I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4


Forbid Them Not: The Question of Paedobaptism


There are, as Booth recognizes, few doctrinal subjects that have divided Christians more than questions over the sacraments.[1]  Above other questions is the one concerning the subjects of baptism.  On this point, the camps are neatly divided into two.  There are the paedobaptists, who believe that the children of covenant believers should enjoy the covenant’s sacrament of baptism and membership in the church.  Against the paedobaptists stand the credobaptists, who believe that only those that make a viable profession of faith in Christ’s gospel are qualified to partake of baptism.  Since the time of the Reformation, this issue has driven a polemical wedge between godly evangelicals, representing both camps. 
              During the Reformation, the early credobaptist, the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier, rhetorically asked in a letter, “Why is it that we dispute so fiercely over this ‘sign’?”  According to him, it is because, “The sign is assuredly a ‘symbol’ [of faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, which] should be valued more seriously than the sign itself.”[2]  The controversial passion that the early credobaptists called ‘fierce’ was referred to as ‘frenzied’ and ‘fury’ by their opponents.  Calvin writes, “But since, in this age, certain frenzied spirits have raised, and even now continue to raise, great disturbances in the Church on account of paedobaptism, I cannot avoid here…adding something to restrain their fury.”[3]  Although the temper and tone of this doctrinal divide has waned much in the past 400 years of conversation, the debate itself has not. 
            Because the debate remains, this essay is intended to contribute to that conversation, regarding the question of infant baptism.  This essay will argue that the paedobaptist position is both scripturally and theologically sound; therefore, infants of believers should receive the sign of the covenant, baptism.  This conclusion will be premised on three lines of reasoning.  First, concomitant with the Abrahamic covenant, a primary administration of the covenant of grace, YHWH commanded that all male infants of covenanted parents should receive the sign of the covenant, circumcision.  Secondly, within the covenant of grace there is great continuity and unity regarding the people of God, which is ultimately one throughout redemptive history.  Finally, though the external sign of covenant membership has been modified from circumcision to baptism, there is no evidence in Scripture that the infants’ right to be given this sign has been abrogated or otherwise repealed.[4]  Despite its strengths, this argument is not impenetrable.  So, throughout the essay an open ear will be given to the deft defenders of credobaptism and their objections to this thesis. 
The Inclusion of Infants in the Covenant of Grace
            God created humanity for fellowship with himself and one another.  Because the ontological distance between God and man is so great, fellowship with God requires tremendous condescension on his part, which he was pleased to express by way of covenant.[5]  “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.”[6]  Our first parents fell from their blessed estate and plunged themselves and their posterity into ruin, breaking the covenant with God and consequently true fellowship with him.  Man having broken the covenant of works, God instituted a second, the covenant of grace.  “God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.”[7]  The first promise of the coming Redeemer was given right after the fall in Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium, wherein God promised to bring about One from the seed of the woman, who would crush the power of Satan and liberate humanity from the dominion of darkness. 
Beginning in Genesis 12, YHWH calls one man, Abram, through whom he would revisit the all nations in blessings and grace.  This crucial juncture in redemptive history culminated in what is known as the Abrahamic covenant, a pivotal movement in the outworking of the covenant of grace.  The Abrahamic covenant is the foundation of salvation history; it is the promise of the New Testament’s fulfillments.  In Genesis 17:1—16, we learn that the sign (or “token,” 17:11 KJV) and seal (Rom 4:11) of the Abrahamic administration of the covenant of grace was circumcision.  It was through this covenant that YHWH would bless “all nations” (cf. Gen 12:1—3; 18:18; 22:17—18).[8] 
Regarding this sign, circumcision, it was to be administered to every male infant in the covenant head’s household, and that on the eighth day (17:10—13).  This covenant was perpetual, being called an “everlasting covenant” (vv. 7, 13, 19).  Failure to receive the sign of circumcision resulted in judgment.  “[T]hat soul shall be cut off from his people (i.e., the covenant community); he has broken my covenant” (v. 14).  Accordingly, Abraham was immediately circumcised, as was thirteen year old Ishmael (vv. 24—26).  After the son of promise, Isaac, was born, he too was circumcised on the eighth day (21:4). 
 The paedobaptist’s position rests in large part on the correspondence between circumcision and baptism as being signs of the covenant of grace.  Bromiley argues, “Even a cursory reading of the entire Bible shows clearly enough that the so-called sacraments instituted by Christ, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, correspond in a very striking way to the two covenantal signs of the Old Testament, the Lord’s Supper to the Passover and baptism to circumcision.”[9]   If circumcision and baptism correspond sufficiently, and covenant children were to receive the former, then this provides the God-instituted grounds for them to receive the latter. 
The counter-argument to the above, represented by Wright, is that the paedobaptist “overspiritualizes circumcision.”[10]  Wright continues, “Circumcision was a physical marker of ethnic Israel identifying them as distinct from other nations.”[11]  Thus, he concludes, “the parallel between physical circumcision and Christian baptism fails.”[12]  This argument, however, swings on a reductionistic view of circumcision.  The credobaptist neglects the Old Testament’s spiritual intent and essence of the sign of circumcision and a central purpose of the sacrament of baptism. 
Despite the literal, physical rite of the sign, circumcision itself pointed to a deeper, metaphorical meaning.  “The Israelites are instructed in Deuteronomy 10:16 to circumcise their hearts as a spiritual response to God’s choice of them as his (corporate) people.”[13]  Likewise, Deuteronomy 30:6 promises that in the postexilic period, YHWH will circumcise Israel’s hearts and enable them to love him.  Conversely, an “uncircumcised heart” is indicated by disregarding YHWH’s covenant law (Lev 26:41; cf. 19:23).  Jeremiah 9:25, 26 emphasizes that the uncircumcised heart actually reckons one’s physical mark as uncircumcised (cf. 4:4; 6:10).  Lastly, entrance into Ezekiel’s eschatological temple requires one to be circumcised in “flesh” and “heart” (44:9).  Under the Old administration, “Heart commitment (i.e., faith) is a necessity, not an option.”[14]  The spiritual trajectory and essence of circumcision cannot be ignored (for NT treatment, see Rom 2:25—29; 4:11; Eph 2:11; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11, 12). 
Moreover, one central purpose of baptism, according to the paedobaptist confessions, corresponds well with the purpose of circumcision as making God’s people distinct from the nations.  For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith reads, regarding the New Testament sacraments, are also intended, like circumcision in the Old, “to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.”[15]  In fact, all the Reformed confessions “speak with one voice about baptism as a formal consecration, or setting apart, of covenant children from unbelievers outside the community.”[16]  Granting these and other points, Calvin rightly concludes, “there is no difference in the internal meaning (of circumcision and baptism)…Hence it is incontrovertible, that baptism has been substituted for circumcision and performs the same office.”[17]  Therefore, the credobaptist’s charge that circumcision and baptism fail to have the necessary correspondence itself fails to do justice to the whole of Scripture on the matter. 
The Continuity of the Covenant(s)
Prior to the question of whether or not infants should be baptized is the question over hermeneutics.  “How we should interpret the Bible is at the very heart of the baptism debate.”[18]  The Reformed or covenantal method of interpretation sees a basic continuity between the Old and New Testaments, with the New flowing out of the Old and building on its foundation.[19]  According to Bromiley, “We must not be misled at this point by any form of rationalistic or evangelical dissection of the Bible (i.e., dispensationalism).  Taught by our Lord and the New Testament authors, the church has maintained across the centuries a testimony to the unity of the scripture.[20]  The covenantal hermeneutic, stressing the unity rather than disunity of Scripture and the covenants, is the proving ground for the paedobaptist position. 
 Reading revelation in terms of its unity leads to understanding the covenants, through which God revealed himself, in continuity.  The continuity of God’s covenantal administrations has, as mentioned above, been commonly called the covenant of grace.  The covenant of grace is that unifying thread that binds the diversity of the various covenantal administrations.    
Wellum raises some relatively serious concerns about the continuity of Scripture and the concept of the covenant of grace.[21]  In as much as paedobaptism rests primarily on the premise of continuity, Wellum admits that placing stress on the “discontinuity at the structural level between the old and new covenant…is at the heart of the credobaptist position.”[22]  Wellum complains that, “in reality, the ‘covenant of grace’ is a comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one.”[23]  Rather, Scripture speaks in terms of a plurality of covenants (e.g. Gal 4:24; Eph 2:12; Heb 8:7—13).[24]  Is the covenantal continuity required to buttress the so-called covenant of grace actually revealed in Scripture?  Many believe it is.
One need not be overly affectionate to the nomenclature of “the covenant of grace.”[25]  If we choose to use thoroughly biblical terms, the covenant of grace is synonymous with “the everlasting covenant.”  The everlasting covenant, which was manifest in the progressive diversity of the various covenant administrations throughout redemptive history, is that revealed term that signifies the ultimate continuity needed for the paedobaptist position.
The penultimate covenants, recognized by both sides of the debate, are the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenant in Christ.  Scripture presents the everlasting covenant as the ultimate tie that binds each of these covenant administrations together.  Beginning with Noah, after promising the sign of the “bow…in the cloud,” God vows an “everlasting covenant” with him, as representative head of the new creation, this side of the deluge (Gen 9:16).  As already mentioned, three times in Genesis 17, after giving the covenant sign of circumcision to Abraham, YHWH refers to this as a sign as signifying the “everlasting covenant” (vv. 7, 13, 19).  In Leviticus 24:8, the presentation of the showbread served as a perpetual token of the “everlasting covenant” to Israel. 
Both 1 Chronicles 16:17 and Psalm 105:10 highlight the continuity between YHWH’s covenant with Abraham and that with Israel, mediated through Moses. 
O ye seed of Israel his servant, ye children of Jacob, his chosen ones.  He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.  Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations; even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac; and hath confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant (1 Chron 16:13—17 // Ps 105:6—10 KJV). 

