Why I changed my mind on baptism: the case for including infants

PTC Baptism Conference 2015
Full audio of the Conference for sale at PTCMedia

  1. A Baptist of the Baptists

1.1       The NT regulative principle argument

1.2       The faith argument

1.3       The ethnic Israel argument

  1. My tower experience

2.1       Tower experience: one key text

2.2       Tower experience: Abrahamic covenant

2.3       Tower experience: various other texts

2.4       Tower experience: an administrative sign

  1. Concluding thoughts

ADDENDUM

  1. Dispensationalism
  2. New covenant theology
  3. Correlating circumcision with baptism

3.1       What about Passover?

3.2       Colossians 2:11–13

3.3       1 Peter 3:21

3.4       A Jewish Church

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND READING LIST

 

 Heresy or Conversion?

A study could profitably be undertaken of the views of the 16th century Reformers of the 17th Westminster divines on baptism. This is routinely dealt with in the College curriculum, though. Instead, the topic adopted is: ‘Why I changed my mind on baptism’.

This is not an academic presentation, then, but a personal narrative. Comprehensiveness and thoroughness are not the goals, although the footnotes help to supplement the story.

I have a subtitle: ‘My Journey into ‘Heresy’’. This is because I grew up a Baptist, and I committed what I somewhat light-heartedly call the only Baptist heresy. I changed my mind on believer’s baptism. I could have believed any number of things and remained within the Baptist Church, but here was this greatest of errors—this unforgivable sin. I came to believe in infant baptism, or covenant baptism, as the term could better be put.

Here is my story of my descent into the abyss, as a Baptist would see it. I have three main points to work through: me as a Baptist of the Baptists, my tower experience, and some concluding thoughts.

  1. A Baptist of the Baptists

First, understand that I was a Baptist of the Baptists; of the tribe of the Baptist Union of Victoria; baptised by full immersion upon profession of faith in my 13th year; as to zeal, persecuting infant baptists; as to the self-righteousness that comes from being a Baptist, hopefully there was none of that, but I was convinced of my Baptist position all the same.

I went through PTC, the Presbyterian College, as a Baptist, as a private student, at the age of 20­–21. None of the lecturers here dissuaded me from my Baptist convictions. Not one of the Presbyterian students for the ministry was able to put a chink in my armour. ‘PTC cannot teach you a thing about baptism’, I could well have said.

I was a convinced Baptist. The reasons why Baptists are so convinced of their position are well known. Let me give you three of these unassailable, Baptist truths.

  • The NT regulative principle argument

First, go to the book of Acts, or anywhere in the NT, and show me the place where infant baptism is commanded or practiced. There is no place. Not once does the text say, ‘And they baptised a child’.[1] More astute Baptists have put this in typical Presbyterian terms: the regulative principle does not allow for infant baptism. An informed Presbyterian will understand the force of those words. The regulative principle says we only do what Scripture commands. Presbyterians love the regulative principle. However, if we are only doing what the Bible says, then we have no warrant to baptise children.

  • The faith argument

Secondly, the NT always connects baptism and faith. They believed and were baptised. This is unassailable.

This connects with the Baptist understanding of the nature of the Church. The Church is the body of those with faith, which means it is made up of those who are regenerated and express that with faith. Baptism is a marker of being part of the spiritual, regenerated Church.

  • The ethnic Israel argument

Thirdly, if the Church is the body of those with faith, then what was OT Israel? It was an ethnic and national entity, and that is all. That the OT included children in the covenants is irrelevant. Linking baptism to circumcision is invalid. Circumcision only marked that Jews participated in the physical, temporal, external, national, geographical elements of the Abrahamic covenant. Of this I was convinced.

While I was a Baptist student at PTC, there was one student who tried to convert me. In class one day, he took my Bible, got his highlighter pen, and highlighted these words in Gen 17:7, ‘and your descendants’ (‘And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant…’).

I was furious with him, because it was not my Bible. I had borrowed my Grandmother’s Bible that morning. Now I had to take it back to her and say that a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry had defiled her precious Bible.

Apart from that, I thought, is that really the best you can do? So what if the Abrahamic covenant had an ‘and your seed’ component? There is no faith principle involved with this. This has no spiritual implications for my Baptist position.[2]

All in all, my view was that infant baptism is a relic from Roman Catholicism, and undercuts the Gospel, which has salvation by grace alone through faith, not by the application of water. Like most Baptists, I saw paedo-baptism as really only being another form of salvation by water.

  1. My tower experience

What changed, then? Let me relate my tower experience, by which language I am plagiarising Luther’s conversion experience. This was not my moment of conversion to Christ at all, but I did convert from the Baptist Church to the Presbyterian Church. Why was this?

While I was at PTC, I read through the entire shelf in the library on baptism. None of the books were any good. There seemed to be a favourite way of arguing, that the Church has replaced Israel, and therefore we circumcise our children with water, or something like that.

How, though, can the spiritual Church have replaced physical Israel? This is not found in any NT text. Paul, in Romans 11, clearly gives a continuing place to ethnic Israel. Paul’s mantra is, ‘To the Jew first, and then to the Greek’. The Church replacing Israel sounded ridiculous to me back then, and I have to say that it still sounds a little too simplistic to me today (see the Addendum). The idea of ‘replacement theology’ or supersessionism did not ring true.

I had waded my way through the sludge of Reformed books on baptism, and I still had an internally consistent position. Once one has an internally consistent position, it is very hard to see things in a different way. What, then, changed for me?

  • Tower experience: one key text

I was ministering in a Baptist Church at the time. It was the summer holidays, 1995. I had been out from PTC for a couple of years, and I was still a Baptist. At the Open Book Bookshop that used to be in Box Hill, I bought an 1888 printing of Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. The original publication date was only 1874, so I was pleased with the purchase. It cost me $10. As it happened, it was the set owned by Robert Swanton, a former lecturer at PTC.

