Saturday, July 11, 2015

"A simple argument for credobaptism"

I'm going to comment on this post:

Among other things, Bnonn has some interesting things to say about Acts 2:38-39, which is a staple paedobaptist prooftext. However, I prefer to focus on his central argument, which he states thusly:

There are people who have wanted me to write a series on this issue. I’m afraid I am going to disappoint them; I believe the matter of who we should baptize is fundamentally a very simple one; far too many words have been wasted complicating it; thus I am going to focus quite relentlessly on the key question which decides the outcome of all the others. 
Here it is: 
Who is a member of the new covenant? 
This is what it all boils down to, because there is one overriding axiom with which all Christians—or all that I’ve spoken with and read on this matter—agree: 
The sign of a covenant should only be given to members of that covenant. 
If you disagree with this axiom there is little I can say to you; but if you agree with it, then there is little else we need to worry about. The question of what continuities and discontinuities exist between the various old covenants and the new one, between circumcision and baptism, and so on, are all very interesting, but completely beside the point. The question is as simple as determining the qualifications for membership in the new covenant, and giving the sign of that covenant—baptism—to only those people who qualify. 
Is that believers only? Or do infants qualify too? 
[Quotes] Jeremiah 31:31-34

Seems to me that there are two basic problems with his "simple" argument:

1. What kind of membership does baptism signify? He fails to register the following distinction:

i) membership in the new covenant

ii) membership in the new covenant community

His argument requires baptism to signify the (i) former kind of membership. But that, in turn, requires him to either exclude the (ii) second kind of membership from his definition, or show that (i) and (ii) are conterminous. So he needs to resolve that crucial equivocation. 

Even if he could do one of those two things, that goes beyond his original argument. That necessitates a subsidiary argument. 

2. Apropos (1), if baptism is a sign, then to whom or for whom is it a sign? Presumably, it's not a sign for God's benefit. God knows the status of the individual apart from the sign. 

So it's either a sign to/for the baptized Christian, and/or the religious community to which he belongs. It marks him out as a member of the religious community. One of their own. 

If so, that suggests baptism is a sign of membership in the covenant community (i.e. the church). 

3. Apropos (2), this is reinforced by the nature of the sign. Unlike circumcision, which is a permanent physical sign that's verifiable by visual inspection (if need be), baptism leaves no enduring trace evidence. The sign is the baptismal ceremony, and not the result of a ritual action (unlike circumcision). The only evidence would be the recollection of witnesses to the ceremony. And that, once again, singles out the communal nature of the sign. 

4. On the face of it, membership in the covenant community needn't necessarily be equivalent to membership in the covenant itself. Just in general, there are differing degrees and conditions of social affiliation, depending on the type of society or community under review. In principle, the conditions for membership in the covenant community might be looser than the conditions for membership in the covenant itself. Bnonn has a very strict criterion for new covenant membership: regeneration.

However, God made humans social creatures. It's generally families that attend church. At the very least, church attendance and family religion typically overlap. Although some family members may skip church, a person who attends church is usually related to one or more other people who attend the same church. Even in the case of widows or widowers, they used to attend that church with their spouse. Likewise, they used to take their kids to church, until their kids grew up and moved elsewhere. 

Now, I've said "attendance" rather than membership to avoid prejudicial terminology. But given the familial structure of core human relationships and human behavior, it seems artificial to insist that membership in the covenant community is restricted to membership in the covenant itself. And, in any case, if that's what Bnonn's position requires, then the onus is on him to supply a supporting argument.  

I don't think a paedobaptist has to prove that baptism is not a sign of membership in the covenant. Rather, unless Bnonn can prove that baptism is not a sign of membership in the covenant community (or else prove that membership in the covenant and the covenant community are coextensive), his argument fails.

5. In addition, isn't the relationship between the sign and the significate somewhat loose? On the one hand, some people possess what the sign signifies without possessing the sign; on the other hand, some people possess the sign without possessing what the sign signifies. So it's hard to see why one requires the other–not to mention that membership in the covenant (as Bnonn defines it) is, in any event, an unverifiable condition. 

6. A second basic problem with his argument is that it generates a dilemma. Presumably, Bnonn admits that some children below the age of reason already meet the condition of membership in the covenant. Some of them are elect/regenerate. That means whichever position you take carries tradeoffs:

i) On the one hand, paedobaptists will confer the sign on some individuals who aren't members of the covenant. 

ii) On the other hand, credobaptists will fail to confer the sign on some individuals who are members of the covenant.

