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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 7 "Baptism and the Lord's Supper" Part 1

"Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper."

Characteristically of baptistic evangelicals in America, this section of the BF&M on baptism lays out a credobaptistic, memorialistic/symbolistic, subjectivistic view of the ordinance of baptism. I think what I most appreciate about it, as a covenantal paedobaptist, is its explicit connection of the symbolism with the objective work of Christ in history, in His death and resurrection.

To be sure, baptism is closely related to faith and the heart-enlivening work of the Spirit in the New Covenant. But I fear that sometimes Baptist expressions of the significance of baptism (ironically) focus so much on the subjective, personal-faith-related aspects of the observance of the ordinance that they eclipse or minimize the gracious, objective realities of "redemption accomplished" which baptism not only points to, but I would argue (based on texts like Romans 6, Colossians 2, and 1 Peter 3), sacramentally communicates (which communication as a "visible/tangible gospel proclamation" benefits the one who exercises faith and brings cursing to the one who rejects those promises).

Actually, even many modern credobaptist theologians (including several who contributed to 'Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ', ed. Thomas R. Schreiner) use stronger language than "symbolizing" to refer to the effects of baptism. Some of them limit the spiritual effect to an idea of special "assurance." Others state it more vaguely. I think it best to conceive of baptism (and the Lord's Supper, which is the next topic) as a visible and tangible word of the whole gospel coming from God through the Church to man, and also as a ritual through which faith and vital union with Christ and His ecclesial body can be expressed (I think this basically works as a judgment of charity for the baptism of young children, as well as a means of grace to them in picturing God's initiative in saving helpless individuals and the objective historical accomplishment of redemption in Christ, and in normally working through the covenant unit of families to bring up children in the faith--so I take Acts 2:38-39 as implying, to a Jewish ear especially, that children of New Covenant believers are still recipients of the covenant promises and a true part of the covenant community, and as such should still receive the sign of formal initiation into the covenant; cf. my long note on the topic elsewhere).

I find the statement "It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead" interesting because I don't recall off-hand any New Testament text that explicitly makes that connection, apart from the general idea of belief in Christ's middle-of-history resurrection being part and parcel of saving faith. Nevertheless, in the book of Acts especially, the question of resurrection at the end of history, connected with final judgment, is front and center and repeatedly connected to Christ's resurrection. So I think it's a perfectly legitimate and important connection! I had never given this line in the BF&M much attention before, but I really like it!

The last line, "Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper," may be offensive to many modern evangelicals, but represents an answer to a question no early church father would have ever thought to ask. In the first century, there was no such thing as an "unbaptized Christian" or "unbaptized member of the Church." Holding to a more strongly "sacramental" view of baptism as I do, I should be clear here that I do not believe that the rite of water baptism itself is always, for every person, utterly necessary for salvation. It does not operate ex opere operato guaranteeing true spiritual regeneration for the baptizand; nor does its neglect, however unfortunate (or rebellious, depending on the circumstances) prevent the Spirit from doing His saving work. Regeneration of the heart by the Spirit, resulting in faith in Christ (at whatever level of maturity that faith can be expressed), is what ultimately counts. Nevertheless, it is God's ordinary way of salvation that a believer in Christ be a baptized and active member of a local church body. Baptism is the God-ordained way to express formal membership in the Church and initiation into the covenant of grace today.

A final word, on the issue of the mode of baptism: I simply have not studied the issue enough to say much about it here. For now suffice it to say that if I were convinced in the near future that immersion is the only biblical mode of baptism, I would probably go the Luther (not Lutheran) and Eastern Orthodox route and advocate dunking babies. Yes. Let the protestations commence...

In sum, as a paedobaptist, predictably, I detect a slight over-emphasis of the subjective in the BF&M's discussion of the significance of baptism and an under-emphasis on the objective (although I certainly appreciate the explicit connection made once to the historia salutis in the second sentence--although even there it is couched as the object of faith). I don't think I would actually be alone on this, though, if you asked some scholarly credobaptists like Don Carson and Tom Schreiner what they thought! Many theologians of differing covenantal and sacramental perspectives today recognize the almost inarticulable richness of the sacraments in their symbolism, the mysterious ministry of the Spirit through them, the subjective-objective connections made in them, the Incarnational analogies that can be drawn from them, the eschatological overtones of them, etc., etc., etc.

