John Owen Did Not Read Hebrews Like A Baptist (Part 2)

In his exercitation on “the oneness of the church” Owen argued seven points. Each and all of them were in the service of what Reformed theology calls the unity of the covenant of grace. For Owen and the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy, the new covenant is new relative to the Mosaic covenant, as we will see in Owen’s commentary on Hebrews. The new covenant is consubstantial with the covenant of grace as it was revealed to Adam and Eve (Gen 3:15), to Noah (Gen 6:18), to Abraham (e.g., Gen 12, 15; 17:7), to Moses (e.g., Ex 2:24; 20:2; 34:10), and to the prophets (e.g., Jer 24:7; 30:22; 31:31–34), but it is administered in light of the fulfillment of the types and shadows. According to some Baptist accounts,1 the covenant of grace was not actually present under the types and shadows. In contrast, according to Reformed theology, the covenant of grace was present in, with, and under the types and shadows. The substance of the covenant of grace has always been Christ and his benefits. The Abrahamic expression of the covenant of grace has always been paradigmatic.2 God’s promise to him—“I will be your God and a God to your children” (Gen 17:7)—ties together the covenant of grace, as it is expressed under the types and shadows and as it is expressed under the new covenant (e.g., Acts 2:39).

Owen’s exercitations, gathered by Goold into one volume, were in service of his commentary on Hebrews. They provide an essential background and framework for his understanding of Hebrews, and for our understanding of Owen’s reading of Hebrews. He begins Exercitation VI by noting the non-Christian Jewish misunderstanding of the “promises of the Old Testament.”3 The Jews thought of themselves as Abraham’s posterity on the basis of “their being his children according to the flesh, as the first, proper, and indeed only subject of them.”4 According to Owen, this was a basic error. In truth, the covenant of grace was always spiritual. God “founded his church in the promise of the Messiah given unto Adam.”5

That promise was a covenant of grace, “proceeding from mere grace and mercy,” but it carried with it consequent obligations, which Owen called “a restipulation” of obedience flowing from gratitude and out of the believer’s union and communion with Christ.6 This is how he understood the covenant of grace as renewed under the Abrahamic covenant: “So upon its renewal unto Abraham, God required that he should ‘walk before him and be upright.’ This promise, then, as it hath the nature of a covenant, including the grace that God would show unto sinners in the Messiah, the obedience that he required from them.”7 The covenant of grace, however, was categorically different from “the first covenant,” that is, the covenant of works made with Adam before the fall, which had been “disannulled.”8

The church and the covenant of grace were so intertwined that the church was “founded and built on this covenant,” and through the mediation of the church the promises were “exhibited in them” (i.e., the members of the visible church).9 Only those, even under the types and shadows, who are members of the church have a right to the “promises and privileges” (e.g., the sacraments) administered in and through the visible church.10

This line of argumentation is significant. What sorts of people were members of the church under the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace? Believers (e.g., Abraham) and their children (e.g., Ishmael). As part of the progress of the history of redemption, under Abraham after his circumcision, God “was pleased to confine this church, as unto the ordinary visible dispensation of his grace, unto the person and posterity of Abraham.”11 The Jews (and, I hasten to add, Dispensationalists) wrongly inferred from that fact that Jews are, by virtue of their biological relationship to Abraham, God’s people.12  To this, Owen replied that God had indeed granted to the Jews a twofold privilege:

  1. Abraham should be the father of the Messiah, who was the very life and fountain of the covenant of grace, according to the flesh. The privilege, however, was “temporary, having a limited season, time, and end appointed unto it.”13
  2. Abraham’s faith, “whereby he was personally interested [i.e., invested] in the covenant, should be the pattern of the faith of the church in all generations; and that none should ever come to be a member of it or a sharer in its blessings, but by the same faith that he had fixed on the Seed that was in the promise.” Those who have that faith are Abraham’s “spiritual children.”14

Abraham was given a “double seed”: according to the flesh and according to the promise (i.e., the elect).15 “Thus Isaac and Jacob were the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, separated unto the bringing forth of the Messiah after the flesh, because they were of his carnal [biological] posterity; and they were also of the seed of the promise, because, by their own personal faith they were interested [invested] in the covenant of Abraham their father.”16

There were multitudes who were biologically related to Abraham, who were visibly recognized as external members of the covenant of grace under the Abrahamic covenant, but who were not spiritually related to Abraham. The inheritance of the spiritual promise is “by faith . . . whether they be of the carnal [biological] seed or no.”17

What implications did Owen draw from the Abrahamic paradigm of the covenant of grace? “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.”18 The external administration of the covenant of grace changes with the progress of revelation and redemption, but the substance of the covenant remains the same. Owen was adamant about this:

It remains, then, that the church founded in the covenant, and unto which all the promises did and do belong, abode at the coming of Christ, and doth abide ever since, in and among those who are the children of Abraham by faith. The old church was not taken away, and a new one set up, but the same church was continued, only in those who by faith inherited the promises.19

There were changes to the “outward state and condition” of the church (i.e., to the external administration), but the substance of the covenant of grace never changes.20 As under Abraham, under the new covenant only those who are in the visible church receive the promised blessings of the covenant of grace.21

The external administration of the covenant of grace through the Jews expired with “the coming of the Messiah.”22 Now, as always,

the spiritual privileges of it belonged only unto those of the Jews and Gentiles in whom God had graciously purposed to effect the faith of Abraham. Thus was and is the church, whereunto all the promises belong, still one and the same, namely, Abraham’s children according to the faith: and among those promises this is one, that God will be a God unto them and their seed forever.23

The way Owen closed Exercitation VI is a powerful indicator of how he understood the history of redemption. He invoked the paraphrase of the Abrahamic promise (Gen 17:1) from Jeremiah 30:22; 32:38–41 and Acts 2:39. Were his reading of redemptive history congenial to that found in the First (1644) or Second London (Baptist) confessions (1677/1689), we should have expected to find something rather different, something indicating a fairly dramatic shift in the nature of the covenant of grace and its external administration in the new covenant. Instead, we find not a hint that, for Owen, the covenant of grace was absent from the types and shadows. We find the very opposite.

Owen’s is not a Baptist reading of redemptive history. In his account of the continuity of the covenant of grace and the diversity of administrations in the history of redemption, he did not appeal to Moses as his paradigm, but to Abraham. This is significant because this is the way that the Reformed had been defending the unity of the covenant of grace against the Anabaptists since the mid-1520s. It is important to recognize his thought pattern as it provides essential background to his understanding of the way Hebrews interprets Jeremiah 31:31–34. But before that, we will turn in part three of this series to Exercitation XIX to understand more fully how Owen understood the history of redemption.

Part 1.

Notes

  1. e.g., Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism, rev. 2nd ed. (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2017); Samuel D. Renihan, The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom (Cape Coral, Florida: Founders Press, 2019). For a survey of some variety among contemporary Particular Baptists see, R. Scott Clark, “Engaging 1689;” Harrison Perkins, “Engaging Confessional Baptists on Covenant Theology (Part 1): Typology;” Harrison Perkins, “Engaging Confessional Baptists on Covenant Theology (Part 2): Unity of Salvation in the Old and New Testaments.”
  2. See part 1 of this series. For a biblical-theological introduction to this idea, see R. Scott Clark, “The Abrahamic Covenant Unifies Redemptive History.”
  3. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 18, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854), 119.
  4. Owen, Works, 18.119. Italics original.
  5. Owen, 18.120.
  6. Owen, 18.120.
  7. Owen, 18.120.
  8. Owen, 18.120.
  9. Owen, 18.120.
  10. Owen, 18.120.
  11. Owen, 18.121. Italics original.
  12. Owen, 18.122.
  13. Owen, 18.121. Italics original.
  14. Owen, 18.121. Italics original.
  15. Owen, 18.121.
  16. Owen, 18.122.
  17. Owen, 18.122.
  18. Owen, 18.123.
  19. Owen, 18.123–24. Italics original.
  20. Owen, 18.124.
  21. Owen, 18.124.
  22. Owen, 18.124.
  23. Owen, 18.124.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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2 comments

  1. In the last few weeks, I’ve been working my way through “Distinctives of Baptist Covenant Theology’ . In it, Owen is frequently referenced as sympathetic to Baptist Covenat Theology. For instance: “If, then, this be the nature of the new testament,—as appears from the very words of it, and might abundantly be proved,—that the condition of the covenant should certainly, by free grace, be wrought and accomplished in all that are taken into covenant, then no more are in this covenant than in whom those conditions of it are effected.164”. This seems to leave no room for a ‘mixed multitude’. He is claimed to believe: “If someone does not benefit from the salvific grace of the covenant of grace, he is simply not a part of the covenant.”
    Further, I find the chapter on ‘The Old Covenant’ to be rather convoluted or confusing.

    So, on the above concerns, I would really appreciate a detailed or point by point commentary/critique on that book in light of this series on Owen/Hebrews.

    John

    • John,

      I’m doing that very thing in this series. I’m challenging the interpretation of Owen posited and implied in that volume. You need to start at the beginning of this series to see why that interpretation of Owen is untenable.

      The most important thing here is not to read back into Owen the Baptist confusion of Moses and Abraham.

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