Volume 42 - Issue 3

Covenant, Creation and Children: A Response to David Gibson’s Critique of Credobaptism

By Graham Shearer


David Gibson’s 2015 Themelios article on baptism asked whether credobaptism was compatible with a strong, Reformed, doctrine of creation, arguing that credobaptism risks ‘being sacramentally docetic’ since it weakens the relationship between nature and grace. This article offers a credobaptist response to this challenge, examining the three main elements of Gibson’s argument (covenant, creation, and children), arguing that, far from evacuating the created order of significance, credobaptism gives fullest weight to the outworking of salvation history within the created order. The article concludes by offering a brief sketch of a credobaptist theology of baptism placed within a robust theology of creation.

David Gibson’s latest article in these pages on the question of baptism made an attractive and sweeping case for paedobaptism.1 In a well-worn debate, Gibson strikes a new note in linking the issue of baptism and the doctrine of creation. For Gibson, the baptism debate turns on ‘the proper relationship of nature and grace: does the natural world have anything in common with the spiritual world?’2 His argument is that ‘the bond between God and the world is broken in credobaptist soteriology’ such that credobaptism risks ‘being sacramentally docetic’ and that ‘the credobaptist worldview is … in the end a fundamentally unattractive aesthetic.’3 Gibson paints with bold strokes on a broad canvas, and in connecting the doctrine of creation to the question of baptism he opened up a fresh angle on a long-standing debate. What follows is not so much a rebuttal of Gibson’s arguments as an example of a credobaptist attempt to wrestle with the issues he raises. I hope that these reflections may strengthen the credobaptist convictions of a few and reassure others that credobaptism need not have such a deleterious effect on the rest of one’s theology and practice. Therefore, I will consider the questions of covenant, creation and children and examine how a credobaptist might approach these issues in view of Gibson’s paedobaptist arguments.

1. Covenant

At the heart of the debate between paedo- and credobaptist lies the question of covenant, and it is therefore well-worn ground in the debate. Venema puts the question well, ‘Does the covenant of grace in its New Testament administration embrace the children of believing parents just as it did in its Old Testament administration?’4 It is difficult to add anything new to what has already been written on this subject, but since it is so central to the question of baptism, some discussion of the matter is necessary. The argument for infant baptism in a nutshell is that since Paul in Galatians 3:6–8 regards God’s covenant with Abraham as a Gospel covenant, and he describes circumcision as the sign and seal of that covenant in Romans 4:11, and since that sign was then applied to Abraham’s children, and since Abraham is a model for Christian belief, it must be valid to apply to the children of Christian believers today.5

Two key premises underlie this argument. The first is that circumcision represents the same reality as baptism and that, therefore, appropriate subjects of both remain the same. As Sinclair Ferguson puts it, ‘If one applied the underlying principles of some credobaptist arguments one would also become a credo-circumcisionist.’6 Likewise Calvin argued, ‘If it enters anyone’s mind to jest at infant baptism on this pretext, he is mocking the command of circumcision given by the Lord. For what will they bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?’7 The second premise is that the covenant structure established with Abraham in Genesis 17:7 – ‘to you and your offspring’ – is maintained into the new covenant, such that there is a distinction between covenant and election that continues into the new covenant.8 Thus for the paedobaptist, membership of new covenant community is, in principle, discontinuous with membership of the elect. Venema explains that the covenant of grace ‘embraces all believers and their children, not all of whom are elect in the strict sense’, and that while ‘the life and salvation promised in the covenant of grace are inherited only by the elect … the covenant promise, together with its accompanying obligation, is extended to Abraham and his seed’.9 We shall examine each of these ideas in turn.