God in His infinite wisdom and mercy has given us very great gifts in these beautiful rituals His Church is to observe! This includes the covenant initiation sign of baptism. And these precious ordinances/sacraments point to and indeed in some way or another even communicate the ultimate gift of Christ Himself, to whom we are united by faith, through the ineffable working of the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 6 "The Church"

"A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation."

This brief statement summarizes well a congregationalistic, credobaptistic doctrine of the local church. There is much I am in agreement with here: "associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ...seeking to extend the gospel...democratic processes...Its scriptural officers are pastors and of pastor limited to men..." etc. There are disagreements I have, though.

But before moving on to critique I will make some concessions here: 1) I have not adequately studied evangelical egalitarian interpretations of 1 Tim. 2:12 to be willing to die on the hill of limiting preaching/eldership to men, although the complementarian perspective on this issue seems more consonant to me with passages about the family like Eph. 5, etc., which I think are obvious in their complementarian thrust; 2) I have not studied scholarly defenses of congregational polity over against presbyterian polity, to which I tentatively hold at the moment.

It does seem to me, however (again from a place of not having studied church government very much yet), that the New Testament presents the local church as an entity which is not utterly autonomous in its governmental procedures, even though there is a strong democratic element, e.g. in the election of officers.

1) While the apostolic period was admittedly very unique in some ways with regard to the organization of the church, the classic proof text for Presbyterian polity, Acts 15:2, suggests that there may be a precedent for a sort of regional "higher court" of elders since Paul and Barnabas and others went up to Jerusalem to get a decision from the apostles and elders there with regard to the Gentile observances issue.

2) Several of the proof texts actually offered in this section of the BF&M point to the fact that democratic election of officers is complemented by a measure of top-down appointment or confirmation of the selections (cf. Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14; cf. also Acts 6:1-6, esp. v. 6). This precedent of balancing bottom-up democratic election with top-down appointment/confirmation can be seen, from one perspective, to have been set as far back as Moses in the wilderness (cf. Deut. 1:13-15).

3) It does seem biblical, however, given the persistent pattern in Acts and the pastoral epistles of having a plurality of elders, that at least since the passing away of the apostolic age, or at very least after the unique needs of the first century or two of the Church's existence, there is no need or precedent for singular "bishops" to exercise a large measure of authority over a particular region of churches (as in episcopal polity).

The BF&M rightly identifies the two and only two "ordinances" or sacraments of Christ for the church: baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Roman Catholic Church includes seven rituals under the title of "sacrament" in its complex system of the means of grace which operate ex opere operato. In contrast, all Protestants within the broadly Reformed stream of church history--even modern credobaptistic offshoots--only recognize those signs and seals of the New Covenant in Christ which Christ Himself directly instituted during His earthly ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 11; Matt. 28) as ordinances or sacraments regularly to be observed and administered by the Church. There are other means of grace, to be sure, but only baptism and the Lord's Supper qualify as the ordinances/sacraments officially administered by the New Covenant church which holds the "keys" of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 16, 28).

Connected to this issue, of course, is the question of credobaptism vs. paedobaptism. The BF&M states, of course, that "A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers." This statement limits true church membership to believers with a credible, visible profession of faith in Christ, and therefore by necessity excludes the infants and very young children of believers. Here is not the place for a fuller discussion of the evidence for and against covenantal paedobaptism (the next section of the BF&M focuses on Christ's two ordinances).

Suffice it for now to say that many committed, Bible-believing, evangelical Protestant Christians throughout the last 500 years have believed that the New Testament itself authorizes the baptism of the young children of one or more believing parent and recognizes their membership in the church. This doesn't necessarily mean they are already regenerate persons but says that they are true members of the covenant community who partake of and hopefully grow up "improving" (in the archaic sense of the term), by faith, its ordinary means of grace. Credobaptists are limited to applying much looser language of blessed "association" and "prospective membership" to the young children of church members. I believe this creates unnecessary biblical and practical tension in the way a church relates to the children of its believing members, and particularly in Christian parenting.

One final comment on the value of this section of the BF&M would be that I appreciate its affirmation of the category of the "universal church" including all the redeemed of all ages. This relates closely to the Apostle's Creed's affirmation of the "communion of saints." While we don't want to push this to a Romanist extreme of communicating with departed saints, as if we needed to ask them to pray for us or to even somehow exercise heavenly power in our favor, we should always bear in mind that the present Church Militant is not the full extent of Christ's body.

In sum, there is much commendable material in this section of the BF&M. My main lines of critique, from a Presbyterian perspective, have to do with how I perceive excessive individualism and autonomy in Baptist government and theology of church membership. To be sure, "In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord." However, I believe the New Testament continues a greater degree of corporate solidarity both in the family, and in the government of the Church beyond the level of the local church, than the BF&M perspective recognizes.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 5 "God's Purpose of Grace" Part 2

"All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end. Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, and bring reproach on the cause of Christ and temporal judgments on themselves; yet they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation."

Appropriately following a paragraph on election, this brief statement of "eternal security" or the "perseverance of the saints" is wholly and demonstrably biblical, and a crucial objective element of Christian assurance. Believers need to have biblical reasons why they will not wake up an unbeliever the next morning.

Some observations:

"All true believers" rightly presupposes that there are professing believers--possibly even self-deceived about their own condition (cf. Matt. 7)--who will not stand in the Last Judgment.

"...but shall persevere to the end" points up the fact that eternal security is, in the words of John Piper, less like a vaccination and more like therapy. The point of that analogy is not that our cooperation with God's keeping and sanctifying grace is the decisive factor (it is not), but simply that it is necessary. Sanctification and perseverance unto the end is not an auto-pilot reality. It is a process of discipleship and growth in the knowledge and grace of Christ which by nature involves our own willing, our struggle to delight in God above all else, our lives of prayer and obedience.

One of the most prominent features of the New Covenant itself, besides the fulfillment of all sacrifice as provision for forgiveness of sins in Christ's death, is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the writing of the Law on human hearts. Our existence is one of union with the risen Christ, in the inaugurated realm of the Spirit and New Creation. This ensures two things: 1) we are eternally secure in this new sphere of Spirit-dominated resurrection life, and 2) these realities by nature change and move the hearts of true believers to faith, repentance, and Spirit-empowered obedience and covenant faithfulness (imperfect in this life).

"Believers may fall into sin through neglect and temptation" acknowledges the reality that I mentioned was so important to understand in the section on sanctification, namely, that it is an incomplete process in this life. Even the most seasoned saint retains indwelling sin in this life. Only in the presence of the Lord, absent the body, and later more visibly on the Last Day of resurrection, will sin be eradicated from redeemed man forever. Nevertheless, the BF&M does well to go on and describe the still very serious consequences of sin believers may have to endure (grieving the Spirit, hurting the mission of the church, wrecking assuring graces and comforts, other possible temporal judgments).

The only thing I can imagine being useful to add to this whole section would be an explicit mention of the theology of professing believers who fall away (which theology is here implied, to be sure). Namely, according to a straightforward reading of the grammar of Heb. 3:14 and 1 Jn. 2:19, those who fall away from the faith were never true believers to begin with. I think stating this side of the coin even more explicitly would be useful because this is such a common experience in the visible church, especially in the increasingly secular culture of North America. And it can be an upsetting experience to believers who witness it taking place among friends and family, or children who go off to college and abandon the faith, if they do not have a robust, clear theology of conversion and perseverance.

Finally, "...kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation" is perhaps the most important phrase in this section. The language is straight from 1st Peter 1 and emphasizes the fact, of course, that it is because of God's grace and power in keeping us for final salvation, and not through our own inherent faithfulness or ability to persevere, that all of us who truly hope in Christ will make it to the end.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 5 "God's Purpose of Grace" Part 1

"Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility."

I think this brief statement on election allows for a healthy breadth of differently nuanced views in the SBC, and states the most important things about it. Election is: gracious; God's purpose; the sovereign foundation for all the benefits of redemption in Christ; a display of God's sovereignty, goodness, and wisdom; and a means of eliminating human boasting.

To begin commenting on a few details:

I am glad to read the words "consistent with the free agency of man," rather than something more generic and ambiguous like the "free will" of man. I would personally want to press for even further definition in the direction of my own tradition's view, but "free agency" (at least from what I understand it to mean--and I could be mistaken) is a good technical term borrowed from philosophy that denotes simply the reality (not illusion or denial) of man's moral volition.

Man is not a robot or puppet who is coerced to think, speak, or move in certain ways by God's sovereign hand apart from or against his own willing to think, speak, or move in those ways. God certainly at least sometimes initiates changes in, and influences, men, and in stronger views of providence like my own, even superintends and ultimately sovereignly controls and in one way or another "brings about" whatsoever comes to pass, including the choices of men.

