Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Federal Vision and the Three Forms of Unity: Baptism

Many have recently wondered why the Federal Vision is such a big controversy in Reformed circles. I admit that the (sometimes) obscure discussions could cause the casual reader to wonder whether or not this debate concerns the essentials of the Christian faith. I believe it does, and this post is my attempt to show where some Federal Vision teaching basically and fundamentally contradicts the Reformed Confessions.

I realize that the ultimate source of truth is not the Confessions, but the Word of God. However, since all sides claim to be faithful to the Confessions, this is a reasonable place to start. Then if anyone would like to argue that the Confessions should be changed, we can get into that discussion. I also will be comparing various Federal Vision positions to the Three Forms of Unity since they are the Confessions with which I am most familiar. I do freely recognize that the majority of the people I will be quoting hold to the Westminster rather than the Three Forms. If anyone wants to argue that there are significant differences between those Reformed Confessions, that might be fun, too. But for the purpose of this post, I will be using the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and Canons of Dordt.

The Heidelberg Catechism teaches:
Q65. The Holy Ghost works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments. (emphasis mine)
Q.74. Yes, for since they [infants] belong to the covenant and people of God, and through the blood of the Christ both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a 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 appointed.
The Belgic Confession reads:
Article 34, " . . . He, having abolished circumcision, which was done with blood, has instituted the sacrament of baptism instead thereof; by which we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions . . . and serves as a testimony to us that He will forever be our gracious God and Father."

Federal Vision teaches:
Auburn Ave. Presbyterian Church (minister Steve Wilkins) states:
4. . . . When someone is united to the Church by baptism, he is incorporated into Christ and into His body; he becomes bone of Christ’s bone and flesh of His flesh (Eph. 5:30). He becomes a member of "the house, family, and kingdom of God" (WCF 25.2). Until and unless that person breaks covenant, he is to be reckoned among God’s elect and regenerate saints.
7. By baptism, one enters into covenantal union with Christ and is offered all his benefits (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1ff; 2 Cor. 1:20). As Westminster Shorter Catechism #94 states, baptism signifies and seals "our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace." Baptism in itself does not, however, guarantee final salvation. What is offered in baptism may not be received because of unbelief. Or, it may only be embraced for a season and later rejected (Matt. 13:20-22; Luke 8:13-14). Those who "believe for a while" enjoy blessings and privileges of the covenant only for a time and only in part, since their temporary faith is not true to Christ, as evidenced by its eventual failure and lack of fruit (1 Cor. 10:1ff; Hebrews 6:4-6).

Steve Wilkins said in an interview:
It's like a wedding. There is a transformation that takes place because of the ritual. A single man becomes a married man. He is transformed into a new man, with new blessings and privileges and responsibilities he didn't have before. A similar thing happens at baptism. The one who is baptized is transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, from Adam into Christ, and given new privileges, blessings, and responsibilities he didn't have before

Doug Wilson says “By means of baptism, baptism with water, grace and salvation are conferred on the elect” (pg. 107 Reformed is Not Enough).

Peter Leithart states, “[Baptism] is not a picture of a man being joined in covenant to Christ it is a man being joined in covenant to Christ” (pg. 85-86 Against Christianity).

Notice the difference. The Three Forms teach confirmation of faith, not the creation of faith, in the act of baptism. Thus baptism it is not the forgiveness of sins, but a confirmation of our forgiven status. The Auburn Avenue Church states baptism engrafts one into Christ and offers all the benefits of Christ, which would include forgiveness. Wilson says it "confers" grace and salvation. The Three Forms declares that one is in covenant, and thus deserves baptism as a sign of that reality, while the Federal Vision men say the person comes into covenant with God at his baptism. In other words, baptism communicates that reality rather than testifies to it. Notice also that the Belgic and Heidelberg state baptism joins one to the Church, while the Federal Vision men says it joins one to Christ and all his benefits.

One must conclude that the definition of baptism according to the Federal Vision greatly departs from that of the Three Forms with regard to Baptism. I think we should stop here for now. We can examine more differences later.


Anonymous said...

If baptism links one to the Church, according to you, and the Church is the body of Christ, and Christ is the Head of this body... what's the problem again?

Lee said...

There are two major things wrong with this. A cherry picking of metaphors and the illegitimate use of the ‘body’ metaphor.

As to the cherry picking, I have a few examples. You are right that the FV logic is Church is the Body of Christ, Christ is the Head, baptism into the Church is therefore baptism into the body of Christ. Therefore, all the passages about being ‘in Christ’ apply now to baptism. But why not take the metaphor on? The church is the body of Christ, Christ said, ‘This is my body’ about the bread in the Lord’s Supper, therefore why the Supper is a sacrament about the Church. It is the Church that is broken for us. It is the same logic, but they take one path, but not the other. Another example is the Church is also the bride of Christ. Why not say then that you are baptized into the Bride of Jesus. They bride imagery is used more than the body imagery, why make such a deal out of one and not the other? They have cherry picked the metaphors to build a case.

