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Ecclesiology and Redemptive History . . . Oh and Baptism

My initial thought was to put briefly into writing a few introductory comments toward a redemptive historical response to a purified ecclesiology—positively stated, to articulate the starting point for an ecclesiology rooted in a redemptive-historical (Vosian) understanding of biblical revelation. I had planned to do this without bothering with baptism, but as it turns out baptism has quite something to do with ecclesiology. Even more surprising: I am interested in this connection. But the redeeming fact is that both provide an opportunity to reflect upon or even better to explore the fruit of viewing Scripture as divinely inspired interpretation of the organic and unified but historically progressive redemption of God in Christ.

I expect that what follows will come across at least to some readers as a perhaps unfocused and overwrought defense of baptizing babies. Perhaps, but that would be a miscategorization. In my view the rejection of paedo-covenanting is a gift of particular commitments one level down, at the level of ecclesiology, and of additional commitments even further down, at the level of this relation between the sacrament and the redemptive historical nature of revelation and even of the historical nature of redemption. Ecclesiology then is the common ground between our sacramentology and our understanding of the historicity of redemption and revelation. Baptism fits nicely, and most naturally, into a mature ecclesiology, and ecclesiology saves our sacramentology from exegetical atomism. Additionally, as the primary ordinary context for the Lord’s shepherding and sanctifying of his people, the church itself, as active in its prescribed tasks, is where faithful theology begins and should remain.

I have heard it said that there is no such thing as a Reformed Baptist. Now that’s a catchy thesis. So that’s what I am after in what follows: ecclesiology and redemptive history. Oh, and baptism.

I agree that the “essence of the church consists in believers alone,” to quote Herman Bavinck (RD, 4:306). But there is no warrant in that assertion to go on to say that the church should consist only of the regenerate. Baptists often argue: baptism represents faith-union to Christ; therefore infants (and children) cannot be baptized and thus are not members of the church or the covenant body. Note the assumption, implicit in this way of putting it, that ‘baptism represents faith-union’ implies ‘baptism represents only faith-union with Christ’.

Allow me to dispense with a bit of pedantry. The inference here is invalid. ‘Baptism represents faith-union with Christ’ does not imply that ‘baptism represents only faith union with Christ’. When I say that the inference is invalid, I mean that [(A: Baptism represents faith-union) implies (B: Baptism represents only faith-union)] is false. The statement is false because of the relationship that it affirms between the two clauses, implication. So we say that the inference is invalid, since, regardless of the truth value of the component propositions, it is never true that [(A is B) implies (B is A)].

Nonetheless either or both claims may still be true. And all in fact agree that A is true: baptism represents faith-union. Is B true? Paul’s argument in Rom 2–4 that circumcision was of no independent value under the old covenant, as neither was it for Abraham, means that under the old covenant, where circumcision sits in for baptism, A was true but B was false. The circumcised were not always the regenerate. The sign represented faith-union, but in fact the sign was primarily of the covenant, not only of vital union. So under the new covenant, the truth of B would represent pointed discontinuity between circumcision and baptism and between OT and NT ecclesiastical structures. On the contrary, I think we may assume continuity, since without it Abraham should have no place in Rom 4 and the OT saints of Hebrews 11 should be deemed fideists. But anyway if that were the case, B would require specific, explicit support in the NT. And there is none. No single verse in the NT reverses the OT status of B (as false) by teaching that under the new covenant all but those making credible confession are refused the sign of the covenant and excluded from the covenant community. To put it another way, all paedo-covenanters happily affirm credo-covenanting. Everyone is a credo-baptist. But many who affirm credo-covenanting renounce paedo-covenanting arbitrarily.

