Flavel Versus Cary: The Baptists Have Made Infant Baptism The Article Of Standing Or Falling Of The Church

But if your meaning be, (as I strongly suspect it is) that we must not expect to be owned by Christ, except we give up infants baptism; then, I say, it is the most uncharitable, as well as unwarrantable, and dangerous censure that ever dropt from the pen of a sober Christian. It is certainly your great evil to lay salvation itself on such a point as the proper subject of baptism, and to make it articulus stantis vel cadentis religionis [the article of the standing or falling of the church], the very basis on which the whole Christian religion, audits professors salvation must stand. I hope the rest of your brethren are more charitable than yourself; but however it be, I do openly profess, that I ever have, and still do own you, and many more of your persuasion, for my brethren in Christ, and am persuaded Christ will own you too, notwithstanding your many errors and mistakes about the lesser and lower matters of religion. Nor need your censure much to affect us, as long as we are satisfied you have neither a faculty nor commission thus solemnly to pronounce it upon us.

But what is the condition upon which this dreadful sentence depends? why, it is our attendance or non-attendance to the primitive purity of the gospel-doctrine.

Sir, I hope we do attend it, and, in some respects, better than some great pretenders to primitive purity, who have cast off not only the initiating sign of God’s covenant, (this did not Abraham) but also that most comfortable and ancient ordinance of singing Psalms: and what other primitive ordinance of God may be cashiered next, who can tell?

We have a witness in our bosom, that the defence of Christ’s pure worship and institution hath cost us something; and as for me, were I convinced by all that you have here said, or any of your friends, that in baptizing the infants of believers, we did really depart from the primitive purity, I would renounce it, and turn Anabaptist the same day.

John Flavel, The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel, vol. 6 (London; Edinburgh; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 328. (HT: Chad Vegas)

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  1. Baptism, infant or credo, has yet to save a single soul. By denying infant baptism, I believe we change our perspective on covenants and redemption. In my opinion, there is an Arminian slant to credo-baptism, in that we choose to be baptized, thus making us participants in our redemption. Faith alone saves, and that too is a gift of God.

    • I think you’re right, Peter. I recently attended a baptism of some young people and got the distinct impression I was watching a kind of rite of passage with the atmosphere of a high school graduation. The emphasis was on what they had done, not on what God had done,

  2. I’m not sure what Cary had said, but the Baptist Hercules Collins seems to have provided the charity Flavel desired. In his preface to what he called “An Orthodox Catechism”, Collins said, “Now albeit there are some differences between many Godly Divines and us in Church Constitution, yet inasmuch as those things are not the Essence of Christianity, but that we do agree in the Fundamental Doctrine thereof, there is sufficient ground to lay aside all bitterness and prejudice, and labour to maintain a spirit of Love each to other, knowing we shall never see all alike here.”

    • Neil,

      Is objectionable was not to Cary’s rhetoric, it was to his theology. He wrote of “nails dipped in honey.” There is much kinder and conciliatory language toward the Reformed in the 1689, including the appendix but what Flavel was observing is the theological effect or consequence of what Carey was arguing.

  3. God made it clear to Abraham, our father in the faith, when God alone walked through the the pieces, that all the stipulations of the covenant of works, and all of the punishment for our transgression would be born by Him alone so that all of the benefits would come by believing God’s promise to fulfill all righteousness. This is the wonder of infant baptism, given to children in their infant helplessness, which says, it is not about anything in you or what you can do, but about what God in Christ has done, when you believe. Thank you, Peter for expressing so clearly the difference between credo and infant baptism, and what they point to.

  4. The Belgic Confession 39 states that the true church “…maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ;…” Does this mean that it excludes credo-baptists from the true church because we do not baptise infants? Did Christ institute baptism of infants, for example in Matthew 28:19?

    • Hi John,

      I think you’re thinking of Belgic 29. It says:

      We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.”

      We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there.
      But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

      The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

      As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

      They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

      Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

      As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

      These two churches are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.

      The question is how to apply this article to churches that did not exist when it wrote. The groups it addresses explicitly are Rome (the false church) and the Anabaptists (the sects). The Belgic repeatedly denounces the Anabaptists for their Christology and their view of baptism (and their covenant theology), among other things.

      The Baptist churches as we know them, including the Particular Baptists that came to be in the early 1640s obviously did not come to be until decades after the Belgic was written and adopted. Some take the view that because the Belgic does not speak to the Baptists, that we should say that they are true churches.

      I understand the difficulty but take a different view. The Baptists, as different as they are from the Anabaptists, share (in some cases) their reading of redemptive history and their view of baptism. The Belgic specifically mentions their view of baptism for criticism. How can that view contribute to the Anabaptists being categorized as a sect but not the Baptists, to the extent the Baptists agree with them? That seems like special pleading.

      I think the Baptists are a sect or, in the case of my Particular Baptist friends, an irregular congregation. The problem with this category is that it’s one I made up. It’s not one we confess.

      It’s clear that the Anabaptists did not have the marks of the true church, namely the “pure administration of the sacraments.” Our Baptist friends share in this error and practice. The logic seems inexorable.

      Some Baptists are offended by this but (some of them) think nothing of saying that we’re not baptized and externally not Christians.

      See the discussion I had with Mark Dever about that. I’m not offended by Mark’s view and he’s not offended by mine. We can co-exist.

      As to whether Christ instituted infant baptism, the answer is yes, but not when you might expect. He did it when he said, “I will be a God to you and to your children.” That was God the Son before the incarnation. He repeated that promise again and again in the OT and through the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:39.

      See this resource page for articles, podcasts, and videos on this topic.

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