Baptists are Right, Accidentally

Jonah ICON

Leithart and the whale.

or Do You Really Want A Real Debate?

Another response to a post on baptism, “Baptists Are Right, Almost,” by my friend Peter Leithart.

I’m not your standard Baptist. My position on baptism is the result of the teachings of James B. Jordan concerning investiture, and subsequent analysis of the structural correspondences between investiture in the Old Testament and baptism in the New within matching literary sequences. I respond to Leithart because he — unlike standard Baptists and standard Paedobaptists — is open to the Scriptures, a thinker, somebody who understands the way I think in general terms, disarmingly gracious, and a friend. He is worth responding to. That said, his ideas are fair game, and anything that seems harsh in what follows here is written with a twinkle in the eye.

Another note: I think much debate concerning baptism occurs in an arena based upon flawed terms. My responses go far deeper than the questions at hand. Why argue a minor point when you can shift the ground under your opponent to a more biblical foundation that makes his argument entirely moot?

Several essays in the book, Believer’s Baptismobserve the inconsistencies in paedobaptist defenses of infant baptism.

As I have written elsewhere, the solution to being inconsistent is not to become more consistently wrong. See The Wrong Question.

In the introduction, editors Thomas Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright focus on the issue of apostasy. If the warning passages in, say, Hebrews are real threats to people within the covenant community, then “some who have the law written on their heart and who have received the forgiveness of sins (Heb 10:16-18) are not truly forgiven.” This position puts “a wedge between those who are elect and those who are forgiven of their sins,” and they suggest that “paedobaptists would be more consistent if they argued that those who are saved can lose their salvation.”

The first problem here is the erroneous concept of “the covenant community,” and it distorts the thinking on both sides of the debate. Since the end of the Circumcision, this no longer exists. Baptism is not the boundary of the covenant but the staff uniform of its administrators. Since it is a rite of ordination for prophetic office (as a witness with the testimony of Jesus), apostasy is the removal of that external office based on the revelation of one’s internal unregenerate state. If we use the analogy of a knighthood, a knight who is exposed as unworthy of his king is no longer fit to be the king’s representative, and thus — hopefully temporarily — loses his office. He is no longer worthy of access to the “round table” of Jesus.

In short, they pose this dilemma: If paedobaptists take the warning passages straightforwardly, they’ll end up Arminian; if they muzzle the warning passages in pseudo-Calvinist special pleading, then why do they continue to baptize babies?

Once again, both sides are fumbling around in the dark because of their misunderstanding of covenant history. What is the context of the warnings in the book of Hebrews? It was written to Jews who were being tempted to return to the shadows of Temple worship and its system of atonement through animal sacrifice and the Laws of Moses. The Temple was still standing, and the “standing” lambs were being offered morning and evening. What they were being warned against was only secondarily eternal judgment. The imminent judgment of Jerusalem as Jericho was a call to persevere and not die the spiritual “wilderness” of first century Judaism, with its Balaamites and fiery Pharisaical serpents. The particular stripe of apostasy spoken of cannot be committed today. The warnings must be correctly interpreted before they can be properly applied.

The Baptists are right. Almost.

They are right to argue that Reformed paedobaptist must have a doctrine of apostasy, and a robust one. Otherwise, they have no business being paedobaptists. They are not quite right because they don’t believe there is such a thing as a robustly Calvinist doctrine of apostasy.

Leithart’s commitment to baptismal regeneration comes from his genuine attempt to apply the descriptions of baptism in the New Testament to paedobaptism. Of course, that just makes him even more wrong than the inconsistent paedobaptists. He’s trying to fit a V8 engine into a Matchbox car, and the resulting (and patently ridiculous) doctrines of paedofaith are the result. He rightly wants a doctrine of baptism in which the rite is efficacious, but the question is this: What is baptism actually for? His Frankenstein of a doctrine, a bapcision that is both flesh and Spirit, conflating and confounding circumcision of flesh with circumcision of heart, is not only something that “saves” without conscious faith, it is a contradiction of the clear teachings of both Old and New Testaments.

Leithart would retort, “Baptism saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Once again, the context makes the Apostle’s meaning clear, and his audience is very similar to that of the author of Hebrews. The Jews who believed and were baptised were no longer answerable to the demands of the Law. As worshipers, they could now be “blameless” according to the Law — having a good conscience before God — without actually observing the Law. What they were “saved” from — delivered from — is the old order, hence Peter’s reference to the Great Flood, an image of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. In the Flood, the old priesthood centred around the Sanctuary in Eden was destroyed forever. This is a context that I learned from Jordan and Leithart, and their commitment to paedobaptism seems to make them blind to it when the texts are used to prop up this false doctrine of bapcision. Garden-variety non-preterist Baptists at least have some excuse in their ignorance, and even in that state they understand that an infant has no conscience yet developed to speak of.

