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Warning: This is a provocative post.
The treatment of Westminster Shorter Catechism 4 in Thomas Watson's A Body of Divinity is well worth reading. James Jordan has subjected WSC4 (Q: What is God? A: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth) to a good critique. WSC4 has not given us the centre of gravity of the Christian doctrine of God (although its statements are true enough). What it has given us is the centre of gravity of the doctrine of natural theology. In Thomas Watson's book we witness some of the deeply erroneous thinking that was associated with statements like that of WSC4 in the Puritan era.
Despite the statement of WSC3, WSC4 is more about supporting the observations of natural theology with proof-texts than with taking a scriptural doctrine of God seriously. Watson's introductory passage on WSC4 is, not surprisingly, on natural theology. He then goes on to pay more attention to Scripture. However, as the following quotes make plain, his doctrine is more akin to Gnosticism than Christianity at many key points. He writes:—
What do you mean when you say, God is a Spirit?
By a spirit I mean, God is an immaterial substance, of a pure, subtile, unmixed essence, not compounded of body and soul, without all extension of parts. The body is a dreggish thing. The more spiritual God's essence, the more noble and excellent it is. The spirits are the more refined part of the wine.
The following section comes a little later on:—
Use three: If God be a Spirit, it shows us, that the more spiritual we grow, the more we grow like to God. How do earth and spirit agree? Phil 3:19. Earthly ones may give for their crest, the mole or tortoise that live in the earth. What resemblance is there between an earthly heart, and him who is a Spirit? The more spiritual any one is, the more like God.
What is it to be spiritual?
To be refined and sublimated, to have the heart still in heaven, to be thinking of God and glory, and to be carried up in a fiery chariot of love to God. Psa 73:25. 'Whom have I in heaven but thee?’ which Beza paraphrases thus, Apage terra, utinam tecum in coelo essem! 'Begone earth! Oh that I were in heaven with thee!’ A Christian, who is taken off from these earthly things, as the spirits are taken off from the lees, has a noble spiritual soul, and most resembles him who is a Spirit.
Use four: It shows that the worship which God requires of us, and is most acceptable to him, is spiritual worship. John 4: 24. 'They which worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth.' Spiritual worship is virgin worship. Though God will have the service of our bodies, our eyes and hands lifted up, to testify to others that reverence we have of his glory and majesty, yet he will have the worship of the soul chiefly. I Cor 6: 20. 'Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit.' Spirit-worship God prizes, because it comes near to his own nature, which is a Spirit.
What is it to worship God in spirit?
(I.) To worship him without ceremonies. The ceremonies of the law, which God himself ordained, are now abrogated, and out of date. Christ the substance being come, the shadows fly away; and therefore the apostle calls the legal ceremonies carnal rites. Heb 9: 10. If we may not use those Jewish ceremonies which God once appointed, then not those which he never appointed.
Such quotes should give Reformed people cause to begin questioning certain parts of the received tradition more. It is a very mixed bag in some places. Watson's work was widely used and highly recommended by many Reformed theologians. This sort of error (I am tempted to say 'gnostic heresy') is not some weird aberration on the edges of the Reformed churches; Watson's book is lauded by leading Reformed people to this day.
The treatment of the catechism given by authors such as Watson reflects badly on the catechism itself. It seems that readings of WSC4 in the seventeenth century were deeply affected in many quarters by unbiblical philosophical assumptions. It is hard to deny that the original framers of the catechisms and Westminster confession shared in many of these errors. Even where the statements of the confession and catechisms are biblically accurate (as they generally are), they seem to consistently misplace the centre of gravity of the Christian religion. The focus is drawn to the individual and his salvation, rather than to God's creation of a people. The focus is on ordo salutis over historia salutis.
There are errors of emphasis and balance that can be just as serious as errors in substance and content. Whilst thinkers who are associated with the strains of thought that have been termed Federal Visionism may say that they agree with the confession and catechisms I think that they should be far more prepared to criticize them. They are operating on a very different wavelength to that of the confession and catechisms in many respects. It is clear that, if they were to write such documents, they would look radically different. For all of their adherence to the content of the documents, the emphasis and balance of their faith works very differently to that of the Westminster documents. The centre of gravity of their Christian faith is found somewhere very different to the centre of gravity of the faith of Westminster.
I would argue that the centre of gravity of the faith of most of the proponents of the FV lies far closer to the centre of gravity of the faith of such documents as the Nicene Creed. No bad thing. This means that the Westminster documents are adhered to in a very catholic way. However, the documents themselves tend to be sectarian.
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When debating the subject of infant Baptism with Baptists, one of the issues that will often come up is the character of the new covenant. Baptists will frequently argue that the new covenant is made with believers alone. By ‘believers’ they generally refer to those who have arrived at a stage where they are able to articulate a clear confession of their faith. The new covenant era is an age in which the unbelief that generally characterized the individuals within the old covenant is superseded by a covenant in which all of the members are faithful. The ‘external religion’ of the old covenant is exchanged for the reality of ‘internal religion’, which we see in the new covenant. It is further claimed that one of the key changes from the old covenant to the new covenant is to be found in removal of the principle of covenant succession, seen in the old covenant practice of circumcision. In the new covenant, everyone is saved as an individual.
Much could be written in response to these claims. They are quite tenuous when subjected to detailed scrutiny. However, within this post I would like to examine just a few of the issues that are raised, paying particular attention to some of the OT passages that are used in support of the Baptist position. I will say little, if anything, here that I haven’t said on many other occasions before. I was moved to post this because I haven’t posted much lately and have been asked questions on this subject by a number of people lately. I thought I might as well patch together some sent and unsent e-mails and unused material on my hard-drive to produce the following.
At the outset, it is worth pointing out that, on certain issues, I have come to stand with the Baptists over against many Reformed paedobaptists. In particular, I do not believe that the NT practice of Baptism is to be understood primarily in the light of the OT practice of circumcision. There are some pretty significant discontinuities between the two practices, discontinuities that many Reformed theologians have not given sufficient attention to. In the new covenant everyone is brought in one by one, as individuals. Nevertheless, I see no reason why this admission need invalidate the Church’s practice of infant Baptism. As I have commented on this issue on other occasions, I will not write more on it here.
Even though each of us is made a member of the new covenant individually, we are saved as a body, collectively. The Church is not merely the sum total of individual believers; it is a body — the body of Christ. The Church also has an inescapable institutional aspect to its character. No one can truly be a member of the new covenant apart from a baptizing community with elders that preaches the gospel and celebrates the Eucharist. This is often forgotten by evangelicals. Anyone who leaves a local church and refuses to join another church characterized by the marks listed above has apostatized from the Christian faith. Being a new covenant Christian is not reducible to a merely individual relationship with Jesus.
Changing the Heart
Passages such as Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 are frequently presented as evidence in favour of the Baptist position. For this reason I thought that it would be worthwhile making a few brief comments on the prophecies of the new covenant found in such places as Jeremiah 31. I do not pretend to provide detailed exegesis of any passage, just some brief comments. Perhaps I will attempt a more comprehensive treatment some day.
It should be appreciated that there is an initial fulfillment of the prophecies of Jeremiah 31 in the return of Israel from exile. Just as Solomon is not the complete fulfillment of the prophecy of 2 Samuel 7, so the restoration after exile is not the complete fulfillment of Jeremiah 31. However, as the text does refer to this as an initial fulfillment we should take it seriously.
As James Jordan has observed, at the heart of the old covenant were the tablets of stone on which the Law was written. Israel’s ‘Heart of Stone’ was not merely their unbelief, but the tablets of the Law also. In Ezekiel 36:26, God promises that He will now put His Law in the hearts of His people and replace their Heart of Stone with a Heart of Flesh.
The contrast is between inscription and incarnation. To the extent that the Law revealed, in a veiled form, the glory of God, it served only to bring Adamic humanity, which had fallen short of that glory, under condemnation. In the new covenant the glory of God will become embodied in a community. The new covenant promise of a changed heart is frequently misread to be a reference to individual regeneration. However, the new covenant promise focuses not so much upon a collection of individual hearts being changed, but the heart of the nation being changed. Certainly the changing of the heart of the nation will have a deep impact upon the hearts of individuals, but the relative priority must be maintained. The primary emphasis must be placed upon a radical change in the constitution of the people of God, rather than upon an increased occurrence of individual regeneration or something like that. This radical change will bring about the growth of a new principle of faithfulness in individual members of the people of God, but this is secondary.
OT Israel was gathered around the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a heaven model and a model of Sinai. Israel was mostly around the base. Priests could ascend to different parts of the mountain. The glory of God dwelt between the cherubim in a realm inaccessible to the Israelite. Moses, whose face was transfigured, had to veil it. The Israelites never truly saw the glory of God. It was always veiled for them. The Law was cut from the stone that shielded Moses from God’s glory. The Law was the ‘heart of stone’ in the centre of the old covenant people. In the new covenant we have a transfigured humanity being formed. No longer is the glory of God and the Law ‘outside’ of us, as it was in the OT world model. Rather, the glory and Law of God dwell ‘inside’ us as the body of Christ.
Following the work of Christ and the Day of Pentecost a new human temple has been formed. No longer does mankind dwell outside of and surrounding the temple where God’s glory dwells; now God’s temple is formed by the human flesh of Christ and His body. God’s indwelling His people is a peculiarly NT doctrine, although it is very clear that the OT is moving towards this throughout. It should also be recognized that, although each member of the body of Christ is a microcosm of the temple (John 7:37-38), such an indwelling of God only takes place within the context of the Church as the greater temple. The Holy Spirit comes to indwell us at Baptism, as we are brought to share in the blessing of Pentecost. Believers who have yet to be baptized are not indwelt by the Spirit (the case of Cornelius and his household was clearly an exceptional case, as can be seen from the reaction of Peter and those accompanying him).
Readings of the promises of the new covenant that focus chiefly on an increased occurrence of individual regeneration badly miss the key point. In a number of places one could argue that the promise of a new heart only has secondary application to the faithfulness of the people; the primary force of the prophecy has to do with a far more glorious manner in which God is going to dwell in the midst of His people.
The old covenant was glorious but as long as the Law dwelt outside of flesh, it could not bring about the New Man. It merely resulted in the condemnation of the old Adamic humanity. We should expect increased faithfulness on the part of individual members of the people of God in the new covenant, given the greater outpouring of the Spirit. However, this is not that which is primarily in view when the Bible speaks about writing the Law on the heart. The emphasis is more on the formation of a new humanity constituted in the new faithful Man — Jesus Christ. The Church is summed up in Him, the One through whom Faith has come. Pietistic and ‘individual regenerationist’ readings seriously let us down here.
The relationship of old covenant believers to God was inextricably bound up with the state of the nation. Old covenant believers did not think in terms of a private, individual relationship to be enjoyed with God, hermetically sealed off from the fortunes of the people of God as a whole. The relationship that they enjoyed with God was as those who shared in the relationship that Israel as a whole enjoyed with God. The Law given at Sinai was the covenant document, outlining the terms of the gracious relationship that Israel would enjoy with God. The Law should not be regarded primarily as an abstract collection of moral commandments for individuals; it was the charter for the life of Israel as a covenant body. The sacrificial worship of the Temple, the Law and the land were all aspects of the covenantal relationship that Israel as a people enjoyed with God.
The old covenant was determined by unbelief, even though there were many faithful covenant members. The old covenant humanity was Adamic humanity and the Law simply led to condemnation and death. Although old covenant history was a history that was determined by disobedience and growing rebellion, in the promise of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31, God is promising that He will break this vicious cycle of rebellion and exile and put an end to the problem of national apostasy once and for all.
In the new order that will be established individuals will still perish for their iniquity, but there will be no more national apostasy, nor will the whole nation ever suffer exile again for the rebellion of unfaithful individuals (Jeremiah 31:29-30). Israel’s becoming a faithful nation is not inconsistent with the continuing sad reality of individual apostasy.
Christ is the heart of the new Israel. The old Israel had a heart of stone. As the new Israel we have a heart of flesh — Jesus Christ Himself. The humanity of the new covenant is formed out of Christ’s own perfect and mature humanity. We live out of His new humanity as we are baptized into it, participate in it in the Lord’s Supper and are moulded in its shape by the preached Word. The humanity of the old covenant was determined by the principle of rebellion in Adam. The humanity of the new covenant is determined by the principle of faithfulness in Christ. We live out of His faithfulness. This is no works’ salvation.
The OT gives us a history of a weak but gradually maturing form of faith (in the midst of a story that is far more characterized by unbelief). We see a summary of this story in such places as Hebrews 11. We see the OT believers gradually developing in patterns of faith that grow from generation to generation (compare the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph for an illustration of this). These patterns of faith are immature. However, from our new covenant perspective, we can see that these forms of faith are faltering prolepses of Christian faith (e.g. Romans 4:16-25; Hebrews 11:17-19). True ‘Christian’ faith is Christ’s own faith first and foremost and then our faith as we abide in Him and participate in His faith. The OT story of faith is taken up in Jesus Christ. He brings in mature Faith and perfects all that went before (e.g. Galatians 3:24-25; Hebrews 12:2). In Christ we share in the pattern of faith that He Himself worked out.
In the Church we are given the mind of Christ so that we might live cruciform lives like His. Christians who live out of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ live out of a mature form of faith. This faith is a living principle (by the power of the Spirit) in the body of Christ that forms us all as a new humanity. We are conformed to Christ’s death as we are buried with Him in Baptism, take His body into us in the Supper and are moulded by the Word. All forms of faith that exist prior to Baptism and the engrafting into the body of Christ that this brings about are merely anticipatory of the Faith that has come in Christ and forms the life of the Church.
Through His life, death and resurrection, Christ has established true and free reciprocity between God and man, which we enter into in our worship. Our worship does not create this reciprocity; it is founded upon it. The point of the new covenant is not the regeneration of detached individuals, who will then join a church to be fed in their private faith. Rather, the point of the new covenant is the bringing in of true Faith through the work of Jesus Christ. We are drawn into the life and destiny of Christ through Baptism and subsequent participation in the life of the Church formed at Pentecost.
New covenant churches often fall far short of true faithfulness and may have unfaithful members. Nevertheless, they can still be genuine new covenant churches. Describing Roman Catholic churches as ‘new covenant churches’ does not constitute approval of all that takes place within them. I can also describe a baptized individual as a ‘new covenant Christian’, even though he may be unfaithful in important respects and may finally fall away. Although new covenant membership should lead to radically increased faithfulness on the part of new covenant churches and their members it does not always do so.
As I have already pointed out, apostasy continues in the new covenant. There are those who have come to enjoy the new covenant knowledge of God and have fallen away (e.g. 2 Peter 2:20). We may well debate which is the more faithful: NT Corinth or Israel under some of her godly rulers. Whilst there is certainly a generally increased faithfulness on the part of individual members of the people of God in the new covenant, our primary focus must be upon Jesus Christ — the One who brings in true Faith — in whom the new covenant people are constituted.
‘They all shall know Me…’
In Jeremiah 31 God promises that He will establish Israel so that every level of society in the restored Israel will know Him (‘from the least to the greatest’). God will form them into a new humanity that will be faithful to the covenant. Within the restored Israel every level of society will have full access to God in a manner that far exceeds the access that they enjoyed before. God would put His Spirit upon all of His people and not just upon appointed rulers (cf. Numbers 11:29).
The promise that all will know God has a number of dimensions. I believe that it refers primarily to the revelation of the mystery of God in the new covenant. Within the new covenant, these mysteries are no longer covered up (as they were in the Ark of the Covenant) but are opened up to all within the Church. In the old covenant the Israelites were not able to look at the glory of God. Moses’ face was covered; rather than gaze on the glory of God (reflected in the face of Moses) they were given the inscribed tablets instead. In the new covenant we are all given to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, by the work of the Spirit. The old covenant age was an age of veils; the new covenant age is an age in which those veils are removed.
Prior to the removing of the veils, the role of intermediaries was far more prominent. Certain people had higher degrees of access and were given the task of instructing others. In the new covenant this is no longer the case. Although we all mediate the one Gift of the Spirit to each other in the Church — through the exercise of our various Spiritual gifts — no one of us stands as an intermediary between God and others. Now every person in the Church shares in the knowledge of God by the gift of the Spirit. In God’s new temple, which we enter through Baptism, there are no more dividing partitions.
In the new covenant, as every baptized Christian has access to the formerly hidden mysteries, we partake in a knowledge that no old covenant believer enjoyed in the same measure. Although we may not be able to satisfactorily articulate our knowledge of God, we are brought into God’s very own environment (as the Church is the realm where we are ‘in the Spirit’). We have been brought into God’s own Trinitarian communion by the work of Jesus Christ. Those who abide in such an environment will develop an intuitive grasp of the truth of God. They will, for example, be well able to sniff out heresy (1 John 2:20), even if they are unable to express exactly why they believe it to be heresy.
