Wednesday, 28 May 2008

The New Covenant And Believers' Baptism (part 5)

(Part one, part two, part three, part four).

Dr. Field continues:
Disconnect. It is clear, too, that any argument from the nature of the NC to the proper subjects of baptism is a serious non sequitur.
Why is that?
It is not that talk of big-E elect is irrelevant (it’s not irrelevant to know that God will infallibly, eschatologically save everyone he has Elected – it’s wonderful). But it is clearly impossible to aargue [sic] that baptism is only for NC members, IF those in the NC = big-E elect. We simply do not know who is in the NC if it is equated with the (post-Jesus) CG. It is soteriologically reassuring (as is the doctrine of Election) but covenantally un-usable.
This argument really repeats the argument already made in another form: the elect are only infallibly known to God - they are "invisible", and therefore if we say that the New Covenant is made with the elect we cannot then proceed to draw any conclusions about baptism because baptism is to do with the visible and tangible.

One problem in this argument is that Reformed Baptists do not leap straight from election to baptism in the arguments that they actually make. There is the intermediate step: there is visible and tangible evidence of election in a credible profession of faith. The "disconnect" only exists because Dr. Field appears to have confused Calvinistic Baptists with some varieties of hyper-Calvinism. Some hyper-Calvinists seek to require infallible signs of someone's election before baptism by asking for testimonies of dramatic internal experiences which are thought (by them) to prove election. I'd agree that this procedure is unworkable, because according to the Bible those who are elected come to faith in Jesus Christ, and faith is the essential New Covenant sign: not further experiences, whether in conversion or subsequent to it. It seems to be that in avoiding the mistake that many paedobaptist writers make in lumping Reformed Baptists in with dispensationalists, Dr. Field has driven into the ditch on the other side of the road by treating them as hyper-Calvinists instead.

The argument that Dr. Field makes here basically banishes election to the realm of abstract and practically useless. It's good, he says, to know that God will save the elect - but we can never really know who any of the elect are until we get there. I presume, though, that if we were talking about a different subject than baptism then Dr. Field would talk differently. Election is the root, but there are fruits which manifest themselves, and through which we can assure ourselves that we truly are recipients of God's grace. Yes, these fruits can be counterfeited and we can make mistakes in identifying them - but that's no reason to completely give up on the matter, as in the argument presented. If God has not infallibly revealed to us who the elect are, then what we do is to baptise those who give the evidence as far as God has explained it to us. We baptise when we see evidence of repentance and faith. We do not begin with election and then proceed to baptism. We begin with a credible profession of faith, and then proceed to baptism - and to election. Election does not come first; it can only be inferred from other factors, not made fundamental. Dr. Field's construction on things is a formulation known only to some small parties of hyper-Calvinists and a curious way for him to frame things.

The puzzling thing about Dr. Field's argument here is that he is a former Baptist and so ought to know better. Does he actually know of any Baptist churches which claim that they are infallibly identifying the elect when they baptise? Rather than just claiming that as far as it is given to men to know (which is not infallibly), they believed that those they were baptising were really in the faith? It seems rather unlikely that Dr. Field never appreciated this distinction - we are left wondering at what point he forgot about it?


What does Dr. Field mean when he says it is "unusable"? This is a key issue, because it illustrates how this argument is driven by the "Federal Vision" assumptions that Dr. Field holds to. Historically Presbyterians and other paedobaptists have not had a problem in saying that "the New Covenant is made with the elect, and their seed (children)". This formulation, though, is rejected by Dr. Field just as much as the Baptist one. Historically, paedobaptists have been happy to baptise adult converts (presuming they weren't sprinkled in infancy) when they have seen the evidence of sincere faith in Jesus, because they, like Baptists, have viewed this as the evidence that God has savingly worked in that person.

Dr. Field, though, is building his argument upon one of the premises of the  "Federal Vision": that the New Covenant must work like the Old one did, and in particular it must as easy to identify who is truly in the Covenant as it is to identify who is married and who isn't. The covenant must be "objective", to use their terminology. Anything else, it is asserted, is unworkable.

This assertion has no real basis in reality. To talk about something being unworkable is a pragmatic argument - you're saying it can't operate in the real world. Churches in the real world, though, have happily been operating in this way for many centuries. Churches have been baptising those who they thought were true believers, and later disciplining and eventually excommunicating them if the fruit of their lives proved otherwise. They didn't collapse when the first baptised person turned out to have been baptised erroneously, but they accepted that it is, during this period of the overlap of the ages, possible to counterfeit the reality of spiritual life. How is this concept unusable? Only if you've begun with the Federal Vision's premise that every covenant must be as immediately visible as marriage is. And if you've begun with that as a premise, then you're not really proving a case when you reject credobaptism - you're just arguing in a circle. That is what Dr. Field does. There's nothing exegetical in his argument - it does not come from Bible texts, carefully explained and applied. It simply comes from assuming at the outset that the Federal Vision's constructions are true, and then going from there. This may work if you're preaching to the choir, but it's not going to convince an outsider.

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