Yet even in stronger views of providence it is not as though God simply pulls strings or writes programs. He works in and through the hearts and minds of men (rather than in some mechanical, robotic way) to bring about His good pleasure in them--particularly and most directly and actively in His own people. The accent in Scripture is squarely on the gracious redemptive work in His elect, without denying God's purposefulness in also handing some people over to further sin and darkness which they experience through their own immediate doing. God need only withdraw His merciful restraining hand to further harden an unregenerate person. He (purposefully) allows some sinners to freely go their own way to destruction, but works in the hearts of the elect to bring them to faith and obedience.

Another example of this "concurrent" view of providence specifically with regard to human beings is the inspiration of Scripture. God did not "zap" Paul's or Jude's hands so that they began writing New Testament Scriptures, but rather worked in and through their minds, hearts, personalities, and life situations, so that they freely produced these authentic personal letters to the churches. All the while, still, God was sovereignly working out in history exactly what He had predestined to occur beforehand.

Even in the radical act of regeneration in which, I believe (as discussed in an earlier section), God sovereignly and unilaterally brings spiritually dead hearts to life, the heart of man is changed so that he freely begins to exercise faith in Christ (actually to be more precise, I'm not sure "believing" itself is as much of a "choice" as we sometimes think it to be, but rather more like a divinely-given spiritual apprehension of who Christ is, on the basis of which we then freely repent and begin to follow Him; so the newly regenerate person who is a morally "free agent" is sweetly enslaved to obedience to Christ, not by coercion, but by the Spirit's renewal of his or her willingness itself).

The way in which election is consistent with "free agency" will vary from theologian to theologian, preacher to preacher in the SBC. Arminian and Molinist theologians will want to say that the kind of free agency humans have is and must be specifically libertarian free will, according to which human beings "could have done otherwise" in every (?) possible sense, for every choice they make. In most systems this would preclude unconditional individual election unto salvation (or unto anything involving choices, for that matter). But it could include conditional individual election, or some views that only include election as a corporate category (don't ask me how Barthians stay out of universalism, though).

Theologians with more traditionally Reformed soteriology can still affirm the BF&M on "free agency," too. Unconditional individual election unto salvation (the 'U' in the infamous TULIP) still comprehends, as the BF&M itself affirms about election generally, "all the means in connection with the end." That is to say, the caricature of Reformed soteriology or any other historic Christian view of election that posits people being dragged to heaven kicking and screaming against their will, or reprobates thrown into the lake of fire despite desperate love for Jesus and faith in His redemptive work, is nonsense. In Calvinism, certainly, election results in, temporally and logically/causally, regeneration/faith/repentance (conversion), etc., straight on through to glorification. And none of it (except, in a certain qualified sense, regeneration) happens against or apart from a person's will (regeneration produces the change of the will itself).

In sum on free agency, all orthodox Christian views--Reformed (eh, I'm tempted more and more to call it historic Protestant) or otherwise--should affirm creaturely freedom of man at least in the sense that he or she can always do what he or she wants (and I would argue that apart from natural inability (see Jonathan Edwards' distinction between "moral" and "natural" inability), does do what he or she wants), and is therefore morally responsible to God for every word, deed, and intentional thought (and probably other "thoughts" in many ways, too). For fallen man with fallen desires, that's actually what "enslavement" to sin or righteousness means: a sinner freely does what he or she wants to do, as a free agent, but needs God to change those "wants" in a Godward direction to effect salvation and create an "enslaved free agent" of Jesus Christ (please no sports jokes here).

In some ways eternal mysteries are broached when we dive deeper into the relationship of man's moral responsibility to God's meticulous providence over all that comes to pass and the "answer" (or perhaps merely the appropriate paradigm) is surely to do with God's covenantal condescension and incarnation--His ability to sovereignly bring together the eternal and the temporal, infinite and finite, Creator and creature, decree and history, in such a way that each fully retains its own nature and essential attributes and in such a way that the "divine" side of things is ultimate (consider the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's hypostatic union, and the doctrines of enhypostasis and anhypostasis in relation to Christ's person). K. Scott Oliphint has begun to develop a so-called "Reformed Free Will Defense" against the problem of evil in this regard that is very interesting.

