Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Expanded covenant privileges

I was interested to read here, Derek Thomas's reasons for switching from a credo-baptist to a paedo-baptist position.

I have not yet ceased to be amazed at how routine it seems to be that when a credo-baptist changes his convictions, he also loses his ability to accurately describe the Baptist position. Derek Thomas is a professor of theology. Does he really think that "they shall all know me because every member of the church has made a profession of faith" is the Baptist understanding of Jeremiah 31? Amazing.

But the thing that struck me was his first point on why he ceased to be a credo-baptist:
My inability to convince someone like Simeon that the New Covenant was “better” than the Old in relation to children.
This is the 'expanded covenant privileges' argument. If children were covenant members and had covenant privileges before the coming of Christ... then should the coming of Christ leave them worse off? Is that progress?

I was struck by this because in the same week, a pastor in my class at Bible college made the same point - in a rather different context. This being Africa.

The context was discussing of the health-wealth-prosperity (false) gospel.

Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were promised that they'd be the "head and not the tail" (Deuteronomy 28:13), etc. If they were obedient to the law, then prosperity would belong to them. The land would flow with milk and honey. There would be peace. They would be rich. Their enemies would lick the dust. Etcetera.

Since all of God's promises are "yes and amen" in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20), then how can this not be so - more so - under the New Covenant? Has Christ left us worse off?

Every competent paedobaptist believer could answer that question straight away, of course. We need some nuance. We need to ascertain God's purposes in how his dealings with man were structured before Christ came. We need to evaluate properly the blessings we have, then and now. A simple "you had it then so you have it now" argument is crude and we need to be better Bible students than this. And so on.

The point and its implications are clear, I trust, as they apply to the discussion regarding baby baptism. I presume that Dr. Thomas wouldn't feel obliged to take up the health-wealth-prosperity heresy if he were unable to persuade someone like, say, Solomon that it really was better to take up the cross and follow Christ. But the difference between the two arguments ultimately amounts only to special pleading. Either 'expanded privileges' needs nuancing, or it doesn't; whatever the context is; can't have your cake and eat it.


Stephen said...

David, where would you find "the Baptist understanding of Jeremiah 31"? I would be interested to read it.

It never ceases to amaze me how you never cease to be amazed at us paedobaptists!


David Anderson said...


You will surely be amazed to learn that the Baptist understanding of Jeremiah 31 is found in Hebrews 8. :-)

Greg Welty gives a good short summary here: I haven't bought any of the more recent expositions of the RB position. But it comes down to the mediation of Christ; its perfection and efficacy. No actual New Covenant member can be lost, because his mediation, based on Calvary, cannot permit such a thing. (Hence Hebrews).

"they shall all know me because every member of the church has made a profession of faith". It's no doubt unfair to hyper-criticise an informal interview. I'm not sure what the 'because' in that sentence is doing. Does Dr. Thomas think that the Baptist position is that "knowing the Lord" (the mark of NC membership) = "outward profession of faith" ?? Hence the surprise.

It's not the profession of faith that is the mark of the New Covenant. It's the heart reality in the life of the individual (which is evidenced in a life of faith; not merely a profession, though that is the beginning). Israel was a mixed people; they all had the law on stones, and some had it on their hearts; all actual members of the New Covenant (and we freely admit to not being able to infallibly identify them) have it on their hearts. The church, being the covenant community in the world, has its doors open to all those who give credibly evidence, as far as fallible human eyes can see, of being in that covenant. In my experience, it's mostly non-Baptists who emphasise the 'personal profession' to the detriment of the other elements in the mix. Probably with a good number of Arminian Baptists that may be fair; they themselves seem to not talk about much else. But Derek Thomas, as he says in the interview, was a protege of Geoff Thomas..... hmmm.

Dr. T says the meaning of J31 is best viewed as: "Jeremiah 31 and the promise of the New Covenant was best viewed as promising the abolition of cultic restrictions". No doubt that abolition is an NT fact; all NC members are kings and priests. But is that really the meaning of the language of the law being written on the heart? When the OT prophets urged the people to circumcise their hearts was that really code language for 'get rid of the cultic restrictions'?!? More hmmm.

David Anderson said...

Probably you're familiar with John Owen's famous syllogism regarding limited atonement.

I think we can do the same with Christ's mediation.

