A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology And Infant Baptism

As evangelical Christians continue to come into contact with historic Reformed writers and the Reformed confessions they often they notice some significant discrepancies between what they have known and believed, what is being presented as “Reformed,” and what they are reading in older sources. Covenant theology and baptism are two of the focal points in such discussions. What readers are discovering is that there are competing covenant theologies and competing ways of understanding the history of redemption and of interpreting Scripture that both claim to be Reformed.

Below are some resources written to help readers to cross the bridge from modern evangelical theology, piety, and practice to classical, confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice. My advice is to read these free, online resources in the order presented. The actual discussion baptism comes toward the end last because one’s understanding of baptism is really the product of a number of other assumptions and conclusions that one has already drawn about the nature of the history of redemption and about how the Bible is to be read and interpreted.

  1. On the New Covenant
  2. Is There A Covenant Of Grace?
  3. What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace?
  4. Did The Covenant Of Grace Begin In The New Covenant?
  5. Tracing the Paradigm Shift
  6. Three Ways Of Relating To One Covenant Of Grace
  7. Moses Was Not Abraham
  8. Abraham, Moses, and Circumcision
  9. Circumcision And Baptism
  10. True Circumcision Was Always Spiritual
  11. Ishmael and Infant Baptism
  12. Baptism and the Benefits of Christ
  13. Does Baptism Save?
  14. Untangling Webs of Assumptions About Baptism
  15. A Contemporary Reformed Defense Of Infant Baptism
  16. Seed, Seeds, and Infant Baptism
  17. What’s the Use Of Infant Baptism?
  18. Household Baptisms In Acts
  19. Video: Why Baptize Infants
  20. Further Reading on Covenant Theology
  21. What Advantage Has The Jew? Much In Every Way
  22. Heidelcast Series: I Will Be A God To You And to Your Children

19 comments

  1. Hey Scott. This post reminds me of the paper you wrote back in the 1990s titled “Covenant Baptism” that I read on-line and led me to contact you for the first time.

    I try to simplify it as follows:

    Visible Sign (water) and invisible realities (regeneration, remission, union, etc.) have a real connection just as they do in the Supper.

    The connection is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, through saving faith (which presupposes God’s electing grace).

    Converts who profess saving faith then receive baptism which seals the blessings.

    Children not able to profess saving faith are baptized based on the faith of the covenant head-of-household (the CoG pattern from Abraham onward which is evidenced in the household baptisms in Acts). They receive the sign but not (necessarily) the reality until they profess their faith.

    So baptism doesn’t automatically save in the ex opere operato manner; rather it’s “part of the equation”. Salvation can occur before (Acts 10, 16), during (Acts 2) or after (Acts 8). It strengthens the faith of God’s people.

    • Hey Ken,

      Good to hear from you. Yes, a revised version of that paper (from c. 1988) is in this list of resources.

      I think your summary is right.

      blessings on your ministry and stay warm!

  2. Very grateful to you, Scott, for the convenience this post will afford to many. It will be a valuable tool to several in our congregation who are: (1) very young in the faith; (2) struggling (indeed) with this doctrine; and, (3) who prefer reading articles on their smartphones.

    Peace & joy,

    Ron Beabout
    Trinity Reformed Church (OPC)
    Gaithersburg, Maryland

  3. What you listed above is pretty much what I went through last year by scouring your blog and was really helpful in “pushing me over the edge” to become completely reformed. For me, understanding baptism in relation to the abrahamic covenant was the key as I was already well down the road of covenant theology and learning to distinguish between abrahamic and mosaic covenants in my study of scripture. After relearning to read my Bible through the Christo-centric lens that requires not confusing The two, infant baptism all the sudden wasn’t so crazy at all. In fact it fit right in to the redemptive narrative perfectly.

    The more I learn, the more It seems that misunderstanding the sacraments is always rooted in covenantal confusion at some level. In spite of this most infant baptism debates spend little time dealing with this core issue and spend way too much time discussing the book of Acts.

