Number Our Days
Recently published in the Baptist Bulletin, Winter 2022
Today, I wish to meditate on the events our country has endured in the past ten days. Perhaps, like me, you have friends who lived through Hurricane Ian just over one week ago. According to a recent Washington Post article, Ian is the fifth worst storm to make landfall in US history. While it is too early to tell the final numbers, there are now more than 100 reported deaths and an estimated 60 billion dollars in damage in Florida.
When Ian landed last Wednesday at 3:05 PM at Cayo Costa, FL, it was a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 150 miles per hour. Twenty inches of rain or more fell on parts of Florida, knocking out power to more than 2.7 million residents. The storm surge in Naples and Fort Myers recorded the highest water levels in their history. Many off those who lost their lives actually drowned due to the high water. The truly bad news is that the hurricane season still has two months left with October generally considered the worst month for storms.
Recovery for some Florida residents will take years, while other Floridians will never recoup their losses. Thankfully our friends from Naples had minimal damage, although, the brother underwent open heart surgery less than a week before Ian hit and was prematurely hustled out of the hospital ahead of the storm. In addition to the devastation created by the hurricane, the Florida insurance market is facing a crisis with Floridians paying three times the national average for home owners insurance. Fears are that more insurance companies will fail due to the staggering claims.
The question that comes to mind for many Christians after an event like this is “Where is God in all this?” Did he cause the hurricane? Did he allow it? Was he surprised by it? Could he have prevented it? If he could have prevented it, why didn’t he? If he caused it, why did he? The hurricane wasn’t a catastrophic event for non-Christians only. Bible believers felt its devastating effects. There is an evangelical church on Sanibel Island that was decimated by the storm. Many Christians can understand why God brings misfortune on unbelievers, but why do Christians suffer too? Who is to blame for the catastrophes we face in Florida and elsewhere? Were Floridians worse sinners than South Carolinians because Ian hit harder in Fort Myers than in Charleston?
Some catastrophes are called acts of God – hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, famine, disease, heat waves, cold snaps. The tsunami of 2004, on Dec 26, hit the Indian Ocean and killed an estimated 227k people in 14 countries. It was the 3rd largest such event that ever recorded and the greatest natural disaster of the 21st century. Where was God in all of this?
Let’s consider some of the questions Christians might pose.
Is God in control of the universe? Well, if we believe that God is creator of heaven and earth (Gen 1), then we must believe that either he controls his creation or he is controlled by it. 18th century Deism taught that God made the world but, then like a clock maker, wound it up and let it run, just letting things happen. If this is our world, we would live in a truly frightful place. Things just would happen with nothing, or no one, in control. What does the Scripture say about the weather and God? Is he subject to nature or is he in control of it?
In Jeremiah 10 God addressed Israel at a time of national spiritual decay. The passage contrasts the impotence of the idols with the awesome power of God. In Jer. 10:1, God warns Israel to not learn the way of the nations or to be concerned about the signs of the heavens. In this chapter God declares that it is he who “made the earth, established the world, and stretched out the heavens (cf. Pss 65:6–8; 77:18; 89:11). This is followed by a fourfold description of God’s power over creation. He has power over the rain, the clouds, the lightning, and the wind.”[Craigie, Jeremiah 1–25 (Vol. 26, p. 160)]. This is certainly a starting point when considering something like the hurricane. This is God’s world, and he controls its operation. Make no mistake about that.
So why does God use acts of nature in the world according to the Scripture? What is the purpose or rather what is his purpose in all of this?
Sometimes, these events are a consequence of human sin and depravity; sin entered into the world and death came by sin (Rom. 5:12), all kinds of death. Sin brought consequences into the world that we must learn to live with.
