Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this post and (God willing) a series of posts to follow, I plan to work through the chapters of Jeffrey D. Johnson’s book, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Free Grace Press, 2010). Yes, it’s been out a while, so perhaps you’ve seen it mentioned here and there. The initial reasons for my interest in the book are that I was once a convinced credobaptist myself (even publishing on the topic!) and that Johnson’s book has been applauded by some noteworthy (self-identified) “sovereign grace Baptist” leaders, such as Tom Nettles and Richard Belcher, Sr. The more significant reason that I picked up the book, however, is that it is part of a relatively recent flurry of activity among Baptists who have been reexamining covenant theology (e.g., Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, Gary Long), and Johnson states that his own position on covenant theology is very similar to that of Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Kim Riddlebarger (p. 22 n. 70). All these factors provoke my interest in Johnson’s critique of paedobaptist covenant theology.

Johnson divides his book into two major parts, the first of 16 chapters on “The Fatal Flaw” behind paedobaptist theology and the second of 8 chapters on what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism” and in which he discusses the relationships between Abraham, Moses, and Christ. For the purpose of interaction, I don’t expect to review each of these 24 chapters in detail, but to focus on what Johnson tells us is the primary thrust of his book, namely, “a direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Even with that emphasis, “the purpose of this work is not so much to convert the die-hard paedobaptist as much as to help prevent credobaptists from changing their position” (p. 20). In addition, the book is not offered merely to deliver negative commentary (ibid.). For Johnson “there are many sturdy stones, which must be left alone” (ibid.) in paedobaptist covenant theology. Not least among those stones is the progressive unfolding of God’s eternal plan of redemption in each of His covenants throughout history. Given Johnson’s purpose and primary thrust, I’ll leave aside the helpful introduction in which he surveys the history of infant baptism and various paedobaptist interpretations of its rationale and settles on engaging presbyterians who’ve adopted the Westminster Confession. I’ll use this opening post to look at his first two chapters (pp. 25-48), where he takes on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and the analogy between circumcision and baptism.

Zeroing in on the paedobaptist appeal to OT inferences to fill in where no NT command exists, Johnson argues that those inferences leave too many uncertainties to justify infant baptism. He insists that, if OT inferences are really to make up for a missing NT command, then some related issues should also be considered: 1) that, besides baptism, no duty of the local NT church comes from the OT; 2) that baptized children are excluded from the Lord’s Supper even though circumcised children were included in the Passover meal; 3) that the NT church experienced much confusion on almost everything related to the old covenant; 4) that the NT church experienced major controversy over circumcision in particular; and 5) that NT Gentile converts, largely ignorant of circumcision’s meaning, doubtless needed instruction on baptism and its participants. With these uncertainties as backdrop, Johnson moves on to take up the circumcision-baptism relationship itself, intent on showing that the two ordinances are only analogous and not identical. Contending that “the NT must set the limits of the analogy” (p. 45; see also p. 47), he concludes that they are similar, not in that both involve children, but only in that both signify circumcision of the heart (regeneration). Citing Jer 31.34, he goes on to urge that, “unlike the old covenant, the new covenant leaves no room for unbelieving participants” (ibid.). All told, then, Johnson maintains that neither OT inferences nor the circumcision-baptism relationship can be authoritative for determining the nature of baptism or its participants (p. 47).

