A RESPONSE TO THE ARGUMENTS FOR “COVENANT CHILD BAPTISM”
By Tom Chantry
Last week the Aquila Report published an article by Pastor Jason Van Bemmel of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church entitled “15 Arguments in Favor of Covenant Child Baptism.” The article was structured as ten arguments regarding subject (but with an eleventh “bonus” argument), and five more regarding mode.
This helpful list sumarizes every major Presbyterian and Reformed argument on baptism in one place, which is surprisingly rare. Various arguments have been advanced over the years, and not all paedobaptists agree with every argument. A list of arguments is therefore helpful for a number of reasons.
I have three aims in this response. First, for the benefit of our paedobaptist brethren, I want to provide them with as helpful a summary of our thoughts about their arguments as Van Bemmel provided us of their arguments. Secondly, for the benefit of anyone struggling through these issues, I want to point in another direction. Nothing Van Bemmel stated is new (he doesn’t claim that it is) and no one should imagine that Baptists and Presbyterians haven’t been having this discussion for years.
But most importantly, I want to respond to Van Bemmel’s plea for unity. I have every reason to believe that he means what he says, but his appeal misfires rather badly. In fact, I would be quite curious to know what he means when he says he was “a staunch Reformed Baptist.” Does he know what that term means? (I am not being sarcastic; many simply do not know.) I find that assertion doubtful, given his article. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it certainly seems that his appeal is made to a group of people whose theology and practice he never truly understood.
Assertion of Unity
First, I will stipulate what Van Bemmel calls our common ground, with one clarification. He summarizes this in three points, to which I need not respond individually:
- Water baptism does not save anyone.
- Many people are baptized who are not saved.
- You must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved.
*Each of the bold-face and numbered statements in this post are quotes from Van Bemmel’s article.
Of course I agree with all of that, and further, I agree that the best Presbyterians believe and practice the same. That said, there has been an epidemic in recent decades of Presbyterians who create considerable confusion around precisely these things. One can argue that Federal Visionists are not true Presbyterians, but they continue to receive cover in some Presbyterian communions.
Nevertheless, on the basis of these three assertions we may assume that Van Bemmel is a true Presbyterian of the old sort. That is helpful; we should be able to have a reasonable discussion on that basis.
Arguments for Infant Baptism
That said, allow me to react very briefly to Van Bemmel’s arguments. Remember, his article was a summary, not a thorough treatment of the paedobaptist position. Likewise, my response will be a summary and not a thorough treatment.
- Baptism is the initiation into the covenant community and the children of believers have always been included in the covenant community.
I would not class this as an argument per se, but as the summary of Presbyterian conclusions from covenant theology. Baptists question exactly what our Presbyterian brethren mean when they talk about the “covenant community.” Are we talking about the actual “community” which was the nation of Israel, of which Paul says, “not all who are descended from Israel are of Israel”? Or are we talking about the family of Abraham, which Jesus says could be recreated from rocks and of which Paul says is made up of those with faith? There is actually considerable New Testament evidence that one does not enter the “covenant community” by birth.
The problem with this conclusion is that it fails to account for all the texts which appear to insist that in the New Covenant, membership in covenant is predicated upon faith. That is what was predicted by Jeremiah, a prediction which the writer to the Hebrews considers fulfilled in the age of Christ. “It’s always been this way” seems to us a pretty thin argument when God himself has explained that things are going to change.
- Circumcision in the Old Covenant served the same function as baptism in the New.
The suggestion that circumcision and baptism “serve the same function” is simplistic and confusing in light of how the New Testament itself describes the former. We would agree that circumcision was not carried over from the Old Covenant and that it now avails nothing. It would be wise, then, to think of it in typical terms. If it is a type (a prefigurement) of a New Testament reality, then it ought to have an antitype (a thing typified or prefigured).
What, then, is the antitype to circumcision? Is it baptism? Actually, it appears that circumcision points not to a new ritual, but to a change within the heart. Old Covenant circumcision was a sign made on the flesh, specifically on the reproductive organ, but it was taken away! Membership in the New Covenant community requires circumcision of the inward man – a mark made not by hands but by the Spirit of God. It is insufficient to say that baptism and circumcision “serve the same function” as baptism. Circumcision did represent covenant membership, but in a manner directly related to procreation, while baptism is an entirely distinct figure, representing both washing and participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. Both these are applied by the Spirit’s influence, not by mere descent from a believing parent.
- When Jesus gave the Great Commission, He did not tell us to baptize only disciples but to make disciples by baptizing and teaching.
This is an interesting interpretation, but I wonder whether it is believed or practiced by any Presbyterian? Van Bemmel explains, “Jesus gives one command: “make disciples” or “disciple.” He gives us two means for carrying out this command: Baptizing, which identified someone as belonging to God’s people, and teaching, which builds them up in the knowledge of a disciple.” So in the PCA, do you baptize unbelieving adults as a means to their discipleship? It won’t do to say that unbelieving adults wouldn’t consent to baptism; how many of them try to take communion? The fact is that Presbyterians and Baptists alike require a profession of faith except in the case of infants. Van Bemmel makes this verse say more than he intends.
- When Peter spoke at Pentecost, he repeated the covenant promise “for you and your children.”
You’re misquoting that verse? Again?
I’ve told my Baptists friends who study among Presbyterians that the most important thing to do is to memorize the words “and to all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” That way you can insert it quickly into the conversation whenever the paedobaptist selectively quotes from Acts 2:38-39. It may be common to speak only about children in this verse, but unfortunately there is more to it. Various opinions exist about those who are “far off,” but none of them are helpful to paedobaptism. The last phrase about calling is particularly vexing. It could be argued that this is the most anti-paedobaptist verse in all Scripture. The “promise” is the reception of the Spirit, and the condition for it is individual (“every one of you”) repentance.
Frankly, the strongest evidence that Baptists are correct on this question is the propensity of our Presbyterian friends – who are noted for their careful exegesis and systematizing skills in other areas – to cherry-pick not verses, but fragments of verses which seem to say what they want them to say.
- Jesus welcomed the little children (infants) and said the kingdom of heaven belonged to them.
The passage further tells us that Jesus “laid hands on them and went away” and if our Presbyterian friends would do likewise we would make no argument! To find baptism in this story is an amazing leap. What, exactly, did our Lord mean about the kingdom of heaven? To answer that, we need to notice that in the previous chapter he illustrated humility to his disciples by holding a small child who was utterly dependent on the adults around him. The problem with this lesson for paedobaptists is that Jesus’ point could be made equally well with a covenant child or a non-covenant child – both demonstrate humble dependence. Are all infants to be baptized, regardless of parentage?
The “blessing” passages are applied in two ways. Some will argue that when Jesus said the kingdom of heaven belongs to children, he means that covenant children are in the kingdom of heaven. I will assume that Van Bemmel, who opened his article by affirming that many baptized people are not saved, would not say this. Others will merely say that infants might be saved. No Baptist in history has ever disputed this.
- Whenever a convert in the Book of Acts was part of a household, the whole household was baptized.
“Whenever”? Of the seventy-odd references to Baptism in the New Testament, five mention households; were all the others old bachelors? Van Bemmel expresses his argument in typical fashion, but the wording is horribly misleading. A more accurate statement would be: “Whenever the Apostles preached to an entire household, and whenever the entire household believed, and whenever the entire household manifested the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the whole household was baptized.” That covers all four household passages in Acts; the fifth is in I Corinthians and provides no specific information.
Actually, as a Baptist, I practice biblical household baptism! I once, for instance, baptized the household of Gary, and unlike my Presbyterian brothers, I did so in accordance with the record of Acts. I preached to the entire household of Gary, and when God granted the entire household of Gary faith, the entire household of Gary manifested the graces of the Holy Spirit. As they did so, I baptized them!
Attempts to discover infants in these households inevitably fail. In every case, the presence of infants too young to express faith is either unlikely or impossible. Someone will answer, “But these passages demonstrate that God typically works through families.” No Baptist in history has ever disputed that, either.
- When Paul wrote letters to churches, he included under-age children in his instructions “to the saints.”
I’m not certain what Van Bemmel means by the category of “under-age children.” Baptists regularly baptize persons too young to vote or even drive. The question to be asked is this: to whom was Paul speaking? He instructed children to obey “in the Lord.” Clearly his intended audience was a group of children old enough to listen to his preaching and to believe it. He certainly intended for those who believed to understand how to behave “in the Lord.” Perhaps he also wanted others to recognize that they could never obey properly unless they were “in the Lord” (unless we imagine that Paul never meant for anyone but “the saints” to hear his letters read). In any case, we cannot reasonably suggest that Paul intended his words for infants.
- Paul declares the children of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever to be “holy” (sanctified).
This is another example of selective quotation of a fragment of a verse which might appear to say what paedobaptists want it to say, but only after it is severed from all context. What Paul actually said was that the unbelieving spouse, along with the children, is sanctified. Clearly “sanctified” needs to be understood in this context. If its application to the child is sufficient to merit baptism, then there is no reason why the unbelieving parent should not also be baptized alongside the child. It is vastly more likely that Paul was addressing the holiness of the believer: whose marriage, spouse, children, etc. were all aspects of a holy life, not shameful demonstrations of unrighteous conduct.