But at times God causes the weather and uses weather events as judgment (Job 37:1–13). Perhaps the greatest biblical example of weather-related judgment is the flood of Genesis 6:9ff
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:11-13, ESV)
God brought judgment down on the Egyptians when they refused to let God’s people go. Pharoah’s army was drowned in the Rea Sea for refusing to heed God’s command (Ex 14). Sometimes God brings judgment by withholding weather. In 1 Kgs 17, Elisha predicted no rain or dew until Israel repented. Indeed, weather can be used by God as an act of judgment.
Was Ian the judgment of God on sinful humanity? Frankly, there is just no way to know the answer, so speculation is dangerous. We are not prophets and cannot claim to speak for God with certainty. Realistically, if it was divine judgment, why was it so restrained? America has cursed God as a culture and rejected God’s decrees. I need not offer a list of the kinds of things God might be angry with us over. But we also know that God is extremely long-suffering. He wants us to turn to him in repentance and faith. Maybe the hurricane was simply a warning of coming wrath. The Bible speaks of an approaching day of wrath that will supersede the effects of Ian a thousand-fold. Are we prepared to face God? Will we listen if he speaks?
Moreover, the Bible speaks of certain events that may be signs of the coming of the Lord (Luke 21:11) such as earthquakes, famines, pestilences. Are hurricanes among these events? We are to be ready for his return? Events like this hurricane remind us to hold on to earthly things lightly. They are temporary and they will fade.
So just how should Christians respond to crises like this? What does God expect of us? First, we need to trust the Lord that his way is perfect. He has a plan and all global events fit into that plan, including the weather. Second, we need to bear witness for Christ in the crisis. Our trust in him may cause others to seek us out for reasons for our assurance. What a time to bear witness to the loving Son of God. Third, we need to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. The Scriptures repeatedly warn us to be ready. Are we? Have we placed our trust in him? Are we living for his glory? As we ponder our world, let us remember Is. 45:5–7
I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things.
History is full of dedicated men and women who faithfully served the Lord and were widely known in their generation but who become unknown, a couple of decades or a century after their deaths, because of world events that have relegated their memory to the fog of time. Their recollection is occasionally pondered by the student of church history who may read part of the story they were connected to, but unless someone digs deeply into their history, much of the details of their lives remain obscured.
For years, I have delighted in producing biographical essays for the Particular Baptist Press on notable American Baptists. These essays appear in various volumes and include an important essay on Squire Boone, Jr. that corrects received Kentucky Baptist history. For many years, Boone, the brother of the legendary Daniel Boone, was thought to be one of the first Baptist preachers in Kentucky. I think I have reasonably demonstrated that that is simply not the case. I also wrote of T.T. Shields of Canada and, for another series, an essay on William Button, the printer of early British Baptists, specifically Andrew Fuller. I love writing these kinds of essays. You learn a lot of collateral history while researching their individual stories.
Recently, Jim Lutzweiler, former archivist at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has for years been gathering biographical essays on the contributors to The Fundamentals, asked me to write on Henry Clay Mabie. The Fundamentals were a series of nearly 100 essays and testimonies, written by more than 60 conservative contributors across the Protestant theological spectrum and published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles between 1910–1915. They were mailed out free of charge by the hundreds of thousands to ministers around the world thanks to the benefaction of Lyman and Milton Stewart, California oil magnates. The editors of the series were Louis Meyer, Amzi Clarence Dixon and Reuben Archer Torrey. Contributors of the essays included some of the most conservative Christian leaders of their generation—B. B. Warfield, A. T. Pierson, W. H. Griffith Thomas, Torrey, Dixon and nearly sixty others. But many of the contributors, though leading figures in their generation, are little known today.
Early in the project, I wrote on George William Lasher, editor of the Baptist Journal and Messenger of Cincinnati who was a proto-fundamentalist. While The Fundamentals were published in the 1910s, fundamentalism as a distinct movement emerged in the 1920s as denominations began to fragment over theological issues. I am aware that the date of the “beginning” of fundamentalism is disputed, but by the 1920s, the term fundamentalist emerged as a moniker of identification thanks to editor Curtis Lee Laws of the Watchman-Examiner. The Fundamentals contributed to the idea of fundamentalism by identifying many of the theological points then under dispute between progressives who advocated for the new theology and old school conservatives who maintain the older orthodoxy.
