Results tagged “infant baptism” from Reformation21 Blog

John Owen: still not a Baptist

Well, if I thought it was bad when I exposed a few less-well-known things about John Wesley, that's nothing compared to what happens when you touch the sacred shibboleths of Owenian Baptists!

There was a bit of a social media frenzy about my post yesterday concerning John Owen's covenant theology and its relationship to his doctrine of infant baptism. If I may (2 Corinthians 12:11), I thought I might reply to one of the blog responses to it (one that doesn't call me a ditzy blonde).

This baptist blogger makes the following claims in his post:

1. Baptists couldn't possibly know what they're talking about
2. I admitted I hadn't read Pascal Denault's book
3. I only listened to ten minutes of a podcast
4. I misunderstood a joke
5. I judged a book by its cover
6. I felt it was urgent to inform people that John Owen was a paedobaptist
7. That's not the point
8. Quoting passages where Owen affirms infant baptism, is not the point
9. Owen's covenant theology undergirding infant baptism changed
10. Section 4.7 of On Infant Baptism is refuted by Owen on Hebrews 8:6
11. Owen contradicted himself
12. Paedobaptists are shocked that Baptists can read too

Serious and weighty charges. Let's examine them.

1. Baptists couldn't possibly know what they're talking about
Presumably this opinion in his title is to be imputed to me. Though I never asserted any such thing, and I believe it to be untrue so would never assert such a thing. To say that just because someone is a Baptist they therefore couldn't possibly know what they are talking about would be as illogical as someone asserting that just because someone doesn't follow the Westminster Confession's line on every aspect of covenant theology they must therefore have a tendency towards anti-paedobaptism.

2. I admitted I hadn't read Pascal Denault's book
I admitted no such thing. Why would I? When Pascal demanded on Twitter that I give his book a positive review in my next post, I said I would think about it. If he sent me a free copy of it. How does our blogger know that I am not planning to give that free copy to Mark Jones to review?

3. I only listened to ten minutes of a podcast
Actually, it was over an hour, and I listened to all of it. Much to my wife's annoyance I might add. In my original post, I even cited "42 minutes in". So this appears to be a cheap and failed attempt to score a point, possibly as a way of avoiding what I actually said.

4. I misunderstood a joke
Wait, Baptists tell jokes?  :)

But more seriously, is it the book that's meant to be a joke, or the podcast? I can't tell.

There was also this tweet from Pascal himself:

@pascaldenault: @LeeGatiss Calling him John The Baptist Owen is just funny. We don't deny that Owen died a peado... so close to be credo... which he is now

Now that appears to be good natured humour. Pascal seems to get what I'm trying to do, and the tone. He's still wrong though, with respect to my friend. But he has a sense of humour at least.

5. I judged a book by its cover
Not at all. I used the adverb "cheekily" when pointing out that Owen is on the cover of a book about Baptist theology. To me that's like having a picture of Martyn Lloyd Jones on a website for Anglican Evangelicals (ahem: In the small print, the subtitle mentions comparisons with "paedobaptist federalism", so it's maybe OK to have paedos and credos on the cover together. A bit misleading when the big book title is about the distinctiveness of Baptist theology though. And not great design or marketing to my mind. But hey, at least it wasn't a sunrise or a rainbow or a dove as on so many Christian books.

To be frank, if the twitterstorm about my post is about how I used that one adverb to describe my subjective feelings about the book's cover, then I profess that seems to me like implicitly conceding my substantive points by way of tergiversation. Or, in American: "Is that the best you've got?"

6. I felt it was urgent to inform people that John Owen was a paedobaptist
Not urgent, no. But Reformation21 isn't just about the urgent and the immediate. We're trying to engage important and topical issues with humour and intelligence. I know I fail on both scores, being an utter idiot (according to one rather brutal blogger who thinks "Owen migrated toward the Baptist form of covenant theology toward the end of his life" -- ha ha ha!!! Good joke.). 

