Since it is in vogue to strive to be a Pastor-Theologian (or even a Public Theologian), I thought I would share some thoughts as a Presbyterian minister about the subject of baptism. These thoughts come after several weeks of dialogue with two friends of mine who take the credobaptist position.
As many of you know, Presbyterians (along with Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) practice what is called paedobaptism (sometimes called oiko, or household, baptism). The baptism of the infants and children of believing members of the church has been a steady belief and practice of Reformed and Presbyterian churches since the time of the Protestant Reformation.
If you wanted to study this issue at depth, you are in luck. There are two counterpoints books on baptism (here and here). There is a paedobaptist book of collected essays, and there is one on credo baptism. You may also check out dozens of articles on the topic at Monergism. In addition, there are debates about infant baptism on YouTube.
Finally, you can check out blogs like mine which try to take a unique spin on the topic of baptism.
Now, after hours of reading and listening you will probably figure out that the typical debate about who should be baptized comes down to several sets of texts such as Jer 31:31-34; Acts 2:38-40; Luke 18:15-17; 1 Cor 7:14; Col 2:11-12. In addition, people count up the household baptisms in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians and apply mathematical formulas to determine the Bayesian plausibility of the presence of infants in such situations. (Has Richard Swinburne ever taken on such a project?) There are debates about the continuity-discontinuity of the covenant of grace. Finally, there are arguments from silence used by both sides since neither has an explicit verse which proves their position.
Now, I find such exegetical discussions to be helpful and, to an extent, necessary. Yet, it has become obvious to me that while the primary actors on stage in this wet production about the sacraments are quite talented, there are many behind-the-scenes players who get little acknowledgement for their foundational contributions to the drama that is holy baptism.
Allow me to give you a peak backstage to the unseen players who are just as significant as those who get top billing in this production.
Most Reformed Baptists and Reformed Presbyterians acknowledge that hermeneutics is the key to the debate over who should be baptized. Neither side has an explicit, clear, micro-exegetical case for their position. Thus, a more holistic take on how one interprets the Bible is needed. Though it might seem strange, one’s view of baptism probably says more about how one interprets the Bible than most other doctrines.
What has shifted me over to the paedobaptist position is my belief that the Bible is meant to be read from left to right, not right to left.
No, this isn’t a joke about preferring koine Greek to Hebrew. This notion came to me when I was watching the James White – Greg Strawbridge debate over infant baptism (linked earlier). To my surprise, both participants said that we must begin with the New Covenant (hence, the New Testament) to understand the Christian practice of baptism.
Yet, that is not how the Jewish converts to Christianity would have believed it. To them, they were reading the story of redemption from left to right. They viewed baptism and the covenant in light of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise. It was about the expansion of God’s promise when it came to God’s people, God’s land, and God’s covenant.
I was grateful that a Reformed Baptist with a Ph.D in theological studies agreed with me against White on this point. I think my friend and I would agree that perhaps the starting point in hermeneutics is the direction or sweep of reading the Scripture as opposed to a mere discussion about covenant theology. Covenant is a big theme in Scripture, but it may not be the most important theme.
And it is clear to me that reading the Bible from left to right, beginning in the OT and finding the climax and fulfillment of that story in the NT, is the best Bible reading plan. Indeed, just like we would read a Shakespeare play from left to right (imagine starting with Act 2 in Hamlet and trying to understand that play better than someone who starts with Act 1), we should read God’s play from left to right.
Long before I knew who Greg Beale was or what a garden-city-temple expansion was, I was very interested in how the OT anticipates the NT and how the NT interprets and applies the OT. St. Augustine’s famous dictum “the Old (Testament) is in the New (Testament) revealed, the New is in the Old concealed” made me think long and hard in my undergraduate biblical studies about how Christ was the center of the redemptive drama.
I am thankful for Terry Eves, Bruce Waltke, Ray Dillard, and other scholars for shaping my thinking on this. Later on my training at RTS Charlotte and my reading of Beale shaped my thinking even more.
And as I observe the debate over baptism, I wonder why OT-NT intertextuality is ignored.
