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HISTORICAL DOUBTS CONCERNING ONE "COVENANT OF GRACE"

Part Three

by R. K. McGregor Wright, Th.M. Ph.D.

This three-part article is continued from:
Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" - Part Two.

d) Gal 3:19 and 14

These verses are also mentioned as proofs of Infant Baptism by the compilers of the Westminster Confession, and a recent Presbyterian edition links them with Gen. 17:7 and 9. These passages no doubt show that blessings promised to Abraham are available to all Jews and Gentiles, who have the same faith in God that he had, and this might lead to the idea that in some sense, blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant are included in the New Covenant. But in what sense, would still need to be established.

But none of this establishes that there is only "one covenant." On the contrary, it shows that when it was superceded, the Old Covenant blessings were absorbed into, fulfilled by, and superceded by New Covenant blessings, which fulfilled or satisfied the promises of the Old.

It simply does not follow from the fulfillment of Old Covenant blessings in the New that there is only "one" covenant. And even if it did, it still would not follow that the administration of the New included the sign's being given to infants, any more than it must follow that the Lord's Supper must be given to infants.

e) Mark 10:13-16

This type of passage is an example of how desperate for NT "evidence" for Infant Baptism the Paedobaptist can become, and this goes for the Westminster Divines as well. The passage not only contains no notice of Infant Baptism, but not even of believer's baptism either.

Parents brought their children to Jesus so he could "touch" them. This he did, blessing them, not baptizing them. The word for "children" is paidia which includes all children from birth to adulthood. The parallel passages (Mt. 19:13-15 and Lk. 18:15-17) use both paidia and brephe (Lk only) but this only indicates that some of the children were very young, possibly babes-in-arms.

The significance of the passage is obvious; children should have free access to Jesus, a fact that has encouraged child evangelism. Jesus does not say that all children are saved, or even that all children are part of God's kingdom. He says that those people who are in the kingdom are there because they are in some sense "of such as (like) these children." Almost all commentators agree that the emphasis here is that membership in God's kingdom is characterized by child-like trust and dependence on God.

Baptists have often responded to this verse by holding child-dedication ceremonies in their churches, but they do not demand that everyone do this, since they know quite well that Scripture does not command dedication ceremonies for babies any more than it does for boats or pets. They do however, recognize the responsibility of the body of Christ for the children under its influence, and child dedication in a church service is a reasonable teaching tool to impress this on a church meeting.

If Jesus intended this event to authorize Infant Baptism, he certainly made no attempt here to make this clear. It reflects badly on God's competence as a communicator that such wonderful opportunities as these were not used to underscore that God wants the children of believers baptized. Yet paedobaptists often speak as if it were perfectly obvious that the "household baptisms" must imply that babies were baptized along with adults.

f) Acts 16:14,15 and 33

These verses are referred to by the Confession of Faith as cases of Infant Baptism. Once more, no men-don of infants appears: it is merely inferred from the word "household." In the case of Lydia, who seems to have been a merchant woman on a business trip away from home, why anyone would expect to find babies in such a moving household is hard to say. And even if there was one present, it leaps the fence of logic to assume it was baptized.

The most that can be logically inferred is that Lydia's household believed along with their matriarch. That this is meant by "household baptisms" is clear from Acts 16:31 where Paul clearly defines who of a household could be saved: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household" he says. This is clearly the context in which the household was baptized in verse 33. Verse 34 states the natural understanding of the situation when it says that the Philippian jailer "believed with his whole household." This absolutely excludes babies, unless you happen to be a Lutheran, of whom some have taught that newborn babies do in fact exercise saving faith in the cradle along with their baptismal regeneration.

The burden of proof rests on those imaginative souls who have assumed that all households must contain babies, and that baptism was necessarily given to them in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit once more missed several wonderful opportunities to clarify the question in favor of Paedobaptism. The reason for this omission is not far to seek.

Pierre Marcel has written one of the best defenses of Infant Baptism in our time. Of the household baptisms in Acts, he wisely concludes that "these passages have never served, and still do not serve in good Reformed theology, as a basis or justification of Infant Baptism." I suppose he is trying to warn Reformed theologians not to clutch at straws when by his own testimony, Infant Baptism can be proved by the covenant argument. His warning continues to fall on deaf ears.

