Jesus promised to build his church. (Matt. 16:18) Jesus also told his apostles that those who received them received Him. (Matt. 10:40) The implication is that the building project of the Lord was to be founded upon the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) Consequently, the words of the apostles and Christ had to be received without error because Jesus promised to build his church upon them, which is now a matter of history given the passing of the apostles. Therefore, the canon is closed, lest the church has no foundation. The apostolic tradition was both oral and written (II Thess. 2:15) but only the written apostolic tradition has been providentially preserved. Accordingly, Scripture alone is what the church is built upon, which must have been God’s intention since Scripture alone is all he left us in keeping with Christ Jesus’ promise to build his church.
This simple argument has been met by Romanists from “Called to Communion” with resistance for two primary reasons. The claim is that the apostolic office in view in Ephesians 2:20 includes both the perpetual seat of the papacy and the oral tradition of the church. Let’s assume then that the unwritten tradition still exists even though it has never been produced. Jesus promised to build his church and we’ll say that he promised to build it upon both Scripture and unwritten tradition. (I of course would say that if Jesus promised to build his church on the unwritten tradition then he failed since there is no preserved unwritten tradition that the church has been built upon; yet for argument sake let’s assume the tradition is intact.) Whether we have the unwritten tradition or not has zero impact on the argument from “intent and providence” for the reception of the written tradition. Any preservation of the unwritten tradition does not undermine the reception of the written tradition. Now in a last ditch desperation Romanists will resort to saying that the texts in view are not just speaking about the teachings of Christ and his apostles (even oral traditions) as being the foundation of the church, but rather the texts mean that we are to receive for the foundation of the church the teachings of their alleged successors (the popes) both written and oral. In passing I’ll note that to have to receive the teaching of a pope 2,000 years after the teachings of the apostles and Christ would clearly deny the import of “foundation of the church.” But aside from the obvious, even if we grant the point, the reception of the written tradition through divine intent and providence is not affected by the Gnostic “exegesis” of Ephesians 2:20 regarding popes because a papal apostolic succession and the reception of the canon are not mutually exclusive premises. To “refute”” the Protestant position on the canon in a non-arbitrary, non-ad hoc fashion the Roman apologist will have to deny that Jesus had any intent whatsoever for the church to be at least partially built upon his written words and the written words of the apostles. To introduce Gnostic dogmas regarding unwritten traditions and the succession of bishops is simply to throw up Red Herrings in a sophist manner.
In sum, the Roman apologist needs to avoid the divine intent at all cost; for as soon as he acknowledges Christ Jesus’ intent to build His church “at least in part” on Scripture, he is then constrained to show why God’s intent could not have come to pass without an infallible magisterium (according to the same divine providence by which the rest of the eternal decree comes to pass). Since Romanists cannot possibly succeed in showing that God could not bring to pass the reception of the canon without an infallible magisterium, they are left no other choice (short of becoming Protestant on this matter) than to bring into question the divine intent. The Romanist does this through arguing by false-disjunction, introducing non-mutually exclusive premises to the promise of building the church “at least in part” on the canon; these Red Herring premises are intended to (a) establish a need for an apostolic oral tradition, and (b) establish a succession of infallible bishops. Yet neither a nor b undermine the divine intent to bring to pass the reception of the canon for the establishment of the NT church. Yet even allowing for those unjustified premises, the Romanist still cannot with any valid argumentation undermine the divine intent, which presuppose the necessity of bringing to pass the reception of the canon. They with the Satan can only say, “Has God said?”
With my Protestant brethren in mind, when it comes to the question of how we can know whether we have the Canon, I’ve never been comfortable with appealing to “criteria”. After all, even if we make apostolic authorship a criterion for NT canonicity, then several canonical books don’t qualify as such. Perhaps we include “close association” to an apostle as a criterion; then we can accept Luke, Acts, Hebrews… but then what about Barnabas? I also don’t think “attributes” of canonicity (or marks of divinity) gets us much closer to the thorny epistemic question at hand. Neither does apostolicity in my estimation. Indeed, those sorts of criteria may have been employed by the early church when pondering canonicity and there’s no question the Holy Spirit persuaded according the divine attributes of Scripture, but the means the church employed to ascertain and receive Scripture, and our criteria today for knowing we have the canon must remain distinct.
However, I don’t think we’re consigned to skepticism or looking to an alleged infallible magisterium; nor must we conclude (as one Reformed popularizer suggested) that we have a fallible collection of infallible books. I’m grateful Dr. Kruger from RTS takes things in a dramatically different direction, but my disagreement is substantial if I understand his position.
Some basic premises all Reformed folk can agree upon:
There’s a relevant distinction between what is true and what is known to be true. So, it is true that canonical books were Scripture prior to those books being widely known to be Scripture. Accordingly, the church didn’t determine the canon. Rather, the church recognized the canon and received it as such.
Jesus placed his imprimatur on the Jewish canon (and not the apocrypha).
Jesus promised to build his church. (Matt. 16:18) Jesus also told his apostles that those who received them received Him. (Matt. 10:40) The implication is that the building project of the Lord was to be founded upon the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20)
Consequently, the words or teachings of the apostles and Christ had to be received because Jesus promised to build his church upon them, which is now a settled matter. The church has its foundation lest there’s no church and Christ’s word failed.
Therefore, the canon was received and is closed, lest the church has no foundation, contrary to Jesus’ intention.
The apostolic tradition was both oral and written (II Thess. 2:15) but only the written apostolic tradition has been providentially preserved. Accordingly, Scripture alone is what the church is built upon, which must have been God’s intention since Scripture alone is all he left us in keeping with Christ Jesus’ promise to build his church.
It’s in the canon we find the divine intention to build the church upon the canon.
Therefore, shouldn’t our confidence be based upon the divine intention contained in the canon, which presupposes the church would recognize and receive the canon in order that Christ might build his church? Also, in conjunction with that, shouldn’t our confidence be based upon God’s revealed ability to do all his holy will?
Maybe we can even take the church’s recognition of the canon out of the equation to make the point even stronger. Even had the church not wanted to receive the canon, she couldn’t but receive the canon given the divine intention. (Of course Jesus’ intention was that she be guided by the voice of God testifying in Scripture through the Holy Spirit.)
In a word, I’m more than hesitant and quite uncomfortable in going outside the canon to justify our knowledge that we have the canon.
James Anderson offers a concise synopses of the problem of induction.
I recall as a child being struck by the fact that if a monkey were placed at a typewriter, the chimp would eventually type the works of Shakespeare given enough time.
Soon after becoming a believer it occurred to me that if the unbeliever were consistent with his worldview, which entails pure randomness, he would concede that up until the present moment he had been living in a random slice of time, not unlike that in which a monkey might type the works of Shakespeare. Yet he’d have no rational basis for assuming the future would be like the seemingly ordered past. Salt dissolving in water everyday, just like yesterday, would be as likely as Bonzo typing great literature given the assumptions of unbelief. Little did I know then, I was dealing with the age old problem of induction. (A problem for a non-Revelational epistemology and naturalistic metaphysic.)
But as any astute parlour game aficionado realizes, probability has no memory, (an insight I learned as a young boy from my father as I pondered discrete events). So, if black were to come up on the roulette wheel twenty times in a row, the odds of black coming up a 21st time would still be 50% (if there weren’t two green slots of 0 and 00 on the wheel, and assuming no other anomalies, like the wheel was rigged etc.). We oughtn’t think red is overdue or black is running a hot streak. Given the uniformity of nature, we may expect red and black to occur equally over time and with equal probability at each consecutive spin.
