That’s the question I received in my inbox yesterday. The writer asks,
…Whereas I know that a consistent Baptist (e.g. Mark Dever) would consider a Christian refusing to be baptized subsequent to conversion as sinning and subject to church discipline, is that true of Reformed/Presbyterians for Christian parents who refuse to baptize their children? I have heard from a PCA friend that since Westminster subscription is only required of officers, not all members, that such parents would be urged but not put under discipline. As I understand it, communions subscribing to the 3 forms require strict subscription of members, therefore I would think such parents in continental congregations would come under discipline. Is that true?
I suppose the majority view is that refusing to baptize one’s children is not sin. There is, however, an alternate view of WCF 28.4-5.
4. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.
5. Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated, or saved, without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.
Jonathan Moore, in his essay, “The Westminster Confession of Faith and the Sin of Neglecting Baptism,” in Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007: 63–86 who argues that, in fact, the WCF teaches that refusing to baptize one’s children is a sin.
He notes that “the Quakers and other minor heretical sects in the seventeenth century did not believe in practicing water baptism at all” (64). He continues, however, that the Quaker movement postdates the Assembly. There evidence from the assembly does not support reading the language of the Confession as speaking against even proto-Quaker ideas (65). The evidence also suggests that other alternatives (e.g. private baptisms) are not in view (66–68).
Moore appeals to five lines of evidence to support the thesis that the divines had the burgeoning Baptist movement in view. The first of these is the Assembly’s choice of biblical proofs for their language (68–69). The Second of these is the Directory of Public Worship where it addresses paedo (infant) baptism directly. Though paedobaptism is not essential to salvation such that salvation cannot be had without it (we do not have an ex opere view of baptism) nevertheless, the DPW remonstrates with Christian parents that they ought not “neglect or contemn [condemn] the ordinance of Christ.” (70) This is the same language used in the WCF. The third line of evidence comes from comments in the minutes, from letters, and statements in Parliament (70–72). The minutes contain 50 references to “Anabaptists” or “Anabaptism” (71). The language was anachronistic, but the group they had in view was that described as “Baptists” today. Fourth, publications by members of the Assembly support this reading (73–74). Remember that the First London Baptist Confession was published in 1644. Moore notes that the Baptist John Toombes responded to the critiques of the Anabaptists. Why? Because he understood that the critique of antipaedobaptism was leveled not at some “other group” not related to the English Baptist movement, but against the English Baptists. Fifth, a contemporary usage of the phrase, “to neglect or contemn the sacraments” supports this reading (75–77). He notes, persuasively to my mind, that the use of the Exodus 4:24–26 as a proof text for this clause in 28.5 makes clear the connection between baptism generally and infant baptism in particular. The sin here is doing what Moses did: failing to initiate a child into the covenant community by applying the sign and seal of initiation.
In the rest of the essay, Moore addresses some possible objections. Some might appeal to the Savoy Declaration (1658) but it was strongly paedobaptist. The language is identical to the WCF. He addresses and dispatches the case of Lucy Hutchinson (who persuaded her husband, a Westminster divine, to reject paedobaptism. Third, though it is assumed that antipaedobaptists were admitted to the table (which, if true, would argue against Moore’s view) but the facts are cloudier. “There is at least some evidence to suggest that the widespread belief that antipaedobaptism was a great sin was reflected in the parliamentary ordinacnes on admission to the Lord’s Supper” (82).
As to the idea that, the WCF only applies to officers and not to members, it is true that that American Presbyterianism has not required confessional subscription of members, but if refusing to baptism children is sin, then it is not a merely theoretical doctrine but a matter of Christian morality. Laity are not allowed to sin, even if (a big condition) they are not expected to hold every doctrine taught in the confession. The churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition carry on the older Reformed and Presbyterian practice of every-member subscription. There’s a chapter on all this in Recovering the Reformed Confession.
Certainly there is enough evidence from the 17th century to make it difficult to assume easily, as some American Presbyterians seem to do, that neglecting the baptism of the children of believers is not a sin.
UPDATE 23 Mar 09
Mark has published a similar case from a Baptist point of view.