However, as I did point out in my post, the reason I wrote is that a number of people, well educated people, doctors, and a Professor of Philosophy even, have all come to me with the same basic misunderstanding, sometimes pointing to Pascal's book or that podcast as the source of the confusion. I've since had many other messages saying the same thing. So it needed saying: Owen was never a Baptist.

7. That's not the point
Well, it might not be his point. But it was one of mine. Though hopefully these folks who impugn my honour and intelligence have read beyond the title of my post to see what I actually wrote?

Pascal tells me on Twitter that his point is about Owen's covenant theology (CT):

@pascaldenault: @LeeGatiss We all know Owen was never a Baptist, we only affirm that his CT fits perfectly ours

Fine. I know you know he wasn't a Baptist really. My point is that you're not always giving that impression -- that podcast interview is one notorious instance. And importantly, as I said, "Owen unwaveringly believes that his covenant theology supports promotes, and demands infant baptism." He thinks denying infant baptism is to dishonour Christ.

But that's "more or less identical" as our brutal blogger puts it, to having a covenant theology that completely denies infant baptism, isn't it?  Erm... awkward...

Owen used covenant theology in his tract On Infant Baptism to teach infant baptism. All the quotes I gave from all over his Hebrews commentary also derive infant baptism directly from his covenant theology. So Owen's theology cannot be said to "perfectly fit" an anti-paedobaptist covenant theology. Unless in French "perfectly fit" means "looks very different in practice and denies things which Owen held dear and explicitly linked to his own covenant theology." My French isn't great though, so maybe it does.

8. Quoting lots of passages from Owen where he affirms infant baptism is not the point
No, indeed. I agree. That's not why I picked those passages. That would have only made the point that Owen taught infants should be baptised. I was trying to say more than that because you already knew that. And I knew that you already knew that. And you knew that I already knew that you knew that. (2 Corinthians 12:11)

I picked those passages out of many places where Owen teaches infant baptism because they were all a) from his later Hebrews commentary, and b) all explicitly linked Owen's doctrine of infant baptism to Owen's own covenant theology.

9. Owen's covenant theology undergirding infant baptism changed
I'm not really sure this is proven by the quotations given by our blogger. I think that needs much more careful demonstration. Often reading Owen one can think he might be contradicting himself, but upon careful reflection and further reading one can later see that he isn't.

However, one thing is utterly clear: from life's first cry to final breath, Owen thought at every point that his covenant theology (whatever it was) supported, promoted, and demanded infant baptism. That is my point.

Have I repeated it enough times yet? It was all in the original post.

10 Section 4.7 of On Infant Baptism is refuted by Owen on Hebrews 8:6.
Again, I'm not convinced the "analysis" here is much more than blunt and tendentious assertion. But even if it was, all that's shown -- supported by a quotation from secondary source our blogger himself gives -- is that Owen is more like a Lutheran on some things than the Westminster Confession.

Since Lutherans are not anti-paedobaptists, this doesn't help at all to establish my interlocutor's assertions, or substantiate the worrisome misrepresentation with which I was primarily concerned. There are possible Salmurian currents behind Owen's thinking on the covenants too; but as far as I am aware, Camero et Amyraut et comrades were not anti-paedobaptists either.

11. Owen contradicted himself
Well, in theory, it's possible. He's only human after all. He's allowed to change his mind. But I'm skeptical such contradictions have been adequately demonstrated and explained by the aforementioned blogger. And even if they were to be (in a prolix animadversion of a blog post, full of oversized block quotes), that wouldn't alter in any way the conclusion that Owen always thought his covenant theology demanded, promoted, and supported infant baptism. 

12. Paedobaptists are shocked that Baptists can read too.
I never asserted any such thing. I have never experienced such shock. Many of my Baptist friends are very serious readers, and writers. Nor do I believe (as our baptist blogger quotes) that "Methodists are Baptists who can read." But that's a different story. We don't want to go there again.

