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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Theological Triage

As I finish up my posts on heresy in the next post (I am ditching the Dan Brown fisk – after all, it’s been done like a hundred times already), I felt it was necessary to mention what R. Albert Mohler, Jr. termed the “the discipline of theological triage”.

In the vast world of theological controversies, there are first order issues, second order issues, and third order issues. Unfortunately, most of our time is spent dealing with secondary and tertiary issues, when we should be focusing our attention on the primary issues. Primary issues are those that distinguish Christians from non-Christians. A student once asked Lewis Drummond how one should relate to Christians who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Drummond replied, “You relate to them as lost people.” He was exactly right. Those who deny the bodily resurrection are not believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is a first order issue.

Second order issues are those that would prevent two Christians from joining the same covenant community, even though they would still call one another “Christians.” A church, for example, will either baptize babies or it will not. A church will either ordain women as pastors or it will not. This does not mean that we would necessarily say that those who ordain women as pastors are non-Christians; nor would we say that those who baptize babies are non-Christians (despite the appalling lack of the aforementioned “tradition” to support those practices). Nevertheless, we must affirm without apology that a theological seminary, a denomination and even individual churches will have to stand with one confession, not a multiplicity of diverse choices. These second order issues are the right place to focus much of our debate – so long as we remember where they rank.

Third order issues are those that would not prevent two Christians from joining together in a covenant community. These are not unimportant issues; all truth is important. Yet they are not of such importance that disagreement on them means we cannot cooperate with each other. Many current debates within our churches – including everything from questions about the timing of the millennium to issues of cultural engagement – stand on this third level. As such, they are ripe for discussion, but they should not become a cause for division.

Without the discipline of a theological triage, we are constantly at risk of confusing third order issues for first order issues – the original besetting sin of fundamentalism. At the same time, we are also at risk for first order issues – the besetting sin of liberalism. Keeping our equilibrium requires that our triage be clear and self-conscious, articulated and accountable.

Heresy is about the first order issues. There are several issues that I break with fellow Christians on, because I feel that their positions are unscriptural and have no basis in the beliefs of the church fathers. However, there is a distinct difference between unscriptural and counter-scriptural, between non-traditional and anti-traditional. Heresy lies in the denial of the Gospel – nowhere else.

Next post – heresy and the Catholic Church. Those who have been stopping by will, I hope, find the subject of interest.


  • Good post, Hammer - I'd never thought of it as triage before, but it's as good an analogy as any.

    "nor would we say that those who baptize babies are non-Christians (despite the appalling lack of the aforementioned “tradition” to support those practices)"

    So, the tradition of baptising infants from the earlist days of the church right through to the present day isn't "tradition" enough for you? :-)

    And, although I'm a strong proponent of honouring Tradition, we mustn't forget that it is a guide, not a straightjacket.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 10/26/2005 05:46:00 PM  

  • John,
    I agree with your guide/straitjacket analogy. However, I'd be interested to see evidence for baptism of infants prior to 200 A.D. I have not been able to locate it.

    I have to be intellectually honest and state that I have also been unable to find anything prohibiting the baptizing of infants in that period, but a practice not followed by anyone would neither be specified as conducted, nor prohibited.

    Also, the theology behind the baptism of the infants can change the issue from second to third order, in my opinion.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 10/27/2005 02:20:00 PM  

  • :-)

    It's generally accepted (AFAIK, anyway!) that, when the NT talks about people being baptised "with all their household", that included children and infants. It was common practice for converts to have their households baptised (and converted!) with them.

    The church followed a range of practices during its early centuries - from baptising infants to reserving baptism for the deathbed! (The latter usually for people in professions in which they might have to kill people - including lawyers.)

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 10/27/2005 06:22:00 PM  

  • Good post, Hammer.

    It goes without saying (or should) that the affirmation of the bodily resurrection of Christ is the quintessential demarcation that divides ‘believers’ from ‘non-believers’, so I’ll not further labor that point.

    With respect to the comments, however, I’m a little dubious. Specifically, I wonder why “baptism” is given so much weight, given the fact that Paul seems to minimize baptism in the first chapter of his letter to the Corinthians. My point here—not unlike your “first order” issues—speaks to that which is the heart of regeneration.

    According to my understanding, regeneration must necessarily precede baptism. Indeed, regeneration is spiritual, whereas baptism is obviously physical. Now, I’m not minimizing the significance of baptism per se; I’m simply questioning the efficacy of baptizing an infant, which clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of 'the spiritual'. That is: “infant baptism” seems to be born of ignorance, in that infants are not capable of comprehending baptism. Additionally, the idea of “efficacious baptism” confers more to the “sacrament” of baptism than the Scriptures warrant.

    By Blogger Robert, at 10/28/2005 01:34:00 AM  

  • Robert,
    I agree with your point about baptism not being a first-order issue. However, there are various issues in your comment. For example, are intellectual understanding and assent necessary before someone can be baptised? If so, do we bar people from baptism until they've completed a theology degree?

