Response to Brad Trout on Baptism

TW Cover FinalBradley Trout very kindly reviewed my book on baptism, Troubled Waters, from a Baptist perspective, and his responses are certainly very heartening. You can read it here. He was subsequently kind enough to clear up some of my minor misreadings of his post in private. What follows is my response to him, and many thanks to him for his time and generosity.

Troubled Waters argues that the two major ways of understanding baptism—what we’ve labelled believer’s baptism and paedobaptism—are incompatible all the way down to their foundations, and so it is at the foundational level that discussion needs to be had, otherwise we will continue to talk past one another. Brad’s review was appreciative of this approach, and agrees that it does offer a way forward for the discussion.

Perhaps the main point of difference between our two baptism traditions is over what baptism does. Obviously, if we don’t agree on what it does, it is pointless to go on to ask whether the children of believers can also be baptised (because that question depends on the answer to the first)—and yet most discussions of baptism fail even to consider the first question.

Perhaps this question gets glossed over because on one level, both sides agree about what baptism does—it is a sign of regeneration (that is, the gift of the Spirit by which one is ‘born again’), and it initiates a person into the Christian church.

However, when one looks more closely, the agreement that we seem to have is perhaps not as complete as one would like.

Firstly, the sign: baptism is a sign of regeneration, but believers baptists tend to see it as a sign that the individual baptismal candidate has become regenerate (or is at least claiming to be regenerate). Paedobaptists rather think of it as a sign that may be fulfilled only in the future. Think of it like this: imagine you reach a fork in the road, and there is a sign that reads ‘New York’ (for the sake of argument) pointing down one path. It may not tell you how far down the road New York is, but this is the New York road.  The paedobaptist believes that the sign of baptism may be of this kind—pointing to a road (and the destination is simply ‘this way’). If you can recognise that a sign is able to function like this—marking a change in direction rather than a destination—you are closer to understanding how paedobaptists typically understand baptism and regeneration.

Why do paedobaptists try to make this seemingly odd distinction? It is because of the second point of disagreement: the way in which baptism joins one to the church. The camps disagree over whether baptism:

  • recognises a person’s wish to become a follower of Christ and bonds them to the visible church community (as paedobaptists typically believe); or
  • celebrates a person’s regeneration and marks their entry into the true church (as believer’s baptists typically believe—see for example Troubled Waters, pp. 65-66).

Paedobaptists do not believe that it is possible to know at what point someone is regenerated, and so baptism can’t function as the sign of the destination; it functions as the sign that points in the correct direction.

This long preface is an attempt to explain why Brad and I disagree about baptism, in spite of our many areas of agreement.

Brad is a slightly unusual case, because he sees himself as a visible-church Baptist. As such, he chiefly disagrees with my book’s characterisation of believer’s baptists. Troubled Waters says that the believer’s-baptist view sees baptism as for the born-again only, and that they must examine candidates to see if their profession is credible. For Brad, it is enough that someone claims to believe and that there are no obvious impediments to that claim. Brad says:

“[Believer’s baptists] recognize that we can’t [test for regeneration] with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church).”

Although Brad sees his form of baptism as being into the visible church, his assumptions seem to me still to operate within a true-church paradigm. What I mean is, he still sees the sign as pointing to the individual’s regeneration (the true-church view); he merely agrees that we can’t be fully sure that that has happened for someone else, and so we need to take their word for it.

Let’s look at how these views differ.

True Church vs Visible Church

Look at the diagram of the true-church view below:

00blog_tc_view

In the true-church paradigm, there are really only two categories: those who are regenerate Christians and those who aren’t. Baptism should take place shortly after someone has converted, and so someone’s personal declaration of faith is all-important. Under this paradigm, baptising babies is clearly illegitimate, because before they are reasonably self-aware they are not capable of declaring faith or being regenerate. This is why believer’s baptists accuse paedobaptists of baptising non-Christians when they baptise infants:

“Baptists are… men and women who do not wish to confuse the church with the world… Baptism stands at the door of the church; a church that opens to receive believers and closes to exclude unbelievers. Once a Christian community begins to welcome the unbeliever, the half-believer and the infant incapable of belief within its actual membership, that community will begin to lose its spiritual zeal and evangelical experience.” (Bridge & Phypers, quoted in Troubled Waters, p. 113f)

Brad shows vestiges of this binary view (Christian / non-Christian) when he says [emphasis mine]:

“Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing.”

“Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field [in the parable of the wheat and the weeds] does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?”

In Brad’s view—it seems to me—the church may in practice consist also of impostors, but at least in theory and in what we aim for it to be, it should consist of true Christians. As Brad said to me privately, baptism as a sign should point to a reality: salvation.

