Friday, 12 June 2009

More on baptism

Just finished two key Baptist books on why infant baptism is in error: Kingdon's "Children of Abraham" and Jewett's "Infant baptism and the covenant of grace." I am not convinced by them. The larger post gives my reflections on the subject. It is more a brain unload than an essay, so some points are left as givens without scriptural references etc.


The main issue
It is commonly accepted that there is some equivalence to circumcision and baptism (Col 2). They both are both signs and seals of faith, forgiveness and renewal. Though the former is BC whereas the latter is AD.

The key question is whether they are equivalent in their applicability to children. Clearly they are not fully so, as circumcision was granted primarily to Jewish boys, whereas baptism holds for those of all nations, whether male or female.

Having said this, there is significant evidence that baptism should be (and would have been) applied to infants.

Presumptive election
There are only two ways a Christian may regard their young children: Presumed to be unregenerate and unbelieving (though possibly not so) until coming to a point of conversion (as Baptists would hold); or presumed to be regenerate and believing (though possibly not so) until proving that they are not. Yet I can see no-where in scripture that we are encouraged to see our children as probably unregenerate. Rather in every case, we are encouraged to seem as probably born again or at least due to be.

Most significant is Malachi 2v15. There we read that God’s purpose in marriage is “godly offspring.” Now this surely reasons that God’s general intent is to use the believing family to bring children to faith; that those children are probably therefore elect. Given that, we must ask on what grounds we should keep the sacrament from our children when from the earliest age (if taught) they display faith and repentance?

The continuance of covenant family
This resonates fully with the promises of the New Covenant being said to encompass such children: Is 44v3 (cf. 43v5) refers to the descendents of the Israelities in Isaiah’s day, so should not be read necessarily as a promise to the children of Messianic believers. However it does affirm the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant along the lines of offspring, suggesting the New Covenant operates in the same manner. Critical here is Jeremiah 31v36-37. The context is the great passage about the new covenant (v31-34). After which God affirms that the “offspring of Israel” will always be a nation before him and will never be “cast off.” Again, this clearly states that the New Covenant will also operate through the institution of the family in the same manner as promised to Abraham. If that were not the case, these would be arbitrary promises, as it would be no more likely for a believing Israelite’s child to receive them, than it would be an unbelieving Gentile’s child.

New Covenant promises for children
Is 61v9 is clearer. Here the prophet speaks of the descendents/offspring of those the everlasting covenant is made with. And the presumption is that that they will be blessed by God and known amongst the peoples as his. Is 59v21 is also striking here: "As for Me, this is My covenant with them, "says the Lord: "My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring's offspring," says the Lord, "from now and forever.”” What is striking here, is that the promise of the Spirit and knowledge (stressed in Jer 31v31-34) is for the Israelite and for their children.

Now consider Peter’s famous sermon in Acts 2v38-39. To the Jews who had gathered at Pentecost he declares: “"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. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." In the light of the OT, it is inconceivable to think that Peter’s hearers would not have assumed this New Covenant embraced their children just as the Old one did. Moreover, we can see that God’s covenant promises were not “for” Israelite children in the sense that they can be for anyone who repents. They were for them in that they were their particular heritage as those born into the covenant people of God. We certainly agree that the next phrase “and for all who are far off” may therefore refer either to exiled Jews God is calling back, or to Gentiles he calls to faith. But the point is that the promises are destined for them too.

This sense is affirmed by two other passages. First, Joel 2v28-32 quote by Peter in Acts 2v17-21. There Joel promises the Spirit as being poured out on Israel’s sons and daughters to the extent that they will prophesy – again picking up the twofold aspect of Spirit and knowledge. Now we must grant that babies cannot speak. But the point again is that God’s New Covenant promises are “for” them in a special sense. Second, the key circumcision passage in Genesis 17. There God affirms five times that he is establishing an “everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendents (or children).” Now this is such a significant passage in the Jewish mind, that Peter’s hearers could not but hear his parallel words as the fulfilment of it, and assumed that the promises are “for” their children in similar manner to which they were for Israelite children under the Old Covenant.

