Book Review: Beyond the Half-Way Covenant

Posted: August 10, 2012 in books, edwards, history, puritans, review, theology

This review was originally posted at The Gospel Coalition.

Solomon Stoddard, the 17th century New England pastor and grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, has received a bad rap.

At least that’s what David Paul McDowell argues in his new book, Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Converting Ordinance. Known primarily (and often exclusively) in relation to Edwards, Stoddard has suffered from a lack of scholarly research on his ministry and theology, especially in relation to his views concerning the Lord’s Supper.

This short volume explores the ins and outs of Stoddard’s peculiar views regarding church membership, regeneration, and the sacrament of communion, suggesting that Stoddard has been misrepresented and misunderstood—both in the writings of his contemporaries and in modern scholarship. More specifically, McDowell, senior pastor of Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago, Illinois, argues that Stoddard’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a “converting ordinance” must be interpreted in light of his historical context, highlighting the evangelistic foundations of his move “beyond” the Half-Way Covenant and examining his lasting effect on the entire Connecticut Valley. Stoddard understood communion as a powerful preparatory work that was often, though not necessarily, used by God for the conversion of sinners.

Parsing Puritanism

The book is divided into four chapters, each logically building on the one before. In the first chapter, McDowell answers the question, “What did it mean to be a Puritan?” by tracing the origins of the Puritan movement within Anglicanism and sketching the general contours of New England Congregationalism in the early 17th century. This chapter provides a helpful introductory lesson for those less familiar with the foundational convictions of Puritan theology and practice, and is absolutely crucial for understanding the rest of the book.

In chapter two, McDowell examines the Half-Way Covenant, the controversial “innovation” designed to deal with the increasing number of second-generation colonists who, although unable to point to a definitive experience of saving grace, nonetheless desired that their children be baptized. Supporters of the covenant argued that a profession of faith, accompanied by a morally upright life, was sufficient for limited church membership that allowed for access to the baptismal font (though not to the Lord’s Table). This new approach to membership stood in stark contrast to the traditional Puritan ideal of a “pure” church composed only of truly regenerate believers.

McDowell does a fine job summarizing the many theological, ecclesiastical, and political factors related to this hotly debated issue, laying the groundwork for understanding Stoddard’s bold move “beyond” the limitations of the original Half-Way Covenant. Furthermore, the author’s emphasis on the pastoral motivations behind the covenant’s ratification helps to correctly frame the issue in its historical context and sheds valuable light on both sides of the debate.

In the third chapter, McDowell turns to Northampton, Massachusetts, the town where Stoddard ministered for more than 50 years. In tracing its history, the author highlights the town’s steady drift toward a full embrace of the Half-Way Covenant, paving the way for Stoddard’s decision to open up access to the Lord’s Table to all professing Christians. Again, this chapter highlights important historical issues critical to a well-rounded understanding of Stoddardism.

Going Beyond

The fourth chapter contains the real substance of the book, diving deeply into the evolution and final form of Stoddard’s views on church membership and the Lord’s Supper. Moving beyond the position of other New England Congregationalists who supported the Half-Way Covenant, Stoddard argued that all professing Christians, regardless of whether or not they could testify to an experience of saving grace, should be allowed to participate in both sacraments, not just baptism.

The author’s treatment of this complex yet fascinating debate effectively highlights just how divisive this issue was in Stoddard’s day and sheds valuable light on a historical controversy that deserves more nuance than it often receives. McDowell convincingly demonstrates that Stoddard’s views arose both from strong Calvinistic convictions regarding the necessity of God’s free grace and evangelistic passion to “prepare” the unregenerate for conversion. For Stoddard, this preparation included partaking of the Lord’s Supper, which had the potential to be “a converting ordinance” when sovereignly used by God (58). This was the book’s strongest chapter, clearly demonstrating the author’s expertise related to the many factors that contributed to the shape of Stoddard’s theology and ministry.

McDowell closes the book with a look at Stoddard’s controversial legacy. Differing opinions among historians have resulted in a lack of clarity regarding the lasting effect of Stoddard’s ministry. Drawing extensively on many primary and secondary sources, McDowell explores Stoddard’s important influence throughout Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley, giving special attention on Stoddard’s famous grandson, Jonathan Edwards.

Pastoral Significance

Beyond the Half-Way Covenant is based on McDowell’s doctoral dissertation and therefore relatively academic in tone and detail. McDowell assumes his readers are fairly familiar with the important figures and issues associated with New England Puritanism. The many citations and extended quotations clearly demonstrate extensive research that went into the writing of the book. At times, however, lengthy quotations could probably have been paraphrased to help with the book’s flow. Additionally, the author at points repeats himself, rehearsing information already covered in earlier sections. Sometimes this repetition is helpful, but in other instances the book may have benefited from a more tightly organized structure accompanied by subheadings within each chapter.

The effect of the book could also have been bolstered by more reflection on the ecclesial and pastoral significance of Stoddard’s views for today. Although the foreword briefly mentions some pastoral implications of Stoddard’s ministry, this topic is not fully fleshed out and often overshadowed by the book’s intricate historical and theological explorations. A separate chapter dedicated to delving into the implications of Stoddard’s theology and practice for today, especially in light of the fragmentation continuing to plague modern evangelicalism, would have been a fascinating and much-appreciated addition.

Beyond the Half-Way Covenant is an important contribution to ongoing discussions related to New England Puritanism. Those interested in Edwards should consider this book required reading. However, in addition to providing valuable insights related to Stoddard’s famous grandson, this book is important because it offers modern Christians an example of how evangelistic zeal shapes theology and practice. Although most evangelicals will disagree with Stoddard at certain points, he nonetheless provides a model of passionate pastoral care and rigorous theological reflection that can, and indeed must, be imitated today—for God’s glory and the good of his church.


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