Monday, November 30, 2015

The historical situatedness of Roman baptism

Are Roman Catholic baptisms valid? This question has been debated from the time of the Reformers till the modern day. Assuming that the Roman Catholic Church is a false church, and the pope an antichrist who denies the Gospel, can we accept the Roman Catholic sacrament of baptism, which is not only corrupt because of Rome being a false church, but it is also corrupt because it is a magical ceremony working "grace" ex opere operato in the one being baptized?

Historically, those who fully reject Roman Catholic baptisms and all forms of pedobaptisms in the 16th century were the Anabaptists. Within Presbyterian and Reformed circles, the general consensus then was to accept Roman baptisms. In the 19th century however, a group led by Southern Presbyterian J.H. Thornwell took the position that Roman baptisms are invalid and should not be accepted. Opposing him was the giant Charles Hodge but to little avail as the General Assembly at that time ruled in Thornwell's favor. Of course, with the rot of Liberalism in the late 19th/ early 20th century, this ruling has been all but erased in the practice of the PCUSA. The key thing to note is that American Presbyterianism has at one time decided that Roman baptisms are invalid.

Much discussion about the validity or invalidity or Roman baptisms center over the criteria for valid baptisms, of which the major ones are (1) being done in the Triune name, (2) being done by a legitimately ordained minister, and (3) being done with water. Historical issues that have to be taken into account by those who claim to be part of the universal church are the Donatist controversy and the Reformers' rejection of the Anabaptist rejection of Roman baptisms. The Donatists linked the validity of one's baptisms to the holiness of the minister, thus if the pastor apostatized, all baptisms did under him became invalid. More pertinent to our issue, the Anabaptists called the Roman church a false church, and also rejected the doctrine of pedobaptism, and thus they reject Roman baptisms altogether. With such an eerie similarity, doesn't it seem that to reject Roman baptism is to follow in the footsteps of the Anabaptists, and thus be at variance with the Reformed tradition?

After giving much thought to the issue throughout the years, I think what is missing in this entire discussion on Roman baptism is to frame the discussion in its historical context. The unspoken assumption we make in our reasoning is to think that the process of us questioning the validity of Roman baptism today is the same process the Reformers took in questioning the validity of Roman baptism. That however is not the case, for such an assumption neglects the historical contexts of our time, and the Reformers' era.

The Reformers' context

The first assumption we have to discard is to think of the Medieval Catholic Church as being the Roman Catholic Church. That is not the case. Secondly, we have to understand that the Reformers saw the Medieval Catholic Church as corrupt yet still a church. To them it was the only church they knew, and none of them had the initial intent to set up an alternate church. Even after Trent, the Roman Church was seen as corrupt and unreformed, not another religion altogether.

Perhaps an analogy would help us see what the Reformers saw. Imagine you were brought up in a Christian family (if you weren't) and grew up in the same church with your parents and grandparents, and all your Christian friends. But when you grew up, one day the elders decided that salvation is by faith plus one's faithfulness (works) as a loyal church member (Federal Vision). Only you and a few others protested that this was contrary to Scripture, while most of your family members and friends are not so much against you as much as they couldn't see the difference between the true Gospel, and the new (Federal Vision) "gospel." Believing that this error struck at the heart of the Gospel, you and a few others separated to form a new church body. Now the question then arises: Is your former church a true church? Not if it continues to hold to the Federal Vision heresy. But assuming you had some theological training and over time was called to be the pastor of that new non-FV church, would you accept the baptisms done at your former church? Presumably, you would. Would you accept any baptisms done after the FV church officially revised their Confession of Faith to be in line with the Joint Federal Vision Profession? That sounds like a thorny proposition to consider, I would guess.