I went home, and over the garden fence, I heard a child singing, ‘Tolle lege, tolle lege, tolle lege’ (‘Take up and read, take up and read, take up and read’). Now I am but plagiarising Augustine’s conversion story. There was no child singing over the garden fence for me, but I did take up and read.

I read several parts, and then I opened up to the section on baptism. It was the usual routine; quite unconvincing. Still, one thing in Hodge caught my eye:

Fourthly, that circumcision was not merely a civil or national institution, is further plain from its spiritual import. It signifies the cleansing from sin, just as baptism now does. Thus we read even in the Old Testament of the circumcision of the heart. (Deut. x. 16; Jer. Iv. 4; Ezek. xliv. 7). (Volume III, p. 554).

It was not that comment that converted me, but I was surprised by the reference to the spiritual significance of circumcision. I looked at the verses, and was not quite convinced, but thought I should chase the concept of circumcision through the OT.

It was then that I came across a verse that made no sense to me. I could not account for it. When you have an internally consistent position, new data is usually forced to harmonise with the existing system. This verse, though, did not fit, and it forced me to change my thinking. What was the verse?

Deut 30:6. Moses says, ‘And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.’

The verse says three things that did not make sense to me.

  1. God promised to sanctify the Israelites. ‘Circumcise the heart’ equates with what we call sanctification. The verse itself makes the metaphor clear, for it says that God will bring Israel ‘to love the Lord your God’. Deuteronomy 6, in words that are at the centre of what it means to be Jewish in the OT, gave the command to love God. Deuteronomy 30 says that God will accomplish it in their hearts. Conclusion: Israel is a spiritual entity.
  2. The promise is for the parents and the offspring, through ensuing generations. Apparently, there is a dimension of sanctification that is familial (that relates to family). This is not a natural principle—that children often follow in their parents’ footsteps. The principle is divine—with regard to the way God chooses to work. God works with the children of believers. Conclusion: the people of God includes infants, based upon the promise of God.
  3. The physical act of circumcision was a sign of this reality: of sanctification, and of familial sanctification. Why else would circumcision be mentioned in the verse?[3] Circumcision did not bring sanctification, it should carefully be noted—this is not salvation by circumcision—but it is a sign of that reality. Conclusion: circumcision is the sign of sanctification, and familial sanctification at that, not just of being Jewish.

I had misunderstood what OT Israel was about. Israel was not merely a physical, national entity. Sanctification of life was at the core of what Israel was about. This was the Church of the OT.

If God could command the sign of sanctification to children in the OT, why would that change in the NT? God is one. He does not change. Is the NT more restrictive than the OT? Does God promise less grace in the New than in the Old? Even as baptism extends to include the baptism of women, whereas only males were circumcised, are children now excluded?[4]

You might think that this does not quite show that baptism has superseded circumcision, but I knew where this was headed. My Baptist position was dead. It occurred to me that, to be honest, the NT does not explicitly say what to do with the children of believers. If the final third of the Scriptures does not speak on the issue, then the first two-thirds should be the guide. It includes children in the covenant.

As I read Deut 30:6, it felt to me as though the gates of paradise opened. Again, I misappropriate Luther’s conversion story. This was not my conversion, but I did have a similar experience to Luther on that day. Luther says that after he realised that God’s righteousness was a gift, his mind raced through the Scriptures, from passage to passage, testing his new doctrine and seeing a new coherence to Scripture. In that one day, my mind raced through the Scriptures.

It was as though it was a different book. It had a new coherence. It was not just a matter of baptism. It was a matter of the OT-NT relationship. I suddenly had a whole Bible.[5]

Also, God was the same God, but somehow now He was different. It was as though He had come out from behind a cloud. I had a consistent God.

Again, I now had a God who did not—did not—prioritise faith above all things. In the Baptist system, faith is prioritised above all. ‘We will baptise you if you have faith. Have you had your conversion experience?’ That is vital, and yet somehow disappointing at the same time. What kind of spirituality is that it finds your own faith as the highest thing?

Now, though, what I have is a sovereign, gracious God, who calls His people to Himself, regardless of the obstacles, and who above all things prioritises union with Himself: love for Him, and love from Him (as per Deut 30:6). This is the centre of all the biblical covenants: the exalted God who draws us into union with Himself.[6] This was not my conversion experience, but I did feel my heart to be strangely warmed, to borrow from John Wesley. The Gospel was deeper, richer, more satisfying. I had got to the core of it.

  • Tower experience: Abrahamic covenant

As my mind ran through the Scriptures that day, I turned to that matrix of revelation that makes up Genesis 12, 15 and 17, the Abrahamic covenant. Previously, to me, it was a physical covenant. I had relegated the non-physical parts to the periphery. Now, I saw them as central. It was a spiritual covenant.

  1. The Abrahamic covenant is about seed, but seed is about Genesis 3, the Warrior-Redeemer. It is about Christ.
  2. The Abrahamic covenant is about land, but land as a picture of Eden. Canaan is a sacramental land. This is no bare, physical concern.
  3. If the Abrahamic covenant is about those two things, then it is about salvation from sin. It is a step towards overcoming the great barrier of sin from Genesis 3. Thus, Gen 15:6, the classic proof text of justification by faith, is not incidental in the text. Justification is what the covenant is all about: justification, in the seed.
  4. If the Abrahamic covenant is all of these things, then it is about union with God. The very fact of it being revelation meant that God was imparting Himself. Is that not everything? Is that not all we want. How could I have thought that this was just about ethnic Israel getting some real-estate in Canaan?

This was all new to me, but of course it is not new in Reformed thought. This is the same territory covered by Bullinger at the time of the Reformation, in the first-ever treatise solely on the topic of covenant in the Church. We look at it in Reformation History class: A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant, in which Bullinger says that Genesis 17 is the target of all of Scripture.

Coming to Genesis 17, what is circumcision about? God gives Abraham great promises, and then says to cut off the foreskin. What is the relationship between these things?

