Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Sign of the Covenant (Part Six: Some Objections)

My goal in this post is not to present an exhaustive list of Baptist objections. I'm not even sure these are their best objections. But as a Baptist myself at one time, these were the objections that kept me from embracing covenantal infant baptism. They were the objections I most commonly heard and employed. Although some parts of my posts have gotten a little technical, and although much of the commentary below the posts has been very technical, I'm trying to write for the average lay person for the most part. I'll try to simplify the argument in the summary in my final post. Here, then, are the objections most commonly employed.

First, if we are supposed to baptize infants, why don't we see any infant baptisms in the Bible?

If we concede that baptism has replaced circumcision, we do see infants receiving the sign in the Bible. If, however, we restrict ourselves to the NT, we need to consider the context. Acts is not concerned with answering the question of whether or not infants should receive the sign. Instead it is recording the spread of the Kingdom through the gospel. It records adult conversions and the baptisms that follow. This is what we would expect from such a narrative. This objection is an argument from silence and is therefore not effective. I could with equal force ask why we don't see any children being baptized when they come of age. Or why we aren't told of any women participating in the Lord's Supper. It's also important to remember that children were included in the covenant in the OT and would be assumed to be members of the NC unless they were instructed otherwise. So the burden is not on the paedobaptist to prove that children were baptized, but on the Baptist, to prove that they were not, having for some reason been excluded.

It should also be noted that of the (only) 12 recorded baptism events in the NT after (but including) Pentecost, 4 are certainly household baptisms (Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian Jailer, and Stephanus), and one other appears to have been (Crispus). It is no more legitimate for Baptists to insist that children were absent or not included in these baptisms than it is for Presbyterians to insist that they were. We simply cannot know the ages of those present based upon these records. But what we do see is that the text emphasizes that the baptism was a household baptism. This means the entire household. The Baptist argues that if infants were present, they would have been excluded. But the text does not say this. And the argument assumes the very point in question. In the case of the Philippian Jailer, it says he was baptized at once, "he and all his family." There is no attempt to assure us that infants were excluded. And before we laugh and say there was no need for Luke (the author of Acts) to record that for us, keep in mind: Infants were included in this rite of covenant membership for 1700 years. Their part would have to be assumed unless some instruction had been given otherwise. It is not silly to assume they were there and they participated. It is contrary to the biblical pattern to assume that they weren't. And yet their exclusion is not clarified by Luke.

This household language is also incredibly reminiscent of the OC. The language of covenant was "household" language. Genesis 17 speaks of circumcision being applied to all the males in his house. Dueteronomy 6 commands parents to instruct their children (because they are covenant children!). Paul issues instructions patterned on this same assumption (see Ephesians 6:1-4, for example, where Paul repeats the 5th commandment, with its promise, to gentile children). This is an identical pattern with regard to the sphere of the covenant. It is household in both cases.

Second, we cannot baptize infants since they are not regenerate (or saved, or have not confessed faith, etc). We don't know if they will grow up to be Christians.

It has been my contention throughout this series that baptism is not a sign given to regenerate people. We cannot know who is regenerate and who is not. We may be able to make a reasonable guess, but we cannot know for certain. Instead, the sign has always been commanded to a confessing people and their children. Let me put it this way. Abraham was saved by faith. Then the sign of God's promises to Abraham was given. This sign, which Gen 17 says is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, is then commanded for his 8 day old boys. So even though salvation was already by faith, the sign of membership in this community of faith was commanded for those that could not express faith. If God worked this way in the OC, why can he not work this way in the NC? More to the point: God commanded this forever in Gen 17. This has never been repealed. "Forever" has never been clarified to mean: "for a little while." We have never been told our children are now excluded! I think this is crucial. God issued an explicit command forever and has never said children are now out. This idea is inferred by the Baptists from the lack of infant baptism examples in the NT. Should we ignore a command of God based upon an inference?

Furthermore, I will level the same charge at the Baptists: How can you baptize someone when they may not prove to be regenerate? Do you see how that works? This objection of the Baptists cuts both ways. Just because an adult can claim to have faith doesn't mean they won't turn out to be faithless (and unfortunately they sometimes do). Just because an infant can't confess doesn't mean they will turn out to be faithless. In neither case can we know. And praise be to God, he has not given us the task of discerning it. Even in the case of adult baptism, we give the sign to those that make a confession of faith with Christ as its object according to Scripture. We do not wait until we can prove their regenerate status (a task that is impossible for man).

Third, faith must precede baptism by NT example.

This is actually not much different from the first objection. And my answer will include a portion of my answer to the second. The NT examples do not exhaust everything there is to be said about baptism. This is clear from the fact that we also learn about baptism from non-narrative passages. Paul teaches about it in Romans 6 and Colossians 2, for example. What we learn from him there is more than we knew from just the 12 events recorded. Additionally, Isaac received the sign prior to faith. There can be no objection that salvation was somehow different under the OC. It certainly was not. When Paul says Abraham was saved by faith in Galatians 3:1-6, his point is that this is how God has always worked in salvation. So if faith did not have to precede the OC sign, why does it need to proceed the NC sign? Some biblical evidence must be provided that our children are not members of the covenant, or that they should now be excluded, otherwise the "forever" quality of the command in Genesis 17 compels us to give them the sign.

