Baptism, latest musings

November 15, 2010

As some of you know, I’ve been working through the doctrine of baptism, off and on, for the last year or so. I’ve read all or parts of some of the most well-known treatments of the subject: Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament (credobaptist), Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (credobaptist), Cullmann’s Baptism in the New Testament (paedobaptist), Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations (paedobaptist), Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.4 (credobaptist), Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church (credobaptist), and the relevant portions of Calvin’s Institutes (paedobaptist) and Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith (paedobaptist). As I’ve noted before, I’m most interested in the alternatives within a broader Reformed and evangelical soteriology.

With all that learning under my belt, you’d expect that I would have a fixed and certain position on the subject. I wish that were the case. I do have a much clearer understanding than previously. Most especially, I’ve come to see the importance of secondary results or consequences which arise from a church’s baptismal practice. For many people, these secondary consequences are the deciding factor in choosing between credobaptist and paedobaptist communions. So, what is the best illustration?

In a credobaptist church and family, the child is an object of evangelism. The parent considers his or her child as an object of evangelism in a very similar way that the same parent may consider an agnostic co-worker to be an object of evangelism. The child needs to be presented with the Gospel, repent, and receive Christ as Lord and Savior. So, usually between the ages of five and seven, Baptist parents will sit-down with their son or daughter and ask about his or her thoughts on Jesus. After the child accepts Christ, he or she will receive a public baptism before the whole congregation during the worship service. Thereafter, the child is considered a member of the body of Christ and, therefore, a member of the Church (universal) and the church (local).

In a Reformed paedobaptist church, the child is considered, or “presumed,” as a member of the body of Christ and the Church, or, at the least, as a member of the covenant. As such, the child may not be, as of yet, converted and made new (holy), but he or she is “federally holy.” The child is taught the Christian faith and exhorted toward continual faith in Christ, but he or she is not considered as an object of evangelism in the same way as the Baptist child. As a member of the covenant, the child would have to actively break covenant in order to be considered outside of Christ and his Church. [Side note: The current controversy over the “federal vision” is precisely on the question of how, or to what extent, the child is united with Christ at baptism.]

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both positions, which makes the issue all the more difficult to resolve. To my mind, there is an undeniable and praiseworthy connection between Baptist baptismal practice and the effectiveness of Baptist evangelism. The Baptist puts in the forefront the necessity of conversion: “you must be born again” (John 3:7-8). As such, the child is ever-conscious of the need to trust in Christ, just as all others are in need of being brought to Christ. [Side note: This intense focus on the work of Christ has done much to keep the Baptist churches, on the whole, from adopting aberrant liberal or existential Christologies.] However, the emphasis on personal conversion is problematic, especially from a paedobaptist vantage point. The paedobaptist rightly criticizes the Baptist over-emphasis on the emotional life as an indicator of conversion. A particular experience becomes the litmus test for true faith, and invariably as a child matures and enters adulthood the experiences of childhood are questioned and tested against further developments in understanding. This psychological burden is largely bypassed by the (Reformed) paedobaptist emphasis on an objective covenant and the antecedent work of God on our behalf. Presbyterians don’t typically worry about whether they are saved or not, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing insofar as a person’s feelings should not be made the measure of faith and obedience; it is a bad thing insofar as faith and obedience does require conversion and personal assent to the Gospel. The Baptist can tend to collapse the work of Christ into experience; the Presbyterian can tend to devalue experience and regeneration altogether.

So, these are the secondary consequences of baptismal practice; or, rather, baptismal practice is the consequence of a primary over-arching understanding of the covenants and faith. When the exegesis is not entirely persuasive in one direction or the other, these are the considerations that become the determining factor. Thus, the relative values ascribed to evangelism and experience (the credobaptist virtues/vices) or doctrinal excellence and catechesis (the paedobaptist virtues/vices) are of great importance in this debate.

