Following on from my previous post.
Lesslie Newbigin writes:
The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation of what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as arrabon of that salvation — as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole. It can do so only because it lives by the Word and sacraments of the gospel by which it is again and again brought to judgment at the foot of the cross. And the bearer of that judgment may well be and often is a man or woman of another faith (cf. Luke 11:31-32). The church is in the world as the place where Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells, is present, but it is not itself that fullness. It is the place where the filling is taking place (Eph. 1:23). It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him. This dialogue, this life of continuous exchange with the world, means that the church itself is changing. It must change if “all that the Father has” is to be given to it as Christ’s own possession (John 16:14-15). It does change. Very obviously the church of the Hellenic world in the fourth century was different from the church that met in the upper room in Jerusalem. It will continue to change as it meets ever new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them.
God shapes and moulds His Church by bringing it into dialogue with the cultures that He places it among. God raises up enemies such as Islam; as the Church engages with such enemies it is matured and comes to a deeper understanding of herself. God also gives His Church the best of the wisdom of the Greeks and the insights of other cultures.
We are living in exciting times today, the gospel is making new breakthroughs in Africa, Asia and South America. Cultures that have been developing for millennia are suddenly brought into dialogue with the gospel for the first time. Who can say what new insights might emerge from the exciting new dialogues that are beginning? Who can say how African readings of the Scriptures might lead us to exciting new readings of Paul? Who can say what light Asian Christianity might be able to shed on the significance of biblical symbolism, for instance?
When God first created man He placed him in a garden surrounded by lands with great natural riches. Man was called to go out into the wider world and glorify the garden with the riches that he found. In the book of Revelation we see the glorified garden city that results from this process. The city is of pure gold, adorned with precious stones and with gates of pearl. All the riches of the world, the riches of the earth and the riches of the sea, have gone into its construction.
I believe that God is active in history, and that He is active in all of history. In the OT God was not merely providentially shaping Israel, but was providentially shaping tribes in the Amazon rainforest. The various cultures that God has shaped are analogous to the natural riches of the world of the world surrounding the garden of Eden. God has spent centuries or millennia moulding these cultures so that one day they may be glorified and may serve to enrich the great Temple that He is constructing in the Church.
Christ is Lord of all and all of the cultural riches scattered throughout the world belong to Him. He is gathering all of these riches into His Church. When the gospel goes into a new culture, we are not merely bringing God’s riches to a new place, but God is giving us new cultural riches with which to build the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the things that makes missionary work so significant and exciting. Missionary work can be like seeking buried treasure. We really do not know what insights God might have hidden for the building up of Christ’s body in some isolated people group in Polynesia, for instance.
It is incredibly sad to see the absence of cross-cultural theological dialogue in many parts of the Church when we have so much to gain from such dialogue. There are some who believe that missionary efforts merely involves transplanting our cultural forms of Christianity into foreign settings. The goal of missionary activity, for instance, becomes that of getting African Christians to think in terms of the Westminster Standards. The idea that our form of the Christian faith, deeply culturally conditioned as it is, might have a lot to learn from humble dialogue with more indigenous African forms of Christianity never seems to occur to us.
For instance, the Westminster Standards are the sort of documents that one would expect seventeenth century northern Europeans, trained in Western forms of logic and rhetoric (their Anglo-Saxon background muted by the academy), living in a culture where the Christian faith is pretty well established, to produce. They are deeply culturally conditioned. I imagine that if the Christian Church were faithfully to express its faith in terms of an African tribal culture, it would look surprisingly different, without ceasing to continue significant similarities. I firmly believe that God desires that we encourage the development of such indigenous declarations of faith and that we learn from each other as we engage in cross-cultural dialogue within the new culture that God is creating within the Church.
The Church does not yet have the fullness of that which God intends for it. The fullness belongs to Christ and He is gradually bringing it into the Church as the Church enters into dialogue with new cultures. However, this dialogue does not merely take place between the Church and the various cultures; it is also a conversation within the Church, between various denominations.
Within the various denominations we see many different perspectives on God’s truth. Different denominations have different emphases and insights on God’s truth. None of this is to suggest that all perspectives are in any way equally valid or significant. Nor is it to deny that there are occasions when certain faulty perspectives need to be opposed in the strongest possible manner. As in the case of dialogue between the Church and the cultures, there is a lot that must be rejected in other denominations, even where hidden treasures exist.
God is a god who separates in order to prepare the way for a more glorious union. God breaks the union of Adam’s body by removing a rib in order to make possible the union of marriage. God breaks the union between son and parents in order to form the union between man and wife. God breaks the union between the nations at Babel so that He might one day form a more glorious Nation. God separates Jew from Gentile in order that through the Jews He might bring salvation to the Gentiles and of the two form one new people. Christ’s body is broken and given to us so that a new body in which we are united to Him may be formed.