Or we might put it this way: it is often claimed that ‘no single verse affirms paedobaptism’. This statement is helpful on at least three counts. First, it reminds us that, in complementary fashion, no single verse affirms credo-exclusive baptism; better said, no single NT verse renounces paedo-covenanting. The argument from silence is a draw. Second, it reminds us that, consequently, proof-texting will not resolve this issue and that instead we must look to sometimes implicit ecclesiastical structures, to a theology of the sacrament, and to the movement of redemptive history (any one of these alone will do, but they are related such that none bears neglect). And if ecclesiology, sacramentology, and redemptive history are where it’s at, the claim is exceedingly dubious; it is either false or true only on a most unfortunate interpretation: Peter never turned to the camera and said, ‘let me be clear: we baptize kids, and so should you’. But even if true, as a premise it is irrelevant, since—and here is the third point—it derives its purported punch from an assumption of OT/NT discontinuity. There is newness, yes, but newness within organic unity or I’m a Marcionite’s uncle. Surely the burden of proof is on the discontinuer, on the re-definer of the sign, the theology of the sacrament, and the order of the visible body. Note the lengths to which the author of Hebrews goes to prove that Christ satisfies, fulfills, supercedes and thus abrogates the sacrificial system and the priesthood.

So anyway, in my experience, it is often believed that a ‘purified’ ecclesiology is the pride of the NT era. It is argued, as it is necessary for the rejection of paedobaptism, that the distinction between vital and formal covenants is an OT reality only, and that the NT church is pure, and vital only. Or put it this way: if you begin with a purified ecclesiology, you find that it has implications for one’s view of baptism, which will then be taken to represent in subjective, self-declarative fashion only the individual sinner’s entering into faith-union with Christ. Baptism becomes a reactive, ecclesial stamp on public confession. Given a purified ecclesiology, in other words, baptism has to be the closest possible visible correlation to actual regeneration, which is an epistemological problem. But let’s address this ecclesiological issue first.

In my understanding the present age, as the common grace era, is a ‘mixed’ age, when the wheat and the tares grow together. God’s working redemption unto his own glory is the singular purpose of history since Gen 3, so there is some analyticity here: the present age just is, by God’s design, the mixed age. Accordingly, the individual believer, the church, and the world are all mixed realities until the number of the elect is complete and the Lord returns. The church still looks forward to entering the Lord’s rest, when the ‘not yet’ will be fulfilled, the ‘already’ consummated, the saints revealed in glory, and the church and individual believers attain incorruptible and imperishable holiness. In this sense, a pure church is an eschatological reality yet to come. Faithfully we strive for unity and purity in the church; but we are not expected to shift by our own effort the epochs of redemptive history.

As noted, there is an epistemological angle here, as well. Were we to set out to purify our congregations of all those who would eventually fall away—or conversely, to bring into membership all those who have faith but are outside the church—we would face the insurmountable difficulty of discerning who was who. (Nor are the sacraments intended for this purpose.) In this sense a great deal of pressure is exerted on the necessary connection between baptism and regeneration and on our epistemic rights to this connection. Calvin quotes from Augustine’s commentary on John, saying that “many sheep are without, and many wolves are within” (Inst., 4.1.8). When Christ returns, the distinction will be made public—but not until then. Like ecclesiology, the epistemological situation is redemptive-historically qualified, and it is a common grace reality.

Bavinck brings the ecclesiological and the epistemological together: “The visible and invisible church are two sides of the one and same church. The same believers are viewed in one case from the perspective of the faith that dwells in their heart and is only known with certainty by God; and in the other case they are viewed from the perspective of their witness and life, the side that is turned toward us and can be observed by us. Because the church on Earth is in process of becoming, these two sides are never—not even in the purest church—identical” (RD, 4: 306).

