Reformed Theology

Baptismal Regeneration?

Craig Higgins writes in a footnote:

When I have been asked if I believe in baptismal regeneration, I simply say, “not in the way that is commonly understood in evangelical circles.” No one in the Reformed tradition has taught that baptism automatically guarantees final eschatological salvation. Thus, while there may be epistemological tensions (after all, the sacraments are mysteries!), there is no final theological conflict between the traditional Reformed understanding of election and the ordo salutis and a strongly instrumental sacramental theology.

Merit or “Entitlement” in Reformed Covenant Theology

Here is the lengthy response to Klinean covenantalism in Kerux Journal.

Expecting too much from a text…

Vickers makes an interesting observation in the beginning of his discussion on imputation.[1] He argues that the debate over the imputation of Christ’s active obedience tends to expect too much from a single text. Thus, critics and advocates of the doctrine “often miss the connection not only between the major texts but between the texts and a larger biblical-theological framework.”[2] Vickers concludes that when a cherished doctrine is not found in an individual text, the only other option is to force the doctrine into it. Confessional Christians are most guilty of this (myself included), since they contend that every biblical terminology has already been appropriately defined by our Confession. Hence, our tendency is to impose our theological convictions upon a verse because it contains a word like justification or righteousness. As Jeff Meyers points out, “…we read the Bible as if the definitions we have attached to our theological vocabulary must be dumped into every biblical occurrence of these same words.”[3] But the Bible is much greater than our confessions and certainly much greater than our incomplete definitions.


[1] Brian Vickers, Jesus’ Blood and Righteousness. Crossway Books: Wheaton, IL., 2006.

[2] Ibid. 17.
[3] Jeff Meyers, The Challenge of Theological Terminology.

Revelation 20: The Triumph of the Church and the Humiliation of the Old Serpent; A Brief Exposition, Part 2

Editor’s Note: The entire paper is available in word format, including bibliography.

Paper: revelation-20.doc

A Defense of Postmillennial Eschatology in Revelation 20

There is a general consensus within the Reformed tradition concerning the beginning of Christ’s kingdom. Amillenialists and Postmillennialists concur that Christ bound the evil one, Satan, in the first century.[1] Further, they both agree that the binding[2] of Satan had a very specific purpose– in order that he should not deceive the nations any longer (Revelation 20:3).[3] The devil roams around seeking to devour as many as possible,[4] but his ability to restrain the gospel from becoming a world-wide enterprise will continually fail.[5] Before proceeding to make a positive case for a Postmillennial eschatology, one must note that in a substantial manner both Amils and Postmils share much in common with one another concerning Revelation 20.[6] As Chilton remarks:

From the Day of Pentecost onward, orthodox Christians have recognized that Christ’s reign began at His resurrection/Ascension and continues until all things have been thoroughly subdued under His feet, as St Peter clearly declared (Acts 2:30-36).[7]

Chilton’s claim testifies to the overall unity of thought from the early church to the present day–defended by Post and Amillenarians alike–that the kingdom of God has come upon confessors of the true Messiah.[8] Further, believers do not wait Christ’s reign in the future, but believe He has reigned from the first century until now, and His kingdom shall reign forever and ever. Arguing for eschatological distinctions, Keith Mathison observes:

…it should be noted that postmillennialism (and Amillenialism), in contrast to premillennialism, does not teach that this single passage, in this highly symbolic book, should be the cornerstone of one’s system of eschatology.[9]

Reformed thought is comprehensive and covenantal in nature. It builds from Old Covenant prophecies and reaches a crescendo in Christ, rather than one particular pericope. Hence, to depend solely on one passage to build a positive case for one’s millennial position–as Premillennialism does–makes Revelation 20 the apex of eschatological discourse and debate. Even George E. Ladd[10] admits that if Revelation 20 were not the vision of the Second Coming, then we would be left with no clear reference to the events of the end.[11]

In contrast, Postmillennialism[12] argues that Revelation 20 gives greater conviction to the Church of Christ that His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. Further, Postmillennialism builds its case from the entirety of sacred revelation: from the promise of the coming seed[13] to the triumph of the Lamb over the Evil One.[14] Unlike other approaches, Postmillennarians believe in a present reign on earth, which will be consummated in the Second Coming of the Lord when He will be all in all (I Corinthians 15:26).

