Baptist Covenant Theology

by | Dec 17, 2016

What is Baptist Covenant Theology and where did it come from?

From their beginnings in the seventeenth century, Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic were thoroughly covenantal. Formulating their doctrine in the familiar terms of Reformed orthodoxy, they built a theological system that was easily recognized by all of the strands of churches coming out of the Reformation.[1] To refer to oneself as a Baptist means that one holds to the doctrine of believer’s baptism as over against infant baptism. Again, to refer to oneself as subscribing to covenant theology is to give the covenant idea primary position in hermeneutics, or in other words, the art and science of biblical interpretation.

A covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered.[2] Covenant theology sees the Scripture through God’s divine covenants. Covenant theology begins with what is called the pactum salutis, or the Covenant of Redemption. The idea is seen most clearly in Ephesians 1:1-11 where God’s decree involves the Father’s act to elect, the Son’s agreement to redeem the elect, and the Holy Spirit’s work to seal the elect. God issued this decree in eternity before time as we know it began. The unfolding story of the history of redemption is governed by different covenants. From the beginning, Adam, the head of the human race, was a participant in the Covenant of Works. According to Hosea 6:7, when Adam disobeyed, he broke this covenant, bring a curse upon himself and his progeny after him. Hence, all mankind became subject to the curse because all men relate to God by way of the covenant. All men, like Adam, are covenant-breakers.

Baptist Covenant Theology approaches the text of Scripture in a very specific way. The Bible, from start to finish is about God. The Bible is God’s revelation about God. God is the very heartbeat of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. The Bible reveals that the ultimate purpose in creation is for the glory of God. All things exist for the exaltation and glory of God. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. This is the starting point of Baptist Covenant Theology.

The federal head or representative of mankind was Adam. Since Adam was the federal head of humanity, it was through his fall that sin entered the world and death through sin, spread to all men because all men are born sinners. This relationship between God and Adam as our federal head was governed by the Covenant of Works. All who are under this covenant today are spiritually dead, living separated from God, dwelling under divine wrath.

The Covenant of Grace was first revealed in the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15. From the very beginning God promised to restore fallen man. The Covenant of Grace would be fully realized in the New Covenant ushered in by the Messiah. Until then, however, this covenant would be see in the types of foreshadows of other covenants through the history of redemption. The relationship between God and man would always be shaped by the covenantal arrangement at the time. However, each arrangement, in some way always pointed to the greatest of the covenants, the New Covenant in the blood of Christ.

In John 6:45 Jesus indicates that the New Covenant is in the process of being inaugurated. Jesus quotes Jer. 31:34 to inform his audience that the time for the New Covenant is upon them. Jesus tells us in Matt. 26:28 that he is pouring out his blood, my blood of the covenant which is being poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. “Of the covenant” is a descriptive genitive. This is a superset of several uses of the genitive. Where a genitive is not seen as fitting neatly into one of the subset categories, the superset is used as a default term.[3] In other words, this genitive is very much like an adjective. It is describing something. In this case it is describing the blood of Christ that is about to be spilled. Christ’s blood can be described as covenant blood. Covenant theology then sees the covenant as the primary instrument by which God enters into relationship with man. God’s relationship with man from the beginning was covenantal in nature.

Credobaptist covenant theology differs from Paedobaptist covenant theology in that the Baptists reject the idea that each covenant is simply a different way to administer the Covenant of Grace. In other words, the Abrahamic Covenant is not the Covenant of Grace administered in particular way. The Mosaic covenant is not the Covenant of Grace administered in another way at that time for its own purposes. The Baptists argue that these are truly different covenants all serving as signs, shadows, and types pointing to the greatest covenant which is to come, the New Covenant in the blood of Christ. For that reason, Baptists hold to believer’s baptism while Paedobaptists practice infant baptism. Due to the way the Baptists understand the relationship and nature of the covenants, they see membership in the new covenant differently than the Paedobaptists see it. Paedobaptists believe that, just as was the case in the Old Covenant under Moses, there are both elect and non-elect individuals in the New Covenant. Moreover, for the Paedobaptists, baptism is the sign of the covenant that replaces circumcision which means all children born to Christians are born as members into the New Covenant. The Baptists reject this view, holding that only regenerate individuals are actual members in the New Covenant holding baptism out as the outward sign that one has died, been buried, and now raised to a newness of life in Christ.

The covenant approach to interpreting the Bible then sees God’s ultimate purpose for creating and acting in the world as doxological in nature. God created and acts for his own glory. God’s relationship with creation is mediated through the establishment of the covenant. This runs contrary to the popular dispensational scheme that sees God’s ultimate purpose as redemptive.

Finally, what Adam failed to do under the Covenant of Works, Christ fulfilled. Those who are in Christ are no longer under that Covenant, but now enjoy the privilege of being under the New Covenant, mediated by a superior mediator, a great High Priest who intercedes for us before the Father without end.

The purpose of this article is to provide an short overview of Baptist Covenant Theology. More articles are in the works that deal with the history and distinctions relating to the Reformed Baptist Covenant system.

[1] Richard C. Barcellos, ed., Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology (Palmdale, California: RBAP Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2014), 13.

[2] O Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, ©1980), 4.

[3] Albert L. Lukaszewski, The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament Glossary (Lexham Press, 2007).

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