    Another crucial one is whether "church" is a self-selected group of professed believers (i.e. a group marked primarily by a common set of intellectual statements of belief) or is it the group of all God's children? If it's the former then adult (believer's) baptism naturally follows. If it's the latter then infant baptism naturally follows - because membership in the church isn't defined by intellectual assent but by membership of a covenant community.

    It's an interesting area, and I myself have moved from preferring believer's baptism to preferring infant baptism as my understanding of the church has changed.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 10/28/2005 03:12:00 AM  

  • John,
    You’ve raised some interesting questions.

    For example, are intellectual understanding and assent necessary before someone can be baptised? If so, do we bar people from baptism until they've completed a theology degree?

    Both understanding and assent (a gradual process, to be sure) are the byproduct of spiritual regeneration, which is “by grace through faith…it is the gift of God, not of works…” Therefore, a theology degree, while certainly advantageous, is not a requirement for baptism. Similarly, baptism is merely a public declaration (by regenerates) of repentance and conversion. So, baptism is not a requirement for salvation.

    Another crucial one is whether "church" is a self-selected group of professed believers (i.e. a group marked primarily by a common set of intellectual statements of belief) or is it the group of all God's children? If it's the former then adult (believer's) baptism naturally follows. If it's the latter then infant baptism naturally follows - because membership in the church isn't defined by intellectual assent but by membership of a covenant community.

    There is indeed only one Church, the Bride of Christ (all believers), but there are obviously “self-selected” congregations that differ, to varying degrees, with one another on minor points of doctrine, practice, etc. However, you seem to be conflating baptism with circumcision, in that infant baptism, like circumcision, somehow effectuates a covenant relationship with God (e.g. salvation under the Law of Moses).

    According to the New Covenant that began with the resurrection of Christ, reconciliation with God is the province of the Holy Spirit, who enlightens the spirit of the prospective believer via faith; and faith is itself a gift. Therefore, baptizing an infant (or one at any age) is an empty gesture if it precedes the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, even the circumcision of the multitudes of Abraham’s descendants, from then to the present, did not and does not determine one’s standing before God.

    For example: “In Isaac your seed shall be called”…Ishmael was rejected. Then, God chose between Isaac’s twin sons: “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated”. Paul explains why this is the case in the 9th chapter of Romans: “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham…” In light of God’s sovereign election, baptism (and previously circumcision) is a symbol, a public declaration of affiliation with God and is rooted in Scripture, but baptism is in no way effectual, with respect to salvation, justification or sanctification. That said, I’m not suggesting that infant baptism is harmful, per se. I am, however, suggesting that it’s not helpful, in terms of an infant’s eternal destiny. The same can be said for non-regenerate adolescents and adults.

    By Blogger Robert, at 10/28/2005 02:38:00 PM  

  • Robert,
    So, is baptism a rite of initiation into a self-selected congregation or is it a sign of membership in the Body of Christ? If it's the latter (as I think we both agree it is) then assent to the intellectual belief structure of a particular congregation is (or should be) irrelevant.

    If baptism is a sign of membership in the Body then I can see no reason to exclude infants. This is quite different to a circumcision rite - we're not talking magical initiation ceremonies here but rather recognition of membership in the covenant community and of relationship with God. The thing is, are the children of Christian parents excluded from Christ until they make an explicit declaration of faith, or are they born into the covenant community, growing up into a realisation of the relationship they are in? If it is the latter (as I believe it can and should be) then we ought to be baptising infants if the parents ask for it - as a sign and seal of the covenant relationship within which they will bring up their children.

    This does not precede the work of the Holy Spirit - for who can say that God works only through mature people? Baptism effects nothing, as you say, but God's work isn't limited to older people.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 10/29/2005 03:43:00 AM  

  • John,
    There are two distinct aspects of your last comment. First, I think that we agree that baptism is symbolic, rather than substantive; baptism being symbolic of regeneration, which ensures membership in the Body of Christ. Based upon that, the sort of infant baptism that you’ve described seems to arbitrarily assign membership (salvation) to the children of believers (I’ll show why that’s inappropriate after my next point).

    Secondly, we’re in agreement that the Holy Spirit has and/or will act upon minor children. A few notable examples from Scripture are Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, John the Baptist and certainly Jesus. It’s interesting to note, however, that while they were called in their youth, their ministries didn’t begin until adulthood. Incidentally, God is able to act through anyone or anything He might choose, regardless of age.

    Now, the reason that infants (or older children) with Christian parents can’t presume to have membership in the Body of Christ, by association or relation, is because God’s ‘election’ is not dependant upon (but can coincide with) familial bonds. As I pointed out in my previous comment, God explicitly chose Isaac and Jacob, to the exclusion of their brothers. The fact that God made a substantial distinction between Isaac’s twin sons, before they were yet born, clearly illustrates the fact that simply baptizing every child in a given Christian family is, in itself, merely symbolic, nothing more. Again, Isaac very likely assumed that both of his twin sons were entitled to a covenant relationship with God, in that they were both the offspring of Abraham’s “promised seed”. He was mistaken, as God’s sovereign choice alone is determinative of one’s eternal destiny…not genealogy, baptism, circumcision, obedience or even “free will”.