It is surely correct to say, as Gibson does, that ‘it is impossible to read Gen 17 all the way through and conclude that circumcision’s physical or national significance is primary. Circumcision was always a gospel sign.’10 This, however, is not to say that circumcision has no physical or national significance. James Dunn argues that, for Paul and his contemporaries at least, ‘Covenant, law, Jewish ethnic identity, circumcision were mutually interdependent categories, each inconceivable without the other.’11 Clearly, in God’s plan, the promises of justification and salvation are, for a time, channelled within the Abrahamic lineage and nation as God’s covenant people. The modern distinction between family and nation is a foreign notion to the Bible, for nations are simply families writ large. Ferguson argues, ‘The organic unity of the family is a feature of the whole Bible. The new covenant does not introduce a different view of the family in relation to the administration of God’s purpose and its sign, but is in organic continuity with it.’12 This, it seems to me, does not reckon with the fact that circumcision is not given to Abraham merely as the head of a household, but as the head of a nation.13 The seventeenth century Particular Baptist theologian Nehemiah Coxe makes the point that in Genesis 17 it is both Abraham immediate and subsequent generations with whom the covenant is made. ‘It was a covenant in force for the benefit of both more remote and nearer generations.… The right of the remotest generation was as much derived from Abraham and the covenant made with him, as was that of his immediate seed, and did not depend on the faithfulness of their immediate parents.’14 Gibson, in his first Themelios article on baptism, recognises this, but fails to see the difficulty this presents for paedobaptists who only baptise the first generation of believer’s children.15 Coxe outlines the difficulty of this position: ‘If I may conclude my concern in this covenant is such that by one of its promises I am assured God has taken my immediate seed in covenant with himself, I must on the same ground conclude also that my seed in remote generations will be no less in covenant with him, since the promise extends to the seed in their generations.’16 That is to say, Genesis 17 establishes not simply a genealogical principle but a national principle, and it is questionable whether contemporary paedobaptist practice and theology adequately reflects the text and detail of Genesis 17.17

The national nature of the circumcision means that it is applied to two kinds of sons through redemptive history. Calvin comments that in Genesis 17:7 ‘a twofold class of sons presents itself to us.’18 Calvin is clearly reading Genesis 17 through the lens of Galatians 4:22, where Paul explains that there were some true spiritual sons of Abraham who shared his faith and others who were sons only according to the flesh. The latter participated in the typological blessings and curses of the Abrahamic and Israelite covenants but did not enjoy the eternal blessings to which they pointed. Therefore, the Abrahamic nation is exhorted in Deuteronomy 10:16 to ‘circumcise your hearts’, since it cannot be assumed that the Abrahamic nation enjoyed the reality to which the Abrahamic sign pointed. 19

The question is, does this two-fold nature of the covenant community continues into the new covenant? Does baptism encompass two kinds of sons in the way circumcision did? Paul writes in Galatians 3:27: ‘for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’ (ὅσοι γὰρ εἰς Χριστὸν ἐβαπτίσθητε, Χριστὸν ἐνεδύσασθε). The key word ὅσοι is translated ‘all’ in all the examples listed in BDAG.20 The argument is that while circumcision is applied to two kinds of sons, baptism now designates just one kind: true sons of Abraham, ‘heirs according to the promise.’ On this basis at least, we must conclude that circumcision and baptism, though connected to similar spiritual realities, connect to that reality in a different way. Therefore, Gibson is correct that Galatians represents ‘a change in scale, not in soteriology.’ He is mistaken, however, to imagine that such a soteriological change is part of the credobaptist argument. The Second London Baptist Confession 7.2 is clear: ‘It is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and a blessed immortality’.21 What Galatians does represent is a change of ecclesiology, since under the Abrahamic covenant the uncircumcised were excluded from the covenant community, something that is reversed in the new covenant. Paul is showing in Galatians that Abrahamic soteriology leads, eventually in salvation-history, to new covenant ecclesiology.

The reason for this is that the death and resurrection of Jesus has historically instituted the new covenant in his blood.22 It is in Christ’s coming the new covenant is definitively established. John Owen describes the shift that takes place at the death of Christ, the new covenant ‘had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant which is blood.’23 Christ has now been definitively established as the physical, historic head of the covenant, and it is upon him that the blessings and curses of his covenant people depend. Thus, Ferguson’s account of covenantal conditions, where the outcome of the covenant for each person is conditioned on their response, risks being too individualistic and atomised since he places the outcome of the covenant on the response of each individual baptised.24 But, in the new covenant, Christ’s death has sanctified his people, as their priest, in order that the blessing of the Spirit might come to them.25 Thus, there are no longer two ways of being in the covenant – by faith and genealogy or by genealogy alone. Rather there is now one – faith alone – and all those who are so included receive the blessings won by Christ’s mediating work. Thus circumcision, a symbol of promises made to a particular lineage and administered to those of that lineage, is replaced by baptism, a symbol of those promises kept and administered to those regenerated by the promised Spirit. Gibson puts it well:

