The great debate about the proper subjects of baptism is hampered by the sin of talking passed one another. One side (hence, the Baptist) says one thing and the other (hence, the Presbyterian) another and neither side is listening. Well, except for me (!). I am listening and what I hear is a lot of arguments against straw men. All of the ins-and-outs of this or that errant teaching on baptism are irrelevant. Don’t bring them up. Don’t bring up Rome, Eastern Orthodoxy, or any other faction with which one might disagree. As a reformed Christian who believes the proper subjects of baptism are infants and those more mature, the arguments against Rome and the East won’t do here. Their arguments for baptism are not mine.
Here is the fundamental issue: the nature of the covenant. What one believes about the nature of the covenant is what is at stake. It is an issue of hermeneutics, interpretation, and application of the two. For instance, how does one interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew about his parousia? Jesus does not simply come to the issue for the first time in chapters 23-25. He has been addressing his audience on his parousia from the beginning. When Jesus talks about the sun, moon, and stars in upheaval, to what is he referring? This is an issue of hermeneutics and there is only one right answer.
After hearing my presentation of my hermeneutics on the passage above another might simply disagree with my methodology and that is the same with the baptism issue. It is an issue of definition and terms. History is a helpful guide but she is not the master. What the second or third century generation did and practised is basically irrelevant to the discussion for both parties. Both sides of the debate have quotable authorities from the early church. What of it? Much of what is used in the debate is actually an argument from silence on both sides, so let’s not do that.
Let us argue from the scriptures and by that I do not mean let’s look at the NT and note where it mandates baptizing infants. Don’t even go there. Don’t bring it up. I already concede it’s not there. What is there? Silence. There is silence for both parties. For the Baptist, there is a silence as a mandate for the baptism of infants. For the Presbyterian there is a silence for change in protocol from the application of the covenant sign to infants (that is, the NT does not change what the OT establishes). Both must argue, then, from better cornerstones.
Sidebar: Here I will address a red herring which is often used in arguing for the Baptist position. One of the principles of the Baptist position is to argue for the mode of immersion in baptism. Many Baptists argue that immersion is the biblically mandated mode for believer baptism. When a person is baptized the proper way to perform the rite is immersion. His reasoning is based upon the language of many NT texts which say that both the one baptized and the one performing it “went down into the water.” The conclusion drawn is this. The preposition into denotes the use of more water than merely sprinkling or pouring.
Not denying this, the Presbyterian will answer that into doesn’t have to imply that more water is used than would fit into one’s hand or hands. Yes, both went down into the water but the water was merely applied to the new convert and that not in excess.
Both parties of the debate can argue for their position based upon the language of the text and so, if both arguments can be validated, they negate each other and ought not be used too particularly. On the one hand, the Baptist argument is valid because in the Greek, baptize can denote full immersion. On the other hand, the Presbyterian will argue that this same word can also denote a thing simply being washed and not immersed. Both are true and so neither ought solely to be rested upon.
End of the sidebar.
First, in the arsenal of the Baptist there is an silence of mandatory infant baptism in the New Testament. Much of his hermeneutic is summed up thus: whatever from the Old Testament is repeated in the New is to be observed. So for instance, in the case of the sign of baptism, there is no evidence of its being applied to infants in any of the New Testament writings. Therefore, in this system applying the waters of baptism to infants is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
This however, does not threaten to undo the Presbyterian. In fact, he rejects this hermeneutic per se. From his perspective this way of interpreting the Bible is only one side of the coin. That is, suppose someone were to say, “Well, the New Testament doesn’t repeat the prohibition not to copulate with animals, therefore, it is now allowed.” “No.” the Presbyterian would say, “Even though the NT does not repeat this prohibition, it is still in effect.” Therefore, this principle in theory is rejected. The other side of the coin is this. In principle, whatever the Old Testament establishes is still in effect if it is not prohibited. Therefore, since the principle of applying the covenant sign to infants is not rescinded, it is still in effect.
Here is where the impasse appears. Does either side of the debate agree to or at least understand these principles? If the Presbyterian rejects this argument, the Baptist must go elsewhere. If the Baptist rejects the Presbyterian argument, then the application is the same and so the argument must be based upon other grounds.
So where does one begin? One begins at the beginning.
Why do most Baptists reject paedobaptism? I shall offer only two examples as far as I can tell. One is hermeneutics. In this area the Baptist looks at the NT and reads of men and women (primarily in Acts) converting and receiving baptism. The only record in the NT of the recipients of baptism are those who are able to respond to the message of the Apostles. For the Baptist, then, this is fundamental to his interpretation and application of what he reads. He then surmises that only those who respond in faith receive baptism. In my opinion, this is really the only place for the Baptist to hang his hat.
