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The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism [Revised Edition] Kindle Edition
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The book's thesis, or "hypothesis" as Denault refers to it, is that covenant theology is the fundamental distinctive that divides Baptists and Presbyterians, and that all other divergences, such as baptism and church polity, derive from that difference in covenant theology. The corollary to this thesis, hinted at in the introduction, but fully revealed in the conclusion, is that Presbyterian covenant theology was "an artificial construction developed to justify an end: paedobaptism" (155). Presbyterians started with paedobaptism and constructed their "laborious" covenant theology to fit their historical situation. By contrast, the Baptists began with their theological inquiries into the nature of the people of God and only ended up rejecting paedobaptism as a result of their careful studies.
Does Denault demonstrate his thesis? The book is a compare/contrast essay on the differences between Particular Baptist federalism and Paedobaptist federalism. Very little of the book is spent on historical development, and the part that does clearly shows that the Particular Baptist federalism came much later and developed against the backdrop of Paedobaptist federalism. He emphasizes that the Particular Baptists came out of the stream of the Reformed tradition, so they did not begin with a blank slate. There is no discussion of why Particular Baptist federalism should arise in England, in the context of Independents and Puritans rejecting the national church, instead of on the continent. Furthermore, Denault defines "Paedobaptist" as Presbyterian-only for the purposes of his book, excluding the Independents (5n1). So I think, in the final analysis, the book fails to demonstrate its thesis that covenant theology came first for the Particular Baptists and that a changed view of church polity and church membership, occasioned by their political situation, came second.
The book does succeed in describing how Particular Baptist federalism as contained in the 1689 London Baptist Confession compares and contrasts to the Paedobaptist federalism of the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith. For my part, however, I think the book suffers from a number of defects.
(1) While the main text tries to stick to the facts, Denault regularly uses the footnotes to make polemical statements against paedobaptism. Most of this argumentation is loose, unsupported, and distracts from the main argument. Most reviewers comment on how balanced and irenic the book is, but that was not my own experience. E.g. 7n6, 15n26, 42n2, 45n17 (nearly a page in length!), 47n18 ("attempts to explain"), 52n29, 63n47, 75n67, 79n69, 115n31.
(2) Many other footnotes are useless or extraneous, or introduce major topics that should be treated properly in the main text. E.g. 6n4, 7n5, 12n14, 13n20, 38n7, 58n41, 67n54, 91n90, 106n15, 110n22n.
(3) Denault never defines what a covenant is. Without defining terms we are left only with a superficial sense of agreement or similarity when in fact there could be profound differences. Without a proper definition of a covenant, we cannot judge whether there is consistency in interpreting Scripture passages.
(4) Throughout the book, we jump, back and forth, between modern Baptist writers, John Owen, 17th century Presbyterians, modern Presbyterians, and 17th century Particular Baptists. The book amounts to a pastiche of quotes, often pulled without context, from different writers at different times in church history, who often have significant differences in terminology and covenant theology. It would be more persuasive if the 17th century Particular Baptists could speak for themselves without the added baggage. At times the 17th century Particular Baptists disappear entirely and are replaced by John Owen or Samuel Petto instead. Is this really what they believed? Or is this the best version of their argument that we have been able to come up with?
(5) In a similar way, "John (The Baptist) Owen" as Denault refers to him, is quoted throughout, following the practice of the Particular Baptists themselves by appealing to his authority. But Denault is not careful to show where Owen diverges from the Baptist covenant theology. We get plenty of claims of agreement with Owen, but very little notice of the differences in terminology and understanding between the two. A book comparing and contrasting John Owen's covenant theology and Baptist covenant theology might have been more useful.
For example, the crux of the entire book is the Particular Baptist claim that the Old Covenant is not just the Mosaic Covenant, as most 17th century writers held, but includes the Abrahamic Covenant (or more precisely "The Covenant of Circumcision"). Without this, the whole argument falls apart and we are all paedobaptists, as both Denault and the Particular Baptists writers agree. It seems significant, therefore, that John Owen, in his commentary on Hebrews, restricted the Old Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant (after all Jeremiah 31:2 refers explicitly to the Mosaic Covenant), but we don't hear about it at the point that these things are being discussed. We only hear from Owen when it suits the argument.
Another example is the question of the mixed nature or externality of the covenant. In his commentary on Hebrews 4:9, John Owen defends paedobaptism on the basis that if God is going to covenant with "a people of God" and not just individual visible saints, then that "people" must of necessity include a mixed body, this side of eternity. This point of view agrees substantially with the perspective of Thomas Blake, on page 50 of Denault's book, but Owen's agreement on this important point is ignored.
Overall, there is a failure to account for the tension in Owen's statements between the invisible and the visible. So for example, in his catechism, John Owen can define the New Covenant as "made unto all his elect" only, and in the same catechism declare that the promise of the covenant in the sacrament of baptism is made to believers "and to their seed". Yet Denault on pages 92-94 regards the former sort of statement as incompatible with the latter, without actually showing that Owen saw these as incompatible.
