Yes, The Reformed Churches Do Baptize On The Basis Of The Abrahamic Promise

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is the largest evangelical Christian denomination in the USA reporting a total membership of 14.8 million (of whom 1/3 attend weekly). The SBC is Baptist in name and practice but about 99% of the other 45 million American evangelicals are also Baptist in theology, piety, and practice if not in name. This reality shapes the way Americans tend to think about baptism, the way they read and interpret Scripture, and the way they understand the message of Scripture. From a historical point of view, our situation in anomalous. Until the middle of the 19th century the situation was reversed. Prior to the middle of the 19th century, the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide and even in the USA were paedobaptist, i.e., they baptized infants. Now, to be sure, they did so for different reasons. Romanists baptize infants because, in part, they believe that the mere use of the sacrament imparts saving, regenerating grace. Lutherans (both mainline and confessional) also confess that the use of baptism confers new life (regeneration). Mainline (liberal) denominations such as the PCUSA, the EPCUSA, the UMC, the UCC baptize infants mainly because it is traditional or out of sentiment.

What Baptism Does And Does Not Do

This sociological and historic reality creates challenges for those who still believe and confess the historic Reformed understanding of Scripture, that God has promised to be a God to believers and to their children (Gen 17:7), who do not baptize out of sentiment (“isn’t that nice”), tradition (“that’s the way we have always done it”), or because they believe that it necessarily confers saving saving grace to every baptized person (magic). In the Reformed understanding baptism is a sacrament, i.e., a sign of promised grace and a seal, a promise of saving grace to those who believe. To be sure, according to the Reformed confession, Christ is received sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide through faith alone. Grace is not a magic or medicinal substance (Rome). Rather, it is the unconditional favor of God toward sinners earned by Jesus Christ for all his people. By grace alone God is favorable to all his people (composed of all sorts of people, from all tribes, languages, and nations) for the sake of the righteous (e.g., obedience) of Christ imputed (credited) to sinners and received through faith alone. By faith we mean, trusting, resting, receiving, knowing, and assenting. Baptism signifies what Christ does for his people (washes away their sins and clothes them with his righteousness) and seals the promises made to those who have new life, who believe that all that Christ has done for them. As a seal, it says to believers that what they have read in Scripture, what they have heard in the preaching of the Word is really truly theirs.

This is what we confess in Heidelberg Catechism (1563) 69:

69. How is it signified and sealed to you in Holy Baptism, that you have part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water and joined therewith this promise: that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.

Against the Romanists and the Lutherans we confess explicitly that baptism does not, by its use (ex opere operato) become salvation any more than the bread and wine of communion literally become (by transubstantiation) the body and blood of Christ:

72. Is then the outward washing with water itself the washing away of sins?

No, for only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sin.

To put it plainly, a baptized person who does not believe is damned and an unbaptized person who, by grace alone, does believe has been saved.

Still, Jesus instituted baptism as a sign and seal of his grace because he is pleased to communicate his promises to us not only through the Word but also visibly through the sacrament (but only through the two sacraments he has instituted).

The Biblical Basis For Infant Baptism

We baptize infants because we understand from Scripture that God’s promise in Genesis 17:7 is still in effect: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your children after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your children after you.”

On the basis of this verse and its many echoes throughout the rest of Scripture, not the least of which is Acts 2:39, the Reformed Churches confess:

74. Are infants also to be baptized?

Yes, for since they belong to the covenant and people of God as well as their parents, and since redemption from sin through the blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit who works faith, are promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by baptism, as the sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is instituted.

“The covenant” to which we refer here is this covenant, which God made with Abraham in Genesis 17:7.

This is also how we speak in the Belgic Confession (1561) in art. 34:

For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children.
And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ.

Notice two things. First, the dispute between the Reformed and the Baptists is, on this score, identical to the dispute the Reformed had with the Anabaptists in the 16th century. Thus, however different post-1630 Baptists are from the Anabaptists (and there are genuine differences), as regarding the reading of redemptive history, the Baptists remain Anabaptists. Second, the promise we invoke here is the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 17:7.

