How Sola Scriptura Presupposes Natural Theology

How Sola Scriptura Presupposes Natural Theology

Very few things surpass the importance of a correct understanding of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).

I’m currently teaching a church history series in Sunday School at my church. The sobering fact is that many faithful men were murdered at the hands of zealots whose religion derived not from Scripture but from a tradition defined by men. We’ve come to realize, throughout the course of that series, that the mere effort to make Scripture understandable to the general population fell under a high level of ecclesiastical and political scrutiny. Men such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, William Tyndale, and all who found themselves influenced by them, felt the heavy load of governmental pressure in one way or another for simply desiring to know the Word of God.

The question of sola Scriptura, then, is no mildly important matter. It must be understood, not only that we might prevent history from repeating itself, but also for the sake of knowing God and His will correctly. Unfortunately for us today, we live downstream from the massive ideological change of the 17th-18th centuries—namely, from rationalism and idealism—both of which play large roles in modern assumptions. We are all subject to these assumptions because this is the philosophical milieu we’re all born into. Many of these ideas are no less common than the 8-5 workday, or the need for internal combustion in our regular transportation. As with the latter, we give the former hardly any thought at all.

These oft-assumed and unquestioned ideas make for much difficulty when defining the term sola Scriptura. These influential ideas span from Descartes’ critical and rationalistic epistemology to Immanuel Kant’s idealistic separation of the phenomena from the noumena in response to David Hume’s skepticism. We live in an age largely characterized by assumptions finding much of their genus in the minds of these men, but we’re rarely conscious of them.

Sola Scriptura Has Friends

Chances are, if you don’t today, you’ve once assumed the definition of sola Scriptura to be something like the following: “the Bible is the ultimate authority by which we know God.” This is not an altogether wrongheaded definition if we understand it within its proper context. But because such a definition is rarely understood within its rightful place, it is taken to mean that one’s only authority and source of divinely-related knowledge is Scripture. Or, at the very least, Scripture is the best source, and any other alleged source—natural or otherwise—ought to be viewed with a skeptical eye.

This was not the understanding of sola Scriptura during nor immediately after the time of the Reformation. Phil Johnson, of Grace to You Ministries, helpfully notes:

“Sola Scriptura” is not the same as “Solo Scriptura”. A proper understanding of “Sola Scriptura” will not lead to an individualistic, “me and my Bible in the woods” approach to Bible interpretation. Because of Christ’s gifts to the Church through the centuries, we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants (https://reformedontheweb.wordpress.com/tag/phil-johnson/).

Here, Johnson rightfully makes room for help—that is, from the traditional interpretation of Scripture. But he does so without making tradition itself a coequal authority with Scripture. The tradition is subjected to Scripture concerning everything Scripture reveals. But that doesn’t mean the tradition can’t be helpful. And if it is correct, it carries with it the authority of Scripture—all truth is God’s truth, and thus all truth is equally authoritative coming from the same source. We must understand man’s authority to be entirely dependent upon Scripture, since he is not God and since he is often wrong. Scripture, then, is man’s norm, as it were. And even though man can speak with the voice of Scripture, i.e. when he proclaims God’s truth, he himself is not Scripture and thus does not, in himself, carry the same authority. Man may speak with the authority of Scripture, but that authority is derivative not from himself, but from the Word of God. This is why we can say, “If this or that person rejects the Nicene Creed, they are heretics,” not for the authority of the Creed itself, but for the authority it accurately reflects, i.e. Scriptural doctrine.

Thus, there is a place for tradition when it comes to interpreting the text of Scripture. If this is the case, no Christian should abstract themselves from the tradition altogether (solo Scriptura) under a pretense of sola Scriptura. But what about principles of thought? If we give place to tradition as a handmaiden, helping us to rightly interpret Scripture. Surely, then, it would seem there should be a place made for nature to give assistance as well. More directly, if other men can help us understand the Bible, how much more ought God’s voice through nature help us understand it?

My argument here, and it certainly isn’t original to me, is that the Bible’s context is nature. Not only is it itself creaturely (having been created by God and given to us), but it is contextualized by God’s creation. We live, move, and breathe in this creation prior to ever coming to the text of Scripture. We assume natural life, principles of thinking, principles of ethics, and even possess a rudimentary understanding of who God is prior to turning even one page of the Bible. Scripture itself makes this assumption when it begins in Genesis 1:1 with, “In the beginning God…” Not only must we assume some functionality of reason in order for that line to be intelligible to us, but we must also have some idea of what God is. In other words, the very first line of Scripture cannot be understood apart from principles God gives us through nature—not only logic, but also the basic revelation of Himself as “that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” to borrow the words of Anselm.

