Credo-Baptism and Covenant Theology
Any attempt to support credo-baptism from within the framework of Covenant Theology has its own unique set of difficulties with which to contend from the outset. While much has been written in support of credo-baptism, the preponderance of these writings have directed the bulk of their argumentation against the foundational premises of Covenant Theology. If the hermeneutic itself can be discounted, paedo-baptism must necessarily fall with it. This approach affords little help to those of us who are both reformed and baptistic. Does the general (although not ubiquitous) dearth of writings in support of credo-baptism within a Covenant-framework indicate a necessary antithesis between the two doctrines? We would argue that it does not; but in so arguing, we acknowledge the necessity to demonstrate that it does not. Before we address the question at hand, therefore, we will honestly address the historical solidity and continuity of paedo-baptism within reformed thinking, as well as the scriptural bases for the historic position. Only then will we attempt to demonstrate that the scriptures themselves, when interpreted with a Covenantal hermeneutic, ought to lead the interpreter to an understanding of Baptism as a sign and seal intended only for those who are able to give credible evidence of regeneration.
It takes little historical acumen to recognize that the major reformers themselves, as well as the clear majority of influential theologians who would consider themselves to be heirs of the doctrines of the Reformation, subscribed without hesitation to paedo-baptism, often in the most ardent of terms. It would be entirely superfluous to cite Calvin, Luther, Berkhof, Hodge, Warfield, and so on: the list that could be compiled is quite enormous, but the fact is so universally recognized as to be something of a non-issue. What must also be recognized, in spite of the contrary claims of certain Baptist and other credo-baptist historians, is that the earliest records we have of the post-apostolic church fathers indicate an almost universal tradition of infant baptism which must have been quite early. At least by the time of Tertullian it had a nearly unexceptionable adherence, (although Tertullian himself argued against it, but on largely erroneous grounds(1)). We have some slight indication from the early second century Didache that infant baptism may not have been practiced in the apostolic era due to the fact that instructions for baptism demanded that the one to be baptized fast for one to two days prior to the baptism, which would be quite impossible for infants(2). However, this evidence is not at all conclusive. At the least we must acknowledge an early and widespread acceptance of infant baptism, with a lack of conclusive historical evidence for the first century.
This early and persistent tradition is understandable as a reasonable attempt to maintain a necessary continuity between the doctrines and practices of the Old and New Testament covenant communities. We certainly must acknowledge that the first century church saw themselves as thetrue heirs and successors of the Old Testament church. After all, did not Jesus himself proclaim, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.”?(3) And did not the apostles take great pains to demonstrate that their practice and doctrine was in direct continuity with that of the holy men of old?(4) Did not, moreover, the apostle Paul explain in unmistakable terms that Christian baptism was “the circumcision made without hands,” that is, “the circumcision of Christ”?(5) And if circumcision in the Old Testament signified the removal of the flesh and the entering into the covenant community, then is it not reasonable to assume that Christian baptism, signifying essentially the same realities, ought to be observed with the same circumstantial characteristics, to as great a degree as possible? In other words, would it not be an easy supposition for an early church with a very real sense of being the true children and heirs of Abraham to follow the covenant rituals in much the same way as the true children of Abraham before them?
As much as we would like to assume this purity of motives at the beginnings of the tradition of paedo-baptism, we are nevertheless confronted with an undeniable fact that, very soon the custom had lost these basically scriptural designs, and retained only the crudest mysticism and superstition. At least as early as the writing of The Recognitions of Clement, baptism was conceived of as a mystical force with the power to expel demons ingested through meat sacrificed to idols, to quench the flame of sin that fiery demons have breathed into a man, and so on.(6) No doubt Augustine retained some of these superstitious understandings, particularly the belief still in vogue among Catholics today that baptism washes away original sin(7); and even Luther seemed unable to rid himself entirely of them(8). However, the Reformation, and Luther’s legacy in particular, was to be a driving force back to the foundational authority of the scriptures alone for the formulation of Christian beliefs and practices. When this movement had grown to full maturity, the result would be a multitude of exegetically competent and spiritually passionate men who would find within the pages of scriptures ample evidence for retaining the old practice of paedo-baptism, although shorn of its superstitious trappings. It is with the biblical bases of this later reformed dogma that we must above all interact.
