Proof-texting versus Theology
It is the hermeneutic of the cults and not that of historic Christianity that seeks merely one or two Bible verses for all true doctrine. This should come as little surprise when we pause to consider that at the heart of Christianity is the church’s confession of the Triune God, which presupposes multi-layered doctrine as it relates to a plurality of persons who share eternally one divine essence. It is no different with the church’s doctrine of Christ, which contemplates distinct natures of divinity and humanity mystically united at the incarnation in the eternal Son of God – yet without confusion, change, division or separation. These foundational doctrines of the Christian faith were derived not from one or two isolated verses but inferred from many passages of Scripture as they relate to a larger whole, a system of doctrine that came into its own at the time of the Protestant Reformation and now tightly fits together like pieces of a puzzle. It is by comparing Scripture with Scripture and then doctrine with doctrine that the Reformed tradition has come up with an exhaustive theology that is consistent, coherent and explanatory.
Given the theological nuance of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God, it should not surprise that infant baptism is not a one or two verse doctrine. After all, infant baptism is in the name of the Holy Trinity and signifies engrafting into the Son of God. All that to say, we should not be put off by the claim, “There is not a single verse in the Bible that teaches infant baptism.” The avoidance of proof-texting in exchange for a fully orbed systematic theology within which a doctrine of infant baptism resides should lead us not to doubt but instill greater confidence in the church’s practice.
It would be hazardous to try to construct a doctrine of infant baptism by looking up verses in a concordance only that pertain to baptism. If baptism is an ordinance or sacrament reserved for those who are to be regarded as God’s people, then we must seek to understand biblical precepts that pertain to marking out the people of God. In other words, the question of who is to be baptized relates to how we should define Christ’s church. If water baptism is the visible rite of passage into the visible people of God, then it must be applied to infants of professing believers if they are to be numbered among the church. Contrariwise, if infants of professing believers are not to be regarded as members of Christ’s church, then the sign of water baptism must be withheld from our covenant children – if they may even be considered covenant children!
Are infants of professing believer’s to be regarded as separate from Christ, or are they to be regarded as Christ’s inheritance? When we are told not to suffer little children from coming to Christ, are we to deny them baptism? Are they to receive Christ’s blessing but not washing? Are they to be considered outside God’s covenant people and, therefore, denied participation in the outward administration of the covenant?
Continuity versus discontinuity
If baptism is reserved for members of Christ’s church, then our doctrine of the church will inform us on the question of who is to be baptized. Under the older economy children of professing believers had an interest in the covenant. When physically possible covenant children were to be marked out as the people of God through the sign and seal of circumcision. Most Baptists and Paedobaptists agree on that point. The question of infant baptism hinges upon whether there has been a change in this Old Testament principle. Are children of professing believers no longer to be regarded as they were under the older economy? Baptists answer that question in the affirmative.
From a Reformed perspective, the Old Testament has both continuity and discontinuity as it relates to the New Testament. With respect to continuity, the old is swallowed up in the new as Christ has fulfilled the covenantal promises of God.
“For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” 2 Corinthians 1:20
God’s covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ. In Christ the promises to Israel find their yes and amen, their affirmation and confirmation. Yet in another sense, the many promises of the many covenants are essentially one specific, foundational and singular promise – that is, salvation in Christ. That is why the apostle could say to the saints at Ephesus, “remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise [singular], having no hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:12
The centrality of Christ in the covenants
- It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Adamic covenant, that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. (Mark 8:31-33; John 12:27-32; 1 John 3:8)
- It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Noahic covenant, that God would uphold and preserve the world (so that he might save the world). (Genesis 9:8-13; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 4:3)
- It is the promised Christ who fulfills the demands of the Mosaic covenant, as well as the outward administration of the sacrificial system. (Deuteronomy 7:6-11; Matthew 5:17; Philippians 3:9)
- It is the promised Christ who fulfills the Davidic covenant, that one from David’s line would sit upon his throne. (2 Samuel 7:8-17; Psalm 89:3,4; Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 1:32,33; Acts 2:29-31; 1 Corinthians 15:25; 1 Timothy 6:15.)
- It is the promised Christ who fulfills the New Covenant promise. (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 22:19,20)
Given the Christocentric thread of continuity, we may now turn to the continuity of God’s covenant people.
The promise to Abraham and the doctrine of the church
An astute reader may have recognized that the Abrahamic covenant was not mentioned among the covenants listed immediately above. Given the ecclesiastical implications of the Abrahamic covenant of promise, it will be treated separately and in more detail below.
