John Owen Did Not Read Hebrews Like A Baptist (Part 1)

It is the habit of some of our Particular Baptist friends to imply, suggest, or even to say plainly that the great English Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–1683) was practically Baptist in his covenant theology.1 He is arguably one of the greatest theologians in the history of the English speaking people and thus it is tempting for Baptists to try to cover themselves with his credibility among the Reformed. May Baptists fairly align themselves with John Owen? Was his covenant theology sympathetic to theirs or compatible, or was his covenant theology (i.e., his reading of redemptive history) Reformed? Another way to put this question is to ask whether Owen had a quasi-Baptistic reading of redemptive history (covenant theology) but continued inconsistently to baptize infants. After all, the practice of infant baptism among the Reformed churches is grounded in and the product of our reading of redemptive history. This is evident in Huldrych Zwingli’s (1484–1531) defense of infant baptism against the Anabaptists in the early 1520s. In 1523, Zwingli held a view that sounds very much like Tertullian’s position (De Baptismo, 18)—that baptism ought to be delayed for the sake of the child.2 In 1525 he wrote,

For some time I myself was deceived by the error [of the Anabaptists] and I thought it better not to baptize children until they came to years of discretion. But I was not so dogmatically of this opinion as to take the course of many today, who although they are far too young and inexperienced in the matter argue and assert rashly that infant baptism derives from the papacy or the devil or something equally non-sensical.3

He rejected the Anabaptist reading of redemptive history on the ground that, in essence, there is one covenant of grace in multiple administrations. We see this in his 1527 Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists.4 Christians, as he argued against the “Catabaptists” (i.e., those who oppose baptism, a synonym for Anabaptist), are in the Abrahamic covenant.5 In 1534, Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) elaborated on this line of argumentation in On the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God.6

By the time John Owen published the first volume of his commentary on Hebrews in 1668, the contours of this approach were well established among the Reformed, whether presbyterial, congregational, or episcopalian in church polity.7 The Reformed, including Owen himself, had been making the same arguments for almost a century and a half. Remember that Owen played a significant role in the framing of the Savoy Declaration in 1658. In chapter 7, the Congregationalists confessed:

Although this covenant hath been differently and variously administered in respect of ordinances and institutions in the time of the law, and since the coming of Christ in the flesh; yet for the substance and efficacy of it, to all its spiritual and saving ends, it is one and the same; upon the account of which various dispensations, it is called the Old and New Testament.

This is substantially identical to Westminster Confession of Faith 7.5:

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.

The crucial clause in the Savoy, in relation to this article, says, “it is one and the same.” This claim is what was in dispute with the Anabaptists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which has remained in dispute with the Particular Baptists since the mid-seventeenth century. We may be confident that the framers of the Savoy, including Owen, were affirming the Reformed consensus because in article 29 they confessed, “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptised, and those only.” Further, they added, against the Anabaptists and the Baptists: “Baptism is but once to be administered to any person.”

The contemporary Baptist appeal to Owen on Romans is grounded in his exposition of Hebrews chapter 8, but that interpretation will be shown to be untenable. One of the many remarkable features of Owen’s is the series of twenty-four exercitations (i.e., a practice, exercise, or even spiritual discipline).8 Owen’s exercitations reflect aspects of each of these more familiar English words, but he was using it in the Latin sense of getting started. This is what he was doing in this volume—getting started, laying a foundation, and setting up the contours for the way he intended to approach and interpret Hebrews.

Exercitation VI is central to understanding Owen’s comprehension of the unity of the covenant of grace in his commentary on Hebrews. There are seven headings under this exercitation:9

  1. Oneness of the church.
  2. Promise of the Messiah the foundation of the church.
  3. The church confined unto the person and posterity of Abraham—His call and separation for a double end.
  4. Who properly [is] the seed of Abraham.
  5. Mistake of the Jews about the covenant.
  6. Abraham the father of the faithful and heir of the world to come.
  7. The church still the same.

As is evident from these headings, Owen had a strong concept of the unity of the covenant of grace. In Owen’s understanding, according to John Tweeddale, “the Abrahamic covenant” is “programmatic for the progression of redemptive history.”10 For Owen, Abraham is the father of all who believe. He “was the ‘pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and those would ever come to be a member of [the covenant]’, or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise.”11

A consequence of his “emphasis on the primacy of faith in the Abrahamic covenant” was a “strong commitment to the continuity of the covenant of grace as an interpretative framework to explain the transition from the Old to the New Testament.”12

Owen explained:

And in the covenant made with him, as to that which concerns, not the bringing forth of the promised Seed according to the flesh, but as unto faith therein, and in the work of redemption to be performed thereby, lies the foundation of the church in all ages. Wheresoever this covenant is, and with whomsoever it is established, with them is the church; unto whom all the promises and privileges of the church do belong. Hence it was, that at the coming of the Messiah there was not one church taken away, and another set up in the room thereof; but the church continued the same, in those that were the children of Abraham according to the faith. The Christian church is not another church, but the very same that was before the coming of Christ, having the same faith with it, and interested in the same covenant.13

The discontinuity between the types and shadows and the realities of the New Covenant are fourfold:

  1. The earthly privilege of the Jews ended with the coming of Christ.
  2. The Mosaic ordinances expired.
  3. The new ordinances [Baptism and the Lord’s Supper] were established.
  4. Believing Gentiles became fellow heirs of the Abrahamic promises along with believing Jews.14

For Owen, the substance of the covenant remained the same even as its external administration changed according to the progress of revelation and redemption.

Part 2.

Notes

  1. The Particular Baptist theologian Nehemiah Coxe (1650–1689) claimed to be following Owen’s commentary on Hebrews. See Ronald D. Miller, James Renihan, et al. Coxe, eds. Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005). Crawford Gribben seems to imply that, as he became a congregationalist, Owen embraced a Baptistic view of the visible church: “Nevertheless, he continued, he was certain that the church was not composed of believers and their children, as the Scottish confessional tradition claimed, but that it included believers alone.” John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 120. He cites Owen, Works, 8.287 but this 1650 sermon does not obviously support Gribben’s conclusion. Owen was not addressing the visible church but rather those who are elect, justified etc., which he says on p. 286.
  2. Huldrych Zwingli, Writings, ed. E. J. Furcha (Allison Park: Pickwick, 1984), 1.100–01.
  3. From Zwingli’s Von der Taufe translated as Concerning Baptism in G. W. Bromiley, ed., Zwingli and Bullinger: Selected Translations with Introductions and Notes. The Library of Christian Classics, V. 24 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), 139.
  4. In Samuel Macauley Jackson et al. eds., Selected Works. Pennsylvania Paperback, 49. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).
  5. From Zwingli’s perspective, because they opposed infant baptism, the Anabaptists were attacking baptism. He understood that they practiced a form of baptism. Ulrich Gaebler, Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work, trans. Ruth C. L. Gritsch (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986) 129.
  6. Bullinger, De Testamento Seu Foedere Dei Unico Et Aeterno, translated as A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament Or Covenant of God in Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition. 1st ed. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991).
  7. John W. Tweeddale, John Owen and Hebrews: The Foundation of Biblical Interpretation (London: T&T Clark, 2019), 3.
  8. Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, s.v., “exercitation.” The word was derived from the Latin exercitatio, which means to set in motion. This word has not been used much since the late nineteenth century. The 1676 edition of Owen’s Exercitations on the Messiahship of Christ in Hebrews uses the Latin rather than the English word used in the Goold edition.
  9. These headings occur in the 1676 edition.
  10. Tweeddale, John Owen and Hebrews, 107.
  11. Tweeddale, 107.
  12. Tweeddale, 109.
  13. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in Works of John Owen, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 18 (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 123; Tweeddale, John Owen and Hebrews, 109.
  14. Tweeddale, 109.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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8 comments

  1. Dr. Clark,

    The Baptist friends and family that I have prefer the more appropriate term “Reformed” Baptist instead of “Particular”. If I recall, some even studied Reformed Baptist Theology at Westminster in Escondido. There had previously been a joint venture between Westminster and The Institute For Reformed Baptist Studies.

