Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective

Jon English Lee
| January 31, 2017

I was recently sent a review copy of Phillip D. R. Griffiths’ book Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective. I was happy to see another book on the subject, especially one that was trying to make a case for the whole particular Baptist system of covenant theology in a readable (i.e., not too academic, boring, long, antiquated…) format. I have been searching for a shorter work that I could use for introducing people to the reformed Baptist understanding of covenant theology, so I had hopes that this would fit that need. Below is a summary of Griffiths’ work followed by a short review of strengths and weaknesses.

Summary

Griffiths begins his work with a rather bleak description of the current state of theology and the church. He lists several problems that the church had to contend with over the last two centuries: Darwinian evolution, liberalism, the rise of revivalism, and, most pertinent to the book, the rise of dispensationalism (3).

To battle against these problems, Griffiths urges that Baptist churches need to return to their covenantal heritage. This work represents Griffiths’ understanding of that covenantal heritage; or, to put it another way, Griffiths is arguing for a particularly Baptist understanding of the relationship of the covenants.

Chapter two begins with a basic understanding of what covenants are. He sums up that covenants are “essentially a conditional promise” (9). He goes deeper of course; he cites He explains the distinction between covenant and testament (per Hebrews 9:16). Chapter three is a brief explanation of the covenant of redemption, followed by an explanation of the covenant of works in chapter four. Citing Gill, Griffiths strongly affirmed the law of nature written upon Adam’s heart from the beginning. He includes multiple quotes from various authors (e.g., Lloyd-Jones, A. W. Pink, Nehemiah Cox, Thomas Watson, John Owen) describing the plight of man after Adam sinned.

Chapter five explains the work of Christ in the new covenant. Griffiths sees the work of Christ as necessarily covenantal. Christ is the Second Adam that succeeded where the first failed: “Jesus Christ took Adam’s place under the covenant of works, and all that he did, in both his life and death, he did in order to fully honor the covenantal requirements” (24). Chapter six speaks to the two kingdoms (i.e., federal heads, covenants) that divide humanity: Adam and Christ (or covenant of works and covenant of grace). Griffiths explains that every person has one of those two federal heads. Indeed, he explains, even Old Testament saints were made a part of Christ’s kingdom (36).

Chapter seven is where things start to really get interesting. Griffiths here begins to really differentiate himself from the paedobaptist position. One of his major arguments against a paedobaptist interpretation is from Galatians 3:6: “The entire paedobaptist edifice is built upon the idea that the promises were for Abraham’s physical descendents, his seed in the plural… This, however, is not what the Scriptures tell us… When the covenant was made with Abraham’s seeds (plural), about 25 years after the promise, and whilst it was conditional, and separate from the promised covenant, it did, nevertheless, point toward it. It’s sole purpose was to be typological, serving Abraham’s seed (singular), namely the Christ, who would establish the New Covenant” (55). So, God promised to Abraham’s seed (singular, i.e., Christ) blessings that become ours by virtue of our being joined to Christ spiritually, rather than the blessings becoming ours by virtue of our physical lineage.

For Griffiths, the paedobaptist hermeneutic confounds the two covenants: “whilst it acknowledges two posterities, it fails to acknowledge two covenants. It fails to see that the new covenant is not just another administration of the covenant of grace, but is itself the only covenant of grace” (60).

Chapter 8 briefly deals with the covenant sign of circumcision. In sum, to cite Lloyd-Jones’ comment on Romans 2:25: “What Paul is saying here is that it is true that circumcision is of great value but it has not intrinsic and inherent value in and of itself…it proclaims that you are God’s people—yes, but only on the condition that you really are one of God’s people in the true and vital sense—namely that you are a holy people, for God is a holy God” (67). Chapter 9 follows with the usual follow up question: Was circumcision replaced by baptism? Griffiths quotes several paedobaptists that would reply in the affirmative. But, he argues, they make the “classic paedobaptist mistake of assuming that all old covenant children were in the covenant of grace when they were not, and [they] therefore wrongly infer that the children of believers in the new covenant are likewise in the covenant of grace” (74). Griffiths concludes the chapter by arguing instead: “Not only are the paedobaptists wrong in seeing baptism as essentially the same as circumcision, but they err in giving these sacraments an efficacy they have never possessed. The only circumcision that is of spiritual significance is that performed by God in the heart, and the only baptism that means anything is that which follows a confession of faith, signifying union with Christ” (82).