The Abrahamic covenant or promise is central to the Reformed understanding of the unity of the covenant of grace under the  Old and New Testaments. We say that there is one covenant of grace with multiple outward administrations. The New Covenant did not first appear in history in the New Covenant. The Old Testament believers were not simply looking forward to the covenant of grace. They were participating in its outward administration in, with, and under types and shadows.

Abraham Was Not Moses

Whereas most American evangelicals today assume that the Abrahamic promise has expired, that Abraham was only really an anticipation of Moses, with whom God did not enter into covenant for 430 years after Abraham (Gal 3:17). Paul, however, contrasts the Abrahamic covenant with the Mosaic. The latter he  says has been annulled whereas the Abrahamic was “previously ratified” and is based on a promise and as distinct from the Mosaic which he characterizes, for his purposes here, as ” law” (vv. 17–18). In short, Abraham was not Moses. The Abrahamic covenant is not the Mosaic. The Abrahamic was in no sense a covenant of works. It was a covenant of grace.1

In contrast to Abraham, the Old, Mosaic Covenant (2 Cor 3; Heb chapters 7–10), had a dual character. Fundamentally it was an administration of the covenant of grace. No one under Moses was saved by works. Yet the Mosaic covenant was, in certain external respects, a re-statement, a re-issuing of the covenant of works that God had made with Adam before the fall. There is a “do this and live” (Luke 10:28; Lev 18:5 ) aspect to the Mosaic covenant that is not present in the Abrahamic. Paul says that the Mosaic law was a pedagogue (παιδαγωγὸς)  to teach the Israelites the greatness of their sin and misery (Gal 3:24). Many of our Baptist friends, however, know a priori that Abraham and Moses are both covenants of works and so they dismiss them together and miss the fundamental unity between the Abrahamic covenant and the New Covenant. Because of this assumption they tend to misunderstand the contrast in Jeremiah 31:31–34 between the Old Covenant and the New even though Jeremiah says the New Covenant will not be like the covenant he made with Moses. He does not contrast the New Covenant with Abraham because he knew that the New Covenant is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant (see the resources below).2

Resources On the Abraham in the History of Salvation


1. Here we must not follow my beloved professor and colleague Meredith Kline when he writes, “Though not the ground of the inheritance from heaven, Abraham’s obedience was the ground for Israel’s inheritance of Canaan.” Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 325. Here Kline did the very thing to which he rightly objected: taking a Baptist position. He has turned Abraham into Moses. Abraham was given the seed and land promises in Genesis 12 and 15 and gracious grants from a sovereign King, God the Lord. The Obedience that God required of Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 was a consequence of the grace received not a prior or antecedent condition in order to receive.

2. We also dissent strongly from his rejection of the Abrahamic promise as the basis for infant baptism:

This also means that when we are establishing the ground for baptizing our children into the church the ground for baptizing our children into the church our appeal should not be to the “promise,” for the promised seed is the election and the covenantal constituency is not delimited by election, nor do we know whether or not our children our children are elect.” Kline, ibid., 364.

Kline was right to distinguish election and covenant (which he did in the paragraph just above the one in which this passage appears) and he was right to distinguish between the external administration and the internal, spiritual relation to the covenant of grace. What he missed here, in the passage quoted, was the proper application of these distinctions.

We do not confess that we baptize our children because we believe them to be elect. That would be essentially a Baptist mistake. We do not baptize them because we believe that they necessarily have new life and true faith. Again, that would be essentially a Baptist mistake. We do, however, baptize our children because God has promised to be a God to believers and to their children. He has promised to bring his elect to new life and to true faith through the external administration of the covenant of the covenant of grace. All the elect will be regenerated. That is the promise but God has ordained to administer that promise in the church by baptizing believers and their children.

One suspects that Kline was reacting to the Kuyperian view of presumptive regeneration, which was declared by Synod Utrecht (1906) to be speculative. Synod rightly rejected presumptive regeneration in favor of the external administration of the sacrament of baptism in obedience to the divine command, under the divine promise of Genesis 17:7 and re-expressed in Acts 2:39: “For the promise is to you and to your children…”.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Just read in Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4 that he does not see any practice of infant baptism into the covenant whatsoever. He does not approach Genesis 17:7 as far as I read.

    Being a contemporary of Kuyper and Vos, why would Bavinck so vehemently oppose paedobaptism and not deal with the Abrahamic covenant whatsoever? He’s a phenomenal exegete, but it seems like he missed the mark in a big way. Is this a Dutch Reformed error in general?

    • Peter,

      He was a Reformed minister who had sworn to uphold the Word of God as confessed in the Heidelberg and the Belgic. Vos’ Dogmatics is largely derived from Bavinck’s. He certainly disagreed with Kuyper and esp. on presumptive regeneration but he taught infant baptism. He has an entire section in vol 4 defending infant baptism and he invokes Gen 17:7 on 4.499 and 3.519, and 4.528.

      His context was different from ours. As a European, I doubt that he had much contact with Baptists. He certainly wasn’t surrounded by 60 million Baptists. The Anabaptists were a large group but mostly outside his (Reformed) world.

    • Am I reading a different Bavinck than you? I’m reading the Dutch original; §535 cites Gen 17:7 concerning the benefits of baptism for the adults. in §537, 2˚, he references the circumcision; in 3˚, he continues: “Circumcision is not the only proof that the OT views the children as partakers of the covenant, followed by the usual proofs for the incorporation of children in the covenant. In §538, Bavinck mentions Gen 17:23 as example of a father performing circumcision, then applies it to baptism. He concludes the section on baptism with a positive assessment of the Reformed practice, especially of infant baptism.

      If anything, you might accuse Bavinck of being more of a systematic theologian than a Biblical theologian. That may be the reason for not digging deeper into the Abrahamic covenant; but it certainly is not absent.

      Bavinck interacted with Anabaptists quite frequently in his Reformed Dogmatics; see the Index. The Netherlands did not have many Baptists at the time, but there has always been a large number of Anabaptists (Doopsgezinden). At some point in the early 1600s, these Anabaptists made up 10% of the Dutch population! I would argue that he was well-acquainted with the Anabaptists and their arguments; for instance, he quotes of their founders, Menno Simons, quite regularly.

  2. Got it, maybe I’m reading Bavinck wrong? It sounds like he opposes paedobaptism on the grounds of outward faith and repentance in believers. “Scripture tells us beyond any doubt that baptism has been exclusively instituted for believers. No other persons are baptized than those who confess their sins and evidence repentance and faith.” (4.514) Is he speaking of something different than what we understand today in our context?

    I’m a convinced Genesis 17:7 infant baptizer, but I’m having a hard time with squaring (what I think I’m reading of) Bavinck with this. In these sections, is he just repeating what Anabaptists confessed in their day?

    Please help!

    • Peter,

      In volume 4, beginning on p. 521, Bavinck has a section defending infant baptism, so it cannot be said, as you seem to be claiming, that Bavinck denied infant baptism. So, yes, you do seem to be reading him incorrectly. He considers objections and then, beginning on p. 526 begins to enumerate arguments in favor of infant baptism. Again, he was not a Baptist. He was ordained in a Reformed Church in the Netherlands. He did rehearse objections but he did not agree with those objections. Keep reading.

  3. Out of interest Dr Clark, how linked would you say the Particular Baptists of the 1600s and today are with the Anabaptists of the 16th century? As a Presbyterian I have numerous issues with the PB reading of the covenants but in fairness they agree people under Abraham and Moses were saved by grace through faith, something I don’t think the Anabaptists in Calvin’s day would affirm, and men such as Denault say the comparison is unfair. While I disagree with them on baptism, should this be considered?

    • Toluwaniyi,

      I acknowledged the considerable differences between the Baptists and the Anabaptists when I wrote, “and there are genuine differences.” I did not detail those differences, which I’ve done elsewhere on the HB and in print. See my reply to Caughey, Gribben, et al in On Being Reformed. I qualified the connection by writing, “on this point.” In their denial of infant baptism and the grounds for that denial, all Baptists are Anabaptists. That point is undeniably true. Read the Reformed responses to the Anabaptists in the 16th century beginning with Zwingli in 1524 and you will find yourself reading some of the very same arguments made here on the HB against Particular Baptists and others. Why? Because the PBs, GBs (General Baptists), and others still make the same arguments against infant baptist that the Anabaptists make.

      So, despite the differences on, e.g., Christology and soteriology between the Anabaptists and Baptists, on baptism the arguments are largely the same. Indeed, in the case of Denault and, to my mind, Sam Renihan, the differences between the Reformed and the Particular Baptists and the similarity with the Anabaptists are even more acute as I noted in my series Engaging With 1689. Those PBs who agreed with us that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations are much closer than those Baptists who effectively deny the presence of the covenant of grace in history until the New Covenant.

    • What I find strange about the argument of the distinctiveness of the Baptist hermeneutic of men like Sam Renihan and Pascal Denault is that they claim that OT saints were saved under the same covenant of grace/new covenant as NT saints and yet they deny that the new covenant/covenant of grace administration even existed in the OT!!! And they don’t even give an explanation of how that is possible, as far as I am aware. Did they these OT saints receive special revelation, independent of the means of grace? If so that would link them to the Anabaptists, I would think.

  4. Dr. Clark, while we certainly understand that baptism is a sign and seal that should be given to our children based on the Abrahamic promises, would you agree that baptism is efficacious unto salvation? Also, that it does confer grace to the elect by the power of the spirit working through the means of baptism? It’s seems that many of the reformers including Calvin, Bucer, and many of the Westminster divines did believe baptism did confer the grace that it signaled to the elect when used rightly. Today it seems that many want to say baptism is a sign and seal but deny that it also confers grace.

    • Russ,

      The 1st thing that the Westminster Divines affirmed about baptism is that it is a sign and seal:

      Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.

      They also denied baptismal regeneration (contra the rather bizarre interpretation of the standards that claims that the divines taught baptismal regeneration):

      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.

      The divines further explained:

      The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.

      We deny any ex opere view of baptism, whether Roman, Lutheran, or Federal Vision. Baptism becomes efficacious when an elect person believes. Through faith, by the unconditional gift of the Holy Spirit, the regenerate person is united to Christ, adopted etc. In other words, the benefits of Christ are conferred to the regenerate by the Spirit through faith. Baptism signifies those benefits and seals the promise of Christ and his benefits but it does not itself ipso facto confer them to any recipient.

      Baptism confers grace to the believer by signifying and sealing what is promised in the preached gospel and in baptism. It does confer the grace it signifies but it confers that grace to believers, i.e., those regenerated by the Spirit and those benefits are received through faith.

      Heidelberg 65 is wonderfully clear about this:

      65. Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?

      The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

      Notice the order. The Spirit regenerates and creates faith through preaching—not through baptism—and baptism and the supper confirm and strengthen the promises made in the preached gospel.

      Thus, I cannot agree with your suggestion that distinguishing between the work of the Spirit in preaching and the work of the Spirit in the sacraments is some sort of decline from the classic Reformed view. Heidelberg 65 and the Westminster Divines were following Calvin on this.

  5. Thank you Dr. Clark for your reply and thought on this. Your writings on infant baptism have been extremely edifying for me and have brought me to a better understanding of covenant theology. Recently I have been reading Cornelius Burgess and some of the other divines writings on baptism. There seems to be some differences between the divines on the grace giving in baptism. Some seem to presume elect infants are regenerate before baptism, others ordinarily during baptism, and others later on. Burgess seems to make a good case for saying the spirit can regenerate before, during or a later but ordinarily begins the work of regeneration of the elect at the moment of baptism. I deny any ex opere view including Roman Catholic, Federal vision, or Lutheran. All three of those views fail to consider the reformed view of election and make a case that we can lose our salvation. The efficacy of baptism is what I’m struggling with and if the spirit uses it to begin the initial process of regeneration in the elect. Not to say they posses actually faith at the time of baptism.

    • Hi Russ,

      Thanks for the encouragement.

      There has been a range of views of and ways of talking about baptism among the Reformed since the early 16th century. At one point, Luther postulated infant faith and some Reformed picked up that way of talking. Fortunately, in my view, that view lost traction.

