Covenantal Baptism and the Problem of History


Last week, I finally received Everett Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church. I’ve been selectively reading portions throughout the work. In recent weeks, I’ve been especially interested in researching the Reformed arguments for infant baptism, and I’ve been studying the major critics of the Reformed arguments, namely G. R. Beasley-Murray and Paul Jewett. So, with this in mind, I’ve found Ferguson’s work highly interesting.

Ferguson doesn’t much deal with the Reformed arguments for a parallel between circumcision and baptism, supported by a strong continuity in the covenant(s) of grace. He doesn’t much deal with it because the apostles and the early church didn’t work with this framework in their understanding of baptism. If anything is clear from Ferguson’s reasearch, this is it: baptism parallels “spiritual circumcision” by Christ and the Spirit, not the circumcision of the old covenant. John the Baptist’s understanding of baptism was “for the forgiveness of sins,” which was then taken by Paul and put in a Christological framework of death and resurrection. The early Church then developed their baptismal beliefs along these lines of “regeneration in baptism” (Ferguson’s preferred phrase, instead of “baptismal regeneration”). There is no indication that infant baptism was practiced by the apostles (actually, there is some negative evidence, such as Paul’s presups in why “the children” in 1 Cor. 7:14 are “holy”), but once the church in the 3rd, and especially 4th and 5th, century started to develop a theology of original sin, the benefits of baptism were deemed appropriate for infants — once again, not because they, the infants, were in covenant with God, but because they needed redemption.

Thus, the early church could say, without equivocation, that the baptized infant was saved and heaven-bound. Once normative baptismal practice was removed from its sole context of the believer’s repentance and faith and expanded to infants, baptismal’s efficacy in-itself was highlighted and integrated into the theologies of the church fathers. Invariably, the problem of sin and apostacy had to be dealt with, with (eventually) an understanding of penance as a “second plank after shipwreck” of salvation/baptism. All of which, I would contend, inevitably lead toward the Reformation.

Those are some of my thoughts for now. I’ll have more in the future.



  1. Everett Ferguson, it may be of interest, is a member of the Churches of Christ, which practice believer’s baptism along with a high view of baptismal efficacy.

    His scholarship is sound and highly respected across the ecumenical spectrum.

  2. Arni,

    I think the Reformed/covenantal arguments for infant baptism have some definite weaknesses. It can often fail to grapple with Galatians 3, Hebrews 8, and other pertinent texts concerning the “newness” of the new covenant. And the popular passages (like 1 Cor. 7:14) that seem to support covenantal-familial continuity either have no relevance for the issue or in fact point toward the non-baptism of infants (Ferguson and Beasley-Murray’s argument). I’ll do a future post on this.

    However, the Catholic-Orthodox understanding of baptismal regeneration, while problematic for evangelical soteriology, does retain the newness of the new covenant and baptism’s sign(ification) of death/resurrection in Christ and sealing by the Spirit.


    I have no idea who or what you are referencing.

  3. Mr. Davis,

    I am so jealous that you have this work. Unfortunatly it won’t for quite some time before I can get my hands on this bad boy, so I very much look forward to your posts.

    It’s hard for me to see an immediate corruption in such an area of great importance as the mode and nature of baptism. The post-Apostolic erred doctrinally and continued to do so until the Reformation? It seems a better reading of Church history to say that the Apostles laid the foundations for what the post-Apostolic Church constructed.

    Blessings to you.

  4. It seems many of the discussions about baptism assume there are only two choices: either you believe baptism is an ordinance (and hence you hold to believer’s baptism) or else you believe baptism is a sacrament (and hence believe in infant baptism).

    Although the Churches of Christ wouldn’t say it this way, they come close to saying that there are more than just these two choices, there is a third way: believers baptism is sacramental.

    Interestingly, when I took Systematics III from Miroslav Volf at Fuller Seminary way back in 1987, he held to a sacramental view of believers baptism as well, even tho he had never heard of the Restoration Movement. It seems to me there are many strong statements about the sacramental nature of baptism (as Dr. Volf said, sacrament means “something happens”) as well as many examples of believers being baptized. So Dr. Volf put them together the way he did, at least at that time. A position I agree with.

