Last time we began looking at one of the earliest figures in the history of the Particular Baptist movement(s), John Spilsbury. We are considering his treatise, mostly by way of survey, against infant baptism (paedobaptism). 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.
<b>Analysis And Response</b)
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.