Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Conprehensive Response to Paul Owen's "Baptismal Justification"

It seems in Paul Owen’s view that anyone can add just about any work he wants to the gospel with impunity, so long as he can ultimately label it a “work of God.” He is allowed to add baptism if he wants; Roman Catholics are at liberty to add all their sacraments; Mormons can still be saved, even though they believe “we are saved by grace after all we can do”—after all, they did throw in the word “grace” to that formula, now didn’t they? Therefore, their works must be works of God, not of man. Indeed, it seems no work is excluded from justification in the mind of Owen—except, of course, circumcision. Who was it that thought up that reprehensible practice of circumcision anyway? Oh yes . . . that was God. Hence, if none of the aforementioned works nullify the gospel because they all count as “works of God,” then neither does circumcision nullify the gospel, and in that case there is no sense in which it can be considered a mere “human” act. Therefore, the apostle Paul was wrong. Worse, he was one of those sectarian “Gnostics” who thinks the gospel is some syllogistic proposition encapsulated in pure thought and beamed back and forth from one mind to another, and who sits in judgment on everyone else who disagrees with him, and excludes entire “Christian” denominations from salvation.

I will respond to Owen’s latest “update” and then add some general comments to sum up. The reader should be aware that this will act as a comprehensive response to Owen’s original article on baptism and justification.
Luther’s views on the efficacy of baptism are not debated by those who are informed of these issues. His statements in his Large Catechism are entirely reflective of his mature theological positions. This is not something that I need to feel some sort of burden to demonstrate. Either one knows what she is talking about in this area, or one does not. So I am glad to see someone finally admit that the “Evangelical” gospel he preaches differs from the Reformational gospel of Martin Luther.
As I mentioned in my last article on this, I am quite prepared to repudiate Luther’s view on this entirely if it can be demonstrated he held to Owen’s position (whose idiosyncratic views I am all the more prepared to toss out entirely). As much of a sacred cow Luther seems to be to Owen, there is nothing particularly helpful about holding up a mere man as some sort of standard of right theology; and I give Luther much more credit for recognizing this in his own opposition to the pope—a man who was considered the head of all Christianity—than I do his far less capable and comparatively witless, rote mimics—some of whom still view the pope as the head of all Christians, even though they are not Roman Catholic!

Yet, even as illustrated by the Luther quotations Owen has provided, there is a fundamental difference between Luther’s view of baptismal regeneration and Owen’s view of baptismal justification. I disagree with Luther’s view that baptism regenerates, but Owen’s view is even more odious because it fails to distinguish between the entry point of being declared righteous and every other facet of salvation. I myself have gone on record stating that we are ultimately saved by works. But I am careful to distinguish between justification (the specific entry point at which we gain right standing before God) and salvation (the broader umbrella term under which a lot of other things fall, including justification). Works are a necessary part of ongoing sanctification after one has been declared righteous; and if any man who claims Christ does not have them, he should seriously question his own salvation.

But to hold that baptism—or any work for that matter—must precede justification (the baptismal regeneration view), or worse, that it is baptism that actually justifies (Owen’s view) implicitly contradicts Paul’s own gospel and is in danger of falling under Paul’s condemnation as “another gospel.” Owen claims that since baptism is actually the work of God then there is no incompatibility with Paul’s gospel. That is extremely revealing. It is clear that Owen himself recognizes that all works must be excluded from justification and that justification is by faith alone, and if baptism were really considered a “work” in that sense then it too should be excluded—else why jump through hoops to qualify baptism the way he does? But all Christian works are said to have their genesis in God. Here’s how Paul states it: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed--not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence-continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Phil 2:12-13).

Paul certainly did not have baptism in mind here since he is speaking to already-baptized believers. Yet, would Paul have viewed any of the works he does have in mind (helping the poor, perseverance under trial, etc.) as acceptable instruments of justification for an as-yet unbeliever? In other words, if someone were to come along and claim that since Paul has already categorized contributing to the needs of Christian ministers (Phil 4:10ff), or thinking good thoughts (Phil 4:8-9), or considering others better than you (Phil 2:3-4), or any number of other things that can be considered Christian work as the very works of God, then we should be able to hold these things out as a means of actually becoming a Christian, what would Paul’s take on that man be? Is it not undeniably clear that he would, in every instance, condemn that man as a purveyor of a false gospel? Is baptism a “work of God”? Well of course it is! But so is providing for the poor, loving one’s brother, and providing for the needs of Christian workers, and developing personal holiness in one’s life, and standing up for and defending the gospel, and much, much more. But none of these things can justify a man before God! Far from it; any “gospel” that holds any of these things up as an instrument of justification is a false gospel that is condemned because it ipso facto denies justification by faith alone.

