This is a statement of my beliefs and the twisty road that led me to them. It is not directed at anyone particularly, and there are no doubt many to whom some of the things I say do not apply. So if you’re reading and think, “Not necessarily,” just know that I already said that here. I love and respect and thank God for all of my Christian brothers and sisters.
I hold a robust covenantal worldview.
The Covenantal God
- God is a God who keeps covenant to the thousandth. 1
- God’s sovereignty over all creation is covenantal in nature. 2
- God’s one, eternal purpose to save a people in Christ connects the unfolding covenants. 3
The Covenanted Creation
- Civil governments are to adhere to God’s holy and good law in at least moral and judicial terms, or else they will be judged. 4
- The church is God’s people who in all ages who come to him by the covenant in Christ alone. 5
- The family involves male headship over the household members, together in covenant, whom he represents before God, civil society, and the church. 6
- I affirm justification by faith alone in Christ alone (which was the linchpin of the Reformation).
- I affirm the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of sola scriptura over all tradition or interpretation.
- I affirm the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification.
- I affirm the need to be born again for salvation.
- I deny that physical birth equates regeneration or salvation.
- I deny that baptism merits grace or causes God to regenerate the baptized.
- I deny justification by works of the law or by “covenantal faithfulness”.
- I deny any falsely assumed misrepresentation of my views.
The easiest thread to follow is some consequential outworking of having become a Calvinist years prior. Those who urge the young, restless, and reformed crowd to read the puritans, the reformers, and the early writings have helped to push me in this direction. At the chance of oversimplification, I offer several categories:
The main point of interest is the covenants or how the bible hangs together. This is the controlling factor, the continental divide. A robust Reformed Covenant Theology makes more sense to me at this point than other explanations (Dispensationalism, Progressive Disp., Progressive Covenentalism, NCT, Reformed Baptist CT). My intention in all of this is not to provide complete arguments, but merely to state my position and how I arrived there.
Here’s a loose outline of the position: First, God is a covenantal God who keeps covenant to the thousandth generation. This wasn’t the OT God who is now different in the NT. He holds one plan of redemption in Jesus from before creation. Second, there is progress and unity. God made a covenant with the Israelites not like the one made with their fathers (progress). God saved Israel and brought them into the promise land because of the promise to the fathers (continuity). God makes a new covenant in Christ (progress). This covenant fulfills all previous ones starting with the “seed” of Eve (continuity). Third, all covenants are gracious because all commands are made in context of covenant salvation. Law itself is covenantal. God placed Adam in harmony with himself and then blessed Adam commanding him not to eat the tree but to multiply. God saved Israel from Egypt and then gave them commands. God saves his people in the NT era and then commands them to obey. Thus, all covenants were gracious. Fourth, The members, promises, and warnings in the previous covenants are as those in the new covenant (though greater). Just as Israel was in the vine of Christ but was broken off for unbelief, so also it is with NT believers (see also here). Last, while the NT interprets the OT, the NT speaks and thinks in the terms and categories of the OT – and not by those of modern scientific individualism. This holds for everything from the “household formula” to John’s Apocalypse. These are brief highlights and are in no way meant to be exhaustive. See here for a fuller outline.
Walking the Line
My path toward a more covenantal view began from conversion in a dispensational premillennial context, which included the wildest speculations and imminent variables. Needless to say, this was unsustainable in reality, not least scripturally. Eventually, I transitioned to a New Covenant Theology position upon finding dispensationalism unable to handle scripture’s prophecy or human life in a faithful or stable manner. I remember loving NCT’s emphasis on Christ at the center of all theology, as well as its focus on progressive revelation. At this time I had also become a Calvinist, since both it and NCT aim to be entirely Christocentric. God’s sovereignty became central to my worldview and interpretation of scripture. Over time, as I tried to incarnate the practicalities of NCT, especially in connection to the relevance of the Old Testament, I began to find NCT insufficient to provide me with a solid way of living beyond “the Law of Christ”, which for all its nuance was too vague in application. The Word of God increasingly became a set of abstract principles. I then began drifting toward a more Reformed Baptist position.
Since RB’s and Reformed non-baptists both hold to a Covenant Theology, I initially read them both indiscriminately. Eventually I found that RB’s employ many ideas and terms from Reformed thought (Contra Denault. eg.: the LBC is similar to the WCF, minus infants and a little law). An example of this that wielded great influence on myself is the exegetical work of Drs. Gentry and Wellum who have taught me (and others) that where there are grammatical-literary-historical structures and elements of a covenant, there also is a real covenant. Gentry fleshes this out in every area of his scholarship. Yet, this is the exact method employed by Reformed Theologians (cf. p.26). Once a reformed covenantal hermeneutic is adopted, it begins to work itself out in all areas of exegesis.
