Saturday, August 31, 2013

Reforming Credobaptism

Credobaptists commonly wonder about the appropriate age for baptism. How old should a person be before he can be baptized? I would argue that any age is appropriate, provided that the recipient can willfully profess his faith in Christ meaningfully. In the case of a child, I would generally entrust the discernment of that profession to the child’s parents. I’m comfortable saying that parents can, in a sense, speak on behalf of their children in this regard, which seems to fit well with the numerous places in Scripture that speak of baptism as a household affair, and also with ancient tradition.1 Furthermore, on a basic practical level, parents certainly know their kids better than anyone else in the church does.

But suppose (as often happens) a baptized child grows up and decides that he was not truly born again when he first received baptism. Should he then be rebaptized? We really need not limit the question to children here, since people who were baptized in adulthood might express similar doubts about the sincerity of their faith at the time of their baptism. So should a person be rebaptized if he feels confident that he was not genuinely converted when he was first baptized?

The way we answer this question will depend in large part on how we understand the nature of baptism itself. On this point, I think a more God-centered view of the ordinance wouldnt hurt us. Credobaptists like to speak of baptism as a statement that the believer makes to the world, which is fine as far as it goes, so long as we dont forget that its even more so a statement that God makes.2 Baptism depicts the reception of the Holy Spirit, signifies the forgiveness of sins, represents the death and resurrection of Christ, marks out the confessor as a member of Christs body, and unites him covenantally to the church. These are things that happen regardless of whether the recipient is personally on his way to heaven. In other words, I understand baptism to be an objective sign, meaning that its legitimacy does not depend on the inner state of the recipient, but on the sure promises of God (Acts 2:38-39) and the authority that Christ gives to his church.

Of course, there will inevitably be plenty of false confessors who are not truly regenerate, but are nevertheless part of the vine, part of the household of God through baptism. Which is why Godhousehold is the place where judgment will begin (1 Pet. 4:17). These “Christians who are covenantally united to the church through baptism, but not truly regenerate, are the ones we read about in Hebrews: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified" (Heb. 10:29). I take this as a reference to water baptism, or at least to a spiritual reality of which baptism is emblematic (being washed in the blood of Christ).

So our question was, should a person be rebaptized if he becomes confident that his true conversion occurred after his first baptism? I would answer in the negative. A second baptism couldnt accomplish anything that hasnt already taken place in the first one. Imagine a husband who says, I didnt truly love my wife when I went through the marriage ceremony, spoke my vows, put the ring on, and signed the papers. Therefore, Im not really married. Is this good reasoning? Of course not. Marriage vows are covenantally binding in an objective way. The man doesnt need to get married again; he simply needs to start being a faithful husband now.3

Baptismal vows should be understood in terms of the same kind of objectivity. So even if a person did not sincerely understand the gospel when he was baptized, and was not truly born again, his baptism was still meaningful and valid, and I would not feel the need to counsel him to be baptized again. I would simply encourage him to start living true to his baptism now. It wouldnt necessarily bother me if he did get rebaptized (any more than it bothers me when couples renew marriage vows), but there isnt any real need for it. In other words, contrary to the popular credobaptist notion, I dont think its necessary for a Christian to make sure that his baptism occurred on the right side of his conversion.

If all this is correct, then a couple of additional points can be made regarding child baptism. First, we probably need to do a better job of taking child baptisms seriously. I suspect that many see them as simply token, heart-warming ceremonies, and not real baptisms; which can lead to negligence in terms of discipleship, because the baptized child is not actually being seen and treated as a real Christian. But in fact, we ought to be constantly reminding these children of the importance of their baptism, and encouraging them to live true to the commitment they made to Jesus. At baptism, the children put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). As they mature in the faith, they grow into him.

Second, I also think we need to be more thankful for child baptisms than we often are. In the post-Acts Christian church, child baptism should be viewed as the normal practice; not as an ecclesiologically awkward situation to get nervous about. In our zeal to protect the ordinance, we end up looking a whole lot like the uppity disciples, turning away the little ones when Jesus insists on letting them come. Bryan Chapell has said that “it is possible, even common, for the children of Christian parents never to know a day that they do not believe that Jesus is their Savior and Lord,”4 and I think he’s right. When children are nurtured in a godly Christian home where God’s word is consistently taught, then theyre very likely to confess Christ early in life, which is something to celebrate.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile.


1. See, for example, the baptismal instructions of Hippolytus: “And first baptize the little ones; if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them.” (Apostolic Tradition, 21.4)

2. This principle is relevant also to the question of whether baptisms are valid when administered by church leaders who later deny the faith. If we maintain a God-centered view of the ordinance, then well have no trouble affirming that baptism is entirely meaningful even when performed by unfaithful ministers. Those who were baptized by such leaders need not seek rebaptism (assuming the context was not a heretical church).

