Tag Archives: Nehemiah Coxe

A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology – Part 1

 

In a recent post we looked at an introduction to the study of covenants, or what is commonly called Covenant Theology.  In that post we mentioned that views and opinions on Covenant Theology have been widespread and numerous throughout church history, most significantly in more recent times.  In this post, we’ll look at a little more background to its historical development through its key proponents to establish the historical validity of covenant theology as a biblical expression of redemptive history to help better wrap our minds around the concept of covenants.[1]

In providing a historical survey, my hope is that it will be shown how much of the views that dominate present evangelicalism are in fact a departure from the more historical views held by the church throughout her history and are the development of modern inventions, influenced by either liberalism or dispensationalism, that have become embraced as the excepted norm rather than questioned as to their validity.

In beginning, perhaps it would be an unfair angle to take by saying the doctrinal development of covenant theology begins in Scripture as God unfolds His plan of redemption to man via covenants, as I’m sure all alternate views would claim a similar origin.  Avoiding that argument, as well as any incipient thought on covenants that may have been present in the early Church Fathers (though certainly Augustine would be an early champion), our focus brings us squarely to the time of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century.  Additionally, as we’ll see in a future post on the definition of covenants, the concept of covenants was alive and well in the Ancient Near East and was employed between numerous secular states and kings.  However, as it relates to God’s plan of redemption unfolded throughout Scripture, covenant theology, as with many other mature doctrinal positions, owes its development to the Reformation.

While re-hashing this monumental event is certainly outside the scope of a brief history on covenants, it should be noted that through the protest from Catholicism, the early Protestant Church began the seeds of developing a robust understanding of the covenants to help define their views on Church membership, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, separation between Church and State, etc.  Principally, our overview of covenant theology begins in this period with the Father of the Reformation himself, Martin Luther.

In Martin Luther’s objections against the Catholic Church, we begin to see the formulation of clear distinctions between law and gospel, which really lay at the heart of covenant theology.  In formulating the early Reformers understanding of justification by faith alone, as opposed to the Catholic notion of justification by works, Luther realized that undue attention had been given to the law/gospel discussion.  R. Scott Clark summarizes Luther’s thought, “The law demands perfect obedience, and the gospel announces Christ’s perfect obedience to that law, his death and his resurrection for his people.”[2] This statement can only be further defined and defended by understanding the biblical covenants, specifically the relationship between the Old and the New or the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace (to be further defined later).

While there were other lesser known figures that were advancing some of these early thoughts on covenants, such as Swiss Reformed theologian Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) and Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75)[3], it was through John Calvin (1509–1564) that covenant theology found its fullest treatment.  Through the publication of his Institutes of Christian Religion and to a lesser extent his commentaries on the Bible, Calvin laid the groundwork for the development of covenant theology, albeit from a paedobaptist perspective; more on that in a moment.

Advancing from Calvin, we find “two of the most important Reformed covenant theologians of the late sixteenth century were the chief authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) and Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587)”[4]. Clark again offers a helpful summary of their thought:

“According to Ursinus, in his obedience for the elect, Christ fulfilled the covenant of works and bore their punishment. On this basis God made a covenant of grace with sinners. The message of the covenant of grace is the Gospel of undeserved favor for sinners.”

These covenant terms may be unfamiliar for now, but as we progress on our journey of unfolding the biblical covenants, we’ll take the time to define and defend each.

As covenant thought advanced into the 17th Century, with the height of Puritanism underway, we find expressions of covenant theology in many of their writings. This is especially true in such prominent Puritans as William Perkins and William Ames. Perhaps the more well-known of the two is Ames through his work, The Marrow of Divinity. As an aside, this publication by Ames was the “basic instruction manual at Harvard” during the colonial period and was “long considered to be the best summary of Calvinist theology.”[5] Other notable Puritan writers who published expressions on the covenants were John Ball (1585-1640), Peter Bulkeley (1583-1659), Thomas Blake (1597-1657), Samuel Petto (1642-1711), Francis Turretin (1623-1687)[6], Johannes Cocceius (1609–1669), and perhaps the author of the most significant work on paedobaptist covenant theology, Herman Witsius (1636-1708).[7]

Prominent among the Puritans was John Owen, whose commentary on Hebrews contains a developed, mature thinking on the covenants. While his exposition on Hebrews 8 has garnered much attention recently, his efforts to address the covenants throughout his commentary should not go unnoticed, particularly when he comments on Hebrews 6 and 7 as well as several of the articles in the commentary’s “Preliminary Exercitations”. As we’ll see later, Owen’s thoughts on the covenants were more closely aligned with the Baptist understanding of continuity/discontinuity between Old and New Covenants, though he remained a paedobaptist[8]; perhaps lending itself to the notion that had the Puritans more time to develop their thoughts and distance themselves from Rome, the more likely their departure from paedobaptism. With Owen, we arrive at those who were instrumental in the formulation of the Westminster Confession of Faith, published in 1646 which served to solidify the paedobaptist understanding of covenants.

