I’m a Baptist of a Reformed bent. I love high-church services, but there’s something about the dunking of converts in vats of water which apparently renders such practitioners incapable of practicing high-church. I prefer Bach to praise choruses; were I a paedobaptist I would find myself much more comfortable on Sunday mornings. Alas, I am not, though I long to be. I’m not alone—many Reformed Baptists feel a little out of place and, having already been properly baptized, make the plunge to a Presbyterian or Episcopalian church of their liking, particularly if their children are grown. My child’s about two, which means this isn’t an option for me.
Nevertheless, the desire to be convinced of the merit of the paedobaptist view lingers in my mind and heart. So it was with great anticipation I cracked open a book about a credo-baptist’s journey to being a paedobaptist. The book was given to me by its author, who is a good and kind man. His thinking on the issue of baptism, however, is illogical, incomplete, and tinctured by haughtiness, which is to say that it is typical of a paedobaptist’s arguments about baptism. But I write this, my response, not as an attack on the author’s intelligence—his name will not be mentioned, nor will the title of his book. Instead, as I note that his book is typical of the arguments I’ve heard from credo-turned-paedo-baptists, I take it upon myself to rebut the ideas contained therein. You’ll read quotes from the book as I use them to display the thinking, and wrong-headedness of its underlying logic. As I said, I’ll not use the name of the book, but in the spirit of Lewis I shall call it the Blue Book, and I’ll refer to its author as Justus. It is only right that I not refer to the author by name, not only because of my desire not to embarrass him, but because the thinking reflected in the book is not really his own. Justus didn’t lock himself in a room with a lamp and a Bible until he came away with a “proper” understanding of baptism. He adopted the thinking of others, and is now in the Blue Book trying to hook new converts to an idea he finds intellectually appealing.
Anytime baptism is discussed with a paedobaptist two things become clear: he wants to put off the discussion of baptism as long as possible, and he wants to cloak his error in a system which he says unlocks the key as to how God has interacted with people throughout the ages. Justus does this as well, punting his discussion of baptism until you get a few chapters into his book, which putatively is about baptism.
The system which is the key to the paedobaptist’s view is called covenantal theology. Justus ably explains that God interacts with people by way of covenant. The following covenants are then listed: Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenant. Justus, in typical paedobaptist form, declares that these covenants are always made with promises of concomitant blessings, not only with the immediate party to the covenant, but also with his family.
Justus’s revelation on this last point comes quickly, and thankfully. For Justus, the idea that the object of the New Covenant is the numerous physical families rather than the untold number of individuals who make up the Church is foundational. Justus comes to this conclusion from his erroneous reading of the Old Testament, so that when he comes to the Gospels he has a fully formed presupposition that will necessarily lead to his error regarding baptism.
Justus begins by recounting a conversation he had after a service while he was still an elder at a Baptist church. The dialogue concludes with Justus asking, “Would you like to see my reasons for thinking that the Bible supports including our children in God’s gracious covenant?” BB at 2.
Justus then provides his readers with the focus of his book: “Baptists maintain that baptism is for believers only. Others say that baptism is for believers and for their children. Holding to the latter view are Reformed paedobaptists.” BB at 2. Here we see the beginnings of the self-deception in which our author is engaged. For what unfolds in his tome is a defense of paedobaptism that would suggest, no, demand, that it is not only the children of believers who should be baptized, but a believer’s whole household should be baptized, yet Justus lacks the courage of his conviction, or at least in the end he distrusts his own hermeneutic. If Justus’s argument is true for the infant, it is just as true for the recalcitrant teenager, the unbelieving spouse, even the mother-in-law who lives at the home of a new convert and his unbelieving wife. We must note, then, at the outset one of the problems with the term paedobaptist: It is at once both too broad and too narrow. No paedobaptist would argue that the church is called upon to baptize all infants, thereby making the term too broad. But the term is too narrow, because the paedobaptist does not argue for the forced baptism of the twelve-year-old son of a new convert, or the mother-in-law in the above-example. The term credo-baptist, in contrast, is crystal: baptize all those who believe, and only those who believe. The problems with Justus’s focus-statement continue when he creates a false-dichotomy: there are the Baptists, he says, and the Reformed paedobaptists. What is a Reformed paedobaptist? A thorough reading of the book reveals that he is an infant-sprinkler unsullied by the soot of Rome.
So sensitive is Justus to this last issue that he makes a point to direct the reader’s attention away from Roman Catholicism on page 3—“Some . . . argue that Reformed paedobaptists baptize infants because of the influence of the old Roman Catholic sacerdotal practice. But that is a fallacy of guilt by association. While some people may practice infant baptism because of Roman Catholic influence, it is not fair to presume that all paedobaptists do so for the same reason.” BB at 3. But no one argues that John Calvin or B.B. Warfield practiced paedobaptism because they were sympathetic to Roman Catholicism or because they were fettered to the pope. Yet somehow Justus has found people who do make that outlandish claim: “It would be a fantastic claim to suggest, as I have heard it said, that these men [John Calvin, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, J. Gresham Machen, John Murray, and Cornelius Van Til] hold their position on baptism because they have mindlessly followed Rome.” BB at 3-4 (emphasis added). If Justus “heard it said” that John Calvin “mindlessly followed Rome,” then he must have been reciting this line in front of the mirror just for the sake of being able to say he’s heard the phrase uttered.
