Tag Archives: Louis McBride

More on Calvin: Marks of the Church and Fighting Nicely

That’s “more on Calvin,” not “moron Calvin”! I want to talk more about that in a moment, but first I want to share something from Calvin that I read this morning.

Marks of the Church

As you may have noticed several times in my series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers (begin here), one way that many Reformers tried to identify the true Church was to identify marks (or nota) that characterized the true Church. Luther is generally said to have identified two marks of the church (the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered), but he actually identified seven. Calvin also focused on Word and sacrament, but he nuanced them a little differently and his Reformed heirs added a third, church discipline (see here for a modern defense of this triad). Some of Calvin’s heirs in our own generation have identified “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.” If we go back to the early church, we see the Nicene Creed identified four marks: One, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The activity of identifying marks has a long history!

With that background, here is an excerpt from a blog I read this morning, containing quotes from Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion:

It is always disastrous to leave the church.” The words are from John Calvin…

Clearly, Calvin knew churches had problems. But he warns against leaving simply because there are problems.

“The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults. . . . But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions.” (4.1.12) He plainly says those who seek a church “besmirched with no blemish” are looking in vain (4.1.13) but we must remember that it “is no less true that the Lord is daily at work in smoothing out wrinkles and cleansing spots” and from this “it follows that the church’s holiness is not yet complete.” (4.1.17) [Emphasis added by Louis McBride at Baker Book House Church Connection.]

–> To read the rest, click here <–

My observation today about this activity of identifying marks is modest: It seems to me that we sometimes identify marks of the true Church based on our dissatisfaction with other branches of Christianity as much as on a careful reading of Scripture. In short, our marks tend to be somewhat reactionary.

We even see this, I think, in the two marks of the church that Luther and Calvin featured: Word and sacrament. What did Luther and Calvin like least about the Roman Catholic Church? I’m guessing it would be hard to find two better answers than (a) the Roman Catholic Church’s failure to proclaim the Word faithfully and clearly in the vernacular languages and (b) its understanding of sacraments such as the mass.

Let me hasten to assure you: I strongly agree that faithful proclamation of the Scriptures and biblical practice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are central marks of a healthy church. But it is interesting to note that the Roman Catholics had an important historical mark in their favor as well: the true Church was “one.” This was important to them in part because the Reformers threatened it. And the Anabaptists, while agreeing on the importance of right observance of the sacraments, identified the true Church differently than the magisterial Reformers did because they disagreed on the correct observance of baptism. Each stream of the Reformation emphasized different marks of the Church (and thus identified the true Church differently) based in part on their disagreements with the other streams.

We do that yet today. Let me give two related examples. Here is the first: In a recent edition of the mission paper Alight, an “entirely Columbian movement of churches” is described.1 Despite having “no help from foreign missionaries and… no knowledge of the Anabaptists,” this movement believes and practices “virtually all of what conservative Mennonites do.” In particular, they “are nonresistant, nonconformed to the world, and with some slight variation practice all seven of what we call ordinances. Their churches are disciplined, and holiness of life is their hallmark. The church is zealous in evangelism.” Again, let me hasten to reassure you: I also rejoice when I hear of other Christians who share my convictions (see here for a recent example). But I do want to observe that the list above sounds suspiciously like another list of marks of the true Church. And again, nonresistance, nonconformity, and seven ordinances are beliefs that conservative Anabaptists hold in opposition to many other church traditions. The danger is that forming church marks in opposition to others is likely to produce an imbalanced set of marks of the true Church.

My second example affirms the first. A friend recently told me this: “When we put an addition on at [our church building], the contractor who did the concrete work was Amish (or Beachy…not sure). He wanted to know whether we practiced the 7 ordinances and if so, we’d get a discount on his work.” For this contractor, clearly, a mark of the true Church is that it practices seven ordinances.

In saying all the above I do not mean to criticize the task of identifying the true Church. I do think it is important to identify specific marks of the true Church–and also marks of a healthy church, as one example above puts it. But let’s honestly evaluate the marks that our own church traditions have emphasized, comparing them with marks identified in other traditions and with Scripture. This can help us achieve a more biblical balance.

What might Paul say about the marks of the true Church? That’s a topic for another post (or book!), but I’ll say that my recent reading of Galatians has made one point crystal clear: We will never identify the Church correctly until we first identify the gospel correctly.

Fighting Nicely

When I was a boy, I used to sometimes fight with my brothers. (Still do!) Our father sometimes interrupted our squabbles with the admonition, “Fight nice!” I think this is wise advice not only for boys, but also for Christians relating to Christians in other denominations and church traditions.

After my last blog post on Calvin (see here), one good-hearted friend sent me a brief response:

“Anabaptists demonstrate a total lack of intelligence. There is nothing to be learned from their ideas.” — John Calvin  🙂

[Note: See the update at the end of this post for a bit more context.]

I pondered a while, did a bit of research, and responded thus (abridged and lightly edited):

I think you just posted in fun, so I don’t want to attribute unkind motives to you. But I have to ask, do you think your comment reflects a Golden Rule approach? Does it give a fair and balanced representation of Calvin or of those who find him of value? Did you provide a source to (a) prove that your quote is accurate and (b) provide context for Calvin’s words?

I did a bit of searching online for your quote this morning. Interestingly, the only place I’m seeing that exact quote is on Anabaptist websites that are anti-Calvin. As best as I can tell, the source for the attribution of these two sentences to Calvin seems to come from the headline of this blog: http://modern-parables.blogspot.com/

Interestingly, I also find the same sentences on this website: http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/448  But notice how this website (more scholarly than the former) clarifies that only a few of the words are actually directly from Calvin, and that even those words were spoken in a very specific context and not as a general statement about Anabaptists:

With reference to their views on oath-taking, the Genevan Reformer John Calvin said the Anabaptists demonstrate a “total lack of intelligence.”43 There is nothing to be learned from them or their ideas.

It looks like the blogger above (or someone before her) did a cut-and-paste from this scholarly website, deleted the quotation marks, deleted a few words near the end (“them or”) in order to make it fit on her headline, and falsely attributed the whole to Calvin. Ouch!2

The Anabaptist Network website helpfully includes a footnote that gives a source for the “total lack of intelligence” phrase. It comes, apparently, from Calvin’s Harmony of the Gospels. You can read it here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom31.ix.xlviii.html  Here is the extended passage where Calvin discusses Jesus’ words about oaths (Matt. 5:33-37), with the quoted phrase highlighted (it is slightly different than above because it is a different translation of Calvin’s Latin or French, but I’m quite certain it’s the source for our mysterious “quote”):

Many have been led by the phrase, not at all, to adopt the false notion, that every kind of swearing is condemned by Christ. Some good men have been driven to this extreme rigor by observing the unbridled licentiousness of swearing, which prevailed in the world. The Anabaptists, too, have blustered a great deal, on the ground, that Christ appears to give no liberty to swear on any occasion, because he commands, Swear not at all But we need not go beyond the immediate context to obtain the exposition: for he immediately adds, neither by heaven, nor by the earth Who does not see that those kinds of swearing were added by way of exposition, to explain the former clause more fully by specifying a number of cases? The Jews had circuitous or indirect ways of swearing: and when they swore by heaven, or by earth, or by the altar (Matthew 23:18), they reckoned it to be next to nothing; and, as one vice springs from another, they defended, under this pretense, any profanation of the name of God that was not openly avowed.

To meet this crime, our Lord declares that they must not swear at all, either in this or that way, either by heaven, or by the earth Hence we conclude, that the particle, at all, relates not to the substance, but to the form, and means, “neither directly nor indirectly.” It would otherwise have been superfluous to enumerate those kinds: and therefore the Anabaptists betray not only a rage for controversy, but gross ignorance, when they obstinately press upon us a single word, and pass over, with closed eyes, the whole scope of the passage. Is it objected, that Christ permits no swearing? I reply: What the expounder of the law says, must be viewed in connection with its design. His statement amounts to this, that there are other ways of “taking the name of God in vain,” besides perjury; and, therefore, that we ought to refrain from allowing ourselves the liberty of unnecessary swearing: for, when there are just reasons to demand it, the law not only permits, but expressly commands us to swear. Christ, therefore, meant nothing more than this, that all oaths are unlawful, which in any way abuse and profane the sacred name of God, for which they ought to have had the effect of producing a deeper reverence.

I’m not saying that Calvin was right on this point about oath-taking (although his emphasis on context is salutary), but I think we owe him Golden Rule justice and kindness in quoting him accurately and in context.

So… 🙂  Again, I think you were just commenting in good humor, and I thank you for starting me on a fascinating rabbit trail.

My friend and I proceeded to enjoy a good conversation about Calvin and Anabaptists. My friend shared his concerns, including this:

It does seem that reading Calvin has seen a resurgence among some youth today, I suspect maybe in reaction to postmodernistic doctrinal squishiness and a desire for hard propositional truths. We have several young men in our community who have become avid disciples of Calvin and claim to have a much deeper, authentic, and alive relationship with God as a result. If that is true, well, praise the Lord!

What saddens me though is that the applications they have made from 5 point Calvinism have led them to overemphasize (in my opinion) overemphasize God’s justice and wrath, and they have convinced themselves that there is nothing they can do to choose God, only God can choose them and anything good they do is only because God is making them do it.  Worse, they see God’s justice and wrath towards sin as normative for human responses toward other humans who threaten their well being, property, security, and lives.

It may be unfair to blame Calvin or his followers for the fact that these youth have lost their belief in non-violence, but I think there is a link between a theology of a “macho” muscular God who crushes all His enemies and metes out judgement and wrath towards sin and a personal loss of conviction that violence in protection of oneself and ones property is not for the believer. Maybe Calvin isn’t the problem here but his theology doesn’t seem to help the situation much.

I told my friend that I share some of his concerns (abridged and lightly edited):

I agree that the voices of the New Calvinists are a mixed blessing. I certainly have found them a blessing in many ways, but I have not been tempted by the non-nonviolent elements of their teachings. It saddens me when I hear D.A. Carson (whom I respect deeply in many other ways) celebrate how his son is in the military, and it saddens me even more to hear that some Anabaptist youth are losing their nonviolent convictions…

I would agree that “Calvin probably doesn’t deserve all the blame” for some Anabaptists today losing their nonresistance. For one thing, a lot of Calvinists today believe and emphasize things quite differently from what Calvin himself did. Also, my favorite book in support of our nonviolent position is one written by a Reformed professor who moves in the circles of John Piper, John MacArthur, and others: Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, by Preston Sprinkle. So, believe it or not, and like it or not, Calvinist soteriology can exist alongside a nonviolent position. Perhaps you could introduce your youth friends to Sprinkle’s book?…

If only we could learn what is good from each other without either abandoning truths we already possess or blacklisting those who disagree with us on a few key points! The fact is, most of my scholarly biblical studies resources (three quarter?) were written by Calvinists. To cut myself off from their voices would be very costly.

All that to say that, though I most certainly agree that vigorous debate on matters like nonresistance is essential, let’s–in the words of my dad–be sure that we “fight nice.” Yes, Paul, did say he wished the pro-circumcision party would castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12), but at least he made sure he had his facts straight before he said it! In doctrinal debates and otherwise, kind words are as important as kind hands. And love of neighbor is most certainly one mark of members of the true Church.

Do you have thoughts on marks of the true Church or on fighting nicely? Share them in the comments below!  (And if my good-hearted friend wants to identify himself, I’ll leave that up to him. 🙂  We did discuss the possibility of me turning our conversation into a blog post.)

Update: After writing this post, I looked again at Timothy George’s book Theology of the Reformers. I was reminded that, while Calvin did not say the quote attributed to him above, he did say other things against the Anabaptists that were equally disparaging. George: “Calvin’s epithets were no less pejorative [than Luther’s]: “fanatics,” “deluded,” “scatterbrains,” “asses,” “scoundrels,” “mad dogs.” (George, Timothy [2013-09-01]. Theology of the Reformers [Kindle Locations 5805-5806]. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Source: John Calvin, Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines, ed. Benjamin W. Farley [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982], 30.)

Unfortunately, this kind of language was par for the course in Reformation times. George again: “Caspar Schwenckfeld, one of the spiritualist reformers, observed that on the basis of the Bible “the papists damn the Lutherans, the Lutherans damn the Zwinglians, the Zwinglians damn the Anabaptists, and the Anabaptists damn all of the others” (Kindle Locations 3772-3774).

Given this cacophony of cursing, Calvin’s “quote” above sounds very believable. Hopefully we today can be better listeners and kinder speakers.


  1. Witmer, Dallas. “Working With God in Columbia.” Alight, Vol. 27, No. 4. October, November, December 2014. Christian Light Publications. This article was referenced in the January 2015 Calvary Messenger, where Ronald J. Miller emphasizes most of the same points I quote here.
  2. I have contacted this blogger, but so far have not received a response.