Among the names associated with The Fundamentals, is Henry Clay Mabie, who had recently retired from his position of more than 18 years with the American Baptist Missionary Union (ABMU). Mabie wrote none of the essays in the series but was a constant at Northfield, MA in the summers where he had a summer home, Roeburn, a Swiss-style chalet which was a hub of Christian fellowship during his residences there, dating from the days of D.L. Moody who began summer conferences to promote Christian work. At Northfield, he rubbed elbows with many of the editors and contributors of these essays. Mabie was recommended in 1911 in a letter between editor Louis Meyer to Lyman Stewart. Since A. C. Dixon was the only Baptist on the committee that approved these essays before their publication, Meyer suggested that Mabie should be added to the group called the Committee on Fundamentals. One reason that Mabie was recommended by Meyer was that he was a Chicago man, having graduated from the old University of Chicago with his A. B. in 1868 and his D. B. (Bachelor of Divinity) in 1875. Given that the current Chicago men were “doing so much to undermine the faith of Baptists,” perhaps Mabie could help shore things up because “Dr. Mabie would command a great deal of respect among the Baptists” (Meyer to Stewart, 31 May 1911). By the following April, Mabie had read and accepted two/thirds of twenty-six essays, being commended by Meyer to Stewart (letter 12 April 1912) for his hard work.
Mabie had become connected with the ABMU in 1875 when he pastored in Oak Park, IL. He became an honorary member for life by contributing $100 to the cause of missions (an amount in today’s currency of approximately $2600), and served for a few years on its executive committee along with men like Alvah Hovey and A. J. Gordon. His pastorates included three years at First Baptist of St. Paul and nearly three more years at Central Baptist of Minneapolis. While at Central, Mabie was elected to be the corresponding secretary of the ABMU.
During his time with the ABMU, Mabie made two trips abroad, surveying the work of the mission, writing about his first trip on his return in his book In Brightest Asia in 1891. In 1907, Mabie took another international trip visiting Japan and China, speaking at the Morrison Centennial named for pioneer missionary to China Robert Morrison who landed in Macau in September 1807.
Mabie became, for the next eighteen years, a tireless spokesman for the missionary cause. In 1908, he was invited by the Rochester Theological Seminary, to teach theology for Augustus Hopkins Strong who needed a break. The board was reminded that Mabie was “an author of wide reputation, a man of prophetic spirit and insight, a speaker of inspirational power.” After his long years with the ABMU and following his year at Rochester, he continued to promote the missionary endeavor by lecturing on missions at schools and, institutions, most of them Baptist, around the country, as well as in Canada, at the behest of the Baptist Theological Faculties’ Union who raised funds to underwrite the series. His lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary were published in 1917 as The Unshaken Kingdom.
In 1912–1913, Mabie made a final global trip, speaking at the European Baptist Congress in Stockholm, the Evangelical Conference of French Speaking Peoples in Morges, Switzerland and participating at the centennial of the American Marathi Mission in India. On his return to the United States in 1914, he delivered the annual sermon at the meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention, gathering at Tremont Temple of Boston.
Mabie continued to do the Lord’s work, travelling and speaking across the country until taken by death on 30 April 1918. Late in life he published “A Personal Manifesto” that restated his conservative views in the face of a rising tide of theological liberalism. Mabie knew all the players in the conflict. He had worked with Walter Rauschenbusch and other progressives at Rochester and had served alongside conservatives and progressives in various denominational endeavors. When I began my research, I knew that he was a missionary statesman and worthy of remembrance for his tireless work to promote the cause of global evangelism. The deeper I dug, the more it seemed likely that he was also a proto-fundamentalist. His association with men like Moody, Dixon, Torrey, and Lasher, for whose paper, the Journal and Messenger he wrote the manifesto, suggested that Mabie understood the issues and seemed to side with conservatives. The Chicago Baptist paper, The Standard, which eventually became the liberal organ of the NBC, The Baptist, noted a fracas that Mabie caused with the release in 1917 of his autobiography From Romance to Reality. He raised the issue of “doctrinal corruption” that could set in, bringing about “needed reforms within the ecclesiastical body” (247). He didn’t name the NBC specifically, but The Standard heard him loud and clear (“Dr, H. C. Mabie on the NBC” The Standard, 7 July 1917, 1–2).
