Introduction to Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology

Introduction

 

Twenty-first century Baptists in North America are the children of the twentieth century. While this might seem like a truism, it is nevertheless of great importance to understand Baptist self-identity. It would be a fascinating study to investigate all of the different ways that this notion works itself out. We must, however, limit ourselves to the task at hand. One might adapt the phrase and apply it specifically to this book by saying that twenty-first century Baptists in America are the children of the reductionist and non-covenantal theological trends among twentieth-century Baptists.

From their beginnings in the seventeenth century, Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic were thoroughly covenantal.[1] 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. This commitment was expressed in their Confessions, their published books, and may be seen in surviving manuscript documents as well. While it would be an exaggeration to say that covenantalism was a ‘central dogma’ (a mistaken notion when applied to most theological systems), it is nonetheless clear that our fathers recognized the foundational nature of covenant theology and built their system on its basis. To use B. B. Warfield’s term, it was the “architectonic principle”[2] of their confessional understanding. As late as 1881, William Cathcart, editor of the very important Baptist Encyclopedia could state, “In England and America, churches, individuals, and Associations, with clear minds, with hearts full of love for the truth . . .  have held with veneration the Articles of 1689.”[3] While this statement is (in my opinion) somewhat exaggerated in its breadth[4] and optimism, the very fact that it could be made in such an important work is telling. The basic covenantal structure of the 2LCF was still, at that late date, received widely by Baptists north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

By 1920, this statement could no longer be made. Very few, if any of the churches in the Northern and Southern Baptist Conventions, remained committed to the old confessional theology.[5] Baptists were swept away by powerful movements, each of which challenged and altered their theological commitments. We shall comment on four: Revivalism, Modernism, Fundamentalism, and Dispensationalism.

Revivalism has its roots in the Second Great Awakening, a cross-denominational movement flourishing in the early nineteenth century. In a review of Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism, Bobby Jamieson identifies two major alterations in theological understanding related to the development of ‘revivalism’ – a new view of conversion and a shift in evangelistic practice.

 

The result of these two shifts is that church leaders began to regard revival as something that could be infallibly secured through the use of proper means – “proper” being whatever would induce an immediate decision or external token of decision.[6]

 

Among other things, this change moved the focus of ministry away from theological and exegetical preaching to methods and schemes aimed at the production of numerical results. An attendant consequence was the diminishing importance of theology as it was replaced by external measurements. Ministerial effectiveness was calculated numerically. What does covenant theology matter if it doesn’t directly contribute to the desired product?

Modernism is a term with many referents. For the sake of this essay, I employ it as a marker describing the slow movement from a high view of the authority of Scripture and commitment to the ‘catholic’ doctrines of Christianity, to various stages of doubt about these matters. Rooted in German liberalism, the proponents of this view, men such as William Newton Clarke and Walter Rauschenbusch, put forward a new form of Christianity, very much unlike the older orthodoxy. It undermined the testimony of Scripture and postulated a denuded form of Christian faith. In the south, the more conservative E. Y. Mullins proposed a stripped-down, experience-oriented faith and paved the way for nearly a century of liberalism at the seminary he served as president, Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. In each case, the details of covenant theology were irrelevant to the formulation of modern faith. Vast swaths of Baptists were lost to the well-established theological pattern.

The reaction to the surging wave of modernism was Fundamentalism. Contrary to popular opinion, it was, in its origins, largely, a northern, urban, and intellectual phenomenon Many of its earliest leaders were ministers in downtown churches located in large northern cities – New York, Boston, Baltimore, Chicago, and even Toronto. These men were members of the Northern Baptist Convention, concerned with the inroads of modernism in the denominational schools. As they fought battles to restore theological orthodoxy to the Convention, they found themselves marginalized and outmaneuvered by the (largely) liberal dominated denominational staff. In 1922, W. B. Riley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Minneapolis, proposed that the Northern Baptist Convention adopt the New Hampshire Confession as something of a minimal standard for faith. His proposal was rejected, and even this basic statement was lost to Baptist life. In response, Fundamentalists narrowed the field of battle to a few essential doctrines, and fought a losing battle, ultimately producing more separatist groupings such as the General Association of Regular Baptists (1932) and the Conservative Baptist Association (1947). Once again, covenant theology was neglected as doctrines considered more central – the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as examples – became the focal point of defense and (believing) Baptist identity. Robust confessionalism, which would have incorporated a well-developed covenant theology, was replaced by abbreviated doctrinal statements. The result was a profound weakening in Baptist theology.

But perhaps the most important factor in the demise of Baptist covenantalism is Dispensationalism. A modern system, developed first by John Nelson Darby in nineteenth-century Ireland and England, it quickly swept across the ocean and was adopted by evangelicals of many stripes.[7] Postulating a series of ‘dispensations’ in which God’s method of self-revelation and his expectations for man differ, it divided the Bible into various epochs. Each of these periods incorporated divergent tasks for men. Here is the definition as given in the New Scofield Reference Bible:

 

A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.