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5 Ways to Understand the Bible Better in 2015

I just finished reading Revelation, and… I confess I don’t understand it all very well. Even in the New International Version, with its goal of “providing the best possible blend of transparency to the original documents and comprehension of the original meaning in every verse,” Revelation has one or two mildly confusing spots.

I know, that’s hardly a news flash. But the non-news comes with a point: I, like you, long to understand the Bible better. The good news is that I think I understand parts of Revelation better than I did five years ago. The other good news is that there is still much left for me to learn!

Brief story: About five or six years ago I was assigned to preach from Matthew 24–that confusing chapter about the signs leading up to Christ’s return… or is it the non-signs that occurred before the destruction of Jerusalem? Anyhow, puzzling over such questions aroused my interest in Bible prophesy, and I started wishing to understand Revelation better. I soon learned that if you hope to understand Revelation, you must first understand the OT prophetic books, where much of Revelation’s imagery comes from. Then I learned that if you hope to understand the OT prophetic books, you must first understand the five books of Moses, for the OT prophets were enforcers of the Mosaic covenant.

These observations shaped my growing interest in serious Bible study. So I listened to the Pentatauch repeatedly while pounding nails at work, and I read some big semi-technical commentaries on Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus–straight through, cover to cover. It was very rewarding, but I got bogged down as I began a commentary on Numbers, and I haven’t yet read a commentary on any of the Major Prophets straight through. And my Revelation commentaries… well, I’ve dabbled in them, but not enough to fully defuse my confusion.

Thank God, you don’t need to understand much prophecy to become “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”! And thank God, he rewards the diligent student of “the sacred writings” so that we can become increasingly “equipped for every good work” as we grow in our biblical understanding (2 Tim. 3:15-16).

