Introduction: A Taxonomy
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 essay. 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 Generic Evangelical Baptist 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.
The Older Predestinarian Baptist View
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.
The Particular Baptist View
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.
Differences Between the Reformed and Particular Baptists on “Administration” and “Substance.”
Above I offered a rough taxonomy of contemporary Baptists in which I distinguished between Generic Evangelical Baptists (GEB), Older Particular Baptists (OPB), and the Particular Baptists (PB) and it is with this latter view than I am particularly interested in this series. Almost as soon as part 1 was was published discussion ensued on social media (e.g., Twitter), on blogs and in the comment box and two things became clear in those discussions:
Administration Of Or Witnesses To?
The PBs and the Reformed use the word “administration” quite differently. When, in my history of covenant theology course, I diagrammed the PB view on the whiteboard, I drew an arc from Adam to the cross to represent the PB view. To diagram the Reformed view I would draw a line through Noah, Abraham, etc. As I understand the PB view, the Son is said to have covenanted from all eternity to redeem the elect in the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis). They confess a prelapsarian covenant of works (foedus operum) in chapter 7 of the Second London [Baptist] Confession and explicitly in chapter 19. The covenant of grace is promised after the fall and its effects are received by believers (e.g., Noah, Abraham, and David) but the PBs do not envision the same sort of administration of spiritual benefits through the external administration of the types and shadows, the various Old Testament administrations of the covenant of grace as the Reformed understand things. This is what I had in mind when I wrote that the PBs do not believe in one covenant of grace variously administered. For them Christ is The Seed and he is received through faith but that reception has little to do with the actual, external, historical administration of the covenant of grace through types and shadows. For them, the substance of the covenant grace is not the divine promise to be a God to us and to our children but only Christ. Inasmuch as the historic fulfillment of the promise is future then the external administration of the covenant of grace is also future, suspended, until the coming of Christ. This is a stark difference between the PBs and the Reformed.
The Reformed theologian, Caspar Olevianus (1536—87), wrote that Christ comes to us “clothed in the covenant of grace.” That’s the Reformed view. That the Noahic, Abrahamic, and even the Mosaic administrations are real, historical, external administrations of the covenant of grace through which Christ was promised and given to his elect by sola gratia, sola fide. For the Reformed the substance of the covenant of grace is unchanged from Genesis 3:15 through the New Covenant. What changes is the circumstances, the types and shadows. As I have written previously in this space, the fundamental difference between the New Covenant the Abrahamic (or the Noahic for that matter but I focus on Abraham because both Paul and Hebrews do) is the difference between receiving Christ through types and shadows and receiving him in light of fulfillment.
On the value of the historical external administration of spiritual realities through the types and shadows, see this essay exploring Paul’s question, “What Advantage Has The Jew? Much in Every Way!”
Substantial Unity Or Different In Substance?
Consider how my friend Sam Renihan, who is a faithful representative of the stream of PB theology descending theologically from Nehemiah Coxe speaks about the history of redemption:
The most essential difference between the New Covenant and all the covenants of the Old Testament is that it is made and sealed in the blood of Christ and it is revealed in Christ (Heb. 9:15–16). For this reason, the New Covenant is different in substance from all the Old Testament covenants.
Here the contrast between the PB view and the Reformed view is quite clear. There is not a single Reformed theologian of whom I am aware, certainly not in the classical (confessional) period, who affirm the doctrine that there is a substantial difference between the New Covenant and the covenant of grace as administered in Old Testament types and shadows. Certainly our Reformed confessions reject such a notion. E.g., Heinrich Bullinger, in the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), widely adopted by the Reformed, stressed the substantial continuity of the covenant of grace throughout the history of redemption.
And since there is always but one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, Jesus the Messiah, and one Shepherd of the whole flock, one Head of this body, and, to conclude, one Spirit, one salvation, one faith, one Testament or covenant, it necessarily follows that there is only one Church.
…Generally two peoples are usually counted, namely, the Israelites and Gentiles, or those who have been gathered from among Jews and Gentiles into the Church. There are also two Testaments, the Old and the New.
Yet from all these people there was and is one fellowship, one salvation in the one Messiah; in whom, as members of one body under one Head, all united together in the same faith, partaking also of the same spiritual food and drink. Yet here we acknowledge a diversity of times, and a diversity in the signs of the promised and delivered Christ; and that now the ceremonies being abolished, the light shines unto us more clearly, and blessings are given to us more abundantly, and a fuller liberty (ch. 17).
Notice that, according to Bullinger (who stressed the substantial unity of the OT covenants with the New Covenant contra the Anabaptist approach to redemptive history) stresses the spirituality of the OT covenants and the substantial unity of the covenant of grace in redemptive history.
The Westminster divines spoke for all the Reformed when they confessed:
5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.
6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations (WCF 21).
Again, considering the covenant of grace, there is said to be one covenant, “this covenant…differently administered” under the types and shadows. The administration is through the types and shadows. It does not transcend the types and shadows. It is not entirely suspended until the coming of Christ. The Spirit was efficaciously operating through the types and shadows “to instruct and build up the elect,” who were looking forward to the coming Messiah.
The substance of the New Covenant, here designated “the Gospel,” thinking of the Law and the Gospel in historical rather than theological terms, is the same as the covenant of grace under the types and shadows. The difference is one of degree and quality not type.
Thus, the Reformed may not say, as my PB friends do:
Therefore, the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic Covenants were national, temporary, and typological covenants that placed Israel in an external relationship with God and in which the new covenant was revealed through types and shadows. On the one hand they are, in their substance and essence, distinct from the covenant of grace, and on the other hand they are related to it through rich typology and historical progression.
For the Reformed the substance of the covenant of grace—Olevianus’ great work was On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585). The elect have always had the substance, either through types and shadows or in the New Covenant after the fulfillment and abrogation of the types and shadows. Since the OT believers had the substance of the covenant of grace administered through the types and shadows, those OT administrations were not merely external. They were also spiritual. The Reformed agree with Charles Hodge that the Abrahamic covenant was spiritual and not fundamentally earthly or national. The earthy, national elements were part of the types and shadows fulfilled by Christ.
My PB friends conflate the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants:
Because the Mosaic covenant Controls both the Abrahamic and the Davidic covenants, it is the primary referent of the New Testament when speaking about the old covenant. However, the Mosaic covenant cannot be divided or disconnected from the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and thus all three combined to form the old covenant, in every aspect typological of the covenant of grace, yet in every aspect different in substance from the covenant of grace.”
We do not. We read Paul and Hebrews quite differently but it seems to me that it is essential to the various Baptist views (see above) to turn Abraham into Moses. I have addressed that here. For the Reformed, the Abrahamic covenant was essentially gracious. It did not have a dual character in the way Moses did. I am aware of not a single Reformed writer who spoke of the Abrahamic as a “republication” of the covenant of works to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery but the Reformed wrote frequently that the Mosaic covenant, the Old Covenant strictly speaking, was such a republication. You can see a library of posts, quotes, and podcasts heree. For the Reformed, Moses and David have a national, military, and legal character. Noah and Abraham have a rather different character. Paul contrasts Moses and Abraham in Galatians 3 and continues that contrast in chapter 4. For my PB friends, Abraham is his son, especially his legal son. For the Reformed, the sons remain the sons.
Thus, we could never speak as Sam does when he writes about the PBs
They argued that the Bible assigns to Abraham an earthly offspring and a heavenly offspring, and that it sorts them into two different covenants, an earthly covenant according to the flesh, and a heavenly covenant according to the Spirit. This, they argued, was the intracanonical exegesis of the Bible itself, comparing Galatians 3-4 and Genesis 17. To the Particular Baptists, the paedobaptist model conflated two distinct seeds into one covenant and imposed the typical earthborn national model of Israel on the antitypical heavenborn transnational church.
The Reformed distinguish between those who are believers inwardly and those who have only an outward (Rom 2:28; 9:6) relation to the covenant of grace. There have always been at least two ways of relating to the one covenant of grace. See also the booklet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace There has always been within the visible covenant community (the institutional church) those who are elect and those who are reprobate. As always, the Reformed administer the covenant of grace externally, accepting members on the basis of their profession of faith and administering the covenant of grace, as Peter says, on the basis that “the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). We suppose that our PB friends know no more than we do about who is elect and they do must operate on the basis of a credible profession of faith. They suspend the initiation of the children of believers into the visible covenant community because they have broken the connection between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant.
It was important to the Particular Baptists to maintain a close connection between the old covenant(s) and the covenant of grace. Though they were distinct, they were not to be divided. The old covenant(s) were subservient to the covenant of grace and made its benefits available through typology. But, in and of themselves, they did not grant heavenly blessings. “Notwithstanding the respect this Covenant hath to the Covenant of Grace, it yet remains distinct from it; and can give no more than external and typical Blessings unto a Typical Seed.” The covenant of grace was materially made known in the old covenant(s), but not formally made until Christ shed his blood. The heavenborn people of God began in the garden and extend to all ages. The earthborn people of God began with Abraham and ended with the cross (ibid).
So here is a difference between the PB and the Reformed. For the PBs, the OT covenants are not the covenants of grace as much as they are witnesses to the covenant of grace. For the Reformed the OT covenants are earthly, historical, real, external, administrations of the one covenant of grace through types and shadows. Through those administrations God the Spirit gave more than “external and typical” (typological) blessings. God the Spirit was sovereignly operating within his people through the sacrifices, through the ceremonies, through the prophetic Word, to bring the elect to new life and to true faith in Jesus the Messiah. This is our understanding of Hebrews 11 when it says that Moses preferred Christ—not typical and external blessings—to the riches of Egypt (Heb 11:24–26). Abraham was looking for a city whose builder and maker is God (Heb 11:10). Had he wanted “earthly and typical” blessings, he could have had them.
For the Reformed the OT covenants were more than witnesses to and revelations of the covenant of grace, they were administrations of the substance of the covenant: “I will be a God to you and to your children,” the fulfillment of which was Christ, in whom all the promises of God are yes and amen (2 Cor 1:20).
Administration Or Intrusion?
Before considering the work of Nehemiah Coxe it seems useful to clarify some of the differences between what I am calling the PBs and the Reformed.
Abraham And Moses
There are several issues that separate the Baptists of all sorts from the Reformed theology, piety, and practice. They include biblical hermeneutics, i.e., how the two traditions read Scripture, covenant theology, i.e., how the various covenants of Scripture relate to one another, and eschatology. The Baptist traditions as a group confess a more realized New Testament eschatology in distinction from the Reformed who have a more semi-realized or inaugurated eschatology. One of the great questions that separates the Reformed and the Baptists is the role of Abraham in redemptive history. Under part 2 we had a lengthy discussion in the comments box about this very question. More than one person wrote to ask me why Reformed Christians place so much emphasis on Abraham? We do not. It only seems to Baptists as if he plays an outsized role because, in their systems, he is either identified with Moses or rolled up within the OT covenants as just one more example of the same phenomenon.
The relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants in particular has been a frequent topic on the HB. See these resources. In short, following the early Christian fathers (e.g., Barnabas, Justin, Irenaeus) and the mainstream of Western theology, the Reformed saw a distinction between Moses and Abraham. The latter’s role in redemptive history was more fundamental than that of the former. Both Abraham and Moses were typological of heaven and of the coming new covenant but Abraham’s relation to the covenant of grace was more fundamental. The Mosaic covenant had a twofold character: legal and gracious. It was both an administration of the covenant of grace and an administration of the typological, non-saving covenant of works. It was under Moses and not under Abraham that God made a national covenant. It was under Moses and not Abraham that God instituted a sacrificial system. It was under Moses and not Abraham that God instituted a state-church and a judicial laws. According to both Galatians chapters 3 and 4 Moses and Abraham are distinct in significant ways. For Baptists generally, however, the ways they are alike are sufficient to regard them as essentially the same thing. This is a great difference between the Reformed and the Baptists.
The Reformed place such emphasis on Abraham because the New Testament does. According to our Lord, he is the paradigm of New Covenant believers (John 8:56). According to Paul, in Romans 3 and 4, he is the paradigm of New Covenant believers. It is notable that Paul did not appeal to Moses but to Abraham as the father of all believers. Paul regularly juxtaposes Abraham and Moses just as he juxtaposed the Old Covenant with the New. According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 3, the Old Covenant is the Mosaic covenant, not the Abrahamic. Hebrews does precisely the same thing and for the same reasons as Paul: they read Jeremiah 31:31–33 the same way. They understood that Jeremiah was contrasting the Mosaic, Old Covenant with the New. He was not contrasting all the OT covenants with the New. On these themes see the larger essay on the New Covenant. See also the extensive curriculum linked at the end of the essay.
A second issue that persists is the difference of opinion about how to characterize the differences between the PBs and the Reformed regarding the administration of the covenant of grace under the various typological OT covenants. It seems clear to me that there is a sharp difference. As I understand the PBs, the covenant of redemption (the pactum salutis) controls their reading of redemptive history. It seems to me that, for them, the OT covenants are witnesses to the covenant of grace but they are not the covenant of grace itself. For the Reformed the Noahic covenant in Genesis 6 and the Abrahamic covenant, with its three aspects of land, seed, and promise (“I will be a God to you and to your children”) is an administration of the covenant of grace. The Mosaic covenant was a temporary, national, legal administration of the covenant of grace (for the reasons already given). So too the Davidic. The rabbis counted 613 commandments imposed on Israel under Moses. Those commandments were not in force under Abraham. The Davidic and Solomonic administrations focused on the expansion of the national people. They and the Mosaic are, in those ways, distinct from the Abrahamic administrations.
The Lutherans speak of the presence of Christ in the Supper with three prepositions: “in,” “with,” and “under.” These seem apt to describe the Reformed view of how the covenant of grace is present under the typological administrations. The covenant of grace was in the Abrahamic. It was under the Abrahamic. It was with the Abrahamic covenant. The various OT administrations were the church. Where does an unbeliever ordinarily (i.e., by divine ordination and in the normal course of things) find the preached gospel and the administration of the keys of the kingdom? In the visible church. So it was then. That’s where the covenant of grace and it was present then. It was not only signified. It was not only or primarily future. There were future realities to come but the covenant of grace itself was in, with, and under the types and shadows.
My friends Sam and Micah Renihan have used other language, however, which I think illustrates the differences. They speak of the covenant of grace “in-breaking” and, as has been noted earlier, it is revealed in the types and shadows but not actually administered:
One of the most distinctive features of this covenant was that God immutably promised to bring about these blessings apart from any merit on Abraham’s part, and for that reason the Covenant of Circumcision can rightly be called a covenant of grace. But can it rightly be called an administration of the Covenant of Grace? If the Covenant of Grace is the accomplishing of the Covenant of Redemption in history, the retro-active application of the New Covenant, then what do national promises have to do with Christ’s redeeming and gathering of the elect? It must be noted that although all the Abrahamic promises typologically reveal the New Covenant, in their substance and essence they are distinct from it. Abraham knew that Canaan was not heaven.
In the PB reading of redemptive history, “administration” can only exist when the reality is fully present, as it is, for them, only in the New Covenant.
So, for the PBs, God is certainly working graciously through the Abrahamic covenant(s), but as they write, they are different in “substance” from the covenant of grace. They are not the covenant of grace, which is, for them, reserved for the “accomplishment” of redemption.
This is a major difference between the two traditions. For the Reformed, the OT covenants were typological administrations of the covenant of grace as it was then. They were not mere witnesses to future realities. When Sam and Micah speak of the covenant of grace “in-breaking” they are borrowing and modifying a category from Meredith Kline, who taught that there are, under the types and shadows, “intrusions” of the final judgment into redemptive history as, e.g., in the case of the Israelite holy wars against the Canaanites. Their use of “in-breaking” as distinct from “administration” is a kind of “intrusion” of grace into redemptive history.