Three important concepts are implied in this definition: (1) a deposit of divine revelation concerning God’s will, embodying what God requires of man in his conduct; (2) man’s stewardship of this divine revelation, in which he is responsible to obey it; and (3) a time-period, often called an “age,” during which this divine revelation is dominant in the testing of man’s obedience to God.[8]

 

Darby seems to have developed this system based upon his reading of 2 Timothy 2:15, which says “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (AV). To him, the latter phrase of this text requires some form of division in Scripture. His solution was to postulate the dispensations, or ages of history, as periods which segmented the history recorded in the Bible. In itself, this view necessitates discrete epochs in redemptive history, units of time with different standards and requirements based on revelation. It is exactly the opposite of covenantalism which seeks to emphasize the unity of God’s purpose in the history of salvation.

It is breathtaking to recognize how quickly Dispensationalism overwhelmed evangelical churches, especially among Baptists. In one sense it is not surprising, since the vacuum created by Fundamentalism was quickly filled by a new and seemingly vibrant system of interpretation. It was advocated by popular preachers and adopted by the disseminators of Christian literature.

Revivalism began the process of turning people from a thoughtful and theological faith to an experience-oriented belief. Modernism brought new ideas into the churches. Fundamentalism circled the wagons and reduced the faith to a few requisite doctrines. And Dispensationalism swept in to fill the void. In every case, covenantalism was shunted to the side, and Baptists lost their rightful heritage. A beautiful system of faith was exchanged for a novelty.

This book is one small attempt to correct this problem. It consists of three sections, historical, exegetical, and theological. It is an attempt to demonstrate that this rich legacy must be recovered and reasserted. Not only were our fathers thoroughly covenantal, we must be too. History, theology, and exegesis are all on the side of covenantalism. For too long, Baptists have followed the false roads of Revivalism, the diminished pathways of Fundamentalism, and the dead-end street of Dispensationalism. The time has come to restore exegetical and theological rigor and vigor to our churches and ministries.

Iain Murray has stated that part of the problem with the change in Baptist beliefs “has to be attributed to the shortage of published records.”[9] Baptists were not aware of their history and surely this must include the writings of preceding generations. Sadly, this same observation continues to apply. Even today, while many paedobaptist writings from past generations have been reprinted and are available, this cannot be said of early Baptist writings. Some of the noteworthy printing houses have provided us with useful reprints, but these publishers have paedobaptist commitments and have largely neglected writings outside their own traditions. This is not to criticize, simply to identify causes. It does, however, point out a fault among Baptists. We have not given the time or effort to recovering our lost heritage. Some headway has been made,[10] but much more needs to be done. This lacuna has resulted in twenty-first century Baptist books with a theology (or often without any theology) that bears little or no resemblance to the vigorous confessional beliefs of the past. Some may laud this but we view it as a serious deficiency. This book is a small step towards recovering that lost heritage. May the Lord use it for his glory and the good of the churches.

 

 

James M. Renihan, Ph.D.

Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies

Westminster Seminary, CA


[1] While our interest and focus is on Particular Baptist history and theology, this statement may be made of General Baptists as well. The General Baptist Orthodox Creed of 1678 clearly articulates a covenantal doctrine in its Article XVI, which is very similar in content to both the 2LCF and Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) VII. See William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1959), 307.

[2] B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and its Work (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981 reprint), 56. Warfield’s comment applies directly to WCF, but since 2LCF and the Philadelphia Confession (along with its other American iterations — Charleston, etc.) are direct descendants, it appropriately applies to these as well.

[3] William Cathcart, The Baptist Encyclopedia (Philadelphia: Everts, 1881), 266.

[4] Cathcart could hardly bring himself to acknowledge the various strands of General or Freewill Baptists.

[5] It is true that some churches in the Primitive Baptist tradition maintained some appreciation for the older theology, but they tended to be insular and plagued by their own unique theological disputes and trajectories. The result was idiosyncratic doctrines and practices that did not in reality (despite their loud protestations otherwise) reflect the emphases of the Baptist fathers.

[6] Bobby Jamieson, Book Review: Revival and Revivalism in 9Marks Journal, March-April 2012, found at http://www.9marks.org/books/book-review-revival-and-revivalism, accessed 28 March, 2013.

[7] Though many people equate Dispensationalism with Baptist theology, historically this is an exaggeration. Among the early leaders of the movement, C. I. Scofield was a Congregationalist and later joined the Southern Presbyterian denomination, Arno Gaebelein a Methodist, James Gray was a Reformed Episcopalian, and A. T. Pierson a Presbyterian.

[8] E. Schuyler English, ed., The New Scofield Reference Bible (New York: OUP, 1967), 3, footnote at Genesis 1:28 heading, emphasis in original.

[9] Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 301.

[10] For example, several of Benjamin Keach’s volumes are available from Kregel and Solid Ground Christian Books, and even more importantly Nehemiah Coxe’s Discourse of the Covenants has been reprinted by RBAP, available at www.rbap.net.