ministers handle the death of the infants of believers. On what ground do ministers reassure parents of the salvation of their dear deceased little ones? If the covenant is not made definitely with the seed, and if they do not all enjoy the promises made in the covenant, how can ministers speak in this way?

I have transcribed relevant sections below, updated spelling in general, and to some degree divided his paragraphs into more natural divisions (as I read his argument). All bracketed content is mine. You can see the original through the link above.

So, here follows Joseph Whiston’s words as a pædobaptist to pædobaptists regarding the definiteness of the covenant of grace as it is made with the infants of believers. He begins by setting out varying positions, then advocating his own in contrast with the rest.

It may not be unuseful, but seems necessary, that I should give a brief account of the different apprehensions of pædo-baptists themselves about the nature of the covenant and promises, as entered with, and made to the infant-seed of believers, because that they are not all of one mind and judgment about that must be granted. And according to their different apprehensions about the nature of the covenant and promises, they are differently persuaded as to the good accruing to infants by their covenant-interest, and their having the token of the covenant applied to them.

Some conceive that the covenant is entered with the seed of believers only indefinitely, and answerably that the promises appertaining to them are to be interpreted and understood in an indefinite notion; that is, as having a respect to them as generally and collectively considered, but not made to any of them in particular. And of those that go this way, some conceive that the covenant and promises appertain only to the elect, and secure to them only the future enjoyment of all the saving fruits and benefits purchased by Christ; but do not necessarily convey to, or confer upon them any of those fruits or benefits for the present, and consequently, that by the application of the token of the covenant, only jus ad rem [a right to the thing], not jus in re [a right in the thing] is sealed and confirmed.

Others conceive that as the covenant and promises thereof have only an indefinite respect to the seed of believers, so that at least some of them have those saving benefits and blessings actually granted to and conferred upon them, and consequently that they are actually regenerated, and have a full and complete union with Christ, the remission of sins, the love and favor of God, &c. And some having these benefits and blessings actually conferred upon them in their infancy, we are to presume it may be so with each one in particular; and on that ground are to apply the token of the covenant to them universally.

And this opinion, could it be clearly proved from Scripture, would free the controversy about infant baptism from many difficulties it must be confessed it is otherwise attended with: but for the reasons after to be given, I cannot, but at present lay it aside cum pace tantorum virorum [with respect to such great men].

Secondly, others conceive that the covenant is entered with the seed of believers definitely, and answerably that the promises appertaining to them are to be interpreted and understood in a definite notion; and consequently, that as the covenant, as at first established with Abraham, did extend to Ishmael, as well as to Isaac, so is still continued to all believers, and each one of their seed in particular.

And some of these that go this way conceive, that all the infants of believers have true grace, in particular true faith, wrought in them either antecedent to the application of the token of the covenant, or at the time of its application, if not by, yet in a concurrence with it. But this opinion necessarily inferring a possibility to lose, and fall from the truth of Grace, is rejected by the generality of Protestants, especially that bear the denomination of Calvinists.

Yet some grant, yea assert some kind of supernatural operations of the Spirit to antecede, at least accompany the application of the token of the covenant to them, whereby at least a posse agere [an ability to act though not actually acting], or some dispositions facilitating their saving acting of grace are wrought.

But others distinguish of the covenant: it is say they, internum, aut externum, it is either internal, or external: by the internal covenant, they seem to mean the covenant as really and truly entered with the elect, ensuring to them grace and glory: by the external covenant they seem to mean the covenant as visibly appearing to be made with men, whether infants, or adult, when as it is not indeed really entered mutually between God and them. This latter way of God’s entering covenant with men, whether young or old, is expressed by some, by entering covenant with them in or according to an ecclesiastical dispensation, that is, as they express themselves in a visible church way.