    By Blogger Robert, at 10/31/2005 01:48:00 PM  

  • Our fundamental disagreement, then, is as I thought - one of the nature of the church. You believe that membership of the church (and hence baptism) is reserved for those who have demonstrated their own personal commitment to Christ. I believe that the church is the community of those who follow Christ and, as such, includes anyone who wants in - including children. Baptism isn't, IMO, an act that requires a declaration of faith. Rather it's something that declares that a person is a member of the body of Christ on Earth. And I differ from you in believing that the children of Christian parents are part of the Body. And I believe that baptising the children of believing parents is appropriate because of this - if baptism is not reserved for those who have passed a specific age, we cannot logically say that anyone is too young to receive it; if baptism does not depend on making a particular declaration of faith then we cannot logically require someone to make a particular declaration before they are baptised. Conversely, if baptism is a recognition of membership in a covenant community then it is absolutely appropriate to baptise those who are brought up within that community.

    I am not trying to persuade you that I'm right - although I hope that I can convince you that my position is reasonable, given a different set of assumptions to the ones you hold! One important point is that baptism (whether of infants or adult believers) does not guarantee salvation. So, any argument against infant baptism founded on the idea that we will be baptising some who eventually are not saved is actually an argument against baptism itself!

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 11/01/2005 03:16:00 AM  

  • IMO, references to scripture would be most useful in the current discussion. In the second chapter of Acts:

    [37] Now when they heard this, they were pierced [Or wounded in conscience] to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?"
    [38] Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
    [39] "For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself."
    [40] And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved [Or Escape] from this perverse generation!"
    [41] So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls[40][I.e. persons].
    [42] They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

    So, looking at tradition may be helpful, but is there some tradition that says when it's ok come up with something different than scripture?

    Are there traditions that are in direct conflict with this passge?

    By Blogger gomatter, at 11/02/2005 10:06:00 AM  

  • gomatter:
    Yes, let's check the biblical record. It shows that whole households were baptised at once - and that includes children and babes in arms. Even the passage you quoted says "it is for you and for your children"!

    It's not as easy as "quote one passage and you've proved your point".

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 11/02/2005 05:13:00 PM  

  • pax,

    Why so defesnive?


    By Blogger gomatter, at 11/03/2005 09:15:00 PM  

  • I'm not especially defensive (I don't think!) but I do disagree both that tradition is in opposition to the Bible and that quoting one passage proves anything.

    In context, the point here is that infant baptism is reported in the NT and was practiced in the early church and right through to the present day. However, there's been huge variation in the exercise of baptism at many times - for a while, it was reasonably common to withold baptism until someone was on their deathbed!

    Faced with this huge variation, the important thing is to understand why we do things the way we do, and to understand how our beliefs and practices tie together - hence my comments earlier about the nature of church, because whether we reserve baptism for declared believers says a lot about how we see the body of the church itself.

    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 11/04/2005 03:06:00 AM  

  • john,

    Thanks for the follow up. I understand your logic. So, do you (and others) feel there are traditions (or practices) involving baptism that are unsupported by scripture?

    Hammertime - Where are the heretics?

    By Blogger gomatter, at 11/06/2005 10:10:00 PM  

  • gomatter,
    Well, there's a question of "unsupported by Scipture" and also of being in opposition to Scripture. In the latter category, we arguably have rebaptising someone already baptised (in the manner of the Anabaptists). In the former, we probably have almost all our current baptismal practices - the "Sciptural" method, insofar as there was one, involved submerging people in a river. None of this swimming-pool stuff, or the strange sprinkling.


    pax et bonum

    By Blogger John, at 11/07/2005 03:42:00 AM  

  • john,

    Sprinkling is actually referenced in the book of Ezekiel.

    By Blogger gomatter, at 11/07/2005 12:53:00 PM  

  • Great discussion - one I have not seen the need to add to. As my newest post will likely stir up a small furor, I figure I had better put my thoughts in while I have time.

    John failed to provide a reference to the baptism of infants in scripture or in the early church - especially one which was not a form of baptismal regeneration. Don't fall into the trap of repeating what you have been told or read - find it in the original documents. The verses cited are similar in Greek to the English, in that the references to entire households refers to the entire occasion, not just the baptism. Blogger doesn't do Konine Greek - suffice it to say that the grammar does not support of position of baptism without a statement of faith (or not representative of one).

    However, because John and the High Protestant churches do not claim baptismal regeneration, no heresy is present. Sorry, gomatter.

    John did have a point worth remembering when he noted that it "isn't as easy as quote a verse and it's solved". That is often the tactic of those who do not want to discuss the issue. Unfortunately, with the loss of a respect for churhc history among Protestants, and revisionist history being taught to Catholics, the power of true early tradition is left unused too often.

    I have been blessed by John's explanation of the high church reasoning behind infant baptism, and have a greater apprecition for it.

    By Blogger Hammertime, at 11/08/2005 05:10:00 PM  

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