However, the unbeliever can have no such expectation if true to his espoused presuppositions. The unbeliever should no sooner bet on the future results of past science (e.g. a streak of seemingly consistent pattern of salt dissolving in water) than on the pure randomness of non-science, if he were consistent. Bonzo’s uncontrolled predictability is as dependable as the scientific method.
Christian compatibilists and incompatibilists agree that man is morally responsible for his choices, and God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the same. Therefore, if man has free will, it must be compatible with God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. “It seems to me much clearer(!)” – and to the rest who desire to make sense of God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) – to maintain that any true CCF must have as its propositional truth-maker God’s free and sovereign determination. The only other option, lest we deny God’s sole eternality by positing ungrounded CCFs, is that CCFs are necessary truths, like laws of logic that are grounded in God. In other words, unless we are willing to accept mysterious propositional dualism, we are consigned to accept some species of determinism with respect to necessarily or contingently true CCFs being reflections of God’s attributes or will respectively, the latter being more theologically sensible. In sum, since God’s foreknowledge is inconsistent with indeterministic freedom, we either are not free at all or else we are free in some other sense, a deterministic sense. If there is to be creaturely freedom, and if CCFs are contingent truths, then God knows them according to his free knowledge.
(Somewhat ironically, and as I’ve argued elsewhere, Middle Knowledge reduces true CCFs to necessary truths – true in every possible world that could be actualized (i.e. all real possible worlds!) – given that might-counterfactuals, which are contrary to would / would not counterfactuals and, therefore, never true, can neither be known nor actualized. [Obviously I reject the Molinist distinction of possible and feasible worlds. Though I entertain the distinction when considering modality of logical vs metaphysical possibility.])
Libertarian free will would destroy moral accountability, for how can pure spontaneity or agent causation (metaphysical concepts that detach influences, reasons and relevant history from willful actions) produce morally relevant choices? (More on that in a moment.)
Molinists like to point to Jesus’ rebuke of the inhabitants of Chorazin and Bethsaida as proof of God’s Middle Knowledge – for had Jesus performed the same miracles in Tyre and Sidon that he had performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida, Tyre and Sidon would have repented. The prima facie interpretation of the parallel passages is not that Jesus was revealing how others would have responded to those same miracles. Rather, the immediate inference is that inhabitants of Israel were even more hardened to revelatory truth than pagans (and will accordingly be counted more culpable on the day of judgment). It was a rebuke, not a nod toward Middle Knowledge. Yet aside from the obvious, let’s run with the Molinist interpretation and see where it gets us.
Consider possible world Wp with the exact same relevant state of affairs as actual world Wa up to time t, which is shared in both worlds. At t in Wp, Jesus performs in Tyre and Sidon the same exact miracles from Wa that he performed in Chorazin and Bethsaida at t. The result in Tyre and Sidon is repentance. If that is not causality, what is? Remove the miracles, no repentance. Introduce the miracles, repentance. Remove the miracles, no repentance. Introduce the miracles, repentance… Like a light being switched on and off, the miracles would have causally triggered repentance. If not, then what? Would the miracles have triggered (nebulous) agent causation? If so, how would that not entail divine causal determinism given exhaustive omniscience? The only escape hatch is that the miracles trigger nothing in Wp, which would only serve to highlight the morally irrelevant nature of libertarian free choices per the passing reference above. For what reason(s) would repentance obtain if not for the causal connection of the miracles?
Now of course, from a Reformed perspective, God could effect repentance and index such to immediate or secondary causes of either ordinary acts of providence or miracles. God freely knows all such counterfactuals. Notwithstanding, given a Molinist use of the alleged counterfactual in view, it proves too much. It either undermines the spontaneity of agent causation Molinism contemplates, or else it underscores the compatibilist premise that libertarian freedom brings to naught the influences, reasons and relevant history that make our choices ours, rendering them morally irrelevant, not unlike purely random movements.
At the heart of Molinism is Middle Knowledge (MK), God’s knowledge oftrue counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) – i.e. God’s knowledge of what creatures would freely do under all sets of circumstances. Now, of course, Augustinians also believe that if there are CCFs, then an omniscient God must have knowledge of them. However, unlike Molinists, Augustinians maintain that such divine knowledge is only possible if causal determinism is true, which eliminates a need for middle knowledge – a knowledge of truth that cannot be appropriated either under God’s natural or free knowledge. (As I argue here,Augustinians should ground such counterfactuals in God’s free knowledge of what he would determine and not in God’s natural knowledge of what is necessary or possible.)
If God (eternally) knows that I would freely type this post under C conditions, then it is true that I would freely type this post under C conditions (otherwise God would and could not know it). For the Molinist, the truth that I would freely type this post exists without any truth-maker – a determining source of the propositional truth bearer: Ron would type Molinism post under C conditions. (Let that sink in, that MK contemplates some truths exist without anything to make them true.) That is because Molinists deny that free choices are causally determined. By denying causal determinism in this way, Molinist are unable to “ground” the eternal truth value of counterfactual freedom. Nothing or nobody makes CCFs eternally true. Molinists deny that God determines the truth value of CCFs and they also (rightly) deny that free moral agents retroactively cause eternal truth values after having chosen in time (or in another possible world). Consequently, Molinists admit that God knows certain truths that they believe are neither necessary nor freely and divinely determined. These truths are simply there, eternally existing alongside God and his divine will, (which, as I argue here, would make such would-counterfactuals necessarily true in all feasible worlds as opposed to contingently true). Like eternal holiness and the eternal divine will to send the Son, CCFs are uncreated abstract entities, not unlike divine attributes or God’s good pleasure. Obviously, such a philosophical construct denies the historic Christian faith by implicitly denying that God alone is from everlasting and the ultimate source of all things visible and invisible. It smacks at Dualism.
Another problem with Molnism is that it operates under the philosophical notion that creaturely freedom entails libertarian freedom. Libertarian freedom, or as it is often referred – libertarian free will (LFW), is a philosophical position that entails that free will is incompatible with causal determinism. We are asked to believe that for a choice to be free, it truly might not occur under the same exact circumstances in which it truly would occur. Therefore, God would somehow have to know that free choices would occur even though they truly might not occur. The problem with such a musing about metaphysical contingency is that God would know contrary truths, which is logically impossible! As long as it is true that I might (and might not) type this post, it remains false that I in fact would type this post. In which case, God could not know I would type this post, which limits God’s exhaustive omniscience.
Aside from the fact that LFW cannot be derived from Scripture – yet divine causal determinism can, LFW is too ambitious of a Christian position. For to subscribe to LFW is to affirm a species of theological dualism. Also, if taken to its logical conclusion, LFW leads to Open Theism, a heresy that limits God’s divine omniscience.
A necessary truth is one that could not have been false. From an Augustinian perspective, a necessary truth is true in all possible worlds. In other words, from this perspective a necessary truth is true in all worlds that could be actualized.
