Category Archives: Church History

A Must-Read Paper on the Lord’s Supper

by Matt Pinson

Cory Thompson, pastor of First Free Will Baptist Church of Poteau Oklahoma, presented a well-researched paper on the meaning and participants of the Lord’s Supper entitled, “The Lord’s Supper as Meaningful and Open.” The main use of this paper for Free Will Baptists is his discussion of open communion, a historic, distinctive confessional commitment of Free Will Baptists.

Thompson explains that this has been the main division on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper between Free Will Baptists and Baptists from Calvinistic historical backgrounds (this would include those once-saved, always-saved Baptists who do not subscribe to all five points of Calvinism, but who nonetheless emerge from a denominational background of confessional Calvinism).

Most Baptists have historically held to closed communion, not opening the Lord’s Table to those who have not been properly baptized. Free Will Baptists of the Palmer movement in the South, Freewill Baptists of the Randall movement in the North, and the American General Baptist movement, on the contrary, have practiced open communion, opening the Lord’s Table even to those orthodox believers who have received effusion or aspersion as either infants or adults. This doctrinal development in America is interesting, given that there was no consensus on this question among Baptists in seventeenth-century England, with both General (Arminian) Baptists and Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists having both open and closed communionists in their fellowships.   

Thompson discusses the drift of non-Arminian Baptists toward an open communion stance but explains that this is borne more of theological drift than of doctrinal study and conviction. There is, however, a revival of interest among Baptists in closed communion, owing to that movement’s retrieving their confessional tradition of faith and practice. The drift, however, has not been confined to non-Arminian Baptists or those from closed-communion backgrounds. We have experienced it as well. Thompson states:

The transition of many traditionally closed communion Baptists is likely not due to the exegetical and theological validity of the open communion view, but to the rise of consumerism, pragmatism, tolerance, and liberal drift in the church.  And if the closed communion churches are drifting to open communion, where are traditional open communion churches drifting?  It is not unusual to attend a Communion service where the importance and sacredness of the event is undermined by no discussion of the gospel the elements represent, no call for self-examination, or it is conducted in hurried or cavalier manner. Unfortunately, this scenario is commonly reflected in churches holding the open communion position. The historical significance and theological meaning of open communion is in danger of being lost. The term was once equated with a hospitable orthodoxy, accepting all gospel-centered believers to the Lord’s Table.  Now it is associated with watered-down and liberal theology. With this in mind, it is necessary to articulate a biblical, theological, and meaningful view of open communion in order to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Table (42).[1]

Thompson presents an engaging, scholarly doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, the best Free Will Baptist presentation, in my opinion, in the past century. He begins with an exegetical treatment of his topic. From the New Testament passages on the Supper, Thompson defends a traditional Baptist understanding that eschews real-presence or sacramental understandings of the practice, but is not a bare memorialism. Thus, the Lord’s Supper richly and beautifully remembers, symbolizes, and reenacts Christ’s substitutionary atonement and its salvific benefits, but it is also a corporate communion of the faithful that proclaims the gospel, “ensures the regular rhythm of repentance and faith,” and focuses on the church’s eschatological hope. Thompson rightly chides recent authors for underemphasizing the communal aspects of the Lord’s Supper. He includes my own writing in this admonition, and he is right: we have been guilty of not emphasizing enough the public, communal aspects of the Eucharist.

One of the most significant features of his exegetical section is his treatment of the “examine yourself” language in 1 Corinthians 11, especially in the context of open communion. “It is wrongly assumed by some open communion advocates,” he argues, “that the call for self-examination is only an individual concern or a person is their sole judge, therefore, no administrator or congregation reserves the right to forbid” (51). But he argues that this is a misinterpretation of the passage. This gets to the heart of the most important part of Thompson’s paper, where he probes the Free Will Baptist open communion view and attempts to reinvest it with its original intent.

Thompson rightly argues that open communion has devolved in much recent practice into an individualistic doctrine that basically says that it is between the individual and God whether or not the individual has a right to participation in the Lord’s Supper, unless he is under church discipline. Even converts who have never been “baptized”[2] under any mode may be permitted to the Table in this view: This is between God and the individual believer, and individual belief and conversion is the only prerequisite for participation.