    For many evangelicals to describe baptism as regenerative is extremely problematic. However, there are many examples of people entering into a covenant type relationship and when they do, “something happens”. Marriage is certainly one example. There is a time when a man and a woman are not married, yet when they go through their culturally appropriate ceremonay, they then are married. This could be viewed as marriage regeneration, if you will. So nothing necessarily bad from an evangelical view of seeing regeneration in baptism.

    Dr. James Torrance, late professor at Aberdeen, had some good things to say about baptism as well in his book Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace.

    Keep us posted on your reading.

  5. I agree, Mike, that a bare symbolism should be off the table, but this is not to say that baptism works in any heightened or greater way than faith itself. That’s the Protestant concern, and I readily admit to not having a precise solution myself.

  6. Your logic is partially defective: the East and the Orient never embraced the Augustinian notion of inherited original sin, yet they obviously also practice infant baptism.

    (Jewish proselyte baptism included one’s infants, because man and woman are, after all, one body [just like Father and Son are also one], and because individualism is a Western notion no older than a few hundred years).

  7. (that’s why Paul also speaks bluntly about baptizing entire houses, etc). — sorry for the double posting.

  8. This is on my list of “to-read” books, but I have not yet had the chance. I am curious: are you saying that Ferguson links infant baptism to doctrines of original sin in the Augustinian sense or is that your reading of his narrative? I find that very counter-intuitive (not claiming it is incorrect) both due to earlier evidence of infant baptism and because the notion of original sin was a late innovation that never penetrated the east.

    Also, I am curious if Ferguson states the patristic Fathers made a link to restoration of baptismal regeneration through the act of penance following confession or confessional absolution? I was somewhat unclear how to read your closing comment.

    • I was using “original sin” more loosely than Augustine’s own conception. By it, I am indicating ideas that the infant is in danger of damnation and needs redemption. With the spread of this belief, according to Ferguson, emergency baptisms became popular, a practice which in-turn bolstered the idea that all infants (regardless of any physical illness) should be baptized. Questions such as “personal guilt,” often associated with Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and denied by the East, are not precisely at issue here, but it invariably raises the question of why an infant may be in danger of damnation and thus need baptism.

  9. Your comments reflect a major misconception that evangelicals and the Reformed have of orthodox Christians. Lutherans do not believe that baptism is necessary (mandatory) for salvation. Not even the Roman Catholic Church believes this. All the saints of the Old Testament, the thief on the cross, and thousand of martyrs down through the centuries have been saved without Baptism. Baptism is not the “how” of salvation!

    Lutherans believe that baptism is one of several possible “when”s of salvation, it is not the “how” of salvation. The “how” of salvation is and always has been the power of God’s Word/God’s declaration of righteousness.

    A sinner can be saved by the power of God’s Word when he hears the Word preached in a church, preached on TV or radio, reading a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room, or reading a Gospel tract that contains the Word. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, through the power of his Word alone, received in faith alone. In each of these situations, the sinner is saved the instant he or she believes. Baptism is NOT mandatory for salvation to occur.

    However, the Bible in multiple passages, also states that God uses his Word to save at the time of Baptism.

    It is the work of the Holy Spirit, using the Word of God, that works salvation in the sinner’s spiritually dead soul, according to the second chapters of Ephesians and Colossians, and the third chapter of Romans. Your “decision for Christ” does not save you, neither does your decision to be baptized.

    God saves those whom he has elected, at the time and place of his choosing. Sometimes God saves them while hearing a sermon in church, sometimes at home reading the Word, and sometimes by the power of his Word spoken during Baptism.

    God does 100% of the saving. The sinner is a passive participant in his salvation. There is no passage in the New Testament that asks sinners to make a decision for Christ. The Bible states that God quickens sinners, gives them faith, and they believe and repent.

    The sinner does not decide to be saved. God decides to save the sinner!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Gary. I wrote this four years ago, and I don’t even understand what I was writing! I have done considerable research on baptism between then and now, and my views have changed, becoming better defined.

      I actually agree with you on the whole. I do not think that baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation, and I never supposed that Lutherans or Catholics believed that either. I like your distinction between the “when” and “how” — and I think that is a very good distillation of Lutheran teaching. The Reformed understanding is a bit different, since we do not identify the moment of baptism as necessarily the moment of receiving salvation. But, baptism is the seal of God’s promises for the elect. As a seal, baptism is the precious Word which assures them of his faithfulness.