The other reasons for a Baptist to reject paedobaptism becomes personal, existential, and emotional. That is, the Baptist rejects this position solely because he is reacting emotionally to what he believes is an errant view of baptism. For instance, many Baptists will argue that history shows that many Christians have taught that the waters of baptism automatically and actually remove sin and in effect “save” the recipient; based on this fact, the Baptist will reject this view of baptism. Another reason to reject infant baptism as a Baptist is the historical view that baptism “regenerates” a person or is the cause of making a person spiritually alive from the death of sin. Lastly, the Baptist rejects infant baptism because the infant is not able to decide for himself that he would like to be baptized. The child is baptized, so-to-speak, against his will and this appears to many as tyrannical and despotic and the NT example is that of men and women deciding for themselves.
All of these examples though are personal in essence. That is, the Baptist will reject the idea because it doesn’t fit into his view of what sin, salvation, faith, and people are and not upon the Bible’s view of the nature of the covenant.
A similar point can be made regarding Christians who reject the sovereignty of God in salvation. Some believe man is solely responsible for his conversion to Christ and any thought that God alone chooses whom he will or will not save is personally abhorrent to that person. What is the issue here? Is it the Bible? Not primarily. It is one’s personal views on who God is, what he does, and who man is and what he is capable to doing. The Calvinist will point to his interpretation of certain passages and the Arminian will reject that interpretation based upon his existential reaction to the information. He simply does not like this view of God and man. He is a hopeful optimist and the Calvinist position is too pessimistic. His view is not based upon what the Bible says, but upon his own personal feelings. This is the same with the Baptist view of baptism.
The only approach saving the Baptist from losing the argument is two-fold. On the one hand, there is the argument based upon the demonstration of baptism in the New Testament. On the other, is the Baptist’s argument that the nature of the New Covenant is different than that of the Old Covenant. So, finally, all of this debate depends upon the nature of the covenant to which we now turn.
**In the symbolic world of the Bible’s language much of what is said is covenantally analogical. That is, something is said or done as if it were actually true because the action is taking place within the sphere of the covenant. In the case of baptism, one reads in Acts,
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What is to be understood from this passage? Regarding baptism, there are two things one learns. First, baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. Second, baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins. That is what the passage says. Think about this. Were a new Christian to read this passage on his own without knowing anything about church history, what would he conclude? Would he have any presuppositions preventing his taking this passage at face value? Most likely not. Most likely he would read this passage and begin to speak like the Bible speaks.
However, to speak this way about the efficacy of baptism puts many people ill-at-ease. Within the covenant, though, speaking this way is fundamental. In order for a person to have a right relationship with God, his sins must be dealt with. The guilt and death that belongs to a person still in Adam must be removed before entrance into the covenant is effected. This is just one aspect of the symbolism of the rite of circumcision. Access to God’s presence in the OT was mediated by the presence of the tabernacle and in order to be close to God’s presence, sin had to be removed (or covered as the Bible speaks). Symbolically, then, circumcision did this. Not to be circumcised (only for the priestly nation of Israel since Gentiles were saved with a “circumcision made without hands”) was still to be in Adam symbolically and therefore in death and sin. To be circumcised was to be cleansed symbolically from death and sin on the eighth day. For seven days, the son was dead in trespasses and sins, but on the eighth, new day, he was made alive by God.1
Interestingly, the same result is given to the mother in an analogous rite. The circumcision of the male child lessened the time of uncleanness for the mother. When she had a daughter and there was no circumcision ritual, her days of purification were doubled. The doubling of the days of purification, then, seems to function as a symbolic circumcision. For the male, there was actual physical circumcision while for the female the rite was communicated through a different rite. All of this is symbolic covenantal language. The point to be made here is the rituals were symbolic ways of conveying God’s holiness. To have access to God, one’s defilement needed to be covered.
Think back to the Abrahamic covenant. Were we to use today’s vernacular to communicate this story we might say this:
God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be [baptized]. “And you shall be baptised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. “And every male among you who is eight days old shall be baptised throughout your generations, who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants, who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be baptised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. “But an un-baptised male who is not baptised in the flesh…that person [will be hated by me]; he has broken My covenant.”
The practical application of this is the Baptist will not be able to behave as he would like. He would like to behave by teaching his child that God loves him and that Jesus died for him and to pray and sing to God. But in the Baptist’s theology, he cannot. He must needs bring the child through the rigors of conversion before anything positively can be done toward God by the child. Here is the irony. One would expect the Baptist to behave baptistically. He doesn’t. He can’t. Instead he behaves presbyterianly. He treats his child the same way as the one against whom he is arguing. He is in fact, discipling a child in the way he should go.