So, without further ado and in random order, here are…

Five Ways You Can Understand the Bible Better in 2015

  1. Read, read, and reread the Bible. This is obvious, yet it is exactly here where most of us fail worst. First, most of us read far less than we need to if we are ever going to understand the Bible well. Second, when many of us do read, we read in such a way (poor technique, poor heart condition) that our understanding doesn’t grow as it could. Two excellent blog articles I read recently address both these problems. “How to Change Your Mind” by Joe Carter describes a Bible reading plan that I heartily endorse, based on my own similar short-term efforts while preparing to preach and teach. “What Kind of a Thing Is the Bible? 6 Theses” by Gavin Ortlund reminds us of the forest before we get lost in the trees reading individual Bible passages. He says he’s “naming the obvious,” but this article is packed with pregnant points that invite deep consideration and help make sense of the Bible. Read these articles, then read your Bible–more, and more wisely. Bonus tip: Audio Bibles count, too!
  2. Read a book on biblical interpretation. Don’t let words like exegesis and hermeneutics scare you. They aren’t any worse than words like carburetor (had to check how to spell that one) or hemorrhage (had to look that one up, too). They’re just words that are suited for the job and help us understand how things work. There are books on biblical interpretation suited for every reader, and it’s a shame that more of us aren’t reading them. I’m a case in point: Despite graduating from a four-year Honours English Literature program with a bachelor’s degree, I had never read a single book on biblical interpretation! It wasn’t until Allen Roth assigned Understanding and Applying the Bible (McQuilkin) as reading material for our church leadership team that I opened such a book. Since then I’ve read at least four others through and scanned others, besides reading more specialized books on related topics. You don’t know which one to choose? I have a page (see here) that lists nine such books, with descriptions to help you find the right one for you. None of these books are perfect, but all have proven helpful again and again for hundreds and thousands of people. Better yet: find some friends and read one together!
  3. Listen to free seminary lectures on the Bible. If I had to name a single resource that has been most helpful in my own growth in biblical understanding over the past 5 years, it would probably be the website biblicaltraining.org. This website–the brainchild of Bill Mounce who served as the NT chair of the ESV translation team–aims “to help leaders in the local church become effective ministers of the Gospel by providing them with world-class, Christ-centered educational resources that will allow learning to take place in community. In other words, our goal is to help make fully-formed followers of Christ.” This website has free audio recordings of Bible classes for all levels, from new believers to graduate students. Free lectures from dozens of seminary courses are included. Most of the speakers are well-known evangelical professors and authors. I’ve listened to most of the seminary lectures on this site. I’ve found all the Bible courses helpful for growth in biblical understanding, and several courses like Robert Stein’s excellent “Biblical Hermeneutics” are especially relevant to this post. (By the way, one great thing about this website is that the speakers don’t agree on every point of interpretation or doctrine! This diversity-within-gospel-unity provides excellent training in discernment and nudges you back to the Bible to think things through for yourself.)
  4. Subscribe to some good blogs. The number of scholarly blogs and websites devoted to biblical interpretation and theology is astounding! The best you can do–which can be good indeed–is to pick a handful and begin following. Here are some I’ve been following:
    * http://readingacts.wordpress.com/  Phillip Long, a conservative seminary prof, started a blog on Acts but now writes on all things NT.  Includes helpful book reviews and monthly links to a “Biblical Studies Carnival”–long lists highlighting “the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.”
    * http://zondervanacademic.com/blog/  Jeremy Bouma posts most often, with a wide range of thoughts usually triggered by some book he’s reading. Other blog authors take their turns as well, including Bill Mounce with his “Mondays with Mounce” about NT Greek and Lee Fields with a similar series about Hebrew. A great way to be introduced to lots of big name biblical studies and theology authors.
    * https://bbhchurchconnection.wordpress.com/  Louis McBride, the Bible and academic book buyer at Baker Book House, a Christian bookstore, writes on all things biblical and theological, again usually triggered by a book he’s reading. Lots of good stuff to chew.
    * http://marccortez.com/  Marc Cortez teaches theology and supervises doctoral students at Wheaton College and writes here at Everyday Theology. Thus says Marc: “The purpose of the blog is to connect theology with everyday life. I’m convinced that what we believe matters – it shapes who we are and how we live in the world. So I want to help people access the best that theology has to offer and see how it matters for life today. Having said that, I’m also a bit random. They say that a good blog should have 3-5 categories that provide focus and purpose for the blog. Following that guideline, my three categories are: life, the universe, and everything.” Yup, that’s about right!  🙂
    * http://www.challies.com/   Tim Challies provides a firehose for all things Reformed and conservative, with daily postings that include links to theological blogs and Kindle books on sale. Lots of very good stuff (even if you question his Calvinism and wish he’d include more diversity of voices at times). For example, the two blog articles I recommended in point #1 above were recommended by Challies. If you follow Challies you’ll soon learn of lots more helpful Reformed bloggers that I won’t name here.
    * This list could go on forever, and I know I haven’t even mentioned some of the best. For a dizzying list of helpful and not-so-helpful blogs, see this. I’ve only visited a tiny fraction of the blogs listed there.
    A final caveat is extremely important: Blogs like the ones I’ve listed contain a mixture of truth and error. (So does my blog!) Some others are only helpful as case studies of heresy. Of my five suggestions in this post, this is the one that is least helpful unless you already have some solid biblical grounding. That said, good biblical blogs have prodded my thinking with new insights and perspectives, helped me assess the strengths and weaknesses of popular evangelical scholars (good prep for book buying), and introduced me to valuable online and print resources. The five blogs I mentioned first generally do a good job of achieving these benefits without throwing in intentionally provocative or theologically liberal ideas.
  5. Attend a good Bible conference or training program. I’ll keep this point short by directing you to my page about upcoming events for Bible students: see here. Two things: (a) I recently added a couple more events that will be helpful for some of you; (b) the BMA Ministers’ Enrichment Weekend (end of January and open to everyone) is now open for registration. Go if you can!
    (By the way, thanks to those of you who have been sharing this events page on Facebook and elsewhere. Let’s spread the word and help people–especially our pastors–get some good training.)

So, there you have it: five ways to understand the Bible better in this coming year. My advice would be to pursue #1 and then pick two or three others to supplement it.

What else would you add to this list? What has helped you understand the Bible better? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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Which Came First–Original Sin or Infant Baptism?

I read something this morning that got me thinking again about the question of original sin. (See here and here for my previous thoughts.) The “question of original sin,” in my case, is the question of whether that phrase is a good and biblical way to talk about what went wrong when Adam sinned. I don’t doubt that Adam’s sin was the first or “original” human sin, but the term usually means more than that. It usually refers to “humanity’s state of sin resulting from the fall of man,” and it often includes the idea that humans are born with a “sinful nature.” It is these latter concepts with which I am wrestling. The biblical data on such topics has been shrouded in encrusted layers of theological language for so long (to use rather negative language) that it is difficult for us to hear what Scripture itself has to say.

What I read this morning was something Louis McBride posted today over on the Baker Book House Church Connection blog, something about Augustine, infant baptism, and original sin. (A blog worth following for biblical interpreters and theologians.) His post summarizes an essay by Peter Sanlon entitled “Original Sin in Patristic Theology.”

Here is part of McBride’s summary:

[Sanlon] demonstrates that it was vitally important to Augustine to show that his views [about the doctrine of original sin] were not original with him but reflected the historic position of the church. Augustine offered “citations from Scripture, church fathers, and councils” in his defense and he “coined an epithet for the Pelagians who denied original sin. They were the novi hereticic, ‘new heretics.’” (91) An important doctrine tied to this was infant baptism. Augustine agreed with the Pelagians that babies had committed no actual sin. “Unable to commit any actual sins, the sin babies needed rescuing from had to be original sin.” (93) The antiquity of infant baptism was evidence, Augustine claimed, that the church had long accepted original sin.

Now, I have not read Sanlon’s full essay, nor have I read Augustine’s writings against the Pelagians, so I can’t weigh all Augustine’s evidence well. But what caught my attention was how Augustine (AD 354-430) relied on infant baptism as strong evidence for the correctness of his views on original sin. His thinking went something like this: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true.

Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries Buy on Amazon McBride’s summary of Sanlon’s summary of Augustine reminded me of something else I’ve read. The following is from Everett Ferguson, in his magisterial volume entitled Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (see here):

There is general agreement that there is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century. This fact does not mean that it did not occur, but it does mean that supporters of the practice [such as Augustine?] have a considerable chronological gap to account for. Many replace the historical silence by appeal to theological or sociological considerations.

Arguments against the originality of baby baptism, in addition to its lack of early attestation, include: the essential nature ascribed to verbal confession and repentance; the liturgy designed for persons of responsible age; size of baptistries; and the lack of an agreed theology to support it (Chrysostom and the eastern churches vs. Augustine).

The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of the practice of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about its propriety into the fifth century. It because the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries. (856-57)

Okay, that was all background to prepare for this quote:

In the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy infant baptism was a principle support for the doctrine of original sin, rather than the other way around, since baptism was universally recognized as for forgiveness of sins. With the victory of Augustine’s arguments original sin became the reason for infant baptism in the western church. (857)

With Ferguson’s input, we can now update our flow chart of the logic of original sin and infant baptism: (1) Infant baptism has been practiced from ancient times, (2) therefore infant baptism is legitimate, (3) there must be some reason why babies need to be baptized, (4) therefore original sin must be true, (5) therefore infant baptism is necessary.

Does anyone else see any problems with this logic? I see at least two:

  1. The last point introduces circular logic. To believe infant baptism for the reasons given is about as logical as saying “We need a good speaker for our fall meetings, and we’ve asked Dwight to be our speaker, therefore Dwight must be a good speaker.” Sorry, you just might be disappointed.
  2. The premise is faulty. As Ferguson shows, there is “no firm evidence” that infant baptism was a practice with any “antiquity” (to use Sanlon’s term) older than about AD 150 or later. Since infant baptism is shaky, it is also shaky evidence for original sin.

Neither of these logical flaws proves that original sin is not a biblical doctrine. But our historical survey does show that the doctrine of original sin has been defended from early days in questionable ways. If original sin is a valid doctrine, it certainly is not valid because of infant baptism, contra Augustine.

So, to answer the title of this post, which came first–the doctrine of original sin or the practice of infant baptism? I still don’t know, but I’m still waiting for evidence that clearly shows that either belonged to the New Testament church.

Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Buy on Amazon One good place to look for such evidence is in Gregg R. Allison’s book Historical Theology (see here). His chapter on “Sin” summarizes the development of the church’s beliefs about, among other things, original sin. Perhaps I can do a follow-up post summarizing Allison’s evidence. For now, let this summary of Justin Martyr, one of the very earliest Christian writers (c. AD 100–165) whet your curiosity:

Justin Martyr focused on individual responsibility for sin, affirming that people “become subject to punishment by their own fault.” Although Justin linked humanity to Adam, the relationship is one of ancestor to descendants, each of whom sins individually. Thus, sinful people become “like Adam and Eve,” but they do so when they “work out death for themselves.” (343)

And in Justin’s own words:

The human race… from Adam had fallen under the power of death and the guile [deceit] of the serpent, and each one had committed personal transgression. — Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, 88, in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Schaff/Hendrickson, 1994), 1:243

Does this sound like original sin to you? Share your thoughts below.

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