John Owen Was Not A Baptist (Part 2)

Obs. I. Believers under the new testament have lost nothing, no privilege that was enjoyed by them under the old.

Many things they have gained, and those of unspeakable excellency, but they have lost nothing at all. Whatever they had of privilege in any ordinance, that is continued; and whatever was of burden or bondage, that is taken away. All that they had of old was on this account, that they were the people of God. To them as such did all their advantages and privileges belong. But they were yet so the people of God as to be kept like servants, under the severe discipline of the law, Gal. 4:1. Into this great fountain-privilege believers under the gospel are now succeeded. And what was of servitude in reference unto the law is removed and taken away; but whatever was of advantage is continued unto them, as the people of God. This, I suppose, is unquestionable, that God making them to be “his people who were not a people,” would not cut them short of any privilege which belonged before to his people as such, Rom. 9:25, 26. Besides, the state of the gospel is an estate of more grace and favour from God than that under the law, John 1:17. The whole gospel is an ampliation of divine spiritual grace and favour to God’s people. So is it a better estate than that which went before, accompanied with “better promises,” more liberty, grace, and privileges, than it. Nothing, then, of this nature can be lost therein or thereby to believers, but all privileges at any time granted unto the people of God are made over to them that under the gospel are so. Let men but give one instance to this purpose, and not beg the matter in question, and it shall suffice. Moreover, God hath so ordered all things in the dispensation of his grace and institution of his worship, that Jesus Christ should have the pre-eminence in all. All things are gathered up unto a head in him. And is it possible that any man should be a loser by the coming of Christ, or by his own coming unto Christ? It is against the whole gospel once to imagine it in the least instance. Let it now be inquired whether it were not a great privilege of the people of God of old, that their infant seed were taken into covenant with them, and were made partakers of the initial seal thereof? Doubtless it was the greatest they enjoyed, next to the grace they received for the saving of their own souls. That it was so granted them, so esteemed by them, may be easily proved. And without this, whatever they were, they were not a people. Believers under the gospel are, as we have spoken, the people of God; and that with all sorts of advantages annexed unto that condition, above what were enjoyed by them who of old were so. How is it, then, that this people of God, made so by Jesus Christ in the gospel, should have their charter, upon its renewal, razed with a deprivation of one of their choicest rights and privileges? Assuredly it is not so. And therefore if believers are now, as the apostle says they are, “the people of God,” their children have a right to the initial seal of the covenant. Again,—

John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews ed., W. H. Goold (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter), 21. 328–29.

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  1. Great title. While I love my Baptist brethren the title made me laugh out loud. I get concerned when our 1689 brethren love to own Owen. Though Congregational, he was no Baptist. They love to point to his position on the new covenant as though that nullifies the covenant of grace and it’s continued administration/substance components. It’s a classic case of missing the forest for the trees the way Baptist’s read into his Hebrews commentary. The Baptist’s are just on the wrong side of history, and more importantly, scripture on these points. Let Owen rest as the staunch paedobaptist he was. I have no doubt he would be indignant if he knew his well documented and precise views were being misrepresented.

    • Douglas,

      That’s true if we’re discussing church polity but if we’re talking about how to read the history of redemption and if we’re asking what his covenant theology was, then, yes, he was “presbyterian” (lower case p). He held essentially the same covenant theology as the Presbyterians but the word Reformed would be more accurate and useful here since there were, as I keep saying, Anglicans, Presbyterians (many of whom became Anglicans again after the Assembly), and Congregationalists at the Westminster Assembly. William Ames was a congregationalist who is recognized by all the Reformed as a Reformed theologian. He was an observer at the Synod of Dort. He is the father of much Dutch Reformed theology, which is presbyterial (lower case p) in polity.

      So, what does polity have to do with it? Ames, Owen, and the signers of the Savoy Declaration shared the same covenant theology as all the Reformed and they all taught one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. They all taught that the covenant of grace was present (not just witnessed to) in the Old Testament and that the covenant of grace didn’t just first appear in the New Covenant.

    • I think you’re over simplifying Owen’s position. Did he continue to baptize infants? Of course. But doing so is not a sine qua non of Presbyterianism or being reformed since many non-reformed/nonPresbyterians baptize infants.

      Owen’s departure from the WCF was wider than merely his ecclesiastical polity. According to his commentary on Hebrews 8 he also moved away from the WCF on the relationship of the OC to the NC. In fact, it’s fair to say that where his ecclesiastical polity differences with the WFC cannot be said to be unrelated to his changes to his evolving understanding of the covenants.

      It seems that you are not allowing for the significant developments in Owen’s theology. As you are aware, he once was a WCF man. Then moved beyond that with his contributions to Savoy. I’d be willing to buy you a double-double from In-N-Out if you could demonstrate that Owen’s thinking on the NC didn’t continue to evolve over time and as it did it moved further from WCF on key points beyond ecclesiastical polity. While Owen was never a Baptist, the 17th century PB certainly built much of their covenant theology upon similar commitments.

      I’ll even throw in some fries 🍟.

      • Doug,

        I’m not oversimplifying Owen’s position. I’m reading more of Owen than simply his comments in chapter 8 taken out of context. Read the prolegomena to the commentary on Hebrews. These comments come in his exposition of ch. 4. He argued this way all the way through his commentary on Hebrews.

        Your argument seems to me like special pleading. No matter how much evidence I show you from Owen’s own words, in his commentary on Hebrews, you appeal to one section, taken (it seems to me out of the context of the rest of the commentary and the rest of his work). By de-contextualizing him you make his talk about Abraham when he was talking about Moses.

        This is a hermeneutical problem. Owen taught one covenant of grace variously administered. He taught it explicitly. This isn’t just about baptism, this is about how to read texts in their context.

    • Douglas did you read this: “Let it now be inquired whether it were not a great privilege of the people of God of old, that their infant seed were taken into covenant with them, and were made partakers of he original seal thereof?” He is arguing that considering all the great privileges and blessings that God’s people have in the new covenant, it would be completely contradictory to them, if one of their chief blessings, the inclusion of their children, by denying them the covenant sign, was to be revoked in the new covenant. He argues that since both the old covenant and new covenant people have the promise, I will be a God to you and to your children, both are God’s people under the covenant of grace. Therefore God’s people under new covenant have no less privileges, especially the inclusion of their children would not be denied to them. That is Owen’s position. That the covenant of grace, including its sign, unites all of God’s people and their children. John Owen was definitely not a Baptist! He could not have put into stronger terms His support of the Reformed hermeneutic of one covenant of grace uniting all of God’s people, under the covenant sign that includes their children.

  2. I like how Owen stresses only the negatives were abrogated, not the positives, which are only enlarged. The administration and substance of the covenant of grace are foundational, not temporal or typical.

    I will be a God to you and your children after you is a recurrent promise from Genesis onward, and recapitulated by Peter on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:38-39. All Jews being addressed understood it was the same promise to Abraham he was announcing.

  3. While both Reformed and 1689 Federalism Baptists agree that the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the covenant of works, they differ completely on the main reason why it is a republication of the covenant of works.

    1689 Baptists see Scripture and God’s people divided into two opposing parts.
    These Baptists see the infant initiation into the old covenant through circumcision as a sign of obligation into a covenant of works for earthly rewards only. That is why they are so vehemently opposed to infant baptism as the covenant sign. To them the new covenant, after the death and resurrection of Christ, is the only covenant of grace. Under the covenant of grace, the new covenant community can only have members that are brought into the covenant of grace by being born again. So to initiate unregenerate infants into the covenant is to return to the covenant of works, requiring obedience to the whole law for earthly rewards, as though God’s people were still the earthly people under the covenant of works, and not under grace.

    The Reformed see the Mosaic covenant, which was a temporary administration to a national people that included land promises and earthly rewards for obedience, as a republication of the covenant of works, but as Dr. Clark explains, in, with, and under them, it was ultimately for pedagogical purposes, to show the people the impossibility of gaining acceptance with God by doing all that the law requires, to drive them back to the gracious covenant God made with Abraham when God walked through the pieces alone. The types and shadows of the Mosaic covenant were an administration of the covenant of grace, in, with and under the republication of the covenant of works, to point them to God Himself, as the Savior, who would do all that the covenant required and suffer the penalty for their disobedience, until the incarnation that actualized the Abrahamic covenant as the new covenant.

    In teaching that the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the covenant of works, Owen was not agreeing with 1689 Federalist views, that it was a republication for acceptance with God, ONLY for earthly rewards, but ultimately for pedagogical purposes, to show them their sin and misery so as to drive them back to the Savior who is God himself. Owen taught that the old, fading, soon too become obsolete Mosaic covenant, was subordinate to the to the new, actualized Abrahamic covenant precisely because it was serving as a pedagog until God’s people would receive their full inheritance in Christ, as a child receives its full inheritance at maturity and full understanding of its privileges and responsibilities.

