From Shadow to Substanceby Samuel D. Renihan
Length: To read (328 pages)
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Baptist history is something I am passionate about. As a conviction, I am a credobaptist, and enjoy any book espousing the theology and history of the tribe I identify with. Samuel D. Renihan, following in his father’s footsteps, delivers a masterful work delving into the early history of particular Baptists. From Shadow to Substance is a work that explores the development of Baptist covenant theology as it matured in the first few generations of particular Baptists. Renihan’s published dissertation follows a chronological progression of the covenant theology starting with their first publications and ends with the venerable Benjamin Keach while artfully placing the Baptists within their historical context; Renihan shows how the particular Baptists rose within the seventeenth century reformed tradition.
Who should read this?
Anyone interested in Baptist history, covenant theology, or both needs to read this book. Renihan does a fantastic job making the story of how the early Baptists paved their own way and distinguished themselves from the wider reformed world. This is a dissertation, so reading through the material will take some commitment. This is not an introductory work; for that, please see Pascal Denault’s The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (for which I also wrote a review). Whereas Denault’s work is organized in systematic categories, Renihan’s is organized historically.
Chapter one introduces the methodology, literature and an overview of the material of the book. This chapter really sets the stage and prepares the reader for what is to come. A good introduction makes the reader want to dive into the text, and this chapter achieved that.
Chapter two, in my opinion, is probably one of the most important chapters in the book, if not the most important. The reason for this is because the material in this chapter clearly show the diversity of the reformed theology regarding their views of the covenants and how the Baptists naturally followed the thought of some of the earlier paedobaptists. References to John Cameron in the rest of the book highlight this aspect. This chapter shows how paedobaptists were thinking in ways that separated the Old and New covenants, and the Baptists later applied the hermeneutics of Cameron and others more consistently to the other historical covenants. The Baptists demonstrated they were within the bounds of reformed orthodoxy.
Chapter three is the first time the writings of particular Baptists are addressed specifically. Three men are highlighted: Andrew Ritor, John Spilsbury, and Christopher Blackwood. Renihan is not afraid to show the diversity of those even within the Baptist camps. Ritor and Blackwood were more consistent with applying the distinction between the Old and New covenants than Spilsbury was, although the conclusions for all three men were thoroughly Baptist.
Chapter four introduces a larger group of writers writing from the period when the first London Baptist confession was written until acts of religious intolerance were enacted in the mid 1660’s. These men, like the three before them, were mostly polemical in their writings on baptism, focusing on specific points. Renihan shows the works of the Baptists on covenant theology were almost always rebuttals of the paedobaptist positions. Renihan makes two points clear in this chapter: the Baptists were concerned with keeping a connection with the reformed orthodoxy at the time, and that the Baptists could be quite diverse in their expressions of covenant theology, but those expressions were united in their aim of refuting paedobaptists.
Chapter five is about the writings of men during the time of English persecution for the non-conformists. Renihan shows that although the writings of the Baptists became overall less in volume, they were nonetheless still active in their arguments against paedobaptism. It should be noted that the Second Baptist London Confession was written during this period in 1677, but because of the laws against non-conformity, the Baptists were not able to publicly endorse it.
Chapter six this the chapter that will probably cause the most feathers to be ruffled. Anytime a Baptist tries to claim John Owen, there are always a few people who get upset. Let’s be clear, Owen was not a Baptist and all Baptists know that. What Baptists recognize, and paedobaptists do not, is that Owen’s covenant theology, especially the material expressed in his Hebrews commentary, was supportive of the Baptist position. Owen’s covenant theology was not the standard reformed theology, it separated the old and new covenants, and was almost identical to the arguments the Baptists were making (215).
Chapter seven covers the covenant theology of Nehemiah Coxe, who was probably one of the chief editors of the Second London Baptist confessions. Coxe was important for several reasons. He purposely set his work alongside of Owen’s explanation of the Mosaic covenant and Coxe’s further details on the Abrahamic covenant present a robust Particular Baptist expression of covenant theology. Renihan points out Coxe was the first Baptist to present covenant theology in a systematic fashion that also covered the covenant of works and Noahic covenant. I would highly suggest reading Coxe’s A Discourse on the Covenants that God Made with Men Before the Law; it is a wonderful positive presentation of Baptist covenant theology without too much anti-paedobaptist flair.
Chapter eight presents the Baptists writers who were active before and after the publishing of the Second London confession and to the death of Benjamin Keach in 1704. These men carried on the distinctions of the Baptist covenant theology. I think the best part of the chapter is in the last couple of paragraphs in the conclusion. There we find a compelling argument for the inclusion of the Baptists in the broad “reformed” tradition based on their covenant theology. Covenant theology that was in part appropriated from paedobaptist sources and refined by the Baptists.
The last chapter provides a nice summary to the theology and history of the material covered throughout the book.
Reading more about my theological heritage that I confess is always a pleasure and this read was no exception. Renihan provides a well-documented account of the development of Baptist covenant theology in the seventeenth century. For several reasons I found this work quite edifying. First, I have always been a fan of history and being taken back to the lives and thoughts of others, especially those in the common faith. I also find books like this allow me to examine my own convictions more closely and see things from the perspectives of those who came before me. If books like this keep coming out, I will keep reading them!