Reformed Paedobaptism — who to study


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.



  1. “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.”

    Which is why I’ll dissertate on the topic. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Bavinck is as good as they come on the Reformed side, but he isn’t good enough…

      • I’m afraid that I won’t be blogging a lick of it. ๐Ÿ™‚ I do, however, have an article coming out in “Ecclesiology” that hints in the directions I want to go.

  2. Kevin,
    I agree, Bavinck is far and away the best Reformed theologian from the modern (i.e. post-1789) period to read on most subjects (pre-1789 I’ll opt for Calvin and Turretin). I have the four volumes of his dogmatics on my shelves and I think the publication of his work in English is one of the most significant translations to happen in recent years.
    Have you engaged with any Lutheran theologians on the subject? I think they do scripture and tradition more justice, naturally ;0)
    Byw, I too am intrugued by where WTM may take this.

  3. WTM,

    I was afraid you would say that. Oh well. I didn’t blog any of my dissertation either.


    Other than the LCMS website, I haven’t really read much from the Lutheran side on this topic. I’m more interested in the Reformed side because, among other reasons, paedobaptism has to be squared with the Reformed doctrine of election (or, for many free-church evangelicals, with at least the perseverance of the saints).

    • Do you mean your Master’s thesis or did you do a PhD that I don’t know about?

      Have you looked at Heinrich Schmid’s “Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church”?

      • On the “Continent,” don’t they call their Master’s theses, dissertations; and their PhD’s theses?

        Just trying to mediate through the confusion ๐Ÿ˜‰ .

      • WTM,
        Schmid is indeed a great compendium of orthodox Lutheran dogmatics (something like Heppe in the Reformed world, no?). More recently there is Edmund Schlink, whose monograph Concordia (Lc-MS publishing house) still have in print, I think.

  4. Perhaps it is of relevance that my own fellowship, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), decided that in the interest of the believer’s freedom of conscience, decided that both forms of baptism (believer and infant) would normally be recognized as valid. ECC Pastors may (and do!) hold to their own convictions on the issue, but they must agree to extend the same freedom of conscience to their parishioners as is extended to them. So you actually see a spectrum of opinion and practice on the issue within the denomination. Still enjoying your blog!

    • I’ve heard of that. The EFCA (Evangelical Free Church in America) does the same thing. Interestingly, they both (I believe) are free church movements from Scandinavian Lutheran countries.

  5. Thanks for the info about Ferguson. I thought he was Baptist. His magnum opus intrigues even more now. Also, thanks for the recommendation of Bavinck. I haven’t read anything from, but his name pops up every now and then.

  6. In Scotland, we called our Master’s paper a “dissertation.” I think I heard both “thesis” and “dissertation” used in regard to Phd’s.

    By the way, I corrected a previous comment where I said “ELCA” instead of “EFCA.” The former is the mainline (liberal) Lutheran denomination; the latter is a (conservative) free church denomination which accepts both paedo- and credo- baptism, but credo is the norm.

    • Just to be nit-picky, I’m fairly certain that the EFCA does not allow for paedo. The Evangelical Covenant Church does, however, accept both.

      I wish I knew more about Newman.

      • I read some online exchanges a couple years ago by EFCA pastors, during the debates surrounding the revision of their Statement of Faith (which happened last year, but with very minor changes). Anyway, I read (more than once) that an EFCA distinctive is that they (1) do not require baptism for membership and (2) accept both paedo and credo forms of baptism, though the vast majority of churches practice the latter. This is why their Statement of Faith (contrary to the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message, for example) does not specify the subject of baptism (e.g., “believer”), nor the mode. The official EFCA website doesn’t have any information confirming this; it just has their Statement of Faith. But, a Google search will yield some message boards where people claim that the EFCA accepts both forms of baptism.

      • Newman’s University Sermons (a.k.a. Oxford University Sermons or Fifteen Sermons) are a very good introduction to his thought and style.

  7. Kevin,

    The author who first convinced me of the truth of infant baptism was Herman Hoeksema. I forget whether it was his argument in the ‘Triple Knowledge’ or in the ‘Reformed Dogmatics’ first convinced me.I would recommend reading them both; also, his book ‘Believers and Their Seed’.
    I should add that today I find Jesus himself teaching it in Matthew and Luke. I will let you study the issue for awhile before I show you where. You might even find it for yourself first if you look for it. The usual interpretation of the passage turns it into a promotion of works righteousness.
    I agree with Herman Hoeksema that the denial of infant baptism is grounded in semi-pelagianism.
    Note that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and the Psalmist in Psalm 22 was made to trust in the Lord as he hung on his mother’s breasts. Faith is a gift of God and is not within the natural power of anyone at any age.

