Third Mill Q&A on Baptism

Posted: March 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

Question

I’m studying the paedobaptism issue, and I’m using many traditional and popular works from both credobaptists and paedobaptists. To date I find the Reformed Baptist stuff to be the most biblical. It just seems to fit better than the paedobaptism reasoning, but I’m open to change. How one understands the covenants and their fulfillment, etc., would appear to be crucial. Any thoughts?


Answer

I know this can be a really tough subject — I myself was a Baptist for 25 years or so! In fact, most Presbyterians I know used to be Baptists. I also agree that much of what has been written over the years fails to address some of the concerns that I thought were most important when I was a Baptist. For example, R.C. Sproul basically argues from church history. While I love R.C. (I used to work for him at Ligonier), I just don’t find this argument very compelling from a sola Scriptura perspective. Many other authors argued from assumptions carried over from the old covenant, but I had not yet come to the solid conclusion that the old covenant was the same covenant as the new covenant, and most authors do not present or defend this fact. Then too, they nearly all mentioned the probability that infants were present in the household baptisms.

For me, the most critical interpretive questions that I needed answered were:

  1. Why doesn’t the Bible explicitly teach either paedobaptism or credobaptism?
  2. What would the assumptions of the original audience have been in the absence of any explicit teaching on this subject?
  3. Does the Bible anywhere demonstrate what the original audience assumed?

The most critical theological questions that pertained to the issue were:

  1. What does baptism symbolize?
  2. Can the new covenant be broken?

What finally turned me into a Presbyterian were the answers to these questions. First, I came to conclude that the new covenant was simply a renewal of the old covenant, not a completely different covenant. I also came to conclude that the Bible taught that the new covenant could be broken (from many of the same texts from which people erroneously argue that salvation can be lost). Since salvation cannot be lost, and since the new covenant can be broken, then there must be people in the new covenant who are not saved. For me, this removed the objection that any covenant sign ought only to be applied to believers. The implication became that it ought to be applied to all covenant members. Then, it became easy to assume that the same covenant rules which applied to the old administrations of the covenant still applied in the new administration of the covenant. (There is a related point on which I still differ from many Reformed thinkers: I do not believe that any portion of the law has been abrogated, but that Jesus continues to fulfill on our behalf those portions which we are no longer to do ourselves, such as animal sacrifice, etc. My view of the Law presents an even stronger case for paedobaptism that some of the more traditional statements on the Law do.)

As I looked at the New Testament for help, I was a bit surprised to find that it nowhere explicitly teaches that baptism is “an outward sign of an inward change.” I still believe this is one valid aspect of its symbolism (implied in texts such as Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21), but not that its symbolism is limited to this. Colossians 2:11-12 was a text I thought the Presbyterians used unfairly at first, but in time I came to agree that the implication of that text is that baptism now accomplishes what circumcision used to accomplish, and thus that it really is the new covenant sign. As a covenant sign, I came to believe that baptism symbolizes the entire covenant, not just one particular covenant blessing, and not even all covenant blessings alone. Rather, the implication would be that, like circumcision, it symbolizes both covenant blessings and covenant curses.

Finally, on the hermeneutical front, I was struck by Lydia’s household baptism in Acts 16:14-15. This was not because I assumed there were children present (though it does seem odd to me to think that there were no children present in any of the households that were baptized), but rather because of Luke’s choice of words. That is, Luke says that Lydia believed, and indicates that on that basis her household was baptized. In saying that the household was baptized, Luke never differentiates believers from unbelievers. Regardless of the age of those in the household, they were apparently all baptized. Because Luke does not distinguish between believers and unbelievers in the household, it indicates to me that he assumed that their belief or unbelief was immaterial to the question of whether or not they should be baptized. The important issue was the belief of the head of the household.

Two more theological points that impact the discussion, particularly with regard to breaking the new covenant, are the way the new covenant and its blessings are revealed and applied to believers, and the conditionality of all covenants. Ultimately, the covenant will become unbreakable, but only when Jesus returns and gives us all the covenant blessings. Until then, we partake of blessings only partially, and the covenant remains breakable. A good book on this idea is The Coming of the Kingdom by Herman Ridderbos.

On the point that all covenants are conditional, there has been much confusion because of the unfortunate teaching that has existed within the Reformed tradition that some covenants were unconditional (Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic) while others were conditional (Adamic, Mosaic). Meredith Kline popularized this view, but did so on faulty data. As is reflected even in good study Bibles, for many years research seemed to indicate that in the ancient Near East there was such a thing as an unconditional “royal land grant treaty.” The conclusion that these were unconditional, however, was based on covenant boundary marker stones that sounded unconditional and contained no curses. More recently, though, they dug up these stones to study them further. What they found was that on the portions of the stones buried under the ground by time, these treaties contain stipulations and curses, indicating that these treaties really were conditional. But this is perhaps a point that will continue to be debated as people discover more data, reinterpret existing data, etc.

More importantly, the Bible itself lists explicit stipulations and curses in conjuction with the supposedly unconditional biblical covenants (e.g. uncircumcision results in being cut off from Abraham’s people in Gen. 18; death penalty for murderers in Gen. 9; fidelity to God in 2 Chron. 6:16; etc.) Thus, there really is no good case that any biblical covenant was unconditional. This is most obvious in the case of the new covenant, where Jesus himself had to die in order to receive the covenant curses due us in order to gain the covenant blessings for us. To me, it is somewhat curious that the view that some covenants were conditional (Adamic, Mosaic) and others unconditional (Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) has become ingrained in a tradition (Reformed) that claims there is really only one covenant in various administrations. How does the same covenant ping-pong between being conditional and unconditional?

Anyway, baptism is certainly an issue that is not so clearly presented in Scripture that believers cannot reasonably disagree on it. And you can see from what convinced me that my own views are not entirely identical to those of others in the paedobaptism camp. Different arguments convince different people. The ones I have mentioned are just the ones that convinced me, and are largely based on implication and assumption (as are, by the way, credobaptism arguments). I still know, respect and love a great many Reformed Baptists, and it seems to me that the same issues that prevent them from being paedobaptists are things like the assumption that the new covenant cannot be broken and that baptism is only an outward sign of an inward change. I also know a great many paedobaptist who seem to hold to paedobaptism for insufficient reasons, but I love them too.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

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Comments
  1. Will Enochs says:

    I had never given much thought to the conditionality of the covenants and how that is not synonymous with losing your salvation. I like how he says “Anyway, baptism is certainly an issue that is not so clearly presented in Scripture that believers cannot reasonably disagree on it.” This is something I would like to think more about.

    • larrywalkeriii says:

      I like your willingness to study the issue, Will. I think it is extremely important, and something that can be easily misunderstood if not taken in light of all of scripture. Keep studying and read “William the Baptist” which I noticed you left at my house last night.

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