Again others, and sometimes the same men distinguish of the good contained in and conveyed by the promises of the covenant appertaining to the seed of believers: it is, say they, either spiritual and saving, or else only external and ecclesiastical; as membership in the visible church, a right to the outward ordinances and privileges of the church, and the like. And they conceive that the covenant, as containing saving spiritual mercies, only appertains to the elect; but, as containing external ecclesiastical privileges, it appertains to all the seed of believers: hence they call it, as entered with them, a covenant of privileges.

This latter opinion concerning the definiteness of the covenant I take to be according to truth, though to distinguish either of the covenant or the good contained in it, as entered with, or extended to infants, I see no ground, neither do I think it is at all necessary; but I say, as to the nature of the covenant, I doubt not, but that it is entered with, and extended to the infant-seed of believers definitely, and answerably [correspondingly] that the promises appertaining to them are to be interpreted and understood in a definite notion, as appertaining equally and alike to each one in particular: I speak of the covenant and promises, as entered with and made to the seed of believers merely as such.

There are, it’s true, some promises of the covenant appertaining unto them, which are to be interpreted and understood in an indefinite notion, as has been afore declared; but those appertain not to them merely as the seed of such parents, but as members of the visible church. (100-103)

What follows is a part of Whiston’s defense of his position that the covenant is made with the seed of believers definitely.

That which is firstly and primarily ratified sealed and confirmed to infants (and the same is true of the adult) by the application of the token of the covenant to them, is the covenant it self, as more generally and absolutely considered; and consequently, and as the immediate and necessary result thereof, that which is ratified and confirmed is their covenant-state. They are (as I may so speak) solemnly invested and settled in a covenant-state with God; they are absolutely de presenti [in the present] removed from under the first covenant entered with all mankind in Adam, and solemnly invested with, and initiated into a new covenant-state. Hence circumcision (and the same is true of Baptism) is said to be the token of the covenant, as absolutely considered, Gen. 17.11 as the one had, so the other has a first and primary respect and reference to the covenant as absolutely taken; and consequentially to the state of those that are taken into covenant; they are thereby solemnly put, and settled in a new covenant-state and relation Godward: though I deny not, but that the new covenant or covenant of grace is conditionally made with all or rather offered to mankind; there is an offer and tender of Christ with all his benefits to all men upon condition of faith and repentance…

But the seed of Believers are actually received into the covenant of grace, solemnized, ratified, and confirmed by the application of the token of the covenant to them and from this change in their states I conceive a discharge and immunity from the condemning power of original sin, whether originans or originatum [the original sin of Adam, and the pollution of nature resulting from Adam’s sin], does necessarily arise and result unto them.

All those that are actually under the covenant of grace, as definitely entered with them, are de presenti [in the present] freed from [the covenant of works], seeing there is an absolute inconsistency between being under the law, and under grace, at one and the same time. The Apostle, Rom. 6.14 sets these two states in a direct antithesis or opposition the one to the other; whether we understand by law here, the mosaical law, or the law as given at Mount Sinai, wherein there was a revival of the law of works made with Adam in innocency, or that first law or covenant as so made with Adam; yet by grace I conceive we must understand the covenant of grace, and then ’tis all one as to my present purpose: no man can be under two covenants that are in nature or kind directly opposite the one to the other, at one and the same time. Hence I say, the infants of believers, being under the covenant of grace, they must needs be set free from the first covenant in the same sense that all believers are.

And as for the covenant of grace that threatens condemnation against none but either final rejecters of it, as in the case of those that are yet strangers to it, or total and final violators of it, as in case of those that are actually under it, and being free from the sanction of the first covenant, and not under any obligation to suffer future condemnation, either as rejecters, or violators of the second, I conceive their immunity from the condemning power of original sin, yea of whatever sin, whether original or actual they fall under the guilt of, during their pure infant-states, must necessarily ensue, though no express promise of pardon (which I conceive it is not necessary to enquire after) should appertain unto them, cessante obligatione legis & non obligante novo foedere [the threat of the law having ceased, and not under the threats of the new covenant], there can be no condemnation to them on the account of any sin chargeable upon them. (111-114)

At the heart of Whiston’s position is not just the mutual exclusivity of the covenants of works and grace, but also the simple logic of what it means to be in a covenant. He says that we cannot say our children are in the covenant unless we likewise affirm that they enjoy the benefits of the covenant.

