Sunday, October 12, 2014

In which all your questions about baptism and communion are asked

A caveat stolen from Frank Turk: My views are my own, not those of the church that holds me accountable. I mean, some of them are. But not all. Maybe not even many.

I've been following with some delight the recent discussion over baptism and communion at Reformation21. The course of posts (so far) looks something like this:
  1. Mark Jones threw down the gauntlet when he criticized the practice of "closed" communion, where some Baptist churches only allow someone to take communion if they have been baptized by immersion after coming to faith--even if said Baptist church would admit they are legitimately believers. Jones notes:

    "Those holding to the closed communion view usually argue that people who have been baptized by sprinkling/pouring are not welcome to the Lord's table or membership in a Baptist church since they haven't actually been baptized. A baptism by effusion/pouring is invalid, not irregular, according to this view."

    This, in turn becomes a criticism of the Baptist view of "immersion only" as opposed to pouring or sprinkling, and finally a criticism of the practice of believer's baptism itself as opposed to infant baptism. And so, Jones concludes, Baptists of this stripe are guilty of a close-minded lack of catholicity which refuses to allow legitimate believers to the Lord's Table, even while admitting that they are legitimate believers. (This is language that comes from a later post, but everything that follows is here in seed form.)

    "They don't really want to say that Presbyterians, and others, aren't visible Christians, do they? Maybe we're invisible Christians? I don't know. But I think the consistency of their position demands that they can't really call most of Christendom, Christians! Think about that."

    (In case you're wondering, this is the best line in the piece: "I find it funny how Baptists are normally so zealous regarding the mode of baptism, but then use grape juice for communion.")

    Jones helpfully links to this defense of closed communion by Russell Moore and this one by Denny Burk, and this explanation of closed and open communion (and defense of open communion) by Joe Thorn.

    In a follow-up piece, Jones replies to Michael Haykin's reply, where he [Jones] emphasizes the charge that Baptists are intransigent in their refusal to fully commune with other believers:

    "It seems to me that there is a glorious inconsistency involved here in Baptist closed communion practice. But they want to have their cake and eat it. They want us to know they have a catholic spirit, but they still would not allow Christians at the table in their local church. I can be part of the universal church, as one closed communion Baptist told me, but I cannot be part of his local church. If we affirm the former we should affirm the latter. If we deny the former, then I am in precarious position, aren't I?"
  2. In reply, Frank Turk launched a four-part response (by which he actually means a five-part response), beginning with the nature of what it means to be a Christian. A true believer, Turk notes by citing the WCF, begins with faith rooted in grace that leads to action.

    In the second part, Turk outlines the doctrine of baptism from a Baptist perspective, emphasizing that our obedience is only obedience when it is driven by truly saving faith, not the mere potential for truly saving faith that pious parents hope their child might have someday, nor vicarious faith from someone else counting for you--not even the faith of your parents [presumably other than that of Christ, by whose substitution all who are true believers are saved].

    Turk by and large admits that much of Baptist doctrine is in line with Presbyterian doctrine--it is a corporate act of faithfulness, it is a Scriptural command, etc. At the risk of over-citing, this is the key passage, trimmed down a bit for length (the first paragraph of which I'll confess I had to read a few times to really understand):

    "That relationship is the one which Dr. Jones' essay misses broadly as it considers why some of us Baptists are closed-table at the supper - because surely when Dr. Jones accuses Baptists of denying the Christianity of Presbyterians he isn't denying that one's baptism ought to come before one participates with the body of Christ and in the body of Christ at the Lord's table.  Of course not - what he is saying is that because baptism makes one a Christian, denying that one is baptized (by drizzling, before personal faith) denies that one is a Christian.  He isn't denying the logic that only the baptized ought to participate in the Lord's supper; he's questioning the meaning of denying the baptism of those baptized as Presbyterians are inclined to do -- which is to say, to baptize infants.
    This is why the question of what makes one a Christian had to be addressed first.  In the Presbyterian view, what makes one a Christian is the sign and seal of Baptism.  It puts one inside the covenant in some way which may or may not be finally determinative...
    But let's be honest: Jesus didn't put it that way.  Jesus' mentioning of baptism comes at the end of all his other statements about the life of obedience, and at the beginning of the great mission of the church.  When the Apostles went out , they didn't first baptize anyone and then preach to them repentance until it made sense to them.  The message of the Gospel comes in the NT first by the preaching of repentance, then by the washing of the water for the sake of a clean conscience.  What is true under the new covenant is what was actually true under the old covenant: the right offering to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart; God does not desire sacrifices but obedience; he desires that we love Him more than we commit to duties and rituals.  That doesn't eliminate the rituals by any means, but it does put the rituals in a place subordinate to the truth which they are communicating.
    And that, frankly, is the actual Baptist objection to Presbyterian baptism - not that one does not have right faith now, but that one has somehow allowed that the ritual means anything prior to the real condition of the one practicing the ritual.  We may be guilty of waving off the baptism of babies as "sprinkling," but the meaning there is not that there's not enough water added: it is that somehow adding water takes the place of the faith the water ought to represent."

