I’ve had fruitful discussions with various teaching elders and pastors from various churches. There seems to be a common thread that runs throughout. If I may summarize, here is how I assess the current landscape. The context is the state is not enforcing masks in churches but the overseers are doing so.
1. In our discussions it is established up front that not wearing a mask when masks are being “required” is not a censurable offense. (Whew!) Without exception, at the outset of these discussions it is hoped that the church would never make it a matter of policy to sanction a member for not masking in worship.
2. There is general agreement that a requirement implies some sort of sanction that may be imposed if the requirement in question is ignored or habitually ignored.
3. If we establish that we may not (and should not) exercise “the keys of the kingdom” for not masking, then to imply that we are “requiring” masks during worship is factually not truthful. Elders aren’t typically willing to declare one outside the fellowship of the church for non-compliance to masking.
4. Not all non-truths are lies. I don’t believe sessions are lying to their congregations. I’m unaware of elders in this regard intentionally speaking non-truth.
5. However, in the face of having undergone this mental exercise, which shows that current practices of requiring masks for worship is irreconcilable with a commitment to the intuitively sensible principles found in points 1 and 2 (1. we oughtn’t censure non-maskers and 2. requirements presuppose sanction), such informed sessions are now under moral obligation to inform its members that they are no longer “requiring” masks for worship.
6. If sessions maintain the sensibility of 1 and 2 yet decide not to drop the “requirement” of masking for worship, then a session would now become culpable of willfully promulgating to its sheep the falsehood contemplated in 3. Sessions would be doing so with premeditated intention.
There has been various responses to this line of reasoning. Three pertinent responses are listed below.
Censure is under good regulation
A. After considering the irreconcilable premises of (i) requiring masks of congregants and (ii) a session not being permitted to sanction non-conformity to masking, it has been posited by some that perhaps we should, even must, exercise the keys of the kingdom after all in cases of non-compliance. To remain consistent, some actually maintain it’s absolute sin not to mask and that love requires masking.
Regarding (A), I think what we are seeing by such a response is an unwavering pre-commitment to masks that is driving some to question, if not abandon, what was initially an intuitive and sensible position – that not to mask does not constitute behavior worthy of ecclesiastical censure. The commitment to masks, in the end, simply trumps the common sense instinct that we oughtn’t censure for masks. The commitment to a masking preference coupled with the pressure for logical consistency leads some to make masking an intrinsic moral requirement. Terrifying. (I guess dead men do bleed.)
Having been part of the courts of the church in my seventeen years as a ruling elder, I am confident that no session (or elder) would dare declare one outside the church for a principled reason not to mask in perpetuity. Therefore, I must interpret the reversal of common biblical sense not to censure as a mere attempt to remain at least logically consistent in order to salvage a pre-commitment to masking. But no elder I know would actually vote in such a case to turn one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that the soul might be reclaimed. That would be preposterous, even under the guise of contumacy. It’s at most a theoretical bluff with no practical teeth.
Going along, if we still wish to maintain it is censurable sin not to mask, then we must argue from Scripture that God requires masks as part of the moral law, or that God has empowered the elders to enact this religious rite, which may be elevated to a test of true faith and practice if resisted.
The church isrequiring masks
B. This one caught me by surprise. It was said that a church is in fact “requiring” masks if its Deacons have been instructed and trained to ask non-conformists to leave the sanctuary for not masking. (I hadn’t heard that before, but it’s easily addressed.)
Regarding (B), to ask a non-conforming congregant to leave the sanctuary for not masking is not the same thing as requiring her to wear a mask. We’ve only pushed the question back one step. The question has merely shifted from:
(i) Do we enforce the requirement to mask?
(ii) Is session prepared to enforce a Deacon’s “request” of a congregant to leave the sanctuary for not masking.
At the very least, by definition a Deacon’s request is not a requirement. Moreover, there is no relevant distinction between a Deacon’s request and the policy requirement he seeks to enforce. If session is not prepared to sanction one who does not acquiesce to a Deacon’s request, then it’s not true that session is requiring masks.
Censure by analogy example
C. Some reason that we require many things that if defied would disrupt the peace and unity of the church. For instance, someone without approval approaching the platform and playing banjo during the worship service. Such an outburst could be met with censure and if done often enough, severe censure. So, why not apply this principle to not masking?
Regarding (C), the relevant distinction should be obvious. Scripture commands worship to be conducted in decency and order. Such an outburst would undermine the responsibility of session to ensure an intended form of worship. It would also impinge upon the liberty of others to worship according to the principles of Scripture as set forth by session with respect to a particularly intended form. Whereas a unmasked worshipper does not alter the intended form of worship nor undermine the session’s responsibility to conduct worship as they deem proper according to the Word. Masks don’t pertain to worship element, circumstance or form.
Either deceive, censure or lift the impression of requiring masks
In the final analyses, after having been made aware of the logic that seemingly unearths the inconsistency of requiring masks, (now brace yourself), “requiring masks” cashes out for a session as intentionally employing a manipulative phrase that is actually deceptive. In other words, if a session now knowingly may not require masks because it believes it may not censure for not wearing masks, then to try to effect the practice of wearing masks in that enlightened context becomes a manipulative tactic that would intentionally put forth a falsehood in order to control behavior with implicit threat of sanction, which is a deception.
Now, of course, one might argue that a decision not to mask may be met with not just ecclesiastical censure but a restraining order against attending public worship without a mask. That would at least relieve the tension of deception but at the expense of spiritual tyranny. One may not be removed from church or excommunicated for peaceably worshipping God without a mask (when the state isn’t requiring it), especially when there can be pure motive of expression for such sacrifice of praise.
Of course there are elders and sessions that believe that masks may not be mandated.
Understanding makes one more culpable than unintended ignorance. Ignorance can be bliss, but truth must never be masked.
In this post I showed that elders may not impose masking in worship as an application of the law of love. They may not guilt congregants that way. Although rare, some are bold enough to assert that Jesus would have worn a mask and expects the same of his followers today. Others say something that cashes out no differently. It is without exception unloving not to wear a mask in congregational worship.
Such an extreme position can be an application of deceptions I discuss here, which pertain to clinging to commitments at all cost, either through (i) denial of premises and argumentation or (ii) deflection and denial of the same.
In this post I turn to the question of whether elders may require masking, which is a different question than whether they may impose masking (under the guise of love for others no less). Well, the simple answer is no, they may not. In a strict sense, elders may not “require” anything. Elders may not enforce their demands. To do so is to usurp the authority of God’s word and Christian liberty of conscience, as well as conflate ecclesiastical and civil rule.
Even if one does not understand the ministerial and declarative function of church officers as it relates to the proper administration of God’s precepts and his associated sanctions, she might appreciate that requirement presupposes enforcement for lack of adherence or conformity. What sort of biblical sanction may a church bring to bear upon any who do not heed her moral requirement? None. Elder rule is in the name of Christ. As such, any enforcement, if it is valid enforcement, is Christ’s enforcement and, therefore, must be according to God’s precepts and pronounced in God’s name. Is perpetual not-masking in the face of lording it over the flock an excommunicable offense in the sight of God? May elders declare on the authority of God’s word that a refusal to mask is not just unloving but a demonstration of unbelief, heretical conviction or licentious living? Are masks a telltale of one’s faith and practice? Would contumacy obtain?! Without lawful sanction, so much for lawful “requirement”.
However, if spiritual overseers were to try to enforce masking in worship, they would need the assistance of the state to remove or prevent one from attendance. (It is my understanding that not even bouncers at bars may physically remove an unruly patron, let alone a peaceable unmasked one.) Would Deacons or Elders call the police to physically remove a mother and child who were not breaking the law and peaceably worshipping without masks? If masks may be required, then I guess they must. Obviously there is something intuitively wrong about the trajectory of the premises. Perhaps masks may not be “required” after all.
I am also curious whether in those instances in which state laws on masks do not apply to religious worship, would those states even enforce masks at the elders’ request? I’m certain they shouldn’t, but I’m not sure they wouldn’t. (We might also ask, at the request of parents should the state remove a seventeen year old child from her parents’ home if the child defied house rules by resisting mask wearing in the home? It might come as a surprise to some that there is more latitude for parental enforcement than ecclesiastical enforcement. Children require parental training, having not yet come of age. Whereas the New Testament church is not under the same sort of tutelage. A parent may require his child not to wear ripped jeans to church. The session may not. A parent may exercise corporal discipline, the church may not. Without having reflected adequately on these types of distinctions, how equipped is one to navigate this discussion let alone make recommendations and even requirements in God’s name?)
