Americans are an independent lot. In the secular sphere (e.g., politics and economics) that can be an admirable quality which contributes mightily to freedom and prosperity. In the sacred sphere (e.g., in the life of the church, in our spiritual and theological growth), however, that spirit of rugged individualism can do a lot of damage. Americans especially need to be aware that we have these tendencies. I resisted the idea of national, cultural characteristics until I traveled and lived abroad. Culture exists and different cultures have consequences for the way people see the world and for the assumptions people make about the nature of things. When I lived in the UK I realized that I brought with me a set of assumptions about the possibility of economic and social mobility, about how to solve problems, and about how public life ought to be organized that were not only American but also the product of my upbringing on the American Plains. I realized that my neighbors did not share many of those assumptions.
We American Christians need to realize the degree to which we are influenced by our national characteristics and culture. We are born into or raised in this culture and it is as basic to our life as the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is natural to assume that way we see things, the expectations we have, are natural, basic, and universal. If the Declaration of Independence is correct, then we do think that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights and that these are properly understood to be natural. Nevertheless, as Christians we live in two spheres of God’s kingdom simultaneously. We have a dual citizenship. The things that we assume as basic in the secular social and economic aspects of our lives do not necessarily transfer automatically to the sacred sphere. Indeed, one of the several reasons that confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches have not fared as well in the America since the middle of the nineteenth century is that there was a major religious and cultural shift in the early nineteenth century that reverberated through the religious life of this nation and that shift would leave confessional P&R churches behind.
In 1801 a major Pentecostal revival broke out in a Presbyterian church at Cane Ridge, KY. That episode would be the beginning of decades of intense religious “revivals” and episodes (e.g., the rise of Mormonism) that would spread from upstate New York to the American Plains and beyond. According to scholars of American history, the election of Andrew Jackson in 1829 marked a significant democratic-egalitarian turn in the USA. That tendency has never really abated. U. S. Senators were not always directly elected. That did not happen until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 and the move to popular election of senators was only plausible because of the egalitarian shift that occurred in the nineteenth century. Since the early nineteenth century, as in politics, American Christianity has gradually, inexorably become more radically democratic. The churches who succeed numerically during and after the Second Great Awakening are those that haven adapted to and adopted those egalitarian assumptions. They tend to be market-driven. They give the people what they want and what they seem to want is what Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism“) and what Mike Horton calls Christless Christianity.
The Mob And The Church
The radical-democratic American spirit is working itself out not only in politics and in church polity but in social media, which is fostering what might be an even more radical egalitarian turn yet. Observers of social media regularly describe users (as an aggregate) as “the mob.” Anyone who has ever been descended upon by thousands of people on Twitter would agree. There have been reactions to this. Tom Nichols has complained about the Death of Expertise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Agree with his politics or not, it seems undeniable that many Americans think that any American is able to do just about anything in, medicine, law, or theology. To be sure, the conduct of some of the “experts” (e.g., in government, public health, and in the media) during the pandemic has created a legitimate crisis of authority and served to fuel the egalitarian assumption that the advice of 300 people on Twitter is just as valid as the considered views of a published, peer-reviewed scholar. It is true that it was not the experts who discovered that Dan Rather was making up things. It was “the mob” (some of whom who had relevant skills and experience) who figured out that he had fabricated a document about George W. Bush.
Nevertheless, however useful the online mob may or may not be in a given instance, Christ has instituted his visible church (Matthew 16:13–20; 18:15–20; 28:18–20) and committed to her the safekeeping of the truth. The Apostle Paul calls the church “the ground and pillar of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).1 Contra Rome, the church has no access to saving truth apart from God’s revealed, written Word but she is authorized to read the Word, interpret it, and apply it. The church is a minister, i.e., a servant of the truth of Scripture but she is that. She has an official function and status in God’s Word.
In other words, when we as believers, whether as individuals, in small groups, or as congregations, are trying to determine the truth about a matter of theology, piety, or practice, we should not neglect the church’s official interpretation of God’s Word where she has spoken to a matter under consideration. Again, let us be clear: the church works for the the Word of God. The Scripture and not the church is the sole, final arbiter of the Christian faith and Christian practice. This is what it means to say, sola Scriptura. It does not mean, however, that we read the bible in isolation from the church. This is what is known as biblicism, the attempt to read and understand the Scriptures apart from the visible church whether living or dead. There are leading evangelicals who are famous or notorious for declaring that they interpret or preach passages as if no one has ever read them before. This is exactly backwards. The Christian practice from the very beginning of the post-apostolic church was try to be faithful to what had been received. This is why the earliest fathers (e.g., Ignatius and Irenaeus) summarized the faith in what Irenaeus and Tertullian called “the rule of faith.” They did not see themselves as pioneers, plowing new ground as much as they saw themselves faithful keepers and transmitters of an inheritance received.