    Bill Zuck

    • Thanks for the comment, Bill. I’ve read various arguments that use the Gospels but haven’t found any to be compelling, except that I would grant some significance to the John the Baptist reference you cite. And, I hadn’t thought about Psalm 22:9, but that certainly does have some significance. Interestingly, some Calvinists that I’ve read have granted the possibility of a habitus (as opposed to “act”) of faith bestowed on the infant at baptism or prior to. I think the divide between Lutherans and Calvinists has more to do with the Calvinist hesitancy to say that every baptism, by virtue of it being a baptism, results in the efficacious bestowal of grace (i.e., saving grace). That’s too “Roman Catholic” for Calvinists and gives way toward notions of how to “keep” this salvation (works, penance, confession, etc.). Once again, for the Calvinist, the integrity of the Reformed doctrine of election has to be sustained.

      • Kevin,
        Don’t mean to open up a can of worms here, but that sounds very much like you are saying that in order to preserve a doctrine of election, Calvinists undermine the very purpose of baptism according to Calvin himself, viz. “baptism is given to confirm to us that all our are sins are remitted…and can never be…charged against us.” Surely if the Bible teaches both a high doctrine of baptism and a high doctrine of election, then better to accept both rather than sacrifice one to reconcile the other with our reason?

      • Mark,

        Yeah, I do think that’s the problem. As both Barth and Brunner pointed out, Calvin’s consistency on this should be questioned. And, this is the same problem that has plagued the Federal Vision advocates. Invariably, they have to result to a distinction between electing grace and non-electing grace, with the possibility of the latter applied to some baptized infants (with genuine covenantal benefits, but not necessarily salvation). Of course, since baptism is a sign of participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, it seems highly problematic to postulate the possibility of a lesser, non-salvific grace/benefit for a baptized infant.

        Reformed theologians like Bavinck are insistent that there is no necessary link between baptism and (individual) election, and even for the elect there is no necessary link between the moment of baptism and regeneration (since the latter can first occur before, during, or after baptism). The only necessary link is between baptism and (corporate/familial) covenant, because baptism is always intended as a sign of, at least, the latter.

  8. Bill,

    I’ve noticed some Reformed seem to be edging closer to the Lutheran view on infant baptism, i.e. away from a covnenant based interpretation and back towards a more calssically Augustinian view based on the universality of original sin and the gift nature of faith. Was Hoeksema perhaps one of the first to go in this direction? I know of him but haven’t read his dogmatics.
    I’m also intrigued by your reference to Jesus teaching infant baptism in Matthew & Luke (not surprised, but intrigued). Lutheran exegesis has often found such references hidden, as it were, in the text – that’s another issue – but do tell us where you think such references are…

    • Herman Hoeksema was one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformed Churches and their chief theologian. The issue that caused them to break with the Christian Reformed Church was the question of common grace.

      Herman was a supralapsarian and developed what he called the organic conception of the covenant. He saw that the sacraments were, like the other forms of the word of God, means by which God elected the elect and reprobated the reprobate, the savor of life unto life and he savor of death unto death (2Cor.2:16).

      I agree with Hoeksema and the Protestant Reformed Churches that the usual conception of common grace is problematic. The conception of common grace that I accept is set forth by Gary North in his book Dominion and Common Grace.

      I go very far with most of the distinctive views of the Protestant Reformed, especially their organic conception of the convenant. God has given Jesus Christ as the Covenant to His people (Is.42:6; 49:1-8).

      To return to the nature of baptism note that Paul says this:
      “For you are all sons of God through the faith [located] in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal.3:26-27).

      Baptism is upon the name of Jesus, in His name, and into His name. It said to be in or with the water, it is never said to be into the water. Into the forgiveness of sins? Yes (Acts2:38), but not into the water!

      Note that Christ is the Author and Finisher of the Faith (Heb.12:2) and we receive it by putting on Christ in Baptism.

      Bill Zuck

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