The question is not whether Christ’s under-shepherds may require masks but whether Christ does.
This is where it is typically pointed out that church leadership invokes many requirements, so why not here? For instance, if you want to worship with us, then you are required to come to worship service at x, y or z time. If you want to serve in nursery, then you are required to pass a background check. The intended analogies are numerous. They’re also fallacious.
Regarding the “requirement” of coming to one of the stated services in order to worship with the congregation, the use of “requirement” is equivocal. It does not have the same meaning in both instances. The term is being employed in two different ways in close proximity. A requirement of coming to a stated worship service in order to worship with the congregation is merely a necessary condition without which the consequent of the if-then proposition cannot logically obtain. Yes, a “requirement” for participating in congregational worship is that one come to congregational worship! It is impossible to worship otherwise. Whereas it is possible to worship without wearing a mask. False analogy. It’s to confuse a synthetic truth with a moral obligation, a logical requirement with a moral one.
With respect to serving in the nursery, we might first observe God neither requires it nor the background check. Without sin one may pass on serving in the nursery ministry; whereas God calls his people to congregational worship. It’s not optional. Whereas a session needn’t have an opinion or policy on background checks (barring state requirement), it is to possess God’s revealed mind on whether congregants attend worship. Accordingly, the proximate source of the requirements for nursery and worship are relevantly different. Rules pertaining to serving in nursery are not ministerial and declarative considerations. They have little consequence relatively speaking. That’s why a requirement for a background check isn’t typically instituted under the pretense of “verily, verily…” or “thus saith the Lord” (though some do get dangerously close to suggesting it does). In a word, there’s no impingement upon liberty of conscience to humanly mandate nursery regulations, which is not the case with mandatory masking in the name of Christ. Unlike worship, one may blow off nursery. But if masks are not required in the name of Christ, then on what basis may masks be required for something God requires us to do, namely worship? (Objectors may insert here another version of the fallacy from the paragraph before this one.)
Even if it were possible, it’s not practical to entertain every “what about” this requirement or that requirement. Many rejoinders might simply disappear given a willingness to heed some basic philosophical principles, such as those discussed here.
Unfortunately, any semblance of rigorous or analytical thought has become increasingly passé, even among the well educated. Analytic-interaction with opposing views is becoming an increasingly foreign practice in the church. Blind practice has in various places replaced thoughtful tradition. Opinion is too often on equal footing with reason. Intellectual laziness in the spiritual realm has aided the drift from the Reformers and Westminster tradition toward anti-intellectual fundamentalism and evangelicalism, which in many respects in its heavy shepherding and man made religious rites resembles the tyranny of sixteenth century Popery. This gives occasion for one to pause and consider that when we do agree, is it merely formal agreement as opposed to agreement in principle – opinionated agreement vs. conclusive agreement?
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 as our example but we could just as easily have chosen some Protestant beliefs.
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 (typically for self-preservation) usually lead to devastating results that hurt more than those who desperately hold them. Beliefs spill over to all of life, especially core beliefs (or presuppositions).
I argued here and here that we may submit to civil government regarding COVID practices that impinge upon the church. What I am taking up here is the question of whether the elders of the church may seek to impose masking upon their members during congregational worship. This post is particularly relevant in locations in which civil magistrates declare that masking is not imposed on houses of worship.
In considering the question at hand, we might look at the “general equity of the law” principle (WCF 19.4), and how it relates to the broader application of the 6th Commandment (WLC 134-136).
1. We may not take innocent life. But the Westminster standards also teach under the 6th Commandment we are to strive to preserve innocent life. Not only may we not murder, we must also seek to prevent the unjust taking of life by preserving life according to biblical precept. The latter precept is an inferential application of the explicit command not to murder, without which pharisaical legalism would set in. (It would be pharisaical to suggest that it is not criminal to intentionally look the other way while an infant laid on a windowsill near an open window seven stories high and then fell to the ground.) Whereas the application of the commandments comes with qualifications, the commandments simpliciter have none. We may never murder at any time. However, we need not police for babies on windowsills or actively pursue all our waking hours the life of the unborn outside abortion clinics.
