Ontology vs. Covenant

I recently cracked open J.V. Fesko’s new work on baptism Word, Water, and Spirit. It reminds me of Keith Mathison’s book on the Lord’s Supper Given for You in the way that it traces the historical theological developments of the sacrament and also views it from the perspective of progressive revelation (Biblical Theology). For someone just beginning to wrestle with the doctrine of baptism (infant baptism in particular) I might recommend an easier read like Robert Booth’s Children of the Promise, but for someone who has a little theological background and wants to understand the historical and biblical developments of baptism this is a really good read (at least so far, I’m not entirely finished with the book yet).

In the introduction Fesko sets up the soteriological categories which inform the Roman Catholic and Reformed views concerning the sacraments in general and baptism in particular (he has entire chapters later on the Lutheran and Zwinglian doctrines). After pointing out that in the broad evangelical church baptism is seen as the commitment of the one baptized and that the category of covenant is rarely present, he moves on to say that it (covenant) is almost entirely absent from the Roman Catholic view of baptism. Rome’s main concern with man’s salvation is ontological, he needs a change in his nature. From what I understand of Eastern Orthodoxy I think the same can be said; especially given the fact that the Eastern Church is concerned with deification and has no clear doctrine of justification. Perhaps even Rome would have no official statement on justification if they weren’t forced to hammer out the Council of Trent as a response to the Reformers?  To help understand this, Fesko uses Paul Tillich’s categories (which are picked up by Michael Horton in Lord and Servant) concerning the philosophy of religion to see the differing soteriologies of Rome and the Reformation. The categories are: overcoming estrangement, meeting a stranger, and the stranger never met. Suffice it to say that the stranger never met is simply the belief that God is “totally transcendent and therefore unknowable.” Rome’s soteriology is that of overcoming estrangement, it is ontological. Man is contaminated and needs to be perfected in his nature. Combine this with a literalistic reading of passages which speak of the sacraments (which I think is the straight line to the ex opere operato view), baptism is then understood to be the first step  in this process of ontological change washing away original sin, creating a disposition or inclination toward spiritual good, and beginning the journey through the sacramental system whereby one can eventually reach justification.

Granted, man in his fallen condition needs a change but the Reformers saw that justification was presented in Scripture as covenantal and not primarily ontological. What man needs is to be reconciled to God and this is where the idea of meeting a stranger is relevant. “Reformation theology historically has argued that man’s sin is not an ontological but a moral-ethical problem. Man is a covenant breaker. He is redeemed by meeting a stranger – Christ, who redeems him….Moreover, man encounters this stranger within a context, namely, covenant.” (p.3)


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