    • Hi Angela,
      Your comments are thoughtful. However, how can an unregenerated child who is baptized be in Adam and in Christ at the same time? We are either in Christ as our Federal Head or we are in Adam as our Federal Head. I believe that all who are in the covenant of grace are regenerated and in Christ, which is what I believe the scripture passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel are saying when God says that all those in the new covenant will be given a new heart and all will know him.

      • Frederick,

        Your objection rests on a premise the Reformed churches considered and rejected. We distinguish between the external administration of the covenant of grace and the internal substance of the covenant. Our Baptist friends collapse the two. This is a mistake which leads to other mistakes (e.g., misunderstanding the history of redemption).

        The external administration of the covenant of grace is one thing, receiving the substance (Christ and his benefits) is another. The Lord has ordained to operate through the external administration of the covenant of grace to bring his elect to new life and to true faith. So, it would be odd to exclude them from the external administration until they professed possession of what is administered in the covenant. Of course, this is the way the Lord has always operated. Consider 1 Cor 10:1–4 where Paul equates the NT church with the Old Covenant people under Moses. He says that they were were baptized and they too had the Lord’s Supper and they too partook of Christ by faith just as we do: “and that rock was Christ.” His whole point rests on continuity between them and us. Lots of people participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace but not all of them received its substance (Christ and his benefits). That is the way it has always been. That is the way is now in the New Covenant (hence Hebrews chapters 6 and 10; hence Ananias and Sapphira, who were professing members but evidently unregenerate) and so it shall ever be until our Lord comes: tares amidst the harvest until Jesus comes.

  4. John Owen was a Congregationalist and author of the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration of 1658. Presbyterians and Baptists have enough heroes with out taking one of own as theirs.

    • This maybe true, but he actually was
      a Presbyterian at one stage before
      his defected, or rather “apostatised”😉
      though he never was an anabaptist,
      catabaptist or baptist of any colour,
      stripe or variety

  5. I don’t know what you mean by “special pleading.” My original comment was a simple reaction to your making a rather axiomatic point that Owen wasn’t a Baptist. I simply asserted neither was he a Presbyterian. Owen distanced himself from the WCF.

    Is your response to my original comment simply to suggest that Owen was more closely aligned with Presbyterians than PB? Hardly a compelling argument.

    I’m sure we agree that Owen’s theology was not stagnant but progressed and advanced. As he developed his theology it moved away from the WCF in more points than simply ecclesiastical polity. To deny this is anachronistic at best by downplaying the distinctions between 17th Century Presbyterians and 17th Century Congregationalist. The whole idea of a national church (Anglican) or politically enforced patterns of doctrine and worship (Westminster) were repugnant to the congregational/separatist. The congregational movement understood the Book of Common Prayer and WDW as false worship and a corruption of the church. For the Congregationalist, worship couldn’t be prescribed by an assembly called by parliament. Worship was to be freely given according to the authority of Christ in His Word (RPW) as understood among the local church officers recognized by the congregation to as gifted and set apart by the Holy Spirit to teach the scriptures.

    Owen was neither a PB or a Presbyterian. He was a Congregationalist, moving away from Presbyterianism by theological conviction.

    I like my double-double Animal style. 😉

    • None of your objections address the main point of this post which is that Owen was in agreement with Reformed hermeneutics on the covenant of grace that unites all of God’s people in both the old and new covenant, and that Owen points out that infant initiation is one of the chief privileges all of God’s people under the covenant of grace that unites all of God’s people. That makes Owen fundamentally in disagreement with the farmers of the 1689 London Baptist confessions. Where is the proof that Owen ever had such an about face change in his hermeneutics?

  6. If the Savoy and Owen was an attempt to make a significant theological separation from Westminster their omissions and additions do not reflect. Having just read the two side by side, often what the Savoy removes from one section or adds to another was likewise or similarly said in another section of WCF. Some subjects are given more or less ink in one or the other to emphasize a truth already said the other, but rarely controvert the other. The differences are do mainly rest on polity and the state. If Owen and the Savoy we’re trying to distance themselves from Presbyterians and their theology, they failed.

