This interview is part of an occasional series of interviews on the HB with those who have recently discovered the Reformed confession. Here are all the posts in this series. In this installment we meet Brandon Burks, who has served in the United States Army and in the United States Navy. He is a graduate of Boyce College and Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia. He served as pastor Dry Ridge Baptist Church and is now in the process of joining Westside Reformed Church, Cincinnati, OH where he hopes to intern for a year before planting a URCNA congregation in Northern Kentucky. He is married to Traci and together they have three children.
1. Where did you grow up and how did you come to faith?
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, until my family moved to northern Kentucky around the sixth grade. My dad has a Roman Catholic background and my mom went to a Salvation Army church in her childhood. The “religion talk” was unexpectedly sprung upon my parents when, in the fourth grade, I came home from school and, fraught with anxiety, declared, “My friend said I’m going to burn in Hell because I’ve not been baptized!”
After some discussion, my parents decided to follow the Roman Catholic path. We joined St. Bartholomew Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I underwent CCD [Confraternity of Christian Doctrine] classes. It was there I was baptized and made my first communion. Moving to Kentucky, we transferred our parish membership to St. Pious in Edgewood, Kentucky.
There were strong periods of devotion in my Catholic faith as a youth (at one point even contemplating the priesthood). By and large, however, I was completely ignorant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I recall watching a movie where Jesus was crucified and I thought to myself, “Why isn’t He defending Himself?” I didn’t know why Jesus had to die, nor did I realize the contours of His mission. While I was in Army Infantry and Airborne school, I would read the Psalter, pray the rosery two or three times a day, sing in the choir, and regularly attend confession and Mass. But I knew next to nothing.
My Catholic faith was rocked pretty hard at a couple points in my life. The first was in high school when my biology teacher presented, what appeared to irrefutable at the time, the teachings of Charles Darwin. My teacher, openly antagonistic to the Christian faith, urged us to cast our faith upon science, which, according to him, has “proven” the Bible to be in error.
Another point of doubt came when, serving in the Army, I read a book written by a person who left Christianity for Buddhism. Being part Japanese, I have Buddhist family members. It was attractive: meditation, martial arts, a sense of grounded, peaceful wholeness. I attended a Buddhist temple in Hawaii and found the service oddly similar to Christian worship.
At each temptation, I explored life outside of Catholicism, both in atheism and Buddhism. There were points where it may have seemed that I was wholly given over to these other ideas. However, when the fork in the road appeared, I found myself unable to deny Christ.
I existed in a state of ignorant, nominal Catholicism until I enlisted into the Navy (after the Army). I was serving as a Navy Diver for SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2 (SDV2) in Virginia when I became consumed with politics. For the first time in my life, I became a ferocious reader. I began taking night classes in political science, even contemplating running for congress. I gave myself a thirty-five-book reading list of all things political—from Ayn Rand, to Ludwig von Mises, to Ron Paul, and many others. Book twenty-five, however, was the Bible. All politicians, I figured, should have read through the Bible at least once.
As I was reading Scripture for the first time, I told my wife, Traci, that I wanted to find a church to join. She was raised in the Christian Church (Restorationist-type) and so we decided to attend a church of a different denomination each Sunday. We spent over a year attending churches that were Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, and so on. I even bought a chart that mapped out what all of the various denominations believe and from where they came.
After returning from a vacation to Salem, Massachusetts, we drove past Salem Baptist Church and decided to add it to our list of churches to visit. It was a combination of reading the Bible and hearing the Gospel plainly spoken by that Baptist pastor that grabbed hold of me. I wasn’t at all planning to be one of those “born again” type of people. I just wanted a place to visit on Christmas and Easter, slip in the back and out the front door without being seen—but God had other plans. In fact, my conversion was so sudden that my co-workers at SDV-2 joked that I had went to church one Sunday and came back converted. Quite frankly, that’s exactly what happened.
There was immediate change. I repented and turned from sins, which caused me to lose a few friends in the process. I became so hungry for God’s Word that I spent my hour-long lunch breaks just reading Scripture. Traci and I were at church whenever the doors were open. I had a stack of apologetic and theology books on my desk from our local library. I couldn’t read as fast as my curiosity could query.
I was baptized and Traci and I were brought on to membership at Salem Baptist Church.
2. How did you come into contact with the Reformed faith?
A few months after I became a Christian, I felt a call to ministry. All of the future dreams I previously had faded away and all I could think about was serving Christ and His church. I decided to switch my night classes from political science to theological studies, but I wasn’t sure which school to attend.
I have family members who attended a Restorationist college in Cincinnati, Ohio, and, since they had an online program, I thought that might be a great option while I was still serving in the Navy. But my dad, who had come to faith and joined a Baptist church before I did, bid me to look at Boyce College (the undergraduate school of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) in Louisville, Kentucky.
