It’s a long story, but an important one. From the confusion and dismay of the Charismatic movement (look for future posts on that topic coming soon), it was the doctrines of the Reformation which brought me back to peaceful relationship with God and proper fear of Him. Just as it was in the days leading up to the Protestant Reformation, so it is today in Christendom: The simple gospel of Christ had – and has again – become obscured behind corruption and superstition. Newly Reformed and delighted to embrace and promote my new-found faith, and without a church home at the time, I joined a Presbyterian church, brought my family in, and had my very young children baptized.
But it didn’t take long before there were issues in our denomination – issues that most “ordinary parishioners” had no knowledge of and frankly, didn’t want to know about. Being a theologian at heart, however – and by the way I think every Christian ought to be – I read Reformed journals and web sites. Then later, as an officer in my PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) church, I thought it wise to keep an eye on what the PCA was doing. Having been led far astray once before (as a Charismatic), I maintain a particular sense of watchfulness. No matter how noble and pure a denomination may be at first, historically it takes only about 40 years for it to abandon it’s first principles to pursue wealth, popularity, and prestige. The PCA itself was born out of such a controversy, and we saw it happen to the now completely apostate PCUSA which – incredibly – also claims the Westminster Confession of Faith as it’s doctrinal standard!
I am one among dozens who have blogged about doctrinal disaster in the PCA, and the apathetic “leave theology to the experts” mentality that has given harmful teachings a deep foothold in the denomination. My most recent PCA church had taken to a very formal, Anglican-style worship that borrows heavily from Eastern Orthodox forms and is very closely wedded to the “liturgical calendar.” During last year’s Advent season, the sanctuary was festooned with all the trappings of the Latin liturgy and the pastors took delight in the beauty of all the pomp and ceremony. Asked to explain the Advent Candles (Why are there five candles? Why is one of the outside four a different color? Why is the one in the middle called “the Christ candle?”), the pastor shrugged and simply admitted that he had no idea what the symbolism meant, but “isn’t it beautiful?”
My first thought: Is this even a Reformed church anymore?
Driven by an urgent sense that the Reformed faith has no biblical alternative, I decided from the bottom of my broken heart that it was time once again to search for a new church. My first impulse, naturally, was to look within my own denomination. But a moment’s thought changed my mind about that, since both of the PCA churches I had belonged to had either fallen prey to or completely ignored the heretical elephant in the room known as Federal Vision. Nearby is a Reformed Baptist church, though, and I thought it worth a look. So for the next few Sundays I went there and enjoyed some of the sweetest worship among a group of simple, beautiful Berean-style scholarly folk who take the bible very seriously. The worship liturgy was a simple, plain, joyful song service interspersed frequently with prayer and scripture readings, followed by a well-prepared exegesis of a portion of scripture.
“Well, they aren’t Presbyterians but it is nevertheless always a good thing for me to take fresh measure of my beliefs,” I told myself. What scared me a little was that part of me that longed to bring my heart-achy search for a Reformed church to a conclusion, and so was vulnerable to seeking justification for moving over to this Reformed Baptist church. To counter that tendency I determined to do nothing until I had read, absorbed, and debated these things with both Baptist and Presbyterian brothers. The trouble was finding people from either camp who are actually willing to be challenged in that way. I had been a Presbyterian for over two decades. Both of my adult children were raised in that tradition, both baptized as infants by sprinkling. If I was to make any big changes in my theology at this point in my life, I had darn well better have good solid reasons for doing it.
So I dove into books and on-line articles, listened to audio recordings of debate between Baptist and Presbyterian theologians, looking at questions through the eyes of both sides, and re-examined my own personal hermeneutics. After several months of study, I have concluded that the differences between Presbyterians and Baptists come down to three very important things:
Reformed believers are guided by one of two hermeneutics. Both usually lead to similar conclusions, but an important distinction exists between the two. And the deeper I go in my studies of the scriptures, the more the distinction seems to really matter.
The Presbyterian hermeneutic is described in the Westminster Confession of Faith this way:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture… (WCF 1:6, emphasis mine).
The Reformed Baptist hermeneutic sounds similar but it is different because it does not include deduction or “good consequence:”
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture (London Baptist Confession 1:6, emphasis mine).