  1. Circumcision connects to the idea of seed very well[7]—there is no need to explain that—but seed is about the Saviour. Therefore, circumcision is Christological.
  2. Circumcision is a cleansing; a cutting away of the filth of the body. Is there anything in Genesis 17 about moral or spiritual cleansing? There is, in two ways.
    (a) First, it is ch 17 that most clearly gives the command to Abraham, ‘Walk before me and be blameless’. Abraham must live a holy life.
    (b) Secondly, twice this chapter emphasises relationship with God. ‘I will be their God’. These are people who live in His presence. The implication is that cleanness of life is needed.
    Circumcision is not only about sanctification over in Deuteronomy 30; it is that here at its inception in Genesis 17, marking that God’s people are a holy people and need to be holy people.
  3. Thus, circumcision is about union with God.[8]

Circumcision is not primarily about an external, physical covenant.

  • Tower experience: various other texts

My mind raced through various other texts.

  1. Re the absence of infant baptisms in Acts, it struck me that Acts is an evangelism book, not a parish baptismal register. It focuses on converts, and so has converts being baptised. It is not concerned with the question of what to do with children.[9] [10]
  2. Re household baptisms in Acts (and 1 Cor 1:16), could they really have included infants? Suddenly, this seemed very likely.[11] Could it really be that every particular ‘household’ (οἶκος, oikos) that is mentioned just happened to have no infants? What happens if I look at the notion of ‘household’ from an ancient world perspective, rather than from the individualist perspective of the modern world? Why use this collective term, if Luke only means that particular individuals believed and were baptised?[12]
  3. Re Acts 2, Peter says that the promise is to ‘you and your seed’. That surely must be the OT familial principle, still in operation.[13]
  4. Re Colossians 2, Baptists see it as a bizarre coincidence that Paul speaks about circumcision and baptism so closely together. Is it a coincidence, though? Could it really be that baptism had replaced circumcision? This is precisely what the text teaches (see the Addendum), and so by ‘good and necessary consequence’, the Church has solid, Scriptural ground for infant baptism, satisfying the requirements of the regulative principle.
  • Tower experience: an administrative sign

My mind went back to something I had read in that stack of books at PTC. This was probably the second main piece of data in my thinking on that day. John Murray made a comment that I had not originally understood, but it made sense to me now. He spoke of baptism as an administrative rite. It is a matter of administration. What does this mean?

What is the Baptist rationale for baptising someone? Those who have faith and are saved can be baptised.[14] An infant cannot have faith, therefore cannot be saved, and therefore cannot be baptised.[15]

Murray says that baptism is an administrative sign. What he means is that the Church distributes it. The elders sit around and decide who should receive it. That changes the rationale upon which someone is baptised. Elders cannot see into a person’s heart or into the eternal counsels of God. They cannot see if a person has real faith or real salvation.

What some people do when they realise this is they change what baptism is about. They say that baptism is letting people into the membership of the visible Church. This is unsatisfactory. The Bible clearly says higher things of circumcision and baptism. These are signs of union with Christ. The best Reformed writers do not take that approach.

Thus, we return to this idea. Baptism is a sign of union with Christ, but it is also an administrative rite. It is something the elders distribute. On what basis can the Church bestow the sign of union with Christ? The elders do not see into hearts, but they make an external assessment of the situation.

Murray does not pursue it in this way, but this came to be my understanding. The question is not, ‘Is the person in Christ?’, for we cannot answer that, but ‘Are we permitted to believe that a person is in Christ?’, or ‘Are we required to treat a person as someone who is in Christ?’ This brings the matter to something that is objective and quantifiable; something that the elders can record in the minutes, if they want to.

The question is, ‘By what warrant or on what grounds can we come to believe that a person is in Christ?’ For adults, the basis is clear. There must be a credible confession of faith. I do not know if the person is actually saved, but if they make a credible profession, then I must treat that person as a brother or sister in Christ, and permit them to be baptised. This is an objective, measurable standard.

Actually, strictly put, the warrant here is the warrant of the word of God. On the basis of the promise of God that faith is connected to salvation, the sign of salvation is applied to those who make a credible profession of faith. The elders distribute baptism on that basis, and that is actually what that baptism is saying: not, ‘We know this person is saved’, but ‘God has promised to save those who have a real faith’.

However, there is a second ground or basis for baptism, and this basis too is the promise of God. It is the promise that God will work in hearts of the children of believers.[16]  This is the familial dimension of Deut 30:6. This does not mean that each and every child of a believer will necessarily come to salvation (think of Ishmael and Esau), but God still gives what could be called a general promise that He works within families. The elders distribute baptism on that basis, and that is what that baptism is saying: not, ‘This child is saved’, but ‘God has promised to work in the families of believers’.

Which is the more certain of the two: that God’s salvation belongs to the adult who says they have faith—the word of a person; or that God’s salvation belongs to the child to whom God’s covenant promise pertains—the word of God? If Baptists really want to insist on only baptising those who are truly saved, they would probably do better to start baptising children. There are problems with the way I have posed the question, but it makes a point all the same.[17]

There is a danger here, which is the danger of presuming that covenant children are saved and do not need any evangelistic work put into them. This is the problem of ‘presumptive regeneration’. The position concludes too much from the general promise. See the footnote.[18]

  1. Concluding thoughts

That was a lot to think through in one day, but to complete the story, I knew by the end of that day that there was no going back. The scales had fallen from my eyes (to borrow from Paul’s conversion story). I had entered into Baptist heresy.[19] He who formerly persecuted the Presbyterian Church now found himself to be embracing that Church. I took a few weeks to make sure that my mind was settled, but promptly resigned my position in a Baptist Church, and sought to be a candidate for the ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

Let me commend to you that one verse: Deut 30:6. That one verse wipes away the segmented, divisive views of dispensationalism, new covenant theology, and whatever other creative views are out there of the relationship between the covenants.[20]

This is not just about baptism. This is about whether we have a whole Bible or not. This is about whether you, New Covenant believer, are ‘under’ the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants, or whether they are just ancient curiosities or a source of ‘wisdom’ for you.

