John Owen the Baptist? (Luke Stamps)
In his new book, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, Pascal Denault provocatively suggests that John Owen was a Baptist. Of course, Denault is well aware that Owen was in fact a Congregationalist. Denault’s point is that, in many respects, Owen’s understanding of the biblical covenants was closer to the Particular Baptist view than it was to the paedobaptist covenant theology represented in the Westminster Standards (or even in the Congregationalist’s own Savoy Declaration). Unlike other paedobaptists of his day, Owen did not believe that the Old Covenant, the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, was simply another administration of the covenant of grace, a covenant one in substance with the New Covenant. Instead, Owen, more in line with the Baptists of his day, rejected the one-substance-two-administrations model of the paedobaptists and argued that the “Old Covenant was different from the New Covenant both in circumstance and in substance” (Denault, p. 19). Also like the Baptists, Owen contrasted the New Covenant with the covenant God made with Abraham, arguing that the latter included “carnal ordinances” that were brought to an end “by the actual coming of the Messiah” (John Owen, Hebrews). Owen remained a paedobaptist until his death, but perhaps only because he failed to see how his insightful commentary on Hebrews 8 might impact his position on baptism.
Another place where Owen appears closer to the Baptist understanding of the covenants (also pointed out by Denault) is found in Owen’s classic work on Christ’s atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Arguing for the efficacy of the “blood of the new testament,” Owen claims that all those who are in the New Covenant (and only those who are in the New Covenant) enjoy the benefits of Christ’s saving death. These benefits include not only the provision of certain conditions by which humans can be reconciled to God but also the fulfillment of those conditions. His argument is worth quoting at length:
And this is the main difference between the old covenant of works and the new one of grace, that in that the Lord did only require the fulfilling of the condition prescribed, but in this be promiseth to effect it in them himself with whom the covenant is made. And without this spiritual efficacy, the truth is, the new covenant would be as weak and unprofitable, for the end of a covenant (the bringing, of us and binding of us to God), as the old. For in what consisted the weakness and unprofitableness of the old covenant, for which God in his mercy abolished it? Was it not in this, because, by reason of sin, we were no way able to fulfil the condition thereof, “Do this, and live?” Otherwise the connection is still true, that “he that doeth these things shall live.” And are we of ourselves any way more able to fulfil the condition of the new covenant? Is it not as easy for a man by his own strength to fulfil the whole law, as to repent and savingly believe the promise of the gospel? This, then, is one main difference of these two covenants, — that the Lord did in the old only require the condition; now, in the new, he will also effect it in all the federates, to whom this covenant is extended. And if the Lord should only exact the obedience required in the covenant of us, and not work and effect it also in us, the new covenant would be a show to increase our misery, and not a serious imparting and communicating of grace and mercy. If, then, this be the nature of the new testament, — as appears from the very words of it, and might abundantly be proved, — that the condition of the covenant should certainly, by free grace, be wrought and accomplished in all that are taken into covenant, then no more are in this covenant than in whom those conditions of it are effected (Book 3, Chapter 1).
There are no more in the New Covenant than those who experience the efficacy of Christ’s atonement. This sounds remarkably similar to Baptist polemics against the mixed nature of the New Covenant. So much so that one contemporary Baptist, Fred Malone, in his book The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism, uses Owen’s same basic argument to accuse paedobaptists of doing violence to the doctrine of particular redemption by including unregenerate infants in the New Covenant.
To call unregenerate infants “God’s people” and members of the New Covenant for “whom Christ sheds the blood of the covenant” violates particular redemption simply because no one can be in the New Covenant without the effectual mediatorial sacrifice that establishes the covenant with every member (cited in Denault, p. 92).
One more quote from Owen should demonstrate the similarity between his view and that of the Baptists. In his exposition of Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen writes,
The New Covenant is made with them alone who effectually and eventually are made partakers of the grace of it. “This is the covenant that I will make with them…I will be merciful to their unrighteousness,” etc. Those with whom the Old Covenant was made were all of them actual partakers of the benefits of it; and if they are not so with whom the new is made, it comes short of the old in efficacy, and may be utterly frustrated. Neither does the indefinite proposal of the terms of the covenant prove that the covenant is made with them, or any of them, who enjoy not the benefits of it. Indeed this is the excellence of this covenant, and so it is here declared, that it does effectually communicate all the grace and mercy contained in it to all and every one with whom it is made; with whomsoever it is made, his sins are pardoned (cited in Denault, p. 93).
For more on Owen the Baptist, check out Denault’s book, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology. It’s a very helpful historical and theological examination of the basic differences between 17th century Particular Baptist federalism and the covenant theology of the paedobaptists.
P.S. I haven’t read it, but Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ explores some of these same themes by setting forth the covenantal writings of Particular Baptist Nehemiah Cox alongside those of Owen.
Luke Stamps is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). He is also a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is writing his dissertation in the field of Christology. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog.