Tag Archives: PaedoBaptist

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.


Christ: Mediator of the New Covenant, Part 1

In my last few posts here, we’ve been looking at eschatology, or the study of end things.  We’ve taken a parenthesis in this study to examine some thoughts on what the Bible says about covenants.  This is necessary because of the eschatological system that we paused at, dispensationalism.  If you need a quick review of that system, see here Understanding Dispensationalism.  Dispensationalism is more than just a particular view of the end times.  As stated before, it’s actually a hermeneutic, or science of interpretation.  While hermeneutic might sound like a technical, complicated word, it’s really not.  It’s simply describing the way in which one interprets a particular literary work.  As it relates to the Bible, it is the way, or science/system, of interpreting the Bible.  For a more thorough discussion, see here http://www.bible-researcher.com/baugh1.html

In this post, we continue our look at the New Covenant and its membership by concentrating on the Mediator of this covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ (For an excellent summary of Christ as Mediator see this post: 1689 Chapter 8)  By Mediator, it is meant that Christ “mediates” or acts as an arbitrator, between God (the Father) and man.  1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.  John Owen, in his commentary on Hebrews, writes “A mediator must be a middle person between both parties entering into the covenant; and if they be of different natures, a perfect complete mediator ought to partake of each of their natures in the same person.”

We are first introduced to this idea of the mediatorial work of Christ in Mark 14 during the upper room Passover meal of Jesus and His disciples,

“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”  And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

From this passage we can begin to see the connection between the covenant (New) and the death of Christ, i.e. the shedding of His blood.  This is even more explicitly stated in Luke 22:20, “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  Here we see Jesus making specific reference to the New Covenant and its direct connection to His death.

Similarly the Apostle Paul references this connection outlined by our Lord in his first letter to the Church at Corinth,

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-30

In this particular passage, Paul also references Jesus’ words from the Passover prior to His death.  We see not only the relationship between the New Covenant and Jesus’ death, but also the association with communion, or the Lord’s Supper, with both the New Covenant and remembering Jesus’ death.  This will be important in helping to determine the membership of this covenant.  We have previously asserted (Regeneration) that membership of the New Covenant is limited to the regenerate as evidenced by their repentance and faith in Christ and at this point we must return to that particular question from several posts ago specifically regarding membership in the New Covenant.  As previously stated, only the regenerate belongs to the New Covenant, as seen in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 (It is common language, particularly within Reformed Baptist tradition to assert membership of the New Covenant is limited to the elect, but it would seem clear that it should be more specific, i.e. the regenerate elect).

Despite the promise of the New Covenant in these Old Testament passages, we do not see the inauguration of this covenant until the New Testament, specifically through the death of Christ as noted in the passages above.  So while Jeremiah and Ezekiel inform our understanding of what is to come, it really is incomplete without seeing greater detail that the New Testament provides.  Which brings us to our passage earlier from Paul.  Paul not only quotes Jesus’ statement about his blood and body represented by the wine and bread, but specifically references the New Covenant connection to this communion time.  He follows with this warning, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  Paul is writing to the Church, i.e. believers, and he is warning them against partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner.  Just what this unworthy manner has been of some debate, but what is clear is that Paul is exhorting believer’s to do a spiritual examination of their hearts before they share in communion with Christ, remembering His death and longing for His second coming.  This is important guidance for determining who should partake in Lord’s Supper, which has been identified as a sign of membership in the New Covenant.  By way of implication of this passage, it must be exclusive of believers only, those we have who have been regenerated in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Some have argued that membership in the New Covenant is extended to all Israel or all those who are believers and their children.  But this cannot be.  We’ve seen that the New Covenant benefits are for the regenerate and now, on the basis of the New Covenant purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ, we see again that only believers are to partake in the Lord’s Supper because for them and them alone it is a sign of their inclusion in the New Covenant.