    As I am seeing in RTRC, the confessions could have helped me with this a long time ago. Unfortunately, in our day amongst all the rubble of evangelicalism the gem of reformed thinking in its fullness is a hard one to find. Thankful for your work Dr. Clark. The heidelblog especially has become an invaluable resource for me and one that I often now share. Oh, and My wife and I recently joined the OPC and baptized our son. 🙂

  4. In terms of the various creeds that came from the early church councils I have found that reading books about the Eastern Orthodox understanding and history helps a great deal in enabling one to understand them. I used to have problems with the Athanasian creed but find now that my understanding and acceptance is much greater although I think that people can be Christian without a full understanding of that creed, contrary to what the creed says. So many times different Christian groups use words with a technical specialized meaning and IMO that causes a great deal of unnecessary division and separation. DaveW

    • G,

      We should distinguish between studying the ancient church and studying the Eastern Orthodox tradition. These are distinct things. Just as the Roman communion is a creature of the 4th century, in some ways, and of 9th and 13th centuries in other ways, which did not come to maturity until the 16th century Council of Trent, so too Eastern Orthodoxy in its various forms is the product 3rd century influences (e.g., Origen) and particularly influences from the 8th century (John of Damascus) and beyond. In other words, we should not equate Eastern Orthodoxy with the patristic church.

      It’s encouraging that you’re finding the Athanasian Creed helpful. It is a wonderful document and very useful for learning fundamental Christian truth. Note that it is a Western, not an Eastern document. It is not received by the Eastern Orthodox churches if only because it affirms the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son (filioque).

      Yes, people do come to faith without understanding or confessing the Trinity as it is expressed in the Athanasian but that is not optimal. Further, the language of the Athanasian reflects the importance of doctrine generally and particularly that of the Trinity for Christians so that we should not make it a second blessing. That it seems so to us says something about the poverty of our times.

  5. Just wanted to take the time to say thank you from a long time reader – your articles and books have helped me come to a clearer understanding of Reformed Doctrine. Thank you again Dr Clark!

  6. Recently I have been thinking about infant baptism, and I was wondering whether it would be right to say:

    Reformed Baptists reason from the substance of the covenant to the sign of the covenant (baptism), where infant baptists reason from the administration of the covenant to the sign of it.

    Then the issue would be to look at the Bible to see which of these options applies, and clearly we can see in the OT that God wants those who live under the administration of the covenant to receive the covenant sign. Then the issue becomes whether there is anything in the NT which would point to this not being true.

    The only thing I can think of is the insistence of the apostles that adults only can be baptised when they profess faith, but I think this is not convincing at all, because Abraham also first had faith before circumcission. Children of believers are not in any way adressed in these commands.

    Would this be a good defence, or are there some things I missed? I hope you still read the comments on this article ;).

    • Gerwin,

      I agree that Baptists (particular or otherwise) reason from what they understand the sign to be to its administration. I’m not sure that the Reformed confession agrees with our Baptist friends about what the sacrament signifies or what is the substance of the covenant.

      I agree that the Reformed (paedobaptists) distinguish substance from administration and that we think about administration differently (obviously) than Baptists.

      In this discussion I think it’s important to distinguish between the “old testament” narrowly defined (i.e., Moses and David) from the broader history of types and shadows (including Adam, Noah, Abraham) anticipating the incarnation and the cross.

      It’s a good question: Did the new covenant overturn the pattern of administration God gave to Abraham? Most all the objections against infant baptism can also be made against infant circumcision and yet God did instituted it any way.

  7. I’ve got a fever for unity and the only solution is continuity of the Covenant of Grace.

    You mentioned somewhere in the series records of infant baptism in the early 2/3rd century church. Any references for me please?

    • Adrian,

      See Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960). K. Aland disputed (1963) Jeremias but Aland was not able to explain satisfactorily whence infant baptism. One might fairly dispute some of Jeremias’ inferences and certainly Baptists will not be persuaded by his inferences but if one is prepared to accept the possibility of infant baptism they are very interesting.

      Irenaeius (Adv Haer, 3.39) is a probable reference to infant baptism (c. 150 AD). Tertullian (De Baptismo, 18), in the early 3rd century, acknowledges the existence of infant baptism. Origen (Hom. in Luc. 14; early 3rd century) refers to infant baptism. Certainly, Cyprian’s Synodal Letter 64 c. 250AD is a clear acknowledgement of the existence and propriety of infant baptism.

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