27 February 2011

Ecclesiology #2- A Theology of Means part 2

Paul speaks of Circumcision in Colossians 2.11 and then of Baptism in verse 12. The ideas are related. The physicals signs differ but the cutting away is symbolic of the same idea…death and a new person. The Jews should have understood because the Old Testament is abundantly clear that the forms were not the end.

They were told to circumcise their hearts…showing that the outward act could not actually save in and of itself.

They were told to obey is better than to sacrifice showing the obedience flowing out of a regenerate heart was more important than the Form, the sacrifice showing a sign of your repentance.

But that didn't mean you could just ignore circumcision as Moses did in Exodus 4.

Nor did that mean that you could just ignore the sacrifices, the forms of that day.

The key is Colossians 2.13 where Paul says that you were dead in the uncircumcision of your flesh but now…remember he's writing to the Gentile people in Colossae…through Baptism, you no longer dead, you're no longer 'uncircumcised' as it were. Why? Because they were Baptized which in the New Covenant exhibits more or less the same general ideas, and in the New Covenant it's not just males, but males, females, Jews, and Gentiles. As he continues, the Law which separated these peoples has been taken away.

And just as there are parallels between Circumcision and Baptism, we find a similar analogy between the Lord's Supper and Passover in 1 Corinthians 5. Obviously the Lord's Supper was instituted at Passover and there's much more that could be said about the Old Testament feasts and their symbolism. But for this argument let us simply say this was Covenant Renewal or Continuance. It was the people remembering the works of God and their status and Covenant relationship with Him.

In the New Covenant we have a similar picture and analogy with the Lord's Supper. We keep the Passover feast….in sincerity and truth. The Old Forms are fulfilled. In fact everything has been fulfilled but we live under a temporary order and God in His mercy has provided us with a couple of simple forms by which God's people can be identified.

Under normal circumstances it is assumed that Christians are baptized people in a Church taking communion.

But in Old Testament Israel there were times when God's people couldn't keep the Covenant, they couldn't employ the Means. There were times when God's people in the Northern Kingdom couldn't go south to worship at the temple. I'm sure there were times when even local synagogues (assemblies) were apostate…teaching High Place worship, Baal worship or whatever else.

There were times in the Southern Kingdom of Judaea when kings like Amon or Manasseh were in control. Idols were set up in the Temple and the worship was corrupted. The faithful had to stay away and do what they could on their own and with a few others. The Sons of the Prophets comes to mind, the Remnant community in the Northern Kingdom.

There were men like Naaman the Syrian, the widow of Zarephath, and others who were believers but clearly outside the Covenant.

That doesn't mean we make the exception the rule, but it teaches us that to be Israel (Old or New) is everything, but at the same time is nothing….nothing, without a saving faith to hold up the forms.

Today, we ought to be in a Church….not the Building! In a Word-centered Fellowship, partaking of the Word in its Visible Forms…Baptism and the Supper.

But just like then, it's not always possible.

If that's the case….that doesn't mean the Forms don't matter. We should be grieved as I'm sure the Israelites were when they could properly comply with the Forms God had provided in their day.

We tend to see groups in our day focusing on one side or the other….either a hyper- or exclusive Form like you see with Rome or,

a hyper- emphasis on Substance (the heart, saving faith, election) leading to a downplaying or misunderstanding of the Form.

The Substance is indeed all that matters in the end. The Forms are actually meant to help us as individuals and as a corporate group…the Church.

Interestingly, both the Romish emphasis on the visible and the Evangelical emphasis on experience lead to a superstitious posture regarding the Forms.

Catholics treat the Forms like Magic.

Evangelicals look at the forms through the lens of themselves….

Baptism ends up being about me…

the Supper ends up being an inward looking act…often bringing a potential curse….but absolutely doesn't covey a blessing?

There's a great deal of confusion because instead of pointing to Christ, they end up being about how I feel about it, leading to anxiety, dread in the case of the Supper, and an uncertainty regarding Baptism. Since it ends up being about 'when' I had my experience, you often find Evangelicals repeating the process in order to make sure it was done at the right time.

Circumcision wasn't about an experience…except for the Gentile convert. It was a Sign to exhibit one who was dead and alive, one who belonged to God. The females were connected to the males and thus participants through the males.

Thankfully no one in the Old Covenant suggested getting re-circumcised!

Despite the physical difficulties it was understood to symbolize Covenant status, something we need to think about in terms of Paul's analogy with Circumcision. It was about the Covenant and what it point to, not about an experience. The experience of the Holy Spirit at work in the Christian life is important, but the Covenant Signs are objective pointing to the work of the Covenant Head…Christ Himself.

So how do we know who is saved? Who is 'of Israel'?

By their fruits you shall know them.

Those who do not exhibit fruit, or rather exhibit bad fruit need to be…put out, cut off, denied the Covenant Signs. A church without discipline of any kind will before long become a false church. If the meeting is filled with unregenerate people the demands of the flesh will soon supersede the demands of the Scripture.

How do we know who is NOT of Israel? They don't participate in the Signs and Seals in a VALID Biblically defined Church.

We need to make sure we don't deny ourselves voluntarily, but again in times of Apostasy, sometimes we don't have a choice.

Ishmael and Esau were in the Covenant, but showed they weren't really and thus they were put out so to speak. They did not continue.

Simon Magus showed through his bad fruit that he wasn't really a believer….when that becomes clear, the Church is under obligation to put that person out. He was cursed by the Apostle.

At that point are they really lost? The Church (Visibly Speaking) is comprised of men who make mistakes and in many cases men who are unregenerate.

We don't really know who is lost and who is saved. As individuals we are told to:

Make our calling and election sure.

To work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.