The next chapter attempts to tackle various complex issues surrounding the nature of the mosaic covenant. He begins with the standard reformed argument for the trifold division of the mosaic law. Then, Griffiths veers into the complex and often abstract debate about whether or not the mosaic covenant is a republication of the covenant of works. The author surveys multiple opinions, both historic and modern, on both sides of the debate. In short, Griffiths argues that the mosaic covenant is a republication of the curse only, not of the condition of life for obedience (88). He also examines the “earthly promises” made to Israel. He concludes, contra the dispensationals and pre-millennialists, that the promises find there “yes” in Christ (114).

After giving a brief description of the Davidic covenant (2 pages) in chapter eleven, chapter twelve jumps into the nature of the new covenant. The Reformed Baptist paradigm that he is expounding claims that old testament believers could enter the new covenant before Christ’s completed work: “The OT saint was externally required to follow the same Sianitic requirements because as a Jew he came under its remit, however, at the same time he was also in receipt of new covenant blessings procured in the future work of Christ” (125). He then goes on to further explain the distinctions between the old covenant and the new, the covenant of the flesh and the covenant of the Spirit., being sure to distinguish his position from both the paedobaptist’s and the “New Covenant” theologian’s (e.g., Gentry and Wellum’s Kingdom Through Covenant).

Chapter thirteen explains how union with Christ functions within a Baptist covenantal system. This chapter runs through the standard ordo salutis categories (e.g., regeneration, imputation, sanctification), and closes with a discussion of whether (and how) Old Testament believers were united to Christ. He answers that OT believers, like Abraham, “possessing all in Christ, lacked that subjective awareness of [his or her] position which results from the believer receiving the gift of the Spirit associated with Pentecost” (150). Griffiths also compares this position with various other approaches to the question (e.g., New Covenant Theology, Owen, Federal Visionists).

Chapter fourteen addresses the question of the warning passages in the bible and how they relate to perseverance. Griffiths maintains that the new covenant is “unbreakable” (166, citing Jer 31:32), “despite the protestations of paedobaptists to the contrary” (173).

So if the new covenant has been the means of salvation since Genesis 3, and if the old covenant believers were saved by their union with Christ, in what way is the new covenant actually new? Chapter fifteen answers that question. For Griffiths, baptism in the spirit is a “validation of a previously existing position in Christ” (182). Or, to say it another way: “If we just accept the baptism of the Spirit by faith, just assume that it happens as conversion, then it appears that the only thing that actually differentiates us [from OT saints] is our clearer understanding of redemption. The fact that we have the New Testament and a greater intellectual understanding of our position in Christ” (sic., 185).

The final two chapters contain an analysis of typical proof texts used by paedobaptists, as well as a conclusion.

Evaluation

Griffiths admirably tries to cover a lot of ground in this little book. He does a good job interacting with most of the important people. He does a good job of letting the other positions speak for themselves, and interacting with the best of his opponents. However, I did notice a few weakness. For one, Griffiths sometimes treats paedobaptists as somewhat monolithic, when instead he could have interacted with different categories of paedobaptists. For example, he interacts with Doug Wilson, John Murray, and Joel Beeke within just a few paragraphs without giving, in my opinion, sufficient nuance to their differing understandings of paedobaptist covenant theology. Admittedly, this is an introductory book and doesn’t provide limitless space for nuancing. However, some footnotes offering an explanation of the differing views would have been appreciated.

Second, and much more interesting, was Griffiths understanding of baptism in the Spirit. Chapter fifteen was an unexpected twist in the book. He basically reduces baptism in the Spirit down to an increase in intellectual understanding that accompanies salvation (e.g., 182–3). Rather than the Spirit working in a greater way since Pentecost, or working in new covenant believers in a way somehow greater than the work done in old covenant believers, Griffiths’ understanding seems to limit the significance of Pentecost. To put it another way, it seems like his systematic theology is flattening out his biblical theology; in an attempt to make sure and emphasize that OT saints were saved the same way (via the new covenant) as the NT saints, Griffiths seems to minimize the biblical emphasis on the importance of Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit in fullness upon God’s people.

Overall, I was very pleased with the book. I think it filled a need: an introductory explanation of covenant theology that clearly lays out the differences between Baptists and paedobaptists. While sometimes tedious and occasionally quirky, this work is appreciated. I have already bought and handed out several copies to young people that I have the joy of introducing to Baptist covenant theology. I hope you will do the same.