- The warning passages in Hebrews make the most sense when applied to covenant children who walk away from the church and abandon the faith.
Here’s a bit more of Van Bemmel’s argument:
“But who is the author of Hebrews addressing here? He is talking about people who were in the church and who experienced covenant blessings and then walked away and abandoned the faith. Now this can apply to adult converts who make a false profession, but it certainly is a warning against covenant children.”
Baptists reading this should take note: this is a controversial argument among the Presbyterians and Reformed. Van Bemmel appears to be saying that membership in the Covenant of Grace confers not only blessings, but also curses – hardly a universal opinion even within the PCA.
We would merely ask, given that the author’s words “can apply to adult converts who make a false profession,” in what sense is it “certain” that it is also “a warning against covenant children”? We would need to first presume the existence of a category of “covenant child” before we arrived at this verse; nothing here demands it. This isn’t an argument for infant baptism, it is another conclusion drawn from it. Of course, if the New Covenant is made up of those who believe, then false profession would be the only referent of this verse.
- Both Baptists and Presbyterians treat their children as belonging to God and as disciples.
Actually, we do no such thing. This is why, when our children ask if they are Christians, we urge them to believe in Christ, an evangelistic response. The truth is that many Presbyterians act like Baptists in this, not the other way around. What does Van Bemmel mean by “treat their children as belonging to God”? Here’s his list:
- Get baptized.
- Go to church regularly.
- Read and study your Bible.
- Pray regularly.
- Obey God’s commandments.
- Give 10% of your income to God.
- Share your faith with others.
“Just rollin’ around in my income!”
To begin with #6, infants generally have no income. It is an interesting question; when do we begin to teach our children to give to the Lord? However, it is hardly the center of this argument. An even more interesting point is #7. Do Baptists encourage our children to share their faith? Of course we do! Then again, if they have faith to share, they are hardly an argument for infant baptism any more!
This argument therefore comes down to going to church, reading the Bible, praying, and obeying God’s commands. These are all things we would strongly encourage unbelievers to do, also! Some Presbyterians have begun to argue that unbelievers can never pray. They have adopted an extreme position in order to win an argument; even in the Old Covenant the Gentiles were encouraged to pray. Whether or not we teach our children to do these things has no bearing at all on whether we consider them “Christians.”
- The example of Timothy shows us a young man who grew up in the faith. (Though we don’t know for sure when he was baptized.)
I appreciate the honesty; we don’t know when Timothy was baptized. (That’s actually true of every child mentioned in every verse ever to defend paedobaptism, but I digress.) Here’s what we do know: Timothy’s mother and grandmother believed, and they taught him, and he believed also. No Baptist in history has ever denied that godly mothers and grandmothers are a great blessing.
Arguments for Sprinkling or Pouring
Van Bemmel then offers five arguments regarding the mode of baptism. In actuality, the first four are all elements of one argument; he believes that the imagery of baptism is primarily connected with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and that as such, pouring ought to be the preferred mode of baptism.
- John the Baptist made a direct comparison between baptism in water and baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Yes, he did. Scripture also makes a direct comparison between baptism and the washing away of sins, baptism and deliverance from enemies, and baptism and our being united to Christ in his death and resurrection. Each of those figures works a little bit differently. It simply won’t work to pick one and insist that it is the determinative factor in mode. Why would we work from a figurative comparison anyway?
The alternative is to look at the actual historical record given to us about of baptism, in which we are repeatedly told of folks going into and coming out of the water, and even of John relocating to a place with enough water to baptize. Figurative uses of the word “baptize” do not vitiate the Regulative Principle, according to which we follow the prescription of Christ as specifically as we can.
- When God promised His Holy Spirit, He said He would “pour” Him out.
This is probably stating the obvious, but it needs to be said: the Spirit is non-corporeal substance, one can neither be immersed in him or have him poured out in a physical sense. Both outpouring and baptism are figures of speech accommodated to our human understanding of things. We might add that we are to be filled with the Spirit; does that indicate that we should drink the baptismal water? The granting of the Spirit to the church is not a physical reality, yet it is described to us in three physical terms: pour, baptize, and fill. It is a serious mistake to get so caught up in the physical terms of this imagery that we miss the spiritual implication.
- When God did send His Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, He was poured out and came down on the heads of the Apostles.