There is a lot of misunderstanding here. We think that the OT covenants have been fulfilled in Christ, and that is true, but we wrongly think that ‘fulfilment’ means ‘abrogation’. This does not follow. That is not how the Biblical covenants work, for two reasons.

First, at a historical level, each new covenant builds on and exists within the space carved out by the preceding covenants. There is continuing validity from stage to stage. Six points:

  1. I am one of the blessed Gentiles promised in the Abrahamic covenant. Abraham is my father. The Abrahamic covenant is still being fulfilled.
  2. The Mosaic law is still binding on me. It is not binding because the NT reissues it. The NT relies on and assumes the authority of the Mosaic. I am a Mosaic law-keeper.
  3. I must submit to the Davidic king, in the terms set by 2 Samuel 7. David says that this covenant was the ‘law of humanity’. This is still law for me. Think of this: Jesus will always and through all eternity be the greater Son of David, according to the flesh. That is never going to change. That does not sound like a covenant whose terms have been abrogated.
  4. The OT covenants promise eternality. Eternality can only ever be ‘being fulfilled’. There is no dot point in time in which eternality can be ‘fulfilled’.
  5. The notion of one law code being replaced by another might make sense, but these are covenants, putting relationship into a legal framework. God does not depart from His relationship with Abraham, Moses and David. He continues to be the God of Abraham and Moses and David.
  6. Paul says that the blood of Christ brings us ‘near’ to the ‘covenants of promise’ (Eph 2:12), certainly signifying by this plurality the OT covenants, and certainly meaning that nearness is participation in them, by which we are saved.

The NT is clear that the priestly laws and sundry, somewhat arbitrary holiness laws are abrogated. The covenants themselves remain in force. Their salvational-covenantal rites remain in force, too, although adapted to the NT age: Sabbath, circumcision and Passover.

Secondly, from a theological perspective, whilst successive covenants build on each other but the preceding remain in force, on the other hand, there really is only one covenant. This is the point of Covenant Theology. Historically, each covenant heads towards and undergirds the next. Theologically, there is the one Covenant of Grace, which is the New Covenant. The preceding covenants are historical pre-instalments. In this light, the question of whether one is ‘under’ the Abrahamic covenant, etc, is redundant. The Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic are expressions of the New Covenant (with ancillary inclusions that are jettisoned or reshaped when the New Covenant arrives in its fullness). One does not get to pick and choose between them, because they are the same thing. This is why John can put it that the new Jerusalem has gates named after the tribes of Israel, but walls founded on the twelve apostles. The New Covenant is the foundation; Old Testament realities are founded upon that.[21]

Here is what I discovered in one day: a whole Bible, God’s entire revelation, all His authoritative Word for my life, all given to teach, rebuke, correct and train. With a whole Bible in hand, and in accordance with the practice of the apostles, the early fathers, and magisterial Reformers (not to mention in parallel with the Jewish mikveh conversion practice), I am a covenant baptist.

ADDENDUM

There are a number of theological systems in which infant baptism cannot happily reside. They similarly divide the OT from the NT. The Christian Church has often struggled with what to do with the OT. In the early Church, Marcion gave the most extreme approach, and was roundly rebutted by the likes of Tertullian and Irenaeus. Irenaeus quite rightly saw that the question was not only about the nature of Scripture. It was also about the nature of God. If God is one, then the principles that run through the Scriptures do not change.

The Marcionite heresy, that the god of the OT is a god of anger (Law) and the God of the NT is a God of love (Gospel), has comparable elements in many systems. Luther did not always have the highest regard for the law of the OT, which he was inclined to think was about works righteousness (and he saw James negatively, too).

Currently, on the evangelical scene, infant baptism is rejected by systems such as dispensationalism (classic, revised, progressive) and new covenant theology. In terms of their proximity to Covenant Theology—the theology of the Swiss Reformers such as Zwingli and Calvin—classic dispensationalism is the furthest away, and new covenant theology moves very close to it, making enough departures from it to allow for a rejection of infant baptism.

  1. Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism holds that the prophecies about Israel in the OT must come true ‘literally’. Israel is promised a literal, worldly kingdom, and so such must be theirs in the future—the millennium reign of Jesus on Earth.

Classic dispensation has Israel and the Church divided into separate entities, and the Church is seen as a parenthesis in God’s plan. The New Covenant is fundamentally for Israel, not the Church. Classic dispensation either taught or looked like it taught (depending on the exponent) that the way of salvation was different in the OT to the NT.

Revised dispensationalism says that the way of salvation for both groups is the same. Otherwise, it keeps dispensationalist distinctives, still separating Israel and the Church. The Church has the permanent presence of the Spirit, unlike OT Israel. OT Israel was a mixed body of regenerate and unregenerate people, unlike the Church. Israel and the Church will remain distinct entities through all eternity.

To reiterate, classic and revised dispensationalism see Israel as an earthly entity, in which God fulfils earthly purposes, and the Church as a spiritual entity. The New Covenant is fulfilled spiritually with the Church, but its national and political features await fulfilment with national Israel.

One difficulty with the division between Israel and the Church is that Heb 3:1–6 speaks of Israel and the Church as being one ‘house’, with Moses in the house, but Jesus over the house. Paul speaks of the ‘middle wall of division’ being broken down, creating ‘one new man from the two’ (Eph 2:14­–15). He does not have the Church separate to Israel, for the Gentiles have been ‘grafted in’ (Rom 11:17–24).

Furthermore, the dispensationalist claim to take OT texts ‘literally’ leads to a problem, in that the OT prophets speak about the ideal future in various ways, which if taken literally, would be contradictory visions. They are, at least in part, speaking metaphorically. Still, the OT does promise future, physical blessings, which when properly understood relate to the new heavens and earth, not a millennial reign.

