R. Scott Clark and “Reformed”

I speak often on this blog of the need to be accurate in one’s representation of others. As a sinner living in a fallen world, I fail my own standards, though not on purpose, to be sure. I seek to honor Christ by accurately representing those I oppose in debate, whether I consider the “other side” to be my fellow believers, or to be lost, even enemies of God’s truth.

It strikes me that especially when we are discussing theological differences between believers, accuracy is important. How many times have I documented the most ridiculous misrepresentations of the Reformed position by famous Arminians? The number of straw-man arguments I have documented on the part of Norman Geisler, Ergun Caner, Dave Hunt, etc., is legion.

One of the oddest areas of constant straw-man argumentation that is very troubling to me, and very surprising as well, arises when I engage my dear Presbyterian brothers in the inevitable discussion of baptism. I have debated the subject a number of times, though, always at the invitation of others, never at my own instigation. When I have prepared for these debates (in particular, those of the most recent past, with Pastor Bill Shishko in New York, and with Gregg Strawbridge shortly thereafter on The Dividing Line) I have taken the time to listen carefully to the other side, and seek, as best I can, to accurately represent it. I listened to over 20 hours of Pastor Shishko’s lectures on baptism. I have obtained the primary works on baptism published by the great Presbyterian scholars of the past, and of today, including that edited by Gregg Strawbridge. As with all of my debates, but even more so here since I am dealing with fellow believers, brothers in Christ, I seek to enter into their own understanding of the subject as accurately as possible.

But it is just here that I have seen—over and over again—an odd, but not unusual, phenomenon. My dear brothers will stand with me in defending the great doctrines of the faith, and we will stand arm in arm in using sound principles of exegesis and argumentation. But when it comes to this one, single topic—the baptism of their infants—all of a sudden the hermeneutic changes, and arguments are used that would never, ever be used in any other context. And, most troubling, in the vast majority of instances, my Presbyterian brethren refuse to hear the specifically covenantal argumentation I, as a Reformed Baptist, present. It is almost as if it is impossible for them to believe that someone who sees and accepts God’s covenantal actions over time could possibly reject the conclusions they have reached since the days of Calvin. Sadly, as a result, many of these men choose to ignore the distinctions that clearly exist amongst Baptists on this topic, sometimes, to their shame, I believe, broad-brushing us all with the “Anabaptist” brush, hoping to impugn us with the specter of Munster! Such an action is reprehensible at its best, but sadly, I have experienced it numerous times.

A few days ago Micah Burke commented on R. Scott Clark’s regular practice of defining “Reformed” on the sole basis of the objects of baptism. That is, Dr. Clark, a professor at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, does not believe a credobaptist can ever be called “Reformed,” effectively transferring the primary weight of “Reformed” from the great central doctrines of the gospel, the sovereign power of God, the perfection of the work of Christ, the resulting emphasis upon worship, Scriptural authority and sufficiency, etc., to the single issue of covenantal signs upon infants. The result is that Clark is forced to identify as “Reformed” the liberal Presbyterians and others who continue to practice infant baptism as “Reformed” while denying the term to those who stand closest to him in the key areas just noted. Of course, it is his right to do so, just as it is my right to respond.

In any case, Dr. Clark replied to Micah’s comments, and as the conversation proceeded, I was taken aback by his assertions. Once again I was confronted with a leading scholar who clearly has not taken the time to actually listen to the other side. I see no evidence of his ever having entered into what it is that specifically Reformed Baptists are saying, and sadly, given the rhetoric he produces, it seems to be due to tradition and nothing else. This troubles me, not just because I am a Reformed Baptist, but because I think it should trouble any follower of Christ. For example, out of the blue, Dr. Clark writes,

As a consequence, we regard our children as Christians and as baptized persons. Baptists, of course, do not regard our children as Baptized persons nor do they regard those of us who’ve not been re-baptized as Baptized persons!

That’s a huge matter. According to the Baptists I’m not a Christian. That’s no small thing.

How could anyone make such an outrageous statement? I truly hope this is a terrible typographical error, but given that Mr. Burke replied to this, and refuted it, and Dr. Clark did not identify it as an error, it is hard to see how this could be. Dr. Clark could not possibly be so far removed from his contacts with his Reformed Baptist brethren as to think they say he is not a Christian! This kind of rhetoric is simply incomprehensible from someone in his position, and it surely does not assist in communication and understanding.

But the statement by Dr. Clark that attracted my attention most specifically was this:

All Baptists, whether of the LBC type (which were orginally called Particular Baptists) or of the “General Baptist variety and even the Anabaptists implicitly or explicitly deny that we’re in substantially the same covenant of grace as Abraham. They do not understand nor do they confess that when Peter said, “The promise is to you and to your children” it was a re-statement of the Abrahamic promise. With the exception of some of my friends in the ARBCA, I don’t know of any Baptist who understands that the new covenant is new relative to Moses and not Abraham. The new covenant is a fulfillment of the promises to Abraham but it is not substantially new. There was infant initiation under Abraham and there is infant initiation under Christ. The Baptist view is that the new covenant is so new, so eschatological that infant initiation cannot be carried over. They break the substantial unity of the covenant of grace

1) Note how Dr. Clark lumps together covenantal and non-covenantal Baptists without seemingly recognizing the obvious error of so doing. Ironically, while Reformed Baptists would confess the covenant of grace going all the way back to Adam, Dr. Clark does not seem to see that the giving of a covenant sign to infants is not definitional of the covenant of grace. How could it be? What sign was given from Adam to Abraham? Answer? None. So how can he simply assume that such a sign is definitional of the covenant of grace and on that basis accuse Baptists of denying what is plainly not the case? Any perusal of Reformed Baptist works on this topic would raise this issue, yet Dr. Clark seems blissfully unaware of it.

2) Evidently there is a Presbyterian Codex of the Bible that has a variant reading at Acts 2:39. All texts that I know of read as follows:

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.

But I cannot tell you how often I hear my Presbyterian brethren handle this text in the exact same fashion as the Jehovah’s Witnesses handle John 14:28 (it ends up being merely “the Father is greater than I am”) or Arminians handle Matthew 23:37 (“how often I wanted to gather you but you would not”). The clear indication of tradition is seen in how Acts 2:39 is truncated in the thinking of my brothers so that it is simply “the promise is to you and to your children.” What is the promise? What is the context? Why leave off the rest of the sentence both in meaning and application? The promise is for the Jews who heard Peter, to their children, and to all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” The promise of forgiveness upon faith and repentance, along with the promise of the Holy Spirit, is for Jew (“you and your children”) and Gentile (“to all who are far off”) based upon God’s electing grace (“as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself”). Changing this to merely a statement about “you and your children” involves an eisegetical shift in hermeneutics that my Presbyterian brethren would never allow in discussing the Trinity, justification, or the resurrection, but when it comes to this one topic, all of a sudden things change.

3) If Dr. Clark would seriously engage the position he is confidently denying he would encounter real challenges to his position. For example, he might note that Abraham is called the father of the faithful. For what reason? Could Isaac have functioned in this way? No, he could not. Why? Abraham possessed faith prior to the receiving of the sign. Abraham received, what we might call “believer’s circumcision.” Isaac did not. Yet Abraham is made the New Covenant paradigm, not Isaac. In the same way, once we see that fulfillment of circumcision in the New Covenant is regeneration, not baptism, the consistency of the biblical revelation is seen. The writer to the Hebrews would truly have a hard time with Clark’s statement “The new covenant is a fulfillment of the promises to Abraham but it is not substantially new.” That hardly squares with the argument of Hebrews 8. Try reading that text with the “new doesn’t really mean new, better really isn’t better” idea in mind.

Fundamentally, who is being truly Reformed here? Who is taking the formal principle of the Reformation seriously and examining even John Calvin’s theory of infant baptism in the light of Scripture? Calvin’s view was new, as to its biblical basis. Infant baptism was a cultural reality at the time of the Reformation. Calvin inherited it, and defended it, but he did so on a new basis, one substantially different than Rome’s. Should we not examine that position in light of Scripture?

Yet, in my experience, when we really get down to the nitty-gritty on this topic, I find my friends adopting arguments they would never, ever use anywhere else. I can’t tell you how many times scholars, upon being faced with challenges to this doctrine, have opted for the, “Well, what should I tell my children?” argument, as if such argumentation would suffice in any other area of theology. Can you imagine responding to one who denies the deity of Christ with an argument like, “Well, if Jesus isn’t God, what should I tell my children about Jesus hearing their prayers?” Thankfully, I don’t hear my friends arguing like that on such an important topic, but I don’t think I have ever heard that argument avoided when discussing paedobaptism. It is a staple of the debate, and it most assuredly should not be. It is another indication, to me, that we are dealing with a tradition that is over-riding a biblical teaching. Who, then, is truly Reformed in examining their traditions in light of Scripture?