I hope, however, it is clear that that, for the Reformed, the covenant of grace is regarded as in, with, and under the OT covenants and that the New Covenant is organically linked to them. It is, as I have tried explain before, the Abrahamic covenant (and for that fact, in important ways, the Noahic etc) without the types and shadows. In short, the covenant of grace is one in substance and various in administration in redemptive history.
On the Two Covenants in Galatians 4
Above we considered the difference between the Reformed view that the covenant of grace was administered “in, with, and under” the typological Old Testament covenants and the Particular Baptist (see part 1 of this series for the definition) view that the OT covenants witness to and promise the coming covenant of grace, i.e., the New Covenant. In short, according to the PBs, there is, as we have seen a difference in “substance” between the OT covenants (which they regard essentially as one thing) and the New Covenant or the covenant of grace.
One of the major topics that arises in the discussion between the Reformed and the various Baptist approaches to redemptive history, biblical hermeneutics, and covenant theology is the relation between the Abrahamic covenant(s) and the Mosaic (and Davidic). We have observed that PB writers do not distinguish between the Abrahamic covenant(s) and the Mosaic (and Davidic).
In response, the Reformed have pointed to Galatians 3:16–18: where Paul argued,
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise (NASB).
As we read Paul, he was responding to the Judaizers, who were seeking to put the Christians under the Law and under works, i.e., under Moses, for salvation (justification and sanctification). In response Paul appealed to Abraham, who, for Paul, represents the principle of grace over against Moses, who represents the principle of works. He appeals to the Abrahamic promise, as distinct from the Mosaic covenant, as historically prior to and theologically more fundamental than the Mosaic/Sinai covenant. That is the significance of saying that the Abrahamic promise was given 430 years prior to the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant, which, he explained (in v.19) was added or perhaps “superimposed” (προσετέθη) upon the prior, Abrahamic covenant, in order to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery. Hence he calls the Law a “pedagogue” (Gal 3:24). Moses, not Abraham, is the pedagogue. In short, Paul’s great point here is to distinguish between the relative natures of the two covenants, between Abraham and Moses. This is not to say that the Mosaic covenant was not also an administration of the covenant of grace. It certainly was but that is not Paul’s point here against the Judaizers. With the legal aspect of the Mosaic covenant in view, he notes the distinctly temporary quality of the Mosaic covenant relative to the Abrahamic, which was prior to Moses and which remains in force even after the Mosaic expired or, to use Paul’s imagery from Colossians 2:14, “having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (NASB). That is not true of the Abrahamic covenant. It is characterized as a covenant of “promise” rather than a legal matter. The emphasis in Galatians 3 is on the distinction between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.
It has been suggested that, however much Paul’s emphasis in chapter 3 is on the distinction between Moses and Abraham the point of chapter 4 on the continuity between Moses and Abraham or even their identity in the allegory in 4:21–31. The argument seems to be that because Abraham had two sons, Abraham is his two sons. In other words, as the argument seems to go, if Moses has a twofold character (and he does), then so does Abraham and thus the Abrahamic covenant is not fundamentally different from the Mosaic covenant.
Does this reading of Galatians 4 withstand scrutiny? Paul writes:
Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. For it is written,
“Rejoice, barren woman who does not bear;
Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor;
For more numerous are the children of the desolate
Than of the one who has a husband.”
And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise. But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, For the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman.”
So then, brethren, we are not children of a bondwoman, but of the free woman (NASB).
Verse 21 gives us the frame of reference. When Paul says, “under the Law” he refers to the Judaizers who want to place themselves and the rest of the Galatian Christians under the Mosaic law for their standing with God and for their salvation. Paul has been opposing this throughout. Thus, he opposed the imposition of circumcision in the case that it was a condition of salvation. He explained:
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love (Galatians 5:2–6; NASB).
So, the question in 4:21–31 is the relation between Law and Grace. He calls the law to witness to those who would try to present themselves to God on the basis of their law keeping. “Why do you not listen to the law?” What does the law actually say? To explain the relations between Law and Grace he tells an allegory (ἀλληγορούμενα). There has been a good bit of debate as to the nature of this allegory. Classsically, an allegory was a story in which the figures in the story intentionally stand for something else. If we use a broad definition of allegory, then we may understand Paul’s intent well enough. Certainly, he does tell a story of sorts in which the figures intentionally stand for something else. Here’s a rough chart:
As the chart indicates, Paul contrasts two principles. Both emerge from Abraham but one is an heir of the Abrahamic promise and the other is not. One category, Sinai/Hagar/Ishmael represents works. The other, Heavenly Jerusalem/Sarah/Isaac represents grace. Abraham was the biological father of Ishmael but as Genesis 17:15–20 says, almost painfully, the promise is through Isaac, not Ishmael. Both received the sign of external admission to the visible covenant people. Indeed, Ishmael was the first to receive it “but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.”
Hagar and Sarah were both outwardly Jews but “a Jew is one who is a Jew inwardly” (Rom 2:28; 9:6–9). In contrast to my Baptist friends, Paul did not choose between the external administration of the covenant of grace and the internal spiritual realities that come through that administration. It is not either/or but both/and. Hagar and Ishmael represent the children of the flesh but Sarah and Isaac represent the children of the promise (Rom 9:6). The fact that both come from Abraham biologically changes nothing about the spiritual and gracious nature of the Abrahamic covenant(s).
This is the effect of the quotation of Isaiah 54:1, by which Paul seems to be invoking the larger context. The barren woman (Sarah) rejoices in the unexpected. She who had not earthly expectation must enlarge her tent and strengthen the stakes because of the surprising, gracious, sovereign saving act of God. The barren woman (Sarah) will “possess nations” (Isa 54:3) and re-settle deserted cities. God is her husband (caretaker; Isa 54:5). He is no longer turning his face away from her. It is like Noah all over again (Isa 54:9). He has made an unshakeable “covenant of peace” (Isa 54:10). In other words, he is fulfilling the Abrahamic promise to be a God to Abraham and to his children. Paul is invoking, through Isaiah, the Abrahamic promise. For Paul, in Galatians 4 as well as in Galatians 3, the Abrahamic covenant is a gracious promise that includes believers and their children. It does not mark a radical change in Galatians nor does it signal a radical change in the 2,000 year old promise and pattern. Just as Peter was able to invoke without explanation the Abrahamic promise at Pentecost, before thousands of Jewish men, so too Paul invokes it to explain to the Judaizers why they have got everything all wrong. They are after Hagar, Sinai, Ishmael, the flesh, and the covenant of works when they should be after Sarah, the heavenly Jerusalem, Isaac, the Spirit, and the covenant of grace.
Paul makes the correlation between the covenants explicit. “For these covenants are two” (αὗται γάρ εἰσιν δύο διαθῆκαι). Insofar as the Mosaic (Sinai) covenant had a works principle, a “do this and live” (Luke 10:28) principle, a “cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law” (Deut 27:26; Gal 3:10) principle, it is distinct from the Abrahamic covenant of promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” Under the Sinai covenant, Moses sprinkled the people with blood and they said, “we will do all the words of this law” (Ex 24:7). Under the Abrahamic covenant, Yahweh himself went between the pieces thus taking upon himself the maledictory oath for us (Gen 15:17). The shedding of blood in circumcision anticipated that day when our Lord Jesus would be cut off for us (Col 2:11–12).
Once again, as the Judaizers, who do not understand the distinctive character of the Mosaic (Sinai) covenant as a pedagogical/legal covenant, seek to subvert the covenant of grace. They are once again, like Hagar, persecuting the “children of promise” (Gal 4:28). The Judaizing Hagars must be driven out of Christ’s church (Gal 4:30; Gen 21:10, 12; John 8:35) because Hagar the slave will not be an heiress with Sarah the free woman. We, who seek justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo), according to the Abrahamic promise (John 8:35), are free from salvation through circumcision and law-keeping. We are justified, saved, and sanctified “by grace, through faith” and that salvation is not from ourselves, it is God’s gift (Eph 2:8). We have been justified “apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28; 4:6) just as our father Abraham was (see all of Romans 4), our father in the faith.
Paul distinguishes between the earthly Jerusalem (Sinai) as the “mother” (μήτηρ) of Hagar, Ishmael, and, by implication, the Judaizers and the heavenly Jerusalem, the heavenly city, which is the mother of those who believe in Jesus as the only Savior apart from our works of the law (Gal 4:26). Because Hagar and the Judaizers are of the flesh, of the law, of Sinai/Mosaic covenant for justification and salvation, they are in slavery (Gal 4:28). Believers, because they trust and are united to him who has fulfilled the works principle (“do this and live”) for them, we are “children of promise” (ἐπαγγελίας τέκνα). In this allegory we are Isaac, not Ishmael.
It is no happenstance that, for Paul, Abraham is the paradigm of salvation by grace alone. The Abrahamic covenant unifies the history of salvation. In Romans 4, in Galatians 3 and 4, Paul does not turn to Moses but to Abraham as the model for the New Covenant believer. The allegory in Galatians 4 does not turn Abraham into another Moses. It is another way of getting at the same point he was making in chapter 3. The Mosaic covenant, the Sinai covenant from Moses through the crucifixion, was a temporary, national covenant superimposed upon the Abrahamic for pedagogical purposes not as a change in the covenant of grace. It was, we might say, a legal administration of the covenant of grace. It was never meant to replace Abraham. This is why the pastor to the Hebrews is at pains to remind his readers/hearers that Moses was a worker in Jesus’ house, not the owner nor the heir (Heb 3:3–6). In this sense, in view of its legal character, we may agree with Owen and others in the Reformed tradition who spoke of the Mosaic/Sinai covenant as subordinate to the covenant of grace. Insofar as it was an administration of the covenant of grace we may deny that it was subordinate. How we speak depends on the aspect of the Mosaic/Sinai covenant in view.
Was John Gill Right? Was the Abrahamic Covenant A Covenant of Works?
Now, that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant of works, but rather a covenant of works, will soon be proved…
John Gill, (1697–1771) A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity or a System of Evangelical Truths Deduced From the Sacred Scriptures, 2 vols. (London, 1839), 2.630–31 (HT: Chad Vegas).
Above we considered, in some detail, Galatians 4 as to whether Paul, in chapter 4, turns Abraham into Moses. In this installment we want to consider and respond to John Gill’s fascinating and revealing discussion of the nature of the typological covenants as he sought to refute the Reformed view of baptism and covenant theology. He was a significant eighteenth-century English Baptist theologian and has been influential on Particular Baptist theology. He was pastor for more than 50 years at Horsleydown, Southwark. That is the congregation that became the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which traces its founding to 1650, under the ministry of William Rider, who was succeeded by Benjamin Keach. One of Gill’s successors, of course, was Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Gill was made Doctor of Divinity by the University of Aberdeen. He has been identified by some scholars (e.g., Peter Toon, 1967) with Hyper-Calvinism but that interpretation of his theology is disputed.
His treatment of baptism and the covenants is interesting. In the section below the quotation above is placed in its larger context. What we have is his response to various arguments in favor of infant baptism. There are natural breaks in his argument and thus I will address his interpretation of the covenants seratim.
It is not fact, as been asserted, that the infants of believers have, with their parents, been taken into covenant with God in the former ages of the church, if by it is meant the covenant of grace; the first covenant made with man was that of works, made with Adam, and which indeed included all his posterity, to whom he stood as a federal head, as no one ever since did to his natural offspring; in whom they all sinned, were condemned and died; which surely cannot be pleaded in favor of the infants of believers ! after the fall the covenant of grace, and the way of life and salvation by Christ, were revealed to Adam and Eve, personally, as interested therein; but not to the natural seed and posterity, and as interested therein; for then all mankind must be taken into the covenant of grace and so nothing peculiar to the infants of believers; of which not the least syllable is mentioned throughout and whole age of the church, reaching from Adam to Noah.
One of the most persistent complaints that Baptists of all sorts make against the case for paedobaptism is that, in their view, it relies too much upon arguments from silence.
Gill’s Argument From Silence
Gill’s critique of paedobaptism (and his argument for believer’s baptism only), however, relied upon arguments from silence to a remarkable degree. Further, in effect, he arranges things so that, in the nature of the case, any covenant which did involve children (in the external administration) ipso facto cannot include children. These are the two main thrusts of his survey of the covenants and the history of redemption leading up to Genesis 17.
Of course, Gill did not distinguish, as the Reformed did (and do) in the ways that people are “taken into the covenant.” For the Reformed there are two ways of being in the one covenant of grace: externally and internally or outwardly and inwardly. Gill, however, has defined the covenant of grace in terms of the Baptist definition of the New Covenant so that he knew a priori that if what was instituted after the fall was a covenant of grace it could not therefore include the children of believers even if only externally. The only parent and offspring relation he sees is the covenant of works. Thus, if a covenant involves parents and offspring, then a covenant is necessarily an expression of the covenant of works.
We agree that there is a sharp distinction to be made between the covenant of grace and works but his definition of the covenants, on the basis of parents and children, was arbitrary. The covenants of works and grace represent two distinct principles, “do this and live” versus “the seed of the woman shall crush his head.” Both make promises and both have conditions. Both are administered through or among groups or corporate entities. The next covenant to which Gill turned is a good example both of what Scripture actually says about the covenant of grace and how Gill misunderstood the history of redemption and the covenant of grace.
The next covenant we read of is that made with Noah, which was not made with him and his immediate offspring only; nor were any taken into it as infants of believers, nor had they any sacrament or rite as a token of it, and of God as being their God in a peculiar relation. Surely this will not be said of Ham, one of the immediate sons of Noah. That covenant was made with Noah, and with all mankind to the end of the world, and even with every living creature, the beasts of the field, promising security from a universal deluge, as long as the world should stand; and so had nothing peculiar to the infants of believers.
The first objection to Gill’s account of the Noahic covenant(s) is that he failed to distinguish the two. The covenant of Genesis 6 was a covenant of grace, redemptive and particular. The second covenant, in chapter 9, was a covenant of common grace, a promise that the Lord would restrain evil and preserve the world until the final judgment.
Second, both covenants had signs and seals or sacraments. According to the Apostle Peter, the sacrament of the Genesis 6 covenant was the flood. It signified and sealed the redemption of God’s little church (1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5; in my commentary on 1 and 2 Peter I argue that Peter explains the Christian faith and life in Noahic terms) by grace alone, through faith alone. The sacrament of the general covenant in Genesis 9 is the rainbow. It is the sign of the promise that God will preserve the earth until the final judgment.
Third, the covenant of Genesis 6 certainly involved Noah and his household. It was administered corporately, not individually. As Gill himself observed, it involved Ham, who was cursed, who becomes Canaan (Gen 9:22–25). If, therefore, Ham was reprobate, then he was included into the visible covenant community, into the visible administration of the covenant of grace, on the ark. Peter says that those 8 souls were “saved” not “by water,” but “through the water,” i.e., they were delivered through the judgment. The visible church has always been mixed, it has always had within it the elect, whom the Lord eventually brings to the faith, and the reprobate and hypocrites, whom the Lord has always hated from all eternity but whom, in his good pleasure and providence, he is pleased to include in his visible people (the visible church).
The Apostle Peter’s inspired interpretation of the Noahic covenant says just that:
because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 3:20–21; ESV).
As I have explained, Peter does not teach that anyone was saved (contra the sacerdotalists and Federal Visionists) by virtue of the baptism. Contra the sacerdotalists (e.g., Rome, Anglo-Catholics, and the Federal Visionists) the sacraments do not work ex opere (from their use) but they are always and only divinely instituted signs and seals of what God has promised and sovereignly, graciously accomplishes in his elect by grace alone, through faith alone.
For Peter, the flood is an Old Testament type and shadow of Christ and an Old Testament anticipation of baptism. Pace Gill, It most certainly was a typological sacrament.
Gill Takes Abraham Up Mount Moriah
The next covenant is that made with Abraham and his seed, on which great stress is laid, Gen. xvii.10–14; and this is said to be the grand turning point on which the issue of the controversy very much depends; and that if Abraham’s covenant, which included his infant children, and gave them a right to circumcision, was not the covenant of grace; then it is confessed, that the main ground is taken away, on which the right to infants to baptism is asserted; and consequently the principal arguments in support of the doctrine are overturned.