Yet, I am thankful for Pastor-Scholars like Dr. Ligon Duncan for rescuing us from intertextual amnesia. In his lectures on Covenant Theology, he points out the intertextuality between Gen 17:7-8, 12 and Acts 2:38-39 (though he could have also looked at Isa 59:21). The promise of the Holy Spirit, fulfilled at Pentecost, isn’t just a fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, but it is a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise (Gal 3:14).
Just as much of the NT draws a clear line from Abraham to Christ and the gospel, Pentecost is doing the same thing.
So, imagine the mindset of the Jews who are listening to Peter’s words when he says, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39) Typically, a Presbyterian will say, “Look! Children! These Jewish converts to Christianity would think that this applied to their children as well, just like in the Old Testament.” The point is true enough. If such a big shift of retracting children from the covenant community was taking place at the inauguration of the New Covenant at Pentecost, Peter was fuzzy at best in his case for credobaptism. (Was God expanding the covenant sign to women and gentiles but retracting children?)
However, intertextuality shows us that more is going on.
It’s clear that Peter isn’t improvising (or, at least, it is a scripted improvisation) here. He is echoing the language of the Abrahamic covenant where God tells Abraham the sign of the promise in the covenant would be applied to Abraham, his children, and even foreigners in his household. The pattern of Jews, children, and gentiles is in the OT, and it is now repeated in the NT.
What does this mean? Well, apart from lending credence to Charles Hodge’s eight propositions, it shows that the common charge from Reformed Baptists that Presbyterians “judaize the New Testament” is off-base. Indeed, the New Testament comes to us clothed in the Old Testament. Contrary to Walter Kaiser’s disciples, we don’t just see the OT in the NT when there is a direct quote or some explicitly clear theme. Rather, there are thousands of echoes and allusions to the OT on top of the obvious citations we are familiar with.
In order to understand the NT better, we need to understand the OT better (and vice-versa). Intertextuality and the imperative to imitate the theological imagination of the canonical writers and Apostles helps us to this end. It is my contention that this expanded view of hermeneutics and exegesis (historical-grammatical AND redemptive-historical) builds a better case for paedobaptism than for credobaptism.
The Bible’s View of Children
Flowing from our discussion of hermeneutics and intertextuality, we come to the test case of children. While my credobaptist friends commonly claim that the appeal to covenant children in Abrahamic covenant is irrelevant to baptism because covenant children were merely included for nationalistic purposes (though such seems to be contrary to Romans 4:11), the fact is that the Bible’s view and value of children precedes Genesis 17.
The “seed” principle begins with Genesis 3:15 (after the command to multiply seed in Gen 1:26-28). We see the principle again in the Noahic covenant (Gen 6:18; 9:9). The “you and your seed” principle is all over the OT in many phrases. Clearly, this principle is not an Abrahamic creation. Rather, God has always delighted to work through families/households.
This them continues in the various OT teachings about the New Covenant. While my Reformed Baptist friends love to point out a couple of phrases in Jer 31:31-34, they ignore the other OT texts about the New Covenant (Gen. 12:3; Isa. 54:3, 10, 13; 59:21; 61:8-9; Jer. 32:38-40; Ezek. 37:25-26; Zech. 8:5; 10:7, 9; 12:10-14; 14:17) which maintain the “you and your children” principle.
This “God loves children” principle continues in the NT (Matt 18:2-5, 14; 19:3-4; Mark 9:36-37; 10:13-16; Luke 9:47-48; 18:15-17; 1 Cor 7:14; Eph 6:4). While I don’t think 1 Cor 7:14 can by itself establish the practice of infant baptism, it is clear that the children of believers are not ‘vipers in diapers’.
Promise and Covenant
The star actor on stage is the ‘covenant of grace’ for the paedobaptist. It’s a mighty fine player, but I think the covenant of grace discussion isn’t nuanced enough. (Saying such probably throws off my 1689 Federalist buddies). In the Bible, it is the promise which is the engine of the covenant train (Eph 2:12). The promise is what undergirds the drama of redemption, and the covenants (like their ANE counterparts) are visible, outward administrations of that promise.
If covenants are always outward administrations and not some invisible reality, then this poses a problem for the Baptist version of the New Covenant. For credobaptists, the New Covenant is basically an invisible reality for the invisible church (i.e. the elect). The problem is this is not the ANE background of covenant, and it is difficult to establish such from the Bible. (Why would an invisible covenant need outward signs and outward administrators?) A merely immaterial covenant seems closer to gnosticism than the scriptural affirmation of this material world.
One piece of continuity we see between the New Covenant and the Old Covenant is apostasy. Texts like John 15:1-11; 1 Cor 10:1-12; 11:27-32; Heb 3:1-4:13; 6:4-6; 10:28-30; 1 John 2:19 seem to indicate a visible cutting off from God and the covenant, just like the OT. Indeed, the author of Hebrews and the Apostle Paul use the OT as an analogous case in point for New Covenant members to heed. To merely say such texts are ‘hypothetical’ or that those who disbelieve had ‘zero’ connection to the covenant seems to go against a fair exegesis of the text.
And this brings us to the question, Did God excommunicate thousands of children from the covenant on the day of Pentecost when their parents embraced the New Covenant? (And if so, did Peter tell them?)
I’ve heard many credobaptists and paedobaptists say that ecclesiology is what really determines one’s view of baptism. This is true in many ways. Baptists believe the church is comprised of the elect….or professing believers? Which is it? Well, that gets us to the visible vs invisible church distinction.
Perhaps the greatest work on ecclesiology is from the nineteenth century in James Bannerman’s The Church of Christ. Heck, even James White’s ministry called it one of the best works on the subject!
The key part of Bannerman’s study is his recognition of the various ways the NT speaks of the church. In summary, the visible church gets most of the attention in the NT.
This doesn’t mean the NT ignores the invisible church. Far from it. But the emphasis is on the outward and visible manifestation of the church. In addition, Bannerman’s argument for the church existing in the OT as well as the NT (being one olive tree, Romans 11) is difficult to refute.
Seeing one church in the Bible, across both testaments, primarily spoken of in the visible form, it seems that Baptists underemphasize the visible church and overemphasize the invisible church in their ecclesiology.
If my Baptist friends would have the invisible swallow the visible, my Federal Visionist and sacerdotalist friends would have the visible swallow the invisible. But confessional Presbyterianism comfortably affirms all the nuances of the scriptural teaching concerning the church.
Meaning of Baptism
Defining the meaning or purpose or meaning of baptism isn’t easy. The reason is that baptism has many purposes and is described with multiple forms of imagery. In other words, baptism isn’t a one-point sermon.
Still, we need to make some headway as to how the Bible describes the purpose and meaning of baptism.
1. The Beginning of the Christian Life
The most cited credobaptist argument is that baptism marks the beginning of the Christian life (discipleship). The Great Commission seems to imply this (Matt 28:18-20) as well as the baptisms in the book of Acts.
It is clear that this is one of baptism’s purposes. Yet, this doesn’t solve the question of whether infants may be baptized. First, it should be noted that the Great Commission is a call to make disciples of ‘nations’, not mere individuals. This theme of evangelizing the nations is an OT theme (Isaiah 52:13), and it doesn’t determine our question of who should be baptized (especially since the OT presupposes God’s covenant blessing toward families and cultures).
Second, the gospels don’t necessarily teach that a ‘disciple’ is always a regenerated believer. Bible scholars have asked, “When were Jesus’ disciples converted?” Taking Peter as a test case, was he converted when Jesus called the twelve to follow him? Or was he converted when he made his profession that Jesus was the Christ because the Father had revealed such to him? (Matt 16:16-17) What about Jesus identifying Peter with the work of Satan just a few verses later in Matthew’s gospel? (Matt 16:23) Was Peter finally converted after he was restored by Jesus after denying him three times? (John 21:15-19)
The notion that Jesus had pre-converted disciples is one that many ‘missional’ credobaptists have embraced in recent years. This means the notion that baptism marks the ‘beginning of the Christian life’ doesn’t solve the issue of infant baptism since even a credobaptist might say that the children of believers are being reared in discipleship even before their conversion.
2. God’s Promise of Redemption
While many paedobaptists wish to label baptism a sign of God’s ‘promise’ (as opposed to our personal ‘pledge’) in order to connect it to OT circumcision, there is NT evidence that baptism operates as a sign of God’s promise. First, Acts 2:38-39 show Peter connecting baptism to “forgiveness of sins” as God’s promise for his people who are in Christ. But second, baptism is a promise in the sense that the NT always has an eye toward the future fulfillment of our redemption. Paul connects the sign of baptism to our future resurrection (Rom 6:5)
3. Union With Christ & Regeneration
Perhaps the most beautiful description of baptism in the NT is found in Romans 6:3-4, where the emphasis is that our baptism points to union with Christ. That baptism is a pointer to union with Christ is why Paul says we are baptized “into one body” (1 Cor 12:13), the body of Christ. Other texts which speak to this are Gal 3:27, Col 2:12, 1 Pet 3:21.