One last example concerns another critical part of the argument. The Particular Baptist argument hinges on their interpretation of Galatians 4:22-31. The whole argument stands or falls on this passage. On page 120, Nehemiah Coxe and others argue that Hagar and Sarah represent two seeds and two separate covenants, a Covenant of Circumcision and a promise of a future Covenant of Grace. The Baptists argued that these two posterities were distinct. But Owen, when quoted discussing the mixed seed of Abraham, considers Isaac and Jacob to be both the carnal seed and the spiritual seed at the same time. Thus, the two seeds are not distinct, but mixed in the same individuals. In sum, I think Denault emphasizes similarity without taking the time to elucidate the important differences that exist with John Owen.
(6) Another crucial passage from a Presbyterian point of view is Hebrews 10:29. This is one of the places in the book where we don't get anything from the 17th century Particular Baptists themselves. Instead we have Denault taking on Thomas Blake with his own arguments. Denault admits that the translation found in every English Bible and simply taken for granted by most commentators is a good translation of the Greek, but he rejects it because he finds it "theologically impossible" for Baptist federalism, which it is. Unfortunately, his alternative translation of the Greek fails to convince for a number of reasons. (1) The word τῆς διαθήκης is a descriptive genitive restricting the meaning of τὸ αἷμα and therefore is part of a nominal phrase and therefore cannot normally be the subject of the verb ἡγιάσθη. (2) The implicit contrast is between regarding the blood of the covenant as profane (κοινὸν) on the one hand, and being "sanctified" (ἡγιάσθη) on the other, and this is lost in his translation. (3) He cites Paul Ellingworth as saying that it is "grammatically correct" to take "covenant" as the subject of ἡγιάσθη, but if you look up Denault's citation, you find that Ellingworth says that such a translation would not "greatly affect the meaning since the blood and the covenant are inseparable". In other words, in the translation that Denault prefers: "treat as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant, by which blood the covenant was sanctified" it is repetitive without adding anything to the meaning. This translation fails to interpret the sharp interruption by the aorist verb in the parallel sequence of three aorist participles. The correct translation "by which he is sanctified" fits the syntax in a way that a speaker of Greek would normally expect and fits with the similar phrasing in Hebrews 9:13; 10:10; and 13:12, before and after this passage. (4) On page 51n28 in the 2013 paperback he offered a translation different from page 150 in which ἡγιάσθη was mistakenly translated as an active verb instead of a passive, but this has been removed in the revised edition. That faulty translation would have managed to translate the verse in agreement with Baptist federalism and in a way that the phrase would have added something to the meaning of "blood of the covenant" in order to justify the syntactic break in the parallelism. But this was a mistaken translation of the Greek. (5) Denault perhaps follows Ellingworth, who says that making Christ the subject of ἡγιάσθη "goes against the structure of the sentence". I agree that this doesn't work well structurally, although John Owen does suggest it in his Hebrews commentary and many Baptists have offered this possibility. I will only note that John Owen is careful to state the natural reading of the text first, and that Owen is careful not to reject the idea of an apostate being a part of the external covenant in that paragraph. Owen merely offers the idea of Christ as the subject as his own preferred alternative, not as a way of rejecting the standard translation due to "theological impossibility". In sum, Denault fails to convince us that Hebrews 10:29 isn't fatal to his argument.
In conclusion, this book is valuable, but flawed. Its value as other reviewers have mentioned, is that it reveals how far the covenant theology of most Reformed Baptists in our day has been from their ancestors. Many have argued against paedobaptism on the basis of a Presbyterian covenant theology instead of their own. After reading this book, I am left with many questions: What will be the consequence of 1689 Federalism for Old Testament preaching? Will Presbyterians continue to enjoy the same closeness of Old Testament interpretation with 1689 Particular Baptists as they have enjoyed with 20th Century Reformed Baptists? Why did certain views of covenant theology gain acceptance among paedobaptists and others disappear? How does the 1689er view the Davidic covenant and the singing of psalms, given that they belong to the Old Covenant and only contain a promise, not an administration, of the Covenant of Grace? Remember that Benjamin Keach was the first English hymn writer and many PBs rejected singing altogether. If John Smyth and the General Baptists held to a Presbyterian federalism (58n41), then what explains their views on baptism and church polity? And lastly, why didn't something similar happen on the continent?
The major premise of this book is that the 17th century debate on baptism between paedobaptists and credobaptists wasn't just over the mode of baptism, but also the covenant theology that undergirds baptism. This means that Ch. 7 in the LBCF was purposely written in such a way to distinguish their covenant theology from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Whereas the Westminster Confession of Faith modeled their covenant theology as one covenant with multiple administrations, the LBCF seems to model their covenant theology from a "promised/revealed" framework. The consequence of these differences in covenant theology not only produced differing doctrines of baptism, but also produced differences in ecclesiology as well.
This book is highly recommended for (1) confessing Reformed baptists who would like to understand Ch. 7 of their confession more clearly, (2) credobaptists who are interested in different formulations of covenant theology, and (3) paedobaptists who would like to understand their differences and similarities with consistent credobaptists more clearly.
Another note to mention: The book is meant to be a historical theology of this topic so you should not expect to see much exegesis of passages here. For exegesis, I would suggest a reading of Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ by Nehemiah Coxe or The Kingdom of God: A Baptist Expression of Covenant and Biblical Theology by Jeffrey D. Johnson