Last week I was invited to be a guest on CrossPolitic and you might say it garnered some attention online. There’s some really important stuff going on in that conversation. So I want to follow up on the point I made on the show. But first a few clarifications.
There was a dust up in the Twitter world. And we must remember that it is Twitter and dust in that mirror often appears larger than what it truly is. Nevertheless, in view of maintaining unity, I refer you to the follow up episode Crosspolitic did in which brotherhood was underscored by Pastor Toby and the Chocolate Knox. Their sentiments are my own.
A second hearty clarification is that while American Baptist theology was addressed in the episode, there is a great difference between that American Baptist theology and Reformed Baptist Theology. I tweeted this clarification, but I should have been Johnny on the Spot with that point on the show. I figured the 1689 Confessional Brethren were in the clear, since American Baptists were named and the United States of America was yet to be born in the year of our Lord 1689.
While we are on this point, I was a Baptist my whole life until like 10 minutes ago. I’m accounting for that and so should you. For a good portion of my life, I was even of the American Baptist variety. Every now and then in the pulpit, I still get a hankering to close with an altar call. I regularly break out in that old Gaither hymn, “Because He Lives I Can Face Tomorrow.” And let’s face it, this is America, which means nearly all of us have an American Baptist grandmother. She is more faithful than any of us. And any Reformed brother worth his salt would be more than happy to join her at Parkside Avenue Baptist Church on Sunday, where he would hear the gospel of Jesus straight up the middle.
I use the words “we” and “us” all of the time when addressing the state of the church, as I did on the Crosspolitic episode. I’m not attempting to blur the differences between Credo and Paedo with that plural. But I use the plural often because there is after all, one body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. And more particularly to this post, American Evangelicalism is still a thing. And “we” American Evangelicals need to pay attention to the influence of expressive individualism.
We should be able to be critiqued on the matter. Trueman said this in his work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
“When it comes to how we think of ourselves, we are all expressive individualists now, and there is no way we can escape from this fact. It is the essence of the world in which we have to live and of which we are a part. Acknowledging this reality is an important foundation for addressing those symptoms of this present age that we find to be more egregious. For example, it should immediately curtail any simplistic Pharisaic response that sees ourselves as somehow standing apart from the broader cultural context that has given us the LGBTQ + movement. Their general culture of expressive individualism and of choice of identity is ours too. We cannot escape that fact, and numerous authors—Michael Horton, Christian Smith, and David Wells, to name but three—have chronicled the impact this has had on the church.”
In the New Testament, there were good and godly Pharisees. They were the ones who knew that the evisceration of their party by Jesus was entirely fair. There are evangelical Paedobaptists, who acknowledge the justice of the critique of nominalism brought about by baptismal presumption. In the same way, there are good and godly Baptists who are covenantal and are not radical individualists. They are the ones who acknowledge that large swaths of the baptistic world are rife with the fungus of individualism. I fully understand how a good and godly Baptist would differ with what Jason Farley said in the Crosspolitic episode. But to be outraged and offended serves only to reinforce the point he was seeking to make.
On Crosspolitic, I referred to the following quote from Trueman regarding how modern man has turned institutions into platforms upon which we express ourselves. I included the church among those institutions, as Trueman does:
“Outward institutions become in effect the servants of the individual and her sense of inner well-being. In fact, I might press this point further: institutions cease to be places for the formation of individuals via their schooling in the various practices and disciplines that allow them to take their place in society. Instead, they become platforms for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves precisely because they are able to give expression to who they are ‘inside.’ . . . For such selves in such a world, institutions such as schools and churches are places where one goes to perform, not to be formed.”
I made the point on the show that we have reduced baptism to a personal expression of faith. While the historic Reformed Confessions (both the Westminster Confession and the 1689 Baptist) have not done this, they both call baptism a sign tothe party baptized not a sign from the party baptized, by and large American Evangelicals think the nature of baptism is merely a personal expression of faith. My point is not that faith has nothing to do with baptism. The Westminster and 1689 Confessions differ on the parties to be baptized and faith is obviously in the mix of that disagreement. But both confessions speak of the nature of baptism as a sign to the baptized.
The correlation between expressive individualism and the American evangelical notion of baptism as a personal expression is not hard to see. And we see this correlation in other places as well. It appears in our manifold church hopping, our therapeutic worship, our decisional regeneration, our Finney-like revivalism, and our semi-pelagianism (a theological error that the American Baptist theologian Roger Olson has said marks most American Christians, including most Baptists).
I imagine it will be easy for many evangelicals to downplay the connection between expressive individualism and this faulty notion of baptism. But we really shouldn’t rush by it. Consider the 1689 Baptist confession. It states:
“Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him . . . “
And the Westminster Confession runs along similar lines. It states:
“Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ . . .”
In both cases, baptism is a sign from God to the party baptized. And this truth is lost in the American evangelical (and yes, American Baptist) concept of baptism as a personal expression of faith. In the older confessional arrangements, when you observe a baptism, God is saying something to the baptized. In the modern evangelical arrangement, when you observe a baptism, your simply listening to what the baptized is saying to you.
The point is not that we should cease being individuals. Neither is it that every time one uses the word “I,” he is guilty of expressive individualism. We rejoice in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in God the Father . . .” The point is that there is a connection between expressive individualism and the reworking of the definition of baptism by modern evangelicals. And that is because, as Trueman said, we are all expressive individualists now. And if such individualism has worked its way into the common conception of a sacrament of the church, then Katie bar the door, Houston we have a problem.
It is a well-known fact that much of our Christian worship and practice is losing the vertical and the transcendent. Trueman explains that this is the real problem with expressive individualism.
“The problem with expressive individualism is not its emphasis on the dignity or the individual value of every human being . . . Rather, it is the fact that expressive individualism has detached these concepts of individual dignity and value from any kind of grounding in a sacred order.”
So the influence of expressive individualism not only signals that we are being cut off from community (the I trumping the We). It also indicates that we are being cut off from the heavens (what I say on earth trumps what God says from heaven). This loss of the holiness of God, our sense that God is entirely and righteously other, is at the root of the woke infiltration in American evangelicalism. Woke wants justice that is not grounded in the sacred order. And many evangelicals got swept up in the faux community of intersectional victim identity groups because they were lonely expressive individualists looking for a visible community and corporate identity.
The need of the day is a recovery of the covenant. The covenant comes from God. In this sense it is transcendent, contra expressive individualism. And the covenant binds the saints together, also contra expressive individualism. If I had time it would be interesting to explore the way covenant ties us to history, contra “anticulture” (another theme in Truman’s work Rise and Triumph). Perhaps that on another day.
Let me leave off with this. The Credo / Paedo divide is one that has been around for a long time. You can read older literature and find some spicey takes that run something along the lines of, “You’re following the Papists!” “No, you’re still a Papist!” In truth, in the American landscape presently, there has been a significant amount of covenant theology done by Baptists for which I am very grateful. And the rise of paganism and cultural decay all around us shows both the need for a recovery of covenant theology and unity particularly among Covenantal and Reformed Christians be they Credo or Paedo.
So peace be upon Israel. Keep yourselves from idols. And if you’re knickers are in too much of a twist, then you may have some of that expressive individualism twisted up in your knickers.