Thursday, August 09, 2007

Grudem, Piper, and Baptism

By now, you may know that Grudem revised his section on baptism in his systematic theology. You can read about it here. John Piper has responded to it here. Piper's comments are what intrique me because I think Grudem's change is for the better, at least as I read it. Piper does not.

Discussions about baptism seem to me to revolve essentially around the nature of baptism (what it is and does) rather than around its necessity. Both paedobaptists and credobaptists believe in the necessity of baptism. They do not agree on the nature of it.

Piper raised quite a stir a while back over his attempt to lead Bethlehem Baptist Church to accept paedobaptists into the congregation. His reasoning, summarized, was "Why should the local church be more restrictive than the universal church?" It is a noble sounding concern. But isn't that exactly what church discipline does? It most assuredly makes the local church more restrictive than the universal church. Other things do as well. So I find this concern less than compelling as a basis for the argument to begin with. Having read Piper's latest attempt, I am no more convinced than I was previously.

Several of Piper's comments grab my attention:
Evidently, Wayne is not so sure any more that we should make the effort to overcome the divisions among evangelicals for the sake of welcoming true brothers and sisters as members in the local church.
Is this really accurate? It seems like this is more than what Grudem said. I imagine he would like to overcome division by having everyone come to the credobaptist view. I certainly would. I am not a fan of having unbaptized believers out there. But the solution, it seems to me, is not to admit unbaptized believers to the congregation, no matter how sincere they may be, but to call them diligently through biblical teaching to be baptized biblically.

Piper continues,
I would say to them: “Brothers, I think you are not baptized. But you believe on biblical grounds as you see them, with as much humility and openness to truth as God has given you, that you are baptized. Your understanding of baptism does not imply that Christ’s command may be neglected or that infant sprinkling is regenerating. You give good evidence of being born again and that you embrace Christ as your Savior and Lord and Treasure, and you manifest an authentic intention, on the basis of that faith, to follow Jesus as Lord and obey his teachings. Therefore, since there is good evidence that you are members of the Body of Christ, you may be members of this local expression of that body. But understand this: I will spend the rest of my ministry trying to persuade you that you and your children should follow through on the full obedience to Jesus and be baptized. In admitting you, I do not give up on my view of baptism. That is the whole point. We are finding a way to work on this disagreement from inside the body of Christ in its local expression.”
Here, Piper seems to take a rather postmodern view of truth (that isn't really all that postmodern). He essentially grants that validity of belief is judged by sincerity of belief. The fact that Sproul, Duncan, or whoever believe something with "humility and openness" is irrelevant. If you believe the wrong thing, it matters not how much humility you have.

Notice how Piper says that they believe "the truth as God has given [them]." Really? Is the truth God gave to paedobaptists different than he gave to credobaptists? I don't think so. I am not aware of some other revelation out there, and I don't think Piper or Grudem are either (in spite of their sympathies with charismata).

The fact is that truth is not personal; it is universal. And if someone believes differently than someone else, they are not both right, no matter how sincere they may be.

Piper concludes,
Turning the tables, I would say that when a person looks a true and precious brother in the eye and says, “You may not join this church,” he is doing one of two things: Seriously diminishing our spiritual union in Christ, or seriously minimizing the importance of church membership. Very few, it seems to me, have really come to terms with the seriousness of excluding believers from membership in the local church. It is preemptive excommunication.
I think the opposite. To say you may not join this church is to say that we value God's view more than yours. We love you and want you to come to God's view on this matter. For some who would object to the "arrogance" of saying we hold God's view, why else would we hold it? Would you really hold something that was not God's view? If you were convinced that God viewed it another way, wouldn't you change? I would.

Furthermore, I don't think such a statement minimizes the importance of church membership. I think it highlights it. Remember, as Baptists, we hold to a regenerated church membership because that is the pattern of the NT from Acts right on through. Those who "received the word were baptized and were added to the church" (Acts 2:41). Church membership is based on a credible profession of faith. In this day and age of "walk the aisle" to get saved, we have gotten away from the NT teaching that the confession of Christ as Savior was not the pastor reading a decision card from the pulpit. It was the person submitting himself to baptism in the presence of others. In other words, baptism is the public sign of faith.

I would suggest that while one might say all the right things about salvation (and might truly be saved, such as Sproul or Duncan), they have not biblically confessed Christ until they have been immersed following their profession of faith. To draw on Piper's first comment above, the NT way to know true brothers and sisters in Christ is at least partially through their baptism.