The reformed case for infant baptism is basically a derived doctrine. Scriptures contain no explicit instructions to baptize the infant children of adult believers, although neither do they contain any clear command not to. The typical reformed case for baptism, therefore, in light of biblical silence on the topic, takes the shape of a syllogism: the covenant made with Abraham is still in effect among believers today(9); the symbolic entrance into the covenant community in the Old Testament took place at infancy(10); in the absence of any contrary evidence, therefore, the symbolic entrance into the Abrahamic covenant community today should take place in infancy. Given the additional information that baptism is described to us as “the circumcision of Christ”(11) (i.e. the symbolic entrance into the covenant community), the premise becomes, baptism should take place in infancy. Since the circumstantial change of entrance into the covenant inheres in the philosophy of credo-baptism (according to this basic understanding of scriptures), the burden of proof in the absence of clear scriptural teaching is on the credo-baptist to demonstrate convincing reasons for the change. Furthermore, they tell us, if even in the old, imperfect covenant the children were given the covenant privileges, it is scarcely reasonable that, in these days of more perfect fulfillment, the children would be stripped of the rights they once had to be full members of the covenant. These are some weighty concerns, and posited on a basically true understanding of scriptures. To deal with them, let us consider first the nature of the advancement that was prophesied (and effected) for the days of the inaugurated New Covenant.
In order to do this, we need to be clear on what was lacking and therefore needing improvement in the Old Covenant made with Moses. At the inauguration of the covenant on Mt. Sinai, God provided Israel with everything they needed to merit the covenant blessings: he favored them with the full expression of his law, written for all to observe it on tablets of stone; he assured them that, if they followed these precepts, set forth so clearly before there eyes, they would find life and blessing and favor with him. In the Old Covenant they had all the external things that were necessary for covenant blessings. They only lacked the heart to follow that external law. The law, so tangibly placed before them, would prove impossible for them to fulfill. Without getting into the specifics of the expressions of both law and gospel in the Mosaic era, we can at least posit a general summary: the law taught Israel of their need for one who could fulfill it for them. It taught them their need for one to go beyond the fact of writing God’s law on stone, and to write on the human heart. It taught them their need to look for one who, in continuity with the promise made to Abraham, would take the covenant obligations upon himself and merit the covenant blessings for his people. In the days of the Old Covenant, this was what was so conspicuously absent: a fleshy heart, spiritual eyes, true life that could live according to the demands of God’s holy law.
It is in fact on this precise point that the prophets signaled the qualitative difference between the covenant which was coming and the Mosaic Covenant then in force. Jeremiah clearly describes the New Covenant for us in this light:
Behold, the days come, says Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, says Jehovah. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from theleast of them unto the greatest of them, says Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.(12)
To this prophecy Ezekiel lends support as well, proclaiming the promise of God for the days of the New Covenant, namely,
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you shall keep mine ordinances, and do them.(13)
What then is the nature of the benefits promised with regard specifically to the covenant community in the days of the New Covenant? Namely, that what was chiefly external in the Old Covenant was promised to be made internal in the New Covenant. But how exactly are we to understand this change? Can it be that no Israelite in the Old Covenant had a heart upon which God had written his law, spiritual life, or a new nature that desired fellowship with Christ? A simple perusal of the Davidic psalms would suffice to make us certain that this could not be the case. But if the Old Testament saints experienced regeneration and its benefits, how could the prophets be so emphatic on this one point of difference in the covenant that was coming? Whatever else we may come up with, we have to conclude that there was to be some essential difference in the overall purity of the professing covenant membership from the Old Covenant to the New. In other words, there must have been some sense in which Jeremiah and others could call the unregenerate participants in the Old Covenant, which he could not do with respect to the New. This is certainly implied by the fact that the Israelites broke the covenant due to the absence of God’s law in their heart. If they broke it, they must have been in some sense participants in it.
Indeed, all of Israel was included in a participatory sense in the Old Covenant. But mere formal inclusion was not enough. This was perhaps the ultimate point that unregenerate covenant Israel of the old era was designed to display. Israel as a nation was a sort of tangible picture book of coming spiritual realities, and, more than that, a blatantly obvious testimony to the inability of man to perform even the slightest necessary element of a conditional covenant. The remnant of true Israel alone partook of the actual spiritual realities which those pictures held forth, and kept the spirit of the law by virtue of the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit. But the days were coming in which a dramatic change was to be effected.