I argue here that CCFs (counterfactuals of creaturely freedom) from a divine causal determinism perspective, being contingent truths, are best viewed as a matter of God’s free knowledge (as opposed to his natural knowledge). Whether person S would freely choose A or ~A in state of affairs C is up to God. Both choices as a matter of God’s good pleasure are possible given the same relevant state of affairs C. From within any possible world W, S would choose A in C is true in some possible worlds; S would choose ~A in C is true in all other possible worlds. As I wrote in that previous entry, “Given a state of affairs God could determine different resultant dispositions to act. Given an identical state of affairs, God could determine a fragrance or song from yesteryear to causally produce a disposition either to look at an old photo album, pick up the phone to call someone or something else. These alternative possibilities would not be indeterminate might-counterfactuals of libertarian creaturely freedom but rather intrinsic possibilities, part of God’s natural knowledge, from which God could determine and freely know any true CCF.”
From a Molinist perspective only feasible worlds can be actualized. Now allowing for that concession within Molinism – that some possible worlds are infeasible worlds due to libertarian freedom, then necessarily, true CCFs are true in all feasible worlds (i.e. worlds that can possibly be actualized into a reality within which instantiated essences could make those free moral choices), but need not be true in possible worlds that cannot be actualized (i.e. infeasible worlds that are impossible for God to actualize). If A would be freely chosen by S given C in one feasible world, that counterfactual would be the case for all feasible worlds, making the counterfactual a necessary truth. (Such fixity is not the case from an Augustinian perspective once we catalog CCFs under God’s free knowledge as opposed to God’s natural knowledge.) Given Molinism’s view of infeasible worlds, such counterfactuals would be contingent truths (might-counterfactuals) in those worlds, which is irrelevant to the fixity of CCFs in all possible worlds God could actualize (feasible worlds).
Although within Molinism S might (and therefore might not) choose A given state of affairs C, if S would choose A in C, then the knowability of that would-counterfactual must entail that the truth bearing proposition of the counterfactual be a necessary truth – one that would be true in all feasible worlds. After all, if that were not the case, then knowing state of affairs C (and the workings of S) would not provide the certainty God needs in order to know A would be freely chosen by S under circumstance C.
Within an Augustinian perspective, God knows C would cause S to freely choose A or ~A by sovereign fiat. The outcome would be a contingent truth and as such could vary from W1 to Wn per God’s free choice. Whereas within Molinism, the outcome of S’s free choice given C, being divinely undetermined, is therefore mysteriously fixed as true and, therefore, a necessary truth for all feasible Ws as either always A or else always ~A. Ironic?
Given molinism, although S would A or ~A in C would be purely contingent metaphysically, the proposition that bears the true truth-value of the CCF would be necessary (being the same in all possible actualizeable worlds). From a molinist perspective, in every possible world that is actualizable, the counterfactual is consistently either true or false and, therefore, should be conceded as a necessary truth either of counterfactual S would A or ~A in C. But how can God not be the truth maker of a necessary truth? Brute facts are not facts.
A necessary truth is one that exists in every possible world. And although Molinism upholds a theory of possible worlds that affords room for contingent CCFs (i.e. a would-counterfactual is false or true depending on the possible world in view), if we maintain as a redundant compound statement that (a) necessary truths are truths that exist in every possible world (b) that can possibly be actualized (i.e. a correct view of every possible world!), then the truth value of CCFs in infeasible worlds (worlds that are impossible to actualize), should be disregarded when evaluating whether a counterfactual is a necessary truth.
Molinism may not properly lay claim on CCFs being contingent truths. After all, given LFW, some “possible” choices would never occur regardless of the number of trials. Therefore, those counterfactuals should be deemed necessarily false because they are false in every world that could possibly be actualized. Zero possibility of occurrence is semantically contrary to actualpossibility that A would occur or that A might occur.
Within Molinism only feasible worlds can be actualized; yet that semantic concession still must come with the price of considering all relevant CCFs – those CCFs that have a non 0% probability in identical circumstances – as necessary truths given LFW and MK.
At the very least, within Molinism the chasm between what is logically consistent (all possible worlds, including infeasible ones) and what is actually metaphysically feasible (true CCFs) is too vast.
An amusing illustration of interpreting evidence in light of precommitment has to do with a deluded man who thinks he is dead. The doctor tries to persuade the man he is not dead by getting the man to reason according to some other
proposition the dead man also believes, such as: dead men don’t bleed. Therefore, if when pricked with a needle by the doctor blood comes out of the deluded patient, the patient should abandon his belief that he is dead; or so is the doctor’s hope.
We might comprise a simple syllogism that the patient would readily embrace.
1. Dead men won’t bleed when pricked
2. I am a dead man
3. I won’t bleed when pricked
Naturally, when pricked the man bled. Perhaps naively, the doctor thought that after seeing the falsity of 3 his patient would abandon his commitment to 2. Of course he doesn’t. His precommitment to 2, being dead, is too strong. As the illustration typically goes, the patient adjusts his less consequential belief, in this case the major premise. Rather than admit he’s not dead, he is only willing to say, “I guess dead men do bleed.”
Although the illustration serves its purpose, things are often much worse in real life. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending upon one’s perspective) people don’t readily adjust their beliefs like that. A person who is committed to 2 would not likely forgo 1 that quickly. He needs 1 to help convince him of 2. Sadly, people can cultivate denial without having to modify previous beliefs. With enough practice, people can become quite skilled in denial as it relates to commitment to false beliefs, especially when the beliefs strike at how one defines himself or herself.
As we saw, instead of being persuaded by blood from a pinprick, the person who is committed to being dead may feel the need to maintain his commitment to 1 too. If so, he will not adjust his reasoning as it relates to his major premise according to the evidence of blood. In other words, he will not deny his major premise and concede that dead men do bleed. Rather, he may “rationally” try to maintain 1 as he goes deeper into denial but in another direction. He can manipulate the evidence that is against him rather than adjust 1 according to his undeniable blood. From this posture he can dismiss the evidence in one of two ways. He can believe that it is blood, but not his blood, or else he can believe that red fluid came from his corpse but that it’s not blood at all!
We sadly see this sort of thing all to often in many areas of life. So to speak, there are people who don’t acknowledge and assent to the evidence of their own blood. They don’t adjust their thinking to allow for the reality of their own blood (e.g. “I guess dead men do bleed” or more hopefully, “I’m not dead!”) but instead they assent to the evidence, then manipulate and deny the force of the evidence itself. Both entail denial. One denies that dead men don’t bleed. The other denies either (a) blood or (b) that the blood is his blood.
We see this with theological beliefs as well. Let’s take Roman Catholicism and its adherents as our example but we could just as easily look at beliefs held by certain Protestants and their inconsistent practices.
Roman Catholicism stands or falls upon her claim of being the true church. If one RC doctrine can be shown to be false, Rome falls along with it. Again with a simple syllogism, like above, the goal is to expose the falsity of 3, which in turn undermines 1 or 2.
1. The true church is infallible
2. Rome is the true church
3. Rome is infallible
If 3 is false, then 1 or 2 can be true but not both.
Yet if Roman Catholicism stands or falls upon her two claims of 1 and 2, then the falsity of 3 is sufficient to falsify her claim upon 2 but not the stand-alone proposition entailed by 1 (or even 2).
Like we did with the dead men won’t bleed syllogism, the theological physician might try to show a doctrinal error within Rome (thereby refuting 3) in the hope of getting her friend to abandon her position on Rome (particularly 2). But when confronted with doctrinal error within Rome rarely will a RC say, “I guess the true church is fallible.” Like the patient, they typically dig in deeper.
