Book Review: Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective
I have recently begun to study covenant theology. For over 15 years I had dismissed it as a Presbyterian doctrine. Over the last couple of years I have renewed an interest in Baptist history, and was surprised to discover that Baptists developed their own form of covenant theology, and that distinct in important ways from Presbyterians. I have begun to compile resources about covenant theology from a Baptist perspective, and in addition to what have become “standard” works, I went looking specifically for introductory-level books so that I could get the lay of the land. Phillip D. R. Griffiths’ Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective was one of the first resources I located. This book was endorsed by Richard Barcellos and Pascal Denault.
About the Author
Griffiths is a retired teacher from Wales, where he was Head of Religious Studies at a large comprehensive school. He holds an MTh in philosophical and systematic theology. He has authored two previous books: From Calvin to Barth: A Return to Protestant Orthodoxy? and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Person of Jesus Christ: (Defending Christ’s Deity). Griffiths states that since becoming a Christian, he has been a Calvinistic Baptist. Currently he is examining a Reformed Baptist response to N. T. Wright’s New Perspective on Paul.
Griffiths begins the book by asking the question, “What is a Baptist?” He recognizes that many Baptists seem to adopt the Presbyterian formulation while dropping infant baptism. He states that he completely rejects this paradigm, and believes that a misunderstanding of the covenants is at the root of the problem. His hope is that his readers will understand that a right understanding of the covenants leads one to grasp that “the only covenant of grace is the New Covenant, and none have been saved but by virtue of this covenant.” (ix)
Baptist distinctives, Griffiths believes, have come to be associated more with the mode of baptism (immersion vs sprinkling) than by covenantal foundations (4). He states his overarching goal of the book is to show that only Reformed Baptist covenant theology is consistent with Scripture, able to refute all forms of infant baptism and upholds the baptism of believers only (6).
Griffiths begins his argument in chapter 2 by explaining what a covenant is, and asserting that there have only ever been two primary covenants: that made with the first Adam in Genesis, and that made with the second Adam, Jesus (9). To Griffiths, it is absolutely imperative that this distinction is correctly grasped. This assertion was ground-breaking and paradigm-shifting for me, who had always viewed the Mosaic Covenant as the “old” covenant rather than one with the first Adam in the garden. Personally, things began to fall into place immediately; old confusions and theological struggles began to make sense. Just this chapter of the book alone made it worth the purchase price for me.
Griffiths then spends the next five chapters unfolding the doctrine of the covenants, especially as they relate to the first and second Adam. He covers (as the chapter titles I quote verbatim here) the covenant of redemption, the plight of man under the first Adam, the work of the second Adam, two kingdoms, and the application of the blessings secured by the second Adam. It is in the final chapter mentioned here, chapter 7, where the light came on as I mentioned in the above paragraph, when Griffiths notes what he calls the central principle of covenant theology: “There are essentially two primary covenants made in time: that made with the first Adam and the new covenant made with Christ, the second Adam….One must keep in mind the fact that one is either under the first Adam, or else, one is under the second Adam, and a beneficiary of his saving work. It is always a case of either/or.” (42)
The next section of the book is heavily polemical, Griffiths interacting with paedobaptist writers on the meaning of circumcision, whether or not circumcision was replaced by baptism, the Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants, and the believer’s union with Christ. This last-mentioned chapter (chapter 13) began very, very helpfully; asserting that the heart of covenant theology is the believer’s union with Christ. “The covenant’s purpose was that God might deliver his people from their plight in the first Adam into the glorious light of the everlasting covenant in Christ.” (141) This theme occurs over and over in the book.
Griffiths spends a few pages fleshing out this union with Christ, and then returns to polemics in the remainder of the chapter and the following chapter 14.
The final substantive chapter, chapter 15, deals with the significance of Pentecost. In this chapter Griffiths examines “the baptism with/by the Holy Spirit.” He attempts to distinguish between baptism with and baptism by the Holy Spirit, and the timing of this event in the life of a believer. I found myself somewhat confused as to what Griffiths was attempting to do in this chapter; perhaps I need to re-read it a couple of times to get the sense of it.
Finally, Griffiths in chapter 16 takes time to briefly examine several proof-texts for infant baptism.
His conclusion in chapter 17 seeks to briefly summarize the Reformed Baptist view in one paragraph, stating that the preceding chapters should suffice to undergird that understanding. He concludes by saying “the Reformed Baptist covenantal paradigm displays unity in its simplicity.” (197) I believe that if, in fact, both old and new covenants are to be understood in terms of the first and second Adam, Griffiths has strikingly made this point clear.
Strengths & Weaknesses
My reactions to this book are somewhat mixed. On the one hand, I found this book to be extremely educational and informative. I was challenged to look at the Old and New Covenants in a way I had never before thought to look. I can already see how this shift is changing my thinking and causing me to re-evaluate previously held positions. Griffiths appears to be well-researched and conversant with the material he brings to the reader.
On the other hand, this is the worst edited book I have ever read. I have said Griffiths needs to fire his editor. There are many, many spelling and grammatical errors. He overuses certain words (the most egregious is the word “whilst,” which at one point was used in three or four consecutive sentences) to the point one can predict exactly when such words will appear. The entire book reads as if it were a first draft that had spell check and grammar check off. This made the book a more difficult read than it should have been. It took me several weeks to read this book when I could have read it in a week at minimum. I had to frequently stop and allow my brain to process the jumbled editing.
I also felt there was far more polemics involved than the subject warranted. The polemics were rather hard-hitting to the point of being harsh in many places. I was unsure if this book was supposed to be an introductory text, or a contribution to an ongoing discussion. The polemics made for a somewhat boring read; I kept waiting for when Griffiths would return to the Reformed Baptist perspective instead of attacking Westminster covenant theology. I felt that if Griffiths had focused on laying out a Reformed Baptist covenant theology, rather than seeking to engage in polemics with Presbyterian covenant theology, this book would have been very, very strong.
Griffiths has brought a contribution worthy of the study he has undertaken. On the strength of his focus on Reformed Baptist perspectives, this book is valuable. I would not recommend it as an introductory work for those unfamiliar with covenant theology; perhaps it is better suited as complementary to other texts.
If you would like to order this book, the Amazon link is here: Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective