[From the archives. Originally published October, 1990.]
The Waters of Baptism
In this kind of study it must be admitted that certainty is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. But if probability be the guide of life, I am of the opinion that the way forward is tolerably clear here.
This discussion on baptism is based on several premises. First, man’s relationship with God is covenantal; second, that the visible covenant cannot be equated with salvation; third, that there is a continuity between the regulations (law) of the Old and New Covenants unless the New Testament teaches otherwise; fourth, that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant; fifth, that while the sign of the covenant has changed in the New Testament era, there is no corresponding New Testament teaching that indicates the recipients of baptism should not be the same as those who received the covenant sign in the Old Testament. This means household baptism, including infants.
An embarrassing fact of history for the Baptist scholar is the practice of household (infant) baptism in the early church. For about the first 200 years of New Testament Christianity the early Church practiced infant baptism. This indicates that at the time when the Church was under the influence of the apostles and those who received first hand teaching from the apostles, baptismal practice was contrary to the teaching of modern day Baptist theology.
The modern mind is influenced, to some extent, by the ideas from surrounding culture. Progress, or, as some would argue, evolution, is a fact of life. Thus, it is often easy to slip into the idea that we in the twentieth century have developed a better understanding of theology than those Christians who were around several centuries ago. After all, we have Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Wesley, or some other great figures of history; or we have the Westminster Confession of Faith which the early church did not possess. This is arrogance, not scholarship. Yet it is implicit in some of the arguments thrown around in the baptism debate.
Hence the argument of Baptist scholar, G.R. Beasley-Murray, as he attempts to answer the question: “If the baptism of infants was not instituted by the leaders of the primitive Church, how is its rise and universal adoption among the Churches to be accounted for?” Notice his statement that infant baptism was a universal phenomenon. But it is the reply he gives to this question that interests us: “A definitive answer cannot be given to the question, or it would have been supplied long ago.” This statement is all too common among Baptist scholars, whose blinkered viewpoint does not permit them to accept that the indication of household baptisms in the New Testament, parallelling household circumcisions in the Old Testament, is a clear explanation of the universal adoption of infant baptism. It is as if this argument does not exist in the mind of Mr. Beasley-Murray.
- G.R. Beasley-Murray Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 94.↵back
- In this essay, the word “Baptist” refers not to a denomination but a theological belief favouring baptism by immersion of adult believers. I know some would also baptise children, but they refuse to baptise eight-day old infants.↵back
[From the archives. Originally published September, 1990.]
The New Covenant
In the first part of this series on Covenantal Baptism, we briefly surveyed the Old Testament, noting the origin and implications of the covenant. All men, it was claimed, were in covenant relationship with God, either as covenant-breaker or covenant-keeper. The former group would be cursed, while the latter blessed. Moreover, it was noted that it was God who determined which group an individual would be born into, although in adult life each person must confirm his position, by maintaining either his covenant-breaking or covenant-keeping position. Finally, it was observed that the visible covenant cannot be equated with salvation.
In that overview we found that the Old Testament, or Old Covenant, provides the biblical foundation for the New Covenant. It is the relationship between the two covenants that is at the heart of much unnecessary disagreement over Christian theology. When we arrive at the New Testament portion of the Scriptures, the question that arises is this: in what way is the New Covenant different from the Old Covenant?
Any discussion of the relationship between Old and New Covenants cannot proceed until we understand what is meant by the word “new.” It may appear to some fairly obvious that the word “new” simply means “new.” But the fact is, the Bible — that is, the God-inspired Scriptures — have two words that are translated into English as “new,” and the words are not precisely the same in meaning. Moreover, they provide one of the keys that helps us unravel the thorny question of relationship of Old and New Covenants.
In English we use the word “new” in two different senses. We talk about a new baby, or a new house that has been built down the road. When we use the word “new” in these cases we are talking about an object of some kind that is young in age. That is, it has only recently come into existence.
But we also use the same word to talk about things that are not new in existence. Remember the advertisement for a famous brand washing powder, Rinso? Clothes, sparkling bright, were displayed with the caption, “New Rinso.” In this case, we are not talking about an object that is necessarily young in age. We are talking about an object that is older, an article that has had something done to it so that there is a difference about it. We call this item “new” without any hesitation. From the context we know what others mean when they use the word “new,” and we have little trouble in handling these two related, but different, concepts. Thus, we have an old car that gets a re-spray job, and we call it a “new” car. Or, we buy a second-hand house and we refer to it as our “new” home.
[From the archives. Originally published August, 1990.]
Old Testament Origins
In the year 871 A.D., a young king came to the throne in a land torn by warfare and strife. At the age of 21, this young man assumed an enormous responsibility. His country had been invaded and almost completely overrun by people who did not believe in the God that he believed in. They were pagans, intent on pillage, rape, and living off their conquered foes. They were barbaric parasites, living off the economic productivity of their captives who became their slaves. The invaders had sailed in from the north in their long ships, and their military might was such that none had been able to halt their quest for domination of foreign lands. Steadily they encroached on more and more of this young king’s territory, slowly establishing their rulers in the provinces — governors who would maintain allegiance to the invaders.
