In the British monthly paper Evangelicals Now of March 2008 there appeared an article entitled Are We Fundamentalists? by Barry Seagren. It was a thoughtful and provocative piece of work aimed at contrasting biblical with Islamic fundamentalism in its various forms. I agreed with the author’s conclusion that there is “a world of difference between the life-giving fundamentalism of the Bible and the destructive fundamentalism that we see in some forms of Islam.”
However, the essay raises questions about the exact nature of so-called biblical fundamentalism which also has various forms. Apart from the fact that the epithet fundamentalism, which is nowadays usually associated with (dispensational) premillennialists who claim to take the Bible “literally”, is misleading when used of evangelicals in general, some of these forms appear to derive more from tradition than the Bible and to that extent seem to promote an ideology, even a politicised one on occasion, after the fashion of Islam. (1* Christian Zionism by S. Sizer, 2004, is well worth reading in this connection.) If this is true, it is incumbent on genuine evangelicals to take seriously their much-vaunted commitment to the Bible and bend all their efforts to understand exactly what the Bible is proclaiming. If they do not do this, they are in great danger of being classified as frauds. It is simply not good enough to qualify the authority of the Bible with the word Reformed or dispensationalist and/or premillennialist and so forth, since such qualifications which add to Scripture (Mark 7:7ff.; Rev. 22:18) may well be distortions of the truth.
The Two Sacraments
After some fifty years of devoting attention to the study of the Bible and mainly Evangelical theology, I am convinced that there is much that is seriously amiss with aspects of our doctrine. In light of this it is hardly surprising that evangelicals are radically divided among themselves. The historical root of the problem is the failure of the Reformers to carry through their reformation of Catholic doctrine to its logical conclusion. This inevitably led to their bearing diverse spiritual offspring. Perhaps the most obvious example of their failure relates to the sacraments. While the Reformers dismissed the mass as false and recovered in essence the truth regarding the Lord’s Supper, they failed abysmally to deal adequately with baptism. Behind this failure lies far more than meets the eye.
Justification by Faith
For a start, it may be argued that since all evangelicals claim that Scripture is their final court of appeal, they all agree that justification by faith is at the very heart of the biblical gospel. But this doctrine is frequently compromised and/or jeopardized by theology that leads in another direction seen at its most obvious in the divisions in Anglicanism, for example, which somehow comprehends both Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals. Even some Lutherans wonder how it came about that Luther who so strongly stressed justification by faith could retain the baptism of infants who are naturally incapable of exercising faith. How is it then that many if not most of the sons of the Reformation still baptize infants?
It is generally admitted that the Augustinian dogma of original sin has historically played the principal part. On the basis of this belief Augustine held that since infants as the children of Adam were born in sin, they faced inevitable damnation and in order to be saved they had to be baptised. In other words, Augustine believed that baptism applied by hand like circumcision was the antidote of original sin and conveyed regeneration. Two points need to be made here.
First, the dogma of original sin is not and, unless it is inconsistent with itself, cannot be taught in the Bible. The nearest suggestion of it appears in Psalm 51:5. Apart from the fact that this verse is sometimes mistranslated, it is open to more than one interpretation. At the very least it is hyperbolic. In light of pervasive teaching in Scripture which implicitly denies the sinfulness of babies (e.g. Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f.) and the transference of sin from parent to child (Ex. 32:33; Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc.), we are forced to this conclusion.
Second, though the classical location of the dogma is said to be Romans 5:12, the teaching of the epistle as a whole militates against it. For example, Paul insists that where there is no law, as in the case of infants, there is no sin (4:15; 7:1-13), graphically depicts actual sin against the law (chs. 1-3) and claims that he himself was “alive”, that is, like Adam and Eve before they received the commandment, prior to the impact of the law on his developing mind (7:9f.). Bearing these and other matters in mind we can safely dismiss the traditional addition of “in him”, that is, “in Adam”, from 5:12 and charge those who refuse to do so with eisegesis as opposed to exegesis. (See further my Adding to Scripture In Romans.) It can be said without fear of rational rebuttal that original sin like its counterpart original righteousness, which also depends on law, is a myth. It belongs to ecclesiastical tradition not to the Bible. (For more extensive treatment of original sin, see various articles of mine referring to it including An Exact Parallel?.)
Another argument used to support infant baptism is the so-called parallel between circumcision and baptism. Proper exegesis of Colossians 2:11 which distinguishes between flesh and spirit clearly denies this. For all that, it is claimed that as the Jews circumcised infants, so Christians ought to baptize them. The argument is spurious.
First, apart from noting that only boys are circumcised, it ignores the difference between the covenants. To be baptized by law into Moses (Gen. 17:12; Lev. 12:3; cf. 1 Cor. 10:2) is a far cry from being baptized on confession of faith and repentance into Christ.
Second, despite the fact that John the Baptist served as the human agent, the baptism of Jesus himself is paradigmatic for all Christians who claim to follow him. He was baptized by the Spirit, that is, acknowledged as the Son of God which since he had achieved righteousness under the law equates with receiving eternal life (Mt. 3:13-17). (See further below regarding the order of salvation.)