The relevant question as it relates to COVID is where are we to draw the line between (i) loving precaution and (ii) violating liberty of conscience by placing unbiblical expectations or demands upon worshippers? Surely wearing masks will preserve more lives than not wearing masks. But does that mean we may impose the wearing of masks upon worshippers in order to fulfill the spirit of the 6th Commandment (or simply the law of love for neighbor)? We can just as easily consider, should we never drive a car, so that, out of love, we might guard against vehicular fatality?
2. There is something intuitive about not setting-up extreme precaution as a necessary condition for loving one’s neighbor. Obviously we may drive automobiles (even though we might kill someone if we do). And I hope it is equally obvious that we needn’t always wear masks (even though masks can save lives). We might call this common sense. It’s a result of the light of nature. However, what the light of nature won’t detail for us are the principles of equity that we find in Moses.
3. With respect to the general equity of the law, the Bible distinguishes between the potential for doing another person harm and the evidence that it can reasonably be expected that the potential for doing harm actually will result in harm. A classic biblical example is found in Exodus 21:28-29. Oxen have the potential to kill, but not all oxen evidence a killing instinct. Under Moses, if a man’s ox were to kill another man, the ox was to be put to death; yet the owner of the ox would not be held liable. Presumably that was because there would have been no evidence the ox was violent. Consequently, there would have been no negligence on the part of the owner in such cases. Putting the ox to death would keep the ox from ever taking innocent life again. However, the mere potential of owning a killer ox would not have warranted caution in the form of preemptive restraint upon the ox. The point being, it could not be righteously deemed unloving of the owner not to have safeguarded against his ox killing another man.
However, had an ox actually killed a man a second time, both the ox and the ox’s owner were to be put to death. In such cases, not only would the ox have had the potential of killing a man, it would have also evidenced its lethal potential after the first fatality. Therefore, the ox’s owner would be negligent for not having safeguarded against a second fatality given the evidence from the first fatality that his ox actually was deadly.
4. We may apply the general equity of Exodus 21:28-29 to COVID practice. With respect to masks and COVID, we may not seek to impose restraint under the pretense of love based upon the potential of one carrying the virus. That people have the potential of infecting others with the virus is one thing. It is quite another thing for one to be found unlovingly negligent for not wearing a mask apart from evidence that one has the virus. Accordingly, it is not a matter of biblical precept that the most loving thing to do is to wear a mask because one has the potential of being asymptomatic.
Therefore, on what biblical basis may one be guilted into masking for worship? The potential of an animal, car or virus killing others is not sufficient to establish the imposition of precaution under the guise of love. There must be evidence that one is in fact dangerous. Without such evidence, the law of love is not the basis upon which one ought to be guilted into wearing masks.Something else is. What is that something and does it fall under the ministerial and declarative function of a session of elders?
(I won’t develop an equity principle of leprosy as it relates to COVID other than to say that taking the temperature of attenders would at least establish some basis for evidence.)
5. We are commanded to love our neighbor. Yet we are forbidden to expect others to love in the same manner in which we show love (or desire to be loved). In a word, we may not impose a law of love upon others in a way that would impose expectations that they show love in a manner not prescribed by God’s word. Indeed, we have the personal liberty to express love according to conscience in particular ways not prescribed by God’s word, but we are forbidden to expect others to do the same apart from biblical precept. That I might choose to wear a mask out of love does not imply others ought to do the same. And if I’m guilted into wearing a mask by man made edict, my freedom of doing it out of love for neighbor as unto God is eclipsed. Whereas keeping God’s commandments can be done freely as the Spirit works in us both to will and do God’s revealed pleasure. Jesus’ yoke is easy. The yoke of the Pharisees is not.
Furthermore, what if an individual believes he oughtn’t wear a mask out of love? Or is that somehow an unfathomable Christian ethic, that an individual, for instance, should for conscience sake feel led to protest the possible idol of health by choosing not to wear a mask? If that is not objective sin, how may church rulers quench that expression of Christian love? Is it impossible that God would have a person in a particular state of affairs not to wear a mask?
6. When we listen to the many voices of the age, don’t attend to the sufficiency of Scripture, or idolize health (or whatever), we run a greater risk of teaching the commandments of men for the doctrines of God, a clear violation of the latter. Jesus calls such practice vain worship (Matthew 15:9).