  3. At this point, Mark Jones backed out, pleading (quite reasonably) a busy schedule, and then stepped back in with the challenge "I dare you Baptists to say that to my face!" [I'm not currently a Baptist, but I'll accept if the good Dr. Jones is willing to pay my plane fare...]  In the meanwhile, three other baby baptizers gave an irenic defense of their practice, spending most of their time highlighting places Reformed Baptist and the "truly Reformed" agree--namely, that in the normal course of events a baptism should be a solemn church ceremony, not a circus and not a private affair in the bathtub at home. They then said that they're not going to give a full-on defense of the practice (though Todd Pruitt provides a smattering of resources on the subject from both sides here), but they suggested that the way Baptists treat their children and the common practice of baby-dedication suggest that functionally Baptists really do hold their children in a separate category from worldly children.

  4. Frank Turk replied by putting his rapid-fire posting on hold, and then pointed out that all three of the MOS hosts had been converted as Baptists, and only afterwards taken that baby step towards Rome (my uncharitable words, not his). Each of the hosts fired back, albeit briefly.

  5. Ending the hiatus, (which lasted something like a day, maybe two if we're being generous)
    Frank Turk followed up with an explanation of why Baptists do not let the unbaptized [sic] partake of communion--basically for the same reason Presbyterians generally do not allow unbelievers (baptized or not) to take communion. Why? Because they do not meet the standard of "worthiness" set by Scripture and explained by the WCF.

    "The way in which you are "unworthy" then is (as I assume you read into the previous post) that your have no baptism at all - that is, because faith comes before good works, and you did not have faith when you were baptized, it was as effective as baptizing a dead body - you wouldn't call that a baptism, would you?  What about baptizing your wife for the sake of your mother-in-law?  Or baptizing the next fellow you find at the Starbucks or Whole Foods?
    My biggest concern here, since Dr. Jones brought it up, is that you were never rightly added to the church, and you were never rightly obedient in faith in the first step, so jumping ahead to the second step is fairly pointless - because you are, if I may be bold enough to say it as the WCF says it, unworthy."

    In part four, Turk responds to potential (actual?) objections that might be raised to his position.

    And in part five, Turk discusses practical application and the original charge of lack of catholicity:
    "The cry for universal unity has some sort of intellectual and theological appeal, I am sure.  But that unity is only obtained in Christ, under Christ, in the final account of things.  Until then, Christ's way for bringing believers together is not at ecumenical pot-luck dinners where nobody knows anybody but everyone claims to have all this unquestionable and unqualified love for everyone else.  Christ's way is at a local church -- and at that church, if you are a paedobaptist, I pray your elders are also.  If they are not, You read the NT and do what's right."

  6. Mark Jones has in turn replied with a two-part piece on why he pours, and why he does it to infants. Jones notes that the Bible does not go into detail about exactly how to baptize, so why not sprinkle? Okay, he's not quite that glib, but he does rightly note that the Bible does not give a how-to-baptize guide. He further correctly notes that there are moments where sprinkling is clearly the means of sacramental setting-apart. He also is right when he says that true baptism is the baptism by the Holy Spirit, not the thing that we (whether Baptist or Presbyterian) do with water, and that the heart of baptism is "the idea of incorporation. The Israelites were incorporated (baptized) into Moses; we are incorporated (baptized) into Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) by the washing of regeneration (Tit. 3:5)." He further rightly points out that we commit an exegetical fallacy if our primary support for immersion is the word baptizo.

    With that said, why sprinkling/pouring rather than immersion? Because:
    First: this is how the Bible often speaks of the Holy Spirit:

    "The Spirit is spoken of frequently in terms of sprinkling/pouring: (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; 52:15; Ezek. 36:25; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29; Zech. 12:10; Acts 2:33; 10:44-45). The words, "You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (Acts 1:5; Matt. 3:11) reflect the pouring of the Spirit (ekcheƍ, Acts 2:17, 33; cf. Rom. 5:5)."

    Second, this kind of baptism better symbolizes what Christ does when He pours the Spirit out on us.

