Confessions of a Covetous Critic

The last few years in the American evangelical landscape has been fraught with controversy and heavy critique. Well-known ministries and Pastors, even going back a few decades, are now no longer doing ministry. The one thing in common is that these were large ministries and celebrity Pastors.

In all this we’ve seen the rise of the ‘above-the-fray’ critics. Pastors and educated laypeople tweet and post, “See, megachurches are bad news. Pastors with celebrity fame isn’t what God intended. We know better. Why can’t the broader evangelical church know better?”

I’ve been this critic. I’ve got my biblical, ecclesiological, and practical arguments down pat. I tell people, “Just wait until (fill in the blank) has a moral failure and steps down from the ministry.” Of course, I add the caveat, “I hope the Lord restores him and makes his church flourish and be faithful.” I mean, I don’t want to come across like a total jerk.

I now pause my mouth when it comes to the critiquing of megachurches, large parachurch ministries, and celebrity Pastors. Why? Because I have slowed down my heart and realized what is lurking beneath my criticism.

Deep down, I want what these celebrity Pastors have.

I am not saying everyone in ministry who engages in this critique has the same problem I have (though I suspect it is widespread). I am just speaking about me.

When I slow down to look at my heart, I see anger. I see envy and covetousness. I see my failure to obey the ninth commandment as outlined in the Westminster Larger Catechism.

Q. 147. What are the duties required in the tenth commandment?
A. The duties required in the tenth commandment are, such a full contentment with our own condition, and such a charitable frame of the whole soul toward our neighbor, as that all our inward motions and affections touching him, tend unto, and further all that good which is his.

Q. 148. What are the sins forbidden in the tenth commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the tenth commandment are, discontentment with our own estate; envying and grieving at the good of our neighbor, together with all inordinate motions and affections to anything that is his.

Whenever I quip, “I never want to be a megachurch Pastor. I never want my church to become a megachurch,” I think I mean it. But, I do want my church to have less problems, run more smoothly, and grow. I want an increase in my salary. Maybe my church isn’t 2000 people, but 300 would be nice so that we can plant another church and have a network of church plants in my city that I (so awesomely) pioneered.

And while I don’t want to be on the stage for TGC, T4G, or some other huge conference which only invites celebrity Pastors to speak, I would like to speak at my denomination’s conferences or preach at our General Synod. That’d be cool.

I want a D.Min so that I can be invited to teach 2-3 classes a year on things like church planting, gospel neighboring, counseling, etc. I teach Rhetoric at a classical Christian high school, and one reason I do so is that at least one time a week a group of people listen to me and actually seem to respect me and do what I tell them to do. (As compared, to say, preaching.)

No, I don’t want to produce endless amounts of books with Crossway, Zondervan, or IVP. But a cool Wipf and Stock or Brazos published book or two would be nice. I’d get interviewed on a few podcasts…and maybe I get a part-time gig with Relevant Magazine.

On the local level, I don’t want to gloat and self-promote our church doing pool baptisms (who knows how many of those folks have been baptized before or are mere plants in the crowd), but I want a steady stream of adult converts that I get to baptize. You know, 4-5 a month. You see, we have a tithing problem and I need to give potential donors a reason to write us a check.

I don’t want to have a megachurch or be a celebrity Pastor. I want to be one of those more regional gurus that young Pastors respect so that I have to say no to the abundance of e-mails and phone calls of those who want my advice. My time is precious in this possible world I’ve constructed.

And of course I don’t want to be making six figures and have a handful of other Pastors know what I secretly make. But I want to have a comfortable life. My family deserves a nice vacation or two every year. Maybe $65,000-80,000 a year is good.

With these dreams come anger, resentment…covetousness. I break God’s law and violate God’s holy character the 99% of the time I criticize a celebrity Pastor or megachurch.

Whenever I say, “I’m so glad we aren’t a big church, and I’m glad I am an ordinary, insignificant Pastor,” I am actually coveting a particular size and ethos for my church. I am desiring a certain level of fame and income for myself.

The gospel I need to preach to myself is that God is being good to me in not giving me these things. God is even being good in showing me my pharisaical self-righteous heart in critiquing other Pastors and their ministries (Phil 1:15-18).

I don’t plan to radically change my philosophy of ministry. That isn’t the problem. If the greatest need for my flock is my personal holiness, then I need to put to death this sin that is covetousness crawling around in me and to put on Jesus’ contentment.

I’m bad at this. Please pray that, by the Spirit, I get better at lowering my expectations and have a life worth imitating to my church and neighborhood.

