Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Baptism, Independency, and the Church

The interweb is riven with controversy once again.  On the one hand, Paul Levy at Ref 21, asks why the FIEC is almost entirely made up of baptists; on the other hand, John Stevens, the venerable Chief of the FIEC, challenges those who are committed paedobaptists and independents to get involved.  Of course, there are no paedobaptists who are committed to independency as far as I know, so perhaps that deals with the issue.  Levy has replied to John Stevens, quoting Ben Williamson, with whom I am acquainted of old.  Ben argues that Baptists ought to be Independents, and paedobaptists ought to be Presbyterians.  I think he is absolutely right on that, but I think the reasons he gives are wrong, and dismiss rather too easily the Baptist position.  Since it is clearly intolerable that anyone should be wrong on the internet and not be contradicted, let me add some thoughts.

Ben thinks that Presbys put more emphasis on the corporate aspect of church, while Baptists emphasise the individual and his faith.  There is something in that, if we're just looking at what actually happens.  But if we dig and try to do some actual theology from the Baptist side, I think we ought to find something like this: Baptists ought absolutely to emphasise the corporate nature of the church, but they ought to downplay the institutional structures of the church.  For both Baptists and Presbyterians, the church exists because of calling.  But this calling is understood very differently.  The Presby, interpreting the NT in the light of the OT (a perverse procedure in my not-so-humble opinion), sees the calling of the church as being much like the calling of Israel.  So, in history a group of people is called, and their calling endures through time and is passed on generationally.  Baptism is rightly administered to children in recognition of this, and the church itself must have an enduring institutional structure to enable it to endure.  It must exist above and beyond the individual congregation, and must have priority over the individual.

I submit the Baptist ought to argue that the calling of Israel is in fact a parable of the real calling of (Christ, and in him) the church.  Therefore, the former is to be interpreted by the latter and not vice versa.  The Baptist ought to maintain a much more dynamic understanding of calling.  Church means gathering.  It means the calling of people together, but in a very real sense this calling is never 'done'.  Every Sunday is a fresh calling together of God's people.  The calling of Christ - indeed, Christ's activity and rule in his church in general - is regarded as that much more immediate.  So, yes, the calling of the individual has priority, but only because the calling of the individual is always into the body, and it is the calling of individuals that constitutes the church.  This view of Christ's dynamic involvement with the church ought to lead to flexibility about institutions and even about individual congregations.  It will also involve a recognition that church exists only as people are actually called by Christ into fellowship with him and one another in actual church life; therefore, to Independency.  The Baptist understands Catholicity to mean that Christ is calling different people into different fellowships, and trusts that we are nonetheless called to and by the same Christ.

So Baptism/Independency is not more focussed on the individual than the community; it simply understand the community and its existence differently.  This does have an impact on how we see children of believers - I think there is a category for those associated with the community but not yet called into it, a la 1 Cor 7, but this comes a long way short of the OT-ised view of the church held in confessional Presbyterianism.  For which I am glad.


  1. Daniel,

    I'm sorry for perhaps being to quick to dismiss the Baptist position. I don't think we do disagree (except obviously on the issue of church government and baptism) essentially I agree with your take on the Baptistic reason for independency. I perhaps didn't explain it very well but I would submit we're on the same lines. Both sides hold community and the individual as important but the different emphasize affect the view both issues. My main point is this is why it shouldn't surprize us that there are no indpendent Peadobaptist churches, althoug John Stevens says there are lots. One curious question which may impact our agreed upon theory (despite disputes about how we get there) might be John Owen. I know you are more of an expert on him (or you used to be) thoughts?

  2. Hi Ben,

    Yes, lots of agreement, but I think the big disagreement I have with your analysis is this: you think Bs underemphasise the corporate aspect, at least relative to Ps, whereas I think that what is going on is not a difference of emphasis but a genuinely different understanding of what it means to be 'corporate'. Still, you are right - I don't think it should surprise us that there are few Independent Paedobaptists.

    Owen, of course, is one of the major exceptions, but I have to say I have always felt that his doctrine of baptism felt like a blip. It doesn't fit ever so well into the rest of his theology, as far as I can tell. He is also really rather rude about baptists, but that was par for the course back then, I suppose.

  3. I think perhaps you are right, it is more than a different emphasis but a different understanding of the corporate. Thanks for your thoughts on Owen very enlightening. I am curious what you mean by "Every Sunday is a fresh calling together of God's people. The calling of Christ - indeed, Christ's activity and rule in his church in general - is regarded as that much more immediate." what does this mean for the existence/nature of the church when they are not gathered?

    To be honest I slightly regret having this published it was more to provoke thought rather than a fully tight arguement. Thank you for your generous response. If didn't have a Liturgy exam on friday which I have failed revise for I may be able to consider this all more carefully.

    I may be in Oxford in December if so I will drop you a line and we discuss it all (and hopefully other things) in person.