Further Thoughts on Baptism

CTDrew Trammell has written a fantastic surrejoinder to my last post. It has both the logical/theological rigor that makes for a clarifying discussion, as well as the irenic tone that makes for an edifying one. Thanks Drew. Our discussion is breaking into some new territory that I’ve not seen covered in the literature on this subject, and I don’t think its run its course yet, so I’m going to give one more response (I may not have time for much after this one).

I think its helpful the way Drew starts off by giving an overview of the big picture, so let me start off with my own “big picture.” I agree with Drew that there is much overlap between Israel and the church, circumcision and baptism, the Abrahamic covenant and new covenant. In each case, the former prefigures the latter; the latter fulfills the former. I am not advocating that circumcision was merely a national and cultural boundary marker, for example, or that Israel was defined exclusively in terms of physical descent from Abraham (if it had been, even Ishmael and his sons would be part of the nation!). I do dispute, however, that there is an identity of meaning between Israel and the church, circumcision and baptism, the Abrahamic covenant and new covenant. I believe the relationship in these cases, and in the movement from the Old Testament to the New Testament more generally, is best characterized as a fulfillment that embraces both discontinuity and continuity. A type –> anti-type relationship is different from a relationship of strict continuity.

There are a couple of areas in which Drew rightly argues for overlap, but (I think) presses the relationship too far into identity. (Here, of course, I’m getting into the classic credobaptist argument from Jewett and others that reformed paedobaptism over-stresses continuity such that it must spiritualize the Old Testament and Judaize the New.) Let me just draw out a few examples.

1) First, Drew seems to equate observing enough of the Mosaic Law not to get kicked out of the nation, on the one hand, with professing personal faith in God, on the other. As he outlined in his first post, there were several laws in the Mosaic code which threatened stoning or expulsion from the land if one disobeyed them. Drew argues that obeying these commands (thus not getting killed or kicked out of the land) constituted a “visible, action based [statement] of faith.” With the entire nation’s circumcision in Joshua 5, for example, Drew suggests that this was such a costly action to take that a profession of faith is implicit in it.

There are several questions that I think could be explored here. I wonder, for example, how Drew would understand the first half-millennium of the practice of circumcision, prior to the giving of the Mosaic law. Was maintaining circumcision (Genesis 17:14) sufficient to constitute a profession of faith during that period? I also wonder how Drew would understand this high view of membership in Israel played out practically: suppose a young Israelite couple became pregnant, but there was uncertainty as to whether or not they had profaned the Sabbath. Would their child’s circumcision be put on hold while the matter was examined? At what age were Israelites expected to begin to signify an “action based statement of faith,” thus establishing their children and slaves’ right to circumcision? Were Israelites simply assumed to be regenerate so long as they were not getting kicked out of the nation through witchcraft, idolatry, or profaning of God’s name, etc.? There are all kinds of interesting questions that this view raises. In addition, I’m tempted to pursue whether this interpretation actually establishes continuity with contemporary paedobaptist practice. Its not clear to me that it does, which is perhaps one reason why Calvin and the majority of the reformed tradition do not go this route.

But lets skip over these points so that we can focus on what I take to be the core issue here: did it require a personal and covenantal relationship with God for an Israelite to avoid profaning the Sabbath, practicing witchcraft, seducing the nation into idolatry, disrespecting their parents, and so forth? Certainly one would expect that a regenerate Israelite would generally obey these commandments, but can it be assumed, in the opposite direction, that one who obeyed these commandments was regenerate? I think this would be a dubious assumption. These laws had cultural, national, economic, and social dimensions that a profession of faith does not. Further, many of these laws are prohibitions of specific actions, not a positive, all-encompassing statement of one’s relationship to God. Why should we assume that the only reason for, say, avoiding witchcraft, or honoring the Sabbath, was a regenerate heart before God? Take an Israelite at Gilgal. Does it really follow from the costliness of submitting to circumcision in this situation that all who did so were thereby expressing personal faith in God? Given the fact that it was commanded by their military leader, and everyone else in the entire nation was having it done, I imagine that for some Israelites it would have taken far greater faith to stand alone against Joshua the rest of the nation and reject the sign. To assume that a profession of faith is implicit in this action seems to me highly problematic.

I grant that what Israel was supposed to do and what Israel actually did are two different things, but the fact remains that for basically her entire history, Israel had a massive amount of people who failed to profess any kind of covenant faith in God and yet remained a part of the people. (Think of all those wicked kings throughout Samuel-Kings, for example, who remained kings over God’s people despite not rejecting God.) If the people of Israel had been supposed to deny circumcision to all whose parents did not know the God of Israel in a covenantal, saving way, you’d think there would be more evidence of this actually being done. In addition, lets remember that many of these laws which threatened excommunication listed the most severe penalty possible, not the penalty that was required for every potential infraction. We must be careful not to over-spiritualize the Mosaic code by reading into it things it doesn’t actually say, and thus ratcheting up how hard it was to remain an Israelite. While the law threatened excommunication for certain extreme forms of disobedience, it nowhere suggests that those excommunicated were the only ones failing to evidence faith in God. Nor is there any suggestion in the Old Testament that all those worthy of remaining Israelites and not being excommunicated were thereby professing personal faith in God. In other words, the Old Testament itself never draws a connection between not getting excommunicated and giving evidence of personal faith in God.

2) Second, and very much related, Drew seems to equate membership in Israel with membership in the church. He does so on the grounds that both entities can be joined (through conversion) and exited (through excommunication). But the fact of excommunication in both Israel and the church does not equate these two bodies of people, because the conditions of membership and excommunication were different in each group. Lets map these two ecclesiologies out for the sake of clarity:

Ecclesiology 1: “you and your seed after you” (including special provisions for excommunication or addition to the resultant nation)

Ecclesiology 2: “those who believe and the children of one or more believing parent”

Now Drew is right to point out that these two ecclesiologies have a lot of overlap. In both, individuals and groups can be excommunicated. In both, individuals and groups can join. In both, God’s desire is always a people who are circumcised of heart. But these two ecclesiologies are not identical, because ecclesiology 1 is still an inter-generational nation comprised of the offspring/seed/descendants of the patriarchs. Yes, the Law stipulated how people could join or be kicked out of the nation, but that is not the same as saying that the Law transformed ecclesiology 1 into ecclesiology 2. God’s people was still fundamentally the seed of Abraham, not a collection of families. There is no indication that each family had to profess faith before their children could receive the sign, for example, as is the case with contemporary paedobaptist churches. In fact, when excommunication does happen in Israel, it tends not to happen to families as much as it does to individuals or larger groups. The exile as an answer to Jeremiah 9:24 is a case in point. It was the entire nation that was judged, just as circumcision was a blessing given to the entire nation.

Drew points out from Exodus 12:48 that when a man converted into the nation of Israel, his children and servants also came. He offers this as an example of evidence for a “those who believe and their children” ecclesiology. To me, the inclusion of entire families within the nation is only expected, given that the entity being joined is an inter-generational body of people. By the same token, I would assume that the grand-children (as well as servants) of a convert would also be enfolded into the nation and the male grand-children would receive circumcision. Two questions here for Drew: (1) I wonder if Drew would think that in cultures today which practice some form of slavery, or which have an individual unrelated by blood living in their home as a part of the family, that these individuals should be baptized if the head of the household converts? (2) If the family envisioned in Exodus 12:48 had grand-children, does Drew think they would also be circumcised? Isn’t this implied, not only by the inter-generational nature of the Abrahamic covenant, but also the inter-generational nature of the other texts to which Drew appeals (e.g., Psalm 103:17-18 is about grand-children, plain and simple).

The bottom line is that even when excommunication is factored in, Israel was still a nation as well as a spiritual community, and circumcision was still a national marker as well as a spiritual one. In order to meet the required burden of proof, it would need to be established that the lines of covenant were drawn in the Old Testament around families and the head of their household, not Abraham. To equate these two ecclesiologies is to read the latter back into the former.

3) Though we have not explored this issue as much, I would imagine that Drew would also want to equate the meaning of circumcision and baptism, and perhaps also, the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant. Once again, I would argue for overlap, not identity, between these two. The Abrahamic covenant (which circumcision symbolized) contained trans-dispensational elements which are still contained in the new covenant, such as a covenantal relationship with God. But it also contained elements unique to its own historical dispensation, such as the conquest of Canaan. Circumcision symbolized these elements of the Abrahamic covenant as much as any other. To equate the symbolic meaning of baptism and circumcision, therefore, requires one to say things like, “well, the promise of conquest in Canaan is ultimately fulfilled in believers’ conquest of the entire earth, as in Matthew 5:5.” This kind of hermeneutic, it seems to me, over-spiritualizes the Old Testament and flattens the development of redemptive history.

One Comment

  1. […] Ortlund has written another response to my last rejoinder.  I agree with him that this has been a great discussion, and I also feel […]

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