How many "Reformed" understandings of the covenant of grace are there?

Discussion in 'Covenant Theology' started by Steve Paynter, Apr 29, 2013.

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  1. PatrickTMcWilliams

    PatrickTMcWilliams Puritan Board Freshman

    That's what I thought. "Reformed Baptists" are neither Reformed nor Baptist. What term would you prefer? I'm not sure about the other "Baptists" here, but I'd prefer if you were straightforward in your terminology rather than politely acquiescing to our errant labels.
  2. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    Well, if the net is cast too wide, the worst I will do is waste my time considering a position that I will subsequently discard. I agree that there may be other needs for the use of the word "Reformed" which need more careful delineation. For me, if I should pick up, a Calvinist dispensational view, it would not be the end of the world. Indeed, in Christian charity, I should from time to time pay attention to what my fellow evangelicals are convinced the Bible teaches, just as part of checking my tradition and assumptions.

    I agree that confession is inevitable, and I recognise the value of confessing in line with a historical confessional document. However, there are two questions. The first is how one becomes convinced that a particular confessional document is sound with respect to Scripture; and the second is how one encourages others to come to confess in line with a particular confessional document. Both of these questions requires one to come to the Scriptures and test the confessional document in question. I invite you to reconsider your above statements, but as you do, having in mind the 1689 BCF (which I assume you do not subscribe to), rather than the WCF (which I assume you do.) However, standard the 1689 is as exposition of Scripture ... it is not yours ... and you will not subscribe to it, because you find it lacking with regard to Scripture.

    Firstly, thank you for the kind, gentle and wise rebuke/warning. I hope I don't deserve it; and if I ever do, that it will check me.

    I accept that my use of the word "sophisticated" might give the impression that I want to be a novel biblical interpreter that dazzles everyone with my wit, wisdom and new insights. However, that is not what I meant. I have read too much biblical interpretation (especially by New Perspective advocates) which has been naïve and ignorant with regard to systematic theology, and some application of their new readings to historical positions have been so arrogant as to almost be laughable. I see the need for "informed nuance" in dealing with theological and historical issues in biblical interpretation. I meant no more by "sophisticated" than being "accurate, informed, and not conflating issues that ought not to be conflated - historically accurate and faithful to the (Reformed) churches historical orthodox position."

    I have every desire to function in support of the ongoing life of the church, and no desire to be heretical, or "constantly" or needlessly "reinventing the faith". However, a couple of points. Firstly, as I understand it, being faithful to the historic faith of the church is an important part of supporting the church. Secondly, re-grounding the faith in Scripture is sometimes necessary, and part of helping the church maintain its historic faith.

    Part of the job of a biblical scholar is to pay attention to the language and concepts which are used in the portion of Scripture that one is currently studying. This will not necessarily be the language or concepts used by systematicians and confession writers. The biblical scholar may suggest alternative concepts and terminology to the systematicians - but whether the systematic theologians and the church at large, accepts such changes is a bigger question, and (thankfully) is not in the power of the biblical scholar to determine.
  3. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    Just to be clear, I'm not trying to put some boundary around the word "Reformed" so as to simply avoid investigating other viewpoints. My larger point is the usability of the term. If it can mean everything then it doesn't really exist as a useful description of anything in particular. You might have started the thread by asking "How many understandings of the Covenant of Grace are there?" and this thread would have been pretty wide. Even when we use the term Reformed Baptist today, we tend to remember that it's a relatively recent phenomenon because the term Reformed has been historically associated with a certain Covenant theology. As you can see from the thread, it creates some qualifications as people are using different sets of definitions. By the very nature of the initial question, it did not jump to anyone's mind here to include the views of Finney or Barth even though both began within a body that came out of the Reformed tradition. We're able to exclude them from consideration for "Reformed understanding" not because we don't desire to investigate their views but, having investigated them, we can make important distinctions which is necessary when examining things.

    In the end, we all have to begin with the notion that we're Christians based first on some basic definition of orthodoxy. We exclude Mormons and Jehova's Witnesses and Muslims even though they have some place for Christ in their theology. From there we make further distinctions to help understand the various visible Churches that confess a Christian orthodoxy. Even in your signature, we know you belong to a Baptist Church and, furthermore, that you subscribe to a Confession that distinguishes your beliefs from others who use the same term. Baptist helps us know that, in shorthand, your Church holds to a certain ecclesiology and your confessional subscription further delineates other aspects of your theology. These shorthand terms help us to know what you believe so you don't have to constantly re-introduce all that you hold to when you begin a discussion with someone. I also know you're in Bristol, England so I know a little bit about where you come from and so through various forms of classification it helps narrow down discussion.

