Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Case For Covenant Communion -- A Review

Rayburn, et al. The Case For Covenant Communion. Edited by Gregg Strawbridge. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2006. 210 pp. with foreward, appendix, and Scripture index. $14.95 (paper) ISBN 0-9753914-3-7.

CFCC presents a forceful case that covenant children within the church should be allowed to participate in communion. The case presented here is grounded in Scripture, history, and covenant theology, and is in general well-argued. Though the various arguments are not entirely dispositive, they are nevertheless the ones to be reckoned with by those who think about communion in Reformed Churches.

The book consists of a series of essays by various contributors. The first article, by Robert Rayburn, sets forth the framework of the argument. As Rayburn sees it, children should be admitted to the table because (pp. 14-15)

* Children of believers have always participated in covenant meals and been nourished thereby,
* The theology of covenant children demands participation,
* The sole argument against paedocommunion, from 1 Cor 11, is based on a misreading, and
* Paedocommunion was the practice of the early church.

The articles that follow then flesh out Rayburn's skeleton. Jordan demonstrates that children participated in Passover and the other OT feast meals; Leithart explores the theology of those meals. Gallant, Sutton, and Lusk argue for childrens' participation in communion as a necessary consequence of covenant theology. Meyers and Strawbridge deconstruct the objections to paedocommunion. The article by Blake Purcell attempts to demonstrate that paedocommunion was practiced as early as the first century.

These articles are followed by a fascinating reprint of Rayburn's article in Presbyterion 22.2 of the development of the Presbyterian theology of covenant children, which includes details about the 1857 controversy between Charles Hodge and Thornwell concerning the status of unbelieving covenant children. Included are a set of excellent questions and objections by V. Philips Long which were part of the original Presbyterion article.

The book's case is stimulating and persuasive, but not finally compelling. Meyer's argument helped me to rethink the current communion practices at our church and to strongly consider a lower age for the communion table. Jordan's argument is speculative at points, but his central claim, that children did partake of the Passover, is quite well-established and demolishes Murray's contention that only adults participated. On the other hand, Purcell's attempt to push the date of paedocommunion to the first century is strikingly unpersuasive, as the evidence prior to Cyprian (AD 250) is simply too thin to bear the weight he wishes to place on it.

In the end, the central issue appears to be one's reading of 1 Cor 11.

If in fact 1 Cor 11.28 means "examine yourselves", then all of the other arguments can be seen in other lights. Perhaps the Passover has been modified in the New Covenant to require evidence of the circumcision of the heart. Or perhaps the children that participated in Passover were young, but not infants. Perhaps the theology of covenant children demands that we prepare children to partake, rather than give them communion as early as possible. These hypotheses are but examples of the routes one is compelled to take if 1 Cor 11.28 is indeed a command to be followed by all who partake.

But if on the other hand 1 Cor 11.28 is directed solely at the misbehaving Corinthian adults (so Rayburn), or means "prove yourselves" (so Meyers), then the objections to paedocommunion evaporate entirely.

This point needs to be discussed further. The current weight of translation work lies heavily on the side of self-inspection; yet Rayburn's argument that the command is directed towards the miscreants at Corinth is compelling. Whatever the case, we can be grateful to the authors for bringing the discussion to the fore and providing substantial food for thought.

One question that I brought to the book was its degree of entanglement with Federal Vision theology. Since so many of the contributors are also signatories to the Federal Vision Statement, and since that same statement explicitly advocates paedocommunion, I found myself approaching the book wondering to what extent I would have to evaluate its arguments without the benefit of accepting or understanding all of the Federal Vision.

To my pleasant surprise, I found that the arguments stand more or less on their own. The case for paedocommunion is argued almost entirely within the bounds of theology that is common to the Reformed community.

An experienced churchman might ask, "Why revisit the issue at this time, since both the PCA and OPC have considered and rejected paedocommunion in the past?" The answer appears to be this: even if paedocommunion is not the answer, the unacceptably long period of time that our children wait to take communion is a problem. This book serves as a stimulus to reconsider that problem afresh.


For further reading:
1987 OPC report on Paedocommunion
1988 PCA report on Paedocommunion.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Role of Love in Debate

Eph. 4.14-16

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Here in Ephesians, Paul pronounces the eschatological destiny of the church: to grow up.

What is notable is that the growth occurs by means of speaking the truth in love and working to build itself up in love.

Here, "in love" is adverbial; it is the manner in which we speak and work. Love is the motive that supplies the context for our speech and actions, and only that motive will suffice to cause growth (cf. 1 Cor 13).

Love is the frame in which our truth rests. Without that frame, our "truths" are not Truly True.

It's that simple: speak the truth *outside* of a motive to love, and you've failed to tell the whole truth.

And so we have

Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (4.25-27)

and again,

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (4.29, and 30-31 prob. relevant as well)

At some point in the future, I'd like to explore here the connections between speech and love in the context of theological debate. I need to explore, for the sake of my soul, the ways in which I fail to frame my "truths" in love -- and hence fail to tell True Truth.

At issue are passages like 1 Cor 13 and 14, James 3, and the odd connection of phrase between James 5.19-20 ("whoever turns a sinner from his ways ... will cover over a multitude of sins") and 1 Peter 4.8 ("Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.") Perhaps other passages will surface also.


Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Obedience of Christ in Hebrews

As I've tried to wrap my mind around the food fight known as "The Federal Vision Controversy", one point stands out. Some who identify themselves with The Federal Vision believe that it is a mistake to speak of Christ's active obedience imputed to us:

We deny that faithfulness to the gospel message requires any particular doctrinal
formulation of the “imputation of the active obedience of Christ.” What matters is that we confess that our salvation is all of Christ, and not from us.
FV Statement 6

In my reading, I have understood their reluctance to stem from a controversy between Kline and Murray concerning the appropriateness of the term "Covenant of Works" to describe Adam's covenantal situation in the Garden: Do Adam's and Christ's works "merit" damnation and salvation, respectively, OR do Adam's and Christ's statuses secure damnation and salvation? That's probably an oversimplification, and for those who don't know the inside baseball (I'm a novice!), the appropriate question is probably "Who cares?!"

In any event, the argument has then proceeded on systematic lines. IF we abandon active obedience, the Kline camp urges, then we abandon the gospel. No, IF we allow for Adam to "merit" something in the Garden, then we make God beholden to His creation, say the Murrayites. Part of this discussion can be found here and here.

Hold the is a discussion in which Anthony Cowley examines precisely the passages I was thinking about in worship this morning. But he goes in a different direction with it, so I'll keep writing.

Anyways, what I wanted to say is this: I think the book of Hebrews provides a sufficient basis for a legitimate use of the phrase "Imputation of Active Obedience of Christ."

And here's the case:

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. Heb. 5.7-10.

Important to the writer of the Hebrews is this point: though Jesus already had the status of Son, he went beyond this status and actively obeyed God, reaching some state of "perfection" or "completion." What that state is and how it goes beyond being the eternal son of God (Heb 1.2-3), the author doesn't say. But his obedience is needed in order for him to have the status of our high priest.

Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.
Heb 7.23-28

Here, our salvation is necessarily contingent on Jesus' particular characteristics: ever-livingness, holiness, blamelessness, etc., down to being exalted above the heavens. Notably, he is appointed because he had previously been made perfect, which connects back to his obedience from chapter 5.

...How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!
For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
Heb 9.14-15.

Here, the author develops the idea of our salvation. We are saved (a) because our consciences have been cleansed, because (b) Jesus the unblemished sacrifice -- connecting back to the language of ch. 7, which in turn rests on ch. 5 -- offered himself for us.

And then finally,

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, 'Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, O God.' "

First he said, "Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them" (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, "Here I am, I have come to do your will." He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Heb. 10.5-10

Here the author makes explicit that Jesus' obedience to God's will not only qualifies him to be our sacrifice (as developed in ch. 5-->7-->9), but also that his sacrifice makes us holy.

What can we conclude from this? First, that Jesus' righteousness includes, as one aspect, his active obedience to the Father. Above and beyond his nature as the second person of the Trinity, above and beyond his status as Messiah (Phil. 2.9), he also acted in a way that resulted in his worthiness as our sacrifice.

Second, that Jesus' righteousness becomes ours and makes us holy.

Put it together, and we have this: Jesus' active obedience becomes a part of the package by which I am reckoned -- logizomai -- to be holy.

Hence, in this sense at least, Christ's active obedience is imputed to me.

Does this answer the question of mechanism? No. Does it settle the dispute over merit? No.

But what is clear from the Scriptures is that there is a legitimate sense in which Christ's active obedience is imputed to me. For those who dislike an Anselmian sense of merit, or a Thomistic sense of merit, or a Klinian sense of merit -- here's your antidote: Affirm the IAOC in the sense that the author to the Hebrews affirms it.