The absence of a NT command to baptize infants – What shall we say about Johnson’s claim that OT inferences leave too many uncertainties to warrant infant baptism? In my view, the uncertainties that Johnson highlights do little to discourage the paedobaptist appeal to the OT to locate the warrant for infant baptism. For example, when he argues that, besides baptism, no requirement for the local NT church comes from the OT, Johnson asks us to presuppose that the administrative principles of the NT church originated without any connection whatsoever to OT Israel. Leaving aside the question of baptism, this is a bridge too far: we cannot simply concede that the administrative principles of the NT church generally or the basis of its membership specifically are disconnected from OT Israel. After all, we know that God is administering one household in redemptive history, not two (Heb 3.1-6). Going on, Johnson observes that, unlike circumcised children, baptized children are excluded from the covenant meal. We acknowledge, of course, that paedobaptists differ on this point, though we cannot pursue it here. Suffice it to say, then, that back of Johnson’s objection is the debatable assumption that the function and basis of the OT ordinances differ from those of the NT. Further, Johnson points out that almost everything related to the old covenant, including circumcision, created confusion or controversy in the NT church that was eventually dominated by largely uninformed Gentile converts. The difficulties of the transition from the old covenant to the new notwithstanding, Johnson offers no evidence that there was ever confusion or controversy in the NT church about the membership status or baptism of children. In sum, Johnson’s collection of uncertainties does not touch the fundamental concern of the paedobaptist argument from the OT. More pointedly, if the administrative principles of the NT church, including the basis of its membership, originated without any connection to OT Israel as Johnson argues, there would have been an obvious and profound need for and expectation of an exposition not unlike the one we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make this change emphatically clear. Instead we find that the principles and practices of the NT church are stated in language that imitates the language in which the principles and practices of OT Israel were stated.

The circumcision-baptism relationship – Moving on to Johnson’s take on the circumcision-baptism relationship, we can agree with him that the relationship is one of analogy and not identity. There are clear differences between the two (thus the denial of identity), but both rites testify to the same realities (thus the affirmation of analogy): death to sin and new life to God (otherwise known as circumcision of the heart). In fact, because both rites speak as one, we can understand better why circumcision became obsolete and baptism superseded it. The transition came to pass because Christ’s death-and-resurrection was both a circumcision (Col 2.11) and a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). Whether we say that Christ was circumcised or baptized in His death and resurrection, God’s witness to us is that the death He died He died to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6.10). In that light, it makes sense that the circumcision of Christ made circumcision obsolete as a covenant sign, while the baptism of Christ established baptism as the covenant sign that continued to testify of the realities formerly signified by circumcision.

Meanwhile, however, the differences between the two and the change from the one to the other do nothing to revoke the membership status of children in God’s covenant. How can we be so sure? Because the NT narrates the administration of baptism by the apostles in language that imitates the narration of the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. In particular, the apostolic company is said to have baptized households (Acts 11.14; 16.15, 31-34; 1 Cor 1.2), just as God is said to have baptized the household of Noah in the flood (1 Pet 3.20-22; Gen 7.1) and the households of “our (circumcised!) fathers” in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor 10.1). Strikingly, in the baptism into Moses, the baptized are even said to have been those who “feared the Lord and believed in Him and His servant Moses” (Exod 14.29-31). Paedobaptists might ask, then, shall we dispute that those OT baptisms included both parents and their children? Can we imagine Joshua saying anything other than, “as for me and my house, we were baptized into Moses”? If baptism into Moses was administered thus to our circumcised ancestors, it at least strains credulity to maintain that the apostles administered baptism into Christ differently to those who are the descendants of those baptized into Moses. To press the point still further, paedobaptists might ask, would not the Jews at Corinth (Acts 18.1-8), who were among those addressed in 1 Cor 10.1, have justifiably inferred that just as parents and children were baptized into Moses, so also parents and children were to be baptized into Christ? Consider here especially what Crispus, the ruler of Corinth’s synagogue, and his household (Acts 18.8) would have been thinking. Insofar, then, as we observe the parallel language in the narration of the baptisms of Noah’s household, Israel’s households, and the church’s households, there is warrant sufficient for paedobaptists to urge that the apostles’ practice of baptism into Christ took place on the same principle as did OT baptism and circumcision: “you and your household.” All this to say, then, that we can agree with Johnson that the relationship of circumcision and baptism is one of analogy, but we cannot agree that the analogy makes infant baptism less than clear. To the contrary, the administration of baptism in the NT imitates the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. To be sure, other questions and passages remain to be considered.

