Thursday, July 28, 2011

Re-Visiting Fundamentals: Fundamental Distinctions and the Debate about Baptism - by Meine Veldman

Infant or Believers' Baptism? A very Personal and Theological Query

It is certainly an old question, the one about fundamentals. Fundamentalism has become a catch phrase, even across the divide between infant baptizers and only believers baptizers. Also, it is perhaps an old distinction, the distinction between primary and secondary fundamental doctrines, but I believe still important for today, especially for the debate about baptism. Why?

Before trying to answer that question, first a bit about my own situation to show how personal and real this question has become for me. After that I will propose how one can approach the question about infant versus believers’ baptism, and in the process touch upon some other important issues regarding baptism like presumptive or implicit faith, in a Christian, evangelical and responsible Reformed way.

First, I need to make clear that I am a fully convinced Reformed pastor and professor and a member of the Reformed Church (RCA). However, as a Reformed pastor and professor I find myself, with my family, attending an evangelical church (credo-Baptist) and teaching at an evangelical theological faculty (Faculté Théologique Évangélique (Montréal)) of the University of Acadia (Nova Scotia, Canada). Surely, this is a convoluted situation. To make it perhaps a bit more complicated, at this evangelical faculty I am appointed to teach Systematic Theology according to the Reformed tradition with a freedom to teach Reformed Biblical teachings on all points of doctrines, including ecclesiology. Yes, in this position and life situation I am, in fact, the only person (in terms of having an official say) with the conviction that infant baptism is Biblical and Reformed. You can well imagine the inner and outer debates this creates, both personally and theologically.

So, needless to say the question about baptism has come very close to home. With that I have had and continue to have to ask myself, having also a family with children, how can I function responsibly in this environment and position, or at least, how do I think it is possible to do the work that I am called to do as a 'lonely' infant-baptizer, as pastor and professor in an almost completely credo-baptizing situation? To answer that question I think it important to distinguish between what are the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith and what can be called fundamental teachings, but in a secondary sense. Let me elaborate on this observation, with the understanding that I will not enter into the debate for, or against believers-baptism, and seek to suggest a biblical and Reformed attitude and approach to deal with this question as I live into my own situation in a responsible Reformed way.

What is Fundamental?

First, what is fundamental, or what are fundamental doctrines? Certainly in our day and age, and I am speaking of the West (Europe and North America), the general demise of Christianity is a fact. To believe otherwise is trying to hold on to the past, or remaining nostalgic and hopeful that the past will return. So I am convinced that to ask this question once again is especially pertinent for today.

The question about what is fundamental, or what are fundamental doctrines principally asks, so what should and does hold Christians together? What is absolutely non-negotiable to remain a Christian with other Christians in our after-Christian West? The short answer is to this question is, what is fundamental is whatever we cannot deny as being directly linked and united to our saving faith and salvation as foundation of our true Christian religion. But what is that, or what are those 'whatever we cannot deny' fundamentals?

If we want to say it in a more positive way and in one sentence I would express it this way; the foundation of our salvation and Christian faith is the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins by God and our trust in the promise of the Bible that God justifies us sinners, because of the love of Jesus, without any consideration of what we have, or do. Denying any part of this expression would mean that one would no longer be a Christian, or a true member of the universal Christian church. At the same, however, we should be conscious that this expression of the Christian faith does not come entirely by itself (it implies those 'whatever-fundamentals'). Let me explain and then turn to the important question of primary and secondary fundamental teachings and their importance for the debate about baptism.

The Reformed and Evangelical Fundamentals

There are at least five fundamental teachings that provide the further content of the above general statement of the Christian faith.

The first one is the teaching about the Word of God itself. It is the word of the holy Gospel, which Christ commanded His disciples to teach to all nations, in all languages and to all peoples of the world (Matt. 28: 19-20, Marc 16: 15-16). This is the Word of God, which is the medium and the message of faith (Rom. 10: 17, 1: 16; John 17: 20, James 1: 18, Mark 1: 15, Rom. 1: 1-2). Denying this Word and not believing it, or denying the Word of God as both medium and message, will result in idolatry. Therefore, all other faiths not produced by this Word of God are fictions of our own spirits and fantasies of our own imaginations.

The second fundamental teaching concerns the doctrine of sin and its consequences. Having a biblical faith means that I believe that all my sins, original and actual, are completely forgiven by the love of Christ-Jesus. In other words, a Christian believer knows him, or herself to be a completely guilty sinner, which the law points out, and yet completely forgiven and newly alive, which is the gift of the Gospel of Jesus-Christ. These teachings about sin, forgiveness and new life are also fundamental (Luke 24:47, Isaiah 66:2, 57:15, cf. Ps. 51, Luke 4:18, Matthew 11:28).

The third basic teaching is the doctrine about Jesus-Christ Himself. Rejecting that Jesus was hundred percent God and hundred percent human, makes salvation impossible (Matt. 16: 13-17, cf. I John 1: 1-4). Faith in the God-ness of Christ also includes faith in the Trinity. In other words, Christian faith in Christ as God, also believes that the true God is not another God, but the one whom we confess to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 16: 17, 11:27, I Cor. 12: 3, Rom. 8: 15, John 16: 13-15). The teaching about the humanness of Christ includes his suffering and his death on the cross. Believing for salvation thus also implies trusting in the sacrifice of Jesus as man-God (John 1: 14-17).

The fourth fundamental doctrine is the biblical teaching about Christ's substitutionary atonement. Our faith does not only trust in Jesus as teacher of the law, or as good moral example, or simply as the ideal human being. By faith we trust in Christ as the only mediator between God and human beings, who has given his life for many as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (I Tim 2: 5-6, Matt. 20: 28, Eph. 1: 7, John 1: 29). All those who do not place their trust in Jesus as substitutionary Lamb of God will automatically have to trust in something of themselves; either in their own capacities, and gifts or works, to receive forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God. In doing so, they exclude themselves from the grace of God displayed by the death of Christ in our stead (Gal. 5: 4). This is also true for all those who deny the biblical doctrine of justification by grace, through faith alone.

The fifth fundamental doctrine is the biblical teaching on the resurrection of our Lord. The Bible says that denying the resurrection implies denying the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15: 12-19). That is why the Scriptures condemn those who do not believe in the resurrection and say that such turn away from the truth (1 Tim. 1: 19-20, 2 Tim. 2: 17-18). Without the resurrection there is no hope, no justification and no new life (Rom. 4:25).
I hope so far so good, about the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and our personal Christian faith. Let us now turn to the question asked at the start about doctrines that are fundamental, but can be considered secondary. In answering this question we will see why this distinction is important for the debate on infant vs. believers' baptism as well.

The Primary and Secondary Distinction and the Question of Baptism

1. How the Gospel and Baptism are both Fundamental

As we have seen fundamental doctrines are truly basic to our Christian faith. However, we do also say that all fundamental teachings are not foundational in the same way and to the same degree. What do I mean?

When we speak of secondary fundamental doctrines we say that sure they are foundational for our faith, but not in the same absolute sense as primary fundamental doctrines are. With this distinction in mind we can refer to the teaching on baptism.

It is true that the teaching and practice of baptism is instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is given to us as basic for our faith in Jesus, that is, as basic as the gospel. Let me say, both the gospel and baptism teach and bring us the same grace and the same forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38, Matt. 26: 28 and Luc. 22: 19 and following). Or, said yet in another way, our faith rests on the free offer of forgiveness proclaimed by our baptism, as sealed by the blood of Christ, just as it trusts in the gift of free grace, offered by our Lord in His Word.

2. Not Presumptive or Implicit, but Explicit Faith

Let me be clear, I do not mean trusting in the Word or baptism in a presumptive, or an implicit way. What I mean by saying implicit is that intellectually we sort of agree with what the church teaches, or the priest says and does, or our pastor says, without having a personal faith and relationship with Jesus. Or perhaps it could be that we have a kind of historical sense of belonging to the church and her teachings, traditions and her sacraments, producing what they stand for in a presumptive way, we say, that is enough. No, these ways of understanding faith in the Gospel and/or baptism are like the teaching on baptism we find in the church before the Reformation and sometimes in protestant or reformed churches after the Reformation.

What I mean by believing and trusting is an explicit believing and trusting in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. For this to be the case, both the Gospel and the teaching and practice of baptism are fundamental for the Christian faith, that is, are fundamental for an explicit trusting in Jesus that he has not only died for others, but also for me.

3. The Importance of the Implicit and Explicit Faith Distinction

In the history of the church until today, as I also noted referring to my own situation at the beginning, there have been diverse teachings and practices with respect to baptism. We can even say that, as noted, between those who do believe in infant baptism, there are different understandings about the sacrament of baptism. For this reason precisely, I believe that the distinction that has been made between an implicit and/or presumptive faith or reality and an explicit faith is very helpful and important, especially as I work and teach amongst evangelicals of Baptist persuasions. They too acknowledge that only an explicit faith in Jesus Christ, as the means of eternal salvation, should be emphasized and taught. In my own context, in Québec which was entirely Roman Catholic and still is to an extent, this is very important precisely because the Roman Catholic Church still teaches presumptive regeneration and lets the people think that an implicit faith is often enough. So with the evangelicals the Protestants should continue to maintain the importance of an explicit trusting in Jesus for eternal salvation, against a presumptive, or implicit faith. Yet, we do not see eye to eye on baptism. And this is precisely the point which makes the distinction between primary and secondary doctrines important! How? Let me explain further.

4. How Baptism is Nevertheless Secondary

In my environment and position I do and can recognize brothers and sisters in Christ amongst the evangelical Baptists even though they teach and practice differently concerning baptism. Sure it is a fundamental doctrine, because of its content as it preaches the same grace and the same Christ. Yet it can and does happen that Christians teach wrongly about its purpose and practice, or even ignore it altogether, but share the same fundamentals of faith in Christ. So we say that the doctrine and practice of baptism is fundamental and yet secondary, provided that the believer trusts in the same promise of the Gospel of forgiveness of sins as taught in Scriptures. The reason for this is evident. The total forgiveness of sins and our justification is offered first and foremost by Christ, by his death and resurrection, in the promise of the Gospel. This promise as Word of God is the power of God unto salvation. The act of baptism or an implicit faith in the church and/or her teachings and traditions cannot and do not save us.

Infant Baptism not Superfluous

Having said all this does not mean that baptism as a sacrament is superfluous. The church should never rid itself of this sacrament as it carries with itself, in a clear and comforting way, spiritual blessings of the Saviour. The sacraments, of which baptism is one, are God's visible Word to be communally and individually applied as Christ's means of grace for an explicit faith and relationship with Him who is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and complete redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). Yet, as such, the sacraments do not propose anything new. They sign and seal the grace and absolution of sins announced, given and conferred by the Gospel. That is why, in this sense, the sacraments, including infant baptism, are not superfluous, but also not absolutely necessary, which forms the basis for why we can call baptism a secondary fundamental doctrine.


So as the debate goes on about baptism, within and outside the Reformed Church, let us not lose sight of these important and biblical Reformed distinctions. To forget about these distinctions in our age of much confusion and pluralism, especially in the after-Christian age we find ourselves in, is to lose the possibility and the permission to trace the boundaries between Christians and non-Christians, and those boundaries are many times found in different places than where we draw them! The kingdom of God is larger than the Reformed church. This, however, should not be a licence to be indifferent about doctrines, including baptism. Yes, our faith should be explicit also with respect to this biblical teaching, however not necessarily exclusive.

Finally only an explicit faith and relationship with Jesus Christ is what counts before God. The rest certainly must be taught and continually reformed. When men and women trust in the grace, which is offered in the Gospel, we ought not to deny that they believe in a saving way, whether they find themselves in a Baptist, or a Roman Catholic church, or even without the sacraments altogether, as the criminal on the cross besides our Lord Jesus Christ demonstrates. Yet, I certainly do deny that a presumptive or implicit faith in Jesus and/or the sacrament of baptism is biblical and sufficient, again, whether we find ourselves are in a Reformed, Roman Catholic or Baptist church. An explicit faith in the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith cannot be denied, but should be preached, taught and practised amongst brothers and sisters of the same faith in Jesus Christ. This is what I aspire to do, by the grace of God, precisely where He has called me and my family, to serve Him.*

* In this article I have made liberal use, but not exclusive, of what one can find as well in: J.T. Mueller, La Doctrine Chrétienne. Manuel de Théologie Doctrinale pour Pasteurs, Instituteurs et Fidèles. Synode de France et de Belgique: Éditions "Le Luthérien," 2001.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recent reflections.....

