Saturday, February 25, 2006

Ahistorical theology


I have been keeping an eye on the debates over at the Founders Blog, revolving around the stated views of Dr. Ergun Caner (the Dean of Liberty Theological Seminary). To be honest, while as a high-predestinarian Anglican I could not be more theologically at odds with Caner’s Radical Reformation views, I find the man to be a breath of fresh air.

1. Caner is a true Baptist, who is not ashamed of his heritage. Caner is glad to admit that he is not a Catholic Christian; rather his spiritual pedigree traces back to the dissenting groups of the Radical Reformation. Whereas the Reformers saw themselves as the children of Mother Church, the Radical Reformers rejected the institutional Church, and all its connections to the kingdoms of this world. His brand of faith disavows all attempts to establish God’s kingdom in cooperation with the powers of the state. Whereas the Reformers took their cue from the Old Testament church and the monarchies of ancient Israel, Radical Reformers like Caner see the Church as a heavenly society, which appears in this world only in the form of local assemblies of baptized believers, who live separated from the world.

2. True to his theological heritage, Caner refuses to bow the knee to the “Baal” of Reformational theology, in which the Thomistic/Augustinian high predestinarianism of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Vermigli, Bullinger and Calvin was for the most part a given in theological discourse. Rather, he openly professes a gospel which puts the burden upon the decision of the human being, who is addressed as a moral agent who is free to accept or reject the grace of God. The idea of grace operating upon the will, prior to its cooperating consent is simply foreign to Baptist theology, with its emphasis upon decisional regeneration prior to entrance into the church. This is why infant baptism makes no sense within the Anabaptist frame of reference, for the Catholic/Reformational doctrine of infant baptism presumes that grace operates efficaciously through God’s word in preaching and sacrament, prior to the human decision. Calvinism is an unnatural bed-fellow of Baptist theology, for it assumes entirely different premises about the operation of grace upon the human soul in conversion.

3. Caner understands that as a Baptist, he has a distinctly un-Reformational view of church and sacrament. Within Reformational theology, the Church is a visible kingdom of God on earth, a real society in the world, with a concrete relation to the rulers of the land (much like in ancient Israel). You can therefore enter this society objectively through the sacrament of baptism, just as a Jewish child was recognized as the object of God’s covenant promises to Israel in circumcision (Gen. 17). Water baptism is not viewed as a seal of God’s covenant and promise only to the person who has “genuine” faith (as in all forms of Baptist theology); rather it is a seal of God’s promise to any person in the land who professes the Christian faith, and to their children (though it still requires a genuine faith, which works through love, in order to be a blessing). Any person who goes through a valid marriage ceremony is in fact married, though without true commitment and love, that covenant of marriage will not convey a blessing. So it is with the sacrament of baptism in Reformational theology.

Because Caner rejects the connection between the Church and the earthly kingdoms of this world (seeing only the local church, separated from the world, as a valid earthly expression of Christ’s kingdom), and because he suspends the validity of the sacramental symbol upon the sincerity of the individual’s own commitment to God, the Reformational view of the Church is inconceivable to him. He does not recognize a true visible kingdom of Israel on earth, within which is embedded the invisible Israel of election (per Romans 9). Instead, he can only think in terms of people who have a “credible” profession of faith, and so are conditionally recognized as members of the local church if they are immersed in water, provided they do not disqualify themselves by open sin and apostasy. In which case, they simply prove that they were never “truly” members of God’s church at all, and hence were not in fact really baptized to begin with. If such a person were to be “truly” converted later in life, they would need to be baptized again.

4. Caner recognizes, much better than his so-called “Reformed” Baptist critics, that Reformed theology and Baptist theology are entirely different theological constructs. They have different views on the operation of grace (and hence different views of evangelism), the sacraments, and the nature of the visible Church itself. This is why he is openly critical of the moves which John Piper was making to have his church accept the baptisms of non-credo-baptist churches. From a consistent Baptist position, to accept into membership a person who was baptized as an infant, would be simply in effect to omit “real” baptism as a basis of church membership. That is, at the end of the day, rightly seen as inconsistent with Baptist principles. Many dissenting Anabaptist martyrs shed their blood because of their unwillingness to accept the validity of infant baptism, tied as it was to the Reformational view of the relation between the Catholic Church and the larger society. (This is why the rejection of infant baptism was seen as heresy–it strikes at the very nature of the Church, and its historical connection to the Catholic faith.) And now, when there is no such consequence, no persecution or risk of suffering at all, Baptists are being asked to accept such baptisms as a valid basis for acceptance into church membership due to an entirely different sort of pressure to conform. Namely, the desire to be accepted by their Presbyterian brethren, and to be congratulated for their contribution to unity under the Gospel. As a Baptist, Caner is entirely right to object to such a move.

