Not Absolutely

Early Particular Baptist history is notoriously murky, and historians are forced to be content with whatever information has survived the passage of time. The paucity of information requires that a degree of tentativeness be inserted into statements based on that information. Consequently, when historians of the Particular Baptists assert that the Particular Baptists do not come from continental Anabaptists, or that they were distinct from the General Baptists, are they speaking absolutely? Absolutely not.

Absolute statements are easy to prove false, or rather, easy to prove not absolutely true. This is especially the case when dealing with broadly defined or undefined terms. What is an Anabaptist? What is a Particular Baptist? What is a General Baptist?

There are connections between the early Particular Baptists and the continental Anabaptists, as well as to the General Baptists. But connections are not causes, necessarily. Analogy is not genealogy. So, what are these connections, and what do they mean? What is their significance? And are there other connections that balance our perspective in other directions?

The Early Particular Baptists Consulted the Dutch Anabaptists Regarding the Mode of Baptism

The most important source for Baptist beginnings is the so-called “Kiffen Manuscript” held in the Angus Library at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. Among other things, it tells the story of the Jacob/Lathrop/Jessey church. As repeated many times elsewhere, a group within this church became convinced of credobaptism. Subsequent to this conviction, the group determined that dipping was the proper and necessary mode of baptism, without which there was no baptism. In other words, those not dipped are not simply improperly baptized, they are simply not baptized.

Already being convinced of the theology of credobaptism, this fledgling church sent a Dutch-speaking emissary to Holland to see how others had administered the ordinance via dipping. The manuscript says (in updated spelling),

May 1640
“being convinced of Baptism, that also it ought to be by dipping the body into the water…None having then so practiced [dipping] in England…and hearing that some in the Netherlands had so practiced [dipping] they agreed and sent over Mr. Richard Blunt (who understood Dutch) with letters of recommendation, who was kindly accepted there and returned with letters from them.”

The group consulted was, according to James Renihan in his book Edification and Beauty, “the Collegiants or Rijnsburgers…a lay movement…[that] practiced baptism by immersion, not as a church ordinance, but in order that it might be provided for those who desired it.” It is important to note, however, that Blunt was not baptized while there. Rather, the church took time to consider all of this and the next year the church took steps to baptize themselves (considering themselves unbaptized to that point). The manuscript says,

1641
“Mr. Blunt baptized Mr. Blacklock that was a teacher amongst them, and Mr. Blunt being baptized, he and Mr. Blacklock baptized the rest.”

As a side note, the theological rationale behind this event was as follows:

  • The legitimacy of baptism does not stem from the baptizer, but from the command given to the church.
  • The church is therefore authorized to appoint a baptizer in order to fulfill the command of baptism.
  • If baptism has been so neglected that in that place there is no baptizer who is already baptized, the first baptizer must, of necessity, be unbaptized.
  • So it was for John the Baptist who began to baptize by virtue of a command, he himself being unbaptized.

Back to the point, note that in the above quote Mr. Blunt was baptized by Mr. Blacklock. He had not been baptized in Holland. This is confirmed later in a separate portion of the manuscript that describes Francis Bampfield’s inquiry into “the methods taken by the Baptists, to obtain a proper administrator of baptism by immersion, when that practice had so long been disused.” Bampfield was told in London that Baptism was recovered by,

“Either a self baptizer…One John Smith…
Or two men according to their principle in their judgment altogether unbaptized before, did baptize one another at the first, and afterwards did baptize others. And so were many of the baptizings in London, reported originally to be in one if not in two instances.”

The second instance is referring to Blunt and Blacklock who are again both described as unbaptized.

These sources clearly establish a connection between the early Particular Baptist movement and the Dutch Anabaptists. But what weight can be laid on this foundation?

  • After the Baptists had already formed their theology of credobaptism, One early  Dutch-speaking Baptist consulted Dutch Anabaptists about the mode of Baptism.

