Remedial Covenant Theology

On May 21st, 2017 my son will be received into the life of the Christian church through baptism. Ordinary water representing something truly remarkable, the sign and seal of entry into the Covenant and God’s promise to us as well as our children.

While I have a working grasp of the theology of paedobaptism, I have to admit it’s shaky, or at least not as strong as I’d like it to be. After all, just up until recently the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were almost interchangeable in intent and purpose in my mind. I’ve since learned better, but being so wrong for so long shows me that it’s definitely time to brush up on the fundamentals. After all, paedobaptism isn’t an end in and of itself, it’s simply an important part in the working of Covenant Theology, a Reformed distinctive. It’s not just about practicing paedobaptism, it’s about doing it within context of the correct framework, in a way that separates us from the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or even our good friends the Lutherans.

So what better time to deep dive into this than the weeks leading up to my own child’s baptism? I apologize if this topic is off-putting at all to some, but thankfully I know for a fact that no one reads this blog and the entire exercise is purely for my own benefit.

To guide my study through this, as the video above suggests, I’ll be using R Scott Clark’s primer on Infant Baptism and Covenant theology. Specifically I’ll be focusing on his podcast series ‘I Will Be a God to You and to Your Children‘. Why R Scott Clark when there are so many other books and resources I could use? Well, the Heidelblog is free and readily accessible, and in my opinion a rich resource for researching traditional Reformed theology (and piety and practice as I’m sure RSC would be quick to point out). Dr. Clark has the ability, especially on his podcast, to explain what can be complicated and confusing concepts in a clear and concise way. RSC is also an ordained minister within my own church’s federation, as well as a professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California (where my church seems to source the majority of our summer interns). So not only does he know his stuff, but it’s the stuff my own church confesses and would approve of.

Weirdly and lastly though, it’s because I disagree with him on some important matters. Dr. Clark holds to Exclusive Psalmody and acapella worship (I’m still wrestling with the issues of images of the Trinity, specifically the Son, and the 2nd Commandment). I don’t, and I used to think those were crazy positions that only backwards loonies would hold to. But Dr. Clark is able to argue his case in a compelling and intelligent way that impresses me a great deal.

I always respect someone who can take what I thought was an easily settled, black and white issue and make me step back and think ‘Dang, those are some good arguments’.

Monolithic Inerrancy

While researching an entirely unrelated topic, I stumbled across a quote from J Gresham Machen’s most famous work, Christianity and Liberalism, that caught me by surprise:

It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christ—there are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls.

This has instantly shot Christianity and Liberalism to the top of my reading list so I can read this in its full context because I almost can’t believe this is an accurate quote. Machen was no liberal, on the contrary, he was forced out of Princeton and the PCUSA for his commitment to orthodoxy and went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in response. Yet this statement of his that can be found in nearly any Reformed Church’s library, is broad and charitable enough that if it was posted in the average Reformed Facebook group we’d have a holy horde doubting his salvation.

But at least Machen was simply being charitable towards others here. He himself fully held to the belief that the Bible was wholly divinely inspired and without error. He just didn’t think we should brandish those with a less strict subscription as being heretics. The same can’t be said for this inconvenient quote from one of our favorite thinkers:

The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say.”

You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible ‘present’ this story ‘as historical’? Of course it doesn’t say ‘This is fiction’: but then neither does Our Lord say that His Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction. (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason.)

Are we prepared to condemn or at the very least, treat Lewis as dangerous because of these views? His books are doubtless in our church libraries, we trust him with our children (Including his book The Last Battle which contains that troubling story of Emeth). If we give Lewis a pass for these views and welcome him into our homes, are we prepared to do the same for someone who might be sitting in the pew across from us?

Inerrancy is a particularly tricky subject. I’d bet that no matter how strict you consider yourself on the matter there is someone out there who would take your view as insufficient. If you hold to anything other than 6 day, 24 hour creationism you can find yourself on the outs very quickly (despite this not being a controversial subject until relatively recently). If you rightly think that the Earth is spherical and revolves around the sun there is a whole cabal out there who will gladly inform you that you don’t take passages like Joshua 10 seriously enough. Think the Theory of Relativity is a legit scientific theory? Reconstructionists will tell you that you don’t take God at his word.

Obviously I believe the Bible is the inerrant and divinely inspired Word of God, but for each individual that says this, the term ‘inerrant’ is up in the air. I think we should be careful to not try to make the Bible authoritative over subjects that it doesn’t claim to have authority over. That we don’t twist it to say things it has no intention of saying. At the same time, we must be careful that we don’t work overtime to diminish it so that it ends up saying nothing at all