But look at the visible-church view (as it is understood in Troubled Waters) below:

00blog_vc_view

In this paradigm, it is acknowledged that there is a true church made up of the regenerate, and anyone who is unregenerate is on the outside, but it is also acknowledged that the identity of this community is known only to God. How do we know when salvation takes place? Is it possible for baptism to signify an individual’s salvation if we don’t know when it takes place?

So in the visible-church view (or my preferred term—in discipleship baptism), we don’t see baptism as celebrating salvation (the unseen changing of the heart); we see it as formalising the commitment to follow Christ (the changing of the mind).  The sign does indeed signify salvation (‘this way’), but in its function, it marks that observable transition from outsider to disciple. The individual’s profession of faith is still important, but the thing that the church is looking for from the candidate is personal commitment to take up their cross and follow Christ—that the person wishes to be on the road to salvation (wherever the definitive salvation event actually takes place for that person).

In discipleship baptism, it is recognised that a person’s actual spiritual state before God is unknowable except to God, and so it affirms what can be known about a person’s status from the outside; namely:

  • Their profession—we can know whether they claim to follow (to be disciples) or not;
  • Their fruit—we can know when their behaviour matches or doesn’t match their profession (see Matthew 7:20; but bear in mind, the very next verse (7:21) implies that some church superstars will be strangers to Christ at the End; so even fruit is not an infallible indicator); and
  • Their perseverance—we can know whether they persevere or leave (As 1 John 2:19 says: “[Antichrists] went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” According to John here, being in the church or out the church is as sure a sign as we have that someone belongs or not).

As I tried to demonstrate in the book, the latter two criteria are the best indicators that someone is truly Christian, but neither of these is available at the start of one’s walk. Baptism therefore seems not to be for marking salvation but only the personal commitment to be on the road.

The discipleship-baptism paradigm is not resigned to a church made up of Christian and non-Christian (the ‘shoulder shrug’)—this paradigm is merely taking seriously that we have no view of someone’s true status.  And discipleship baptism does play a role in keeping the church pure by being the ‘contract’ on which church discipline is based—when a disciple behaves as a non-Christian, the church is able to call a person to account for the promises made at baptism.

It’s not that regeneration is irrelevant to discipleship baptism; it is just that regeneration is God’s work within the church—at some point along the road and not uniformly at its beginning. Discipleship baptism understands the rite in terms of what can be known about a candidate at the start of the Christian walk—that they are professing to follow Christ and must be held accountable to the terms of that profession. It makes baptism as a rite more significant, because rather than merely celebrating a conversion that hopefully proves genuine, baptism actually does something—it enters a person into the church. And when someone leaves the church and the faith, they are not proving their baptism false; they are revoking it.

So we would merely wish that both traditions could unite in using baptism to mark the beginning of the road, which is what it seems to be for in the New Testament.

So what about children?

The biggest sticking point, then, and the main expression of our division over baptism, is the matter of the children of believers. As mentioned above, Baptist heavyweights Grudem and Ware insist that infants cannot be baptised, because babies are incapable of profession of faith, and incapable of being individually regenerate.

However, if we are correct that baptism signifies simply the entry to the visible church and the personal commitment to follow Christ, then the stakes are significantly lower. Neither camp seems to contest that the children of believers belong in the visible church—in other words, neither camp sees it as strange for children to attend church meetings, nor treats them as outsiders to the faith. Paul, for example, addresses children with instructions in his epistles, which implies a form of discipleship. Because kids follow their parents into the church and because they are held accountable to the terms of Christian discipleship, they should be baptised as disciples and thus be held accountable (in an age-appropriate way).

Or one could approach the matter from a different direction—what is lost if one baptises children as disciples when it really ought to be only for adults? We haven’t in baptism declared them to be regenerate; only followers whom we believe will become regenerate by grace if they persevere along the road of discipleship. The only thing that is lost, really, is that they are robbed of an occasion on which they can personally declare that they wish to be members in their own right. (And there is nothing stopping us making a ceremony for that purpose if we feel its loss.)

Conclusion

In conclusion, the believer’s baptist need not be cynical about discipleship baptism, as though it makes the church impure, or represents the entry of ‘non-Christians’ into the church, or represents indifference to the holiness of the community. None of those things is implied.

The point is that scripture and reason both point to baptism as a rite for disciples, and if we can agree on that, we are still free to determine by our own conscience whether or not infants can be default disciples (by virtue of their obedience to Christian parents), or if discipleship needs to be consciously chosen. At least we’ll be able to acknowledge that very little of consequence is at stake in that discussion, and we’ll be able to unite without conflict under the gospel.

