Associate Pastor, Agros Reformed Baptist Church
There is always a lively debate regarding what it means to be Reformed in Calvnistic circles. Some say that it is adherence to the five points of Calvinism (TULIP), and others say that it has more to do with confessionalism, Reformed liturgy, experiential preaching and practice, and Covenant Theology. There are a handful of views of Covenant Theology which most churches adhere to in one way or another. In its most basic expression, Covenant Theology is simply the theological position that God relates to man by way of covenant. This is evident in the fact that the Bible is even organized into two covenantal parts, the Old and New Testament.
In today’s context, churches have moved away from adhering to confessional standards and instead have opted to adhere to individual statements of faith, which are usually available on a church’s website. That is not to say that this practice is wrong or bad, it is simply a point of distinction between confessional churches and non-confessional churches. In non-confessional churches, the two primary views of Covenant Theology are New Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. These forms of Covenant Theology are adhered to by both Calvinist churches and non-Calvinist churches alike, though most Calvinist churches reject Dispensationalism. There are various articulations of New Covenant Theology (NCT), some more conservative than others.
In Reformed Churches, there are three major views of God’s covenant dealings with man: 1689 Federalism, Vanilla Baptist Federalism, and Westminster Federalism. The first two use the 1689 London Baptist Confession as a confessional standard, and the last uses the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Three Forms of Unity as a confessional standard. Some may take issue with my grouping of Dutch Reformed and Westminster Covenant Theology together, but for the sake of keeping this article brief I will put them in the same class. In this article, I will give a brief explanation of New Covenant Theology, 1689 Federalism, and Vanilla Baptist Federalism, as well as provide the reasons that the elders of Agros Church adhere to Vanilla Baptist Federalism. The goal of the article is not to offer debate points or invite conflict, rather to lay out what Agros Church holds as a distinctive on Covenant Theology and why.
New Covenant Theology
New Covenant Theology is typically rejected by confessional churches, though not always. The Reformed are generally unified in the thought that both NCT and Dispensationalism are relatively new to church history, which is part of the reason why these forms of Covenant Theology are typically rejected by confessional churches. There are some people I have encountered that claim adherence to the 1689 LBCF who also adhere to NCT, by their own admission, but this is rare in my experience. Typical expressions of NCT differ from the Reformed covenant framework by rejecting the existence of the Covenant of Works made with Adam as well as the Covenant of Grace. This rejection also applies to the eternal Trinitarian covenant called the Covenant of Redemption or the Pactum Salutis. NCT advocates reject these theological foundations because they believe neither the terminology nor concepts are demonstrated in Scripture. According to NCT there are two covenants, New and Old, with the New Covenant being the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. Another key distinctive of NCT is that the three-fold distinction of the law is rejected for one unified law. They claim that there is no distinction necessary because to do so would be to impose an unnecessary standard upon the text.
As a result of this division between New and Old Covenant, the Old Covenant laws are made obsolete by the New Covenant. This is the primary practical distinction of NCT. NCT says that the only law that remains for the people of God is the “law of Christ”, which is represented by everything that is republished in the New Testament. Therefore, if it is not explicitly mentioned, it has been abrogated. Practically speaking, this results in the exclusion of the fourth commandment as a binding law on the people of God today. I have argued before that this covenant structure is the primary grounds for much of the unhitching that is done in today’s church between the New and Old Testament. While many faithful believers adhere to this covenant structure, Agros Church rejects its principles, as it is not taught in the 1689 LBCF and is a significant departure from the historical, Reformed expression of Covenant Theology.
1689 Federalism and Vanilla Baptist Federalism
In Reformed Baptist churches, there are two expressions of Covenant Theology. The first, and most popular, is 1689 Federalism, which is articulated well by Dr. Samuel Renihan and Brandon Adams. The 1689 Federalists typically point to Nehemiah Coxe and John Owen as historical source material for this view. The second is Vanilla Baptist Federalism, which is articulated best by Dr. Malcom Watts and Earl M. Blackburn. The Vanilla Baptist Federalists typically point to John Gill and Witsius as historical source material for this view. The essential difference between the two positions has to do with the way the Old Covenant is defined. The 1689 Federalists believe that the Old Covenant is a Covenant of Works (CoW), and the Vanilla Baptist Federalists affirm with the Dutch Reformed and Westminster Federalists that the Old Covenant is an administration of the CoG. Both positions claim to be the position of the framers of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, though I argue that the position of the framers is less explicit than many would like to admit, and I do not think Nehemiah Coxe or John Owen can be used to definitively prove that 1689 Federalism existed in the time of the particular baptists. At the bottom of this article I will list resources for both sides. The basic differences between the two positions are as follows:
Vanilla Baptist Federalism
The official position of Agros Church is Vanilla Baptist Federalism, but we do not consider the issue in any way divisive or a reason to cause conflict amongst Reformed Baptist brethren. Both systems affirm God’s sovereignty and monergistic effort in salvation, the differences are simply a matter of interpretation on how that was accomplished in time.
The reason that Agros Church affirms Vanilla Baptist Federalism over 1689 Federalism is on five grounds:
I will put forth here that the differences between 1689 Federalism and Vanilla Baptist Federalism is not one of such importance that churches should divide over it, or fellowship be broken. The bottom line is that both systems can be taught from the confession, though I would say that 1689 Federalism requires more reaching out to external sources than Vanilla Baptist Federalism. This is a point that my 1689 Federalist brothers would likely wish to contest, and I see no issue in having that discussion. Ultimately, the elders at Agros Church find that it is easier to reconcile the views of John Gill, Nehemiah Coxe, Earl M. Blackburn, and Greg Nichols to the historic Reformed expression of Covenant Theology. This does not mean that we claim exclusive interpretation of the confession, just that we believe it to be more in line with the stated goals laid out by the framers in the prefatory material and appendix on baptism. We also see it as a more progressive and slight development of Reformed Covenant Theology in particular baptist circles than the significant development proposed by the 1689 Federalists.
We do not consider it a “ministry” of Agros Church to convince people of either position. This is simply the position held by the elders of the church, and thus the teaching at Agros will reflect that. The primary goal of Agros Church in its distinctives is to preach and live experientially, according to the common faith of the Christian church and the expression of Biblical doctrine as it is stated in the 1689 LBCF.
The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology
From Shadow to Substance
The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant and His Kingdom
Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ
Vanilla Baptist Federalism
Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive
Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants
Manual of Theology
All Agros Biblical Theology Book Review Church Church Government Ecclesiology Ethics Grafton Liturgics Log College Press London Baptist Confession Lord's Day Ministry Pastoral Theology Pastorate Presbyterian Presbyterianism Puritans Reformed Theology Sabbath Sacrifice Second London Baptist Confession Southern Presbyterians Sunday Sunday Worship Theology Thomas Witherspoon Westminster Westminster Confession Of Faith