Sunday, December 22, 2013

The First Hypothetical: my response, his rebuttal, my rejoinder

The purpose of this post is to continue the debate and discussion of the marks of the church with my friend, LC, who is the blogger at By the Light of Latimer's Candle. For those readers who may be just joining, LC writes from the vantage point of an American evangelical Anglican.  I am a former Baptist minister who has been licensed to preach by my presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in America.  We both represent the Reformed strand within our respective traditions. 

We began this discussion with an intent to focus on the subject of church discipline, and we are steadily making progress toward engaging in that discussion, but in laying foundation we have found significant disagreements in the area of the sacraments, and we have spent considerable time exploring those differences.  It is the point of this post to respond to his latest points. 

While I was glad, though not surprised, that LC distanced himself from positions commonly referred to as New Perspectives on Paul and Federal Vision, it was disappointing that he quoted favorably at length (perhaps unintentionally) from a leading proponent of the federal vision ideology, D. Wilson.  Wilson's more serious deviations from reformed orthodoxy -- denial of a pre-fall covenant of works, advocacy of a conditional election, redefining faith as faithfulness, and so forth -- would seem to place his positions on paedocommunion as mere symptoms of deeper problems, and Wilson would not be the best ally for that reason. The Wilson quote, and the quotation of the other blogger agreeing with him, offer caricatures of how the reformed set out to nurture their children.  Given Wilson's repudiation of much else in the Westminster standards, it is not surprising that he would set out to undermine those who use those standards for their understanding of how those standards apply to covenant children.

Leaving that aside, LC points out that our differences on the sacraments are significant.  While there is a sense in which I agree with that, I also would suggest that it is possible to overstate our differences.  Throughout Protestant history, there has been a struggle to set forth a view of the sacraments that will not be misunderstood by those outside of our particular school of thought.  All Protestants would agree, against Rome, that there should not be a confusion between the sign and the thing signified.  Because Protestants believe that Rome was guilty of precisely such confusion, this is a distinguishing characteristic of the Reformation churches. Though this point was not expressed as one of the 5 "solas" that we commonly speak of, it is implicit in the notion of sola fide.  At the opposite extreme from Rome, while still within the realm of Protestant orthodoxy, was Zwingli. Whereas Rome saw the sacraments as mechanically operative, Zwingli's followers rejected even the term "sacraments," calling them instead ordinances and thinking of them primarily in terms of our identifying ourselves with Christ rather than as a means of grace that God offers for us. Having been raised a Baptist and, thus, in the system of Zwingli, I can remember a time when I thought that any talk of sacraments hinted at sacerdotalism.  Obviously, that is no longer my view. 

Yet, it is not only the Zwinglians that struggle to understand the positions of other Protestants.  Of course, Lutherans deny that they espouse an ex opere understanding of the sacraments, but when the reformed look at Lutheran statements regarding the sacraments, we often find ourselves scratching our heads and asking how that differs from Rome.  On the other hand, when Lutherans look at reformed statements on the sacraments, they somehow think that they are reading Zwingli, no matter how many times the reformed speak of the sacraments as God's means of grace by which he offers his gifts to his people -- not exactly Zwinglian lingo.  No doubt, the confusion occurs because while the sign and the thing signified should never be confused, they are nonetheless closely connected.  The sign and thing signified may not be confused, but theologians attempting to sort it out certainly can be.

In baptism, God signifies and seals the inclusion of the children of believers in the covenant of grace.  The water of baptism symbolizes the regenerative cleansing of the Holy Spirit.  As I have previously noted, the Westminster Confession of Faith (28.7) emphasizes that "the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment wherein it is administered." Quoting that statement, Michael Horton adds, "Baptism itself does not effect this in an ex opere operato fashion, but achieves its perlocutionary effect when and where the Spirit chooses."

Getting back to the subject of the proper recipients of the Lord's Supper, I would simply point out that the New Testament places on recipients a responsibility of repentance and faith for worthy recipients, and this is language that is not suggested with regard to the recipients of household baptisms. That baptism and the Supper are means of grace is not in dispute, but one must also consider the different functions that these perform as covenant signs and seals.  Whereas baptism signifies inclusion in the covenant community and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, the Supper, again quoting Horton, " strengthens and confirms that faith that we have professed.  In Paul's teaching, admission to the Supper requires discernment, so as not to eat and drink unworthily."

LC concedes that paedocommunion is a recent development in Anglicanism, and I would urge him to explore further the idea that this has has been a component of latitudinarian trends in his own denomination's theology.  As he has noted previously, the 39 Articles predated Westminster, and Anglicans were active participants in the Westminster Assembly. Though the Westminster Confession was created as a consensus document, there can be no debate that paedocommunion was not consistent with it.

I do think that the differences over baptism are more significant and important for our understanding of church discipline.  To the extent that Anglicans conjoin baptism and regeneration -- the sign and the thing signified -- differences will emerge down the line regarding nurture -- and discipline.

No comments: