John Owen: still not a Baptist

Lee Gatiss
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: