As an avid book reader, there are constantly new (and old) books that I read and consider them worth a written review to be published here on the site. I hope to do this monthly from here on out. After reading Pascal Denault’s The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, I realized that I could not wait any longer to begin doing book reviews. This book simply needed to be reviewed and promoted by anyone who considers himself Reformed, whether Presbyterian or Baptist. I have not done any reviews on this site up to this point, but rest assured, I have read plenty of books. And without reservation, Denault has written the “book of the year.”
The subtitle of this book offers us a great starting point: “A comparison between seventeenth-century particular baptist and paedobaptist federalism.” The seventeenth century was of monumental importance for the development of historical Reformed theology. Many confessions were written during this time in a grand attempt to define the system of Christianity after a heavy blow to the Roman Church that took place thanks to the efforts of Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Among these confessions were the Westminster Confession (1646) and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). Anyone with a basic understanding of Church history will know that the Westminster Confession advocated the baptism of children and the Baptist Confession did not. And yet, this is only one result of a very holistic distinction regarding how the covenants of the Bible ought to be put together. In other words, we must realize that the doctrine of baptism pours forth from our understanding of Covenant Theology. Denault’s goal then, is to dissect the very core of the differences between the two groups so that the modern reader has a better understanding of the basic premises of each position. Because this is such a masterful summary of the “distinctiveness” of the Baptist position in a world where the Baptist understanding of the Covenants is often misunderstood, it is my goal to not give away too much of the content and inspire the reader to purchase a copy of the book himself.
The book itself is succinctly written and wastes no space. There is heavy citation of original sources, but the reader will find none of it arduous or difficult to understand. Denault has found the right balance between quotation and commentary, intervening where necessary to provide more background and context which puts the original statements in a clear and purposeful light. From the outset, Denault is intriguing and even takes the time to discuss the theologians whom he will cite and reference in pursuit of his thesis. Among the Baptists are: John Spilsbury, John Bunyan, Nehemiah Coxe, and Benjamin Keach. And the representatives of the paedobaptists include: William Ames, Herman Witsius, and Thomas Blake. These original sources, among others not mentioned, are used to explain not only the doctrinal differences, which of course is the primary subject of the book, but also and just as importantly, the history and scenario of the Baptist’s conviction to deviate from the Westminster standards on the doctrine of the covenants. Without this key historical information, one might be left with a variety of dangerous conclusions about the Baptists, many of which are assumed today. These will be mentioned again momentarily.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating pieces of this book is Denault’s use of John Owen, one of the most well known and influential Puritans of this entire era. Owen, a paedobaptist, is actually cited in defense of the credobaptist position throughout. Citations and applications of Owen’s writings might be, in my estimation, the most impactful part of this work and the entire thing is worth buying, if only for the analysis and discussions of John Owen. Under the provocative title John Owen the Baptist, Denault writes that “Owen rejected the model of a covenant of grace under two administrations.” This model, as will be shown, is the very core of Presbyterian federalist theology. But not only did Owen reject the “one covenant, two administration” model, he also “considered that the Old Covenant was different from the New Covenant both in circumstance and in substance.” Denault cites two Baptists, Edward Hutchinson and Nehemiah Coxe, to demonstrate that the Baptists had made strides to endorse the federalism of John Owen. Historically, this is very important as it shows that among the Baptist’s goals was the desire to show that they were well within the realm of Reformed Orthodoxy, in spite of their differences on Covenant Theology. Owen made it possible for the Reformed Baptists to demonstrate, or at least attempt to, that they were not to be seen as an offshoot of the Anabaptists. By endorsing Owen’s federalism, they have proven to be in line with Reformed thought contrary to what many Presbyterians would have wanted to believe at that time (and sadly, even today).
The historical fact that the Reformed Baptists came from the Reformed tradition is presented quite nicely in this book, a refreshing perspective compared to the misleading but popular analysis that the Baptists were really Anabaptists with a Calvinist soteriology. This is important and Denault does a fine job at showing the efforts made by the Reformed Baptists to write their confession as close to the Westminster content as possible. Denault even goes so far to show that “Nehamiah Coxe… hesitated a long time before publishing his treatise in order to avoid controversy with the paedobaptists whom he recognized as brothers loving the Lord Jesus.” The Baptists were historically Reformed through and through and the fact that they deviated from the Westminster on the Covenants, and therefore Baptism, should not take away from that. While some might see these Baptist as trying to enter the Reformed camp, it is more accurate to say that these Baptists were Reformed, but came to a different conclusion than the Presbyterians on one (albeit important!) issue.
So as not to take away from the necessity of reading this book for yourself, some important points are as follows:
The Covenant of Works
Denault describes the Covenant of Works between God and Adam in this way: “if Adam had obeyed, he and his posterity after him would have retained life and would have been sealed in justice; but his disobedience marked the entrance of death into the world.” Denault shows that both the Presbyterians and the Baptists endorsed the view that there was a Covenant of Works. However the difference comes when each group describes the commonality that this Covenant has with the Old Covenant. The Covenant of Works is not where the two camps disagree, but they do disagree when we begin to discuss how this covenant relates to the others.
The Covenant of Grace
The Covenant of Grace is the main area of contention between the two groups and thus, the chapter which breaks it down in the book is the largest. Denault says it like this: “The Covenant of Grace was the basis of federalism; this same basis became the breaking point between Presbyterian and Baptist theology.” For the Presbyterians, the Covenant of Grace can best be summed up with the phrase that is often repeated by Denault: “One Covenant under two administrations.” That is, the Covenant of Grace should be seen in two respects: “its substance and its circumstance or administration” and for the Presbyterian, the substance of the Covenant of Grace is the same in the Old and New Covenants but the administration of that Covenant is what distinguishes the two. It was important for the Presbyterians to stress the unity of the Covenant of Grace over all of redemptive history and they therefore emphasized that he Old Covenant and the New Covenant were of the same substance even though they were administered differently.
For the Baptists though, their understanding of the unity of the Covenant of Grace was different. They rejected the Paedobaptist position and held that the Old and New Covenants were of different administration AND substance. In other words, whereas the Presbyterians held that both the Old and New Covenants were administrations of one Covenant of Grace, the Baptists held that the New Covenant was a Covenant of Grace but the Old Covenant was not. For the Baptists, the Covenant of Grace could be seen as one covenant under one administration, that is, the administration of the Lord Jesus Christ. The New Covenant was thus the only Covenant of Grace and the Old Covenant was a shadow that pointed toward the New. The Covenant with Abraham, the Covenant at Sinai, and the Davidic Covenant then were not administrations of the Covenant of Grace, however, to use Denault’s words, “the Covenant of Grace was revealed under these various covenants.”
For both camps then, the Covenant of Grace was one and it was united, but for the Presbyterians the Old Covenant was part of that oneness and for the Baptists it was not. For the Presbyterians, the Covenant of Grace was established in the Old Testament but for the Baptists it was promised in the Old Testament and established in the New.
Since the New Covenant, that is, the establishment of the Covenant of Grace, was new in substance for the Baptists, the obvious question is: what makes it new? Denault is clear when he writes: “The promises of the Old Covenant were preceded by an “if” that made them conditional on man’s obedience, while the promises of the New Covenant were marked by a divine monergism.” He later explains that the substance of the New Covenant “can be summarized in three blessings: the Law written in the heart (regeneration), the personal and saving knowledge of God and the forgiveness of sins….” And it is important to note that for the Baptist, these three blessings are applied to every single member of the New Covenant. This is contrary to the Presbyterian view which was that not all members of the New Covenant will be saved. After all, the substance of the New Covenant is the same as the Old for the Presbyterian position.
The implications for Baptism are clear. If all who are in the New Covenant should be baptized, then the Presbyterians have no problem Baptizing the children. For the New Covenant, like the Old, is mixed, that is, it includes both elect individuals and non-elect individuals. Or more specific in relation to infant baptism, it includes both the elect and their children. The children of the elect should be baptized as a sign that they are in the covenant. The Baptist however, realizing that the New Covenant is not mixed as was the Old, asserts that only the believer should be baptized. Rightful baptism is administered to the saved and thus the children must first “repent and believe” if they are to be baptized.
The above takeaways do not do justice to the book. It needs to be read in its entirety. There are many Baptists today who subscribe to a Calvinist soteriology but they have little understanding of the Baptist tradition of Covenant theology. Calvinist Baptists would to well to discover their roots and Denault offers a starting point that is as good as any, if not better. Each section is complete and meticulous. Denault has proven to be a skilled theologian. By understanding the backdrop of the confessions and engaging with the primary authors and theologians that contributed to those confessions, it becomes quite obvious where the Baptists left the Presbyterian view. The confessions are used often today to find the distinctions, but these confessions are often read without looking at the historical development and context. Denault avoids this mistake by proving that he is well read in the works of both the paedobaptists and the credobaptists. Not only does he compare and contrast the teachings of the confessions directly, but he also takes the time and effort to explain, based on the original sources, why the confessions included the specific language that they did.
Lastly, while it is a rather short book (about 150 pages), it is packed tightly with important information and no space is wasted. A good understanding of this book will either take more than one reading, or at least one deep and slow study.
I do want to quote a very direct set of statements from Denault’s conclusion that I found to be a worthy challenge toward our Presbyterian brothers and sisters (who should also not hesitate to read this book).
At the end of this work, we are faced with a marked impression, to be specific, that Presbyterian federalism was an artificial construction developed to justify an end: paedobaptism. We do not think that this laborious theology was the result of a rigorous and disinterested application of hermeneutical principles. We rather believe that it was the consequence of an age-old practive, which became the ultimate instrucment of social uniformity in Christendom and which was inherited by the Reformed Church, namely, paedobaptism. Paedobaptism was the arrival point of Presbyterian federalism because it was the starting point. We do not purport that paedobaptists were dishonest, but, at the very least, that they were profoundly influenced by their tradition.
As an aside, the reader would do well to note that this site, which aims to explore the connections between a libertarian polity and the Reformed faith, has no official position on the Presbyterian/Reformed Baptist debate. As editor though, it is my personal conviction that the Reformed Baptist confession of 1689 is more Biblically accurate. In the same way that my advocacy of Gordon Clark in the Clark-Van Til debate does not preclude Van Tillians from engaging with us, I welcome Presbyterians as brothers and sisters in Christ, under the happy banner of Reformed. Members of either camp can be a Reformed Libertarian. Else this site would have been called “Reformed Baptist Libertarian.”