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An Interesting Argument Against Immersion

Geerhardus Vos gave a lot of ground to the Baptists (some would argue too much). He insisted that “baptizo” means “immerse,” although he goes on to argue that the immersion is secondary, and that washing is primary. For Vos, the immersion is incidental to the meaning of the word. The substance of baptism can, for Vos, be accomplished in another way. But the most fascinating thing about his argument against immersion is his advocation of catholicity (Reformed Dogmatics, volume 5, p. 125):

To what, finally, can one still appeal against the Baptists? To the universal character of Christianity. Christianity is catholic, that is, intended for all times and places. That must come out in its sacraments too. Hence, the signs in these sacraments are such as are to be found everywhere: water, bread, wine-the most common products of nature that can be kept everywhere. But the same thing will also have to apply to their manner of use. Immersion is something that is sometimes feasible in Middle Eastern lands, but then again in many regions, not. If Christianity is thus bound to something like this, then in this respect it is the same as Islam, which obligates all its adherents to a pilgrimage to Mecca. But Islam is then also particularistic; Christianity is universal, catholic, intended for all times, countries, circumstances, and conditions.

I had not thought of using the catholicity of Christianity as an argument against immersion before. So I thought I would throw it out there for the readers. What do you think of this argument?

Old and New Testament Sacraments

One of the most controversial aspects of sacramental theology is the relationship between the Old Testament sacraments of Passover and circumcision (and some would even dispute that they are sacraments!) and the New Testament sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I am not going to treat this subject exhaustively at all. There are just two points that I wish to make, fueled by Vos’s discussions in volume 5 of Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 103-104.

The first point that Vos makes is that the Old Testament sacraments are types of Christ, not of the New Testament sacraments. There is, indeed, a correspondence between the two sets of sacraments. However, there is not a typological relationship between the two (p. 104).

The second issue is something that has bothered me for a while. Why is it that the recipients of the Passover have in an important way narrowed (those who can discern the Lord’s body versus all children in the Passover, thus making an age differene), while the recipients of baptism have broadened (all children and believing adults on their conversion, not just the male children)? Of course, it is merely a Baptistic assumption that the New Testament sacraments must be alike in how they work. There are several important differences between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which we will not get into here. But why has the change to New Testament sacraments resulted in a seemingly opposite scope for circumcision giving way to baptism, and Passover giving way to the Lord’s Supper? Vos offers an explanation I have not seen elsewhere (though I would be surprised if this explanation originated with him: anyone know of sources from which this could have come?):

[I]n Israel the sacraments, besides their significance for the covenant of grace, also had a national aspect, from which a difference in practice arose between them and the New Testament sacraments on a few points. For us, one comes to the table of the Lord only after one has learned to discern the body of Christ. In Israel the children also ate the Passover. This was because the Passover together with its covenantal significance had national significance. The same is true for circumcision. Baptism in the New Testament is administered to both sexes of the children of believers. In the Old Testament, circumcision was only for infant boys. Indeed, in the national life of Israel only the men counted and represented the women, and this also had to come to light outwardly (p. 103).

There might be some fruitful ground here for answering both the Baptists and the Federal Vision folks, who both have the same error in treating the NT sacraments as working the same way. Indeed, as a friend of mine once said, the problem of the FV’ers in their sacramental theology is not that they have over-reacted to Baptistic theology in every respect, but that they have not thrown off the problems of Baptistic thinking enough. It must be born in mind that most FV’ers were Baptists before they became FV.

Overture 3 to the PCA GA

Overture 3 has to do with the wording of one of the vows made by the parents at a baptism of a child. The overture wants to change the language of “dedication” to that of “acknowledging” the covenantal context of the child.

I am opposed to this overture. As various people have pointed out, the questions for the parents are quite covenantal already (see in particular question 2 of BCO 56-5). The entire context, in fact, of that section of the BCO has covenantal language pervading it, whether it is the highly covenantal language of BCO 56-4, or the command for baptism not to be unduly delayed (hardly things a Baptist would be comfortable with!).

The language itself comes from the PCUS documents of 1894, from a time and place where Baptistic culture was alive and well. This language didn’t seem to bother them at the time!

Furthermore, as has also been pointed out by several people, dedication in itself is not unbiblical. Hannah did so with Samuel. It can be argued that John the Baptist was dedicated to the Lord. Maybe the language is not always there, but the idea seems to be present. The fact of the matter is that dedicating babies is something we agree with Baptists on. The difference is that while dedication is the only thing Baptists do for their babies, we (or, rather, God!) do(es) something more. God places a covenant sign and seal on that child.