Church Refugees & the Church Solution

One of my delights in attending our denominational meeting (General Synod) every summer is the pre-Synod conference on evangelism sponsored by our denomination’s agency for church planting and revitalization, Outreach North America. When ONA was searching for a Director a couple of years ago I was actually tapped to help plan this conference with another Pastor for two straight years. I’d like to think this conference has been a benefit to our Pastors, Elders, and other ministry workers.

This past June, the speaker for this conference was Josh Packard, a sociologist and professor at the University of Northern Colorado and author of the well-received and challenging book Church Refugees: Sociologists Reveal Why People Are Done With Church but Not Their Faith.

cref

Packard is an evangelical Christian who is a very competent researcher and scholar in his field. It is a blessing to have someone like him in the academy who uses his vocation to also serve the church. His book is a service to the church, and it has been read and received by many denominational officials, church planting networks, conferences, etc.

What is Packard’s thesis? In recent years, sociologists have done much research about the rise of the ‘nones’, i.e. those who claim no religious affiliation. However, another group on the rise are the ‘dones’, i.e. those who were once part of a religious institution but who, for various reasons, now reject such institutions while still claiming ‘faith’ in their lives.

Packard gives  helpful data on how this has affected the church in America and why churches need to be prepared to reach those in the pews who may be on their way out. While not a book trying to give theological or practical ministry advice to Pastors, Packard shared during our pre-Synod conference some wisdom on reaching the ‘dones’. His advice is somewhat standard and overlaps greatly with material from Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, Reggie McNeal, etc.

The interesting thing about Packard’s presentation was that he was speaking to a conservative, confession Presbyterian body. His material is well-received in more broadly evangelical circles, but confessional Presbyterians are markedly different from such evangelical groups. We come already with suspicions of church-growth movements, new techniques, or any “latest and greatest” fads.

jpackard

However, Packard’s research is not a fad. It is good for any denomination seeking to be faithful to the Great Commission to listen to and receive helpful sociological data in order that we might be “all things to all people.” (1 Cor 9:22) While the ‘sociology talk’ probably shouldn’t be the topic every year at our pre-Synod conference on evangelism, it is a helpful discussion to bring up every 3-5 years.

Packard has done the church a great service in providing a piece of the ministry contextual mosaic which is before us the North American church. Now, it is up to Doctors of the church and Pastor-Theologians (i.e. Pastors in the local church who engage in rich theological reflection and dialogue for the sake of the church and the public square) to diagnosis the problem of the ‘dones’ and begin offering gospel-centered remedies.

While I agree with Packard and others that authenticity, community, servanthood, mercy ministry, etc. are important things for a church to consider in reaching to the ‘dones’ in their pews, it seems that a deeper problem exists which puts typical complaints about the church into the second tier. Namely, the American church has, for multiple generations, exponentially dichotomized commitment to Jesus and commitment to the church. If three decades ago evangelicals were debating whether Jesus was both Lord and Savior for a Christian, today the issue is whether commitment to Jesus as well as his church is what marks out a Christian.

If the local church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation,” (WCF 19.2) and that a professing Christian “can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother,” (Cyprian of Carthage) but we have grand bulk of professing Christians who think the opposite of these things, then perhaps Pastors need to revisit this problem of the ‘dones’ by discipling, preaching, catechizing his people about the intimate connection between Jesus and the church.

It is obvious that when Packard says that ‘dones’ may have abandoned the church without abandoning their faith that he is speaking from the standpoint of his academic discipline and also trying to differentiate the ‘dones’ from the ‘nones’. Yet, for Pastors in the parish trying to minister to ‘dones’ on the way out it is important to closely unite faith in Jesus to commitment to the local church.

Of all people, Derek Webb gets this point. The former Caedmon’s Call member turned to edgy CCM singer-song writer was divorced from Sandra McCracken (another well-known CCM artist) after he committed adultery. Since that time, Derek no longer attends a local church on a regular basis. When asked in an interview if Derek was one of the ‘dones’ who says no to the church but still yes to faith in Jesus, Derek pushed back and said that he has never encountered a legitimate, orthodox form of Christianity which would dichotomize Jesus from the church in such a fashion.

Here is someone who is saying no to the church but who pushes back Christians and non-Christians who might try to categorize him as a Christian. Webb’s music lyrics always indicated a deep, heavy theology, and he still seems to have better theological chops than most American Christians today.

The precise remedy for emphasizing ecclesiology and the union Jesus has with the church is difficult because discipleship isn’t mere cognitive addition. Just telling the ‘dones’ that to be done with the church is to be done with Jesus is never enough. They need to fall in love with the church in a way that imitates Jesus’ love for the church.

Pastors, Elders, ministry workers, and Doctors of the church need to band together to sift through important sociological data so that we might understand the times (1 Chron 12:32), but we also need to reimagine dischipship through the lens of a biblical ecclesiology. And, our ecclesiastical praxes need to align with our biblical ecclesiology.

How the Bible Makes Me Believe in the Bible

As I take a seminary class on the New Testament canon this week, I’ve reflected on my own journey of receiving and trusting in the Bible as God’s Word.

While I enjoy, to an extent, all the apologetical ways and means of arriving to the conclusion that the Bible is God’s Word, my own personal experience has had me embrace the Bible through a different route.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (which I subscribe to as a Presbyterian minister) states in I.5,

“We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”

crkrug

The heavenliness, efficacy, majesty, coherence, excellencies, perfection, etc. of Scripture seem to persuade those who have come to know Jesus. Our hearts “burn” (Luke 24:32) and we want someone to connect the canonical dots for us (Acts 8:30-35).

More than ‘fulfilled prophecies’ or a ‘neutral’ historical investigation, my heart has been made receptive to the one Story that the Bible tells in which Jesus is the Hero.

This passage from Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books summarizes what I mean,

Genesis begins with the creation of the ‘heaven and earth’ (1:1ff.); Revelation ends with re-creation of the new ‘heaven and earth’ (21:1). Genesis begins with the theme of paradise in the garden (2:8ff); Revelation ends with the paradise of heaven (21:4). Genesis begins with the theme of marriage (2:8); Revelation ends with the great wedding of the Lamb (21:9). Genesis begins with a focus on the serpent’s deception (3:1ff); Revelation ends with the serpent’s destruction (20:10). Genesis begins with the curse being put on the world (3:14ff); Revelation ends with the curse being lifted (22:3). Genesis begins by describing the creation of day, night, and the oceans (1:3, 10, 14); Revelation ends with no more need for day (sun), or night, or oceans (21:1; 22:5). Genesis begins with the ‘tree of life’ among the people of God (2:9); Revelation ends with the ‘tree of life’ among the people of God (22:2). Genesis begins with God dwelling with his people (2:8; 3:8); Revelation ends with God finally dwelling with his people again (21:3).” (p. 157)

Sitting at Douglas Kelly’s Feet: Subordination and the Current Debate

It’s been strangely quiet when it comes to blog posts about the Trinity and eternal subordination. The month of June, ironically the month of synods, assemblies, and conventions, has seen what some have termed a “complementarian civil war” break out amongst broadly Reformed-evangelical scholars regarding eternal roles within the Godhead and temporal gender roles.

While the discussion has been lively and informative, I’ve been disappointed that little attention has been given to the scholarship of Douglas F. Kelly, the now retired Richard Jordan Professor of Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

dk1

Kelly is beloved by most of his students (including this writer), though his style and scholarship frustrates some. He is beloved due to his exceptional skill and knowledge in conversing with patristic, medieval, Reformed, Puritan, and contemporary theology (which always includes T.F. Torrance). His two volumes of Systematic Theology read less like a typical ST text and more like a journey through historical theology on the Trinity and Christology. In class, his lectures often come across as sermons, and he’ll always emphasize the importance of the weekly prayer meeting!

In particular, Kelly is known for his studies on the Trinity. Perhaps no other scholar alive today has such a broad grasp of sources on this topic than Kelly himself.

In order to illuminate the current discussion on eternal relations within the Godhead, I will share relevant portions Kelly’s Systematic Theology: Volume One: Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in the Light of the Church.

Kelly devotes the final chapter of this volume to the topic of subordinationism. Before that chapter, Kelly already notes that subordinationism is a “heretical view” (p. 502) and that “Gregory of Nazianzus said, for instance, that to subordinate any Person of the Trinity to another was to overthrow the doctrine of the Trinity.” (p. 527) The issue of subordination in the eternal relationships of the Godhead is very important, in Kelly’s mind, and it deserves careful scrutiny.

dkst

Jumping into his full chapter on the topic, Kelly summarizes that the “Church Fathers, medieval Scholastics and Protestant Reformed understood that the Son and the Spirit are equally ultimate and original as is the Father in the Godhead.” (p. 529) However, this does not mean that subordinationists didn’t exist in the early church. While Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Athenagoras, Melito of Sardis, and Irenaeus of Lyon affirm the basic Nicean view, certain subordinationist theologians such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian (a “borderline figure” who “comes close to grasping the perichoretic, inner-Trinitarian, life” p. 537), Origen, Theophilus of Antioch, Novation of Rome also emerge. This isn’t a problem for Kelly or for creedal Christians today since “it is necessary to remember that the Trinitarian theology of the Church at that time had not yet received the clarity of thought and terminology that it did by the fourth century, so the intentions of several of these writers were no doubt more orthodox than their statements would have been at a later time.” (p. 530)

Something like eternal functional subordination seems more in line with Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus (p. 540) rather than Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, and Epiphanius (p. 542), who John Calvin followed. Kelly notes later that Calvin especially followed Cyril, especially in how the Trinity relates to soteriology.  An important quote from Nazianzus is given by Kelly, “For he [Arius] did not honor the Father, by dishonoring his offspring with his unequal degrees of Godhead. But we recognize one glory of the Father, the equality of the Only-begotten; and one glory of the Son, that of the Spirit. And we hold that to subordinate any of the three is to destroy the whole.” (p. 542-43)

In summary of the historical-theological data, Kelly concludes, “The ontological aspect refers to the eternal character of the Holy Trinity, antecedent to all creational and redemptive history, and in their ontology or Being, there is absolute and eternal equality. Athanasius, for instance, especially in Contra Arianos, frequently employs this sort of distinction to explain passages of the Gospels that seem to attribute inferiority to Christ, as does Hilary in De Trinitate. And both of them are following earlier Apologists, not least Irenaeus. The economical aspect has reference to the creational, providential and historic-redemptive work of the Trinity, in which there is a certain historical order and temporary subordination among the Persons in terms of their work in brining salvation. In this respect, the Father is first, the Son second, and the Holy Spirit third. Yet in the ultimate sense, this historical order does not mean that there is any antecedent inequality among the Persons of the Triune Being.” (p. 547)

Clearly, as Kelly demonstrates, the faith-seeking-understanding theology of the church throughout the ages placed subordination within the redemptive-historical and contingent context rather than in eternity. To place subordination in the eternal relations of the Godhead is to go beyond the universal faith of the church. The Father and the Son are not distinguished by an eternal authority-submission structure but rather by being unbegotten and being begotten/filial.

What might account for breaking away from the historic-creedal Trinitarian paradigm? Kelly warns, “Heretical thinking in all ages allows ‘contemporary’ patterns of thought to determine what can or cannot be true about the nature of God and of His salvation. Therefore, Scripture must be reinterpreted in order to fit into this fold.” (p. 554)

May we not fall into the theological methodology of the heretical teachers in the early church or of the example of modern theology with its oscillation between transcendence and immanence. Let’s not allow today’s culture war determine tomorrow’s theology textbook.

A ‘Behind the Scenes’ Look at Baptism

Since it is in vogue to strive to be a Pastor-Theologian (or even a Public Theologian), I thought I would share some thoughts as a Presbyterian minister about the subject of baptism. These thoughts come after several weeks of dialogue with two friends of mine who take the credobaptist position.

As many of you know, Presbyterians (along with Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) practice what is called paedobaptism (sometimes called oiko, or household, baptism). The baptism of the infants and children of believing members of the church has been a steady belief and practice of Reformed and Presbyterian churches since the time of the Protestant Reformation.

If you wanted to study this issue at depth, you are in luck. There are two counterpoints books on baptism (here and here). There is a paedobaptist book of collected essays, and there is one on credo baptism. You may also check out dozens of articles on the topic at Monergism. In addition, there are debates about infant baptism on YouTube.

Finally, you can check out blogs like mine which try to take a unique spin on the topic of baptism.

Now, after hours of reading and listening you will probably figure out that the typical debate about who should be baptized comes down to several sets of texts such as Jer 31:31-34; Acts 2:38-40; Luke 18:15-17; 1 Cor 7:14; Col 2:11-12. In addition, people count up the household baptisms in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians and apply mathematical formulas to determine the Bayesian plausibility of the presence of infants in such situations. (Has Richard Swinburne ever taken on such a project?) There are debates about the continuity-discontinuity of the covenant of grace. Finally, there are arguments from silence used by both sides since neither has an explicit verse which proves their position.

Now, I find such exegetical discussions to be helpful and, to an extent, necessary. Yet, it has become obvious to me that while the primary actors on stage in this wet production about the sacraments are quite talented, there are many behind-the-scenes players who get little acknowledgement for their foundational contributions to the drama that is holy baptism.

Allow me to give you a peak backstage to the unseen players who are just as significant as those who get top billing in this production.

Hermeneutics

Most Reformed Baptists and Reformed Presbyterians acknowledge that hermeneutics is the key to the debate over who should be baptized. Neither side has an explicit, clear, micro-exegetical case for their position. Thus, a more holistic take on how one interprets the Bible is needed. Though it might seem strange, one’s view of baptism probably says more about how one interprets the Bible than most other doctrines.

What has shifted me over to the paedobaptist position is my belief that the Bible is meant to be read from left to right, not right to left.

No, this isn’t a joke about preferring koine Greek to Hebrew. This notion came to me when I was watching the James White – Greg Strawbridge debate over infant baptism (linked earlier). To my surprise, both participants said that we must begin with the New Covenant (hence, the New Testament) to understand the Christian practice of baptism.

Yet, that is not how the Jewish converts to Christianity would have believed it. To them, they were reading the story of redemption from left to right. They viewed baptism and the covenant in light of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise. It was about the expansion of God’s promise when it came to God’s people, God’s land, and God’s covenant.

I was grateful that a Reformed Baptist with a Ph.D in theological studies agreed with me against White on this point. I think my friend and I would agree that perhaps the starting point in hermeneutics is the direction or sweep of reading the Scripture as opposed to a mere discussion about covenant theology. Covenant is a big theme in Scripture, but it may not be the most important theme.

And it is clear to me that reading the Bible from left to right, beginning in the OT and finding the climax and fulfillment of that story in the NT, is the best Bible reading plan. Indeed, just like we would read a Shakespeare play from left to right (imagine starting with Act 2 in Hamlet and trying to understand that play better than someone who starts with Act 1), we should read God’s play from left to right.

OT-NT Intertextuality

Long before I knew who Greg Beale was or what a garden-city-temple expansion was, I was very interested in how the OT anticipates the NT and how the NT interprets and applies the OT. St. Augustine’s famous dictum “the Old (Testament) is in the New (Testament) revealed, the New is in the Old concealed” made me think long and hard in my undergraduate biblical studies about how Christ was the center of the redemptive drama.

I am thankful for Terry Eves, Bruce Waltke, Ray Dillard, and other scholars for shaping my thinking on this. Later on my training at RTS Charlotte and my reading of Beale shaped my thinking even more.

And as I observe the debate over baptism, I wonder why OT-NT intertextuality is ignored.

Yet, I am thankful for Pastor-Scholars like Dr. Ligon Duncan for rescuing us from intertextual amnesia. In his lectures on Covenant Theology, he points out the intertextuality between Gen 17:7-8, 12 and Acts 2:38-39 (though he could have also looked at Isa 59:21). The promise of the Holy Spirit, fulfilled at Pentecost, isn’t just a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, but it is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:14).

Just as much of the NT draws a clear line from Abraham to Christ and the gospel, Pentecost is doing the same thing.

So, imagine the mindset of the Jews who are listening to Peter’s words when he says, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39) Typically, a Presbyterian will say, “Look! Children! These Jewish converts to Christianity would think that this applied to their children as well, just like in the Old Testament.” The point is true enough. If such a big shift of retracting children from the covenant community was taking place at the inauguration of the New Covenant at Pentecost, Peter was fuzzy at best in his case for credobaptism. (Was God expanding the covenant sign to women and gentiles but retracting children?)

However, intertextuality shows us that more is going on.

It’s clear that Peter isn’t improvising (or, at least, it is a scripted improvisation) here. He is echoing the language of the Abrahamic covenant where God tells Abraham the sign of the promise in the covenant would be applied to Abraham, his children, and even foreigners in his household. The pattern of Jews, children, and gentiles is in the OT, and it is now repeated in the NT.

What does this mean? Well, apart from lending credence to Charles Hodge’s eight propositions, it shows that the common charge from Reformed Baptists that Presbyterians “judaize the New Testament” is off-base. Indeed, the New Testament comes to us clothed in the Old Testament. Contrary to Walter Kaiser’s disciples, we don’t just see the OT in the NT when there is a direct quote or some explicitly clear theme. Rather, there are thousands of echoes and allusions to the OT on top of the obvious citations we are familiar with.

In order to understand the NT better, we need to understand the OT better (and vice-versa). Intertextuality and the imperative to imitate the theological imagination of the canonical writers and Apostles helps us to this end. It is my contention that this expanded view of hermeneutics and exegesis (historical-grammatical AND redemptive-historical) builds a better case for paedobaptism than for credobaptism.

The Bible’s View of Children

Flowing from our discussion of hermeneutics and intertextuality, we come to the test case of children. While my credobaptist friends commonly claim that the appeal to covenant children in Abrahamic covenant is irrelevant to baptism because covenant children were merely included for nationalistic purposes (though such seems to be contrary to Romans 4:11), the fact is that the Bible’s view and value of children precedes Genesis 17.

The “seed” principle begins with Genesis 3:15 (after the command to multiply seed in Gen 1:26-28). We see the principle again in the Noahic covenant (Gen 6:18; 9:9). The “you and your seed” principle is all over the OT in many phrases. Clearly, this principle is not an Abrahamic creation. Rather, God has always delighted to work through families/households.

This them continues in the various OT teachings about the New Covenant. While my Reformed Baptist friends love to point out a couple of phrases in Jer 31:31-34, they ignore the other OT texts about the New Covenant (Gen. 12:3; Isa. 54:3, 10, 13; 59:21; 61:8-9; Jer. 32:38-40; Ezek. 37:25-26; Zech. 8:5; 10:7, 9; 12:10-14; 14:17) which maintain the “you and your children” principle.