The separation, considered apart from the new union can seem like a loss and a tragedy. However, viewed as the precondition for a future more glorious union, God’s breaking of our premature unions is an act of grace. God takes apart that which is good so that we might one day enjoy that which is better still.
I believe that this is what God has done in His Church. God separated His Church into East and West. He separated His Church again in the Reformation. The rise of many denominations is a further split that He has brought about. This state of division is hardly the end that God intends. God did not take a rib from Adam so that Adam might lack a rib, but so that Adam might have a wife. In the same way, God split His Church so that the Church might one day enjoy a more glorious union. I am firmly convinced that the state of division that the Church currently experiences is not a state that will prevail throughout history.
In a prematurely united Church, the tendency would be to paper over certain theological cracks. We don’t like to admit that our great theological paradigms are incomplete and have serious problems. There are certain questions that we don’t want to ask ourselves, certain faults that we don’t wish to face. There are deep-rooted problems that have been masked for so long that we lack the power to see them ourselves and need others to identify them for us.
This is one reason why theological dialogue with one’s critics is so important. All of our theological systems are incomplete and faulty. None will endure forever. Our critics are often in a better position to identify the weaknesses of our positions, just as we are often in a better position to identify theirs. In His grace God has given us perceptive critics so that He might mature us and lead us deeper into His truth.
I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.
Some will protest that, in most of the debates between denominations, one party is straightforwardly right and the other party is straightforwardly wrong. For instance they will insist that, in the debates between Baptists and paedobaptists on the question of paedobaptism, both cannot be right and at least one party is quite wrong. Writing as someone who is convinced that the Baptism of infants is supported by Scripture in a number of ways, I think that this would be a good example to deal with. If paedobaptism is justified by Scripture what sort of lessons might God want to teach His Church through the witness of the Baptists within her on this particular issue?
I believe that such a question should not be viewed in abstraction from history. The Baptist position arises within a Church that has undergone a particular historical development and faces particular challenges in the future. The Church’s historical development was far from tidy and in certain areas the Church’s practice and theology developed like a crooked bone growth. In such a situation God breaks the bone in order to reset it. I believe that this might provide a helpful perspective on the development of the paedobaptist position that Baptist theology arose in response to. The following is a sketchy reading of Church history, designed to illustrate the corrective purpose that Baptist theology may be designed to perform in this area.
In the earliest Church most of the baptisms would be ‘convert’ baptisms of adult individuals and of households (some of which would, I believe, have included infants). However, as the Church became more settled one would expect to have more baptisms of infants by themselves. The book of Acts and the Pauline epistles generally address fairly young communities, where most of the baptisms that would have taken place would have been household or adult individual baptisms. However, later in the second and third centuries, infant baptisms began to become more common. Later in history they were to become the norm.
The shift in emphasis from adult Baptism to infant Baptism in Church history is not primarily a theological shift, but one that results from changing historical circumstances. Such a change is quite significant. In the case of household baptisms and the baptisms of adult individuals, personal faith is quite prominent. The head of the household or adult convert has personally come to faith. In the case of the head of the household, this change of allegiance is one to which his household would generally submit and be included within.
A situation in which each generation has only experienced baptism as infants is quite different and personal faith can often be eclipsed. The same could be said in the case of circumcision to some extent: the strong connection between circumcision and personal faith in the case of Abraham was in danger of being lost where circumcision became something that every Israelite boy received at the age of eight days. Moses and the prophets had to remind the people of this connection on a number of occasions.
In such a changed situation, the understanding of the meaning of Baptism and its connection with faith will most likely change somewhat as well. Root metaphors might shift; for example, Baptism as ‘death and resurrection’ seems a less obvious metaphor for the Baptism of infants.
In the earliest churches most baptisms would be baptisms of converts and their families. Infant baptisms would be less regular. Those baptized as infants in such a situation (second generation Christians) would grow up in a context where adult convert baptisms still predominated. Third, fourth and later generation Christians would begin to face a different situation, however. They would live in a Church where infant baptisms predominated. In the Middle Ages infant baptisms so predominated in some places that adult convert baptisms would have been very rare.
All of this results in a dramatic shift in the Church’s experience of Baptism. The NT and earliest Church texts were written into a context where adult Baptism (not understood as a theological position) predominated. The baptismal liturgies would have been designed for adult converts. When infant baptisms would have occurred they would generally have taken place in the context of adult conversions. As the situation developed, however, infant baptisms would increasingly take place by themselves as discrete events from the baptisms of adult converts. This would begin to raise problems as the Church’s theology of Baptism and baptismal liturgies had to cope with its changing experience of Baptism. Baptismal liturgies originally intended for adults would have to be altered to deal with situations in which no adults were being baptized.
The meaning of infant Baptism (more understandable in the case of household Baptism) would begin to become problematic. A theology of Baptism addressed primarily to a situation in which adult convert baptisms were being practiced would have to negotiate with a Church where such baptisms were uncommon. It seems to me that these problems would become increasingly acute among third and later generation Christians and, for this reason, it does not surprise me that we find the Church of the third and following couple of centuries struggling to marry its theology of Baptism and the predominating practice of infant Baptism.