4. Cleansing and Consecration
Though these are related to union with Christ, cleansing and consecration are key themes to understanding the purpose of baptism that they must be mentioned separately. The notion of cleansing with baptism is predominant in the NT not only with the way one is baptized (with water) but in how the Apostles talk about baptism (Acts 22:16). This is not to say that baptism actually accomplishes what it signifies, as Titus 3:5 says that it is the Holy Spirit who washes us through regeneration. For the NT, the sign and thing signified are held close together but are always distinguished.
Consecration is seen in baptism in that baptism is connected to discipleship (Matt 28:18-20). Baptism points to what God demands of his people in following Jesus.
There are more perspectives which could be pursued as it relates to the meaning of baptism. But suffice to say, baptism is a nuanced biblical teaching that points to the beauty of God’s promise to redeem us.
It should be noted that there is no NT text which explicitly claims that baptism necessarily points to the inward faith of the recipient. It may be the case that such is part of the meaning of baptism, but such needs to be proven from Scripture.
I don’t think the NT teaches that the sign of baptism is primarily or necessarily about the faith of the recipient. First, some recipients of baptism didn’t receive some things that baptism signified (i.e. the Holy Spirit). Wayne Grudem says that the recipients of baptism were those who believed the Word and had received the Holy Spirit (Systematic Theology, p. 970). Unfortunately, this is not quite the picture for the NT, as there are occurences of those who believed and and were baptized, but received the Holy Spirit later (Act 8:14-17).
Second, passages such as Rom 6:3-4 and Col 2:12 cannot be fusing the sign (baptism) with the thing signified (union with Christ, cleansing, consecration) since such would undermine Paul’s teaching on justification by grace through faith. It’s best to see such texts as describing baptism in its promise and meaning rather than the reality of the recipient’s spiritual state, or else we must embrace something close to baptismal regeneration.
My credobaptist friends will object and say that these texts imply faith of those who are in Christ, and thus were baptized. But Paul says that we are baptized “into Christ”, not as a result of being in Christ. The latter would support the credobaptist position, but the text itself in the context of Paul’s theology shows we must closely align the sign and what is signified, while always keeping them distinct.
The paedobaptist thesis is that baptism is primarily about the objectivity of redemption than the subjectivity redemption. While I believe there are subjective elements to baptism (believers are commanded to be baptized, and even paedobaptists take vows when their children are baptized), the emphasis of the NT teaching on baptism is on the objective promise of God for his people. It may be about us, but it is way more about God and what he has done on behalf of his church in Jesus Christ.
Given the long-windedness of this post, I’ll just link readers to Richard Pratt’s excellent article on Jeremiah 31:31-34. In essence, when credobaptists quote Jer 31:31-34 (which is usually the only OT passage they will quote on the subject of baptism), they point out phrases like “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it…for they will all know Me…for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
Yet, a few problems come up with such proftexting. The context for Jer 31 (and the other New Covenant texts in the OT) is that God’s people are in exile and God is promising them a return to the land and a restoration of the covenant. The promises of the New Covenant are basically promises in the Mosaic Covenant! In other words, the prophecy of the New Covenant says, “One day, God will fulfill the blessings of the Mosaic Covenant. It will be amazing.”
In interpreting most OT prophecies, we 21st century white westerners aren’t as competent to the task as those who lived in Bible times. The view of prophecy and eschatology which is taught in the NT is best summarized as an inaugurated eschatology. Some call this an ‘already-but-not-yet’ eschatology. It’s obvious from Jer 31 that the New Covenant isn’t consummated yet as we still go around teaching one another and saying “Know the Lord.” Plus, the NT presents the church as still an exilic people who still have an inheritance to look to (1 Peter 2:11; Romans 4:13; 8:17-25).