This “God loves children” principle continues in the NT (Matt 18:2-5, 14; 19:3-4; Mark 9:36-37; 10:13-16; Luke 9:47-48; 18:15-17; 1 Cor 7:14; Eph 6:4). While I don’t think 1 Cor 7:14 can by itself establish the practice of infant baptism, it is clear that the children of believers are not ‘vipers in diapers’.

Promise and Covenant

The star actor on stage is the ‘covenant of grace’ for the paedobaptist. It’s a mighty fine player, but I think the covenant of grace discussion isn’t nuanced enough. (Saying such probably throws off my 1689 Federalist buddies). In the Bible, it is the promise which is the engine of the covenant train (Eph 2:12). The promise is what undergirds the drama of redemption, and the covenants (like their ANE counterparts) are visible, outward administrations of that promise.

If covenants are always outward administrations and not some invisible reality, then this poses a problem for the Baptist version of the New Covenant. For credobaptists, the New Covenant is basically an invisible reality for the invisible church (i.e. the elect). The problem is this is not the ANE background of covenant, and it is difficult to establish such from the Bible. (Why would an invisible covenant need outward signs and outward administrators?) A merely immaterial covenant seems closer to gnosticism than the scriptural affirmation of this material world.

One piece of continuity we see between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant is apostasy. Texts like John 15:1-11; 1 Cor 10:1-12; 11:27-32; Heb 3:1-4:13; 6:4-6; 10:28-30; 1 John 2:19 seem to indicate a visible cutting off from God and the covenant, just like the OT. Indeed, the author of Hebrews and the Apostle Paul use the OT as an analogous case in point for New Covenant members to heed. To merely say such texts are ‘hypothetical’ or that those who disbelieve had ‘zero’ connection to the covenant seems to go against a fair exegesis of the text.

And this brings us to the question, Did God excommunicate thousands of children from the covenant on the day of Pentecost when their parents embraced the New Covenant? (And if so, did Peter tell them?)

The Church

I’ve heard many credobaptists and paedobaptists say that ecclesiology is what really determines one’s view of baptism. This is true in many ways. Baptists believe the church is comprised of the elect….or professing believers? Which is it? Well, that gets us to the visible vs invisible church distinction.

Perhaps the greatest work on ecclesiology is from the nineteenth century in James Bannerman’s The Church of ChristHeck, even James White’s ministry called it one of the best works on the subject!

The key part of Bannerman’s study is his recognition of the various ways the NT speaks of the church. In summary, the visible church gets  most of the attention in the NT.

This doesn’t mean the NT ignores the invisible church. Far from it. But the emphasis is on the outward and visible manifestation of the church. In addition, Bannerman’s argument for the church existing in the OT as well as the NT (being one olive tree, Romans 11) is difficult to refute.

Seeing one church in the Bible, across both testaments, primarily spoken of in the visible form, it seems that Baptists underemphasize the visible church and overemphasize the invisible church in their ecclesiology.

If my Baptist friends would have the invisible swallow the visible, my Federal Visionist and sacerdotalist friends would have the visible swallow the invisible. But confessional Presbyterianism comfortably affirms all the nuances of the scriptural teaching concerning the church.

Meaning of Baptism

Defining the meaning or purpose or meaning of baptism isn’t easy.  The reason is that baptism has many purposes and is described with multiple forms of imagery.  In other words, baptism isn’t a one-point sermon.  

Still, we need to make some headway as to how the Bible describes the purpose and meaning of baptism.  

1. The Beginning of the Christian Life

The most cited credobaptist argument is that baptism marks the beginning of the Christian life (discipleship).  The Great Commission seems to imply this (Matt 28:18-20) as well as the baptisms in the book of Acts. 

It is clear that this is one of baptism’s purposes.  Yet, this doesn’t solve the question of whether infants may be baptized.  First, it should be noted that the Great Commission is a call to make disciples of ‘nations’, not mere individuals.  This theme of evangelizing the nations is an OT theme (Isaiah 52:13), and it doesn’t determine our question of who should be baptized (especially since the OT presupposes God’s covenant blessing toward families and cultures).  

Second, the gospels don’t necessarily teach that a ‘disciple’ is always a regenerated believer.  Bible scholars have asked, “When were Jesus’ disciples converted?”  Taking Peter as a test case, was he converted when Jesus called the twelve to follow him?  Or was he converted when he made his profession that Jesus was the Christ because the Father had revealed such to him? (Matt 16:16-17)  What about Jesus identifying Peter with the work of Satan just a few verses later in Matthew’s gospel? (Matt 16:23)  Was Peter finally converted after he was restored by Jesus after denying him three times? (John 21:15-19)

The notion that Jesus had pre-converted disciples is one that many ‘missional’ credobaptists have embraced in recent years.  This means the notion that baptism marks the ‘beginning of the Christian life’ doesn’t solve the issue of infant baptism since even a credobaptist might say that the children of believers are being reared in discipleship even before their conversion. 