This young king, Alfred by name, who inherited only a fraction of what was once a large and prosperous land, had other ideas. He believed that this foreign invasion was the handiwork of the God of the Bible, who was inflicting punishment on the people of his nation for their disobedience to the moral requirements found in the Holy Scriptures. Thus, when he inherited the throne, he began a strange course of action. Once he had established that he was unable to beat the invaders militarily, he began a tactic which, to the modern world, appears to be bizarre for one under siege in his own land. Instead of planning a military strike against the invaders, he began a task of Christian reconstruction to rebuild the remains of his nation in terms of biblical law.
First, he searched abroad for biblical scholars who would come to what remained of his country and teach the people the Holy Scriptures. He built churches and monasteries, and insisted that the people be taught and educated in the ways of God Almighty.
Second, he urged that the Scriptures should be translated into the national language. Since this young king was apparently unable to read or write, he imposed upon himself the task of mastering the skills of literacy so that he too could participate in the translation work of the Scriptures. Before he died, he left a legacy of translated Psalms and a choice selection from the early church fathers for his people to read in their native tongue.
[From the archives. November, 1988.]
The Old and New Covenants
Part two of this discussion on Christian Reconstruction was intended to look at the charge of ‘legalism’ which is used by some against the Reconstruction movement. There is one issue flowing from part one, however, which I didn’t touch on and which should help show why Reconstructionism is consistent with what the Bible teaches. Hence the ‘legalism’ issue is postponed while we consider the Old and New Covenants.
In the first article of this series, I outlined some of the differences of opinion which exist between Christian Reconstructionists and those who disagree with this position. Those differences manifest themselves in the manner in which the Old and New Testaments are read and interpreted. Both sides believe in the priority of the New Testament; it is the manner in which this priority is handled which results in the different understanding of Scripture. Reconstructionists believe that the whole of the Old Testament is applicable today unless the New Testament says otherwise; that is, they interpret the Old Testament by using the New Testament. Some of the opponents of Reconstructionism, however, especially Walter Chantry in his book God’s Righteous Kingdom (London: Banner of Truth, 1980), use the priority of the New Testament method of interpretation a little differently. Their argument is this: unless the New Testament repeats the Old Testament then Old Testament teaching is no longer applicable. This method is explicit, for example, in much dispensational premillennial teaching.
The simple fact of the matter is that those who oppose the Reconstruction method of interpretation are never consistent with their principle. They oscillate between their own position and, when it suits them, they adopt the Reconstruction position itself. Or, they fall back on a line which says something like this: “the Old Testament law — except the Ten Commandments — is no longer binding today. It does offer some ‘good advice’ which is probably worth heeding. But there is no necessary moral obligation to obey that advice.” Now this sounds great in theory but is never practiced consistently. For example, is bestiality a sin? If so, where does the Bible teach that it is a sin? Bestiality does not rate a mention in the New Testament. Does this mean it is no longer a sin? But the sin of bestiality also carried the death penalty. What should the civil authorities do today with those who practice this abomination? Smile, look the other way and ignore it? Punish those who indulge in it? Reward those who do it (cf. Rom. 13:1-4)? If they are to chastise, what punishment should they apply? The Biblical punishment or one they determine for themselves?
In this we see the central problem in the reconstruction debate. Will we be governed by man’s law or God’s law? That is the issue which confronts every man and woman. How will we answer it?
One of the issues of debate in the controversy is the meaning of the covenants in Scripture. The Bible is, after all, divided into two sections called testaments, or covenants. What is the relationship between these two covenants?
You never thought I’d make that suggestion, did you?
Now before you write me off as a complete heretic instead of a partial one, at least give me a chance to explain myself.
One of the issues in Christian theology is understanding the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments. At least since the second century with Marcion, there have been debates about the continuity of the Old Testament, especially the law, into the New Testament era.
Now a good part of the problem is words. The words “old” and “new” carry with them the connotation of replacement. Or at least, that is how it is now understood. The New Testament somehow replaces the Old. And if you’re not careful, you end up with a form of “replacement” theology. In the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, “Christians are accustomed to speak of ‘the Old Testament’ and ‘the New Testament,’ the contrast between ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ unavoidably carrying with it connotations such as ‘the superseded’ or at least ‘the updated.’”
In order for better understanding, then, it’s time to join a crowd that says let’s abolish the name, Old Testament. We could creatively find new names for it, such as “Permanent Testament” or something along these lines. Then we could get creative with the New Testament and call it the “Fulfilled Testament.”
I think we might also get rid of the word “Testament” completely and call it the alternative, “Covenant.” Then we could have the “Permanent and Fulfilled Covenants.”
Now, doesn’t that give you a better idea of the relationships between the books of the Bible?
- Whose Bible Is It? 2005, p. 5.↵back
I’ve always wanted to write the book, The Power of Negative Thinking. It would be a response to the enormously popular, The Power of Positive Thinking. And the reason I want to write with this title is to highlight the fact that negative thinking is just as powerful as positive thinking. I’m amazed at the number of Christians who will criticize Norman Vincent Peale’s concept, while at the same time reject the idea that their negativity about something is just as powerful as the positivism that Peale encourages. Some people are just positively negative about being positive.
Among other things, I teach children to play the piano. I take them and work with them, and expect them to be successful. From time to time you get a student who says, “I can’t do this.” But behind that comment is an attitude, “I really don’t want to do this.” It is the unstated attitude that drives the verbal comment.