Not too long ago, in an effort to get a better grasp of the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, I was reading the chapters on the sacraments in Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, and I ran across this statement: “The difference between the Lutheran Church and the Reformed in the doctrine of Baptism is fully and adequately defined by saying that the former believes God’s Word regarding Baptism, the latter not” (vol. 3, p. 269).
Let that one sink in for just a moment. Here we have one of the most respected Lutheran systematic theologians of the last century saying that the difference between his church and the Reformed over baptism can be summed up as follows: “Lutherans believe the Bible, and the Reformed don’t.” It’s just that simple, right?
When I first read this, I was a bit taken aback. How could a theologian as brilliant as Pieper so casually ignore the role of interpretation on this point? Why could he not see that this is not a matter of disbelieving the Bible, but of disagreeing with the Lutheran interpretation of the Bible?
I recalled, however, that this kind of statement in regard to the sacraments goes back to the sixteenth-century debates between the Lutherans and the Reformed. In his debates with the Lutheran Joachim Westphal, John Calvin was almost driven to distraction by Westphal’s repeated claim that Jesus’ words “This is my body” allowed of no interpretation. One either believed them or one disbelieved them. In the historical context of the Lutheran-Reformed debates, then, Pieper’s statement is not terribly unusual.
If you are Reformed or Baptist, what is your immediate reaction to Pieper’s statement? Do you accept his claim that the only difference between you and the Lutherans on the subject of baptism is that Lutherans believe the Bible and you don’t? Or do you think that his statement is a poor excuse for an argument? Do you think it is a fair statement, or do you think it is somewhat self-serving?
Lest I be accused of picking on my Lutheran brothers, ask yourself this question now: “How many times have I seen my theological heroes use essentially the same kind of argument in different theological disputes?”
I don’t know about you, but as I reflect on it, I can recall numerous times when I’ve seen this “argument” in action in my own theological circles. When I was a dispensationalist, the common thought was that the difference between premillennialists and everyone else was fully and adequately defined by saying that premillennialists believed God’s Word regarding the millennium while amillennialists and postmillennialists did not. We believed what God said in Revelation 20. Amillennialists and postmillennialists did not believe what God said. Case closed.
When I was a Baptist, I regularly heard it said that Baptists believed God’s Word concerning believer’s baptism while others did not. As a Presbyterian, I’ve heard it said that Presbyterians believe God’s Word concerning the promises to the children of believers while the Baptists do not.
I’ve heard this line of argument used in disputes involving the Sabbath, the days of Genesis, theonomy, the gifts of the Spirit, church government, you name it. In every dispute over the meaning of some biblical text or theological point, it seems that someone eventually throws out some version of the line: “The simple fact of the matter is that we believe what God clearly says here and you don’t.” When both sides in a given debate do it, the result is particularly edifying.
Re-read the Lutheran quote in the first paragraph. Do you (assuming you are not Lutheran) find it persuasive when it is said of you that the only reason you do not accept the Lutheran understanding of baptism is because you do not believe God’s Word? Probably not. But we find that same kind of statement very assuring (and persuasive) when it is said in support of a doctrine or interpretation that we happen to agree with.
The problem with Pieper’s statement is that he does not allow for any conceptual distinction between the infallible and inerrant Word of God and his own fallible and potentially errant interpretation of that Word. Thus, to disagree with his interpretation is to disagree with God. But this is obviously false. Presbyterians and Baptists do not reject the Lutheran doctrine of baptism because they disbelieve God’s Word. They reject it because they think Lutherans have misinterpreted God’s Word.
The fact of the matter is that people who believe equally in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture sometimes disagree in their interpretation of some parts of that Scripture. We know God’s Word is not wrong, but we might be. God is infallible; we are not. We are not free from sin and ignorance yet. We still see through a glass darkly. In hermeneutical and theological disputes, we need to make an exegetical case, and we need to examine the case of those who disagree with us. It proves nothing to make the bare assertion: “We believe the Bible and you don’t.”