    This is a long way of giving explanation as to why we even retain the term. Though society increasingly believes that words have no meaning, I think we need to maintain the value that words point to ideas so that we can arrive at understanding.

    Thank you for your irenic reply and I hope I have explained my intent in trying to keep the terminology a bit tighter. We need to be liberal in our understanding of things but liberality does not mean that we simply abandon the meaning of terms simply to prove to others that we are liberal in our thinking about things.

    I confess the WCF because I'm in a Church where we confess the Scriptures together in such a way. I don't arrive at truth by an autonomous differentiation of facts in themselves, placing the Creator and His Word as one of many facts to differentiate and arrive at autonomous conclusions. Rather, it was the Reformed Church and through its ministry of the Word that preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to me and the Spirit used the means of that preaching to convert me and bring me into His visible kingdom. My knowledge is one of thinking God's thoughts after Him analogically through the Word and the light of nature. The Word creates the Church and its gifts by which I am preached to, prayed for/with, encouraged, and built up. Mine is not a faith by which the Word drops out of heaven and then I decide, randomly, the people who I'll affiliate with simply by my autonomous decision that there are a group of people I mostly agree with. I'm called into communion by the Word into a body that confesses the Scriptures together and is built up by it.

    Had my circumstances been different, I might have been converted under the ministry of a Baptist congregation and my study in that body of believers may have been different and I might be convinced of different things by that ministry. Nevertheless, given the community I find myself within, I find my conscience convinced by the Word of God that the truths I confess together with the Church to be His Word. I grew up Roman Catholic so I roundly reject its teachings as soul-destroying. I continue to engage in regular dialog and friendship with many outside my communion and put my confession in contact with many divergent voices. But, even as my understanding grows, I have submitted myself (as the Scriptures command) to a visible communion and I am blessed to have my understanding challenged and sharpened by those who have been called by God to my growth in grace. Having studied the Scriptures for years now, I find this view of the Church and discipleship to be Biblical and the notion that we arrive at truth independently or a spirit of distrusting the value of the communion of Saints as a means to my sanctification to be a modern but un-Biblical notion.
  4. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I thought I explained there is no acquiescing. When discussing the issue itself I always use antipaedobaptist. But when I am in a discussion with people who use these terms as identifiers they must be taken up in some sense.
  5. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    It should be clarified that this "1689 Baptist" unified "covenant of grace" is only in the plan of God and is not historically realised until the new covenant. When the Reformed speak of an unified covenant of grace they mean one that is historically realised across both Testaments. It is evident that "1689 Baptists" do not mean this and clearly depart from the consent of Reformed theologians (including Owen, et al) on that point. In conclusion, therefore, it is fair to state that the "1689 Baptist" view is not the Reformed view of the covenant of grace.
  6. Petty France

    Petty France Puritan Board Freshman

    Yes, there is a difference between the two. I believe what Steve was getting at was avoiding the appearance that Baptists affirm two covenants of grace, which they do not, thus defending the 'unity' of the covenant of grace. But that the covenant of grace is distinct in substance from the OT covenants is certainly a self-conscious departure.
  7. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    No wonder we don't agree on the role of the biblical scholar. I must admit that I am slightly awed by this position. I don't move in Reformed circles very much (Presbyterians are almost impossible to find in England, and although I worship at my wife's old Presbyterian church when we visit her parents in Wales, my outside assessment is that it is barely evangelical, let alone confessional), so I haven't encountered anyone who takes this stance before.

    I find your position a slightly worrying one. Do you think people converted under, say, a Wesleyan minister, should remain Wesleyan? Or should they assess their tradition against the Scriptures and adapt their practices and theology accordingly? More importantly, is an entailment of your position a kind of relativism: the truth one ought to find in Scripture should be determined by the circumstances of one's conversion?

    Also, I wonder whether there is much point in engaging in theological discourse. You are so bound by your confession that you are not open to being shown that it might not be right. Doesn't this (functionally at least) make your confession a secondary Scripture?

    I wonder what you think of Christians like John Owen, who, I understand, upon reading the arguments of someone called Cotton, changed his ecclesiology from Presbyterian to Congregational?

