Infant Baptism: Simplicity in Exegesis

This is the fifth post in a series on Infant Baptism. Check out the first post, Robert’s previous response, or the series index.

Robert responded to my last post here. Rather than rebutting my arguments directly, he offered an alternative interpretation of the passage in Jeremiah that the author of Hebrews quotes, arguing that his interpretation better fits the whole testimony of Scripture. I don’t agree (as I’ll explain below). He also offered some alleged examples of paedobaptism in Scripture and the early church. Finally, he explored the impact of his hereditary view of the New Covenant on children in the church (besides, of course, sprinkling them with water).

In this post, I’ll respond specifically to Robert’s arguments from Scripture. I’ll address the practical ramifications of the Baptist view in a future post.

This post is a bit more verbose than usual, so I’ve taken the liberty of bolding the high points of each section to make it easier to read.

Jeremiah or Hebrews?

In my last post, I briefly explored what Hebrews had to say about the New Covenant (especially in how it differs from the Old). The author of Hebrews quoted from Jeremiah 31, interpreting the prophet’s words and explaining how they apply to us today.

Robert takes the opposite approach: rather than allowing the New Testament to interpret the Old, he interprets the Old and reads that into the New. Based on his understanding of the Old Testament, he decides what the New Testament must mean.

Note that this is not the same thing as reading the New Testament in the context of the Old. The New Testament is written from the perspective of people familiar with the Old Testament, and takes for granted many things that are made explicit in the Old Testament. We both understand and accept that premise.

But the New Testament tells us clearly how this Old Testament prophecy is to be understood: God’s promise to those in the New Covenant is that He will “remember their sins no more.” We cannot just evade it and say “Well, it doesn’t really mean that, because in the Old Testament…” If Robert wishes to rebut the straightforward reading of this passage of Hebrews, he will have to explain the argument of Hebrews in context rather than appealing vaguely to some other nice-sounding eschatological prophecies.

Once again, the argument is as follows:

  • Hebrews claims that the New Covenant is better because it actually provides forgiveness for sins.
  • Only Christians receive the promised forgiveness for sins.
  • Therefore, only Christians are members of the New Covenant.

In passing, I’ll note that Robert again brings up the existence of unsaved people in the church community, as if this is an argument against my position. Robert’s view of the visible church and mine are very similar, practically speaking: we both believe there are false believers, and that our children receive certain benefits from growing up in church. I just don’t admit that false believers (and non-believers) are actually members of the Covenant. The curses, warnings, etc. in the New Testament stand on their own without being internal to the New Covenant.

Infant Baptism in History

Robert quotes a couple passages in the New Testament that purportedly show household covenants.

1 Corinthians 7:12-14

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

About this passage, Robert writes:

What he means is that the household is brought into covenant with God thorough [sic] the faith of just one believing member.

Yet this proves too much! If this is what Paul meant – that the husband and children are covenanted with God based on the wife’s faith – then surely the unbelieving husband ought to be baptized on account of his wife’s faith. Circumcision, after all, was applied to adults, children, and servants when a household joined the Old Covenant. Yet Presbyterians reject this view. The Westminster Confession says:

Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.

So in this passage Paul is not speaking of the household being in covenant. A better interpretation is put forth by Calvin himself in his commentary on this passage:

While this sanctification is taken in various senses, I refer it simply to marriage, in this sense — It might seem (judging from appearance) as if a believing wife contracted infection from an unbelieving husband, so as to make the connection unlawful; but it is otherwise, for the piety of the one has more effect in sanctifying marriage than the impiety of the other in polluting it.

This passage then has no clear connection to the scope of the New Covenant.

Acts 16:30-33

Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

About this passage, Robert writes:

The household of a man of his position would have been quite large but the book of Acts tells us that everyone was baptized. This doubtless included infants because they would now be raised as members of the covenant.

It’s telling when a theologian has to resort to speculation to prove his point. There is nothing in this passage to suggest that infants were among those baptized. Yet this is one of the strongest arguments for infant baptism in the New Testament.

To the contrary, the intent of this passage is clear: Paul and Silas tell the jailer and his household “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Paul is not promising that the jailer’s faith will save his household. He’s making the same offer to everyone in the household: Believe in the Lord Jesus and be saved.

We are told that Paul and Silas preach to the whole household, and they are all subsequently baptized. The clear implication is that the whole family heard the Gospel and believed it. Just as we do not read “household salvation” from this passage, there is likewise no way to read a “household covenant” from this passage.

Acts 2:38-41

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Presbyterians usually quote the first part of verse 39, “the promise is for you and for your children,” without continuing to the qualification “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” When this verse fragment is put back in its context, it’s easier to see just how much of a stretch the Presbyterian interpretation really is.

We know that the promise is not for all of “you,” Peter’s hearers, without qualification; we know that it is not for “all who are far off” without qualification. Those groups are clearly moderated by “whom the Lord… calls to himself.” So why would “for your children” not also be subject to the same qualification? Clearly, Peter is emphasizing the unlimited reach of the Gospel through time and space, not teaching that the New Covenant is hereditary. To the contrary, he says the promise is specifically for “everyone whom the Lord… calls to Himself.”

And who does He call but His sheep?

The Council of Carthage

Robert quotes Rushdoony, who uses Cyprian as an illustration of the early prevalence of infant baptism. A church council determined that the rule of circumcision (waiting eight days to circumcise infants) ought not to be applied to baptism:

Cyprian (AD 200-258)
Cyprian (AD 200-258)

But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man.

It’s true that infant baptism was prevalent in the early church, but not for the reasons Presbyterians hold. Cyprian goes on to write:

But again, if even to the greatest sinners, and to those who had sinned much against God, when they subsequently believed, remission of sins is granted—and nobody is hindered from baptism and from grace—how much rather ought we to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins—that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another. [emphasis added]

Infant baptism was important to the early church because they believed it actually conferred grace (and remission of sins, particularly original sin) to its recipients. Both Presbyterians and Baptists today reject this notion. The argument for infant baptism from the practice of the early church is therefore considerably weakened.

It’s worth noting that not all in the early church fell under this persuasion. A hundred years before Cyprian, Justin Martyr had taught that baptism was an action of choice and knowledge (as contrasted with the “accident” of birth). Those who choose to be born again and repent of their sins receive baptism:

Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. [emphasis added]

We can see that from the earliest days of the church there have been different opinions on this issue. We must rely on Scripture for a resolution to this question. And I believe the passages we’ve looked at are very clear.

Conclusion

I remarked to Robert when I first read his post that he is a very compelling writer. The account he weaves of God’s covenant dealings with mankind is majestic, and insofar as it pertains to the Old Testament is quite convincing.

But sometimes truth is found in the simple exegesis of Scripture rather than a grand sweeping tale of inferences and conjecture. This is the advantage of the Baptist position. I’ve relied on simple and logical arguments based on straightforward interpretations of Scripture.

I have devoted my time here to further reinforcing those strong Scriptural foundations. That should be more important to our analysis than our assessment of the practical consequences of a doctrine. Yet, as Robert elaborated in his turn, these doctrines do have consequences that ought to be considered. If I have space in my next response, I will try to delve into that a little more fully.

This is the fifth post in a series on Infant Baptism. Check out the first post, Robert’s next response, or the series index.

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