Third, Christians are not Jews under law, that is, the physical children of Abraham. They are, however, by faith his spiritual children. This being so, they should be baptized as he was circumcised as a believer. Paul’s argument in Romans 4 ought to be decisive in this matter, all the more so when Galatians 3 which forges the link between Abraham, Jesus and believers is considered. What is at issue is fidelity to the plain teaching of Scripture.
To argue that circumcision is the sign of the covenant with Abraham and is therefore appropriately applied to babies is to miss the point. Abraham apart (though note Ex. 12:44,48), both Jesus (John 7:22) and Paul (Gal. 5:3, etc.) associate circumcision with law. Baptism reflects repentance, faith, righteousness and regeneration not the curse associated with circumcision (Gal. 3:10). Baptism applied to infants inexorably jeopardizes the very essence of the gospel.
Yet another argument widely used to bolster infant baptism, which implicitly denies justification by faith, is covenant theology. I have already suggested that the Mosaic covenant of law is intrinsically different from the covenant inaugurated by the death of Christ which requires repentance and faith for it to become effective. Reformed federal theology, which is based on the view of two different covenants with Adam on the one hand and Christ on the other, is false to Scripture. The same must be said of the so-called covenant of grace. A truly biblical covenant, theology which gives due weight to the difference between the covenants while recognizing their interrelatedness, undermines any attempt to substantiate infant baptism. The truth is that like Jesus (Gal. 4:4f.) if we attain to maturity we are all the beneficiaries of the covenants of nature, law (2* Gentiles of course are never under law in the same sense as Jews are.) and grace. If it was necessary for both Jews who had been under the law of Moses and Gentiles who had enjoyed the benefits of the covenant with Noah (cf. Acts 14:17; 17:27-34) to be baptized on confession of faith, it follows as night follows day that the same must be true of us.
The Order of Salvation
Linked with the above is the traditional teaching regarding the order of salvation (ordo salutis). In 2008, it is still being taught by professing evangelicals who claim to be faithful to the word of God that regeneration precedes faith. The need for this view is of course erroneous belief in original sin and misapplied stress on divine election. It is argued that since man is born in sin and therefore dead in sin, he is completely incapable of believing when the gospel is preached to him. Augustine taught that this impediment is overcome by election and regeneration. Though this seems logical enough, if the premises are wrong so is the conclusion. That regeneration precedes faith is certainly not the teaching of Scripture. What is the truth of the matter?
Briefly, like Adam we are all born innocent (Dt. 1:39, etc.). Since as babies we are naturally ignorant of (the) law which we are taught later (Dt. 4:9, etc.), we cannot break it. However, like Paul we transgress it when it dawns on our consciousness (Rom. 7:9f.) and thus forfeit its promise of eternal life on condition of keeping it (cf. Gen. 2:17). In light of this it comes as no surprise that one of the most pervasive teachings of the Bible is Leviticus 18:5 in its various forms. It insists that that we gain life when we attain to righteousness by keeping the commandments. Alternatively expressed, obedience or righteousness is the precondition of life. Of course, Jesus was the only man ever to succeed and as a consequence was uniquely proclaimed as the (regenerate) Son of God at his baptism. Thus as the pioneer of our salvation he made us all dependent on him (John 14:6, etc.). As sinners all, we can only inherit life by being regarded as righteous through faith in him (Phil. 3:9, etc.).
This raises the question of why the rest of us fail. The traditional argument that we all sinned in Adam is clearly invalid and the imputation of sin is read into Romans 5:12-21 not derived from it. The many problems it encounters are insuperable. What is true is that as flesh, which is a law to itself and has its own passions and desires, like Adam and Eve we prove incapable of mastering it (cf. Gen. 4:7), all the more so since we are influenced and conditioned by their example (Rom. 5:12-21). The Bible makes it clear beyond dispute that no flesh (that is no man or woman who is flesh by nature) will be justified before God (Rom. 3:19f.; 7:7; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16, etc.) who from the start intended that he alone should be the Saviour of his people (Isa. 45:22f., cf. Phil 2:9-11). Paul sums up the situation in Romans 7:14 where he says that he is of the flesh and hence in slavery to sin (cf. Eph. 2:1-3, etc.). If this is true, then all else apart, original sin, which impugns the goodness and righteousness of God, is redundant and totally unnecessary.
What the advocates of original sin fail to realize is that though man is by nature a sinner (i.e. like Adam and Eve he determines his own moral nature by his sin, cf. Eph. 2:1-3, etc.) he is enabled by the grace of God to receive the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8, cf. Acts 18:27). Abraham was justified by faith even though he was ungodly and hence by definition not regenerate (Rom. 4:1-5). As the OT, where regeneration is always a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6; Jer. 31:31-34; 32:39, etc.), makes clear this gift comes short of regeneration which awaits the coming and work of Christ and the consequent out- pouring of the Spirit. It is not until he is glorified that the Spirit is given and the new birth experienced by sinners justified by faith in Christ (John 7:39; Acts 2). (For more on the order of salvation, see for example, my Cart-Before-the-Horse Theology, Redemption Applied (Order of Salvation) and The Order of Salvation in Romans.)