    Sorry, I am not trying to be confrontational. I am just stunned, and trying to think through what I think about such enthusiastic confessionalism.
  8. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    Yep, what he said!
  9. Semper Fidelis

    Semper Fidelis 2 Timothy 2:24-25 Staff Member

    What I'm trying to articulate is very difficult to articulate. On the one hand, I affirmed (if you read me carefully) that my conscience is bound by the Word. Yet, there is also the truth, from the Scriptures, that I'm not simply a "lone ranger" interpreting the Bible. Neither am I called into the faith as simply an individual but I am called into a local Church. Ephesians 4 clearly articulates the life of the Body and the gifts that God gives to the Church to upbuild that body so it cannot ever rightly be understood that Christian growth and understanding operates apart from the context of the Churches ministry through its offices.

    You say I'm not able to grow but, again, you're not reading me carefully. I already noted I came out of Roman Catholicism so I clearly had (and have) and ability to be taught by the Word. I also am not stating that my participation in a Church body makes me immune from being in a Church that does not properly teach the Word of Truth. Taken with what I've already noted, other portions of Scripture make it clear that ministers depart from the faith as do whole Churches and so I return to the notion that my conscience is bound by the Word of God and I may have to leave a communion to find a communion that rightly teaches the Word.

    That said, I don't place the idea of my conscience being bound by the Word of God in competition with the notion that I may find a communion where faithful men are ordained (per Eph 4) for my sanctification. I believe, in my conscience, I have found a Church where the Lord has raised men up to function per Eph 4 albeit imperfectly. Indwelling sin causes many blind spots in me and so I need faithful elders who will be a check to me even as I'm a check to them. We strive together to encourage one another, rebuke, exhort, etc because it's not an individual effort. I also don't always arrive at sound conclusions on first glance and so the community of faithful men, along with the blessings of faithful teachers that have come before, check me from rushing headlong into error.

    I could go on and on about the deceitfulness of the heart and why I believe that the Scriptures clearly paint a picture of the Lord using many means privately and corporately but the aim is the upbuilding and sanctification of the Church and my basic orientation is not as an individual but a supporting element - an instrument in the hands of the Redeemer toward the sanctification of His Bride.

    What I'm trying to avoid as I mention Baptists, is being so prideful as to assert that, if I was converted in a Baptist Church, that I would be so wise as to see what I now clearly believe to be several clear errors in their Scriptural understanding. Even though I read through the Bible regularly and study extensively, the goal of the "unity of the faith" is a pressing Scriptural concern that makes jumping ship quickly very difficult. The person who doesn't care in the least about the Church may find it easy to stay "above the fray" but the person who remains "above the fray" may know the Scriptures but in such a way as they have no impact on him.

    I don't want to leave you with the impression that I don't see problems in my own flock but that's the nature of the Church. It's imperfect but Christ calls us to it nonetheless and a schismatic spirit, in my view, is to deny the faith altogether.

    As for my notes about analogical reasoning as opposed to the idea of interpreting undifferentiated facts, if you haven't studied the way the Reformed note the manner in which we arrive at the Truth as being dependent upon the Creator then I suggest further study in that area. One of the things we always need to keep in mind is that, although we're called to learn, it is not as if our strength of insight is what characterizes us as children of God. Christ, in thanking the Father about His disciples, does not thank Him for helping Him find people that could arrive at sound conclusions because they properly used their autonomous reason to arrive at sound conclusions, but He thanks the Father for revealing the Kingdom to little children and hiding it from the wise of this world (Matt 11:25-26). At the end of the day, I thank God that He revealed the Son to me. I think an approach to God that does not begin with knowledge as Revelation from the Creator, taken to its full conclusion, will hear no voice but its own.
  10. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    If the OT covenants are substantially different to the covenant of grace then the OT covenants function as historically realised covenants substantially different to the historically realised covenant of grace in the new covenant, which is nothing other than dispensationalism. The nature of the dispensationalism is altered to suit the idea that a covenant can be something other than historically realised, but it is dispensationalism nonetheless.
  11. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    The difference between dispensationalism (as dispensationalists would understand the term) and the 1689 Baptist understanding of the covenant of Moses is that the Baptists, along with Owen and Petto and others, did not understand the Mosaic covenant to be directly salvific. Dispensationalism in contrast sees the Old Covenant as a different way of being saved. The 1689 BCF understands people throughout time being saved by the revealed (and subsequently to be established) covenant of grace ... in other words, through faith in Christ. The Particular Baptists had an "extension theology" (through the New Covenant, the (elect) Gentiles are added to the people of God), and they did not keep Israel and Church separate, which is the distinguishing mark of dispensationalism.