Here we perceive a nearly seamless continuity in what Wellum would demand is a plurality of covenants, that is, a discontinuity.
            Likewise, the prophets promise the eschatological fulfillment of the everlasting covenant in the coming messianic age.  Isaiah 55:3, for instance, has YHWH promising, “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David” (cf. Jer 32:40; Eze 16:60; 37:26, 27).  In Acts 13, Paul interprets Jesus’ resurrection as the fulfillment of the promises made to the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (vv. 32, 33), which was premised on Jesus being given “the sure mercies of David,” which is the everlasting covenant (v. 34; cf. Rom 15:8).  Hebrews 13:20 speaks clearer yet, stating, “Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant…”  Jesus is the Subject, the Object, and the Terminus of the singular purpose and plan of God, the everlasting covenant. 
            Therefore, even if the term ‘covenant of grace’ is side-stepped, the content signified by it cannot be.  The covenantal continuity necessary for the supporting premise of the paedobaptist position survives Wellum’s incredulity and criticism. 
The Sound of Silence
            An argument from silence can be dangerous and fallacious, unless there should be noise.  In Doyle’s suspenseful telling of Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes unravels the strange case of the dog’s bark in the night.  What was strange about it was that the dog did not bark!  A horse was stolen.  Suspects were many.  Holmes knew that the dog always barked at strangers, always waking the sleeping hired hands in the barn.  Using the rigors of a modus tollens line of reasoning, Holmes inferred “Obviously, the midnight visitor was someone the dog knew well!”[26]
            When coming to the New Testament, the paedobaptists’ reasoning is similar to Holmes’.  As much as the paedobaptist has to face the fact that there is no explicit reference of an infant being baptized,[27] so too does the credobaptist need to face the utter absence of an abrogation or repeal of the institution of the covenant to apply the sign of the covenant to believers’ little ones.  Well put was B. B. Warfield’s reply to Baptist theologian, A. H. Strong.  “The argument in a nutshell is this: God established His church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.  They must remain there until He puts them out.  He has nowhere put them out.  They are still then members of His Church and as such entitled to its ordinances.”[28]  Chapell touches this point as with a needle.
The removal of any sign of the covenant from believers’ children would have been an immense change in practice and concept for Jewish families.  It is unthinkable after 2000 years of covenant family practice (established since Genesis), that a believing Jewish parent would have known how to interpret a continuing Abrahamic covenant that excluded administering the sign of the covenant to children…the apostles frequently record households being baptized after the head of the home believes in Christ.  Consider how such a household head would have reacted when others in the household (including servants and resident relatives) were baptized on the basis of his faith while that man’s own children were denied the covenant sign.  The absence of a command to prohibit administering the sign of the covenant to children after 2000 years of such practice weighs significantly against arguments that the apostles only wanted those able to profess their faith to be baptized.[29]

Therefore, the sound of silence puts an equal amount of explicative burden on the credobaptist as it does the paedobaptist.  The case, in part, for infant baptism from the New Testament is silence.  But silence is a strong argument when there should be a lot noise. 
            Since infants were to be granted the sign of the covenant and membership in the covenant community from the foundational expression of the covenant; and there is necessary continuity through the diverse administrative covenants, by means of the commonly called ‘covenant of grace’; and there is silence in the New Testament, regarding any repeal of the sign institution, we may, in sum, conclude that the paedobaptist position is both scripturally and theological sound.  Let us, then, “Forbid them not” (Mk 10:14). 
Bibliography

Bierma, Lyle D., “Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, edited by Gregg Strawbridge.  Found at www.paedobaptism.com/bierma.doc (accessed September 17, 2011).