In the Church we all enjoy the presence and glory of God. The veil has been removed. The veil is also removed from the text of Scripture. Truths that were formerly obscure become clear. How can such a claim be made when so many Christians make such a mess of interpreting the Bible? Perhaps it is worth distinguishing here between relatively benign and malign cases of misinterpretation. Those who have participated in the realm of the Spirit in the Church will not easily be led astray by anti-Trinitarianism, for example. Growing in the realm of the Spirit sensitizes us to good doctrine. In the Church we become disposed to think about God correctly. Such a process is seldom brought fully into the conscious realm, but it is real, nonetheless. Although a baptized and faithful Christian may unwittingly twist Bible verses to fit his doctrine, he will instinctively tend to hold a form of doctrine that approximates to the biblical tradition of the Church.
On the other hand, the Bible becomes a book of dark and impenetrable mysteries for all who leave the Church. The Bible is not clear to understand for all of its readers. Those who read the Bible outside of the Church will generally be led into deep error by it. The veil that lies over the text is only taken away when one enters into the presence of God in the new temple. Only those within the Church are truly permitted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; those outside are hardened and misled.
‘Their sin I will remember no more…’
God promises that He will deal finally and climactically with the ongoing problem of Israel’s sin. The forgiveness of sins spoken of in this passage is not some privatized blessing. Rather, the ‘Forgiveness of Sins’ was God’s eschatological restoration of Israel as His people once again, bringing them out of slavery and restoring His rule amongst them. Israel was suffering as a nation because of her sins. God was promising that He would deal with the problem of Israel’s past unfaithfulness to the covenant once and for all. God’s dealing with Israel’s sins was the only manner in which Israel could be restored once again (cf. Isaiah 40:1-2).
The problem of the old covenant was the old fallen humanity of Israel (Hebrews 8:7-8a). Israel was still in Adam and the old covenant was unable to deal with this. In fact, far from bringing blessing to Israel as it desired, the Torah found itself dealing death. A common problem when treating such passages as Jeremiah 31, is that they is not read on their own terms first and then later read in the light of such NT passages as Hebrews 8. Jeremiah 31 is addressed to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It is not primarily addressed to individuals. The passage promises to deal with the past unfaithfulness of the houses of Israel and Judah; the focus is not upon individuals detached from these nations. We should give these facts full weight before seeking to understand such passages as Hebrews 8.
Israel had matured in unfaithfulness and rebellion and come under the curse of God in history. The Torah — the covenant document —brought down its curse upon persistently rebellious Israel. Although there were faithful individuals within Israel, as part of an unfaithful nation, they share in its curse of exile and faced covenantal death.
Although we see an initial fulfillment of this passage in return from exile, I will not discuss that here. In Christ we see a greater fulfillment. Jesus comes as Israel’s representative Messiah, summing up the nation within Himself. On the cross of Calvary Jesus bears the curse of the Torah that has fallen upon the covenant people of Israel. In His death Christ dies bearing the penalty for the sins committed by the nation of Israel under the old covenant order (Hebrews 9:15). Following His death, Christ is raised in power by the Holy Spirit. This is the true demonstration of the eschatological ‘Forgiveness of Sins’. Resurrection is justification and vindication.
In the new covenant it is impossible for the people of God ever to be exiled from God’s presence again. Christ has brought us into God’s very throne room. Individuals may fall away, but the problem of apostasy of the whole covenant people has been finally dealt with. For the new covenant people to totally fall away, Christ Himself would have to fall away for our existence as the restored Israel is found as we are found in Christ, Israel’s representative Messiah.
As we abide in Christ by faith there is no possibility of coming under a curse. We are regarded by God as perfect in Him. All of the benefits of His maturity become ours. We can know continual forgiveness. We are given the house keys (the keys of the kingdom), full table rights (at the Lord’s Supper) and many other such things.
Some Problems with Baptist Readings
The following are some brief thoughts on what I see as the most immediate problems in the Reformed Baptist reading of such passages as Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8:—
1. I don’t believe that enough thought is given to the fact that the promises are made to unfaithful old covenant Israel. The covenantal dimensions of the passage seem to be treated poorly. I believe that regarding Christ as the heart of the new covenant humanity makes a whole lot more sense of the passage. As Christ is Israel’s representative Messiah the promises are truly fulfilled for Israel; it is Israel’s sin in particular that is dealt with by God at the cross (the sin of the world in general is also dealt with, but not in the same way as the sin of Israel). The Church is then the new Israel formed around Israel’s representative Messiah following His ascension. It is the visible Church in Christ (after Pentecost) that is the fulfillment of Jeremiah 31 and not mere detached regenerated individuals.
2. The individualistic character of Baptist readings of Jeremiah 31 strikes me as quite unsatisfying a reading of the text. It tends to view redemptive history primarily from the perspective of the individual and misses much of the bigger picture. Jeremiah 31 promises that God will deal with the sin of a people as a whole and not just of detached individuals. Jeremiah 31 promises that God will establish a people that are faithful and not just a collection of detached individuals. I don’t believe that Baptists give enough attention to the ‘people-ness’ of the faithful people that God promises to establish and opt for far too individualistic an understanding of faith.
3. I see no reason why the infant seed of believers cannot be the recipients of all of the blessings spoken of in Jeremiah 31. The promised knowledge of God is not primarily intellectual knowledge. The infant child knows its mother, even though it may not yet be able to articulate its relationship with its mother. In a similar manner the infant children of believers are baptized into God’s house in which He dwells by the Holy Spirit and grow up in an environment where God speaks to them, feeds them and relates to them through others. This immediacy of this relationship to God constitutes ‘knowing’ in my books. The fact that infants brought up in the Church may one day fall away does not undermine the fact that, at least for some time, they truly knew the Lord.
4. Jeremiah 31 is a prophecy, not a passage dealing with the proper subjects of Baptism. Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 8 provide me with no compelling reason to argue against infant Baptism (quite the opposite!). There are plenty of arguments elsewhere in Scripture that support the practice.
5. Given the ‘people-ness’ of the restored Israel, I find it extremely hard to believe that infants would be excluded. Such an arrangement suggests a separation between nature and grace. Grace operates irrespective of and contrary to the patterns of creation. A new humanity in which the weakest and most dependent members of our human race are excluded is not much of a new humanity. It also seems to me that Baptists are establishing an unbiblical standard for true faith. The Bible seems to teach the reality of faith in infants of believers (e.g. Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6).
The Professional Association of Teachers will be told next week the label of failure could undermine children's enthusiasm for school.
Liz Beattie, a retired teacher, will call on the association's annual gathering in Buxton, Derbyshire, to "delete the word 'fail' from the educational vocabulary to be replaced with the concept of 'deferred success'".
Thoughts on Infant Baptism from Stasiak and Searle
Since I have found both authors so helpful on the subject, I thought that I would share some of the thoughts of Mark Searle (‘Infant Baptism Reconsidered’) and Kurt Stasiak (Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism) on infant Baptism with you all. Both authors are Roman Catholics and write in the light of the Roman Catholic post-conciliar debate on the initiation of infants.
Kurt Stasiak explores the practice of infant Baptism through the lens of the NT teaching on the subject of adoption and our human experience of it (a taster of his approach can be found in this article. Adoption is ‘an act of extraordinary initiative and love’; adopted children are given something to which they have no title by birth. Adoption ‘delivers a child from an unfortunate or tragic situation and into an advantageous or favorable situation’; adoption is not an end in itself, but is designed to bring children into the fullness of a new life. It is the helplessness of the child that moves the parents to adopt, not anything that the child itself brings. Adoption identifies children with, and incorporates them into, a new family; all of this goes far beyond mere legal considerations. Adopted children gain new brothers, sisters and parents. Adoption is an ‘objective fact’ and is ‘ordinarily irrevocable, but the adopted child’s freedom of will always remains intact’; the adopted child remains free to reject all that adoption has given him. Even though adopted children may always have been aware of the fact of their adoption, their appreciation of and understanding of their adoption will deepen over the course of time. Nevertheless, they never become more or less adopted.
