Sweeney’s Booknotes: Beyond the Half-Way Covenant

David McDowell, Beyond the Half-Way CovenantDavid Paul McDowell, Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Converting Ordinance (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012).

The Rev. Dave McDowell, former pastor of the College Church in Northampton, Massachusetts, offers here a streamlined version of his doctoral dissertation, “Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Converting Ordinance; Its Origins, Development, and Influence in the Connecticut Valley of Western Massachusetts” (Ph.D. diss., Trinity Theological Seminary, Newburgh, IN, 2011).

Most readers of this blog will know that Stoddard further liberalized the Half-Way Covenant (1662), which had allowed professing believers not yet ready to offer testimony of saving grace in their lives to present their children for baptism (but not yet take the Lord’s Supper, which is why they were known as “half-way” members of the church, a status impossible under the earlier and stricter Cambridge Platform of 1648). According to Stoddard, “half-way” membership discouraged people spiritually. An inveterate evangelist, he argued  that all “visible saints” (righteous, church-going people) who believed in Jesus Christ and lived a morally decent life should be full church members, enjoying all the rights and privileges that membership provided even before they testified to regeneration. This more generous stance, he said, would aid in congregants’ conversions and encourage them to further their relationship with God. “The Lords [sic] Supper is Instituted to be a means of Regeneration,” a converting ordinance:

 [I]t is not appointed for the Converting of Men to the Christian Religion [i.e. to nominal Christianity], for only such as are Converted [again, to nominal Christianity] may partake of it; but it is not only for the Strengthening of [twice-born] Saints, but a means also to work Saving Regeneration. This Ordinance hath a proper tendency to draw sinners to Christ; in this Ordinance there is a particular invitation to sinners, to come to Christ for Pardon, here is an affecting Representation of the Virtue of Christ’s sufferings, here is a Seal whereby the Truth of the Gospel is confirmed, all which are very proper to draw sinners to Christ. (Quoted on p. 57 from Stoddard’s The Doctrine of Instituted Churches, p. 22.)

Most readers of this blog will also know that Jonathan Edwards, one of Stoddard’s own grandsons, succeeded him in ministry in Northampton, Massachusetts in the late 1720s and eventually came to reverse Stoddard’s change in membership policy. His congregation fired him in 1750 for this.

But few people have studied this from Stoddard’s point of view. Most have Stoddard’s views  interpreted through lenses ground by Edwards, whom McDowell says exaggerated the problems of Stoddardeanism. (Stoddard, for example, did not “encourage” people lacking in Christian “piety” to join his church and take the Lord’s Supper [p. 73], as Edwards at times suggested.)

So McDowell gives us Stoddard here from Stoddard’s own perspective. He makes three main points: “First, Stoddard’s views can only be understood within the wider context of the decline of Puritanism and the liberalizing force of the Half-Way Covenant. Second, Stoddard’s view of Communion grew out of his own study of English Puritanism and Scottish Presbyterianism, as well as his own conversion experience at the Lord’s Table, and far from being a corrupting influence on the church in Northampton, became the very context for evangelical revival . . . . Third, while Stoddard’s view of Communion had an immediate impact on the Northampton church and the future ministry of Jonathan Edwards, it also had a wider influence on a significant number of churches in the Connecticut Valley” (p. xxv).

As McDowell demonstrates, “Stoddard believed that no human could tell who was a real (invisible) saint . . . . And since no one was able to tell who was truly redeemed, the invitation was made that all should come and ‘feel safe’ before God because they were invited to come according to God’s Word. Stoddard’s main concern was not to preserve a pure church but to convert sinners to Christ, and his entire ecclesiology flowed from this” (p. 73).

Stoddard emerges in these pages as an evangelical pastor who loved his people deeply, understood what made them tick, and knew how to manage their anxieties. It will prove the most helpful to other evangelical pastors, those who sympathize with Edwards but need help understanding Stoddard’s doctrine of the church. I heartily commend it to such people.