Owen continues:

I am well aware that Paul teaches we are justified by faith in his epistles. I happily consent to and agree with that teaching.
Notice how Owen has redefined the issue: “We are justified by faith.” There is no one who disagrees with that purposely vague statement, including Roman Catholics. Paul’s point is not that we are “justified by faith”; his point is that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works. But more importantly, this betrays Owen’s woeful understanding of Paul’s teaching on this issue. Even if we concede Owen’s point that baptism is a work of God, it is nevertheless a work and therefore excluded as a means of justification. If justification is “by faith,” then it is not by baptism. Those things are mutually exclusive.

Owen continues:

I agree that the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). (That is not the same, however, as insisting that any individual’s particular sectarian understanding of the details of the mechanisms of the gospel is the power of God for salvation.)
Except for the little fact that the “gospel” which Paul declares is the “power of God” is identified three chapters later as that “sectarian” gospel of justification by faith alone, apart from works. Owen continues:
In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul is not intending to deny the saving efficacy of baptism . . .
Now who is it that is denying the “obvious teaching of Scripture” (Owen’s own words)? Owen continues:
. . . which he affirms elsewhere in many places (1 Cor. 6:11; Col. 2:12; Gal. 3:27; Tit. 3:5).
Owen, as usual, cites these passages with no comment, as though they self-evidently support his view of the “saving efficacy” of baptism. So let’s do something Owen has not bothered to do. Let’s actually read what they say.

1 Cor 6:11: In the context of a list of sins that Paul asserts will exclude a man from the kingdom of God, he says: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Here is an example of Owen’s “obvious teaching of Scripture.” The problem of course is that baptism is nowhere mentioned in this passage. So what prompts Owen to list it? He thinks the word “washed” is an allusion to baptism. Is there something in the text that leads him to believe this is a reference to baptism? No; it’s simply his presuppositions at play. The word “washed” in Paul’s theology refers to our regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Paul states this in Titus 3:5-8:

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Amazingly enough, Owen actually includes this verse as a support for his belief in baptismal justification. But the “washing” here is “regeneration” (“rebirth,” NIV) and “renewing by the Holy Spirit,” and the thing that is “poured out” on us is not water, but the Holy Spirit himself. Now certainly this act of God is symbolized by baptism; but it is not baptism per se.

Col 2:12 (more properly 2:11-13): “and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions”

Where does the text say that baptism has salvific efficacy? Were we literally “buried with him,” or is this representative language? Paul also states that we’ve been circumcised. Is he speaking literally or representatively? The fact that Paul clarifies this as a “circumcision made without hands” which indicates “the removal of the body of the flesh” makes it clear that Paul’s purpose here is not to communicate some efficacy of baptism. His burden is rather to show what baptism represents—our burial with Christ.

Gal 3:27 (more properly 3:26-29): “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise.”

Again, one searches in vain for the salvific efficacy of baptism. We are sons of God, how? “Through faith in Christ Jesus.” Baptism is representative of something that has already taken place internally. There were no unbaptized believers in the NT; baptism was immediately conferred upon those who expressed belief in Christ (Acts 8:35-38; 10:44-48). That is why Paul can so closely associate baptism with being clothed with Christ. He rightly assumed that all of the Galatians had been baptized immediately upon profession of faith. I am even willing to concede that Paul views baptism as more significant than most Baptists view it—which is not surprising; I conceded something similar about the Lord’s Supper (for which see the Notable Series section in the right column of this blog). But neither this verse, nor any other in the NT, supports Owens’ “baptismal justification” view.

Owen continues:

[Paul] is simply drawing a distinction [in 1 Cor 1] between the role of preaching the gospel, and the role of baptizing converts. Paul was not sent to Corinth to baptize, but to preach. As Paul says elsewhere, his primary role was simply to plant the seed of the gospel; others came along to water the seed and bring in the harvest (1
Cor. 3:5-9
Yes, of course there are different roles. Yes, of course Paul draws a distinction between those roles. What Owen keeps missing here is the way Paul speaks about baptism in nearly denigrating terms in comparison to the gospel itself: “I thank God I baptized none of you; for Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel.” This makes sense only if “the gospel” in 1 Corinthians does not include baptism. What then is the gospel? Is it “baptismal justification”? If so, then Paul plainly contradicts himself. In fact, the gospel is something “to be believed,” not some work to accomplish. Paul would never have made a similar statement to his churches regarding belief in Christ: “I thank God none of you came to belief in Christ under my preaching; for Christ did not send me to convince you to believe in Him, but to preach the gospel”! The utter absurdity of such a scenario is exceeded only by the absurdity of the idea that Paul taught baptismal justification.

Owen continues:
I gladly consent to Paul’s theology regarding justification as it is expounded in the book of Romans. What some critics fail to realize however, is that baptism is central to Paul’s soteriology in that very book.
“Central”? Let’s see how Owen arrives at this:
Paul makes a direct connection between baptism and justification, when he says that through baptism we are incorporated into the death of Jesus (6:3-4), and then goes on to add: "he who has died is justified from sin” (6:7). It is by means of dying with Christ that we are justified from sin; and baptism is the means of effecting that justifying death."
Well, at the very least I appreciate how explicit Owen is in communicating his erroneous beliefs. That certainly makes my job much easier. Paul here connects baptism to the death of Christ, not to justification per se. Owen’s idiosyncratic translation of 6:7 (“he who has died is justified from sin”) is a poor translation of dikaioo in this instance, because there is a Greek construction to consider. It’s not just dikaioo, but dikaioo apo (“from”). When this construction occurs, dikaioo means something like “vindicated” or “freed from” (which is why both the NIV and the NASB translate it as the latter in Rom 6:7). This is also how BDAG has translated the phrase.
Moreover, the phrase “he who has died” is likely to be taken as a general truth: “anyone who has died is freed from that by which he was formerly bound; in this case sin.” Owen is simply attempting here to read a concept that Paul addressed in previous chapters into a much different context that is at least once removed from Paul’s discussion of justification by faith.

Owen continues:
I am first and foremost a Reformational Christian. I am an evangelical with a small “e.” My theological mentors are Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and the like; not Michael Servetus, Fausto Sozzini, and the Zwickau prophets (nor their theological offspring, Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, and Billy Sunday). Therefore, I really do not lose sleep over the fact that many Evangelical teachers, preachers, and even scholars, explain away the clear New Testament evidence pertaining to the efficacy of the sacraments of the Church.
Good for Owen. I, on the other hand, am a biblical Christian. I am “reformed” with a small “r.” My theological mentors are Paul, Peter, John, Luke, Matthew, Mark, and James; not Luther and Calvin. Therefore, I really do not lose sleep over the fact that many “reformational” teachers, preachers, and even scholars, engage in clear proof-texting with regard to the clear New Testament evidence pertaining to the non-efficacy of baptism. The writings of the Reformers are helpful for purposes of historical theology, and for gleaning theological insights. They should be viewed in the same way that any scholar is viewed whom we might consult—helpful, but not infallible. I enjoy reading a number of scholars on certain theological issues, but I doubt very much that I would thereby endorse all their views on everything! Hence, the fact that Owen admits he limits himself—and his theological insight—to Luther and company, even calling them his “mentors” (although he repudiates at least some of the beliefs of each of these men), does not bode well for Owen or his depth of theological exposure.

Luther is not our rule of faith; nor is Calvin or Bucer. We are not exhorted by the apostles to come to the defense of Luther where he is wrong. Our charge is rather “to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all time delivered to the saints.” The faith was not delivered a second time to Luther. As much as Luther “reformed” the Roman Catholic church to look a good deal more like the apostolic teaching, he did not thereby completely restore the “once-for-all-time-delivered-to-the-saints” faith. The Reformation continues (semper reformanda). The Reformers themselves recognized their own fallibility in this, and operated on this principle. Their modern-day professed disciples have instead institutionalized their beliefs as though they were the Scriptures themselves! But, as I asked in my previous post on this, Just who gets to decide which Reformers and which of their beliefs get institutionalized? More on this below.

And by the way, if Owen’s view is so “clear” in the NT, why does he need Luther to confirm it for him? If Luther had taken a contrary view, would Owen now be defending that view instead—merely because Luther holds it? It seems Owen prefers, by his own admission, to be a mere pawn for his theological “mentors,” and not a student of the New Testament as such. I personally have no use for such “voices” who pretend to give an independent exegesis of the New Testament, but who in reality are merely parroting Luther or Calvin. If I had wanted Luther’s view, I would have read and interacted with the view of Luther; not that of his theological pawn.

Owen continues:
I have long contended that American Evangelicalism (including the “Reformed” wing) has to a large degree simply capitulated to the Radical Reformation in its divorce from Catholic teaching and its quest for the “purity” of the New Testament church.
And I have long contended that that “Catholic teaching” be exposed for what it is if it does not comform itself to the apostolic deposit. Which one of those approaches sounds more like the view of the biblical writers?

Owen continues:
That being said, I do not have to search very hard to find Evangelical voices which are sympathetic to my views on the saving efficacy of water baptism (e.g., reformed: Herman Ridderbos; Baptist: Clark Pinnock, G. R. Beasley-Murray, Howard Ervin; and Anglican: N. T. Wright).
Each one of which is only marginally evangelical, if at all. Pinnock, for example believes God is abysmally ignorant of the future. As for N.T. Wright, now that certainly is an odd choice of scholar for Owen to add to this discussion. N. T. Wright is at complete odds with Luther and Calvin—not to mention the NT itself—on the issue of justification. Didn’t Owen just say that his mentors are Luther, Calvin and the like? Why then does he not castigate Wright for abandoning the “Catholicity” of the Reformers' teachings in the same way he castigates Baptists for their understanding about baptism? In fact, Owen champions Wright in this regard, and has adopted at least elements of Wright’s own view of justification in abandonment of his so-called reformed mentors. That nicely illustrates my previous observation about Owen’s complete and utter disdain for anything “Baptist,” and his cafeteria style selection of the Reformers' views. It’s this disdain for Baptists, not scholarly inquiry that motivates his writings.

Owen continues:
The fact of the matter is, some form of baptismal regeneration is formally advocated in the sacramentology of the Lutheran and the Anglican wings of the Reformation. The Reformed church has always been divided between a less sacramental camp advocating the views of Zwingli and Bullinger, and a sacramental camp advocating the stronger views of Bucer and Calvin. Some Reformed Christians see the sacraments as only assuring pledges of an already-present grace, and others see them as effectual instruments in conferring the grace which is signified (a point on which Bullinger and Calvin continued to disagree).
Owen missed one; his own view of “baptismal justification,” to which none of the other views subscribed, so far as I can tell.

Owen continues:
The Anabaptists have consistently viewed the sacraments as non-effectual symbols of grace. So if one is to deny the saving efficacy of baptism in bringing about regeneration and forgiveness of sins, and insists on branding such a view as heretical “salvation by works,” then it is necessary to come to grips with the fact that two and a half of the three major branches of the Reformation differed from the Radical Reformers and most modern Evangelicals on this point.
Lol; talk about stacking the deck! Let’s recount those “major branches of the Reformation.” Ah yes, the Anabaptists constitute one of those branches. So there are four branches, not three. And so the count is in reality two and a half against one and a half. And actually, the issue under discussion is not baptismal “regeneration” (which I also reject), but baptismal “justification.” The latter is as far removed from the former as sacramentalism is from non-sacramentalism. So now we have all four branches against Owen. See how neatly stacking the deck works?

Owen continues:
And if we factor in the other major branches of the Church (Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic), then four and a half of the five major branches of the Church side against the Radical Reformers (both ancient and modern).
Yes, let’s factor in all these branches, take a consensus from that mix, and see how well Paul Owen’s view of, say, the Lord’s Supper stands up. Does he believe that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ? As one who claims to uphold the Westminster Confession he had better not! Yet what will he do with the fact that all these “major branches of the church” stand against him in this belief? He is now obligated by consistency to abandon his “radical sectarian” belief about the “spiritual presence” of Christ at the Supper and fall in line! Let’s see how consistent Owen is with his own principle. Further most of those “major branches of the church” have a magisterial priesthood. Does Paul Owen now want to suggest to his presbytery that they too should have a priesthood outside of the priesthood of all believers? Most of those branches are strongly Arminian. Shall we defer to the majority view here as well? Shall I continue with all the other beliefs the majority of Christendom holds that Owen rejects? Or will this do?

The point is, Owen’s comparison is one of convenience; a standard that will surely work against him more than it will for him.

Owen concludes:
My point is simple. What do you call a version of “Christianity” which excludes from the fellowship of the gospel the vast majority of Christians in all the visible branches of the Church, including the Reformation?
Perhaps we could call it Pauline Christianity (Gal 1:8-9). Or perhaps just “Christianity” (Matt 7:13-14; 21-23). The real question is, What do you call a version of “Christianity” that shows complete disregard for the charge we are given by the apostles to uphold the biblical gospel and expose all perversions of it, and allows modern-day Judaizers and even Mormons into the fold?

Besides, Owen has mischaracterized my view. As much as I disagree with the baptismal regeneration view, its proponents are usually careful to distinguish regeneration from justification. I think the ramifications are virtually the same, but the official line is regeneration, not justification. Moreover, many of those who are in denominations that believe in baptismal regeneration view it as a mere abstract statement to which they don’t really give a lot of serious thought, and end up expressing faith alone in Christ in actual practice. Hence, it is simply not the case that I am excluding them from the fold.

The only view I have excluded is Owen’s “baptismal justification” view. However “really, really Reformed” Owen thinks his beliefs are, they are far removed from the gospel of the NT. Paul Owen’s “baptismal justification” is a false gospel, and one that is no less anathematized by Paul than the Judaizer “gospel” of “circumcisional justification.”