Yes, I’m aware that James White has posted a caricature of my views. Thanks to everyone who wrote to make sure I saw that. Rather than trying to respond to all of his claims, let me focus today on just one to illustrate how badly White has misunderstood me and the Reformed faith.
He begins his post by writing about how it important to get the other fellow’s views right before criticizing those views and then proceeds to offer a fairly ridiculous caricature:
A few days ago Micah Burke commented on R. Scott Clark’s regular practice of defining “Reformed” on the sole basis of the objects of baptism. That is, Dr. Clark, a professor at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, does not believe a credobaptist can ever be called “Reformed,” effectively transferring the primary weight of “Reformed” from the great central doctrines of the gospel, the sovereign power of God, the perfection of the work of Christ, the resulting emphasis upon worship, Scriptural authority and sufficiency, etc., to the single issue of covenantal signs upon infants.
If this is what I had actually argued, then White would have a basis for complaining but it doesn’t begin to describe my argument with those Baptists who want to be regarded as Reformed. Had White spent just a few minutes here or even better had he bothered to read Recovering the Reformed Confession, he would have seen that my account of what constitutes the Reformed faith is rather richer and more complex than he seems to understand.
White’s critique assumes the very question that is in debate, i.e. whether Reformed theology is reducible to the five heads of doctrine of the Synod of Dort (1619). Confessional Reformed folk, who actually know the history and theology of the Reformed churches, understand, as Richard Muller (among others) has pointed out, that Reformed theology is not reducible to the five heads of doctrine promulgated by the Synod of Dort. Making this case was a major burden of the book Recovering the Reformed Confession.
In a sense, I don’t blame White for thinking that Reformed theology can be so reduced since Reformed folk, who should know better, have too often given the impression that the only thing that makes us Reformed is the so called “Five Points.” This tendency in our own circles is in large part to our inordinate desire to be accepted by others beyond our circles. There are 60 million “evangelicals” (whatever that means) in N. America. There are about 500,000 confessional Reformed folk in N. America. This disparity between those numbers creates a great temptation to minimize the differences between the broader evangelical world and the Reformed confessional theology, piety, and practice.
Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort, and the Westminster Standards (all of which I like to call “the six-forms of unity”) will not permit such a reductionist definition of the Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
The genuine catholicity of Reformed theology should not be minimized. We have always confessed the “holy catholic church” and the catholic creeds (the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed). Much of what Reformed theology has done is to re-arrange our inheritance from the patristic and medieval eras. Still there are Reformed formulations of the doctrines of Scripture, God, man, Christ, church, and sacraments which one must affirm to be Reformed. Soteriology is an essential part of that package, if you will, but only one part. Affirming the Reformed soteriology is a necessary condition of being Reformed but it is not the sole or sufficient condition.
The same is true of our Christology. If, e.g. one affirms the ubiquity of Christ’s humanity one may be a Protestant (e.g. a confessional Lutheran) but one is not Reformed. The same is true of paedobaptism. One must affirm paedobaptism to be Reformed but that affirmation alone is insufficient for being Reformed since many traditions, which are not Reformed, have affirmed paedobaptism. Again, there is a difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition.
Though it is not possible to reduce the Reformed faith to its view of baptism it is not possible to eliminate the Reformed view of baptism from our faith and remain Reformed. If we ask the question, “Did the original Reformed churches accept as Reformed, in their day, those who denied infant baptism?” the answer is clear and unequivocal
As I responded, in the pages of Modern Reformation, sometime back to another critic who was shocked by my claim that paedobaptism is essential to the Reformed faith: Tell it to the Reformed churches. Here is that response:
Evidently the earliest Baptists did not think it necessary to call themselves “Reformed.” They called themselves “General” or “Particular” Baptists. In the Reformation, the Reformed Churches confessed infant baptism as essential to the Reformed faith. In 1530 Huldrych Zwingli did so to the Diet of Augsburg as did the Tetrapolitan Confession (ch. 18; 1530). The First Confession of Basel (Art. 12; 1534), First Helvetic Confession (Art. 22; 1536), Calvin’s catechisms (1537, 1538, 1545), The Geneva Confession (Art. 15; 1536/1537), and the French Confession (Art. 35; 1559), all confessed the moral necessity of infant baptism. In the Belgic Confession (Art. 34; 1561) the Dutch Reformed Churches confess, “We detest the error of the Anabaptists” specifically the practice of re-baptizing believers and denying infant baptism. The Second Helvetic Confession (1561/1566; ch. 20) specifically condemned the denial of paedobaptism. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 74; 1563) insisted on infant baptism. The Westminster Confession 28.5 (1647) arguably calls the “neglect” or condemnation of infant baptism “a great sin.” In the light of this evidence it is hard to see how insisting on it is anything but consistent with confession of the Reformed Churches in which one finds not only a soteriology but also an ecclesiology and doctrine of the sacraments
The distinction at work here is that between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition. Paedobaptism is a necessary condition to being Reformed but it is not a sufficient condition. If we take the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide to being Reformed, as the Reformed churches have done for hundreds of years, then it is interesting that the German Reformed church spent several questions and answers on the doctrine of baptism and went out of their way to specifically reaffirm the doctrine of infant baptism but wrote not a single question and answer specifically or explicitly on the doctrine of election. Now, to be sure, the doctrine of election is implied throughout the catechism and there are historical reasons for that but the fact remains that, were we to judge by the Heidelberg Catechism as what constitutes the Reformed faith we should come up with a rather different answer than that offered by White. We confess:
74. Are infants also to be baptized?
Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as the sign of the Covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.