It would seem, then, genuine sola Scriptura has made friends out of both tradition and natural revelation. And these friendships are, to one extent or another, required for a proper understanding or interpretation of Scripture.

A Brief Defense Natural Theology Against False Definitions of Sola Scriptura

What I’ve just described, in short order, is the Bible’s presupposition not only of natural revelation but also of natural theology (which man’s study of natural revelation). It is, however, all the rage to vocally deny the first principles of natural theology, or at least the knowability of them, and such a denial is often said to be in service to sola Scriptura. Man, it seems, must come to Scripture as a tabulae rasae (blank slate), and from there begin his work of interpretation. It’s as if the modern denial of natural theology is but a veiled Lockean empiricism inconsistently combined with fideism. This, it is thought, is sola Scriptura. We can’t leave place for reason, philosophy, natural theology, tradition, et al., because Scripture stands alone… in a vacuum. I doubt many would admit such a thing if put to them in more or less similar terms, but it most certainly seems to be the prevailing assumption of what sola Scriptura implies.

Richard Muller, in his work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (vol. 2), gives a rather precise definition of sola Scriptura when he writes:

The logical priority of Scripture over all other means of religious knowing in the church—tradition, present-day corporate or official doctrine, and individual insight or illumination—lies at the heart of the teaching of the Reformation and of its great confessional documents. Indeed, it is the unanimous declaration of the Protestant confessions that Scripture is the sole authoritative norm of saving knowledge of God (p. 151).

There are some heavy qualifications made here. Scripture is not the sole authoritative norm for all knowledge, but saving knowledge. Also, neither tradition, corporate interpretation, or individual interpretation are ruled out entirely, though subordinated in terms of, again, the rule of saving knowledge. Moreover, this is a logical priority, that is, it is to come first in the order of religious thought, once more, in terms of saving knowledge.

Scripture does not outfit the Christian with the general laws of thought necessary for intelligibly apprehending Scripture, or anything and everything else we can know for that matter. All people are furnished with such principles prior to ever coming to the text through natural revelation, and they are assumed if not expressly known as natural-theological articles. Later, speaking of Scripture as the principium cognoscendi (principle of cognition, knowing), Muller states:

Of course, the act of creation itself is a movement of holy God toward the creature which, in its completion or result, provides a basis for knowledge of God. We can, therefore, speak of a first form of revelation whereby God makes himself known “in his works, in their creation, as well as in their preservation and control.” God’s universe is set “before our eyes as a beautiful book, wherein all creatures, small and great, serve as signs to lead us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead.” This revelation cannot, however, save mankind from sin—it can only convince sinful mankind of the existence of God and leave the unrepentant world without excuse (p. 153).

Interacting with the Dutch Puritan, Herman Witsius, Muller also says:

Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology (PRRD, vol. 1, 301).

Along these same lines, Francis Turretin writes:

We grant that in natural theology by the light of nature some such [first principles] do exist upon which supernatural theology is built (for example, that there is a God, that he must be worshipped, etc.) (Institutes, vol. 1, 10).

Conclusion

Sola Scriptura must be defined correctly, not only to avoid subjecting Scripture to the dictates of men, but also that we might retain the requisite tools (assumptions) and categories needed in order to make sense of the Scriptures in the first place. The laws of logic, the existence of God, God’s creation, God’s law, and the felt need of redemption (a need which only Scripture and its gospel can meet) provide pretext not only for the interpretation of Scripture, but also for the necessity of Scripture in man’s great need of redemption. Why is the Bible important? Because it is the voice of the God everyone knows (Rom. 1), and it offers salvation from the transgression of the law everyone knows (Rom. 2).

What Fired Nurses & Theological Neocons Have in Common

What Fired Nurses & Theological Neocons Have in Common

COVID is real. Overcrowded hospitals are real. The situation is so overwhelming, in fact, hospitals have—that’s right—decided to fire in-demand medical staff for refusing to take the crack-pot-sponsored COVID vaccine. There’s nothing that sends the message of distress quite like eliminating the solution to the alleged problem—nurses. But hospitals aren’t the only ones fulfilling their own doom-and-gloom prophecy. Modern theological conservatives are doing the very same thing.