2.  God’s Promise of Redemption 

While many paedobaptists wish to label baptism a sign of God’s ‘promise’ (as opposed to our personal ‘pledge’) in order to connect it to OT circumcision, there is NT evidence that baptism operates as a sign of God’s promise.  First, Acts 2:38-39 show Peter connecting baptism to “forgiveness of sins” as God’s promise for his people who are in Christ.  But second, baptism is a promise in the sense that the NT always has an eye toward the future fulfillment of our redemption.  Paul connects the sign of baptism to our future resurrection (Rom 6:5)

3.  Union With Christ & Regeneration

Perhaps the most beautiful description of baptism in the NT is found in Romans 6:3-4, where the emphasis is that our baptism points to union with Christ.  That baptism is a pointer to union with Christ is why Paul says we are baptized “into one body” (1 Cor 12:13), the body of Christ.  Other texts which speak to this are Gal 3:27, Col 2:12, 1 Pet 3:21.

4.  Cleansing and Consecration

Though these are related to union with Christ, cleansing and consecration are key themes to understanding the purpose of baptism that they must be mentioned separately.  The notion of cleansing with baptism is predominant in the NT not only with the way one is baptized (with water) but in how the Apostles talk about baptism (Acts 22:16).  This is not to say that baptism actually accomplishes what it signifies, as Titus 3:5 says that it is the Holy Spirit who washes us through regeneration.  For the NT, the sign and thing signified are held close together but are always distinguished.

Consecration is seen in baptism in that baptism is connected to discipleship (Matt 28:18-20).  Baptism points to what God demands of his people in following Jesus.

There are more perspectives which could be pursued as it relates to the meaning of baptism.  But suffice to say, baptism is a nuanced biblical teaching that points to the beauty of God’s promise to redeem us.  

It should be noted that there is no NT text which explicitly claims that baptism necessarily points to the inward faith of the recipient.  It may be the case that such is part of the meaning of baptism, but such needs to be proven from Scripture.

I don’t think the NT teaches that the sign of baptism is primarily or necessarily about the faith of the recipient.  First, some recipients of baptism didn’t receive some things that baptism signified (i.e. the Holy Spirit). Wayne Grudem says that the recipients of baptism were those who believed the Word and had received the Holy Spirit (Systematic Theology, p. 970).  Unfortunately, this is not quite the picture for the NT, as there are occurences of those who believed and and were baptized, but received the Holy Spirit later (Act 8:14-17).

Second, passages such as Rom 6:3-4 and Col 2:12 cannot be fusing the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (union with Christ, cleansing, consecration) since such would undermine Paul’s teaching on justification by grace through faith.  It’s best to see such texts as describing baptism in its promise and meaning rather than the reality of the recipient’s spiritual state, or else we must embrace something close to baptismal regeneration.  


My credobaptist friends will object and say that these texts imply faith of those who are in Christ, and thus were baptized.  But Paul says that we are baptized “into Christ”, not as a result of being in Christ.  The latter would support the credobaptist position, but the text itself in the context of Paul’s theology shows we must closely align the sign and what is signified, while always keeping them distinct.

The paedobaptist thesis is that baptism is primarily about the objectivity of redemption than the subjectivity redemption. While I believe there are subjective elements to baptism (believers are commanded to be baptized, and even paedobaptists take vows when their children are baptized), the emphasis of the NT teaching on baptism is on the objective promise of God for his people.  It may be about us, but it is way more about God and what he has done on behalf of his church in Jesus Christ.

Inaugurated Eschatology

Given the long-windedness of this post, I’ll just link readers to Richard Pratt’s excellent article on Jeremiah 31:31-34. In essence, when credobaptists quote Jer 31:31-34 (which is usually the only OT passage they will quote on the subject of baptism), they point out phrases like “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it…for they will all know Me…for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Yet, a few problems come up with such proftexting. The context for Jer 31 (and the other New Covenant texts in the OT) is that God’s people are in exile and God is promising them a return to the land and a restoration of the covenant. The promises of the New Covenant are basically promises in the Mosaic Covenant! In other words, the prophecy of the New Covenant says, “One day, God will fulfill the blessings of the Mosaic Covenant. It will be amazing.”