Above you may have noticed that I referred to the “five heads of doctrine of the Synod of Dort.” I did so deliberately. By referring to them, as is often done, as the “Five Points of Calvinism” a misleading picture is created. First of all, the popular phrase gives the false impression that Calvin is the be all and end all of Reformed theology (but that is a subject for another post). Second, these are not just five abstract theological points. These were canons, rules formulated by baby-baptizing Reformed pastors and theologians from across Europe and the British Isles and the same points were adopted by Reformed, churches. Our church orders required the Baptism of infants.To refuse to present one’s children for baptism was a cause for church discipline. Thus, not surprisingly, there wasn’t a single Baptist at the Synod of Dort. Why not? Because no Baptist was eligible to join a Reformed church. Why not? Because the denial of infant baptism wasn’t tolerated in the Reformed churches.
There were Independents, Presbyterians, and a small number of Episcopalians involved in the drafting of the Westminster Confession, thus relativizing the question of church polity, but they agreed on many things and infant baptism was one of them. The Scottish Presbyterians were able to adopt the Westminster Confession with the understandiing that it implied presbyterian polity but no one could have adopted the Westminster Confession with the understanding that it allowed for the denial of infant baptism.
WCF chapter 28 says:
4. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.
5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
6. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.
7. The sacrament of baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.
It is arguably the case that, by this construction of the chapter on Baptism, the divines intended an implicit reply to the Baptists. Whatever the outcome of that question it is beyond dispute that the Reformed churches in the British Isles confessed infant baptism and required it of their members and disciplined those who refused to have their children baptized. Once more, to state the obvious: there wasn’t a single Baptist involved in the Westminster Assembly. The Baptists had promulgated their own confession in 1644. There were heated pamphlet wars between the Baptists and the Reformed in that period. Baptists were not recognized as Reformed. Why not? Because paedobaptism was regarded as essential to the Reformed faith.
Why is infant baptism essential to the Reformed faith? It is so because we confess that God’s Word requires it. We confess that the promise that God made to Abraham is still in effect: I will be a God to you and to your children. White and our Baptist friends disagree with us. We understand that but they cannot reject a doctrine a doctrine and practice that we regard as essential to the faith and still call themselves Reformed. We might say that they have sympathies with aspects of the Reformed faith but they are not Reformed. Mercedes and GM both have wheels but that doesn’t make a GM a Mercedes.
The Reformed churches confess a theology, a piety, and practice and which infant baptism is essential to it. Undergirding our doctrine and practice of infant baptism is a certain way of reading Scripture (a hermeneutic), an understanding of redemptive history—both of which White rejects. So, how is it that those who reject our hermeneutic, who reject our reading of redemptive history (which we learned from Irenaeus), who reject our covenant theology, who reject our sacramental piety, and practice, get to define what we are? This is bizarre. As I’ve argued many times here it’s like allowing GM to define what constitutes a Mercedes Benz. Yes, there are many more GM vehicles on the road than there are Mercedes but numerical superiority does not grant GM the right to re-name or re-define Mercedes. No, Mercedes Benz gets to say what qualifies as a Mercedes Benz vehicle and a Mercedes is one that has the marks or the intrinsic qualities of a Mercedes Benz. One cannot slap a Mercedes hood ornament on a GM and call it a “Mercedes.”
Finally, this discussion is a good illustration of what I call “Reformed Narcissism.” The syllogism runs this way:
1. I am Reformed
2. I think x
3. Therefore x is Reformed.
As I explained at length in Recovering the Reformed Confession, to state the syllogism is to expose the silliness of it. The first premise is not at all a given but let’s assume, for the sake of discussion that it’s true. The middle premise is undoubted. The conclusion, however, does not at all follow from the premises. As private persons Reformed folk may think any number of things but thinking them doesn’t make those thoughts “Reformed.” Yet this sort of logic seems to be rampant today. The point is that there is an objective, historical, ecclesiastical, and public definition of the adjective “Reformed” and that definition is embodied by the confessions of the Reformed faith. In other words, there are not as many definitions of the adjective Reformed as there are definers. White and other Baptists certainly reject essential elements of our theology, piety, and practice. This is understandable but it is not easy to understand why they continue to complain about being excluded from the definition of the adjective Reformed.
- Resources On Defining Reformed
- Recovering the Reformed Confession
- “House of Cards?” in On Being Reformed
- Resources on Infant Baptism