You can tell a lot about a writer by the straw-men he bundles together. This scarecrow scatters before one finishes processing the punctuation at the end the sentence about those said to have “mindlessly followed Rome.” To say that paedobaptism is a vestige of Rome is not to say that Charles Hodge mindlessly followed the pope. More importantly, Justus knows this is the case. Moreover, while I’m sure Calvin wasn’t tied to Rome, I’m sure Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Murray, and Van Til were tied to Calvin, and were ardent defenders of Calvin’s clear and beautiful teaching on grace. But Justus also knows that the point of theology where each of the above-cited theologians is weakest, particularly Hodge, is on the issue of baptism. The recent convert to Reformed theology will pour into Calvin’s Institutes and Hodge’s Systematic Theology and be blessed beyond measure by their observations about grace. But when they get to baptism they’ll surely be disappointed by their lack of a convincing defense of the practice of infant baptism. So overwhelming were paedobaptists as opposed to credobaptists in terms of number in the days of Calvin that he does little more than call Anabaptists buffoons and heretics. Hodge’s defense of infant baptism is circuitous and dissatisfying for anyone looking for something beyond confirmation of a pre-existing belief.
Though Justus takes liberties in mischaracterizing his theological opponents in certain spaces, he is gracious to show in the conclusion of his first chapter the foundation for his view on infant baptism: (1) Covenant theology; (2) continuity of the covenant of grace; (3) continuity of the people of God; (4) continuity of the covenant signs; (5) continuity of households. BB at 8. I’ll share below how Justus pours the five footings of his foundation. For now, though, it is sufficient briefly to make some general observations about these pillars.
First regarding what’s there. The list obviously is tautological. Everything after “covenant theology” is superfluous, and is a necessary outflow of covenant theology. It’s rather like a Dispensationalist listing his five pillars as: (1) God has two people, Israel and the Church; (2) God has a special plan for Israel; (3) God is not done with Israel; (4) God will fulfill all of his promises to Israel; and (5) God will return to Israel all of the land of Palestine. The primary pillar is covenant theology, and by this Justus means that “throughout the Bible, God relates to his people by way of a covenant of grace.” BB at 8. Surely such a statement is one with which no Christian could disagree. But Justus may as well have written a very nice open letter to all Baptists asking them to read a primer on covenant theology, for that is ultimately what Justus attempts to provide, and if one adopts all of the underlying assumptions of covenant theology one will certainly come to their designed conclusion. For covenant theology is not simply the idea that “God relates to his people by way of a covenant of grace,” but a distinct theological system, developed over the past three hundred years, which holds to Justus’s pillars two through four.
If I were going to craft “five pillars” of any commandment or ordinance in Scripture, one of my pillars would be the examples the Bible gives of that commandment or ordinance being carried out, and another would be the Hebrew or Greek for language used to prescribe that commandment or ordinance. While I appreciate Justus’s global view of the Bible, seeking to find “continuity” throughout the Scriptures in order to observe a theme that leads him to the shallow font, I think he goes too far in trying not to fall victim of failing to see the forest for the trees. He views the woodlands from so far above that he cannot make out a single oak, much less a copse here or there. He just sees a mass of green and brown.
Consider the covenantal syncretism that occurs here: “To be included in this gracious covenant meant to be an heir of the promise (i.e., one who should lay claim to the Redeemer). A child of the covenant had available all the benefits and privileges of this covenant, including salvation. Yet this same child of the covenant, failing to appropriate these benefits by faith, became a covenant breaker and received God’s covenant judgment instead of his covenant blessing.” BB at 9. This statement was in the context of a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham, whereby God commanded him to circumcise “all those in his household, including his children.” BB at 9. Justus tells us that this didn’t mean all those people who were circumcised would be regenerated, only that they had the opportunity to “appropriate” all of God’s blessings by faith. BB at 9. Who, pray tell, has the benefit of being able to “lay claim to the Redeemer?” The children of believing parents alone? In the New Covenant God has not made a deal with an ethnic group of people, or various families of diverging origin, saying to them, “Do this and I will give you blessing; do that and I will curse you.” God has said to the world, “Jesus Christ gave his life as a remission for sin.” The world stands condemned already, but a merciful blessing of grace is offered and given to all who believe. The case of Israel was far different. God called Abraham and Abraham alone. God said he would make a nation out of Abraham, and he set Abraham and his descendants (with notable exceptions) apart from the rest of the world with a sign—the sign of circumcision. Abraham’s spiritual children are set aside with a circumcision not performed by hands—a circumcision of the heart.
Circumcision, says Justus, was just one of the “older administrations of the covenant of grace” and has now been replaced by water baptism. BB at 10 (“water baptism has replaced circumcision as the sign of covenant admission”). If that were true, that “water baptism has replaced circumcision,” then one might expect such a statement to be found in the New Testament, particularly in Paul’s epistles. Alas, it is glaringly absent. Not only do the Gospel writers and Apostles fail to tell us that water baptism has replaced circumcision, we see that in the controversies addressed regarding baptism, circumcision is never discussed, and likewise in the controversies addressed regarding circumcision, baptism is absent. And when circumcision is discussed in the epistles it is done so by way of showing that it was a metaphor for faith. Baptism is not a metaphor for faith that rests within the heart of man, but a symbol of the work of Christ and his resurrection from the dead.