The takeaway from this small section is that there is a continuity from Old Covenant to New Covenant. The common thread throughout the Bible pertains to promise and fulfillment. The centerpiece of Old Testament theology is the promised Messiah who would deliver his people from the bondage of sin and inaugurate a new age in which righteousness would be established in the earth. The covenants of promise did not center upon Israel or a promised land, but rather the various strands of promise converged, finding ultimate fulfillment in Christ alone. Christ is the Seed of the woman who crushes the serpent’s head. It is David’s Son, the ascended Christ, who sits at God’s right hand encircled by the covenant-rainbow first given to Noah as a sign of a delayed judgement (presupposing intended consummation). It is Christ who has fulfilled the demands of the Mosaic law, whereby the ordinances against God’s people were nailed to cross, putting an end to the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic economy.
Abraham, Seed and Promise
Immediately after the fall, God promised that he would inflict a deep-seated hatred between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. That promise, which would come to fruition being a promise(!), included the good news that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Then the Lord of the covenant covered with skins the two who were naked and ashamed (Genesis 3:21).
God later expanded upon his promise with respect to the seed saying that he would establish his covenant between himself and Abraham. Not only would God establish his covenant promise with Abraham, he would also establish it with Abraham’s seed after him. This promise that was made to Abraham and his seed was that God would be a God to them and that they would occupy the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession (Genesis 17:7, 8). In response to the promise of God, which was one of redemption of a people and land for them to occupy, Abraham pleaded that his son Ishmael might live before God in faithfulness (Genesis 3:18). God refused Abraham’s request, saying “as for Ishmael, I have heard thee… but my covenant will I establish with Isaac” not Ishmael (Genesis 17: 20, 21).
God’s promise of deliverance of the seed would come to fruition; yet it did not apply to all of Abraham’s physical descendants. It even applied to those who were not of physical descendants. Abraham was to be the father of many nations, not just one. Notwithstanding, all those who were of the household of Abraham were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant, as if they themselves were partakers of the promise of God. Even more, those within a professing household who did not receive the sign and seal of the covenant were to be considered covenant breakers. This sign of the covenant was so closely related to the covenant that it was called the covenant by the Lord (Genesis 17:10). Consequently, those who had received the sign were to be considered in covenant with God; whereas those who had not received the sign (yet qualified to receive it) were to be treated as covenant breakers. We might say that the invisible church was to be found within the visible church, “out of which there was no ordinary way of salvation” (Acts 2:47b; WCF 25.2). (This principle of household solidarity was not something new, for it was Noah who found grace with God; yet his entire household was saved in the ark.)
When we come to Galatians 3, we learn something quite astounding. The promise was made to a single Seed, who is the Christ; and it is by spiritual union with him, pictured in the outward administration of baptism, that the promise is received by the elect (in Christ). “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ…For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:16, 26-29) The apostle teaches that the covenant promise was established with the Godman – the incarnate Christ, and by covenantal extension with all who would be truly, by the Spirit, united to the Seed in baptism.
Although God’s covenant was established from the outset with the elect in Christ, it was to be administered to all who professed the true religion along with their households. The theological distinction of the visible and invisible people of God was well in view, even at the time of Noah and most acutely at the time of Abraham. Although this was the theology of the covenant, the apostle still had to labor the point to the New Testament saints at Rome. After telling his hearers that nothing could separate God’s people from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39), the apostle had to explain how the people of God who had an interest in the covenant could have fallen away. How, in other words, could the people of God become apostate if the promise of redemption had to come to fruition being a promise from God?
The illusive Israel
With this pedagogical background in place, the apostle explained Old Testament Covenant Theology, which is that although God established his covenant only with the elect in Christ, it was to be outwardly administered to the non-elect as long as they were of the household of a professing believer and had not demonstrated visible apostasy. Consequently, not all true Israel are from external Israel (Romans 9:6), just like not all the New Testament church will be saved. “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” (Romans 9:8)
In sum, although God treats professing believers as his elect, not all who are to be numbered among the visible people of God are chosen in Christ, i.e. children of promise. God’s promise was that he would redeem a particular people that he would place in his recreation, the church. The church’s final destiny is the consummated New Heavens and New Earth, wherein righteousness dwells. Until God separates the sheep from the goats, the visible church will contain unbelievers and hypocrites. Upon kingdom consummation, the visible church and the elect will be one and the same.
From covenant promise to covenant baptism
As we just saw, under the older economy, although the covenant of promise was established solely with the elect in Christ it was to be administered to the households of professing believers. This means that the children of professing believers were to receive the mark of inclusion and, therefore, be counted among the people of God prior to professing faith in what the sign and seal of the covenant contemplated. Covenant children, even if they were not elect, were to be treated as the elect of God and heirs according to the promise based upon corporate solidarity with a professing parent.
