Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, A Review, Part I

Before resigning my membership at a Reformed Baptist church (in order to place it at a Presbyterian church), my pastor asked me to read Pascal Denault’s book, “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology” and wrestle with the arguments he brought to the table.
So I did.

He then asked my thoughts on it.
Here they are.

Full Disclosure

I am not a traditional Reformed theologian. I've arrived at my convictions via Scripture, not the confessions, and so I expect a book which attacks older forms of federal theology not to threaten me. Because of that, much that interests someone else is totally uninteresting to me. I don’t see the need to man the ramparts against someone who attacks the probationary period in the covenant of works. Let 'em have it. The Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works? Denault would be doing everyone a favor to knock that down. If he absolutely tears down the whole Presbyterian construction from one end to the other and sits atop the rubble victorious, I therefore expect to still not be caught in the blast zone given my starting point.

Unlike a normal book review, I’ll be skipping the weird and interesting things which draw attention of normal readers, such as the half dozen parts where Denault claims Owen was an unwitting Baptist (besides, it just comes off as hero worship manifesting itself as wishful thinking). I'm also going to skip the obligatory evaluations of the book writing. I'll just say I think Denault is a good writer, that his ideas are clear and serviceable, that his citation of the older thinkers is careful, and that he’s quoted his sources at length.
So now that you’re aware of my implicit biases and where this is going, let’s get to it.

Uncharitable Much?

When Alice falls down the rabbit hole she commits an embarrassing blunder common to very young children, "I wonder if I shall fall fight through the earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards!
In assuming gravity is a vector that points downwards from England, like an arrow shot through a ball, Alice comes to the conclusion that people on the opposite side of the earth walk on their heads. Denault makes that same mistake. From his point of view it looks reasonable to say the Reformed are slaves to a system and have no biblical basis for their beliefs, but this only works if you don't consider the matter from their perspective. I've said similar disrespectful things in my younger days, to my shame, but at some point I had to own the fact that the vast majority of the greatest minds in Christendom have believed this baby baptizing stuff.
But even if that wasn't so, and Denault is right, and the Presbyterians are actually dumb, there’s still no need for him to be so uncharitable. We don’t need to run down the Arminians as being idol worshiping fools for not believing in predestination the way we do, for example. They reject our Calvinistic understanding because they cannot understand how it doesn't make God unjust, but even though we know this is how the Bible actually speaks of it we don't need to impute the worst possible motives to them. 

The other problem with accusing the Reformed of being slaves to a system is that nine times out of ten it’s the inferior who accuses the superior of being taken captive by a clunky, unbiblical, man-made set of beliefs. How many times did I hear this from my Church of Christ friends regarding Calvinism? This complaint is largely a short hand for "I don't understand your reasoning, therefore your reasoning is wrong." But in the words of Treebeard, “a Calvinist ought to know better!

Yet Denault doesn’t. He seems to sincerely think the Reformed hold their ideas on infant baptism simply because they’re dullards who can’t put two and two together—and I’m not exaggerating here. It’s wave after wave of,

"the paedobaptist approach not only did not use the New Testament to interpret the Old, but did the exact opposite" (Loc 1320).
And while I'm all for a good humorous dig, Denault seems to genuinely affirm this stuff. See for yourself:
“We believe that it was arbitrary on the part of the paedobaptists to link baptism not to the internal substance but to the external administration of the Covenant of Grace, since baptism symbolized union in the death and resurrection of Christ (the ultimate spiritual substance of the Covenant of Grace)”  (loc 1419).
Arbitrary mind you. It’s not because God assigned the sign and seal of faith to infants in the covenant of Grace in the Old Testament, or that He Himself established the external administration, or because covenants are family affairs and that's how every other covenant in the Bible has worked. It's not because Abraham was given saving knowledge of Christ and His mission, nor because the external/internal divide was His idea. Instead, baptism was assigned to infants because Presbyterians enjoying making their decisions by rolling the dice.
“The padeobaptist refused to separate the dualities of the Abrahamic covenant in order to preserve their model of the covenant of grace which integrated these dualities… Their system was self sufficient, but it could not harmonize itself naturally with the Biblical data, and, in particular, to the fact that there was not one, but two covenants in Abraham” (loc 1863, 1929). 
Or perhaps it’s the case that there is no duality in the Abrahamic covenant? Perhaps God instead made a single covenant with Abraham, and these two dimensions are organically related? Could it be instead that the same covenant is strengthened and expanded as history has progressed, being about Christ rather than a staccato issuance of semi-related covenants? Nope, none of that can be true. There are two covenants, one physical and earthly, the other spiritual and heavenly, and circumcision was assigned to the first. Even though Romans 4:11 says the opposite.

