Baptismal efficacy

The SJC committee also addressed my views on baptism, but again does not quote from my response to Presbytery.  To clarify my views, and again to clarify what the Pacific NW Presbytery had in front of it when they considered my views, I post my response to the criticisms of the Majority Resport.

Response to criticisms of Majority Report.

Though concluding that my views are within Confessional boundaries, the Majority Report levels some serious and weighty criticisms against my views on baptism.  I cannot fully address all their criticisms here but will make only a few brief remarks.

First, I should note that the quotations from The Baptized Body listed on page 9 of the Majority Report are simply efforts to paraphrase and summarize several biblical passages on baptism.  The first that links baptism to God’s judgment of sin and justification arises from Romans 6, where Paul says that those who have been baptized into Christ share in His death and therefore are “justified from sin” (v. 7).  The second is drawing from 1 Corinthians 6:11, which I take as a baptismal passage, and the last is from Colossians 2:11-12 . . . . my aim is to formulate baptismal theology in a way that makes these biblical expressions seem natural.

Second, the third quotation states that the baptized “share in all that he has to give.”  On further reflection, I believe that this is overstated, and actually violates one of the principal assumptions of my baptismal theology.  Above, I noted that I have attempted to avoid mechanistic models and metaphors for sacramental efficacy, and instead attempted to work out sacramental theology in personalist categories.  But the notion that everyone shares equally in everything that Christ has to give verges back into a mechanistic conception.  Since Christ and His Spirit are persons, and we are persons united in fellowship with them, the contours of that union and relationship vary from person to person.  Even among the elect, it is not true to say that we all share in all Christ has to give; some know Christ more intimately than others.  Reprobates who are branches in the vine for only a time certainly have a different relationship with Christ than the elect.  My more careful claim would be that the baptized share in Christ Himself and in His body, in varying ways and degrees.

Third, the Majority Report rests much of its criticism of my position on 1 John 2:19.  The Majority Report is correct to chide me for not giving more attention to the passage.  Arguably, however, that passage is not directly germane to the question at hand.  Verse 18 warns that antichrists have already arisen, and antichrists in John’s letters are false teachers opposed to Christ.  In a review of Guy Waters’s book on the Federal Vision, Jack Collins of Covenant Seminary points to a number of questions that need to be addressed in this passage:

“Who are ‘they’ who went out? (“Antichrists,: v. 18.) Is this about apostasy in general? (Not obviously.) Who are ‘we’ in this context? (John and his apostolic companions?) What is John’s use of ‘of’ ( ek )? How strongly ‘qualitative’ is the language used here? Since this is vital to Waters’ view of church membership, and to his distinction between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church, he should lay out his case in full.” [1]

If the “going out” in 1 John 2:19 is not apostasy but unauthorized mission, then this passage is not the uniquely explanatory text that the Report suggests. [2] Even if the Majority Report’s understanding of the passage is correct, it doesn’t undermine the thesis of The Baptized Body .  I could agree that apostate reprobates were never “of us” in the way that the persevering elect are, yet also argue that in various senses they were “of us” – at least in the sense that they publicly professed Christ, joined in worship with the people of God, shared in the church’s ministry; perhaps in stronger senses as well.  Since God’s work is the work of discipling the nations, and reprobates may for a time share in that work, they may for a time be on “God’s side of history.”

This raises, fourth, the issue of internal/external.  According to the Majority Report, I “decry” this distinction because it eviscerates the efficacy of baptism.  That is true; I do decry certain versions of this distinction, particularly versions that regard the inner man as a being impervious to outside influence or effect.  If external events and realities cannot penetrate to the inner man, then we have no grounds for sacramental theology at all, since sacraments are outward bodily acts.

At the same time, I acknowledge that the Bible regularly teaches that human beings have an internal and an external dimension.  The tabernacle is, among other things, an architectural human being, and it has an “inner” and “outer” sanctuary.  Paul uses an “inner man/outer man” distinction in various places (Romans 7:22; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 3:16).  So, the issue is not whether this distinction is a biblical one; it is. The question is what the Bible means by this distinction and how it functions.  It’s very easy for us to read the Biblical inner/outer distinction through our own cultural lenses, where the Cartesian subject/object, mind/body dualism is still instinctive.

Let me briefly analyze one important use of this sort of distinction, Romans 2:27-29.  In the context (I believe) of a discussion of Jews and Gentiles, Paul introduces a distinction between different sorts of circumcision.  There is the manifest circumcision in the flesh, and the “secret” ( kruptos ) circumcision of the Spirit.  Jews who don’t keep the law are not Jews, and their circumcision is uncircumcision (v. 25).  Only those who keep the law by the power of the Spirit are Jews and the true circumcision.  Within Israel, then, there are some who are circumcised only in the manifest, fleshly sense, and others who are circumcised also in the secret, Spiritual sense.

For Paul, however, this does not mean that fleshly circumcision is meaningless or useless, or that those who received fleshly circumcision received nothing.  As Paul’s argument continues into chapter 3, he asks “What advantage has the Jew?  Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” (v. 1).  Clearly, he is speaking of what he has just described as Jews and circumcision according to flesh; the advantage of those who are circumcised by the Spirit is obvious.  Given Paul’s distinction between fleshly and Spiritual circumcision, we might expect him to answer his question with “Fleshly circumcision gives no advantage.”  That is not what Paul says, however.  “Great in every respect” (v. 2).  Here, he lists only one of the great advantages of fleshly Israel – “they were entrusted with the oracles of God” (v. 2).