The Flawed Battle Cry

“Put away disputes about your confessional doctrinal distinctives. The enemy is at the door!”

Such is the clarion call of the anti-social justice warriors who, rightly, decry things like intersectionality, critical race theory, and standpoint epistemology. I count myself among them, and would fight tooth-and-nail alongside them. However, to fight theological liberalism by adopting the very tactic which characterizes theological liberalism—unity above doctrinal distinctiveness—is to fight fire with, well… fire. But this has been the nagging habit of 20th to 21st century fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has an uncanny ability to cede ground to the enemy by actually adopting the enemy’s terms in order to fight the enemy. Or, by running away from the enemy hoping the evasive maneuvering will forgo coming back to bite them—another less-known tactic of the left (think firing nurses in spite of the available evidence).

Putting away doctrinal distinctives does, admittedly, seem like a more expedient solution. If theological conservatives are so encumbered by the weight of a nuanced theology proper, ecclesiology, or baptism, they’ll be slow to the punch. Because of this, all the extra baggage of Christianity that slows them down needs to be moved aside so they can conquer this monstrous foe.

But, I have to ask, When this common foe is conquered (and it will be), what then? Say the neocons defeat this common enemy, and the collective thinking shifts within the next three years, but they’ve lost the doctrine of the unity of God, the Trinity, the church, sacramentology; what, at that point, was all the fighting for? How could unity continue to exist post-victory if the defeated foe was the only thing functionally giving rise to unity?

What if the neocons are in the midst of a doctrinal pandemic, and this is the moment where they choose to retain or fire their nurses? What if the enemy was borne from the very tactic they’re using to fight it in the first place? The Baptist Faith and Message (2000)(henceforth, BFM, 2000) is, after all, the document which has allowed heretical anthropology, like critical race theory, to echo through the halls of SBC seminaries across the country. And what is the modus operandi of the BFM, 2000? Inclusivity. Put away the doctrinal nuance in order to encourage unity on the “essentials.” This has, of course, resulted in the allowance not only for Arminianism, but also for the denial of original sin.

A Way to Keep the Nurses While Fighting the Virus (A No-Brainer)

The illusion of victory is strong. And sometimes it comes in the form of long-term integrity exchanged for present unity; the former being a virtue which, if lost, results in the automatic defeat of any church, denomination, or association. So, instead of sacrificing integrity upon the altar of having-the-biggest-team, I propose a very simple solution: fight over the doctrine of God. And when you’ve won that battle, fight over church polity. Once that is resolved, fight over baptism, (and marshal as many memes as possible in doing so). The team you have left is the dream team, capable of surviving anything (and is most likely going to be your local church).

“But, but, then we will lose the battle against critical theory!”

Uhm, no. You will cease addressing critical theory on the critical theorist’s terms. And if this bothers you, you probably have not yet sent your drone up for a more comprehensive view of the battlefield. The battlefield is complicated, but there are three main groups: people who know what they’re talking about and hate Jesus (the deceivers), people who love Jesus but are currently deceived by the deceivers (the ignorant), and people who know what the deceivers are pushing and oppose it with every ounce of their being (the educated).

The educated only need to persuade one (not both) of the other demographics. The deceivers are the debate opponent, which means their minds aren’t the ones to be changed The ignorant are the audience, and thus, their minds are the ones for which conservative Christians must fight. To further expound, the ignorant, in this case, are usually the people in the pew. Imagine, then, all those “ignorant,” pew-sitting people having a pastor who they see bypassing the doctrine of God, ecclesiology, baptism, etc., in order to fight a common cause. Short of eliciting the response, “This guy’s a coward,” it may engender a feeling among them that those doctrines are practically powerless in the current battle.

Is this the message the new conservatives want to send laity? Do they really mean to say that doctrines which once earned faithful Christians poverty, imprisonment, and a burning stake are powerless in some modern battle the victory of which could have been won by a single 17th century boy’s school? Give me a break! It stands to reason that if the orthodox are taken up with wholesome matters, they will not be taken up by anything else. If we all loved good doctrine as much as we love bashing the next critical theorist, critical theory wouldn’t even be a threat. Why? Because the robust confessional doctrine—from the nature of God to the nature of man to the nature of last things—would be in constant view. If this had been the church’s posture yesterday, critical theory would not be a problem today.

