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Scripture Interpretation, and Occam’s Razor

April 6, 2020

I’m continuing through Zacharias Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Westminster Daily calendar readings.  In this first quarter of the calendar year, both of these teach about the person of Christ, the Trinity, and the Mediator, with some excellent material.

Along the way I have also discovered some additional online resources, as I continue to think through the implications of Reformed PaedoBaptism, and understanding its differences from the Particular Baptist/1689 Federalism version of Covenant Theology.  For one thing, though Facebook has a large, active group for 1689 Reformed Baptists, the best online forum for serious discussion of Westminster theology is the Puritan Board.  Though as some people have described, that its ‘heyday’ is past, 10-12 years ago — as Facebook has replaced it in sheer numbers and volume of group conversations — yet it still has good, in-depth discussion on a lot of theology topics.  Over the last several days, I’ve been reading through a recent lengthy thread in the Paedo-Baptism answers forum, learning a lot, and noting additional links to online material mentioned in the conversation.

A few other helpful resources I’ve found, for Paedobaptist articles interacting with and responding to 1689 Federalism:

One overall impression I now have, goes back to Occam’s Razor and the layman term description, that the simplest answer – the answer with the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.  Certainly it proved true for Copernican Astronomy (contrasted with Aristotelian), and I’ve seen that principle at work also in understanding Creation Science as contrasted with the complexities and ever-changing theories of old-earth/evolutionary views.

This same principle plays out in comparing the presentation of 1689 Federalism, with standard Reformed Theology.  As observed in the Puritan board comment thread — and I find agreement, from my reading a few years ago of several online articles as well as Denault’s The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (2013 Kindle edition) – the presentation is very difficult to follow and understand.  During my study of 1689 Federalism I grasped the basic idea, similar to the usage of terms by Charles Spurgeon, that “the Covenant of Grace = the New Covenant,” and that the New Covenant was ‘in promise form’ throughout the Old Testamant era, a separate promise running through yet distinct from the actual historical covenants (Abrahamic, Davidic, etc.).  Beyond that level, though, the explanations become verbose and tedious.  As one comment described, the writers of an RB essay seek to bolster their position from so many sources, and redefine so many terms (Old Testament, Old Covenant, New Testament, New Covenant, Covenant of Grace, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic or Sinaitic Covenant)—as does Pascal Denault in his, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, that one would almost have to write a book, or at least a lengthy essay in reply. And each of hundreds of points could then be argued and wrangled about! Also, “it is troubling to see the tortuous—one could almost call it labyrinthine—argumentation of their presentation on the covenants and the resultant disallowance of baptism for believers’ infants. Why can’t plain teachings of the Bible be presented simply?”

While granting that some paedobaptist explanations of Reformed Covenant Theology may also be presented in a complex way, overall I have found that online articles about Reformed paedo-CT are presented in a simpler, clearer way along with the scripture evidence.  The continuity and scriptures make sense, and without lengthy explanations to redefine terms. (It is also worth noting that not all Reformed Baptists follow 1689 Federalism; the third view, sometimes called ‘Modern RB,’ keeps the Westminster Standards version of Covenant Theology but with believers’ baptism instead of paedo.)

Further, the 1689 Federalism splitting of the Abrahamic covenant into two parts, to effect two covenants, one spiritual and one carnal/physical only, seems unnecessary complexity.  The attitude toward the Abrahamic land promises, the strong amillennial ‘replacement’ motif is also troubling; during my 1689 RB years, I identified instead with Charles Spurgeon’s beliefs, in the basic 1689 London Baptist Confession while strongly affirming the Old Testament’s prophecies regarding the future regathering of ethnic, national Israel and the land promises for Israel’s future.

As with science theories, and the plain language/normal reading hermeneutic applied to God’s word, the simpler explanation, “the answer with the fewest assumptions – is generally the correct one.”

  1. John Folkomer
    April 6, 2020 at 7:52 am

    Thank you for your analysis. Have you read Fred Malone’s Credobaptism: The Baptism of Disciple’s Alone? I have the original but have not read the updated version. A more academic presentation is Beasley-Murrays Baptism in the New Testament.

    • April 6, 2020 at 11:31 am

      Thanks John for the info. I’ve read a few online articles and sermons from Fred Malone, but not that particular book.

      • John Folkomer
        April 6, 2020 at 11:51 am

        Highly recommend Fred Malone’s book on Credobaptisn. He went from a Baptist background to a Presbyterian paedobaptistic persuasion after seminary to, after years of ministry, the Baptist position. He argues his position from many angles and today sits on the Board of Al Mohler’s Southern Seminary. What the additions were in the updated 2nd edition I do not know but the first edition was, to me, comprehensive and born out of experience in the trenches of pastoral life and greater understanding of the issues. Again, thank you for your efforts to understand and then share your views. I spoke with Bob Brady (ACE) about your blog and am so glad you may have a future opportunity to contribute to the ACE web-site. Press on!!

      • April 6, 2020 at 1:25 pm

        Thanks John. As I understand Fred Malone is in that third group, the ‘modern RB’ that hold to paedo-CT with believer’s baptism. So that position would at least have a different presentation of believers’ baptism, without the convoluted explanations of two different Abrahamic covenants etc. I am fairly convinced of the paedo position (at least for now); certainly it would be interesting to read Malone’s perspective if I am ever able to obtain that book.

        Thanks for the mention of Bob Brady and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Bob did mention it again not too long ago (to write for ‘Place for Truth’), and I expressed interest. As far as I can tell, though, I have not (yet) been added to the designated email list for the Place for Truth writers; though I don’t know how often that email list is used, for upcoming contrbutions to Place for Truth.

  2. Gerry
    April 6, 2020 at 8:10 am

    Good morning Lynda:

    I share your view that needless complexity plagues much of 1689 explanation/discussion.

    But not only that topic, in my view, rather the whole of Reformed theological discussion, at times.

    Years ago, after reading much tortured explanation of theological topics by today’s and yesterday’s scholars, I could not help but come to the conclusion that Bunyan’s works went into all the detail necessary without being overly complex or verbose.

    Not that he does not get technical or difficult at times, which, as Peter notes when speaking of Paul’s letters, there are “some things hard to understand”. But this is more a matter of the subject being handled than than the handling of it, I think, when I read Bunyan.

    There is a natural human tendency, when seeking to gain an audience, to over complicate the subject, rather than to simply it. And this tendency proceeds from our pride.

    The assumption being that if I make it simple when explaining it, my audience may conclude that I am a simpleton. Whereas, if I dress it up in all sorts of complicated language and convoluted and contorted logic, I will be thought of as bright and insightful.

    As a case in point, several years ago I picked up Bunyan’s “The Doctrine Of Law and Grace Unfolded”. As I did I thought to myself that I knew all I needed to know about Law and Grace, having heard these subjects explained for the preceding 50 or so years.

    But I was struck with the simplicity and yet deep insight into Bunyan’s treatment of these two terms and in their implications for each and every soul “born of a woman”.

    Just as you mention in your post, the involved and complex explanations of the land versus salvation covenants we read of in some treatments of the 1689 confession are abstruse and neeedlessly obfuscate simple truths.

    Bunyan’s explanations follow Spurgeon’s simple outline, or rather, perhaps, Spurgeon’s follow Bunyan’s, Spurgeon being unafraid to claim Bunyan’s wisdom as so many modern “scholars”.

    One example that comes to mind is the idea of “the everlasting covenant”, which for David, on his death bed, was “all his salvation, and all his desire”(2 Sam 23:5).

    I love that passage and my heart echos David’s sentiment expressed there, but I see almost no discussion of this covenant in modern works.

    This simple statement of David speaks clearly to me and summarizes all the salvation and land covenants with ease and simplicity when David notes that it is “ordered in all things, and sure”.

    “All things”: election, calling, regeneration, atonement, sanctification,glorification, reigning with Him. Here we have a statement of Gods choosing us and covenanting with each member of the God head, along with every providential action necessary in time and eternity to make it all come about by His sovereign power: “and sure”.

    For me at least, the baptism issue is just as simple. Just as circumcision was an outward sign of commitment of infant children to God by their godly parents, so is sprinkling infant children with water now.

    But just as many circumcised infants in their flesh never demonstrated circumcision of their hearts, which is the result of a sovereign work of Gods Spirit, so many sprinkled children are never chosen by Him, and never go on to manifest those things that speak of a real walk with Him, which are so perfectly and completely covered in 1John, which is written “that we may know”, and so that with the apostles, “we may have fellowship with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ”, just as they did.

    Similarly, baptism by immersion is an outward sign entered into by those capable understanding the issues involved, but it too is subject to fallibility of human nature and is only made real by Gods direct and immediate baptism in His Spirit wherein a person is given “an earnest of his inheritance”, and such “witness”and “earnest” may, or may not, be given at the time and place chosen by fallible men to express their choice of Him and the self denial it speaks of.