3. Im borrowing this analogy from Doug Wilson, who has a far more developed objectivist (and paedobaptist) covenant theology, which you can read about in his book Reformed Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the CovenantI havent read the book yet, so I dont know what all is in it.

4. Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants? (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 27.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Judge It by Its Caveats

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Judge it by its caveats.

Here’s what a caveat typically looks like: “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying x.” Clearly, the reason a caveat like this gets expressed is because whatever has been said up to this point will probably make the reader think that the author is indeed saying x. Otherwise, there would be no need for the author to worry about being misunderstood, and no need to bother clarifying. As an experiment I once marked every caveat that I came across while reading a book for school. Here are several of the kind of statements I marked:

“Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not denying the need for Christian participation in social service.”
“I’m not speaking of driving a wedge between the evangelistic mandate and the cultural mandate, as if the Gospel does not penetrate every aspect of life.” 
“I am not minimizing the importance of sound doctrine.” 
“I’m well aware that doctrine is vitally important. . . . I have no argument with people who are concerned about doctrinal purity. I share their concern. But . . .” 
“I am not saying that every member ministry entails either the participation of all believers in every gathering or the abolishing of leadership.”
“This is not to deny the fact that there were pastors/elders/overseers in the primitive Christian community.”
“I am not saying that [Jesus] is against ministries such as preaching and teaching and leading.”

Why did I make note of all these caveats? Well, because I think we can learn a lot about the overall thrust of a book’s arguments by giving careful attention to how the author feels he needs to clarify himself. D. A. Carson (who is not the author of the above quotes) has often said that his students rarely learn what he teaches them. Rather, they learn what he gets excited about. The trouble with caveats is that they’re almost never understood to represent something that matters deeply to the author. And so the caveats I’ve quoted above are good indicators that no one is likely to come away from that book thinking, “Man, this guy really wants me to care about social service, sound doctrine, and church leadership.” Because those things are consistently relegated to the occasional caveat.

So what’s the lesson to learn? I think pastors and teachers and writers could all benefit from a conscious effort to use caveats less. It's easy to overstate our case, for the sake of having a strong effect, and then attempt to pull back the reins by way of a simple caveat. While the caveat might keep us from getting into trouble for our overstated case, it accomplishes little in the way of actually teaching and instructing in a faithfully measured way.

No one should be expected to walk away from a book or sermon with any real concern for what the author or pastor briefly said he was not saying. So, to throw out a random example, if a critic notices that you’ve championed foreign missions to the point of minimizing the need for faithful gospel ministry at home, it won't be much of a response to say, “But didn’t you hear my caveat? Weren't you listening when I said that’s not what I was trying to say?” If the content of your caveats is truly important, then look for more believable ways to sincerely emphasize those things.

Now for a couple of ironic caveats of my own. (1) I’m not hating on the book from which Ive drawn the exemplary quotes. It was written by the fine professor who taught me Greek, and has lots of commendable content from what I remember. (2) Neither am I saying that caveats are always bad. They can be occasionally harmless and even necessary. But if ever you feel the need to use one, it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself why. Why is a caveat necessary here? What have I said thus far that would potentially mislead the hearer or give false impressions? And is there any way for me to change that without relying on a cheap and forgettable caveat?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

With the Appearance of Roundness

Tim: As Christians who believe in the total inerrancy and authority of the Bible, what should we believe about the age of the earth?

Andy: I'm certainly a convinced young-earther. That seems to me to be the only reasonable way to read Scripture.

Tim: Fair enough. So how do you think we should respond to the scientific evidence that suggests the earth is very old?

Andy: Personally, the evidence for an old earth has never bothered me too much. I just don't see any problem with believing that God created a universe that appears to be older than it actually is.

Tim: Hmm. That's an interesting line of reason.

Andy: Indeed! And unfortunately, most of my fellow young-earthers don't realize that it's actually quite a multi-purpose tool to have in our apologetic toolbox.

Tim: What do you mean?

Andy: Well, it helps us resolve just about any possible Bible difficulty that skeptics might raise.

Tim: Such as?

Andy: For example, take Jesus's statement about the mustard seed being the smallest seed (Matthew 13:31-32). Skeptics often object that this is a demonstrably false statement, since the orchid seed is actually smaller. I, on the other hand, can confidently affirm that the mustard seed is indeed the smallest of all seeds, and it only appears that the orchid seed is smaller.

Tim: I see.

Andy: Or take for instance the places in Scripture that speak of the four corners of the earth (Ezekiel 7:2; Isa. 11:12). If the Bible tells me that the earth has corners, then that's what I believe. The claims of science are not a judge on God's word. So I hold with full conviction that the earth is squarish, and simply appears to be round.

Tim: I can see what you meant by multi-purpose. But doesn't that sort of reasoning effectively do away with any possibility for us to know things empirically, through our five senses?

Andy: I suppose it does. But why should that trouble us? After all, doesn't Paul say "we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen" (2 Cor. 4:18)?

Tim: He appears to say that.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Briefs. 03.16.13

Marriage: What It Is, Why It Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining It - This is a great paper that defends traditional marriage based on three lines of argument: (1) men and women are complementary, (2) reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and (3) children need a mother and a father. The author argues that gay marriage doesn't simply expand the definition of marriage, but effectively rejects these truths.

I once heard R. C. Sproul say that one of the best ways to study Christian orthodoxy is to learn what it isn't, the point being that theological heresy has the healthy consequence of forcing Christians to think precisely about what they believe. I think the gay marriage initiative does something similar for conservatives. The militant push to redefine marriage affords us all an opportunity to contemplate the institution at these basic and foundational levels.

Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad - A lengthy and critical response from Alastair Roberts to Peter Leithart concerning the Wilson/Sullivan debate. There are some good thoughts here. While I enjoyed the debate overall, I did find myself wishing that Wilson had had a bit more to say about the detrimental effects of homosexual marriage on society, besides pointing out the inescapable fact that it leaves the door wide open to polygamy. This quote from Roberts is potent: "The Christian thinker should be a student of the consequences of particular actions in God’s creation and the ways in which the creation prosecutes the will of God against those who flout it."

Additionally, it's always puzzled me that homosexual marriage caught on faster than polygamous marriage. Roberts notes this enigma as well: "The resurgent fear of polygamy in the context of the same-sex marriage debates is strange indeed, given the fact that same-sex marriage is by far the more radical aberration. . . . expressing a concern that same-sex marriage might lead to polygamy would be akin to worry on our part that mainlining heroin might lead to experimentation with marijuana." You can read Wilson's response to Roberts here which is, not surprisingly, chock full of more good thoughts.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Rob Bell - Trevin Wax reviews Rob Bell's new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. His conclusion: "Rob Bell is a fundamentalist of a different sort."

Google Reader Meets Its Inevitable End - This is a little bit sad. But thankfully, Feedly is ahead of the game. There is also The Old Reader, which looks right up my alley.

Dashboard Confessional: Live in Sao Paulo - This short web documentary evoked some major nostalgia. When I was a teenager, I flat wanted to be Chris Carrabba. Still kinda do.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Briefs. 03.09.13

Is Civil Marriage for Gay Couples Good for Society? - A debate between Doug Wilson and Andrew Sullivan. It might have gone better in some ways, but this is a good exchange overall. Wilson doesn't disappoint. The Q&A portion is always entertaining, especially when the questions are for Wilson. After viewing the debate, one thing I'm contemplating is the question of how overtly our presuppositional apologetic should be expressed. As perfectly legitimate (and necessary) as the ultimate authority card is, does it sometimes get thrown too quickly?

And if you're one of those who are quick to call a foul on Wilson's "slippery slope" argument...

Yale Hosts Workshop Teaching Sensitivity to Bestiality - The sexual revolution moves forward. Notice that much of the language and argumentation used here to defend bestiality is very familiar. We're told that we need to be "sensitive" and avoid judging other people for what we personally consider immoral.

One Family Under God - Good thoughts from Tom Ascol on children's church. I think he re-frames the discussion in an important way. Family-integrated churches aren't the ones excluding children.

Loritts and Wilson - Bryan Loritts speaks out about what he sees as Doug Wilson's racial insensitivity. Wilson responds here and offers to fly Loritts (along with Thabiti Anyabwile and Eric Mason) out to Moscow to talk through the issues. We'll see if it happens.

Made Alive - A new song from a Mars Hill band called Citizens. Cool little tune.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Polygamy in the Service of Feminism

Here are some comments on a section of Rachel Held Evans’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I don’t know if I’ll make it through the whole book, but I’ve read enough to know that Evans is a capable writer. She tells entertaining stories, and can be quite funny at times. But these qualities can’t make her message any less frustrating.

On pp. 58-61, Evans writes about her interaction with a woman involved in a “Christian” polygamous marriage. This marriage began monogamously, but after the husband got hot for another woman (during his wife’s pregnancy), he “re-examined” the Bible and came to the conclusion that polygamy was fine by God. He then convinced his wife to abide his new convictions and the marriage took on a third member. The two wives initially shared the same house, but now live separately. The husband has one family with his first wife, and another family with his second wife. He alternates between houses each night of the week.