In conclusion, I wish all Baptists would be as forthright and honest as Dr. Ergun Caner. You are not children of the Reformation, and hence you are not Catholic Christians (though untold multitudes of you are pious children of God). You are the offspring of a dissenting tradition which stems back to the Radical Reformation and beyond, which has always rejected what it sees as the worldly compromise between the Church and the state. And you are not Calvinists. Calvin would without question see you as dangerous schismatics, who advocate views which would logically disconnect the Church from the physical society which surrounds her (hence making any redemption of human culture impossible). Even worse, your views on baptism in effect unchurch the Catholic Church which gave birth to the Reformation. Rather than seek to reform Mother Church, Baptist theology advocates disowning her and rejecting the family inheritance. Furthermore, your rejection of infant baptism wrongly makes the sufficiency of your own faith the logically prior condition of the covenant promise, as though the promise were given on the basis of that faith, rather than your faith being created and sustained by the promise of God in His Word (whether in preaching or sacrament). “Reformed” Baptists have a soteriology which is entirely at odds with their schismatic Baptist sacramentology, which is why Caner rightly identifies them as semi-Presbyterians.

P.S. I do not deny that there are Baptists out there with a distinctly Catholic spirit, such as Timothy George, D. H. Williams and Wyman Richardson. But to the extent that they express that Catholicity, they are in fact rejecting, rather than promoting, the distinctives of their Anabaptist heritage. Of course, I can only rejoice in that.


Owen, as usual, piles on one confusion after another.

1.The question at issue is not is not the Baptist tradition in general, or the Anabaptist tradition in general, but the Southern Baptist tradition in particular, as represented by such early spokesmen as Dagg and Boyce.

2.You can also be certain that whatever else the S. Baptist tradition originally represented, it did not represent Fundamentalism, since that was a later development.

3.Owen dehistoricizes historical theology. For him, it’s all about abstract ideas rather than historical development.

He treats historical theology symmetrical and reversible, so that any later stage is interchangeable with an earlier phase.

Hence he takes the history out of the history of ideas. Removes the arrow of time. For him, historical theology is omnidirectional. It runs backwards as easily as forwards.

By his logic, astronomy is the same thing as astrology, since astronomy has its historical roots in astrology.

By his logic, chemistry is the same thing as alchemy since chemistry has its historical roots in alchemy.

All we get from Owen is the genetic fallacy writ large, as if you can collapse an idea into its historical antecedents, and then dismiss the position, not on its own grounds, but on whatever you oppose in the antecedent position.

This is exceptionally shoddy logic, but we’ve come to expect shoddy logic from Owen. That’s his hallmark.

4.The issue with Caner is whether he even understands the opposing position as well as understanding the history of the SBC.

5.Owen also has a habit of treating “Reformed” and “Reformational” as synonymous, and then opposing both to the Baptist and Anabaptist traditions. But this is a transparent fallacy of equivocation.

6.What about the sacramental theology of Zwingli and Bullinger?

7. Calvin would without question see an Anglo-Catholic like Owen as a dangerous idolater.

8.Once again, Owen acts as if we need parental permission from a grown-up like Calvin or Bucer or preferably the Holy Father to believe what we do.

We need a permission slip from mommy or daddy to leave an apostate church.

9.One doesn’t have to be a Reformed Baptist to believe in immediate regeneration. For example, Kuyper believed in immediate regeneration rather than mediate regeneration. Was he a Baptist or—horror of horrors!—a closet Anabaptist?

10.I rather doubt that all the Popes, beginning with Leo X, who excommunicated the Protestant Reformers and their followers, would agree with Owen that the Catholic church gave birth to the Reformation. I daresay they’d flatly deny paternity—or should I say, maternity?

11.It is true that we disowned such priceless family heirlooms as Purgatory, penance, indulgences, the Mass, and the cult of the saints. What a loss!


  1. "The question at issue is not is not the Baptist tradition in general, or the Anabaptist tradition in general, but the Southern Baptist tradition in particular.."

    You mean that wonderful tradition that slavery was a divinely ordained institution?

    Bad tree, bad fruit.

  2. A. How does the affirmation of slavery on the part of some of the SBC Founders relate to the Calvinistic foundation of the SBC to which the Caners are opposed?

    B. If "guilt by association" is a measure, then what is to be said of the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, and others who practiced slavery in the South?

    C. For that matter, what about those wacky General Baptists who had sunken into Socinianism by the late 18th century and needed a "New Connection" to reinvigorate them?