So, what does God mean when he speaks of the granting of the Spirit in these three metaphors? Each of them speaks to a radical transformation of the church by the coming of the Spirit. He is poured (not dribbled) onto them; they are immersed in him, and they are filled with him. What does all this mean? When the Spirit came to the Apostles, they were entirely transformed by the experience. They went from cringing cowards to bold witnesses in an instant. The Spirit was so poured out on them that they were both immersed in him and filled up by him. All the figurative language taken together makes it sound as though they were drowning in the Spirit!
It is fascinating, then, that we have been diverted from talking about the meaning of Baptism, which certainly represents the outpouring of the Spirit (as well as other things), into talking about mode. If baptism does indeed represent the outpouring of the Spirit, should it not be granted to those who manifest similar graces? The actual granting of the Spirit is not visible; their subsequent transformation is.
- The word “baptizo” thus evidently does not mean “immerse.”
“I’m supposed to do what? You’re kidding me!”
Van Bemmel’s overstatement at this point has become rather silly. Does he mean to suggest that baptizo cannot ever mean “immerse”? This is probably a good point at which to remember that the Greek Orthodox, who probably would rather not plunge babies under water but who are at a disadvantage because they speak Greek, confirm that the meaning of baptizo is to immerse. Did Van Bemmel really mean to question that fact?
He cites Hebrews 6, a passage which has perplexed interpreters and led to a variety of conclusions over the years, and insists that the author can only be talking about the various washings which occurred under the ceremonial law. That is a possible interpretation, but hardly universal. For the sake of argument, let us assume he is correct. Some of these washings, Van Bemmel concedes, were by means of immersion, but not all. The conclusion he draws – that “baptizo” apparently does not mean “immerse” – displays an absence of seriousness concerning the nature and use of language. It is not uncommon to use a particular item from within a class of things to refer to the entire class. “Immersion,” for instance, which can be one form of washing, might be used to speak of washings in a general sense. This does not mean that “immersion” never means “immersion”! We do something similar with the word “bath” in English. “Bathing” may refer to various ways of cleansing; one may bathe by taking a shower. That hardly means that in another context – say the bathroom fixtures aisle at Home Depot – there is no such thing as a bathtub!
By similar reasoning we could say that since “bread” sometimes means “food,” “bread” no longer ever means “bread.” I would suggest that before we start using Cheetos in communion, though, we need to consider the context in which “bread” is used. Reformed pastors are not supposed to be so loose in their interpretation of the biblical instructions for worship.
- Ain’t no way the Apostles immersed 3,000 people individually in just a short time on Pentecost morning.
Van Bemmel lays out a time-table for the Day of Pentecost and claims that the individual immersion of 3,000 persons was impossible. This argument might work if we did not have stories of mass immersions from the ancient church. More to the point, what exactly is it in Acts 2 that requires us to have them all baptized that day? Neither Presbyterians nor Baptists are ever in such a rush; we are not, after all, Campbellites! It is amusing to read someone who just said that because “immerse” sometimes doesn’t mean “immerse,” it might never mean “immerse,” turn around and argue that since they were all added “that day,” they must have all been baptized that day! Does the narrative actually demand this, and if so, does it actually make immersion impossible?
The Plea for Unity
Now to this point, the article is irenic. All that is undone in the so-called “plea for unity. Having made his argument, Van Bemmel descends to a baseless charge of scandalous sin on the part of all Baptists, coupled with a condescending call for repentance. It is so jarring that I quote it at length:
“Believers’ baptism by immersion is a minority position in church history, and yet Baptists will assert that it is the only true baptism and that my children are not baptized. They will claim that I do not perform baptisms, that John Calvin and John Knox and R.C Sproul and Ligon Duncan have never performed baptisms and were not baptized themselves. Then, based on this minority view on baptism, they would deny us membership in their churches and a seat at the Lord’s Table in fellowship with them. That’s wrong. That’s sinful schismatic behavior and, for it, Baptist churches should repent.”
The argumentation here has shifted considerably from earlier attempts at convincing us. I will return to that in a moment, but consider first this needless and unjustified comparison of Baptists to Pentecostals:
“The Baptist view on baptism is similar to classic Pentecostal views on speaking in tongues: Pentecostals go through the Book of Acts and find that when people get saved and receive the Holy Spirit, they speak in tongues. Ignoring the historical context of Acts, they conclude that the sure sign of receiving the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues. Thus, because I do not speak in tongues, I have not received the Holy Spirit. Theirs is a minority position, and I can see where they are getting it from Acts, but I can’t agree with their condemnation of all non-tongues-speakers as deficient in the Holy Spirit.”
