27 February 2011

Ecclesiology #3- A Theology of Means part 3

For some this discussion of Means will seem strange. Many who are interested in the non-institutional or as some would put it the tradition of dissent are more often than not Baptistic in their theology.

I'm afraid I'm stepping on some toes here, but I believe these issues to be quite important. For those who don't agree with this whole line of discussion...I understand. Believe me I understand very well.

But I urge you to think about it.



Baptists believe that entry into the Church, entry into the Covenant only occurs when someone has had a Born Again experience and thus Baptism is reserved for those who can testify of their experience.

I'm arguing that this theology, though certainly Scriptural in many senses is restricting the meaning of Covenant and Church to the Invisible.

Ultimately, yes, one's heart, one's standing in eternity is all that matters...

But we don't know who is Elect, we don't know who is really and truly regenerate.

So we have the God ordained Means, the forms to administer Salvation. In the New Covenant, this is the Church and the Church employs the Signs of Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

We're not talking about the True Church, the Invisible Church, the Eschatological Church. We're taught concerning it in Scripture, it's a comfort, it needs to be in our thoughts and understanding, but it cannot shape how the Church works here in space and time. We are not given the tools to discern it and we cannot sit on the Throne of God.

So I can agree with Baptists that all that really matters in the end is whether or not someone is regenerate, whether or not they are 'of Israel' as Paul says.

But I insist that we can't know for sure whether or not someone really is. If they persevere, then they were. If they don't, then they weren't. It rests on an eternal foundation but plays out in time and space by perseverance.

Salvation was completed by Christ and is applied to us via the Holy Spirit...a one time event. But again, we don't know our own hearts and certainly no one else's heart is available to us.

So we're told to die daily, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, to make our calling and election sure. We need to review the Gospel every day, and consider the demands of the Gospel...repentance and belief. This dying to self, this mortification is focusing on Christ. It is in no way a works-based effort. If we're looking inward we immediately will fall into the various legalistic traps.

We don't rest in something we did twenty years ago...a decision, a card signed, an aisle walked.

We walk daily. If we do look back at anything, we ought to look back at the Sign God has given us to enter the Church, the sign which signifies our Union with Christ....Baptism.

Do we all have a Damascus Road experience like Paul did? Some of us do. I experienced something along those lines.

But there are many who do not. In the Old Covenant, there is not one shred of data to suggest the Jews were looking for some kind of 'experience' from their children. They raised them in the faith and salvation then was no different than it is today.

Salvation in the Old Covenant was exactly the same. Paul labours to show this in Romans 4. Salvation has outwardly been administered in different ways, but in terms of the individual, salvation has always been of faith. This is something the older forms of Dispensationalism got completely wrong.

Faith is a gift, the work of the Holy Spirit. And even though chronologically speaking the Spirit had not been given, the Spirit was still at work in the Old Covenant believer. Faith and Regeneration are not brought about by our own efforts. The alien Righteousness of Christ is applied to us by the Spirit just as it was to them.

So if salvation is the same, and the Apostolic writings draw comparisons between the Sign and Seals of the Old and New Covenants then why weren't the Jews looking for the Regeneration experience in their children?

One, many looked only at form. Think of the Pharisees then, and the hyper-Sacramental Roman Catholics of our day.

Two, those that understood the Substance (Saving Faith in the Coming Messiah) also understood the nature of the forms, their necessity, use, and limits.

They must have understood not everyone experiences salvation in that way. Objectively salvation is about the Risen Christ. In terms of how that is applied to us individually, we all have different life stories and experiences of how we've come to the Faith.

There are many who cannot remember a time in their lives when they did not believe in Christ and trust in Him. As children, could they express it in eloquent theological terms and categories? Many as adults cannot. Is it necessary in every case to be able to do this?

If children are not capable of salvation because a certain level of intellect is necessary in order to be saved....then where does that leave them?

Either they're all lost, which virtually no one suggests, or

They don't need salvation, or

We might be thinking about all of this the wrong way.

Aristotle's Razor comes into play here. It's the opposite of Ockham's Razor which seeks to reduce and simplify, remove all tensions and dualisms.

I call the opposite process Aristotle's Razor.

This is where the system in order to maintain its integrity must expand and multiply, must create a new category in order to sustain itself. We're not dealing with an open set of data, so the available data can't be expanded as it might in other philosophical systems.

We're dealing with specific data...the Bible and with Baptists (I argue) the system is driving the interpretation of the data. When the data isn't there to support the system, the system must expand in order to survive. How does a system survive? It must be coherent. It must make sense.

And so Baptists are driven to create a new doctrine which 'covers' or explains the status of their children.

It's called the Age of Accountability. Basically children don't need salvation because they're not fallen, or if they are they're not responsible or accountable for their fallen status. In other words they don't need to be redeemed.

It cannot be found in Scripture. In fact Scripture teaches the exact opposite. It teaches that in Adam we're conceived in sin. David understood this in Psalm 51 and Paul expands on the idea in Romans 3 and 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15. In Adam, we're already sinners even if we haven't actually committed our own sins. He as our covenant-head transfers the sin nature to us. Whether or not his actual first sin is transferred to us is another discussion. One way or another we are conceived and born in sin.

We need to be transferred from the headship of the 1st Adam to that of the 2nd Adam or else we're lost. As humans we have no choice, we either under one or the other. We're part of those condemned to die or those who have been given new and eternal life.

The Scriptures teach that we are born in a state of sin. Children are accountable. Sure, they're not as guilty as a Hitler or Stalin, but that in no way means they deserve or have a right or claim to enter into heaven.