Progressive dispensationalism moves towards answering some of these problems, bringing Israel and the Church more closely together. It speaks of a progression between the covenants, rather than there being different arrangements between the covenants. Still, it holds qualitative differences between eras. The different eras are ‘not simply different historical expressions of the same experience of redemption…although they do lead to and culminate in one redemption plan’.[22] The Church is still new, and Jewish Christians have a different role to a Gentile Christian. This does not solve the criticisms raised against dispensationalism.

  1. New covenant theology

New covenant theology consciously adopts a position between Covenant Theology and dispensationalism. It is thus a Reformed Baptist position. Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have recently published, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants.[23]

Much of their position replicates Covenant Theology, endorsing the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. However, whereas Covenant Theology tends to say that Israel was the ‘Church immature’ (or as some, perhaps unhelpfully, put it, the Church replaces Israel), NCT divides Israel and the Church further. There is only one people of God across time, but there is still a national-spiritual division between the two. The Church is unlike Israel because ‘she is comprised of a regenerate, believing people rather than a “mixed” group’.[24] Baptism ‘is reserved for only those who have entered into these glorious realities by the sovereign work of God’s grace in their lives’.[25]  

That the Church consists of only the regenerate has been a typical mistake of Baptists. Everyone agrees that OT Israel was a mixed multitude, but Baptists cannot see that the Church is the same: mixed now; purified in the next age. It is thought that Israel was mixed, and that is was God’s revealed that it be so. Rather, the unregenerate were part of the covenant community in the OT in the same way they are part of the NT Church: tares amongst the wheat. The prophets spoke of the ideal age in which that problem would be solved (e.g. the culmination of the ‘remnant’ theme). In the meantime, Israel was meant to deal with the covenant breakers in their midst, with punishments up to and including exile and death (correlating with Church discipline in the NT). On the other hand, the position that baptism is granted only to those who have ‘entered into these glorious realities’ is indefensible. See above on Baptism as an administrative sign of the Church. It is not as though the Church can assess the heart of a person, or have access to the Book of Life.

  1. Correlating circumcision with baptism

Kingdom through Covenant argues that circumcision and baptism cannot be correlated, contrary to the Covenant Theology position, and despite the acknowledged spiritual overlap between the two rites. This is because:

  1. The two rites are from different covenants.
  2. These two covenants have non-compatible elements.
    (a) The OT is a physical covenant and the NT is a spiritual covenant. Notwithstanding its spiritual significance, circumcision is primarily about external belonging to the nation of Israel, which factor has no correlation with baptism. ‘First and foremost it marks out a physical, national people’ (p. 701).
    (b) The OT is typologically related to the new. Thus, circumcision is a type of new covenant realities. Baptism clearly has no such significance.

Thus, circumcision means more than baptism, so baptism cannot succeed it.[26]

  • What about Passover?

Looking at the Passover rebuts the above arguments.

  1. If two rites cannot be correlated because they are from two different covenants, then the NT errs in having the Supper supersede the Passover.[27]
  2. Passover also was a peculiarly national rite, being the meal from the evening that commenced the events in which the Jews became a nation. The NT still transforms it into the Lord’s Supper. The lesson is that the national aspect of Passover, and therefore circumcision, if necessary, can be jettisoned.
  3. The Passover was also a type of new covenant realities, but that does not prohibit the NT from replacing the typological meal with the Supper.

There is no principial reason why circumcision could not have an NT replacement or equivalent (if ‘equivalent’ is the right word to use) in baptism.

  • Colossians 2:11–13

Kingdom through Covenant says that Col 2:11–13 is the only text that brings circumcision and baptism together.[28] However, it would be wrong to think that singularity necessarily indicates unimportance, or permits marginalisation.[29]

It is said that Colossians 2 is connecting spiritual, not physical circumcision to baptism.[30] This is disingenuous. OT circumcision cannot be extracted from the text. ‘Spiritual circumcision’ (sanctification) is the spiritual reality signified by the act of circumcision. This is what v. 11 is saying. You were not physically circumcised, but nevertheless received the spiritual reality of the physical act. Remember that this ‘spiritual circumcision’ notion is itself an OT concept, so this is not an NT overlay on the OT rite, but is the inherent meaning of the physical act. The OT makes this connection between the sign and thing signified, and Paul is drawing on that in Colossians. Paul is saying that the meaning that the OT ascribes to circumcision is also Christ’s circumcision. The physical act of circumcision represents the spiritual circumcision performed by Christ![31]

Is baptism only equated with ‘spiritual circumcision’? Think of what that equation involves. Baptism is equated with that which is signified by the OT act of circumcision. Actually, ‘spiritual circumcision’ and baptism cannot be precisely correlated. Baptism is not spiritual circumcision, for baptism itself is a physical act, like circumcision. Baptism is not sanctification. Baptism rather signifies sanctification. Thus, that which circumcision signifies (sanctification) is equated with that which baptism signifies (sanctification). The physical acts of both circumcision and baptism signify the circumcision or baptism of Christ (sanctification).

That the act of baptism replaces circumcision is precisely what the text teaches. The context is about how Jewish the Gentile Christian needs to be. Do Gentile Christians need to be circumcised? Is their spiritual well-being endangered by not being circumcised? Paul says that there is no danger, for baptism has taken over the role of circumcision. To the extent that there is sacramental efficacy, the old spiritual efficacy of circumcision is now ours through baptism.

  • 1 Peter 3:21

Colossians 2 might not be the only passage the connects circumcision and baptism. Commentators have long seen an allusion to circumcision in 1 Pet 3:21. Even as Peter connects the Flood to baptism, he says that baptism is ‘not the removal of the filth of the flesh’. Perhaps he refers only to water washing, but perhaps he uses ‘filth’ euphuistically of that which is cut away in circumcision.[32] The wording is similar to Col 2:11, ‘putting off the body of the sins of the flesh’.

  • A Jewish Church

Finally, the argument is that because circumcision has a national element, it cannot be replaced by baptism. That Passover is carried over to the Supper has been noted above. Peripheral elements of the OT can be jettisoned in the NT. On the other hand, the argument makes an assumption that might not be valid. It assumes there is no ethnicity factor in the NT. Leaving the matter aside of circumcision in particular, is it in fact the case that Jewish ethnicity plays no role in the NT people of God?

There are grounds for concluding that whilst the Church is Israel having come of age, and so dispensationally a ‘replacement’ of Israel (but ‘replacement’ is misleading), Jewish ethnicity does not cease to be important.

If so, the structure of the Church has not changed from the OT, despite the incoming of the Gentiles. Israel of Old, national Israel, was a mixture of faithful and non-faithful Jews, but at its best self was meant to be comprised of faithful Jews (what Paul means by ‘the Israel of God’, Gal 6:16, and by Rom 9:6, ‘Not all are Israel who are of Israel’). Around that core, Gentiles were brought in, and it was promised that this would become widespread in the ideal future. One OT metaphor is that the nations will bring their wealth to Jerusalem. Gentiles are included, but there is still an order.

In the NT, expressions are correlative. The Gentiles are a ‘wild olive branch’. They have been brought near to the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ (for Paul, ‘Israel’ always has an ethnic component, and unless otherwise qualified—Gal 6:16 only—uses it to refer to national Israel). The Redeemer still comes ‘from Zion’ and brings forgiveness of sins to national Israel, fulfilling literally the OT promises. Salvation is ‘to the Jew first’ (Rom 1:16. One could argue that this is a transitional arrangement, and that Luke in Acts is yet to have the completion of the ‘in Jerusalem, Judea…’ etc procedure until Paul himself arrives in Rome. Still, Romans was written towards the end of the third missionary journey, Acts 20:2­–3, so the ‘ends of the earth’ element in Acts is essentially complete, and Paul is still saying, ‘to the Jew first’. Also, Rom 2:9–10 has ‘the Jew first’, even at the final judgement).

Romans 11 is key in seeing the continuing relevance of Jewish ethnicity in the Church. Paul sees that God is still being true to His OT, Gospel promises, because elect Jews are still coming to salvation (and coming into the Church. Paul cites himself as an example). However, Paul gives a presumably new ‘mystery’: ‘all Israel will be saved’ (11:26). This refers not only to a multitude of people with Jewish ethnicity, for that ‘fullness’ has already been spoken of in the chapter, and does not give a new ‘mystery’. It is Israel as a national entity that is saved. The result is the resurrection from the dead (when the OT, ‘earthly’ promises are fully realised, in the new heaven and earth, not in a millennial reign).

Returning to circumcision, Jewish ethnicity is not such a fundamental problem that it can have no parallel in the NT. Still, as with all things between the OT and NT, it is a matter of continuous discontinuity and discontinuous continuity. Jewish ethnicity continues to be a factor in the NT, but whereas in the OT it was an extensive (not quite exclusive) factor, so that almost all of God’s people in the OT were Jewish, in the NT the gates are flung open for the Gentiles, as the prophets said would happen. A new rite of initiation is required to mark this and facilitate this (for circumcision was always a natural barrier to Gentile conversion). Instead of a cutting away of the filth of the flesh, the (smelly, dirty) Gentiles are told that now, to mark their spiritual cleansing, they only need to have a wash, as it were (baptism itself emerging from the Jewish practice of ritual washings).

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND READING LIST

Adams, J. E., The Meaning and Mode of Baptism, Phillipsburg: P&R, 1975.

Aland, Kurt, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? London: SCM, 1963.

Armstrong, John H., ed., Understanding Four Views on Baptism, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. [Contributors: Tom J. Nettles, Baptist; Richard L. Pratt, Jr., Reformed: Robert Kolb, Lutheran; John D. Castelein, Church of Christ]

Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics, IV.4, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, trans Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1961.

Ferguson, Everett, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.

Gentry, Peter J. and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical Theological Understanding of the Covenants, Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testament, f.p. 1746–1748.

Golding, Peter, Covenant Theology: The Key of Theology in Reformed Thought and Tradition, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2004.

Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888.

Jeremias, Joachim, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, London: SCM, 1960.

Jeremias, Joachim, The Origins of Infant Baptism, London: SCM, 1963.

Jewett, Paul King, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978. [Credo-baptist]

Kline, Meredith G., By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.

Lane, Anthony N. S., ‘Did the Apostolic Church Baptise Babies? A Seismological Approach’, Tyndale Bulletin 55.1, 2004, 109­–130.

Marcel, Pierre, The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, London: James Clarke, 1953.

Murray, John, Christian Baptism, Philadelphia: P&R, 1974. 

Nettles, Tom J., ‘Baptism as a Symbol of Christ’s Saving Work’, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, John H. Armstrong, ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, 25–41.

Packer, J. I., ‘Introduction: on Covenant Theology’, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man. Herman Witsius, 2 vols, vol. 1, Escondido: The den Dulk Chr Foundation, 1990.

Rayburn, Robert G., What about baptism? Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1979.

Robertson, O. Palmer, The Christ of the Covenants, Phillipsburg: P&R, 1980.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich, The Christian Faith, London: T&T Clark, 1999 [German: 1830].

Schreiner, Thomas R. and Shawn D. Wright, eds, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007. [Credo-baptist]

Sproul, R. C., What is Baptism? Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2011.

Strawbridge, Gregg, The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003.

Ward, Rowland S., Baptism in Scripture and History, Melbourne: Rowland S. Ward, 1991.

Wellum, Stephen J., ‘Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants’, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007, 97–162.

Wright, David F., ed., Baptism: Three Views, Downers Grove: IVP, 2009. [Contributors: Bruce A. Ware, believers’ baptism; Sinclair B. Ferguson, infant baptism; Anthony N. S. Lane, ‘dual-practice’ baptism]

Wright, Shawn D., ‘Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists’, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007, 207–256.

[1] Although it puts Baptists into an uncomfortable alliance, the arch-heretic Schleiermacher is often cited, to the effect that to find infant baptism in the NT, one first needs to insert it. Schleiermacher also said, ‘Baptism is received wrongly if it be received without faith, and it is wrongly given so.’ Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, London: T&T Clark, 1999 [German: 1830], 630. Baptists can also find a safe haven with Karl Barth, who criticised infant baptism, and, indeed, following his son, Markus, was critical of there being two sacraments, for grace is channelled through one sacrament alone, Jesus Christ. Baptism is an act of obedience. ‘Baptism responds to a mystery… It is not itself, however, a mystery or sacrament.’ Barth, CD, IV.4, 99. The above is not quite a ‘guilt by association’ argument, but it is to argue that any current proclivity in the Church towards credo-baptism will likely be due in part to Liberalism and Neo-orthodoxy. More than any others, Schleiermacher and Barth have shaped the theological landscape of the last two centuries.

[2] Still, seed or descendants was ultimately a spiritual matter, because that national element was the mechanism by which the Christ would come into the world. There had to be Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the nation of Israel, to get to Christ.

[3] On the spiritual nature of circumcision, see also Exod 6:12, 30; Lev 19:23; 26:41; Deut 10:16; Jer 4:4; 6:10; 9:25.

[4] It should be pointed out that ritual washing, ritual washing for both men and women, and ritual washing in the place of circumcision, for that matter, are hardly novel, Christian developments. Ritual washings for both men and women were commanded in the OT, leading to the proliferation of mikvaot (מִקְוֵה מַ֖יִם, miqveh mayim, collection of water, ritual baths) in Palestine. The mikveh wash was required of converts, such that there was a Jewish debate in the first century ad as to whether the wash alone would suffice or whether circumcision was also required for men. To this day, Jews require mikveh immersion or dipping of converts: men, women, and even infants. Rav Huna (3rd century ad) discusses the problem of an infant being thus ‘converted’ before being mature enough to choose Judaism for him/herself.

[5] As is well-known, covenantal continuity is the foundation and core argument of paedo-baptism. The credo-baptist, Stephen Wellum, makes the astute point, that ‘if Baptists want to argue cogently against the paedobaptist viewpoint and for a believer’s baptism, we must, in the end, respond to this covenantal argument’. Stephen J. Wellum, ‘Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants’, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007, 98.

[6] This is in no way to back away from or compromise sola fide. The assertion of Shawn D. Wright, ‘Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists’, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wrights, eds, Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007, 208, that ‘paedobaptism fits uncomfortably with their belief that salvation is by faith alone’ is categorically rejected. The retort is that believer’s baptism fits better in an Arminian context, whereas paedo-baptism is Augustinian and Calvinist, believing that faith is a gift of God. Sole fide must be kept in the context of sola gratia.

[7] Noting the new information in Genesis 17 about seed, the promise of kings.

[8] The above is not to fully explore the meaning of circumcision. For example, it is a badge of faith, particularly evident when Gentiles convert to Judaism. Paul says that Abraham’s circumcision was a ‘seal of the righteousness that he had by faith’ (Rom 4:11, ESV). Apparently, Paul was not concerned that this faith-related ritual was applied to children. Also on the significance of circumcision, Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968, 43, speaks of it as an ‘oath-curse’. By it, God’s people commit themselves to God. Without it, one is outside the covenant, and such a one shall be ‘cut off from his people’ (Gen 17:14. ‘Cut’ is the word used back in Gen 15:18 of the forming of the covenant. It is not used of the act of circumcision in ch 17, but is in Exod 4:25). Kline, 65, subsequently speaks of baptism as ‘ordeal’, drawing on Peter’s link between baptism and the Flood (1 Pet 3:20–22).

[9] Anthony N. S. Lane, ‘Did the Apostolic Church Baptise Babies? A Seismological Approach’, Tyndale Bulletin 55.1, 2004, 128, points out that there is no NT evidence for the later baptism of children brought up in the Church. ‘There is no record of such a baptism and no hint in the epistles that such children should be seeking baptism.’ On the historical question of post-apostolic infant baptism, Lane argues that there is no conclusive evidence of early Church practice one way or the other until the third century, when infant baptisms were occurring without any significant dispute as to its propriety. Second century evidence, such as from Irenaeus, tends towards it, though. Similarly, see Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, London: SCM, 1960; Joachim Jeremias, The Origins of Infant Baptism, London: SCM, 1963. On the other hand, Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Eerdmans, 2009), argues that credo-baptism by immersion was the practice of the early Church until the later second century [based on scanty evidence, it has to be said], and paedo-baptism was not fully accepted until the fifth century. Similarly, see Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? London: SCM, 1963.

[10] That the NT does not discuss what to do with children points to the conclusion that there was one, obvious, assumed, universally accepted, approach. It is remarkable that there is no debate in the NT or early post-apostolic church as to what to do with children. Circumcision was clearly irrelevant, but unless paedo-baptism succeed it, surely someone would have thought to ask what replaces circumcision, or someone would have erroneously baptised an infant and been rebuked for it. Paedo-baptism would have been natural; credo-baptism would have been controversial.

[11] Cf. I Cor 10:2, ‘They were all baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea’; Exod 19:10.

[12] Those who claim that ‘household’ excluded infants fail to appreciate: the OT background in which children were included in the covenant; the very force of the word itself (1 Tim 3:4, ‘He must manage his household well…keeping his children submissive’); and the concept of corporate solidarity not only in Judaism but throughout the ancient world. The religion of the father was the religion of the wife, children and any slaves in the household. Believers’ baptism fits the individualism of the modern age, but disjoined from infant baptism, is out of place in the biblical world.