Booth, Robert R., Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism.  Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1995.

Bromiley, Geoffery W., Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1979.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001.

Chapell, Bryan, “A Pastor’s Case for Infant Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, edited by Gregg Strawbridge.  Found at http://paedobaptism.com/chapell.htm (accessed on September 15, 2011).

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan, The Complete Sherlock Holmes.  New york, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009.

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

Reymond, Robert L., A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (2nd Ed.).  Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998.

Schreiner, Thomas R. & Shawn D. Wright editors, Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, in NAC Studies in Bible and Theology.  Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Publishing Group, 2006.

Westminster Confession of Faith.  Glasgow, England: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1990. 

Woodbridge, P. D., “Circumcision,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 411—14.  Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.         



[1] Robert R. Booth, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1995), 2.

[2] As cited by Jonathan H. Rainbow, “’Confessor Baptism’: The Baptismal Doctrine of the Early Anabaptists,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, in NAC Studies in Bible and Theology, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright (Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Publishing Group, 2006), 206, brackets added for context.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 2001 [IV:XVI:1]), 529.

[4] These three “undeniable biblical truths” are barrowed in part from Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd Ed. (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 944.

[5] Westminster Confession of Faith (Glasgow, England: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1990), [VII:I], 41. 

[6] Ibid., [VII:II], 42. For a concise yet solid defense of the ‘covenant of works,’ see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 516—518.

[7] Westminster, The Shorter Catechism, Q/A 20, 291.

[8] Noteworthy is the fact that so deeply connected was the sign and the things signified, that YHWH could say, “This is my covenant…every man child among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10).  Moreover, when Stephen, in Acts 7, is giving his comprehensive summary God redemptive, saving acts, he is able to use metonymy, calling the covenant made with Abraham and his seed the “covenant of circumcision” (v. 8). 
[9] Geoffery W. Bromiley, Children of Promise: The Case for Baptizing Infants (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing, 1979), 17.

[10] Shawn D. Wright, “Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists,” in Believer’s Baptism, 238. 

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 239.
[13] P. D. Woodbridge, “Circumcision,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, 411—14 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 412, parenthesis added.

[14] Ibid., parenthesis added.

[15] Westminster, [XXVII:I], 112.

[16] Lyle D. Bierma, “Infant Baptism in the Reformed Confessions,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, edited by Gregg Strawbridge.  (Found at www.paedobaptism.com/bierma.doc [accessed September 17, 2011]). 
[17] Calvin, Institutes, [IV:XVI:4], 531. 

[18] Robert R. Booth, Children of Promise, 15. 

[19] Ibid., 16—17, op cit.

[20] Bromiley, Children of Promise, 12—13.

[21] It should be noted, however, that there are those who are covenant theologians, yet maintain the credobaptistic view.  See, e.g., Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.

[22] Stephen J. Wellum, “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism, 105. 

[23] Ibid.¸126, italics original.  Telling is Wellum’s qualification that to press this argument to far would deprive us also of the doctrine of the Trinity!

[24] Ibid., op cit, italics original.

[25] The meta-covenant, for lack of better, has been called a number of things.  The Westminster Standards, e.g., simply refer to it as “God’s eternal decree.”  Cocceius called it “the counsel of peace.”  Warfield spoke of it in terms of “the plan of salvation,” and Murray the “inter-trinitarian economy of salvation.  See Reymond, A New Systematic Theology, 502. 
[26] Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze” in The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New york, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2009), 325.  The modus tollens (i.e., mode of taking) line of inference is as follows: If p, then q; not q, therefore, not p.  Or, If the thief was a stranger, then the dog would have barked, waking the help; but the dog did not bark; therefore, the thief was not a stranger.  The classic argument from silence. 

[27] To this one could respond that there is likewise no explicit instance of or command to women participating in the Lord’s Supper, yet it is silly to argue against their participation. 
[28] B. B. Warfield, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism” as cited in Wellum, “Relationship Between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism, 101. 

[29] Bryan Chapell, “A Pastor’s Case for Infant Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, edited by Gregg Strawbridge (http://paedobaptism.com/chapell.htm accessed on September 15, 2011).

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