So, I ask my Baptist friends, do you have an overrealized eschatology? Do you have an over-desire for a ‘right-n0w-here-and-ready’ pure church of just the elect when Jesus is slowly over time getting every spot and wrinkle out of the wedding dress? (Eph 5:26-27) Do you seem a bit (gasp) postmillennial in this pursuit?
Models of Piety
I refer readers to William B. Evans’ eye-opening article on conversionist versus nurturist pieties in Christianity. I agree with Evans that we need both models to be a balanced church, and some cultural places and moments may exalt one model over the other.
However, while the Presbyterian tradition has both models in its history (Bavinck and Nevin, not Bavinck or Nevin), the Baptist tradition in general promotes only the conversionist piety. Obviously, this reductionism of the Christian life more easily leads to credobaptism while the Presbyterian tradition can practice both paedo and credobaptism which corresponds to both models of piety.
My ARP friends are salivating while my Baptist friends are scratching their heads. The recent book by Sinclair Ferguson on this subject expands on the pastoral dimensions of this historic controversy while William Vandoodewaard does more of the scholarly heavy lifting.
The Church of Scotland began the practice of trying to measure ‘signs of spiritual fruit and election’ in those who seem interested in the gospel before they would offer the gospel (and communicant membership) to people. The ‘Marrow Men’ believed in the ‘free offer of the gospel’ and held no preconditions other than repentance and belief in Christ. In other words, the gospel that was offered could be received in that moment by the sinner.
The Church of Scotland saw the Marrow Men as antinomians, and the reverse accusation was that of legalism.
Now, while this historical matter doesn’t touch on the issue of infant baptism, I think the analogy is fair as to how Baptists typically admit new members into the local church. Mark Dever and other Reformed Baptists have decried about the Southern Baptist Convention has seen the average age of baptism recipients get lower and lower. So, if more SBC churches are allowing professions of faith at younger ages, Reformed Baptist churches seem to withhold membership and the sacraments until ages 10-12.
So, a five year old may hear the gospel clearly at a Vacation Bible School or during a children’s sermon, and they tell their parents and Pastor for the next five years, “I believe in Jesus. He died for me.” They withhold membership and baptism from this child until at age 10 he or she recite several more answers about their faith.
Essentially, Reformed Baptists are seeking signs of spiritual fruit and election and are less inclined to proclaim the free offer of the gospel. However, in many Presbyterian churches which deny paedocommunion, there is young communion as 5 year olds and 7 year olds profess faith and fully commune with the body of Christ.
In other words, Presbyterians believe that true faith in Christ is analogous to a child’s simple trust in a parent. (Matthew 18:2-4)
If I want to carry on the practice of the Marrow Men, then the general practice of Reformed Baptists is not for me.
Solo or Sola Scriptura?
One area where I admire my Baptists brothers and sisters is there fidelity to the inerrancy of Scripture and being biblical in faith and practice. However, I wonder if there is a confusion between solo and sola scriptura. Sola scriptura means the Bible is the final authority, but it isn’t the only authority. The magisterial Reformers respected and submitted to ecumenical tradition in various ways. The Reformers were creedal theologians. They saw themselves restoring the theology of the patristic period.
So, if church history carries a weight and type of authority which is also subservient to Scripture, should Baptists give pause to their baptismal theology in light of the fact that we don’t see anyone in the church teaching that true baptism is only when there is profession of faith and done by immersion (or else it isn’t baptism and one should be outside the church) until the Anabaptists? It took 1500 years for the church to finally get baptism right!
I guess one could believe that and make a biblical case as to why the Anabaptists restored the apostolic doctrine on baptism, but it seems very arrogant. Perhaps a more ecclesial and humble credobaptist tradition is to claim that baptism is appropriately done by immersion and upon profession, but such isn’t necessary for church membership. (See the Didache‘s allowance for sprinkling and pouring as modes of baptism.)
While my credobaptist friends may shudder that I call their practice arrogant, consider that the plenary speakers for the Together For the Gospel conferences would bar Ligon Duncan and Kevin DeYoung from taking communion in their churches.
While this lengthy post has tested the endurance of all my readers, I hope it provides the behind-the-scenes perspective which convicts me as a paedobaptist. I hold to all the exegetical and covenantal arguments for paedobaptism as well, but these more 30,000 foot view arguments do much to persuade me.