I’ve been working my way through the Institutes. It just so happens that I recently finished reading Douglas Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations, a defense of paedobaptism according to the unity of the covenant made with Abraham and the covenant with Christ. So, I’ve been pondering the relation of the old and new testaments: law and gospel, circumcision and baptism, promise and fulfillment, etc. In my reading of the Institutes, I’ve come up to Book II, chapter XI, where Calvin gives a brilliant exposition of the unity of faith under the law of Moses and the Church of Christ. However, he then gives an equally brilliant exposition of the differences. I was surprised by how strongly expressed are the differences. After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, Calvin explains:

The Old Testament is of the letter, for it was published without the working of the Spirit. The New is spiritual because the Lord has engraved it spiritually upon men’s hearts. The second antithesis is by way of clarification of the first. The Old brings death, for it can but envelop the whole human race in a curse. The New is the instrument of life, for it frees men from the curse and restores them to God’s favor. The Old is the ministry of condemnation, for it accuses all the sons of Adam of unrighteousness. The New is the ministry of righteousness because it reveals God’s mercy, through which we are justified.

…Scripture calls the Old Testament one of “bondage” because it produces fear in men’s minds; but the New Testament, one of “freedom” because it lifts them to trust and assurance. [Calvin goes on to explain this using Romans 8:15, Hebrews 12:18-22, and Galatians 4:22-31.] …To sum up: the Old Testament struck the consciences with fear and trembling, but by the benefit of the New they are released into joy. The Old held consciences bound by the yoke of bondage; the New by its spirit of liberality emancipates them into freedom.

But suppose that our opponents object that, among the Israelites , the holy patriarchs were an exception: since they were obviously endowed with the same Spirit of faith as we, it follows that they shared the same freedom and joy. To this we reply: neither of these arose from the law. But when through the law the patriarchs felt themselves both oppressed by their enslaved condition, and wearied by anxiety of conscience, they fled for refuge to the gospel. It was therefore a particular fruit of the New Testament that, apart from the common law of the Old Testament, they were exempted from those evils. Further, we shall deny that they were so endowed with the spirit of freedom and assurance as not in some degree to experience the fear and bondage arising from the law. For, however much the privilege that they had received through the grace of the gospel, they were still subject to the same bonds and burdens of ceremonial observances as the common people. They were compelled to observe those ceremonies punctiliously, symbols of a tutelage resembling bondage; and the written bonds, whereby they confessed themselves guilty of sin, did not free them from obligation. Hence, they are rightly said, in contrast to us, to have been under the testament of bondage and fear, when we consider that common dispensation by which the Lord at that time dealt with the Israelites.

(pp. 457-459, McNeill edition)

Calvin’s point about the OT patriarchs and prophets is highly interesting. They were given a measure of freedom, but not complete freedom. They lack the freedom of a pure conscience, which is only given with the complete abolition of law-sin-death by Christ. How does this relate to baptism? If baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), then baptism is a mark of an accomplished regeneration for the individual. Thus, the credobaptists are seemingly correct for their emphasis on Jeremiah 31, and the “now” (not just “not yet”) of a redeemed people as an essential mark of the new covenant, as distinct from the old covenant. Of course, if circumcision is understood as an appeal to God for a good conscience (i.e., forgiveness), then the symmetry between circumcision and baptism can be upheld, allowing the baptism of infants.

I’m still working through this issue, but those are some of my thoughts for now. Doug Wilson’s book, by the way, is very well done.

If you haven’t already seen it, Matthew (from NT Perspectives) has posted the audio links to four lectures by Markus Barth on baptism. I’ve listened through them twice now. Lots of food for thought, especially the second and third lectures. As many of you already know, Markus follows his father, Karl, in rejecting any sort of “high” sacramental view of baptism. As such, Oscar Cullmann comes under some criticism, as does the Scottish Commission (influenced by T. F. Torrance) that re-asserted, contra Karl Barth, the traditional Reformed view of baptism. Especially interesting was his criticism, in the third lecture, of the Lutheran higher critics who used a syncretist hermeneutic, vis-à-vis the surrounding mystery cults, to affirm a supposedly Pauline high sacramentalism (i.e., baptism as a means of salvation).