What this analogy hopes to show, absent any knee-jerk reactions to Roman Catholicism, is to illustrate how the Reformers would have felt towards the Medieval Catholic Church as it slowly jettissoned the Gospel. The Reformers were looking at their former church apostatized, which is not our experience towards Roman Catholicism at all. History and real-life is messy, and the analogy is meant to show the messiness of apostasy and how ecclesiastically dealing with such a separation is not an easy thing to do. This analogy is also meant to show us how it is natural for the Reformers to accept the Medieval Catholic baptisms of their time, for these baptisms were done by the Church, which was the only legitimate Church prior to the Reformers. In fact, it would be shocking if the Reformers did not accept the baptisms of the Medieval Catholic Church, for it would signal that the Medieval Catholic Church was not just corrupt, but fully a false religious institution akin to paganism.

Our modern context

Over time, the Reformed churches and Rome have diverged more and more. While certainly they are and always will be those in the Reformed tradition who want to go back to the 16th and 17th centuries, hopefully they will not be the future of the Reformed churches. Regardless, Rome has moved even further away from her Medieval Catholic roots into full-blown apostasy. Name any modern heresy, and chances are some Roman theologian or movement has toyed around with it sometime or another.

The list of heresies Rome has embraced or toyed with go way beyond the pale of anything resembling Christianity. With her inclusivism and elevation of Mary to unofficial semi-divine status, Rome should be seen as being another religion altogether.

As opposed to the Reformers, none of us, even converts from Rome, have seen Rome as a church that was once orthodox in their lifetime, or even their grandparents' lifetimes. Most modern Roman Catholics are not even devoted to the church with fides implicita as most Medievalists are. Many have no qualms trying out other religions and their practices, something that would horrify Medieval Catholics.


Judging by Rome's heresies, it should be a no-brainer why we should reject the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms today. We are after all dealing with another religion altogether, not a church that was once sound (unless one goes back 400+ years). And although there is surface similarity with the Anabaptists, the Anabaptists' reason for rejecting Medieval Catholic baptism, taking into account the historical context, was for the complete revolution of the Christian faith. Our reason for rejecting modern Roman Catholic baptisms however is not about revolutionizing the Christian faith, but about rejecting the magical ceremonies of a false religion.

Historically, therefore, we can agree with the Reformers on the validity of Medieval Catholic baptisms in their time, while rejecting the validity of Roman baptisms in the modern era. The Reformed churches have generally accepted Roman baptisms, but they should in my opinion rethink the issue afresh instead of defaulting to the historical position. That position was valid then, but it shouldn't be valid now. After all, I am writing this in the 21st century, almost five centuries from the start of the Reformation.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Michael Horton and Impassibility

The Stoic doctrine of apathes/apatheia is flatly denied by the Christian tradition wherever the latter asserts God's free involvement in the world. Moltmann is right when he says that we cannot read the passion narratives and conclude that God is aloof and unaffected by us. While some ancient and medieval Christian writers evidences a wariness towards attributing emotion to God, at least in etymological terms God's impassibility referred not to an inability to relate or to feel, but an inability to suffer. ...

If we say that God is not intrinsically affected by the world, what are we to make of the intimacy of that personal relationship that God is represented as having with his creatures? Yet if we say that God is intrinsically affected by the world, how can we continue to say that God is perfect and independent of created reality? The answer proposed here is to recognize that although God exists independently of creation, he freely chooses to enter into a genuine relationship with the world. In this freedom for creaturely reality, God is genuinely affected, although in any given case this is to be understood in an analogical rather than a univocal sense. ... [Michael S. Horton, Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2005), 42-3]

Impassibility, or the doctrine of a God without passions, is highly controversial in the modern world. From the liberal (small 'l') side, Jurgen Moltmann is the most well known for promoting the suffering of God in his book The Crucified God. Open Theism has been a Trojan horse for bringing this nonsense into the so-called Evangelical camp, while the Reformed Baptists have been having some problems with the issue too it seems.

Of course, part of the confusion over impassibility lies with its definition. What do we mean when we say that God is impassible, that He has "no passions"? Does it mean that God has totally no emotions like a robot or a rock? Most assuredly not, so what exactly does impassibility mean?

Impassibility is a corollary to immutability. Immutability is the doctrine that God doesn't change. Impassibility therefore is the doctrine that God doesn't change in His emotions. In other words, God's emotions are self-determined and steadfast. It is we who change relative to God, not God Himself.

It is here that I would like to demur from Dr. Horton's portrayal of impassibility. According to this (earlier) book, impassibility is to be seen more along the lines of the non-suffering of God. God is dynamically involved with the world, though it is because God freely chose to interact with the world, and such dynamism is to be understood analogically. This however to me is the wrong way to go about understanding impassibility, which seems to me to be better understood as God's steadfastness in regards to His emotions, i.e. immutable with regards to His emotions.

Perhaps in an effort to simplify the issue, the question to be asked is this: Can a creature cause God to feel a certain way? Or to use stronger and more intensive language, can the creature emotionally manipulate God's emotions? If one were to (correctly) deny that the creature can ever cause a change in God's emotions, then what kind of dynamic quality and genuine affecting can we claim for the creature with the true God? But if all emotions in God are self-caused and independent of the creature, can we have a true dynamism in this relationship? Now of course God does relate to His creatures especially Man, but since God is Lord, it seems that the "dynamic" interaction must be due to us not to God. In other words, God's emotions are constant and steadfast, but it is we who change, thus resulting in the illusion of God's "changing" emotions towards us.

When we read that God repents, we are to read it as an anthropopathism signaling not that God actually repents in the essence of His being, but that God seems to be repenting because of the changes in people and the environment. To unrepentant sinners, God is constantly in a emotional state of wrath. To the elect who has repented and turned to Christ for salvation, God is constantly loving us in Christ. To the believer who continues in a state of sin, God is grieved over this sin and disciplines His children for our good. In all this, it is not God who changes, but Man. God is constant and thus unchanging (immutable). He always has wrath for the unrepentant sinner, always has love for the elect who repents and have faith, and always grieves over the sin of a believer in sin.

This understanding of impassibility as self-determinance and steadfastness seems to be a better portrayal of the God who is steadfast (אֱמֶת - emet) with loving kindness (חֶסֶד - hesed) towards His people (e.g. Ps. 25:10). It is not the Greek Stoic ideal of apatheia, but it does contain the idea of unchangeableness like it. This, as opposed to Horton's (at least) earlier portrayal of impassibility, seem to be much more biblical.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

On the Kong Hee saga

The Kong Hee trial, where Hee and 5 others were charged with criminal breach of trust and financial mismanagement, has came up with a guilty verdict for all of the 6 accused, with sentencing due later. Many professing Christians especially City Harvest Church (CHC) members defend Kong Hee and see the entire affair as persecution, while those especially who have been critical of Hee have generally piled on the criticism.

This entire affair to the outside world leaves a black mark on Christianity (since City Harvest is seen as a Christian church and Kong Hee as a Christian pastor). While I have been critical of Kong Hee (and still am), the fact that to the outside world Christianity gets tarred is sad. I would very much prefer not to comment on this fiasco if I do not have to. Objectively, it cannot be denied that City Harvest accounts were not done properly, so that the prosecution has a legitimate case against City Harvest on this technical matter. At the same time, while I disagree with the Crossover Project, what City Harvest wants to do with its own money is its own business, as long as the members approve. The government does not have a right to tell any private organization how to spend its own money as long as its members agree, just as it is none of the government's business if I decide to spend my personal money on expensive items or not.

As I have said, I would prefer not to comment on this sad saga, until I read this "theological reflection" article, which has as much theology in it as a generic Singapore Evangelical church bulletin. Unfortunately, such shallow drivel is considered "theological reflection" in today's world. Worse still, it promotes false teachings, and thus its errors need to be shown.

The first error is the author's airbrushing of prosperity theology. The idea that one holds to either a prosperity theology or a "poverty theology" is absolute nonsense from the pits of hell, promoted by the prosperity heretics themselves to try to deceive people into believing a prosperity theology. The author has bought this lie as a matter of first principle, and then attempt the Hegelian dialectic to create his third option, seeing "merits on both sides of the equation." Thus, we see the treating of "prosperity" and "poverty" as being two opposing options and then he laid out his third option.