V. WORLDVIEWS IN COLLISION

1) Theological Constructs function as Exegetical Game Rules.

It is rarely appreciated how completely a presupposition may control the outcome of an interpretation. The Calvinist ought to appreciate this in view of his frustration with the Arminian who, locked into the assumptions that human responsibility is dependent on freewill, and that the will must be free if it is to exist at all, concludes with every example of the usual terms for "will" or "choice" in Scripture, that his own theory of an autonomous will is being referred to. The verse saying "Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely" (Rev. 22:17) therefore must mean "Let everyone with freewill come and take salvation if he wants to!"

Likewise covenantalists treat any verse mentioning the word "covenant" as if it somehow implies their one eternal covenant construct, when it actually refers in the context to a specific historical covenant.

For the responsible believer, traditional assumptions are just like any other "thoughts." They must therefore be brought under the control of Christ through his Word (2Cor. 10:5). If a hermeneutical presupposition cannot be exegeted directly from Scripture, it has only the status of any other purely human supposition, and should therefore be submissive to the four critical tests outlined in Part I above.

2) The Assumption of a State Church.

Ulrich Zwingli provides an example of a Reformer falling back onto pre-Reformation axioms when the results of his reforming principles became suddenly inconvenient. He had taught for years as his fundamental reforming principle that nothing without the clear authority of the New Testament should be retained in the reforming church in Zurich. About 1521, he was discussing the subject with such men as Hubmaier, Deuck and others who were trying to reform their own churches in the outlying towns. Both he and Hubmaler refer to this conversation in later writings.

After agreeing with the others that eventually Infant Baptism would have to go (along with the Mass and the worship of images), he seems in 1522 to have had second thoughts. He must have realized that he could not keep the support of the Zurich council if he allowed the formation of independent churches of believers only, uncontrolled by the State. In Zwingli's day, Church records of a child's baptism functioned as a birth certificate or identification of local citizenship. They were simultaneously documentation of membership in the State and in the Church. No distinction was possible in a reforming State Church between citizenship and church membership, so a "gathered church" of believers only was ruled out of existence by definition. But this was precisely the kind of assemblies the Baptists wanted.

Realizing this, when Martin Bucer (while encountering baptistic reformers in Strasburg), wrote to him asking for proof of Infant Baptism from the New Testament, Zwingli was forced to abandon his principle of allowing the New Testament to be the final authority, and appealed to the "one covenant" construct instead, and to arguments based on the conclusion that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of this covenant.

When the other reformers would not bow to this expediency, the Zurich council ordered a public debate between Zwingli and his "anabaptist" disciples and conveniently pronounced in favor of their own position.

Zwingli, 20 years before Calvin, was the first Reformer to substitute the one covenant argument for the l400-year-old defense of Infant Baptism from baptismal regeneration. The Lutherans retained a form of the Catholic notion of baptismal regeneration, and so never needed and never developed a "covenant theology." Zwingli died at Capel in 1531, but by 1527 his State Church was already enforcing the death penalty against the Baptists, who had begun their reformation careers as his own disciples and fellow reformers.

In 1534, Zwingli’s successor Heinrich Bullinger systematized the new teaching with his book The Testament or Covenant of God is One and Eternal. Later covenant theologians (Cocceius, Wollebius, Witsius, Whitby, etc.) simply elaborated this thesis, progressively structuring Reformed thought to fit it. By John Owen's day, in the mid-1600s, most Reformed theologians did their theology within this construct, and "Reformed Theology" became synonymous with "Covenant Theology."

3) The Spectre of a Church State.

In our own day, the Reconstructionists have blended Calvinistic theology and apologetics with Postmillennialism and the theory of the unity of the Old and New Covenants to produce an ethic called Theonomy. They draw inspiration from Cromwell's Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Commonwealth, mediaeval Canon Law, and various historical Church States, to encourage reformist believers of today to seek ways of redeeming civilization towards an evolving millennial kingdom by imposing the Mosaic Law on society whenever they get the power.

