October 23, 2017

Dear Young Brother

Note from P&D – the following article is a letter from a concerned family member to a younger relative who has followed reformed theology well away from Baptist circles. The author has requested anonymity to protect family relationships, but we feel the concerns expressed are worth your attention, even if you disagree on some points expressed.

Dear Young Brother,

Sometimes I feel like Cassandra, the Trojan princess with the gift of foreseeing the future. The trouble is that nobody believed her. I’d like to make an effort to cast my gaze on the Reformed theology you have embraced, in hopes that I might be believed. Reformed theology may have some drawbacks that you have not considered.

To help you understand, I need to go back five hundred years to the Biblical Anabaptists. I don’t know what your views are on the Anabaptist Spiritual Kinship theory of Baptist origins, but it doesn’t matter for my purposes. The Anabaptists and Baptists are similar enough on the points at issue. Of all the groups coming out of the Reformation era, the Anabaptists were the only ones who got the issues of church and state and freedom of conscience right. As American Christians, we accept the propositions that the state should not interfere with the church, that the state should not establish one denomination over others and that the conscience cannot be coerced. To put it another way, religious persecution is wrong. Because of our heritage, we don’t understand just how unique and precious our religious liberty is against the background of history and most other places in the world.

Why did the Anabaptists get it right when no one else did? Freedom of conscience flows logically from the Anabaptist approach to Scripture. Because the church is something new in God’s plan for this age and not spiritual Israel, we cannot apply the strictures of the Law on the church. Church and state are separate. The state does not have the authority to enforce religious uniformity. The Reformers believed that, like in ancient Israel, the state had a responsibility to force people to remain in the state-approved religion. Not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also the Reformers visited unimaginable horrors on the Anabaptists as a result of this confusing of the church and Israel.

I know that at this point you are going to say, “So what? We get it right now. Why bring up an offence that is five hundred years old and has not been true for a long time?” The reason that I bring it up is that the correct view of church and state is inherent in the Anabaptist and the Baptist approach to the relationship of the church and Israel. Religious liberty does not arise naturally out of Covenant theology. That is why Calvin stood by and did nothing while Servetus burned at the stake. The usual excuse for Calvin is that he was a child of his times. If he had lived in a later era, he would have been in favor of religious liberty. Perhaps, but the times did not stop the Anabaptists from taking the right stand. They figured it out from studying the Bible. If the same Bible was available to Calvin, why didn’t he figure it out too? Indeed, one could argue that the correct view of church state relations is actually contrary to Reformed theology. The disagreement during the Reformation was over whether the state should control the church (Lutherans) or the church should control the state (Calvinists).

You have said that something is fundamentally wrong with requiring people to be “re-baptized.” Consider this. In Acts 19:1-7 we have the story of a dozen disciples who were “re-baptized” at the command of the Apostle Paul. We can argue about the reason that their original baptism was defective, but the fact remains that the previous baptism did not make the subsequent baptism unnecessary or wrong.

While we are at it, let’s talk about mode. When I was in grad school, my Presbyterian friends scoffed at my position on immersion, asking if I thought that first century inhabitants of Jerusalem had baptisteries in each of their homes, citing Mark 7:4. My reply was that they could have immersed themselves in a pool like the Pool of Siloam or Bethesda on their way home from the marketplaces. At about that time archaeologists announced that they had found that virtually all the homes in first century Jerusalem had pools suitable for ceremonial washing and deep enough for immersion.

This brings us to another question concerning baptism. Observe that the Bible gives not one but two baptismal mandates. The first is in the Great Commission: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them …” (Matt. 28:19). The second is after Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you …” (Acts 2:38). Or, better, “Repent and let each one of you [who repents] get himself baptized …” Leaving aside the question of mode, when we “baptize” an infant, have we obeyed the first mandate? Yes. Has the child obeyed the second mandate? No. Baptism is not his informed and intelligent decision. Infant baptism deprives a child of this important step of obedience.

