A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part IV


In the previous post from this series on an overview of covenant theology, its historical developments, including divergent and competing views, we examined the historical development of CT’s most ardent opponent, dispensationalism, particularly its expansion into the United States in the 19th Century.  Also, we saw the growth of dispensationalism into the 20th and 21st centuries, including a brief mention of progressive dispensationalism, as the movement continued to migrate toward a middle ground between classic dispensationalism and Westminster covenant theology, which we examined in PART 1.

With the explosion of dispensationalism in the United States in the 19th and 20th century, covenant theology did not die on the branch altogether.  We must at least give mention to mighty Princeton University as she began her run of staunch conservative, Reformed theology. Such notables as Jonathan Edwards, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and Geerhardos Vos to name a few, carried the banner of Reformed theological thought into the 19th Century.  While J. Gresham Machen, O.T. Allis, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and Ned Stonehouse among others helped to carry the banner of Princeton into the 20th Century until her eventual slide into liberalism.  At that point, a split occurred and J. Gresham Machen left Princeton to establish another seminary to carry on the Reformed Tradition in the vein of Old Princeton.  Westminster Seminary was founded in 1929.  Each of those men listed above eventually followed Machen and Allis to Westminster. Albeit representatives of the paedobaptist variety of covenant theology, their influence on Baptists would be noteworthy in the 20th Century.

Though perhaps not as notable or prolific as their Presbyterian brothers during this time, Baptists had some noteworthy developments of her own.  Men such as Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), William Carey (1761-1834), John L. Dagg (1794-1884), Basil Manly, Sr. (1798-1868), P.H. Mell (1814-1888), James P. Boyce (1827-1888), John Broadus (1827-1895), B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), and R.B.C. Howell (1801-1868) to name a few, made significant contributions in Baptist history.  Howell’s work, The Covenants, is representative of the continuation of Baptist covenant theology developed in the 17th Century and Boyce’s Systematic Theology was the Baptist go to (and should be still), reflecting both a reformed soteriology and a baptistic understanding of the covenants.  However, it would be the influence of the “Prince of Preachers”, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), from 19th Century Great Britain that would have its greatest impact on 20th Century America, particularly through the writings of Arthur W. Pink.

While a subscriptionist to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession himself and authoring sermons that reflected the historic Baptist position on covenant theology, Spurgeon’s influence on Pink must have been felt in his childhood home.  Born in Nottingham, England 1886, Murray suggests the likelihood that the Pink household must have at least in part if not altogether had been recipients of Spurgeon’s widely circulated Sword and Trowel magazine.[1]

A.W. Pink, whom God was delighted to save out of the cult of Theosophy (toward which he had drifted as a young man) in 1908 set sail to America just two years later in order to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Ill.  Recall that it was Moody who was one of the catalysts for the spread of dispensational premillennialism.  It was under this ministry that Pink would gain his first taste of dispensationalism, as well as the fundamentalist reaction toward the liberalism of the day.

However, Pink’s stay at Moody, like much of his other ministerial positions, would be short-lived.  After just 6-weeks he was compelled to enter the pulpit and would have no more of “wasting my time” at the Moody Bible Institute.[2] Pink’s first pastorate would be in the mountains of Colorado at the Congregational church at Silverton.[3]  He would remain here for less than two years having moved on to other ministerial duties in 1912.

While Pink’s life is perhaps a less than adequate model of faithful, consistent, and balanced ministerial life, his writing legacy lives on through such esteemed works as The Sovereignty of God, Hebrews commentary, and his series Studies in Scripture, among many, many others.  However, it is likely that Pink’s work Dispensationalism, a polemic against the movement, and Divine Covenants are the most relevant for furthering the development of Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology as it has existed since the 17th Century.  Pink’s volume on the covenants stands expressly downstream from those who formulated the 1689 Baptist confession and should be consulted by all those wishing to understand a clearly articulated Baptist understanding of the covenants.  Additionally, his commentary on Hebrews provides a Baptist understanding of typology and continuity/discontinuity of Scriptures and leans heavily on the substantial Hebrews commentary of John Owen.

Pink’s influence was not lost among his contemporaries, most notably the highly esteemed Martyn Lloyd-Jones, though himself a Presbyterian. Similarly, another significant Reformed Baptist would carry Pink’s influence into the middle and latter half of the 20th Century.  That man was Ernest Reisinger.

During one of Pink’s many nomadic wanderings, this time bringing him to Kentucky, he met a man from Swengel, PA named I.C. Herendeen.[4]  Herendeen would become the first publisher of Pink’s works, including The Sovereignty of God through his “one-man publishing house” called “The Bible Truth Depot”.[5]  As Herendeen sought a church near his home in Swengel, he found one pastored by the newly installed John Reisinger.