    Of course, the word "dispensationalism" can be defined in different ways, but given the long standing disagreements between dispensationalists and covenant theologians of all kinds, it is not helpful to use it to label a version of covenant theology which you do not agree with. It seems to me that we have come in this thread to a clear and agreed understanding of the ways in which the 1689 and WCF differ and agree on this subject. I am not sure the "dispensational" label adds any light to the matter.

    If you want to insist on the "dispensational" label, an interesting question for the Puritan Board, given that it accepts subscribers to the 1689, is whether it would want to say that it now accepts "dispensationalists".
  12. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Rich,

    Given your qualifications to your previous stated position, I am now left wondering whether we actually disagree at all, and are just expressing ourselves differently.

    On a practical level, as an academic in a small local church, there is the problem of finding others who will engage with one at the necessary technical level to in anyway act as a meaningful check or even sounding board to try out one's readings on. And even if you find someone who can and is prepared to engage with you at the necessary level of detail, that is still only one other Christian voice. This is where one's fellow academics (including one's supervisor, if one is a PhD student), and the academics whose works one are interacting with, become one's peers, and it is they who critique and check your work. The degree with which a student is required to function within a particular tradition is in large measure down to the student's desire to function within that tradition. My position is that the student is overwhelmingly more likely do work which is of benefit to the church is he or she stays within the bounds of the historical faith - and particularly within the Western, Protestant, Evangelical, 1689/WCF tradition. One way I can help myself to do that ... is to engage with others via the internet - hence my posts here.

    Personally, I expect to continue to function within the 1689/WCF tradition, because I have found this tradition to be biblically faithful. I refer to it as the same tradition for various reasons, but primarily because I am still in the process of checking which variant of covenant theology I find most biblical. I cannot in good faith if - just like you ... my conscience is to be bound to the Word of God ... pre-decide which of these sub-divisions I want to belong too, and strive to keep my reading of the Bible in line with it. If I were to, given my background, it would be the 1689 ... and presumably you think committing myself to that covenant theology would be a mistake.

    I am open to the (mere) possibility that the 1689/WCF might be wrong; but the burden of proof heavily lies with deviant readings. This ... as I understand it ... is also the stance that the PB takes on the subject.

    Perhaps I should be more explicit and name names. My role models for biblical scholarship are people like D.A. Carson, David Wenham (my supervisor), and F.F. Bruce (David's supervisor, back in the day). These are biblical scholars whose careful biblical studies have supported traditional readings of the Scriptures, and whose work has blessed the church at large because of that. I will never be in their class; but they embody what I aspire to achieve and the methodology for achieving it.
    Last edited: May 10, 2013
  13. PuritanCovenanter

    PuritanCovenanter Moderator Staff Member

    Just as a side note here Steve, it seems that D. A. Carson himself had some critique concerning the Law from a Reformed Baptist Scholar Greg Welty. Dr. Carson was looking a bit more dispensational and leaning more towards New Covenant Theology ideology concerning law. You can read Dr. Welty's paper here.
    Response to D. A. Carson

    Papers by Greg Welty
  14. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    Thanks for these links. I am working my way through Dr. Welty's paper on Don Carson, and will work through his other papers on NCT - a topic I know very little about.
  15. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    I thought we already agreed that Owen et al were in a different category because they teach the covenant of grace was substantially established in Old Testament covenants. Whatever happens with the Mosaic is interesting but irrelevant to this main point of difference. "The Baptists" should not be put in the same category if they disallow there was no historically realised covenant of grace in the Old Testament.
  16. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman

  17. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    The reader will need to refer back to the comments on Hebrews 7 to see what Owen means by the term "absolutely." When he speaks "absolutely" he outrightly affirms the Westminsterian doctrine. As the Larger Catechism explains, the covenant of grace is made with Christ, and in Him with all the elect as His seed. There is no other covenant Head but Christ. That Westminster teaches it is a clear indication that there is no inherent contradiction between this affirmation by Owen and those others in which Owen teaches the covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament covenants.
  18. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    I believe (currently on very little study) that Owen is in a different category than the Particular Baptists because of the question of the establishment of the covenant of grace prior to the new. However, I was only putting them in the same category with regards to the Mosaic covenant. My full sentence read:

    I agree with you that the establishment or otherwise of the covenant of grace prior to the New is an important point of difference between Particular Baptists and Owen et al.. My point is not that they have identical covenant theologies, but rather that on the matter of the Mosaic covenant, where there is continuity with Owen et al, there is clear blue water between the Particular Baptists and Dispensationalists.
  19. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman


    That is a really fascinating quotation from Owen. From it, it is rather difficult to understand exactly where Owen fitted in. The first sentence seems to argue that the covenant of grace was "in existence and effect". If this is taken to mean "established" this is not the Particular Baptist position. However, at the end of the paragraph Owen glosses it as "the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ", which is the Particular Baptist understanding of the covenant of grace prior to the establishment of the New covenant in the blood of Jesus, and hence "in existence and effect" might be the Particular Baptist position. However, the phrase "promise of the grace in and by Jesus Christ" is not clear, as it is totally compatible with other paedobaptist positions ... including the WCF position!

    In the second paragraph Owen distinguishes the covenant of grace from the Abrahamic covenant, and any biblical covenant in the Old Testament. Again this is compatible with the Particular Baptist position, but is probably also compatible with the other paedobaptist covenant theologies, for generally "Reformed" (in the broad sense that includes Owen and Petto, as well as the WCF) covenant theologians have not identified the covenant of grace with a specific biblical covenant. The last sentence ... which seems to clarify what Owen means by "absolutely" in this discussion, argues that prior to New, "the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture". This is exactly the Denault reading of the 1689 BCF position.

    Perhaps in other posts I have been too quick to assume that Owen's position was similar to Horton's, and firmly in the paedobaptist camp. It remains the case, however that Owen did not become a Baptist, and the presumption must be that there was something in his covenant theology that prevented him from making that step, and not mere inconsistency of practice.
  20. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman

  21. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for the quotations from John Owen. .... He never is the easiest to read, is he?

    Given that you didn't provide any commentary, I will comment on what I see in each of the quotations.

    I am not clear that "absolutely" is a particularly technical term for Owen ... but I might be misunderstanding his usage. Here "absolutely" seems to be able to be glossed by "really" ... or even omitted entirely. I guess by going on to talk about the Abrahamic covenant, Owen's use of "absolutely" here subsumes the Abrahamic into either the covenant of works or of grace - and presumably he meant the covenant of grace. But that raises a question about the Mosaic covenant, given that later Owen distinguishes it from the covenant of grace. I guess I don't follow Owen's thought at all here.

    When the quotation goes on to talk about Abraham being a "representative" I am a little uneasy. I know Adam and Christ function as federal heads, but I am not sure every covenant is made with a representative. Certainly, I am unsure Abraham is a federal head of a covenant. Perhaps again I am misunderstanding Owen - it certainly seems possible! Furthermore, Owen might go on to maintain that children who are in their covenant head are welcomed into the covenant of grace, and that no-one has overturned this. However, again, Owen can hardly be said to be clear here.

    Here Owen seems to be arguing for the abolishment and removal of the whole Mosaic law ... moral as well as ceremonial. (Is he here arguing a kind of NCT?)

    Here his use of the word "absolutely" is used to deny the fact that the "Old covenant" came before the earliest promise of the gospel. Again it does not seem to be a technical phrase, and could be glossed by "completely" I think.

    Again there are a few uses of absolutely in this quotation, but none of them seem to be technical uses.

    The bits I bolded, however, did talk address a point which arose earlier in this thread ... namely whether Owen followed the 1689 understanding of the covenant of grace not being established until the New was established ... the answer is clear: he did not. He is therefore much closer to say Michael Horton's position that he is to the 1689, and Denault's attempt to claim him for the Particular Baptist position notwithstanding, there is a clear distinction between Owen and the Particular Baptists.

    This is good ... because nice as it would be to claim Owen for the Baptist cause ... it could only be a fearful inconsistent Owen that could be claimed. I'd rather have him, consistent and insightful (even if not Baptist), as a great "Reformed-in-a-broad-sense" Puritan.
    Last edited: May 12, 2013
  22. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    The Mosaic itself is affected by whether or not there is an historically realised covenant of grace in the Old Testament. For the Reformed who affirm the Mosaic is not a covenant of grace there is at least the qualification that it was given in subordination to the covenant of grace. Where a system teaches there is no historically realised covenant of grace in the Old Testament the Mosaic itself will be radically different.
  23. MW