Conclusion

Just like our hospitals should drown any pestilence in the expertise of nurses, the church should be drowning stupid ideas in a pool of high-octane theology. Instead, we’re pouring the gas out before we get to the burn site. By the time we show up, there’s no fuel for the fire. Setting doctrine aside to fight a common enemy is no different than emptying the magazines just before a firefight. Theologians and laity alike surrender the very ammunition needed to win. Instead, I propose Christians adopt a confession from a careful, studious and prayerful inquiry leading to genuine conviction—this all being done within the context of a local church. Then… fight for that confession in as much as you believe it represents the biblical teaching of those various theological areas.

This is not only one way to fight the onslaught of liberalism and critical theory. It is the only way. “The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever (Ps. 119:160).”

Actus Purus & the Project of Redemption

Actus Purus & the Project of Redemption

“Actus purus is not the God of the Bible.” ~ Jeffrey Johnson, President GBTS

What is it from which God’s elect must be redeemed? Why is the gospel so important? Over the last few weeks, I’ve been harping on the integrity of God’s justice… from the pulpit. Christians should not look for a suspension of justice, which would make for a pretty bad judge. Christians, rather, should look for satisfaction which can finally satiate the justice of God in their stead. God’s people desperately need a substitute.

The need for a substitute evinces a never-changing reality—the holy and righteous God of Israel. God’s holiness and righteousness are never-changing, because if they were, satisfaction would be superfluous. God might simply opt to become a bad judge. Overcome with passion for His people, this mutable God could simply suspend His justice. As it is, however, we must understand satisfaction to be necessary in order to the redemption of God’s chosen. If it’s not necessary, the Father’s Son died in vain.

This satisfaction is provided by God Himself, of course. Just as the LORD provided the ram for Abraham in place of Isaac, so too does the Father provide His own Son in place of, well, us. God at once requires heavy-lifting and provides the heavy-lifting for the redemption of His elect. And the base-line reason this dynamic becomes necessary is to be found in God as actus purus.

Actus Purus & the Justice of God

What is actus purus? Created things may be actual, but they also have the potential to be other than they are. This is why we call creatures contingent. They depend on various things to be what they are, and when these things upon which they depend are decreased, increased, improved, or degraded they change. Christianity has always held that God is not dependent (contingent), but independent (necessary). Theologians have historically grounded God’s independence, immutability, and simplicity in His pure actuality (actus purus). God has no potential in Himself to be other than He is, He is all actual and no wise potential.

If there is any potentiality in God, there is potentiality in God’s perfections. In such a case, God could be other than He is. Following from this, God’s judgment of sin wouldn’t be a necessity in God, it would be an arbitrary determination God could or could not have made. Judgment would not be a perfection in God, but the effect of the divine will. Now, I am not here talking about the accidental timing, means, and/or manner of God’s administration of judgment, but about God’s natural opposition to anything contrary to His nature, i.e. sin. A repugnancy (to sin) which is, no doubt, one and the same with His very essence.

If there is potential in God, there is potential in God’s judgment. If there is potential in God’s judgment, satisfaction is not necessary (since judgment in God could be other than it is). Therefore, on such a model, the Son will have died in vain, a blasphemous suggestion to be sure. To the contrary, however, Thomas Aquinas, speaking of the grace of regeneration and satisfaction, states:

Two things are required for the perfect cleansing from sins, corresponding to the two things comprised in sin–namely, the stain of sin and the debt of punishment. The stain of sin is, indeed, blotted out by grace, by which the sinner’s heart is turned to God: whereas the debt of punishment is entirely removed by the satisfaction that man offers to God. Now the priesthood of Christ produces both these effects. For by its virtue grace is given to us, by which our hearts are turned to God, according to Rom. 3:24, 25: “Being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood.” Moreover, He satisfied for us fully, inasmuch as “He hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4). Wherefore it is clear that the priesthood of Christ has full power to expiate sins (Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica (Complete & Unabridged) (p. 556). Coyote Canyon Press. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.)