So, while on leave, my dad and I drove down to Boyce College to speak to the office of admissions. They too had an on-line BA degree that I could pursue while serving in the Navy. Dad and I stopped by the Lifeway campus bookstore where I purchased a small, Navy camouflage Bible. The campus was beautiful, the academics looked to be rigorous, and so I decided that is where I would attend school.
Back in Virginia, I was preparing the paperwork and applications for Boyce College, when I started having increased episodes of sleepwalking. I had slept walked as a young child, but it, oddly, came back in adulthood—and right around the time I returned from SERE School.
One night, as Traci was up late reading, I jumped out of bed, grabbed that camouflage Bible I had purchased at Boyce College, and went to our bookshelf. I was dreaming that I was a missionary who was going to smuggle a Bible into an oppressive country. My plan was to tear out pages of Scripture and hide them in another book.
As I began tearing the Bible apart, Traci woke me up. I was dazed and confused, to say the least. The next day I told our corpsman what had happened and he sent me to a sleep clinic. The results were sent to a Navy doctor and, three years into my six-year enlistment, I was out of the Navy less than two months later with an early honorable discharge. Because of the nature of being on a ship at sea, sleepwalking is frowned upon in the Navy.
In an unexpectant turn of events, I was now attending classes at Boyce College, in person. My first class was Baptist History. I entered that class a semi-Pelagian and left a five-point Calvinist. The professor very graciously answered all my questions and pointed me to the 1689 Confession of Faith. From that moment onward, I immersed myself in the writings of John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Albert Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and John MacArthur. It was the era of the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) and I was swept up.
As an apologetics major at Boyce College, I came into contact with the writings of Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987). While my professors, by and large, were antithetical toward him, I became enamored with his apologetic method. It was Van Til who began to set my gaze on Westminster Theological Seminary in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Not only this, but I attended a Together for the Gospel conference where Carl Trueman was speaking on Why the Reformation is Not Over. Paradoxically, it was Van Til and Trueman who really got the wheels toward Westminster moving in my life.
While at Boyce College, I began reading Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), Gerrhardus Vos (1862–1949), G. K. Beale, Scott Oliphint, Lane Tipton, Vern Poythress, Richard Gaffin, Carl Trueman, and, of course, more Van Til. I also started listening to the Reformed Forum podcast and lectures from the WTS faculty. I was so tired of reading pop-level theologians of the broadly Calvinistic, evangelical sort. I wanted to read Bavinck and Calvin, Turretin and Vos, Ridderbos and Kline.
In a series of events that can only be described as providential blessings, after graduating Boyce College, my wife, son (Haddon Luther) and I moved to Philadelphia to begin seminary life. My time at Westminster was extremely formative and life-changing. It was at WTS where I saw a rich, well-articulated Reformed theology. But I was still a Baptist.
3. Tell us about your development from the Baptist understanding of the faith to the Reformed?
After graduating Westminster, I took a call as the senior pastor of Dry Ridge Baptist Church in Dry Ridge, Kentucky. It is a rural church that had served the community for over two-hundred years. The calling was a to revitalize and re-build. The theology of the church was not of the 1689, Particular Baptist sort, but I had hoped to slowly bring reformation.
While pastoring Dry Ridge Baptist, my convictions, which moved from a more 1689 Baptist theology to a Reformed theology—or specifically, from credobaptism to paedobaptism—underwent change in about five steps (the first two are not out-of-bounds with 1689 Baptist theology, but were necessary building blocks).
First, since seminary, I was convinced that baptism was a means of grace. Baptism is God’s doing. God is the primary agent in baptism. Baptism is not first and foremost my “first step of obedience” or my “public declaration,” but God’s declared pledge and promise. Baptism is a means by which God imparts grace, bestowing upon the faithful the redemption purchased by Christ, comforting our conscience that just as water washes the body, so my sins are washed away by the blood of Christ. The sacraments are not to be turned into law, as is common among evangelicals.
Second, I began to see all modes of baptism as valid: immersion, sprinkling, and pouring. Without going into detail, it was Geerhardus Vos’s Reformed Dogmatics that persuaded me that sprinkling and pouring are not only historically rooted, but biblically so as well. Again, these first two points didn’t automatically take me out of the Baptist world because Particular Baptists believed baptism to be a means of grace and I know of 1689 churches who have sprinkled for baptism when necessary.
Third, I began seeing anomalies in my own system of thought. For years I believed what has become known as “1689 Federalism” or “Particular Baptist Covenant Theology.” In that tradition, the books Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology ed. Richard Barcellos and From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642–1704) by Samuel Renihan were among my favorites. As I kept reading the New Testament, however, it just seemed presupposed that children of believers were still a part of the covenantal community. That is, the New Testament writers assume that children of believers were not excommunicated at Pentecost.