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:4-5
I think this piece from the OPC website is relevant. It cites their BCO:
3. All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, XX, 2).
4. All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security.
The author exegetes: “Please note that all church power is ministerial and declarative… Notice that it goes on to say that “no church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority” (see also the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20, on Christian Liberty). This means that governors in the church can only apply the commands of the Lord and may not promulgate canon law or legislate matters of wisdom, like whether one should have ice cream, take this job, or marry this person. Church governors may certainly give advice and counsel, which should always be thoughtfully weighed and seriously considered. But they may not command without explicit warrant from the Word.” (Bold emphasis mine.)
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? 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 possibly 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 possibly 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.”
Induction, the basis for all scientific inference, presupposes the uniformity of nature, which is to say it operates under the expectation that the future will be like past. From a Christian perspective, it is ordinary providence that explains how the scientific method is possible. Therefore, to argue for the miracle of the resurrection according to evidence and human experience is “foolish” (Proverbs 26:4). Resurrection is a phenomenon that contemplates an exchange of ordinary providence for the miraculous, which pertains to God working without, above, or against ordinary providence (WCF 5.3).
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is contra-uniform. It does not comport with experience. Our experience is that people die and are not raised three days later. Also, we have all met plenty of liars and those deceived into embracing false beliefs (even dying for false beliefs!) but nobody living has ever observed a single resurrection of the body. Given the uniformity of nature coupled with personal experience, a more probable explanation for the empty tomb is a hoax put on by liars rather than a miracle put on by God. (The same reasoning applies even more to the virgin birth I would think.)
We do not come to know the Savior lives by examining evidence according to alleged neutral posture, for the facts do not demand the conclusion that Christ has risen. So, at the very least, Christians should not argue from evidence to resurrection lest we lie by implying that we know Christ lives because of evidence upon which our belief does not rest.
When well-meaning Christians remove the extraordinary claim of the resurrection from its soteriological context, the resurrection is anything but credible. Yet, the resurrection is perfectly sensible within the context of things we know by nature and are awaken to by the Holy Spirit working in conjunction with Scripture. Namely, God’s wrath abides upon all men and God is merciful and loving. In the context of man’s plight and God’s character, the preaching of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ can be apprehended as not just credible, but the very wisdom of God. Our full persuasion of the resurrection unto knowledge of the truth is gospel-centric. The good news of John 3:16 is intelligible only in the context of the bad news of Romans 1:18-20 and Romans 3:10-20. The former presupposes the latter.
The place of evidence:
Evidence indeed corroborates the resurrection and is useful within a Christian context. We read in Scripture that a man named Saul who once opposed Christ became the chief apologist for the Christian faith. The way in which one will interpret the transformation of Saul to Paul will be consistent with one’s pre-commitment(s). Christians take the fanaticism of the apostle as corroborating what they already believe to be true about the resurrection; whereas naturalists will find an explanation for the apostle’s transformation and empty tomb outside the Christian resurrection interpretation. Similarly, the way in which one interprets Joseph Smith’s claims will be according to one’s pre-commitment(s). If one is committed to a closed canon, then the claims of Smith’s Mormonism will be deemed false.
There’s a vast difference between:
If resurrection, then evidence
If evidence, then resurrection
The first refers to evidence as something we would expect given the resurrection. Whereas the second construct employs evidence as sufficient for resurrection. The first is biblical – the second, fanciful.
Of course the tomb is empty, for Christ has risen. Of course the apostle Paul preached the resurrection of Christ with all his heart, soul and strength, for Christ has risen. Of course the Mormon religion is a cult, for Jesus is the eternal Son of God and the canon is closed. Do we come to believe these things by evaluating supposed brute-particulars in an alleged neutral fashion, or are our beliefs already marshaled according to our pre-commitment to God’s revelation of his love for condemned sinners? Do the “facts” speak for themselves or has God already exegeted the facts for us?
The only way one ever will savingly embrace Christ’s resurrection is if the Holy Spirit gives increase to the work of the cross as explicated in the context of God’s solution to man’s dilemma.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God.
I was asked by a PCA minister whether I might publish a new post based upon a comment I made in the original post. That comment is #2 below. At his recommendation I expand a bit upon the original comment. I have also taken the opportunity to contextualize comment #2 by including in this new post another comment (#1) from my original COVID-19 post.