Elsewhere, he speaks of God’s justice as a perfection in God identified with His very essence, which is formally synonymous with truth, “Therefore God’s justice, which establishes things in the order conformable to the rule of His wisdom, which is the law of His justice, is suitably called truth (p. 114).”

All of this, of course, requires we understand God as actus purus—an understanding currently rejected by some who share podiums with the likes of John MacArthur, Voddie Baucham, and Paul Washer. Owen Strachan has come out strong in defense of the very book containing the aforementioned quotation by Johnson. But if God is not actus purus, then nothing is off the table. Actus purus is the very doctrine grounding the Christian’s trust in the certainty of God’s holy and infallible Word.

No. It is the very doctrine grounding the infallibility of the Scriptures themselves.

The Project of Redemption

The need of redemption, in the final analysis, flows from the unchanging justice of God, which must be satisfied. The question is, “How is it satisfied?” According to Q. 12 of The Orthodox Catechism, it is satisfied in one of two ways: through ourselves, or through Another—the Lord Jesus Christ. The point here is that heavy-lifting is not an option, it has to be performed by someone. Thankfully, for Christians, it is performed fully by God Himself through Christ.

The rejection of God as actus purus, however, renders this heavy-lifting superfluous, and therefore makes the gospel itself nothing but overkill. God, and His justice, could be other. And thus, we have a rather straight line drawn from the necessity of actus purus to the necessity of redemption. The former is the causal foundation of the latter. Without it, biblical redemption is simply an alternative in a list of many ways God’s wrath may have potentially been placated.

Conclusion

This year’s G3 conference centered around the supremacy of Christ, and it hosted one of the men whose views have fallen into question along with that of Johnson’s. Owen Strachan has not only defended Johnson’s book, but has served as a long-term disciple of Bruce Ware’s eternal subordination of the Son (ESS). The question in my mind, in light of some of the above, is, “How can we talk about the supremacy of Christ, if the very foundation of His three-fold office—Prophet, Priest, and King—be removed?” That foundation, of course, is the purely actual divine essence which demands satisfaction for our sin.

Apart from God as actus purus, we have a gospel that not only could have been otherwise, but should have been otherwise, since the death of Jesus would have been unnecessary to the project of God’s redemptive plan. As it is, however, the Son’s sacrifice was necessary due to the perfect and unchanging, purely actual justice in God.

Spurgeon on the Stiff & Stilted Pastor

Spurgeon on the Stiff & Stilted Pastor

Long has it been the expectation of social Christianity for clergy to maintain a sort of aloof and other-worldly demeanor among their congregations. It seems odd, think many, for the pastor to demonstrate some likeness or continuity between  himself and the members of the church the Lord has called him to serve. When he discloses his interests, hobbies, or shows others he, too, is indeed capable of “having fun,” the reaction is not necessarily one of recoil, but perplexity.

This somewhat amusing dynamic between a pastor and his people isn’t only cause for a chuckle, it should—I believe—be the object of some serious concern. Such an aloof attitude, while succeeding at a level of professionalism, can end in a sort of isolation or separation of the pastor from his flock. Such a disjointment often results in the pastor’s ignorance of the congregational pulse. “Where are they, doctrinally and practically? What are their needs? Who are they? How should I pray for them?” are all questions which may lack answers if such “professionalism” is allowed to form a wall between the under-shepherd and the sheep entrusted to him by Christ.

Asking Spurgeon for Help

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, saw the dangers of such an approach. In his Lectures to My Students, ch. 12, he writes on ‘The Minister’s Ordinary Conversation’. If our day has yielded its fair share of superficial, stereotypical ministers, Spurgeon’s day is no exception. He writes, “let [the minister] remember that the more simple and unaffected he is, the more closely will he resemble that child-man, the holy child Jesus.” Such a statement discloses to us Spurgeon’s heart on the matter. He goes on, “I have been irresistibly led to remember some of my dignified brethren of the teaching and preaching fraternity, who are so marvelously proper at all times that they are just a shade amusing. Their very respectable, stilted, dignified, important, self-restrained manner is easily acquired; but is it worth acquiring (Lectures, 166)?”

Spurgeon understood that, at the end of the day, such decorum may, in point of fact, serve as nothing but a façade. It is the fabricated wall placed between the sheep and their under-shepherd—all, of course, in the name of professionalism. Such a formalization of the ministerial office isn’t helpful, neither to the minister who is in need of knowing his people, nor to the laity who are in need of being known by their under-shepherd.