    And here my mind is drawn to where The Word tells us:

    9 But as it is written:

    “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
    Nor have entered into the heart of man
    The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”
    10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.
    11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.
    12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.
    13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holyfn Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
    14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
    15 But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one.
    16 For “who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Cor 2:9-16)

    In Him

    • April 6, 2020 at 1:11 pm

      Hi Gerry,

      Thanks for your comments, and yes good general observation, one I’ve noticed also in particular areas in the past (such as some amillennialist spiritualizing hermeneutics). Also, a great (simple and straightforward) explanation, “Just as circumcision was an outward sign of commitment of infant children to God by their godly parents, so is sprinkling infant children with water now, and your next two paragraphs about infant baptism and the baptism by immersion (of adult converts)–and the point that it also is subject to limitations (we only see their outward profession, and even the person being baptized may be self-deceived and not actually saved), and “only made real by Gods direct and immediate baptism in His Spirit…”

      The Bunyan-Spurgeon connection is interesting; considering Bunyan’s great influence on Spurgeon, and Spurgeon read Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” numerous times over the course of his life, that would make sense regarding their similar discourses. Both Bunyan and Spurgeon also came from the “common people” rather than the wealthy, educated elite class, which also explains how they were more effective at communication, simple and clear truth to the common laypeople.


      • Gerry
        April 9, 2020 at 8:01 am

        Hi Lynda:

        Thanks for your thoughts on my post, as always, thoughtful and encouraging as from a true sister in “the faith once delivered”.

        I think you are right about Spurgeon and Bunyan both being of the common people and neither having attended a formal seminary program but rather having been taught exclusively in the “school of Christ”.

        Not that many good and gracious men have not attended seminary and learned much while there, and I from some such men, but still, there is a reason that some seminary education has been likened to a “cemetery” as the joke is among seminarians.

        The cost of “tuition” for Bunyan of course was 12 years in prison, something Spurgeon was able to avoid.

        There is a passage in 1 Cor. that always comes to mind when I compare Bunyan’s ministry to others who were taught more formally:

        19 For it is written:

        “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
        And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.”
        20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
        21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
        22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom;
        23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeksfn foolishness,
        24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
        25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
        26 For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.
        27 But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty;
        28 and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are,
        29 that no flesh should glory in His presence.
        30 But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God–and righteousness and sanctification and redemption–
        31 that, as it is written, “He who glories, let him glory in the LORD.

        (1 Cor. 1:19-31)

        This is that passage where Paul was admonishing the Corinthians for their foolish bragging about being of one teacher or another: “of Paul, Apollo’s…”, much the same as we see today so many claiming to be “Calvinists”, and then wondering why others attack them for the false teachings and errors of Calvin.

        I dearly love my brother Calvin and praise God for his work for our Master in bring forth and teaching the incomperable “doctrines of grace”.

        But by Gods Good Grace, I have never thought of myself or called myself a “Calvinist”, and that is because Paul teaches us clearly the foolishness of this in this passage.

        Early on I noted that there were great men that the Lord raised up to teach us who never fell into this trap, Bunyan is one who comes to mind and J.Edwards was another. They were “their own men”, and preferred to get their doctrines from God and His Word, while at the same time being willing to be taught by their fellow brothers and sisters, as long as that teaching agreed with Gods Word..

        Each was totally different in many ways such as upbringing, privilege, formal education, etc., but each knew the importance of being taught first, and last, by Gods Spirit.

        I will never forget how Bunyan’s pastor, “the holy Mr. Gifford”, as they called him, told his people: “let no man tell you that you are a child of God, get it from God”.

        That is, directly and immediately, from His Spirit.

        Contrast that position and teaching with the TV commercials now popping up regularly where Franklin Graham and the Billy Graham “evangelistic association”, are busy telling people that if they “prayed the prayer” they are saved.

        No wonder there is such great darkness in our land and in this world.

        Yes, it’s true that as Franklin tells his listeners,”God loves you and created you”, but that does not necessarily mean that He “chose you in Him before the foundation of the world”.

        Salvation is a bit more involved than that, ACCORDING TO GODS WORD”, but we wouldn’t want to be confused by the facts, especially if it meant that the coffers of the BGEA suffered as a result.

        Oh, I almost forgot: “you cannot worship God and Mammon”, according to Christ.

        And “the multitudes” hated and rejected Him when He taught them about Election, self denial, counting the cost, etc., so the BGEA it would seem has learned this lesson well.

        In Him

  1. April 6, 2020 at 8:53 am
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