Recently I had opportunity to engage in a friendly dialogue with some Baptist scholars over the merits of the project proposed in Recovering the Reformed Confession. That project is, as they say, wending through the publication process. Because of space limitations I was unable to do a couple of things, namely, to engage more fully with some of the texts and approaches to Baptist covenant theology (as distinct from Reformed covenant theology). There are approximately 60 million North American evangelicals—by contrast there are probably no more than about 500,000 confessionally Reformed Christians in North America. Virtually all of those evangelicals either assume or consciously confess some version of a Baptist account of redemptive history and some version of a Baptist view of the church and sacraments. Because of the number of variations inherent in any large group any taxonomy would be impossible in a short series of essays. For the sake of the discussion let us say that there are three major views to be engaged, the Generic Evangelical Baptist (GEB) approach, the Older Predestinarian Baptist view (OPB), and the Particular Baptist (PB) view.
The GEB view does not have a highly detailed view of the biblical covenants, if it has a view of them at all. Tom Ascol writes of an “outright rejection of covenantalism by some Baptists.” It thinks of the promises to Abraham as earthly, not spiritual. For most under the influence of the GEB, the great distinction is between the Old Testament and the New. If there is a text that drives their reading of redemptive history it is probably Jeremiah 31:31–33. In this view it is assumed that Jeremiah’s contrast is between the entire OT and the NT. Some in this approach affirm predestination (e.g., the so-called Young, Restless, and Reformed movement) but they do not identify particularly with the Second London [Baptist] Confession of 1689 or other such confessional documents or traditions. Most, however, under this heading reject a predestinarian theology.
In the OPB view, there is more attention to the OT covenants. In this approach, represented by the older generation (post-World War II) “Reformed Baptists” (a designation that, as far as I can tell, only became widely used post-WWII) learned their “Reformed” theology from Presbyterian theologians and institutions and saw themselves as one with them on most things. They affirm the 1689 but arguably read it through the lens of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Thus, their approach to Abraham and the other OT covenants sounds very much like that of their Presbyterian and Reformed fellows. The great difference seemed to be their understanding of the highly eschatological nature of the New Covenant, which distinguished it from the OT, and which precludes the administration to infants of the sign of admission to the New Covenant. They too tended to read Jeremiah 31 in roughly the same way as the GEBs.
In the PB view, the OPBs did not pay sufficient attention to the historical context in which Particular Baptist (the original designation) view developed. It was more or less unaware of Nehemiah Coxe (d. 1689). The brief biography of Coxe by my friend and colleague James Renihan, “An Excellent and Judicious Divine: Nehemiah Coxe” published in Ronald D. Miller, James Renihan, and Francisco Orozco, editors, Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen: Covenant Theology From Adam to Christ (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), says as much. The PBs, influenced by the recovery of Coxe and other earlier PB theologians, have re-examined the 1689 in light of that recovery and have seen more discontinuity between the 1689 and the Reformed reading of redemptive history. It is adherents to the PB view who have alerted me to the differences, e.g., where the OPBs were quite willing to say with the Reformed that there is “one covenant of grace, multiple administrations,” the PBs are not. For them, as I have previously indicated, the covenant of grace was promised to Adam et al. but it was not actually administered under the types and shadows. There is warrant for this view in the language of the 1689 and we shall look further at Coxe to see he relates to this view. The upshot is that the PB view is rather more radical than the GEB view and the OPB view. Adherents of this view openly describe the Abrahamic covenant as a “covenant of works” not a covenant of grace. They reject the “one covenant, multiple administrations” approach. For them, the covenant of grace only enters history in the New Covenant. In this way, there are some connections between the GEB view and the PB view. The antithesis between the Reformed and PB and GEB views is clearer and greater than with the OPB view.
In light of the manifest discontinuities between each of these three Baptist approaches and Reformed theology since the 1520s, we must reject Michael Haykin’s assertion that the republication of Coxe’s work, “clearly demonstrates that 17th century (sic) Calvinistic Baptists like Coxe—and his modern descendants in this century—are fully a part of that stream of Reformed theology that has come down from the Reformation work of men like Huldreich Zwingli, John Calvin, Heinrich Bulliner, and Théodore de Bèze.” This remarkable assertion is, at best, only partly true. The OPBs and PBs share the general soteriology of the Reformers, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, sovereign grace, their doctrine of God (e.g., Dolezal’s excellent work), anthropology, and Christology but they obviously did not share the same reading of redemptive history. The Reformed placed great stock in their reading of redemptive history. They worked it out in increasing detail from the 1520s through the 17th century. It was not accidental but essential to their theology. They not only wrote whole volumes on it (e.g., Bullinger’s 1534 De testamento, Olevianus‘ 1585 De substantia, and Cocceius’ De foedere, but they included the substance of the same approach in their systematic works. To the degree our Baptist friends assert that the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works, they have sharply departed from the theology of Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, and Beza. Anyone who proposed that theory in Zürich or Geneva would find himself persona non grata. Our Baptist friends did not and do not share the Reformed way of reading Scripture (hermeneutics). At question is whether covenant theology is, as B. B. Warfield said, “architectonic” to Reformed theology. If it is, then Haykin has exaggerated the unity between the Reformed and the Baptists of whom he is thinking.