The “point” of infant baptism—it is the point of adoption, of taking the initiative on behalf of another—is that neither God, nor Church, nor parents, keep the child “in limbo” until some future time when the child is able or willing to respond to the love already present and presented. Parents love their infants because of who they are now, not because of who they might eventually become. And if the precautions many parents today take even as the child is being “knit together in the mother’s womb” is any indication, they love their child “before now”: before the child from their flesh becomes their child in the world.
If it is possible for human parents to offer this generous love even before the birth of their child, must we not attribute it as well to the Father whose love everywhere and at all times seeks us out first? God loves the child as he or she is now: as child, as one whose “every action is already written in his book and whose every day is decreed before one of them [comes] into being.” God encounters the child as both of them are now: as loving Father, as little child. Although he writes of infants already baptized, Rahner’s observation that “a child too can be baptized” even though “underage and incapable of directing his life” would seem to proclaim the victory of God’s initiative over the limitations of human chronology: “God deals directly with [the infant]. And because He always forestalls our needs, the distance in time between His mighty life-giving Word and our living response to it is of no significance.”
It seems to me that many modern theologies leave infants and children in limbo. The child is viewed primarily as a potential adult. The idea that the infant as an infant has an important role to play in the life of the church seems alien to many. This is a point that Stasiak brings out powerfully in his book. Children are regarded as ‘neutral’, having neither faith nor unbelief.
Stanley Hauerwas observes (in God, Medicine, and Suffering) that one of our deepest problems with the suffering of children is that they are seen to be without a narrative that can make some sense of their lives in the face of the pointlessness of their deaths. This problem is rooted in our conviction that our narratives are our own creations. However, if we believe that by God’s grace we are brought into a narrative that is not of our own making (both as adults and as children) we will have resources that are more sufficient for coping in the face of tragic suffering and death. Infant Baptism teaches us that the story in terms of which we must interpret our lives is not, in the final analysis, our own personal story, but the story of Israel that climaxed in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Rather than focusing on Jesus coming into our lives, we must focus on our entering into His life (think about this next time you give your ‘testimony’!). Anti-paedobaptism is often founded on the radically modern, individualistic and voluntaristic notion that one should have no other story than the story you chose when you had no story (to paraphrase Hauerwas).
Infant Baptism teaches us of a grace that we did not choose; the Reformers were not wrong to see within infant Baptism a powerful demonstration of the fact that God’s grace comes first. In our rush to narrate our own lives, infant Baptism stops us in our tracks, teaching us that God’s word of grace preceded the first word on our own tongues. As Stasiak puts it:—
Infant baptism confronts us with the priority of God’s word and work, and both the Pauline concept and the human experience of adoption emphasize the priority of this word and work that is so characteristic a feature of the baptism of an infant. Adoption speaks first of the initiative of another: “God sent his Son to make us sons,” to do for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves…. Conversion is the turning around of one’s life and the profession of one’s faith. But it is also standing still and remaining quiet long enough so that one may realize where one already is and where one already belongs, because one has already been claimed: claimed for the Father, claimed by the Father’s grace and love, claimed as a member of the Father’s family. For those adults baptized as infants, the grace of their continuing conversion as adults is their constant return to the grace first offered them in baptism, the grace to know who they are and whose they are: God’s children, God’s “once and future children.”
We should feel neither theological embarrassment nor sacramental discomfort as we consider the “passivity” of our infants at their baptism—nor should we feign their participation by having adults answer “on their behalf,” as did the preconciliar rite. As the Church baptizes her infants, it is the adults who should be silent! It is the strong and the wise, the committed and the mature, the experienced and the competent, who should feel the loss for words. For in infant baptism—as in the initiation of our adults, the forgiving of our sins, and the anointing of our sick—it is God’s word that effects, transforms, reconciles, and comforts. In infant baptism we do sacramentally to and for the infant what God has done and continues to do for us throughout all the ages and stages of our once and future childhood: we offer grace as gift.
For many, Baptism is to be regarded as an overcoming of the ‘givenness’ of life, by means of our free choice as individuals. Infant Baptism proclaims something radically different: the givenness of the sinful world order is exchanged for a gracious ‘alternative givenness’ (to use Peter Leithart’s words). It is important that we appreciate the ‘givenness’ of life. None of us is conceived into a neutral state. God does not wait for the autonomous decision to rebel against Him on the part of the infants of the Amalekites before commanding Saul to slay them in 1 Samuel 15:3. The infants of the Amalekites are God’s enemies from the moment of their conception. On the other hand, the infants of the Israelites are considered quite differently.
This principle does not end with the coming of the new covenant. The infants of unbelievers are still considered unclean and the infants of believers are considered to be ‘holy’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). The status of ‘holy’ goes far beyond the mere status of being ‘clean’. Those who are ‘holy’ (in this case the infants and unbelieving spouses of believers) are set apart for sanctuary service. As Baptism is the means by which we are invested for priestly sanctuary service infants ought to be baptized and unbelieving spouses of believers alerted to the claim that God has made on their lives. If they are willing to undergo Baptism we ought to baptize them immediately and then instruct them in the outworking of their new roles.
Mark Searle brings out the fact that no one is neutral by describing faith as a ‘human universal’, something that is borne out by a number of passages in Scripture. He writes:—
James Fowler has proposed a view of faith which corresponds closely to the conciliar understanding of theological faith. In Fowler’s view, faith need not be necessarily thought of as an exclusively religious phenomenon. “Rather,” he suggests, “faith becomes the designation for a way of leaning into life. It points to a way of making sense of one’s existence. It denotes a way of giving order and coherence to the force-field of life. It speaks of the investment of life-grounding trust and life-orientating commitment.”
As he goes on to point out, this understanding of faith “means to imply that it is a human universal.” He traces its development through infancy and early childhood and argues that the development of faith of some kind, some sort of making sense of the world, some sense of what one may base one’s trust on and what makes life worthwhile, is an inevitable development in every child. Even before it becomes articulate—if indeed it ever becomes articulate about its faith, for this “leaning into life” is rarely brought to full consciousness—the child comes to faith. The question then is less one of whether a child can “have” faith than it is a question of the kind of faith it comes in fact to exercise in the first weeks and months of life. There is no need to have recourse to St. Thomas Aquinas’s distinction between habitus and actus, tailored as it is to a cognitive understanding of faith. With a precognitive understanding of faith, the child is seen, from the moment of its birth, to be enacting its developing faith as it encounters its human environment, experiences dependency and separation, shared meanings and ritual patterns, provision for its bodily needs, and a sense of its own social and sexual identity. Faith is a holistic, prerational sense of who we are and of the kind of world we live in, an integrated vision of how things are and what it all means. From a theological perspective, then, what is at issue in the celebration of the sacraments is not so much whether the candidates have faith, but of whether their faith is faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. For adults this means that evangelizing is a matter of uprooting false faith as well as a matter of communicating true faith, a realization that has enormous implications for the catechumenate. For the children of the Church, it means forming them in right faith from infancy. To wait until they attain the use of reason is already to wait too long and to leave their faith to chance.
Parents who wait for their children to ‘make their own decision’ in favour of the life of faith fail to appreciate the potential tragic consequences of leaving their children outside the ‘givenness of grace’. Searle deals with the givenness of grace in the following quote:—
Sin cannot be reduced simply to individual, conscious, wilful acts. Similarly the redemptive gift of paschal faith, the Christlike way of “leaning into life,” is not necessarily anything which has to await our conscious decision or deliberate choice. It is rather something we discover to be already operative in us by the grace of God by the time we become aware of it.
This grace, this gift of faith, comes through hearing, through the Word of God addressed to the child. But the Word here is not the written Word, as yet unavailable to the infant, so much as the biblical dabar, mediated in this instance by the community of faith and especially the believing family. Thus it is not so much that baptism infuses faith into a child as that baptism is the deliberate and conscious insertion of the child into the environment of faith, which faith is the faith of the Church, which in turn is the faith of Christ himself.
When we appreciate the fact that the given character of our environment (graced or cursed) precedes choice on our part, we will be far better equipped to challenge voluntaristic notions. Oliver O’Donovan criticizes John Howard Yoder in The Desire of the Nations:—
Certainly, a church defined by the faith it confesses will be free, for ‘coerced faith’ is a contradiction in terms. But does that make it appropriate to speak of a ‘voluntary society’, which usually connotes an association into which people contract optionally, i.e. not only without anyone forcing them to, but without any pressing need driving them to? A voluntary society is one that I could leave without incurring grave or irremediable loss, which might seem a strange thing for a Christian to think about the church. Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organised? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat?