I confess I do think that some Baptists need to be more careful how they read Owen, more circumspect in what they claim about him, and less irate in discussing that subject. But not all, or even most. I have some very serious Baptist friends who wouldn't make those mistakes, even if one or two are fonder of girlie drinks than they should be. 

[Editor, shall I add a big smiley face at the end to show I mean no harm or personal offence but am only engaging in a friendly (from my side) and well-meaning debate? I'm a nice guy really.]

If anyone is really interested in hearing him waffle on more about this subject, Revd Gatiss outlines the Reformed Anglican view of baptism in this article and this video:

John Owen was never a Baptist

I remember once telling a friend at church that I was going to go do a PhD on John Owen. They replied, "Oh yes, I know him. He's that great Baptist theologian." 

Somewhat startled, I thought I'd since made this point pretty clear. The great 17th century theologian John Owen practised and taught infant baptism. I have expounded his doctrine of infant baptism and infant salvation in a cheap Kindle book, From Life's First Cry.  (UK: USA)

But as I've been preparing to speak on infant baptism next week at a conference, I've heard a number of times recently that Owen was really a Baptist. A closet, crypto-Baptist whose real views have been hidden because no-one had read his Hebrews commentary. 

The argument goes something like this: His work from the 1650s which I focus on particularly in From Life's First Cry are "early." But in his later Hebrews commentary, he evolved. There, he gives us a better covenant theology, which is in tune with anti-paedobaptist doctrine. You can read about that in this book on Baptist covenant theology (Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology) which cheekily even has Owen on the cover. Or listen to the first 10 minutes of this podcast interview (and around 42 minutes in). 


My considered response is that this is poppycock. (That's a technical term in logic for such flawed claims.) 

Owen's covenant theology may have been nuanced as he got older, and I talk about that in my forthcoming monograph on his Hebrews commentary. But time and time and time again in his commentary (4 vols.,1668-1684), Owen explicitly applies his own covenant theology to the subject of infant baptism. And -- guess what?! -- he unwaveringly believes that his covenant theology supports, promotes, and demands infant baptism. 

Here are a few examples: 

Believers' children are in the covenant & receive its seal.
The Hebrews... "shall lose nothing, no privilege, by coming over to the gospel state by faith in Christ Jesus. Upon a new account they become "the people of God;" which interests them and their children in the covenant, with the seals and all the ordinances of it, even as formerly. For this name, "people," doth not firstly respect individuals, but a collective body of men, with and in all their relations. Believers, not singly considered, but they and their seed, or their children, are this people; and where they are excluded from the initial ordinance of the covenant, I know not how believers can be called "the people of God." Hebrews vol 4:328 (Banner edition) 

Infant baptism is the greatest privilege of the gospel covenant. To deny it is anti-gospel.
"And is it possible that any man should be a loser by the coming of Christ, or by his own coming unto Christ? It is against the whole gospel once to imagine it in the least instance. Let it now be inquired whether it were not a great privilege of the people of God of old, that their infant seed were taken into covenant with them, and were made partakers of the initial seal thereof? Doubtless it was the greatest they enjoyed, next to the grace they received for the saving of their own souls. That it was so granted them, so esteemed by them, may be easily proved. And without this, whatever they were, they were not a people. Believers under the gospel are, as we have spoken, the people of God; and that with all sorts of advantages annexed unto that condition, above what were enjoyed by them who of old were so. How is it, then, that this people of God, made so by Jesus Christ in the gospel, should have their charter, upon its renewal, razed with a deprivation of one of their choicest rights and privileges? Assuredly it is not so. And therefore if believers are now, as the apostle says they are, "the people of God," their children have a right to the initial seal of the covenant. Hebrews vol 4:329 