When the apostle addresses the children in his letter to the Ephesians, he does not distinguish them from the corporate body that he has already called saints, faithful in Christ Jesus, and those chosen in Christ. This is the unbroken pattern throughout both testaments. Although God establishes his unbreakable redemptive promise solely with the chosen in Christ, by precept all those who profess the true religion along with their children are to be regarded as among the elect until such time they demonstrate otherwise either in faith or practice, doctrine or lifestyle. Surely the apostle appreciated that not all the assembly in Corinth were necessarily sanctified in Christ Jesus, or effectually called into the fellowship of Christ. Yet the visible church at Corinth was addressed as such and without qualification: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours…” It’s no different when we come to the severe warning passages in Hebrews. After issuing warnings not to fall away from the faith, the author addresses the hearers he just warned as converted believers:
“But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” Hebrews 6:9
“But we are not of them who draw back unto perdition; but of them that believe to the saving of the soul.” Hebrews 10:39
(This has grave implications for pulpit ministry. After the call to worship the minister is not to address the lost. Congregational worship is not a tent meeting. It’s for God and his saints, a foretaste of the consummated sabbath.)
When we come to the New Testament nothing has changed with respect to the heirs of the promise. The promise remains established with the elect in Christ, as it always was. The question Baptists ask is whether the children of professing believers have somehow lost the privilege of receiving the sign of entrance into the New Testament church. They say YES, which places a burden of proof upon them to demonstrate such a conclusion by good and necessary inference if not explicit instruction.
By way of review, God’s promise to save Abraham and his “seed” was without any conditions (Genesis 17:7) that had to be met by those prior to God establishing his promise with the elect. Abraham responded to God’s promise of salvation in faith, which was first issued in Genesis 12, whereby he was justified (Genesis 15:6). Although God promised Abraham and his elect son Isaac salvation, God rejected Ishmael (Genesis 17:18-21). Nonetheless, Ishmael was to receive the outward sign of the covenant-promise, which was circumcision (Genesis 17:10ff). Accordingly, God’s precept was that his covenant sign be administered to the household of Abraham, even though God established his covenant solely with the elect in Christ. The apostle Paul picks up on this theme when he reminds us in Romans nine that the promise of salvation was not intended for every single person who was by precept to be regarded as among the Israel of God. In fact, the apostle explicitly tells us that the children of the “promise” are counted as Abraham’s seed, and not the children of the flesh (Romans 9:8). Accordingly, all those who would believe the promise are the true children of Abraham (Romans 9: 8; Galatians 3:9). Most importantly, the “seed” to whom the promise was made was Christ alone (Galatians 3:16). It is through union with Christ, the single Seed of Abraham, that we become true descendants of Abraham. As Galatians 3:29 states, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise.”
Some misguided arrows, continuity and discontinuity
With respect to national implication as it pertains to circumcision, we must keep in mind that Abraham was not Jewish. Indeed, Israel according the flesh eventually came from Abraham’s loins, but the promise was that Abraham would be the father of many nations. Israel did not even become a nation until 430 years after God called Abraham according to the promise (Galatians 3:17). Consequently, contrary to what so many evangelicals think, the sign of circumcision primarily had spiritual significance as opposed to national or ethnic significance. As Romans 4:11 states, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith…” The verse does not teach that Abraham received the sign of circumcision, a seal of ethnic or national origin. Given that covenant infants were to receive the sign and seal of the faith without having yet professed faith, we can at least dispel the premise that one may not receive the sign and seal of baptism without having professed that which baptism points to, ultimately union with Christ. In other words, according to biblical precept one needn’t profess to possess what the ordinance contemplates in order to have it placed upon him. These are God’s signs and seals to dispense as he sees fit.
God always had an elect people, which he so happened to form into a nation 430 years after the call of Abraham. The nation was incidental to the promise. The promise both precedes and transcends the nation and could, therefore, not be abrogated upon the apostasy of the nation. God has now taken the kingdom away from the nation of Israel and has started his final building project, the New Testament church. The church is the international people of God, a “nation” bearing the fruit of the covenant. Consequently, when one is converted to Christ he need not become part of the nation of Israel, for Christ has sent his followers into the world to make disciples of all nations. The promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations is now fulfilled in the universal, international church.