Stasiak brings out the character of our real decision very well:—
If the argument is that people should decide for themselves whether they want to be baptized, I answer that the daily task of Christians baptized at whatever age is precisely that: to decide for themselves each and every day whether they want to live as baptized Christians are called to live. Children are not asked if they want to be adopted; they are adopted because they need to be and because they are loved—loved to the extent that a particular family wishes to bring them into the family as a full member.
The Church needs to focus more on developing an ‘ethos of conversion’ for all of her members than on seeking to obtain adult conversions for all who wish to be baptized.
Are all infants suitable candidates for Baptism? No. How do we decide which children are appropriate candidates? We need to pay attention to whether they have been called by God. God makes claims upon us through others. As I have already pointed out, God declares that the children of believing parents are ‘holy’ — claimed for sanctuary use. Alexander Schmemann has some insights on this subject, as one would expect. God’s grace has already begun to claim the child long before the child was born. God claimed the marriage of the child’s parents. If that ‘one flesh’ union was graciously claimed by God, how much more the ‘one flesh’ union of the parents in their physical offspring! As Stasiak observes: ‘The commitment to Christian marriage is … the commitment to have one’s children baptized as infants.’
The infant child of believing parents receives a vocation from God as God makes claims upon its life through its parents. Children of Christian families do not inherit the adopted status of their parents (we are not born Christians; our identity as Christians comes in the rebirth of Baptism), but God does claim them through their parents. They are set apart for adoption. Believing parents can become the instruments by which God’s grace grasps their natural children and returns them to their keeping as Christian children (thus forming them into Christian parents).
Furthermore, such infants are born into the givenness of the life of faith, by which their family’s life is powerfully shaped. They are already growing in a faithful response to God’s claim of grace. Infant children of believing families inherit a way of ‘leaning into life’, which serves as an initial response to the vocation that God has given them. In some sense then we can say that infant Baptism is a form of believers’ Baptism.
Infant Baptism flows from the realization that neither the claims of God not the life of faith can be put on hold, leaving infants in a state of limbo until they attain to some age of mature decision. God claims infants as they are — as infants — and values them as such. The new humanity is not for mature adult believers alone. Furthermore, in their own way, infants already begin to faithfully respond to God as their Father as they are ‘cast upon [Him] from birth’ (Psalm 22:10) through His gracious adoption. Baptism is a part of their being brought into the fulfilment of the life of faith.
Baptism is not primarily about my personal faith as an individual believer. It is about the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Baptism places me into a story that is far greater than my own, a story that was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In Baptism I am buried with Him. When we appreciate that the narrative that underlies Baptism is not primarily my individual narrative, but the narrative of redemptive history, infant Baptism makes a whole lot more sense. Baptism is not my making of my own narrative by my act of decision. Rather, Baptism is the gracious retelling of my narrative in terms of God’s grace accomplished in Christ and the Faith that has finally come in Him.
A letter from Bishop Wright to the Times. I am still shocked that a serious Bible scholar like Wright could be in favour of women bishops. The whole move towards women bishops constitutes a catastrophic betrayal of some fundamental elements of the Christian faith.
I'm sure that many of you already listen to it, but I thought that I would give Ancient Faith Radio a plug. It is often quite different to anything that I am used to, but it has steadily grown on me. Unfortunately, their website seems to be temperamental, but all you need to do is download this file and open it using Real Player. You could also use 'Open URL' in Windows Media Player and open 'http://sc3.audiorealm.com:10966'. Needless to say (but I'm going to say it anyway) I don't agree with a number of the theological positions that are expressed (they are EO, after all).
I decided that I would rather do this sooner rather than later and so I took up Joel's offer of a tagging. Here goes.
How many books do I own?
I own approximately 1,500 books. The bulk of these books are theological. I would estimate that around 150 of my books are fiction. There are also a good number of history books (of which I haven’t read as much as I should), and a small selection of books on such subjects as Mathematics, Sociology, Economics and Philosophy. These books look good on my shelves, but I could only claim to have mastered the books on Mathematics. If I were to add my children’s books the number would probably not jump that much; Peter has inherited most of my collection.
At present I am living in my parents’ home and my books are almost all stored in my bedroom. The basement, attic, out-kitchen and garage have all been converted to house my father’s library, which probably has about 9,000 volumes, the vast majority of which are theological. In a few months time, when I move to St Andrews, I have to make the hard decision of choosing which books I am going to leave behind.
Most of the books in my library are second hand and have been obtained at rock bottom prices. I spend the money that I save in such areas as clothing, transport and holidays on books. Of late I have been buying less in quantity and spending more on quality books. My library could do with a careful weeding; there are dozens of books that I know are absolutely worthless and will never be read. Throwing out a book goes totally against my grain.
What's the last book I bought?
I have bought a number of books since my birthday a few weeks ago: Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament; Kurt Stasiak, Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism; Sudhir Kakar, The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India; Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana; Raymond Brown (ed.), Mary in the New Testmant.
What's the last book I read?
At present I am halfway through Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and am near the beginning of James Jordan’s From Bread to Wine: Toward a More Biblical Liturgical Theology, Stanley Hauerwas’ God, Medicine, and Suffering and Walter Brueggemann’s Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World. I really have no quality reading time at the moment. I read when I can at work and on the bus; I am usually too drained to think when I come back home. I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I almost fell asleep at work today. When I am tired my memory and concentration are appalling and I find it exceedingly difficult to read or study. I hope that things will change when I start at university. I doubt it; my body has not really been able to sustain my appetite for reading since I first got ill about eight and a half years ago.
Over the last two weeks I have read Moisés Silva, Has the Church Misread the Bible?, Leon J. Podles, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity, Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Arete and Kurt Stasiak, Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism, all of which I would recommend (although I feel that The Church Impotent certainly has its fair share of flaws).
What are the five books that mean the most to me?
Although I might well choose a totally different set of books were I given the choice again, here is my current selection.
I decided that, considering how foundational one’s childhood is for the development of one’s identity, I ought to choose at least one book from my own. Thinking back over my childhood, there are a number of books that really stick out in my memory. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia fired my youthful imagination and I probably read through the series a dozen times. It is hard to beat Lewis, but I think that Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows won a deeper place in my heart than any other children’s book. I first heard the abridged version as a bedtime story and returned to the full version a few years later to read such chapters as ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’. It is impossible to express the unique combination of feelings that this book evokes whenever I see it. I really have to read it again.
My well-thumbed copy of the 1989 edition of Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack brings back many memories of early summer mornings, reading under the covers. I grew up in Ireland, where Gaelic football, soccer and hurling were the games that everyone played; cricket was the Englishman’s sport. My deep love of cricket and the countless hours spent poring over the 1,000 or more pages in Wisden’s Almanack solidified my sense of a distinct identity, for better or worse. The fact that I grew up wedged between different worlds, and feeling at home in neither, deeply affects me to this day. It has left me with a difficulty in truly connecting with any single community (which is probably my greatest curse and my greatest blessing) and a tendency to take up residence in the no man’s land that exists between ecclesiastical traditions. For this I can say that Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack means more to me than any book from my childhood. It is my first selection.
My first real reading of serious theological works was in the beginning of 2000, when I read Robert L. Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. My relationship with Reymond’s work has soured a lot since I first read him, but it is hard to argue that many books have ‘meant’ more to me than his. Reymond was the one who first won me over to the Reformed faith and he presents the form of Reformed theology that I have been reacting against ever since. John Frame’s Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought was also a very important book for me at this time. It sowed certain seeds that came to bear considerable fruit in my thinking and theological development, even though they were partially dormant during my period as a theonomist, when my attention was often elsewhere.
However, important though these two books were to me, the book that means the most to me from this period of my life (1998-2001) is probably Thomas Jackson’s three-volume series, The Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers. During the latter part of my teenage years I was at war with my family and with God and all but confirmed my rejection of the Christian faith. It is hard to imagine myself feeling such extreme hatred as I did at that time, but, looking back, I cannot deny that I did. It was towards the end of this time that I was given The Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers to work on. I was struck in a manner that I still cannot explain by the holiness and aspiration of these men. It was at that time that the thaw set in. The results of the thaw were not seen for a little while, but the time came when it seemed as if everything had changed overnight. My father gave me a leather-bound copy of the three volumes. This was a defining point in our relationship. I still have them on the shelves above my bed. They remind me of the power of forgiveness, reconciliation and the overwhelming grace of God. I cannot imagine any book apart from the Bible meaning more to me than they do. They are my second selection.
