Quick Thoughts on One of the Best Arguments for Reformed Paedobaptism

Quick Thoughts on One of the Best Arguments for Reformed Paedobaptism

This is part 4 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

Perhaps one of the most rhetorically effective arguments paedobaptists use against Baptists is as follows—

  1. Under the Old Covenant infants were admitted into the covenant.
  2. Covenant inclusion of infants in principle is never abrogated in the New Covenant.
  3. Therefore, it would have been assumed parents/clergy should continue administering the covenant sign to infants (baptism under the New Covenant).

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church states— 

The living God himself embraced the children of believers as members of his church. Genesis 17:7—”I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”

 

Further, God nowhere rescinded this principle that the children of believers are church members. This is very significant. In order to maintain their position, those who oppose infant baptism have to prove that he did rescind this principle. Where does the Bible teach that? This is a question that demands an answer (emphasis added).

And…

The baptistic view is built on this hidden assumption—the assumption that, in the New Testament, children of believers are no longer members of the church.

 

But when you read the New Testament you find just the opposite! The New Testament lines right up with the Old Testament in continuing to assume that children of believers are included in the church. [1]

I appreciate this argument since its core concern is to preserve the sameness of the gospel under both Old and New Covenants, a concern both Baptists and paedobaptists ought to share. However, it makes some fatal logical errors.

First, there are several texts we could use to prove a rescinding of circumcision. These texts will probably not rescind administration of the covenant sign to infants in the way paedobaptists might expect. But it is often assumed by paedobaptists that infant inclusion is never rescinded under the New Covenant. John the Baptist, for example, clearly points to an obsolescence of the genealogical principle of the Old Covenant in Luke 3:8, “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.”

Paedobaptists will no doubt quibble with our use of this text, retorting, “That’s always been the case in terms of the gospel if you believe in one way of salvation.” Absolutely. But it has not only been the case, and that is what John is getting at here. Under the Old Covenant, unbelievers and believers could be members thereof. Genesis 17 makes the covenant conditions external, e.g. circumcision of the flesh. But, under the New Covenant no longer will God tolerate those obedient to the letter (externality) of the law, but not the spirit (heart of) the law as He did under the Old Covenant (cf. Heb. 8; Jer. 31:31-34).

Moreover, the New Covenant does explicitly rescind the Old Covenant in places like Hebrews 8:6, 13. The rejoinder may be, “Yes, but by ‘Old Covenant’ Hebrews 8 is obviously only addressing Moses!” But Moses is none other than a development upon the foundation of the Abrahamic covenant, and both have the same formal basis, the fundamental tenet of which is fleshly circumcision. Moses governs the Abrahamic covenant and its members and is the covenant intended to bring Genesis 15:18-21 to fulfillment. This is why the author of Hebrews addresses Moses more explicitly than he does Abraham. Because the Mosaic covenant is the covenant out of which his audience was immediately called. If Moses is gone, so too is the covenant of circumcision.

Second, one major problem with the OPC’s argument is the assumed universalization of the covenant sign under the Old Covenant. However, circumcision was never administered to female infants, only male infants. This seems to remove their very basis for transferring the “infant principle” (for lack of a better term) into the New Covenant. If the goal is continuity between covenants, then this obvious point of serious discontinuity continues to exist. Under the Old Covenant, boys were circumcised, girls were not. Under the New Covenant, both may receive baptism.

Third, in the final analysis, this argument begs the question. It assumes the core Reformed paedobaptistic location of the substance/administration of the covenant of grace. For them, the Old and New Covenants are but outward administrations of the selfsame covenant of grace. Not two distinct covenants. Because the paedobaptist anachronistically imports this particular understanding of God’s everlasting covenant upon the earliest Christians, it is easy for them to allege: “Newly converted Jewish Christians would have been assuming infant inclusion in the New Covenant!” But this would not be the case if those newly converted Jewish Christians assumed the opposite presupposition as the Reformed paedobaptists, namely that the Old Covenant was growing old and becoming obsolete (Heb. 8), and the covenant of grace revealed had become the covenant of grace concluded (New Covenant) being formalized in the blood of Christ (Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

The burden of proof, therefore, is on the Reformed paedobaptist to demonstrate that the Apostolic church was assuming their model of covenant theology. But if this cannot be demonstrated, then the Scriptural ontology of the covenants stands alone, and the New Covenant really is a new covenant as the plain language seems to suggest.

Resources:

[1] The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, https://opc.org/cce/tracts/WhyInfantBaptism.html

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

John Lightfoot on Circumcision as a Seal (Romans 4:11)

This is part 1 of a series on baptism I’ve been writing.

John Lightfoot was a 17th century paedobaptist theologian. He was a member of the Westminster Assembly and vice chancellor of Cambridge. He is especially known for his rabbinic scholarship, the capstone of which was his work Horae Hebrai, or A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica.

