Baptists of a more reformational persuasion have long been dissatisfied with the dominant theological system of dispensationalism. However, many of these Baptists have also found the fit with traditional covenant theology awkward at best, especially since it is this same covenant theology that is appealed to by Reformed Presbyterians as the foundation for their argument for paedobaptism.
The search for a more consistently Baptist (and more biblical) covenantal theology has led to two main alternatives in recent years: progressive covenantalism and 1689 Federalism. Although often juxtaposed as completely separate options, both progressive covenantalism and 1689 Federalism represent Baptist covenantal theologies with a great deal of biblical-theological compatibility.
1. For much more detail and documentation comparing these two views, see Richard Lucas, “The Past and Future of Baptist Covenantal Theology: Comparing 1689 Federalism and Progressive Covenantalism,” SBJT 26.1 (2022): 116–163.
What’s in a Name?
Progressive covenantalism is so named because proponents believe that the progressive unfolding of God’s kingdom through the biblical covenants best accounts for the storyline of the Bible. It is this emphasis on progressive revelation that progressive covenantalists often find lacking in traditional covenant theology and its flattening out of the Bible’s storyline. Similarly, 1689 Federalism also highlights an emphasis on progressive revelation as a key to distinguish their Baptist covenant theology from traditional paedobaptist versions. The framers of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith intentionally deviated from the Presbyterian Westminster Confession precisely in chapter seven on God’s covenant. Instead of speaking of one covenant of grace which is administered differently in the old and new covenants, the seventeenth century Particular Baptists wrote that “this covenant [of grace] is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman [Gen. 3:15], and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament” (2LCF 7.3).
In distinction from traditional covenant theology, both of these Baptist covenantal theologies argue for a more progressive (as in progressive revelation) covenantal theology that leads to distinctly Baptist conclusions in regard to ecclesiology. The family resemblance between these views runs even deeper, but it’s often obscured because of the terminology employed and how the issues are framed.
The Covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace
Proponents of 1689 Federalism, as the name implies, articulate their view in reference to the 1689 Confession of Faith. They appeal to historic categories, not just to title their view, but also to frame their system of theology. In continuity with both classic covenant theology and their confessional standards, they affirm the three theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace as the framework for their system.
With proper definition, progressive covenantalism does not disagree with any of these concepts. Progressive covenantalists would affirm that it is appropriate to speak of an “eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect” (2LCF 7.3). They would also affirm that as the federal head of humanity, God gave Adam “a law of universal obedience written in his heart, and a particular precept of not eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it” (2LCF 19.1). And with the backdrop of the curse of sin, progressive covenantalists happily confess that “it pleased the Lord to make a [new] covenant of grace, wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved” (2LCF 7.2; cf. 1LCF article 10).
As systematic-theological categories, these three theological covenants have use for a dogmatic framing of theology. 1689 Federalism seeks to highlight the continuity and similarity that their view shares with Reformed covenant theology in utilizing this shared terminology. Whereas progressive covenantalism, in preferring to speak of the biblical covenants, aims to highlight the biblical-theological framing of progressive revelation. In so doing, progressive covenantalism is not positing a rejection of the classic reformational insight of the law-gospel distinction found in the bi-covenantal schema of the covenant of works/grace; it simply prefers to emphasize the distinctions they have with paedobaptist covenant theology in the outworking of redemptive history.
Defining the Covenant of Grace
In traditional covenant theology, Reformed paedobaptists appeal to the substantial unity of the covenant of grace across the old and new covenants (WCF 7.5-6). Even though the administration of the sign of the covenant changes from circumcision to baptism, the structure of the covenant remains unchanged so as to continue to include natural descendants in the new covenant just like the old. As a consequence, the nature of the covenant also remains unchanged such that its membership is mixed, that is both regenerate and unregenerate are considered members of the new covenant.
In defending their credobaptism, both Baptist covenantal theologies disagree with this definition (one in substance, varied in administration) of the covenant of grace, but they take different turns in their redefinition of the term. Progressive covenantalism is content with understanding the covenant of grace as only the one saving plan of God. As a comprehensive theological category emphasizing the spiritual unity of God’s people across the testaments, they see the term “covenant of grace” as legitimate. But in order to emphasize the fundamental newness of the new covenant and to not cede ground to the paedobaptist argument from the covenant of grace, progressive covenantalists opt to not employ that term when describing the relationship between the covenants.
2. Stephen J. Wellum, “Progressive Covenantalism” in Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture, eds. Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2022), 82.
3. Stephen J. Wellum, “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 126–27.
1689 Federalism, on the other hand, retains this terminology, but distinguishes their view from paedobaptist covenant theology by redefining the covenant of grace as only the new covenant. The new covenant of grace existed as a promise since Genesis 3:15, was progressively revealed through other historic covenants, and was formally enacted and concluded in the new covenant by the death of Christ. In their respective anti-paedobaptist polemics, both Baptist covenantal theologies intentionally deviate from traditional reformed covenant theology in their definitions of the covenant of grace, but they arrive at similar destinations.
4. Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013, rev. 2017), 69–74; Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 160–78.
Other Covenantal Distinctives
A closer analysis of how both progressive covenantalism and 1689 Federalism interpret the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants again yields similar conclusions. Different terminology and emphases are apparent, but the substance of their distinctly Baptist covenantal theology remains largely compatible, especially in comparison with paedobaptist covenant theology. In brief, both Baptist covenantal theologies argue that the seeds of Abraham need to be distinguished which becomes clear through covenantal progression from promise to fulfillment. Traditional covenant theologians maintain the dual aspect of both physical and spiritual promises within the one covenant of grace from the Abrahamic to the new covenant. However, these Baptists locate the fulfillment of the physical promises in the typological nation of Israel under the Mosaic covenant and the fulfillment of the spiritual promises in the antitypical seed of Abraham—Christ—under the new covenant. Membership in the new covenant then is determined by faith union with Christ, Abraham’s ultimate singular seed who will bless all nations, and not by genealogical connection.
5. Jason S. DeRouchie, “Father of a Multitude of Nations: New Covenant Ecclesiology in OT Perspective” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies, eds. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 7–38.
Likewise, 1689 federalism and progressive covenantalism both affirm that because the Mosaic covenant has subserved its intended typological and temporary purpose, it no longer applies as a covenant to the New Covenant people of God. This distinction highlights the fundamental newness in the new covenant as consisting of its new nature as a covenant that offers full forgiveness of sins, which results in its new structure as a covenant that only includes those who have received that forgiveness because they alone are united to the mediator of that covenant, namely Jesus Christ, who is the new sacrifice upon which the new covenant is based.
6. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, 2nd ed. 2018), 706–12.
Disagreeing Over the Sabbath
These covenantal distinctives are held by both Baptist covenantal theologies, even if they might express them in slightly different ways. And yet some obvious differences emerge as these covenantal realities are applied to the Decalogue (2LCF 19.2), and especially the issue of the sabbath. A detailed comparison eludes the scope of this concise article, but in short, 1689 Federalists would argue that it is an over-realized eschatology not to observe the physical sabbath while we await the final spiritual rest since the sabbath is a creation ordinance that remains until the consummation (cf. 2LCF 22.7-8).
7. James M. Renihan, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader: An Exposition of the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Baptist Symbolics Volume 2 (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2022), 375–88, 430–35.
8. Richard C. Barcellos, Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2017), 85.
Progressive covenantalists, in response, would argue that it is an under-realized eschatology not to consistently apply the same nature of covenantal fulfillment to the issue of the sabbath that both Baptist theologies apply to the issue of covenant membership and the sign of that covenant, i.e., baptism. They would maintain that while the sabbath command is not a creation ordinance (but tied specifically to the old covenant), God did “rest” as he entered into covenantal enjoyment with his creation. Such rest was lost in the fall, but typologically pictured under the old covenant and also prophetic of the new creation rest that is inaugurated under the new covenant. In Christ and the covenantal blessings of the new covenant, God’s people now enjoy that new creational sabbath rest, while we still await the consummation of it at Christ’s return.
9. For the progressive covenantal view of the sabbath, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Good-bye and Hello: The Sabbath Command for New Covenant Believers” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies, eds. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 159–88; Andrew David Naselli, “What is a Biblical Theology of the Sabbath?” in 40 Questions About Biblical Theology, eds. Jason S. DeRouchie, Oren R. Martin, and Andrew David Naselli (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020), 257-265; D. A. Carson, ed. From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982); Stephen Wellum, “3 Reasons Sunday Is Not the Christian Sabbath.” October 27, 2020.
Continuing the Conversation
The issue of the sabbath notwithstanding, a charitable comparison between progressive covenantalism and 1689 Federalism finds a great deal of biblical-theological compatibility, especially when set in opposition to traditional paedobaptist covenantal theology. The main differences seem to be more in emphasis and how the positions are framed. So far, 1689 Federalism has primarily been a historical retrieval movement, seeking to resource and retrieve the covenantal theology of the majority of seventeenth century Particular Baptists. Whereas progressive covenantalists, with great appreciation for the Reformed tradition, have built off of the biblical theology movement and primarily formulated their view in the parlance of contemporary theological discourse.
10. The definitive work describing the development of this seventeenth-century Particular Baptist covenant theology is Samuel D. Renihan, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704) CBHHS 16 (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2018). See also his summary article, Samuel D. Renihan, “Above and Beyond: Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology,” SBJT 26.1 (2022): 90-114.
As the conversation continues between these two views, I would hope they can serve a complementary role in refining and resourcing a more consistent Baptist covenantal theology.