Is the Term “Universal Church” Neoplatonic?

Is the Term “Universal Church” Neoplatonic?

Sadly, there is no “yes” or “no” answer to this question without some qualification.

The question is charged, because if someone says, “yes,” they can easily be accused of following a heathen philosopher rather than the Bible. But if they say, “no,” then if Plato was right about something, truth being objective no matter who says it, they would in effect deny the truth spoken. If Plato said, “the sky is blue,” assuming it indeed was, is the fact that the sky is blue to  be rejected simply because Plato stated it? Absolutely not. As Christians, we have no business endorsing informal fallacies (like the genetic fallacy) in our epistemology (our method of knowing).

The term universal is to be seen in formal contrast with the term particular. These terms, like them or not, represent concepts all people engage at every moment in their lives. To reject the terminology and what it represents simply because Plato used it would be absurd, since to do so would be to reject truths independent of Plato, i.e. things which are true no matter what a person thinks about them, says about them, etc. (Even if such truths were uttered by that terrible, wicked Plato guy).

Now, what does it mean to say something is universal? There are a few ways the term could be used, but for ease of explanation it is a general idea, essence, or form applicable to many diverse or distinct things. For example, if I said, “The automobile is a modern marvel,” I am using the automobile in a general sense. Automobile, in that sentence, is a universal since I am not denoting any one automobile in particular, but the automobile in general, the idea of it, the form of it, its essence, etc. I am naming the genus without enumerating particular species of automobile. It’s basic taxonomy which, if rejected, actually collapses all the sciences and makes science in general impossible, including the science of theology.

Taxonomy is not original to Plato, though he was one of the more erudite thinkers to first systematize a realist position, which I would argue just is what the Bible assumes through and through. But realism’s truth doesn’t depend on Plato. After Plato, his pupil, Aristotle, departed from his teacher’s extreme realism—where the universal is radically separated from the particular, i.e. in the world of the forms (and this did lead to Gnosticism). Instead, Aristotle thought of the universal, the essence, or the form as being formally joined with the particulars themselves, such that we come into contact with the universal through the particular, e.g. by means of sense perception. For Plato, the essence of a thing was in heaven, not in the thing. Aristotle saw this as a problem. If the essences of things are in heaven (the world of the forms), then we wouldn’t be able to know what any one particular thing is in itself. We’d all have to be agnostics concerning the true identity of the most basic things around us. Bridging the gulf between the universal and the particular was Aristotle’s homework.

Aristotle, contra Plato, believed a substance (a particular thing) obtained whenever form actualized matter. And for this reason, the form of a thing and the thing are inseparably joined. This is opposite both Docetism and the later Gnosticism.

So, there are two players which heavily influence the general thought patterns of people living at the dawn of the New Covenant era. To give you an idea of how influential this language was and is, the categories found in realism, especially moderate realism, are absolutely essential in the systematic orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, to deny the universal and the particular as categories altogether would be to utterly destroy our ability to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in any sensible fashion, i.e. one divine essence subsisting in three distinct relations. To deny the universal (unity) and the particular (plurality) as categories altogether is not only to reject common experience, but to also reject any hope for making sense of what the Scriptures teach.

So, is the “universal church” a synthesis between heathen metaphysics and Christian ecclesiology? Not any more than the terms we use to speak of the Trinity or the incarnation (homoousioshypostasis, etc.) are adaptations of heathen philosophical terminology. If the doctrine of the universal church is heathen on the basis of its appropriation of the category “universal,” then all of Christian prolegomena, theology proper, and Christology are amalgamations of heathen and Christian thought. But this is not so! All truth is God’s truth. Thus, if the categories universal and particular are true, then they are not true because of Plato or Aristotle, they are true because of the one true God who has made Himself known through what has been made (Rom. 1:18-20).

The doctrine of the universal church, while perhaps easier to articulate with creaturely categories like “universal” is not original, not even in part, to Plato. Linguistically, it redeems Aristotle’s correct observation that the form and particular are joined. For this reason, we should understand the universal church not as a visible institution on earth, but a universal which instantiates in distinct local assemblies. This is especially apparent in Hebrews 12:22-23, when it says—

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect… 

As much as those who deny the present existence of the universal (general) church, gathering, assembly by relegating this text to a future-only state of affairs, we need only follow the verbs, i.e. “you have come,” is in the perfect tense. This is very much a present reality, though not yet consummately visible to us. It’s an already/not yet kind of thing: “For in that He put all in subjection under him, He left nothing that is not put under him. But now we do not yet see all things put under him (Heb. 2:8).”

To conclude, if there be any doubts concerning the appropriation of terminology used in the heathen world for the sake of theological articulation, then I would invite you to consider the fact that the whole of Scripture appropriates preexistent human language which would have been interchangeably used in heathen or pagan culture. This is true in both Old and New Testaments. But this doesn’t mean the Bible depends on heathen culture to do what it does. It means God uses familiar language in order to break into His world through special revelation, which we can only understand if it’s put in our terms. And God, far from leaving the language in its pagan context, actually redeems it and un-perverts it, as it were. To deny the validity of terms on the basis of heathen use would be to invalidate all 66 books of the canon.

It is well known that the term elohim was a term used to denote pagan “deities.” Even the Bible itself does this (Ps. 82:1; 86:8). Scripture redeems that term and applies it to the one true God. The method of the Bible is not to flee from language just because it has been perverted through pagan use. The method of the Bible is to redeem good words. Paul in Colossians 2:3, says it is Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” If one were to read Cicero’s De Finibus, which precedes Paul by about 100 years, they would find this very same phrase. Yet, while Cicero says, “all wisdom and knowledge are hidden in moral virtue (para.),” Paul, who was apparently familiar with Cicero, redeems that phrase by telling us all knowledge and wisdom are hidden in Christ, who is Himself the very perfection of virtue. It would have made a strong appeal to the Colossian Christians at that time. Obviously, Paul appropriates heathen terminology in Acts 17 during his Mars’ Hill discourse. We should be careful about anathematizing words and concepts used in the heathen world simply because they were used in the heathen world. In doing so, we might throw the truth-baby out with the bad heathen bathwater.

Finally, we have to understand that Jesus was not fearful of the leper. Why was this so? Because Jesus was not corrupted by the leper, the leper was purified by Jesus. When we escape terms simply because they’ve been perverted by pagans, we refuse to put this principle into practice. Gratia naturam perficit; grace perfects nature. Nature does not corrupt grace.

Landmarkism & Why I Do Not Subscribe

Landmarkism & Why I Do Not Subscribe

This article is a response to Landmarkism. The tone is irenic. I am indebted to men who espouse Landmarkism for much doctrinal fellowship, friendship, and sound counsel.

Landmarkism is an ecclesiological (doctrine of the church) position. Landmarkers typically hold two key distinctives: (1) the Baptist church is the only true church; (2) there is no such thing as a universal church. Period.

It appeared in the 19th century under the influence of well-intentioned men like James Robinson Graves, Ben Bogard, and Amos Cooper Dayton. It was largely in response to the downgrade, which reached a boiling point in the 19th century. Some historians allege it was the downgrade that contributed to Charles Spurgeon’s ill-health, and ultimately, his premature death! The downgrade consisted of many compromises in Christian orthodoxy, and it transcended denominational lines. One of the central doctrines at stake was the inerrancy of the Bible. Both conservative Baptists and Presbyterians combated the threat of a Schleiermachian-influenced liberalism.

In my opinion, Landmarkism sought to retreat, rather than combat, liberalism by claiming exclusive ecclesiological rights for Baptist churches… without much argument. A denial of the universal church only ensured that no one, except Baptist congregations, could rightfully think of themselves as “the church.” Consequently, rather than dousing the already agitated theological landscape through careful theological thought and skillful polemics, Landmarkism opened yet another front in the war already plaguing evangelicals. Graves was disciplined out of his Baptist church for being schismatic, and Dayton was forced to resign from the Bible Board.

Despite the good intentions behind this position, I cannot endorse it in good conscience. For more on Landmarkism, see my video here:

 

In this brief article, I would like to present various problems/obstacles Landmarkism encounters. Below are three glaring issues I see in the movement, which I perceive to be insurmountable:

It Cannot Account for General Uses of the Term Ekklesia (Church) In Scripture

In Ephesians 5:25-27, Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” 

What is the church? To say, “the church, in this context, really means the local church only,” is to forfeit the plain meaning of the words.

There must be one bride of Christ. Our Lord, after all, is not an adulterer! Therefore, this church must be one. Landmarkers may respond, “The bride is eschatological, or future, to us, but not present (cf. Rev. 19; 21).” While this is a positive departure from the original position, since it at least grants a universal church (albeit future only), it cannot account for the language of Ephesians 5:26, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word.” The bride cannot be future only, since Christ washes and cleanses her in the here and now.

If Consistently Held, It Ends In Admitting Satan Prevails Upon Christ’s Church Frequently

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Local churches close their doors all the time. Oftentimes, it’s because sin has prevailed upon the congregation in some way. Either the congregation divides over doctrine, or cultural practice, or it slides into apostasy. This is precisely what Christ said would not happen to His church.