    • Just Google Savoy Declaration compared to Westminster Confession and the first entry will show a comparison chart showing that the only substantial difference between the two is about church government. The theology, as in how they understand redemptive history, and the covenants of works and grace, is the same. Even the 1689 Federalists admit this. Still they dismiss it and persist in their claim that if only Owen had lived longer, he would have further developed his understanding of the Mosaic Covenant and come to see the republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic covenant as a covenant administration to an earthly people seeking earthly rewards and tenure in the land, with circumcision, as not the covenant sign of grace, but of obligation to perform all that the law requires. So their claim that Owen agrees with them amounts to a canard, or unsubstantiated conjecture. On the contrary, Owen saw infant initiation as the greatest privilege of God’s people after personal by grace alone, as we see in this quotation.

  7. Hi Frederick, your comment highlights some of the most important differences between Reformed teaching and “reformed” Baptist teaching on covenant theology. According to Reformed teaching, since God promised a new Adam in the garden and confirmed it with a formal covenant with Abraham, when God walked through the pieces alone, the gospel has been administered to God’s people, in, with, and under the types and shadows of the old, Mosaic covenant and more clearly, since the incarnation, in the new covenant by means of the preaching of the Word and the use of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As you ask, how can an unregenerate child, who is baptized, be under the covenant of works and the covenant of grace at the same time? He simply cannot be under both covenants at the same time. The child may have received the SIGN of the covenant of grace, which is circumcision in the old mosaic administration, or baptism under the new covenant, pointing to the Savior. But unless, and until the child is personally regenerated by the Holy Spirit working through the means of SIGN and the Word, so he trusts in what the SIGN represents, he is only outwardly initiated into the covenant community as someone who has the bare SIGN pointing to the Savior, but not Christ, which it points to. Such a person is not inwardly in the covenant of grace because they do not, at least not yet, trust in Christ for their right standing with God. Baptists see baptism not as a sign that is used by God as a means of grace that points to salvation in Christ, but as confirmation, as something a person does to demonstrate regeneration. It is used as a test that is supposed to ensure that only those who are under regenerate grace are allowed into membership in the new covenant community. The Reformed believe that only God knows who His elect are, and it is only God’s election and subsequent true faith that gives someone an inward membership in the covenant community. God calls people into the community by the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, but only God can know who truly believes. So until Christ returns and purifies the church, it will always be a mixed assembly. So there is a difference in eschatology between Reformed and Baptist. Reformed see the passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel to be pointing to the pure Church that only exists after Christ returns and He purifies it as the glorified Bride without spot or wrinkle.

    Reformed theology sees two types of people that have always been among the people God calls through the administration of the covenant of grace: those who trust God, as God promised to Abraham, that God would provide perfect obedience and suffer the consequences of their disobedience, when God walked through the pieces alone, and those who remain under the covenant of works by relying on their own obedience for acceptance with God, despite having been given the covenant sign of circumcision in the old covenant, or baptism in the new covenant, that initiated them into the people God calls, through the means He has ordained. “Many are called, but few are chosen.” The elect, the chosen, will respond to the administration of the covenant of grace through the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, by truly trusting God to be their Savior because of God’s own fulfilling of all that the covenant of works requires on their behalf, so that they might be saved by grace, through faith. The Reformed see baptism as an initiation through the SIGN, into the community God calls. If and when the recipient comes to trust in what the sign points to, through the Holy Spirit working by means of the preached Word and the administration of the sacraments, to bring the elect to true faith, only then, are they are truly, inward members of the covenant of grace. So there are those in the covenant community who have only the sign of the initial call, while there are others who are truly regenerate and believe what the sign points to, but only God can know, in this life, who is and who is not, actually, inwardly in the covenant of grace.

    • Great points. Reformed are united on this. Those not are not Reformed, though they may be Calvinistic in soteriology and matters of election.

      Reformed then pastorally handle this formal/vital distinction of the covenant of grace in different ways. Some presume the child is unregenerate until they issue a profession of faith. Others presume the child is regenerate until they reject the faith. Some presume nothing. All raise their children in the faith and church placarding Christ and the gospel to them.

      Westminster 28.6 does affirm the possibility of regeneration occurring at the moment of baptism but qualify this to God’s sovereign work and will.

      “VI. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered;q yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.”

      Westminster 25 shows the mixed (formal/vital or administration/substance) of the covenant of grace.

      “II. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

      III. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

      IV. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

      V. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.“

      The covenant of grace is explained in Westminster 7.

      “IV. This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

      V. 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.

      VI. 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.“

  8. Amen! Thanks for this summery and points from the Westminster, which are also found expressed in the Savoy Declaration, of which Owen was the principal formulator.

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