John Owen was never a Baptist
January 28, 2015
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 4:329Denying 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 4:418Infants 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 5:58Bless 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 5:434Infant 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.