Mabie was an interesting man and an important Baptist leader of a by-gone era. Perhaps he even was a kindred spirit who spoke out when he saw doctrinal error about him. There is still more to learn about Mabie. Stay tuned for further details.
Things have changed dramatically in the past nearly fifty years since I entered university. During my freshman year, I was required to write my first research paper. It was as semester long project that needed to be submitted in typewritten form with only a couple of corrections per page (I just forget how many were allowed but it seems like there could be no more than three). I didn’t type so I gave my handwritten paper to a typist who had to type what I wrote, making no corrections—not to the spelling of words, improper syntactical errors, even down to the punctuation. It all had to be my own work. When I received back the typewritten paper which I paid for, it was full of errors—my errors. I spent the weekend before the paper was do meticulously re-typing the paper using the “hunt and peck” method. It was an ordeal.
In my undergrad and during my first grad degree, hunt and peck was the method of production. Add to that the method of research. No computer to facilitate things and certainly no internet. You had to physically visit a library, look for books in a card catalog or scan the shelf, which led to other books, which led to still other books and so on. If you needed journals or newspapers or other research material . . . you might have to visit multiple other libraries. It was all very time consuming and tedious.
By the time I got into my PhD program in 2000, I had a laptop, with spellcheck, which made the writing portion easier. The software programs then available automatically figured out where on the page the footnotes should go and adjusted the spacing accordingly. Footnotes on a typewriter were a nightmare! The programs even suggested syntactical issues in the paper. I was in hog heaven! You still needed to proofread your work, but you could make the corrections without retyping the whole project.
The internet was still rudimentary in those days, using dial-up connections. Two decades later, the internet is lightning fast and is awash with research tools that will allow the historian to sit in the comfort of an easy chair doing serious historical work. Among the tools available, are a vast array of books, magazines, and newspapers etc. on hundreds of internet sites that are searchable through common search engines like Google, long my preferred search portal.
Rare, out of print books can be read or even downloaded for later use at sites like Google Books, Archive.org or HathiTrust. Moreover, in addition to finding the book in question, these materials can be searched within their contents for names and ideas. Research that before the internet would take hours and hours of difficult labor, can now be discovered with just a mouse click. For example, I discovered that an individual I am studying who died in 1918, spoke at a conference in 1904. I found the text of his paper in a series of books published in 1908 containing the papers of the 1904 conference. His paper appeared in volume fifteen, but perseverance brought the correct volume to light which contained the paper that I could read.
Moreover, this man pastored numerous churches from the time he graduated from university with a D. B. (Bachelor of Divinity), so I am in the process of tracking down the details of his various pastoral ministries. As it happens the man, an important Baptist missionary statesman of the early twentieth century, wrote an autobiography which is available on some of these various sites. However, the fine details of his pastorates were omitted from the autobiography, but many details can be discovered through period newspapers available online at websites like Newspaper.com and NewspaperArchive.com, both available with a subscription. What a time in which to live!
Doing biographical research is supported by websites like Ancestry.com, a subscription site, and a plethora of family specific websites, run by a family member, and filled with genealogical data about the family. The man I am studying went to the University of Chicago before he became a Baptist minister. Another man from the same hometown with the same surname also went to the U of Chicago a few years earlier and also became a Baptist clergyman. Turns out they were cousins, which I discovered when the family specific site manager sent me a short family tree explaining the relationship! Moreover, Ancestry.com taps into things like census details, passport approvals, travel manifests, obituaries, etc. In many cases, one can discover the graves of people of interest on Findagrave.com, although the man I am studying does not have his grave noted there.
Even things that don’t show up on larger collections like Google Books, can be discovered in narrower collections uploaded by universities, etc. on their library websites. If you are studying slavery, many primary source documents may be found at the Samuel J Mays collection at Cornell University or if you need missions conference reports, many are available in the Yale Library digital collection. Additionally, in this digital age, if a document or pamphlet hasn’t yet been scanned, many librarians will scan these documents (often for a fee) and email them to you, thus making it unnecessary to travel to physically read the item in question. As a graduate of Southern, the archivist there has been very helpful in doing this kind of assistance for me over the years. Some libraries will then add these newly scanned documents to their expanding digital collection, increasing their availability to other scholars.
None of this is to say that one may not need to travel to do “boots on the ground” research. Some documents, e. g. personal papers, may never be digitalized, and must be accessed directly at whatever repository holds them, but who knows, maybe this will change one day. Travel to repositories is still necessary to be thorough if you are writing a Ph.D. dissertation, but for a journal article, sometimes that level of detail may be unnecessary. The man that I have been researching lately died in 1918, a few years before the outbreak of the fundamentalist controversy in the Northern Baptist Convention. On what side would he have fallen in the conflict? Lines were being drawn in the early 1900s and I discovered reference to a “Personal Manifesto” that he made in 1917 that may shed light on this very question. Few denominational newspapers are available online, so at this point I may have to travel to discover the actual manifesto. But just finding out that it exists is a significant find.
As far as contemporary research, one still needs to look at physical books if they are recently published, although that is changing too with recent books available through digital portals requiring a subscription, but journal articles can be accessed at numerous websites like JStor or EBSCO, which also need to be accessed through libraries that pay for the right to use them. Most seminaries have access to EBSCO, and many will have JStor, but living in Minneapolis, I have a membership with the Hennepin County Library who has an online portal to JStor so that I, as a library card holder, can have free access.
I have often said that before one can find a needle in a haystack, one has to determine just how big the haystack actually is. Thanks in no small part to the internet, these haystacks have become both larger and smaller—larger because there is more data to sift and smaller because the data is searchable! As an example of what can be done with this kind of internet work, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary has just published my essay “Baptists and Freemasonry: A Conflicted History.” You can access the journal here and my essay here. I used the substantial collection in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and the internet to discover the particulars under consideration. What a day to live and research!
In April of 2021, I published an essay on this topic that had wide circulation thanks in no small part to another blog publishing a link to it. Today, I write a sequel to that article under a similar title because yesterday, a video dropped on the Catholic News Agency showing yet again the serious error that is still being promulgated by the Church of Rome. As a vocational church historian, the history of the Roman Church becomes a necessary field of study even if one is an historian of a particular sub-group of Christians—the Baptists in my case.
I have made the study of Catholicism an important part of my continuing education and try to keep abreast with what the church has taught and continues to say about itself. I have visited important cathedrals and basilicas across the world including many of the major RC basilicas in Europe. St. Peter’s Church, in the heart of Rome, is said to be built on the grave of the Apostle Peter. St. Mark’s Church in Venice is said to contain the bones of St. Mark, while the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain is said to contain the bones of St. James. Travelling to this basilica has become a major Roman Catholic pilgrimage route since the 9th century (the Camino de Santiago) that sees thousands annually traveling, most on foot or by bicycle through routes originating in France, Portugal, and eastern Spain as a part of their spiritual journey.