There needs to be a category preceding the local church which can help account for us, and I believe that category is given to us here in Matthew 16 and in Ephesians 5, the general assembly (cf. Hebrews 12).

What About Christians Who Do Not Belong to a Baptist Church?

Landmarkers will frequently admit there can be christians who are not part of the Baptist church. But if we return to Ephesians 5:25, we see that the very object of Christ’s atoning work is the church, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her…” If the only church is the local church, then Ephesians 5:25 is telling a half truth. Either Christ died for His church and then some, or He died only for His church. If the former is true, then limited atonement is false (1 Pet. 5:13; 2 Jn. 1; Is. 45:4). If the latter is true then the church cannot be local only. There are, after all, saints who no longer worship in local churches, i.e. those in heaven.

Conclusion

Now, I do not want to be misunderstood here. I fall in line with mainline Particular Baptist orthodoxy on this locus of theology, namely, that while there is a catholic or universal church, it is most certainly not a visible institution as Rome perceives it to be (cf. 2LBCF, 26.1; Savoy 26.1). To understand the universal church as a present, visible institution on earth is a fatal ecclesiological error, and it has led to the mistake of sacral society-like establishment of church-state governments.

I also want to be very clear about my personal policy on ecumenism. Landmarkism is not the only way to avoid inviting Presbyterians or liberal Lutherans from taking over my church’s pulpit! I have confessional standards which serve as a kind of rubric for who and who I would not allow into the pulpit at Victory. Remaining doctrinally pure by no means requires we deny the existence of Christ’s one bride which has a present subsistence, albeit not a visible institution.

I hope this helps to parse my own thoughts on this issue. I want to again reassert my gracious tone and heary love for those who would disagree with the preceding content. I personally do not see this particular issue as a test of fellowship. And it is my opinion that it should not be in any case. Ut ferrum ferro acuite. May iron sharpen iron.

Quick Thoughts on One of the Best Arguments for Reformed Paedobaptism

Quick Thoughts on One of the Best Arguments for Reformed Paedobaptism

This is part 4 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

Perhaps one of the most rhetorically effective arguments paedobaptists use against Baptists is as follows—

  1. Under the Old Covenant infants were admitted into the covenant.
  2. Covenant inclusion of infants in principle is never abrogated in the New Covenant.
  3. Therefore, it would have been assumed parents/clergy should continue administering the covenant sign to infants (baptism under the New Covenant).

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church states— 

The living God himself embraced the children of believers as members of his church. Genesis 17:7—”I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”

 

Further, God nowhere rescinded this principle that the children of believers are church members. This is very significant. In order to maintain their position, those who oppose infant baptism have to prove that he did rescind this principle. Where does the Bible teach that? This is a question that demands an answer (emphasis added).

And…

The baptistic view is built on this hidden assumption—the assumption that, in the New Testament, children of believers are no longer members of the church.

 

But when you read the New Testament you find just the opposite! The New Testament lines right up with the Old Testament in continuing to assume that children of believers are included in the church. [1]

I appreciate this argument since its core concern is to preserve the sameness of the gospel under both Old and New Covenants, a concern both Baptists and paedobaptists ought to share. However, it makes some fatal logical errors.

First, there are several texts we could use to prove a rescinding of circumcision. These texts will probably not rescind administration of the covenant sign to infants in the way paedobaptists might expect. But it is often assumed by paedobaptists that infant inclusion is never rescinded under the New Covenant. John the Baptist, for example, clearly points to an obsolescence of the genealogical principle of the Old Covenant in Luke 3:8, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

Paedobaptists will no doubt quibble with our use of this text, retorting, “That’s always been the case in terms of the gospel if you believe in one way of salvation.” Absolutely. But it has not only been the case, and that is what John is getting at here. Under the Old Covenant, unbelievers and believers could be members thereof. Genesis 17 makes the covenant conditions external, e.g. circumcision of the flesh. But, under the New Covenant no longer will God tolerate those obedient to the letter (externality) of the law, but not the spirit (heart of) the law as He did under the Old Covenant (cf. Heb. 8; Jer. 31:31-34).

Moreover, the New Covenant does explicitly rescind the Old Covenant in places like Hebrews 8:6, 13. The rejoinder may be, “Yes, but by ‘Old Covenant’ Hebrews 8 is obviously only addressing Moses!” But Moses is none other than a development upon the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant, and both have the same formal basis, the fundamental tenet of which is fleshly circumcision. Moses governs the Abrahamic covenant and its members and is the covenant intended to bring Genesis 15:18-21 to fulfillment. This is why the author of Hebrews addresses Moses more explicitly than he does Abraham. Because the Mosaic covenant is the covenant out of which his audience was immediately called. If Moses is gone, so too is the covenant of circumcision.

