An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ (eBook)

by Abraham Booth

in .pdf and .mobi formats

HT: Brandon Adams

Foreword to An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ by Abraham Booth by Brandon Adams

Abraham Booth (1734-1806) was a confessional particular baptist pastor in England. He wrote “An Essay on the Kingdom of Christ” in 1783 as a commentary on the Church of England. His essay builds upon an inherited foundation of baptist covenant theology known today as 1689 Federalism.[1]

Covenant theology today has become synonymous with one particular strain of covenant theology: the one articulated in the Westminster Confession. It recognizes only two covenants in all of Scripture: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. All of the post-fall covenants in the bible are equally part of the covenant of grace. They are each “administrations of the covenant of grace.”

Calvin provided the foundational explanation of this view in Book 2, Chapter 11 of his Institutes.

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up then, in this passage [Heb 8 -Editor] “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices. Because nothing substantial underlies this unless we go beyond it, the apostle contends that it ought to be terminated and abrogated, to give place to Christ, the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant [cf. Heb 7:22]; whereby he imparts eternal sanctifications once and for all to the elect, blotting out their transgressions, which remained under the law. Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant [the eternal covenant of grace -Editor] wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the Supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples “the cup of the New Testament in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal.[2]

We find the following summary in his commentary on Hebrews 8.

But what he adds is not without some difficulty, — that the covenant of the Gospel was proclaimed on better promises; for it is certain that the fathers who lived under the Law had the same hope of eternal life set before them as we have, as they had the grace of adoption in common with us, then faith must have rested on the same promises. But the comparison made by the Apostle refers to the form rather than to the substance; for though God promised to them the same salvation which he at this day promises to us, yet neither the manner nor the character of the revelation is the same or equal to what we enjoy.[3]

This view holds that the Old and the New Covenant are in fact the same covenant, only differing in outward appearance. This found expression in Chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession.

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed, are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity and less outward glory, yet in them it is held forth in more fulness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.

Yet not all covenant theologians were satisfied with this explanation of Scripture. For example, John Owen, “The Calvin of England,” in his monumental commentary on the book of Hebrews, argues

Suppose, then, that this new covenant of grace was extant and effectual under the old testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof, and the mediation of Christ therein, how could it be that there should at the same time be another covenant between God and them, of a different nature from this, accompanied with other promises, and other effects?

On this consideration it is said, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, as unto their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant, called two covenants from some different outward solemnities and duties of worship attending of them…

But on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in sundry other places of the Scripture also, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed unto them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants. This, therefore, we must inquire into…

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant…

The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove, that not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that two covenants substantially distinct, are intended in this discourse of the apostle…

These things being observed, we may consider that the Scripture doth plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way, as what is spoken can hardly be accommodated unto a twofold administration of the same covenant. The one is mentioned and described, Exodus 24:3-8, Deuteronomy 5:2-5, — namely, the covenant that God made with the people of Israel in Sinai; and which is commonly called “the covenant,” where the people under the old testament are said to keep or break God’s covenant; which for the most part is spoken with respect unto that worship which was peculiar thereunto. The other is promised, Jer 31:31-34, 32:40; which is the new or gospel covenant, as before explained, mention Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24. And these two covenants, or testaments, are compared one with the other and opposed one unto another 2 Cor 3:6-9; Gal 4:24-26; Heb 7:22, 9:15-20…

Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended. We must, I say, do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretense of reason, for it is that which is the sole foundation they all build upon who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation be the same under both, then indeed are they for the substance of them but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the covenant.

As therefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition, so I shall propose sundry things which relate unto the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace: …

This is the nature and substance of that covenant which God made with that people; a particular, temporary covenant it was, and not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace…

For some, when they hear that the covenant of grace was always one and the same, of the same nature and efficacy under both testaments, —that the way of salvation by Christ was always one and the same, —are ready to think that there was no such great difference between their state and ours as is pretended. But we see that on this supposition, that covenant which God brought the people into at Sinai, and under the yoke whereof they were to abide until the new covenant was established, had all the disadvantages attending it which we have insisted on. And those who understand not how excellent and glorious those privileges are which are added unto the covenant of grace, as to the administration of it, by the introduction and establishment of the new covenant, are utterly unacquainted with the nature of spiritual and heavenly things.[4]

In rejecting Westminster Federalism, Owen, and those who agreed with him, were not rejecting orthodoxy and introducing novelty. They simply recognized that there are more than two covenants in the bible and they let each covenant define itself. In truth, they were recovering an older, more biblical understanding of covenant theology that pre-dated Calvin and the reformation. In a long list of differences between the Old and New Covenants, Owen notes:

13. They differ in the declaration made in them of the kingdom of God. It is the observation of Augustine, that the very name of “the kingdom of heaven” is peculiar unto the new testament. It is true, God reigned in and over the church under the old testament; but his rule was such, and had such a relation unto secular things, especially with respect unto the land of Canaan, and the flourishing condition of the people therein, as that it had an appearance of a kingdom of this world. And that it was so, and was so to be, consisting in empire, power, victory, wealth, and peace, was so deeply fixed on the minds of the generality of the people, that the disciples of Christ themselves could not free themselves of that apprehension, until the new testament was fully established. But now in the gospel, the nature of the kingdom of God, where it is, and wherein it consists, is plainly and evidently declared, unto the unspeakable consolation of believers. For whereas it is now known and experienced to be internal, spiritual, and heavenly, they have no less assured interest in it and advantage by it, in all the troubles which they may undergo in this world, than they could have in the fullest possession of all earthly enjoyments.[5]

Owen was referring to Augustine’s “A Work on the Proceedings of Pelagius.”

Chapter 13 [V.]—The Fifth Item of the Accusation; And Pelagius’ Answer.

After the judges had accorded their approbation to this answer of Pelagius, another passage which he had written in his book was read aloud: “The kingdom of heaven was promised even in the Old Testament.” Upon this, Pelagius remarked in vindication: “This can be proved by the Scriptures: but heretics, in order to disparage the Old Testament, deny this. I, however, simply followed the authority of the Scriptures when I said this; for in the prophet Daniel it is written: ‘The saints shall receive the kingdom of the Most. High.’” (Dan 7:18) After they had heard this answer, the synod said: “Neither is this opposed to the Church’s faith.”

Chapter 14.—Examination of This Point. The Phrase “Old Testament” Used in Two Senses. The Heir of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament There Were Heirs of the New Testament.