No doubt, some will question ulterior motives or theological exegesis, and to that end I wish to note that I have tried to listen to a wide range of thinkers on the subject. This doesn’t mean I have read everything – indeed, new works come out every year, which would perpetuate indecision indefinitely. Yet, I have perused authors such as Jewett, Schreiner/Wellum, Gentry/Wellum, Reisinger, Denault, Malone, Johnson, Coxe, Blackburn, Barcellos, Leiter, Robertson, Goldsworthy, Vos, Frame, Sproul, Horton, Chapel, Clowney, Murray, Bird, Beale, Rayburn, Strawbridge, Wilson, Schenck, Warfield, Hamilton, Ferguson, Aland, Jeremias. I’ve tried also to examine historical sources as widely as possible: Polycarp, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine; from Calvin to Spurgeon, Owen to Barth.
I am not listing this to impress anyone at all, nor to place those writers or myself on some high level, but merely to show that I have not made a decision that is hasty or a-theological. I hope it would appear that I have not trusted myself nor my circumstance in discovering the truth on a matter. In my study of the bible, I have tried to learn from men who are wiser than myself and theologically and traditionally more varied than my own perspective.
Another way of looking at this is from our love of past Christians. We tend to view Augustine, Calvin, or the Puritans in an ambient diffuse glow; yet, they said and did some wild things. I discovered their less popular views from classes, conferences, and strings of books promulgated by baptists. And in my study of extra-baptistic writings I have gained some of their beliefs. In my study of puritans, I have become happily Puritanical. In my study of the reformers, I have become rated “R” Reformed. In my study of the medieval age, I have become more lower “c” catholic in faith, confession, and creed. In my study of the early church fathers I have become historically anchored. (And I have done all this while also detesting any form of postmodern relativism.) The “New Reformation 2.0” crowd likes to grow beards and sip bourbon because the Reformed tradition did so. To them I say: stay thirsty, my friends.
The remaining considerations are all secondary, though ancillary to the theological foundation above.
A Hermit’s Heritage
In my study of history I have found that the majority Christians throughout the entire history of the church have not believed the main tenets particular to baptistic theology. Big surprise. But immersing oneself in historical narrative requires one actually to stop and think about it. I cannot neglect, repudiate, or merely tip my hat at everything that came before the modern period. I am seeking no longer to separate myself from the past but to honor it and to stand in solidarity with it. Not in a pomo selective way, but in as wide an embrace as possible.
Along with this point is the realization that baptist polity, and particularly its view of the baptismal ordinance, excludes and delegitimizes most Christians throughout church history. Baptists generally hold that if one is not baptized by immersion, then one cannot be called a Christian (in any meaningful ecclesiastical, membership sense). And if one cannot be called a Christian, then one cannot take the Lord’s Supper – which symbolizes participation in the new covenant. But if only those baptized by immersion can partake of the Lord’s Supper, then most of church history until the 1600’s and many Christians up to this day are excluded from the communion meal of the new covenant. Upon admitting this, I was convicted that if my view of the church bars Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin or Augustine from communion with their Lord in the Supper ordinance, then I really need to check my theology.
Someone somewhere has said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything” (self, sex, Demos, government, etc). Likewise, when one denies any authority over the local autonomous church, it is not the case that there is no more authority over now-free churches. Rather, we find various undefined figures, positions, institutions, belief statements, or other conglomerations hovering overhead. The 1689 holds much sway in the hearts of good Reformed Baptists. This is not a bad thing; it is normal and natural for us to gravitate to something that connects us beyond the local church. The same goes for institutions outside the local church which wield influence over the local church. Another example is the one-man show or the mega pastor over whom there is little to no accountability or authority. These problems manifest in different forms elsewhere and do not apply to every baptist church (remember the disclaimer), yet the democratic model has not solved the problem by attempting to remove hierarchical categories. In fact, it has only multiplied it.
Arguing Against Myself
In my study of and fight against both modern and postmodern ideas (which have been more extensive than my studies in theology or history), I found myself using arguments against Modernia and Postmodernia that also undercut my own baptistic reasoning and worldview. I would spend my time among the moderns and postmoderns, hearing their arguments and language employed to support their anti-theist worldview, and then I would spend my time among the baptist world and find them using the same thought-forms and arguments in support of their religious worldview. Let me explain:
Modernia prides itself in individualism, libertarian choice, democracy, etc. Baptistic thought emphasizes these same values but under religious terminology; its covenantal structure and hermeneutic are individualist (believers-baptism only), its soteriology hinges upon a personally dramatic experience, and its ecclesiological structures are democratic. Upon further reflection, I have found this also to be true in its general worldview – even following these modernist conclusions to the division of the family (individualism), the belief in public neutrality (personal subjectivity), and assimilation in culture (rule of majority). Hence, the reason for cultural Christianity: baptistic thought generally follows the culture’s philosophical thoughts; yet, trailing them by a few decades or so.