To minimize the nature of baptism by admitting paedobaptists seems to be saying that we don't think God's way of identifying believers (baptism) is a good way. I don't think Piper would say that, but I don't know how he would avoid it.

Preemptive excommunication? Sure. Why should we admit someone who we believe to be an openly disobedient brother to the fellowship of the church? I see no reason simply because I think baptism is not an option; it is necessity. One who does not have it may be saved, but they are not obedient in that area.

Baptism and church membership are important. We must not minimize either be pretending it does not matter what we believe about it.

As a credobaptist, I can have good and sweet fellowship in the gospel with a paedobaptist (and in some ways better fellowship than with many credobaptists who sometimes forget the "credo" part in their haste to get their weekly baptism numbers off to the news rags). But such fellowship must be limited in the context of the local church because the differences are important.

I do not feel compelled to make the local church as big as the universal church. I think doctrine matters, and I think unity at a local church level requires a high level of agreement on these major doctrines. I do feel compelled to uphold the NT teaching about public confession of faith.

10 comments:

Jim Peet said...

Excellent! Thanks.

Keith said...

So, you can have good and sweet fellowship with someone who is excommunicated (preemptively)?

Why not limit leadership (pastors, elders, deacons, etc.) to those in agreement with your local church distinctives but open membership to those who profess faith and are not in need of excommunication?

This is what presbyterians do. One can join a presbyterian church and NOT practice/submit to paedobaptism (refuse to baptise their infants and children), but one cannot be ordained in the presbyterian church unless he subscribes to and practices paedobaptism. One can join and not paedobaptize even though the Westminster Confession views it as a serious sin to neglect the baptism of one's children. It is a serious sin, but not an excommuniacable sin.

We are not to have fellowship (sweet or otherwise) with the excommunicated.

These views are not postmodern or subjective at all.

Larry said...

Thanks for reading and commenting Keith.

Yes, we can have good and sweet fellowship because we agree on the gospel. We do not agree on enough things to be members of the same church. I am not an "all or nothing" separatist.

As for your second question, I don't limit leadership to one view and have open membership because I see no biblical reason for either the distinction it makes between leaders and members or the idea that someone can be a member of a church without a NT confession of faith in Christ. That is foreign to the NT so far as I know. Not all doctrines fit into this category. There are some things about which leaders in a church or members in a church can disagree.

The Presbyterians are, on this issue, not as bound by Scripture as they should be for these reasons:

1. They lack any scriptural command for the baptism of non-believers. Therefore calling failure to baptize one's children "serious sin" is to have a standard that God has not raised in place of the one he has raised.

2. They lack any coherent answer (that I have seen) for ignoring the command and examples to baptize believers.

As for the postmodern view, it was Piper's view that the truth about baptism is different for some than others. He said that they responded to the truth that God has given it to them (see middle quote). While Piper is not a postmodern, that is a very postmodern view ... that there is no absolute truth, but truth depends on the one who holds to it. As I say, regardless of Sproul's or Duncan's or mine or anyone else's sincerity, the truth about baptism only lies on one side of this issue.

Keith said...

Larry, glad to interact.

I still don't see you addressing my question regarding fellowship with the excommunicated. I understand that you don't believe in "all or nothing" separation. Nevertheless, you previously wrote, "Preemtive exommunication. Sure." My question is, if you really view barring from church membership as excommunication, you should not be willing to fellowship with those so barred. Isn't excommunication "treat them as an unbeliever"?

Presbyterians don't view baptists as excommunicated believers, we just view them as erroneous believers. There is a big difference between error and excomunication. Or at least I think there is and should be. My question is, don't you?

If you do, then perhaps you need a response to Piper other than, "Sure."

In your resonse to me, you indicated that you don't see the distinction between members and leaders in a church. I must be misunderstanding because surely you do acknowledge, and see in scripture, that there is a higher standard for pastors and deacons than for the members in general. If that isn't the case, then what's all the stuff in Timothy about?

You also wrote, "I see no biblical reason for . . . the idea that someone can be a member of a church without a NT confession of faith in Christ." However, paedobapists don't believe in adult membership without a confession of faith either. Covenant children are expected to confess Christ as they are able -- or eventually be excommunicated. Adult converts are expected to confess Christ and be baptized in order to join. When credo baptists seek membership in a presbyterian church, they must give a profession of faith.