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion are probably the chief reason why my reaction against Robert Reymond never turned into a complete rejection of the Reformed faith. The warmth of Calvin’s writing, and the liberation that I felt when I read him, inspired me greatly at this time. Calvin’s high view of the Church and the sacraments (relative to Reymond and other contemporary Reformed writers) also provided me with an antidote to the low ecclesiology and sacramentology that I received during my studies at Bible college. During this time (2002-2003) I was also greatly helped by Mark Horne’s Theologia website and such books as Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God and John Williamson Nevin’s The Mystical Presence. The Institutes of the Christian Religion are my third selection.
Towards the end of 2003 I started blogging. My thinking in 2003 was totally revolutionized by two things. At the very beginning of the year I had listened to John Barach’s talk on Covenant and Election from the 2002 Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference. This began an important paradigm shift for me. I spent much of the rest of the year trying to think out all of the implications. In September I read Peter Leithart’s Against Christianity, which reaffirmed and powerfully articulated many of the convictions I had already reached and pushed me forward in many other ways. It was also Leithart who introduced me to such writers as Milbank, O’Donovan, Schmemann, Zizioulas and Hauerwas, writers that have played a significant role in my thinking ever since. Against Christianity was the right book at the right time and it is my fourth selection.
My final selection is N.T. Wright’s The Letter to the Romans. I didn’t properly get down to reading Wright until late 2002. In college my friend Sebastian always put in a good word for Wright and kept pestering me to read him. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t really take his advice. I read New Heavens, New Earth and The Myth of the Millennium and little else. I had an unhealthy overemphasis upon partial preterist and postmillennial eschatology at that time. Whilst much of the substance of my eschatology remains the same, I hope that it is kept in a better balance now. My first serious reading of Wright was The Climax of the Covenant. After that I was hooked. I think that I have read almost everything that he has written by now, and I have read a number of his works multiple times. I must confess that my interest has waned a little of late. The flaws seem more apparent. However, I cannot deny how much Wright has done for my thinking. As his Romans commentary was the book that finally won Wright’s astounding theological project its current place in my thinking, it has to be my fifth selection.
There was no room for James Jordan’s Through New Eyes. I feel bad about that.
I would have tagged Dennis, but I won’t, because he doesn’t want to be. Instead I will tag Andrew, Paul and Aaron.
Even though I had been expecting something like this to happen sooner or later, it winded me when it did. It was vaguely surreal hearing the news at work yesterday. Our thoughts and prayers are with the relatives of the victims of the bombings. I am also praying for Christians who have the opportunity to bring God's light into this situation.
Please pray that the animosity that exists towards many ethnic communities in Britain does not spiral out of control. At a time like this people are looking for scapegoats to take their anger out on. I know that many Christians will rush to point out that this is the fault of Islam. There is some truth in that, but we mustn't forget that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims are probably as repulsed by these horrible crimes as we are. Please pray for wisdom, grace and courage for Christians who have the only resources that can really cope in the face of such radical evil.
New Testament Teaching
In Matthew 19:7-9, Jesus argues against easy divorce, provoking the response of His disciples in verse 10. They believe that it might well be better to be without a wife than to be bound to her for life, without liberal divorce laws. In response Jesus teaches that there are those to whom it has been given to be better off without marrying. Jesus speaks of those who have ‘made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.’ Here Jesus teaches that there are some who abstain from marriage in a manner that is particularly connected with the coming kingdom of God. Wilfully abstaining from marriage is not seen to be a bad thing. Rather, it is regarded as something that is ‘given’ to certain people. Such a form of singleness is not to be regarded as a mere concession, or as a second-best option. Rather, such singleness is a positive vocation that God has given to particular people.
We see a similar thing taught by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul affirms singleness as a good gift from God. Not all have been given this gift, but those who have been given this gift should learn to rejoice in it.
Paul does not equate the gift of singleness with the positive preference of the state of singleness over that of marriage on the part of the single person. Many people who have been given the gift of singleness do not enjoy it. We should tie in Paul’s teaching about singleness to his teaching about spiritual gifts, as he himself describes singleness as a ‘gift’ (1 Corinthians 7:7). Gifts are things that God has given to the Church, through the ministry of individuals who have been entrusted with those gifts. We owe the Church our gifts, whether we personally enjoy living out the gifts that we entrusted with or not. Single people owe the Church their faithfulness in singleness; married people owe the Church fidelity in their marriages. Faithfulness in these different callings is something that we do because we belong to each other. By this very notion of gifting, singleness is placed within a deeper foundation of belonging.
This should also expose the error of those who claim that singleness is a place of non-commitment. For the Christian, singleness is lived out as a life of commitment to God and commitment to His people. Both marriage and singleness can become self-centred and selfish. For the Christian, they are both places where we learn to lay down our lives for other people. Those who lay down their lives in such a manner will one day take them up again.
The notion of gift can also help us in other ways. As Christians we are called to live the entirety of our lives as a continuing gift. We must accept both marriage and singleness as gifts. We should not continually try to grasp for marriage. When one grasps for marriage, the enjoyment of it as a gift is hampered. This does not mean that we need ignore opportunities that God may present us with, but it does mean that we should not desperately seek to force open doors that God has, in His gracious will, closed to us.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul presents the goodness of the practice of singleness as something that is particularly connected with the fact of the ‘present distress’. The ‘time is short’ and the ‘form of this world is passing away’ (vv.29-31). What is Paul teaching?
Some have argued that Paul was teaching that Jesus was about to return and that it was better not to make any long term plans. They argue that history has proved Paul to be wrong and that we need not take his teaching in this passage seriously. I believe that Paul is in fact arguing for a far richer understanding of history.
Through Christ and His work the kingdom of God has broken into history. The end of history has, in a very real sense, arrived in the middle of history. For the Christian the age to come overlaps the present age. The presence of the end of history in the middle of history relativizes all of the relationships of this present age. This present age is passing away and so we must not invest ourselves too strongly in it. Whilst the structures of this world still exist, after the resurrection of Christ they no longer have the same weight to them; they have been eclipsed by the structures of the new creation in Christ, into which we grow within the Body of Christ. Like fleeting shadows they will pass away before the rising sun.
Christian singleness can be a prophetic and counter-cultural act. Christian singleness declares that the end has come in Christ. As the end has come in Christ, one’s hope for the future does not rely on structures of this present world, like marriage and the family. Stanley Hauerwas writes: “Singleness was legitimated, not because sex was thought to be a particularly questionable activity, but because the mission of the church was such that ‘between the times’ the church required those who were capable of complete service to the Kingdom. And we must remember that the ‘sacrifice’ made by the single is not that of ‘giving up sex,’ but the much more significant sacrifice of giving up heirs. There can be no more radical act that this, as it is the clearest institutional expression that one’s future is not guaranteed by the family, but by the church. The church, the harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is now the source of our primary loyalty.”
The early Church structured itself in such a way to encourage certain people not to marry. Whilst pagan widows were frequently pressurized to remarry (in some cases they were even fined if they did not do so within a particular time period), Christian widows were mildly discouraged from remarrying and a number of them were supported by the Church. Pagan society believed that its future was secured by the family. Christians attacked this idolatry by living in a way that proclaimed that their future as a community was secured by the risen Christ. The Church would grow, even apart from biological reproduction.
Marriage may be good and blessed by God (v.28, 38), but the single person is in a better position to live free from the passing structures of the world (v.32) and invest himself totally in the service of God.
Within our society, singleness can retain just such a prophetic and counter-cultural character. For Christians to manifest contentment without running after genital sex, marriage and family strikes people as strange. How can one attain personal fulfilment apart from these things?
Hauerwas writes again:—
I think that we cannot overlook the fact that one of the few clear differences between Christianity and Judaism is the former’s entertainment of the idea of singleness as the paradigm way of life for its followers. . . . I think it cannot be disputed that Paul and Jesus both tend to say that some people will choose not to get married because of a specific religious mission. Moreover, they seem to imply that this is a good thing.
I think the implications of this have seldom been appreciated. For in a certain sense it breaks the natural necessity of the family. The family is not just something we do because we are in the habit, nor is it something we must do to fulfill a moral purpose. Rather marriage and the family, like the life of singleness, becomes a vocation for the up-building of a particular kind of community. Christianity, in a certain sense, thus prepared the way for the romantic view of marriage and the family by setting the institutional form necessary to make marriage voluntary.
