Thursday, June 02, 2005

No Evasions--Not Yet, Anyway

Paul Owen has responded to my blog entry (though he does not name me), which necessitates that I delay my series at least by one day while I respond to his latest thoughts. I would like, however, to preface this response by stating something I probably should have said yesterday; namely, that as much as I disagree with Owen’s view of this issue—indeed, I think it is absolutely repugnant to the heart of the gospel—he’s at least been willing to lay his cards on the table in full view of everyone, which is far more than I can say about the subtle deception of others who attempt to pass off their views as evangelical. It’s much easier to deal with the views of plain-speaking proponents of an errant view than it is to deal with the views of those who at every turn insist their critics just do not understanding their views. We’ll see if the benefit of the doubt I am extending to Owen will hold up as we go along. Also, by necessity I have to “jump the gun” here so to speak, and address material I had initially reserved for a later segment.

Here is what Owen says:

As a Greek professor at a Christian college, I always find it humorous when I see interpreters of the Bible attempt to evade some obvious teaching of scripture through subtle appeals to what “the Greek” says.
What Owen means by “some obvious teaching of scripture” in the present case is really better stated as the prima facie reading of one or a few texts of Scripture that seem to suggest one thing, but when taken in the context of Scripture in toto suggests quite a different thing entirely. Owen’s entire thesis (which his citation of passages like Acts 2:38-39 and 22:16 is intended to prove) is that baptism is efficacious and that it justifies the recipient. That is what Owen calls the “obvious teaching of Scripture.” On that point he is contradicted by the vast majority of evangelical scholarship. Why do evangelical scholars at large take a contrary view of this? Because they rightly read the handful of proof-texts misused by the proponents of baptismal regeneration within the larger context of the teaching on the nature of justification itself. The prima facie reading of the texts Owen selectively cites is at odds with the more detailed teaching about justification, baptism, and the gospel that we find, for instance, in the letters of Paul. In 1 Cor 1:13-18 Paul says this:

“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel--not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Just in case the “obvious teaching of Scripture” in this passage is not so obvious to some, let me point it out. Paul separates “baptism” from “the gospel,” proclaiming the efficacy (“power”) of the latter and denying the efficacy of the former. Indeed, while Christ did send Paul to “preach the gospel,” he did not send him to “baptize.” That tells us in no uncertain terms that baptism is not part of the gospel, which is the “power of God” to save. Moreover, can anyone fathom Paul saying the same thing about the gospel that he says about baptism? "I thank God I preached the gospel to none of you!" It would be unthinkable that he would say something like this. In stark contrast, Owen believes baptism is not only part of the gospel, but is in fact the very instrument of justification. Let’s see what “evasion” tactic Owen will employ to get around the “obvious teaching of Scripture” in this case.

Similarly, Paul’s burden in Romans is to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to them (1:14), and he does this in the first eight chapters of his letter. Paul is “not ashamed of the gospel of God,” which he again calls “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (1:16). Surely the efficacy (“power”) of which he speaks here must include baptism, for Owen has insisted that it is through the instrument of baptism that we are justified and our sins forgiven. Yet in Paul’s lengthy and highly detailed exposition of his “gospel,” and in particular of his discussion on just what constitutes the “instrument of justification,” not once—not once—does the issue of baptism arise, except as a potential corrolary to circumcision. What, in Paul’s view, is the instrument of justification? We are told repeatedly: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Rom 3:28). God will “justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Rom 3:30). Paul continues with the example of Abraham: “What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:3). To the man who believes in Christ apart from works, “his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). And under what circumstances is that faith credited? Is it accompanied or preceded by some other external act, such as circumcision or baptism? Paul tells us that in the case of Abraham, his justification came “not after, but before” circumcision, and that circumcision was merely a “sign” and a “seal” of the righteousness he had already received “by faith” (Rom 4:9-11). Moreover, that specific case is presented as the precedent for us: “So then, [Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” (Rom 4:11).

And just in case it is still not clear that God justifies a man through belief alone, and apart from baptism, Paul identifies the instrument of justification by telling us that the very reason righteousness was credited to Abraham was because he “did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God” but instead was “fully persuaded” that God would do what he said he would do: “This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Rom 4:20-22). Paul points to this example as the exact model that applies to us: “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness--for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4:23-25).

Where is baptism in all this? This is the absolute clearest and most detailed teaching in the entire NT about the instrument of justification unto the forgiveness of sins. Where is baptism? Where is it? According to 1 Cor 1:17, like its OT counterpart circumcision, “it is excluded” (Rom 3:27).

More importantly, no one who goes to the extent Paul does to exclude a religious ritual from acting as the instrument of justification, and who insists over and over again that the reason that religious ritual cannot possibly effect justification is precisely because justification is “by faith apart from works,” can in the same breath say in essence, “By the way, that ‘faith’ I was referring to? Well, technically, that actually includes a little religious ritual I like to call ‘baptism.’ I know I gave the impression earlier that justification is by faith alone, but I don’t technically consider baptism a human work per se, you see, because it is really the work of God.” To which Paul’s Jewish audience would immediately reply: “Neither do we consider circumcision a human work, but the work of God—so much for your argument against circumcision."

Now of course we could multiply these explicit and extended biblical teachings on what constitutes the instrument of justification. We haven’t even touched Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the entire letter of which confirms in vivid detail everything about the instrument of justification that we’ve already seen in Roman and 1 Corinthians. Nor have we glanced at Ephesians 2, which again confirms in no uncertain terms that the instrument justification is “through faith” and “not of works.” The point here is that the most explicit and extended teachings about the instrument of justification expressly exclude religious rituals like circumcision and baptism; each of which is presented in the NT as a mere “sign and seal” of an internal reality that occurred prior to either. So, when Owen appeals to the standard “baptismal regeneration” proof-texts in Acts—which are a far cry from the extended and highly explicit discussions on the issue found elsewhere in the NT, and which in fact are merely incidental to those discussions—he ends up violating every sound tenet of exegesis by taking the prima facie reading of a few incidental statements in biblical narratives, adopting them as primary texts of reference for this issue, and interpreting the more explicit passages of didactic material in light of these incidental narrative texts, when in fact he should be doing the opposite.

Here in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians (and others) are the clearest texts on this particular issue. The plain reading of these passages are, in Owen’s own words, the “obvious teaching of Scripture.”

Let the evasions begin.