In regards to your objections to covenant baptism, I'll reply briefly for now:

1. Presbyterians see ample scriptural support for applying the sign of the covenant to the children of believers. It was a sin to neglect the circumcision of one's children in the old covenant and it is a sin to neglect the baptism of one's children in the new covenant. Not all those circumcised would grow up to hold the faith of Abraham, but they were given the sign of Abraham's faith anyway. Same goes for baptism. You may not agree with this biblical interpretation/reasoning. And, granted you and the presbys can't both be correct. However, there is reasoning from Scripture behind it.

2. Presbyterians don't ignore the command to baptize believers. Converts who have not been baptized as infants must be baptized in order to join the church -- just like adult converts to the old covenant had to be circumcised (ouch), but those who professed their faith AFTER having been circumcised as an infant did not have to be re-circumcised (how would you do that? Bigger ouch).

I agree with you that Piper's choice of words was somewhat unfortunate. He gets a little touchy-feely sometimes. He's just a passionate sort of guy.

I can't say with any certainty what he really meant. He may be speaking postmodernly. However, he could also have meant something non-postmodern like: "They are responding to the truth of Scripture as they currently read and understand it. I think they are wrong, but they think I am wrong. Nevertheless, we are both taking the Scriptures seriously and we both have honest faithful exegesis and interpretation behind our positions. Therefore, we can be members of the same local church, but not leaders of the same local church."

That's what I'd mean anyway.

Larry said...

As far as fellowship with the excommunicated, I was using the term loosely there since Piper had used it. I should have qualified that better. I don’t think not admitting someone into membership over this is the same as church discipline. I do think they are disobedient in that area. I use excommunicated in the sense that they are outside the church, not in it.

As to the distinction between leaders and members, I am using that with respect to necessary beliefs for membership. I don’t think we would say that leaders have to believe in salvation by grace alone but we will allow members to believe in salvation by works. I see this similarly. It is not a salvation issue as the example is, but is a core issue of what it means to be a Baptist.

As to the confession of faith, you say that paedobaptists don’t believe in adult membership without a confession of faith. But I think that misses my point. I specifically said “a NT confession of faith.” In the NT, the confession was baptism. That is the public confession of faith. Paedobaptists do not require that church membership.

Now, to the other issues:

1. Presbyterians see ample scriptural support for applying the sign of the covenant to the children of believers. It was a sin to neglect the circumcision of one's children in the old covenant and it is a sin to neglect the baptism of one's children in the new covenant. Not all those circumcised would grow up to hold the faith of Abraham, but they were given the sign of Abraham's faith anyway. Same goes for baptism. You may not agree with this biblical interpretation/reasoning. And, granted you and the presbys can't both be correct. However, there is reasoning from Scripture behind it.

I would argue that this is not scriptural reasoning inasmuch as it doesn’t use Scripture properly. It makes a faulty connection between circumcision in the OT and baptism in the NT. It is not consistently applied since females are “baptized” but females weren’t circumcised. I think that throws a huge monkey wrench into the works that I have not seen any good answer for. I don’t even think they appeal to Scripture so much as a theological construct. So they cite a theological construct, but that is not the same thing as “reasoning from Scripture.”

2. Presbyterians don't ignore the command to baptize believers. Converts who have not been baptized as infants must be baptized in order to join the church -- just like adult converts to the old covenant had to be circumcised (ouch), but those who professed their faith AFTER having been circumcised as an infant did not have to be re-circumcised (how would you do that? Bigger ouch).

If God commands believers to be baptized, and they don’t require people who have believed to be baptized, aren’t they ignoring the command? I think that is an inadequate argument to say that if someone was baptized as an infant they don’t have to be rebaptized after belief.

Here is the “nature of baptism” argument. If baptism is, as the Bible indicates, a profession of faith, there is no such thing as “infant baptism.” Since an infant can’t believe, it can’t be baptized. All it can do is get wet.

I also think the recircumcision argument is leaning on the faulty connection previously addressed.

Keith said...

Larry,

We've may have reached the end of productivity in this conversation. I'll throw in a few more comments and questions, though, to see if we might make some headway toward mutual understanding, if not agreement.

You use "excommunicated" to mean outside the church, not in. But that's just the point to presbyterians and, now apparently, to Piper -- no one whose faith is in Christ should be outside the visible church unless they are so disobedient as to merit church discipline, and being mistaken about baptism does not merit church discipline.

