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John Owen and the Particular Baptists

Discussion in 'Baptist Theology & Bible Study' started by Martin Marprelate, May 11, 2022.

  1. Martin Marprelate

    Martin Marprelate Well-Known Member
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    The subject of John Owen came up on this forum a few weeks ago and some people were asking why Particular Baptists like Nehemiah Coxe had such a regard for him since he was a paedobaptist.

    Well, the answer has to do with Covenant Theology. The earliest Particular Baptist were covenant theologians. The first book published by a P.B., A Treatise concerning the Lawfull [sic] Subjects of Baptisme by John Spilsbury was a covenantal book. But the traditional Paedo understanding of the covenants did not allow for a credobaptist understanding.

    According to Paedobaptist understanding, the covenants are all basically one. The New Covenant was basically a 'renewal' of the Old or Sinaitic Covenant. Francis Turretin wrote that "...The difference between the Old and New Testaments (broadly considered is only accidental, not essential," and this was the view of almost all the Puritans, including Herman Witsius who wrote a mammoth tome on the Economy of the Covenants between God and Man. Therefore, if infants were included in the covenant with Abraham, they were also included in the New Covenant.

    So when Owen published his commentary on Hebrews 8 & 9, it came as something of a bombshell when he declared that the Old and New Covenants were fundamentally different He found seventeen differences between the two, which I list below in my own words.

    [I shall refer to the Sinaitic covenant as the ‘first’ covenant because that is how the writer to the Hebrews speaks of it]

    1. They differ in the time of their establishment. The first was established in the third month after the coming out from Egypt of the Israelites (Exod 19:1). The second, ‘At just the right time’ (Rom 5:6, NIV); ‘In the dispensation of the fullness of time’ (Eph 1:10). ‘When the fullness of the time was come’ (Gal 4:4). ‘When the Day of Pentecost had fully come….’ (Acts 2:1).
    2. They differ in the place of their establishment. The first covenant, in Sinai; the new covenant, in Jerusalem; but in this connection it is worth reading Gal 4:24-26. Sinai represents bondage; the new Jerusalem represents freedom.
    3. They differ in the manner of their promulgation (Heb 12:18-26). The first came with fire and the sound of a trumpet (Exod 19:18f); the New came with a voice from heaven (Psalm 110:4; Matt 3:17).
    4. They differ in their mediators. In the first covenant , it was Moses, who was faithful as a servant (Heb 3:5); in the New, it was Christ, a Son over His own house (Heb 3:6; 2Tim 2:5).
    5. They differ in their subject matter. The first covenant revived the demands of the covenant of works with Moses saying, “Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law” (Deut 27:26). In the new covenant, God’s law is written on our hearts with Christ saying, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:30), and we find ourselves saying, ‘His commandments are not grievous’ (1John 5:3, A.V.).
    6. They differ in the manner of their dedication. In the first covenant, it was by the sacrifice of beasts and the blood sprinkled around the altar (Lev 8, 9). The New was confirmed by the sacrifice and blood of Christ Himself (Heb 10:19-23; 12:24).
    7. They differ in respect of the Priesthood. In the first covenant, the Priesthood was limited to Aaron and his posterity; in the New, Christ has an unchangeable priesthood in the power of an endless life (Heb 7:11-28).
    8. They differ in the matter of their sacrifices and their access to God. The Aaronic high priest could enter in to the Holist Place only once a year having sacrificed for his own sins as well as those of the people; our Great High Priest had no sins of His own to atone for, but, ‘Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption’ (Heb 9:12).
    9. They differ in the matter of their writing down. The first covenant was written on ‘tablets of stone,’ the New on ‘tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart’ (2Cor 3:3).
    10. They differ as to their purposes. ‘The principal end of the first covenant was to discover sin, to condemn it and to set bounds to it’ (John Owen; cf. Gal 3:19). The purpose of the new covenant is to show forth God’s justice and mercy (Rom 3:26).
    11. They differ in their effects. The first covenant was a ‘ministry of death’ and ‘of condemnation’ (2Cor 3:7, 9); the New gives liberty (2Cor 3:17-18).
    12. They differ in the grant of the Holy Spirit. It appears that during the period of the first covenant, the Holy Spirit was indeed active, but there was so much a wide and greater effusion of His power at Pentecost, that John speaks sometimes as if He had not come before (John 7:39; 15:26 etc.).
    13. They differ in the declaration made in them of the kingdom of God. The term ‘kingdom of heaven’ or ‘kingdom of God’ does not appear in the O.T. Israel under the first covenant had the appearance of a kingdom of the world (physical borders, an army, a physical temple). The kingdom of God has none of these things. The Lord Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:26). His subjects are spread throughout the earth, and have their citizenship in heaven.
    14. They differ in their substance and end. The first covenant was typical, shadowy and removable. The new covenant is substantial and permanent as containing the Body, which is Christ.
    15. They differ in the extent of their ministration. The first covenant was largely confined to Israel after the flesh, with darkness reigning all around. In the new covenant, we read, ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light’ (Isaiah 9:2).
    16. They differ in efficacy. The first covenant ‘made nothing perfect’ (Heb 7:19; cf. 8:7). It gave outward commands without giving the power to perform them (cf. Acts 15:10). In the new covenant, ‘says the Lord, “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts”’ (Heb 8:10).
    17. They differ in their duration. One was to be removed; one to abide forever (Heb 10:8-9).
    All this was music to the ears of the Particular Baptists. A leading paedobaptist was actually agreeing with them. Nehemiah Coxe, in his book A Discourse of the Covenants that God made with Men before the Law, wrote that he was preparing materials for a volume on the Mosaic Covenant, but that he was 'happily prevented' by Owen's commentary. So far as Coxe was concerned, Owen's work on Hebrews 8 said the very things that Coxe would have said, but Owen said them better! This doesn't mean that Coxe would have endorsed everything that Owen wrote, but it does indicate the large measure of agreement between them.

    The Baptists did goad Owen a little as to why he did not join them. We shall have to wait until we get to heaven to ask him, but it may be that in that difficult period for Dissenters after the Restoration of Charles II, he did not wish to cause division among his own Congregational constituency.

    Those who wish to read more should buy Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ (RBAP) which places Coxe's book alongside Owen's and includes an essay by Richard Barcellos on John Owen and New Covenant Theology which shows that Owen was not a promoter of NCT.


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    #1 Martin Marprelate, May 11, 2022
    Last edited: May 11, 2022
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  2. Earth Wind and Fire

    Earth Wind and Fire Well-Known Member
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    Out of curiosity…. Any relation? Honestly brother, none of my business!
     
  3. Martin Marprelate

    Martin Marprelate Well-Known Member
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    I idly wondered this myself a few years ago and looked up some info.
    John Owen and his wife had nine children. Eight died in infancy or early childhood. The ninth, a daughter, married a worthless fellow who mistreated her, and eventually she returned to her parents where she died, aged about 23 without children. Therefore I am not directly related to John Owen.

    What keeps a man from despair faced with grief like that? Nothing but a true faith in Christ; knowing whom one has believed.
     
  4. Earth Wind and Fire

    Earth Wind and Fire Well-Known Member
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    Owen was awesome. He was also proficient in Latin and worked for a time for Oliver Cromwell who is also very interesting. Covenanters for a time we’re fascinating to me but eventually drove me nuts… back then, I was a Presbyterian studying Covenant Theology at a church aptly named Covenant Church… very very difficult to Persevere if you understand my reference to theology. Anyway, finally found a Baptist group in the USA committed to scripture and simplicity which I’m eternally grateful for.
     
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