Last week I wrote here about the upcoming baptism debate. I mentioned I would take the opportunity over the next few weeks to discuss a couple of more recent books on baptism from the credobaptist point of view.
Books over past decades on the subject of baptism were seemingly abundant, but very few on the topic were from a self-consciously reformed, confessional and covenantal perspective. To discuss the Baptist position from within this context is crucial because one’s view of baptism ultimately results from their view of the church and what constitutes New Covenant membership.
As discussed in the previous article, Pascal Denault takes just this approach in his book, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology.
Evidently, Baptists and paedobaptists did not have the same opinion on who makes up the Church. When they debated this question and its corollaries, baptism became the concrete manifestation of their respective convictions.[i]
Baptism was the result of their convictions on who makes up God’s New Covenant people. Denault’s work is unique in that it uses the writings of seventeenth-century Baptist and paedobaptist theologians as the basis for his discussion.
Our method will consist in defining the fundamental difference between the seventeenth-century Presbyterians and Baptists based on their dialogue preserved through their writings.[ii]
The paedobaptists cited are William Ames, John Ball, Peter Bulkeley, Thomas Blake, Herman Witsius, Samuel Petto and Francis Turretin. The Baptists are John Silsbury, Henry Lawrence, Thomas Patient, John Bunyan, Edward Hutchinson, Nehemiah Coxe, Thomas Grantham and Benjamin Keach.
Denault has a separate category for John Owen, who he refers to as “John Owen the Baptist”. He states that “Owen merits special mention since his federalism is similar to that of the Baptists even though he remained a paedobaptist all of his life”.[iii] He returns to Owen repeatedly throughout the book as a semi-enlightened Presbyterian and paragon of inconsistency from within the paedobaptist position.
In addition to Denault’s helpful introduction of the reformed theologians, he also provides a brief historical overview of covenant theology at the outset. He begins the overview with the functional nature of a covenant framework in scripture.
…covenant theology provides a context which allows for an understanding of the global structure of the plan of redemption by making the distinction between the parts and the whole and by explaining how these parts insert themselves into the whole.[iv]
From here he discusses Zwingli’s initial formulation of covenant theology around Romans 5. Zwingli rediscovers both justification by imputation and the Adamic Covenant in his study of this passage. Zwingli then moves on to refine his federalism due to the Anabaptist controversy of the time.
The insistence of the Anabaptists on the exclusivity of the New Testament to establish Church doctrine led Zwingli to defend the unity of the two testaments. For Zwingli, as for the reformed theologians who followed him, the substance of this unity resided in the Covenant of Grace.[v]
This becomes the point of departure for Denault and the Baptist position. He demonstrates throughout the remainder of the book, how early Particular Baptist federalism was formulated in opposition to this view of the Covenant of Grace.
For the Presbyterian, the Covenant of Grace was one covenant under two administrations. Another way to say this would be that the one Covenant of Grace was administered through the Old and New Covenants. The Baptists took issue with this formulation.
By rejecting the notion of a covenant of grace under two administrations, the Baptists were in fact rejecting only half of the concept: they accepted, as we have previously seen, the notion of one single Covenant of Grace in both testaments, but they refused the idea of the two administrations. For the Baptists, there was only one Covenant of Grace which was revealed from the Fall in a progressive way until its full revelation and conclusion in the New Covenant.[vi]
From this perspective, the Covenant of Grace did in fact appear in the Old Testament, but only as a promise. What was present in the form of a revealed promise in the Old Covenant, became fully established and ultimately concluded in the New Testament under the New Covenant. This New Covenant delivered on the promise and “it alone was the Covenant of Grace”.
From here it is important to point out something so obvious that the reader might miss it. Denault in his work never clearly defines the term covenant. What is discussed on every page of the book goes undefined. You may say, “but of course it is assumed because everyone reading this book already knows the definition and such a discussion would be elementary to Denault’s readers”.
I would take issue with such a notion. Clarity at this point is absolutely crucial. Understanding how words such as promise, oath and covenant are defined as well as how the concepts interrelate is essential. Take for instance this statement:
Those who were saved before Christ were saved because of an oath; those who were saved after Him were saved because of a covenant.[vii]
If one does not have the clarity previously mentioned, this statement becomes confusing at best.
Not fully defining the term covenant also makes it difficult to clearly discuss one of the primary disagreements among the opposing views. The heart of the confusion surrounds the understanding of covenant as an objective reality. The Baptist conception of the New Covenant has no complete manifestation in history (and the Presbyterian manifestation is even a bit clouded).
The New Covenant for Baptists is made with the elect only at all times. If this is the case it becomes problematic then to mark-out and govern a covenant body in time and space.
The New Covenant for paedobaptists is ultimately with the elect in eternity. What was decreed before time comes to a final expression at the end of time. But in history, there is an objective covenant boundary that marks out God’s people. This body is marked-out and governed as a “mixed community”. The New Covenant manifests itself in this way and becomes structurally congruent with the Old. Yet, it is completely new in substance.
Stay tuned as next time we will delve a little deeper into Denault’s work. Albeit briefly, we will further unpack the opposing views of the Covenant of Grace and how it relates to the New Covenant in history.
[i] Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 7.
[ii] Ibid, 8.
[iii] Ibid, 18.
[iv] Ibid, 23.
[v] Ibid, 23-24.
[vi] Ibid, 61.
[vii] Ibid, 67.