Yet when it comes merely to election, and sinners with free agency who desperately need to have their free agency radically reoriented to the things of God, by His grace, through faith in the gospel of His Son, it is actually difficult for me, as a Calvinist, to see how election and "free agency" could be seen as being at odds at all, given that both are properly defined and understood. All men in Adam freely do what they want: sin. God elected some of them for salvation before the foundation of the world. In history, God converts His people through regeneration. They then continue to do what they want, but their wants have changed: righteousness is forefront (though the "flesh" remains and they are mixed men, as it were). Simple!

A couple of other things to note:

In my opinion, for election to truly "exclude boasting" and "promote humility" (as the BF&M says) to the fullest extent that it should, it needs to be understood as nothing less than unconditional election of individuals unto salvation.

Conditional election, by which God foreknows a person's libertarian-ly free decision to embrace Christ by faith, and on the basis of that knowledge, elects a person unto salvation, makes election ultimately dependent on a human being's decision to believe in Christ or not. Many proponents of this view are adamant that the "faith" envisioned here should not be understood as a "work" but as a mere receipt of the gift of salvation, nothing meritorious in itself. Yet opponents continue to wonder just what it is in a person that causes him or her to choose one way or the other (or is it just "chance?" surely not...), and for those that choose Christ, how could it not be something ultimately that could be boasted about over those who rejected Him?

Corporate election is a biblical category, and scholars' appreciation for its importance in the New Testament has risen, especially with the influence of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, which emphasizes the communal aspects of soteriology in the Church. The two most classic passages in the New Testament on election/predestination, Romans 9 and Ephesians 1, are very corporate in their emphases. As N. T. Wright has correctly, as I believe, observed, the New Testament writers in a sense "re-imagined" the corporate election of ancient Israel as the covenant people of God around Jesus the Messiah and those who have faith in Him, namely, the Church. Therefore it is now the Church which is the "chosen Son of God" like Israel was, because it is united to Him, as His holy Bride (to change the metaphor once).

But does "corporate election" exhaust the import of the New Testament teaching on election? Hardly. And certainly, corporate election alone could never eliminate all human boasting! Exegetically, Romans 9 is where Paul begins to answer the question, "If God is so faithful to keep His promises--particularly those beautiful, climactic ones in Romans 8--what about ethnic Israel, most of whom have now stumbled over Messiah in unbelief?" Paul's first answer is, in a word, "remnant." There is a remnant of ethnic Israel chosen by grace, among whom Paul found himself as a believer in Messiah. Yes, " grace." For it is not man who wills or runs, but God having mercy, which ultimately determines election (Romans 9:16).

Of course this has massive corporate implications, and indeed a Jew reading Romans has the election of Israel as a whole in the forefront of his or her mind here. But Paul's examples of election (Isaac, Jacob, Pharaoh--which have national/corporate overtones, to be sure), and most importantly Paul's application of the doctrine of election (Romans 9:6-7), is intensely individual. He is answering the question: why do some individual Israelites not believe in Christ? Answer: unconditional, gracious election, and the hardening of reprobation. Only this doctrine in its most robust form can destroy national/ethnic pride and presumption (for "not all Israel is Israel"), and give hope (still without pride!) to the "ha goyim" Gentile dogs now being incorporated en masse into the elect Israel of God in Christ, because of God's individual election of many of them.

Finally, it will not do to limit election to the idea of election unto vocation or temporal salvation/judgment. Those who press for such a view in Romans 9 really press credulity to the breaking point, in light the of the eight chapters of Romans that come beforehand, especially Ch. 8 which reaches into eternity past as well as eternity future, in explicitly soteriological terms. They also fail to apply principles of typology and see the eschatological import of the Old Testament judgment of Pharaoh, for instance. Predestination unto vocation is surely biblical; Jeremiah's prophethood and Paul's apostleship are two obvious examples we all know.

We may even say that vocational election should ever be joined to soteriological election, so that our salvation serves our progress in stewarding Creation and bringing about (by God's blessing, ultimately) more of the fullness of New Creation. But vocational election does not and cannot exhaust the biblical material on election, nor can it ever remove human boasting by itself.

For these and other exegetical reasons, I believe that the BF&M's right concern that election be understood to exclude all human boasting would only be fully consistent with a Reformed view of unconditional, individual election unto salvation. But I am glad for the careful, broad language the SBC has employed to express the big-picture most important biblical things about election, and then to allow for a multiplicity of specific views on this secondary doctrinal area.