Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Calvinism & sacramentalism

Yes, I'm closer to the Reformed Baptist end of the spectrum on the sacraments. I agree with Zwingli and the RBs that the sacraments are only symbolic. My position on that is probably cast in bronze. My argument for that is found in my essay on "Sign or sacrament."

I'm softer on the question of who should be baptized. The relative importance of this second question is contingent on how you answer the first question.

If you don't regard the sacraments as a means of grace, then you are not depriving anyone of anything by not administering the sacraments to them--even if you're mistaken.

That is to say, suppose they are eligible? Even so, if they miss out, they haven't lost out on the grace of God.

Also, even from a Presbyterian standpoint, the Presbies don't believe that sacraments are necessary for salvation. Hence, even if the sacraments are a means of grace, they in some sense duplicate an extrasacramental grace.

Conversely, even if the Baptists are right, you aren't harming the child by baptizing it.

On another point--paedobaptism is not a Reformed distinctive. (Neither is credobaptism.) It doesn't distinguish Reformed theology from its rivals. Rather, it's a carryover from the Medieval church, like Christology, the Trinity, &c.

Compare the virgin birth with the 5-points of Calvinism. Calvinists affirm the virgin birth, but not because we're Calvinists. That doesn't make us Reformed. It just makes us Christian.

By contrast, something like the 5-points do make us Reformed.

There's no lower limit to how weak a view of the sacraments you can take and still be a Calvinist. In principle, you could be Calvinist, but agree with the Salvation Army on the status of the sacraments. That would be a mistake, of course, but it wouldn't implicate your Reformed theology.

Traditionally, the “weak” view would be the RB view.

By contrast, there is an upper limit on how strong a view of the sacraments one can have and still be a Calvinist. If the sacraments are held to be the exclusive channel of grace, then that conflicts with the sovereign character of grace, both because the grace is dispensed indiscriminately, and because it is, under those circumstances, resistible.

Calvin had a compromise position: the sacraments are a means of grace for the elect. And this is a consistent way of harmonizing sovereign grace with sacramental grace. If, however, you don't believe the sacraments are a means of grace, period, then you don't need this harmonistic device.

In addition, it generates the problem of duplicate grace. The sacraments are said to confer the grace they signify, yet you are not saved by the sacraments, and can be saved apart from them.

In my opinion, Calvin's compromise on this particular point is a solution to a pseudoproblem which generates a new problem.

Because there are no direct, knockdown arguments one way or the other, this becomes a burden of proof argument.

Now, the supporting argument for Reformed paedobaptism draws on covenant theology. This is a Reformed distinctive. And the supporting argument is extremely strong.

The question, though, is whether infant baptism is a special case of covenant theology. It is consistent with the general principle, but not actually entailed by the general principle.

Infant baptism is a live option, an honorable position. I’m not opposed to infant baptism. But I’m not persuaded, either.

I've discussed these issues in more depth in my essay on "One Faith, One Lord, One Baptism," as well as "The 4-Door Labyrinth."

The really big mistake to be avoided is not the mistake of administering the sacraments to the wrong person, or not administering the sacraments to the right person.

Rather, the really big mistake is to vest one's assurance of salvation in the sacraments. This is a specific form of a generic attitude that takes many different forms. People in the church look to many different things for the assurance of salvation. It may be the sacraments, or KJV-only, or speaking in tongues, or the Regulative Principle, or strict subscription, or apostolic succession, or the secret rapture, or the altar call, or what have you.

It really doesn't matter, because these are all functionally equivalent when they deputize for the assurance of salvation. Even a true doctrine can be put to a false use in this regard.

The common denominator is to eliminate the subjective dimension by observance of some external. And the mistake here, aside from false assurance itself, is to forget that God is Lord over our subjective life no less than our objective circumstances. Grace is both objective and subjective--something God does for to us and for us as well as with us and in us.

I've never understood people who take refuge in an illusion. It's like facing down a Hurricane with an umbrella.

Finally, because baptism is a practical issue, an issue on which we must act, even though the credo/paedo arguments are uncertain to varying degrees, we do need to come to a provisional policy.

Conservative Christians are nervous with the idea of uncertainty, and conscientious Christians tend to assume too much responsibility.

What we need to keep in mind is that if God wanted us to be more certain on some issues, he could have revealed himself accordingly. The measure of revelation is the measure of responsibility.

If God had willed us to all agree on the credo/paedobaptist issue, then his revealed will would have been more ample on this subject.

Put another way, one way of discerning God's will is in the ambiguity of his revealed will, or even his silence, on many issues. You can discern God's will, not merely in what he has said, but in what he has left unsaid, or half-said (as it were).

To be uncertain about some things is not to be uncertain about all things. And God has willed us to be uncertain about many things. That forces us to put our faith in him.

In other words, I'm not sure that it is God's will if we baptize infants or not. For had it been his will, he could have revealed himself without ambiguity.

My guess is that God's will lies elsewhere. If everything were equally clear in Scripture, then we wouldn't need to study the Bible. But ambiguity forces us to search the Scriptures. And in the process, we discover answers to questions we were not even asking. We stumble upon truths that are far more important than the truths we were seeking.

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