We are exhorted to:

Continue in the faith, to be grounded and settled and to not be moved away from the hope of the Gospel.

If we do these things we shall never fail.

There's a subjective sense in which we 'know' someone is a brother or sister. Certainly and that is the basis for fellowship.

BUT….sometimes people walk away from the faith, sometimes they apostatize.

We can try and peer into their hearts and say….they weren't Christians.

I would rather just stick with the Forms or Means God has given and say:

They were in the Church, and now they're not.

Who knows? Maybe they'll repent and come back. Can we interpret what's happening in their hearts? Of course not. Only God can see the Invisible and what's really happening.

We have to live by the Forms but understand the Forms in and of themselves are nothing. When understood with the Substance, they are everything….

Except when they're not.

Totally confusing right? In some ways.

We have to understand the normative Forms of the Covenant and yet display wisdom in how to apply it and how to live in a messed up and confusing and very fallen world.

Just because someone is in a Church…that means nothing, or it could mean everything.

Just because someone stays home….that means nothing, or it could mean everything.

When I encounter people who stay home and aren't part of a Church….I don't automatically condemn as some do. It is problematic, because it's not the normative way it should be done.

But I do want to know why. If they seem to understand these dynamics…then no problem. We can then turn and talk about the local churches and whether or not they are apostate. We can debate the question….what is a Biblical Church?

But if they don't understand these dynamics and don't deem them important, it usually indicates a failure to understand the Means or Forms. It usually indicates a tendency to view them as superfluous….and that is a problem.

This dynamic between the Invisible and Visible has been greatly misunderstood and admittedly it has sometimes been abused. Sacralists have expanded the Visible category to include not just the Church, but all of society. This not only changes the definition of the Church but it certainly leads to a very nominal and worldly form of Christianity. I would argue this is an abuse of the doctrine of the Visible Church. In an Old Testament analogy they're counting the Philistines, the Moabites, and others as part of the Covenant and under the Law.

But because of this abuse there are some hyper-Invisibilists or Anti-Form people who reduce the forms to meaningless rites. Baptism since it can't possibly have any meaning…after all we're saved by faith right?....ends up become just the first step of obedience, even though the Bible nowhere uses that language nor teaches that in connection with it. But what is the alternative? They can't ascribe it any meaning so they must basically deduce a meaning. Meanwhile they grow very uncomfortable with passages like Titus 3.5 and 1 Peter 3.20-21. They either explain them away or more often than not they make a sharp distinction between Spirit and Water Baptism…even the Scriptures don't speak that way. The one is the Sign of the other. We can't tell when Spirit baptism occurs (unless you're Charismatic)…so what do we have? Baptism.

The unbiblical division is derived from systemic commitments and thus leads to a subjective Spirit Baptism which is everything and a visible water Baptism which ends up being nothing more than a first step of obedience.

Both extremes are unsatisfactory and don't do justice to the texts of Scripture.

The Early Church tended to place great stock in the Forms, they clearly viewed the Sacraments or Ordinances as tied to Salvation. This led them to later misunderstandings regarding Baptism. Since linguistically and conceptually it's tied to salvation they wanted to postpone it...not because they were waiting for an experience/event like we find in Baptist theology….they were afraid of post-Baptismal sins. The Church had already developed the unbiblical distinction between Mortal and Venial Sins and they were greatly concerned of post-Baptismal Mortal sins because those sins wouldn't be covered so to speak and you would die unsaved.

Much of the Church lost the gospel pretty early on. How can I say that? We're back to Authority again, and ultimately that's what even this discussion is about….submitting to the Authority of Scripture, what the text says and accepting it by faith even if I can't quite harmonize it with a rationally constructed system.

Augustine even with all of his faults tried to correct this aberrant theology regarding the Church, but his theology was not understood. The Reformation swung the pendulum to the other side and the Protestant tradition has largely focused more on the subjective or Invisible side of the theological coin. That's not entirely true in every case, but since the Reformation….theology has steadily moved in that direction. It's the logical result and conclusion of the theological method most employ. Sola Fide drives the system and for most Protestants the Forms have little meaning.

What I'm advocating is a reading of the Bible that rejects both extremes.

Protoprotestants like the Waldensians and some of the Hussites seemed to hold both truths. Would they have explained just as I did? Probably not. What they saw was that the Scriptures teach God is Sovereign in salvation…the Invisible, the truly converted heart. But at the same time, they saw Means and Forms in the Scriptures….Baptism and the Supper linguistically tied to Salvation. It seems like a contradiction…but they seemed to just accept that both were true and leave it at that.

We can be a bit more thoughtful and develop the ideas a bit more, but again in the end, it's about submitting to the Scriptures and not submitting them to our reason regardless of what side of the coin we decide to anchor on. We don't use the Visible or Invisible as a starting point and the work out a logical system.

Instead we should just let the Scriptures speak and not be afraid to speak as they do.

A final note….

I could be accused of being dedicated to anti-systematic theology. This is not entirely true. I do think the Bible provides a system for us, but it is much more undeveloped and fluid than many would be comfortable with.

I do believe once we adopt a system, it necessarily becomes the authority and overthrows the Word-Authority that governs the New Covenant.

This attack on System-authority can be used and is used by many to provide a foundation for ecumenicism. Certainly it allows someone like me to see the various groups through a different lens, one group over-emphasizing truth on one side, their opponents doing the same thing on the other.

It does allow one to see through it all and provide something of a middle ground by changing the nature of the discussion. By abandoning system and tradition, one can indeed sit down with someone who seems to be on the opposite side of the argument.

However I will contend that if you're steadfast and take a hardliner position regarding Scriptural Authority…the vast majority of people and groups will quickly abandon the discussion. Scripture filters out any who erect their own authority. It is sharper than any two-edged sword.

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