Saturday, December 07, 2013

A Response to the First Hypothetical regarding Marks of the Church

This post continues the debate between myself and the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle (henceforth, LC) regarding the marks of the church.  As a reminder to those reading, LC is an Anglican who is self-consciously in the historically reformed tradition of that communion.  I am a Presbyterian who is also writing from the perspective of the historically reformed.  While we initially set out to discuss the issue of church discipline, we have spent most of our bandwidth thus far in dialogue regarding the sacraments.  This has been helpful, as we have identified areas of agreement while also discovering differences that will be helpful in elaborating on our differing perspectives on the matter of church discipline when we finally reach that destination.  I have enjoyed and benefited from interacting with LC on this, and I would encourage readers to scroll through our posts, as I believe that this represents thoughtful theological discussion could be helpful to others.

In the beginning of his latest post, LC presented some responses to my most recent points, and I think that he aptly summarizes some areas of agreement and difference.  As our conversation is moving to a new phase, I won't offer further response other than on one point. I had previously stated that he had underestimated the value that Presbyterians see in the Lord's Supper, and he graciously conceded the point while also pointing out that the Supper has a more central place in Anglican liturgy. I want to concede back a bit of what he has conceded to me. In our confessional documents, I would continue to stand by my contention that Presbyterians sufficiently value the Lord's Supper. However, I should also admit that commitment to a more formal and uniform liturgy helps conservative Anglicans to withstand the influences of broader American evangelicalism to which conservative Presbyterians have been perhaps too susceptible. Given that evangelicals frequently are not quite sure what to do with the sacraments, and especially the Lord's Supper, toward which evangelicals typically hold to Zwingli's views, this has had a detrimental impact on Presbyterian worship in many quarters.  While I am deviating a bit from the goal of interacting with LC on these issues, I wanted to use this opportunity to urge any Presbyterian and broader evangelical readers to think deeply about the significance and place of the Supper in our worship.  While I would not restructure our services after the Anglican format, I would prefer that we be more influenced by the Anglican example and less by the trite and ahistorical patterns of modern evangelicalism.

Returning to the subject at hand, LC sets up a hypothetical example of a child of parents in the church.  In interacting with his discussion, I find some points of agreement and difference in belief and practice:

There is much about the baptism of covenant children that we share in common.  By baptism, covenant children of one or both believing parents are welcomed into the covenant community.  The parents of the child take vows acknowledging their child's need for the saving blood of Christ and renewing grace of the Holy Spirit, claiming the covenant promises in the child's behalf, and promise, in reliance upon the Holy Spirit, to set a godly example and bring the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. The congregation vows to assist the parents.  However, as we have already discussed, there is a significant theological difference with regard to what happens at baptism.  Whereas, the Anglican view seems to be that elect children are regenerated at baptism, Presbyterians don't hold that normally to be the case.  Certainly, baptism bears symbolic testimony to both the cleansing blood of Christ and the renewing grace of the Holy Spirit while also functioning as a means of grace and as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace to believers and their households.  However, we take care not to confuse the sign with the thing signified, and while it is good that Anglicans don't make the same error as the Roman church in claiming an ex opere relationship between baptism and regeneration, nonetheless, we would argue that they go too far in claiming that baptism is the means the Spirit uses in regeneration.

A baptized child is a member of the covenant community and, as such, is entitled to all of the privileges granted to communicant members of the church, with two exceptions:  the child cannot receive the sacrament of communion, and the child cannot vote on church matters.  There is no particular age at which a child is permitted to become a communicant member -- that is left to the discretion of the elders to determine whether a child understands the Gospel and is able to make a credible profession of faith in Christ.  We do acknowledge that children raised in the covenant community may never recall a day when they did not believe in Christ.  With regard to the instruction of covenant children, we are seeing some healthy trends among conservative Presbyterians.  For a long period of time, partly due to the overall liberalizing of the church, the catechizing of children has fallen into disuse -- that is not to say that it had disappeared, but fewer churches were using this kind of instruction.  In recent years, there has been a renewed emphasis on the use of catechisms, particularly the Westminster Shorter Catechis.  There is also a simpler catechism appropriate for younger children that is commonly used. This is a healthy trend.  The catechizing, if provided, may occur at any point through childhood. 

Typically, a child who is now professing faith in Christ will meet with one or more elders for appropriate counselling and explanation regarding that profession.  A child may also attend membership classes similar to those provided for adults.  A child who has professed faith in Christ and completed the instruction required by the church will be presented to the church and take his membership vows.  Often this is done on a communion Sunday, with the result that the new communicant member will participate in his first communion.

As indicated, non-communicant children do not receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper -- please note that I did not say that they don't participate, as being present is a form of participation, and the child observes the proclamation of the gospel provided in the sacramental meal. I was surprised to learn that Anglicans allow children who have not been confirmed to partake. LC indicates that this is a development of the last 40 years and may be tied to the liberalization of the church.  I would be interested to know if there is push back on this from conservative, reformed Anglicans. 

While paedocommunion makes a bit more sense in light of the Anglican view of baptismal regeneration, I would suggest that it is not a necessary inference of baptismal regeneration.  This issue has in recent years become controversial in Presbyterian circles, as it is clearly outside the Westminster standards and, I would argue, not consistent with biblical injunctions that, for example, recipients of the Supper examine themselves and remember the Lord's death.  Certainly, the Lord's Supper is a means of grace, but it is an instrument of sanctification for those who have been regenerated.  Not believing that regeneration occurs with baptism, we do not find it to be appropriate for children. I mentioned that this has become controversial in Presbyterian circles, and those who have tried to push for paedocommunion among us have frequently been tied to the "federal vision" movement that also affirms a conditional baptismal regeneration while also redefining justification to deny that it is a once and for all forensic declaration and making it conditional on our covenant faithfulness, rather than being based on faith alone. N.T. Wright has had a significant influence on those adherents.

I suspect that LC will distance himself from those latter views, but I would be interested in further information about the history of paedocommunion among Anglicans. I had been of the impression that it is rather unique to the Eastern Orthodox church and not practiced by any of the major western churches.

It is interesting that there are so many layers of both agreement and disagreement regarding our hypothetical covenant child. I will look forward to LC's next post.

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