The Inhumanity of Stilted Ministers

The minister of the gospel should be relatable. The under-shepherd is but a fellow sojourner on this earth en route to the Celestial City. Nothing avails the pastor who would pretend this is not the case by abstracting himself from the rest of the flock. He must labor to see himself as a fellow parishioner. Spurgeon writes, “We must have humanity along with our divinity (Lectures, 167).”

The religious elite of Jesus’ day placed between themselves and the common-folk an insurmountable barrier. This is part of the reason Jesus’ relatability was quite the taboo in their eyes. “Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 5:30)?” they would ask. Jesus, relating their own sentiments, says, “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners… (Lk. 7:34).’” Jesus was profoundly relatable. If anyone possessed the social credit to exalt themselves above others, it was Jesus Christ. Yet, in His ineffable humility, He is seen relating to the people throughout the gospels.

Unlike Jesus, gospel ministers have no social credit granting the warrant for self-exaltation, yet it is often the gospel-minister who sees himself as one above his fellow congregants; if he doesn’t really think this way, chances are he acts this way. For this reason, it is difficult for the laity to personify their spiritual leaders. And this is a problem. The person who ought to be the most relatable is often the most isolated, abstract, and unapproachable.

The Effeminacy of Stilted Ministers

There are several things in this chapter worthy of serious consideration. Spurgeon is not deriding any and all professionalism for those who hold the pastoral office. Quite to the contrary, he is arguing for a genuine relatability which nevertheless maintains a self-conscious awareness of how special and important the ministerial office is. This does not, however, require inaccessible formalism. For Spurgeon, such attempted transcendence on the part of the pastor is emasculating. In a whirlwind of wit made of one part hilarity and another incisiveness, he writes:

A well-known minister was once rebuked by a sublime brother for his indulgence in a certain luxury, and the expense was made a great argument. “Well, well,” he replied, “there may be something in that; but remember, I do not spend half so much upon my weakness as you do in starch.” That is the article I am deprecating, that dreadful ministerial starch. If you have indulged in it, I would earnestly advise you to “go and wash in Jordan seven times,” and get it out of you, every particle of it. I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways.

The pseudo-fundamentalism of the 50s and 60s bred an oversimplified understanding of Christian theology, in the name of practicality, while at the same time encouraging a lucidly impractical division between minister and laity. For this reason, no matter what he said from the pulpit, the pastor failed to engender a truly practical disposition toward his people. He was and often is seen as a school-boy who can’t relate to wrench-turners, horse-boarders, or factory workers. The pastor’s hands are soft, and his inaccessible formality rightly represents his aloof ignorance of a genuine, practical masculinity. The pastor may be able to diagram a Bible verse in Greek, but the laity knows he hires someone to mow his lawn.

This is perhaps more true today than it was in Spurgeon’s. During my time in college, I was astounded at the number of seminary students who were attending credit courses on their wives’ hard-earned dime! Such a strategy sets the gospel-minister up for failure. The time will come when he is called to a church only to find himself in the midst of a bunch of men who would never think of doing such a thing.

Conclusion

There are two extremes to which pastors most often swing. Either they are overly self-deprecating (and this actually bleeds into a depreciation of the pastoral office); or they are hyper formalized. Neither of these extremes are good. The man of God must be guided by the Word of God, and his attitude and disposition, public and private, must be soaked in prayer. A hyper-formalized minister does nothing but regurgitate what he wanted to study throughout the week. Often, he has no idea whether or not it was what his congregation truly needed. And this is because he has placed a wall between himself on the one side and them on the other.

We need gospel men to inherit pulpits, who are concerned not with formality so much as they are concerned with bringing the whole Christ to their congregations every Lord’s Day.

What Hath Baptism To Do With Regeneration?

What Hath Baptism To Do With Regeneration?

But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

~ Titus 3:4-7 ~

There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…

~ 1 Peter 3:21 ~

Over the years, and for various reasons, the subject of baptism has gradually become more and more complicated. Some of this owes to our eroding grasp of theological concepts brought about by the winds of change. Some of it owes to new doctrines of baptism and new understandings of its purpose which crop up from time to time. Whatever the cause, it is certain baptism is more or less misunderstood in mainstream evangelicalism, and this misunderstanding has unfortunately influenced even the most conservative Baptist churches.

