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/

One thought on “Briefly Considering Torah-observant Baptistic Theology

  1. Shalom Nathan Long!

    Thank you so much for taking the time to write this.

    I hope you and yours are doing well. I didn’t realize you had closed your FB account, so I had a hard time remembering your last name and finding the message you left me (which, incidentally did not indicate your name at all). I am about to start the winter semester at my university on Tuesday, so I finally take the time to write you.

    I am aware of the Reformed theology of Covenant of Grace and of Covenant of Works but I know little about this scheme and it seems to have no Biblical precedent. Although I understand why they see pre-fall Adam and Sinai as C of W and most of the other covenants as C of G.

    In both extended citations, I kind of see both sides of the issue to be two steps removed from Scripture.
    That the Reformed Baptist theologians make the physical line purposeless in God’s economy except to bring the Messiah is to put Galatians 3:16 above every other mention of covenant and promise in the Scripture. It is also to forget that Hebrew has no distinct word for “promise”. What the NASB translates as “promise” 9 times in the Tanakh, are simply דבר and אֹמֶר, two words for “word”. When Paul uses the plural word ἐπαγγελλιαι ” promises” in Romans 9:4, in a list that includes διαθηκαι, “covenants”, he is making a distinction that the Hebrew doesn’t clearly make but one that recognizes the promisory nature of many of God’s covenants in the Tanakh. So it’s clear that this isolation of Galatians 3:16 from other Pauline texts that mention promises to Israel is no to be followed.

    I also see the distinction between covenant “administration” and covenant “substance” to be far removed from Scripture as well as that between C of G and C of W.
    That said, I obviously do not believe that we cannot use theological terms and concepts that are not explicitly given in Scripture but I did want to point out that the entire discussion is happening a few steps away from the Bible as I understand the debate you bring out.

    The way I see the covenants in Scripture is this. They are cumulative and they build on each other. Each is chronologically and logically dependent on the existence of the prior covenant. Speaking of administrations seems to me to imply discontinuity. Obviously the Reformed perspective strongly emphasizes continuity so I know that my impression is incorrect, but is there perhaps a connection between this administrative view of the covenants and the Reformations’ failure to re-appropriate the Biblical feasts and food laws( and also perhaps circumcision) ? That may be the wrong question to ask. In any case, I can agree with an administrative view of the covenants inasmuch as there are manifest, though few they be, differences between God’s rule in one era and God’s rule in another. I just wouldn’t be able to say that one covenant administration ends when the next begins (especially if we speak of the Mosaic and New Covenants).

    I appreciate the definition the second long citation made to say that the “Old Covenant” equals the “Mosaic Covenant”. I understand that this is the standard way of using the term OC in Reformed theology, but the term itself is confusing to many Christians and many without the Reformed perspective haven’t even thought of the question “Which covenant is the so-called Old Covenant”. The division between Old and New Testaments also confuses the issue.

    I definitely see why the Reformed Baptist covenantal position is not acceptable for us TOs. That said, I would like to know why there exists this distinction. Why does the Reformed credobaptistic perspective necessitate a harder separation between the covenants? That is not clear to me.

    With all of my above rambling, thank you for brining the issue to the first century.

    “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 see your reasoning. Circumcision is a commandment and baptism in Matthew 28 is a commandment. Circumcision is a sign of covenant belonging and so is baptism. The act of circumcision for an 8-day-old boy depends on the parents’ covenant belonging. All of these together should lead us to say that an 8-day-old infant would be baptized depending on the parents’ covenant belonging. Am I following?

    I can think of a few objections to this line of reasoning. But here’s a caveat: I have never before studied the issue myself (I still haven’t listened to a debate between P-Bs and C-Bs).

    Is baptism expressly called a sign of the covenant like circumcision is in Genesis 17? If not, why not? Are there passages which closely to tie covenant to baptism?

    I understand theologically speaking of baptism as a sign of faith in Yeshua and that such faith indicates God’s election to belonging in this covenant of promise enacted in Yeshua. But Scripture does not explicitly make the link between baptism and a sign of covenant membership and I’m not sure a 1st century believer under sound teaching would have made this link on their own.

    In fact, if I were to make a textual argument, Ι would go to Romans 2:14-15 and say that the Law written on the heart (allusion to Jeremiah 31!) is the sign of belonging to the New Covenant. There are a number of contextual suppositions that I am making, so if you want more reasoning behind my reading of Romans 2:14-5, let me know.

    What about Colossians 2:11? It would seem to break off from this pattern of Flesh-Circumcision, Baptism-Heart/Spirit. I want to footnote that question by saying that obviously, I do not believe that Paul forbids circumcising 8-day-old boys nor that adult Gentiles who believe cannot be circumcised. I believe Paul is addressing a wider social issue in Judean communities all around the Roman empire which denied the work of Yeshua in the gospel by denying entry into synagogues and Judean groups to Gentile believers. What our translations term “uncircumcision” is literally “foreskin” as you probably know. This is a term of shame and social exclusion whose closest modern parallel would be racial slurs. Clearly that is the issue that Paul is addressing here. But I must footnote that footnote by saying that Paul’s “circumcision made without hands” in Colossians 2:11 is an allusion to every Tanakh passage, from Deuteronomy to Ezekiel that speak of circumcision of the heart. Thus Colossians 2:11 is clearly putting baptism and circumcision in the same non-material category.

    Let me know what you think.
    B’Yeshua
    André-Philippe Therrien

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