Second, one major problem with the OPC’s argument is the assumed universalization of the covenant sign under the Old Covenant. However, circumcision was never administered to female infants, only male infants. This seems to remove their very basis for transferring the “infant principle” (for lack of a better term) into the New Covenant. If the goal is continuity between covenants, then this obvious point of serious discontinuity continues to exist. Under the Old Covenant, boys were circumcised, girls were not. Under the New Covenant, both may receive baptism.

Third, in the final analysis, this argument begs the question. It assumes the core Reformed paedobaptistic location of the substance/administration of the covenant of grace. For them, the Old and New Covenants are but outward administrations of the selfsame covenant of grace. Not two distinct covenants. Because the paedobaptist anachronistically imports this particular understanding of God’s everlasting covenant upon the earliest Christians, it is easy for them to allege: “Newly converted Jewish Christians would have been assuming infant inclusion in the New Covenant!” But this would not be the case if those newly converted Jewish Christians assumed the opposite presupposition as the Reformed paedobaptists, namely that the Old Covenant was growing old and becoming obsolete (Heb. 8), and the covenant of grace revealed had become the covenant of grace concluded (New Covenant) being formalized in the blood of Christ (Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

The burden of proof, therefore, is on the Reformed paedobaptist to demonstrate that the Apostolic church was assuming their model of covenant theology. But if this cannot be demonstrated, then the Scriptural ontology of the covenants stands alone, and the New Covenant really is a new covenant as the plain language seems to suggest.

Resources:

[1] The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, https://opc.org/cce/tracts/WhyInfantBaptism.html

How Baptists Need to Use the Church Fathers

How Baptists Need to Use the Church Fathers

This is part 3 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

There’s hardly a discernible consensus on the age of baptismal candidates in the extant literature of the early church. Full stop.

Everyone should be able to agree here. In the first couple centuries of post-canonical church history, there is very little written on baptism at all. And what is written is too sparse to bolster historical precedent for any one baptismal tradition. In light of this, the leveled way to use these very early sources, like the Didache, Irenaeus, etc., is not to try and claim them for the Baptists or paedobaptists, respectively. Such a tactic would be intellectually irresponsible and perhaps even dishonest. The best way, I believe, to use this history is to admit a measure of eclecticism—at least in terms of the ordinance or sacrament of baptism.

Admitting an eclectic approach to baptism in the early church, the scope of which is too diverse to detail here, we can take a step back and ask the simple question, “According to the extant literature, what was the early church not doing with regard to baptism?”

There are a few things we could immediately observe here: (1) they were not observing a purely symbolic baptism; (2) they were not (according to the extant literature) baptizing infants; and (3) they were not (always) baptizing upon a profession of faith. These three observations make the terrain very difficult for both Baptists and paedobaptists when it comes to finding either of those administrative forms of baptism in the ante-Nicene church as they exist today.

The symbolic view of baptism, which many modern Baptists espouse, does not comport with the early church witness. This is without dispute. The Epistle of Barnabas says, “Now concerning the water it is written in reference to Israel, how that they would not receive the baptism which bringeth remission of sins, but would build for themselves (11.1).” In other places, baptism is expressly linked to regeneration. Our 17th century Baptist forerunners understood this, and rejected a purely symbolic form of baptism. Question 96 of Keach’s Catechism (probably written by William Collins) reads, “How do baptism and the Lord’s supper become effectual means of salvation?” It answers, “Baptism and the Lords supper become effectual means of salvation, not for any virtue in them, or in him that doth administer them, but only by the blessing of Christ.” First Peter 3:21 is one of the texts Collins sites in support of this statement, keeping in line, at least in principle, with the thought of the early church.

While the 17th century Baptists, along with the Reformed paedobaptists, would reject baptismal regeneration, they also refused to see it as a purely symbolical ordinance with no salvific import. They and their Reformed paedobaptist cousins believed Word and Spirit were the only means/Agent involved with the work of regeneration. The Westminster Confession reads, “Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated (WCF, 28.5).”

In the first two centuries of the New Testament church’s life, there is little to no mention of infant baptism among the several mentions of believers being baptized. If we are doing the work of historians, we could go a step further and refuse to accept that infant baptism occurred at all during that time due to the absence of evidence. The burden of proof would lie squarely upon the paedobaptist to demonstrate it was being practiced in the first two centuries of church history. There is an oblique statement by Irenaeus concerning the sanctity of infants, which is a hopeful prospect for the paedobaptists. But this comes in the second century and in no wise before. Tertullian responds negatively to infant baptism in the second century, and while this does nothing to support the Baptist understanding, it does seem to support an eclectic approach to baptism in the first two centuries of church history and perhaps beyond.

