Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology - A Book Review

"The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology" came about as the result of a dissertation by Pascal Denault. He has carefully researched the theological texts of the seventeenth-century, examining the covenantal distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists. While the two groups have certain similarities, they also have significant divergences. It is a subject of no small importance. Denault writes in his introduction: "We propose that covenant theology is that distinctive between Baptists and paedobaptists and that all divergences that exist between them, both theological and practical, including baptism, stem from their different ways of understanding the biblical covenants. Baptism is, therefore, not the point of origin but the outcome of the differences between paedobaptists and credobaptists" (credobaptist = those who believe in believers baptism). For Baptists the question is not so much a matter of the proper form of baptism but the question of who are the people of God. Who can be baptized? Who is in the covenant? The proper answer to these questions demands having a proper understanding of the framework of covenant theology.

Denault divides his book into four chapters: The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace, The Old Covenant, and The New Covenant. Using these basic heads, he skillfully lays out the distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists.

The greatest distinction between paedobaptists and Baptists lies in their understanding of the relationship of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Presbyterians/paedobaptists see one single Covenant of Grace which runs through both the Old and New Covenants. With this framework they set up a substance/administration hermeneutic. The Old Covenant and New Covenant are the same in substance; they only differ in administration. Baptists, on the other hand, function on a promise/fulfillment hermeneutic; that the Covenant of Grace was promised in the Old Covenant and revealed progressively until it is fulfilled by Christ in the New Covenant. Denault unpacks these opposing concepts throughout this book.

In the chapter on the Covenant of Works the author describes how the paedobaptists and Baptists differ in how they understand the continuity of Covenant of Works. Denault writes, "Since paedobaptists saw the Old Covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace in harmony with the New Covenant, according to them the opposition between the law and grace did not mean an opposition between the Old and New Covenants, but rather opposition between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace" (page 30). In other words, the law which Paul contrasts with the Gospel is the Covenant of Works. While the Baptists did not necessarily refute this, they insisted on a continuity of the Covenant of Works in the Old Covenant, a paradigm the paedobaptists could not accept. Baptists see the Old Covenant as a conditional covenant. For Baptists the law/grace antithesis is an Old/New Covenant antithesis.

Since the Covenant of Grace is the great divide among these two systems of covenant theology, Denault devotes the second chapter to describe the opposing views of paedobaptist and Baptists. The contrasting views focus on continuity/discontinuity between the Biblical covenants. As I stated earlier, the paedobaptists see the Covenant of Grace running throughout both Testaments--the same in substance but different in administration. The Baptists see the Covenant of Grace as only promised in the Old Covenant, but fulfilled in the New Covenant. In other words the Old Covenant is not the Covenant of Grace. It is the "same in substance, different in administration" distinction that allows the Presbyterians to justify a mixed people of God (regenerate and unregenerate) in both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. As Denault states it, "The external administration of the Covenant of Grace would, therefore, contain the regenerate and non-regenerate, while the internal substance would only contain the regenerate" (page 41). He adds, "The Baptists did not deny the principle of natural posterity under the Old Covenant. However, they considered the importation of this principle under the New Covenant to be a fallacy dependant on an artificial and arbitrary construction of the Covenant of Grace" (page 45). While "the Baptists saw the substance of the Covenant of Grace running from Genesis to Revelation, they did not see the same unity between the Old and New Covenants" (page 58). The Baptist position was that while the Covenant of Grace existed as a promise in the Old Covenant and men were saved through belief in the promise, it did not exist as a covenant until the New Covenant in Christ, which means all who were saved before Christ were saved by virtue of the New Covenant, not the Old.

Denault adds an interesting point to his research. The position of the Presbyterians must allow for the mediation of Christ in such a way that will allow for the inclusion of the unconverted (baptized infants added to the church). "In order to justify the mixed nature of the Church, the paedobaptists had to restrain the efficacy of grace within the covenant. As a result, the one covenant under two administrations model had a direct consequence on the doctrine of expiation. The Baptists compared this restrained efficacy of the death of Christ to a kind of limited Arminianism. This Arminianism extended the reach of the death of Christ to all human beings, but limited its efficacy to believers. Consequently, Presbyterian federalism (covenantalism) was comparable to Arminianism" (pages 91-92).

In order to maintain their one covenant under two administrations model the Presbyterians had to put the Mosaic/Sinaitic Covenant as a part of the Covenant of Grace removing it from being a works/conditional covenant. "If one considered the Sinaitic Covenant as a covenant of works (i.e. conditional), it became impossible to consider the Old Covenant as a cumulative administration of the Covenant of Grace since there would have been incompatibility between the unconditional nature of the Covenant of Grace and the conditional nature of the Sinaitic Covenant" (page 101). To solve this dilemma some paedobaptists radically separated the Abrahamic Covenant from the Sinaitic Covenant. The Baptists, on the other hand saw a distinction between the revelation and conclusion of the Covenant of Grace, thus not all members of the Abrahamic Covenant benefited from the grace of God since the Covenant of Grace was not concluded with members of this covenant. The Covenant of Grace was only revealed to those who believed. They maintained that Abraham had two distinct posterities--a physical, represented by Ishmael, and a spiritual, represented by Isaac (Galatians 4:22-31). Their conclusion was that these two posterities were under two distinct covenants: The Covenant of Grace, and the covenant of circumcision. Denault writes, "Understanding the workings of the dualism of the Abrahamic Covenant is essential for every theological system. We believe that Presbyterian federalism and dispensationalism failed in this task by confusing the promises of the Covenant of Grace with the covenant of circumcision" (page 124).

In the final chapter, The New Covenant, Denault continues to demonstrate the distinct differences between the paedobaptists and the Baptists. The paedobaptists insist that the New Covenant was simply a new administration, not a substantially different covenant. The Baptists argued forcefully that the New Covenant was indeed, a new covenant. Denault gives two ways the New Covenant was new. (1) It was new because it was unconditional, unlike the Old Covenant. It was unconditional because of its Mediator. Denault writes, "If the blessings of the New Covenant were guaranteed by Christ (Heb. 7:22), how could one conceive, as did the Presbyterians, that the New Covenant was just as 'transgressable' as the Old?" (page 150). (2) It was new because ALL of its members would participate in the substance of the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant states, "they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest."

 Denault summarizes the problem with the paedobaptist position in his conclusion. "Presbyterian federalism was an artificial construction developed to justify an end: paedobaptism. . . We do not purport that paedobaptists were dishonest, but, at the very least, that they were profoundly influenced by their tradition."

He concludes: "In no way did the Baptists reject reformed theology; however, they reformed its foundations in order to give the edifice a more solid base and much greater harmony with the doctrines of the grace of God" (page 156).

This book is an excellent synopsis of the differences in the covenantal approaches of paedobaptists and Baptists. It is timely in our day when Baptists are once again rediscovering their reformed heritage. I hope it will have an excellent reception and broad reading.


AJ said...

Thank you for this review. This looks like a must read!

In your review, it sounds as though Denault's research is primarily historical in content. Whom does he cite from the Baptist position?

I'll have to read it for myself, but some of the things mentioned could lend themselves to NCT (as demonstrated in "Kingdom Through Covenant" by Gentry and Wellum at SBTS), so I'm curious how Denault stays firmly planted within the reformed covenantal framework when considering the "law-grace antithesis". I would be interested to see historically what Baptists (who), and to what extent they did insist upon a continuity of the Covenant of Works in the OC. I don't recall ever reading or considering this before.

You've peaked my interest, though Christine says I'm not allowed any new books until I finish reading the ones I have!

Scott said...

I'm currently reading the book. The introduction lists and explains the sources from which the author draws. Some names I recall from the baptist perspective: Spillsbury, Coxe, Keach, Hutchinson, Bunyan, plus more.

Also noteworthy, John Owen, because Owen taught and defended from Hebrews esp chap 8 that the members of the New Covenant are the regenerate only. Coxe, instead of laying this truth out and defending it, made the second half of his book to be instead the very work of John Owen.

I think some ways Baptist CT separates itself from NCT as described thus far by Denault are:

1) The church of God is the people of God from Genesis forward and not beginning in the NT era only.

2) Defense of the Covenant of Works instead of the rejection of it.

3) True saints regenerated before Christ being members of the Covenant of Grace. (I'm not positive on this one but it seems NCT rejects the new birth prior to the New Testament era. Maybe you can verify that for me.

4) The Covenant of Works being renewed or restated in Moses. Though life is impossible because of the Federal Headship of Adam.

Dale Crawford said...

Thanks for your comments Scott. Regarding your #3 comment, you are correct that regenerate saints during the Old Covenant were members of the Covenant of Grace, but contrary to the view of the paedobaptists, it is because of the New Covenant, not simply a different administration of the Old. Regarding NCT, I'm also not completely sure of their position, but due to their hyper-discontinutity between the Old and New Covenants it would be consistent for them to deny regeneration before the New Covenant.

Hugh McCann said...

Thanks for this review! A friend just told me to read it if I had ANY doubts about Denault's book.

See thread (other reviews & the author himself) at http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/the-distinctiveness-of-baptist-covenant-theology/

Scott said...


Thanks for the additional information. Your post has proved a good way for me to share Denault's book with a few friends - you summarize what I have read thus far so well.

I do have and have read John Resinger's, "Abraham's Four Seeds," a NCT book. In that book I never once read Mr. Reisinger stating that regeneration did not happen before the cross. I do believe however, that he wrote that there was no indwelling of the Holy Spirit before the Cross. I have always equated the indwelling of the Spirit with Regeneration.

This is why I'm not clear if he, and be extension NCT intends us to equate regeneration with the indwelling of the Spirit, or if NCT teaches that the indwelling of the Spirit is much more than regeneration, a greater and different work. Silence regarding the regeneration of OT believers leads me to think that NCT also equates regeneration of the indwelling Spirit.

Maybe this is a weakness where NCT sees, OT believers as having been given faith and a new heart which enabled them to believe, but not really so much of a new heart and faith as the NT believers partaking in the NC.

Just trying to understand and very appreciative of Denault's book, and your summary listed here.

I'm wondering as I continue to read Denault, if #4 in my previous comment is worded accurately - maybe its misleading as to the real relationship of the Covenant of Works to the Old Covenant per Denault's description of 17th century Particular Baptists.

Thanks again for your helpful review.

Dale Crawford said...


Thanks for your recent comments. While it is true that OT believers enjoyed the operation of the Holy Spirit, renewing their hearts and granting them faith and repentance, Pentecost was something entirely new. This was an activity of the Holy Spirit previously unknown by OT believers, but promised the prophets (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:16-20). Jesus stated it well when He declared, "That is the Spirit of truth,whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides WITH you and will be IN you" (John 14:17).

Regarding the Covenant of Works, the chief difference between Baptists and Paedobaptists on the Old Covenant is that Baptists see the OC as provisional or conditional; similar to but not equal with the Covenant of Works. Thus, we can see the law/grace antithesis between the OC and NC. Paedobaptists do not see this conditional aspect because they see the OC as an administration of the Covenant of Grace. Denault writes, "Therefore, in order to maintain unity and continuity between the Old and New Covenants, the paedobaptists had to reject the unity and continuity between the Covenant of Works and the Old Covenant" (pp 32-33). SDG

Chris said...

Thank you for this review. This definitely looks like a must-read!

Anonymous said...