To this point in our historical survey, much of the focus has been on the development of covenant theology from the paedobaptist or Presbyterian perspective. This is understandable given the climate of Roman Catholicism from which the Reformers had split, though clearly some influence remained. Unfortunately, until some more recent publications, much of the Baptist influence during this same time period has gone unnoticed and this has unfairly served to create a migration away from covenant theology in more modern times, especially among Baptists. While not as well-known because of the lack of preserved historical documents and publications, these early Baptists formulated well their own understanding of covenant theology and were by no means considered inferior theologians. Some of the more prominent Baptists who wrote concerning covenants were: John Spilsbury (1598-1668), Henry Lawrence (1600-1664), Thomas Patient (?-1666), John Bunyan (1628-1688), Edward Hutchinson (?), Nehemiah Coxe (?-1688), Thomas Grantham (?-16920, and Benjamin Keach (1640-1704).

Among these early Baptist theologians who were expressing their own version of Covenant Theology specifically written to counter the notion of infant baptism were Spilsbury and most notably Nehemiah Coxe. Not only did Coxe formulate an understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant that was defining for the historical Baptist expression of covenants and defense of believer’s baptism, but he was likely the chief architect of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession. The parallels of this confession with the Westminster Confession have been well documented, but it is in their differences among the chapters that articulate the views of covenants where the 1689 shines brightest for Baptist history.

With this brief overview of the Baptists, this brings our timeline up through the 17th and into the 18th century where much of the diversity in covenant thought begins to rear its head. For now, it should be clearly stated that from the early Reformation into the late 18th century, covenant theology was the dominant view and expression among Christian thought. Though distinctions remained between paedobaptists and Baptists, the development of additional views was largely non-existent and covenant theology remained the dominant explanation for God’s unfolding plan of redemption. However, this would not remain the case going into the subsequent century. It’s on this point that we will pick up our overview of covenant history next time.

Understanding that the roots of covenant theology spring from the mountains of the Reformation may not appear significant to everyone. To reiterate, this is not to say that covenant theology had no place whatsoever in the minds of the early church fathers through the medieval period, only that through the Reformation these thoughts became more developed and organized. Like a daisy (or tulip) from a dung pile, covenant theology’s mature development from medieval Catholicism cannot be understated.  The issues over which the Reformers were protesting had at their foundation a proper understanding and application of covenant theology.  From there, the Baptists “protested” further in defining their own understanding of Church membership and who could/could not be baptized.  For many, this portion of the discussion that includes Baptists has gone unnoticed and consequently many have come to view covenant theology as equivalent to paedobaptism.  Perhaps this explains the devolution in thought from early Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology to many of the variations of views that have migrated over and over throughout the last two centuries. Lord willing, we will examine some of these next time.

 

[1] Please note this is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive history of covenant theology, nor is it meant to be a comprehensive history of Baptists. There are fuller treatments on both subjects available by men who are much more informed than I am. Perhaps this link will be of interest for Baptist history: http://www.reformedreader.org/history/timeline/17thcentury.htm

[2] http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/history-covenant-theology/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Denault, Pascal. The Distinctives of Baptist Covenant Theology. Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Books, 2013. pg. 12

[6] It should be noted that Turretin was neither British, nor Puritan in the classic sense of the word.

[7] Ibid, 13.

[8] It should be noted that Owen wrote a paper on the defense of infant baptism but never published it during his lifetime.

 

Introducing Covenant Theology

 

There can perhaps be no greater theological deficiency in modern evangelical churches and seminaries than a proper and robust understanding of the biblical covenants. Having been a believer for going on 33 years, I cannot recall a time when the covenants were explained or exposited in sufficient detail from any pulpit I’ve sat under. Generally when the subject of covenant arises in a particular passage, that particular covenant is given a passing mention, but larger unity and diversity of the divine covenants is ignored.

Speaking to the issues of his own day, 19th Century Reformed Baptist R.B.C. Howell writes,

“A perfect knowledge of the Gospel therefore, involves necessarily, a correct comprehension of the covenants. But by whom among us, are these covenants clearly understood? To most men, you need only to speak on this subject, and you at once perceive that “Even unto this day, the vail is upon their heart.” They fail to perceive what the covenants are in themselves, in their relations to each other, and consequently in their bearings upon the designs of God in the Redeemer! This darkness is lamentable in all its aspects, since falling short of the knowledge of these, “the rudiments of the doctrine of Christ,” obscurity must necessarily rest upon the whole Gospel system. How can he who does not perceive “the first principles” of any specified science, ever become a master of that science?”[1]

Additionally, unless required seminary courses have changed within the last year or so, one would be hard pressed to find one, let alone multiple courses which plumb the depths of the study of covenants, also known as covenant theology (Reformed Theological Seminary and some of the smaller schools such as Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, Reformed Baptist Seminary, et.al. would be some notable exceptions). This is in stark contrast to the following statement by Charles Spurgeon, “The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity”[2], yet we see student after student conferred with the degree of Master of Divinity with little knowledge of biblical covenants. Personally, I was unaware of the significance of the covenants until 5-6 years ago when confronted head on by their presence in the book of Romans, specifically the relationship of Israel and the Church.   These personal witnesses before us, one is left to wonder why this neglect of the covenants is so prominent.

Perhaps the great neglect of Covenant Theology that may be observed in our day should be laid at the feet of its chief opponent, dispensationalism. One need only observe the harsh sentiments of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary – for a century or more the heartbeat of dispensational theology – to gain a glimpse of why this is the case. Note the following from Chafer:

“Judaism has its field of theology with its soteriology and its eschatology. That these factors of a system which occupies three-fourths of the Sacred Text are unrecognized and ignored by theologians does not demonstrate their nonexistence, nor does it prove their unimportance. A Covenant Theology engenders the notion that there is but one soteriology and one eschatology, and that ecclesiology, such as it is conceived to be, extends from the Garden of Eden to the great white throne. The insuperable problems in exegesis which such fanciful suppositions engender are easily disposed of by ignoring them. On the other hand, Scripture is harmonized and its message clarified when two divinely appointed systems–Judaism and Christianity–are recognized and their complete and distinctive characters are observed. No matter how orthodox they may be in matters of inspiration, the Deity of Christ, His virgin birth, and the efficacy of His death, Covenant theologians have not been forward in Bible exposition. This great field of service has been and is now occupied by those who distinguish things which differ, who, though giving close attention to all that has been written, are bound by no theological traditions whatever. – Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol.4, p.248″[3]

Though a dense statement to be sure, notice the heart of what Chafer is suggesting is that there is not 1 soteriology, that is salvation, but 2; that there is not 1 eschatology, that is God’s redemptive plan unfolding in history culminating in the reign of Christ in the New Heavens and New Earth, but 2; that there is not 1 ecclesiology, that is people of God, but 2; and finally that all this is not unfolded and extended from Genesis to Revelation. With all due respect to Dr. Chafer, whose writings and influence on the Church have been profound, he is wrong and not simply wrong, but dangerously wrong.

When these notions are combined with the widespread influence of the dispensationalism that Chafer helped advance throughout America in the 19th and 20th century, there really should be no surprise that covenant theology lay mostly dormant for decades among Baptists, many of whom saw dispensationalism as a correction on the one hand to liberalism and most certainly on the other hand to infant-baptizing forms of covenant theology. Seemingly, many baptists felt left with only those two extreme options and chose the more moderate line of dispensationalism. However, the middle point between two errors does not place one on the path of truth, as can be witnessed in the quote above from Chafer. Without the torch being carried by our paedobaptist brothers and several 20th Century Reformed Baptists, the covenant theology expressed for so long through the ages of church history, would have been left miring in the “Dark Ages”.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been a resurgence of solid, confessional baptist covenant theology. Likely due to multiple factors, including a resurgence in the Doctrines of Grace and a rejection of the errors of dispensationalism, modern Baptists began exploring their own historical identity and found in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith a robust and developed covenant theology that ran contra to the idea of infant baptism found in her mother confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, championed by Presbyterians in the 17th century.

Nehemiah Coxe, likely the chief editor of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession writes, “…further observe that the holy and wise God has always dealt with the children of men in a way of covenant. The display of infinite goodness has always accompanied the discovery of his infinite glory in his dealing with men. Thus he has not acted toward them to the utmost right of his sovereignty and dominion over them. Had he done so, there never would have been any reward of future blessedness assigned and made due to their obedience, as there has been by covenant.”[4]

Such a strong statement by the Baptist statesman, Coxe highlights the importance placed on covenants by the reformed baptists of his day and ensures that Baptists have a covenantal heritage just as rich as those who have adhered to the Westminster Confession.

The study of covenants can be a particularly difficult subject to approach, not because Scripture is unclear, but because throughout history there has been a multitude of views and beliefs such that it is difficult to find a monolithic, orthodox explanation to help guide one’s efforts. In the coming weeks, I hope to devote some attention to untangling this web of confusion and presenting in clear terms a discussion of covenant theology from the historic baptist perspective.

[1] http://founders.org/library/covenants/

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons58.xliv.html

[3] http://www.dispensationalfriends.org/articles/chafer1.html

[4] Coxe – Owen pg. 38