December 13, 2009

I guess controversy is occasionally good because sometimes better theology comes out of it. Peter Leithart asked that his views on covenant theology and baptism be examined by his presbytery, and while not agreeing in the whole, they found him to be within the bounds of the Westminster Confessional standards. But some thought that unacceptable and complained to a the few men delegated to be on the Standing Judicial Commission, who made decision that the presbytery erred in finding him acceptable.

Leithart has published some responses to the SJC's decision, one of which is this one on Baptismal Efficacy. Before getting into the details that interest me, I'll note that Peter seems to be complaining that the SJC only looked at his basic writings, and ignored clarifications and other statements that he made to the exonerating presbytery. Those procedural matters are interesting and as an uninitiated person look like they should be somewhat determinative.

The most interesting bit to me is Leithart's referenes to circumcision and the overall argument of Romans. I'm already uncomfortable with what I have long cosidered a "stolen base" in Reformed polemics about baptismal efficay, which usually goes like this
1. Paul says we are united to Christ by Baptism.

2. This can't mean that real water baptism united people to Christ.

3. Because Paul said that external circumcision was worthless.
I never am comfortable with this because I don't think we have enough evidence, and instead have counter evidence, that Paul would have ever regarded his Christian Baptism as he said he regaded his ethnic Jewish heritage, Pharisaism, or circumcision.

Circumcision may be worthless to Paul, but it begs the question to assume that established Paul's general thoughts on sacramental actions. It may, but more needs to be argued.

Leithart instead first points to actually how surprisingly (because of our rhetoric?) and highly Paul values circumcision within Romans itself.
For Paul, however, this does not mean that fleshly circumcision is meaningless or useless, or that those who received fleshly circumcision received nothing. As Paul’s argument continues into chapter 3, he asks “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the benefit of circumcision?” (v. 1). Clearly, he is speaking of what he has just described as Jews and circumcision according to flesh; the advantage of those who are circumcised by the Spirit is obvious. Given Paul’s distinction between fleshly and Spiritual circumcision, we might expect him to answer his question with “Fleshly circumcision gives no advantage.” That is not what Paul says, however. “Great in every respect” (v. 2). Here, he lists only one of the great advantages of fleshly Israel – “they were entrusted with the oracles of God” (v. 2).
This is important data, as it shows Paul describing advantages (benefits? blessings?) that come from even an external rite. By mere application of a rite, the recipient is entrusted with the written scriptures.

That might seem like small potatoes, but for Paul it is the first (or chief) thing on his mind. The other things come rather later in the text though, in Romans 9
When Paul picks up the argument later in Romans, however, he expands on the advantage of fleshly Israel: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.” (9:3-5).

Fleshly Israel – the “visible church” of the Old Testament – received great blessings. They were the son(s) of Yahweh, had the glory of Yahweh dwelling in their midst, received the covenants and promises, had a law that was the envy of the nations, was privileged with the temple service and the great heritage of the patriarchs. Above all, they were the people of Jesus, the Christ, the king of all things. When God blessed forever became flesh, He became Jewish flesh. These are blessings enjoyed by the “manifest” or “external” Jew, and they are considerable.
So this set my gears a working. Unlike the WCF which restricts "adoption" to be a benefit 'only enjoyed by the justified' (the SJC is keen to point out), Paul can speak more broadly of adoption as applying to those even outside of Christ, but given such an advantage by the merely 'fleshly' 'external' rite of circumcision. Shouldn't baptism be even more advantageous, by eminence?

John Murray (rightly, I think) says that this kind of adoption should be distinguished from 'that spoken of as the apex of New Testament privilege' and distinguished it by noting it was (Galatians 4) under tutelary governance.

But still, its a clear example of one term used equivocally, but analogically to the other meaning, which is just the thing that faces such sharp opposition.

What I find particularly illuminating is how allowing such analogical thinking, and noting that 'fleshly Israel', far from being worthlessness, is regarded in Romans 11 as possessing great gifts and even a 'calling'.

I've long found it confusing that reformed teaching on election doesn't have a simpler answer for what is going on in Romans 11: 28-32. Election is supposed to be a doctrine that comforts: those God has chosen, elected, are elected in his sovereign love for them, and they are not able to fall away. Paul practically argues the same way about unbelieving Israel, which seems to go on generation after generation with nothing more than the remnant ever being saved.

Having heard today two excellent sermons on Romans 8, emphasizing the security we have because of God being for us I wonder almost how God isn't "for" everyone in some sense. If unbelieving Israel, can by circumcision, "for the father's sake" be beloved with respect to election we have to "allow" election two senses (or better, three, since shouldn't certainly the sense of the visible church's 'belovedness' be even greater?).

But there has to be a general overall view of election that both senses fit in analogically. Paul doesn't make a specific claim about the way election works for unbelieving Israel, he just appeals principally to a fact that obtains in Christian election as well "The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable".

It seems to me the same Paul that is encouraged that if God is for us, who can be against us, holds the same hope for unbelieving Jews: since God is somehow for them, even in their unbelief, outside of Christ, who could be against them, and how could they not reach God's intended terminus within Christ?

De script shun




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