Hello Armand,

In regards to your question about if this view lends itself to NCT or not - NCT has already tried to appropriate it for itself, and Richard Barcellos has written an excellent critique of their attempt to do so. JOHN OWEN AND NEW COVENANT THEOLOGY:
Owen on the Old and New Covenants and the Functions of the Decalogue in Redemptive History in Historical and Contemporary Perspective
The essay does a great job of explaining how Owen (and the baptists) saw the Covenant of Works in relation to the Old Covenant.

Thanks for the review Dale. I just wanted to add one small comment to your last comment. You said Paedobaptists do not see this conditional aspect because they see the OC as an administration of the Covenant of Grace. I just want to mention Owen and Petto, whom Denault discusses, both held to this conditional aspect as paedobaptists. Of course I think this undermines their view, but it's important to note because their view finds present day expression in Horton and Escondido.

Dale Crawford said...

Thanks Contras2,

Point well taken regarding Owen and Petto. And thanks for sharing the essay from Richard Barcellos. Once again he gives us great clarity on this subject.

Scott said...


Thank you for the further explanation. Would we be more accurate then to say that OT believers were not indwelt by the Holy Spirit only regenerated,based on John 14:17, the promise of the Spirit, Pentecost, the fact that we are now in the epoch of the Spirit - the Spirit of God now not only regenerates Hearts but indwells believers?

-- Long question something I have spent much time thinking about over the years, and reawakened by the comparison of NCT and Baptist CT. I also recently asked this same question of a good friend who is studying, in a school setting, NCT, and he also pointed out to me that OT believers were not indwelt by the Spirit, but he was unclear at that time if that then meant therefore OT believers were not regenerate based on NCT or if it was also true that they did not have the Spirit.

Would we be correct then to say: Old Testament believers did not have the Spirit, the Spirit would sometimes come upon them but never indwell them? That is an explanation I've heard over the years but I had tended to reject that in view of the necessity of regeneration even to believe.

I think Matthew Henry described at least at one point the NT epoch of the Spirit or promise of the Spirit as a Superabundance or perhaps he said Superfluity of the Spirit.

Definition of terms like "what exactly do we mean by the indwelling of the Spirit, what does Jesus mean in John 14:17?" is critical.

The New covenant promise of the Law written in the heart, heart of stone removed and heart of flesh given sounds like regeneration, which we confess was effectual even to OT believers. Is it wrong to equate indwelling of the Spirit with regeneration? The difficulty then with that understanding is being able to answer if that be true "what then is the promise of the Spirit and what is promised in John 14:17?" Hope it's ok to muse out loud and ask additional question- this conversation is proving very helpful to me as continue to seek to understand.

Scott said...


This might be the Matthew Henry quote of which I was thinking - for MH he doesn't describe Pentecost as if before they did not have the Spirit indwelling them and now they do. Rather he uses the word "MORE", I like this understanding though it does appear to differ from Jesus' in John 14:17 as you quoted:

Matthew Henry: Acts 2:
"They were all filled with the Holy Ghost, more plentifully and powerfully than they were before. They were filled with the graces of the Spirit, and were more than ever under his sanctifying influences-were now holy, and heavenly, and spiritual, more weaned from this world and better acquainted with the other. They were more filled with the comforts of the Spirit, rejoiced more than ever in the love of Christ and the hope of heaven, and in it all their griefs and fears were swallowed up. "

Dale Crawford said...