He played a role in the Particular Baptist’s own defense of credobaptism. He wasn’t the only paedobaptist resource the Baptists would appeal to. John Owen was another. There were several key angles in the disagreements between credobaptists and paedobaptists, but at least one worth mentioning with respect to Lightfoot. The Particular Baptists rejected fleshly circumcision is a sacramental seal of the covenant of grace under the old testament. Conversely, paedobaptists, seeking to preserve the unity or continuity between old and new covenants, saw the old covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace. For them, this meant that circumcision, being a sign of the old covenant, simultaneously served as a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace (Rom. 4:11).

However, the Particular Baptists saw a substantive difference between the Abrahamic covenant of circumcision and the covenant of grace. While fleshly circumcision was a condition (Gen. 17:14) and sign of old covenant membership, it was not a sign and seal of membership in the covenant of grace. For the Particular Baptists, those two covenants were/are actually and truly two distinct covenants. In their appendix on baptism, which should be placed at the back of the 1677/89 Confession, they say:

If our brethren do suppose baptism to be the seal of the covenant which God makes with every believer (of which the Scriptures are altogether silent) it is not our concern to contend with them herein; yet we conceive the seal of that covenant is the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ in the particular and individual persons in whom He resides, and nothing else… 

In demonstration of their catholicity on this point, they would often appeal to paedobaptists who believed something similar, a la Owen and Lightfoot. In the above mentioned appendix, they quote Lightfoot at length in response to the paedobaptist argument from Romans 4:11. Below, I have transcribed verbatim what they reproduced from Lightfoot in the Confession’s appendix—

Circumcision is nothing, if we respect the time, for now it was without use, that end of it being especially fulfilled; for which it had been instituted: this end the Apostle declares in these words, Romans 4:11 σφραγῖδα etc. But I fear that by most translations they are not sufficiently suited to the end of circumcision, and the scope of the Apostle whilst something of their own is by them inserted.

… 

Other versions are to the same purpose; as if circumcision was given to Abraham for a Seal of that righteousness which he has being yet uncircumcised, which we will not deny to be in some sense true, but we believe that circumcision had chiefly a far different respect.

 

Give me leave thus to render the words; And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith, which was to be in the uncircumcision, Which was to be (I say) not which had been, not that which Abraham had whilst he was yet uncircumcised; but that which his uncircumcised seed should have, that is the Gentiles, who in time to come should imitate the faith of Abraham.

 

Now consider well on what occasion circumcision was instituted unto Abraham, setting before thine eyes the history thereof, Genesis 17.

 

This promise is first made unto him, Thou shalt be the Father of many nations (in what sense the Apostle explaineth in that chapter) and then there is subjoined a double seal for the confirmation of the thing, to wit, the change of the name Abram into Abraham, and the institution of circumcision. v. 4. Behold as for me, my Covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. Wherefore was his name called Abraham? for the sealing of this promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. And wherefore was circumcision instituted to him? For the sealing of the same promise. Thou shalt be the Father of many Nations. So that this is the sense of the Apostle; most agreeable to the institution of circumcision; he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the Righteousness of Faith which in time to come the uncircumcision (for the Gentiles) should have and obtain.

 

Abraham had a twofold seed, natural, of the Jews; and faithful, of the believing Gentiles: his natural seed was signed with the sign of circumcision, first indeed for the distinguishing of them from all other Nations whilst they as yet were not the seed of Abraham, but especially for the memorial of the justification of the Gentiles by faith, when at length they should become his seed. Therefore circumcision was of right to cease, when the Gentiles were brought in to the faith, forasmuch as then it had obtained its last and chief end, & thenceforth circumcision is nothing.

Interpreting the Bible: Covenants (pt. 3)

Interpreting the Bible: Covenants (pt. 3)

In the previous post we discussed typology. A type is one thing used by God to signify another, greater thing. A type foreshadows something other than itself. Israel was not Jesus Christ, but it foreshadowed the coming Messiah in both positive and negative ways. Positive when Israel obeyed God. Negative when it disobeyed God and caused the saints of old to realize how desperate they were for God’s grace in the coming Messiah. Additionally, that toward which the type looks is also greater than the type. The antitype always surpasses its type. Jesus Christ was the other and greater antitype of the nation of Israel, of the Davidic line of kings, etc.

Following typology, we must look at the concept of covenant, since typology is intimately related to covenant. In this article, I want to begin our discussion on God’s covenants by defining covenant and then relating the concept of covenant to typology.

What Is a Covenant?

Covenants are often defined as mutual agreements between two parties, one greater and one lesser, for the purposes of improving the situation of the lesser party. The greater party, then, imposes conditions on the lesser party, and the lesser party obeys those conditions in order to earn some reward. In the ancient near east, these were referred to as Suzerain/vassal treaties, agreements, or covenants. Covenants between God and man are similar, with some obvious differences worth mentioning. Whereas with purely human covenants, in which both parties must cooperate with one another, divine covenants are unilaterally imposed upon the lesser party, God’s people. Never is there an instance where God asks for the participation of the other party. He simply demands it and then announces blessings and cursings for obedience or disobedience, respectively.