A Difficult Test Case
Recently I saw discussion online about the salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy. This is a question that both the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Divines addressed directly. The Synod of Dort confessed (and we with them):
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 (CD 1.17)
This was a pressing question in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The plague was still affecting towns. It was a regular occurrence to see an outbreak of plague and the whole city leave for months at a time. Tuberculosis (consumption) was widespread. Infant morality was high. It is not unusual see gravestones from the period with the names of multiple children who died in infancy. I remember one headstone, in Stanton St John (about 4.5 miles from Oxford), to which we used to bicycle, on which was recorded more than 1o children who died in infancy. John Owen lost 10 children in infancy.
So, obviously, the question of what the church should say about state of the children of believers was important. Synod alludes three passages of Scripture:
- 1 Corinthians 7:14: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. iOtherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (ESV).
The assumption is that, of course the children of believers are holy. Why “of course”? Because of the Abrahamic promise (Gen 17:7). God, who is the God of the living and not the dead (Luke 20:38), is a God to believers and to their children. They are not ritually unclean. They are not to be regarded as outside the covenant. They are to be regarded as within the covenant and thus as proper recipients of the external sign of initiation into the church. The Abrahamic paradigm was not revoked in the New Testament.
- Genesis 17:7: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (ESV).
When Synod says, “by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included” this is the passage they had in mind. Doubtless, they were also thinking of the many echoes of this promise through Scripture and especially in Acts 2:39: “For the promise is to you and to your children…”.
- 2 Samuel 12:23: “But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (ESV).
David wept and prayed until his son died. After his son died, he washed and anointed himself and ate. This puzzled people but David knew the promise of the Lord. Despite his sin he knew the Abrahamic promise. He knew that God promised to be his God and a God to his children. He trusted that promise in the death of his son.
When Synod interpreted and applied Scripture to this difficult case, they did so advisedly, carefully, and prayerfully. They were not “shooting from the hip.” They were providing sound, pastoral, counseling solidly grounded in God’s Word.
The Church And Theologians
Synod’s careful language is to be understood against the background of about a century of Protestant reflection on this question and related questions. What are we to think about infants? The Anabaptists, who assumed that only those who had already received Christ were eligible for baptism. They were confident that infants cannot believe and therefore should not be baptized. Early in his replies to the Anabaptist radicals, Luther essentially accepted their premise but tried to turn it against them by arguing that infants can have faith and do. John the Baptist “leaped” in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41, 44). The Holy Spirit is certainly able to give new life and true faith to infants but that he does in every instance is something we do not know.
Another approach to this question is to say that baptism necessarily confers what it signifies and that, therefore, every baptized infant is granted new life and true faith by virtue of his baptism. This is the sacerdotal view. The Reformed churches have rejected this view.
A fourth approach to this question, adopted by Calvin’s successor in Geneva and mooted by other Reformed luminaries (e.g., Francis Turretin) is the theory semen fidei, i.e., that the infant children of believers are born with the seed of faith, which over time matures into true faith. Again, this may be true but it is a speculative inference. We certainly observe God’s faithfulness in the administration of the covenant of grace. We baptize them on the basis of the divine promise and with the expectation that they will be catechized and nurtured, come to faith, make a credible profession of faith, and be received at the Lord’s Table. None of that, however, relies on the theory of a “seed of faith.”
A fifth, related view was articulated by Abraham Kuyper and some of his followers, that we presume that the children of believers are regenerate and we proceed accordingly. This view became controversial in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was addressed at the Synod of Utrecht in 1905. Synod declared:
that according to the Confession of our churches the seed of the covenant, by virtue of the promise of God, must be held to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until upon growing up they should manifest the contrary in their way of life or doctrine;
that it is, however, less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumed regeneration, since the ground of baptism is found in the command and promise of God;
that furthermore, the judgment of charity with which the Church regards the seed of the covenant as regenerated, does not at all imply that each child is actually born again, seeing that God’s Word teaches that they are not all Israel that are of Israel, and of Isaac it is said, “In him shall thy seed be called” (Rom. 9:6–7), so that it is imperative in the preaching constantly to urge earnest self-examination, since only he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.
