Several Baptist writers are discussing the propriety of baptizing younger children. Justin Taylor provides of roundup of the debate.
This discussion is of interest to Reformed folk because it illumines (i.e., shines light upon) and illustrates some profound differences between the Reformed and Baptists theology, piety, and practice. The two traditions are not as is often assumed, essentially identical in method and conclusions but only diverging on some minor issues. No, the two traditions read Scripture very differently, i.e., they have a different hermeneutic, a different reading of the story of redemption, a different approach to reading Scripture, a different understanding of the nature of the covenant of grace through redemptive history, and a different understanding of what was promised to Abraham and how Christians relate to those promises. As a consequence of those differences the two traditions reach very different conclusions about the nature of the church today, the nature of the promises to believers and to their children, and the nature of the administration of the covenant of grace. Those differences affect the way the two traditions look at the children of believers and their place in the church.
Read the intramural Baptist discussion and then read the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort (1.17), or the Westminster Standards. There you will see a hermeneutic that begins with the essential continuity of the covenant of grace that was revealed after the fall to our “first parents” (Adam and Eve), to Noah, and especially to Abraham. In Genesis 17:7 the Lord promised: ”
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.” For the Reformed churches this verse has always been programmatic, paradigmatic. It reveals the way God has chosen to relate to believers and to their children. As we understand the unfolding history of salvation, this promise has never been abrogated. We see it repeated throughout the Old Testament and again in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 2:39). It is still in force and we relate to our children in light of it.
Thus, Reformed churches and Christians are not having this debate. With the ancient Christian church and the church after, we understand that God has made a promise to believers and to their children and thus both believers and their children are to receive the sign of initiation into the visible covenant community. There is and never has been a debate in the Reformed churches about when the children of believers are to be recognized as belonging to the visible church. The debate the Baptists are having just now is a product of the influence of the Anabaptist movement, which arose in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Please understand that all the Protestants, including the Reformed churches, repudiated the Anabaptists for many reasons and among them was the Anabaptist rejection of the continuity of the covenant of grace between the New Covenant and the covenant with Abraham. As the Reformed understand the Scriptures there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations. As most Baptists understand the Scriptures, when they speak of a covenant of grace, it is said to exist only in the New Testament. That is a profound difference between Baptist and Reformed theology. As the Reformed understand Scripture, there has always been a distinction between the substance of the covenant of grace and its external administration. According to the Baptists, one may only receive the sign of the covenant after one has its substance. In effect, in Baptist theology, piety, and practice, there is no external administration of the covenant of grace at least not as the Reformed understand administration.
Like Abraham, we admit our children to the visible covenant people. We place the sign on believers and their children. In the case of believers it recognizes their new life. In the case of their children it recognizes the divine command to include children in the external administration of the covenant of grace. It also recognizes the promise of God to redeem the elect children of believers. In every case baptism is not a testimony of what we have done but of what God has done and promised. It signifies and seals what is true of believers, that they are recipients of the promise of the covenant of grace (“I will be a God to you and to your children”). It signifies and seals to believers their union with Christ in his death (Rom 6:3–4; Col 2:11–12) Believing parents instruct, pray for, and pray with their baptized children just as Abraham instructed, prayed for, and prayed with his circumcised children. In the gracious providence of God all the elect are brought to new life and true faith. Believers look back to their baptism as a tangible reminder of the promises of God and of his faithfulness to those promises.
The paradigmatic difference between the Reformed and Baptist confessions is illustrated in Heidelberg Catechism 74. Notice how the catechism assumes a substantial continuity between the Abrahamic covenant and the new covenant:
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.
We see the very same paradigm in Belgic Confession 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. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.”
In contrast to the Anabaptist and Baptist traditions, at the Synod of Dort the Reformed churches confessed that we trust the promise God made to Abraham, that promise remains a source of comfort for believing parents who lose children in infancy:
Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy (Canons of Dort, 1.17; emphasis added).
It is good to see Baptists discussing the baptism of children. Perhaps their internal debate will cause some of them to reconsider the reasons they exclude children from the visible covenant community and from the New Covenant sign of initiation into that visible covenant community? Perhaps the discussion will cause some Baptists to re-think the relationship between holy baptism and holy communion and their assumption that the two signs essentially do the same thing, i.e., testify to the existence of faith in believers? Perhaps some of them will come to see that the two signs have two distinct functions: to initiate and to confirm (see Westminster Larger Catechism 177)? Perhaps their internal debate will cause some of them to question the deeply held Baptist assumption that Abraham and Moses have essentially the same roles in the history of redemption (Gal ch. 4 [all])? Perhaps, as a result of their discussion, some Baptists will come to see the essential unity of the covenant of grace, that Abraham is still the father of all believers (Rom 4:11–12, 16–17; Gal ch. 3 [all]) and that the promises God made to believers and their children are still in force? Perhaps it will give opportunity for some Baptists to re-think their assumptions about Jeremiah 31:31–33 and to see that the contrast is between Moses and the New Covenant and not between Abraham and the New Covenant?
Those of us who hold the Reformed confession are hopeful that this internal Baptist debate will bear good fruit and that out of it Baptists will embrace a Reformed covenant theology, piety, and practice.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- The Ecumenical Creeds
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- The Heidelberg Catechism
- Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008).
- “A House of Cards? A Response to Bingham, Cribben, and Caughey,” in Matthew Bingham, Chris Caughey, R. Scott Clark, Crawford Gribben, and D. G. Hart, On Being Reformed: Debates Over a Theological Identity (London: Palgrave-Pivot, 2018), 69–89.
- Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 2007).
- A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology And Infant Baptism
- Abraham Was Not Moses
- Baptism and Circumcision According to Colossians 2:11–12
- Circumcision and Baptism
- Calvin: Circumcision Was Spiritual And Substantially Identical To Baptism
- Resources On The Role Of Abraham In Redemptive History
- Abrahamic Bookends
- Owen: To Confine The Abrahamic Covenant To Earthly Things Destroys The Foundations Of Religion
- Yes, The Reformed Churches Do Baptize On The Basis Of The Abrahamic Promise
- Tracing The Paradigm Shift: Two Ways Of Being In The Covenant Of Grace
- Calvin: We Need To Distinguish Between The Internal And The External Relation To The Covenant Of Grace
- Vos: The Covenant Of Grace Was Present In, With, And Through The Old Testament Types And Shadows
- Heidelcast Series: I Will Be A God To You And To Your Children
- A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology And Infant Baptism