    MW Puritan Board Doctor

    Owen is arguing that the covenant could not have been the effect of the death of Christ because the death of Christ and its benefits were the provision of the covenant. As the above quoted portion demonstrates, the covenant of grace is substantially operative under the Old Testament. Whatever readers choose to do with his careful explanations and qualifications it is illegitimate to fairly interpret him as teaching anything other than a substantial unity of the covenant of grace in both Testaments.
  24. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman

  25. Prufrock

    Prufrock Arbitrary Moderation

    If one's goal is to attain an understanding of Owen's covenant position*, forward progress, no matter the strength or subtlety of your mental gymnastics, will be crippled so long as the intellectual wrestling takes place within the narrow confines of his commentary on the eighth chapter of Hebrews. It is the equivalent of trying to learn the definition of "antidisestablishmentarianism" by only reading the definitions of "anti-" and "establish" over and over again. The problem is made worse by attempting to read Owen through the lens of current discussions and debates. While we sit and debate Owen's stance on matters with which Owen, quite frankly, wasn't concerned, he might be standing ahead assuming the form of Whitman, saying "missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you." The simple fact is, he's already ahead of you just waiting for you to catch up to him.

    After reading through the whole of Owen, I was faced with the inescapable conclusion - all these discussions get him completely wrong. Not only that, but he's probably more thoroughly in keeping with the Westminster Confession than most people who are arguing about what to do with Owen's embarrassingly wide departure from the confession. The reason for the mental disconnect, I would suggest, lies with the fact that Owen is thinking of the historical manifestation of salvation within the framework of a term I never see brought into the discussion: the "church-state." The discussion board nature severely limits what can reasonably be posted, so I will be highly selective and limit commentary, hoping the selection and arrangement of quotations can allow enough of Owen to shine through to make his thought a bit more clear.

    To begin, consider the following passage from his The True Nature of a Gospel Church, roughly contemporaneous to material normally discussed from his commentary:
    Thus under the old testament, when God would take the posterity of Abraham into a new, peculiar church-state, he did it by a solemn covenant. Herein, as he prescribed all the duties of his worship to them, and made them many blessed promises of his presence, with powers and privileges innumerable, so the people solemnly covenanted and engaged with him that they would do and observe all that he had commanded them; whereby they coalesced into that church-state which abode unto the time of reformation. This covenant is at large declared, Exodus 24: for the covenant which God made there with the people, and they with him, was not the covenant of grace under a legal dispensation, for that was established unto the seed of Abraham four hundred years before, in the promise with the seal of circumcision; nor was it the covenant of works under a gospel dispensation, for God never renewed that covenant under any consideration whatever; but it was a peculiar covenant which God then made with them, and had not made with their fathers, Deuteronomy 5:2,3, whereby they were raised and erected into a church-state, wherein they were intrusted with all the privileges and enjoined all the duties which God had annexed thereunto. This covenant was the sole formal cause of their church-state, which they are charged so often to have broken, and which they so often solemnly renewed unto God. (Ch. 2, paragraph 18**, bold emphasis mine)​
    Note that "the Abrahamic Covenant" is referred to here as the legal administration of the covenant of grace. The Sinai covenant is the taking of the people who are under this legal administration of the covenant of grace and formally enacting a particular and specific church-state which will govern them. It is not something contrary to the Abrahamic covenant, but rather a "particularization" of it: accordingly, Owen can elsewhere (Exercitation 21, paragraph 7) that the promises of the Sinai covenant are "annexed to the then present administration of the covenant of grace."

    These "annexed promises," this formal enacting of a specific church-state, is also sometimes referred to by Owen as an "administration" of the covenant. For example, in Exercitation 19 (paragraph 34), he writes:
    That which God, on the other hand, requires of them is, that they keep his covenant, Exodus 19:5. Now, this covenant of God with them had a double expression; - first, In the giving of it unto Abraham, and its confirmation by the sign of circumcision. But this is not that which is here especially intended; for it was the administration of the covenant, wherein the whole people became the peculiar treasure and inheritance of God upon a new account, which is respected.​
    This passage is important for understanding Owen's framework. This language of the Sinai Covenant "administering" the covenant (under its "legal" or "Abrahamic" dispensation) situates Owen with the mainstream of Westminster theology, and accounts for his ability to write things such as the following without contradiction:
    After the fall he entered into another covenant with mankind, which, from the principle, nature and ends of it, is commonly called the covenant of grace. This, under several forms of external administration, hath continued ever since in force, and shall do so to the consummation of all things.(Exercitation 28, paragraph 2)​
    This helps to contextualize what he means, for example, when he states in the tenth chapter of his Christologia:
    All the promises that God gave afterwards [that is, after the promise to Adam] unto the church under the Old Testament, before and after giving the law — all the covenants that he entered into with particular persons, or the whole congregation of believers — were all of them declarations and confirmations of the first promise, or the way of salvation by the mediation of his Son, becoming the seed of the woman, to break the head of the serpent, and to work out the deliverance of mankind.[/indent]