In the face of even obvious error that exposes Rome’s infallibility claims as false, RCs typically deny something of the doctrinal propositional error under consideration rather than the lynchpin of 2. In other words, RCs deny their doctrinal error (some RC doctrine, p) as in fact RC error. They typically do this one of two ways. Either (a) the proffered error is regarded by the RC as the Protestant’s misinterpretation of Rome’s position; consequently the doctrinal proposition is false but not Rome because she doesn’t affirm it. Or else we see (b), the RC will claim that the doctrinal error is not error at all. An example might be useful. Rome errs by teaching p* justification is by at least some element of works. A RC who has been heavily influenced by evangelicals may deny Rome has erred on justification; instead she will assert that Protestants have erred in their understanding of Rome’s position on justification. Such RCs deny the truth of p*. They want their cake and to eat it too. Whereas a more devout RC, one who remains uninfluenced by evangelicals, will also deny Rome has erred, but instead she will assert that justification indeed does entail meritorious works. She affirms p* and (unlike the other RC) denies that p* is error. Both type RCs maintain 1-3. They differ in that they either deny the relevance of the evidence against Rome or else deny the direct falsifying impact of the evidence. They either deny the proposition reflects Rome’s teaching or else deny the proposition is false. They deflect and deny or else deny head-on.
Full circle, rather than conceding dead men bleed, we can be left with other forms of denial – “that’s not my blood” or “it’s my red bodily fluid but it’s not blood.”
If we substitute blood for false doctrine…
The first RC scenario is analogous to, p* is doctrine, it’s just not Rome’s doctrine. The second RC scenario is analogous to, p* is Rome’s doctrine, it’s just not false doctrine.
Whereas beliefs have consequences, false commitments held tenaciously over time (often for self-preservation) can lead to devastating results. Beliefs spill over to all of life, especially core beliefs (or presuppositions).
The impassibility of God pertains to the question of whether God can suffer or be acted upon by any created thing. For God to change would require that God become something other than he is. God would either have to become perfect (at least for a while), fall from perfection and remain imperfect, or vacillate between perfection and imperfection. It would, also, be possible that God would never reach and maintain divine potentiality.
God doesn’t have potentiality. His attributes cannot develop or diminish. It is impossible for God to become more or less of what his attributes contemplate. God cannot reach his potential or forgo it. Rather, God exists eternally in his divine potential. That’s why theologians speak of God’s actuality. God is pure act. For instance, God is maximally loving in and of himself. God is forever unchanging in his love. Better yet, God’s love is unchanging. Or even better still, Love is unchanging (because God is simple and love is a divine attribute. God is love).
God’s unchanging character (his immutability) does not undermine his affections. Rather, God’s immutability establishes his affections. It is because God is impassible that he shows forth his pure affections. Because God is unchanging in his mercy, he expresses or releases the actuality of his mercy toward those who by grace seek it through his Son. God’s maximum mercy doesn’t get turned on. Rather, it gets willfully directed and from our perspective released at divinely appointed times.
Some have suggested that God decreed that he be acted upon. Others have mused that God willingly takes on properties that allow him to change in relation to his covenant promises. Both positions are attempts to affirm divine impassibility while trying to avoid attributing too many biblical texts to anthropomorphic language. Notwithstanding, both theories are outside the pale of orthodox Christianity since in both cases God’s nature would be mutable even if by decretive condescension.
When God takes aim with his affections, he does so consciously and without change. He is merely responding (not reacting) to changes outside himself – changes he has ordained in others. God does not change, but the ordained states of affairs do change according to God’s will and providence, to which God responds appropriately according to his unchanging attributes. Accordingly, God’s immutable attributes ground his dynamic responses in relationship to his ever changing creation.
Without impassibility, no incarnation
For man to be saved he needs a mediator who would learn obedience through suffering. Redeemable creatures need a high priest who can be tempted in all ways like them but without sin. Yet God cannot learn obedience nor be tempted. Yet if God were passible, he could have ordained that he be tempted and suffer apart from the incarnation of the Son.1 Therefore, if God is passible, the hypostatic union is unnecessary. A body for the Son would not have been prepared for him. There would have been no need for Messiah. Yet it is precisely because God is impassible that the cup of wrath could not pass from Jesus as he petitioned. In other words, it would have been possible for the cup to have passed if God could suffer. Therefore, Jesus’ petition in his high priestly prayer affirms God’s impassibility, hence the need for a suffering Messiah.2
In discussions over impassibility we must stay clear of two ditches – deism and process theology, divine apathy and divine vulnerability. However, we must be sure that in our avoidance of the one, we don’t stumble into the other.
1I’m speaking in a reductio ad absurdum fashion, since obviously if the incarnation were not necessary to save because God is passible, then our reconciliation would be to a God who is less than eternally perfect. Christianity unravels.
2Redemption required the Son of God to empty himself, not by subtraction but addition. In the incarnation the Son remained God. And although he remained a divine person, he added to himself our humanity yet without confusion, change, division or separation. One person was now two inseparable beings. Through the incarnation God the Son could now suffer in his humanity.
In predicating to the Son his actions, we must distinguish which nature is the source. The Son thirsts in his humanity whereas he calms the storm in his divinity. Divine acts can be done by the Son through his human nature but not by his human nature. All acts, whether divine or human, can be predicated to the Son, but not all acts of the Son can be predicated to either nature.
It is the hermeneutic of the cults and not that of historic Christianity that seeks merely one or two Bible verses for all true doctrine. This should come as little surprise when we pause to consider that at the heart of Christianity is the church’s confession of the Triune God, which presupposes multi-layered doctrine as it relates to a plurality of persons who share eternally one divine essence. It is no different with the church’s doctrine of Christ, which contemplates distinct natures of divinity and humanity mystically united at the incarnation in the eternal Son of God – yet without confusion, change, division or separation. These foundational doctrines of the Christian faith were derived not from one or two isolated verses but inferred from many passages of Scripture as they relate to a larger whole, a system of doctrine that came into its own at the time of the Protestant Reformation and now tightly fits together like pieces of a puzzle. It is by comparing Scripture with Scripture and then doctrine with doctrine that the Reformed tradition has come up with an exhaustive theology that is consistent, coherent and explanatory.
Given the theological nuance of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God, it should not surprise that infant baptism is not a one or two verse doctrine. After all, infant baptism is in the name of the Holy Trinity and signifies engrafting into the Son of God. All that to say, we should not be put off by the claim, “There is not a single verse in the Bible that teaches infant baptism.” The avoidance of proof-texting in exchange for a fully orbed systematic theology within which a doctrine of infant baptism resides should lead us not to doubt but instill greater confidence in the church’s practice.
It would be hazardous to try to construct a doctrine of infant baptism by looking up verses in a concordance only that pertain to baptism. If baptism is an ordinance or sacrament reserved for those who are to be regarded as God’s people, then we must seek to understand biblical precepts that pertain to marking out the people of God. In other words, the question of who is to be baptized relates to how we should define Christ’s church. If water baptism is the visible rite of passage into the visible people of God, then it must be applied to infants of professing believers if they are to be numbered among the church. Contrariwise, if infants of professing believers are not to be regarded as members of Christ’s church, then the sign of water baptism must be withheld from our covenant children – if they may even be considered covenant children!
Are infants of professing believer’s to be regarded as separate from Christ, or are they to be regarded as Christ’s inheritance? When we are told not to suffer little children from coming to Christ, are we to deny them baptism? Are they to receive Christ’s blessing but not washing? Are they to be considered outside God’s covenant people and, therefore, denied participation in the outward administration of the covenant?