In considering Revelation 20, there are at least two distinct exegetical observations that distinguish the eschatology of hope of Postmillennialism from Amillennialism and Premillennialism.[15] They are:

a) The nature of Satan’s defeat.[16]

b) The nature of the reign of the saints.[17] More

Revelation 20: The Triumph of the Church and the Humiliation of the Old Serpent; A Brief Exposition, Part 1

The significance of Revelation 20 cannot be underestimated. Scholars have pondered the exegesis of this passage for centuries. Consequently, three positions have emerged. The first position is Premillennialism. The word “millennialism”[1] means a “thousand years” mentioned six times in Revelation 20. “Pre” refers to the time before the “thousand years.”[2] Therefore, Premillennialists[3] argue that Christ will return before the initiation of the aforementioned thousand years. Historically, Premillennialists have been divided over when Christ will return, though they agree it will precede the millennium of Revelation 20. Dispensational Premillennialists[4] contend that Christ will return in two separate stages: first, to rapture His church and second, to end this present world and bring about the prophetic promises[5] of a land of peace and righteousness for a literal thousand years.[6]

Conversely, Historical Premillennialists believe the rapture of First Thessalonians 4 is the same as the “glorious appearing” of Titus 2:13. Therefore, the Rapture and the Second Coming refer to the same event. This position bears much similarity to the Amillenialist viewpoint.

Amillenialism has a long tradition in Reformation history.[7] The “A” negates “millenialist.” Thus, those who defend this position believe that there is no literal millennium. Some consider the term “Inaugurated Eschatology” a more accurate description of this position, since with the First Advent of the blessed Lord; Christ’s millennial reign began in the hearts of believers.[8] Summarily, Amillennialists[9] prefer to see the millennium as a spiritual manifestation of the kingdom of God.[10] During the period from the First to the Second Advent, the Church can expect to see simultaneous growth of justice and injustice, good and evil, Christianity and paganism.[11]

A third position is Postmillennialism.[12] “Post” indicates that Christ will return after the completion of the Millennial Age. This period endures from Christ’s First Coming in the Incarnation to His Second Coming in the Consummation.[13] Unlike Amillenialists and Premillennialists, Postmillennialists believe that the Church can expect to see a great manifestation of the gospel throughout the nations.[14] Nations will be converted to God in abundance, societies will be transformed, and peace and righteousness will reign[15] for a thousand years.[16] Nevertheless, Postmillenarians do not believe in a utopian society where all sin will be banished.[17] Since Postmillennialists are largely Calvinists, they recognize the post-lapsarian results of sin. More

Infant Baptism Debate: White vs. Strawbridge–Thoughts and Theological Considerations

Editor’s note: I have updated this post to add a few more thoughts on the debate (11-10-07).

strawbridge_case.jpg

I have just heard the debate between Baptist author/apologist James White vs. Presbyterian minister and author Rev. Gregg Strawbridge. Throughout my theological life, I have been influenced in many ways by both men. Gregg’s passionate exposition of the Scriptures has been a source of theological maturity for me. On the other hand, Dr. White has also played a role in my thinking, though in the last few years I have distanced myself in many ways from his theology. Nevertheless, White’s commitment to offer a Biblical apologetic against Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons have been a helpful resource in my apologetic library.

Their debate a few nights ago demonstrates what the Van Tillian tradition of apologetics has so long proved: ideas have consequences. Presuppositions and notions about hermeneutics affect the beginning statement and closing statements of a debate. Interestingly, the debate ended just as it began: the nature of the covenant. White argued persistently that the New Covenant provided only blessings–since it was only for the elect; while Strawbridge’s commitment to covenantal thinking and continuation led him to conclude that the New Covenant is not different from the Old with regards to recipients and structure, but only in regards to efficacy and eschatological intervention through Christ.

Though presuppositions determine all things, I would like to affirm that Strawbridge’s presuppositions is more consistent and faithful to the Biblical text. I do not make that statement simply because of my predisposition towards paedobaptism. I should note that when Sproul debated John McArthur many years ago, he (Sproul) suffered greatly to present a coherent covenantal model, and thus failing to persuade us why Credo-Baptism was erroneous. Nevertheless, however one may think of these types of ideas/exchanges, my conclusion is that White failed to give credence to a fundamental Biblical component of hermeneutics–that is, Biblical typology. In Biblical typology, the author connects ideas, which at first seem invisible. Indeed, this is the duty of the exegete: to bring together God’s revelation into one coherent message.