      Certainly God is free to regenerate children before baptism or even in the act of baptism or after. Three things in this regard:

      1. It is speculation. Burgess did not know nor does any one of us know when the Spirit regenerates. See John 3.

      John 3 Might Not Mean What You Think It Does

      2. We don’t confess Calvin, Beza, or Burgess. The churches confess the Word of God in the language of the Three Forms or the Westminster Standards. It’s important that we all understand that whatever personal views a theologian might express, those personal views have no ecclesiastical status. The language of the confession is that to which we’ve all agreed.
      3. There is a difference between expecting a covenant child to come to faith and presuming that a child has necessarily come to faith because he is a covenant child and under the administration of the promise.

      We must be very cautious about conflating the promise (the thing itself) with its outward administration. Ultimately election determines who receives the promised benefit. It has often been a temptation in the church to turn the administration into the thing itself.

      It seems fruitless to me to speculate about when the Spirit is doing or has done or might have done his regenerating work. As I noted above (see the linked articles) our Lord Jesus expressly said that we do not know from where the wind comes or where it goes, so it is with the Spirit. We need to accept that the work of the Spirit is mysterious and let baptism be a sacrament and not the thing itself.

      There is another point here: there a Reformed mainstream but we do not determine what that mainstream is by my reading of the tradition or yours but by what the churches confess. That’s the baseline. Yes, as I say, historically there has been some variety in the language used by Reformed theologians. There were also divines at the Assembly (Gattaker, Twisse, & Vines) who denied the imputation of active obedience, that doesn’t mean that we should embrace that as part of the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy. A few delegates to Dort held versions of hypothetical universalism but that’s no ground to do (as some are doing) for saying that HU should be considered a mainstream Reformed view. There were some notable chiliastic theologians in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but I’m reluctant to affirm chiliasm as a mainstream Reformed view. This is the value of the confessions, they give us a baseline. The farther a view deviates from the baseline the more it should be regarded as outside the mainstream.

      There are limits to this approach. E.g., the Three Forms do not explicitly confess a covenant of works whereas the European Reformed came to affirm it explicitly. Arguably it’s implied in Belgic 7 (“commandment of life”) and I certainly believe that the covenant of works is part of the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy and that view is supported by the Westminster Standards. None of the churches explicitly affirmed the pactum salutis (except for the Savoy, if I recall correctly) and the pactum salutis is a mainstream view but I don’t have grounds for reading someone out of orthodoxy for denying the PS whereas, when they deny the covenant of works I think I’m on stronger grounds for asking questions. The WCF says “in the space of six days” but doesn’ say, “in six-24 hour period” or “six normal days” (as one NAPARC) denomination has said. Most of the divines did probably hold something like 6-24 creation but they did not confess it. Further, the standards must also be received by the churches as few NAPARC denominations receive them to require 6/24 creation.

      My point here is that where becoming too narrow is a danger we must also be careful not to become Latitudinarian, which historically has been them much greater danger.

    • Many years ago, after I came to faith, reading Luther on the sacraments, I understood Luther to state that the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the fact that the Word, believed by the recipient, that is pronounced on the application is what makes sacraments effective. I don’t recall that he insisted that this faith had to be exercised at the same time as the application. Did the Lutheran church later introduce baptismal regeneration in contradiction to Luther, just as they denied Luther’s teaching on the perseverance of the saints?

      • Hi Angela,

        Yes, I agree with your reading of Luther. Yes, they did (in my view), in the Book of Concord (1580) abandon Luther on this and, I think, even contradict Luther’s Large Catechism.

    • That’s interesting Angela, I have always read Luther the same way. In his Large catechism he states that if their is no faith the recipient receives none of the promises of baptism. Cornelius Burgess addresses this and says that the ubiquitarians went further than Luther did. Much of what Luther wrote on baptism I can agree with. It’s seems to me that the reformed during the 1500’s seen baptism as more of a converting grace to elect infants, while many in the 1600’s looked at as more of a confirming grace. If it is a confirming Grace it seems odd that baptism lay useless in the elect child until later on. I tend to view it as more of a converting grace to elect infants . Meaning that the spirit works through baptism to bring the child to faith at God’s preordained time.

    • That’s very interesting Russ. I suppose I see baptism as both a converting and a confirming sacrament. When it is administered, it is the application of the promise, that if you believe what this represents, you are a child and inheritor of the promise to Abraham. So that is converting. When the promise of baptism, which is the new covenant sign of God’s promise, to Abraham and his children in the faith, is believed, it becomes not only a sign, but also a Spirit applied seal confirming that the baptized person is truly a child of Abraham and an inheritor of Abraham’s covenant promise–the new covenant.

    • Thanks Angela, I like the way you articulated that! I would agree that it is a confirming sacrament once we have come to faith. This has been a helpful conversation. As a member in the PCA I sometimes get the feeling that we always want to talk about baptism in a way that differentiates us from the R.C’s, Lutheran, and F.V’s. While we need to express these differences we often can come off sounding more Baptist. Baptism does have a use in converting our children by the word connected to the sign and by what the sign tells us. As a father of 4 I have often reminded my kids of their baptisms and called on them to believe it.

  6. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks! I reread the sentence and surrounding context, I just hadn’t caught he was rehearsing baptistic arguments. I was very confused earlier, knowing he was an a staunch proponent of Reformed Covenant Theology!

  7. Wonderful! This article and the above discussion summarize and crystallize previous articles and discussion on baptism.

  8. To Peter Bell, Bavinck does that all the time. He lays out the “opposition” argument (on all sorts of things) in such a way that is very hard to detect at what point he slips on the shoes of those on some other side. You do a lot of head scratching until you catch on.

    • Very interesting, I have not read a lot of Bavinck but what I have read seems deliberately vague and even confusing. It is that which people like Norman Shepherd, Richard Gaffin Jr. and John Frame seem to value in his writing. Basically he seems to say we cannot know anything that reveals God to us from the Word. He writes, “adequate knowledge of God does not exist.” Doctrine of God p.21 and on p.25 “Whatever is said concerning God is not God…” It seems to me that this reduces any attempt to gain an objective knowledge of God and His Truth from the Word to an exercise in futility. He has just reduced God’s word to nonsense!

      • Angela,

        I have my questions about Bavinck too (e.g., some of his language on the Trinity) but in this case I think “adequate” is being used in a very narrow, technical sense. Traditionally, as you know, the Reformed distinguished between the way God knows himself and the way we know him. I call this the Categorical Distinction. I think that Bavinck was doing something like that. All his revelation is accommodated to us, it is true, infallible, and inerrant but it is not God.

    • Dr. Clark:
      Has not Jesus Christ revealed God
      to us? Did not Christ confess, “I am He.”? So, does not the Word of God revealing Jesus Christ to us reveal God to us? There are secrets about God we will never know, but all we need to know is actually and truly revealed in the Word. How then can Bavinck claim that “adequate knowledge of God does not exist.”?

      • Angela,

        Bavinck agrees with you (and me) on this. As I say, adequate is used in an unusual sense here. Yes, Bavinck taught that God’s Word (Scripture) is adequate in the sense in which you’re using it.

        Adequate as he used it here meant “to know as God knows.” We know as we can know, as we need to know but not as God knows. It’s a little confusing but it has a distinct, technical, unusual sense here.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    Would you describe unregenerate baptized infants as being within the new covenant, or as within the covenant community? I know many paedobaptists speak of them as being within the covenant itself, however I am willing to accept that the new covenant is a salvific covenant with believers only, but that it has an outward administration which extends to the unregenerate. Is this the distinction between “substance” and “administration?”

  10. Nevermind, Dr. Clark. I had forgotten I had asked (and you had answered) this question already.

  11. Dear Dr Clark

    Hopefully the version below addresses your concerns.

    Best regards

    Kevin McGrane

    Following up on a comment by Angela Werner of June 30. Angela cites Bavinck’s statements that “adequate knowledge of God does not exist” and “Whatever is said concerning God is not God” to support the view that Bavinck taught that “we cannot know anything that reveals God to us from the Word”. But such is not at all implied by Bavinck’s statements, and is clearly contradicted by what Bavinck wrote elsewhere. Bavinck, like all faithful reformed theologians, asserted that we can have a knowledge of God adequate for salvation; however, the quotations are taken from preliminary matter where Bavinck is dealing with the doctrine of God in himself (‘in se’).