We should comment here on the fact that slaves were circumcised under the Abrahamic covenant because they were to belong to the people of Israel and receive the temporal blessing of the covenant. It is said that this shows that circumcision of infants related to these earthy blessings rather than the heavenly ones, and that if paedobaptists were consistent in seeing this carry on, they should also baptise servants in the Christian household. Yet our response is to ask who the respective covenants were “for.” The old covenant was in some sense for slaves as well as Israelites as they could share in the temporal covenant promises. Yet we are never told this is the case with the New Covenant, whereas we have seen how strongly we are told that this covenant is “for” believer’s offspring. So it is that we baptise them, but not the servants of Christians etc.

Bearing all the above in mind, I cannot see how the 3000 Jews on the day of Pentecost would not have brought their children for baptism on the same assumptions that they would have brought them for circumcision – that they are presumptive members of the new covenant and destined to receive all that baptism speaks of if raised to follow the Messiah Peter spoke of. When one considers how ingrained this mindset was, there would have been much confusion if not a riot at the apostles telling the parents that their children would have to leave the water because the promises were not for them. It would certainly have made the baptism of 3000 in one day impossible when one considers the explanation that virtually every couple would have needed.

Confirmed by household baptisms
The evidence above is significant enough. But we must note too that in every case where we read of someone being baptised who had a household, the household is baptised too. Here what is termed as the “oikos” formula us key. It refers to the idea of the OT household, and though it is possible the children in each household are old enough to responsibly repent, its OT usage, the looseness with which it is used in Acts, and the above argument all suggest that Luke is actually just assuming we would see a carry on of the idea of covenant family.

Confirmed by proselyte baptism
This is much discussed. In summary, converts to Judaism were baptised in Jesus’ day. This stressed their need of cleansing to be amongst God’s people. The link with Christian baptism is obvious. However, it seems that not all children of converts were baptised, but only those born before the mother’s baptism. The sense seems to be that those born after it, could be assumed to have been baptised “within her” – so to speak.

Some find this a challenge to paedobaptism. But it is not so for two reasons: (1) It tacitly proves the concept of infant baptism in the mindset of Jesus’ day. This makes it even more likely that John included infants in his baptisms, and that the Jews hearing Peter’s sermons would have assumed the same of him. (2) It also affirms the idea of a parent representing their children.

We should add too, that those born after a mother’s baptism were not themselves baptised at a later date, but were assumed to now be “in.” So Proselyte baptism in no way affirms the assumptions of credo-baptism, but simply raises a question over whether all children of Christians were baptised, or only those born before the parent’s baptism.

This we cannot really establish. But on the grounds of Matthew 28v16-20 and the precedent of church history, it would seem we should continue baptising all children born to believers.

Confirmed by John the Baptist
Here too, Baptists tend to boldly state no children were baptised. Yet the NT is just silent on this. If the idea of representation prevailed in the first century, if as we have seen the assumption was that the New Covenant was for Jewish children too, and if the covenant family continued as a key idea, it is highly likely that parents were committing their children to God in their own repentance and bringing them for baptism too.

Having said this, it must be remembered that John’s baptism was in reality an Old Covenant one. Resonating with the prophets, it called people back to God in preparation for the coming of the Christ and the giving of the Spirit. And in this, we especially learn that John was “turning the hearts of the Fathers to their children, and of the children to their Fathers.” In OT speak this means, he is strengthening covenant families.

So it is extremely likely that the qualifications for baptism would have been under the principles of the Old Covenant, where children are included. Yet John’s baptism was a precursor to Christian baptism, making this same scope all the more likely.

Confirmed by church history
The arguments here are complex. We have little to go on from the early years. But find by the end of the third century that infant baptism is normative, and the only queries over it are because of a wrong idea that it somehow actually washes away sin and so is worth keeping until later in life.

Given this testimony however, we must ask if believer’s baptism was taught by the apostles, why it did not survive in at least some major strains of Christianity in the third century? The Baptist convictions that arose in the seventeenth century have not been able to be suppressed since, so why should we think that those of the apostles themselves could be? Far more likely, is that there was a consensus in the early church about the baptism of children, until individuals began to question it for wrong reasons as mentioned.

An objection considered
The critical objection by Baptists, is that the grounds for inclusion in the covenant has changed. Under the Old Covenant it was on being born into Israel irrespective of genuine faith, yet under the New Covenant it is genuine faith irrespective of one’s birth. This needs some qualification, yet in principle we do not deny it. However, it does not discount infant baptism. For as we have seen, it is grounded in the presumption and expectation of faith in covenant children on the conviction that the covenant and its promises are for them. In other words, we are presuming and expecting that they are truly Abraham’s seed as in Galatians 3. And we are presuming therefore that they have died to their old self and risen to new life as in Colossians 2.