    D. Aprops C, let's not forget the state of the Northern Baptists today. Independent Fundamental Baptists for the most part are preaching Unitarian grace, Finneyism, and "fire insurance" salvation. There are a few exceptions however.

    E. Emir and Ergun have set themselves against the Confessional history of their own denomination. They say that those of us in the Founders Movement are "rewriting Baptist history." Uh-huh.,,

    How many of the first delegates to the SBC didn't affirm the Philadelphia Convention?

    On what document is the SBTS / SEBTS Abstract of Principles based?

    What does the Sandy Creek Confession say about the doctrines of grace?

    How many of the churches that stream of Baptists in the South planted affirmed "moderate Calvinism?' How many affirmed the Philadelphia Confession or the Charleston Confession?

    To what stream of Southern Baptists did Richard Furman belong? What is he known for having done?

    Who was Ezra Courtney? What famous association did he found? What did their confession say about the doctrines of grace?

    It is not the Founders Movement who has set about rewriting the history of the SBC, and they are fully aware of the issue that spawned the separation between the North and South.

    However, apparently orthodoxy went out the window rather quickly in the Northerns. After the Civil War, however, you have men like James Boyce, who later founded SBTS, who proposed the law in the SC legislature that outlawed slavery at the state level itself.

    I'd add too that the Enlightenment did much to spawn the European/American slave trades. I wonder, what does this say for the children of the Enlightenment.

    We could also drag out the Inquisitions. That should make Catholicism quite attractive.

    Shall we also discuss the persecution of the dissenters by the Church of England?



    Pol Pot? Stalin? Mao?

    The Crusades?

    If we take your logic to its end, dan, we are left with no creed, not even that of the atheists stems from a tree good enough from which to eat.

  3. After referring to "the Catholic/Reformational doctrine of infant baptism", Paul Owen writes:

    "This is why the rejection of infant baptism was seen as heresy–it strikes at the very nature of the Church, and its historical connection to the Catholic faith."

    During the patristic era, some churches practiced infant baptism and some didn't. Men like Tertullian and Gregory Nazianzen spoke against the practice, while people like Cyprian and Asterius the Sophist advocated it. Some, like Basil of Caesarea and Augustine, weren't baptized until adulthood, despite having religiously active Christian parents. When counseling against infant baptism in the fourth century, Gregory Nazianzen expresses his view on the subject after writing of how somebody might ask:

    "what have you to say about those who are still children, and conscious neither of the loss nor of the grace? Are we to baptize them too?" (Oration 40:28)

    In other words, not only did Gregory counsel against infant baptism, but he framed his addressing of the issue by suggesting that the question of whether to baptize infants was disputed. It was something about which people commonly asked.

    With some of the early sources, the evidence is unclear. Baptism of children is discussed, but we can't always tell what their age was or the specifics of their circumstances. (A word translated as "infant" might be rendered as "child" in other places. The age of the person isn't always clear, even when a translator chooses to use an English word like "infant".) Some of the art in the catacombs, for example, is unclear as well. But we can say that the earliest explicit advocacy of infant baptism doesn't occur until the third century. The earliest source to explicitly address the subject is Tertullian, who speaks against the practice around the end of the second century or the beginning of the third. Prior to Tertullian, baptism is discussed often and in some depth, and infant baptism is never advocated. Rather, baptism is described as if only believers take part in it. Given the fact that multiple generations of Christians had lived and died during that time, it seems unlikely that infant baptism would so often go unmentioned in discussions of baptism if it was a common practice.

    It should be noted, also, that even the sources who first advocated infant baptism did so for different reasons than the ones commonly cited by today's advocates. What we see in the fathers is an initial absence of infant baptism, followed by Tertullian's condemnation of it and a later advocacy of it. It was absent in some places and present in others, and those who did practice it had different reasons for it and modes of it. From such a background, how does a person arrive at the conclusion that not only is infant baptism apostolic, but it's even part of "catholicity", the rejection of which is "heresy"? By that sort of standard, large portions of the patristic church were heretical and outside of catholicism.

    Often, people who speak of "tradition", "catholicity", "the church", etc. are irrationally selective in their appeal to such concepts. If an early Christian consensus on an issue runs contrary to what they believe, they disregard that consensus. But when they think that an early consensus agrees with them, they tell us of how unthinkable it would be to go against it, as if the consensus alone is a sufficient argument. In my experience, many of these people continue with their double standards even after having those double standards pointed out to them. The appeal to "catholicity", "tradition", etc. is more bark than bite. Even when their rhetoric is shown to not have much substance behind it, they continue to use the rhetoric. Some people have too much concern for labels and appearances and too little concern for substance.