A Baptismal Debate III

Infant Baptism III

Up to this point I have taken the time to lay out the Presbyterian view of the nature of Baptism, that being that it is a covenant oath which grants one admission into a covenantal relationship with the Lord; and why it ought to be administered unto the children of communicate church members. I have attempted to lay out the scriptural case as efficiently and precisely as possible and have largely refrained from answering each and every objection put forward by Mr. Winsley. Having offered up my scriptural case I should now like to take this post to directly engage my debate partner on a few issues, establish several arguments from logic which handily confirm the Presbyterian view of baptism as well as to bolster my arguments with the witness of many of the Reformed Church’s greatest exegetes. The reader will excuse my excessive deliberation in laying out the way by which I shall proceed for this is done in attempt to make the case that much more cogent and easily accessible to all. Rather than separating the three elements of this current post I have chosen to intermingle them so as to reinforce one another as I progress.

In his last post, titled Simplicity in Exegesis, Jonathan claims that I have not responded directly to his exegesis of Jeremiah 31 and the connected passages in Hebrews 8 and 10. He attempts to distract the reader by saying that I am ‘vaguely appealing to nice-sounding eschatological prophecies’ and that mine is a ‘grand sweeping tale of inferences and conjectures’. At these points Mr. Winsley really has outdone himself! The real elephant in the room, which should have become apparent to all following this friendly debate by now, is that my partner has not offered up much leg-work of his own. He has borrowed from my own definitions of the nature of baptism, which I carefully laid out, and only responded to some of my peripheral arguments employed for establishing the Biblical veracity of the Paedo position. Moreover, my partner’s main proof text, which he has revisited many times, does not talk at all about baptism! I need not set Jeremiah 31:31-34 or the subsequent passages from Hebrews 8 and 10 down again as the reader has assuredly memorized them by now but the subject of baptism is not even touched on in those passages. Mr. Winsley is absolutely correct to say that these passages detail variations in the administration from the old covenant era to that of the new. But when he accuses me of allowing the terms of the old covenant to dictate the new he simply goes too far, for the process of covenant admission (which is at the heart of this discussion) is never expressly altered beyond the fact that baptism is established as being the new circumcisions. And in case we aren’t aware, the correlation between the two signs, the one superseding the other to be precise, is clearly laid down by Paul when he tells us:

“In whom also ye are circumcised with circumcision made without hands, by putting off the sinful body of the flesh, through the circumcision of Christ, In that ye are buried with him through baptism, in whom ye are also raised up together through the faith of the operation of God, which raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12)

It should be noted that this passage in Colossians is detailing the differences between the old and new covenants and once again covenant admission is not detailed as being altered in any way except that the mark of the covenant oath has been changed from circumcision to baptism; a change which Paul carefully documents for us. And in direct response to Mr. Winsley’s usage of Jeremiah 31 I offered up several possible ways in which the passage could be interpreted without placing such a strain upon it. Interpretations which are much more in accord with the vast majority of divines and exegetes in church history than what Jonathan’s understanding is.

Furthermore I must confess to being a bit amused by my partner’s appeals to the simplicity of his case as evidence in its favor; as if simplicity were some sort of fundamental virtue. Granted my arguments in favor of infant baptism over the course of this discussion may have been somewhat in-depth compared to the case made for the Baptist position but appealing to simplicity as a strength for one’s position is rather pushing the limits of good reason. Imagine if during the days of the debates over Trinitarianism and theology proper the church had gone with the simplest options available. In fact the advantages of Arainism and Nestorianism in opposition to the orthodox Trinitarian view espoused by Athanasius, Tertullian and Augustine was their relative simplicity. In commenting on the error of simplicity R. J. Rushdoony speaks thus:

“An ancient and persistent danger is the fallacy of simplicity. There is a pronounced resentment on the part of very many men against knowledge that is beyond their capacity…The ignorant and foolish piously bleat for “the simple, old-time gospel,” when the reality is that their simple-minded gospel is a modern invention. While certain basic doctrines of the Bible are uncomplicated ones, the Bible as a whole is not a simple book, and it gives us no warrant for passing over its complexities to dwell on its simplicities, because both aspect are inseparably one.”

My point here is not one of insult but rather that Mr. Winsley, a Reformed Christian same as myself, ought to know better than to make what Rushdoony calls the Roman error of “confusing simplicity with strength”. (all above quotes taken from Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order, page 79)

Dismissing the false boast of simplicity I should also like to take issue with a few specific arguments from Jonathan’s last post. In attempting to strike down my use of 1 Corinthians 7:14 he cites Calvin, as if his interpretation overthrows the way I used the passage. But just a little further down on the same exact page of his commentary on 1 Corinthians 7 Calvin interprets the passage in the very way which I employed it. In fact, I was drawing from his commentaries when using 1 Corinthians 7 when I used the passage in the manner in which I did. Calvin there asks rhetorically “But if the children of believers are exempted from the common lot of mankind, so as to be set apart to the Lord, why should we keep them back from the sign? If the Lord admits them in the Church by his word, why should we refuse them the sign?” He is of course here speaking of baptism and lest the reader become confused Calvin is not here insinuating that the children of believers are somehow saved by merely being the children of believing Christians but rather he is following from Romans 11:16, a passage dealing with external covenant participation, and saying that the children are covenant members from birth. That covenant participation, but not necessarily election, is a hereditary affair is plain for all to see. A. A. Hodge comments ably on this fact when he says:

