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.

John Owen & 11 Differences Between Old and New Covenants

John Owen & 11 Differences Between Old and New Covenants

John Owen lists eleven ways in which the Old and New Covenants differ.

(1) They differ in their circumstance or timing.

(2) They differ in their place—the first was declared from Mt. Sinai, the second was declared from Mt. Zion (Is. 2:3).

(3) They differ in their manner of establishment. The old came with terror. The new came with meekness and grace.

(4) They differ in their mediators. The old covenant had Moses as a mediator (Gal. 3:19). The new has Christ.

(5) They differ in their subject-matter.

(6) They differ in the way they were sanctioned—the old was sanctioned by blood from animals; the new by blood from Christ.

(7) They differ in priests—the Levites in the old, Christ in the new.

(8) They differ in the nature of the sacrifices.

(9) They differ in the way they were written. The old covenants were written in stone. The New Covenant is written in the heart of man (Jer. 31:31-34).

(10) They differ in their purposes—the old covenants imposed laws which conditioned man’s participation therein; the New Covenant gives grace sufficient for man’s inclusion.

(11) They differed in effect. The Old Covenant was a ministry of death, signed in circumcision of the flesh and animal blood (2 Cor. 3:7). The New Covenant, on the contrary, gives life and liberty to all believers.

Cf. Nehemiah Coxe & John Owen, Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, (Palmdale: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 200-205.

The 4-D Homily & Why Leaving It Behind Has Given Us Tim Challies’ Thoughtless Article on Government

The 4-D Homily & Why Leaving It Behind Has Given Us Tim Challies’ Thoughtless Article on Government

I know, this is an odd situation to patent a novel term for a really old style of homiletics or method of preaching. When asked, I’ve been telling people I use an “adapted form of Peter van Mastricht’s preaching outline,” for nearly a year now.

For those of you who do not know, Van Mastricht was a Dutch, post-Reformed scholastic Puritan. I do not utilize a variation of his method simply because it comes from him. In fact, it is implicitly found in many, if not most, of the Puritans. Van Mastricht just happened to be most express about it, actually systematizing it as a methodology (Cf. vol. 1 of his Theoretical-Practical Theology). This is part of the reason Richard Muller, the church historian, refers to Van Mastricht as the height of Reformed orthodoxy in vol. 1 of his Post-Reformed Reformed Orthodoxy.

I am not a creature of innovation and tend to think the old ways are better (sometimes to a fault). But if updating nomenclature helps people understand where I’m at without changing the substance of the thing its designed to represent, I’m all for it. Instead of saying, “I use Van Mastricht’s preaching method,” I will just refer to my method as “4-D homiletics,” or “4-D theology.”

What Is 4-D Homiletics?

First, homiletics refers to the art and science of preaching. Second, 4-D refers to the four dimensions or aspects of theology which should be present in a sermon, but should also determine the form of doctrinal treatises and systematic expositions of the various loci in Christian theology. These four “dimensions” are the exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical.

In the exegetical part, the text is exposed or made plain as to its meaning or sense. In the doctrinal part, doctrine is concluded from the text of Scripture. In the elenctic part, objections to the doctrine are answered, usually through way of affirmations, distinctions, and denials. And in the practical part, application from all the above is made.

In my case, I usually have about three topics or points in each sermon, and then those points (which are derived from the text) have their own exegetical, doctrinal, elenctic, and practical parts.

However, the Puritans would often proceed through a sermon without three topics or points, and the entirety of the sermon or doctrinal treatise would simply be a survey of the text through each of those four principle parts of theology.

Tim Challies & Government

Throughout the coronavirus “crisis” many have sought to establish a near-absolute obedience of the Christian to the government based on texts like Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13. In a recent article, Tim Challies says:

If we wish to submit to God, we must submit to the authorities he has established. Said otherwise, obedience to God manifests itself in obedience to government.