Although Theonomists will formally agree with "separation of church and state" (a distinctively Baptist invention!), in practice, the final legal authority in their culture would have to be a Lawyer-Theologian in good standing in his (presumably Presbyterian) Church. The Church, in other words, would in practice have veto power over all public offices. This is precisely the power which the Church of Rome exercised over Mediaeval Europe for 1000 years up to the Reformation. It proved an instrument of oppression, and a disaster all round.

4) Persecution of Baptists Inevitable?

Under the Theocratic state envisioned by the Theonomists, all criminals who were visited by the death penalty under the Mosaic Law (for adultery and homosexuality, as well as for murder, idolatry, and gathering sticks on the Sabbath) would be executed. Since Baptists undermine the unity of a Mosaic Law-obeying society by denying Infant Baptism and therefore the unity of Church and State, the right of the State to extirpate heretics, to reform or purify the Church and to forbid the conversion of Presbyterians to their gathered church ideas, they too would be executed.

The reestablishment of the persecution clause of the Westminster Confession (Ch 23:3) is considered a necessary step. The original Confession of Faith stated in 1648 that the civil magistrate has it as "his duty … that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, etc." A lot happened between 1648 and 1788. In these United States the famous W.C. finally had to bow to the tact that the Baptist idea of a church-less state was being written into the U.S. Constitution. The Theonomists, however, want to see themselves re-empowered to persecute again.

Theonomists often refer to Samuel Rutherford's important refutation of the "divine right of kings" theory, published in 1644 under the title Lex Rex, or, "The Law is the King," as the classical statement of their view that all government must be under the Law of God. They usually omit to note that Rutherford also published A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience in 1649, the best defense of religious persecution ever penned.

VI. WHO THEN IS "TRULY REFORMED?"

The question of whether the various strands of Calvinistic tradition can be summarized into one "truly reformed" package deal is best answered by looking at the wide variations of doctrine held by those influenced by covenantalism since Zwingli.

Covenantalism is found in the writings of both Warfield who taught there is no warrant for Infant Baptism in the New Testament, and C. H. Hodge who taught that there was. It is found in the writings of Marcel the Calvinist and Hibbard the Methodist. It is found in the commentary of John Gill the Baptist premillennialist and the commentary of Philip Hughes the Anglican amillennialist, of Paul Jewett the Baptist and Robert Dabney the Paedobaptist.

Some covenantalists hold that the original (Adamic) covenant of works is still in force (Hodge), and others that it is not (BuswelI), while Berkhof says that parts are abrogated and parts are still in force today. Some covenant theologians allow the Lord's Supper to children (T. Blake), others restrict it to confessing church members only, i.e. after Confirmation (L. Coppes). Some covenant theologians believe the Law of Moses is an eternal representation of God's character and was never in the nature of the case abolished (Bahusen), while others hold that it was replaced by the New Covenant Law of Jesus (John Owen). Some believe that the one covenant of grace is variously administered in successive dispensations (Berkhof), others that the eternal covenant of grace is revealed in ever-increasing increments until it is fully displayed as the New Covenant (Owen), finally displacing the Mosaic system entirely.

One final example will point up the type of problem the many permutations of Covenant Theology were capable of generating. About 1662, the Synod of Massachusetts in Boston, influenced by discussions in England about the rights of "covenant children" in churches, adopted a compromise idea by which the baptized descendants of unconverted church members might be admitted to a sort of second-class church membership without personally professing conversion to Christ. If they were of good moral report and assented to the church's doctrinal standards, they could be admitted to the "half-way covenant." This did not admit them to the Lord's Supper, but gave them a church membership sufficient to allow them to function as citizens in good standing, e.g., run for public office. They were accepted as members essentially on the strength of their grand-parents' professed conversion!

This second-class membership is the consistent recognition of the fact that as a descendant of a church member, a person has "covenant holiness" simply by virtue of being a descendant ("infant-seed") of a believer, and can be in the church" as a "covenant child." So long as they do not actually apostatize, even if they never profess conversion, and never take the Lord's Supper, they can logically present their babies for baptism and cannot justly be refused. Thus the link between the Church and the State remains intact in the case of "covenant unbelievers." Its no wonder that Albert Barnes in his commentary on 1Cor 7 warned his fellow Presbyterians that the notion of "covenant holiness" was simply meaningless and was not taught by Paul in this passage. He saw its implications clearly.

