That is just one of a series of claims made recently by my friend Mark Dever, who is a devout Baptist. Rather than reading my summary of Mark’s claims, you should watch this brief video clip for yourself, to which I will respond below in a series of bullet points.
- Regenerate church membership and baptismal regeneration. The video above is only a partial clip, but the first question asked was on regenerate church membership. Mark asserts that the Anabaptist and Baptist conviction that only regenerate people may be members of the visible church is in continuity with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. It is partly true that the Roman and Eastern traditions believed in regenerate church membership. The late Patristic church, the Medieval church, and the Byzantine church came to teach that, at the moment of baptism, the baptized person is granted new life. It became dogma in the medieval church that the sacraments work ex opere, meaning that they necessarily confer what they signify. One does not necessarily find that view in the earliest church fathers. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration developed gradually and began to come to clear expression in the fourth century. Thus, Mark’s assertion, “it was paedobaptist Protestants who missed that point,” is misleading. Setting Luther himself aside (the Small Catechism does not teach baptismal regeneration but it is probably in other of his later works), Lutheran orthodoxy, as represented by the Book of Concord, certainly taught baptismal regeneration. I suppose that Mark must have had in mind the Reformed rejection of baptismal regeneration. It is claimed that some Reformed theologians (e.g., Calvin) taught that baptism confers new life at the moment of administration. This is disputed. I am far from convinced that Calvin taught it and I do not find it in the Reformed confessions. The Geneva Catechism (1545) opposed baptismal regeneration. The Heidelberg Catechism certainly does not teach baptismal regeneration. Indeed, in it we confess that the Holy Spirit creates new life “through the preaching of the Holy gospel,” and that the sacraments “confirm” the preached gospel (HC 65). The Belgic Confession (1561) neither teaches nor implies baptismal regeneration. In it, the churches took the same approach to baptism and regeneration as the Heidelberg. The Canons of Dort (1619) neither teach nor imply baptismal regeneration. If the Westminster Standards teach baptismal regeneration, which I doubt very much, they certainly do not do so explicitly or clearly. Thus, I agree partly with Mark that the Reformed churches rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration but I do not think, therefore, that they “missed that point.” They consciously rejected the late patristic, medieval, and Byzantine position on baptismal regeneration. The evidence is that the earliest post-apostolic churches practiced infant baptism. Both Tertullian and Origen testify that infant baptism was the practice of the second century church. Augustine wrote that infant baptism was the universal practice of the ancient church. If the ancient church practiced infant baptism before teaching baptismal regeneration (they did), then the two are not necessarily or inextricably bound together. One reason they did so is their adoption and elaboration of covenant theology in response to the Anabaptists. They recognized that God instituted signs and seals under the types and shadows (e.g., infant circumcision under Abraham), and commanded the application of the sign to the children of believers—yet, it is evident that not everyone who receives the sign is necessarily regenerate. After all, the first person to receive the sign of initiation was Ishmael. Esau also received the sign. The Reformed understood early on (c. 1524) that the church’s business is to administer the visible covenant of grace, but it is God’s business who is and is not elect. Mark’s hyperbole, that, according to the Reformed “there is a church full of unregenerate people,” is clearly intended for comic effect and not meant to be taken seriously, so I will interpret it as intended. It is, after all, one thing to recognize the existence of unregenerate people in the congregation (as happened even in the apostolic church). “Not all Israel is Israel” (Rom 9:6) and Paul’s distinction between external and internal members (Rom 2:28) are as true in the New Covenant as they were under the types and shadows: Judas (Acts 1:25), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5), Simon the Magician (Acts 8:18–25), Hymneaeus (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17). Hebrews 6:4–6 reflects on the actual apostasy from some in that congregation, as does Hebrew 10:29. Fred Greco (on Twitter) is right. Baptists do not really practice regenerate church membership. They practice professing church membership, as we do. In that case, the alleged Baptist advantage evaporates.
- Protecting the gospel by getting rid of infant baptism and adopting congregational polity. Again, Mark was obviously exercised by what he perceives as condescension from Episcopalians and Presbyterians. It is a Baptist habit to adopt the posture of a persecuted minority even when they are not. Mark’s congregation is larger than some Reformed denominations, and the Southern Baptist Church is 26 times the size of all the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches in North America combined. They are hardly a persecuted minority. I agree with him that Bishops will probably not help Baptists to remain orthodox, but I am convinced that regional assemblies of ministers and elders can and do help. The Reformed churches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries agreed. None of the sixteenth-century Reformed churches were congregational in polity, and whether congregationalism was correct was hotly debated at the Westminster Assembly, which included Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Independents. John Owen, at different times, held all three positions. I do not remember him arguing that his final position on ecclesiology was essential to the preservation of the gospel. As Colton Brewer noted on Twitter, Congregational polity did not help the New England congregationalists avoid Unitarianism. Further, all the magisterial Protestants, who, unlike the Anabaptists, recovered the gospel for us all in the early sixteenth century, practiced infant baptism. The only groups who practiced regenerate church membership and who rejected infant baptism were chiliastic, mystical, Pentecostal, moralistic fanatics (i.e., the Anabaptists, or as Zwingli called them, “Catabaptists“). The Anabaptists held an Independent church polity and they rejected the Reformation doctrines of salvation (sola gratia, sola fide), so their polity seems not to have helped them much. The Particular Baptists aligned themselves strongly with the Reformation soteriology, but did their General Baptist forebears from the preceding two or three decades? Congregationalism certainly did not seem to help Richard Baxter, who flatly rejected the Reformation doctrines of justification and salvation. If the Reformed are so compromised regarding the gospel, why do Baptists appropriate their catechisms and confessions? Hercules Collins’ made a revision of the Heidelberg, and there’s a London Baptist revision of the Westminster Confession. To whom do the Baptists turn for their defense of the gospel when it is challenged by moralists like the Federal Vision? Do they not turn to Reformed paedobaptists (there are no other sort of Reformed)? From whom did the Particular Baptists learn their doctrine of salvation, if not from the Reformed, with whom they so strongly identify? If the Reformed have so gravely endangered the gospel, why is Mark so anxious to identify with us? Perhaps this is a turning point where the Particular Baptists will leave us behind, embrace their own history, and identity as their own rather than revising ours? Has Baptist congregationalism really preserved the gospel as well as Mark suggests? Is the SBC really a beacon of light on justification sola gratia, sola fide? Was there not a Reformation movement of sorts within the SBC? Why was that necessary given that they were Baptists and congregational in polity?
Perhaps Mark is only being consistent with his view of continuity with the Medieval and Byzantine church and he does still believe in an ex opere system. For him, it may not be that baptism itself works ex opere, but that holding the Baptist view and Congregation polity that works ex opere?
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