Was it therefore without reason that our brethren were moved by his words to include this charge among the others against him? Certainly not. The fact is, that the phrase Old Testament is constantly employed in two different ways,—in one, following the authority of the Holy Scriptures; in the other, following the most common custom of speech. For the Apostle Paul says, in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bond-maid, the other by a free woman. . . .Which things are an allegory: for these are the two testaments; the one which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and is conjoined with the Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; whereas the Jerusalem which is above is free, and is the mother of us all.” (Gal 4:21-26) Now, inasmuch as the Old Testament belongs to bondage, whence it is written, “Cast out the bond-woman and her son, for the son of the bond-woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac,” (Gal 4:30) but the kingdom of heaven to liberty; what has the kingdom of heaven to do with the Old Testament? Since, however, as I have already remarked, we are accustomed, in our ordinary use of words, to designate all those Scriptures of the law and the prophets which were given previous to the Lord’s incarnation, and are embraced together by canonical authority, under the name and title of the Old Testament, what man who is ever so moderately informed in ecclesiastical lore can be ignorant that the kingdom of heaven could be quite as well promised in those early Scriptures as even the New Testament itself, to which the kingdom of heaven belongs? At all events, in those ancient Scriptures it is most distinctly written: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will consummate a new testament with the house of Israel and with the house of Jacob; not according to the testament that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” (Jer 31:31, 32) This was done on Mount Sinai. But then there had not yet risen the prophet Daniel to say: “The saints shall receive the kingdom of the Most High.” (Dan 7:18) For by these words he foretold the merit not of the Old, but of the New Testament. In the same manner did the same prophets foretell that Christ Himself would come, in whose blood the New Testament was consecrated. Of this Testament also the apostles became the ministers, as the most blessed Paul declares: “He hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not in its letter, but in spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (2 Cor 3:6) In that testament, however, which is properly called the Old, and was given on Mount Sinai, only earthly happiness is expressly promised. Accordingly that land, into which the nation, after being led through the wilderness, was conducted, is called the land of promise, wherein peace and royal power, and the gaining of victories over enemies, and an abundance of children and of fruits of the ground, and gifts of a similar kind are the promises of the Old Testament. And these, indeed, are figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament; but yet the man who lives under God’s law with those earthly blessings for his sanction, is precisely the heir of the Old Testament, for just such rewards are promised and given to him, according to the terms of the Old Testament, as are the objects of his desire according to the condition of the old man. But whatever blessings are there figuratively set forth as appertaining to the New Testament require the new man to give them effect. And no doubt the great apostle understood perfectly well what he was saying, when he described the two testaments as capable of the allegorical distinction of the bond-woman and the free,—attributing the children of the flesh to the Old, and to the New the children of the promise: “They,” says he, “which are the children of the flesh, are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Rom 9:8) The children of the flesh, then, belong to the earthly Jerusalem, which is in bondage with her children; whereas the children of the promise belong to the Jerusalem above, the free, the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. (Gal 4:25, 26) Whence we can easily see who they are that appertain to the earthly, and who to the heavenly kingdom. But then the happy persons, who even in that early age were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God, because it was divinely appropriated to that people in God’s distribution of the times and seasons.

Chapter 15.—The Same Continued.

How then should there not be a feeling of just disquietude entertained by the children of promise, children of the free Jerusalem, which is eternal in the heavens, when they see that by the words of Pelagius the distinction which has been drawn by Apostolic and catholic authority is abolished, and Agar is supposed to be by some means on a par with Sarah? He therefore does injury to the scripture of the Old Testament with heretical impiety, who with an impious and sacrilegious face denies that it was inspired by the good, supreme, and very God,—as Marcion does, as Manichæus does, and other pests of similar opinions. On this account (that I may put into as brief a space as I can what my own views are on the subject), as much injury is done to the New Testament, when it is put on the same level with the Old Testament, as is inflicted on the Old itself when men deny it to be the work of the supreme God of goodness. Now, when Pelagius in his answer gave as his reason for saying that even in the Old Testament there was a promise of the kingdom of heaven, the testimony of the prophet Daniel, who most plainly foretold that the saints should receive the kingdom of the Most High, it was fairly decided that the statement of Pelagius was not opposed to the catholic faith, although not according to the distinction which shows that the earthly promises of Mount Sinai are the proper characteristics of the Old Testament; nor indeed was the decision an improper one, considering that mode of speech which designates all the canonical Scriptures which were given to men before the Lord’s coming in the flesh by the title of the “Old Testament.” The kingdom of the Most High is of course none other than the kingdom of God; otherwise, anybody might boldly contend that the kingdom of God is one thing, and the kingdom of heaven another.[6]

According to Augustine, in the Old Covenant “only earthly happiness [in the land of Canaan] is expressly promised” which served as “figures of the spiritual blessings which appertain to the New Testament [Covenant].” Members of the Old Covenant were the children of the flesh, while members of the New Covenant were the children of promise. Those with saving faith in the Old Covenant were “heirs of the New Testament.” He elsewhere referred to “Moses himself, the minister of the old testament, the heir of the new,” noting that “Of this kind were all the righteous men of old”[7] and

the men of God who at that time understood this according to the ordering of the times, were indeed the stewards and bearers of the old testament [covenant], but are shown to be the heirs of the new. Shall we deny that he belongs to the new testament who says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me”? (Ps 51:10)[8]

He even goes so far as to say that “as much injury is done to the New Testament [Covenant], when it is put on the same level with the Old Testament [Covenant], as is inflicted on the Old itself when men deny it to be the work of the supreme God of goodness.”