The genius of Baptist and Anabaptist ecclesiology is its impact on the Christian life. Baptism is the first step of obedience, the first step of discipleship. The imperative for soul winning and discipleship (as opposed to nurturing children into Christianity) is inherent in the Baptist and the Anabaptist approach to ecclesiology. Add to that the fact that, even if the Reformed teach that baptism does not save, the danger that a child will assume that he is saved because of being part of the covenant through baptism is always present. The pastor of a Reformed church in the area where I live is reported to have said that “the waters of baptism carry us to heaven.”

The Baptist/Anabaptist approach to ecclesiology has huge implications for eschatology as well. The distinction between Israel and the church is fundamental to Dispensationalism. Many of the early Anabaptists were Premillennial. The Fundamental Baptists of today are probably more strongly Dispensational than any other group. I do not think that this correlation is accidental. I would not argue that all Baptists are Dispensationalists and all Dispensationalists are Baptist — far from it — there are lots of exceptions. I do argue that it is logically consistent for a Baptist to be a Dispensationalist and for a Dispensationalist to be a Baptist. My old theology prof took his theology at Dallas under Lewis Sperry Chafer (who was Presbyterian). When Chafer’s Baptist students asked him why he baptized infants, he replied, “You Baptists have your baby dedications.” In other words, he did not have an answer.

I will not argue Dispensational theology and normal hermeneutics here. (I prefer the term “normal” to “literal.” Both sides of the debate have misused the term “literal.”) Many have already made the case for Dispensational hermeneutics and I don’t have much to add. As an example, I commend to you the Paul Henebury posts about progressive revelation on Sharper Iron, starting with this link.

Proper use of a consistent hermeneutic has a profound impact on the Christian life and the church. Our view of the future affects our view of the present. For example, when you witness to a Jew, what do you say? “Remember all those promises God gave to Israel? Well, He either didn’t mean it, or he has changed His mind and decided to fulfill them in the church. So you had best get into the church before God changes His mind again.” I know that I exaggerate, but not much. Replacement theology (the idea that the church replaces Israel as God’s people and receives the promises given to Israel in the Old Testament) leads to anti-Semitism, which has been a great blot on Reformed theology. Luther is widely acknowledged to have been an anti-Semite.

Do we have some kind of a kingdom or cultural mandate to reclaim society for Christ? We see the effect of this sort of thinking in a survey of Evangelical missionary spending which shows that for every dollar spent on getting out the Gospel, five dollars goes to some sort of poverty related program. Throwing money at hunger and poverty is much easier to do that persuading people to become real Christians. Alleviating poverty has a wide appeal and is politically correct.

We often say that there is no such thing as Baptist theology; there is only biblical theology. This claim is undoubtedly an arrogant one, but I believe it is noble as an aspiration nonetheless. This point brings up a related one. Back in my days as a student, I remember a Fundamentalist leader, who had attended an academically prestigious eastern university, telling us that no one goes directly from Dispensationalism into liberalism. He stops at Covenant theology along the way. The converse does not happen. No one goes from Covenant to Dispensational to liberal. Bernard Ramm is a case in point. He started as a Scofield-Reference-notes quoting Dispensationalist and ended his life as a Barthian. I am not implying that I think you will become a liberal. I just think that consideration of this pattern should give you pause. Covenant theology and classical Calvinism really do go hand in hand, even if Covenant theology was not invented until the generation after Calvin. Full-orbed Calvinism is a lot more than just Five Points, to which Calvin may or may not have held. You may never move further than you are now, but what about your children and others whom you influence?

I confess —your decision stung me. What did you expect? Others better than I have tried to dissuade you, and I have no expectation that I will succeed where they have failed. Rest assured of this, however: I still want to be your friend. I still love you as a brother, even though our working relationship will not be what it could have been.

Your friend,

William Kiffin


William Kiffin is a pseudonym for an older relative of the “young brother” addressed in this letter.


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