Put another way, if you baptize every baby, regenerate and unregenerate (or elect and reprobate) alike, then this ensures that you confer the sign on the subset of babies who are, indeed, members of the covenant. Doing more than's necessary is a way of ensuring that you don't miss those who definitely qualify. 

Conversely, if you decline to baptize anyone under the age of reason, then you miss all those who do qualify. 

Now, it might be argued that that's a case of postponing baptism until they reach the age at which they can give a credible profession of faith.

However, in NT times, as well as most of church history, not to mention parts of the Third World today, where infant mortality is high, baptism delayed is tantamount to baptism denied. In many cases it's now or never.  

I'm not suggesting that's a catastrophic loss to the child. I don't think baptism is a prerequisite for salvation. I don't even think it confers special graces. I'm just considering the logic of Bnonn's position. 


  1. Steve: great riposte. I read the original post; would you please comment upon the "newness" of the New Covenant, as this was discussed at length in the original? Thanks.

  2. The passage does not teach that the covenant is only made with those who posses belief. The promise of Jeremiah 31 is a promise of greater fidelity (verse 32), greater empowerment (verse 34), and a greater depth of knowledge (verse 34). It does not address the qualification for covenant entrance. Verse 34 does not speak to the question of with whom the covenant will be established. It merely teaches that those with whom the covenant will be established will indeed “know the Lord.” Before considering what it means in that context to “know the Lord” we must first appreciate that verse does not teach us that the covenant will be made only with true believers after they believe. At the very least, if Baptists were correct, then the knowledge of the Lord would not be a blessing of the covenant but rather something that first must be obtained in order to enter into the covenant! Moreover, the verse cannot possibly exclude infants from covenant entrance who will grow up to “know the Lord” because the verse does not imply a change in qualifications for covenant entrance, but rather it speaks to the increase of blessings that will be received by those with whom God establishes the New Covenant.

    Since the Old Covenant was established with the elect alone, we may safely say that a saving knowledge was granted to all with whom God established the Old Covenant, barring no early deaths that would preclude saving knowledge. Consequently, the verse must be speaking to the quality and depth of that saving knowledge under the newer economy as opposed to the mere possession of it, which all those with whom God established the Old Covenant would have received. Not surprisingly, that is what we see in the New Covenant. Under the New Covenant with the establishment of the priesthood of all believers, through the revelation of Christ, the completed Canon and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – we all “know the Lord”(!) in a manner vastly different than that under the old economy. In summary, Jeremiah 31 may not be used to defend a more stringent entrance examination for covenant privileges simply because it does not imply anything more than increase of blessings. Thankfully the glory of the New Covenant is not to be found in the exclusion of infants!

    1. seems the last part of Jeremiah 31:34 - verse 34, "I will forgive their iniquity and their sin I will remember no more" - point to those who are in the new covenant are believers, for only true believers who have repented and trusted/believed in Christ and His once for all time atonement will have their sins forgiven. Is that not also the point of Hebrews 8-10 and the once for all atonement? Does not the faith chapter of Hebrews 11 point to faith in the atonement?

      The distinction between those who are in the New Covenant and those who are in the New Covenant community is the same distinction between the invisible church (true regenerated believers) and the visible church. Tertullian is an early example of exhorting to wait on baptism until the person is old enough to understand, repent, believe, and so know Christ. I think he was right.

      Giving infants the sign and seal of the New Covenant seems like a contradiction to justification by faith alone.

      The fact that Colossians 2:11-12 says, "by faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead" shows us that a person who is circumcised on the inside with a new heart, has been baptized by the Spirit of God into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13) and is one who wants to be baptized in water as a symbol of that reality, and usually is baptized, because they have believed in Christ. It just does not pass the smell test to say that faith in Colossians 2:12 is the faith of the believing parents.

      " greater fidelity, greater empowerment, greater knowledge" - point to a new covenant heart that is able to be faithful, have power over sins (Ezekiel 36:26-27 - "I will give them a new heart" and "I will cause them to walk in My statues"), and truly know the Lord in a personal way (Paul says he presses on to keep on knowing the Lord deeper - Philippians 3:7-14).

    2. Keep in mind that my post wasn't a general defense of paedobaptism or a general critique of credobaptism. Rather, it was narrowly targeted at Bnonn's first-strike argument. Certainly Baptists have a variety of arguments for their position.

      I don't see how baptizing babies contradicts sola fide. That would only follow if you subscribe to baptismal justification.

  3. Paedocommunion...yes or no?

  4. Because infants cannot discern the Lord's body and/or examine themselves?

  5. I'd say the Supper is a covenant renewal meal, so on that basis alone it's not for children. The 1 Cor. 11 warning you reference I'd call secondary though it certainly adds force to the practice.

  6. One thing I have never understood is how someone who was baptized as a baby, and then later truly does repent and believe in Christ at some point as a child, whether 5 or 8 or 13 or 16, or 25, etc. - how do they experience the fullness of passages that speak of their baptism into Christ, when they cannot remember that enriching experience of first repenting, having faith in Christ, and then experiencing water baptism, testifying before witnesses, and being emersed into water and raised up as "dying to sin and being raised to walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:1-7) Seems like they cannot enjoy the fullness of the Romans 6 passage in remembering that, and so being a help in growing in holiness and power over sin.

    1. Well, my own position is eclectic. I agree with Anabaptists that rebaptism is permissible. If a Christian who was baptized as an infant feels he missed out, if it's something he wants to have done as an expression of his own faith, rather than something done on his behalf, when he was too young to make that decision for himself, I don't object to his undergoing a second baptism.

      The traditional objection to rebaptism is based on the Catholic view that a "valid" baptism changes the soul. Confers an "indelible mark" on the soul. But if you deny that, then in principle, repeated baptism is permissible.

  7. In all the debates of Dr. White vs. the Presbyterian brothers - Robert Strimple with Gary Johnson, Bill Shishko, and Gregg Strawbridge (twice), (I followed all of them and have listened to all of those 4) I am still convinced that Dr. White was right and the credo/disciple/believer's baptism is the Biblical position.

    The conservative Presbyterians do the best job of teaching their children as they are growing and making it clear that infant baptism does not justify or cause the infant to be regenerated. But Dr. White pointed out that Calvin was the first in history to argue for the "entry into the covenant community" kind of infant baptism. Before, in history, it was justified because they believed in baptismal regeneration and that it would take away original sin and guilt, so that in case they died in infancy, they would be saved. The sacralism (unity of church and state) was the issue - and look at the nominalism that that along with infant baptism produces.
    Most of the other infant baptism churches are heretical (Roman Catholicism) or liberal / heretical (many Lutheran churches, Anglican, Episcopal, United Methodists, PCUSA). (there are exceptions within each of those denominations, but it seems to be a generally true fact.)

  8. If baptism is a sign and seal, one should not put the seal on something, unless there is some kind of evidence that the internal contents are on the inside. We would not put the seal on an empty jar or a jar that had dung it in.
    The order is important when sealing something.

    1. That logic cuts against mass circumcision.

    2. Hence, the difference in the Old covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism. Difference between Israel vs. the church.

    3. No, Ken, you stated a general principle. Your argument was based on the nature of a "sign and seal." That's something both covenants have in common, rather than a differential factor. You argued that, as a matter of principle, if something is a sign and seal, then one should not put the seal on something, unless there is some kind of evidence that the internal contents are on the inside. Baptism is just a special case of that general category. So is circumcision. So your response is inconsistent with your original argument.

    4. I see what you are saying.

      Romans 4:9-11 is where the Scriptures call circumcision a sign and a seal (is it called a "seal" in the OT ? I know it is called a sign of the covenant in the OT (Genesis 17:11), but I have not researched and I don't remember it being called a "seal" in the OT - but for Abraham- the faith came first and then the sign and seal were applied and the apostle is arguing the issue of justification by faith alone (apart from works, ceremonies, circumcision) and the circumcision came afterward. The seal makes since for him, since he was uncircumcised when he believed, but to me, it doesn't make sense for infants, but you are right, that in the OT it was commanded for all infant males of Israel, etc. - I can see that a "sign" would be like a prophesy of future faith, but the seal imagery for infants does not make sense to me, even though God did command it for them.

      Romans 4:9-11:
      9 "Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them,

      Seems like the argument that Paul is making is that the faith came first (in Abraham) as an adult and circumcision came afterward, and in that sense it was a seal.