Moreover, Synod in agreement with our Confession maintains that “the sacraments are not empty or meaningless signs, so as to deceive us, but visible signs and seals of an inward and invisible thing, by means of which God works in us by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Article 33), and that more particularly baptism is called “the washing of regeneration” and “the washing away of sins” because God would “assure us by this divine pledge and sign that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are outwardly washed with water”; wherefore our Church in the prayer after baptism “thanks and praises God that He has forgiven us and our children all their sins, through the blood of His beloved son Jesus Christ, and received us through His Holy Spirit as members of His only begotten Son, and so adopted us to be His children, and sealed and confirmed the same unto us by holy baptism”; so that our Confessional Standards clearly teach that the sacrament of baptism signifies and seals the washing away of our sins by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ, that is, the justification and renewal by the Holy Spirit as benefits which God has bestowed upon our seed.
Synod is of the opinion that the representation that every elect child is on that account already in fact regenerated even before baptism can be proved neither on Scriptural nor on confessional grounds, seeing that God fulfills his promise sovereignly in His own time, whether before, during, or after baptism. It is hence, imperative to be circumspect in one’s utterances on this matter, so as not to desire to be wise beyond that which God has revealed.
In North America the Christian Reformed Church adopted the Conclusions of Synod Utrecht from 1908–68.
The key phrase in Synod’s conclusion is “regards.” In the Reformed churches, the children of believers are to be regarded in a certain way and treated accordingly. We are not Baptists. We do not baptize infants because we know or confess them to be already regenerated (i.e., granted new life) and/or believers. We baptize them on the basis of the divine promise and command. The Abrahamic promise is still in force. It has not been abrogated. The divine command is to recognize the right and interest of covenant children in the covenant of grace and therefore to initiate them into the visible church by baptism. We need not speculate, as Synod Utrecht said, about whether infants are actually regenerate or believing in any or all cases.
Neither is the rule of the Synod of Dort regarding the children of believers dying in infancy a playground for the self-described Federal Visionists, some of whom have misconstrued the teaching of Synod by turning Canons of Dort 1.17 into a grounds for thinking that all baptized infants are ipso facto united to Christ etc. Synod said or implied no such thing. I have responded to the FV error on this point at length. The Federal Visionists (e.g., A Joint Federal Vision Profession) deny a central premise of the Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace: that there is, as Witisus said, a “double mode of communion” in the visible covenant community. Our Baptist friends typically struggle with this too. The Reformed, however, confess that Judas only and ever had an external relation to the covenant of grace. The Federal Visionists deny this explicitly: “The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.” They have essentially adopted the Remonstrant and Lutheran view that one can be regenerated, united to Christ, and yet fall away.
In contrast, the Reformed churches offer the comfort of the promises of the covenant of grace to believers not on the basis of the subjective condition of their covenant children (e.g., regeneration or faith), nor on the basis of a sacerdotal view of baptism (contra the Romanists, the Lutherans, and the Federal Visionists) but on the objective basis of the divine promise: “I will be a God to you and to your children.” The Synods of Dort and Utrecht were well aware of the various theories that had been propounded by various theologians but quite wisely they did not impose those theories on the churches. We should follow their example and be as circumspect as they were.
1. ἥτις ἐστὶν ἐκκλησία θεοῦ ζῶντος, στῦλος καὶ ἑδραίωμα τῆς ἀληθείας—the ESV has “the church” but “a pillar and buttress.” This is odd. If we are to translate ἐκκλησία with an article, “the church,” and we should and if στῦλος is epexegetical of ἐκκλησία, and it is then it too should be translated as definite and not indefinite.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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- “‘Magic and Noise:’ Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America,” in eds. R. Scott Clark and Joel E. Kim Always Reformed: Essays in Honor of W. Robert Godfrey (Escondido: Westminster Seminary California, 2010), 74–91. (Apple Books version)
- A Curriculum For Those Wrestling Through Covenant Theology And Infant Baptism
- The Double Mode of Communion
- Resources On The Federal Vision Theology
- How Should A Lay Christian Learn Theology?
- Does The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed Require Baptismal Regeneration?
- Geneva Catechism (1545) Contra Baptismal Regeneration
- William Perkins on Baptismal Regeneration
- John Owen on Constantinianism, Baptismal Regeneration, and Apostasy
- The Reformed Churches Do Not Confess Baptismal Union With Christ
- Calvin: We Need To Distinguish Between The Internal And The External Relation To The Covenant Of Grace
- Tracing The Paradigm Shift: Two Ways Of Being In The Covenant Of Grace
- Three Ways of Relating to the One Covenant of Grace
- Resources On The Twofold Kingdom