James White’s main point of contention in every discussion on baptism is that his Presbyterian brothers just did not separate themselves enough from Catholicism in the 16th century, and if Calvin would just have seen a little more light we would all be Credo-Baptists today. White threw out the “T” word to let everyone know that “Tradition” is the worst of all evils and he (White) has no heritage, no tradition influencing his interpretive scheme. White, however, appears unaware of just how much his tradition affects him. For instance, Strawbridge argues rightly that Hebrews establishes that the New Covenant includes believers and unbelievers. As an excellent reference he quotes Hebrews 10:29-30 which reads:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

According to verse 29, “one” and “he” are two different people. Here is where White’s tradition enters the game. White argues, following John Owen (a historical figure; a respected man in White’s tradition) that the “he” in verse 29 refers to Christ and not to an individual. Grammatically however, notice that in verse 30 it is God’s people that is in mind in verse 29, not Christ. The text says that the Lord will judge “his” people. White never mentioned verse 30, which in my estimation confirms Strawbridge’s assertion about verse 29. If White would only abandon his tradition, he would see the simplicity of the text. In the end, the New Covenant maintains the structure of the Old Covenant, that is, a covenant made with believers and unbelievers. The radical change that White argues is non-existent. Once again, let us place the “radical” where radical belongs: in the person of Christ; that is what is radical about the New Covenant.

Strawbridge’s greatest strength is his ability to tie together New Covenantal language with its intended Old Covenant background. Reformed exegetes understand that New Testament writers did not write unaware of their Jewish context. They were not robots, rather their personalities and backgrounds played a deep role in writing what would become our New Testament canon. Their knowledge of Old Covenant language was always influencing their writing. This is the conspicuous reason there are so many Old Testament quotations in the New; there was an unspoken reliance on the Old Covenant canon because the Old Covenant was part of their identity as New Covenant writers.

White, on the other hand, unaware– or better yet,– unwilling to ever engage in this form of argumentation, lost sight of Gregg’s main point: the Children of Christian parents belong to the Lord because this was God’s purpose from the beginning. Of such is the kingdom of heaven; to such belong the kingdom. This is Biblical pattern–not merely a temporary pattern,– but one that would continue to all generations before and after Messiah would come.

More

The God who relents and Federal Vision Theology

The topic of the “immutability” of God has gone through various adjustments and disputations in these last 20 years in the church. In the past, older commentators seemed to close their theological eyes to such difficult passages (God “repented,” “relented,” “changed His mind”) by relegating it to the category of “anthropomorphism.” When something is anthropomorphic, it means that the Bible stoops down to convey a clear message to humanity using human terms. By adopting this response, what interpreters are saying is: this can’t be God, because my decretal God could never think twice about changing His mind–He only has a plan A. However, what would you say if I told you God has a plan A,B,C, and sometimes even D? If you do not believe that is the case, think of how many times He could have destroyed us because of our miserable sins. I am here referring to the covenantal sense. It would be theologically dangerous to assert that God’s eternal plans can be changed or altered on the basis of human actions. But through the lenses of covenant, we see that God is willing to change His judgment (Nineveh , as an example) on the basis of covenant fidelity from His people. In His kindness, benevolence, He relented from doing so. In fact, relenting is part of His gracious character. If He were not a relenting God we would be doomed.

In Exodus 32:12, 14 and 1 Samuel 15:29 and Jonah 3:10, we find multiple examples of this reality. On the condition (see also Exodus 19) that God’s people maintained and kept themselves loyal to their covenant promises, God would give them a great Land–flowing with milk and honey. If they break the covenant promise, God would then punish them accordingly.

Exodus 32 is a marvelous example of this human imploring by Moses. God threatens, but then relents. In fact, this is a clear pattern throughout Scriptures. God threatens, so that,–as Greg Bahnsen would say–there would be ethical readjustments in people’s behavior. If God never threatened, there would be no change. It is through His threatening, that people renew their covenants with God and nations repent of their sins. This is why in times of great natural disasters in early American history, the presidents called for a day of repentance and humiliation.

This is where Federal Vision theology makes Reformed Theology plausible and Biblical. Our beloved Confession (and I mean it when I say this) focuses largely on God’s decretal plans; that is, from before the foundations of the world. The decretal plans of God are unalterable, unchangeable, and immutable. Am I clear? However, what the Confession does NOT place much emphases is on the Covenantal plans of God. By this I mean, the earthly, tangible, physical manifestation of God’s plans. When we speak of God as a personal God, we are referring to this covenantal relationship between God and His people. To make this even clearer: God’s decretal plans work harmoniously with His Covenantal plans. However, His covenantal plans are different than His decretal plan. For instance, through my repentance I can personally communicate my sins to God, without expecting that God is wholly other, but rather expecting that He is wholly near; knowing that He hears my repentance and acts based on my repentance (If you love me keep my commandments).

