Covenantal Baptism and the Problem of History
April 7, 2009
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.