Reformed Paedobaptism — who to study
September 20, 2009
Over the last few months, I’ve been reading through several defenses of infant baptism from Reformed systematicians. Prior to this, I have already read the best of the credobaptist defenses: Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament, Paul Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, and Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.4. I have also read some of the most relevant sections from Everett Ferguson’s recent release, Baptism in the Early Church. These cannot all be labeled “Baptist,” strictly speaking, since Barth held that infant baptism was not wholly defective and should be recognized as a valid baptism. Thus, Barth did not receive baptism as an adult, even after his strong advocacy for the elimination of infant baptism in the church. And, Everett Ferguson is a member of the Churches of Christ, a restorationist denomination, which rejects infant baptism but accepts some form of baptism’s sacramental efficacy and requirement for salvation (a.k.a. baptismal regeneration or “regeneration in baptism” as Ferguson prefers). Barth’s rejection of “rebaptism” and Ferguson’s sacramentalism would put them outside of the dominant Baptist tradition. So, “credobaptist” is a more appropriate term.
So, I am coming at the Reformed paedobaptist defenses with all of these credobaptist arguments in mind, and it has allowed me to better discern the good from the bad. The doctrine of baptism is a far more difficult topic than many realize. It requires a comprehensive knowledge of the major dogmatic systems and the ability to keep all of the contingencies at the fore of the mind. A good systematician will move with ease among the contingencies and make all of the consequences apparent. Of course, formal precision is not the only necessary feature; the material content — a knowledge of both testaments — is fundamental.
Herman Bavinck’s treatment of baptism, including a fairly extensive defense of infant baptism, is the epitome of what I was looking for in my study of Reformed paedobaptist doctrine. It combines a profound dogmatic-historical knowledge — the major systems (Thomist, Lutheran, Reformed, and credobaptist) and the history (biblical and patristic) — with the necessary systematic skills. Bavinck’s fourth volume of his Reformed Dogmatics contains the best presentation of paedobaptism that I’ve studied. I also benefited from Calvin’s presentation in his Institutes and Shedd’s arguments in his Dogmatic Theology. The least helpful defenses of paedobaptism were Charles Hodge’s and Robert Reymond’s, in their respective systematic theologies. I actually read these first, which did not endear me at all to the Reformed capacity to offer a persuasive defense of infant baptism. With Hodge and Reymond, there is an overestimation of the historical-exegetical grounds, which are easily dismantled by Beasley-Murray and Ferguson. With Bavinck and Shedd, however, there is a greater infusion of dogmatic material, exegetically-derived of course, but without the naive historical claims of Hodge and Reymond or a facile collapsing of the NT into the OT.
I know I haven’t presented any of the arguments, one way or the other, which is not my intention in this post and which would require a book in-itself to do justice. I just wanted to point others to some of the material that I have most benefited from in my recent studies. But, I will make the following observation/conclusion:
As compelling as the credobaptist arguments are, it is extremely difficult to regard infant baptism as wholly defective and invalid. There will invariably be an asymmetry between infant and believer’s baptism, but the former still retains, if “in reserve,” what the latter manifests. Thus, a believer should not regard his infant baptism as meaningless and should regard the need for “rebaptism” as unnecessary. Otherwise, we may be impugning the agency of a God who governed the church for several centuries with prescriptive paedobaptism.