    And one last point:

    "Finally, if Paul meant immersion by using "baptized," then he did a very good job to confuse his readers. 1 Corinthians 10:2 refutes the contention that baptizo always means immersion, unless the cloud can immerse. Of course, the Egyptians were immersed; and while Noah and his family were sprinkled the ungodly were immersed, too."

    As for why he does this to infants, he first gives the basic Presbyterian view of the nature of the sign of baptism: "Baptism is not a sign of my child's faith. Rather, baptism is a sign that my child must look to, and embrace by faith." Just as Abraham's and Isaac's circumcision was not the cause of their faith, but was rather a sign that they were to look to in faith, so baptism fills that role now in the life of the believer.
    But, the baptism of infants is not just a sign, in it "God takes the initiative with our children. He speaks favor to them in baptism ("You are my child, whom I love") and they are to respond in faith to his "wooing."" There is a special sort of grace that comes along with baptism by which the children of believers receive a blessing. And Jones thinks that's good news, because "if my children are not covenant children - if they must not to be baptized as babies - then I am at a loss on how to raise them." Later, he says that without the assumption of some sort of faith on their part, he has no grounds for teaching them about God's moral commands.

    "When my twin boys (4 yrs old) sin against each other and need to ask for forgiveness, do I have grounds to say
    "Matthew, since God has forgiven you, should you not forgive your brother?" (Eph. 4:32)
    Or should I simply say, "Forgive, because it is the right thing to do"? (No indicative; a sort of "natural law" argument)."

    He then asks how can we pray with our children instead of for/at our children if they do not have the right to approach God? There must be something that happens--and it happens when they are baptized--that gives them some right to approach the throne of grace.

    Jones concludes with:

    "How can you assure a child of forgiveness but deny to them the sign that symbolizes forgiveness?
    So why do I baptize covenant children?
    Because I treat them like Christians, not like pagans. Paedobaptism allows me to do that consistently, urging them to a life of repentance and faith. And because God says to my child, "You are my child, whom I love.""

  7. Finally, Jones responds to Denny Burk by noting (rightly) that we do not need a proof-text for absolutely every single thing we do and practice, including that of baptism.

  8. In an earlier piece, Jones identified the sorts of people who might respond to these posts. I identify myself as a layman, scholar (sort-of, and not in this field), and troll. Do with that information what you will.
And I realize that this blog post is already lengthy beyond the bounds of propriety, and I have yet to get to my expressed opinions (though no doubt they are clear from the nature of the summary above). If you're still reading, many thanks! If all you cared about way the summary of the Ref21 debate, now is your time to bow out because from here on it's all mostly me.

Communion: An Irenic View

One thing that I've noticed is that some of the terms concerning communion tend to get a little jumbled. Some people talk about "closed" communion, when others would use the word "close." "Open" communion can mean, well, lots of things. So just for the purposes of this post (I am by no means trying to ex cathedra impose my definitions on Christendom), I'll give a quick overview of the spectrum:
  • Closed Communion: In which only members of the local congregation in good standing are allowed to take part.
  • Close Communion: In which only believers who have been baptized as believers and who are members in good standing at a Gospel-preaching church are allowed to take part.
  • Semi-Close Communion: In which believers who have been baptized (infant or believer's) and are members in good standing at a Gospel-preaching church are allowed to take part. 
  • Semi-Open Communion: In which believers who are members in good standing--baptized or not--at a Gospel-preaching church are allowed to take part.
  • Open Communion: In which anyone who can honestly profess faith in the Gospel--regardless of church membership and baptism status--are allowed to take part.
  • False Communion: In which anyone who wants to is allowed to take communion. Because we wouldn't want to make anyone feel bad by excluding them, would we? 
For whatever it's worth (and I suspect that by the time I'm done, I suspect it won't be worth much to anyone) I am quite happy to oblige the original point raised by Mark Jones-- that the practice of closed (or even "close" communion) is probably suspect. Left to my own devices, I would probably come down on the semi-open view of communion, with a very soft spot for and inclination towards the open view.
But! As a Christian, I don't believe we should ever be left to our own devices. And so because the general consensus of all parties involved seems to be that baptism is a prerequisite for communion (even if we disagree as to what baptism is), I'm going to settle for semi-close communion and hope that will satisfy Baptist and Infant Baptist alike.