For example, we might take the first covenant found in Scripture, the covenant of works. Though the word covenant is not so much as muttered in the first three chapters of Genesis, there most certainly exists a covenantal transaction. God put Adam in the Garden in order that Adam should tend and keep it (Gen. 3:15). There is already a way of life prescribed in the Garden, but it becomes more specific. There is natural work in the Garden to be done, but then God adds a law, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen. 2:16-17).” Now, a law by itself is not a covenant, but a law with blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience imposed upon a person or persons is a covenant. In the case of Adam, the blessing for covenantal obedience is life, and the curse for covenant disobedience is death, both spiritual and physical. In the covenant of works, God imposed a law upon man, it was not voluntary on man’s part. But because God is a gracious God, He offered blessings for the obedience of that law, with curses in the case of rebellion.

Another example would be the covenant of circumcision made with Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. There is much to say about this covenant, but the basic ingredients are conditions (Gen. 17:10), blessings for keeping the conditions, and curses for not keeping the conditions (Gen. 17:14: Deut. 4:1). The Mosaic Covenant contained the same ingredients: conditions, blessings, curses (Lev. 20:22).

Broadly speaking, therefore, a divine covenant is that which is imposed upon man, regardless of man’s agreement or permission. But, because God is a gracious God, He includes blessings for those who keep His covenant for the sake of their improvement, and curses for those who disobey.

Form & Matter

An important distinction with regard to covenants is that made between form on the one hand and matter on the other. We need to be asking the question, “What’s a covenant made out of?” In other words, what’s the material of any given covenant? There are basically two different kinds of material given in Scripture: that of law and that of promise. A covenant is either “made out of” law, in which case obedience is required for covenant membership; or it is a covenant made out of promise, in which case God unilaterally makes a keeps the covenant for His people, irrespective of their works (Gal. 3:18).

Now, the matter of the covenant always dictates the form. Law and promise never intermingle when it comes to how we relate to God. We either relate to God through obedience to the law, or we relate to God through gracious promise. Dr. Sam Renihan writes:

When it comes to justification, the material basis of a covenant is either law or promise. Works/law and grace/promise do not intermingle.

If two parties are committed to each other based on a law, a covenant of works has been established. If two parties are committed to each other based on a promise, a covenant of grace has been established. The matter dictates the form (cf. ‘Form and Matter…’).

So, if the matter is law, the form is works or obedience to that law. If the matter is promise, then God’s free grace [in Christ] is the form. There is no such thing as a conditional/unconditional covenant, where a person is related to God by faith + works. A person or people are always related to God by either law/obedience or promise/grace, never both.

Covenants & Typology

How are covenant and typology related? There are several ways in which types relate to covenants, but the most apparent can be found in the purpose of covenants. God always makes covenants with His people in order to improve their station in the world. Never is there an instance in Scripture where God institutes a covenant for the purpose of moving backwards. New wine always belongs in new wineskins. Newer covenants always improve God’s people from older covenants. What was promised in the Abrahamic Covenant was a people (Gen. 12:1-3), a kingship (Gen. 17:6), and land (Gen. 15:7; 17:8). The subsequent covenants functioned to move Israel toward the fulfillment of those promises. There is a progression of improvement seen throughout the various covenants made in the Old Testament. The Mosaic Covenant instituted laws for the nation to live by in the land they were to inherit. It’s right after this they came to possess the promised land (Jos. 21:43-45). The Davidic Covenant established a line of kings. There was only one promise to be fulfilled, which was that of the skull-crushing Messiah (Gen. 3:15; 12:3, 7; Gal. 3:16).

How does all this relate to typology? Remember our definition of types. Types are that which point forward to other and greater things. Likewise, covenants always look toward better covenants, the greatest of which is the New Covenant. The Old Covenant looks forward to the New. As with types, the Old Covenant, which began with Abraham, goes away when the New Covenant arrives. The older covenants serve to typify the New Covenant. The New Covenant contains the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Hebrews 8:6 tells us, “But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises.”

Again, as with typology, covenants never look back to what was, but always move God’s people toward what is to come. Covenants progress to better covenants, and the New Covenant is the best of the best. Never is there an instance in Scripture where a covenant reverts back to an older covenant. Thus, the New Covenant doesn’t move God’s people backward to an earthly temple, an earthly land, and an earthly king, but forward to a heavenly temple, a heavenly land, and a heavenly king (Heb. 11:16; 12:22).

Conclusion

A covenant, most basically put, is an imposed relationship between God and man, upon man, for the improvement of man. Covenants are made out of conditions, blessings, and curses. Blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. The New Covenant differs from the older covenants in that it was not a covenant of works, but a covenant of grace. In the New Covenant, conditions are kept by Another, and the blessings received by Christ from the Father as a result of His obedience are mediated to Christ’s blood-bought people. Covenants are closely related to types because the older covenants subserved the New, ultimate, covenant by foreshadowing or revealing it. Like types, the older covenants looked forward to another, greater New Covenant. When the New Covenant came, the older ones passed away.

In the next post of this series, I’d like to discuss how covenants should relate to our biblical-interpretive endeavor.