Whether these churches contain the bones they claim to contain is doubtful and their veracity would be impossible to prove. In the case of San Marco, the bones may actually be those of Alexander the Great. What is at issue in all of these places as well as at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, also in Rome, are the relics they are alleged to contain which highlights yet another serious problem with Roman Catholicism. As the above video reveals, the veneration of sacred objects, including the bones of important people, remains an essential part of the mythology the Church of Rome promotes to people grasping at any notion of the divine. The Basilica of the Holy Cross is said to have a piece of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified which was authenticated when a corpse touched the piece and was miraculously restored to life. The reliquary also contains (purportedly) the Titulus Crusis that Pilate had hung on Jesus’ cross, one of the nails that pierced his flesh, and several thorns from the crown of thorns. Also in the reliquary are fragments of the Grotto of the Nativity and of the Holy Sepulcher, a piece of St. Thomas’s (the doubter) finger and a piece of the cross from the thief who trusted Jesus as he died next to him. All relics are encased in precious metals and put on display for the faithful to venerate. These relics were said to be conveyed to Rome by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who secured them on a visit to the Holy Land in the 4th century. She kept them in a special chapel and the Church has revered them for more than 1500 years. The church itself was built in 1910 by Pope Pius X and the relics were moved to their current spot in 1931. Helena is also said to have secured the steps (Scala Santa) Jesus walked on as he appeared before Pilate which can be viewed in the Pontificio Santuario della Scala Santa, adjacent to the Archbasilica of St. John the Lateran, the church over which the pope actually presides as the bishop of Rome and the church which houses his cathedra (chair).
Most Protestants are uninformed about the place of relics and their veneration among their Catholic friends. However, such veneration remains an important part of the Roman Catholic tradition. When one venerates a relic, they touch, kiss, or stand near the object in a prayerful way—an external gesture that signifies an internal disposition. Relics and their veneration are found throughout the Roman system, particularly in the older churches. Fredrick the Wise of Saxony, the German prince who had a palace in Wittenberg, and eventually became the protector of Martin Luther had a reliquary that contained some 19,000 relics, thought to have the ability of remitting nearly 2 million years from one’s purgatorial sentence if properly venerated!
One need only visit modern day Rome and ride the yellow tour buses of Roma Christiana to see how the church caters to pilgrims to allow them to visit these holy sites with the enclosed relics so that the faithful can venerate these objects and places. Quite by “accident” on my first visit to Rome with my wife in 2014, I secured us “hop on, hop off” tickets on these buses to see the sites (conveniently routed to include all the important religious sites) of the city. So much of the city is owned by the church and the church actively, through tourism, seeks to bolster the faith of Catholics who visit the Eternal City and to win converts. Exiting the Mamertine prison, for example, we were subjected to a video that could best be described as an evangelistic “come home to Rome” video. It was after watching this video that I asked if the Roma Christiana was run by the church. It is! It gave us a very in-depth view of Roman Catholic Rome.
The veneration of relics is part of the Roman Catholic system of purgatory still taught by the Church. Purgatory is a place of cleansing, of judgment, of temporal suffering for sins forgiven but not fully cleansed. In the Roman Catholic system, there are two types of sin—mortal and venial. The more serious is a mortal sin, a sin described as “a sin of a grave nature,” a sin “committed with the full knowledge of the sinner” and a sin “committed with the deliberate consent of the sinner.” Examples of mortal sin include breaking the commandments—idolatry, blasphemy, “deliberate failure of the Sunday obligation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2181), murder, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, adultery, divorce, pornography, prostitution, rape, homosexuality, incest . . . and the list goes on. Confession to a priest is necessary to receive forgiveness for any of these mortal sins and if a person dies with any unconfessed mortal sin, he/she is doomed and damned. The Sacrament of Confession “remits the sins committed after baptism,” “remits the eternal punishment and at least part of the temporal punishment due to sins,” “restores or increases supernatural life to the soul,” and “gives strength not to fall back into sin.” Venial sins are sins “not fully consented to” or ones of which the sinner does not know that the actions were sinful. Purgatory then becomes necessary for saints to go to to be purified from the corruption not covered by the work of Christ. This time of judgement varies according to the nature and amount of these sins and may last for thousands of years. To shorten the time spent in purgatory, faithful Catholics can do any number of things, including the veneration of relics to reduce the amount of their temporal suffering.