In what ways could the new covenant community be the heirs of Abraham, in full continuity with the old, and yet come fully to terms with the dramatic change that had been prophesied? From the days of John the Baptist, and throughout the writings of the New Testament, the answer becomes apparent. The true Israel, and Abraham’s true children, were in actuality to be those who were not so externally, but those who had participated in the spiritual realities of Abraham. Not those who were physically born to Abraham, but those who were spiritually born to him, were his genuine children and heirs.(14) Due to this prophesied change (the substitution of the mere shadows for the spiritual realities they prefigured, so that, if one had not experienced them he was not truly a member of the New Covenant), it would be a reasonable assumption that entrance into the New Covenant would be on the occasion of spiritual birth, i.e. regeneration, and not physical birth. Certainly this must be the case in actuality, and ought to be to as great a degree as possible in formal recognition. This is in fact the point of Christ’s discourse with Nicodemus. Being born physically was no longer sufficient for a man to lay claim to covenant participation. Those who did not do the things which Abraham did could not claim to be his children or his heirs(15). The only ones who could now claim to be citizens of the long-prophesied kingdom were not those who were physically born into it, but those who were born again. In the words of Christ, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”(16)
In the picture-book covenant of physical Israel, the official inauguration into the external covenant community took place immediately after birth, before its subject had given any indication of internal genuineness. However, to be consistent with the prophetic expectation of the New Covenant as a covenant dominated by internal genuineness, and in fulfillment of the old type of physical birth inaugurating one into an external covenant, it was necessary for spiritual birth to be the deciding factor for inauguration into a spiritual covenant. Circumcision followed physical birth, and signified the entrance into the covenant of laws on tablets of stone; baptism follows spiritual birth, and signifies the entrance into the covenant of God’s law written on hearts.
What we are arguing is that credo-baptism alone does justice to the prophetic expectation for the New Covenant, coupled with the teachings of John, Jesus, and the apostles. Seen in this light, the further evidence of the unexceptionable linking of the command to be baptized with the prior command to repent is somewhat more compelling. Each individual command is indeed addressed to unbelieving adults; but given the nature of the New Covenant, the situation could not have been at all otherwise: in order to be eligible for the sign of inauguration into the New Covenant, one must give evidence of spiritual life, i.e. he must repent. As it is impossible for infants to display such evidence, it is manifestly evident that no commands to be baptized would have been issued to infants. What is so striking, therefore, is not that we find the command to repent and be baptized issued only to adults, but that we find nowhere the accompanying command for those repentant adults to have their children baptized with them. Acts 2:38,39 is sometimes used this way, but without warrant: the command to be baptized is preceded by a command to repent, which would be impossible in the case of infants; and what was said to be for the parents and children was not the sign of baptism, nor yet the entrance into the covenant, but rather the condition prophesied by the prophet Joel that whoever should call upon the name of the Lord would be saved. Furthermore, the extension of this promise to the whole world (you, your children, and those who are afar off) was further qualified, so as to make certain that Peter was not speaking of all men without exception (or without evidence of God’s calling), but rather of all classes of men, from each of which would be some who would believe – hence the qualification, “even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”(17)
Perhaps the most compelling reason to understand baptism in this way comes from a close examination of Colossians 2, the passage which most clearly links the nature of baptism in this covenant with circumcision in the Old. Yes, baptism corresponds to circumcision: but in what essential point? Not in that of the temporal circumstances surrounding its administration, but in the vital reality which both were intended to convey – the putting away of the flesh. And in the New Covenant, this putting away of the flesh is viewed as an actual reality accompanying the baptism of faith. So that what is here said to accompany baptism – the putting off of body of the flesh by being buried with Christ, and the being raised up together with him – is in the same passage made contingent upon faith: it is a being raised up with him through faith in the effectual power of the one who raised Christ from the dead. What is accomplished symbolically through baptism is accomplished instrumentally through faith: and both of these qualitatively different means are linked together temporally, at the occasion of baptism.
Tertullian. “On Repentance.” in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson), Vol. 3, p. 662. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
Cf. also Tertullian. “On Baptism.” in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson), Vol. 3, pp. 677-678. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
“The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson), Vol. 7, p. 379. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
“Recognitions of Clement.”in Ante-Nicene Fathers (Eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson), Vol. 8, p. 116; 185. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
Augustine. “On Continence.” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Ed. Philip Schaff), Vol. 3, p. 386. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
As suggested by Louis Berkhof in Systematic Theology, p. 627. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000.