John Smyth, regarded as a founder or progenitor of the General Baptists, was mentioned above. Did the Particular Baptists have a connection to him? No. First, Smyth died in Holland in 1612. Second, Smyth was not practicing dipping. Third, listen to Hercules Collins who argues that the Particular Baptists had no connection whatsoever to him and retrieved credobaptism from the commands of the Scriptures,

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Collins had the advantage of defending his tradition’s history while its earliest pioneers were still alive.

Reviewing this evidence, we see that it indicates that if the early Particular Baptists got anything from the Anabaptists, it was dipping tips. The Dutch Anabaptist connection is small. What would weight our estimation in another direction? Consider two things.

First, the literature published by this group from its earliest stages onward denies a genealogical and/or theological connection to the Anabaptists. One would think that the fruit would match the root. But as the Particular Baptists’ theological commitment to credobaptism had formed quite apart from a group divided from them by geography and language, so their ongoing commitment to credobaptism was defended quite apart from the Hollanders. My previous post provided contextual reasons for why some of the most prominent Particular Baptists arrived at their credobaptist views quite apart from the Anabaptists.

Second, as described in the aforementioned previous post, tracing the actual historical movement of specific Particular Baptists from paedobaptism to credobaptism demonstrates that a core segment of the leadership of the movement began as university-trained, CoE-ordained paedobaptists. They read Reformed theology and interacted with it, approving much and disapproving of the obvious points. Their training and influences are clear.

Are the origins of the Particular Baptists separated from the continental Anabaptists? Not absolutely. Does the evidence suggest that the Particular Baptists developed their theology on the basis of Anabaptist theology?  Absolutely not. There are connections, but no causes of significance. There is an analogy, but not a genealogy.

The Particular Baptists Have Connections to the General Baptists

Before launching into this, you should know that the category “General Baptist” is a broad category including a large range of beliefs. And we have to be careful not to assume the theological commitments of those labeled as “General Baptists.” In some cases, as we will see in a moment, the question dividing the groups was narrowed down to how the gospel should be preached.

Consider two prime examples of the proximity of the early Particular Baptist movement to the General Baptist movement. I say “prime” because they are in the list of early Particular Baptists in my previous post, because they are men who lived and influenced the Particular Baptist movement for many years, and because they published works that give us access to their thought.

Christopher Blackwood, a Cambridge-educated Church of England priest converted to Credobaptism after hearing a General Baptist, Francis Cornwell, assert the error of paedobaptism. But Blackwood never joined the General Baptists. Nor does General Baptist theology appear in his writings. In fact, paedobaptists who read Blackwood said that he sounded like John Cameron.

A more interesting example is Benjamin Coxe who spent time in Thomas Lambe’s church before ending up with the London Particular Baptists. Wright even argues that Coxe actually embraced the theology of the General Baptists. Dealing with Wright’s claim requires more attention than we can offer here, but we know that Coxe spent very little actual time in Lambe’s church, a span of two years during which Coxe was absent and incarcerated for a good amount of time. And we know that Coxe left over a dispute involving predestination.

Lambe said to Coxe, “if you deny that Christ died for the sins of all, what Gospel will you preach to unbelievers?” This indicates that the heart of the issue was how to preach the gospel in such a way that all men are commanded to believe, while knowing that only the elect will actually believe. Coxe came to credobaptist beliefs, eventually joined Lambe’s church, became uncomfortable with the way the gospel was preached, and joined with the Particular Baptists soon after. No imprint was made on him, except perhaps extremes to be avoided.

What weight can we lay on this foundation?

  • The early Particular Baptists had connections to the General Baptists, but not as a source, nor with lasting or significant effects.

Are the origins of the Particular Baptists separated from the General Baptists? Not absolutely. Does the evidence suggest that the Particular Baptists developed their theology on the basis of General Baptist theology?  Absolutely not. There are connections, but no causes of significance. There is an analogy, but not a genealogy.