The difference between the covenants is not to be seen therefore in whether or not its sign is given to children, but in the state of the parents to whose children the sign is given. Without the temporal blessing of the Old Covenant, there is rightly a stronger and clearer stress on the need of this heart-felt faith and regeneration, which was taught but not required in the stricter sense under the Old Covenant. So a parent can only be considered a New Covenant member by an apparently sincere confession of faith of in Jesus. And it is only their children who can be treated as presumptively elect and for whom the covenant promises are especially for. The Baptists cannot therefore charge us with reading the OT into the New. We acknowledge discontinuity, but not its implications for children.

This is all surely how Hebrews 8v8-13 should be understood. The Old Covenant commended God’s law on the heart and the forgiveness of sins. Yet those without these things were still allowed to consider themselves covenant people if they partook of the cult that looked to them. Under the New Covenant, as the context to Hebrews 8 stresses, that cult is passed, and so one is a firm and true member only if one actually receives that which was foreshadowed in the cultic system. The thing is, this just doesn’t say anything about the children of these covenant members. Indeed, circumcision was instituted before the Mosaic law was given, suggesting that its principles are not abrogated by this change. Furthermore, we have seen that the rest of the Bible urges us to presume the things of Hebrews 8 are (or will be) our children’s, and so treat them as covenant members until such times as they prove otherwise.

Representative faith
A further argument is that the Bible suggests that before some undefined age, children are represented before God by their parents. So we were considered guilty “in Adam” and our saved by being “in Christ.” Yet for those whose parents are “in Christ” we must ask whether they are treated as “in their parents.” Certainly, Noah’s children were included “in him” and so saved from the flood. Significantly Abraham’s children were represented by him too. So if he did not circumcise them, they were said to have broken the covenant. The principle stands throughout the OT, with judgement and blessing not just received by individual Israelites but by their children too. Consider Eli, Asa or the Levites.

Now we acknowledge that this is less clear in the NT. But our arguments to this point suggest the same idea of covenant family and the household baptisms confirm that. So we might add an extra response to the objection that infants are not yet true children of Abraham through faith: Not only should we presume they probably will be and so treat them as such, there is a sense that “in” their parents they are, until such time as God deems them accountable themselves.

Another objection
A second objection, is that the NT does not teach the idea of a wider covenant community than those who are actually regenerate. However this is not true:
A number of passages that teach some form of temporary covenant membership. Consider, 1 Corinthians 7v14. There, the idea of being “holy” or “sanctified” is picked up for children. The debate about the spouse being “holy” too is a red-herring. The sense is that they are only sanctified in order to ensure that the child is. The point is that belief on the part of one-parent sets the spouse apart so that the child can be seen as “holy” by God. They are therefore set-apart for God in a special way the non-Christian’s child is not. At the very least, there is therefore some way in which the covenant membership of the parents impacts them even though they may not even be able to believe.

More clearly, Hebrews 10v29 speaks of those who fall away “treating as unholy the blood of the covenant that sanctified them.” This could certainly be a reference to grown-up covenant children, or others who have been baptised as adults but lose faith. Now from the perspective of chapter 8, there could be none who fall away. Yet whereas that passage deals with ultimate covenant people, chapter 10 must deal with the apparent covenant community. And there it seems some are sanctified or set-apart as holy by their belonging to the church and appearance of faith, who do not genuinely believe in a saving sense. We should note here too, that the writer is not saying they were not in reality covenant members at all. He suggests they were, as the covenant “sanctified them.” The sense is that all who profess faith do actually belong to the covenant, even if that faith is not real. We must conclude that Christ’s death not only therefore sets-apart true believers for God, but derivatively the church community that they comprise, including those within that community who confess faith but don’t truly believe. This puts great responsibilities on them. Yet the point for our argument is simply that this allows us to call young children covenant members from the earliest times they express faith, even if they are not mature enough to prove their faith as genuine. Indeed, the terminology is strikingly similar to that of 1 Corinthians 7, suggesting covenant ideas there too.