Troubled Waters is available for pay-what-you-like at Smashwords, or for nominal money at Amazon.com and other major retailers.

Advertisements

A Bridge over Troubled Waters?

Brad Trout

Brad Trout

By Bradley Trout

Pastor Bradley Trout is one of the elders at Mountain View Baptist Church in Lakeside, CT. In this post, he reviews and critiques Troubled Waters from a Baptist perspective. Many thanks to him for taking the time to engage with the book. Read more from Brad at Subtle Manifesto. Did the book persuade him to change any of his views? My responses will follow in a later post.

* * * * * * *

“Troubled Waters” is an apt description of the centuries-long baptism debate in which people have argued, heaped ridicule, and even killed each other over the issue of whether or not to baptize babies. Jordan’s book attempts to bridge these troubled waters (apologies to Simon and Garfunkel); does it succeed?

A Voyage over Troubled Waters

The main section of Troubled Waters (TW) gets going with a discussion about where baptism originated. Here it is argued that baptism is a sign of cleansing, with the purpose of signalling initiation into the church (chapter 4). Chapters 5 and 6 form the heart of the book’s approach. Chapter 5 shows that the promises made to Abraham are also foundational to the new covenant and that circumcision was a sign of righteousness by faith. This means that there is a precedent for the inclusion of infants into biblical covenants. Chapter 6 – possibly the most important chapter of the book – looks at the nature of the church. While both believers’ baptists (BB) and paedobaptists (PB) agree that baptism makes a person part of the church, they differ on what kind of church is being referred to: the visible church (i.e., those who claim to be Christians) or the invisible church (i.e., those who are really regenerate Christians). Here we get to the essence of the difference in approach between the two major baptism camps:

The groups disagree about which of these two kinds of church baptism is used for. Paedobaptists see baptism as initiation into the visible church. Believers’ baptists see it as an initiation into the true church. (p. 63)

The issue, then, is whether or not the NT expects us to be able to recognize the true church or only the visible church (p. 65). Yet this key issue is often ignored in the discussion over the nature of baptism.

This leads to what is perhaps the book’s central argument: The NT is pessimistic about our ability to ascertain whether or not people are regenerate and actually discourages us from trying to do so. Instead of thinking, therefore, about who is and isn’t regenerate, we should think in the categories of who is a disciple (considered as one inside the church community) and who isn’t (considered as one outside the church community). This means that the purpose of baptism is to initiate disciples into the visible church, not to initiate the regenerate into the true church (pp. 63-78).

Chapter 8 fills in what this means for children. Children are included in the (visible) church because they follow their parents as their parents follow Christ and are therefore also disciples.  This is why the NT treats children as part of the church of disciples. So, in short, TW presents a case for discipleship baptism – the view that anyone associated with the church community, whether by choice or birth, should receive the sign of entry into that community. Progress could be made, Jordan suggests, by recognizing that the issue lies in whether baptism is for the visible church or the true church. The waters have remained troubled for failing to locate the discussion on this point.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

I really appreciated the tone of this book. Anyone who has been traumatized by reading Jay Adams’ rather vitriolic Meaning and Mode of Baptism may experience a measure of healing as they read TW. The work is even-handed, generous, and sincere in its attempt to lay out the issues as fairly and accurately as possible. This is rather unusual for a book about baptism – a topic renowned for polarisation. It is therefore refreshing to read things like this:

These days, we have generally got past the desire to kill those who disagree with our positions on baptism, but we have not entirely left behind the nastiness that has for so long characterised this debate (p. 10).

Kudos to Jordan for the call to generosity in this discussion, and then for exemplifying it throughout TW.

Baptized into what church?

I want to focus this review on what I think is the nub of the issue, as TW presents it.  At the heart of the argument is what PB’s and BB’s believe about the relationship between baptism and the church. According to TW, PB’s baptize in order initiate someone into the visible church, whereas BB’s baptize in order to initiate people into the invisible church.

So, PB’s do not see baptism as necessarily correlating with regeneration – it is for all who call themselves Christians. But the corollary of the BB position on the church, TW suggests, is the need to ascertain who the true church are before giving them the sign of entry:

Believers’ baptists aim to determine with as much certainty as possible that the person seeking baptism is actually born again and therefore a member of the true church (p. 64).

But is this true? I know I don’t speak for all BB’s, but I’ve never been part of any inquisition into who is of the ‘true’ church and who is not. We simply recognize, as do our PB brothers and sisters, that people need to profess Christ and live lives in keeping with that profession. TW quotes Grudem and Ware to illustrate the Baptist position that those who enter the church should be regenerate, and that baptism should be given only to those who both profess faith in Christ and produce fruit.