In interpreting most OT prophecies, we 21st century white westerners aren’t as competent to the task as those who lived in Bible times. The view of prophecy and eschatology which is taught in the NT is best summarized as an inaugurated eschatology. Some call this an ‘already-but-not-yet’ eschatology. It’s obvious from Jer 31 that the New Covenant isn’t consummated yet as we still go around teaching one another and saying “Know the Lord.” Plus, the NT presents the church as still an exilic people who still have an inheritance to look to (1 Peter 2:11; Romans 4:13; 8:17-25).

So, I ask my Baptist friends, do you have an overrealized eschatology? Do you have an over-desire for a ‘right-n0w-here-and-ready’ pure church of just the elect when Jesus is slowly over time getting every spot and wrinkle out of the wedding dress? (Eph 5:26-27) Do you seem a bit (gasp) postmillennial in this pursuit?

Models of Piety

I refer readers to William B. Evans’ eye-opening article on conversionist versus nurturist pieties in Christianity.  I agree with Evans that we need both models to be a balanced church, and some cultural places and moments may exalt one model over the other.

However, while the Presbyterian tradition has both models in its history (Bavinck and Nevin, not Bavinck or Nevin), the Baptist tradition in general promotes only the conversionist piety. Obviously, this reductionism of the Christian life more easily leads to credobaptism while the Presbyterian tradition can practice both paedo and credobaptism which corresponds to both models of piety.

Marrow controversy

My ARP friends are salivating while my Baptist friends are scratching their heads. The recent book by Sinclair Ferguson on this subject expands on the pastoral dimensions of this historic controversy while William Vandoodewaard does more of the scholarly heavy lifting.

The Church of Scotland began the practice of trying to measure ‘signs of spiritual fruit and election’ in those who seem interested in the gospel before they would offer the gospel (and communicant membership) to people. The ‘Marrow Men’ believed in the ‘free offer of the gospel’ and held no preconditions other than repentance and belief in Christ. In other words, the gospel that was offered could be received in that moment by the sinner.

The Church of Scotland saw the Marrow Men as antinomians, and the reverse accusation was that of legalism.

Now, while this historical matter doesn’t touch on the issue of infant baptism, I think the analogy is fair as to how Baptists typically admit new members into the local church. Mark Dever and other Reformed Baptists have decried about the Southern Baptist Convention has seen the average age of baptism recipients get lower and lower. So, if more SBC churches are allowing professions of faith at younger ages, Reformed Baptist churches seem to withhold membership and the sacraments until ages 10-12.

So, a five year old may hear the gospel clearly at a Vacation Bible School or during a children’s sermon, and they tell their parents and Pastor for the next five years, “I believe in Jesus. He died for me.” They withhold membership and baptism from this child until at age 10 he or she recite several more answers about their faith.

Essentially, Reformed Baptists are seeking signs of spiritual fruit and election and are less inclined to proclaim the free offer of the gospel. However, in many Presbyterian churches which deny paedocommunion, there is young communion as 5 year olds and 7 year olds profess faith and fully commune with the body of Christ.

In other words, Presbyterians believe that true faith in Christ is analogous to a child’s simple trust in a parent. (Matthew 18:2-4)

If I want to carry on the practice of the Marrow Men, then the general practice of Reformed Baptists is not for me.

Solo or Sola Scriptura?

One area where I admire my Baptists brothers and sisters is there fidelity to the inerrancy of Scripture and being biblical in faith and practice. However, I wonder if there is a confusion between solo and sola scriptura. Sola scriptura means the Bible is the final authority, but it isn’t the only authority. The magisterial Reformers respected and submitted to ecumenical tradition in various ways. The Reformers were creedal theologians. They saw themselves restoring the theology of the patristic period.

So, if church history carries a weight and type of authority which is also subservient to Scripture, should Baptists give pause to their baptismal theology in light of the fact that we don’t see anyone in the church teaching that true baptism is only when there is profession of faith and done by immersion (or else it isn’t baptism and one should be outside the church) until the Anabaptists? It took 1500 years for the church to finally get baptism right!

I guess one could believe that and make a biblical case as to why the Anabaptists restored the apostolic doctrine on baptism, but it seems very arrogant. Perhaps a more ecclesial and humble credobaptist tradition is to claim that baptism is appropriately done by immersion and upon profession, but such isn’t necessary for church membership. (See the Didache‘s allowance for sprinkling and pouring as modes of baptism.)

While my credobaptist friends may shudder that I call their practice arrogant, consider that the plenary speakers for the Together For the Gospel conferences would bar Ligon Duncan and Kevin DeYoung from taking communion in their churches.

Finis

While this lengthy post has tested the endurance of all my readers, I hope it provides the behind-the-scenes perspective which convicts me as a paedobaptist. I hold to all the exegetical and covenantal arguments for paedobaptism as well, but these more 30,000 foot view arguments do much to persuade me.