Thompson argues that this is a move away from the historic view. Rather, the original intent of open communion was to allow orthodox Christians who differed on the doctrine of baptism to commune at the Lord’s Table. The idea was that one’s error on the meaning and mode of baptism should not keep him from being able to commune as a true believer at the Lord’s Table. Thus the import or the slogan “Baptism no bar to the Table” is not saying that it does not matter whether one is baptized or not, but that if one has been “baptized” in a church that does not practice believer’s baptism by immersion, he or she can still be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

Thompson cites John J. Butler, the foremost theologian of the Randall Movement of Free Baptists in the North. Butler argued that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be limited to those “who are in regular standing in any evangelical church” (58). He averred that “it is the duty of all persons, on obtaining a hope in Christ to become connected with some visible church; if they refuse or neglect to do so, they live in disobedience, and one living in known disobedience cannot be recognized as a Christian” (58). Membership in a local congregation “affords prima facie evidence of Christian character and entitles one holding it to the communion in any evangelical church.” Butler says, “The practice of some in allowing professed converts before uniting with the church . . . is to be condemned.”[3] To be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, one’s membership should be in a congregation that holds “both theoretically and practically the doctrines essential to salvation.”[4]

Thompson also cites the 1834 Randall Treatise, which states: “It is the usual practice of our connection, at the time of communion, to invite all Christians of good standing in any evangelical church, to partake with us; as, in general such persons only are known as true believers.”[5]

(Thompson was researching open communion in the Palmer movement but was unable to include it in the paper in time for his presentation. In subsequent correspondence, I shared with him that the Palmer movement was in agreement with his position. One instance of this that I shared with him was the section on “What Free Will Baptists Believe—and Why” in Thad Harrison and J. M. Barfield’s History of the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina.[6]) As Thompson summarizes, “When the congregation approaches the Lord’s Table the administrator should warn unbelievers not to partake, lead the congregation to self-examination, and invite all Christians who are members in good standing of a gospel-centered church.”

Thompson has presented the Free Will Baptist Church with an outstanding introduction to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper from a confessional Free Will Baptist vantage point. His primary contribution to the Free Will Baptist conversation is his insistence that, even as we advocate open communion, we need to restore the meaning and significance of this beautiful practice in the worship of the church. Furthermore, we need to question whether individualism has moved us toward a “me and Jesus, we got our own thing going” approach to open communion and move back to the doctrine’s original intent as inviting all Christians in good standing, regardless of their denominational affiliation and thus their doctrine of the meaning and mode of baptism, to the Table of Our Lord. (I think we need to try to persuade Mr. Thompson to writing a doctoral dissertation on this topic.)

Thompson is part of a widespread movement of younger Free Will Baptists who want to engage in “renewal through retrieval” in an attempt to renew and reform the Free Will Baptist Church by retrieving the best of our Sufficiency-of-Scripture-saturated tradition. Every Free Will Baptist minister interested in this vital project should read this paper.  


[1] Page numbers follow the listing in the Symposium Digest.

[2] The reason I place “baptized” in quotation marks is because Baptists believe the Bible teaches that only believer’s baptism by immersion constitutes authentic baptism.

[3] John J.  Butler, “An Examination of the Terms of Admission to the Lord’s Supper,” in The Free Communionist or Unrestricted  Communion of The Lord’s Supper With All True Believers Advocated; And Objections of Restricted Communionsts Considered: In Four Essays (Dover:  Free Will Baptist Connection, 1841), 41-44. Italics added by Thompson. 

[4] Butler, Natural and Revealed Theology, 428. 

[5] 1834 Randall Treatise, 110.

[6] (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 1898), 155-78.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Matthew Pinson

When it comes to the big questions, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is nothing new under the sun. I am often reminded of this when I attend debates between Christians and skeptics of various varieties. For example, several years ago I heard Craig Evans debate Bart Ehrman, the famous evangelical-turned-skeptic who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After hearing Ehrman’s arguments (and later reading them in some of his books and articles), I was really surprised that that was all he had.

Most of his criticisms of the Bible would do more to bring doubts to a child in a Sunday school room than a person who had taken a freshman course in biblical interpretation at a Christian college. I was struck particularly by how many of his concerns were reiterations of things that the church fathers themselves were dealing with 1,700+ years ago. Here I was braced for some new, groundbreaking scientific argument or an argument made possible because of computer technology or some new archaeological discovery. But what I heard was just more rehashing of much of what skeptics of Christianity have been saying for hundreds, yea thousands, of years.

This memory came back to my mind recently when I was reading Carl F. H. Henry’s wonderful little book from the 1940s, Giving a Reason for Our Hope (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1949). It’s a wonderful little volume on apologetics that is still relevant for today. In answering the question, “The Modern naturalistic version is that God is simply an imagination of ours, so how can we answer that?” Henry replies:

“The arguments which the modern naturalists use against belief in God are not new; strictly speaking, nothing essential has been added to the argument as it existed many centuries ago, in ancient Greek times. The arguments were all in existence when Christianity came into the world. It is not because a man is modern, but because he is a naturalist, that he says God is a figment of the imagination” (16).

This is so true. In the major intellectual questions about Christianity, there is nothing new under the sun. Reading this also brought to my mind not just our contemporary intellectual context, but also our contemporary cultural context. Many evangelical Protestants have developed a “fear of man” and are too intimidated by the rapid cultural changes in our technological, secularizing society.