    ‘Adequate knowledge’ in respect of the doctrine of God is to be understood from Bavinck’s context, especially the clauses immediately following. Bavinck says, “Accordingly, adequate knowledge of God does not exist. There is no name that makes known unto us his being. No concept fully embraces him. No description does justice to him. That which is hidden behind the curtain of revelation is entirely unknowable”. What is revealed in the economy by God is knowable, but what is revealed therein is not adequate fully to embrace him, define him, or describe him in himself; which, as there is nothing in God but God, means also that what is revealed in the economy is not adequate to define or describe his being. This appears to be entirely orthodox classical theism.

    To deny what Bavinck states in context, as some have done, is tantamount to asserting the contrary of his propositions, i.e. that adequate knowledge of God CAN be had through knowledge beyond what has been revealed, through a name that makes fully known unto us his being, a concept that fully embraces him, and a description that does full justice to him. Whilst some Gnostics and mystics might have espoused such ideas and sought to look beyond the curtain and comprehend God ‘in se’, such views are far outside confessional Christianity.

    It is surprising, therefore, that some have publicly taken issue with Bavinck on this matter, calling, for example, his statement that “There is no knowledge of God as he is in himself” (i.e. beyond what is revealed in the economy) ‘Antichristian’, ‘irrational’, ‘Dark Age’, and part of the ‘heresy matrix’ (Robbins). Such arguments dissolve the distinction between real knowledge of God ‘in se’ and the knowledge of God revealed in the economy when they assert that Bavinck’s teaching denies the doctrine of the incarnation that “the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, became man, and expressed his divine thoughts in human words…and the human words he spoke and wrote expressed his meaning perfectly, exactly, and fully” (Robbins). This argument is fallacious, for that which is truly revealed and known in Jesus Christ cannot, by definition, be the ‘entirely unknowable’ of which Bavinck speaks that remains ‘hidden behind the curtain of revelation’.

    • Angela,

      Kevin is right about this. I discussed this question at some length in RRC. That we do not know what God knows, the way he knows it, is classic, historic, Reformed theology. That all of Scripture is God’s infallible, accommodated revelation to us is Calvin’s teaching and that teaching was codified for Reformed orthodoxy by Franciscus Junius in On True Theology, which is now in English. I recommend that work. Junius opposed Arminius, who wanted to conflate God’s knowledge and ours and he gave us the vocabulary to discuss this issue by distinguishing between archetypal theology and ectypal theology. As I noted years ago there have been modern writers (Hoeksema, Gerstner, & Clark—no relation to yours truly) who have denied this distinction but in so doing they rejected a basic Reformed doctrine, which I call the categorical distinction. See “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80. My PR friends have yelled (in print) at me about this essay a couple of times but they have not shown from the sources that I am wrong historically. The evidence is overwhelming. Pedagogically, the use of “adequate” is perhaps not entirely clear or helpful, at least not in our context today, but the substance of what Bavinck was trying to say is quite orthodox.

    • Interestingly Van Til has appealed to Bavinck and expanded on this concept to claim, “the Scriptures are the Word of God and its system of truth is an analogical system,” and, “at no point” reveals but only resembles God’s Truth. Now it seems to me that if Bavinck meant what Van Til understands him to be saying, the “truth” we have in Scripture is not the Truth of God, then God is essentially unknowable. And if God’s Truth is unknowable, how can we claim to have true doctrines about God? It seems to me this is the gateway to Liberalism, that in the absence of Truth as God knows it, there is no absolute Truth.

      • Angela,

        The historic Reformed position is that our knowledge is analogical to God’s. To say that we know what God knows, the way he knows it, is to say that we are God. Van Til was not right about everything but he was right about this.