Continuity versus discontinuity
If baptism is reserved for members of Christ’s church, then our doctrine of the church will inform us on the question of who is to be baptized. Under the older economy children of professing believers had an interest in the covenant. When physically possible covenant children were to be marked out as the people of God through the sign and seal of circumcision. Most Baptists and Paedobaptists agree on that point. The question of infant baptism hinges upon whether there has been a change in this Old Testament principle. Are children of professing believers no longer to be regarded as they were under the older economy? Baptists answer that question in the affirmative.
From a Reformed perspective, the Old Testament has both continuity and discontinuity as it relates to the New Testament. With respect to continuity, the old is swallowed up in the new as Christ has fulfilled the covenantal promises of God.
“For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” 2 Corinthians 1:20
God’s covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ. In Christ the promises to Israel find their yes and amen, their affirmation and confirmation. Yet in another sense, the many promises of the many covenants are essentially one specific, foundational and singular promise – that is, salvation in Christ. That is why the apostle could say to the saints at Ephesus, “remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise [singular], having no hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:12
The centrality of Christ in the covenants
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Adamic covenant, that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. (Mark 8:31-33; John 12:27-32; 1 John 3:8)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Noahic covenant, that God would uphold and preserve the world (so that he might save the world). (Genesis 9:8-13; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 4:3)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the demands of the Mosaic covenant, as well as the outward administration of the sacrificial system. (Deuteronomy 7:6-11; Matthew 5:17; Philippians 3:9)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Davidic covenant, that one from David’s line would sit upon his throne. (2 Samuel 7:8-17; Psalm 89:3,4; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 1:32,33; Acts 2:29-31; 1 Corinthians 15:25; 1 Timothy 6:15.)
It is the promised Christ who fulfills the New Covenant promise. (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:19,20)
Given the Christocentric thread of continuity, we may now turn to the continuity of God’s covenant people.
The promise to Abraham and the doctrine of the church
An astute reader may have recognized that the Abrahamic covenant was not mentioned among the covenants listed immediately above. Given the ecclesiastical implications of the Abrahamic covenant of promise, it will be treated separately and in more detail below.
The takeaway from this small section is that there is a continuity from Old Covenant to New Covenant. The common thread throughout the Bible pertains to promise and fulfillment. The centerpiece of Old Testament theology is the promised Messiah who would deliver his people from the bondage of sin and inaugurate a new age in which righteousness would be established in the earth. The covenants of promise did not center upon Israel or a promised land, but rather the various strands of promise converged, finding ultimate fulfillment in Christ alone. Christ is the Seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head. It is David’s Son, the ascended Christ, who sits at God’s right hand encircled by the covenant-rainbow first given to Noah as a sign of a delayed judgement (presupposing intended consummation). It is Christ who has fulfilled the demands of the Mosaic law, whereby the ordinances against God’s people were nailed to cross, putting an end to the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic economy.
Abraham, Seed and Promise
Immediately after the fall, God promised that he would inflict a deep-seated hatred between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. That promise, which would come to fruition being a promise(!), included the good news that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Then the Lord of the covenant covered with skins the two who were naked and ashamed (Genesis 3:21).
God later expanded upon his promise with respect to the seed saying that he would establish his covenant between himself and Abraham. Not only would God establish his covenant promise with Abraham, he would also establish it with Abraham’s seed after him. This promise that was made to Abraham and his seed was that God would be a God to them and that they would occupy the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:7, 8). In response to the promise of God, which was one of redemption of a people and land for them to occupy, Abraham pleaded that his son Ishmael might live before God in faithfulness (Genesis 3:18). God refused Abraham’s request, saying “as for Ishmael, I have heard thee… but my covenant will I establish with Isaac” not Ishmael (Genesis 17: 20, 21).
God’s promise of deliverance of the seed would come to fruition; yet it did not apply to all of Abraham’s physical descendants. It even applied to those who were not of physical descendants. Abraham was to be the father of many nations, not just one. Notwithstanding, all those who were of the household of Abraham were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant, as if they themselves were partakers of the promise of God. Even more, those within a professing household who did not receive the sign and seal of the covenant were to be considered covenant breakers. This sign of the covenant was so closely related to the covenant that it was called the covenant by the Lord (Genesis 17:10). Consequently, those who had received the sign were to be considered in covenant with God; whereas those who had not received the sign (yet qualified to receive it) were to be treated as covenant breakers. We might say that the invisible church was to be found within the visible church, “out of which there was no ordinary way of salvation” (Acts 2:47b; WCF 25.2). (This principle of household solidarity was not something new, for it was Noah who found grace with God; yet his entire household was saved in the ark.)
When we come to Galatians 3, we learn something quite astounding. The promise was made to a single Seed, who is the Christ; and it is by spiritual union with him, pictured in the outward administration of baptism, that the promise is received by the elect (in Christ). “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ…For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16, 26-29) The apostle teaches that the covenant promise was established with the Godman – the incarnate Christ, and by covenantal extension with all who would be truly, by the Spirit, united to the Seed in baptism.
Although God’s covenant was established from the outset with the elect in Christ, it was to be administered to all who professed the true religion along with their households. The theological distinction of the visible and invisible people of God was well in view, even at the time of Noah and most acutely at the time of Abraham. Although this was the theology of the covenant, the apostle still had to labor the point to the New Testament saints at Rome. After telling his hearers that nothing could separate God’s people from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39), the apostle had to explain how the people of God who had an interest in the covenant could have fallen away. How, in other words, could the people of God become apostate if the promise of redemption had to come to fruition being a promise from God?
The illusive Israel
With this pedagogical background in place, the apostle explained Old Testament Covenant Theology, which is that although God established his covenant only with the elect in Christ, it was to be outwardly administered to the non-elect as long as they were of the household of a professing believer and had not demonstrated visible apostasy. Consequently, not all true Israel are from external Israel (Romans 9:6), just like not all the New Testament church will be saved. “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Romans 9:8)
In sum, although God treats professing believers as his elect, not all who are to be numbered among the visible people of God are chosen in Christ, i.e. children of promise. God’s promise was that he would redeem a particular people that he would place in his recreation, the church. The church’s final destiny is the consummated New Heavens and New Earth, wherein righteousness dwells. Until God separates the sheep from the goats, the visible church will contain unbelievers and hypocrites. Upon kingdom consummation, the visible church and the elect will be one and the same.
From covenant promise to covenant baptism
As we just saw, under the older economy, although the covenant of promise was established solely with the elect in Christ it was to be administered to the households of professing believers. This means that the children of professing believers were to receive the mark of inclusion and, therefore, be counted among the people of God prior to professing faith in what the sign and seal of the covenant contemplated. Covenant children, even if they were not elect, were to be treated as the elect of God and heirs according to the promise based upon corporate solidarity with a professing parent.