In other words, it does not seem to me that we should reject something in our standards simply because the Baptists use similar language. I can’t imagine any self-respecting Baptist agreeing to the theology of BCO 56. I am perfectly content with the language as it is. The overture does not offer any biblical argumentation as to why the current language is insufficient. It argues primarily from the “Baptist” cultural background, which, as I have said, I find insufficient.

Are Sacraments Fundamentals?

It seems rather common these days in the PCA for folks to deny that sacraments are gospel issues. The way the intinction debate went is an excellent example showing us how the PCA tends to think about the sacraments. So many people claimed that intinction does not threaten the gospel, so why should we bother? In fact, rather unkind words were thrown in the face of anyone arguing the opposite case (legalistic, Pharisaic, overly narrow, etc.). I have written a fairly comprehensive (all of the most important secondary literature was consulted) paper on intinction, arguing that the Bible is against the practice, because of the symbolism of separating body and blood being closely connected to death. Even intinction is a matter of the clarity of the gospel being preached in the sacraments.

The matter of the recipients of either sacrament is a fundamental of the system. We obviously hold that this is true with regard to the recipients of baptism, since we do not ordain credobaptists in the PCA. Yet, inconsistently, most of the PCA regards the age of the recipients of the other sacrament as non-essential. Why would the age of the recipients of baptism be essential, whereas the age of the recipients of communion not be essential? The only reason I can think of in this regard is that we have let pragmatics and precedent take over. The single most cited reason why we should allow people to believe and teach this (even if they are not allowed to practice it) is that we have allowed this in the past, and that, going back to Wolfgang Musculus, it has been “part of the Reformed tradition,” whatever that nebulous standard implies. To respond, there is nothing in the BCO that establishes past precedent as constricting future action.

As I have written in the past, there are 17 places in the PCA Constitution that assume credo-communion, such that an advocate of PC CANNOT claim a difference with only one part of our standards. The difference is FAR more fundamental. The PC advocate has a completely different view of how the sacrament works. Reformed theology has always claimed an active component in the reception of the LS, unlike what is required in baptism, which is wholly passive. The PC advocate denies the distinction between the sacraments, ironically demonstrating that he has not thrown off his Baptistic assumptions enough.

If the sacraments are not gospel issues, then why should we not ordain someone who holds to transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Memorialist? Usually, we’re not willing to go there. But then, that would mean that we view some sacramental issues as gospel issues, and other issues as not gospel issues. Perhaps this is true. I, for one, am not willing to die on the whole grape juice versus wine debate, though since Jesus used wine, I see no reason why we should ever have switched to anything else. But this is a different question from the recipients of the sacraments.

So, this blog post is addressed to the evangelical middle of the PCA: I plead with you to consider the evidence, dig through the material, and recognize that the Reformed tradition has always viewed the sacraments as fundamental to the system. They are not peripheral. Our forefathers were willing to die over differences regarding the sacraments. That is because the sacraments preach the gospel. They are gospel issues.

A Qualification

As my good friend David has written a critique of Carl Trueman’s comments, and Carl taught me at WTS, I thought that I should go ahead and listen to the whole thing and see if I agreed with David. As these are two very dear brothers in Christ, it behoves me to be extremely careful in what I say. You can listen to the whole thing here. Also, there are a lot of comments on this post that are extremely thoughtful and well worth pondering.

I would say that I agree, by and large, with David’s assessment of the weaknesses of Trueman’s presentation, but that I would want to offer a qualification of it. This qualification is based on what Trueman used to tell me in conversation, and I believe he said it in class as well. He said that we need to have a principled reason for not belonging to the Roman Catholic Church, and that it has to be doctrinal. If we do not have that, then we are living in sinful schism. Schism is a terrible sin. This is why Leithart’s position is, to my mind, completely incoherent. If the differences between Protestantism and Rome are not salvific in nature, then Leithart is living in sin by not being a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Leithart is, in effect, saying that Trent did not anathematize the gospel, a point that Jack Bradley brought up quite ably.