        The PR/Hoeksema/Gordon Clark/Gerstner position is closer to that of Arminius than that of Calvin or the the Reformed orthodox. The evidence for this is overwhelming and documented in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

        God is so great that he is able to communicate his truth by, as Calvin said, accommodation. All of Scripture is accommodated to our weakness. Were God to reveal himself as he is, in himself, it would destroy us. We must, as Luther argued against Rome in 1518, only see the “backside” of God (Heidelberg Disputation). To seek to know God as he is, in himself, to know God’s truth as God knows it, is to seek what Luther called a “theology of glory.” It is a form of rationalism and Hoeksema, Clark, and Gerstner were, on this point, rationalists.

        Scripture is God’s inerrant, infallible Word but it is theologia ectypa or an analogue of God’s truth. Theology as he knows it is theologia archetypa. This was how Franciscus Junius spoke in On True Theology.

        Take a look at Junius:

        See the section in RRC and the essay that I mentioned earlier in the Strimple volume.

        The Reformed used to say rightly “the finite is not capable of the infinite.” This is true. We are not. We always remain creatures. God’s ways are higher than our ways. Our thoughts are not his thoughts.

        Here Deut 29:29 is essential:

        “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 29:29; ESV).

        The secret things include theology as God knows it. Our God is a consuming fire. We cannot look upon him and live. We are utterly dependent upon him to reveal himself truly, in a way that is fit for us, which he has done in Scripture.

    • Maybe I do not understand Reformed theology as well as I thought I did. I thought when the Reformers taught that we cannot know all God’s truth as God knows it, they meant we cannot understand the hidden things of God. I never imagined that they meant that the revealed Truth of his Word was different than the Truth of God.

      • Angela,

        If you’ve been influenced by Hoeksema, G. Clark, or John Gerstner, on this point, then no.

        The archetypal/ectypal distinction was lost for a while. Berkhof mentions it very briefly in his prolegomena (introductory volume) to his Systematic Theology (1932) but that volume was not republished for maybe 60 years. Modern systematics ignored it and Hoeksema called a “Janus Theology,” but he was heterodox on a few things, e.g., he revised Reformed covenant theology and rejected older doctrine of commons grace. He was an idiosyncratic theologian. Gordon Clark was a philosopher and Gerstner was deeply influenced by Jonathan Edwards.

        I was not taught this distinction and had to learn it from Richard Muller and via the older sources of Reformed theology, so I don’t blame any layperson for not knowing it.

        This distinction is a corollary to our doctrine of man as the image of God. As image bearers we are analogues. We are like God but we are not God. So it is with our theology. It is true. It is divinely revealed but it is not the way God knows things. It cannot be. He is almighty God. He knows the end from the beginning.
        This is the biblical and Reformed doctrine of incomprehensibility. God is immense. He fills all that can be filled with himself all the time and yet he is utterly transcendent. Any God whose thought we could know, the way he knows it, would not be the God of Scripture, who spoke into nothing and made all that is, before whom Isaiah fell down, before whom the creatures cried, “Holy, holy, holy.”

        All our theologians distinguish between communicable and incommunicable attributes but even in the communicable attributes they explain that we do not have them (e.g., holiness) the way God has them. We are not God. We are dust, formed in the divine image.

        That we are not God but still God’s image helps us to understand how his Word is true, analogical, and fit for his image bearers.

  12. Good discussion. W regard to Luther, I would be hesitant to say that later Lutherans contradicted Luther. That presupposes Luther was monolithic and consistent, but I think history demonstrates that on baptism we can speak of an early and late Luther, as well as evidence that there was a lack of consistency.

    • Nate,

      There are two places where I think Luther v Lutherans approach: 1) Baptism; 2) the decree. My case re: #1 is based on Luther’s Grosser Katechismus (1529). I’m open to being convinced that he moved over the following decade on baptism but I’m skeptical. Re #2 My case is based on De servo (1525). I don’t see evidence that he moved there either but I do see evidence that Lutheran orthodoxy moved by the 1570s. I don’t blame Melanchthon, who has been treated badly. It’s not that Philip never said or did anything problematic but I don’t think that he fundamentally moved away from Luther. That’s relatively easily traced through the various editions of the Loci communes, which strangely, many seem to ignore.

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