When the apostle addresses the children in his letter to the Ephesians, he does not distinguish them from the corporate body that he has already called saints, faithful in Christ Jesus, and those chosen in Christ. This is the unbroken pattern throughout both testaments. Although God establishes his unbreakable redemptive promise solely with the chosen in Christ, by precept all those who profess the true religion along with their children are to be regarded as among the elect until such time they demonstrate otherwise either in faith or practice, doctrine or lifestyle. Surely the apostle appreciated that not all the assembly in Corinth were necessarily sanctified in Christ Jesus, or effectually called into the fellowship of Christ. Yet the visible church at Corinth was addressed as such and without qualification: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours…” It’s no different when we come to the severe warning passages in Hebrews. After issuing warnings not to fall away from the faith, the author addresses the hearers he just warned as converted believers:
“But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Hebrews 6:9
“But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” Hebrews 10:39
(This has grave implications for pulpit ministry. After the call to worship the minister is not to address the lost. Congregational worship is not a tent meeting. It’s for God and his saints, a foretaste of the consummated sabbath.)
When we come to the New Testament nothing has changed with respect to the heirs of the promise. The promise remains established with the elect in Christ, as it always was. The question Baptists ask is whether the children of professing believers have somehow lost the privilege of receiving the sign of entrance into the New Testament church. They say YES, which places a burden of proof upon them to demonstrate such a conclusion by good and necessary inference if not explicit instruction.
By way of review, God’s promise to save Abraham and his “seed” was without any conditions (Genesis 17:7) that had to be met by those prior to God establishing his promise with the elect. Abraham responded to God’s promise of salvation in faith, which was first issued in Genesis 12, whereby he was justified (Genesis 15:6). Although God promised Abraham and his elect son Isaac salvation, God rejected Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21). Nonetheless, Ishmael was to receive the outward sign of the covenant-promise, which was circumcision (Genesis 17:10ff). Accordingly, God’s precept was that his covenant sign be administered to the household of Abraham, even though God established his covenant solely with the elect in Christ. The apostle Paul picks up on this theme when he reminds us in Romans nine that the promise of salvation was not intended for every single person who was by precept to be regarded as among the Israel of God. In fact, the apostle explicitly tells us that the children of the “promise” are counted as Abraham’s seed, and not the children of the flesh (Romans 9:8). Accordingly, all those who would believe the promise are the true children of Abraham (Romans 9: 8; Galatians 3:9). Most importantly, the “seed” to whom the promise was made was Christ alone (Galatians 3:16). It is through union with Christ, the single Seed of Abraham, that we become true descendants of Abraham. As Galatians 3:29 states, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise.”
Some misguided arrows, continuity and discontinuity
With respect to national implication as it pertains to circumcision, we must keep in mind that Abraham was not Jewish. Indeed, Israel according the flesh eventually came from Abraham’s loins, but the promise was that Abraham would be the father of many nations. Israel did not even become a nation until 430 years after God called Abraham according to the promise (Galatians 3:17). Consequently, contrary to what so many evangelicals think, the sign of circumcision primarily had spiritual significance as opposed to national or ethnic significance. As Romans 4:11 states, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith…” The verse does not teach that Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of ethnic or national origin. Given that covenant infants were to receive the sign and seal of the faith without having yet professed faith, we can at least dispel the premise that one may not receive the sign and seal of baptism without having professed that which baptism points to, ultimately union with Christ. In other words, according to biblical precept one needn’t profess to possess what the ordinance contemplates in order to have it placed upon him. These are God’s signs and seals to dispense as he sees fit.
God always had an elect people, which he so happened to form into a nation 430 years after the call of Abraham. The nation was incidental to the promise. The promise both precedes and transcends the nation and could, therefore, not be abrogated upon the apostasy of the nation. God has now taken the kingdom away from the nation of Israel and has started his final building project, the New Testament church. The church is the international people of God, a “nation” bearing the fruit of the covenant. Consequently, when one is converted to Christ he need not become part of the nation of Israel, for Christ has sent his followers into the world to make disciples of all nations. The promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations is now fulfilled in the universal, international church.
The disagreement and the error of both groups, Baptists and Paedobaptists
Herein lies the problem that many Paedobaptists run into when dealing with Baptists, especially so-called “Reformed” Baptists. “Reformed” Baptists argue that the Old Covenant was established with the elect and reprobates in professing households since many who were to receive the sign of the covenant fell away. Then they rightly show that the New Covenant is established only with the elect. Accordingly, they reason: if the covenant has changed from including non-believers to including only true believers, then baptism should be reserved only for professing believers in order to ensure (as best as possible) that the visible church resemble the true regenerate church of the New Testament. Paedobaptists get tripped up by that argument when they try to argue that both the New and the Old Covenant are conditional, i.e. established both with the elect and non-elect within professing households. Such Paedobaptists are correct with respect to the continuity from old to new but they cannot argue effectively that the New Covenant is established with certain unbelievers because Scripture doesn’t support it. Consequently, the Baptist argument often goes like this: “Hey Mr. Paedobaptist, you and I agree that the Old Covenant was made with the visible people of God, which includes believers and unbelievers (since many Israelites fell away from the true religion); therefore, we can agree that circumcision was to be administered to all males, elect or not, within a professing household. However, since the New Covenant is clearly made with the elect in Christ who will persevere in the faith (unlike unfaithful Israel), then it is reasonable to maintain that the covenant has changed with respect to inclusiveness. Therefore, the sign of the covenant should be reserved for those the elders are persuaded are actually believers.” In other words, the Baptist argues that since the people of God fell away under the older economy, then the Old Covenant promise was conditional and must have been made with non-elect persons; yet the elect of God will not fall away in the New Covenant, therefore, the New Covenant promise must be made with the elect alone. There is a flaw in reasoning that must be considered. Baptists who argue this way are contrasting the Old Testament visible people of God with the New Testament elect in Christ. By using a faulty comparison, the Baptist is trying to prove with whom the Old Covenant was established by showing who were to receive the sign (elect and reprobate); then they argue for the proper recipients for New Testament baptism on the basis of God establishing his NT covenant with the elect alone. By changing their criterion in this way, they arrive at logically unsubstantiated conclusion. In other words, our Baptist brethren prove with whom the covenant was established under the older economy by looking at who was to receive the sign (elect and non-elect); then they try to establish who is to receive the sign under the new economy by looking at with whom the New Covenant was made (elect alone)! That’s simply fallacious.
The single covenant of promise was established with the incarnate Christ and all who were elected in Him; yet this covenant, although established with the elect in Christ, was to be outwardly administered to the household of a professing parent.
The sign of the covenant
God commanded 4,000 years ago that the sign of the covenant be placed upon males within the household of professing believers. Although the sign of entrance into the covenant people of God has changed from circumcision to baptism (and can now be received by females), God never rescinded his covenant principle concerning households that were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant promise. In the same way that all Israel was not Israel, we may also infer that all the church is not the church. Nonetheless, we are by precept to place the sign of covenant membership in the church upon those who qualify, per the instruction of God – which was never rescinded or abrogated.
A concise deduction
An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant. Therefore, children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference. Since God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant, the sign of entrance into the New Covenant still should be placed on covenant children. Therefore, God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism since that is the New Testament sign that marks of the visible people of God.