The disagreement and the error of both groups, Baptists and Paedobaptists
Herein lies the problem that many Paedobaptists run into when dealing with Baptists, especially so-called “Reformed” Baptists. “Reformed” Baptists argue that the Old Covenant was established with the elect and reprobates in professing households since many who were to receive the sign of the covenant fell away. Then they rightly show that the New Covenant is established only with the elect. Accordingly, they reason: if the covenant has changed from including non-believers to including only true believers, then baptism should be reserved only for professing believers in order to ensure (as best as possible) that the visible church resemble the true regenerate church of the New Testament. Paedobaptists get tripped up by that argument when they try to argue that both the New and the Old Covenant are conditional, i.e. established both with the elect and non-elect within professing households. Such Paedobaptists are correct with respect to the continuity from old to new but they cannot argue effectively that the New Covenant is established with certain unbelievers because Scripture doesn’t support it. Consequently, the Baptist argument often goes like this: “Hey Mr. Paedobaptist, you and I agree that the Old Covenant was made with the visible people of God, which includes believers and unbelievers (since many Israelites fell away from the true religion); therefore, we can agree that circumcision was to be administered to all males, elect or not, within a professing household. However, since the New Covenant is clearly made with the elect in Christ who will persevere in the faith (unlike unfaithful Israel), then it is reasonable to maintain that the covenant has changed with respect to inclusiveness. Therefore, the sign of the covenant should be reserved for those the elders are persuaded are actually believers.” In other words, the Baptist argues that since the people of God fell away under the older economy, then the Old Covenant promise was conditional and must have been made with non-elect persons; yet the elect of God will not fall away in the New Covenant, therefore, the New Covenant promise must be made with the elect alone. There is a flaw in reasoning that must be considered. Baptists who argue this way are contrasting the Old Testament visible people of God with the New Testament elect in Christ. By using a faulty comparison, the Baptist is trying to prove with whom the Old Covenant was established by showing who were to receive the sign (elect and reprobate); then they argue for the proper recipients for New Testament baptism on the basis of God establishing his NT covenant with the elect alone. By changing their criterion in this way, they arrive at logically unsubstantiated conclusion. In other words, our Baptist brethren prove with whom the covenant was established under the older economy by looking at who was to receive the sign (elect and non-elect); then they try to establish who is to receive the sign under the new economy by looking at with whom the New Covenant was made (elect alone)! That’s simply fallacious.
The single covenant of promise was established with the incarnate Christ and all who were elected in Him; yet this covenant, although established with the elect in Christ, was to be outwardly administered to the household of a professing parent.
The sign of the covenant
God commanded 4,000 years ago that the sign of the covenant be placed upon males within the household of professing believers. Although the sign of entrance into the covenant people of God has changed from circumcision to baptism (and can now be received by females), God never rescinded his covenant principle concerning households that were to receive the sign and seal of the covenant promise. In the same way that all Israel was not Israel, we may also infer that all the church is not the church. Nonetheless, we are by precept to place the sign of covenant membership in the church upon those who qualify, per the instruction of God – which was never rescinded or abrogated.
A concise deduction
An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant. Therefore, children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference. Since God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant, the sign of entrance into the New Covenant still should be placed on covenant children. Therefore, God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism since that is the New Testament sign that marks of the visible people of God.
More formally stated:
1. An Old Covenant precept was that whenever possible the sign of entrance into the covenant was to be placed upon all who were to be regarded as God’s people
2. Children of professing believers were to be regarded as God’s people under the Old Covenant
3. Children of professing believers whenever possible were to receive the sign of entrance into the Old Covenant by way of precept (1, 2)
4. God’s precepts may not be abrogated without explicit instruction or good and necessary inference
5. God never abrogated the Old Testament precept regarding who was to receive the sign of entrance into the Old covenant
6. The sign of entrance into the New Covenant is water baptism
7. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive the sign of entrance into the New Covenant (3, 4 and 5)
8. God’s precept is that children of professing believers receive water baptism (6, 7)
A Reformed Baptist use of Jeremiah 31
Baptists will say that the abrogation of the principle in view is implicit in Jeremiah 31:34: “…they will all know me….”, which they say means that the New Covenant is made only with believers who know the Lord. Accordingly, they reason that we should ensure as best as possible to administer the New Covenant only to those who profess faith in Christ, which infants cannot do. The problem they run into with this line of reasoning is that the verse does not teach that the covenant is only made with those who possess belief! The promise of Jeremiah 31 is a promise of greater fidelity (verse 32), greater empowerment (verse 34), and a greater depth of knowledge (verse 34). It does not address the qualification for covenant entrance. Verse 34 does not speak to the question of with whom the covenant will be established. It merely teaches that those with whom the covenant will be established will indeed “know the Lord.” In passing we should note that under the older economy all those with whom the covenant was established would come to know the Lord. So, the difference in view cannot pertain to the exclusion of infants from the outward administration of the covenant promise. It must pertain to something else, such as the depth of knowledge of the Lord and / or the missionary explosion promised to Abraham as it relates to relatively all knowing the Lord.
