Covenant Theology, the 2LBC & CBTS

by | Dec 14, 2020 | Covenant Theology

In my years here at CBTS I’ve fielded a plethora of questions from potential students and curious inquirers.  If you were to ask me what the most common topic brought up was, my answer would be instantaneous, 1689 Federalism! “What’s the relationship between CBTS and 1689 Federalism?” “Is CBTS 1689 Federalist?” “Does CBTS support 1689 Federalism?”  I’ve also seen many ask in various social media contexts, “Is there a 1689 Federalist seminary?” or “What’s the best 1689 Federalist seminary?”  I’ve had the desire to address this issue in a series of blog posts for many years now, but I’ve been unable to carve out the time.  But now that Dr. Fred Malone is about to reteach Baptist Covenant Theology for us beginning in January, I think it’s high time to address this popular issue publicly.

This post will deal primarily with CBTS & 1689 Federalism (1689Fed from here on out), but I plan to follow this up with some posts regarding Covenant Theology and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (2LBC from here on), what it does and does not confess regarding the subject.

Defining Terms

From the way many use the term 1689Fed today, it seems evident that there is a general lack of understanding of exactly what people think the term means or was meant to convey when the term was coined.  In early 2013, Pascal Denault published his Master’s thesis under the title, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, A Comparison Between Seventeenth Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism. We owe a great debt to the author for bringing to light a wealth of information about how the Particular Baptists in the era of the writing of our confession framed their covenant theology, especially in contrast to their Paedobaptist brethren. A plethora of information that had literally been lost for centuries was brought to light in a most refreshing and enlightening way.

I don’t remember the date, but shortly after this publication the website, was created by our brother Brandon Adams. I don’t know if Brandon expected the catchy term to gain both acceptance and notoriety as it has, but it’s become a buzzword among Calvinistic Baptists in a way I’ve never before observed.  The site was (and still is) extremely helpful with a number of compelling videos and helpful charts laying out both the commonalities and distinctions between the Covenant Theology of the 17th Century Baptists and other systems like Paedobaptist Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and New Covenant Theology.

Though it is no longer found on the website, at one time there was also a chart comparing 1689 Federalism to 20th Century Reformed Baptists.  I believe the terms used in this distinction were well meant, and in one sense accurate, but time has shown that they could be easily misunderstood.  This is the sense in which they are accurate.  What has become known as 1689Fed today is indeed an expression of the covenant theology espoused by the majority of those who originally subscribed to the 2LBC.  What was termed 20th Century Reformed Baptists is an accurate expression of the covenant theology taught by many Reformed Baptist pastors over the last 40 years. As I noted, this terminology is no longer found on the website, but I still find people making this distinction regularly today.

That being said, I think the terms have been misunderstood by many to mean something I’m quite sure they were never meant to convey.  It’s far too common now to see people use the term 1689Fed as though it means the covenant theology actually confessed in the 2LBC.  This then leads to the false conclusion that those who might be called 20th Century RBs do not fully subscribe to the 2LBC, or at least not properly so.[i] This has had the very discouraging result of a number of faithful, seasoned, and fully confessional Reformed Baptist men being falsely branded as less than confessional.

There are some facts that if understood should clear up this misapprehension.

1. The 2LBC does not even begin to lay out the entire system of covenant theology held by its authors and original subscribers.  The fact is that there is nothing at all written in chapter 7, “Of God’s Covenant” that any Reformed Paedobaptist should not be willing to confess!  The purpose of the Confession was not to lay out all the ways the Baptists differed from their paedobaptist brethren with regard to covenant theology.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  The confession was published in order to demonstrate the orthodoxy of the churches who subscribed to it. So, while they did confess the ways in which they differed from their brethren in the areas of the sacraments and ecclesiology, the vast majority of the confession focuses on the doctrine commonly confessed with them.

2. While the covenant theology now known as 1689Fed is indeed reflective of what can be seen to be the majority view in the 17th Century among Particular Baptists, it was not universal among them.  There were some in that day who held to something more akin to what is now ascribed to 20th century Reformed Baptists.

3. Even those with the majority view were not unanimous in the way they viewed particular aspects of covenant theology and the terminology they chose to use. From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704) by Dr. Sam Renihan is a must read for every Reformed Baptist.  The author provides a goldmine of detail regarding the covenant theology of our Baptist forefathers and is particularly gifted in helping the reader understand the terminology of the day.[ii]

4. The men who are commonly lumped together as 20th Century Reformed Baptists differ from each other in a number of aspects of their covenant theology. In addition, the men of our day who are known as 1689 Federalists, though they are in agreement on the majority of issues, also differ on some finer points, such as the nature of the promise of life in the Mosaic Covenant.