    • Hi John,

      The term “Reformed Baptist” is relatively new. It only became widely used with the rise of the so-called Young, Restless, & Reformed movement (c. AD 2000). The earliest use I’ve seen dates to 1823, in a newspaper, the meaning and context of which is unclear. It may well mean “reorganized.” Particular Baptist is the older language.

      No one in the 16th or 17th centuries, not the Baptists themselves, was using the phrase “Reformed Baptist.” This is because everyone, Baptist and Reformed alike, knew that there was no such thing as a Reformed Baptist. As a phrase it is oxymoronic. When the Particular (as distinct from General) Baptist movement arose in the early 17th century, the Reformed in England denounced it as Anabaptist. As I keep saying, this was not entirely accurate but it tells us how the Reformed viewed them.

      One of the biggest problems with the phrase “Reformed Baptist” is the damage it does to the definition of Reformed. It entails a minimalist redefiniton of Reformed.

      I’ve argued this case at length. See these resources. See also this comparison between the WCF and the 2nd London.

  2. From the Savoy Declaration, which advocates for the baptism of believers’ infants, and a catholic church, but which also insists that membership of a local church is for “saints by calling” and not their baptised children:

    A particular church gathered and completed according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members. The Lord Christ having given to his called ones (united according to his appointment in church-order) liberty and power to choose persons fitted by the Holy Ghost for that purpose, to be over them, and to minister to them in the Lord.
    The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; who, being further known to each other by their confession of the faith wrought in them by the power of God, declared by themselves or otherwise manifested, do willingly consent to walk together according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and to one another by the will of God in professed subjection to the ordinances of the gospel.

  3. Love all my brothers and sisters who still adhere to “Baptism of accountability”, may God open up your eyes to the truth that anything man insists on to be done unto God is done not onto faith but sin. God does the work in Baptism so instead of placing your ridiculous rules into the mix (Galatians anyone), just say “Yes and Amen”.
    John Owens saw this but had lapses, like all of us, when we let the Old Adam drive the truck instead of God alone.

  4. Pertaining to Baptism of accountability or the comments John Owens made concerning whether “all” or “some” infants should be baptized? My understanding of “Baptism of accountability” is the same as the “age of repentance or belief” theology of anabaptists that has been accepted into other denominations. So the notion of any denying of Baptism to infants, based upon mans interpretation of repentance and belief, seems “ungodly” and a product of our fallen nature. If God’s work is vertical and man’s work is horizontal, who is man to deny the miraculous work of God; such as infant Baptism? I argue this case for my son alone who has down syndrome.

    For John Owen, it was where I read, from notes in Owen’s Sermons and Tracts published in 1721, “the question whether all infants are to be baptized or not; for, according to the will of God, some are not to be baptized, even such whose parents are strangers from the covenant. But hence it will follow that some are to be baptized, seeing an exception confirms both rule and right.” I guess I’m not understanding his meaning of “some” because it seems a denial of God doing the work and man’s limitations as to who can come to the waters of Baptism.

  5. Hey Dr. Clark, was wondering if you could help me understand a set of verses in Hebrews 10 in this same subject.
    In regard to Hebrews 10:26-31, it is said by Particular Baptists like James White, citing John Owens, that the person being sanctified is Christ with his own blood, not a covenant member. This overthrows the flow of the text and I find it extraordinarily silly. However, it is also unlikely to me that this reference to “the blood of the covenant” now refers not to a complete once-for-all sanctification, as elsewhere in Hebrews, but now refers solely to covenant membership of an unelect person, who is now apostatizing. If you have a suggestion on how to reconcile this, or another way to read this, I would be most appreciative. Many thanks.

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