No wonder Martin Luther had such despair before he came to grasp the solas! No wonder the Church was rent with such serious controversy as it threw off these unbiblical notions that kept people in the bondage of their sin. Sola fides! Sola gratia! Solus Christus! Sola Scriptura! Soli Deo gloria! Christ forgives sin and took all the penalty for sin, past, present, and future! Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!
Recently Joe Rigney, president of Bethlehem Baptist Seminary, argued that infant baptism need not be an absolute bar for membership in a Baptist church. If Christians of various persuasions can get “together for the Gospel,” why can’t they get together in the church? By Rigney’s thinking and in the spirit of catholicity they can, if they are willing to accept the status of a second-class citizen in a Baptist church. They can be admitted into Baptist churches on the basis of their “valid but improper” baptism but they will be barred from leadership positions because they do not embrace “the whole counsel of God” or immersion as the proper form of baptism. This is essentially the view that John Piper proposed to his Bethlehem congregation nearly twenty years ago.
The crucial paragraph concerning the issue of baptism and membership was as follows:
Therefore, where the belief in the Biblical validity of infant baptism does not involve baptismal regeneration or the guarantee of saving grace, this belief is not viewed by the elders of Bethlehem Baptist Church as a weighty or central enough departure from Biblical teaching to exclude a person from membership, if he meets all other relevant qualifications and is persuaded from Bible study and a clear conscience that his baptism is valid. In such a case we would not require baptism by immersion as a believer for membership but would teach and pray toward a change of mind that would lead such members eventually to such a baptism.
You will note from this statement that the ultimate determining factor for accepting the validity of one’s baptism is their own personal Bible study and a clear conscience. There is neither precept nor example of infant baptism in the New Testament. Nor is there any text that connects infant baptism to OT circumcision. How on, the basis of Bible study alone, would someone come to the conclusion of infant baptism? And a clear conscience? Our consciences are shaped by any number of things so that a “clear conscience” is no certain guide for action. The Scriptures should always inform and shape our conscience. One’s conscience can only be “clear” when one brings oneself into conformity with the Word of God—the whole counsel of God.
Joe Rigney is merely putting new wine into old wine skins. There is nothing new in his argument, only the same flawed reasoning without scriptural warrant that drove Piper to attempt to make this change at Bethlehem nearly two decades ago. Happily, it was rejected by the assembly, not by formal vote, but sensing it would not pass muster, it was quietly withdrawn. Piper made it clear in a letter afterwards that he intended to continue to pursue this change, but it never occurred under his watch. Now Joe has taken up the cause.
The debate over baptism has raged in the church for millennia for many reasons. All sides argue passionately for their view being the correct view and are quick to show why everyone else’s view is the wrong view. For example, R. Scott Clark argued recently that “the biblical evidence for immersion is rather thin.” Clark here is driven by his Presbyterian presuppositions rather than the text of Scripture. If it is the case that biblical evidence for immersion is “thin,” then it is certainly the case that biblical evidence for paedobaptism is non-existent. If you argue that infant baptism is the New Testament sign of the covenant, of which circumcision was the Old Testament sign, please show me anywhere in the New Testament that even hints at this much less clearly teaches it? Moreover, if you grant through theological gymnastics that infant baptism actually correlates to circumcision, pray tell me how infant baptism is applied to females? Only the male Israelites could be circumcised in the Old Testament. Yet the females were a part of the covenant relationship (I would presume). But there was no female circumcision or its substitute. So, our Presbyterian brethren who insist that infants be placed in the New Testament covenant via infant baptism make a blind leap over an infinite chasm to get from the biblical example of believers being baptized (Acts 8 and the Ethiopian eunuch) to infant baptism, including the baptism of females.