The scope of this article is obviously unable to encompass every point of baptismal confusion (they are legion). So, I will limit myself only to contemporary baptistic evangelicalism and the theologies of conversion, salvation, and baptism spawned by a culmination of the first and second great awakenings, the follow-on revivalists, and the (relatively) recent crusade movements.

Further, I do not want to be perceived as the guy who thinks he has all the answers. This is a subject I’ve been trying to work out in my own thinking in terms of how I would explain it to another person. I have issues with some of the explanations given for the so-called tough texts in Scripture, two of which I’ve presented above. I think evangelicals tend to brush aside the meaning of these texts, not taking into consideration the true weight of the terminology, and thus miss out on a more substantive doctrine of baptism.

Ephesians 2 & the Great Divorce

Coming to terms with the true gospel is, simply put, coming to terms with Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” But there is a right and a wrong way to apply the free grace of God throughout the rest of our theology and practice. Some apply Ephesians 2:8-9 in a way that warrants rebuke from the apostle, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it (Rom. 6:1-2)?” Sinning for grace is nothing more than a bold form of antinomianism. Those who believe in such licentiousness draw an improper conclusion from Ephesians 2, namely that, since salvation is by grace, individual duty and responsibility disappears.

Others apply Ephesians 2:8-9 (and other texts of course) in a more subtle—yet still disproportionate—manner when it comes to things like baptism and the Lord’s Supper; both of which often function as simple formalities in the Christian life, footnotes in salvation, or arbitrary rituals intended as mere reminders of Christ’s work. Since salvation cannot be by works, it is often concluded that baptism and the Lord’s Supper must be entirely divorced from salvation altogether, having no other significance beyond that of a public profession of faith in the case of baptism, or a commemoration of Christ’s atoning death in the case of the Lord’s Supper. Because of this, texts such as Titus 3 and 1 Peter 3 are both doomed to die at the hands of a thousand eisegetical nuances.

An Historical Baptist Account

Baptists of old rarely saw these texts as problematic, and they had no problem taking them at face value. Today, however, Baptists often scramble to explain these texts, and as they do it they end up reducing both the significance of baptism and the meaning of the texts in question. Baptism has become, along with the Lord’s Supper, an empty religious ritual. But did our Baptist forefathers have such a low opinion concerning this ordinance? The Baptist (Keach’s) Catechism reads—

Q. 96: How do baptism and the Lord’s supper become effectual means of salvation?

A. Baptism and the Lord’s 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 (1 Pet. 3:21; Mt. 3:11; 1 Cor. 3:6, 7), and the working of the Spirit in those that by faith receive them (1 Cor. 12:3; Mt. 28:19).

And Hercules Collins’ An Orthodox Catechism reads—

Q. 76: Where does Christ promise us that He will as certainly wash us with His blood and Spirit as we are washed with the water of baptism?

A. In the institution of baptism, the words of which are these, go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; he that shall believe and be baptized, shall be saved, but he that will not believe shall be damned. This promise is repeated again when the Scripture calls baptism the washing of the new birth, and forgiveness of sins (Matt. 28:19; Mk. 16:16; Tit. 3:5; Acts 22:16).

It is clear our Baptist forerunners thought the significance of baptism stretched beyond a mere memorial or ritual. God does something, they thought, through means of baptism. They did not run from the tough-texts-for-Baptists. They freely admitted them, and frankly declared them throughout their theological work.

Parsing God’s Grace in Baptism

Perhaps, at this point, I should clarify: I do not believe in baptismal regeneration, nor do I think our theological forefathers held to such a belief. This too is clear in Collins’ follow-up question—

Q. 77: Is then the outward baptism in water the washing away of sins?

A. It is not. The blood of Christ alone cleanses us from all sin (Eph. 5:25-26; 1 Pet. 3:21; 1 Cor. 6:11; 1 Jn. 1:7).

So, we come to something of a sacramental paradox. On the one hand, baptism saves us and is linked to regeneration, per Paul and Peter. On the other hand, baptism doesn’t save us, and is not one and the same with inward regeneration, also per Paul and Peter, e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9.

We often perceive these two beliefs to be paradoxical, unexplainable, or even contradictory because modernity has a way of sneakily removing helpful historical categories. In this case, the category missing is the concept of the sign or signification and the function thereof. Closely related to the idea of a sign is the concept of typology, which Peter expressly engages in 1 Peter 3 concerning baptism. So, let’s ask and attempt to answer two questions: First, what is the relationship between the sign and the thing signified? Second, can/does a type ever bear the attributes or properties of its antitype (I’ll explain below)?

The first question is too easy to answer. And because it’s so easy, we pass it over without a thought. “How does a sign relate to the thing it signifies?” is like asking, “How does a weather radar relate to the storms it detects?” We may look at a weather radar on the internet, point to the signatures, and exclaim, “There’s the storm!” and everyone in the room would understand exactly what we meant. Not only this, but we would also be completely accurate in calling the radar signature “the storm,” though perhaps not completely proper. We wouldn’t, of course, be saying that the storm is literally and entirely confined to the computer screen inside the house! We would all understand that the storm is truly located in western Kansas. But the signature of the storm on the radar is spoken of as if it were the storm itself. The radar signature is the sign, and the storm itself is the thing signified on the radar. Likewise, baptism is the sign and regeneration, union with Christ, remission of sins, salvation, etc., are those things signified in baptism.

The second question relates to the first in that a type is always a sign of something, even though a sign isn’t always a type. For example, the animal sacrifices of old typed forth the atoning work of Christ. They were, to that effect, signs signifying something, namely Christ and His work (cf. Heb. 7-8). Baptism has a typological relationship to regeneration, or circumcision of the heart. It looks beyond itself to something other and greater, i.e. the inward work of the Spirit and our union with Christ.

More importantly, types often bear the terminology of the other and greater things to which they look. For example, Hebrews 7:3 says Melchizedek was, “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but made like the Son of God, remains a priest continually.” Now, Melchizedek, in himself, did have a beginning of days. He was, after all, the king of a geographical location in antiquity, perhaps even the prototypical Jerusalem. But because Melchizedek types forth Christ, he accurately bears the predicates which properly concern Christ alone. 

In Isaiah 61:1 something similar happens where Isaiah bears the prosopon of Christ Himself. “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me…” respects Isaiah in an immediate-historical sense. But ultimately, Isaiah 61 looks to Christ as Christ Himself makes explicitly clear in Luke 4:18-21. 

Again, in Hebrews 1:5, we read, “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You,” and, “I will be to Him a Father, And He shall be to Me a Son.” The former is from Psalm 2:7, which immediately respects King David. The latter is from 2 Samuel 7:14, which immediately respects Solomon. And even though both these texts accurately, immediately, and historically correspond with someone other than Jesus, i.e. David and Solomon, both texts properly and ultimately apply to Jesus alone.

So, we must conclude that types can and do often bear the terminology proper only to their antitypes. Melchizedek is said to be everlasting, Isaiah is said to be anointed, David is said to be begotten of God, and Solomon is said to be God’s very own son. But it is only insofar as these individuals type forth Christ that these various descriptors apply to them.

Tying It All Back to Baptism

Baptism is a sign of a thing signified, a type of an antitype, and as such it may (and I believe does) bear the same terminology to that which it signifies and typifies. Baptism, therefore, can be called “regeneration,” or, “washing… of the Spirit” so long as we understand that it is only so in a significant and typological sense, not in a causal sense nor in the sense of identity. And this somewhat nuanced dynamic requires faith. Without faith, baptism is nothing but a bath. With faith, however, it is a sign signifying much more, such as our union with Christ.

The key benefit of understanding the sister concepts of signs and types is the provision they make for us to affirm a robust doctrine of baptism and, most importantly, for us to be honest, transparent, and non-invasive with regard to the texts which link baptism to various soteriological realities, i.e. regeneration, remission of sins, salvation, etc. We can, therefore, understand baptism, insofar as it signifies something deeper than itself, to be inextricably linked with the things it signifies while at the same time denying causal, regenerative efficacy in the work of baptism itself (though baptism may be effectual in other respects, i.e. assurance, sanctification, et al).

Apart from faith, baptism is just a bath. Through faith, it’s a sign or type of internal realities wrought by the Holy Spirit; and so, in our parlance, baptism may be called our “regeneration” or “forgiveness of sins,” inasmuch as it looks to and signifies those deeper realities, just as a radar signature is often called “the storm,” though it itself is not.

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.