As to the illegitimate use of the metaphor, this is the main complaint. The Church being called the body of Christ is a metaphor, and it is used in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. Now in all three places, salvation is not in view, but rather church order. Romans, I Corinthians and Ephesians all end up giving lists of gifts or offices in the church. I Corinthians gives the longest explanation, and there it talks of how the eye cannot say to other body parts, ‘you are not needed’. This is not about salvation or even baptism, but rather it is about living and working together as the church. The same is true for the Christ is our Head passages. They are used primarily in Ephesians 4, 5, and I Corinthians 11. These are also about submission to authority rather than salvation.

Thus, to conclude that we are Baptized into the Church, the Church is the Body of Christ; thus, we are baptized into Christ and claiming the “in Christ” passages that have in view salvation now belong to all the baptized is using the ‘Body of Christ’ metaphor out of context. And I also think drawing illegitimate conclusions from it.

Xon said...

Lee, FVers do say that we are baptized into the bride of Christ. The Church, corporately, is the bride of Christ, so we are all made a part of the bride. (See Doug Wilson's first talk at the 2002 AAPC, for instance)

Again, regarding the slightly shifted metaphor of Christ's body as the sacramental elements rather than as the Church, here too FVers are willing to draw a connection which you aren't giving them credit for. At the Supper, Paul says, we are supposed to discern the body of Christ. Paedo-communionists (which most FVers are) say that "the body" here refers to the Church and to the unity we are to have. Which is why the irony is that those who would use I Cor. 11 to preclude children from the table b/c they supposedly cannot "discern the body" are actually themselves failing to discern the body by their splitting of the Church into communicants and non-communicants. Communion is instituted as a rite of unity among the Church, and credo-coms use it for division.

I'm not trying to get you to buy this argument, but I'm just pointing out that it is a common FVish argument. So, yes the bread of communion symbolizes Christ's body, and thus it points us in some sense to the Church which is also said to be His body. What's the problem? :-)

As to the substantive argument in your actual post, you yourself quote the Belgic Confession favorably, which says that by baptism "we are received into the Church of God, and separated from all other people and strange religions..." This is a point FVers pick up on, and so they say that baptism makes us members of the covenant of grace (i.e., the Church of God). This is a sort of "covenantal" election, if you will, and with it comes all kinds of awesome benefits (as well as warnings for the unfaithful). But this is not the only kind of "election" there is; FV advocates also believe in the "eternal salvation" kind of election that the Confessions generally speak about and that all Reforemd people have to believe in if they are going to remain Reformed. So God elects some people to go to Heaven when they die (FVers generally call this "decretal election"), and He has also elected a larger group of people (containing the majority ot the decretally elect plus a bunch of baptized non-elect people) into a covenantal union with Him in Christ. This covenantal union is not sufficient for going to Heaven, though. There are many decretally non-elect people who are covenantally elect, etc. The difference between the two is that the decretally elect always respond to the blessings and promises of their covenantal election with faith. We are saved through faith, etc. This is the clear and unequivocal FV position, as far as I can tell.

But you argue against FVers this way:

"The Three Forms declares that one is in covenant, and thus deserves baptism as a sign of that reality, while the Federal Vision men say the person comes into covenant with God at his baptism. In other words, baptism communicates that reality rather than testifies to it. Notice also that the Belgic and Heidelberg state baptism joins one to the Church, while the Federal Vision men says it joins one to Christ and all his benefits."

But see, for the FVers there is a covenantal union to Christ and His benefits that is conferred at baptism (that, remember, does not in itself amount to "eternal salvation"), and this is what they say it means to be a member of the Church. So, to them the Belgic Confession only confirms their view when it says that baptism "joins one to the Church." Exactly: baptism brings one into a covenantal union with Christ, which is what it means to "join the Church"!

You are opposing the Church and "being joined to Christ and all his benefits," but you haven't made it clear why you think we need to do this or why FVers are doing something wrong when they don't oppose them as you do. Perhaps you are opposing them because you think that "being joined to Christ" is "eternal salvation" language--that only people who are decretally elect and who are going to go to Heaven when they die can be said to be "joined to Christ". But if this is your reason for opposing them, then you can rest easy b/c FVers agree with you that baptism does not make all people Heaven-bound. But the FVers think that we can use a phrase like "joined to Christ" to describe the very real and blessed experience that all baptized people have simply in virtue of being members of the covenant of grace. FVers think we can say things about these people like that they are "forgiven" in a sense, that they have "justification" in a sense, that they are "saved" in a sense. But when they say this they are not saying that:

a. baptism guarantees you are going to Heaven.

b. you don't need faith to go to Heaven.

However, while baptism does not gurantee one goes to Heaven, and while a person must have faith or they will be lost for all eternity, there is a sense in which a person can be "forgiven" temporarily, or can be "saved" temporarily by being covenantally united to Christ, who is the Elect One of God. In Christ, under the umbrella of His protection, God looks at a person differently than He looks at the rest of the world. Yes, even if God has predestined that person to go to Hell...He still brings that person under His 'favor' in some sense for a time. This is deeply mysterious, God's decree relating to the way things actually happen in visible covenantal history, but I don't see how it's unorthodox.

Sorry this is so long. I'm stopping now.