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.

Halden has recently questioned, rightly so, the typical “voluntarism” charges against credobaptists (here and here) — voluntarism understood, of course, as a very bad thing. It just so happens that I was recently reading Barth’s critique of infant baptism in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Here’s an excerpt:

“The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.”

“Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus,” Lectures given at the University of Bonn, Summer Semester, 1947.

The Heidelberg Catechism for Today, trans. Shirley Guthrie (John Knox Press, 1964), p. 104.

John the Baptist, detail of Grünewald's Isenheim atarpiece

John the Baptist, detail of Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece

Well, I’ve been sidetracked from the baptism issue by reading some Edward John Carnell, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite philosophers. Anyway, continuing…

I think it would be helpful to think through a possible defense of paedobaptism from Reformed perspective. I think the Reformed line is particularly interesting because of its relative novelty in the Christian tradition and its unique systematic-exegetical base. The Catholic line is pretty straightforward. Two beliefs form the foundation of the Catholic argument:

1. Baptism has an intrinsic efficacy for salvation. This, of course, is not to say that it operates apart from the merit of Christ or the agency of the Holy Spirit, but it is to say that the application of baptism, apart from a positive rejection of Christ, regenerates. Baptism effects the new creation of the moral self — release from bondage to sin/Devil and the sure promise of resurrection to eternal life with God. All that Christ received from the Father is the inheritance of the baptized.

2. Infants are subject to sin and the Devil. All humans are born “in Adam,” and thus subject to the curse of sin — condemnation and eternal death.

If you combine these two points, the need to baptize infants is sure to be accepted, and so it was. Everett Ferguson believes that the early Church only began to baptize infants in emergency situations (sickness and imminent death), and with high infant mortality rates, it just became normative to baptize infants in certain parts of the Church. Clerics had to account for this, many questioning or rejecting prescriptive paedobaptism, but not questioning its efficacy. Even Tertullian, who questioned paedobaptism, still believed it effected what it signified — salvation. It would not be until the 5th-6th centuries that baptismal liturgies reflected normative paedobaptism. Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin guaranteed the practice for the Western Church.

With the radical re-thinking of the doctrine of justification during the Reformation, baptism also had to be rethought. The Reformed had a harder time with the Catholic baptismal theology than the Lutherans. The Lutherans, to be sure, re-framed baptism within sola fide, many even supposing an infused faith into the infant, but the Reformed re-framed baptism within the doctrine of God, his election and covenant(s). Baptism, for the Reformed, thus acquires an objectivity not found in the Lutheran or Catholic schemes; it locates the baptized infant in the covenant of God, with promises conditioned on faith, but does not at the moment of baptism surely effect the salvation. In other words, baptism does not guarantee the chosen remnant within the broader covenantal community. If baptism did, then every baptized infant in the Reformed scheme is surely elect and surely saved for all time. The doctrine of perseverance of the saints is critical for understanding the Reformed apprehensiveness toward the Catholic and Lutheran baptismal theologies.

This difficulty is accounted for by many Reformed theologians through a strengthened view of covenantal graces. The infant brought into covenant with God receives the blessings (temporal, if not eternal) of the elect and can, in one sense, be called “saved.” They are brought from paganism and into the (visible) Church. The infants who are not elect, and who fall away, can thus fit nicely into the description of the apostate in Hebrews 6. They are “enlightened” and “made holy” in the covenantal sense, but not in the sense acquired by “effectual grace” (in the technical Reformed sense), received only by the elect.

This high view of covenantal grace is, in my view, the way Reformed theology should go about the issue. Indeed, I don’t see any other way without compromising fundamental Reformed commitments to Election and Eternal Security. Whether this best accords with scripture is another issue, but it at least gives baptism some sacramental efficacy (grace received) assumed in the early Church, if in a rather different way.


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.