As the mediator of the New Covenant, Christ must mediate for its members regarding:
a) Some of their sins
b) All their sins

If a) then they are all lost, if they have some sins not mediated for.
If b) then they are all certainly saved, which is the Reformed credo-baptist position.

The paedobaptist position implies that Christ does not mediate for some members of the New Covenant. But that means they are not really members at all.

Ned Kelly said...

A very interesting discussion. In my own study of baptism, directly from Scripture with no reference to commentaries, I found 83 instances which on analysis revealed 24 different concepts, including baptism occurring without the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit coming without baptism. Long before Jesus, the Jews baptised Gentiles who converted to Judaism (proselytes). When Jesus spoke of baptising all nations (Matthew 28:19), to which baptism was He referring: by water or Spirit? A plain reading of Mark 16:16 has belief preceding baptism, thus supporting the credo-baptist position. Without the influence of any church doctrine, and given the analysis of the various historical baptism-related events, it seems clear to me that baptism does little more than seal the covenant between the believer and God – it does not establish the covenantal relationship. If people want to baptise infants in the sense of welcoming them into the church and establishing a covenantal relationship between the infant and the god-parents, I think that is a good idea, but I would not confuse that with the baptism related to our covenant with God.
On another matter, I am inclined to swim against the tide and suggest that the prophecy of Jeremiah has not yet come to fruition, or at best, it may be inaugurated in part. I know that we like to cling to the inerrancy of Scripture, but in reading the Jeremiah, I find it difficult to see just how it has been fulfilled, particularly verse 34. Studying the events at Sinai and the Jewish understanding of Jeremiah, I am inclined to see the covenant mentioned in verse 32 as the renewing of the Abrahamic, not some new Sinaitic. Though Paul does seem to affirm Jeremiah’s prophecy in Hebrews 8:8, a wider study of Paul’s eschatological views suggests that he thought that the Messiah was returning very soon, even in his own lifetime, and that he saw Jeremiah’s prophecy being fulfilled in the second coming, not the first. Had Paul known that the second coming was over 2000 years in the future, I wonder what he would have thought about Jeremiah’s prophecy.

David Anderson said...

Hi Ned,

There seem to be a range of views on Jeremiah 31. I think Douglas Wilson's son in law has a view similar to yours, except he postpones it to a future millennium rather than the second coming.

Personally I think that all views which postpone the fulfilment have at fatal problems. Firstly, Jeremiah appears to be expounding the essential nature of the covenant itself, not simply something that will happen at a later stage of its outworking. "Not yet fulfilled" views seem to miss this key point. If you push the fulfilment into the future, then the discussion is no longer about the nature of the covenant itself. Secondly, the writer of Hebrews has no apparent awareness that these verses were still thousands of years away from fulfilment; his use of them in chapter 8 appears to view them in the way I've suggested, as part of the nature of the covenant itself, rather than as an event to take place later.

Hence I hold the classic Reformed Baptist view; that the new covenant differs from the old in that every true member of it is converted; they have had a heart change. Those who are not converted are not New Covenant members. They might be church members as neither we nor they are infallible, but church and covenant membership are not to be equated.

I find this view supported by the general teaching of Hebrews. Christ's mediation is perfect. It is impossible to have him as your mediator and yet be damned. This would be unthinkable - either the Father ignores his mediation, or his mediation has an inadequate basis - and the point of Hebrews is the total and utter perfection of that basis.

I think it's clear that Jeremiah is thinking about the Sinaitic covenant in context; he explicitly contrasts the New Covenant with that which was made when Israel left Egypt. But yes, the New Covenant is the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant.

Ned Kelly said...

I see your point, David, but it then leads to questioning our understanding of mediation. I have pondered this at some length without resolution. If we are justified, why do we still need mediation? The goal of the mediator is reconciliation, but are we not reconciled through justification? Jesus is also our judge as per the warning in Matthew 7:21-23. It seems that we have circled back to the "once saved always saved" idea.
I will continue to ponder, good use of my time really.

David Anderson said...

Hi Ned,

Hope you're having a good day...

I don't see much of a problem there; God's pronouncement in justification that we have been pardoned our sins and become heirs of all his promises does not preclude that God both needs to and does take other actions to make sure that the declaration is not in vain. It's not a declaration that "we'll be saved now even if Christ ignores us henceforth", but rather presupposes the problem that he will do all necessary to keep us until the end.