The romantic perversion should therefore remind us that if we are to sustain marriage as a Christian institution we will not do it by concentrating on marriage itself. Rather, it will require a community that has a clear sense of itself and its mission and the place of the family within that mission. ... It is clear that the family, in order to be a viable moral enterprise, requires community beyond itself. We see, however, that the special commitments of Christians concerning marriage require an even more substantive community. Yet it is our conviction that the church is formed by a story that gives it the convictions necessary to sustain those called to marry and have children in a world that has been bent by sin and evil. We have the courage to call children into such a world because our hope is not in this world but in a God who has called us to his kingdom through the work of Christ.
Natural Families and the Church
As Hauerwas observes, giving up heirs is a very significant sacrifice to make. However, in the Church even single people can be parents. Baptism makes parents in the Church, not biology. As the Church is a family formed by adoption, not by natural birth, married people do not have a privileged parental role in the Church. No one is born into the Church. We enter the Church through the rebirth of Baptism. Baptism involves leaving our fathers and mothers. The identity and relationships given in Baptism are deeper than the identities and relationships given to us as part of the natural family. In the Church water is thicker than blood.
To pass into God’s presence you must pass through fire and knife (as James Jordan has observed). Christ came to bring flame and sword to the earth (Matthew 10:34f; Luke 12:49-53). The fire and knife that is applied to the individual baptizand threatens many natural relationships. Each baptized person is baptized in a manner that cuts them off from natural loyalties. It is quite possible that we will receive our natural parents back in a new way, but the claims of Baptism often prevent, rather than facilitate this. Oliver O’Donovan writes:—
Baptism is the sign that marks the gathering community. It was the sign that marked the community when Jesus himself accepted it; for he came to be baptized by John as the representative of God’s expectant people. In accepting baptism, each new believer accepts Jesus as his or her representative, and accepts Jesus’ people as his or her people. Identified with him in his baptism, the believer is identified with Israel present in him, and so with the church which is Israel baptised with the Holy Spirit. We say ‘each’ new believer because existing collective identities have to be set aside and replaced with this new collective identity. Even members of existing Israel had to come out to the wilderness to find God’s Israel there. In baptism each person makes vows singly, is addressed singly and (by tradition) given a new name. The prophets of the exile expected that the gathering to Jerusalem must take place one by one (Isa. 27:12, cf. Jer. 3:14).
We ought not to baptize the children of believers ‘because of the covenant’. The children of believers do not belong to the new covenant until after Baptism. The reasons for Baptism are far more subtle than the common Reformed argument generally present them to be. The infant children of believers are baptized as individual believers who have received a divine calling. Family solidarity is a reality, but Baptism was not designed to underwrite it.
The Christian family can only become a true solidarity once it has been consumed by the fire and sword of Baptism. The Christian family can become a ‘Church in miniature’. However, the family is not naturally a domestic church. It can only be formed into one through the waters of Baptism. The natural family is taken apart and the family is resurrected in a new form.
One of the key errors of John Calvin and other Reformers was the manner which they tended to present the ‘domestic church’ as a natural entity. By their teaching concerning the relationship between circumcision and baptism, the Reformers tended to place the emphasis on natural relationships underlying spiritual ones. The analogy between circumcision and Baptism should not be pressed very far. It began to look as if the NT Church grew out of the domestic church, rather than vice versa. Spiritual relationships gradually came to be seen as weak secondary constructions and not as real and powerful as biological relationships. Since the Reformation there has been a powerful familialization of the Church. The biological family (the domestic church) is seen by many to be more important and primary than the gathered Church. Blood is once again declared to be thicker than water. Part of this process has been caused by a sentimentalization of the family that has accompanied the feminization of the Church, but I believe that the Reformers’ theology of Baptism must also bear some of the responsibility.
The situation created by the Reformers was far better than that which existed before them. However, it still had its problems, problems which we must wrestle with today. The chief among these problems is the failure of the Church to relativize the family. In fact, the presupposition that blood is thicker than water has resulted in the family relativizing the Church in many instances.
There is a tendency to think of Baptism as something that happens to the baptizand alone, with everyone else witnessing. However, Baptism involves the entire Church community. Every time that a person is baptized the Church itself is remade, just as a family is remade when a child is born into it. Christian initiation is a glorious and multifaceted reality. A lifetime spent encountering the various Baptisms of different people will not exhaust what Christian initiation is. The fact that we tend to think merely in terms of infant or adult baptism can be deeply unhelpful. Each Baptism is different and glorious in its own particular way, just as every natural birth is. The baptism of an infant is a gracious remaking of the community in a manner that differs from the baptism of a grandparent, a teenager, a widow, a father, a single person, or a retarded person, each of which have their own particular grace to them and each of which serve to continue the Church’s initiation into the kingdom of God, which began at Pentecost.
Through Baptism the single person can be blessed with many children and enjoy a name that will never be cut off. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Ethiopian Eunuch, who, according to tradition, became the ‘father’ of the Ethiopian Church.
In the past I have argued in favour of godparents. Godparents should be selected by the Church, rather than by the family. They ought to represent the Church’s parental role and serve as helpers of the natural parents in their role in the spiritual training of their children. In the absence of godparents it is easy to forget the reality of adoption when it comes to the children of believing parents who are baptized in infancy. The Church is not merely some extension of the natural family. Being born in a Christian family does not of itself bring one into the Church. 1 Thessalonians 2:6-20 is a good illustration of the role of godparents. Faithful godchildren will be the ‘hope’, ‘joy’ and ‘crown’ in which their godparents will ‘glory’ on the last day. Paul also brings out principles relevant for godparents in 1 Corinthians 4:14-15 and Galatians 4:19.
Reformed people often argue that the task of godparenting is not one that is exclusive to particular people within the Church. In this they are perfectly correct. However, whilst the whole Church shares the task of godparenting, I believe that the practice of setting apart a couple of people to especially represent this role for each particular baptizand (of any age) is a healthy one, with much to recommend it. In the absence of particular godparents set apart to represent the general responsibility of the Church towards the baptizand the role of godparenting is often forgotten entirely. Furthermore, the role of the natural parents is often exalted to an unhelpful extreme to take its place. Whilst I am strongly in favour of the notion of the domestic church, I believe that there is an important place for godparents. Godparents can help natural parents in their tasks within the domestic church and ensure that the domestic church never exalts itself above or separates itself from the larger Church.
The selecting of godparents is a peculiarly Christian practice. Godparents would not make sense in the same way under the old covenant order. Many people were naturally born into the people of God in the old covenant. Women did not have to go through an initiation ceremony, although the woman who had given birth did need to be cleansed (Leviticus 12). Although there was a key place for adoption in the old covenant, the natural family still had the prominent role. The very organ on which circumcision was performed should remind us that natural generation was quite central within the old covenant order. We should also recognize that OT Israel was formed of collections of families within a number of tribes. Circumcision was formed by the head of a household. All of this differs sharply from the practice of NT Baptism.
Gentiles could become proselytes under the old covenant order. However, the old covenant order was one in which natural generation was still extremely important. Although the old covenant had a place for large scale adoption, there was never any doubt that it was a Jewish nation that one was being adopted into. The Jew-Gentile polarity that is done away with in the Church is only possible because the character of the covenant people has changed decisively in the resurrection. Although we must never forget our Jewish heritage, the Christian Church is a place where there is neither Jew nor Greek. Greeks do not have to become Jews to become part of the special people of God and vice versa. The implications of this for the relationship between circumcision and Baptism and the natural family and the Church are quite significant. The familial character of the old covenant order is not to be imposed onto the new covenant order.
Some Concluding Thoughts Concerning Singleness
I believe that the Christian story that I have outlined is more than able to support the practice of courageous Christian singleness, without risking relegating singles to the status of second-class citizens within the Church. I also believe that the position that I have outlined is not without its import for those who are married and for the manner in which they conceive their role within the Church. The following are some very brief thoughts and suggestions for the application of the position on singleness that I have presented.
The need for a community of character
It is important to recognize that this vision of singleness within the Church will never become a reality apart from its adoption by the Church as a whole. Such a vision cannot be implemented by one person alone. Within the Church we all support one another in our different vocations (or ‘gifts’). Single Christians need the support of married Christians and vice versa, if they are to fully live out their vocations as God intended.