Christians may dispute the exact parameters of governmental authority, but surely we can at least agree that matters of public health fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

He also says in a later part of the article:

Of course there are times when obedience to a higher authority means we must disobey a lower authority. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). But we may do this only when that lesser authority is overstepping its bounds or when obeying government would be disobeying God. For every other occasion, God gives us a sober warning: “whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” When government acts within its mandate, we must obey. When we fail to obey, we risk judgment—God’s own judgment as it is carried out by the state. But, conversely, when we obey, we gain joy—the joy that always comes with obedience.

Challies makes a few points here. First, we must obey government because God says so (I affirm). Second, matters of public health fall within the purview of government authority (I distinguish). Third, Christians can disobey government but only when the government commands Christians to do that which is sinful (I affirm).

In his first point, he’s not saying anything Christians actually disagree with. Every Christian believes we ought to obey government because God has commanded us to do so. The question has nothing to do with whether or not we should obey government, the question, at least for Americans, is what is our government? How is it defined?

In his second point, he suggests public health falls within the realm of governmental authority. This is a sweeping claim in need of further definition. If by public health Challies means the protection of the people’s life, liberty, and their right to pursue happiness (the language of our founding document), then sure. The government, according to Romans 13, wields a sword precisely to this end, the the image of God would be free or at liberty to live lives, especially lives unto God. But if by public health he means protection from every viral threat under the sun, then absolutely not. The American arrangement is not designed for such a nanny-like state authority. Otherwise, the government could legislate literally anything in the name of public health and safety.

In his third point, he states another obvious truth, that Christians are not to disobey government unless government enacts laws contrary to the law of God. Again, no Christian, that I’m aware of, disagrees with this in theory. The question is, How is it put into practice? And, more specifically, How is it put into practice in the U. S.?

Why 4-D Homilies & Theology Matter

You might be wondering, “What’s the relationship between preaching and what Challies has written?”

I thought you’d never ask!

Challies, at a fundamental level, is failing to not only divide the Word of God rightly, but he’s also failing to apply the Word of God, through the practical use of the Scripture he tries to interact with, to the lives of Western Christians. He has failed to exegete the text, he has failed to draw proper doctrinal conclusions from the text, he has failed to answer any kind of objections in any meaningful sense, and he’s most certainly and utterly failed to apply Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 to our present situation, instead assuming without argument a particular, anachronistic application which may have applied to 17th century England, but does not apply to us in the here and now.

4-D preaching and 4-D theologizing presses the theologian to argue from the Scriptures, defend their claims, and then apply it all to life that the Christian may live more abundantly unto God in Christ. Unfortunately, Challies, I believe, does just the opposite.

He quotes some Scripture, assumes his exegesis instead of showing his work, and then makes a faulty application.

If he were careful, he would have noted that current elected officials (in the U. S. & Canada) are commanding Christians to disobey what God has commanded, that is, we are no longer “allowed” to assemble together. This is a clear contradiction to Hebrews 10:24, 25; 4:9, and Exodus 20; Deut. 5 with regard to the Sabbath commandments. But he doesn’t even address this. He goes on apparently assuming the government hasn’t commanded Christians to do anything sinful in this particular instance.

Moreover, if, in the case of the U. S., the Constitution is the principle of power for all elected officials, then obedience of U. S. citizens is ultimately determined by that document. In that document, we have the 1st amendment and also the 10th amendment, both of which guarantee the free exercise of religion and the terminus of the powers not given to the Congress in the states or the people. This means obedience to Romans 13, within the American context, could actually look like public dissent as a result of infringements upon the Constitution.

Challies considers none of these factors in his article. Why? Because the four-fold way or the four dimensions of theology are not carefully thought out. He’s not exegeting the text—he’s just quoting the text and assuming a meaning without argument. He’s also not drawing out a clear doctrine of government from the text (because he never exegeted the text in the first place). He’s not interacting with objections, but merely assuming the truth of his article. And he’s not applying the exegeted text to the reader where the reader is at (which is what the art of application is all about).

We need to bring back this comprehensive way of both doing theology and preaching theology, otherwise, several stones will be left un-turned, doctrinal knowledge will degrade even further than it has, the church will suffer, and people will actually end up disobeying God rather than obeying God, which is the whole business of the Christian in the first place.