When Paul picks up the argument later in Romans, however, he expands on the advantage of fleshly Israel: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the
glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” (9:3-5).

Fleshly Israel – the “visible church” of the Old Testament – received great blessings.  They were the son(s) of Yahweh, had the glory of Yahweh dwelling in their midst, received the covenants and promises, had a law that was the envy of the nations, was privileged with the temple service and the great heritage of the patriarchs.  Above all, they were the people of Jesus, the Christ, the king of all things.  When God blessed forever became flesh, He became Jewish flesh.  These are blessings enjoyed by the “manifest” or “external” Jew, and they are considerable.

I don’t think I am imagining things to conclude that Paul’s is not the view of many in the PCA.  Do we tell baptized children, “Yours is the adoption; yours the glory and the covenants and promises and commandments; you have a great heritage, and are privileged to have a place in the temple of the living God”?  If Reformed theologians and pastors had so robust an understanding of the gifts conferred in baptism, I would not have devoted so much time to the subject of baptismal efficacy.

Fifth, the Majority Report charges that I have not paid enough attention to the pervasive reality of nominalism and unbelief in the church: ”We say again, one feature of Dr. Leithart’s construction of baptismal efficacy that strikes us as particularly unfortunate and revealing is his failure to reckon with the fact that the spiritual situation of the largest part of the company of baptized unbelievers is not in fact described in the texts that he cites. The truly nominal – who have never ‘received the word with joy’; have never been ‘enlightened’; have never ‘tasted the heavenly gift’; have never ‘shared in the Holy Spirit’; have never tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age; and ‘have [never] known our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ – are not apostates in the biblical sense of the term. The Bible does not describe generations-long unbelief in the church as if in every case the baptized individual had such powerful experiences of the reality of Christ and salvation but eventually turned his back on them. He was never at any time such a man as these texts describe. He was not once one thing and later another.”

I have several responses to this.  In certain respects, I concede the truth of the criticism.  As I’ve written about baptism, my imagined picture of baptism is, for instance, a baptism in a faithful PCA congregation rather than the baptism of a child whose parents will never return to the church.  I also concede that the description of Hebrews 6 don’t necessarily apply to everyone who is baptized into the visible church.  The “personalist” framework I’ve described above implies this very thing: Not every reprobate’s experience is the same.

Yet, my position does have a way of dealing with the problem of nominalism.  I disagree with the Majority Report’s claim that some are “baptized and unbaptized.”  Baptism is God’s act, and it is as real and objective as the water on the baptized.  Everyone who is baptized is claimed by Christ as His own.  Baptism is not double, but the response to baptism is.  Some will respond with faith in the promise delivered in baptism, and with loyal adherence to the Lord who claims them.  Others will respond with varying degrees of treachery.  Both, though, are baptized, and the traitor’s end is all the worse because he rejected the gifts God gave him.

Further, I am not convinced that the description of Hebrews 6 is as rare as the Majority Report suggests.  How can we know what God may be doing with an infant baptized by an unbelieving pastor in a shell of an Anglican parish?  Baptism belongs to Christ, and I don’t presume to know what the Lord of the church, the Lord of baptism, might be doing in any particular instance.  I am not convinced of what the Majority Report states as a “fact” namely, “that the spiritual situation of the largest part of the company of baptized unbelievers is not in fact described in the texts that he cites.”  Even if I concede the Hebrews 6 describes the rare case, we are still left with 2 Peter 2:20-22: Some “escape from the defilements of the world” and then “are again entangled in them.”  On the surface, this appears a more common experience, and yet Peter describes the eventual apostate as one who has knowledge of the Lord and Savior and of the way of righteousness.

Finally, the Majority Report rebukes me for failing to take account of important biblical qualifications: “If Dr. Leithart’s central affirmation in The Baptized Body is that ‘Without qualification or hedging, the church is the body of Christ,’ [p. ix] he was duty bound to address the class of scriptural texts that clearly qualify and hedge.”  The quoted statement is potentially misleading, so let me clarify.  The visible church is the body of Christ, but it is the body of Christ in time and history, the body of Christ in the “already” awaiting the eschatological “not yet.”  This could be described as a qualification; the claim that the church is the body of Christ is eschatologically qualified.  Yet, the church, even in the already, is the body of Christ, the humanity of the glorified Son of God in the Spirit.  That it is not yet a perfected body doesn’t mean it’s not the body.  The church is analogous to the individual believer at this point: We will one day be perfected in holiness; but even now we are truly saints.

6. Conclusion.

At the center of my work on baptism has been the question of how we regard and treat our children.  I have not been so directly concerned with thinking about how nominal Christians should treat their children.  What are we allowed to say to our children?  May we tell them that their sins are forgiven?  May we tell them that God accepts them and counts them righteous?  Should we assure them that they are beloved?  Can we tell them they belong to Jesus and are united to Him?  On the Minority Report’s position, it appears that we are not allowed to say any of these things with assurance.  Union with Christ, justification and forgiveness are special benefits of the invisible church, and we have no way of knowing that our children are members of that community.  But the promise is to us and to our children.  They are covenant children, and God is their God.

[1] Presbyterion 33:2.

[2] Matthew 7 might be taken similarly.  Jesus is clearly addressing false prophets in that text, and arguable the “I never knew you” should be restricted by that context.  Jesus never knew false prophets as His representatives in mission.

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