Early Particular Baptist origins should be viewed as a series of streams that run together until they form a united river around 1644. Each of these streams has its own context through which it passes along the way to arriving at a greater unity and united identity. The Jacob/Lathrop/Jessey church is the central stream to which others joined, many of them having been trained at Cambridge or Oxford and ordained in the Church of England. They examined the theology of their day, as described in the previous post, and arrived at a common understanding of how that system should be realigned.

This post has attempted to add balance to discussions of Particular Baptist origins and identity by providing the sources that connect the Particular Baptists to traditions from which they commonly are said to be disconnected. Historians should avoid absolute disavowals of Particular Baptist connections to Anabaptists and General Baptists. They should likewise avoid placing a weight on those connections that they will not bear. Are Particular Baptist origins separated from Anabaptists and General Baptists? Not absolutely. Do the Particular Baptists come from these groups? Absolutely not.

These discussions must be guided by evidence distinguishing analogy from genealogy, and guarded by reason distinguishing correlation from causation.

William Twisse, The Doubting Conscience Resolved, 78

 

 

 

 

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

Form and Matter in Covenant Theology

To add a little more to the previous post on formal and material republication, let me fill out how the distinction between form and matter works on a larger scale.

When it comes to justification, the material basis of a covenant is either law or promise. Works/law and grace/promise do not intermingle.
If two parties are committed to each other based on a law, a covenant of works has been established. If two parties are committed to each other based on a promise, a covenant of grace has been established. The matter dictates the form.

In light of this distinction, just because the law is present in a given covenant, it does not mean that this covenant is the covenant of works. Conversely, just because the promise (the gospel) is present in a given covenant, it does not mean that this covenant is the covenant of grace.

James Durham demonstrates the difference between a law, and a law used to established a covenant of works.
James Durham, The Law Unsealed, 5-6

In this line of thinking, Obadiah Sedgwick argues that although the law was present in the Mosaic covenant, it was not a formal covenant of works. This is material republication (as was Durham above).
Obadiah Sedgwick, Bowels of Tender Mercy, 10

This also applies to believers. In the Marrow of Modern Divinity, Edward Fisher wanted to protect the idea that although the law came to believers, it did not come as a covenant of works. Legalism is inevitable if we are convinced that the law necessarily entails a covenant of works.
Fisher, Marrow, 1646, 7-8

Now, how did this play out in Particular Baptist theology? John Owen will be our theologian. Nehemiah Coxe considered Owen’s work on Hebrews to be representative of his own views on covenant theology.

First, Owen is operating within the same ideas and makes the same points made above, that we have to distinguish between the law on its own and the law as a covenant.
Owen, Hebrews 8 (6), 218

The same is true for the promise of the gospel. Just because the promise of the gospel is present from Genesis 3:15 onward, it does not follow that the covenants wherein it appears are the covenant of grace. Owen argues that the covenant of grace was only a promise until its formal establishment in the new covenant. The elect were saved by virtue of the covenant of grace (the promise of the gospel) in all the ages, but it was not formally established until Christ’s death.
Owen, Hebrews 8 (6), 227

The same point is made again, showing how the New Covenant could not be new if it had already been formally established.
Owen, Hebrews 8 (9), 256

The law and the gospel (the promise) are present in the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenants.

Westminster paedobaptists will argue that all of these covenants were established on the promise of the gospel and thus were covenants of grace, or rather a twofold administration of the covenant of grace. The law played the same role in all of them, namely as a rule of righteousness (more burdensome in the OT). None of those covenants were covenants of works.

Particular Baptists will argue that although the promise of the gospel was present and revealed in all of the OT covenants, they were not the covenant of grace. The old covenant saved no one because it was a covenant of works for life in Canaan. Until the New Covenant was formally established in Christ’s blood, the covenant of grace existed in promise form only. The new covenant is truly new, the fulfillment of everything promised and hoped for in redemptive history. No covenant was formally established on the promise “I will remember your sins no more” until the blood of Christ inaugurated the new covenant.