Those that have no good, that is of the essence and substance of the covenant, have no present interest in the covenant. but unless infants have that good afore declared, they have no good that is of the essence and substance of the covenant. Ergo. This argument in the whole of it is so obvious to every ordinary understanding, at least [it] will so evidently appear upon a diligent search, that I shall surcease the proof of it. (154)

Similarly, Whiston argued that an indefinite promise to children is an insufficient ground for the application of the token.

And hence, by the way, how can a supposal of [the covenant being made indefinitely with the seed of believers] be a sufficient ground for the application of the token of the covenant, of which the covenant gives no assurance? (177)

Whiston again argues against an indefinite model by answering an objection.

Objection. It will be said, ‘Tis true the infant-seed of believers, and that universally, visibly appear to us, and may be hoped according to a judgment of charity, to have all that good, and all those benefits and privileges afore assigned to them, as they are the seed of such parents, conferred upon and ensured to them by the covenant, as confirmed by the application of the token thereof to them, but that they have all that good, and all those benefits and privileges really and truly actually granted to, and conferred upon them in their pure infant-state, is more than we can affirm; inasmuch as secret things belong to God, but things revealed to us and our chidlren.

Answer. I confess, most that have pleaded for Infant-baptism upon this ground, viz. their interest in the covenant, do too commonly express themselves to this purpose, but it seems past all rational doubt, and is so to me, that what they visibly appear to have by virtue of their interest in the covenant, that they have in reality and truth. (181)

Natural questions arise, of course, as to how Whiston’s definite covenant model handles the children of believers that abandon the faith. He argues that though the infant seed of believers are freed from original sin’s guilt and pollution, they are not necessarily regenerated, nor do they have the Holy Spirit.

For that which may yet further be pleaded, namely, the improbability that any should be in covenant with the Holy Spirit, and yet have no benefit by him, either in regard of any saving, no, nor any common operations that have a direct conducency [leading connection] to their future salvation. To that I would say in the general, that how improbable soever this may seem to be, yet no sound argument can be drawn therefrom, to prove the conclusion inferred in the forementioned objection. God may receive the infant-seed of believers into covenant with himself, and that universally, and vouchsafe them all the good and all the privileges afore assigned to them, and yet it will not necessarily follow from thence, that any such operations of the Spirit should be granted to them. (168)

The covenant doth not assure any of regeneration in their infancy, as they are Elect, for then all the elect seed of believers should be regenerated in their infancy; the contrary whereunto is evident, in that many of the seed of believers, in whom there is not the least shew or appearance of grace from their very infancy till they come to full age, yea possibly till they come to old age, are yet at last converted and brought to a saving close with Christ. (178)

And when the children of believers come of age, they can “willfully sin away their mercies.” (180) This is possible, Whiston says, because “The covenant of grace is immutable, when the Spirit, which renders it so, is actually given.” (185)

The extent to which Whiston represents anyone beyond himself is an important question, though he does appeal to “the generality, if not the universality of all the ancients, and many of our modern divines, as the Lutherans, the Divines of the Synod of Dordt, with many others” to support his argument for the “immunity from the condemning power of original sin” for the infants of believers (117).

But I bring his writing to light as a way of reorienting the polarity of polemics. Whiston’s criticisms of the indefinite model of how God covenants with the children of believers are based on the same premises used by the Particular Baptists to make similar arguments. For example, Nehemiah Coxe said,

Nehemiah Coxe, A Discourse, 129

And Hercules Collins argued that if pædobaptists will only go so far as saying that their children are externally or visibly in the covenant, and the rest is left to God, that is, if the covenant is only made indefinitely…

“If we ask what they mean by Infants of Believers being in the Covenant of Grace? They answer, they are in the External part of the covenant; if you ask, what is that? They say, the Administration of the Covenant; if you ask, what is that? They will tell you it is Baptism; so that the whole amounts to no more than this, such children they ought to be baptized, because they ought to be baptized.”

This discussion is the same context for the Particular Baptists’ criticisms of the Westminster catechism’s description of baptism and the covenant of grace relative to union with Christ and the relation of infants to the same.

So, I query, is the covenant made definitely or indefinitely with the infant seed of believers? If we grant the formula “I will be a God to you and your children” to be a general formula belonging to all believers, is this formula and promise definite or indefinite?

 

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From Shadow to Substance

I am pleased to announce the release of my work on seventeenth-century Particular Baptist covenant theology, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), available through Amazon in the USA, UK, and EU markets.

From Shadow to Substance approaches Particular Baptist covenant theology chronologically, tracing the origins and development of the Particular Baptists’ covenant theology in dialogue with the Church of England, Presbyterian, and Independent paedobaptists of their day. A chronological approach reveals not only where the Particular Baptists and their paedobaptist counterparts agreed and disagreed, but it also reveals the ways in which later Particular Baptists built on the work of earlier Particular Baptists.

From Shadow to Substance is a lightly edited version of my Ph.D. dissertation, meaning it includes minor corrections and additions. It addresses issues such as the covenant of works in Particular Baptist literature, the importance of noting the polemical genre of their covenantal writings, the covenant of redemption in Particular Baptist literature, and reasons why the Particular Baptists appealed to John Owen’s covenant theology in relation to their own.

Based on my archival research, the book also offers new and relevant biographical and contextual information about the Particular Baptists. Chief among these is a narrative of the events leading up to the publication of the Second London Baptist Confession in 1677. Other interesting and previously unknown (or unconfirmed) details are provided, such as Nehemiah Coxe’s confirmed age, details of his Medical Degree, and a special new fact related to Coxe’s time at John Bunyan’s church. Additional new discoveries include William Collins’ age,  Hercules Collins’ probate inventory, and other records. [I have much more material on Coxe, Collins, and the Petty France church they pastored, but those are planned for separate volumes.]

To order in the USA, click the link above. To order in the UK, click here.

For those of you who ordered the book in its first printing, you now own a first-edition limited release of the book (if that matters to you). It has been reformatted for distribution through Amazon, resulting in slight modifications to appearance.

For more details, see the images below.

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John Clark, Phraseologia, 265-1

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

Genesis 12 in Nehemiah Coxe’s Covenant Theology

In 2005, RBAP modernized and republished Nehemiah Coxe’s 1681 work on covenant theology. This reprint has been very helpful for many as they have studied covenant theology, whether from a systematic standpoint or simply for historical-theological research. One of its strengths is the modern updating of language and style so that it can be read easily by a 21st century reader.

Recently, a helpful question was raised in a Facebook forum about the wording of one particular section of the modernization of Coxe’s work. The question was,

Coxe writes:

“The covenant is said to be mercy to Abraham and truth to Jacob (Micah 7:20). This intimates that the beginning of it with Abraham was of mere grace and mercy, though once made with him, the truth and faithfulness of God was engaged to make it good to its succeeding heirs. The covenant of grace made with Abraham was not the same for substance that had been more darkly revealed in the ages before, but it pleased God to transact it with him as he had not done with any before him.”

When Coxe says, “The covenant of grace made with Abraham was NOT THE SAME FOR SUBSTANCE that had been more darkly revealed in the ages before,” is Coxe differentiating between THE Covenant of Grace which had been promised in Genesis 3:15 and the Abrahamic covenant, which was, in a sense, “a covenant of grace,” since it was undeserved?

This is an important question because it affects the way that one understands Coxe’s entire argument. I have examined the original, compared it with the modernization, and suggested a revision. The results of this brief study are in a PDF below.