[13] How does the ‘seed’ element unfold in Acts? It is in Acts 2, but where else in Acts are children (teknon) included in the covenant, as they were in the Abrahamic? Certainly, Paul taught that ‘children’ (teknon) were not be to be circumcised (Acts 21:21). For an author who believed that John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit from the womb (Luke 1:16), the answer must surely be that infants were part of the ‘households’.

[14] One Baptist gives this definition of baptism (italics original): ‘Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer in Jesus Christ performed once as the initiation of such a believer into a community of believers, the church.’ Tom J. Nettles, ‘Baptism as a Symbol of Christ’s Saving Work’, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, John H. Armstrong, ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007, 25.

[15] There is a Presbyterian equivalent to this. Some say that we do not baptise a child on the basis of their faith, but on the basis of the faith of the mother or father. This is quite defensible, but to Baptist ears, it is one of the more bizarre arguments that Reformed people make, for it does not make clear what connects a parent’s faith to the child’s spiritual state.

[16] This is not how John Murray pursues his discussion of baptism. He speaks of it as an administration of the Church, but as to the basis for administering the sign to a child, he says that it is sufficient to have the command to do so, and not to presume regeneration (Christian Baptism, 52­–55). Significant names in Reformed thought are against him, including Hodge, and arguably Calvin.

[17] Strictly, the answer to the question does not matter, and in reality, both prongs are about God’s promises and about faith (for covenant children are the children of believers).

[18] God gives a general promise to work within families, but this does not mean that every individual child is or will be saved. Each individual child needs to be brought to understand the Gospel and to express faith and repentance. Evangelise your children! Pastor them as though they are God’s children; and evangelise them as though they are not. That is the same advice I would give to any pastor of a Church, preaching to adults all of whom have expressed faith and been baptised. Pastor them as God’s flock; evangelise them as though they are far from God. Unless a pastor can see into the heart of his congregation, he has to oscillate between these two polarities.

[19] The mode of baptism was a secondary issue for me. Whether to immerse, dip or sprinkle is a similar question to whether the Supper should have unleavened bread and wine. The Didache prefers but does not mandate ‘living water’. Cf. Jewish mikveh practice. Cf. Ezek 36:25, ‘sprinkle clean water on you’ (זָרַק, zaraq, toss, throw; LXX ῥαίνω, rhaino). The word is usually used of blood, such as Exod 24:6, 8, blood thrown on the people, when the covenant is formed (cf. 1 Pet 1:2, ‘sprinkled with his blood’). βάπτω (bapto) means ‘dip’, and can have a blood connection in the OT. The Passover hyssop is dipped in blood so as to apply blood to the door; there is Levitical dipping in blood. βαπτίζω (baptizo) does not mean more than ‘dip’ (i.e. not ‘immerse’), but in the non-canonical LXX and the NT, it is a ceremonial or religious dipping or ‘washing’.

[20] For interest, another creative view is that of John Gill, a 17th century Baptist. He struggled with the later chapters of Deuteronomy, and decided that it gave a different covenant to the Mosaic. It is the Moabite covenant, he said, and was actually far more Gospel focussed than the Mosaic covenant. He said that unlike that Sinai covenant, the Moab covenant ‘relates to the times of the Messiah’ (Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testament, on Deut 29:1). This must be firmly rejected, however, for Deuteronomy is not a second covenant, but is a sermon or series of sermon given by Moses when Israel was about to enter the promised Land, reminding the people to keep the previously revealed Law. The entirety looks back to Sinai.

[21] Could it be that we sometimes forget that the New Covenant is an OT concept? Furthermore, Jeremiah’s vision of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31) is cast in thoroughly Mosaic terms. The New Covenant is the Old Covenant come with power, and even that power, the writing of the Law on the heart, was an experience known under the Old Covenant.

[22] Craig A. Blaising, Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, Baker, 2000.

[23] Gentry, Peter J. and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical Theological Understanding of the Covenants, Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.

[24] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 685.

[25] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 685.

[26] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 780.

[27] If one objects that water baptism is unlike circumcision in form, and therefore cannot be correlated, whereas the Supper flows directly out of the Passover, one should think again. Bread might be part of the Passover, but the Cup is not from the Exodus ritual. Jesus is still pleased to use this Jewish development, taking the fourth cup of the ritual, which was associated with Pss 113–118. Psalm 116:13 speaks of the ‘cup of salvation’, perhaps being a reference to OT drink offerings. Psalm 118:27 speaks of the sacrifice being bound to the altar. Jesus declares the cup to be His blood, setting it forth as the NT correlative of the Passover lamb and its blood. Lamb becomes Cup, circumcision becomes water, and Saturday becomes Sunday, for that matter.

[28] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 701.

[29] There is a similar, virtually singular reference by which Passover and the Supper are connected in the NT. The NT only connects the Supper and Passover three times. This is in the Synoptics, which really is the same text repeated twice. Also, to be pedantic, this text does not actually say that the Supper replaces the Passover. Furthermore, whilst the Church (rightly) emphasises the Supper, the NT only speaks of it as the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in one verse (that is, uses the special term once, κυριακὸν δεῖπνον, kuriokon deipnon, 1 Cor 11:20). Singularity does not always mean marginalisation.

[30] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 702.

[31] Taking it as the circumcision that comes from or is enacted by Christ, rather than applied to Christ (His cross): ἐν τῇ περιτομῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, en tei peritomei tou Christou. The latter is possible, especially since v. 12 has the parallel, ‘who raised Him from the dead’. There is no substantial clue in the passage, though, that Christ’s cross is His circumcision.

[32] To the extent that the expression uses Flood imagery of baptism (for the Flood was a removal of the filth of the flesh—from the face of the Earth), the Genesis context gives a possible allusion to circumcision. In the Flood, ‘all flesh will be cut off’ (Gen 9:11). ‘Cut’ is then used of what will happen to those who are not circumcised in ch 17. One either cuts off the flesh, or will be cut off in judgement.