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.

 

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

This is part 1 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

John Lightfoot was a 17th century paedobaptist theologian. He was a member of the Westminster Assembly and vice chancellor of Cambridge. He is especially known for his rabbinic scholarship, the capstone of which was his work Horae Hebrai, or A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica.

He played a role in the Particular Baptist’s own defense of credobaptism. He wasn’t the only paedobaptist resource the Baptists would appeal to. John Owen was another. There were several key angles in the disagreements between credobaptists and paedobaptists, but at least one worth mentioning with respect to Lightfoot. The Particular Baptists rejected fleshly circumcision is a sacramental seal of the covenant of grace under the old testament. Conversely, paedobaptists, seeking to preserve the unity or continuity between old and new covenants, saw the old covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace. For them, this meant that circumcision, being a sign of the old covenant, simultaneously served as a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11).

However, the Particular Baptists saw a substantive difference between the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision and the covenant of grace. While fleshly circumcision was a condition (Gen. 17:14) and sign of old covenant membership, it was not a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace. For the Particular Baptists, those two covenants were/are actually and truly two distinct covenants. In their appendix on baptism, which should be placed at the back of the 1677/89 Confession, they say:

If our brethren do suppose baptism to be the seal of the covenant which God makes with every believer (of which the Scriptures are altogether silent) it is not our concern to contend with them herein; yet we conceive the seal of that covenant is the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the particular and individual persons in whom He resides, and nothing else… 

In demonstration of their catholicity on this point, they would often appeal to paedobaptists who believed something similar, a la Owen and Lightfoot. In the above mentioned appendix, they quote Lightfoot at length in response to the paedobaptist argument from Romans 4:11. Below, I have transcribed verbatim what they reproduced from Lightfoot in the Confession’s appendix—

Circumcision is nothing, if we respect the time, for now it was without use, that end of it being especially fulfilled; for which it had been instituted: this end the Apostle declares in these words, Romans 4:11 σφραγῖδα etc. But I fear that by most translations they are not sufficiently suited to the end of circumcision, and the scope of the Apostle whilst something of their own is by them inserted.

… 

Other versions are to the same purpose; as if circumcision was given to Abraham for a Seal of that righteousness which he has being yet uncircumcised, which we will not deny to be in some sense true, but we believe that circumcision had chiefly a far different respect.

 

Give me leave thus to render the words; And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith, which was to be in the uncircumcision, Which was to be (I say) not which had been, not that which Abraham had whilst he was yet uncircumcised; but that which his uncircumcised seed should have, that is the Gentiles, who in time to come should imitate the faith of Abraham.

 

Now consider well on what occasion circumcision was instituted unto Abraham, setting before thine eyes the history thereof, Genesis 17.

 

This promise is first made unto him, Thou shalt be the Father of many nations (in what sense the Apostle explaineth in that chapter) and then there is subjoined a double seal for the confirmation of the thing, to wit, the change of the name Abram into Abraham, and the institution of circumcision. v. 4. Behold as for me, my Covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. Wherefore was his name called Abraham? for the sealing of this promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. And wherefore was circumcision instituted to him? For the sealing of the same promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. So that this is the sense of the Apostle; most agreeable to the institution of circumcision; he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith which in time to come the uncircumcision (for the Gentiles) should have and obtain.

 

Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.

Scaling Scripture: Where the Quadriga & the 1689 Meet

Scaling Scripture: Where the Quadriga & the 1689 Meet

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. ~ 2LBCF 1.9

The middle ages were, in some ways a golden age for the interpretation of Scripture, and in other ways a hermeneutical train wreck. Of course, by the time of the high middle ages (11th to the 13the centuries), the kind of authority eventually ascribed to church tradition had not yet become a canonical article of church dogma. It was first explained as dogma during Vatican II, held in 1962. Yet, the equality of church tradition and Scripture had already begun, to some extent, in the middle ages.

As Henri de Lubac notes, the authority of church tradition would play into the assumed medieval hermeneutic milieu, which has since been called the quadriga. All Scripture, it is said, is literal. But the literal sense gives way to three other senses, i.e. the allegorical (what to believe), tropological (how to live), and anagogical (what to hope for). Because the largely Romanist medieval theologians had a twofold principle of knowledge—Scripture and tradition—the quadriga was not confined to Scripture itself, but became an open system through man-made tradition. Allegory, then, didn’t have to result only from Scripture, but was also informed by the authoritative and subjective interpretation of the Magisterium.

I’m not including the whole story, but this eventually led the Reformers to reject the quadriga, at least in terms. But not necessarily in practice. Much of the post-Reformed Puritan theology reflected an assumption of the quadriga, though it was hardly, if ever, referred to as such. Moreover, the Puritans, such as John Owen, would affirm a single sense which itself would need to be plumbed in order to reach the full extent thereof. This was called the sensus plenior, or the fuller sense. For the Puritans, the single sense could be manifold. And thus the quadriga continued on into orthodox Protestantism, but not without qualification. It no longer consisted of four distinct senses, which might mistakenly be viewed as multiple, if not conflicting, truths. It consisted instead of one sense, the literal, which lent itself to a deeper or fuller meaning, the scope of which includes allegory, tropology, and anagogy. And these subsequent elements of the unfolding literal sense were to be confined to the Scripture itself and not the opinion of a Magisterium, monarch, etc.

So, 1.9 of the Second London Baptist Confession recognizes this fuller sense which derives from the literal, historical, or immediate terms. Puritans are often accused of allegorizing the text by hyper-literalists for this very reason. But the Puritans, in all reality, were the most prolific torch-bearers of the literal meaning of Scripture. Unlike the hyper-literalists of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Puritans understood that while all meaning began in literal or historical terms, it did not end there. There was a sensus plenior, a fuller sense.

John Owen (An Exposition of the Letter to the Hebrews), Benjamin Keach (Tropologia), and John Gill (Gill’s Expositor, vol. 9, on Hebrews 8) are all examples of theologians who understood the sensus plenior and employed it regularly in their thought.

I will close by giving one biblical example where a New Testament author engages this method of deriving the fuller sense from the literal or historical text. Speaking of Christ Jesus, Hebrews 1:5b says—

For to which of the angels did He ever say… “I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son”?

This is a quotation from 2 Samuel 7:14 in proof of Christ’s superiority. But in that place, the author writes immediately of the coming king Solomon, and there is no instance in the immediate context where the coming Messiah is mentioned. In 2 Samuel 7:14b it even mentions a chastisement for future sin, which means this passage must be immediately referring to someone other than Christ. The text, immediately, then, refers to Solomon, the son of David, who would build the temple (v. 13). Yet, as the author of Hebrews shows us, there is the sensus plenior, where Christ is the deeper meaning of the historical/literal event immediately in view in 2 Samuel 7:14.

In other words, the literal event points to a deeper significance. To put it in quadratic terms: the literal sense of 2 Samuel 7:14 is Solomon; plumbing that single sense, we see the allegory is Christ Himself; the tropology is to live unto Christ as our Lord and King; and the anagogy is the hope of the kingship or the rule of Christ.