The following reflections were originally posted on

Cultivating a Missional Mindset - Two Boys and A Fish et al
by John Kapteyn        (please send your experiences for posting)

One of our goals is to cultivate a missional mindset. I am discovering that this mindset begins by praying for God to make you aware of missional opportunities and also looking at simple everyday events through missional lens.

The following may not be considered missional yet each has helped me to look at everything in my life missionally.

During Christmas, I...
a. Joined others in Christmas carolling in a hospital (see story in our gallery)
b. Helped hand out clothing on a Friday night with Helping Hands and was
  blessed when we formed a circle with the marginalized and they prayed for us.
c. Spent an afternoon in a high crime, poor area in Toronto at Jane and Finch
  area with a community worker.

Look first to God and Vision, not to our problems
I sat in three consistory meetings. Each of their churches is actively sharing the love of Jesus in word and deed. In each meeting we discussed some of their challenges they faced. These challenges included a lack of leadership and resources and were important. However, when the discussion was focused on what God was doing in and through them , about the missional activities they were engaged in, the mood changed completely. There was an excitement and a sense of life and purpose. Then, when we looked at the challenges, we saw them in a different light, not as mountains which could not be scaled but as challenges which we can work on with hope.

Last week we had a major snowstorm. What a blessing. Hashim, my Muslim neighbour has had heart problems and I saw him trying to tackle the snow on his driveway. I joined him and soon his son, daughter and wife came out. We laughed together, talked about the crisis in Egypt and about Jesus. I was so blessed.
Two Boys and a fish
On a recent trip to Vancouver Island, after a meeting in the home, Albert G. brought some leftover cookies, peanuts and coke to two young men (boys for an older man like me) who were stranded with car trouble across the street. Later, they ran to the house and I wondered if they were up to trouble. God again convicted me of my judgemental attitude, when it turned out that they were bringing us a large steelhead fish which they had caught. Not only did the fish taste great, but Albert revealed to me that being missional is being aware of the needs of others. His act of kindness also did not go unrecognized by the two boys and a fish.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Missional - being or doing?

In their challenging new book, “Right Here, Right Now”. Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford confront us with being missional, being Christ, in our every day activities. We need to focus more on how we live our lives than simply trying to find ways to be missional.
The story below makes this point quite well.
Shortly after placing his order, the guy was leaning on the counter, grunting, groaning, weight shifting from foot to foot, and watching every move of the two workers with steely eyes and pursed lips, as if they were handling the delivery of his firstborn. After a few minutes he literally shouted at the two desperate workers, “1 would please like to have my food now so that I can get going!” With teary eyes and flushed cheeks, the lady working the counter maintained her composure and apologized for the delay, although it was obvious to everyone she was on the brink of a dam burst of tears and in the midst of an impossible situation. As this church-bound “saint” stomped out of the restaurant, the disgust of everyone else in the place was evident. Not a person said a word, but thought balloons were floating over everyone’s head: “Jerk!” “What an ass.” “Hypocrite.” “Typical Christian.” “Geeze—and the dude’s goin’ to church.” It was clear to everyone where this guy was in such a hurry to get to.
After Sunday School Sam departed, the place was silent and the atmosphere was thick with an undercurrent of sadness rippled with anger. I did the only thing I knew to do at the moment and that was to voice appreciation to the two workers for their great effort. “You guys are doing great, I don’t know how you’re doing it, but I think you deserve a raise. Hopefully that guy meets Jesus when he gets to church!” This broke the tension, and a few other people pitched in their agreement to the affirmation, and like a person underwater for too long and finally breaking the surface, the lady at the counter let our a sigh of relief and gave a thankful smile.
It was easy. I just seized the opportunity to live out the verse from Proverbs that I had been focusing on—”Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” The atmosphere had instantly changed. I thought at any moment munchkins were going to jump out and start singing, “The witch is dead, the wicked, wicked witch is dead!”
I confess that there are times when my impatience got the better of me and I said words or spoke with such a tone of voice that I failed to reveal Christ in my actions.

My points of discussions:
1. Do you share my struggle?
2. Have you found an effective way to deal with this?