Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reformed vs Southern Baptist: Covenant Theology

[This is the fourth article interacting with a series by Les Puryear -- -- regarding whether Southern Baptists can be Reformed]

Among the arguments that one cannot be Southern Baptist and Reformed is the notion that to be Reformed means, necessarily, that one also hold to "Covenant Theology." As Puryear defines it, however, the point of disagreement comes primarily into focus on the issue of paedobaptism: the practice of baptizing infants because they are de facto members of the covenant by virtue of having been born to believing parents.

Again, Puryear falsely presumes that everyone claiming to be Reformed Baptist adopts paedobaptism, or, if they deny it, they are either mistaken or deceiving themselves and others. This is demonstrably false, and a tactic of logic unbecoming serious discussion of issues.

Even so, let it be known that this Reformed Baptist -- and all the others I know -- reject paedobaptism and that aspect of "Covenant theology" decried by Puryear and others.

However, is it prudent to pit "covenant theology" against "Baptist theology," as Puryear expressly does?

There is no doubt that in the Old Testament God promises a "new covenant." In the New Testament, Jesus describes himself as securing the "new covenant" by the shedding of his blood and the breaking of his body, both of which we commemorate in the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. Hebrews tells us that Christ obtained for us a "better covenant" through his sacrificial death and perfect obedience.

This "new covenant" -- of grace, as it were -- is absolutely crucial to our understanding of grace, the security of the believer, salvation, and sanctification. No Southern Baptist should acquiesce to any theological framework that rejects an understanding of our place in this covenant.

"Covenant theology" is traditionally framed against an understanding of "dispensational theology," and in that framing, Southern Baptists occupy a sort of de-militarized zone between them (although dispensational theology is quite popular with some prominent Southern Baptists). Puryear quotes Bart Barber's description of covenant theology in terms of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments,and, it would seem, how this relates to the "pattern" of the New Testament church. It is unclear what this means, but apparently has to do with membership in the body: in the Old Testament, membership was determined by blood; in the New Testament, by conversion and profession (Baptism).

But this treatment makes two fundamental errors. First, covenant has to do with much more than the determination of membership lists, and cannot be limited to an expansion of the 'church' from ethnic identity to trans-ethnic spiritual identity: the terms of covenant are also vital. Second, it comes to rest in a position that seems satisfied not merely with a Southern Baptist understanding of 'new covenant,' but with an understanding of Southern Baptist thought with 'no covenant.'

Puryear and others have thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. They have identified an objectionable aspect of "covenant theology" (which is essentially Presbyterian), pinned that proverbial tail on the "Reformed Baptist" donkey, and cast them all out of the SBC barn.

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