    Throughout his Hebrews commentary, Owen argues that the purpose of the covenant at Sinai was to formally establish a visible church-state (with all its terms and obedience) with his covenanted people so as to preserve a separate people who hold forth visible tokens and signs of the coming Messiah and what he will enact when he comes. Thus it is, as he says, "not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace", though it did administer the legal dispensation of the covenant, but a "particular, temporary covenant." This doesn't change the fact that, by its very nature as a covenant "whereby that people walked with God," it administered the terms of the covenant of grace.

    With this basic framework in mind, I wish to present material on two related topics: 1.) Owen's conception of what "the Law" referred to in its Sinaitic context; and 2.) In what way the Sinai Covenant was inadequate, and how this relates to his discussion of the word "established," as pertains to the New Covenant.

    For the first, the rule was (plainly) the Moral Law. But Owen does not mean by "The Law" the law considered nakedly. For example, in his Christologia (ch. 11), he states: "Howbeit, as the Church of Israel, as such, was not obliged unto obedience unto the moral law absolutely considered, but as it was given unto them peculiarly in the hand of a mediator." Also, in the fourteenth chapter of his Doctrine of Justification:
    That this law, this rule of obedience, as it was ordained of God to be the instrument of his rule of the church, and by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham, unto whose administration it was adapted, and which its introduction on Sinai did not disannul, was accompanied with a power and efficacy enabling unto obedience. The law itself, as merely receptive and commanding, administered no power or ability unto those that were under its authority to yield obedience unto it; no more do the mere commands of the gospel. Moreover, under the Old Testament it enforced obedience on the minds and consciences of men by the manner of its first delivery, and the severity of its sanction, so as to fill them with fear and bondage; and was, besides, accompanied with such burdensome rules of outward worship, as made it a heavy yoke unto the people. But as it was God’s doctrine, teaching, instruction in all acceptable obedience unto himself, and was adapted unto the covenant of Abraham, it was accompanied with an administration of effectual grace, procuring and promoting obedience in the church. And the law is not to be looked on as separated from those aids unto obedience which God administered under the Old Testament; whose effects are therefore ascribed unto the law itself See Psalm 1,19,119.​
    Finally, note that in Exercitation 21, he again writes that the Law or the rule of the Covenant was "the law" considered in itself, but the law "accommodated" to (the legal dispensation of) the covenant of grace:
    In that it [the law] had a dispensation added unto the commands of obedience, and interpretation, kat' epeikeian, by condescension, given by God himself, as to the perfection of its observance and manner of its performance in reference unto this new end. It required not absolutely perfect obedience, but perfectness of heart, integrity, and uprightness, in them that obeyed.​
    This is pure Burroughs, pure Boston. In short, pure, plain-vanilla Westminster understanding of the law as accommodated to the covenant of grace. So long as "law" is understood to mean "command" and "gospel," "promise," Owen will be unintelligible. He as to be understood in his own, Westminster context wherein the covenant of grace itself contains commands and even threatenings which "are annexed to the dispensation of the covenant of grace, as an instituted means to reader it effectual, and to accomplish the ends of it" (Hebrews, ch. 4, vv.1-2, emphasis original).