John, his older brother Ernie, their middle brother Donald and younger sister Grace Esther were born and raised by humble means in Carlisle, PA, largely a Presbyterian town influenced greatly by the newly formed Westminster Seminary, just north of Philadelphia, PA.  After the war (WW2), John and Ernie became construction partners in Carlisle, PA.  Having grown up under Presbyterian influence, their natural affinity was to join a Presbyterian church in their hometown, Second Presbyterian Church.  After leading multiple Bible studies, Ernie was commissioned as a “lay preacher” in 1946 by the Carlisle Presbytery.[6]  Given the slide into liberalism that the Presbyterian Church underwent in the first half of the 20th Century, Ernie Reisinger found it increasingly difficult to remain in the denomination.

On December 9, 1951 a small group of 23 people met in the Carlisle High School Band Hall constituting the first meeting of what would become Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle.[7]  Ernie Reisinger’s doctrinal development would be owed, at least in part, to his younger brother John’s embrace of the Doctrines of Grace while at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania.  He became convinced of the truths of “Calvinism”, not from his coursework, but from a Bible study on the Gospel of John taught by a farmer “in a small country church in Lancaster County”.[8]  The summary lesson may be found in Geoffrey Thomas’ biography of Reisinger and is an excellent explanation of God’s electing grace.

While John Reisinger began working out his own understanding and applications of these truths, in 1953 the aforementioned I.C. Herendeen began sitting under his ministry.  Having heard Reisinger quote Charles Spurgeon, Herendeen gave him copies of Spurgeon’s sermons and autobiographical materials on the doctrines of grace, thereby helping to rectify any final theological difficulties he was having.

On return trips to Carlisle, PA, the younger Reisinger began to share with his brother Ernie the truths that he had encountered.  This eventual return of Baptists to their roots in the Doctrines of Grace is not insignificant but is in fact intimately linked with the resurgence of Reformed Baptists in the 20th century.  Additionally, John introduced Ernie to the publications of Banner of Truth, which, as we will see, would forever alter the publication and distribution of reformed material in the United States.

Ernest Reisinger, now exposed to the doctrines of grace, began to wrestle with his own theological understandings, namely dispensationalism in general and Victorious Christian Living in particular.  The newly formed Grace Chapel, through the influence of Heerenden and the younger Reisinger, developed a voracious appetite for reformed theology and sought to increase their understanding through well-known, historically significant books.  “Grace Baptist’s book table ministry began to purchase select titles from Baker Book House, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Presbyterian & Reformed, Reiner Publications, Sovereign Grace Publishers, Zondervan Publishers, and others.  In one year $10,000 worth of Christian books were sold.”[8]  Thomas notes that none of the congregants were so generous to give out books as Ernie Reisinger, “he developed the widest literature ministry to students, preachers and missionaries.”[9]

As providence would have it, their congregants became exposed to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession and in 1958 the church adopted the confession and formally became Grace Baptist Church.[10]  Here then in rural Pennsylvania can be found the roots of 20th Century reformed Baptists in America with a tiny, confessionally reformed Baptist church.

As the small church struggled to develop her identity as the lone confessionally reformed Baptist church, Ernie Reisinger sought the help of Ian Murray, from the aforementioned Banner of Truth publishers and a favorite of book ministry of Grace Baptist.  In Murray, he sought help to find resources that would solidify their understanding of Baptist polity.  Though himself a Presbyterian, Reisinger’s personal letter to Murray reflected well their struggle for identity

” I am writing for some guidance concerning a discussion in our local church (independent Calvinist Baptist).  We all seem to lean to the Presbyterian idea of elders and deacons and yet we do not go so far as to outrule all local autonomy.  My reason for writing is to inquire, is there some book or article or source of information that you could recommend that may be helpful.  What I’m trying to say is this.  We are a congregation of Baptists that is almost Presbyterian.  We do not see a strictly congregational rule and yet we do not see the extreme hierarchy type of government.  Would be grateful for any suggestion or help you may have.”[11]

As a result of the correspondence and massive increase in sales of Banner of Truth publications, “in August 1966 Humphrey Mildred, Banner of Truth’s assistant manager from London, visited Carlisle to find out what was happening in this small town that had caused more Banner of Truth books to be sold there than anywhere else outside the British Isles.”[12]  Eventually, Carlisle Pennsylvania would become the center of operations for Banner of Truth in America owing its source to a continually reforming 1950’s reformed Baptist congregation and her generous book loving reformer, Ernest Reisinger.

Reisinger’s circle of influence would soon broaden and help expand the cause of the rejuvenated Reformed Baptist movement.  It’s on this point, the Rise of Reformed Baptists in 20th Century America, that we will pick up the 5th and final post in this series that gives an overview to the history and developments of covenant theology.

[1] Murray, Ian. The Life of Arthur W. Pink, Banner of Truth Trust, 2004, p. 2-3.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] Ibid, 18.

[4] Chantry, Tom and David Dykstra, Holding Communion Together. Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014,   p. 15.

[5] Ibid, 16.

[6] Thomas, Geoff. Ernest C. Reisinger: A Biography, Banner of Truth Trust, 2002, p. 52.

[7] Ibid, 54

[8] Ibid, 62

[9] Ibid, 104

[10] Ibid, 104

[11] Chantry,  18.

[12] Thomas, 104-105.

[13] Ibid, 105.





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