“Every covenant God has ever formed with mankind has included the child with the parent; – e.g., the covenants formed with Adam; with Noah, Gen. ix. 9-17; with Abraham, Gen. xii. 1-3; xvii, 7; with Israel through Moses, Ex. Xx. 5; and again, Deut. Xxix. 10-13; and in the opening sermon of the New Testament dispensation men are exhorted to repent and believe, “because the promise (covenant) is unto you and to your children,” etc. Acts ii. 38, 39.”

Moving from this confirmation of the hereditary nature of external covenant participation, Hodge doubles down saying, “This has been the belief and practice of a vast majority of God’s people from the first. The early Church, in unbroken continuity from the days of the apostles, testify to their custom on this subject. The Greek and Roman, and all branches of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches, agree in this fundamental point. The Baptist denomination, which opposes the whole Christian world in this matter, is a very modern party, dating from the Anabaptists of Germany, A.D. 1637.” (above quotes taken from A. A. Hodge, Commentary on the Westminster Confession, pages 346-348)

Hodge’s last comment should especially weigh heavily with anyone wishing to call themselves a “Reformed” Christian. He is quite correct to assert that the Paedo position is the position of every orthodox church in history with the exception of the otherwise orthodox, but certainly rather young, Baptist tradition. As for the early church being unanimous in their practice of infant baptism I think the case is rather closed. Mr. Winsley’s attempt to cite some wildly Pelagian sounding statement from Justin, a church father known more for his knowledge of Virgil and Plato than Scripture, seems irrelevant. I will grant that St. Cyprian’s understanding of the nature of the sacraments is rather crude but the ruling of the council of Carthage still stands as the evidence for that which I presented it and if the reader is taken aback by the common errors that persisted in those days than we may consult Augustine, who also held to infant baptism but with a much more modern view as to the mechanics thereof.

But transcending all these things, the greater point which I should like to hit at is that the burden of proof in this whole debate lies upon the Credo side, and with Jonathan. As noted, Paedo-Baptism is what was, in effect, practiced throughout the Old Testament era, it was universal in the church up until the sixteenth century and still persists amongst a great deal, if not the majority, of reformed and evangelical churches today. If the practice is to be overturned than the Baptist must put up clear grounds as to why that is the case. And I have never seen any argument advanced from the Baptist side which even comes close. Imagine with me for a moment that we are part of the first generation of Jews to hear the preaching of the Apostles; now for all of our lives we have studied in the Scriptures and faithfully practiced the things therein. The apostolic preaching may seem strange at first because it details so many changes in covenant administration but all of the changes which are made follow naturally from Christ’s completed work and the coming of the Holy Spirit and furthermore, they are clearly spelled out. Now the external rite of covenant participation has been changed from circumcision to baptism but is there any apostolic argument evident for why we shouldn’t apply the same basic rules of covenant participation? I think not!

Following also from the preceding scenario is the issue of hermeneutics. A hermeneutic is the way in which one interprets the Scriptures; and at the end of the day that is the single dividing point between Baptists and Presbyterians. For all of our similarities we really do employ radically different hermeneutics. The Presbyterian hermeneutic lends to much more continuity between the old and new covenant era. The Westminster Confession even says concerning this, “There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations.” (WCF viii. Vi) It is this interpretive method which places more focus on the continuity of one redemptive era to the next which has led Presbyterianism to be the historic champion of postmillennial optimism as well as either nascent or overt theonomic ethics. The opposite generally holds true for the Baptist method of interpretation. With their hermeneutic placing more discontinuity between the different dispensations it gives naturally to not only the Credo-Baptist position, but also premillennialism and either an exclusively New Testament ethic or none at all. This observance should hold some weight with this audience as it is my presumption that many of them will be postmillennial thoenomists. And if that is the case than I would urge you to consider the implication of any hermeneutical rule which you seek to employ. If you stress discontinuity in one area, such as covenant participation (baptism), where it is not expressly stated, but then assume continuity in other areas, such as redemptive history (postmillennialism) or ethics (theonomy) than your inconsistency will weaken your ability to speak with other Christians in these areas. From the view of assumed discontinuity between the old covenant and new than I would grant that credobaptism is the correct position but the opposite is also true. It should not be surprising then that whenever a scholar wishes to study more into the resurgent doctrines of postmillennialism, Theonomy, presuppositional apologetics and so forth that they must take up books authored by people holding to the paedobaptist position.