Fourth, one of my greatest defenses of 1689 Federalism—namely, Jeremiah 31—shattered. Particular Baptists were keen to point out that phrase in Jeremiah 31, “All will know the Lord.” Therefore, they reason: if in the new covenant “all know the Lord” then the new covenant is a believers-only covenant; and if the new covenant is a believers-only covenant, then only believers receive the covenant sign of baptism. In other words, the old covenant community was mixed with believers and unbelievers (not all Israel was Israel), but in the new covenant that is not the case. Part of the newness of the new covenant, they reason, is that only born again, professing believers are members of it.
This is challenged by Hebrews 10:29 that speaks of someone falling away from the new covenant—this apostate was “sanctified by the blood of the covenant.” This poses a problem for the Particular Baptist, for they argue for a link between covenant membership and regeneration and, at the same time, they maintain perseverance of the saints. In other words, on their view, if a person cannot lose his or her salvation, then that person cannot fall away from the new covenant. If Hebrews 10:29 presents an apostasy from the new covenant (though not from salvation; cf. 1 John 2:19), then the Particular Baptist must either lose his covenant theology or the doctrines of grace.
How do they understand this verse? Some have followed John Owen, asserting that the phrase “by which he was sanctified” refers to Christ and not to the apostate. Others have said the writer of Hebrews is speaking of the covenant itself being sanctified. Though perhaps grammatically possible, these reconfigurations make little sense contextually, especially when you see Exodus 24 as a background text.
After the writer of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 in chapter 10, he then gives an example of someone who fell away from the covenant, trampling underfoot the Son of God. In the words of Herman Bavinck, he was “in the covenant but not of the covenant” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:232). This means that the hard mixed/non-mixed distinction between the old and new covenant communities is a theological construct to maintain credobaptism. Given Hebrews 10:29, I was no longer able to tell my paedobaptist friends, “‘All will know the Lord’; therefore, the new covenant is an unmixed, believers-only covenant, which means that only professing believers receive the covenantal sign of baptism.”
Fifth, I began to see a better paradigm, a better way of seeing the Bible come together. Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored by Michael Brown and Zach Keele, as well as the writings of Meredith Kline and the lectures of Lane Tipton fleshed out for me a more faithful way of understanding the biblical covenants and the unity of Scripture.
There are other things I could mention (e.g., the exegesis of Colossians 2:11-12; the importance of Romans 4:11; the link between Abraham, the Holy Spirit and the promise of Acts 2:38-39; or the different understandings of typology between the Particular Baptists and Reformed), but the above five steps were the major components in my transition from credobaptism to paedobaptism. I explained each step in greater detail at the Reformation Day Conference held by Westside Reformed Church.
4. What was it about the Reformed confession that attracted you to it?
I would have to say its faithfulness to Scripture, its connection to the Fathers and the Creeds of the past, not to mention its simplicity and beauty. The Reformed confession teaches us to set our gaze outside of us upon Christ, which is very counter-cultural in our present context that demands a hyper-inwardness. The Reformed confession also resists seeing Christianity as a mere ornament to our inflated individual expression, but rather understands Christ, as Paul put it, “who is your life” (Co. 3:4), in such a way that encompasses all of you—not all of you in solely individualistic terms, but you as part of the ecclesial body of Christ. To be Reformed is to be a churchman, among other things.
5. What has surprised you the most as you have learned the Reformed theology, piety, and practice?
While I was studying at Westminster, I served as a Youth Pastoral Intern at a PCA congregation. I was a Baptist at the time, but I agreed not to teach anything contrary to the Westminster Standards. My three years serving and being a member of a PCA congregation (not to mention studying at WTS) gave me much exposure to Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Even so, I have been surprised by the shaping effect of the church’s liturgy. It is one thing to take Doctrine of the Church and practical theology classes in seminary, but it is quite another to sit under a liturgy each and every week, being shaped and molded. Every week the liturgy impresses upon your soul the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the law which condemns and Christ who redeems. Without a robust Reformed liturgy, our individual, family, and ecclesial piety would be severely lacking.
Something else that struck me recently is the connection between union with Christ and the sacraments of the church. Far from any Zwinglian notion of the sacraments, the Reformed confession sees a real fellowship, a mysterious participation, a spiritual communion with the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit brings us to where Christ is seated in the heavenly places where we are nourished through Word and sacrament by the crucified body and shed blood of our Lord. This is quite antithetical to the modern anti-church, anti-institution message of shallow, hyper-individualistic evangelicalism. Why would you (barring a pandemic) stay home, skip church, or just watch a sermon on-line when you can feast upon Christ with the ecclesial body of Christ through Word and sacrament, as administered through Christ’s ambassador?