Baptisms were not always being administered to professing Christians upon a credible profession of faith. Sometimes it was delayed until old age. Constantine refused baptism until he was on his deathbed in the 4th century! Second Clement 6:9 gives historical precedent for delayed baptism (inadvertently so), when it reads, “But if even such righteous men as these cannot by their righteous deeds deliver their children, with what confidence shall we, if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled, enter into the kingdom of God?” If we delay baptism until after the sins resulting from the vigor of youth are past, we are more likely to keep our baptism pure—or so it was thought.

This gets even more complicated when we consider the diverse forms of paedobaptism in existence today. For example, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed views of baptism are substantially different in terms of what each of those traditions believe happens in baptism. For the Roman Catholics, baptism is effectual in its own right, e.g. ex opere operato. For the Lutherans, baptism is the means whereby God regenerates the subject. And for the Reformed, baptism does not regenerate in any sense though it certainly signifies it (cf. WCF, 28.1); but it does signify entrance into the external administration of Covenant of Grace, i.e. the New Covenant.

Nearly all the oldest post-canonical sources on baptism associate baptism with regeneration, and this seems to render the Reformed paedobaptists as the new kids on the block when put alongside Catholicism and Lutheranism. Though they want to remain in catholic (little “c”) fellowship with their paedobaptist predecessors, they represent some of the first paedobaptists to reject what was the very basis of paedobaptism in the first place—baptismal regeneration. Roman Catholics and Lutherans both preserve baptismal regeneration in principle, albeit with some obvious and serious differences, especially in terms of causality. But even beliefs concerning the very nature and purpose of baptism differ among those who affirmed some kind of baptismal regeneration in the early church. For example, 2 Clement 6:9 views baptism as a damsel in distress, needing protection from impurity, “if we keep not our baptism pure and undefiled…” Conversely, Ignatius writing to Polycarp understands baptism as a defense mechanism against sin, “Let your baptism abide with you as your shield… (Ignatius to Polycarp, 6.2).”

At this point, the Baptist can take an honest look at the ante-Nicene material, admit that not everyone practiced baptism in the same way (sin is real, after all), and admit that baptism was often associated with regeneration (we have a category for this in our understanding of what a sign is). At the same time they might point the paedobaptist to the deafening silence concerning baptized infants within the first two centuries of the church. And the Baptist can do this without anachronistically laying claim to the early church, as if they were all textbook Baptists. This is a way of putting both Baptists and paedobaptists in the same polemical boat. The paedobaptist (much less the Reformed paedobaptist) shouldn’t be able to claim history for themselves if they cannot find their own tradition extant therein. This takes the historical high-ground away from the paedobaptist even though it does nothing to necessarily support the Baptist position.

Therefore, Baptists should use this particular era of church history not to make Baptist arguments, but to level the playing field. Instead of one side trying to claim the catholic high ground, we can all admit this is a difficult subject that cannot be solved through historical theology. We must take the fight to the biblical-theological arena.

The Particular Baptists & Covenant Children

The Particular Baptists & Covenant Children

This is part 2 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

It is often supposed by our paedobaptist friends that Baptists outrightly reject the notion of covenant-holiness with regard to children of believing parents. And while this is typically the case in modern Baptist circles, the 17th century Particular Baptists seemed to have no problem admitting infant covenant membership in some sense.

In the appendix on baptism, following the Second London Confession, 1689, they write:

As for those our Christian brethren who do ground their arguments for Infants baptism, upon a presumed federal Holiness, or Church-Membership, we conceive they are deficient in this, that albeit this Covenant-Holiness and Membership should be as is supposed, in reference unto the Infants of Believers; yet no command for Infant baptism does immediately and directly result from such a quality, or relation.

The phrasing is a bit confusing, but I will attempt to clarify: For the framers of our Confession, the deficiency in paedobaptist theology does not seem to be located in the admittance of federal holiness, and not even in some notion of church membership (although this must be understood in light of Baptist principles), per se, but in the presumption upon those things which leads to infant baptism. While infants may be sanctified in view of belonging to a believing household (1 Cor. 7:14), and while they are in constant attendance and participate somewhat at and in Christ’s church (yet, not being formal members thereof), there is nothing in either of those realities necessitating infant baptism.

To cap off their point, they appeal to a somewhat mutually understood definition of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), which was then agreed upon by both Particular Baptists and many paedobaptists in England. They say:

All instituted Worship receives its sanction from the precept, and is to be thereby governed in all the necessary circumstances thereof.