Before considering what it means in that context to “know the Lord” we must first appreciate that verse does not teach us that the covenant will be made only with true believers after they believe. At the very least, if Baptists were correct, then the knowledge of the Lord would not be a blessing of the covenant but rather something that first must be obtained in order to enter into covenant! Moreover, the verse cannot possibly exclude infants from covenant entrance who will grow up to “know the Lord” because the verse does not imply a change in qualifications for covenant entrance, but rather it speaks to the increase of blessings that will be received by those with whom God establishes the New Covenant. The verse is not speaking of a new qualification for entering into the covenant; rather it is speaking about something different that will occur under the newer economy as compared to the older economy for those who will be in covenant.
The glory of the New Covenant
Since the Old Covenant was established with the elect alone, we may safely say that a saving knowledge was granted to all with whom God established the Old Covenant(!), barring no early deaths that would preclude saving knowledge. Consequently, the verse must be speaking to the quality and depth of that saving knowledge under the newer economy as opposed to the mere possession of it, which all those with whom God established the Old Covenant would have received. Not surprisingly, that is what we see in the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant with the establishment of the priesthood of all believers – through the revelation of Christ, the completed Canon and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – we all “know the Lord” in a manner vastly different than that under the old economy. In summary, Jeremiah 31 may not be used to defend a more stringent entrance examination for covenant privileges simply because it does not imply anything more than increase of blessings. Thankfully the glory of the New Covenant is not to be found in the exclusion of infants. (Also, the promise that all will know the Lord, eliminating the need to tell our neighbors to know the Lord, could very well be a reference to the triumph of the gospel in the world.)
Burden of Proof
Both sides of the infant baptism debate argue from silence. Paedobaptists observe that the Bible does not forbid infant baptism, whereas Baptists argue that the Bible does not command it. In this respect, both sides are correct. Notwithstanding, not all arguments from silence are equally weak or fallacious. Whether an argument from silence begs crucial questions largely will depend upon burden of proof. It would stand to reason that if for 2,000 years of redemptive history children of professing believers were to receive the mark of covenantal inclusion, then that precedent should stand whether the New Testament repeats the precept or not. Accordingly, Baptists must bring forth evidence to overturn the practice. Moreover, to assume discontinuity from the Old Testament if a principle is not repeated in the New Testament leads to the abrogation of many Old Testament principles that Baptists will readily agree should not be rescinded. For instance, nowhere does the New Testament forbid bestiality.
Corroborating Evidence from Scripture
When we approach the New Testament with a covenantal lens on, we would expect to see household baptisms given the Old Testament precedent of household circumcision. Behold, that is what we see. Scripture references the following household baptisms: Lydia; Crispus; Gaius; Philippian Jailor; Cornelius; and Stephanas. Other baptisms recorded in Scripture wherein are listed names of people are the baptisms of Paul, the Ethiopian Eunuch, and Simon Magus. The first two would not seem to have had children and we know nothing of the magician other than he was an infidel. The material point is, we would expect from a covenantal perspective that household baptisms would abound, and that is precisely what we see. Another piece of corroborating evidence is that in forty years of New Testament narrative and epistles we don’t find one instance of a covenant child coming to faith and undergoing believer’s baptism. Not once do we see what we would expect to see if credo baptism were the apostolic teaching.
Incidental Evidence from Church History
In the annuls of church history we see theology forged out on the anvil of providence. God appoints factions so that the church might receive those who are approved and entrusted with the truth (1 Corinthians 11:19). With respect to theological controversy, we have records of the Arian controversy; Sabellianism; Adoptionism; Nestorianism, and so on. We can read about the church’s defense against the denials of the divinity of Christ; a seed form of modalism; Christ becoming Son; Son becoming two persons, etc. In other words, heresies and heterodoxy are a matter of church record. Accordingly, we would expect to see at least some resistance to the practice of infant baptism given that there would have occurred a massive churchwide departure from apostolic teaching by the 3rd century if the apostolic teaching was indeed credo-only baptism. Yet we see no such resistance. None whatsoever. That observation works with infant baptism and against credo-only baptism. Yet positively, we know that Irenaeus referenced infant baptism in approximately 180, and Origen referred to the practice shortly thereafter. Although Tertullian advised against the practice (perhaps due to the pragmatism of delaying the washing of water so to lessen one’s post-baptismal sins), he nonetheless recognized it as the church’s practice; he also mentions children having baptism sponsors.
To be continued…