Particular Baptist Covenant Theology

| April 13, 2017

The Particular Baptists emerged from the English Puritan movement within England’s parishes and universities. Several of the first-generation Particular Baptists attended Cambridge and Oxford and began their ministerial careers as priests in the church of England. Lay ministers among the Particular Baptists studied and preached Reformed theology. To the Particular Baptists, a consistent application of Reformed theology yielded congregational and Baptist conclusions. This was the case in their covenant theology, which developed within the unity and diversity of the larger branches of the Reformed covenantal family tree.

The heart of Reformed covenant theology is the substantial distinction between the law and the gospel. This foundational distinction was the basis for the more developed expressions of the legal and evangelical covenants, or the covenants of works and grace. The covenant theology of the Particular Baptists joined the law-gospel unity concerning condemnation in Adam and salvation in Christ. They taught the doctrines of the covenants of works and grace clearly.[1]

The Second London Confession of Faith (1677) confesses the covenant of works, moving its details from chapter seven to chapter six.

God created Man upright, and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it, and threatened death upon the breach thereof (2LCF 6.1, italics added).

Later in the same chapter, the confession describes Adam’s federal headship. He stood in “the room, and stead of all mankind” who receive his “imputed” guilt and “corrupted nature.” Chapter seven specifically identifies the “law unto life” of chapter six as a covenant. In fact, it states that the “law unto life” can only be a covenant.

The distance between God and the Creature is so great, that although reasonable Creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of Life, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express, by way of Covenant (2LCF 7.1, italics added).

The Particular Baptists joined the unity of Reformed covenant theology, not only regarding the covenant of works, but also regarding the covenant of grace. Salvation in Christ came by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone throughout all ages. The elect, given to Christ in the covenant of redemption, receive his benefits in the covenant of grace (cf. 2LCF 7.2-3).

The Particular Baptists’ covenantal distinctives derive from diversity already present in paedobaptist thought. A large branch within the Reformed family tree taught that the Mosaic covenant is the covenant of works in substance. A similar but distinct branch viewed the Mosaic covenant as a covenant of works, though distinct from the original covenant of works. Both branches assigned a subservient function to the Mosaic covenant as promoting the progress and revelation of the covenant of grace. A third branch argued that the covenant of works was materially “made known,” “declared,” or “revealed” to Israel, while not formally “made” with them. The Mosaic covenant was not a covenant of works in substance. The distinctive feature of Particular Baptist covenant theology was to apply these tools to the Abrahamic covenant, concluding that it was a legal, earthly, national, and typological covenant.

Using the substance logic of Reformed theology (law-gospel), the Particular Baptists argued that to enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant one must obey a positive law, circumcision. Disobedience disinherits. Nehemiah Coxe said, “we first meet with an express Injunction of Obedience to a Command (and that of positive Right) as the Condition of Covenant Interest.”[2] This is the nature of a covenant of works.

Based on this foundation, Particular Baptists immediately connected the Abrahamic covenant to the Mosaic covenant. Coxe said:

In this Mode of transacting [the covenant], the Lord was pleased to draw the first Lines of that Form of Covenant-Relation, which the natural Seed of Abraham, were fully stated in by the Law of Moses, which was a Covenant of Works, and its Condition or Terms, Do this and live.[3]

The Reformed tradition already made the argument regarding Moses. The Baptists pointed out that the same arrangement (obedience for blessing) was already present with the same parties (Abraham and his descendants) and the same commands (positive laws) long before the expanded giving of the law. The span of time and the difference in the quantity of the laws was the result of the covenant given to nomads as opposed to a people about to enter into a complete kingdom.

The Particular Baptists argued that the Bible assigns to Abraham an earthly offspring and a heavenly offspring, and that it sorts them into two different covenants, an earthly covenant according to the flesh, and a heavenly covenant according to the Spirit. This, they argued, was the intracanonical exegesis of the Bible itself, comparing Galatians 3-4 and Genesis 17. To the Particular Baptists, the paedobaptist model conflated two distinct seeds into one covenant and imposed the typical earthborn national model of Israel on the antitypical heavenborn transnational church.

It was important to the Particular Baptists to maintain a close connection between the old covenant(s) and the covenant of grace. Though they were distinct, they were not to be divided. The old covenant(s) were subservient to the covenant of grace and made its benefits available through typology. But, in and of themselves, they did not grant heavenly blessings. “Notwithstanding the respect this Covenant hath to the Covenant of Grace, it yet remains distinct from it; and can give no more then external and typical Blessings unto a Typical Seed.”[4] The covenant of grace was materially made known in the old covenant(s), but not formally made until Christ shed his blood. The heavenborn people of God began in the garden and extend to all ages. The earthborn people of God began with Abraham and ended with the cross.

Where Reformed covenant theology was united, the Particular Baptists were united with them. Where Reformed covenant theology was diverse, the Particular Baptists lived within that diversity.

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  1. The covenant of works does not feature prominently in Particular Baptist works on covenant theology due to the polemical nature of their covenantal writings. It was not a point of debate. When it arises in their writings, it’s treated as a given. I am not aware of any Particular Baptist who denied the covenant of works in name, or in concept, though I am aware of at least twenty-three unique instances of the covenant of works in seventeenth-century Particular Baptist literature (i.e., individual authors). In addition to these instances, there are many more speaking of Adam as a “public person,” i.e., federal head.
  2. Coxe, A Discourse of the Covenants That God made with Men before the Law (London: J[ohn] D[arby], 1681), 104.
  3. Coxe, A Discourse of the Covenants, 104.
  4. Coxe, A Discourse of the Covenants, 109.