Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sustainable revival?

The New York revival of 1858 was based upon a lunchtime prayer meeting, at first attended by just 6 people. Within weeks hundreds upon hundreds were flocking to such prayer meetings each day. Samuel Prime quotes from the religious press of the day:

'The church, or more truly, individual churches, have often made what might be called exhaustive efforts for the conversion of sinners. They have taxed to the utmost for a few weeks both soul and body of every earnest man they could enlist. Such efforts must be relaxed. Flesh and blood cannot sustain them. But the present revival has had no such history. The church is still fresh, and may labor on indefinitely just as she has been laboring, and that without sinning against any law of mental or physical health. This revival has not overtaxed us; it has only toned us up. It has brought religion into alliance with our ordinary engagements; it has given to our social character a completeness and balance which it never had before. So far as it has gone it is an advance toward soundness and strength, and to fall back from it is not to rest after labor, but to be palsied.'
The Power of Prayer, Samuel Prime, pg. 21

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Why I am a Baptist

I've been reading/ dipping into several books recently looking at the subject of baptism. I was mainly looking for what people have to say about the significance of baptism, but everyone seems far more preoccupied with defending their stance on baptism, whether paedo- (infant) or credo- (believers') baptism. Earlier today, whilst reading an essay by John Stott I found myself almost agreeing with the paedobaptists, not because they'd convinced me, but just because I'd read the same things in so many authors (since baptists aren't exactly prominent among Reformed theologians) - it was a prime example of convincing someone simply by saying it often enough!

So here is a brief account of why I am a baptist. It's certainly not going to add anything new to the debate, but is simply a reminder to myself of why I hold baptistic convictions.

1. Scripture is silent on the subject of infant baptism. For something as important as an ordinance of Christ's Church, an argument from silence is not a strong starting point for paedobaptism. Most paedobaptist writers (to my knowledge) accept that there is no clear account of infant baptism in the NT. The hermeneutic depended upon by paedobaptists is what the Westminster Confession calls 'good and necessary consequence' from other teachings of Scripture. 'Good and necessary consequence' is certainly a legitimate aspect of biblical interpretation, but to rely entirely upon it to build a doctrine is dubious at best because it depends upon each link in the chain of logical inferences to be correct. If the first link is faulty then you end up with an entire doctrine that is unscriptural. I feel sufficiently strongly on this point that I could easily stop here. This is my biggest problem with paedobaptism: it's just too clever for its own good.

2. From a starting point of paedobaptist convictions there arise a whole series of hoops that become difficult to jump through. I'm thinking in particular of the close association between baptism and salvation in the NT. So you find that ideas such as baptism transfering an infant from the adamic covenant of works to the covenant of grace, but in a non-saving way, but in such a way as makes them more likely to be saved (or more able). Just where is the scriptural backing for that?! I don't recall Paul having a category something like 'under grace but not saved'! Probably the most extreme of these positions is Doug Wilson who seems to argue that if a baptized infant is not saved it is due to a fault in the parents! Salvation by (parents') works?

3. Much is made of the link between circumcision and baptism. Clearly there is similarity - both act as the outward initiation into the covenant - but it is assumed that they are equivalent, and so that as circumcision was the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant (Rom. 4:11), so baptism is the sign and seal of the New Covenant. But baptism is never called the seal of the New Covenant - that is the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). It is the Holy Spirit who acts as guarantee of full salvation to come. So the Holy Spirit (bringing true heart circumcision = regeneration) is the antitype of the type of circumcision, and therefore I understand Colossians 2:11-12 to teach that baptism is the outward sign of that regeneration. As the close identity between circumcision and baptism is weakened, so is the case for infant baptism.

4. The assumption that children of believers are automatically in the New Covenant assumes continuity between the covenants on this point, but it seems to me that the NT suggests discontinuity at this particular point. The call is for all to repent and believe - that is how we enter the covenant. Yes, this promise holds to 'you, and your children' (Acts 2:38), but also to those who are 'afar off'! Much store is put on Acts 2:38 to support paedobaptism, and I think the reason is that I can't think of another text that does anything like including children of believers in the New Covenant by virtue of their parent's faith.

5. I have a historical question to which I guess the answer, but I don't know. What was the theology of baptism when infant baptism arose? (For the sake of my paedobaptist brethren maybe I should edit that question to be, what was the theology of baptism at the time where we find the first indisputable evidence of infant baptism!) From the relevant statements of the Church Fathers that I have read it seems that something like baptismal regeneration was the norm. Not a great start for a doctrine. When did the reformed doctrine of paedobaptism arise? I don't know, but I suspect it was sought for (with the best of motives) rather than arising naturally out of Scripture. It is very difficult to break out of the boxes in which we are brought up (yes... I was brought up a baptist!). Although the Reformers did so in many glorious ways, I can't help wondering whether they failed in the doctrine of baptism. I'm also sure that they weren't at all encouraged to consider it seriously given the radical nature of some of the Anabaptists (apparently that was what put Zwingli off becoming a baptist)!

So there's a few of my musings on the subject. It seems to me that infant baptism has caused much damage in the history of the Church - not least in our own land where everyone who was 'done' by the vicar as a baby considers themselves Christian, although I must certainly concede that this is very different to the Reformed position. It has also created a great deal of confusion with some claiming that baptized children should not be evangelised but should be presumed regenerate. Often the language used is confusing - I came across Luther using the language of baptismal regeneration in his Tabletalk this evening. Just how are we saved?! I believe that credobaptism avoids these confusions and reflects the simplicity of the NT. I also believe that many baptists are very over-simplistic in their theology of baptism... but that's for another post!