As opposed to such deception, the Scriptures only condemns the love of money without focusing too much on the topic. Unlike us, the Scriptures are not fixated on money; it neither extolls prosperity or poverty. It does not promote lust of money such that one loves prosperity, neither does it see money as ontologically evil and thus to be avoided at all costs. Money in Scripture is to be a mere tool of exchange.

The author here correctly points out the problems with appealing to Jesus or the patriarchs. He correctly appeals to Matthew 6:24 against the prosperity gospel. He also states the problem with associating outward success with blessing. All of these are right and true, yet we see here no denunciation of the false gospel of the prosperity message, but rather the Hegelian process at work. What is the use of offering some correct insights while claiming that there is good in the prosperity gospel? Does it bother him even, or maybe he does not believe it, that the prosperity gospel has brought desolation to millions in this life and, in the next, brought them to hell, alongside heretics such as Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Creflo Dollar and so on? The prosperity nonsense normally comes alongside the Word-faith heresy, since it is through speaking words of power (faith) that one can create one's better life into being. In any address of the prosperity heresy therefore, there should be a knowledge of the Word-faith nonsense behind it. In Kong Hee's case, one should probably also be informed of the new syncretized version called Dominion Theology promoted by the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), but I guess that's asking too much from his article.

The author's second point focuses on saying that the means do not justify the end. This is of course true. At the same time, the Crossover Project is a moral issue, not a legal issue. As I have said, any private organization should have the liberty to spend its money however it pleases if its members agree to do so. The author seem to think that the Crossover Project is in itself a violation of the law of the land, which is false. It is the round-tripping and financial irregularities that are the problems, for this is (still) a (relatively) free country, and there should not be anything wrong with the project per se. Now, I think that the whole project is morally bankrupt (see Sun Ho's "China Wine" video if you want to know why), but legally there shouldn't be any reasons why an organization can't spend its money that way.

The author says that one should not "compromise the gospel in order to share the gospel." That is true, but what is the Gospel? After all, the author has "irenically" told us there is good in the prosperity gospel. The author accepts the rationale of good works done by CHC, and just contend that all the good does not excuse one from breaking the law. While that is true, yet is the problem with CHC just that they broke the law while doing good? Again, what exactly is the Gospel? That we should be good citizens doing good works? We are not told.

All of these criticisms so far are just the problems with what the author has said. But what is even more disturbing is the author's unspoken assumptions concerning CHC. To me, CHC is not a legitimate Christian church. There are professing Christians inside, and maybe some true ones, but it's none of my business to judge their personal salvation. Rather, the focus is on the nature of CHC as a Christian church, and it is not one. CHC has promoted heresy and it has promoted false teachers like Benny Hinn (e.g 13-15 Apr 2007). As an independent church, it has no accountability and it shows. With regards to the ordering of the church, who exactly ordained Kong Hee and was he legitimately ordained? But back to the issue of the Gospel, what exactly is the "Gospel" in CHC? If its sermons and conferences are anything to go by, it is a syncretized Word-faith NAR perversion of the Gospel, and THAT is the elephant in the room which the author does not touch, and which makes CHC a false church.

The main problem with CHC is not some cosmetic issues with their financial mis-accounting. Neither is it with their promotion of prosperity per se. But the problem goes deeper to the essence of Christianity, the Gospel. CHC has lost the Gospel, and that should be the main issue of criticism. It has lost the Gospel, and therefore it has adopted the Word Faith and NAR nonsense. It has lost the Gospel, which is why godliness to them look the same as worldliness. It has lost the Gospel, which is why they don't have a problem with the ends justifying the means. It has lost the Gospel, which is why Sun Ho can behave so scandalously and dress so lewdly on MTV. It has lost the Gospel, which is why her members behave like they worship Kong Hee, because they do.

Kong Hee has sadly remained unrepentant, but his main issue is not with the government, but with God Himself. Until he repents of his heresy, there will be a greater Judge who will be against him, and nothing he does then will avail him any good.