#1 [Grace Community Church (GCC) deems it sin for their doors not to be open for congregational worship. They must offer the opportunity to assemble but to my knowledge they don’t suggest member non-attendance is sin.] If the obedience to God premise is somehow now unwittingly off the table as it relates to congregants attending worship, then the entire GCC argument hangs on the premise that the government “overstepped its bounds” yet without requiring worshippers to disobey God. Given that the church is not the ecclesiastical magisterium but those who profess the true religion along with their children, who does GCC leadership believe is in a position to disobey God by submitting to civil authorities?
Granting the validity of the GCC premise, which I don’t subscribe to, that’s a pretty weak hand to play given that Scripture teaches we are to submit even to tyrannical government unless it would be disobedient to God to do so. [Note: Disobedience would have to be considered not just in light of the objective law that binds objectively, but also in light of he law of love that leaves room for taking civil abuse for a season yet also affords room for defying an oppressor lest one sins in non-action.] If the leadership at GCC has abandoned, or never held to, an obedience to God premise as it relates to congregants having to assemble lest they sin, then what’s their case? Even if our government would one day overstep its bounds in this regard, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to build an argument that begins with the government violating two other lawful spheres of government (ecclesiastical and family government) to the conclusion that: we must break the civil law (based upon a subjective wisdom-driven application of the moral law of God) but aren’t objectively required by the moral law of God to break the civil law. That would take a bit more finesse than I believe I’ve seen. And as noted in the original post, the command not to forsake assembling may not be used here in that wooden way. The church hasn’t been forsaking its first love for the charms of this present age. Hebrews 10:25 does not apply. Neither does Acts 5:29.
#2 What I have found most striking about the debate is that neither side distinguishes an edict from the consequent of an edict. The consequent is derivative, not immediate. For instance, imagine a radioactive leak near a community. The civil authorities ban assembling (malls, schools, churches etc.) within an x mile radius. Churches are within that radius. The edict is the ban. The resultant effect is the church may not assemble in its building. Or imagine road construction involving explosives on a main artery that runs by a church. The work is only done on the weekends. The government forbids traffic for months. In both scenarios assembly would be forbidden as a result of the edict. Is the government regulating worship or is it mandating safety that in turn impinges upon worship? That seems relevant. In such cases the government would not be directly regulating worship. Rather, the government would be operating within its divinely appointed sphere. The result would in turn impinge upon the practice of another sphere. That’s common place. Fire codes can impinge upon worship assembly. If a government feared evening bombings during war time, it could ban evening lights in a city, which in turn would impinge upon worship.
The government may not overstep its bounds and directly regulate worship. If it tries to, the church need not submit (though it may be wise to for a time) even if submission would not require objective sin as it relates to law proper or simpliciter; though in such cases not to submit would have to be predicated upon a personal conviction that to submit would be a violation of liberty of conscience against the law of love and a greater cause for Christ. But that is not what is going on here. The government is impinging upon our comforts but only as it operates within its rightful jurisdiction. Our discomfort is a byproduct of the government exercising its lawful mandate to rule in a divinely instituted sphere, as apposed to a result of the government assuming unto itself the church’s sphere of government and attempting to influence the church directly. It’s simply naive and hazardous to think that divinely appointed spheres of government (civil, ecclesiastical and family) can or should operate in hermetically sealed silos. Not only do spheres impinge indirectly, they may also directly interfere. Can’t fathers lawfully be removed from the home? Can’t abusive priests lawfully be locked up?
If government were actually to overstep its sphere and in doing so directly impinge upon ecclesiastical government, we would then be placed in the unhappy situation of determining not the government’s sin (that would be a given) but rather our personal sin with respect to acting or not acting, defiance or acquiescence. That must be determined on a case by case basis (and person by person), which without question would require delving into binding aspects of the law of love as it relates to personal application. The point is simply this. We must be mindful, should we ever find ourselves in such a dilemma, that in an objective revelatory sense we don’t have to wage non-spiritual activist-type war against oppression, though we may and sometimes should in a wisdom non-revelatory sense. The oughtness in such cases would be a matter of spiritual discernment and not a matter of objective black and white law. A more common example would be when should a wife exercise the liberty to put away her unfaithful husband for his abuse of his governing role as her head? Although God’s revealed law allows divorce, it doesn’t require it. In some instances it’s imaginable that a woman should divorce as unto the Lord, even for the sake of her children and her personal service to God. We are often required by God to act when there is no objective command to do so. Discernment and wisdom presuppose these normative aspects of life.