The secret things (decretal plans) belong to Him alone. It is not for us to speculate or assume; but everything else is revealed to us and our children. This is where we should concern ourselves: with our response to God and to others.

Federal Vision theology has restored this Biblical imperative. Let us petition to our God for He listens to us and acts accordingly to our responses and His holy character.

A Reformed View of Apologetics, Part 2

One of the assertions of a Reformed view of apologetics is that apart from God’s revelation, man cannot account for anything, or as Van Til once put it: “…the atheists cannot account for accounting.” It is the “voluntary revelation” of a gracious God that leads us to think His thoughts after Him. Once again Van Til:

He must therefore be known for what He is, and known to the extent that He is known, by authority alone.[1]

The Christian Reformed apologist can rightly boast that his system or method for apologetics endeavor is far superior to his opponent. The Christian argues presuppositionially; God is the all in all of apologetic encounter. Though our apologetic is superior, there is a humbling sense when we acknowledge that we are solely dependent on God’s grace in revelation for our interpretation of the world.

When we spouse this position, some may say that it is theologically immature to assume things before we enter into a formal discussion. However, the reality is that no one enters into a discussion neutrally. We all reason presuppositionally! For the Thomist, “human reasoning” is his presupposition; for the Reformed thinker, God is the presupposition. Van Til summarizes this:

Psychologically, acceptance on authority precedes philosophical argument; but when, as epistemologically self-conscious grown-ups, we look into our own position, we discover that unless we may presuppose such a God as we have accepted on authority, the Moment will have no significance.[2]

Part 1 A Reformed View of Apologetics


[1] Van Til, Cornelius. Common Grace. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947. pg. 8.[2] Van Til, Cornelius. Common Grace. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1947. pg. 8-9.

Bullinger and covenantal status…

Many in the Southern Presbyterian[1] tradition deny that infants born in covenant homes are to be welcomed in the full life of the church.[2] In fact, some even assume that they are not to receive any covenant privileges until they have reached an age where articulation of one’s faith is possible. This position seems to be a prevalent reaction to the high sacramental theology of various traditions. Unfortunately, this has led to the denial of the God-granted role for covenant children in the church. Infants are heirs of the promise simply because God in His free grace displays His holy affections to the family. As Bullinger writes:

…we consider children of parents to be children and indeed heirs even though they, in their early years, do not know that they are either children or heirs of their parents.

Baptized infants are the proper recipients of grace and are commanded to live in light of his/her covenantal commitment. To live in light of his baptism entails a sacred commitment to piety and holy living. If one is enlightened (baptized) and deny the work of grace, he is then in the same condemnatory status as Judas. Bullinger captures this idea:

They are, however, disowned if, after they have reached the age of reason, they neglect the commands of their parents.

So then, it is not a trust in the sacrament, but a life lived in light of the sacrament that grants assurance. The Jews thought they were secure because of their birth into the covenant family, but they did not live in light of that status, and thus, suffered the curses. The covenant Lord has entered into covenant with all baptized children, and infants are to grow in that covenant; repenting and believing that God’s grace is sufficient.

 


[1] For an excellent analysis of Southern and Northern Presbyterianism and how they understood sacramental efficacy, see Lewis Schenck: The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant.

[2] In the case of Baptist ecclesiology, infants are not even worth y recipients of the covenantal sign of baptism. Hence, there is a legitimate distinction between Southern Presbyterians and Baptists. Though both affirm that children do not receive any saving grace until they make a profession, Paedobaptists apply the sign of the covenant in faith that God will keep His promise.

Simon Chan on Justification by Faith

Chan writes:

But the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith has a more objective & communal character. It is not only about the individual’s acceptance before a righteous God but is also concerned with the larger, corporate issue of Gentile participation in the covenant community. Justification by faith means that with the coming of Christ, the righteousness of God is made available for both Jews & Gentiles on the same basis–by faith–which is an objective, divine provision.1

I have stressed this eclectic biblical use of justification for at least three years now. One needs only listen to James Jordan and Peter Leithart’s lectures in the early 90’s to come to that obvious conclusion. Before the Bishop of Durham had received any excommunicatos, our Reformed brothers were echoing the beauty of God’s justification.

Footnotes

  1. Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology, 109 [ back]