To answer the original question here, the modernization is incorrect on this point (though very good everywhere else). The name of Coxe’s chapter is “Of The Covenant of Grace, as Revealed to Abraham.” Coxe’s argument is that based on Galatians 3-4 interpreting Genesis 12, what is found in Genesis 12 is God revealing the covenant of grace to Abraham and making Abraham a paradigm of belief (a father of believers). All who desire to be members of the covenant of grace must be Abraham’s children, i.e., they must believe as he did. So then, Coxe is saying that Genesis 12 contains the same covenant of grace for substance (there is only one) as found before and after this passage of Scripture, but it was made known to Abraham in a special way unlike any other example in the Bible.

And just a note of clarification. When Coxe says that the covenant was “made” or “transacted” with Abraham, he is saying that God stipulated the promises of the gospel to Abraham, and Abraham restipulated with faith. Thus the covenant is “made” with him, as it would be for any and all believers. Coxe is clear that Abraham was not a federal head in the covenant of grace, and that the covenant was not established itself or “filled up with ordinances” until Christ’s death and resurrection. The promises of salvation were simply made known by God and believed by Abraham.

Coxe on the CoG Revealed to Abraham

 

How to Read Logos’ Baptist Covenant Theology Collection

How to Read Logos’ Baptist Covenant Theology Collection

With the release of Logos’ Baptist Covenant Theology Collection (17 vols.) I thought it would be helpful and important to offer a few tips for those who are diving into these books.

If you are like me, it’s exciting to spend time in the writings of the Particular Baptists. Every now and then you feel like Indiana Jones looking for the lost Ark. There are even Nazis (Daniel Featley and Thomas Edwards) trying to kill you. This excitement and nostalgia, combined with your desire to find what you seek, may lead you astray in your reading of the sources. So, if this is your first foray into 17th century writings in general, and those of the Baptists in particular, then you should keep in mind at least the following things:

1. Keep in mind that you are from the 21st century. They are from the 17th century (except Isaac Backus, he’s from the 18th century). Their world was similar to yours, but also very different. Many of the debates, ideological shifts, philosophical currents, and other intellectual factors that we take for granted today were not a part of their lives. Surely they dealt with problems in their own time, battling the currents of thought in their day, but the point of this reminder is to realize that the questions you may be asking may not be the questions that they were asking. Read them on their own terms, following their own questions and their own arguments. Don’t read them anachronistically, reading into their thoughts the categories and ideas that you think are important due to your own modern concerns (however valid they may be).

2. Keep in mind the context in which the authors are writing. Why did the authors write these works? Most of them serve a polemic purpose. What the authors say and what they do not say are important. Think about the Reformers. They wrote extensive exegetical and systematic works. Subsequent generations often made summary reference to those works, but did not go into as much detail. Why is that? Is it because later generations were less committed to the truth, or did they disagree? Certainly not. To the contrary, they were relying on the work of their predecessors, assuming that they would continue to be read and taught. However, did later generations go into considerable detail about peculiar topics when the situation demanded it (i.e. controversy, disagreement, or pastoral concern)? Most assuredly.

So then, what will you NOT find much of in the Particular Baptists’ covenantal writings? You will not find comprehensive treatments of covenant theology that take on the topic from beginning to end. Why not? Because they agreed with much of the macrostructure and interpretation of their paedobaptist brothers. Where did they go into detail? They went into detail on the relationship between the covenant of grace and the Abrahamic covenant and other related questions. (Nehemiah Coxe holds a special place because he discusses the building blocks of covenant theology in more detail than other Particular Baptists. In fact, in his preface he says that he is intentionally avoiding approaching the topic in the standard polemic fashion, though he has polemical purposes.)

The danger here is that if we reduce the Particular Baptists’ covenant theology merely to these writings, thinking that this exhausts their views, we will have a very skewed and incomplete picture of their beliefs in this area. It may also cause us to overemphasize and misrepresent the similarities and differences between the Particular Baptists and their paedobaptist brothers.

