18 June 2010

More on the Visible Church

One unfortunate aspect in Verduin's work is the manner in which he deals with the visible church.

Often those critical of the doctrine accuse its adherents of trying to fill the church with unbelievers. Of course we categorically deny this, but there seem to be at least a dozen variations in understanding on this issue.

We have Baptists who deny the visible church concept all together...all externals are denied.

We have Baptists who will affirm the children have the substance of the covenant promise, but would still deny the bare sign...I could almost say at that point you're being superstitious about the sign! If you grant the substance....can't you grant the bare symbol?

We have Paedobaptists who baptize their children but won't grant them covenant status...Covenant=Election for this system. That's true, but Covenant is also a category in the visible administration. We can argue over 'actual' Covenant status. I'm not going to argue that....because I don't know 100% about you, me, or anyone else, save those specific examples we are told about in Scripture. We have to make our calling and election sure and keep on. Then we'll find out if we are 'actual' members.

We have others who will say they are in covenant, but not actually Christians until profession. Hence a sort of provisional status.....They are granted a sign, but it's empty of any meaning. So like the previous position, basically Baptists who dedicate with water.

We have some Kuyperians who believe in Presumptive Regeneration as a basis for baptism....Presuming the invisible, so granting the visible. Better. But I would say...invisibly we don't know. Visibly, because of God's promise to us, we give them the sign, bringing them into Covenant....and thus since they are now in Covenant, we view them as Christians/Regenerate......just like anyone else....until they prove otherwise. Now we raise them not as pagans, but as Christians....they have to get the gospel everyday just like you and me. Whether they are regenerated in the womb, at age 5 or 10, doesn't matter. But if they're not Christians we should be able to tell that by the time they're teenagers........maybe.

I'm sure there are many more but that will be sufficient for the moment.

Essentially all these views are struggling with the logic of this issue, but all I would contend are failing to recognize the presence of a Biblical dynamic or dialectic and thus forcing the solution on to one side or the other.

First of all invisibly/eternally, or as Paul would indicate in Romans, the True Israel sense, the elect.....we cannot say who they are, we don't have to. Even the Elders of the church cannot verify someone is regenerate. How do we know if a person was/is regenerate.....they're persevering, repenting, believing, expressing a living and vital faith. What about tomorrow or a year from now? We'll ask the question again tomorrow or a year from now.

That's the best we can do in terms of 'knowing' the eternal or invisible reality.

Visibly, just like Israel.....we have people who are part of the church (by baptism) and thus visibly in-covenant. Whether they are REALLY part of the church or REALLY part of the covenant...again we don't know with 100% certainty.

Ananias and Saphira were part of the church, baptized (no reason to assume they weren't)...they were Christians. That is until they bore bad fruit.....and then they were put out. Obviously quite severely in their case.

Esau was in the covenant, part of the people of God, the sign was applied to him (circumcision)...he participated in the sacramental sacrifices (no reason to assume he didn't) and yet he despised the covenant and walked away from it....ceasing to be part of God's people.

I know the tendency is to say...he was never a believer. There's no basis to say that. Instead we should just say, he's no longer one.

So in terms of Visible Covenant, sure we can say Baptism is the washing of regeneration just like the Scriptures do....because in this sense we're not talking about election. BOTH are true. It's not a contradiction, it is how you understand it.

Again, with medieval dissenters you find groups like the Lollards, Hussites, some of the Waldenses believing in paedobaptism...and predestination. I'm not trying to say they argued this exact same model I've laid out. We don't know exactly how they reconciled it all. Based on my research, you'll find a wide variety of views. BUT, they still held to both....the legacy of Augustine....or more likely just studying the Bible and saying they're both true, even if there isn't a way to rationally reconcile them.

The problem with infant baptism in the Roman Catholic medieval order or in the post-Reformation period is that it was tied in with a Constantinian view of the church. The church was viewed as all in a given locality. Towns, duchies, kingdoms, were reckoned to be Christian. That's the problem. I will freely admit when paedobaptism is put into that construct, it becomes a very bad thing...but that doesn't negate the Biblical notions of the visible/invisible distinction and how the Covenant works. What happened with the Reformers was an abuse of the doctrine of the visible church.

As I've said before the Baptistic mindset is trying peer into the eternal and then replicate it perfectly here in space and time. We can't. Presbyterians due to covenantal considerations know their children are somehow included but they still hold these Baptistic notions and those essentially gut the visible signs of any meaning.

