Thursday, 26 June 2008

Identifying the elect

Part one, part two.

In his next post, here, Dr. Field expands on his argument that it's impossible to argue from the idea that the New Covenant is made only with the elect, to the idea that baptism is only intended to be for believers (i.e. those who, through the profession of faith, give credible evidence that they belong to the elect).

I thought it was a bit curious that in this new post, Dr. Field professes to have just checked a book on believer's baptism for the first time to see if Baptists do in fact argue this way. As a former Baptist, a member of a Baptist church, and someone who has been working full time for many years in the training of pastors, this seems rather late in the game to begin studying what Baptists believe. But, that's all irrelevant to the argument. Here's how Dr. Field expands on the point above. Why can't we say that if the elect are the members of the New Covenant, then only those who believe (as far as we can tell) should be granted the Covenant's privileges such as church membership and baptism?
You'd have to think that you could identify the big-E Elect by their faith. But that would exclude the possibility of false faith or temporary faith. And since you can't know for sure that someone's faith isn't false faith or temporary faith then you'd never baptise anyone at all.
The implied and unstated assumption behind the argument that Dr. Field makes above is this: That you must only baptise someone if you have infallible certainty that they are truly qualified for baptism. The chain of logic in what he says seems to flow like this:
  1. Major assumption: We must only baptise with infallible certainty.
  2. Minor assumption: We cannot have infallible certainty about the identity of the elect, because faith can be counterfeited.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, baptism cannot be on the grounds of presumed election.
It's worth noticing firstly that this isn't first and foremost an argument in favour of paedobaptism and against believer's baptism. It's an argument in favour of the Federal Vision theology. Reformed paedobaptists down through history have generally identified the New Covenant as being made with the elect and their seed, and when faced with adult converts have applied the test of a credible profession of faith, just as adults do. The difference hasn't been in the test applied to adults - it's just been that they've said that a different test applies to infants.

The problem, though, is in the major assumption. Why do we require infallibility? What is the major problem that arises if a mistake is made? In baptism, amongst other things, a person (lets assume for the moment they're an adult) makes a profession of faith. Dr. Field's argument logically entails that this profession is an irrelevance which is nothing to do with the baptism itself - because professions of faith are not allowed to be connected with the legitimacy of a baptism because that involves the uncertainty of not knowing who the elect are. In other words, the argument proves far too much - and hence nothing at all.

Dr. Field then proceeds to consider a possible response to his own argument:
If the response is, "we're not claiming to baptize the Elect, only those who look like the Elect because they have faith" then you've just separated out baptism from the New Covenant and said that baptism is for "those who look like the Elect to us".

Which is fine, because that's what paedobaptists / covenantalists are claiming: that we operate at the level of the "look like Elect to us" and that's how God intends it to be.
The response here, though, doesn't actually save the paedobaptist position, because an infant who as yet is not able to articulate a profession of faith can't actually "look like one of the elect" (i.e. New Covenant members). A little one who is not yet equipped with the faculties to bring forth the mark of the elect cannot be "seen" as one of the elect. If Dr. Field is saying that those infants do "look like Elect to us" then he's saying that all infants are elect (or, to use Dr. Field's terms, "Big-E Elect"). This argument isn't going anywhere.

I've pointed out before that Dr. Field's own argument also would forbid circumcision under the Old Covenant. How do you know that the 8-day old brought by the Jewish parents really is their child if you haven't been in their presence since birth? If the parents recite their family tree going back to Abraham then it's nice to hear, but how do you know that they really are the people at the end of it that they claim to be? How do you know that there wasn't an illegitimate child in the ancestry (Deuteronomy 23:2), or even that this baby really is the son of the claimed father? If absolute, unbreakable infallibility is what is required, then not even circumcision was possible once you'd identified the descendants of Abraham as the members of the Old Covenant - because you could never infallibly, to the standard Dr. Field is applying, know that that little baby really did fulfill all the criteria.

Let's finish off this post quickly:
Mind you, if baptism is then the initiation rite for the New Covenant then you've just said that there are people who rightly receive the New Covenant sign but who are not big-E Elect. But if they rightly receive the New Covenant initiation rite then they break the New Covenant then the New Covenant is breakable.
Baptists hold that as circumcision was the initiation rite for the Old Covenant, heart circumcision, i.e. conversion, is the initiation rite for the New Covenant. Dr. Field's argument here springs from ignorance of what Baptists actually say. Baptism does not constitute one as a member of the New Covenant - union with Christ does. Those who receive this heart circumcision are initiated into the unbreakable New Covenant, and there they remain. Dr. Field's argument ultimately conflicts with Calvinism, because in it people are initiated into the Covenant which Christ mediates, but his mediation ultimately doesn't save them: they become visible saints, but are not preserved until the end.

I won't quote Dr. Field's final paragraph. It builds a conclusion upon this error-laden foundation, so its contents are moot.

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