We are no longer in the realm of serious, pastoral advice, this smacks of immature internet argumentativeness. Astonishingly, Van Bemmel then concludes with the following:
“We need to accept one another and learn to disagree over points of interpretation, even big and important points of interpretation, without condemning or slandering one another. We’re actually commanded to do so…”
The lack of self-awareness here is breathtaking. Let me make a few observations on Van Bemmel’s call to repentance:
- This call follows a list of unconvincing Scriptural arguments. The arguments for paedobaptism, as Van Bemmel faithfully summarized them, are not sufficient grounds for charging anyone with sin. They are on their face remarkably unconvincing. One moment Van Bemmel is advancing conclusions as though they were arguments, the next he is selectively quoting fragments of verses in order to avoid the difficult bits, and the next he is arguing for a literal interpretation of clearly symbolic uses of language. Such argumentation is unworthy of Reformed ministers. If you wish to charge us with serious sin, first make a coherent argument from Scripture! This simply has not been done.
- This call is not accompanied by any actual attempt to interact with Baptist arguments. The comparison with Pentecostals demonstrates that Van Bemmel, the erstwhile “staunch Reformed Baptist,” has never carefully read any actual Reformed Baptists on the subject. He charges us, by implication, with “ignoring the historical context of Acts.” Look again at Van Bemmel’s gross oversimplification of the household passages and my admittedly brief interaction with them; which of us has “ignored the historical context”? Van Bemmel has not actually dealt with real-world Baptist arguments on baptism, and until someone does, a charge of serious and scandalous sin is perhaps premature.
- This call is in fact based on two new arguments not present in his two lists. Baptists have long assumed that these two arguments summarize the true heart of paedobaptist thinking on the subject; they are the argument of the big names and that of majorities. Of course if we were to conduct theology in that manner, we would all be Roman Catholic.
- This call implies an often-repeated false comparison between the credobaptist and the paedobaptist position. I’ve been through this before, but I’m willing to go through it again. Paedobaptists believe that one may be baptized either as a believer or as the child of a believer, and either by immersion or by pouring. It stands to reason, then, that they would accept an immersed believer as baptized. In fact, their confessional standards require them to do so. Baptists, though, believe that baptism is only the immersion of believers. Can we all understand that this is not a corresponding position to that of the paedobaptists? They can accept immersion because they believe in immersion; why would that mean we are to accept pouring when we do not believe in pouring? They accept the baptism of believers because they believe in the baptism of believers; why would that mean that we are to accept the baptism of infant children when we do not believe in infant baptism? To argue, as Van Bemmel implies and as many paedobaptists have said, that they accept our baptism and that we must therefore accept theirs, is simply illogical.
- This call asserts “facts” about credobaptists which are untrue. Van Bemmel writes, “Then, based on this minority view on baptism, they would deny us membership in their churches and a seat at the Lord’s Table in fellowship with them.” This is simply inaccurate. In actual point of fact, the English Particular Baptists intentionally left baptism untethered to either the Supper or membership in their Confession, thus allowing congregational freedom on these questions. Baptist opinion has varied ever since. If someone wishes to rebuke us for a unified schismatic position, it might be best to at least be aware of very recent discussion of the matter online among us.
- This call presumes “facts” about paedobaptists which are untrue. Van Bemmel implies that paedobaptists willingly admit Christians of baptistic convictions to the Table and to membership. This is certainly true in the PCA, but not everywhere. Here is one example of Reformed rejection of this inclusion. Is Van Bemmel ready to rebuke large swaths of the URC, not to mention most conservative Lutherans, or is his rebuke reserved only for “schismatic” Baptists. (To be entirely clear, I am not suggesting that there is a sin of which anyone must repent, but that is the clear implication of Van Bemmel’s rebuke.)
No one should be surprised that such a call produces no unity within the church. In the end, it amounts to, “Even though we haven’t convinced you, just submit to our opinion anyway.” Would any of our paedobaptist brethren even listen to such an argument if it were made to them on some other issue? “We know you aren’t convinced of Episcopalianism, but you are going to have to report to our bishop anyway so that we can have unity. After all, Presbyterian government is a rejection of the ecclesiology of ‘the vast majority of Christians and churches through the ages.’”
No, I don’t suppose such an appeal would get anywhere. If I thought it would, I would simply end this article by charging everyone who has not subscribed to the 1689 Confession with sin and calling all of you to repentance. I will only add that any of my Presbyterian friends who wish to “repent” of the “sin” of not being Baptist should give me a call. I live pretty close to Lake Michigan, and January is just around the corner, so to paraphrase the Ethiopian: “Look: here is water! Is there any reason why you cannot be baptized?”
I’m game if you are.
Tom Chantry blogs at CHANTRY NOTES.