Romans 11 implies the same thing. The olive tree was the OT image for the covenant people. And again, he describes those who are part of it as “holy,” once more suggesting this the children of 1 Corinthians 7 should be seen as covenant members. Moreover, in v17-24 Paul describes how some branches who belonged to this tree (Jews) have been broken off by unbelief, whilst Gentiles have been grafted on through faith. Now if he left it there, we might say that this refers to the change of covenants, so that all who are now branches are true believers. Yet Paul warns his hearers that they too could be cut off if they don’t persevere in belief v20-22. The sense then is that he is happy to talk of those with apparent faith as members of the covenant even if that faith is not actually genuine. Moreover, he is only prepared to talk of people that are presumed to be members as cut-off if they don’t continue in faith. Of course, we might note that he requires faith to be considered as a member, and we would respond that the Bible encourages us to presume this of covenant children.

All we are really seeking to establish in the above examples is that the NT is happy to talk of the covenant people in a way that is broader than simply the elect. This allows us to talk of children as being members of the covenant even if they may grow up to prove they are not. Indeed, the resonances between 1 Corinthians 7 and the other passages suggests this is exactly how we should regard them.

Clarifying the issue
Now given this abundant testimony, it is not stretching things to presume that when Paul talks of Gentile adults being grafted into Israel and becoming true children of Abraham by faith (Rom 11, Gal 3), that they bring their children into these promises as they do. So we can say that the Spirit is “for” our children in the particular sense that they are their heritage as children born to covenant parents. Again, I must stress that this does not guarantee the salvation of our children. He is still sovereign, and so for particular reasons did not choose Ishmael or Esau despite the intent of Malachi 2. Yet we can have confidence that God’s general disposition and intent is to save our children and so fulfil the commission of Genesis 1v26ff. And because this intent is potentially thwarted by divorce in Malachi 2, we can presume it relies on us rightly conducting our family life with all the presuppositions of raising our children in the discipline and instruction of the LORD as Abraham himself did (Eph 6v1-4).

The reasons for baptising children then are as follows:
1) The thrust of scripture is for us to presume they are elect rather than they are not.
2) The New Covenant texts affirm the continuance of the idea of covenant family.
3) So God’s promises are for them in a special way as children of covenant parents.
4) There are grounds for speaking of them as covenant members even if we are not sure they believe.

Whether or not we can establish some idea of representative faith in covenant parents, the principle behind circumcising children on the above grounds still continues with baptism as its equivalent. The changes are however (a) nations are more easily included, (b) girls are included, (c) the inner rather than outer obedience has a particular focus, (d) the idea of inclusion simply by birth has therefore been abrogated, for that of birth on the requirement of future faith and regeneration. All these factors and especially b-d explain the change of sign.

Here, the nature of baptism is key. It is a sign of the spiritual washing promised in the New Covenant, but it is also a seal that promises those things just as seal on a document guarantees its contents. Now neither of these things require repentance before reception. Rather they sign and seal the promises of God on the condition of repentance. So for Gentile adults who previously had no contact with the covenant people, it requires prior repentance, for there is no sense in which the promises are for them in the covenantal sense (though there is in the sense that they are offered to all) until they do. Moreover, for adult Jews for whom the promises were destined, baptism requires repentance in entering into the New Covenant founded upon Christ with its clearer concern for regeneration. Yet for the children of these repentant adults, things are rather different. Now the promises are covenantally for them, and so they can receive the sign and seal as a pledge of those promises and a reminder that their reality is received on the condition of genuine repentance.

A note on infant communion
This is up for debate. Early church history and consistency may suggest it. However, Paul warns those who do not receive it worthily, who do not examine themselves and who come greedily as the Corinthians were. Now whereas a baby cannot come to baptism in such a manner, because communion is taken as they grow up, they may well do when they take it as a young child. For this reason it seems sensible to prohibit communion until they children can come with due reverence. Having said this, Israelite children took part in the Passover meal. And that too was surely to be done reverently and as a means of re-focusing one’s faith on the redemption of God. So perhaps children should receive, being taught reverence but on the recognition that God is merciful to them in their immaturity. This would make their barring from communion if unrepentant at a later date, all the more significant in what is says of their lapsing in their covenant responsibilities.

We acknowledge that there is a certain simplicity to the Baptist argument. And that an examination of the NT alone makes this not the clearest of matters. However our conviction is that an understanding of the OT context and prophecies that lay behind Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 meant that it would have been quite inconceivable for him to mean anything other than that Christian children are covenant children, presumed and intended inheritors of God’s promises, and so entitled to baptism too. Moreover, the corroboration of the household baptisms, the wider idea of baptism and the testimony of early church history all confirm this, giving it significant weight, even if the detail is more complex and the augments put for infant baptism not always consistent.