So what’s the difference? Both often lead to the same conclusion, as they do in the doctrine of the Trinity, for example. I have a silly, simplistic way of illustrating it: If one passage explicitly states that “all normal dogs have four legs,” and another explicitly states that “Spot is a normal dog,” then it is necessarily true that Spot has four legs even though that fact is not explicitly stated. The fact is contained in the book even though not explicitly. A Presbyterian might deduce that since there are other properties of normal dogs, such as two ears, a wet nose, and a wagging tail, then Spot must also have those qualities as well, even if the book doesn’t contain those things in its description of normal dogs. A Reformed Baptist could not reach that far, since two ears, a wet nose, and a wagging tail are not contained in the book’s description. While I realize that my silly simplistic illustration likely falls short of adequately describing the difference, I’m a simple country boy and receptive to correction if I really have misstated the difference. That’s just how I understand it.
It is that difference, I think, that accounts at least in part for the differences in Covenant Theology between Baptists and Presbyterians, and in the way that the two apply the Regulative Principle of Worship to the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Different Covenantal Views:
Presbyterians view the Old and New Testaments as containing different administrations of the same covenant, which most refer to as the Covenant of Grace. They do this to preserve the continuity of Scripture between both Testaments. But to a Reformed Baptist, it isn’t necessary to preserve the continuity of the Testaments by describing the two as being “different administrations of one covenant.” The writer of Hebrews describes the Old Covenant as “type and shadow” of the New. The New fulfills the Old. But to a Baptist, the two are separate covenants altogether and while one prefigures the other, they apply to different groups of people and different points along the continuum of unfolding eschatology and progressive revelation:
- First, the Old covenant was limited, under it’s different administrations, to one family, one race, one nation; whereas the New removes all such distinctions.
- Second, the Old was temporal rather than eternal as the New covenant is.
- Thirdly the Old was physical, geographical, and political, where the New is spiritual, universal, and “not of this world.”
Yet under the Old Testament, prefiguring the New, all who were eternally saved were saved just as they are in the New: By faith in One who was to come, the Seed promised to Abraham in the Old covenant, the Second Adam, the Mediator of – as the writer of Hebrews describes it – “a better covenant based on better promises (Hebrews 8:6).”
Different Applications of the Regulative Principle of Worship:
Both Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians subscribe to this principle, based on Sola Scriptura and described in the Westminster Confession of Faith in these terms:
…the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by Himself, and is so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshiped according to … any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture (WCF 21:1).
This principle has been reduced by many people to simply, “When it comes to the worship of God, whatever is not commanded is forbidden.” This is quite unlike the Lutheran and Anglican principle which is, to reduce it to it’s simplest form, “whatever is not forbidden is permitted in the worship of God.” This leads them to all sorts of human inventions that “help the people worship,” from drama and dance to more superstitious stuff like making the sign of the cross and assigning mystical properties to the elements in the Lord’s Supper and observing a liturgical calender. Superstition, by the way, I take to mean trying to please, appease, delight, or “reach” God by any means other than revealed in His written word.
Because the Old Testament is to be interpreted through the lens of the New Testament, and because of the difference in the two views of covenant theology, the Reformed Baptist does not see baptism as a New covenant “replacement” of Old covenant circumcision. And as there is no explicit command in the New Testament to baptize any but confessed believers, Baptists reject what Presbyterians call “covenant baptism” (or “infant baptism”). To a Presbyterian, the command to baptize the infant children of believers is “necessarily deduced ” by the examples of Old covenant circumcision and “household baptisms” in the New Testament.
These three differences combine to form the theological basis for both credobaptism (believer’s baptism) and paedobaptism (infant baptism). They also represent what my search “boiled down to.” To most people I know, none of this matters. One just goes to “whatever church makes them happy” as long as it adheres to “the essentials.” That can’t be enough for me. In fact it hasn’t been enough for me ever. Not because I’m “too nitpicky,” but because love demands the pursuit of the truest possible knowledge of God.
What these differences mean to me in particular:
The Baptist position seems more consistent (Presbyterians baptize babies yet keep them from the Supper until they can articulate their faith in an adult manner), and closer to Sola Scriptura because it insists upon not exceeding what is written no matter how flawlessly logical and reasonable it may seem to do so. And equally important, the Baptist view of the covenants, which preserves the continuity of Scripture without the confusing of merger of Old and New signs, shadows, and types, quite literally makes it impossible for the deadly toxic weeds of Federal Vision theology to grow in Baptist soil. Perhaps I wasn’t really a very good Presbyterian all those years. It is too easy for even their own theologians to become bewildered and confused by their hermeneutics, getting lost in the details. I tend to run in favor of those things which “are so clearly propounded and opened in Scripture that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain unto an sufficient understanding of them (WCF 1:7).”