More formally stated:
1. An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people
2. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant
3. Children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept (1, 2)
4. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference
5. God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant
6. The sign of entrance into the New Covenant is water baptism
7. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive the sign of entrance into the New Covenant (3, 4 and 5)
8. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism (6, 7)
A Reformed Baptist use of Jeremiah 31
Baptists will say that the abrogation of the principle in view is implicit in Jeremiah 31:34: “…they will all know me….”, which they say means that the New Covenant is made only with believers who know the Lord. Accordingly, they reason that we should ensure as best as possible to administer the New Covenant only to those who profess faith in Christ, which infants cannot do. The problem they run into with this line of reasoning is that the verse does not teach that the covenant is only made with those who possess belief! The promise of Jeremiah 31 is a promise of greater fidelity (verse 32), greater empowerment (verse 34), and a greater depth of knowledge (verse 34). It does not address the qualification for covenant entrance. Verse 34 does not speak to the question of with whom the covenant will be established. It merely teaches that those with whom the covenant will be established will indeed “know the Lord.” In passing we should note that under the older economy all those with whom the covenant was established would come to know the Lord. So, the difference in view cannot pertain to the exclusion of infants from the outward administration of the covenant promise. It must pertain to something else, such as the depth of knowledge of the Lord and / or the missionary explosion promised to Abraham as it relates to relatively all knowing the Lord.
Before considering what it means in that context to “know the Lord” we must first appreciate that verse does not teach us that the covenant will be made only with true believers after they believe. At the very least, if Baptists were correct, then the knowledge of the Lord would not be a blessing of the covenant but rather something that first must be obtained in order to enter into covenant! Moreover, the verse cannot possibly exclude infants from covenant entrance who will grow up to “know the Lord” because the verse does not imply a change in qualifications for covenant entrance, but rather it speaks to the increase of blessings that will be received by those with whom God establishes the New Covenant. The verse is not speaking of a new qualification for entering into the covenant; rather it is speaking about something different that will occur under the newer economy as compared to the older economy for those who will be in covenant.
The glory of the New Covenant
Since the Old Covenant was established with the elect alone, we may safely say that a saving knowledge was granted to all with whom God established the Old Covenant(!), barring no early deaths that would preclude saving knowledge. Consequently, the verse must be speaking to the quality and depth of that saving knowledge under the newer economy as opposed to the mere possession of it, which all those with whom God established the Old Covenant would have received. Not surprisingly, that is what we see in the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant with the establishment of the priesthood of all believers – through the revelation of Christ, the completed Canon and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – we all “know the Lord” in a manner vastly different than that under the old economy. In summary, Jeremiah 31 may not be used to defend a more stringent entrance examination for covenant privileges simply because it does not imply anything more than increase of blessings. Thankfully the glory of the New Covenant is not to be found in the exclusion of infants. (Also, the promise that all will know the Lord, eliminating the need to tell our neighbors to know the Lord, could very well be a reference to the triumph of the gospel in the world.)
Burden of Proof
Both sides of the infant baptism debate argue from silence. Paedobaptists observe that the Bible does not forbid infant baptism, whereas Baptists argue that the Bible does not command it. In this respect, both sides are correct. Notwithstanding, not all arguments from silence are equally weak or fallacious. Whether an argument from silence begs crucial questions largely will depend upon burden of proof. It would stand to reason that if for 2,000 years of redemptive history children of professing believers were to receive the mark of covenantal inclusion, then that precedent should stand whether the New Testament repeats the precept or not. Accordingly, Baptists must bring forth evidence to overturn the practice. Moreover, to assume discontinuity from the Old Testament if a principle is not repeated in the New Testament leads to the abrogation of many Old Testament principles that Baptists will readily agree should not be rescinded. For instance, nowhere does the New Testament forbid bestiality.
Corroborating Evidence from Scripture
When we approach the New Testament with a covenantal lens on, we would expect to see household baptisms given the Old Testament precedent of household circumcision. Behold, that is what we see. Scripture references the following household baptisms: Lydia; Crispus; Gaius; Philippian Jailor; Cornelius; and Stephanas. Other baptisms recorded in Scripture wherein are listed names of people are the baptisms of Paul, the Ethiopian Eunuch, and Simon Magus. The first two would not seem to have had children and we know nothing of the magician other than he was an infidel. The material point is, we would expect from a covenantal perspective that household baptisms would abound, and that is precisely what we see. Another piece of corroborating evidence is that in forty years of New Testament narrative and epistles we don’t find one instance of a covenant child coming to faith and undergoing believer’s baptism. Not once do we see what we would expect to see if credo baptism were the apostolic teaching.
Incidental Evidence from Church History
In the annuls of church history we see theology forged out on the anvil of providence. God appoints factions so that the church might receive those who are approved and entrusted with the truth (1 Corinthians 11:19). With respect to theological controversy, we have records of the Arian controversy; Sabellianism; Adoptionism; Nestorianism, and so on. We can read about the church’s defense against the denials of the divinity of Christ; a seed form of modalism; Christ becoming Son; Son becoming two persons, etc. In other words, heresies and heterodoxy are a matter of church record. Accordingly, we would expect to see at least some resistance to the practice of infant baptism given that there would have occurred a massive churchwide departure from apostolic teaching by the 3rd century if the apostolic teaching was indeed credo-only baptism. Yet we see no such resistance. None whatsoever. That observation works with infant baptism and against credo-only baptism. Yet positively, we know that Irenaeus referenced infant baptism in approximately 180, and Origen referred to the practice shortly thereafter. Although Tertullian advised against the practice (perhaps due to the pragmatism of delaying the washing of water so to lessen one’s post-baptismal sins), he nonetheless recognized it as the church’s practice; he also mentions children having baptism sponsors.
In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity. We often use the term total as a synonym for utter or for completely, so the notion of total depravity conjures up the idea that every human being is as bad as that person could possibly be… As wicked as Hitler was, we can still conceive of ways in which he could have been even more wicked than he actually was. So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person…The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.
To change the metaphor, God’s reflection in us has become distorted like a face in a carnival mirror. Such is our depravity that every part of every person is warped by sin. Sin corrupts our hearts so that we set our affections on unholy desires. It corrupts our feelings so that we are in emotional turmoil. It corrupts our wills so that we will not choose the good. Our whole nature is corrupted by sin. This is what theologians mean when they speak of “total depravity”—not that we are as sinful as we could possibly be, but that we are sinners through and through.”
These accounts of Total Depravity are somewhat typical. I believe they are also lacking. If Total Depravity is true, the rest of Calvinism is a mere footnote. Therefore, we do well to get the “T” of TULIP right. After all, our understanding of the glory of God’s grace is directly proportional to our understanding of man’s fallen condition.
Let’s look at this doctrine a bit more closely by considering whether that which we read in most contemporary explications of Total Depravity overlooks a profound insight that did not escape traditional Augustinians.
Agreement gives way to oversight
Indeed, many unbelievers lead impeccable lives, even engage in philanthropic work – even work that benefits the kingdom of God! Yet has that ever been a bone of contention or a misunderstanding of the doctrine? What is striking to me is that we rarely read what was understood by Augustine and echoed by Calvin, that all the “good” unregenerate man does is merely the result of one lust restraining another. In other words, what is absent from contemporary Calvinism is the idea that man’s so-called good, not wrought in regeneration, suits him for totally depraved and sinful reasons. The miserly man does not spend his money on licentious living, but the reason for such respectable refrain is attributable not to man not being as bad as he can be, but to man’s sinful lust for money (if not also an insatiable desire for self-respect and the respect of others). But is that what we typically hear when this doctrine is explained? Or do we hear that we are in “emotional turmoil” and not as bad as we could possibly be in this world? Emotional turmoil? That the will is no longer pristine and even in bondage does not begin to address the profound moral affects of the fall. My hope is that a largely forgotten theological insight will become unearthed below, that we might recognize how watered down this doctrine has become.