Living as a community of character will change our focus from the question: ‘what ought we to do?’ to the question: ‘what sort of people ought we to be?’ Christian character is formed, not as we learn to obey a list of ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s, but as we learn to inhabit a particular governing story and reject the other myths that our society presents us with. The Church is the place where we need to learn to live out the particular story that was brought to its climax in Jesus Christ. Our values, our perceptions of our role in life, our understanding of our identity, are all formed by the story that we live in. Single and married people within the Church need to be presented with a strong narrative that can undergird and inform their particular vocations. All too often we have replaced a strong motivating narrative with negative commandments.
As a community of character, we seek to sustain certain ways of life that are rejected by the communities formed by the stories of the world. We are to provide a place where mothers need never contemplate aborting unborn infants, who are discovered to be severely disabled. We are to form a community where the stranger finds a home, where the naked is clothed, where the friendless is loved. We are to form a community where people can get married, despite the rampant divorce in our society. We are to form a community which gives married couples the hope in God necessary to bring children into a world as fallen as ours.
The idea that the Church’s teaching about singleness is merely for single people is ridiculous. It is the duty of the Church as a whole to sustain the practice of singleness in its midst. The fact that singles often feel unwelcome, marginalized and lonely stands as a serious indictment against our churches. The Christian practices of singleness and marriage are far from easy and we are not sufficient to enter into them alone. We all need to support each other in our various vocations. I thank God for many married friends who open up their homes for other single and married Christians to share. I also thank God for many dedicated single Christians who serve the church that I am a member of in ways that would not be so possible for most married Christians.
Such a community of Christian character is only possible when a cross and an empty tomb lie at the centre. As Christians we have the task of mediating God’s presence to others. The fact that Jesus was truly forsaken by God means that we need never be. We must convey this truth by not forsaking each other; by being God’s everlasting arms to our neighbours. Unfortunately, all too many churches minister only to winners. They want to be regarded as rich, successful, happy and healthy. They have no place for the lonely. They have no place for Christ Himself: when Christ comes to visit us, He almost invariably comes to us as the ostracized or lonely person (Matthew 25:34-40).
In particular, a community of Christian character must be a place of genuine friendship and intimacy. The world is a place where deep and intimate friendship is hard to find. The Church should model the power of friendship in all its forms.
As Marva Dawn observes in her book Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy, the Church needs to be the place where intergenerational friendships, like that which existed between Paul and Timothy, are celebrated. The Church needs to celebrate interracial friendship. The Church needs to celebrate friendship with people across social classes, like the friendship that existed between Paul and Onesimus. The Church needs to celebrate non-genital friendships across the gender gap, like the friendship that existed between Jesus and Mary and Martha.
The Church needs to celebrate the richness of friendship that can exist between two people of the same sex, like that which existed between David and Jonathan. Special attention needs to be given to this, given the prejudice of our society against the possibility of such non-genital intimate friendships.
What people need more than anything else is not genital sex, but intimacy. So many people are rushing for sex because they do not know that one can find intimacy apart from it. The Church should provide a place where such intimacy and mutual vulnerability exists. The Bible teaches us that the Church is a place of physical and not merely mental intimacy. Unfortunately far too many churches believe that shared doctrines are all that really matter. The Church is to be a place where we eat together, and even kiss one another (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). So many Christian singles are starved of such physical intimacy. No one hugs them, no one kisses them. The Church is to be a place where such intimacy occurs. Why ever not? — we are closer than family!
We need to think of concrete ways in which intimacy can be encouraged in our churches. How can we express intimacy and enable others to express intimacy in an edifying, wholesome and non-threatening manner. If the Church could just be a place of such deep and genuine friendship, it would grant considerably power to its mission to our chronically lonely society. Neglected needs often give birth to sin, as people grasp for the intimacy they so desire in manipulative, destructive and clumsy ways. People are trawling the trash to find intimacy; let us invite them to a banqueting table.
Sensitivity on the part of churches is crucially important when dealing with singles. Rather than treating singles with a patronizing pity — as those who have ‘drawn the short straw’ — let us grant faithful singles the honour and respect they deserve. Let us also think of ways in which we can support them and encourage them as they live out their ‘gift’. Let us recognize the powerful ways in which they can and do serve the Church. Let us examine the structures of the Church and think of ways in which we can avoid the marginalization of singles and assert the importance and necessity of the role that they play.
Following the Reformation the idea of a theology of celibacy was lost. Celibacy was associated with the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church and was generally abandoned. I believe, however, that there are a number of things that we can learn from the practice of celibacy for the practice of Christian singleness.
As one author puts it: “Celibacy demonstrates the importance of having a purpose for the use of one’s sexuality that is greater than one’s own satisfaction and fulfillment. To say ‘no’ to something as powerfully magnetic as sex requires something even more powerful to which one is saying ‘yes.’” Many Christians today regard marriage as the ultimate purpose of human sexuality. Consequently, singles are encouraged to abstain in order that they can one day express their sexuality in marriage. The practice of celibacy teaches us that sexuality is primarily about the service of God. Celibacy teaches us that our sexuality must always be subordinated to that greater end. Celibacy teaches us that our spiritual and our sexual longings are deeply intertwined.
Far too many Christians have exalted the state of marriage (and adulthood) and have presented singleness (and childhood) as merely preparatory. Celibacy can teach us that singleness has value and significance in itself, even when one is not going to get married.
Celibacy teaches us that our sexuality is not private. Celibate Christians, as well as married Christians, make public vows about their sexuality in the presence of a community, which serves to hold them accountable. All of our sexual lives must be lived out in a manner that is accountable to others. Our sexuality is given to us for something greater than our personal fulfilment.
Successful celibacy is probably best viewed from a positive, rather than a negative perspective. The celibate person must see the glory beyond the cross of self-denial. He pursues this glory and subordinates his sexuality to this pursuit, seeking to live his life as a sexual being in a manner that focuses his attention upon the greater goal. If his focus is on the suffering and on what he is giving up and missing out on, he will not last long. Defining one’s singleness primarily in terms of the absence of marriage will likely produce the same effects.
In some ways celibacy is like martyrdom (just as marriage is, in other respects). Martyrdom teaches the world that some things are of greater value than the preservation of one’s life. Celibacy teaches the world that there are things that are more important than sex, marriage and family.
Celibacy opens up many opportunities. The celibate person is freer to enjoy wider relationships and deep intimacy with many people. The celibate person is able to more clearly focus on God.
Unfortunately, unhelpful teaching on the subject of celibacy has been a cause of problems in the Church to this day. As Mark Searle observes, the amount written on marriage in the patristic period is miniscule compared to the amount written in praise of virginity. The celibacy of the Roman Catholic clergy has also caused many problems. The Reformers reacted against these abuses and sought to reassert the place of marriage. Sadly, in many ways they overreacted and we live with their mixed legacy. In arguing for the legitimacy of marriage for clergy, they often denied the legitimate and important place of celibacy. I believe that Protestants should be prepared to welcome the practice of celibacy in their midst. I believe that we ought to encourage the establishment of groups of widows serving the Church. I also believe that there are benefits of the monastic way of life that Protestants may one day be won over to.
Singleness apart from celibacy
In conclusion, I believe that the Scripture opens ways for us to understand singleness in terms of blessing, rather than in terms of lack.
Singleness has been treated by surrounding it with prohibitions, or seeing it as the loser’s portion. The focus has been on avoiding sin, rather than living the single life as a positive life of worship. We should not be surprised that singles find themselves despairing, bitter and disappointed. Do we think of singleness primarily in terms of lack and deprivation, or in terms of what it frees us to do and be?
Both marriage and singleness involve death, sorrow and self-denial. Both Christian marriage and Christian singleness should also involve resurrection and joy. Unfortunately, Christian marriage is often portrayed as all resurrection and Christian singleness as all death. A more balanced approach will present both the death and the resurrection in both. The death of singleness and the death of marriage are entered into in hope of resurrection. Lose sight of the death and one will soon face serious problems; lose sight of the resurrection and one will soon despair.
Such life as a single Christian grants people the freedom to enjoy, but not be governed by, sexual pleasure. In this respect it nurtures qualities of character that can be crucially important in marriage as well.
Single Christians need to see themselves as sexual people, not denying their sexuality, but living holy lives, motivated by love for God, rather than fear of condemnation. Single people should be granted accountability and support in their lives by the Church. The single life can be a very lonely life, if it is not lived out in a community of belonging.