On Hebrews 10:29, 
“Grammatically this verse can be translated as Blake read it. Theologically however, this translation is impossible. How could someone who had been sanctified by the blood of Christ (the blood of the covenant) perish? Another translation is preferable, one that is grammatically and theologically true” (Loc 2313). 
Translation: Scripture cannot mean what it says, it must mean what I know to be true. This one is really deadly, and I know because I have to fight against that every time I open the Bible. It's pride and selfishness that causes someone to say that, nothing more. It's tempting to just dismiss what you think is false rather than tear down your old worldview, but you can't. Scripture is always right and you're not.
“No Presbyterian believed that the new Covenant was new” (loc 2235). 
I’ll just leave that one there to speak for itself.
“Presbyterian federalism was an artificial construction developed to justify an end: paedobaptism. We do not think that this laborious theology was the result of a rigorous and disinterested application of hermeneutical principles. We rather believe that it was the consequence of an age-old practice, which became the ultimate instrument of social uniformity in Christendom and which was inherited by the Reformed Church, namely, paedobaptism. Paedobaptism was the arrival point of Presbyterian federalism because it was its starting point” (Loc 2388). 
The Paedobaptists wanted paedobaptism, so they made sure to construct a system that featured it. They’ve dealt in bad faith or ignorance from the beginning and have gone on the same ever since.

Look dude, waving a magic wand and pretending Presbyterianism has no biblical basis for their practices doesn’t work. I get you want the Baptists to be the good guys in your story and the Reformed the bad guys, but you can’t do that. You just can’t. Romans 2:28; 4:11; 11:16-22; Col 2:11-12; Matt 22:29 each make a compelling reason for paedobaptism and you can’t pretend a giant swath of Christendom lay in the grip of ignorance and superstition for thousands of years. That's more than unfair, it’s positively unchristian.

Aside from this, the other problem is that Denault has appropriated the reasonable positions for Baptists, and made it to look like the Presbyterians wouldn’t agree. This happens often, but I’ll just give you one (at location 2041) where he says that Baptists believe Sinai was designed to preserve the lineage of Christ, to point typologically to Christ, and to make it clear that salvation can only be found in Christ. He then seizes the high ground by hinting that Presbyterians believe otherwise. It’s frustrating because that’s not how someone arguing from a superior position behaves, it's how someone hiding something behaves. As the Apostle Paul says “we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4:2).

The ironic thing is that Denault wrote this book because he got tired of Presbyterians just dismissing the rich heritage of Baptists and ignoring the actual arguments for their viewpoint. So what does he do? He treats them like they’d treated him. Put the rebel in charge of the government and he becomes the tyrant he fought to unseat.

For all this the book gets a “do not recommend” from me. Even though the kindle version is reasonably priced, don't waste your money. A man who cannot deal honestly or charitably with his fellow brother is not somebody you ought to listen to (see also: James White).

“But wait” you say,maybe it’s just Waltersobchakeit, you know? Just because he assumes the worst about Presbyterians doesn’t mean he’s wrong about their theology.”

Fair enough. Let’s begin the apologeia in earnest.
On to Part II


Anonymous said...

I look forward to the rest of your critique. Are there any reformed authors who fully represent your personal perspective on covenant theology?

Phil said...

Hey Brandon, thanks for stopping by.
Although I kind backed into this stuff by accident recently, I think the Princeton thinkers would be the closest to me.

Anonymous said...

By which he really means Barth, Torrance, Berkouwer, Shepherd, Kinnaird and Murray as opposed to the orthodox views of Warfield or the Hodges.

Phil said...

AHAHAHA! Seriously, whomever is posting all these awesome anonymous posts is amazing.

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