This is not mean to sound over simplified and as if a straw man is being constructed to destroy. Is there anyone in the history of Baptist theology who lived consistently with his belief about baptism? If he did, he would discourage his child from praying, singing, or confessing with the family before there is evidence of a true conversion. How can God listen to a sinner who is still in his sins? Isn’t that the point of conversion?
One argument made by Baptists is that faith is the only thing that saves. Without faith there is no salvation. God will not save without faith. If a person dies without faith in Christ, he dies as an enemy and still in his sins. Unless, of course, one is talking about infants. Baptists believe infants are not damned to hell for at least two reasons. One, infants have no original sin. If this is true, then, when an infant dies, there is no sin for which to atone and so God welcomes all infants into glory regardless of the covenant. Second, infants are born sinners but God is merciful and kind and loves his image in them and so based upon his goodness to them, saves them in spite of their sin and, indeed, despite the fact that they have no faith.
The irony in both of these instances is that to some degree, the Baptist believes what the Presbyterian believes; the Baptist presupposes what the Presbyterian does and he doesn’t even know it. The only difference is he doesn’t baptize the infant. The Baptist position is that the New Covenant is only made up of those who truly profess the faith because for him, to be “in covenant” with God is to be truly saved. The question becomes, are infants (regardless of being born to believing parents) in covenant with God? The Baptist will say, No. Pagan child or Christian, the infant cannot be in covenant with God without faith. And yet, he will grant a position in the covenant and salvation to infants who die before being able to even hear the Gospel based upon his view of God’s mercy. The presupposition is that God saves the child without requiring him to exhibit faith.
As the premise of this essay shows, it is the nature of the covenant that answers all of these difficult questions. The Presbyterian position to the above caricature is that infants are in covenant with God through baptism but that being in covenant with God is not automatically salvific. The Presbyterian position to the above caricature is that infants are Christians through their baptism but being a Christian is not automatically salvific.
Baptism is a sign of being in the covenant wherein there are stipulations for the covenant member. Baptism is a sign of ordination and obligation to serve God faithfully under the threat of death. For the infant who lives out the positive implications of his baptism he is saved not by baptism in and of itself but with his baptism and by faith. For the infant who lives a life of faithlessness contrary to his baptism and dies in unbelief, he baptism will stand against him as witness to his violation of the covenant and his baptism will not save him without faith.
Baptism is a symbolic teaching tool the believer is given to use for his edification and discipline. Peter says in his epistle that baptism is an answer to God for a clean conscience. The Baptist argues that an infant cannot appeal to God for a clean conscience. But Peter does not intend to define baptism so narrowly. Peter’s words are meant to bring assurance to those who being baptized use that baptism as an appeal to God for a clean conscience. Paul’s appeal to the Roman soldier based upon his being born a Roman citizen is an apt analogy. Paul was born into his citizenship and did not understand its import until he was strung up to be beaten without trial. What does he do? He appeals to the governing authority for his deliverance. He says, I am a Roman citizen by birth, therefore, grant me parlay. It is the same with baptism. The mature Christian uses what was given to him as an infant to appeal to God for an audience. Baptism then (contrary to Baptist thought) does provide assurance and that for the infant it is a latent privilege to be used all throughout one’s life.
Baptism does not have to be understood the moment it is applied in order for it to perform its role. In a real sense, baptism is for the parents. Think about it this way. God says to the parents, this is your physical child and I have given him to you for safe guarding and training in the faith. In this rite of baptism, I am claiming your child as my own and ordaining him for service into my kingdom. Your child was dead in sin and trespasses but now he is born from above to walk in newness of life. He is your responsibility. You must instruct him in the way he should go that he might not depart from it. In this sign, I am making all things new. His being in Adam is over and his being in Christ is begun.
The Baptist argues from a false premise from the opposing view that baptism binds God’s hands to act simply because the water is applied. The question for Baptists becomes, does God save everyone who cries out to him for salvation? Is everyone saved who has ever prayed the sinners prayer? Baptist theology is in the same bind here. In both cases, it can be said that God is bound to save anyone who prays for salvation but the fact is, not every one who has done this perseveres in the faith. Saying the sinner’s prayer is no more magical than is baptism. So, he cannot reject the paedopabtist position based on this argument since he must use the same structure for his position.
1 And I will say this. Baptism as much as circumcision is God’s action. He commanded it and so, he determines its meaning. If God says a certain thing is to be done and when it is done it is a “done deal,” there should be no quibble. Circumcision’s symbolism was priestly. There were four “horns” which were “circumcised” for priestly service: the right thumb, the right toe, the right ear, and the penis. Circumcision was a maledictory oath meaning this. For the right ear, having it “pierced” open to hear God’s command one could either listen or not. Positively, the piercing meant the priest would listen to God; negatively, it meant were he not to submit to God’s law, his ear would be severed off by God in judgement. The same symbolism stands for all the other “horns.”