But is there a logical connection between saying “those who receive baptism should be truly regenerate” and saying “we need to seriously examine everyone to see if they’re truly regenerate”? TW seems to assume that the latter statement flows from the former. However, BB’s recognize that we can’t do this with great accuracy, and so we generally baptize anyone who professes faith and gives us no reason to doubt it (i.e., the visible church). In the years I have worked as a Baptist minister I have never gone through any lengthy process to find out if the applicant is ‘really saved.’ Saying that people who receive the sign should be Christians and making sure they’re Christians are not the same thing. So, is this not a non sequitur?

This leads to a discussion of what the Bible suggests (note: not says), and here TW is at its least compelling. At issue is whether the NT expects us to recognize the true church or only the visible church (p. 65) – an issue not often dealt with in discussions about baptism. If it could be demonstrated, TW argues, that the church does not need to identify regenerate believers, but only baptize people into the visible church, then the arguments against infant baptism dissipate. This is clearly a very important point for Jordan:

The thing that persuades me most entirely that believers’ baptism is not a coherent explanation of the Bible’s teaching is this: not only does the New Testament give us no support for the idea that baptism initiates people into the true church, but it gives us repeated warnings that the attempt to do so is dangerous. (p. 66)

Space forbids a detailed discussion of the relevant Bible passages. Suffice it to say that for TW, Matthew 7:21-23 (“not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’…”), the parables of the sower (Matt. 13:20-22), the wheat and the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), and the example of Simon the Magician (Acts 8:9-25) demonstrate that it is neither easy nor desirable to try to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. It can be known only after a time of trial whether a disciple is in fact a true believer (p. 75). In response, we could point out the following:

  1. If my observation above – about BB’s seeing little need to determine accurately who the regenerate are – is correct, then it is not necessary to demonstrate something BB’s don’t in fact do.
  2. None of these passages is dealing with what ought to be the case (ought we to find out who the regenerate are?); they are dealing with what is the case (there are both the regenerate and unregenerate in the church). Surely the fact that there are two types of seed in the field does not lead to shoulder shrugging about whether our churches ought to consist of true Christians or not?
  3. It is premature to look at the parables as pictures of the church. For example, Matthew 13 follows the conflict stories of the preceding chapters. It addresses the question: if the kingdom is indeed here, why has it been met with such hostility? To move from this point to the question of the nature of the visible/invisible church is anachronistic.
  4. Finally, one could certainly make a biblical case for the need to test regeneration, at least to some extent. In the passage right before Matthew 7:21-23, we are invited to test people by their fruit (7:15-20). This call is echoed elsewhere in the NT (Gal. 5:19-25), and when considered along with several passages suggesting we check or work out our salvation (e.g., 2 Cor. 13:5; Phil. 2:12; 2 Peter 1:10), an NT case for not being gung-ho about handing out baptism to any self-identifying Christian can certainly be made.  In any case, as a friend of mine points out, the Book of Common Prayer doesn’t ask whether candidates (who ae able to answer for themselves) have attached themselves to a local church, but whether they have repented and believed (i.e., what BB churches also do). Does not the presence of such tests among PB’s vitiate the argument against such tests?

Less Troubled Waters

So do we have a bridge over troubled waters? Yes and no. “Yes,” if we are referring to progress in where this discussion should take place. TW has given focus to an important question often neglected in this discussion: is baptism for the visible or invisible church? This is the first time I have been forced to think through this, and doubtless there is much more to say on the exegetical level, dabbled in above. “Yes,” furthermore, when it comes to setting the tone for this conversation. This is a fair and generous book, in which the author appears to genuinely wish to think carefully through the matter, as opposed to simply holding the party line. I hope our discussions on baptism continue in this vein.

But does the bridge lead to infant baptism? We must answer “no.” From a BB perspective it remains problematic to take a sign that implies entry into the new covenant promises of God and to apply it to those who are evidently not yet partakers in that covenant. If baptism signifies our union with Christ, as Romans 6:3-4 suggests, it makes little sense to give it to any except those whose faith has united them to Christ. Surely baptism should celebrate being in Christ before being in the church?

* * * * * * *

Troubled Waters is available for pay-what-you-like at Smashwords, or for nominal money at Amazon.com and other major retailers.

White South Africa and Racism Presentation

Speaking about racism is a little daunting, because it personally took me a long time to recognise my own racism—and I like to think of myself as an introspective person. My attempts in the past to convince fellow white South Africans that we have a racism problem have not gone too well—we don’t see it, and we do our best to avoid seeing it.