When I use those statements by Trueman that he made before, I come to about the 1 hour 17-25 minute mark, and notice Trueman strongly challenging Leithart on the issues of doctrinal difference between Protestantism and Catholicism. Trueman plainly believes that it is doctrine that separates us from Rome, and that these doctrines that separate us are of a first order nature. They are salvific. They are gospel issues. So, ultimately I believe that Trueman is being inconsistent. He believes that gospel issues separate us from Rome, but he seems willing to admit (or at least refrain from denying) that Rome is a true church. I agree with David that acknowledging RCC baptism is not a sufficient condition for considering Rome a true church (I think that the Southern Presbyterians, particularly Thornwell, got this one right, and that Hodge was inconsistent). For one thing, the Reformers who had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, were baptized before Trent happened. No Reformer would have said that Rome had completely apostatized before Trent happened. Now, I firmly believe that Rome is no true church. So Trueman is in the awkward position of denying that Rome has the gospel, and yet of admitting (or not denying) that Rome is part of the true church. I do not think that this position can ultimately stand the test of coherency.

A Possible Argument Against Immersion

I was musing recently on Fesko’s outstanding book on baptism, which includes within it an argument for a judgment (condemnation) aspect to baptism. The biblical evidence for this is fairly abundant. The most direct evidence for it is in the passage where James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right hand when He comes into His kingdom, and He asks them whether they can be baptized with the baptism with which He is going to be (notice the future tense!) baptized. This cannot refer, therefore, to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river, but, as most scholars agree, refers instead to His crucifixion. Then, when we add Noah’s flood (via 1 Peter 3) and the crossing of the Red Sea (via 1 Corinthians 10), we see also that there is definitely a judgment side to condemnation.

What struck me recently was that in two of these three passages, immersion is directly connected with the judgment side of the baptism. It is not Noah who is immersed, but the wicked inhabitants of the world at the time. It is not the Israelites who are immersed at the Red Sea, but the Egyptians. Similarly, in the symbolism of baptism, it is not we who are immersed in the judgment, but rather Christ Who was “immersed” in it. He experienced “immersion” under the wrath of God so that we might experience only grace. Admittedly, this is a somewhat oblique argument, but it seems to me to have some decent biblical-theological direction arrows to it. What do you think?

Baptidzo = Immerse – A Root Word Fallacy?

by Reed DePace

Is it an example of the root word fallacy to say that baptizw in Scripture always means immerse?

I’ve seen more and more Baptist friends translate baptizw with immerse, as if the two words are explicitly equivalent. Some have taken a passage from Scripture where a form of this Greek word appears and they simply insert a form of immerse.

For example: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing immersing them”…. Or “Baptism Immersion which now saves you, …. Or “I baptized immersed you with water, but he will baptize immerse you with the Holy Spirit.”

Seems to me that this is an example of the root word fallacy. What do you think?

by Reed DePace

Sign, Thing Signified, and Sacramental Relationship

One of the main difficulties in understanding the sacraments is understanding the relationship among these three elements of the sacraments. We’ll take baptism here for an example. The sign is the water, whether sprinkled, poured, or immersed (I believe that the amount of water used is ultimately immaterial). The thing signified is the cleansing blood of Christ. One important thing that is usually missed here is that the sacrament includes the thing signified. This gets at a huge problem in the church today. The church tends to refer to the sacrament as including only the sign. Therefore, when we use the term “baptism,” we usually mean just the sign, just the rite. However, this is not the only way to understand the sacrament. WLC 163 explicitly says that the “inward and spiritual grace thereby signified” is also part of the sacrament. This shouldn’t make us nervous in the least, because the real question is where the efficacy of baptism lies.

The power of baptism cannot lie in the sign. This is proven absolutely, 100% conclusively by Romans 4:11, which states explicitly that Abraham already had the thing signified long before he ever had the sign applied to him. Circumcision is described as a sign and seal. This refutes directly those who believe that the “seal” language implies conferral. For here in Romans 4:11 is a seal that most definitely could not confer something already possessed.