Denying covenantal infant baptism takes away from Christ's glory and the honour of the gospel.
"...this is enough to secure the application of the initial seal of the covenant unto the infant seed of believers. For whereas it was granted to the church under the old testament as a signal favour and spiritual privilege, it is derogatory to the glory of Christ and honour of the gospel to suppose that the church is now deprived of it; for in the whole system and frame of worship God had ordained "the better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." Hebrews vol 4:418 

Infants are in the covenant, were baptised in apostolical times, and should be now. 
"For whereas there were two sorts of persons that were baptized, namely, those that were adult at their first hearing of the gospel, and the infant children of believers, who were admitted to be members of the church; the first sort were instructed in the principles mentioned before they were admitted unto baptism, by the profession whereof they laid the foundation of their own personal right thereunto; but the other, being received as a part and branches of a family whereupon the blessing of Abraham was come, and to whom the promise of the covenant was extended, being thereon baptized in their infancy, were to be instructed in them as they grew up unto years of understanding. Afterwards, when they were established in the knowledge of these necessary truths, and had resolved on personal obedience unto the gospel, they were offered unto the fellowship of the faithful. And hereon, giving the same account of their faith and repentance which others had done before they were baptized, they were admitted into the communion of the church, the elders thereof laying their hands on them in token of their acceptation, and praying for their confirmation in the faith. Hence the same doctrines became previously necessary unto both these rites;--before baptism to them that were adult; and towards them who were baptized in infancy, before the imposition of hands. And I do acknowledge that this was the state of things in the apostolical churches, and that it ought to be so in all others." Hebrews vol 5:58 

Bless your covenant children by baptising them and giving them covenant instruction! 
"Parents bless their children by endeavouring to instate them in their own covenant-interest. God having promised to be a God unto believers, and to their seed in and by them, they do three ways bless them with the good things thereof: first, By communicating unto them the privilege of the initial seal of the covenant, as a sign, token, and pledge of their being blessed of the Lord; secondly, By pleading the promise of the covenant in their behalf; thirdly, By careful instructing of them in the mercies and duties of the covenant." Hebrews vol 5:317-31 (cf. 5:392) 

Giving the seal of the covenant to our kids has always been God's way.
"And this one consideration is enough to confirm the grant of the initial seal of the covenant unto the seed of present believers, which was once given by God himself in the way of an institution, and never by him revoked." Hebrews vol 5:434 

Infant baptism is a great privilege and has preserved many from fatal apostasy. 
"Moses found himself circumcised, and so to belong unto the circumcised people. Hereon God instructed him to inquire into the reason and nature of that distinguishing character. And so he learned that it was the token of God's covenant with the people, the posterity of Abraham, of whom he was. It was a blessed inlet into the knowledge and fear of the true God. And whatever is pretended by some unto the contrary, it is a most eminent divine privilege, to have the seal of the covenant in baptism communicated unto the children of believers in their infancy; and a means it hath been to preserve many from fatal apostasies." Hebrews vol 7:145-146 

Sorry folks, but these are exactly the same applications that Owen makes from his covenant theology in the earlier tract on infant baptism.

None of this is secret knowledge, as his commentary can be freely downloaded from the internet. OK, it's about 2 million words long, is peppered with Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and reads like a roughly dashed-off English translation of a piece of thinking done in Ciceronian Latin. But it's freely accessible to everyone. 

I am happy for anyone to disagree with infant baptism. Some of my best and most godly friends are Baptists. And even I disagree with Owen on a number of things. So there's nothing wrong with that. 

But it simply won't do to Baptise Owen, or imply that he perhaps wasn't quite clever enough to see that his covenant theology led inexorably to anti-paedobaptism. 

Later Baptists did co-opt some of his theology for their own ends. And some of his best friends were Baptists. But he himself was not, and his theology by no means has to lead there. He certainly didn't think it did or should. And we should probably give him some credit: after all, he'd read the complete works of John Owen and knew the author personally. 

Next week, Lord willing and if he's still in the land of the living, Revd Gatiss will demonstrate that Dr Owen was a good Anglican.