It is almost as if we have amnesia about Apartheid—none of us approved of it, none of us were really influenced by it, and it was more than 20 years ago; haven’t we all got over it by now?

So having to try to persuade an audience (in 10 minutes or less) that our own racism is something we need to take seriously seemed a difficult task.

But then there was Matthew Theunissen.

Matthew Theunissen is practically a born-free. He was born in ’92 or ’93, I think. He went to a small private school with pupils of all races. He is privileged enough to have achieved two masters’ degrees, and in spite of being unemployed, he is able to live in the pretty middle-class suburb of Noordhoek. He has no reason to be racist or angry.

Matthew Theunissen recently went on FaceBook to let the world know that he thinks of the present government in the most racist and vulgar terms possible. There is nothing he could have said of a racial nature to be more hurtful to black South Africans. Why? Because the minister dared to touch his love for sport.

But then he did a beautiful thing. Seeing the response to his racism blow up to monstrous proportions, he went on a radio show to apologise. He heartily agreed with the interviewer that people who are not racists do not say such words—that it doesn’t even occur to a non-racist to use this language—and then with almost his next breath, he proceeded to insist that he is not actually racist.

Why is it that—even when there is indisputable evidence of it—almost no one can admit to being a racist? Why could even Matthew Theunissen not bring himself to say, “I am racist”? It is as if he has an image of himself as a good person, and so doing something deliberately awful, as he did, must be accidental—some strange intrusion into his character—but not who he really is. Even when his racism is plain to see, he wasn’t able to own it.

So perhaps the first reason why people don’t recognise their own racism is that we know that racism is bad—and being labelled a racist is a disaster—and we think better of ourselves. We’re not bad people; when we think or say racist things, it’s an exception to the rule, not really who we are.

The second reason why we I think we can’t own up to racism is that we think that racism must be accompanied by hatred, or hostility towards people of another race—it is something that you have to do. So if I were to ask you, “Are you racist?” many of you would answer ‘no’ on the grounds that you haven’t used the K word, or  assaulted a domestic worker, or whatever other prominent example from the media you might want to choose.

The problem is that racism is much more than just behaviour. On a social level, racism has more to do with how society is structured—the place that various race groups occupy in society. On a personal level, racism has more to do with our attitudes towards others—the place that members of various race groups occupy in our thoughts and feelings.

Racism is not active hostility; it is the passive assumption that whiteness is better, and that blackness implies some sort of moral or intellectual or social inferiority. Racism is not a matter of hate; it is a matter of prejudice.

The word ‘prejudice’ is made up of a prefix (pre-) that means ‘before; in advance’, and ‘judice’—which is the same root from which all of our judicial words in English come—is about judgement. ‘Prejudice’ was not originally a word that referred to hatred or unfair treatment, but merely to a pre-judgement—an opinion about someone that is formed on the basis of some superficial quality, and without reference to who they actually are or what they are like. So also, racism need only be this sort of superficial pre-judgement for it to be damaging.

One of the key moments for me, in which I realised that I was this kind of racist, happened only about 10 years ago. I was driving through Constantia heading to work, and I noticed a team of manual labourers working on the road. It may have been that one of the labourers was white, but one way or another, it occurred to me that I would have seen a white labourer as unusual, and working in some way below his station, whereas black labourers would be normal.

For the first time, I really understood how deeply that Apartheid way of seeing the world was ingrained in me. I didn’t act racist; I just realised that I saw a sort of rightness about black people occupying a lower station. I wasn’t violent, or angry—I had no ill-feeling towards anyone at all—but I did something that is at the heart of all evil behaviour—I put a different value on one person over another for completely arbitrary reasons. That makes me a racist at heart. Or, the label that I now prefer to use, I am a recovering racist.

Racism is not only a matter of what we do or say; it is an internal issue that has to do with how we see the order of society—it is the pre-judgement of someone’s worth or intelligence. It affects who we trust; who we employ to do jobs that require certain levels of responsibility or expertise; who we look to for advice or guidance.

So a racist is that lovely friendly mum at school who still thinks nothing of referring to an adult worker as ‘the girl’ or ‘the garden boy’.

Racism is what made the white American cashier—in a story I heard recently—refuse to take payment by cheque from a black woman right after taking a cheque payment from her mixed-race sister-in-law because she looked white.

Or if we use a sporting example to make Matthew Theunissen happy, racism is why white supporters grumbled about Alviro Petersen as a quota player (i.e. a player chosen to make up race quotas and not primarily on merit) when he was selected for the Proteas cricket team in 2006, even though he had broken several domestic batting records in the year leading up to his selection. Racism is why every under-performing black player will be dismissed as a quota selection, and why under-performing white players “should be given time to show their worth”.