The thing signified obviously has saving power. The blood of Christ has an objectively saving power. But how does it get applied to us? The answer is in the sacramental union of sign and thing signified. Another way of describing this sacramental union is “Spirit-given faith.” This is how we avoid the problem that the Lutherans constantly have of ascribing saving power to baptism, and yet also saying “sola fide.” If it is Spirit-given faith that connects sign to thing signified, then that is faith alone that saves. Faith also connects the sign and the thing signified so that the whole sacrament is now present.

Note here that it is quite possible to possess the sign without the thing signified (as in the reprobate). It is also quite possible to possess the thing signified without the sign (as in Abraham before he was circumcised). The only way one can possess the whole sacrament is for the Holy Spirit to give us faith. I believe that it is only as we understand baptism this way that we can avoid the problem associated with too high a view of the sign (and the time-point of its administration), on the one hand; and a devaluing of the sacrament on the other, making the sacrament into a bare sign.

This fits in, I believe, with the Reformed emphasis of the sign as a confirmatory sign. When they use this language, they are talking about the sign by itself. But when they use language reacting against the Anabaptists (usually rejecting the position of a naked and bare sign), they are talking about the sign and the thing signified together. This is the normal way we use sacramental language, and we have to be careful to delineate whether we mean the sign considered just as a sign, or whether we are referring to the whole sacrament, including Spirit-given faith. I am convinced that massive amounts of miscommunication and confusion could be avoided if we are careful at just this point.

Two Baptisms Or One?

I am becoming more and more convinced that the Federal Vision believes in two baptisms. Consider this point: do they expect an infant baptism to work the same way an adult baptism would? This presupposes another question, of course: should our doctrine of baptism be able to take into account all baptisms? The answer to this latter question is yes, since we believe in one baptism, as Ephesians 4:5 tells us, and as the creeds tell us. So the problem for the FV is this: if the sign and the thing signified are tied so closely together that you can’t even insert a credit card in between the two, then how to explain adult baptisms? Does the adult get the thing signified at the time point of faith, or do we have to tell him, “Whoa there, slow down, pardner! You don’t have union with Christ and forgiveness of sins until you’re baptized.” Isn’t that telling an adult that faith alone is not sufficient for justification?

Let’s try a thought experiment that seeks to make infant baptisms and adult baptisms work the same way. Let’s suppose that an adult comes to faith before he receives the sign and seal (like Abraham in Romans 4, for instance). Could this be paralleled in an infant’s life? Sure thing. An infant can trust in its Creator even in the womb (an implication of John the Baptist, not to mention David’s strong language of infant faith in the Psalms). Okay, what about coming to faith after baptism, can that happen? This is also very possible. An adult can fool himself into thinking that he has real faith, and only realizes his mistake after baptism. We would certainly not re-baptize such a person. His faith came after the sign and seal. This also happens with infants, since it happened with me. I came to faith when I was six, though baptized as an infant. And no, no one doubted my words when I said I came to faith. I was always encouraged to hold to what I said. I was encouraged both before and after my conversion to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. My parents did not assume one way or the other whether I was saved or not. In other words, I myself do not fit the FV paradigm.

If one believes, then, that the thing signed and sealed always comes at the time-point of baptism, then one believes in two baptisms, because it never happens that way with an adult, and almost never with an infant. Would a church responsibly baptize an adult who did not have a credible profession of faith? Of course not. In baptizing an adult, the church is required to assume that the thing signified is already present. Therefore, the FV believes in two baptisms. It works one way for infants, and another way for adults. This is not tenable, and it is certainly not confessional. The Westminster standards says that the efficacy of the sacraments is not tied to the moment when they are administered. It comes in God’s own appointed time. That appointed time is when the Holy Spirit comes upon the person in power and changes that person from a citizen of Hell to a citizen of Heaven. That happens by faith alone.

This is why saying that sign and thing signified always or even mostly occur at the same time is very dangerous. Whenever God gives faith-that is when the thing signified and sealed is granted. God is not tied to the moment of baptism to give that.

One commenter long ago wrote on this blog that the FV is a baby-driven theology. I think this is true. Rather than coming at the sacrament in such a way that all forms of it fit the same template, so as to have only one baptism, they think almost exclusively in terms of how a baby experiences baptism, and it is not consistent with how the adult baptism works. They should work the same way.

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