It is in this tradition that Abraham Booth writes his rebuke of all national churches. The reformers inherited sacralism from the Papacy. At the blast of a trumpet, entire nations were converted from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism. This view of the church as “Christendom” was defended by appeal to the Old Covenant and the covenant theology articulated by Calvin.

When dissenters pleaded that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), they were met with sharp rebuke. In his commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5, Calvin states

But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the Gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law; not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of His kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For, although it was Christ’s will that His Gospel should be proclaimed by His disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world, and He exposed them armed with the Word alone like sheep amongst wolves, He did not impose on Himself an eternal law that He should never bring kings under His subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of His Church. Magistrates at first exercised tyranny against the Church, because the time had not yet come when they should “kiss the Son” of God, and, laying aside their violence, should become the nursing fathers of the Church, which they had assailed according to Isaiah’s prophecy, that undoubtedly refers to the coming of Christ. (Isaiah xlix:6, 23.)[9]

This was representative of how the Westminster divines likewise responded to the same objection. But following the creation of the Westminster Confession, more and more men became dissatisfied with its understanding of Scripture. Over the next century more and more theologians recognized and conceded the differences between the Old and the New Covenants.[10]

In 1788 (5 years after Booth wrote his essay), the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America revised the Westminster Standards to accommodate more religious liberty. Of specific interest is the addition of John 18:36 as a proof text for the revision of 23.3 that the magistrate may not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith.” Charles Hodge notes that it was not Enlightenment thinking that led to this revision, but rather a change in interpretation of Scripture; specifically that “we are not authorized to argue from the Old Testament economy because that was avowedly temporary and has been abolished.”[11]

In Booth’s essay, the glory of the kingdom of Christ shines brightly as he distinguishes it from every kingdom on earth, including the “Israelitish Theocracy.” His was a day in which ideas mattered, and his ideas, shared by others, as representative of a long covenantal tradition, had significant consequences in America, and eventually throughout the world.[12] Today is still a day in which ideas matter, because ideas always matter. Our hope is that Booth’s essay will aid you in thinking upon Christ and his kingdom as you sojourn on this earth.

–Brandon Adams. April, 2015

 

[1] http://www.1689federalism.com

[2] Calvin, John. “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” Book 2, Chapter 11, Section 4. Henry Beveridge translation.

[3] Calvin, John. COMMENTARIES ON THE EPISTLE OF PAUL THE APOSTLE TO THE HEBREWS, Hebrews 8:1-6. Translated and edited by Rev. John Owen.

[4] An Exposition on the Epistle to the Hebrews 8:6 http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/John_Owen/Hebrews_8.1-10.39.pdf (p. 84-118)

[5] An Exposition on the Epistle to the Hebrews 8:6 http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/John_Owen/Hebrews_8.1-10.39.pdf (p. 116)

[6] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xiv.xvii.html See also, “Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist” http://www.1689federalism.com/augustine-proto-1689-federalist/

[7] A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians.

Book III Chapter 11.—Distinction Between the Children of the Old and of the New Testaments. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xviii.v.xi.html

[8] A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians.

Book III Chapter 6 [IV.]—The Calumny Concerning the Old Testament and the Righteous Men of Old. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf105.xviii.v.vi.html

[9] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom04.ii.x.ii.html

[10] See “Two Kingdom Theology?” http://reformedlibertarian.com/primer/two-kingdom-theology/

[11] “The Relation of Church and State” Princeton Review, 1863 http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=92

[12] See, for example, Chapter 2, Section 2 and Chapter 3 in Thomas F. Curtis The progress of Baptist principles in the last hundred years (Boston: Gould and Lincon, 1855). https://books.google.com/books?id=wcECAAAAQAAJ&dq=progress%20of%20baptist%20ideas%20last%20hundred%20years&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false

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