This was the heart of Gill’s argument. He has set the scene and now he would plunge the dagger into the heart of that lingering Romansh corruption infant baptism (see his treatise on this very claim). Gill was right. Great stress is laid on this covenant because Scripture itself lays great stress on it. We may even speak of an Abrahamic paradigm for redemption. Since I have already explained the centrality of the Abrahamic covenant in redemptive history (see the linked essay) and in the Heidelcast series on covenant and baptism, I will brief here. If we consider, e.g., John 8:56; , Matthew 3:9; 22:2; Acts 3:13, 22, 26, 39; Romans 4; 9:6; Galatians 3 and 4; Hebrews 2:16; 6:13–15; chapters 7–10; 11:8; 11:17 we see how our Lord himself and the New Testament generally looked at Abraham and, by implication, the Abrahamic covenant. They did so with good reason. The OT prophets consistently appealed to Abraham as the pattern of God’s promise of salvation. Jeremiah 31:31–33 is by no means the only example of the way the OT prophets appealed to and appropriated the Abrahamic promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.”
Thus, Gill sought to kill the paedobaptist appeal to Abraham because he knew the power of the argument. If Abraham is the paradigm for the covenant of grace, the way that God administers outwardly his salvation to his elect and if that paradigm includes both believers and their children and if that pattern is not revoked in the New Testament—remember we have already noted Gill’s fondness for the argumentum e silentio then it is essential for his argument that he get rid of Abraham, as it were. So he does:
Now, that this covenant was not the pure covenant of grace, in distinction from the covenant, of works, but rather a covenant of works will soon be proved; and if so, then the main ground of infants’ baptism is taken away, and its principal arguments in favor of it overturned: and that it is not the covenant of grace is clear, —1. From being its never so called, nor by any name which shows it to be such; but the covenant of circumcision, Acts vii.8. Now, nothing is more opposite to one another than circumcision and grace; circumcision is a work of the law, which they that sought to be justified by fell from grace, Gal v.2–4. Nor can this covenant be the same we are now under, which is a new covenant or a new administration of the covenant of grace, since it abolished and no more in being and force. —2. It appears to be a covenant of works, and not of grace; since it was to be kept by men, under a severe penalty. Abraham was to keep it, and his seed after him; something was to be done by them, their flesh to be circumcised, and a penalty was annexed, in case of disobedience or neglect; such a soul was to be cut off from his people; all which shows it to be, not a covenant of grace, but of works….
He continues by adducing several more proofs but one can see the trajectory of his argument clearly enough. As I say, Gill’s appeal to the silence of Scripture, to which he appealed repeatedly (beyond the material quoted here) should put to rest the Baptist objection that the Reformed rely on arguments from silence. The question is not whether arguments from silence but which and why they ought to be believed.
From both theological and rhetorical points of view, Gill’s argument is fascinating. At first he flatly dispenses with the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of works. He argues that at length in this section of the work. By his logic the New Testament Lord’s Supper must be covenant of works since there were evidently sanctions for its abuse too (see 1 Corinthians 11:30). That, of course, is absurd since, in Gill’s view, the New Covenant is nothing but a covenant of grace, indeed, it is the covenant of grace. Most of the time in this work Gill speaks of the covenant of grace being “exhibited” under the types and shadows and his intent is entirely clear. The covenant that God made in Genesis 17:10, to be a God to believing Abraham and to his children, was nothing but a covenant of works, a “do this and live” covenant.
It is essential to the Baptist view to turn Abraham into Moses. Some of the OPBs (see part 1 of this series) sometimes spoke of Abraham as the Reformed did (and do) but resolved the tension they created in their own system through an appeal to eschatology. Others, however, as we have been observing, who belong to what I have been calling the PB tradition (see part 1) avoid creating that tension within their reading of redemptive history by overtly (rather than merely implicitly) regarding the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of works.
The chasm between the Baptist reading of redemptive history and way of reading Scripture widens.
Engaging with John Spilsbury
Above we considered John Gill’s argument that infant initiation into the Abrahamic covenant is prima facie evidence that the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17:10 was not a covenant of grace but, in fact, a covenant of works. In this installment we consider one of the earliest works arising from the emerging Particular Baptist tradition, that of the cobbler (according to Chute, Finn, and Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement, 22), John Spilsbury (or Spilsbery; c. 1593–1668). He was perhaps among those in a London congregation which had been founded in 1616 (ibid., 21–22). The congregation of which he became pastor, is typically regarded as the first clearly Particular Baptist congregation (ibid., 22). According to Chute, Finn, and Haykin, his working-class congregation grew to around 300 souls by 1670.
In 1643 Spilsbury published the first edition of his little treatise against infant baptism. This survey relies upon the 2nd edition published in 1653 in London. On the title page he included a helpful subtitle which forms the outline of the work (spelling and punctuation modernized):
Wherein is handled these particulars:
- The baptizing of infants confuted.
- The covenant God made with Abraham and his seed handled and how the same agrees with the Gentiles and their seed.
- The baptism administered by an Antichristian power confused, as no ordinance of God.
- The covenant, and not baptism, forms the church, and the manner how.
- There is no succession under the New Testament, but what is spiritually by faith in the Word of God
His view of the nature of redemptive history, his hermeneutic, and his doctrine of the church emerges early on in the work, in the prefatory epistle to the reader, where he wrote,
The subject controverted in the following I realize, one part of it is about infants’ baptism, and whereas I oppose the same as an unwritten tradition, yet I would not be understood that I oppose infants in respect of either their persons or age, or salvation itself, between God and them invisibly, but honor them with all natural respects, desiring their safety and well being here, and glory hereafter; but what their estate is in respect of grace, that I do not know, but as the same appears by some effect of faith; until which time, as I condemn none, no more dare I justify any, but leave all to the good pleasure of God;’ that only knows who are his. And this I believe, that God of his mere grace, before the world was, did elect and choose a number in Christ to salvation. All which shall unavoidably come to glory, ad Ephes. 1, Rom. 8.30 But who those be, that I do not know, until God reveals the same by some effect of his grace appearing in them. And all that I intend by opposing infants’ baptism, is but only to forbear and wait upon God in the use of the means, until faith appears to meet with God in his holy ordinance, without the same is void and of no effect; but profaned, God provoked, and the party endangered (unnumbered p. ii).
Even from the outline and this précis one can see that the arguments between the Reformed and the Particular Baptists have not much changed in 375 years.
The More Things Change
Is infant baptism an “unwritten tradition”? Only if one assumes believers’ baptism and reads Matthew 28:19 or Acts 2:38–39 through that lens. From the Reformed understanding of the history of redemption, the command to circumcise believers and their infant sons is, in the New Covenant, a command to baptize believers and their children. Thus, implicit in this summary is a point that he will make explicit later, a particular reading of the role of Abraham in the history of redemption.
For Spilsbury, the New Covenant is so eschatological, i.e., it so partakes of the final state now, that even though infants had been included in the visible covenant people prior to the New Covenant, now, they must be excluded. Only those who give (sufficient) evidence of new life and true faith, only those who give evidence of being elect, are eligible to be admitted outwardly to the covenant community. He understood that he was withholding from infants “the means” until they gave evidence of redemption. His ground is the eschatological chapter of the New Covenant.
His prefatory letter continues by admonishing those who submitted to baptism administered in an “Antichristian Church.” Those so baptized are not actually baptized at all and thus, what the Baptists are doing is not, by their lights, re-baptizing at all, since infant baptism is not actually a proper baptism. For Spilsbury, infant baptism is a ritual of the Antichrist.
He rehearses the now familiar Baptist objections, that βαπτιζω signifies immersion, that the New Testament (he claims) records no infant baptisms (again note the reliance upon arguments from silence), that it is a violation of the rule of worship (i.e., without express command of God) and thus “will worship, after the doctrines and commandments of man” (pref., p. iii). He warns of the coming judgment on “the Gentiles” (those who are unbaptized and outside the true people of God).
As with the other Particular Baptist writers we have surveyed, for Spilsbury, the pre-temporal, eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) is his starting point. Redemptive history is an outworking of the covenant of redemption. He described redemptive history as the “outward profession” of the pactum salutis with a variety of administrations. He recognized (unlike other Baptists writers) that the “Old Covenant” proper describes that period of history from Moses to Christ, not from Abraham, to Moses (p. 1).
He sets aside that discussion quickly, however, to turn to a series of objections. The first is that children are apparently capable of being the subjects of the operation of Spirit and the “grace of the covenant.” He denied that is true of infants. To say that God brings infants to faith is to misunderstand the nature of the covenant. Here we see how important was his eschatological view of the New Covenant.
We shall find in the Scriptures of God, all the sweet promises of grace under the New Testament, holding forth their blessings and blessed privileges only to such as believe (pp. 2—3).
These are the elect, who demonstrate “some effect of grace,” namely “declaring their faith.” Only those who make such a profession of faith have “have a visible right to these privileges.” He did not deny that John the Baptist believed in the womb or that others may also but only that because we cannot know that to be true of any in particular,they may not be baptized (p. 3).
He continued this line of argumentation, that only believers may be said to be united to Christ and only those united to Christ are eligible for baptism (pp. 3–5). This is because baptism is not a sign of initiation into the visible covenant community but a divine ordinance that confirms what the church has observed (p. 6).
He then turned to the problem of Abraham. He states the Reformed view fairly, that what was true of Abraham and his children remains true of believers and their children in the New Covenant. He replied:
…more is required of men of years, for their receiving of baptism, than is of infants; and all the proof is from the example of Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac….
He argued that there was a divine command to circumcise believing Abraham and his children but now, “the command of God only gives persons (now under the gospel)right to baptism which requires not more of one person than of another but faith and repentance in all alike (as proof of which he cites a number of passages). He argued that faith wa required of Abraham as a condition of circumcision. “Or that the same faith in the blessed seed Jesus Christ, was so required of all his household at the time of their circumcision, is more than yet appears to me” (p. 7).
The argument takes an interesting, indeed remarkable turn. Spilsbury seemed to have felt the force of the argument. Unlike those PBs whom we have mostly considered thus far, Spilsbury seems to have held something like the view that I described in part 1 as the Old Particular Baptist (OPB) view, i.e., the view that most predominated among modern Particular Baptists before the recovery of some of the more important 17th-century writers, whom I have been calling the PBs. This latter group clearly rejects the Reformed doctrine of continuity between the New Covenant and the covenant of grace and typically describes the Abrahamic covenant(s) as a species of the covenant of works or lumps the Abrahamic together the Mosaic and the Davidic. In any event, the goal is, more or less, to marginalize Abraham and eliminate the Reformed doctrine that the New Covenant is the Abrahamic covenant without the bloody types and shadows.
Spilsbury, however, argued (pp. 8–10) that the Reformed misunderstand the nature of the continuity with Abraham. What binds the New Covenant together with Abraham is not its promises and administration but the reception of the realities. Abraham had the benefits of Christ by faith. So it is in the New Covenant. The true seed was ever and only by electing grace, through faith. Only those who actually receive the benefits were ever actually in the covenant under Abraham and so it is now. In other words, for Spilsbury, the promises were always and only for believers.
The covenant of Genesis 17 was different from the New Covenant in at least one very important respect:
Let this be well considered, and and doubt not but the difference between the covenant God made with Abraham before Christ, and this under Christ, will appear very great, Both in respect of the persons and things. W’hereine our descent chiefly lies: that covenant addicted of a fleshly seed, but this only of a spiritual, Gen 17, with Rom. 9 That in the flesh, and this in the heart, Gen 17.13. With Jer. 31:33 Rom 2:28, 29 The seal and ordinances of that covenant confirmed faith in things to come, but the seal and ordinances of this covenant confirm faith in things already done (p. 11).
For Spilsbury, the Abrahamic covenant was national (and thus he did turn Abraham into Moses). By contrast, the New Covenant is “personal” (by which I take him to mean individual). Under Abraham it was possible to be admitted outwardly without a personal faith but that is impossible under the New Covenant. He attributed to the Abrahamic covenant “a civil state, and a worldly government with the like carnal subjects for the service of the same” (p. 11). The basis for this anachronism (the civil state was not established until Moses) appears to be that circumcision was instituted under Abraham and administered under Moses. This argument persists today.
The covenant itself, he argued,
is a covenant of grace and salvation, by which God of his grace takes a person or a people to himself for his own above all others, and to be their God [but not, apparently to their children, contra Genesis 17—rsc] and to manifest upon them the riches of his grace and glory and the manner of which is in effect but only thus much: God’s calling of a man to an agreement with himself in his Son, wherein he promises to be his God, and to give him life and happiness , and all things in Christ and that he shall believe and rest upon his faithfulness and truth, and so take him for his God etc (p. 12).
Notice what Spilsbury did. He very subtly changed the terms of the covenant. God’s Word actually says,
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:7–8; ESV).
Spilsbury re-cast the Abrahamic covenant individualistic terms. Where, on its own terms, the Abrahamic covenant was a promise that entailed a corporate outward administration, for Spilsbury, it is a realization which the outward administration only recognizes.
What Kind Of Continuity With Abraham?
This work is particularly interesting because at the heart of his case is his understanding of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17. Unlike most of the other writers we have surveyed (and criticized) so far, Spilsbury wants to assert a kind of continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant. Here we must observe more fully the nature of the continuity he sought to affirm. For Spilsbury, because the covenant of Genesis 17 was a covenant of grace it has always been the case that only those who received its benefits by grace alone, through faith alone were ever actually in the covenant (p. 13). The promise gives one entry into the covenant of grace but every covenant has two parts. There is a mutuality in the covenant of grace. God’s part in the covenant is to promise and it is our part to believe, which faith is granted to the elect, whom God regenerates. Thus, as in the New Covenant (“the Gospel”) only believers are ever actually in the covenant of grace so it was under Abraham. Ishmael was never really in the covenant of grace.
For Spilsbury, there was really only ever what the Reformed writers called “the substance” of the covenant of grace. There has always and only been one way of being in the covenant of grace, by grace alone, through faith alone. The only way infants could ever be in the covenant of grace would be if they were born regenerate (p. 14), born in a “saving estate of grace.” He knew, however, from Scripture that any such doctrine of infant regeneration “makes void many heavenly and divine truths that speak to the contrary” (ibid). He was quite aware of examples to the contrary, e.g., John the Baptist, but these, he argued were special cases about which we have divine revelation. We have no such revelation about our children and thus that example is not probative.
The treatise has a dialogical or catechetical (question and answer) structure and one of the objections that he sought to answer was the Reformed complaint that his denial of infant baptism effectively reduced (rather than enlarged) the extent of the covenant of grace (p. 15). He affirmed unapologetically that it does. When Christ came, he argued, “the flesh” was “taken away.” He returned to his doctrine that infants were ever only involved in the covenant of grace under Abraham by “special command” and that being absent in the New Covenant (a priori the nature of the New Covenant is such that it had to be repeated to be continued) their inclusion was abrogated.
As to Reformed objection that Scripture says, “I will be a God to you and to your seed,” he replied that was merely the ground for circumcision (p.16). It was not a general promise that carried over into the New Covenant. Again, he made an argument from the silence of the New Testament. Further (pp. 17–18) the promise was to believing Abraham. We have no confidence that infants believe, therefore they have no interest in the New Covenant until such time as they are brought to faith. God shall be their God, when they come to faith (p.18). Anyway, he argued, the language of Genesis 17 was really “figurative” speech about the “outward and temporal” blessings of Canaan (ibid). Further, the temporal promises were conditioned upon “faith and obedience.” They had to be “circumcised in heart.” Thus, as noted above, such promises and the inclusion of infants in them “ended in Christ, in whom all stands from only such as believe, as Gal. 3” (ibid).
From here he moved to a brief exposition of Galatians 4 (pp. 19–20). For Spilsbury, Hagar signifies the “old state in general” (p. 20). Ishmael was the physical son of Abraham but “no child of the promise.” Sarah stands for the New Testament, “the true spouse and wife of Christ.” Isaac represents all the elect, regenerated people in New Testament church. As to the corporate baptism of the Israelites, to which Paul appeals in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4, he argued that benefit was only for the Jews because they were God’s national people. That arrangement ended with Christ and there therefore it says nothing to us in the New Covenant about whom we should baptize or even about the nature of the covenant of grace (pp.22–23). In both cases, he interpreted the passages using the categories and principles he had already articulated.
Analysis And Response
The work continues for another 60 pages or so but we have come to the point where, after the principles have been established and applied a few times, we are able to begin to predict the outcome. We have a reasonably good sense of how Spilsbury read the Abrahamic covenant, the history of redemption, and the hermeneutic (approach to interpreting Scripture) he used.
What began formally as an appeal to continuity between the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace and the New Covenant only works if the Reformed reader makes some major concessions. Perhaps the most important of these was his notion that there really is only ever one way of being in the covenant of grace. His account of how Ishmael and Isaac were in the covenant of grace was, frankly, incoherent. The reason for this incoherence is that he had rejected the Reformed doctrine that there has always been two ways of participating in the covenant of grace. The Reformed theologian Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) distinguished between the “substance” of the covenant of grace and its external administration. According to the Reformed reading of redemptive history we must affirm the reality of both. We agree that only the elect, whom God brings to faith, ever receive Christ and his benefits by grace alone, through faith alone but this does not answer the question of whom God has ordained to participate in the external administration of the covenant of grace.
Despite his formal distinction between Abraham and Moses, ultimately, if in a round about way, Spilsbury ultimately turned Abraham into Moses via circumcision. He regarded circumcision as really only about the earthly and temporal promises, as essentially a Mosaic practice which was (inexplicably) projected back into the Abrahamic covenant. We know from Hebrews and from John 8, among other places, that Abraham’s hope was never in an earthly land and that Canaan was a picture of heaven but it is important to see that, for Spilsbury, the Abrahamic covenant was not as spiritual as he initially seemed to make it.
Though he appealed to the New Testament regularly, from the Reformed perspective, he did not actually allow the New Testament to shape his reading of Abraham and Moses. He did not allow Paul to teach him how to read Scripture nor did he permit Hebrews to teach him what the nature of the external administration of the covenant of grace is in the Old and New Testaments. Read on its own terms, in its own context, the very problems with which pastor to the Hebrews was struggling testifies against Spilsbury’s over-realized eschatology and that was grounded in his literal reading of Jeremiah 31. Where, for Spilsbury, the command to initiate infants (in Genesis 17) into the visible covenant community, into the outward administration of the covenant of grace (to hear the preached gospel which we pray and trust the Lord will use to bring covenant children to new life and to true faith and thence to profession of faith, thence to the communion, and to a fruitful Christian life) he took Jeremiah 31 literally. By contrast, the Reformed recognize that Jeremiah was speaking figuratively about the New Covenant, using hyperbole. Even our Baptist friends recognize this when the employ pastors to preach. Evidently, there is some need to say “know the Lord” in the New Covenant.
Spilsbury seemed to see a connection between circumcision and baptism but he interpreted the former in light of his Baptist view of the New Covenant. Baptism, he knew a priori, could only be an affirmation (his language) of existing spiritual realities in the believer. If there is an analogy between baptism and circumcision then, a fortiori, circumcision was really only a recognition of what had already been accomplished. Because of this approach, his account of why infants were circumcised should not persuade those who are trying to account for what Scripture says.
It is interesting, however, to see in the 17th century the same phenomena that we experience today. Spilsbury’s discussion of infant regeneration was enlightening in that regard. To be sure, there were Reformed writers in the period (e.g., Beza) who argued for infant initiation and thus he might be forgiven for thinking that the Reformed believed such a doctrine. Nevertheless, the Reformed did not confess that doctrine. We do not baptize on the basis of the speculation that an infant is regenerate. We baptize on the basis of the promise, “I will be a God to you and to your children after you” and on analogy with the inclusion of infants in the external administration of the covenant of grace.
The real question is why Spilsbury found the Baptist case so attractive? The answer almost certainly is to be found not in his text but in his circumstances, in the history of the English church. In Spilsbury we see the effect of the separatist reaction to the state-church. We do not have time to survey English church history in any detail but suffice it to say that from the moment the faith came to England, it came through the king to the people. Church and state have always been intertwined. Missionaries operated with permission of nobility and kings. One day a village was pagan and the next day it was “Christian.” One day the English church was Roman and her king (Henry VIII) was a Luther-hating “Defender of the [Romanist] Faith” and the next, the English church was nominally Protestant.
Both the separatists (e.g., Congregationalists, e.g., Ames and Presbyterians, e.g., Cartwright) and the non-separating orthodox Reformed (e.g., Sibbes and Perkins) recognized the problem of nominalism in the English church. There were too many who, though baptized and churched, did not seem to have been regenerated, they did not seem to have closed personally with Christ in true faith. They did not seem to be giving themselves over to godliness and good works as a consequence. For the more radical separatists, those with a highly realized eschatology, there was no time to seek reformation. The only solution was to separate from the established church. Revulsion toward the manifestly mixed nature of the established church, in reaction to the sometimes violent hostility by the establishment toward spiritual and ecclesiastical reformation in England, drove the separatists farther from the established church. They began to look for pure, separated congregations, e.g., the Brownists. By the late 16th century, England was an uncomfortable place for separatists generally (as William Ames would tell us) and thus some of them fled to the Netherlands. Two of those were John Smyth (1554–1612) and Thomas Helwys (c. 1550–c.1616), who emigrated from England to the Netherlands, where they came into contact with the Mennonites. For more on this see, e.g., Chute, Finn, and Haykin, 14–14.
As much as congregationalists such as Ames and Presbyterians such as Thomas Cartwright longed for a spiritual and ecclesiastical reformation in England, as persecuted as they were by the establishment, there were real theological differences between them and the radicals, the Brownists, and those who would become Baptists c. 1611. They were more realistic. Their eschatology was less realized and their hermeneutic was more traditional. Ames, Cartwright, Perkins, and Sibbes, to think about less radical English Protestants, were more sympathetic to Luther whereas the radicals were fundamentally more sympathetic to the concerns of the Anabaptists. Their eschatology was more like that of the Anabaptists. This is not the say that they agreed with the Anabaptists on everything but when Smyth and Helwys met the Mennonites (Anabaptists), they met kindred spirits in important, even fundamental ways.
Keach Turns Abraham Into Moses
According to Michael Haykin, upon whose sketch this brief introduction relies, Benjamin Keach (1640–1704) was born to Anglican parents and raised in the established church. As a teen-ager, however, he joined the General Baptists, i.e., those separatists arising out of contact with and influence by the Dutch Mennonites in the Netherlands. The General Baptists were Arminian in their soteriology. Haykin, like other Particular Baptist writers, seeks to connect the Baptists (both General and Particular) with “the Puritans” (more later about this problematic category). He writes, the Baptists “emerged from the womb of Puritanism in the second decade of the seventeenth century.” This repeated claim illustrates the major problem of the very category “Puritans.” Were they conformists (e.g., Perkins, Sibbes, et al), non-conformists (e.g., Congregationalists, Presbyterians), radical (Brownists), Moderate (e.g., Ames)? How do Arminians “emerge” from the womb of a movement the soteriology of which is supposed to be strongly monergistic? Further, as I keep noting, there was Richard Baxter, who is regularly described as a “Puritan,” (e.g., most notably perhaps by J. I. Packer) and yet who single-handedly laid siege to the material cause of the Reformation: justification by grace alone, through faith alone. How does a conforming and robustly Calvinist Anglican William Perkins belong to the same category as an initially Arminian, separatist, (General) Baptist Benjamin Keach? The plasticity of the category “Puritan” remains problematic.
The etiology of the Particular Baptist movement also remains problematic. My PB friends consistently deny any connection between the Particular Baptists and the Anabaptists. This assertion seems to be more grounded in their theological self-identity than in actual history.