3. Keep in mind that some of the authors later abandoned the faith. Paul Hobson and Samuel Fisher became Quakers. That does not make their writings useless or wrong. But it should at least raise some flags in our mind. Don’t assume uniformity in these writings, and read each author on his own terms before comparing him to others.

4. Keep in mind that just because Baptist A held X belief, it does not mean that all Baptists, or any other Baptist held X belief. You have to read them in concert. Benjamin Keach and the Anonymous author of “Truth Vindicated in Several Branches” denied the covenant of redemption. Keach was aware that this set him apart from others.
Benjamin Keach, The Display of Glorious Grace, iv

5. Keep in mind that there are other works on covenant theology from the Particular Baptists. This is just a reminder that these works do not comprise the whole of Particular Baptist thought on covenant theology. That being said, this is a good start.

6. Keep in mind that some of these authors are not Baptists, though their works support Baptist principles and the Baptists appealed to them. Little is known about Andrew Ritor. He may not have been a Baptist. Writing in 1642, the Particular Baptists were in their infancy, so to speak. Once again, this means reading him in his context on his own terms. Henry Lawrence was not a Baptist. However, both of these works were appealed to by Particular Baptists and played a role in the debates of the day. So they remain quite useful.

7. Anyone who reads through Samuel Fisher’s work in its entirety deserves an award. I feel very sorry for the person who had to transcribe his book. You should see it…

P.S. This is Sam Fisher, but not Samuel Fisher the Baptist-turned-Quaker…
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A Few Thoughts for Consideration in the Modern Republication Debate

These thoughts are directed primarily at members in the OPC and PCA.

For those contra republication:

  1. The view that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works is a view found among Reformed divines in the 17th and 16th centuries.
  2. The Westminster Confession of Faith is not the exclusive expression or boundary of Reformed orthodoxy.

For those pro republication:

  1. The fact that a given divine at the Westminster Assembly held to a given view does not mean that the Confession itself either reflects, includes, or accounts for their view. They debated many things. The conclusion of the debates was a majority vote in one direction, not a unanimous vote.
  2. A covenant of works and a covenant of grace are as different as wood and stone. They are different “substances.” If the Mosaic covenant is a formal covenant of works (not just containing a remembrance of Adam’s covenant) it cannot be the covenant grace. See John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London: Printed by G. Miller, 1645), 93-95. Ball is discussing John Cameron’s view that the Mosaic covenant (the old covenant) is neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace but a legal covenant for the nation of Israel to live life in the land of Canaan. Ball concludes that this view makes the old covenant differ from the new in substance. See also John Owen, A Continuation of the Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (London: Printed for Nathaniel Ponder, 1680), 324-42. Owen considers the majority view as expressed in the WCF and rejects it because he views the Mosaic covenant as a works covenant for life in the land. This is the result of the simple logic of substance as applied to covenant theology.

For both groups:

  1. The Westminster Confession was originally intended to be used as a government-backed, fueled, and promoted public standard of teaching and preaching in England, a standard not to be contradicted. Its limited function means that divines could participate in its making, and even live with its final form, so long as they did not overturn the status quo. In England, the Confession of Faith never got off its feet. The Independent-controlled government edited its proposed form in key ways, and the restoration of Charles II neutered any force the confession would have had. Scotland was another story. See https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/confessional-subscription-and-the-westminster-assembly/ and https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/the-textual-history-of-the-westminster-confession-of-faith/
  2. How your church uses the Westminster Confession of Faith may be quite different from its original intent and design. Whereas its original function may have permitted the flavors of Reformed theology to coexist, the function that your church is assigning to it may not. You have to deal with that. If you are another “flavor” than the WCF but your view was found among the Westminster divines or Reformed theology in general, that still does not mean that your church’s use of the WCF permits you within its boundaries.
  3. You’re probably not using the term “administration” correctly or accurately.
  4. Vindiciae veritatis preface