This will upset people, but the Bible teaches they are 'in Adam' every bit as much as Hitler was. That alone is deserving of hell. Are there degrees of punishment? That's a separate issue. What ultimately matters is....what does it mean to be lost or unsaved? The Scriptures speak of us as sinners, in rebellion and so forth...but ultimately we're In Adam, that's our problem. That's what defines our whole being and all of our ill behaviour flows from this accursed status.

The Scriptures don't teach the Age of Accountability, nor do they teach that everyone must have a Damascus Road experience.

It does teach that we must be Born Again...but how does that happen? It's different for everyone. For some it seems like an instantaneous experience, for others it seems like their conversion was a process that lasted weeks, months, or years. Remember the whole idea of being Born Again was not new. Christ chided Nicodemus for not knowing of it, assuming that he should of known it from the Old Testament.

So if it was an Old Testament idea, again I ask, why weren't the Jewish parents looking for this 'experience' with their children? Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 10 that we are partaking of the same spiritual meat and signs, these things were 'our' example. The forms were different, but the substance was the same.

Some theologians make a distinction between Regeneration and Conversion. Regeneration is when the Holy Spirit changes your heart and Conversion is your individual acts of Repentance and Belief.

They are of course inseparable and I'm not very appreciative of the distinction. On a simple tangible level,  since we can't know for sure whether someone is regenerate what are we left with? What can we see? Repentance and belief.

So if someone can't manifest Repentance and Belief...they can't be a Christian? I can agree with that, but.... How far do you take that? What DEGREE of Repentance, what DEGREE of belief?

It's difficult to answer this. Someone who is mentally impaired cannot express their feelings. Some who are not mentally impaired have a hard time communicating their feelings. I am suspicious of a theology which rests so much in emotion, experience and the judgment of others who are trying to judge something they cannot fully discern.

Are our children pagans until they can verbalize repentance and faith? That doesn't harmonize at all with what was happening in the Old Covenant, nor would the parallels drawn in the New Testament between Old and New Testament signs make any sense if this were the case.

Repentance and Faith were part of the Old Testament experience, just as today, but they were not looking for this watershed moment in the lives of their children.

This will sound kind of weak, but people will express Repentance and Faith in different ways and with different degrees of vitality and verbiage.

Can God regenerate a 2 year old? Of course. Will a 2 year old be able to express this? Of course not.

Here's the problem. Many traditions that will grant salvation to a 2 year old, will not question it as the child grows. In Sacral societies everyone is more or less Christian and so you're not going to push too hard when that 2 year old grows up and cannot express their repentance and faith in a shall we say, age appropriate manner.

And thus you end up with a nominal church full of unregenerate people. The gospel is watered down to accommodate everyone.

But if that 2 year old is viewed as a member of the Covenant and raised not as a pagan to be wooed, but as a Christian to be discipled...what happens?

They will either grow up in the faith and then may or may not have a tangible and memorable experience of conversion.

Or....

If the church and the family are doing their jobs and preaching and applying the Word, it will not return void. If that child is unregenerate, his sins and hypocrisy will become manifest, and sadly must be dealt with. Or, he will flee the Word and walk or run away as he gets older.

If the Word is being taught and preached, the idea that someone will just sit there and not either be exposed or affected doesn't seem to line up with Scripture. If that's happening, the Word is not being preached and taught. The Church is failing to do its job....and that's Church history in a nutshell.

Rather than make salvation again about us and our experience...a Theology of Means allows us to put the focus solely on Christ. We trust that the Word will work and in time bring about the results whether they please us or no.

This isn't just about how we view our children. This speaks to our whole understanding of the Christian life, the Church and how the Church operates.

We don't need to be anti-emotion, but we cannot trust our emotions, feelings, and intuitions. We need to flee to the Word and trust in it....and to some degree trust in the provided forms God has given...the Church and its signs. Except when we can't, and circumstance sometimes means that we can't. That's where it gets frustrating, because sometimes the exception SEEMS to negate everything I've just said. It doesn't negate it, but it places a healthy check on the theology of Means and keeps it from developing into a full blown Sacramental Theology.

This position I'm advocating is very different than the Baptist and Charismatic (which is also Baptist) theology that most of us were raised in and is the dominant form of American Evangelical Christianity.

But it also differs greatly from the Form-only theology we find with Catholicism and other like minded traditions. For them Baptism is a guarantee that you're going to heaven...period. After Baptism the issue is simply, how much time you're going to spend in Purgatory paying for your sins, the one's Christ didn't pay for?

This is why during the Middle Ages there were cases of Jewish children being kidnapped and baptized. Ha, ha, tricked you. Whether you like it or not, you're going to heaven! Now if we can just get you to convert to Roman Catholicism perhaps you won't have to spend a great deal of time in Purgatory. Perhaps your relatives can pay for Masses to be said that will lessen your time in Purgatory.

And that was the true Church? Most Conservative Protestants today seem to think so. In fact many think today it is still something of a true Church. They don't kidnap Jewish children anymore but the theology they adhere to has not changed in the slightest.

Because the whole idea of Means has been so abused many completely discount it. We can't do that. Embracing the whole counsel of Scripture regarding salvation leads to a theology and mindset very different from the modern Evangelical but also utterly rejects the Roman error.

Of all the Protestant traditions I am sorry to say the Anglican Church is the only one that comes close (on paper at least) to what I'm trying to say. In practice, it is full-blown Form-only Sacramentarian.

The Evangelical wing of the Church has always had a more balanced view of this dynamic. But Anglicanism is not terribly interested in being Scriptural and so as a whole I've never been very interested in it.

More to come....

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