      But, since God commanded it for all males of Israel, the point I was trying to make does not make sense for children. You are correct in that. That is why it seems to me that the change from the OT to the New Covenant is just that - the argument of Paul's in Romans 4 is about justification by faith alone, that faith comes before circumcision (therefore faith has to come first, before baptism, in the New covenant also); before works, etc. And Colossians 2:11-12 speaks of "by faith in the working of God", which is why infant baptism does not make sense to me. Later in the OT, in Deut. and Jeremiah, the Lord says, "circumcise your hearts and not your foreskins", pointing to the weakness of putting the external before the internal change. (Deut. 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4)

  9. Steve,

    When serving on a Reformed session someone wanted to be rebaptized. I was open to the idea as a matter of conscience. If he considered the EO administration of his baptism invalid because he couldn't consider on evangelical grounds the EO a church, then I would have gone along. After much discussion I was able to tease out that his objection was due to his parents's raising of him in a purely secular household and that he did consider his former comminion a church. His objection was he felt he wasn't raised in a Christian home, which he thought invalidated his baptism. Accordingly, I built a case that he should be instructed in his baptism rather than rebaptized. He was glad for idea.

    Very possibly I'd want to apply this instruction principle to a person who thought he missed out. I'd want to tesse out whether he was baptistic, in which case I'd want him to interact with an argument for paedobaltism. Maybe he should be going to a baptist church. Or maybe he might end up seeing the relevance of the claim upon him through infant baptism. If he acknowledged the validity and meaning of infant baptism, I'd hope he wouldn't still think he missed out on something... Thoughts?

    1. Well, a church officer has different responsibilities, since it depends on what's permissible or impermissible according to denominational policy.

      For instance, Robert Strimple thinks there's Biblical warrant for the office of deaconess. And that's something he's free to advocate. But he couldn't ordain a woman to that office, contrary to denominational policy.

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  11. Agreed. I should have left the session details out. They weren't relevant. My point is that among the people who feel they've missed out can be people who believe infant baptism is valid. Such a one might benefit from instruction in his baotism rather than being rebaptized and in turn prefer the instruction over a second administration of the rite. I suspect you were referring these sorts, ones who accept the validity of infant baptism though feel they missed out. In any case, no big deal...

  12. Steve how then do you view and respond to the baptist arguments in Hebrews 8 that all members of the new covenant will know The Lord. Is your primary argument that infants can have the sign without the reality?

    1. i) To begin with, I wasn't mounting a case for my own position. Rather, I was responding to someone else's argument for their position. Responding to them on their own terms. The approach is very different than if I were starting from scratch.

      ii) Actually, I gave two primary arguments.

      iii) I don't object to the claim that all members of the new covenant will know the Lord.

      Mind you, we need to distinguish between biblical usage and theological usage. Is the new covenant synonymous with the covenant of grace? By definition, all members of the covenant of grace are regenerate. By contrast, the new covenant has externals in which anyone can participate–whether or not they should.

      The "new covenant" designates a historic biblical covenant. By contrast, the "covenant of grace" is a theological construct, based on a common denominator shared by more than one historic biblical covenant. It abstracts a core element from each.

      iv) Both sides of the creo/paedobaptist debate think that individuals can have a sacramental sign without the reality. Although neither side intends to confer the sign on unsuitable candidates, that's an inevitable result of their respective policies. Credobaptists confer the ordinance on candidates *presumed* to be regenerate, even though they know in advance that some presumptively regenerate candidates are, in fact, unregenerate. They just don't know which are which. So it ends up being somewhat indiscriminate.

      Same is true with respect to the eucharist. That's administered to professing Christians. In the nature of the case, that means a fair percentage of communicants are receiving the sign without the reality.

      That's hardly an anomalous position. And to some extent it's unavoidable. Our screening process is, at best, very fallible. It's hard to strike the right balance between too exclusive and too inclusive. If you're too restrictive, you will exclude some people you ought to include. If you're too permissive, you will include some people you ought to exclude.

      Since the sign and the reality are two different things, it's not surprising that these are separable in principle and practice.

  13. Peter,

    If I may, the old was established only with the elect - the true seed - the children of promise. We can prove this from Gen 17 and it's confirmed in Rom 9 and Gal 3. Yet it was to be administered to a larger group. The promise was always to those who would eventually know the Lord. Therefore, whatever Jer 31 means, it cannot undermine that... If "all will know" means more in number or greater depth of knowledge works just fine. Also, that all will know the Lord doesn't mean that the sign may not be applied prior to knowing the Lord. Nor does it require a credible profession must first be made. After all, a credible profession is merely evidence of knowing, but it doesn't prove it without question. And, being born of professing believers is also evidence that such a one will also know the Lord. In sum, that they will know the Lord is a blessing of the covenant and not a prerequisite to be considered a child of promise.

    Thems my thoughts.