I had to pause and reflect. This wicked distortion of marriage provides a clear picture of human depravity. Only scaly eyes can see justification for polygamy in the Bible. Here is a man who is utterly blinded by his lusts and has duped two women into going along with him. He needs repentance. The story is disturbing on multiple levels.

But what also disturbed me were Evans’s motives for telling the story. She showcases this polygamous family, not so that she might speak to the manifest sin of the adults involved, but rather so that she might attempt to convince Christians that they need to get over the word ‘biblical.1 In effect, what she’s trying to say is, “See? These kinds of families claim to be biblical too. And you know what? They kind of are biblical, because polygamy is regulated in the Bible.”

Aside from the patently simplistic hermeneutics required to make an argument like that2, I think it’s telling of Evans’s priorities that this is the way she chooses to capitalize on this polygamous family. She expresses no repudiation of the arrangement, and provides no discussion of God’s creational design. All she’s concerned with is persuading her readers that the Bible is unable to give us a consistent message. And this is what she has to do in order to keep promoting feminism from an “evangelical” perspective. Ignatius said of early heretics, “They speak of the law, not that they may establish the law, but that they may proclaim things contrary to it.”

Given her rejection of the inerrancy of Scripture, I can’t help but wonder what basis Evans would have for constructing a Christian case for monogamy as opposed to polygamy. After all, if the Bible, being an ancient collection of texts written by various authors, is unable to give a consistent vision of womanhood (as Evans suggests), then what makes anyone think that it could possibly give us a consistent vision of marriage? Or sexuality? Or even salvation?


1. Evans writes, “Now, we evangelicals have a nasty habit of throwing the word biblical around like it’s Martin Luther’s middle name. We especially like to stick it in front of other loaded words, like economics, sexuality, politics, and marriage to create the impression that God has definitive opinions about such things, opinions that just so happen to correspond with our own.” (xix-xx)

2. Divorce is regulated in the Bible too. Does that mean God is cool with divorce?

Monday, January 28, 2013

You Have to Say More

Plero: You’re a paedobaptist, right?

Agno: That’s correct.

P: So you believe in infant baptism?

A: Yes.

P: Why?

A: Why not?

P: Uh, because the Bible says nothing about baptizing babies. Where do you find that in Scripture?

A: That’s a fair question, and I’ll answer it in due time; but do you mind if I ask you a question first?

P: If you must.

A: Ok. Here’s my question: Do you believe that women should be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper?

P: Um, yes. Of course.

A: Ok, good. But let me urge you to abide by your own standard, the one you just held me to in regard to infant baptism. Believe it or not, there isn’t one verse in the Bible that commands us to give communion to women, nor is there a single description of a woman partaking. In other words, we don’t find a verse that says, “Thou shalt give communion to women,” nor do we see any verse that says something like, “And then the women partook of communion.” So is it fair to say that the Bible does not allow women to partake of communion?

P: I see what you’re doing, but it’s not going to work. Scripture might not expressly command us to give communion to women, but we know that Christian women are valid participants based on who they are in Christ.

A: Care to elaborate?

P: Sure. It’s simple. Everyone who is a member of the body of Christ has access to the Lord’s table. Christian women are part of the body of Christ, and so they can legitimately partake of communion as well.

A: Exactly! And that’s precisely the way I argue for infant baptism.

P: Wait, what? I’m not following.

A: Notice, you’ve just admitted that an express biblical command is not needed in order for us to legitimately give communion to women. So why are you requiring that I give you an express biblical command to baptize infants?

P: Ok, fine. But I gave you a theological rationale for why women can legitimately partake of communion.

A: Exactly! And that’s what you should be doing. In terms of female communion, you offered a rationale based on the status of Christian women in the body of Christ. In terms of infant baptism, I can offer a rationale based on the covenant status of infants born to Christian parents.

P: Well, let’s hear it then.

A: Gladly. Covenant members receive the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17). The sign of the new covenant is baptism (Col. 2:11-12). The children of Christian parents are included as members of the new covenant (Matt. 19:13-14; Acts 2:38-39; 1 Cor. 7:14). Therefore, the children of Christian parents should receive baptism.

P: Woa, slow down. I don’t know if I accept all of those premises, or your use of those texts.

A: Fair enough. We can address them again some other time. My only point here is this: Not every aspect of Christian doctrine and practice is spelled out explicitly in Scripture. Sometimes we have to argue from good and necessary inference, just like you did in your argument for the inclusion of women at the Lord’s table. In our debate over baptism, it doesn’t do much good for you to simply state that the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention the baptism of infants, as if that settles the issue. You have to say more.

P: We’ll talk again soon.