Specifically, I believe that it is the responsibility of the church administering communion to warn the participants of the conditions and requirements which they ought to meet individually before joining the church body in declaring "the Lord's death until He comes." With that said, because the discussion in question concerns a guest, my inclination is that the hosting church ought to respect the membership rules of the visitor's home church (assuming that basic agreement on the Gospel is present). I'm not inflexible on this and could be argued into another position, but that seems to be one that allows for maximum participation on the part of true believers while still enabling the church administering the Lord's Supper to protect the table appropriately.

Before moving on, another point where I suspect all involved--certainly in the context of Reformation21-will agree: both baptism and the Lord's Supper are sacraments/ordinances/commands/call-them-what-you-will worthy of the highest respect and obedience on the part of the individual Christian and church alike. These are not things to be done in bathtubs, at concerts, or with clowns.

Also, Baptists need to get over themselves, realize that Prohibition ended in 1933, and use wine in communion.

Baptism: The Irenic Part

All things being equal, I tend to prefer immersion as the form of baptism. Like Dr. Jones points out, the Bible gives no explicit guidance on the subject, but immersion does seem to be more in the "spirit" (ha ha) of what's being symbolized in our baptism--though I do admit that "sprinkling" (or pouring, for that matter) looks more like some of the Old Testament rituals. Nevertheless, immersion is the oldest Christian practice and the one that best symbolizes the new life we have in Christ--the life which covers all of us, not just the tops of our heads.
If you want the evidence that immersion was the practice of the early church (and don't want to be hassled with the Calvin quote on the subject: Institutes IV.15.19), the work to read is the Didache, which dates from the 1st century and which states (from section 3):
Now about baptism, baptize this way: after first uttering all of these things, baptize "into the name of the Father and of the son and of the holy Spirit" in running water. But if you do not have running water, baptize in other water. Now if you are not able to do so in cold water, do it in warm water. Now if you don't have either, pour water three times on the head, "into the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the holy Spirit." 
Notice that pouring is allowed, but only if there is not enough water to do it the other way--namely, by immersion. Of course, we don't follow the Didache word for word, since the rest of the chapter says:
Now before the ritual cleansing, the baptizer and the one being baptized should fast, and any others who are able. Now you will give word for the one who is being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.
How many of us expect the pastor and the believer to go two days without eating? Well, the early church apparently did...

The point is, this is a time-honored practice that has been the as long as we have a record of it. For example, here's the baptistery where Ambrose baptized Augustine:

Either this is massive sprinkling overkill, or Augustine was dunked.
If I remember correctly (and I believe Philip Schaff talks about this, though I don't remember in which volume), the alternative methods of baptism don't start to dominate until all those Northern Europeans begin to convert. Immersion in the Mediterranean basin is one thing, immersion in Scandinavia, Russia, and Scotland is something entirely different.

With that said, if someone was legitimately baptized as a believer by pouring or sprinkling, well, close enough. Ideally this would only be done under exceptional conditions (persecution, Siberia, Sahara, etc), but if a church adopts the practice instead of immersion just because, that's not a hill I'm willing to die on.

And of course on a practical level, we should be honest and admit that if you're baptizing infants immersion probably isn't an option. On that note, here's another bit of irenicism: the Mortification of Spin folks are right! Baby dedications probably need to go. I suppose they have some value as a reminder to the congregation of our obligation to proselytize the next generation, but clearly they confuse our Presbyterian brothers and sisters. More seriously, there's no Biblical warrant for this particular ceremony of the church, and we don't want to give the impression that we believe something false about the state of the unregenerate.

I've got one final bit of peace-making, though it may only be peacemaking in that I will be in the minority against both credo- and paedo-baptists: I tend to think that baptism should be at all times a solemn and dignified action performed regularly by church leadership, and that this ceremony should be as impersonal as possible in its application. I don't mean there shouldn't be any touchy-feely moments (there should be, especially if there's a sharing of the person's testimony before hand). I mean that the person administering the baptism should not be a parent or BFF of the person being baptized. We as a church should want to emphasize that in this we are being faithful to Scripture and picturing the Gospel, not enhancing already-existing personal relationships. If at some point down the road we're going to be tempted to add meaning to the ceremony because "I was baptized by my father/the guy who led me to Christ/super-holy-evangelical-all-star pastor", someone else should probably perform the baptism. There may be times when this is unavoidable (especially in smaller churches), but we should want to keep the focus on Christ and not on the person doing the dunking. Or pouring, or sprinkling or whatever. Like I said, I suspect that puts me into a minority of one, but I'm okay with that.

