Briefly Considering Torah-observant Baptistic Theology

I just listened to the Aug 2 “Messiah Matters” episode in which callers could ask Tim Hegg a question (Show # 228).

While listening I heard a quote from me referenced, and was intrigued by Tim’s response, which matched precisely what I would have expected. The portion of my comment read aloud was,

The baptistic perspective is premised upon the idea that the New Testament supersedes the Old.

My full comment was this:

Food for thought: the baptistic perspective is premised upon the idea that the New Testament supersedes the Old. To recognize the continuity of the Scriptures, and consequently the abiding validity of the Torah, but retain the baptistic perspective is to reject the premise but retain its fruit.

Tim disagreed. Before digging into my objections I would like to state up front that I have great respect for Tim. Primarily because he is, in my opinion, the most trustworthy Messianic teacher alive. Nevertheless, I have two major issues with Tim’s response:

  1. Tim’s immediate response was, “It’s just the opposite,” but this is demonstrably inaccurate.
  2. His follow up was an attack upon a straw man.

I do not fault Tim for either of his responses; he had not seen my quote or its surrounding context, and didn’t have time to consider it carefully; his response, however, confirmed my assertion that stereotypical Messianic thought on this matter remains reactionary.

Objection 1. “It’s just the opposite.”

Within mainstream Reformed thought, whether of the Swiss, Dutch, English or Scottish streams, there is a fundamental assumption of continuity between the Testaments. Only in the Anabaptist and eventually baptistic Reformed movements do we see the presumption of discontinuity spring up.

Reformed Baptists agree with Reformed paedobaptists that God made a covenant of works with Adam, which he broke and so brought condemnation on the whole human race (Rom 5:18). They also say that God mercifully made a covenant of grace with His elect people in Christ (Rom 5:18), which is progressively revealed in the Old Testament and formally established in the new covenant at the death of Christ (Heb 9:15-16). The only way anyone was saved under the old covenant was by virtue of this covenant of grace in Christ, such that there is only one gospel, or one saving promise, running through the Scriptures.

Baptist covenant theologians, however, believe they are more consistent than their paedobaptist brothers with respect to covenant theology’s own hermeneutic of New Testament priority. According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to “you and your seed” was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed (Gal 3:16). Abraham’s physical children were a type of Christ, but Christ Himself is the reality. The physical descendants were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line. Rather, only those who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus (Gal 3:7). In both the Old and New Testaments, the “new covenant” is revealed to be a covenant of believers only, who are forgiven of their sins, and have God’s law written on their hearts (Heb 8:10-12).

The majority of historic Reformed Baptists held to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 because they believed it is a compendium of theology that best summarizes the teaching of Scripture in small compass.” [it should be noted that the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1689 is, literally, the Westminster Confession of Faith with changes made where Baptistic theology necessitated differences over against mainstream, classic Reformed theology].

– (https://founders.org/2017/03/30/what-is-a-reformed-baptist/, emphasis mine)

One of, arguably the foundational, differences between classic Reformed theology and Reformed Baptist theology was almost veiled in the above quote, so lest it be missed, let’s highlight it by quoting from another source:

It may be helpful at this juncture to make a distinction between the different types of covenants as seen by [classic Reformed thought]. Though there are many different covenants made throughout the Old Testament, they would all be seen as administrations of the same Covenant of Grace. For instance, the Old Covenant is synonymous with the Mosaic Covenant and is seen as an administration of the over-arching Covenant of Grace. In fact, the smaller covenants made throughout time, from Adam to Christ, are simply administrations of the same Covenant of Grace, not being altogether different covenants in themselves. Herman Witsius writes:

‘It is a matter of the greatest moment, that we learn distinctly to consider the Covenant of Grace, either as it is in its substance or essence, as they call it, or as it is in divers ways proposed by God, with respect to circumstantials, under different economies. If we view the substance of the covenant, it is but only one, nor is it possible it should be otherwise. […] But if we attend to the circumstances of the covenant, it was dispensed at sundry times and in divers manners, under various economies, for the manifestation of the manifold wisdom of God.’ (opus magnum, published 1677)

There is a key piece which must be understood concerning [classic] covenant theology. There is a distinction made between the substance of a Covenant and the administration of a Covenant. This distinction is absent within Baptist covenant theology. So, the Covenant of Grace is the substance and is administered by way of the Old Covenant and then later, the New Covenant. Both of those Covenants (Old and New) are seen to be merely two different administrations of the same Covenant of Grace, not being viewed as covenants in and of themselves.