  10. Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the covenant. There is zero evidence from the OT that says otherwise.

    Infants WERE part of the covenant. If a Hebrew infant died, he was considered “saved”.

    However, circumcision did NOT “save” the male Hebrew child. It was the responsibility of the Hebrew parents to bring up their child in the faith, so that when he was older “he would not depart from it”. The child was born a member of the covenant. Then, as he grew up, he would have the choice: do I want to continue placing my faith in God, or do I want to live in willful sin? If he chose to live by faith, he would be saved. If he chose to live a life of willful sin and never repented, and then died, he would perish.

    When Christ established the New Covenant, he said nothing explicit in the New Testament about the salvation of infants and small children; neither do the Apostles nor any of the writers of the New Testament. Isn’t that odd? If the new Covenant no longer automatically included the children of believers, why didn’t Christ, one of the Apostles, or one of the writers of the NT mention this profound change?

    Why is there no mention in the NT of any adult convert asking this question: “But what about my little children? Are you saying that I have to wait until my children grow up and make a decision for themselves, before I will know if they will be a part of the new faith? What happens if my child dies before he has the opportunity to make this decision?” But no, there is no record in Scripture that any of these questions are made by new converts to the new faith. Isn’t that really, really odd??? As a parent of small children, the FIRST question I would ask would be, “What about my little children?”

    But the New Testament is completely silent on the issue of the salvation or safety of the infants and toddlers of believers. Another interesting point is this: why is there no mention of any child of believers “accepting Christ” when he is an older child (8-12 years old) or as a teenager and then, being baptized? Not one single instance and the writing of the New Testament occurred over a period of 30 years, approximately thirty years after Christ’s death: So over a period of 60 years, not one example of a believer’s child being saved as a teenager and then receiving “Believers Baptism”. Why???

    So isn’t it quite likely that the reason God does not explicitly state in the NT that infants should be baptized, is because everyone in first century Palestine would know that infants and toddlers are included in a household conversion. That fact that Christ and the Apostles did NOT forbid infant baptism was understood to indicate that the pattern of household conversion had not changed: the infants and toddlers of believers are still included in this new and better covenant.

    Circumcision nor Baptism was considered a “Get-into-heaven-free” card. It was understood under both Covenants that the child must be raised in the faith, and that when he was older, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the faith and receive everlasting life, or choose a life of sin, breaking the covenant relationship with God, and forfeiting the gift of salvation.

    Which of these two belief systems seems to be most in harmony with Scripture and the writings of the Early Christians?

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

    • Yes, we are in basic agreement, Gary. Upon further reflection and study, I now believe that Ferguson makes too much of emergency baptisms, which seems insufficient to explain how infant baptism could acquire such widespread usage and pedigree by the early 200’s, when Origen insisted that it was apostolic.

  11. I Corinthians 15:29

    Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

    This is a very odd passage of Scripture. The Mormons use this passage as the basis for their belief in Baptism for the Dead. I will present the orthodox Christian/Lutheran view of this passage below, but first I would like us to look at something else in this passage that is odd:

    If the Church in Corinth had been taught by the Apostle Paul that the manner in which one is saved is to pray (verbally or nonverbally) a sincere, penitent, prayer/petition to God, such as a version of the Sinner’s Prayer, why does this passage of God’s Holy Word discuss baptisms for the dead and not “prayers for the dead”, specifically, praying a version of the Sinner’s Prayer for the dead?

    Isn’t that really odd? No matter what activity was actually going on in the Corinthian church regarding “the dead”, why is the discussion/controversy about baptism and not the “true” means of salvation according to Baptists and evangelicals: an internal belief in Christ; an internal “decision” for Christ?

    And even more odd…why didn’t Paul scold the Corinthians for focusing so much on baptism which he had surely taught them (according to Baptists and evangelicals) was nothing other than an act of obedience; a public profession of faith??

    Why so much emphasis on baptism?

    Is it possible that the reason that the Corinthians were so concerned about baptism is that they had been taught by the Apostle Paul and other Christian evangelists that salvation and the promise of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life are received in Baptism, just as orthodox Christians, including Lutherans, have been teaching for almost 2,000 years??

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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