It seems that we think what we are facing is unique to our time, and thus we have to use methods in our church growth practices that have never before been tried in the history of Christianity. (And it’s not that the apostles and saints and martyrs throughout history couldn’t have tried them, that they didn’t have the resources to try them. It’s just that they chose not to.)

I don’t want to downplay the acute difficulties and unique qualities of modernity and postmodernity. But I think that we need more to see ourselves in a missionary situation to a pagan culture, like the church fathers and missionaries of the Christian tradition, rather than seeing ourselves as being comfortable in a Christian culture and still thinking we can spread the gospel like we used to in that culture. Yet, in the big questions, there is nothing new under the sun. We are not experiencing anything that the early church did not experience, or that various traditional missionaries to pagan cultures did not experience.

I think it’s helpful for us to look at the church fathers, especially prior to the mammoth changes in the fourth century when the church began accommodating pagan culture more and speaking a prophetic word to it less. When we look at the early church, we see it engaging a pagan culture that is similar in profound ways to our own, and we find that they had almost all the resources at their disposal that we currently have. Yet they based their ministry of the gospel on the all-sufficient word, not the methods and gimmicks the secular culture used to draw a crowd.

Every age and society has its unique qualities. Yet because humanity is made in God’s image and is fallen and finite, we find that there is nothing new under the sun. The Holy Scripture that God breathed out more than twenty centuries ago gives us—just as it gave the saints and martyrs who went before us—everything necessary for life and godliness, for building Christ’s church, for extending the kingdom, and for defending the rationality of the Christian gospel in a complex marketplace of ideas.

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve: Part 2

by Matthew Pinson

I am—we all are—under a great temptation to discard the Great Tradition of the Christian Church, and our own heritage of Free Will Baptist faith and practice, replacing it with the latest flavor of the month from the non-denominational movement, again, hoping that something will work, something will stick. We are desperate.

But Scripture and the saints and martyrs of our Christian past call us to go back and retrieve scriptural faith and practice that has been eclipsed—to be reformers, not revolutionaries, to put into practice Burke’s maxim that “we must reform in order to conserve.” Only in this way can we know that we have something that will last, that will work, not just in the short run, but in the long run. Only in this way can we have a deposit of truth and life that we can pass down unscathed to our children and their children and their children’s children.

We must resist the temptation to lose our nerve, to be intimidated by a challenging culture, and throw arbitrary extra-biblical attempted solutions at the predicament in which we find ourselves—when we have no idea whether these solutions will work or what their unintended consequences will be. Instead, we must rely on those “permanent things” that we know will conserve the church and its faith and practice and allow us to pass on what we have received to future generations.

So, finally, let me pass on to the readers of this blog the quotation from Scruton’s Conservatism that brought these thoughts fresh to my mind. In the context of his discussion of Edmund Burke’s defense of the “reform” of the American Revolution and his distaste for the “revolution” of the French Revolution, Scruton says:

“Burke rejected the liberal idea of the social contract, as a deal agreed among living people. Society, he argued, does not contain the living only; it is an association between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Its binding principle is not contract but something more akin to trusteeship. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our own place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving, and to recognize that the good things we inherit are not ours to spoil but ours to safeguard for our dependents. There is a line of obligation that connects us to those who gave us what we have; and our concern for the future is an extension of that line. We take the future of our community into account not by fictitious cost-benefit calculations, but more concretely, by seeing ourselves as inheriting benefits and passing them on. Concern for future generations is a non-specific outgrowth of gratitude. It does not calculate, because it shouldn’t and can’t.”{1}

Our temptation as low-church evangelicals, in our intimidation by the cultural change all around us, is to agree with principles like these in the political and social and moral realms, but not to carry this same conservative—conservationist—impulse into our religious and church lives. I think we have a lot to learn from thinkers like Edmund Burke and his modern interpreters like Scruton. At least it gives us food for thought.

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[1] Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition (New York: All Points, 2018), 45.

We Must Reform in Order to Conserve

by Matthew Pinson

I have been reading—and thoroughly enjoying—the new book Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Roger Scruton. Scruton is the best-known conservative intellectual in Great Britain. A philosopher by training, he has written more than forty books on issues as diverse as politics and the environment and art and music. He gave an excellent presentation of the latter two subjects in his BBC documentary, Beauty.

Conservatism is largely about the principles of cultural and political conservatism that emerged from seminal thinkers like Edmund Burke. But theological conservatives can learn a lot from it. In reading Scruton’s section on Burke, I came across a great passage that summarizes a key principle of conservatism and Christianity that I strive to pass on to my students in my courses at Welch, and it’s about continuity with the consensus of scripturally based tradition that has been bequeathed to us.