The attempt to define what it means to be "truly Reformed" is reflected in the ways Calvinists respond to the successive problems they face. John Owen argued with Richard Baxter about the minimum list of essential doctrines to be required by a "truly reformed" national church. Baxter was satisfied with the Apostles' Creed alone, while Owen wanted to add 15 (and later 19) additional points, mostly to do with Calvinism. In our day, fundamentalists have their list ("Our doctrinal basis") of "the five (or seven or ten) fundamentals." Some kind of list is unavoidable, of course.

Since the modern revival of Calvinism among Evangelicals (from about 1957 on), people coming into the "doctrines of grace" soon discover that Calvinism is vastly more than the "five points" of Dordt. It turns out to be an entire world-and-life-view, comprehending not only theology but also history, philosophy, politics, economics and all the arts and the sciences. Every square inch of God's creation, said Abraliam Kuyper, is claimed by Christ as King, and so every thought in every sphere must be brought under his holy sovereignty.

So, with this comprehensive vision before us, the young Christian may be attracted to a package deal that includes more than was bargained for (or could have been imagined!) when first investigating such a mass of historical data and development as the phenomenon of "covenant theology" presents.

VII. TWO CONCLUSIONS

1) There is no such thing as a uniform doctrine of Covenant Theology which can be identified as "truly Reformed."

2) Serious doubts can be cast on the central idea of a single and eternal covenantal archetype of which the historical, individual covenants are "but a faint copy" (Berkhof’s revealing term!).

In the final analysis, in the light of such verses as Romans 12:1-2, for the consistent Calvinist, no mere tradition, however long and honored by great saints of the past, is free from continuing reform to bring it into greater congruity with the Word of God.

Suggestions For Further Reading

The links below are direct links to where the book can be purchased from Books-A-Million.

The great Systematic Theologies of Dahney, Thomwell, Buswell, Berkhof , Heppe, Hodge , etc. all contain material structured according to the standard covenantalist model. They therefore function as propaganda for the traditional Covenant Theology in much the same way that a secular biology text-book functions as propaganda for the theory of Evolution: it just never occurs to the writer to do theology, or to teach his material, any other way.

Baptist writers, of course, often attempt detailed refutations of the covenant defense of Infant Baptism, including those who, like Paul Jewett, and John Gill and David Kingdon, see themselves as "covenant theologians." Important objections are raised by older writers like Alexander Carson, and by recent authors like Thomas Watson.

Watson's Baptism Not For Infants is a telling refutation of the paedobaptist arguments. It gains its strength partly from the fact that the author has culled his negative arguments from the writings of Paedobaptists only, showing how all the steps in the covenantalist's case have each been demolished elsewhere by other Paedobaptists. This strategy is not open to the common assumption of covenantalists that a theology not based on the covenantal approach is not "truly Reformed" and so need not be given a hearing.

Two important introductions to the close relation between Infant Baptism and the "state church" idea are Johannes Warns' Baptism and the more recent The Anatomy of A Hybrid by Leonard Verduin. John Calvin's treatment of the Baptists he met, with all his arguments can be found in Willem Balke's Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals . P. K. Jewett's Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace shows that paedobaptism does not even follow if the unity of the covenant is allowed. Kenneth H. Good wrote Are Baptists Reformed?, and answers No, because he argues that the term historically means much more than merely a soteriological Calvinism, and normally means covenantalism as well.

The article on "Covenant Theology" in Hasting's Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics is a good place to start on the history of covenantalism, and John Murray's The Covenant of Grace is helpful too.

Jon Zens has written "Is There A Covenant of Grace?" in the Autumn 1977 issue of the Baptist Reformation Review (Vol. 6, N 3.) It was this article that got my attention on this subject.

On the background to Zwingli and his Baptist associates, R. S. Armour's Anabaptist Baptism (Herald Press, Scottdale, Penn., 1966) is the best survey.


Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" January 1996 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center.

The above article was posted on this Web site September 3, 1999.

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