6. You were senior pastor in a Baptist congregation so your change of conviction came with a cost.
It sure did. I was the senior pastor, living in the parsonage, and providing the insurance (etc.) for the family. But as James says, “We must be doers of the Word.” If the Reformed confession presents the biblical sacramentology, then my family and I are duty bound to follow Scripture. It was frightening at times but we trusted the Lord to provide, and He has above and beyond!
Not only this, but in 2018 I published a Particular Baptist catechism entitled Internalizing the Faith: A Pilgrim’s Catechism (Fontes Press). This added one more layer of complexity to work though in transitioning to a Reformed church. The publisher, however, was very gracious and excited for my family and me.
As I was coming to Reformed convictions, I increased conversation with neighboring NAPARC churches. Traci and I mapped out a plan of transition. I informed the deacons and the congregation, giving a one-month notice of my transition. It is always sad to come to an end of a chapter, to reflect on what God has done and look forward to what God will do. After three years as senior pastor, my family and I transitioned to Westside Reformed Church (URCNA) in Cincinnati, OH.
My first day at Westside Reformed was a bit comical in that I forgot to turn off my GPS. As the Catechism Service was ending and we were going on break before our Communion Service, my phone said, “You have arrived.” I thought, Yes, I have arrived. Becoming Reformed feels like I came home. Being of one mind with the rest of the congregation has been extremely restful and life-giving.
7. How have your family, friends, and the former congregation responded?
My former congregation was very gracious as we were leaving. Many tears, hugs, and the giving of blessings. Many in the congregation do not understand how I could come to paedobaptist convictions, but many are happy for my family and me. My two younger children (Noёl Josephine and Isaac Kees) will be baptized. This will undoubtedly be hard for some.
I also find myself having to explain Reformed sacramentology more and more. Some of my Roman Catholic family members are wondering if I am returning to Rome. Others wonder if I think that somehow, I am saving my children through the waters of baptism. Much confusion abounds and so I find myself teaching on the topic quite a bit.
8. How did you come into contact with Westside Reformed Church?
While studying at Boyce College, I was a part of the “Cincy Reformers” Facebook group. One day a member of the group, Zac Wyse, messaged me and said something like, “I saw that you go to school in Louisville; I just purchased a desk from someone in Louisville; will you help me move the desk?” I agreed. We moved the desk, I gave him a tour of Southern Seminary, and we ate some buffalo wings together. Since then, Zac and I have stayed in communication. Before moving to Philadelphia, Traci and I worshiped with Westside Reformed, and when I moved back in the area, I was eager to link back up with Zac for coffee on occasion. During my three years at Dry Ridge Baptist, Zac was a close friend in the ministry, someone I could come to for counsel.
9. Where do you hope to plant a confessional Reformed congregation, when, and how?
For right now, my goal is simply to learn more about the URC and to grow within the URC. Westside Reformed has graciously extended an offer to intern at the church for one year. The hope is that at the end of the year I will, after passing the proper examinations at classis, be brought on as the associate pastor of Westside Reformed Church.
Zac is certainly a future-looking pastor. As the church grows, by God’s grace, and various opportunities present themselves, the long-term goal is to plant a URC church in northern Kentucky, about thirty minutes south of Westside Reformed Church. Traci and I grew up and currently live in northern Kentucky. In fact, we started dating in high school. For us, northern Kentucky is the place we know, love, and want to, someday, reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in Scripture and the Reformed creeds and confessions.
10. Tell us about your area of research.
I love catechesis. I share the zeal J. I. Packer had in restoring catechesis to the church, broadly speaking. Throughout history there has been key points when the catechumenate has served the church well, and, it is my conviction, that it must rise from the ashes for today’s context.
I began thinking deeply about catechesis when I was writing my catechism. At the time, I was in a church and denomination what was largely void of all catechetical endeavors. I had hoped to fill the gap and present something useful for Southern Baptist churches.
I also wrote a second book, Thinking God’s Thoughts: An Introduction to a Pilgrim Worldview (Fontes Press, January 2021). The late Lutheran catechist George Henry Gerberding said that a catechist not only teaches what one ought to believe, but also how one ought to think. What is interesting about this second book is that I wrote it as a Baptist but I wrote it to be ecumenically Reformed or Calvinistic. I wanted to write a worldview book that Particular Baptists, Presbyterians, and Continental Reformed would agree with. By the time I was editing the book, I was in transition into the Reformed world. Because I had written in a broadly reformed way, however, there was not too much editing needed. In the book, I interact with many creeds and confessions, showing a Calvinistic ecumenism.
Currently, I am in conversation with a college in the UK to pursue PhD studies. My hope is to write on the role of the parent in catechesis during the Reformation and/or post-Reformation eras. My desire is to serve Christ’s church in thinking deeply about passing down the faith, once for all delivered to the saints, to the next generation.
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