Racism is why the murder of a white girl usually makes the headlines, and why the murder of a black girl almost never does.

Racism is not about hostility; it is a prejudice that affects the trust that we put in people, and the value that we place on their work or on their lives.

The Bible doesn’t use the concept of race very often, but it is certainly aware of the damage that prejudice does.

This is what James 2 says about favouritism:

“2:2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?…

He goes on: “8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”

By pre-judging the worth of people on the basis of superficial things such as their skin or their wealth, James says that we have become judges with evil thoughts—that we have failed in our duty to love others.

So, to get back to Matt Theunissen—he had no good reason to be angry, and he isn’t some grizzled member of the broederbond who bought into decades of apartheid propaganda. He’s a normal white South African. He is also clearly racist, and yet he is the only one who can’t see it.

So what about you? Why do I want you to identify yourself with Matthew T? Racism is clearly harmful to our country, and when we fail even to recognise that we have a problem, we unconsciously blunder our way into causing more hurt and more division.

But even more importantly, racism is also a barometer of a deeper problem. Racism is a clear fact of our national past and our national present, but in spite of it being a fact, it is a problem that we almost universally are unable to acknowledge. If we can fail to judge ourselves enough to see racism, what other prejudice and corruption lives within us undetected?

If you’re not a Christian, one of the main reasons why you should look into it more carefully is that racism is not the only hidden corruption that we fail to acknowledge about ourselves. And the more accurately you see yourself, the more you will start to realise that we all are carrying damage and we need to be re-created from the inside out. This is a big part of what Jesus came to do.

If you start to look at your own inner life more carefully and honestly, I think a lot more of what Jesus said will start to make sense.

This has been adapted from a presentation given at St Stephen’s Church in Claremont, Cape Town, on 22 May 2016. Click here for my presentation and just the questions aimed at meClick here for unedited audio of all three presentations. 

Baptism and Laager Mentality

This is a very soulless image of a laager, but it was between this and the glorification of colonial slaughter of the Zulu, so I guess this is the second-most-soulless.

This is a very soulless image of a laager, but it was between this and the glorification of colonial slaughter of the Zulu, so I guess this is the second-most-soulless.

In South Africa, we refer to a certain variety of beer as lager. I don’t know what it is called elsewhere in the world. I know they have lots of varieties of beers in the UK, including lager I think, and they don’t make beer in the US. They just have Budweiser and the like. #lazyburn

But a laager is something else. It refers to a defensive wagon formation in which they would form a circle around the vulnerable like a wall, and defenders need only be posted at the gaps.* Laager mentality therefore refers to the tendency to get defensive about your ‘camp’ and to barricade your group off from criticism.

* (Wikipedia tells me that this is called “circling the wagons” in the US.)

In researching the stand-off between ‘camps’ on the matter of Christian baptism, I found that bad arguments are common from advocates from each camp—whether for the baptism of infants or of believers only. Yet, I was quite surprised that some of the best examples of fallacious arguments came from highly regarded biblical scholars, and all I can ascribe it to is the tendency for us to ‘retreat behind the wagons’ on controversial matters such as this—we end up defending our camp rather than honestly interrogating our own position.

For example, on the matter of immersion one such scholar insists that all NT references that hint at the mode of baptism imply full immersion, and that the word itself means ‘to immerse’. This ignores at least Mark 7, which says that the Jews “do not eat unless they wash (baptize). And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing (baptism) of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches”. In this text, baptism is clearly a reference to ceremonial cleansing, and it clearly could not have been performed by full immersion each mealtime in the case of dining couches.

It also ignores that several paedobaptist denominations insist that even infants ought to be immersed in baptism, so even if this argument carried water it hardly solves the problem.

three_viewsLaager mentality also cripples IVP’s discussion of baptism in their “Three Views…” format. In this book, key proponents of the two major baptismal positions (and one more minor one) present their positions and then each have an opportunity to critique one another’s view. These books can be a great way of being introduced to the main issues and to what is at stake, but it also forces the scholar to represent his team in the most typical way possible. In the case of the baptism debate, it really only perpetuates the same-old arguments that have failed to be persuasive for centuries, and serves to deepen the sense that it is a debate at an impasse.

Laager mentality makes for defensive and polarized discussions, and it means that really hearing one another or making room for new ideas are impossible. Troubled Waters aims at working out the baptism argument from its foundations, and finding a new route through an old problem. I hope that it can shed some light on the way forward in this debate.