I understand that baptism is a "core issue of what it means to be a Baptist." Indeed credobaptism and regenerate church membership are probably THE core issues of what it means to be Baptist (of course, it's impossible to know who is regenerate, so what you really have is a requirement for a type of professing church membership which denies covenant membership). But, are core baptist issues infallible? Couldn't baptist views of HOW to apply their understanding of Scripture ever change or develop? And, by appealing to core baptist issues aren't you just citing "a theological construct"? That's not the same thing as reasoning from Scripture.

It seems to me that most credobaptists believe that baptism FOLLOWS a confession of faith. I would think that at most they believe that baptism ACCOMPANIES a confession of faith. Do you really believe that it WAS/IS the confession of faith? What in the NT makes this claim or establishes this view?

Your concern for consistency between circumcision and baptism seems, to presbyterians, a bit misplaced. There is obviously continuity and discontinuity in the Scripture. If God wanted complete continuity, he would have just kept circumcision as the sign of the covenant. However, he changed the sign (from one which drew blood to one which didn't, since his blood had already been shed), so why should he not change the candidates? Why should he not expand the number of those who receive the sign as he is expanding the outworkings of his grace throughout the world?

I understand that you think it's a weak argument to say that someone who comes to a knowledge of personal faith AFTER having been baptized doesn't have to be rebaptized. I also understand that you don't share the theological construct which connects circumcision to baptism (even though the New Testament clearly makes this connection). So, how do you explain the nature of circumcision? What was it? Was it not the sign of the covenant? If it was the sign of the covenant, did everyone who received that sign share Abraham's faith when they received the sign? Did everyone who received the sign share Abraham's faith at some point? Was everyone who received the sign saved? If not, why did they receive the mark of Abraham's faith?

Larry said...

Thanks Keith,

As for excommunicated, I mean that to be “outside the local church.” We can’t make determinations about the invisible church but we can about the local church. As I say, I used the word loosely, not perjoratively. I do consider them to be disobedient in that area, not having believer’s baptism. They can’t be disciplined from the church because they can’t join. It is not the word I would have preemptively chosen, but Piper used it and so I did.

As for core Baptist issues, I think you are minimizing the revelation on Baptism. There are certainly issues that may be disputable, but regenerated, baptized (in that order) membership is not one of them so far as I can see. I see no biblical merit for baptizing an unbeliever. I am not there citing a theological construct because baptism is not a construct but a revealed truth.

When I read the NT, I believe that baptism was the confession of faith. It is so closely associated with faith in the NT, yet clearly does not save. It is a public identification with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.

As for circumcision, I think the problem is a misunderstanding of the Abrahamic covenant (AC). The AC was not about forming the church. It was establishing the genetic descendants of Abraham as God’s chosen people, with the promise of the land, the seed, and the blessing. The “sign of the covenant” (I am not sure that is applicable for Baptism) was different because the “covenant” itself was different, although again I don’t see salvation as that kind of covenant.

The NT does not clearly make a connection between circumcision and baptism in the AC sense. I think that is the underlying flaw there.

Circumcision was the sign of the AC, as a visible reminder to a man and his wife that children come from YHWH. The man and wife are the only ones who would see it, and everytime they engaged in sexual relations it would remind them that the nation they were expanding was the promise of God. It was not a sign to show the faith of the child, but to show the faith of the parents in the AC and God’s promise to make them a great nation. You mention that it was to shed blood. The Bible, so far as I know, does not make that connection. The blood that was shed was for sin. The circumcision had nothing to do with sin. It is a total disconnect.

This ultimately comes down to the nature and meaning of baptism. In the NT, baptism is a public confession of the faith of the one being baptized. No one is ever baptized in the NT for someone else’s faith. That is why it is different than circumcision: It is a different promise, a different act, and a different meaning.

Keith said...

Larry,

This will be my last reply -- unless you want to ask me some follow up questions to which I will gladly respond. I've enjoyed the interaction.

We are clearly not going to come to agreement. I understand your perspective, and I respect it, even though I disagree with it. So, here's what I think:

I think that Piper is correct in being concerned about excluding people from membership in the visible church due to errors in the timing and/or mode of baptism. I think that there will be (and should be)fewer people in the invisible church than in the visible church. Baptists want to reverse that ratio, but it is impossible to do. We humans can only deal with objective things -- professions of faith, baptisms, etc. Only God can see the heart, see the subjective, see who is truly regenerate. There will be tares among the wheat.

I think baptists are far too comfortable leaving professors of faith outside the church where "they can't be disciplined".

