Baptists, Signs and Rationalism

I have a further thought regarding R. Scott Clark’s recent series on baptism that he posted on his Heidelblog. In the fifth part, near the end, he says, “Baptists know that they, like Reformed congregations, have unregenerate members but by administering baptism only to those who make a profession of faith they are doing what they can to ensure a regenerate membership. From a Reformed view of covenant theology it is quite difficult to see how this is not, at bottom, a form of rationalism. If it is rationalism that would not be surprising since an over-realized eschatology, which Luther called a theology of glory (theologia gloriae (sic) is just another form of rationalism.”

Knowing that Dr. Clark would disagree with paedocommunion, is he not open to the same charge? If the church only administers this sacrament to those who have been confirmed (or whatever the URC does in light of confirmation), is that also not a form of rationalism? Only in this instance the minister is making a decision to withhold the cup from someone who has actually been baptised and for all intents and purposes is “received into God’s church” (Belgic Confession, Article 34). If the minister can withhold this sacrament from a church member and not the other sacrament, this would appear, on Dr. Clark’s part, to be an even more insipid form of rationalism.

During the Halfway Covenant controversy it is well-known that Jonathan Edwards was removed from his charge in Northampton, Mass. This removal was instanced by Edwards’ refusal to allow members of a “halfway covenant” to the table. In his Distinguishing Marks of the Spirit of God he developed what he called “negative” and “positive signs” that demonstrated, for the sake of the church, whether or not the Spirit had converted someone. While Edwards recognised that the signs in and of themselves proved nothing in terms of whether a person was truly converted (i.e. it was not a sure sign for assurance), it did serve an ecclesiological function: namely, whether a person has given a credible profession of faith that would admit him or her to the privileges of the church. He delineates this in An Humble Inquiry where he says, “The question is not, whether Christ has made converting grace or piety itself the condition or rule of his people’s admitting any to the privileges of members in full communion with them: there is no one qualification of mind, whatsoever, that Christ has properly made the term of this; not so much as a common belief that Jesus is the Messiah, or a belief of the being of a God. ‘Tis the credible profession and visibility of these things, that is the church’s rule in this case. Christian piety or godliness may be a qualification requisite to communion in the Christian sacraments, just in the same manner as a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Scriptures the Word of God, are requisite qualifications, and in the same manner as some kind of repentance is a qualification” (Works 12:176, emphasis mine).

Is Edwards here guilty of rationalism by seeking to “inquire” (pardon the pun) into the condition of a person’s heart in order to admit them to the privileges of the church? Worse, is Edwards not guilty of falling prey to the theology of glory as Luther would understand it in the Heidelberg Disputation? There Luther said, “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which actually happened. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” Is Edwards a “theologian” or not? Are Baptists theologians or not? Is R. Scott Clark a theologian or not? If we peer into the “invisible things” such as whether a child is converted and can take the eucharist, are we not undeserving of the title “theologian”? In regard to Edwards, Stephen Holmes would argue the opposite, that rather Edwards actually pushed Reformed orthodoxy further away from the theology of glory into a more (but not totally) consistent theologia crucis–Edwards’ overall theological enterprise views God’s glory through the cross, which is the burden of Holme’s work to demonstrate (Holmes, God of Grace, 76, 122-123).

It would be a stretch to accuse Baptists of rationalism when baptising only those who have given a credible profession of faith. I bring this up not to single out Dr. Clark, but as a sincere request to have this matter cleared for my own convictions. The last thing I want, as a Baptist, is to be guilty of rationalism or theologia gloriae. At this point, admittedly, I’m not convinced that I am.



Filed under baptism, baptists, jonathan edwards, martin luther, reformed baptist, reformed theology

2 responses to “Baptists, Signs and Rationalism

  1. Not sure about “rationalism” as a system, but I think paedocommunion (and therefore paedobaptism) right, and the refusal of paedocommunion somewhat rationalistic and gnostic. See “Feed God’s babies” on my website. Salvation is by trust alone; saved infants are saved by faith; Jesus died for them; we show his death; so we include them in the showing, and of course we baptize them first. If we deny them communion, we’re telling them they’re not saved.

  2. R. Scott Clark

    In Reformed theology, baptism is the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community and the supper is the sign of renewal. They have two different functions by divine intention and institution. We don’t exclude infants from communion because “it’s the new covenant” or because of an a priori. We do it because of divine revelation about the nature and function if the signs. See Cornel Venema’s excellent book on paedocommuion, which I reviewed at length in the HB.

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