With Bavinck (and Calvin, Augustine, et al), then, I believe that the NT teaches—presupposes, rather, or better yet, inherits from the OT—the distinction between vital and formal covenants or covenant bodies, such that the mystical body of Christ is not identifiable with the visible church community. This discrepancy is not an impediment to the church’s mission; it is part of the Lord’s design for the church. NT ecclesiology, reflecting the OT notion of a covenant people, assumes it. Bavinck calls these “two sides” of “one and the same church.” But the point is that there is no one-to-one correlation. As noted, the vital/formal distinction is more generally accepted regarding the OT people of God. The OT covenant people comprised the whole of Israel (formal covenant), but the Lord kept for himself a remnant which would not bow the knee to Baal (vital covenant). So my point is that the vital/formal distinction is trans-testamental, and the church, as a trans-testamental visible body, by design and anyway unavoidably is a mixed reality.

The vital/formal distinction is impressed upon us by the apostasy passages in Hebrews 10 and 2 Peter 2, and by such things as non-soteric uses of “sanctify” in Heb 10:29 and 1 Cor 7:14–15. In my understanding, Hebrews 10:26–29 communicates the intensification of covenant curses and blessings within the context of the vital/formal distinction. The author says “how much worse” the punishment will be for the one who profanes the blood of the greater covenant, the blood of the Son by which he was sanctified, than for the one who has set aside the Mosaic law. The transgressor here is within the visible church (the formal covenant), but not the invisible one (the vital), and the author of Hebrews assumes OT–NT continuity in terms of the vital/formal distinction. But this is not an isolated instance. Much of the book of Hebrews, in fact, rather conspicuously assumes OT–NT continuity in terms of a danger of falling away and a soterically serious ‘becoming’ (Bavinck’s language) of the church, as evidenced by the use of Ps 95 in 3:7–11: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion . . .” Similarly, Peter argues that the ‘state’ of the one who has escaped the defilements of the world through knowledge of Christ and who then returns to the swine trough will be worse than at first. He is a branch which was “in me,” says Jesus, but which is taken away (John 15:1–2). Again, to my understanding, Peter teaches an intensified accountability of the greater covenant which presupposes a vital/formal distinction—not an intensified accountability representing a redrawn and purified ecclesiology.

The vital/formal distinction affords a richer understanding of baptism as symbolizing both covenant blessings and curses. Surely, baptism symbolizes union with Christ and entrance into resurrection life; but it also represents the waters of judgment, through which not only the faithful remnant but all of Israel passed, and through which Noah passed, but also Ham and Canaan. 1 Peter 3:20–22 associates baptism with the Noahic flood, and Jesus refers to his own crucifixion as a baptism, saying that he looks forward to it with “great distress” (Luke 12:50). So in this view, baptism brings the greater covenant to bear on the formal covenant community in terms of both blessings and curses. The use of Ps 95 in Heb 3 makes no sense without continuity in terms both of promised blessings and of threatened curses, and of course the same would be true of the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:27–29).

Behind the notion of an ecclesiological shift from OT (mixed) to NT (pure), one often finds the idea that there is a parallel soteriological amplification from lesser to greater. The NT church is said to be pure because the soteric realities inaugurated by Christ are greater than those enjoyed by the OT saints. In my view, this theory of soteriological amplification confuses ordo and historia salutis categories. My view is that Scripture teaches a trans-testamental unity as regards the ordo, so that developments in historia do not constitute shifts in soteriological realities. Indeed, the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham, and those who are of faith are blessed along with him (Gal 3:8–9). And Paul’s point here, intensely articulated in Gal 1, is that there is only one gospel. And if Paul teaches that ‘in Adam’ and ‘in Christ’ are two categories exhaustive of the set of all image-bearers (1 Cor 15), certainly we would prefer to say that Moses and John the Baptist died in Christ. There appears to be no tension in Scripture between the progress of historia salutis and the unity of the ordo salutis. So Calvin: “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like our own in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation” (Inst., 2.10.2). If this distinction is maintained, we may avoid both an over-realized ecclesiology and an unwieldy soteriological distinction between the OT and NT eras.

I have found very helpful the following: Jonathan M. Brack and Jared S. Oliphint, “Questioning the Progress of Progressive Covenantalism,” Westminster Theological Journal 76 (2014): 189–217. See also the related discussion.


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