What doctrine or issue have you changed your mind about? The Gospel Coalition posed that question to several pastors, theologians, and other thinkers in order to gain a better understanding of what leads to shifts along the theological spectrum [see Sam Storms’s “Why I Changed My Mind About the Millennium”]. Gavin Ortlund continues this new series with an explanation of how he changed his view on baptism.
I was baptized as an infant in the Church of Scotland. After my family moved back to the United States, I was raised in various Presbyterian churches, eventually working at two Presbyterian churches during college and then attending a Presbyterian seminary. As I look back, I have nothing but gratitude for my time among Presbyterians; in fact, I often miss that world!
The issue that propelled me out of Presbyterianism was the doctrine of paedobaptism (infant baptism). Once I sensed God’s call to ministry, I conducted an intensive study of this issue since I knew it would affect where I could be ordained. During my final semester of college, I read everything I could get my hands on that addressed the question. Throughout my first year of seminary, I continued reading and also dialoguing with my paedobaptist friends. I remember conversations that lasted well into the night. I remember long office hours with professors and a few spirited discussions in class. I remember entire afternoons struggling with books like Pierre-Charles Marcel’s The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism, Paul Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, and countless others on both sides of the issue. By April of that year, my convictions had solidified against paedobaptism, and I (somewhat reluctantly) changed my church affiliation and was baptized (dunked in a river, to be precise).
It was helpful to formulate my convictions about baptism in a setting where almost everyone saw it differently than I did. In seminary I heard countless defenses of the Reformed paedobaptist argument from godly people whom I trusted and respected. I think I was able to see the paedobaptist view sympathetically, as an insider sees it. Though the issue is complex and many factors were involved, in the end it was a relatively simple insight that proved decisive for me. In conversations with friends, I learned to state my primary dissatisfaction with the Reformed (sometimes called “covenantal”) argument for paedobaptism in the form of a question.
Why Not Grandchildren?
B. B. Warfield offered a helpfully succinct statement of the case for Reformed paedobaptism: “The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances. Among these ordinances is baptism.” 
This appeal to continuity with circumcision is at the core of the Reformed paedobaptist argument. Question 74 of the Heidelburg Catechism refers to baptism as the New Testament replacement of circumcision. John Calvin claimed that “whatever belongs to circumcision pertains likewise to baptism.”  John Murray spoke of an “essential identity of meaning” between circumcision and baptism.  And so with Berkhof, Marcel, Owen, Edwards, and countless other theologians and confessions.
But this appeal to continuity raises a question. Who exactly were the proper recipients of circumcision? To whom is Warfield referring with the word children? Circumcision is given in Genesis 17:9 to “you and your seed [offspring, descendants; Hebrew zerah] after you, for the generations to come.” The individuals in view here are the intergenerational descendants of Abraham. The faith of an Israelite child’s parents was not what determined the child’s right to circumcision; it was the child’s association with the nation of Israel. In other words, the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham. It wasn’t the “children of believers” who had the right to the sacrament of initiation, but the “children of Abraham.” So, given paedobaptist presuppositions, why not baptize the grandchildren of believers, too? If we’re really building off continuity with the Old Testament precedent, why stop at one generation?
Consider the following scenario: John Sr. is a devout believer, John Jr. has never professed faith in Christ, and John III is one week old. Should John III be considered a member of the church and a proper candidate for Christian baptism? With a few exceptions, such as the Half-Way Covenant, this is not the historic practice of Reformed paedobaptist churches. But why not?
Those who espouse infant baptism bear responsibility to define the word infant. No one believes all infants in the world are worthy recipients of baptism. Certain infants are included; others are not. Considering John Jr. eligible for baptism in his infancy, and John III ineligible, is certainly one option on the table. But it’s difficult to see how that would be consistent with Genesis 17 or the practice of God’s people throughout the Old Testament. In no biblical covenant or redemptive-historical era has the sacrament of initiation been for “those who believe and their children.”
The best cases for credobaptism (like those of Jewett or Kingdon or Wellum) usually argue that paedobaptism stresses unity across the biblical covenants at the expense of discontinuity and development. Without disagreeing, I suggest it’s also permissible to ask whether paedobaptism has stressed a discontinuity at the expense of continuity and fulfillment (the kind of continuity one sees generally in the movement from OT to the NT). To get from “every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money” (Gen. 17:12) to “those who believe and their children” is, it seems to me, an error of failing to appreciate the newness of baptism only after it’s an error of failing to identify the meaning of circumcision in the first place.
Better, and more continuous with circumcision and the OT precedent, I think, to define the church simply as the children of Abraham: defined by physical descent throughout the OT (Gen. 17:9), and defined by spiritual descent throughout the NT (Gal. 3:7).
Credobaptists and Their Children
This recognition of discontinuity within the paedobaptist system suggests paedobaptists themselves may need to provide answers to some of their own queries regarding credobaptist childrearing. A few examples:
- If credobaptists are inconsistent to lovingly nurture their children with the gospel apart from covenant membership, is John Sr. inconsistent to lovingly nurture John III with the gospel apart from covenant membership?
- If credobaptists are unloving not to teach their children to pray as soon as they can speak, are paedobaptists unloving for not doing the same with their grandchildren whose parents don’t believe?
- If credobaptism is charged with making the new covenant less generous than the Abrahamic covenant with respect to the children of believers, can paedobaptism be charged with making the new covenant less generous than the Abrahamic covenant with respect to the grandchildren of believers?
- Should John Sr. assume the regeneration of John III until contrary evidence emerges?
This question about grandchildren is obviously not the only argument against Reformed paedobaptism. But I do think it raises an important and often overlooked issue in the debate. And for me, it was the crucial domino in my journey away from paedobaptism.
1 Quoted in Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010), 522.
2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Westminster John Knox, 2006) 4.16.4, 1,327.
3 John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), 75.