The self-identity of Particular Baptists is “not Anabaptist” and as “Puritan” (whatever that means) is undeniably important. See e.g., the place of “self-identity” in Sam Renihan’s telling of the formation of the Particular Baptist movement in his PhD. dissertation where he writes, “There is an intentional effort to self-identify as Protestants, Reformed, and Baptists” (p. 11). He refers (and arguably defers) to the internal PB history tracing the origins of the movement to the Jacob/Lathrop/Jessey congregation, which I discussed in an earlier post. It is important for us to observe the self-identity and the pyschology of a movement, as I have tried to do with Calvin and the early orthodox self-identity as pilgrims and churches under the cross. Nevertheless, that is not the same as an objective historical account of what actually happened. It is not a historical account of how a movement actually developed. E.g., I have noted here how the Reformed orthodox (e.g., Turretin) answered the question, “Where was your church before Luther and Zwingli?” In his reply Turretin made historical claims and relied on a way of doing history (historiography) that is simply not tenable. He was quite sympathetic to something like a “trail of blood” historiography. He more or less suggested that the truth of the Christian faith and the Christian church was sealed in a jar in the Alps between the Fathers and the Reformation. As much as I may agree with Turretin theologically as a matter of history I have a duty to dissent. Turretin’s self-identity is one thing and objective history is something else. As best I can tell, the truth was not sealed in a jar in the Alps (e.g., among the Waldenses) but rather it was “in, with, and under” (to borrow an expression) the width and breadth of the pre-Reformation church. So, here, I suppose that the Particular Baptist movement drew from a variety of threads, was influenced by a variety of institutional, social, and theological factors. Among those factors, as I have been suggesting in this series, was the pressure placed upon non-conformists by the established church. The reaction to the established church by Congregationalists (who existed along a continuum), Presbyterians, and conforming Anglicans was one of those favors. Among those factors was also the rise and spread of the Anabaptist movement.
This is not to say that the General and Particular Baptists emerged directly out of the Anabaptist movement(s). It is to say, however, that the Anabaptists formed an essential part of the background of Baptist movements, they helped to shape the conceptual background, the reading of redemptive history, the hermeneutic. The existence of the Anabaptist movements helped to make the certain assumptions and conclusions plausible in a way that might not have been true had they not existed. Baptist historians tell us that Keach emerged out of the General Baptist milieu and they themselves recognize the connection between the General Baptists and the Dutch Mennonites (which I mentioned in the previous post). There were other routes into the Particular Baptist movement. Some PB leaders did come out of the established church but they were they driven to their conclusions because they started with standard Reformed assumptions and convictions or by other assumptions and convictions, i.e., those of the more radical separatists? I discussed this in the previous essay.
Let me repeat, however: I am not calling Particular Baptists (or any other branch of the Baptist movement that arose c. 1611) Anabaptists. The Baptists rejected some of the most significant Anabaptist doctrines. They rejected the Anabaptist (“Celestial Flesh”) Christology and they embraced the Protestant doctrine of salvation, which all the first-generation Anabaptists rejected—they were not Protestants, they did not accept the Protestant Reformation—and they rejected the Anabaptist doctrine of continuing, extra-canonical revelation and associated phenomena. Nevertheless, the Baptist movements obviously have theological connections with the Anabaptists (both reject the Reformed doctrine of baptism, the Reformed reading of redemptive history and covenant theology, the Reformed hermeneutic, and both affirm believers’ baptism as the only baptism). Given the formative role of the Dutch (Anabaptist) Mennonites in the origins of the General Baptist movement and the evident connections between the General and Particular Baptists, it seems like special pleading to deny any historical connection whatever with the Anabaptists. In this regard McGoldrick’s account (see below, pp. 127–32) seems much more nuanced than some (e.g., Brackney).
To return to Keach, he, according to Haykin, was first called as a preacher to a General Baptist congregation. The old meeting house is called “Keach’s Meeting House” even though, according to Haykin, it is unknown whether Keach worshiped there. As a non-conformist, like the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, Keach suffered for his convictions. He was pilloried, fined, and even jailed briefly for publishing a children’s instructional book, which advocated the Baptist view. In 1668 we find him in London, associated with a General Baptist congregation there, on the south shore of the Thames. There, however, he came into contact with Hanserd Knollys and William Kiffen, who persuaded him to embrace the Calvinist soteriology. He became preacher in what became, under his ministry, a large Particular Baptist congregation in Horselydown, Southwark. Keach is a major figure in the history of the Particular Baptist movement. He published voluminously and his 1693 catechism has been particularly influential.
The work before us, The Ax Laid to the Root: One Blow More at the Foundation of Infant Baptism… was published in London, in two parts, in 1693. As was typical of the period it has a lengthy but illuminating subtitle: Containing An Exposition of that Metaphorical Text of Holy Scripture, Mat. 3.10. Being the Substance of Two Sermons lately preached with some additions. Wherein is shewed [shown] That God Made a Tw0-fold Covenant with Abraham, and that Circumcision Appertained Not to the Covenant of Grace, But to the Legal and External Covenant God Made with Abraham’s Natural Seed…. He also included responses to John Flavel’s critique of the Baptist reading of redemptive history.
He began with the words of John the Baptizer (a more neutral translation, since, obviously, post-1611 it is difficult for the English reader to separate the original sense of “Baptist” as “Baptizer” from the post-1611 sense of Baptist as “proponent of believers’ baptism only”): “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (ESV). The import of the text becomes immediately evident. Those whom John was calling to repentance and to be baptized (and that the call was to adults and that only adults were putatively baptized, of course, was important to his case). Those whom he was calling to repentance, faith, and to baptism were those who considered themselves (p. 3) “in covenant with God, and so are federally holy, and in a saved and safe condition, because you have Abraham to your father, you conclude, that covenant God made with Abraham, and his natural or fleshly seed, was the covenant of grace; and the promise is sure to you. And therefore he adds, ver. 7. ‘And think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham'” [punctuation and spelling modernized].
Naturally, he turned to Jesus’ prosecution of the Jews in John 8 for claiming Abraham as their father. Whatever benefits the Jews had under Moses, now, “under the gospel dispensation,” that history and those privileges were of “no spiritual advantage” to them. According to Keach, the Baptizer was saying, that it was necessary for the Pharisees et al to “be the spiritual seed of Abraham and do the works of Abraham” but they did not, because they were only the physical seed, therefore they were of their father the Devil. Their great confusion was that they did not understand the twofold nature of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17. Therefore they falsely “entitled themselves to the covenant of grace (like some do now a-days)” to the covenant of grace on the basis of their confusion of the “twofold seed” and the “two covenants” with Abraham but “(saith the Baptists) God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Thus, it is not difficult to see where the paedobaptists (infant baptizers) and especially those in the established church fall in this scheme.
Some have written to ask why I write as I have about the history of the Baptist movements. Here are some of the secondary texts that have informed my understanding of Baptist history:
- Timothy George and David Dockery eds., Baptist Theologians (1990)
- Ibid., Theologians of the Baptist Tradition (2001).
- Robert W. Oliver, History of the English Calvinistic Baptists… (2006).
- James E. McGoldrick, Baptist Successionism: A Crucial Question (1994).
- William Henry Brackney, The Baptists (1988)
- Chute, Finn, and Haykin, The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement (2015).
- Samuel David Renihan, “From Shadow to Substance;” The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642–1704) (PhD Diss. Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 2017.)
I have consumed, as it were, other essays and chapters in the years since. More recently I worked through additional secondary literature for my essay: “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89, which then pushed me forward to engage with the texts that I have been surveying in this series, for which there was no space in the “House of Cards” essay.
- Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over A Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018).
- A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology and Infant Baptism
- Thomas Boston on Works and Grace Galatians 4.
- On Distinguishing the Jerusalem That Is Below From That Which Is Above
- In, With, And Under
- Vos: The Covenant Of Grace Was Present In, With, And Through The Old Testament Types And Shadows
- One Important Difference Between The Reformed And Some Particular Baptists: God The Son Was In, With, And Under The Types And Shadows
- A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology And Infant Baptism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).