Editor’s note: I have updated this post to add a few more thoughts on the debate (11-10-07).
I have just heard the debate between Baptist author/apologist James White vs. Presbyterian minister and author Rev. Gregg Strawbridge. Throughout my theological life, I have been influenced in many ways by both men. Gregg’s passionate exposition of the Scriptures has been a source of theological maturity for me. On the other hand, Dr. White has also played a role in my thinking, though in the last few years I have distanced myself in many ways from his theology. Nevertheless, White’s commitment to offer a Biblical apologetic against Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons have been a helpful resource in my apologetic library.
Their debate a few nights ago demonstrates what the Van Tillian tradition of apologetics has so long proved: ideas have consequences. Presuppositions and notions about hermeneutics affect the beginning statement and closing statements of a debate. Interestingly, the debate ended just as it began: the nature of the covenant. White argued persistently that the New Covenant provided only blessings–since it was only for the elect; while Strawbridge’s commitment to covenantal thinking and continuation led him to conclude that the New Covenant is not different from the Old with regards to recipients and structure, but only in regards to efficacy and eschatological intervention through Christ.
Though presuppositions determine all things, I would like to affirm that Strawbridge’s presuppositions is more consistent and faithful to the Biblical text. I do not make that statement simply because of my predisposition towards paedobaptism. I should note that when Sproul debated John McArthur many years ago, he (Sproul) suffered greatly to present a coherent covenantal model, and thus failing to persuade us why Credo-Baptism was erroneous. Nevertheless, however one may think of these types of ideas/exchanges, my conclusion is that White failed to give credence to a fundamental Biblical component of hermeneutics–that is, Biblical typology. In Biblical typology, the author connects ideas, which at first seem invisible. Indeed, this is the duty of the exegete: to bring together God’s revelation into one coherent message.
James White’s main point of contention in every discussion on baptism is that his Presbyterian brothers just did not separate themselves enough from Catholicism in the 16th century, and if Calvin would just have seen a little more light we would all be Credo-Baptists today. White threw out the “T” word to let everyone know that “Tradition” is the worst of all evils and he (White) has no heritage, no tradition influencing his interpretive scheme. White, however, appears unaware of just how much his tradition affects him. For instance, Strawbridge argues rightly that Hebrews establishes that the New Covenant includes believers and unbelievers. As an excellent reference he quotes Hebrews 10:29-30 which reads:
How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”
According to verse 29, “one” and “he” are two different people. Here is where White’s tradition enters the game. White argues, following John Owen (a historical figure; a respected man in White’s tradition) that the “he” in verse 29 refers to Christ and not to an individual. Grammatically however, notice that in verse 30 it is God’s people that is in mind in verse 29, not Christ. The text says that the Lord will judge “his” people. White never mentioned verse 30, which in my estimation confirms Strawbridge’s assertion about verse 29. If White would only abandon his tradition, he would see the simplicity of the text. In the end, the New Covenant maintains the structure of the Old Covenant, that is, a covenant made with believers and unbelievers. The radical change that White argues is non-existent. Once again, let us place the “radical” where radical belongs: in the person of Christ; that is what is radical about the New Covenant.
Strawbridge’s greatest strength is his ability to tie together New Covenantal language with its intended Old Covenant background. Reformed exegetes understand that New Testament writers did not write unaware of their Jewish context. They were not robots, rather their personalities and backgrounds played a deep role in writing what would become our New Testament canon. Their knowledge of Old Covenant language was always influencing their writing. This is the conspicuous reason there are so many Old Testament quotations in the New; there was an unspoken reliance on the Old Covenant canon because the Old Covenant was part of their identity as New Covenant writers.
White, on the other hand, unaware– or better yet,– unwilling to ever engage in this form of argumentation, lost sight of Gregg’s main point: the Children of Christian parents belong to the Lord because this was God’s purpose from the beginning. Of such is the kingdom of heaven; to such belong the kingdom. This is Biblical pattern–not merely a temporary pattern,– but one that would continue to all generations before and after Messiah would come.
James White has argued before (debate with Shishko) and argued again in the following manner: In the Old Covenant when head of households were circumcised, the slaves were also circumcised. But if there is a direct parallel between circumcision and baptism, then where do the slaves fit in this model? Here is where White commits a colossal failure in his reasoning: He assumes that if Covenant Theologians are consistent then types and archetypes have identical structure/parallels in every situation. He is right to assert that in some sense there will always be a parallel. As an example, David was a king, but also a murderer, but Scriptures make clear that David is a type of Christ, even though David is imperfect and sinful and our Lord (the archetype) was perfect and sinless. Nevertheless, the parallel still carries significant weight when we develop a theology of kingship and lordship in the New Covenant. In the same manner, simply because the Old Covenant included slaves does not mean that the New Covenant will include slaves in every situation. Indeed it may, as Strawbridge brilliantly noted, but not in every situation. This shows a misunderstanding of Biblical language. Our Western individualism blinds us to the fact that when a tribe leader somewhere in the world believes in the Son of God, he and his slaves, and his children, and even his entire tribe come to trust in the Son of God. The communal life of the Jewish life is so foreign to our minds that we do not understand that faith is embodied in a leader/head of household, and when that leader embraces Messiah, that faith is used by the Spirit to draw others to Messiah. It is a communal faith; far different than our un-Jewish (yea, unbiblical) modern conceptions.
It is in this sense that infant baptism makes sense out of Biblical revelation. Further, the argument from household baptisms, the continuity of the covenantal structure, and the faithfulness of God to a thousand generations, serve as a decisive pattern to all that the promise is to you and to your children, forever and forever. Amen.