Infant baptisms would not originally have been treated as a special case demanding particular justification, but would have been understood in relation to the convert baptisms that took place within the Church. As time went on the Church’s experience of Baptism changed as infant baptisms became more common, to the stage that they were the norm. This would exert pressure on the Church’s theology and liturgy, which were designed for a very different situation.
In this new situation, infant baptisms would come to be regarded in abstraction from adult convert baptisms and certain theological themes and liturgical practices that were prominent in the Church’s understanding and administration of Baptism would seem to be less applicable in the case of infants. This would lead to the raising of questions about the theological basis of the practice (not so much in order to justify the practice as in order to understand its necessity, which wasn’t properly illuminated by the Church’s existing theology of Baptism).
I think this is part of the reason why we find the historical record that we do. I also think that this helps us to appreciate that groups like the Anabaptists were largely raising tensions that hadn’t yet been truly resolved by the tradition. The pre-Reformation Church generally celebrated infant Baptism as a form of clinical Baptism and chrismation and first communion came to be deferred. It is hardly a sign of a healthy situation when Baptism is separated from itself and from the Eucharist like this and the baptized are only half initiated into the life of the Church. Whilst I disagree with the Anabaptists’ theology, I think that they helped to highlight problems that had never been completely addressed. The Church had never completely come to terms with the predominance of infant Baptism. I think that the Anabaptist movement, by raising the problem again, challenged the Church to do a better job than it did the first time around.
The earliest Jewish Church was also, to some extent, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. It was a new community within the larger community of Israel and for a number of years the ties between the Church and the more general worship of Israel persisted. Whilst the Church was clearly also a distinct community in its own right, this continued connection to the wider worship of Israel would have shaped its self-understanding in various ways. The Church inherited the role of the prophets, forming new communities within the larger community as a testimony to it, preparing the nucleus of the people of God that would be preserved through and established after divine judgment.
Many within the early Church were observant Jews and synagogue-worshippers, who would have continued in these practices as Christians. Their sense of being a community separate from and in opposition to other Jewish communities would have been less pronounced. In such settings the Church would have had a self-understanding of its community that differed somewhat from that which would develop when a complete split with the worship of the Jews had occurred. The Church would primarily be regarded as the nucleus of God’s restored people within the larger body of the people of God, not yet a completely distinct people. In such an understanding of the place and significance of the Church the role of confessing mature believers would be highlighted and infants, though seen as part of the community, would be more secondary, less the nucleus of God’s restored people as those who were being gathered around this new nucleus.
Much of the teaching of the gospel (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) is addressed to such ‘prophetic communities’. These prophetic communities would have been formed of adult, predominantly male, disciples. These prophetic communities existed as the centre around which the new people of God were to be formed, the spearhead of the new movement that God was bringing about. A number of similar movements have developed within Church history. Communities arise, designed to play a prophetic role to the people of God as a whole, modelling a new form of faithful living that has been lacking within the wider Church. Monasticism is a good example of such a movement.
I believe that an ecclesiola in ecclesia can do immense good for the Church. These spearhead movements call the Church to mature forms of faithfulness and conformity to God’s Word. In a Church where everyone has been baptized as an infant, such movements are immensely important, calling for costly discipleship and voluntary personal commitment. Such prophetic communities serve as cities on a hill, modelling heroic faithfulness to the Church as a whole. In so doing they serve a purpose similar to that which the disciples of Jesus and John the Baptist played in relation to Israel.
The spiritual affinity between the Anabaptists and such movements as the Franciscans has been noted by a number of people. I believe that part of God’s purpose in raising up such movements is to ensure that His Church does not forget the message of such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst the community is larger than the nucleus, having a nucleus of mature and committed disciples in crucial for the health and growth of the Church. Baptists and Anabaptists, in reminding the Church of this fact, have done immense good. I believe that their testimony and example has borne fruit in many parts of the wider Church.
Of course, this entire process is not a one-way affair. Paedobaptists are also a means of teaching Baptists that, despite the importance of mature and committed discipleship as that which sets the tone for the rest of the Church, the Church is not merely composed of those who have arrived at a mature profession of faith. In God’s wisdom He has brought infants into His family. Infants remind us of our own impotence and strengthen the Church by means of the common concern that the Church has for their development in the faith. Just as the birth of a child transforms the new mother and father and is a means by which God greatly matures them (in every sense of the word!) and reforms them into a family, so it is with infants in the Church. God gives adult believers weak infants to humble them, remind them of their impotence and encourage them to grow. God gives weak infants strong adult believers in order to ensure that they are raised in the faith and one day become strong adult believers themselves.
A Church in which there are no weak infants and everyone is expected to manifest a heroic personal faith commitment can be unforgiving and tend towards rigorism. A Church in which there are no mature adult believers will soon become compromised in belief and practice and lack direction.