This objection is often brought up not only by general NT example, but specifically by Peter's instruction in Acts 2: "Repent and be baptized." Repentance (so the argument goes) precedes baptism. I believe this argument ignores the immediate context. Peter's audience was an adult audience. He was calling them to repentance. In such cases, faith does precede baptism. So this instruction is in no way contrary to what we would expect or teach ourselves in obedience to the Scripture. It is also, by the way, the pattern required in the OC for adult converts. Exodus 12:43-49 teaches that adults converting to faith in God must receive the sign. Their faith precedes their receipt of the sign. But this requirement is not extended to the children of those who are covenant members. In fact, notice that once this gentile has expressed his faith and received the sign, so does the rest of his household. This pattern is quite familiar to those who have read of the household conversions in Acts. The head converts and receives the sign, followed immediately by the application of the sign to his household.

Fourth, infant baptism is a late doctrine not found in the early church. Therefore it must be a corruption that snuck in after the apostles.

"Late" is such a tricky word. Is 100 years after the disciples too late? Now be careful. I didn't say this is when the practice started. This is the earliest attestation. There is no reason to believe it didn't start with the apostles. Baptists often point to these early sources and say this is when it started. That would be like pointing to the earliest reference to "Trinity" (Tertullian, late 2nd, early 3rd century) and saying this is when Trinitarianism started. I'm going to do a separate post in the coming days dedicated just to the historical evidence for infant baptism. But this is good stuff. We not only have evidence that it occurred. We have the testimony of the Fathers from this very period of the early church that they believed it was connected to circumcision. Did you catch that? The view of Presbyterians that circumcision is the precursor to baptism isn't a new idea. The New Covenant theologians might want you to think it only came along with the advent of Covenant Theology in the 17th century. But it turns out that we have evidence that the church linked baptism and circumcision logically at least as far back as the early 3rd century (200 to 250). That's 1800 years! And lest you are left thinking 3rd century sounds late: It's just over 100 years after the last apostle died! It's at or perhaps less than 200 years after Christ was crucified. And as far back as 200 or thereabouts we have writings from the Fathers that indicate it was being practiced as the normal practice all over the Christian world. What is more feasible: The Presbyterian argument that infant baptism was practiced by the apostles and we don't have any writings on it until 100 years after they died? OR the Baptist argument that within 100 years of the last apostle a great mistake has been made and adopted throughout the Christian world in which they baptize their infants contrary to the apostles, and we don't have so much as a letter or a book from anyone at the time decrying this great mistake?

History alone can't prove paedobaptism. But let's be very careful about believing the argument that history doesn't support infant baptism. Of the two options, history is far kinder to the view of covenantal infant baptism. It not only has early support, it is the practice of the vast majority of the church throughout church history. So if we look back over 2000 years of church history, we find that most Christians practiced infant baptism throughout this period. Again, I'll post a survey of some of the most significant historical references in the very near future.

(Edit: The post is up. You can read it here.)

Finally, the theological system of Covenantal Theology is wrong. Since this is the system upon which the doctrine of infant baptism is based, and since it is not the system taught in Scripture, the paedobaptist is wrong.

Another way to say this is: If we can prove that CT isn't true, then we have undermined the entire Presbyterian argument for infant baptism. I'm willing to concede this point for the sake of argument. I disagree, however, that CT is not biblical. Anyone making such an argument has some burden to demonstrate how and where the system fails to account for some portion of Scripture. And the responsible thing is to offer some better system in return. Those who raise this objection attempt to do both. The system they offer is usually referred to as New Covenant Theology. I won't offer a critique of this system here. We've discussed this at length in the comments under a previous post. My friend, Jay Bennett, is also critiquing this view as published by Dr. Stephen Wellum. This writing is widely recognized by Baptists as the best argument they have yet put forward. I look forward to Jay's unfolding response.

In short, however, I will offer this critique. The fundamental argument of NCT is that the New Covenant foretold in Jeremiah 31 has been completely fulfilled, and in so doing, has completely abrogated (undone) all previous covenants. They also point to Hebrews 8 to support this view. This argument must be addressed (and has been, for example here). But it is not proving to be a difficult argument. The CT view is more nuanced and takes into account the broader testimony of Scripture. The NCT view is too optimistic about our current condition, making it difficult to explain our future hope if the NC in which it was promised has already been perfectly fulfilled. I'd encourage you to read Wellum, then read Jay.

The bottom line: If you are already a convinced CT, infant baptism is the only consistent position you can hold. If you deny infant baptism, you need to go back and reconsider your understanding and commitment to CT. Your only basis for denying infant baptism is a fundamental disagreement with the basic premise of CT: There is one eternal covenant of which the biblical covenants are unfolding revelations (Abraham, Moses, David, and New). My point in this paragraph isn't to draw lines and try to push anyone into or out of a particular group or label. But if you attend a Presbyterian church and willingly embrace covenant theology, but reject infant baptism, I'm sounding a little alarm for you. You need to rethink some things.

In the final post I will summarize my argument with proof texts (at least that's the plan!).


M. Jay Bennett said...

Excellent finish Matt! What a great series you've put together. Nice work!

Matthew Bradley said...

Thanks, Jay!

I've already written the historical survey and I'm quite pleased with the result. It was a fun study to engage in. I'll post it tomorrow.

Just one more post (summary) and I'm done. This has been a bit more work than I expected. It was a good exercise, but I'm looking forward to a break and some lighter posts. Coming so quickly on the heels of my previous series, this has taxed me. I need a vacation! :^)