Friday, December 31, 2010

Baptism in the Theology of A. H. Strong - The Organization of the Church - Summary of Ecclesiology Part II

On the topic of organization and church government, Strong is convinced that a church as an organization will not only naturally happen, but is prescribed in Scripture. He believes that the NT depicts a developing organization, which existed only in germ before Christ's death, but which was "already complete in all essential particulars before the close of the inspired canon, so that the record of it may constitute a providential example of binding authority upon all subsequent ages." This organization should be properly populated with regenerate persons, but given his belief that Scripture depicts a visible church "comprehending some who are not true believers," Strong allows for the possibility that the organization might not.[12]

This institutional model is adaptable, according to Strong, but always follows a generic type that is democratic, and possesses only two orders of officials and only two ordinances.[13] Here Strong is again Christocentric, clarifying that this model is democratic insofar as the body is trying to interpret the will of Christ, its "sovereign and lawgiver," but with regard to its source of authority, Christ, it is an "absolute monarchy."[14] The two offices that Strong accepts as valid are: bishop, presbyter, or pastor; and deacon. Strong opposes Calvin's differentiation between teaching and ruling elders, since the same individual should be gifted with both the gifts of teaching and ruling.[15] This teaching / ruling pastor, when it comes to church discipline, does not have the role of "judge," but rather that of a "prosecuting attorney" of public offenses. Strong divides transgressions that require discipline into two categories: private and public. Each is to be dealt with according to different rules. Discipline needed for private matters is focused on the restoration of the erring believer, but discipline enacted for public sins seems to be primarily for the protection of the institution, and only secondarily for the restoration of the individual believer.[16]

[12] Strong considers that Ananias and Sapphira were not true believers. Strong, Systematic Theology, 894-97. One has to wonder if, by the use of his terminology, Strong is trying to constitute different categories. When he first introduces the concept of the invisible church and the individual church, he is very consistent in using the term individual and not visible. While here he refers to the "visible church as comprehending some who are not true believers" (emphasis mine), not the individual church. It could be that Strong allows for an invisible or universal church composed of true believers that takes form in an individual, but still invisible, church composed of true believers, that in turns organizes itself into a visible church, which ideally should be composed only of true believers, but practically is not.

[13] Ibid., 897. Later in the text, Strong equates democratic with congregational (904). To be noted is Strong's very Biblical understanding of congregationalism: "Should not the majority rule in a Baptist church? No, not a bare majority, when there are opposing convictions on the part of a large minority. What should rule is the mind of the Spirit. What indicates his mind is the gradual unification of conviction and opinion on the part of the whole body in support of some definite plan, so that the whole church moves together" (905).

[14] Ibid., 903. This is central to the understanding of Strong's view of the pastor. For Strong, "it should be the ambition of the pastor not 'to run the church,' but to teach the church intelligently and Scripturally to manage its own affairs. The word 'minister' means, not master, but servant. The true pastor inspires, but does not drive" (908). With Christ as the absolute head, the church does not need another head, instead, as Eph 4:11 states, it needs an equipper of the saints for the work of the ministry.

[15] Ibid., 914-15. The duties of the pastor, bishop, or elder are to be: 1) a spiritual teacher, 2) an administrator of the ordinances (to be discussed in more detail below), and 3) superintender of discipline and presiding officer at meetings. The duties of a deacon are to be: 1) a helper to the pastor by "forming a bond of union between pastor and people," 2) ministering to the sick and the poor, ministering in an "informal way" to the spiritual needs of the church, and tending to some "external duties" associated with the service of the sanctuary (see 916-18).

[16] Ibid., 924-26.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Baptism in the Theology of A. H. Strong - A Christocentric Church - Summary of Ecclesiology Part I

Unlike his contemporary, B. H. Carroll,[5] Strong does not base his definition of the church on the understanding of the Greek term εκκλησια, but on several Scripture passages on the church.[6] From them Strong concludes that "the church of Christ, in its largest signification, is the whole company of regenerate persons in all times and ages, in heaven and on earth."[7] Yet, Strong believes that "the Scriptures, however, distinguish between this invisible or universal church, and the individual church," and while he begins his study discussing the church in its "largest sense," he eventually focuses on what he deems to be the prevailing usage of the term εκκλησια in the New Testament, that of the "individual church, in which the universal church takes local and temporal form, and in which the idea of the church as a whole is concretely exhibited."[8]

Strong offers at least two lists of principles around which believers can unite themselves as individual churches,[9] but for him the "primary and most essential element in ecclesiology" is the concept of "regeneration which comes about through union with Christ," viz. regenerate church membership. Strong elaborates by quoting Leighton Williams: "the essence of the gospel is a new life in Christ, of which Christian experience is the outworking . . . Christian life is as important as conversion. Faith must show itself by works."[10] Therefore, the foundation and outworking of the church has to be Christocentric, and not anthropocentric, allowing Strong to state that the church cannot be "a voluntary association of believers, united together for the purposes of worship and edification," but has to be "formed from within. Christ, present by the Holy Ghost, regenerating men by the sovereign action of the Spirit, and organizing them into himself as the living center." This, for Strong, is "the only principle that can explain the existence of the church." This understanding of the doctrine of regeneration also demands a voluntary church where "union with the church logically follows, not precedes, the soul's spiritual union with Christ," for "union with the church is but the outward expression of a proceeding union with Christ."[11]

What do you think about Strong's Christocentricity in his understanding of the church?

[5] For B. H. Carroll's view of the church see: B. H. Carroll, Ecclesia: The Church - Bible Class Lecture, February, 1903, The Baptist Distinctives Series, vol. 38 (Louisville: 1903; reprint, Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006). The "primary meaning" of ecclesia, according to Carroll, is "an organized assembly, whose members have been properly called out from private homes or business to attend to public affairs." This concept of assembly forces Carroll to create a dichotomy between the "particular assembly of Jesus Christ on earth" and "his general assembly in glory" (15-6). These, according to Carroll, are not and cannot be co-existent (critiquing the creeds, 24), for the nature of the membership of the general assembly forces it to be an assembly only "in prospect" (17). Nevertheless, "each particular assembly is a representation or type of the general assembly" (29). He accepts applying the "figures" for the church to both the particular and the general assembly, but he denies the use of them for the "particular assemblies collectively" (19). As will be seen later in this paper, this is not the only point of ecclesiological disagreement between Carroll and Strong. To be fair to Strong's position, it should be noted that he does not totally dismiss the assembling nature of the church, for he states concerning the individual churches, that they were never so large that they could not assemble (see Strong, Systematic Theology, 891). But, unlike Carroll, he does not see this assembling concept as an invalidation of the concept of the universal church, as is seen below.

[6] Matt 16:18; Eph 1:22, 23; 3:10; 5:24, 25; Col 1:18; Heb 12:23; see Strong, Systematic Theology, 887.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 889; 892. In his discussion of the invisible church, while Strong prefers the terminology of invisible church, the sources he presents oscillate between the use of the term invisible church, universal church, and the kingdom. Unfortunately, the terminology used in Strong's sources here obfuscates the understanding of Strong's beliefs. On p. 887, Strong first equates church and kingdom, and then cites Andrews's differences between the church and the kingdom, which Strong prefers to refer to as the visible and invisible church. Yet, two pages later, he cites A. J. Gordon in stating that the church and the kingdom are identical, if by the kingdom one does not refer to "the visible reign and government of Jesus Christ in earth" (889). While Strong's citing of other authors is beneficial in allowing the reader to see which theologians shaped his theology and which theologians he was reacting against, this is one of many examples where the reader is left with a feeling of uncertainty on exactly how Strong would have articulated his position on some issues.

[9] One such list is: 1) sufficiency and sole authority of Scripture; 2) regeneration as a pre-requisite of church membership; 3) immersion only; 4) the order of the ordinances; 5) congregational church government; 6) independent churches; 7) freedom of the individual conscience and independence of the church and state (Ibid., 890).

[10] Ibid. Strong quotes Leighton Williams (possibly the pastor of the Amity Baptist Church on West Fifty-Fourth Street in New York) twice in Systematic Theology, but does not offer any bibliographical information for him.

[11] Ibid., 893.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Baptism in the Theology of A. H. Strong - Intro

When reading about Augustus Hopkins Strong, the discussion often revolves around his concept of "ethical monism," or his orthodoxy (especially in light of his hiring and retaining Walter Rauschenbusch as a faculty member at Rochester Seminary [1]), or his acceptance of theistic evolution and the "pictorial-summary" interpretation of Genesis 1:1. If his ecclesiology is mentioned, it is usually just mentioned briefly and at most summarized in a short paragraph.[2] Yet, Strong did dedicate two chapters of his Systematic Theology to the topic of "Ecclesiology, or the Doctrine of the Church."[3] Therefore, while ecclesiology is not what people remember him for, due to the longevity and the "formative influence" of his Systematic Theology on both Northern and Southern Baptists,[4] there are benefits to undertake an analysis of his ecclesiological views.

Here we will only look at a detailed analysis of one aspect of his ecclesiology: Strong's view of baptism. Maybe in the future I will have time to look at more. The approach that will be employed will be, first, to summarize succinctly his ecclesiology for the sake of providing a theological framework for the more detailed discussion on baptism. Second, his doctrine of baptism will be presented. Third, the doctrines of baptism of some of his contemporaries will be presented to give a historical context to this analysis. Finally, his doctrine of baptism will be evaluated. I hope to show that Strong's doctrine of baptism is orthodox, Baptist, and biblical and has a clear Christocentric framework. In addition, it will be seen that the oddities in Strong's doctrine of baptism can be tied to an anthropocentric shift.

I know this series will probably have a small following due to its topic, but let me encourage you to follow it. I think that we can learn much from history. So ... be looking for the next post that will present a summary of Strong's ecclesiology.

[1] According to McBeth, in H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness (Nashville: Broadman, 1987), 598, Strong agonized about the Rauschenbusch situation, for he was committed both to keeping the seminary orthodox and to academic freedom, but ultimately favored his desire for academic freedom and "refused to silence or restrict" Rauschenbusch.

[2] See for example: Timothy George and David S. Dockery, Baptist Theologians (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1990), 299, and James Leo Garrett, Baptist Theology: A Four-Century Study, 1st ed. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 301-02. In addition, a brief review of theological journals did not produce any articles concerning Strong's ecclesiological views.

[3] These are found in Part VII of the 3rd Volume of Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium Designed for the Use of Theological Students (1903; reprint, Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1960), 887-980.

[4] Speaking to its longevity is the fact that this volume has recently been re-printed by Judson Press in 2010. This is one of many republications since the 1960 reprint by Judson, consulted for this paper, which was already the twenty-first reprint. Speaking to its influence, see McBeth, Baptist Heritage, 597-98, Garrett, Baptist Theology, 294, and George and Dockery, Baptist Theologians, 289.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Van Dam. The Elder - A Book Review

Van Dam, Cornelis. The Elder: Today's Ministry Rooted in All of Scripture. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009. 283 pp. Softcover, $17.99.

The Elder is one volume in P&R's new Explorations in Biblical Theology series that tries to find the middle ground between academic and semi-popular books. This "solidly reformed" series' target audience ranges from the seminarian to the "thoughtful lay reader." Van Dam does a good job at connecting with his target audience by writing a book that is easily read, full of Scripture references, and seasoned with a few footnotes and two bibliographies.

Van Dam's chief goal is to "enhance a biblical understanding and functioning of the office of elder" (xii). His central presupposition is that there is continuity between Old Testament (OT) elders and New Testament (NT) elders. This continuity "need not be doubted"; yet, his justification is not convincing. Add to this the presence of some contradictions and the blurring of some Biblical categories, and one gets the feeling that Van Dam's system, rather than the text of Scripture, is driving his theology. To use N. T. Wright's analogy, it would seem that the roaring lion of Scripture is here often turned into a tame pet made to stand on its hind legs and dance a jig.

A prime example is the discussion about the typically reformed division between ruling and teaching elders. Van Dam uses his presupposition of continuity with the OT to justify this division. While he claims that NT (ruling) elders are truly parallel with OT elders, Van Dam claims a different parallel for the "minister of the Gospel," who is analogous to the Levitical office of the priest as an administrator of the Word and official spokesmen for God. Yet, according to Van Dam, he is "in essence a specialized elder" (117). So, besides the obvious question of what Van Dam does with the concepts of the priesthood of all believers and Christ being our only mediator with God, one wonders: if the "minister of the Gospel" is indeed a specialized elder, why is he paralleled to the OT priests and not to the OT elders? It seems that his theological system forces this two-step. A similar suspicion arises when ruling and teaching are presented as separate gifts to justify separate offices. Yet, only ten pages later, the pastor is declared to need multiple gifts. So, since a pastor should have multiple gifts, why does the differentiation of gifting force two separate offices?

The discussion on church discipline, while initially encouraging, is similarly affected by his system and also harmed by inconsistencies. While the initial phases of church discipline are enacted by the congregation, in Van Dam's view, the elders are the only ones who can move forward with the final step of church discipline and with re-admittance to the body due to true repentance. They are the gatekeepers who can shut the doors of the kingdom and separate the excommunicated one from "blessings such as forgiveness of sins" (174). In light of these strong statements, one is confused to learn that the elders cannot condemn the excommunicated one to hell. What then does it mean to exclude one from "blessings such as forgiveness of sins," and to shut the doors of the kingdom? The need for church discipline is also unclear: at times, the focus, driven by the OT parallel, is on the purity of the body, and at times, the focus is on the repentance of the sinner.

In addition to major jigs, there are also several other smaller reels that continue to weaken this volume. Van Dam is not consistent with his understanding of the interrelation between office and authority. At times, Van Dam associates the authority of the elder with God or with the Word, but not with the office as such. At other times, he associates authority with the office itself. The distinction between spiritual gifts and church offices seems to be acknowledged when useful, but ignored when not. Passages teaching about apostles are applied to elders without justification, just to mention a one example.

On a positive note, Van Dam reveals his pastor's heart when he exhorts elders to know the Bible and to know their flock. For him, the role of an elder "is not about getting something," but about giving (201). These biblical exhortations are much appreciated in an age of pastor-as-CEO. Also much appreciated is his stance that women should participate in the church, but that they do not need to be an elder in order to use their gifts in the body.

While this volume had a few good points, it was overall very disappointing. I would still strongly recommend to all who wish to understand Presbyterian and Reformed theology with respect to the office of the elder. In a time when many Baptists are often more enamored with following systems of theology than the Bible itself, I hope that an attentive reading of this volume will douse their torrid love affair for manmade systems and bring them back to the careful study of the lion of Scripture.

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