Now it matters to me not one whit what Joe Rigney wants to hold with respect to baptism as a Christian, but to claim to be a Baptist, while admitting those wetted as infants simply beggars the imagination. What does Rigney mean by the term Baptist if baptism doesn’t delimit the assembly? Open membership is the slippery slope into liberalism as this recent essay from 9Marks demonstrates. This is not to suggest that every church that embraces open membership is liberal, but the more biblical theology a church openly ignores, the easier it becomes to set aside other theological teachings. Those who hold open membership are de facto paedobaptists. Jonathan Leeman made this case a few years ago.
You cannot really claim to be pro-believer’s baptism and yet accept both kinds of baptisms. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s not, and either he commanded baptism for believers or he didn’t. You can only practice or accept both kinds if you’ve told yourself that paedobaptism is essentially okay. And that, I dare say, makes someone a paedobaptist, just like a pro-choicer is actually pro-abortion (even if they don’t practice abortion), and someone who claims to be neutral on slavery is actually pro-slavery (even if they don’t have slaves).
When Baptists have been challenged over the years that their obedience to Christ on the matter of strict adherence to credo-immersion was unloving, they met this objection with the obvious assertion that Christ gave us baptism and he was the one who decided what was to be practiced. When he gave the command to baptize (Mt 28:19), he had something in mind, he meant something substantive by that command. Nowhere did Christ say, “do something, anything—sprinkle, pour, believers, infants, you decide what you want to do—and call that baptism.” What right does any follower of Christ have to ignore, change, or set aside a clear biblical teaching? While Clark calls the biblical evidence for immersion “thin,” what is striking is that every time the ordinance is referred to in the Scripture, βαπτίζω is the Greek word used while two other Greek words for sprinkling and pouring— ῥαντίζω and χέω—are never used. As Tertullian declared so long ago, Baptismum quum rite non habeant, fine dubio non habent, which translates, “those who are not rightly baptized, are, doubtless, not baptized at all” (De Baptismo, 15, quoted in Abraham Booth, An Apology for the Baptists, 1778, 25).
Finally, something should be said of the absurd notion of a halfway covenant (a form of limited church membership in Congregational New England in the 17th century) in some Baptist churches. Those Reformed Baptists, “squatters in the Reformed house” (a pejorative description R. Scott Clark uses to argue that Baptists who deny infant baptism as a sign of the covenant aren’t really reformed) who attempt to placate Presbyterians, et al., by admitting the “validity” of paedobaptism, do their non immersed “members” a disservice by barring them from teaching because they do not embrace “the whole counsel of God.” First, who of us correctly embraces God’s whole counsel? Are we so arrogant to think that we aren’t possibly mistaken at some point? Granted that immersion isn’t a necessary belief for conversion, Baptists in the main have marked it as a necessary belief for church membership. How absurd would it have been for John Piper’s Bethlehem church to admit Jonathan Edwards into its membership (Piper used Edwards as an example—“he couldn’t be a member of Bethlehem and we love his theology!”) but bar him from the eldership or from the teaching ministry of the same church because Edwards didn’t accept “the whole counsel of God?”
Rigney and Reformed Baptists find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. They wish to keep the name Baptist while jettisoning its essential identifying mark—credo-immersion. Baptist identity was in flux in the early 17th century but by the late 1630s, credo immersion was the settled belief among them. Someone will try to hoist me on the petard of John Bunyan, but he wasn’t really a Baptist. For Rigney and others, believe what you will, but to call yourself a Baptist while admitting into church membership paedobaptists is a non sequitur. As J. L. Dagg argued, “we know, from the Holy Scriptures, that Christ gave commands on these subjects (church order), and we cannot refuse to obey. Love prompts our obedience and love prompts also the search which may be necessary to ascertain his will.” (Manual of Church Order, 1858, 12). Baptists show their loyalty to Christ by careful obedience to his revealed truth. Under certain circumstances, we may gather with other believers “together for the Gospel.” But the Scriptures prescribe “together in the church” via credo-immersion.
He that hath ears, let him hear.