5. The terms “substance and administration” with regard to the covenants has been used by some baptists both in the 17th and 20th century.  Since this is the terminology used by many paedobaptists to identify the OT covenants with the covenant of grace, many have assumed that the baptists who retained that terminology were using it in the same way.  That is not always the case.[iii] (I’ll need to flesh this out a bit more in a later post.)

6. The manner in which the 17th century Particular Baptists differentiated between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace has been a matter of great confusion.  Modern 1689 Federalists have adopted it, but it sounds very strange to the ears of many who have only ever used the terminology covenant of works for THE covenant of works. (Lord willing, I’ll address this more fully in a later post as well.)

CBTS & 1689 Federalism

With this necessary foundation laid, I want to say a little about the relationship of CBTS to 1689 Fed. I think many people get confused, because we have two visiting professors who are commonly associated with 1689Fed (Dr. Sam Renihan & Dr. Richard Barcellos), while our two most primary professors (Dr. Sam Waldron & Dr. Fred Malone) are commonly lumped in with 20th Century Reformed Baptists. I will do my best to clear this up.

Dr. Waldron is first and foremost a systematician. Systematic Theology is his forte, and he has written very little with regard to covenant theology. While it is true that he has not embraced 1689Fed, I would say that he has much in common with the system. He has always held the substance of the Covenant of Works, now embraces the terminology, and believes this doctrine to be a foundational support to a right understanding of the doctrine of justification.He has never held to the idea that the OT covenants were simply administrations of the covenant of grace.  He recently embraced the teaching that the New Covenant is the covenant of grace.  He is the President of CBTS and was in hearty agreement with inviting Dr. Sam Renihan to teach the Origins of Baptist Covenant Theology for us. And on a personal note, though he knows well that I embrace 1689Fed, he asked me to teach on chapter 7 of our confession for the adult SS class here at GRBC. Finally, after reading The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, he told me that he was greatly benefitted by it.

Dr. Fred Malone teaches our Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology class, as I mentioned above.  Last time he taught the class live was in January of 2015.  I was a student at that module and I asked him what his opinion of 1689Fed was. His answer was simply that he was aware of the website but had not taken the time to examine it. That being said, though he does not use all the same terminology as 1689Fed in the same way they do, having taken his class I can say that I don’t see anything he teaches as incompatible with it.  Both Pascal Denault’s book and the Coxe/Owen volume were assigned reading for the class, and he said nothing in the class as corrections or exceptions to their content. Here is the list of assigned and recommended texts for his class next semester:

  • Samuel E. Waldron. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 7 “On the Covenants”
  • Nehemiah Coxe. Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ.
  • Samuel Bolton. True Bounds of Christian Freedom
  • Samuel D. Renihan. The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant & His Kingdom
  • Richard C. Barcellos. Getting the Garden Right
  • Samuel D. Renihan. From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704)
  • Fred A. Malone. The Baptism of Disciples Alone: Revised and Expanded
  • Pascal Denault. The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology

As you can see from the above list, Dr. Malone isn’t against what is now known as 1689Fed.  This really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone since he wrote a recommendation for Denault’s book, as did Dr. Tom Nettles who also teaches for us.

To sum things up, CBTS is a confessional seminary holding to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.  While this does not infer that 1689 Federalism is the official covenantal position of the seminary, you would be hard pressed to find things taught here that are not compatible with the system.  On the other hand, we stand firmly against the idea that one must adopt 1689Fed in order to be fully confessional. 

Forgive me if this seems out of place, but I can’t help myself. I simply cannot say anything about covenant theology without recommending Sam Renihan’s book, The Mystery of Christ. Sam is an extremely humble young man, so he probably cringes when he hears me say this, but I am convinced that The Mystery of Christ is the best book on covenant theology ever written. I would have given my left arm to have such a work twenty-some years ago when I was trying to make heads or tails of covenant theology and was limited almost exclusively to paedobaptist works.

[i]  This idea is actually directly contradicted in the FAQ section of the 1689Fed website:

[ii] Assuming the reader has already read the Coxe/Owen volume, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, I highly recommend rereading it after reading From Shadow to Substance.  Much of Coxe was mysterious to me upon first reading, but after reading Renihan, I went back to Coxe with a great deal of profit.  These interactive outlines are also helpful:

[iii] John Gill for example

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