I think that it is possible that the baptist comittment to congregational governance may contribute to the confusion here. Since the membership votes on everything it is important that the membership have all the right views. However, when the elders govern (as in presbyterianism), the members, who are given loving discipline, can be at various levels of understanding (and error) in their views.

I disagree with your position that the presbyterians and reformed understand Scripture the way they do because they are, a priori, imposing a theological system onto Scripture. I also disagree with your position that baptists are understanding Scripture the way they do in the complete absence of a system. Your view on baptism is a construct. It is a construct you've developed from Scripture, but it is a construct nonetheless.

I think that both groups (baptists and presbyterians) understand Scripture as they do in light of their systems. However, both groups see their systems IN Scripture. Again, both can't be correct (both could be incorrect and the Lutherans could be correct), but it is not the case that one group is reading the Scripture in its simple, plain, obvious meaning while the other is misreading it because of a prior committment to something extra-biblical.

I disagree with you about the nature of the Abrahamic covenant. I do agree that it was about establishing "God's chosen people." However, I don't think it was exclusively about genetics or land. Just like I don't think the new covenant is exclusively about heaven.

Here are just a couple places where the New Testament makes a connection between circumcision and baptism:

Colossians 2:11-12 "In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism . . ."

Romans 4:11-12 "And he [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised."

Because of this passage in Romans, I think that circumcision was a sign and seal of faith, like baptism. It was not primarily a reminder about a growing racial group or geopolitical nation. Further, it is noteworthy that Abraham received circumcision as a result of his faith.

In my last post, I did not mean to imply (though I see that I did) that the PURPOSE of circumcision was to shed blood. I only meant to point out that circumcision did shed blood, but the new sign and seal does not -- bloodshed is no longer necessary. That was a minor observation of mine, and it is not essential to my position.

My position is that both circumcision AND baptism are signs and seals of faith.

Thanks again for the discussion. Peace.

Keith said...

Larry,

I know I said that my last post would be my last reply. So, I'm sorry to post again.

However, I have been looking at what Piper wrote a little bit more closely, and I've come to think that you are misrepresenting him.

Here's what I mean. In your original post, you wrote: "Notice how Piper says that they believe 'the truth as God has given [them].'"

However, Piper did not say that. He said: "You believe on biblical grounds as you see them, with as much humility and openness to truth as God has given you, that you are baptized." What Piper is saying that God has given them is "humility and openness" NOT truth. Granted it is humility and openness to truth but it is not truth itself. Truth doesn't change, but surely it is not postmodern to believe that God grants people different amounts of humility and oppenness at different times.

Later, in a response to me, you wrote: "As for the postmodern view, it was Piper's view that the truth about baptism is different for some than others. He said that they responded to the truth that God has given to them (see middle quote)."

However, he did not say that. He said they responded to the truth with the humility and openness that God gave them. That is very differnt that saying God has different truths for different people.

Furthermore, if Piper did not believe that truth was objective and universal -- even though God's gift of humility and openness to truth may be subjective and individual -- he could not say: "Brothers, I think you are not baptized," or "I will spend the rest of my ministry trying to persuade you that you and your children should follow through on the full obedience to Jesus and be baptized."

Even though you still have every right to disagree with Piper's position, you ought to retract your allegation that the quoted statement is postmodern and relativistic.

I know that I want to publicly retract my previous comment that "I agree with you that Piper's choice of words was somewhat unfortunate."

That should be all. I hope.

Bob Hayton said...

Interesting discussion, such discussions about baptism always interest me.

Something which helped me as a Baptist gain appreciation for the paedo view is this: all the examples in the NT of baptism are just beside the point with respect to this issue.

The NT baptism examples are without fail examples of people coming to faith in Christ for the first time, having not been part of the believing community before. They are of adult conversions (disputes over what "household" includes aside).

Note carefully, every adult conversion to the gospel should result in a credobaptism and both Baptists and paedobaptists would agree (except in the case possibly of those baptized in the church who leave it and come back to faith later). So we agree in principle as touches adult conversions.

The question at hand is this: what do we do with 2nd generation believers or the children of believers? There is no absolutely clear NT example of this (again if you think kids were part of the households you got your answer). Much of the NT teaching is addressing 1st generation converts, so when it casts baptism in the light of what happened immediately upon their faith, that is to be expected.

I don't want to drag out an argument that seems finished. And I don't want to get into parsing Piper, although I agree with him. Just wanted to point out this perspective about the NT witness to baptism.