The ebook of Troubled Waters is currently on promotion for free download here.

It can be printed on demand through Amazon (substantially less free) here.

TW Cover Final

Troubled Waters: eBook Now Published

TW Cover FinalOver the last few years, I have been working on-and-off on the topic of baptism. As someone who grew up on the Baptist side of the fence but, after moving city, found myself in a paedobaptist Anglican church, I have an appreciation for the perspectives–and the accompanying strength of emotion–of each ‘camp’, which has helped me understand how each side argues, and why each side is unable to properly understand the other.

More than this, my work has led me to a point where I believe I have been able to make some headway through an argument that stands at something of an impasse. Indeed, the fashion in publishing on these kinds of issues is to have scholars from each camp present their views side-by-side (such as Bridge & Phypers’ 1998 book, The Water that Divides, or David Wright’s 2009 edition, Baptism: Three Views). All this really achieves is to further entrench the tendency to talk past one another. In Troubled Waters I have focused on the causes of misunderstanding and the flaws in traditional arguments, while trying to build a better argument from the ground up.

The major reason for our inability to understand one another lies in the fact that even Bible-believing Christians on either side base their beliefs about baptism upon at least two foundational doctrines that rarely if ever are discussed: baptism is founded on our beliefs about the covenants (particularly whether Old and New Covenants are more continuous or more discontinuous) and beliefs about the nature of the church (particularly whether the church is made up of regenerate [born-again]  members only, or whether the church should be understood as mixed). Because we differ on these matters, our beliefs about baptism are incompatible with the other camp’s foundations, and therefore appear foolish (or even heretical). And so our discussions for about 400 years have been frustrating attempts to make our view of baptism seem sensible to the other camp, without any attempt at laying the foundations upon which our view depends.

This book is (among other things) a discussion of those foundations, and so it examines biblical evidence that is not usually associated with baptism. This evidence, however, seems properly to support only one of these baptismal camps, and thus may provide a way forward to settle the baptism debate once and for all.

You can get Troubled Waters as an ebook directly from Smashwords, or soon from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and several other retailers.

Foley and Izzard: Funny but unfair

In quick succession I came upon a series of unconnected posts in which atheist comedians have a go at God and religion. I don’t mind in principle—there is plenty in religious spheres to critique and to poke fun at—but two of the bits that I saw most recently claim as a weakness things that are actually among the greatest strengths of Christianity.

Dave Foley: Faith is like belief in Santa Claus

Foley on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch

Foley and comedy jacket on atheism and religion. Click pic to watch.

Dave Foley is perhaps best known for playing a lead role in the vastly underrated 90s sitcom News Radio. His stand-up seems not to have hit News Radio heights, and in this mostly awkward sketch (among other things) he describes people of faith as ‘creepy’, and compares believers to grown people who believe in Santa—adding that we’d be treated as lunatics if there weren’t so many of us.

I’m not sure why this analogy is so widely thought to be valid. Perhaps it is due to the common mistake that atheists make of conflating all religions together as though Jesus and Jim Jones and Juno are all basically the same. The example that Foley gives of religious craziness is that of transubstantiation in Catholicism: the bread and wine actually (not figuratively) become Jesus’ body and blood (though not in any way that affects taste or form). But this was the kind of thing that the Western world fought a fairly well-known war over in the 1500s. The Protestant world told the pope that we’re tired of this nonsense about 500 years ago.

The comparison with Santa is a false one for several reasons, but the most important one being historicity. Even if Saint Nick was a real person, Santa mythology about the North Pole and the world’s worst commute on Christmas Eve has no basis in reality. Believing it would be an act of willful self-delusion. And perhaps most religious beliefs are of the same order. The point is that the Bible has always differentiated itself from ‘the gods of the nations’ because of God’s acts in history. The old prophets repeatedly mocked people who cut down a tree and used part of it for the fire and part for furniture and part to make a god to worship. And the whole argument of Christianity from the minute it left Jerusalem was that Jesus rose from the dead and brought forgiveness, as he said he would—something has happened in history.

Disbelieve it if you like, but unlike Santa, the existence of God is not a priori an irrational idea, and unlike Santa, Jesus’ resurrection is an historical claim for which there is evidence to be weighed. I know it is annoying to have to carefully dismiss evidence that you have no interest in believing, but in much the same way as the argument ‘Evolution is stupid because just look at the human eye!’ is really annoying, atheists should stop doing a discredit to themselves by trying to make the Jesus-Santa link stick.

Eddie Izzard: God’s plan

izzard

Eddie Izzard is a brilliant comedian, and as much as I wanted to hate ‘Glorious’, his deeply irreverent take on history and the Bible from the 90s, it is undeniably funny. His famous quote about God’s plan is doing the rounds again, and while I can imagine it being hilarious when he says it, it surely doesn’t take too long to realise that this is actually a rather foolish critique.

The main reason why it doesn’t work is that the ability to understand a plan demands several things that Eddie Izzard does not apprehend. One needs firstly to understand the problem that the plan addresses. In the case of the biblical storyline, the issues are human rebellion, consequent disruption of divine-human relationship, and the problem of evil and death that result from that. Eddie doesn’t say what he thinks the problem is, but I would put money on it not being the one that God’s book identifies. I suspect what people such as Izzard usually think the goal should be is total human happiness and otherwise being left alone, which ironically cuts against what God is trying to do quite severely.

Secondly, understanding a plan requires a grasp of the ‘rules of the game’. Complaints about the problem of evil usually demand that God should intervene in history in order to stop bad things from happening. However, these complaints rarely get specific about how God should go about doing this. Seeing as most of the world’s evils are human evils, God would  seem to me to have two major paths open to Him to stop human evil. He could kill the wrong-doer without delay, which would mean the death of Adam & Eve and (however literally you take that story) the eradication of humankind. This would mean the failure of His goal to restore divine-human relationship. So delay then.

The second route is to miraculously intervene every time someone is about to do something bad so as to prevent the crime (a bit like Minority report). But then it doesn’t take too much thinking before one realises that this would need to be carried out on the level of speech, and probably even on the level of thought (because most evil actions begin there). So God would have to remove the consequences of our evil impulses either by miraculously staying our hands and tongues, or by eradicating the freedom of will altogether. Again, this would be failure of the goal, because it replaces relationship with slavery. So a cure then.

If it’s to be a cure, then that’s what Christianity has always said He’s always been doing. You may protest that He’s taking awfully long about it, but again as has long been said, if God is taking His time at least it means you have the opportunity to take part in the cure.

The final thing that one needs in order to understand a plan is a grasp of the strategy by which the goal is being pursued. This is the part that Izzard clearly has an issue with, but is there any surprise in that? Does Izzard expect that his casual glance at the facile number of things that he or any of us understands about human history should yield clear apprehension of what is being done and should be done?

If one takes chess as an example, there are very limited parameters and relatively few variables, but great players are still able to think so far into the possible futures of each game that they can come up with strategies that catch their opponents by surprise. In the ‘Game of the Century’, for instance, Bobby Fischer faced world-champion Donald Byrne, and chose to sacrifice his queen. To chess imbeciles such as myself, allowing the capture of your most powerful piece would represent a mistake, but Fischer ensured that the cost of her capture was so high that the game would be his anyway. His strategy was so far beyond what other people expected (including his opponent) that it made certain individual actions seem nonsensical.

When one extends the number of variables to human history, the ability to map possible futures is surely out of our grasp—even that of Eddie Izzard. Funnily enough, this is exactly the point of one of the oldest extant discussions of the problem of evil, known as The Book of Job. In the story, Job suffers a crushing series of unjustified evils, and his friends all tell him that God is just and so it must be punishment for something that Job has done. Job protests that he is innocent. When the verdict comes, Job is proven correct, but the rebuke for all parties is that they are all passing judgement on matters about which they know nothing.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (Job 38:1-5)

There is a plan—and we know more of it post Jesus than Job did—but don’t expect that all of it should be obvious to you, me or Eddie Izzard.

It is the business of comedians to take cheap shots, I suppose, but surely (having claimed the intellectual high-ground as their own) atheism can make arguments to match. It seems to be everyone’s loss when we stop discussing and start playing to the crowd.

Structure of Genesis 12

I was recently notified that my article on the structure of Genesis 12 was published in the Scriptura journal towards the end of last year. There is an open-access online version, so you can read it here: http://scriptura.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/725/740.

This is the abstract:

Genesis 12 is a crucial chapter in biblical theology, with most scholarly attention being given to the promises at the start. Structurally, however, the chapter should be viewed as a unit, and its emphasis falls on v.10. This article aims to demonstrate that the text is best viewed as a series of five speech-response pairs, with the central ‘pair’ emphatically omitting any speech. The absence of speech in v.10 is an interpretive key, identifying the theme of testing as central to this episode, and placing the promises made to Abram in their proper context: the gifts and blessings of God are ultimately less important than being in properly ordered relationship with the Giver.

It sounds a little dull, I’ll concede, but it actually fixes a number of the open questions about Genesis 12, and it is my first proper contribution to academia thus far. Huzzah. (I think it reads better than it sounds here too.)