Postmodernia prides itself on perspectival/communal interpretations, the relativization and subjectivization of truth, and the recreating of reality. Similarly in Baptistic thought, there is a general retreat from the objectivity of reality, of the public, of the covenant, etc., into a subjective, perspectival, escapist experience. This is seen in pessimistic eschatologies which produce passive resignation at best or terrified escapism at worst. Also, one often hears the phrase “heart issue” or some such spiritualization of the concrete or eternalizing of the temporal, attached to various points of doctrine. Modesty, art, cultural engagement, and even liturgy for instance, are all subjectively interpreted apart from any external standard of, say, beauty or goodness. Indeed, many forms of baptistic practical theology condense into autonomous interpretations based upon personal or cultural relativity. I have had various friends explicitly admit this. Thus, I have found that baptistic thought generally – not necessarily every single baptist person – is theologically modernist and practically postmodernist. And I have tried but I cannot faithfully live or function upon those axioms without following them to their logical conclusion (Note that this is similar to my theological conclusions above learned from Wellum/Gentry.)
In the culture wars which the secularist are self-admittedly waging, many seem unable to recognize such a state of affairs. In fact, many deny it. “There’s no such thing as a Christian band, plumber, or school.” Or, having recognized the wars, there is a cultural retreat into the heavenly spiritual realms to an almost gnostic degree. For instance, Dr. Al Mohler (whom I greatly revere and admire for his courage regarding inerrancy and other conservative ideas) publishes a “Daily Briefing” in which he shrewdly analyzes the culture on many fronts. Yet, he does not provide a way forward. He merely points out the “growing division of worldview” and then signs off. See also here. There are, sadly, myriads of examples of great, admired, and respected evangelical leaders who fight by losing, who engage by mimicking, and who gain a hearing by agreeing. In the evangelical mind there are two options – escapist retreat or composed retreat. I am opting for a third position: vigorous advance.
Any pursuit of non-religious studies has led me arm-in-arm with secularists or refomed-minded Christians. Why do I find relatively few baptists engaged in economics, education, political philosophy, historiography, etc.? Perhaps this is another form of spiritual retreat from the public sphere, and yet I assume many may object to this – with the “New Reformation 2.0” a concern for the material is resurfacing – but this relies upon holistic, covenantal grounds, which are precisely what I am trying to recover.
From the Horse’s Mouth
It is not as though I sat among baptists, disagreed with what they were saying or doing, and then packed up and went to the presbyterian seminary down the street. Instead, as I sat among the baptists I heard them appropriating again and again covenantal thought, implicitly without confessing it. In short, I learned a covenantal worldview from the baptist’s themselves. Let me give a few examples.
- Babies: Baptists hold that there is no special covenantal-promise to the children of Christians. God is not particularly interested in the physical family because the new covenant is spiritual and not physical like the old covenant that failed so miserably. Rather, what is important is personal spirituality and getting to heaven with or without the family, not raising a little godly family and making a heaven on earth. Holding all of this, baptists then go on to have lots and lots of babies and write lots and lots of godly home or godly parenting books. Why? If “God doesn’t have grandkids,” then why are baptists having lots of children? I have only encountered sentimental, yet theologically insufficient answers. It seems that there are unspoken assumptions by which we live our very lives and yet for which we have no self-conscious theological answers at best or which flatly contradict our theology at worst. At least in this area, we are confessionally baptist but practically paedobaptist. We hold to the categories of the covenant while denying the terms thereof.
- Marriage/Divorce: My former pastor Ryan Fullerton – whose preaching has been an amazing blessing to my soul and for whom I thank God – once preached a sermon on marriage and divorce from Deuteronomy, during which he explained why he rejects the permanence view of marriage. As he was speaking, I began to think how, though I once held to it, I no longer do. I had held it because, among other things, baptistic calvinist thought teaches that the new covenant cannot be broken; therefore neither should we break our covenantal vows with our spouses. However, in the reformed covenantal view the covenant can and has been broken. Therefore, I concluded that I can no longer hold the permanence view of marriage. Just as I finished this thought, pastor Ryan struck up his reasoning for rejecting the permanence view. Among other considerations, he mentioned that “the permanence view cannot be the case because God’s marriage to his people has been broken before. Therefore it’s not right to say marriages can never be broken.” Pastor Ryan’s reasoning for not holding to the permanence view of marriage was, among other things, based upon non-baptistic principles. This is merely one example of what I meant when I said that I learned covenantal theology from the baptists. We speak, think, and live in terms of covenant theology, all the while not using its categories explicitly.