The Baptist framework for Federalism is quite different. Instead of the “one covenant, two administrations” paradigm, the Baptist holds that each covenant is distinctly different from one another. Furthermore, the Baptist holds that the Covenant of Grace didn’t exist as a covenant in the Old Testament, but only as a promise. (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 9:8) This means that the covenant [of grace] … was only promised in the Old Testament and later fulfilled in the New Covenant with the advent of Christ. The Covenant of Grace then is synonymous with the New Covenant; it was promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled (and concluded) in the New Testament.”

– (http://reformedcollective.com/2016/01/07/covenant-theology-the-distinction/ )[1]

Objection 2. Tim rebuts a straw man (in two ways)

Besides the fact that Tim proceeded to attack classic Reformed theology as if it is universally supersessionist (which is ironic, given that Reformed Baptist theology is universally supersessionist, but classic Reformed theology is not), my argument in particular is profoundly not supersessionist. Tim, of course, wasn’t familiar with my argument, so I am not faulting him for this, but rather pointing out that he never actually engaged my argument.

So, Tim countered not my argument, which is inherently non-supersessionist, but what he perceives to be the perspective of paedobaptists (which is also a sort of straw man, in that this is the perspective of some paedobaptists, but not all). This is an example of what I mean when I argue that the current de facto position in Torah-Observant theology is often reactionary rather than thoroughly exegetical.

Finally, we need to be so careful when assigning the accusation of “replacement theology” (or supersessionism) to Reformed perspectives. Undoubtedly, it exists; I am emphatically not denying this. However, the truth is that the biblical position itself is often attacked as being supersessionist (consider Paul’s statement in Romans 9:6-7, c.f., Galatians 3:29).

So when N.T. Wright or another more classic Reformed scholar, vigorously protests that they are not supersessionist, we ought to allow them to define their terms every bit as much as we desire to do so for ourselves. Wright claims he has an “expansionist” theology, a description I quite like. I think Wright wanders into replacementist applications of his perspective, but I believe him when he insists this is not his intention.

What Am I Saying?

My argument is this: regardless of what various Reformers said, we ought to allow the text and its progressive revelation to take us wherever it goes—never mind what apple carts it might upset—though always being slow to contradict generally reliable teachers who have preceded us, but ultimately maintaining a more radical commitment to the text than to the tradition which formed us, or which we are reacting against.

Let us momentarily put aside the history of theological argument since the Reformation, and ask the following question: if you were a 1st century Jew, shaped only by the Torah and its prescriptions, what would you presume about God’s method of inclusion? Would you not take it for granted that the children of covenant participants were included in the covenant, and that the sign and seal of this covenant participation was circumcision?

If you were subsequently a reader of the writings of Paul, believing that he was not contradicting anything established by the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, but amplifying the truths there potentially obscured, and if you then realized that Paul was painting circumcision as the marking of the flesh and baptism as the marking of the spirit/heart, baptism not replacing but rather amplifying circumcision, would you not then naturally presume that the children of covenant participants would be given the “new covenant” mark?

I am not denying that some have argued baptism replaces circumcision. Granted; some have also argued that the law is done away with. What is either error to us who recognize the essential continuity of the Testaments?

So then, when we find in the Canons of Dort:

Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy” (1.17),

I contend that 2nd Temple era Jews like the Apostles would have read this and agreed, never mind whether Calvin, Witsius, Luther, or Owen gave an accurate rationale for the statement’s truth or not!

So long, however, as we read the Bible through the lens of baptistic theology we are prevented from seeing this reality. If then, there is a unity in Scripture’s covenants as described by either “The Promise” (Kaiser/Beecher) or “The Covenant of Grace” (classic Reformed theology) would we not expect that whatever it is that circumcision and baptism accomplish or signify, it would be expected by Torah-formed believers that each would be applied to infants?

Does baptism replace circumcision? Emphatically not! Now, can we please move on to asking what Scripture does teach about baptism?


[1] This may be helpfully pursued further in reflections found at https://www.heartandmouth.org/2017/02/23/case-reformed-infant-baptism-1/

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