    As to the second topic, I direct the reader first back to the opening quotation from The True Nature of the Gospel Church. With that in mind, I wish to offer two further passages from his Hebrews commentary. Much of the confusion regarding Owen's understanding, I think, results from his comparisons of what "The Law" and "The New Covenant" respectively accomplish/ed. His repeated statements that "The Law" or "Sinai" could not perfect the people cause readers to believe Owen is saying something far different from what he intends. Let's let Owen set the record straight:
    Now, it is not the rest of heaven that, in this antithesis between the law and the gospel, is opposed hereunto, but the rest that believers have in Christ, with that church-state and worship which by him, as the great prophet of the church, in answer unto Moses, was erected, and into the possession whereof he powerfully leads them, as did Joshua the people of old into the rest of Canaan. (Ch. 4, vv.1-2 - the whole section ought to be read; emphasis original)​
    Further, from chapter 9:
    He doth not in this place compare together and oppose the future state of glory which we shall have by Christ with and unto the state of the church in this world under the old testament....But he compares the present state of the church, the privileges, advantages, and grace which it enjoyed by the priesthood of Christ, with what it had by the Aaronical priesthood; for the fundamental principle which he confirms is, that the teleiosin, or present "perfection" of the church, is the effect of the priesthood of Christ.​
    And finally, see especially his comments on ch. 7 v.11, where he details at length how the ability to perfect which is denied to "The Law" is not the "perfection" or "salvation" of the individual, but to the perfection of the "church-state." It is in this context that Owen's famous discussion of the word "established" in chapter 8 is to be understood. It is only when the blood of the covenant has been shed that the testamentary grant can truly be enacted; and, accordingly, it is only then that the substance of the covenant can become the sole "rule" of the covenant and the church "perfected" or brought into its full, covenant church-state.

    I realize the discussion board format is inadequate to advance these ideas in a truly meaningful or useful way - what I have presented is far too long for a discussion board, but far too short and "ad hoc" to interact meaningfully on the topic. But I hope that it can help at least point readers to the context in which they should be reading Owen. If one reads portions of Owen, the "baby Owen" created thereby will, indeed, diverge from the Westminster tradition; if one reads all of Owen, I think they will find he instead illuminates much of the tradition and exposes us to the current blind spots in our own self-understanding.

    I think Matthew Winzer's comments on the material which others have quoted in this thread need to be considered carefully. He is fairly and correctly placing Owen within his proper tradition.

    I do apologize for not being able to stick around and discuss this further - but participating in the board is not currently practical. Nevertheless, I saw this discussion a few days ago, and wanted to at least be able to offer a suggestion for direction, and then allow those better qualified to make what they will of it.

    *Please, if anything in this post duplicates material presented in the recent paper or monograph referenced earlier in the thread, accept my deepest apologies. I will delete this post so as not to give people a substitute for someone's published research. I have not been able to keep up on the literature.

    **I've tried to adopt a "generic" reference system for this post so people with various editions of his work can easily locate the texts in question.
  26. PuritanCovenanter

    PuritanCovenanter Moderator Staff Member

    That is greatly helpful Paul. Thank You So Much! It is so good to hear from you!
  27. brandonadams

    brandonadams Puritan Board Freshman

    Thank you very much for this Paul. I appreciate the sharpening.





    RBTR I.2 John Owen and NCT


    :up: :down:
    Last edited: May 14, 2013
  28. Backwoods Presbyterian

    Backwoods Presbyterian Puritan Board Doctor

    Great to see you Prufrock!
  29. Steve Paynter

    Steve Paynter Puritan Board Freshman

    I'll admit that having read the Owen quotations carefully I am this close (indicates a very small gap) to throwing in the towel and giving up on understanding Owen. It is only the fact that I know he is a careful thinker, and will repay the struggle to understand him, that I am even still trying to bother. I think I need the above quotations unpacked in little bit for me.

    My head is spinning (metaphorically) from trying to understand Owen ... and literally ... I am off work with dizziness at the moment. It doesn't help!
  30. Petty France

    Petty France Puritan Board Freshman

    One thing we might all want to keep in mind is that there is no need to fight over who gets Owen. The Particular Baptists, and we their confessional children, viewed reformed paedobapist federal theology as an inconsistent system. We would consider the WCF to be the standard expression of that system. But among reformed paedobaptist authors, there are some who express that which we would consider to be more consistent with accurate federal theology. And it is those pieces that we highlight and put together. So whether Owen resolved those pieces into a system that is in line with the WCF really isn't a concern of ours (though I appreciate that it's being argued with source data). If we claim that Owen's federal theology was identical to the Baptists, without any distinctions, then critique and interaction is rightfully on its way. But if we say that a particular aspect of Owen's federal theology more consistently aligns with how we put federal theology together, and that we hold it to be inconsistent with WCF federal theology, that's simply a theological disagreement, not a battle over Owen himself.

    In other words, we view Owen as being more consistent in his overall inconsistency on this point.

    Side note: I mean nothing insulting to the WCF and those who confess it in my comments. If we, and our Particular Baptist forebears, thought reformed paedobaptist federal theology were consistent, LBCF 7 would be WCF 7.
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