What is so great about a debate anyway? I mean, don’t Christians have better things to do than sit around arguing over nuances of the Christian faith? And don’t we already have a large enough bone to pick with the multitude of pagans suppressing the truth in their hearts? Why would we want to spend time squabbling amongst ourselves?
Well, if we perceive a debate as a squabble then perhaps there is good reason to cease and desist. But if debate is seen as productive then we must stop and think for a moment. Is it worth it?
Healthy debate is essential to progress. In fact, we need more of it. We are just not good at it these days. That is not surprising in an era where the church in general has stopped reading, thinking and refining the faith through mature, informed discussion and debate.
Proper debate is good for the church. It always has been. What is often referred to as divisive these days is the very thing that grew the church and refined her doctrine in history. That which should be conducted as a battle of ideas is too many times perceived and approached as a battle between persons.
A battle of ideas is highly beneficial for onlookers. Those engaged in the debate are highly invested and passionate and are not likely to change their position. The spectators on the other hand can benefit greatly. It helps them evaluate and find holes in any given argument. It aids in decision-making, understanding, refining and solidifying ideas, and ultimately in gaining direction that manifests itself in the way they conduct themselves throughout life. In this way, healthy debate becomes essential to progress in thinking and therefore everything else.
Just in the last decade we have seen the velocity of ideological change increase to a rate never experienced in the history of mankind. This is almost exclusively due to the Internet and social media. This is a wonderful thing. Yet, at times this can just serve as overload. We have limited time. We can’t come up to speed on everything. We have to pick our battles so to speak.
My contention is that any debate surrounding God’s covenant is fundamental and worth your time. It is not good enough just to know where you sit on such a foundational issue. You must understand why you are seated there.
If covenant is the reality through which God has chosen to relate to his creation, then we can be sure it is high up on the list of worthy discussions to engage. Given the fundamental nature of the subject, we can be sure that the practical implications for daily lives are far reaching.
It has been awhile since there has been a good, public debate on the issue of baptism. There are plenty of Facebook skirmishes on the topic, but formal debates on the topic are less prevalent.
This particular upcoming match-up is intriguing. I spoke with both James White and Gregg Strawbridge last week and I believe the debate promises to be a good interaction between these two men. They have debated the topic before which makes the engagement even better. It can add density and efficiency to the dialogue. They can cut straight to the significant issues. For this debate, the fundamental issue at hand is their understanding of covenant theology. I am excited about the event because I believe this to be the fundamental issue in general.
In 2012 I wrote Baptism Is Not Enough: How Understanding God’s Covenant Explains Everything. It was published in late 2013. I read countless books on the subject of baptism over a number of years but very few seemed to deal with the topic from a perspective of covenant. It was certainly included in many of the discussions but it was not the basis.
The good news is that just in the last three years other resources have been made available that address baptism from a covenant perspective. It is for this reason, as well as the upcoming debate, that I intend to devote my weekly blog to a couple of these resources. The books I will discuss will be from the credobaptist perspective. Unlike verbal debate a formal setting, debate in print tends to be more exhaustive and demanding. So I hope that a short series of articles on this subject will prove beneficial to interested readers.
The first book I will discuss is a short, helpful book published in 2013, entitled The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology. The author, Pascal Denault began working on the book in 2007 to obtain a Master of Theology degree. It was originally written in French and then translated into English.
The subtitle describes the book well as A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism. It is the product of valuable labor on the part of Denault and a relevant contribution to the contemporary discussion. In it, he interacts with a number of original sources from seventeenth-century theologians (eight on either side of the issue). He does this in order to put the current debate in perspective and lend credence to the weight of covenant theology as it relates to baptism.
We propose that covenant theology is that distinctive between Baptists and paedobaptists and that all the divergences that exist between them, both theological and practical, including baptism, stem from their different ways of understanding the biblical covenants. Baptism is, therefore, not the point of origin but the outcome of the differences between paedobaptists and credobaptists. Ligon Duncan writes: “The biggest point of issue between the Baptist position on baptism and the Presbyterian or the paedobaptist position on baptism is not in our doctrine of the sacraments. It is in our doctrine of the church”.[i]
Well put by both men. This was exactly my thesis and reason for writing Baptism is Not Enough as well as releasing the accompanying video. Covenant is the issue. Determine your understanding of covenant and you determine your stance on baptism.
Since I have provided glimpse of the introduction, I will also let you in on one of the closing statements of the book. Denault is bold. He is to the point.
At the end of this work, we are faced with a marked impression, to be specific, that Presbyterian federalism was an artificial construction developed to justify and end: paedobaptism…Paedobaptism was the arrival point of Presbyterian federalism because it was its starting point. We do not purport that paedobaptists were dishonest, but, at the very least, that they were profoundly influenced by their tradition.[ii]
Again, well articulated. He supports these claims from a unique, historical and helpful perspective. I will not have time to discuss every point, but in subsequent articles I will seek to engage in at least some efficient exploration of his work. Perhaps this can be helpful to those wanting to understand better why they sit where they do on this issue – and if they are in fact seated on an “artificial construction” or on a solid Biblical framework.
[i] Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 5.
[ii] Ibid, 155.