I appreciate your “musings” and you present some good points to ponder. Part of our problem is the absence of definitive statements in the Old Testament regarding the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. That said, we are hermeneutically accurate to apply Trinitarian principles to the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Since we know that new birth (regeneration) is an essential aspect of salvation (John 3:3, etc) we can apply it to every sinner brought from death to life, including the Old Testament saints. The Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual life. He is the source of every sanctifying grace. But Pentecost was something new and different. The apostles had already believed and were followers of Christ, yet Jesus describes a fuller work of the Holy Spirit, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8). This work of the Holy Spirit was directly connected to the work of the Gospel of Christ. Perhaps the passage you shared from Matthew Henry using the word MORE is helpful. We could also use the word DIFFERENT to describe the fuller revelation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant. B. B. Warfield describes the OT work of the Holy Spirit as a “preparatory” work. “The old dispensation was a preparatory one and must be strictly conceived as such. All the hope of God’s Church then as now depended on Him (the Holy Spirit). Every grace of the godly life then as now was a fruit of His working. But the object of the whole dispensation was only to prepare for the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh.” But Warfield doesn’t hesitate to describe the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament as being one with His work in the New Testament. “The Spirit of God of the Old Testament performs all the functions which are ascribed to the Holy Spirit of the New Testament, and bears all the same characteristics. They are conceived alike both in their nature and in their operations.” Owen also described this preparatory work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. “Whatever the Holy Spirit wrought in an eminent manner under the Old Testament, it had generally and for the most part, if not absolutely and always, a respect unto our Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel; and so was preparatory unto the completing of the great work of the new creation in and by him” (Works, Vol.3).

So when I say DIFFERENT I don’t mean different in the essence of His work but different in the fullness of the revelation of God’s redemptive work in Christ. In answer to your question about “indwelling” and “regeneration” it would surely be accurate to see this as a simultaneous work today. We don’t see the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a subsequent work. The tension still remains regarding this indwelling in OT saints. For example Paul’s statement, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you" (1Cor. 6:19). Is this true of OT saints? It may be that it was true regarding His work and presence but not in their understanding of the full revelation of this work promised in the New Covenant. It is true, however, that even with the reality of God’s powerful presence in the Temple, David prayed, “Do not cast me away from Your presence And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me" (Psalm 51:11).

I welcome anyone else to weigh in. SDG

Scott said...

Dale, thanks for the additional feedback. I have continued to think on the indwelling of the Spirit in the believer and regeneration with respect to NT and OT believers.

I am really considering a change in understanding moving from equating regeneration with the indwelling of the Spirit towards understanding the indwelling of the Spirit as a reality not present until Pentecost. That the indwelling of the Spirit is the Promise of Spirit long awaited. This fits with both Matthew Henry's "more" and your description of "different." Plus it still allows that Old Testament believers did have the Spirit of God, they were regenerated resulting in Faith. We would not say "the spirit was only upon them but not in them for they were regenerated." But in the NT times, Christ by the right hand of God, exalted, has received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost. Acts 2.

Thus the indwelling of the Spirit of God is more than regeneration and a blessing for believers at this time. It makes "indwelling of the Spirit" a more technical term than simply, having been born again. I was a little afraid that the phrase would cause one to conclude "if OT believers were not indwelt by the Spirit then they did not have the Spirit. They believed without the Spirit." So still, it is important to define what is meant by "indwelling" and how it is "different" than regeneration and perhaps like Matthew Hentry, "more."

I read an article today on this same topic by Jim Hamiliton. I think this position is one he was arguing towards. In the article he cited authors including John Owen, D.A. Carson, Chafer and their positions. I was pleased and I think helped in my thoughts to read the various understandings and comparisons Jim Hamilton made in the article regarding the indwelling the Holy Spirit in OT beleivers. http://jimhamilton.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/them30-1.pdf

Hamilton listed some authors denying regeneration in the OT, others affirming but denying indwelling in the OT, and some affirming both regeneration and indwelling in the OT. It is evident that not only are there actual different understandings but also different definitions for the same terms.

Thank you again, very helpful for me personally - though much study yet required, I now have more material to work with, and perhaps better solutions to consider.

Dale Crawford said...


Thanks for sharing with us the fruit of your study. Much depends on definitions. Theology demands precision. I can appreciate your statement, "though much study yet required." May God continue to bless us as we seek to know Him more. Praise God for His indwelling Spirit who leads us unto all truth.

Jason D. said...

FYI: We interviewed the author on his book here: http://confessingbaptist.com/podcast002/ (part 2 next week)

Chad C. said...

Thanks Jason. I will have to check out the interview.