The ecclesiological legacy of the Middle Ages is clearly one of unsolved problems, but the issue which Augustine had implicitly raised is no less genuine or important because of its inadequate treatment by the medieval theologians. For what is at stake in the Augustinian dialectic of “city of God” and “Catholic Church” is really the fundamental problem of the Christian Church in every age – the need for the Church to be a visible community in the world without regarding itself as the Kingdom of God, to have concrete and particular forms without absolutizing them, to be a renewing force in the world yet always open to renewal, and to be at once worldly and transcendent.
The unfinished business of one generation is always high on the agenda of the succeeding generation, and this case is no exception. The doctrine of the Church, far from being a peripheral concern, is one of the most critical issues in the Reformation controversy, and the Reformation as a theological event is not an individualistic protest against churchly Christianity but a struggle between two opposing understandings of the Church.
(John Tonkin, The Church and the Secular Order in Reformation Thought, pp. 34–35)
Category: Life in Front of the Curtain
God’s governance secures the creature’s freedom. If this fails to commend itself, it is because it contravenes a destructive convention according to which true freedom is indeterminacy and absolutely spontaneity or it is nothing at all. To say that is to deny creatureliness. Freedom is existence in accordance with created nature and towards created ends, not self-authorship or aseity. This means that freedom is reception, but not passivity – that it is permission and summons, but not spoken by me, but to me by God. (John Webster, “Theology of Providence,” p. 170)
What makes evil problematic for providence is not its existence but the fact that we resist applying belief in providence to cases of it, especially those in which we are concerned. (John Webster, “On the Theology of Providence,” in The Providence of God: Deus Habet Consilium, ed. Francesca Aran Murphy and Philip G. Ziegler, p. 158)
Innumerable are the evils that beset human life; innumerable, too, the deaths that threaten it. We need not go beyond ourselves: since our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases — in fact holds within itself and fosters the causes of diseases — a man cannot go about unburdened by many forms of his own destruction, and without drawing out a life enveloped, as it were, with death. For what else would you call it, when he neither freezes nor sweats without danger? Now, wherever you turn, all things around you not only are hardly to be trusted but almost openly menace, and seem to threaten immediate death. Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. Go through the city streets, you are subject to as many dangers as there are tiles on the roofs. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits. All the fierce animals you see are armed for your destruction. But if you try to shut yourself up in a walled garden, seemingly delightful, there a serpent sometimes lies hidden. Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens in the daytime to impoverish you, at night even to collapse upon you. Your field, since it is exposed to hail, frost, drought, and other calamities, threatens you with barrenness, and hence, famine. I pass over poisonings, ambushes, robberies, open violence, which in part besiege us at home, in part dog us abroad. Amid these tribulations must not man be most miserable, since, but half alive in life, he weakly draws his anxious and languid breath, as if he had a sword perpetually hanging over his neck?
You will say: these events rarely happen, or at least not all the time, nor to all men, and never all at once. I agree; but since we are warned by the examples of others that these can also happen to ourselves, and that our life ought not to be excepted any more than theirs, we cannot but be frightened and terrified as if such events were about to happen to us. What, therefore, more calamitous can you imagine than such trepidation? Besides that, if we say that God has exposed man, the noblest of creatures, to all sorts of blind and heedless blows of fortune, we are not guiltless of reproaching God. But here I propose to speak only of that misery which man will feel if he is brought under the sway of fortune.
Yet, when that light of divine providence has once shone upon a godly man, he is then relieved and set free not only from the extreme anxiety and fear that were pressing him before, but from every care. For as he justly dreads fortune, so he fearlessly dares commit himself to God. His solace, I say, is to know that his Heavenly Father so holds all things in his power, so rules by his authority and will, so governs by his wisdom, that nothing can befall except he determine it. Moreover, it comforts him to know that he has been received into God’s safekeeping and entrusted to the care of his angels, and that neither water, nor fire, nor iron can harm him, except in so far as it pleases God as governor to give them occasion. Thus indeed the psalm sings: “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. Under his wings will he protect you, and in his pinions you will have assurance; his truth will be your shield. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the flying arrow by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at midday” [Ps. 91:3–6; cf. Ps. 90:3–6, Vg.; cf. Comm.].
(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 17, sections 10–11)
“If children are called to be part of the covenant people, how may they enter it except by baptism, which is, according to universal Church confession, the way of entry into the Church? But if they are not, we are in danger of a seriously impoverished view of the Church, that it is only for those who are of the ‘age of reason’: adult or near adult believers who have qualified themselves for membership by virtue of a particular experience or decision.” (Colin E. Gunton, “Baptism and the Christian Community”)
“The human being is both a creature and a person; he or she is a created person. This, now, is the central mystery of man: how can man be both a creature and a person at the same time? To be a creature, as we have seen, means absolute dependence on God; to be a person means relative independence. To be a creature means that I cannot move a finger or utter a word apart from God; to be a person means that when my fingers are moved, I move them, and that when words are uttered by my lips, I utter them. To be creatures means that God is the potter and we are the clay (Rom. 9:21); to be persons means that we are the ones who fashion our lives by our own decisions (Gal. 6:7–8). . . .
“Though we cannot rationally comprehend how it is possible for the human being to be a creature and a person at the same time, clearly this is what we must think. Denial of either side of this paradox will fail to do justice to the biblical picture. The Bible teaches both man’s creatureliness and man’s personhood.” (Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, chapter 2)
“Consciously or unconsciously, every hearer is necessarily faced with the question whether and how he can be a real hearer and doer of the Word. And true preaching will direct him rather ‘rigidly’ to something written, or to his baptism or to the Lord’s Supper, instead of pointing him in the very slightest to his own or the preacher’s or other people’s experience. It will confront him with no other faith than faith in Christ, who died for him and rose again. But if we claim even for a moment that experiences are valid and can be passed on, we find that they are marshy ground upon which neither the preacher nor the hearer can stand or walk. Therefore they are not the object of Christian proclamation. If it is really applied to man in a thoroughly practical way, Christian proclamation does not lead the listener to experiences. All the experiences to which it might lead are at best ambiguous. It leads them right back through all experiences to the source of all true and proper experience, i.e., to Jesus Christ.” (Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 2.249)
I post this without comment, though much might profitably be said:
“Baptism was instituted . . . as a sign of [the] true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 1.154)
“Unbelief is the sin that doth most easily beset us: there are remainders of it in the best; and it is at the bottom of our many sinful departures from God. Even those who can say, Lord, I believe, have reason to add, help my unbelief. Now, I say, it would be a special help against unbelief, to consider our baptism, especially our infant baptism. . . .
“When we are tempted to distrust God, to question his good-will, and to think hardly of him, then let us recollect the covenant of grace, and our baptism, the seal thereof. Consider [that] by baptism we were admitted into covenant relations. God did then make over himself to us, to be our God; and take us to himself, to be his people; and shall we then ever distrust him? Relation is a great encouragement to dependence. See Ps. xxi. 2. My refuge, my fortress, my God, and then follows, in him will I trust; compare Ps. xviii. 2. As, by baptism, God hath hold of us when we depart from him, so, by baptism, we have hold of God when he seems to withdraw from us. . . . Use this as an anchor of the soul in every storm; and whatever happens, keep hold of thy covenant relation to God: even then, when he seems to forsake, yet (as Christ upon the cross) maintain this post against all the assaults of Satan, that he is my God; my God for all this; and happy the people whose God is the Lord.” (Matthew Henry, A Treatise on Baptism)
On the question of whether children in the covenant community must be regarded as believers, our Reformed forefathers have given some interesting answers. I offer a few of those here, for our reflection.
John Calvin responded thus to the Anabaptists’ argument that infants are incapable of faith:
“But since they think that it would be quite absurd for any knowledge of God to be attributed to infants, to whom Moses denies the knowledge of good and evil, let them only tell me, I ask, what the danger is if infants be said to receive now some part of that grace which in a little while they shall enjoy to the full? For if fullness of life consists in the perfect knowledge of God, when some of them, whom death snatches away in their very first infancy, pass over into eternal life, they are surely received to the contemplation of God in his very presence. Therefore, if it please him, why may the Lord not shine with a tiny spark at the present time on those whom he will illumine in the future with the full splendor of his light – especially if he has not removed their ignorance before taking them from the prison of the flesh? I would not rashly affirm that they are endowed with the same faith as we experience in ourselves, or have entirely the same knowledge of faith – this I prefer to leave undetermined – but I would somewhat restrain the obtuse arrogance of those who at the top of their lungs confidently deny or assert whatever they please.” (Calvin, Institutes, 4.16.19)
Perhaps even more telling is another passage that follows:
“Since God communicated circumcision to infants as a sacrament of repentance and of faith, it does not seem absurd if they are now made participants in baptism – unless men choose to rage openly at God’s institution. But as in all God’s acts, so in this very act also there shines enough wisdom and righteousness to repel the detractions of the impious. For although infants, at the very moment they were circumcised, did not comprehend with their understanding what that sign meant, they were truly circumcised to the mortification of their corrupt and defiled nature, a mortification that they would afterward practice in mature years. To sum up, this objection can be solved without difficulty: infants are baptized into future repentance and faith, and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit.” (Institutes, 4.16.20, emphasis added)
It is fairly standard in Reformed circles to affirm (as Calvin does here) that it is possible for God to work faith in infants; but should we regard all infants in the covenant as possessing the “seed” of repentance and faith? The Westminster Larger Catechism offers a strongly positive answer to this question when it says baptism is “a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants” (Question 177, emphasis added). If baptism seals regeneration (the seed of faith and repentance) to infants, they ought to be regarded (like adult professors) as regenerate, having the seed (at least) of faith and repentance. And this way of viewing the infants in God’s flock has solid support elsewhere. Zacharias Ursinus, for example, one of the co-authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, speaks as follows:
“This is sure and certain, that God instituted his sacraments and covenant seals only for those who recognize and maintain the church as already made up of parties of the covenant, and that it is not His intention to make them Christians by the sacraments first, but rather to make those who are already Christians to be Christians more and more and to confirm the work begun in them. . . . Hence, if anyone considers the children of Christians to be pagans and non-Christians, and damns all those infants who cannot come to be baptized, let him take care on what ground he does so, because Paul calls them holy (1 Cor. 7), and God says to all believers in the person of Abraham that He will be their God and the God of their seed. . . . Next let him consider how he will permit them to be baptized with a good conscience, for knowingly to baptize a pagan and unbeliever is an open abuse and desecration of baptism. Our continual answer to the Anabaptists, when they appeal to the lack of faith in infants against infant baptism, is that the Holy Spirit works regeneration and the inclination to faith and obedience to God in them in a manner appropriate to their age, always with it understood that we leave the free mercy and heavenly election unbound and unpenetrated.” (Quoted in Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., pp. 264–65)
Centuries later, we find the same conclusion reached by a different path by Herman Bavinck:
“We can no more judge the hearts of senior members of the church than we can the hearts of infants. The only possibility left for us who are bound to externals is a judgment of charity. According to that judgment, we consider those who make profession of faith to be believers and give them access to the sacraments. By that same judgment we count the children of believers as themselves believers because they are included with their parents in the covenant of grace. The likelihood that the baptized are true believers is even greater in the case of children than adults.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 4.530–31, emphasis added)
Bavinck emphasizes the objective covenant promise of God to children rather than the subjective “seed” of faith within them, but the conclusion is the same – they are to be regarded precisely as we regard adult professors: as regenerate, repentant, believing disciples of the covenant Lord. It is not our place to call their faith into question, but rather to nurture it.