Baptism: The Divisive Part

First, Jones writes "God takes the initiative with our children. He speaks favor to them in baptism ("You are my child, whom I love") and they are to respond in faith to his "wooing.""
If this is a true statement, then why on earth aren't we dragging people off the street and baptizing them by force? If baptism is a means by which God takes initiative, then we sin when we fail to include that as a part of our regular Evangelistic efforts. Who are we to withhold a legitimate means of God's "wooing"?
If the answer is that we can do this to the infants of believers because of the status of the believing parents, I'm happy to narrow the focus and repeat the question. If an elderly couple converts to Christianity and joins a church that practices infant baptism with this belief in mind, is there any reason their unbelieving children could not be baptized as a part of the evangelistic efforts of their parents? We don't even need to add force in, let's assuming said children are willing to be baptized out of love for their parents--do we have Biblical warrant for this?

Second, in response to the idea that in practice Baptists raise their children above the status of "regular" children in the world, on hearing this said on Mortification of Spin my wife and I immediately agreed that this is nonsense. Our child is a reprobate until he isn't--if God pleases that he not be. We pray fervently that God will so please, but we also realize that whatever our obligations as Christians and as parents, in any meaningful ultimate sense the future state of our child's salvation has nothing to do with us and everything to do with Christ. (For more of my thoughts on this idea in general, see this review).

As for how we can pray with our children instead of for or at them: the same way we can "with" any non-believer. I will pray with my son (when he is old enough to understand, at any rate) with the full comprehension that until he becomes a believer, from his perspective these prayers are at best informational, and at worst ritualistic drudgery. And, God forbid, if he never becomes a believer, then he will be held that much more accountable for his persistent refusal to believe the Gospel. (That of course isn't something I particularly enjoy thinking about, but then again reprobation is never a terribly fun topic.)

The question here for those who hold that the children of believers receive some kind of extra grace is: what kind of grace do they? Presumably they're not arguing that it is the grace we experience in sanctification, since that is only available to believers. And presumably it's not the grace we receive in our justification, since if that were the case the children of believers would certainly be believers, and we all know that neither is that the reality nor is that ever promised by God. And if said children (God forbid!) never receive the first two sorts of grace, they likewise will never receive the grace we will experience someday in glorification. And so far as I know (and please do correct me if I'm wrong on this, I'm not an expert in this particular field) the only other category of "grace" in Reformed thought is "common grace." It may be that the children of believers receive a greater share of this, I don't know that I'd want to argue that point either way, but is Mark Jones seriously going to argue that the church should baptize those who have an extra dose of common grace?
(Of course there's always the idea of prevenient grace, but there's no need to get nasty and start name-calling.)

Finally, baptism is a means by which God grants assurance, no doubt! But is it a means different from other forms of Christian obedience? When we love our neighbor, we should be assured. When we confess Christ, we should be assured. Why does this pattern not hold when we talk about baptism?
(If we say that it is because it's a sacrament, then why should we treat it as a sacrament with a different spirit from that of the Lord' Supper?)
As I understand it, the general Reformed position involves admitting that prior to regeneration such "works" are not only not signs of faith, but the participation of unbelievers in them increases condemnation because the truth is coming out of their mouths while their hearts still rebel against the Lord. How is the same not true of the obedient action of baptism--just as presumably we all agree it is concerning communion?

With all that said, at the end of the day I don't know how conducive this discussion format is to changing anyone's mind. I suspect that the problem is not one of comprehension on either side of the argument (clearly Frank Turk understands Mark Jones, and clearly Mark Jones understands Frank Turk--I may be the odd man out here!). Instead it looks to be a question of biblical theology and interpretation--how are we to be faithful to the command to "make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit"? Should we incorporate something of the Old Testament ceremonies into this, as Jesus and the New Testament writers clearly do at times? And if we do, should that incorporation include baptizing children, just as the children in the Old Testament were at times circumcised? Or, should we put that set of Old Testament guidelines into the same category as those others which are now complete in Christ, as Jesus and the New Testament writers also clearly do at times? As a result, should we then treat baptism as something new and the administration of the ceremonies and rituals of the church (both of them) as a point of discontinuity between the testaments?

And I suppose the question lurking in back of all this "baptism" stuff is this: do we genuinely see any Biblical basis for ever baptizing an unbeliever? Presumably we all agree this is so concerning communion, church discipline, and church membership. Unbelievers should have no access to the Lord's Table, do not fall under the church's disciplinary authority, and should not be voting/participating in the formal administrative life of the church (apologies to Solomon Stoddard)--why does baptism get a pass?

Of course this debate isn't going to be solved by the blogosphere--if the great minds of the past haven't worked it out, I highly doubt any of us will (though I willingly admit Frank Turk and Mark Jones both have more chance of doing so that I do).

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