Edmund Burke is famous for his quip that “we must reform in order to conserve.” He believed that, in political and cultural life, revolution is dangerous, because it rips people from the organic inheritance that they received from their fathers and mothers. That was the problem he saw in the French Revolution, which he despised, but not in the American Revolution, which he defended.

So, Scruton explains, Burke saw the American founders as going back to the ancient rights and liberties of free Englishmen. “The U.S. Constitution was designed to guarantee to the people what they had once enjoyed,” he says. “It was the residue of an already established practice rather than a recipe for a new order of things.” This is like the Protestant Reformers, who I explain to my students were not revolutionaries but were recovering an ancient tradition that had been eclipsed by the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

I explain to my students that sometimes we conservative Protestants are tempted to be intimidated by our difficult cultural circumstances, in which Christianity is being treated with hostility by the cultural elites and by many in the neighborhoods where our own churches minister. I am tempted—we all are tempted—to be revolutionaries, to try arbitrarily first one thing and then another that has never been tried before, hoping that maybe something will stick, something will do the trick. We hope we’ll stumble onto that cultural silver bullet that will open the floodgates for people, finally, to overcome their cultural objections to the faith and pour into the church.

The Reformers and the great missions pioneers and our early evangelical and Baptist and Free Will Baptist forebears did not choose the way of revolution. Instead, they chose reform. They knew the church needed renewal, freshness. But they sought what Timothy George and others call “renewal through retrieval,” reforming the church by recovering precious truths of faith and of practice that have been lost or at least eclipsed in the recent past.

This gets back to G. K. Chesterton’s idea of “the democracy of the dead,” to C. S. Lewis’s counsel not to be guilty of “chronological snobbery,” but instead to “let the clean sea breeze of the centuries blow through our minds.” It means that we are a part of something much, much greater than ourselves and our current, passing moment. We are continuing and conserving the faith and practice of that “great cloud of witnesses” that has gone before us, so that we will have something worth passing down to those who come after us.

This is what the Christian tradition has called the “communion of saints.” It’s something that transcends the present age which is passing away with its lusts. It spans centuries and generations and classes educational levels and races. It’s a communion we risk getting out of touch with if we have a revolution and discard the Christian tradition of faith (what we believe) and practice (what we do).

 

Was Arminius a Molinist? Richard Watson’s Answer

Matthew Pinson

The other day I came across a wonderful quote that I had forgotten about from Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes. I thought the readers of this blog would enjoy it. It concerns Molinism, or middle knowledge, the theory of divine foreknowledge articulated by the sixteenth-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina.

As I’ve said elsewhere [1], Arminius’s views on divine foreknowledge militate against a Molinist account of predestination, as presented, for example by recent scholars such as William Lane Craig and Kenneth Keathley. While Arminius showed awareness of Luis de Molina’s concept of middle knowledge, he did not utilize it in his doctrine of predestination. Arminius nowhere intimates that, in eternity past, God, knowing what everyone would do given certain circumstances, selected the possible world, from among all possible worlds, in which exactly what he desires to occur will occur, while at the same time human beings retain freedom. Instead, Arminius argued that God knew the future infallibly and certainly. Thus, he knew what everyone was freely going to do in the actual (not possible) world. This includes their union with Christ through faith or their rejection of him through impenitence and unbelief.

I agree with Robert Picirilli, Roger Olson, F. Stuart Clarke, William Witt, and more recently Hendrik Frandsen, who I think properly interpret Arminius on this point, while scholars such as Eef Dekker, Richard Muller, Keith Stanglin, and (to a lesser degree) William den Boer read too much Molinism into Arminius. The most that can be said is that Arminius toyed with the concept of middle knowledge but was ambiguous on it and did not actually articulate a Molinist doctrine of predestination.

I had forgotten about the following statement by the eminent British Wesleyan-Methodist theologian Richard Watson that agrees with these sentiments, and I thought I’d share it here:

“There is another theory which was formerly much debated, under the name of Scientia Media; but to which, in the present day, reference is seldom made. . . . This distinction, which was taken from the Jesuits, who drew it from the Schoolmen, was at least favoured by some of the Remonstrant divines, as the extract from Episcopius [quoted earlier in Latin] shows: and they seem to have been led to it by the circumstance, that almost all the high Calvinist theologians of that day entirely denied the possibility of contingent future actions being foreknown, in order to support on this ground their doctrine of absolute predestination. In this, however, those Remonstrants, who adopted that notion, did not follow their great leader Arminius, who felt no need of this subterfuge, but stood on the plain declarations of Scripture, unembarrassed with metaphysical distinctions” (Theological Institutes, 1:418, emphasis added).

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[1] This and the paragraph after it are adapted from my book Arminian and Baptist.