We want the church to be pure and we must labour to make it pure. With children we cannot expect them to articulate what they understand or don't at such a young age. We accept the promises of God, bring them into the covenant (whether they are elect or not doesn't really have anything to do with it)....and raise them in hope and in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

I'm not looking for a conversion experience....I would hope they were regenerate in the womb. What I'm looking for is a rejection or denial of the gospel....that then would have to be dealt with...and as they grow....age appropriately...I do look for fruit. Not to judge their hearts but to cultivate, prune, assist.

The Biblical system depends on discipline. The Word must be faithfully preached and taught. IT will do the work. The unbeliever hates the Word of God, cannot obey His commands. They will either repent or eventually flee...or their sins will be discovered. This also deals with the concerns that Verduin and others have with a 'holy' church.... We have to be careful...that kind of thinking can lead to a pietistic legalism, but again if the Word is faithfully taught, the church will be as pure as it can be this side of glory. The problem isn't the construct, the problem is the Elders of the Church often won't do their job faithfully.

The worst thing is to create a veneer...a so-called Christian society, where it is defined culturally. We're white Americans....of course we're Christians. That would be an abuse of the visible church doctrine. This is what you find with the majority of the Evangelical world. Chuck Colson and people like him use Christian in two different senses. There are gospel-christians....and then culture-christians.

That's hyper-visibilism at its worst. That's what Sacralism really is. That was my point in the earlier post about Rome being all visible in orientation. All form no substance. Baptists are all substance, no form. We need to understand the substance, but we live by the form God has provided.

We need to understand that God has given us a visible administration. We need to change our logic and the way we think to accommodate the eternal truths God has given and how they interact and intersect with time.

Why is this so hard? We live between the ages...we understand that IN Christ we are already seated in the heavens....but not yet.

We are sanctified....we are being sanctified.
We are dead to sin.....we need to die to sin....die daily, Paul said.

There again is a two-fold dynamic. A yes and a no. We've not arrived at the 'not-yet'... how do I know I'll be there?

IF I continue in the faith grounded and settled and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel.

Colossians 1.23

So back to Verduin, his discussion on this point really fails although he does admit later the paedobaptism issue is not such a problem once stripped of the Sacralist attachments.

I was listening to Paul Washer the other day. In terms of assessing the easy-believeism of the day...he was spot on. Sadly when it comes to ecclesiology....he was misdiagnosing some of the problems again due to this type of thinking.

I agree the mainline churches are NOT churches. But just because we still call them 'churches' in some sense...it's as if he was using that as a point to disprove the doctrine of the visible church. They are in some sense part of the church discussion....they are churches in terms of a cultural discussion.......even though theologically they're not churches. Again I would appeal to the Northern Kingdom as an example of this. They worshipped Jehovah...just false, syncretistically....so they were Jews in one sense.....

I think the correct way of labeling them would be Apostate....that recognizes they once were something. So they're in the context of the discussion....not exactly the same as the local mosque, though theologically as apostates.....they're actually WORSE than the local mosque.

Washer also said Infant Baptism was the golden calf of the Reformation.

No, Constantinianism was the golden calf. I guess at least we agree there was one. In time it took the Protestant churches right back into another dark age. It was re-cast, but 18th and 19th century European Christianity was pretty dark, not to mention 20th....I don't want to over simplify but much of it was due to Sacralism. Even among the nonconformists in Britain. Perhaps the worst thing was when they repealed some of the discriminatory laws and even chapel-goers could become respectable....

There were definitely some bright spots (Spurgeon, Whitefield, Haldane,) but I contend there were just as many in the middle ages...though they're harder to document and prove.

There were thousands upon thousands of Christians in the Bohmerwald, the Danube valley between Passau and Vienna, tolerant and indifferently-catholic Venice, East Anglia, Wessex, and the Welsh Marches....there were probably more Christians in Europe in 1270 than today, and I'm not counting Roman Catholics. They don't count then or now.

And this was in a time when it could cost you your life. Were they all completely orthodox, solidly catechized etc?....of course not. But they claimed the Sufficiency of Scripture and they rejected Constantinianism.

I often wonder if the middle ages were in some ways a better time for the church much in the same way the 3rd century was better than the 4th. The Reformation was a like the Edict of Milan all over again....good, but kind of a destructive good.

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