- See Gentry and Wellum above for examples of this in baptist scholarship.
- Commencement: A last and sort of comical example – which is just one among myriads – is the 2015 SBTS graduation ceremony bulletin. Imagine thousands of baptists gathered on a baptist campus at a baptist school, having studied years of baptist curriculum, and preparing to go out into the baptist ministry, spreading the baptist religion around the world. Then, they all sing this hymn: “People and realms of ev’ry tongue/ Dwell on His love with sweetest song/ And infant voices shall proclaim/ Their early blessings on His Name.” The irony! Baptists upon baptists singing about infants praising Jesus in their early blessings. Oh by the way, Dr. Mohler’s commencement speech was entitled “Children of the Day”.
Earlier I spoke of the Lord’s Supper. It is usually thought that unless one is baptized by immersion and has been walking holy with the Lord this past week, and unless one’s conscience is clear, not having sinned too much recently, and then only after a silent pause of morbid, individual introspection into the deep recesses of one’s soul may one carefully partake of the Lord’s Supper – but only then on precarious grounds and with a solemn and downcast attitude. Perhaps I overdid it, but that is what is communicated to the communicant. Upon conscious reflection, not once have I found myself ‘worthy’ to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Instead of focusing on myself, I have come to view that the Lord’s Supper is not a time of subjective individualist introspection, but is instead one of objective covenantal celebration. The bread and wine do not point inward to my sin but away to Christ’s atonement. With this understanding I have finally found the meal a joy, a celebration, but most of all a communion with God. (Yet, notice that this was a move away from a subjective individual symbol pointing to personal faith and instead toward an objective covenantal symbol pointing to Christ’s atonement. Baptist –> Reformed.)
When my friends and others from church asked me what church we would be attending in Louisiana when we moved away from Louisville, we responded that we did not know but that there were several churches that we would look at. We were not hiding some agenda, for we really did not know where we would be going. We had so recently come to a self-realization of the matter about covenantal theology, that we had not begun to look for anything, nor even to connect with anyone from other churches. In short, we were not waiting to tell everyone this until we moved.
Also, the move was as unexpected as was the theological journey and its timing. I had not planned on leaving Louisville before graduating seminary. My job moved from full-time to part-time and we began to consider our financial and living arrangements. Should we find three other part-time jobs to make ends meet or find one full-time job but then quit my other part-time job? If we go for another full-time position, should we buy a house here? How long do we plan to stay in Louisville? All this caused us to look outside the area for a more permanent location. Our concern has always been for Louisiana, from which we came. But more importantly, we desired to take the great gospel light that surrounds the exuberantly health churches and seminary hub and to spread it into darker, less gospel-saturated areas. So, we sent resumes to several schools around the nation, and one down in Louisiana bit right away; then, suddenly we were moving.
A main reason for not publicly waving a flag – aside from not having actually boiled this to a head until recently – is that I did not wish to start a riot or revolution. That is not my purpose. Nor do I have time personally to dialogue with every ready baptist who would dissuade me once “it got out”. Being in a baptist seminary with baptist friends and baptist family, I would be doing so for ages. Based on the majority of conversations I have had with baptists on this matter, I have found generally that baptists do not converse well on this topic. The majority of conversations I have had have been less a dialogue and more like an evangelistic opportunity where it became clear that 1) my friends were visibly upset and 2) I was clearly being treated like a lost person in need of evangelism. The tenor of such conversations has not been fruitful or conducive to deep reflection and careful thought, but rather pointed, repetitive, and emotionally elevated. Hence, the writing of this explanation.
Should anyone wish further to discuss the matter with me, I would be happy to do so. However, please note that I cannot give my time to endless rounds on these topics. I am past a debating, flag-waving mood. I do not see this as a major point of contention given the dilemma of secularism and Christianity in the West. We have bigger fish to fry and I hope to do so intently with any and all Christians. In the past, churches split over the issue of baptism; today they split over inerrancy and sexuality.
Finally, we ask for God’s grace and your patience with us. We hold to a robust confession of the core of Christianity and wish nothing but to remain in God’s love by Christ’s atoning work on our behalf. We further wish to remain in close fellowship and partnership with all of our Christian brothers and sisters. One of our desires is not to leave the baptist world in a radically separatist manner; that is, not to leave it like a reactionist revolutionary. Hence, the slow and calm path we have tried to take. We will always be open to critique and discussion, and we wish to remain humble and teachable throughout the course of our lives. Above all, we desire your fellowship, love, and prayers.