God’s common goodness restrains fallen man through the providential employment of man’s sinful passions in conjunction with man being created in God’s likeness. Accordingly, I for one may not say that Hitler’s judgement will be more severe than any of the popes or many of Rome’s sacrificial nuns. How could I possibly know? Such speculation is beyond my pay grade. What I do know, however, is that Hitler was obviously evil; yet it was the popes, not Hitler, who for centuries promulgated doctrines of demons that paved the road from self-righteous indulgences to eternal torment. Some bad guys wear white hats, even a mitre at times. God judges righteous judgement taking all into account. I’m finite and my judgement worthless, but what I do know is “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:12
When we say that “man isn’t as bad as he can be,” or that “man can always do worse” or that “Hitler had some affection for his mother,” have we adequately reflected on the sinful restraining-motives that keep men and women respectable? (Pause)
Do we appreciate that man is unable to do other than what God has decreed? Are we aware that in this world, contrary to what we typically read from those who try to uphold Total Depravity, that man is as bad as he can be – both in a metaphysical sense as it relates to the intentions of the heart but also in a decretive sense, which in fact secures our metaphysical intentions? By affirming that man isn’t as bad as he can be, how do we not eclipse that it is for sinful reasons that depraved men and women don’t desire to behave more sinfully?
So, why is it that we so often hear that man is not as bad as he might be? What is hoped to be communicated by this mantra?
For one thing, that assessment is usually based upon works alone – that which we can observe. Yet God judges motive and the intentions of the heart. Surely we would not say that “Satan isn’t as bad as he can be.” Yet why not say the same of man since God has man on the same restraining leash of providence as Satan? Satan doesn’t devour more than he does, but isn’t that because God has determined to restrain him? Is fallen man any different in this regard? Can either Satan or man do other than God has determined, or contrary to what either chooses according to his own evil intentions? In what sense can either be worse?
Satan and image bearers
Let’s be critical in our analyses. There are vast differences between man and Satan. Man is created in God’s likeness and when effectually called, recreated in Christ’s image. Another distinction is most men most of the time are restrained by conscience whereas Satan is not. Satan is evil personified. Satan might be constrained by his creaturely confusion but unlike man, not by conscience. Satan is confounded and utterly unconscionable. Whereas man can have natural affection, Satan has none. Man, though evil (per Jesus), doesn’t typically pursue that which intrinsically evil; whereas with Satan it is his ultimate delight. (Matthew 7:11; Luke 7:13) Indeed, there is a difference. Humans are not Devils. Notwithstanding, we have it on biblical authority that God’s providence restrains both the serpent and his offspring so that none can commit worse acts than she does, “for who can resist His will?” (Romans 9:19) That human creatures are providentially restrained through being God’s image bearers is certainly a distinction, but this is no relevant difference pertaining to the question of whether man or Satan can commit more heinous acts than God has determined, or whether anyone is as bad as she can be or desires to be. (One fascinating difference pertains to the means by which God restrains man includes conscience, whereas with Satan that is not a means of restraint. Notwithstanding, even man’s conscience is totally depraved. Depraved consciences often produce acts born out of fear of God, but never out of reverential fear.)
Man’s natural affection is utterly self-serving and when judged by God will be found purely and totally sinful. Again, man desires not to sin more than he does, but only because his desire for restraint suits him for sinful motives, which too will be judged sinful on the last day. Yet to be thoroughgoing we must also maintain that man can become increasingly hardened, but not any more depraved. Man’s depravity is indeed total. He is as bad as he desires to be and as bad as God will allow him to be.
Jesus is the light that is given to all men who come into the world. (John 1:9) Yet the light in man will accuse him on the last day apart from repentance. Ultimately it is God alone who allows the candle to continue to flicker and not go out. God alone restrains the unregenerate man either directly or through secondary causes. God restrains man through conscience, for a time, but there will be no such restraining goodness in hell.
Lord over motive and sinful good
When conscience restrains unconverted free moral agents from behaving worse than they otherwise would, such self-control is no less due to sinful motives than when one violates conscience and externally breaks God’s moral law. Even motive not to sin is sinful for the lost. The Reformers and the Divines captured this distinction by noting that outside regeneration in Christ and pardon, man can do no spiritual good. In other words, external good is internally sinful. It is that essential component of Total Depravity that is absent in contemporary Calvinism. Perhaps it is too unpleasant to think of our respectable friends and neighbors in this way. What we forgo, however, is standing in awe of God’s meticulous providence as it relates to man’s immoral intentions behind his conforming choices. (We lose out on praising God in our appreciation of the delicious doctrine of concurrence).
If the account of the rich man and Lazarus teaches us anything it is that unconverted man in his depravity will try to correct God forever. In hell man’s depravity will be fully manifested. Man won’t become more depraved, just like the converted cannot become more regenerate. The blackness of man’s heart finally will be on full display in the life hereafter.
I hope we might see a bit more clearly that in contemporary Calvinism the accent has been placed on “common grace” and how wonderful it is that the “unchurched” do such wonderful things. Little to no reflection is given to God’s wisdom and power as he meticulously restrains the utterly evil intentions of the ungodly by their sinful passion for respectability and enlightened self-interest. God doesn’t just work externally evil acts for good (as most Calvinists recognize, citing Joseph and his brothers), but also God ordains sinful–good–acts from those who are perishing, for his own glory and the benefit of the called according to his purpose. (We mustn’t confuse the two. The former contemplates sinful actions that are sinfully motivated, whereas the latter is more subtle as it relates to non-sinful actions that are sinfully motivated.)
When we water down Total Depravity, grace isn’t so amazing. In many respects, grace was more amazing 150 years ago among Arminians than it is described by many Calvinists today.
The profound truth of this doctrine is the very backdrop for the glory of God’s saving grace in Christ; yet do we confess the totality of Total Depravity? I believe we are in need of recouping the biblical teaching that there is no mild antithesis between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The antithesis is a deep-seated enmity inflicted by no other than God Himself. (Genesis 3:15) Man’s hatred of God often manifests itself in indifference, but that shouldn’t fool us. I suppose “splendid pagans“ aren’t really all that splendid after all.
Although we cannot define God, we can describe God. Our descriptions of God will be proportional to what God desires us to know. Yet being finite, there are of course limits to what we can know of God. With respect to mode or manner, God cannot have us know him as he knows himself. We’d have to share the divine essence to know God originally or intuitively. We can apprehend God, but we can never comprehend God. To comprehend God is to know God exhaustively, as God knows God.
We know God partially and imperfectly, yet we can know God sufficiently. Although we do not know God univocally, as there is no identity between God’s self-knowledge and our knowledge of the Divine, we are not left to equivocal knowledge either. There is true correspondence at the point of the analogical. Notwithstanding, the perfect revelation of God is revelation of the original. God’s revelatory self-disclosure is an accommodation to created beings. The reality behind the revelation is greater. God’s revelation of himself is not himself. God transcends his revelation.
Although God is incomprehensible, God is not “wholly hidden.” What should humble us should not lead us to despair. Although God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and our thoughts can never attain to the heights of God’s thoughts, the things God has revealed belong to us and to our children forever. (Isaiah 55:8,9; Deuteronomy 29:29)
God is knowable. If nothing else, we know God is incomprehensible(!), but by grace and pure condescension we know much more. For God has spoken to us in Christ, who is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature. (Heb. 1:2,3)
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”