Saturday, April 2, 2011

Fesko on Baptism

J.V. Fesko of Westminster, California, has just written Word Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010). It is a work worth reading for its scholarship and stimulating conclusions.

Fesko has an extended section on Zwingli’s understanding on baptism pp57-65. Fesko has fair balance between consideration of Zwingli’s earlier works as well as his later works. In particular, he does refer to Fidei Ratio (Reckoning of the Faith, 1530). But a check of the index reveals no reference to the works of Peter Stephens though the bibliography lists Stephens’ The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli. Nor is there any reference to the works of Gottfried Locher. There is also no reference to Cottrell’s meticulous work on covenant and baptism in Zwingli.

However, his references to Bullinger are somewhat sketchy and don’t do Bullinger justice.

For example, in a section about Barth he writes:

“Barth also points out that the Second Helvetic confession (1566), written by Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), was a marked departure from the first-generation Swiss Reformer’s understanding of baptism and the sacraments in general:

‘When we read what the Confess. Helv. Post. (published thirty-five years after his death) has to say both about the sacraments in general and baptism in particular, we should never suspect, if we did not already know, that its author, Heinrich Bullinger was Zwingli’s immediate successor. This work is wholly influenced by the dominant Reformed tradition of Calvin, so much so that in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper there is even a strange attempt at assimilation to the Roman Catholic doctrine of a change in the elements.’”

This quotation of Barth is from CD, IV.4, p128. Fesko makes no comment on Barth’s evaluation of Bullinger vis-à-vis Zwingli and continues to comment on Barth’s understanding on baptism (this discussion occurs in the section ‘Baptism in Modern Theology’).

Two of the earlier posts of this blog summarize an important article of Peter Stephens who demonstrates the similarities and differences between Zwingli and Bullinger. Particularly, Peters suggestion that Zwingli would have been able to sign the Consesnsus Tigurinus. Barth’s reference to Bullinger vis-à-vis Calvin comes as no surprise as my own view is that Calvin’s understanding of the covenant was greatly influenced by that of Bullinger’s which was one factor in his agreeing to the Consensus Tigurinus.

The second reference to Bullinger by Fesko in his book is in the section “Baptism and Its Recipients.” The text on page 359 says: “On the other hand, neither is the ground presumptive regeneration, whether in the case of adults or infants, as some in the Reformed tradition have argued.” There is footnote 62 here where Fesko mentions Bullinger – “The idea of basing baptism for both adults and especially infants on the presumption of a person’s regeneration has a distinguished pedigree, but nevertheless is incorrect. Those who have advocated it include Heinrich Bullinger (in the First Helvetic Confession, 1536), Peter Martyr Vermigli, Amandus Polanus, Theodore Beza, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, Abraham Kuyper, and Lewis Schenck…”

The text of the book continues: “The administration of the covenant is grounded not on an individual profession of faith but on the covenant. Stated another way, the promise of redemption, or the covenant, is grounded in the redemption accomplished, the person and work of Christ as it is progressively unfolded in covenant history, not on the application of redemption. To ground the application of the sign of the covenant on a profession of faith shifts the soteric center of gravity away from God to man – it is to say, ‘I am saved because God has saved me’ (eg Gal. 4:9). Such a statement is not to minimize the faith of the one who is saved. Rather, it is to acknowledge that the covenant Lord has first condescended to His people – the sign of the covenant belongs to Him first and foremost. Baptism is the sign of His covenant promise. When received by faith, baptism is secondarily a sign of the response of the covenant servant.”

I’ll leave it up to the readers to make up their own minds on this.

Fesko’s third and final reference to Bullinger in the book is found on page 392. Here Fesko writes (in a section entitled ‘Baptism and Ecclesiology’): “Heinrich Bullinger, by contract, the chief author of the Second Helvetic Confession, explains: ‘The author of all sacraments is not any man but God alone. Men cannot institute sacraments. For they pertain to the worship of God, and it is not for man to appoint and prescribe a worship of God, but to accept and preserve the one he has received from God.’”

This third reference to Bullinger’s insistence upon God being the author of the sacraments has been referred to in previous posts of this blog.

I have only had time to skim read the book which appears to be a stimulating book. My only comment is that he does not really do justice to Bullinger.

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