So, to sum up, in accordance with his plan of salvation God has legitimately consigned us all to (actual) sin so that he may have mercy on us in Christ (Rom. 3:19f.; 11:32; Gal. 3:22). To have imputed Adam’s sin to innocent children would have been to contravene his own canons of righteousness (see e.g. Gen. 20:6f.; Ex. 32:33; Dt. 7:10; 1 Sam. 14:27; 22:15; John 9:41; 15:22,24, etc.).
I referred to premillennialism above. Like many others I remain at a loss to understand how anyone committed to the authority of the Bible can entertain it and many of the notions that are its concomitant. (See further my Preunderstandings of the Millennium?.) It is not merely based exclusively on one passage in the highly symbolic book of Revelation, it runs counter to the very essence of biblical teaching in many other respects. Most obviously, it reflects woeful misunderstanding of covenant theology on the one hand and denies the finished work of Christ on the other. Regarding the latter, it renders his return to earth to complete what the Bible says he accomplished in the first place a necessity (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; 9:28, etc.). (See further my A Summary of Reasons Against the Return of Christ to Earth, Is Jesus Coming Back to Earth?, Thoughts on the Redemption of Creation, etc.) This makes premillennialists ill-equipped to criticize the Roman Catholic dogma of the mass which also involves repetition. To cut a long story short premillennialism is based on OT restorationism. It is furthermore the offspring of the absurd Augustinian worldview which has bedevilled our understanding of the Bible for so long (cf. my Worldview, The Biblical Worldview. At this point some may claim that Augustine rejected Chiliasm. He did indeed but that has not prevented premillennialists from adopting his general outlook.)
It needs finally to be stressed that the Augustinian view that creation was perfect when it was first brought into being and that man was originally created immortal, holy and righteous is an appalling fallacy. The Bible frequently contrasts the perfect Creator with what has been made (Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27, etc.). (See further my Manufactured Or Not So.) Original sin and its consequence cosmic curse are part of our ecclesiastical tradition and should be dismissed as the distortions they are. The truth is that since we originally derived from the temporal earth, we were created mortal and innocent (Rom. 1:23) with a view to gaining eternal life by keeping the commandments (cf. 2:7,10; 1 Pet. 1:7) and by grace sharing the glory of our incorruptible God as his children (1 John 3:1-3).
What Scripture teaches in one of its best-known passages is that as mortal corruptible flesh we cannot enter the kingdom of God and need a second or spiritual birth in order to do so (John 3:1-8). Since this depends on righteousness achieved by keeping the law (Lev. 18:5; 1 John 3:7, etc.), we need Jesus who having alone met the condition himself died on our behalf.
Are We Frauds?
The question then remains: Are we frauds? To the extent that we deny the clear teaching of the Bible we profess to believe the answer is an unequivocal yes. Throughout the Bible tradition is primarily a bane. If Jeremiah became its prey, so did Jesus and Paul. My contention is that modern evangelicals have succumbed to it (see my Have We Inherited Lies?, The Betrayal of the Reformation) and need as a matter of urgency to set their house in order. If they do not then they can only expect divine retribution like that wreaked on the Jews who refused to repent and to undergo reformation after the death of Christ. God himself will become our enemy.
The Way Forward
What I have written above prompts questions about me personally? Who am I to make these charges? Am I immune to mistakes? Not at all! It has long been of deep concern to me that though I have sought to debate basic issues with others and been ready if necessary to be corrected, yet no one has been willing to enter the fray. Though I have thrown down the gauntlet, no champion has entered the lists to do battle! Surely there is a Goliath somewhere capable of dealing with a mere David. Sadly, however, evangelicals, despite professing to be always reforming (semper reformanda), like the fanatical devotees of some of the world religions, seem to live in mortal fear of an open forum. (3* The book Always Reforming, ed. A.T.B.McGowan, 2006, makes a token gesture but is in substance rather disappointing.) They prefer assertion to substantiation. I myself do not wish to be told that I am wrong but to be shown that I am wrong. On the other hand, if ecclesiastical orthodoxy cannot justify itself, it testifies to the fact that something is seriously wrong that needs to put it right as a matter of urgency. There is little doubt in my mind that a false covenant theology and a ludicrous Augustinian worldview hang round our necks like millstones. (It is Augustinianism rather than the Bible that to a substantial degree instigates and fosters the struggle between science and theology.) So unless evangelicalism adopts an open forum approach, on the merely human level we are in serious danger of suffering permanent marginalisation, let alone dismissal as frauds.
The distinction between brandishing the banner of truth and flying the flag of fabrication should be obvious to all. To continue to teach as the word of God what is clearly contrary to it invites a curse (Gal. 1:8f.).