Heidelcast 105: I Will Be A God To You And To Your Children (1)

One of the most frequent topics and questions for discussion on the Heidelblog has been this: Who should be baptized and why? To anticipate an objection: some will say that the Heidelcast should not be addressing this subject because it causes needless division. That’s wrongheaded. First, the Scripture teaches a covenant theology and, we confess, it teaches that the promise God made to Abraham is still in effect: I will be a God to you and to your children. The Heidelblog and the Heidelcast exist to help the church recover her confession and we confess a covenant theology and infant baptism. These are essential aspects of Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Further, we live, relative to American evangelical religion, in a predominantly Baptist culture. This means that many American evangelicals have never heard a biblical case for infant baptism. Among them it is widely assumed that we baptize infants because we have not fully divorced ourselves from the influence of Rome. Others, it is assumed that infant baptism is merely about sentiment. In this series we will walk through the biblical and confessional teaching about God’s covenant with Abraham and what it means for how we read Scripture, how we understand the old covenant, how we relate the old covenant to the new, and what that means for the practice of baptism.

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  1. The inscripturating Apostles were the Lord’s chosen explicators of His doctrine, and Peter is such a one regarding what NT baptism was.

    There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Note, it’s to do with one’s conscience.

  2. So many stumble at the administration because they fail to see the unified covenantal structure of the scriptures. For years I couldn’t get it because I never looked at the foundational truths of the unity of the promise of God to the church and people of God from Genesis to Revelation, as well as the substance and administration of the covenant of grace in relation to election and visible membership respectively. One shouldn’t even touch sacraments without having a proper understanding of the underlying truths they rest upon.

  3. I find it helpful and biblical to understand the doctrine household baptism by starting with the distinction between the Abraham Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant. But, I have been discussions where it was asserted that this is not a historic argument. Are there any writers in the 16th or 17th century that articulated the reason for household baptism by precisely distinguishing between Abrham and Moses?

    • Jesse,

      That objection is a bit misleading. It depends upon what sort of text one is reading. If one is looking for a Volkswagen manual, one will be disappointed if he is the Ford section of the library. Thus, e.g., in Olevianus’ De substantia or Cocceius’ De foedere, one does not see it because they don’t spend a lot of time interacting with Anabaptists (in Olevianus’ case) or Baptists (in Cocceius’ case). I’ve not read a lot of the Reformed response to the Baptists in the 17th century but the outlines of my response are found in Zwingli’s 1524 response to the Anabaptists and in Bullinger’s 1534 response to the Anabaptists, De testamento.

      We have always distinguished between Moses and Abraham. Anyone who says differently doesn’t know the Reformed tradition.

      Re: household baptism in particular, that puts the question in a way they did not put it. They distinguished between Moses and Abraham regularly in their explanation of the history of redemption but my emphasis grows out of interaction with modern Baptists. In other words, arguments evolve in certain respects. Our forefathers might have taken a sword to hand to deal with a threat. We would pick up a different tool.

  4. Hello! Thanks for this podcast. Is there by any chance a transcript of this podcast somewhere so I can download and read it? Thanks!

  5. I have not come across an argument like this (perhaps for good reason), but am wondering if it works. So much of the debate is (rightly) on the theological significance of the symbol of baptism, but here I am wondering if it is helpful to consider how the ritual, as a visible action, would have functioned in the understanding of the pluralist polytheistic setting of the NT.
    I would appreciate critique from both sides if anyone is interested. Thank you.

    In NT times, a convert to Christianity would have ceased worshipping their culture/family deities, once they realized they could no longer owe or show fealty to any old god but only to Christ. Ritual cleansings were prevalent and baptism, at least on a simple level, would be clearly understood along those lines. In a sense, the new convert would have been considered by the culture and likely by the person, ‘owned’ by the deity they had previously served. Through the ritual of baptism they were put to death, ending that obligation, purifying themselves of the taint of that earlier service, etc., and made alive so as to offer true fealty to the living God. Most likely, an entire household and property (assuming the new convert is the head of a household) would have been considered ‘owned’, under obligation, to the deity they had served, so it would make sense for them to have wanted to ‘kill’/cleanse all the persons, children and servants included, so as to clearly portray that all members of the house were Being purged of the old and prepared for the new. Rituals were a big deal back then.

    If this is a plausible scenario wouldn’t it seem like an important issue that needed to be addressed by the early church (that baptism is only for individuals who demonstrate clear apprehension of its significance and a sincere change of heart, and not for entire households)? I have not done extensive legwork at this point, but what little I do know of that time, ritual cleansings were common in many religions. There were ‘secret’ initiations , which were strictly personal, and there were public demonstrations, which were not strictly personal. Which does Baptism fall under? It seems the latter, opening it up to the idea that at least some would desire to declare to the public that an entire house were under new management, so to speak. Therefore, either this general understanding of public baptism was acceptable and didn’t need to be discouraged by the early church, or nothing like the scenario ever happened, at least not enough to need a public address to discourage the practice.

    • BJ,

      I’m not entirely sure I understand your question but I’ll have a go.

      We could theorize about any number possible situations that would make the inclusion of infants implausible. A similar problem existed during the Mosaic covenant. Circumcision was not entirely unknown (e.g., to the Egyptians) and yet the Lord ordained it for Abraham and later for national Israel. Religious meals were also common in the ancient world and the Lord’s Supper was susceptible to misunderstanding.

      The pagans whom the Lord converted came from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them were adherents to the traditional religions (e.g., the pantheon), some were actual believers in the deity of the emperor, some were skeptics about the traditional religions. Some held to varieties of Platonism, others to cynicism/skepticism, and still others to Stoicism. Some of them were ancestor worshipers.

      Yes, there were ritual washings, some with water, some with blood but, as I indicated above, both of the sacraments were susceptible to misunderstanding and confusion. The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthians not to participate in pagan, religious meals.

      The 2nd-century church tended to administer the sacraments privately, i.e., within the visible church. The earliest church did not administer communion until the guests had been dismissed. There is some evidence that baptism was also administered within a closed setting. ‘

      Of course there were household baptisms (Acts 16:15). Salvation is also spoken of as coming to entire households (Acts 11:14; 16:31, 34, 18:8). I haven’t seen any specific evidence of any particular problem.

      Does this address what you’re asking?

  6. Thank you, I guess I didnt do a good job, I meant this as an argument from a paedo perspective. I think it’s possible to show that household baptisms happened, even apart from the references in Acts. If they happened, they were either acceptable, and this is what Acts records as happening (what I believe to be true), or they happened based on a misunderstanding of the significance of baptism because it would have been associated with a common notion of ritual cleansing that was prevalent in pagan society in the time of the early church (not to say the Church misunderstood). My argument was supposed to be: given the second choice, it is plausible household baptisms occurred (without even referring to the accounts in Acts), which leads to the question I perhaps did not state clearly; if household baptisms occurred, and they were based on a misunderstanding of what baptism signified, why wasn’t it addressed by the apostles or the early church? The credo can address the argument by claiming that baptism is/was more appropriately understood as an indoctrination into a ‘mystery’ religion, and culturally understood as a private/personal ritual and not a public proclamation of a change of allegiance, a severing of ties to the past, and therefore household baptisms did not occur. Or they can claim that it wasn’t necessary to address the issue, because either no household baptisms ever occurred, or not enough to make it an issue that needed to be dealt with in a manner that left a record. I think both choices can be shown to be less than plausible. I was wondering if this is a good argument, or if it doesn’t really contribute to the current debate.
    Thank you.

    • BJ,

      I think I understand more clearly. Yours seems like an argument from silence resting on a supposition. It seems like a reasonable supposition to me but I don’t think a Baptist would find it very persuasive. We have the positive evidence of household baptisms from Acts, which, when read against the background of the OT (broadly), leads us toward seeing continuity with the Abrahamic practice rather than leading us toward the (Baptist view of) discontinuity.

      The issue really is Abraham. There’s no question whether under Abraham infants were admitted to the external administration of the visible covenant community. Our Baptist friends know a priori (in my opinion) that the new covenant is such that there could be no such external administration of the covenant community. They contrast the new covenant with everything that preceded it and collapse the outward administration with the substance of the covenant of grace.

      If, however, the Abrahamic practice is still in force, that would explain the household baptisms in Acts. It would explain why Luke doesn’t bother to explain what is happening. Were household administration foreign to the new covenant, he would explain what he meant by it. His silence leaves us only to go back to the preceding 2000 years of redemptive history for context.

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