But there is. Calvin’s, for instance.

On Hebrews 6:4 (which Schreiner and Wright cite, oddly, as evidence that “no one can even be a partaker of the Holy Spirit . . . and not belong to the elect”), Calvin says: “he falls away who forsakes the word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavenly gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit.” The apostate turns “from the Gospel of Christ, which they had previously embraced, and from the grace of God.”

The discussion is already off track due to the wholesale failure to take the “transitional” historical context into account. But as is the norm, Reformed theologians resort to the writings of the Reformers rather than Scripture. This would not be so bad if the Reformers themselves were not so confused and self-contradictory in their (mis)understanding of baptism.

What does it mean to “partake” of the Holy Spirit? Although there a many previous “Pentecosts” in the Bible, covenant history is fractal in nature, and the Day of Pentecost was the ultimate shift from external law to internal law, from the stoicheia of childhood to the stoicheia of the Spirit of adulthood. The same pattern is evident where it was established in the testing of Adam. He was to listen, act, and speak. The work of the Spirit was initially external, and through obedience it would become internal. Once filled with the Spirit of God, Adam would legally represent God as a priest-king with a prophetic voice. Adam’s disqualification for this office is why the word “covenant” is never used until the ministry of Noah. “Partaking” and “tasting” the Spirit, and then extinguishing its light, does not mean that a person is an actual believer. The process of conversion in the book of Acts follows the rite of sacrifice in the Old Testament. Once transformed from bloody flesh to fragrant smoke via holy fire, there is no going back. Whether one is actually transformed becomes apparent over time, but the Apostles were willing to take people at their word.

On Hebrews 10:29, Calvin adds, “to do despite to [the Spirit], or to treat him with scorn, by whom we are endowed with so many benefits, is an impiety extremely wicked.” We are to “learn that all who willfully render useless his grace, by which they have been favored, act disdainfully towards the Spirit of God.”

Such quotations can be, and have been, multiplied.

How did God harden Pharaoh’s heart? Through the testimony of Moses, that is, conviction of sin. The purpose of the warnings was to reveal what was already in Pharaoh’s heart. One who has truly received the Spirit of God will heed the warnings of God. That is, the external exhortations of the Law will bear internal fruit. Both faith and unbelief are then revealed in external works through various trials. The warnings separate the sheep from the goats, the Jacobs from the Esaus. Both brothers were circumcised, but only one was circumcised internally. That circumcision is what baptism is about. Such “faith comes by hearing,” four words that demolish Leithart’s baptismal house of cards. Apostasy also comes by hearing, which is why preaching must be compassionate but blunt.

Schreiner and Wright also complain about paedobaptism inconsistency with regard to the Supper. Most paedobaptist churches baptize babies but withhold communion, “but such a divide between baptism and the Lord’s Supper cannot be sustained from the NT,” nor from the OT for that matter.

Rather than reuniting the sacraments as rites of investiture for ethical office — much like knighthood and the round table of King Arthur — Leithart reunites them as a magical circumcision, one which sacralises human ties (familial and tribal) rather than transcending and inhabiting them as the Gospel was intended to. The New Covenant is not about forming but about filling.

Again, the Baptists are right. Almost.

They are wrong because they go on to say that admitting children to the table means admitting “unbelievers” who are going to eat and drink judgment to themselves. Grant the point. My two-year-old may be hardened in unbelief and sin.

The Baptists are right, but only accidentally. Baptism does not correspond to the Abrahamic circumcision but to the Mosaic Covenant Oath, one which only adults took and were accountable for. It was the Egyptian generation that died in the wilderness. By God’s mercy, their children were not slain along with them, but a “new covenant” was made with them in Deuteronomy, just like the second set of tablets at Sinai, and the “new covenant” made with Israel and Judah after the exile. The failure of both sides here is in their understanding of the fractal nature of humanity. If Adam was a child before God, God would make Adam a father on the earth. That is illustrated in the faith of Abraham and his subsequent offspring. Abraham’s faith in God (Oath – priesthood) resulted in fruitfulness in land and womb (Sanctions – kingdom). Leithart’s conflation of the two is as serious — at least in potential — as every usurping of priesthood by kingdom throughout covenant history. Adam despised the Oath and attempted to seize the blessings of God (Sanctions). So did the kings of Israel. This fundamental flaw was the cause of the death of European Christendom. Priesthood is not something that a child can bear. Certainly, Israel was a priestly nation, but that distinction is gone forever. That leads to Leithart’s next point.

But then I suspect the same was true of two-year-old Hebrews at Passover, Pentecost, and Booths, and Yahweh still wanted them among His people at His table. So, this point stands only if we accept the whole Baptist argument. Which we don’t.

Leithart’s failure is also architectural. In contrast to Egypt, Israel was God’s firstborn among the nations, even though it was not the oldest nation. This alludes to Jacob being the younger twin, and Joseph being exalted over his older brothers because of his faithfulness to God. But within Israel, the actual firstborn never approached God personally. God took the Levites in place of the firstborn of Israel (Numbers 8:18). That is, the infants only approached God through legal representatives, those who not only received no land but also ministered to protect the fruit of the womb. The context is Genesis 3, where Adam and Eve could be naked before God and each other (in the Garden) but needed to be invested with authority, robed in righteousness, before entering into the promised Land.

This pattern is made clear even before the establishing of the Levitical priesthood. In Exodus 24, only the elders dined on the mountain with God, Moses representing Israel and the 70 elders representing the Gentiles. Women were excluded because the Sanctuary would not be safe until the serpent was crushed. This is why the phrase “both men and women” carries so much import in the book of Acts. Women cannot be priests but they can be co-regents like Esther, and prophetesses like Anna. The irony here is that Leithart subscribes to “Covenant Renewal Worship” (as do I), a liturgical pattern based upon the sequences which can be traced through the ages of Church history right back to the book of Genesis. Exodus 24 also follows this pattern, and aligning the two makes the grievous error of paedocommunion stand out like a dog’s hind leg. (See Covenant Renewal Worship vs. Paedosacraments.) The children were present in worship but only their legal representatives actually ate with God. All men, women and children in the world are already included in the New Covenant. Baptised believers are “elders” who represent the nations — and all children — before God. That is the reason for the Great Commission. All are now called to repent. What Leithart fails to mention is that Passover, Pentecost and Booths were the tables of men, Israelite men, certainly, but still the tables of men. Israel and its tribes on “dry land” were a microcosm of the nations of the world, after all. Allowing children to dine at God’s table is putting them into government, at least liturgically. That never occurred at any time in Bible history. When did Jesus bear the government upon His shoulders? Not at His circumcision, but at His baptism. The Father was not please in Jesus’ flesh but in His voluntary obedience. That is what baptism is about. That this has to be stated at all boggles the mind.

Centrally, Schreiner and Wright complain about the inconsistency of proclaiming salvation by faith alone and then giving “the sign of that faith (baptism) to those who have not exercised faith (infants).” They agree with Paul Jewett’s alarmingly italicized statement: “To baptize infants apart from faith threatens the evangelical foundations of evangelicalism.”

The Baptists are right. Of course, baptizing infants threatens evangelicalism. Infant baptism is a gauntlet thrown down to evangelicalism, because evangelicalism is Baptist through and through.

If the suggestion is, however, that infant baptism is a threat to Protestant theology, nothing could be more mistaken. Obviously, Protestantism began as a paedobaptist movement. We can toss the charge of inconsistency back to the Baptists: How can you venerate a Protestant tradition that undermines the foundations of the gospel?

Ultimately, in his defence of baptismal regeneration, Leithart has nothing to appeal to but tradition. The obvious answer, one that even a run-of-the-mill Baptist could come up with, is that Leithart himself is not reformed enough. The doctrine of the Reformers concerning salvation and baptism was itself an inherently nonsensical and self-contradictory compromise with Roman teaching, and thus needed further reformation. Leithart is thus as guilty of as much closed-mindedness as the Paedobaptists who separate the sacraments based upon age. The fly in the ointment is paedobaptism itself. It cannot be both a carnal and a spiritual demarcation. Like a stool with only two legs, it will forever fall one way or another, and in either direction it is a fall which exposes it as a human hybrid, a contrived fabrication which is not of God. The sons of men can become Sons of God, but only through the hearing of the Gospel and a response of faith in that Word.

The Baptists are right on all kinds of things. They are right to say that paedobaptists need to confront the problem of apostasy head-on. They are right to say that paedobaptists are inconsistent to baptize babies and refuse to feed them. They are right to say that paedobaptists have not done a great job of explaining the relationship of sacraments and faith.

I’ve said before that the reason why Baptist-paedobaptist arguments go nowhere is because it is a fraternal rivalry. Many paedobaptists, especially in the Reformed churches, are semi-Baptists. It’s a scrimmage, not a real game. Whichever side wins, the Baptist position triumphs.

Perhaps this development in history is the actual work of God. That is not to say that the Baptists are right due to any deep understanding of the Old Testament and its doctrine of investiture. If they are right, they are right only accidentally, through taking the New Testament at face value rather than attempting to undermine it by hybridising circumcision of flesh with circumcision of heart. I have a deep understanding of the Old Testament thanks to Leithart and Jordan, but that has led to the conclusion that the Baptists are indeed right, despite their ignorance.

It’s time for a real debate.

Dr. Leithart, you won’t get a real debate from run-of-the-mill Baptists or Paedobaptists. They are as one-eyed as you on this issue. If you really want a real debate, you know where I am.


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