Some kind of replacement language has to be warranted because baptism itself is a ‘backward-looking’ sign of the thing signified (death-burial-resurrection of Christ and union with him) which ‘replaces’ circumcision as the ‘forward-looking’ sign of the thing signified (death-burial-resurrection of Christ and union with him). 26

It is because credobaptists give full weight to the historic, covenantal outworking of the promises made to Abraham that they seek to baptise only those who give evidence of being spiritual sons of Abraham.27 Does this mean that the new covenant is narrower in scope than the old covenant? Herman Ridderbos explains why this is not the case:

Always and again this one thing is reconfirmed: that belonging to the seed of Abraham is not determined by physical descent, but by faith. Essentially, in principle, the seed of Abraham is spiritual seed. If on the one hand this represents a limitation of the concept, on the other it represents a tremendous broadening of it.28

It is this broadening of God’s plan of salvation, the bursting of the banks of the national and genealogical channel in which the promises had previously been contained, that credobaptists believe means that the genealogical principle is now abrogated, having served its purpose.

The second premise of paedobaptist covenant theology is that the relationship between covenant and election works in a parallel way in the Abrahamic covenant as it does in the new.29 Thus, Peter Lillback explains that for Calvin, ‘covenant and election are not identical. One can identify covenant and election for Calvin only if “common election” is identified with the covenant.’30 This is because ‘the unity of the covenants demands that the church be arranged in consistency with the covenant.’31 Thus, Calvin describes the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael as ‘the perpetual condition of the church’.32 This introduces a tension within paedobaptist theology: the new covenant is clearly a covenant that promises and dispenses the blessings given to the elect, yet paedobaptism requires there to be those who are rightfully members of the new covenant and that nonetheless do not receive its blessings.33 The difference between credobaptist and paedobaptist theology here is subtle and easily misunderstood. Credobaptists do not disagree with Bavinck that ‘it is self-evident … that the covenant of grace will temporarily – in its earthly administration and dispensation – also include those who remain inwardly unbelieving and do not share in the covenant’s benefits.’34 The 1689 Baptist Confession, along with the Westminster Confession and Savoy Declaration, asserts, ‘The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error.’35 A mixed visible church is inevitable before the eschaton. The question is this: is the church mixed by divinely ordained constitution, as the Abrahamic church was, or because the application of its new constitution is fallible?

Gibson presents faith as the demand of the new covenant to its mixed covenant members, but he does not reflect, so far as I can see, that a believing heart is also part of the promise of the new covenant, won by Christ’s sanctifying, atoning work.36 The implications of Gibson’s formulation are stark: if the new covenant does not simply demand but also provides a new heart for the covenant people, then is it a covenant that saves? However, if a faithful heart is a fruit of Christ’s covenantal priestly work then there cannot be ‘a separation between the provision of atonement and its application to the people.’37 Paul’s use of ὅσοι in Galatians 3:27 shows that baptism constitutes the people of God in a different way to circumcision. Every descendant of Abraham was included in the covenant through circumcision according to divine ordination, whether believing or unbelieving. Yet, now, while there are non-elect unbelievers in the visible church, their inclusion is illegitimate. Since Christ is the head and mediator of the new covenant, only those who have received regeneration, displayed in repentance and faith, are legitimately included in the covenant community since they are the only ones for whom Christ has acted as covenant head.38 Just as the fact that some people enter the country without a valid passport does not nullify the legal requirement to possess one, so the fact that the unregenerate enter the visible church does not nullify the requirement that only the regenerate are legitimately included in the new covenant community. The mixed nature of the church has changed from being by dint of divine constitution to fallible human perception.39 As Salter explains:

The paedobaptist appeal to the dual-aspect of the covenant, while clearly present in the Old Covenant, is alien to the New Covenant. The pact is between God and Christ (Abraham’s true seed) and Christ’s seed (who are also Abraham’s seed). The difference between Reformed paedobaptists and Reformed credobaptists lies here. Where the Reformed paedobaptist would affirm the dual-aspect of the covenant across covenants, the Reformed credobaptist would argue that in the New Covenant, there is no dual-aspect any longer.40

Do we thus nullify covenant theology? No, rather we uphold it. It is the very structure of the covenant and covenant headship that means that Christ’s salvific, covenantal, headship cannot mediate anything but blessing to his covenant people, including the blessing the saving faith.41 Paedobaptist theology struggles to integrate the fact that in the atonement Christ’s covenantal work is on behalf of the elect such that the two categories are indissolubly drawn together. To bruise the nerve between election and covenant is to attenuate the connection between my possession of saving faith and the fact that I possess that faith through my covenant head’s atoning work on the cross. It is because Christ has now come in the flesh and has risen visibly from the dead – a new historic, covenantal development – that his visible covenant people should reflect his elect people as closely as possible. Thus, credobaptism, far from being a low view of the covenant and its signs, is a position that seeks to give the fullest weight to the everlasting, salvific, covenant which God has established.

2. Creation

Debate about the nature of the covenant, or covenants, has been rumbling on since, at least, the sixteenth century. Gibson, though, raises another, fresher, objection to credobaptism. Credobaptism not only misunderstands the covenant but has a low view of creation itself. He argues, ‘Credobaptists need to account for the fact that God has chosen to use created means to enact his sovereign decrees, and that one of the means he uses is the family. At stake is the proper relationship of nature and grace.’42 Since ‘Anabaptism displays a theological commitment to discontinuity between God and creaturely reality’43 credobaptism risks being ‘sacramentally docetic’ because it ‘downplays the creaturely situated-ness of the subject of baptism, abstracting him or her out of the living organism of generational lines and familial bonds and instead views the baptized as an autonomous agent who engages in an individualized, spiritual, soteriological transaction between themselves and God only.’44 Gibson mounts a serious charge; is it correct?

Several lines of response lie open. First, there is the historical issue that the Reformed, Particular Baptist tradition does not, as Gibson suggests, flow primarily from Anabaptists but from the magisterial reformation via Reformed Anglicanism.45 W. Robert Godfrey summarises the historical evidence from the Belgic Confession – to which he subscribes – as follows:

Some may wonder, however, whether the Confession’s explicit rejection of Anabaptist views does not mean that it regards the Baptist churches as false churches. Such a conclusion would be entirely a-historical. The Baptist churches today are not descended from the Anabaptist churches of the sixteenth century. Rather, they are largely churches that developed out of Reformed churches in the seventeenth century from a conviction that believer’s baptism was more faithful to the Bible. Baptists are not Anabaptists historically and it is anachronistic to believe that the Confession speaks explicitly about Baptists.46

Gibson is using a well-worn Presbyterian trope: the earliest Particular Baptist, the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 is entitled ‘The Confession of Faith of those churches which are commonly, though falsly, called Anabaptists…’47 Indeed, it is noteworthy that the seventeenth century Baptists held precisely the same Calvinist understanding of the Lord’s Supper as their Reformed paedobaptist brethren, something that would be unlikely, to say the least, if all Baptistic theology operated with the kind of spirit matter dualism which Gibson claims.48

Second, we must ask ourselves whether requiring a profession of faith from the children of believers renders them an ‘autonomous agent who engages in an individualized, spiritual, soteriological transaction between themselves and God only’, as Gibson asserts.49 If this is the necessary corollary of requiring a confession of faith before baptism, is it not strange that when we read of baptism in the New Testament, we read of a profession of faith beforehand? Is not a confession of faith itself a physical act, produced by lungs, mind, and mouth? Likewise, given a Reformed soteriology, why should a profession of faith be understood as affirming someone as autonomous?50 Paul tells us that confession of faith in Jesus only comes by the Holy Spirit and therefore a profession of faith should be regarded as autonomous as regeneration is autonomous. Neither does it follow that to reject physical lineage from believing parent as grounds for baptism is to reject the family as a means of grace. Gibson’s paean to the importance of fatherhood is thus, in this debate, ‘largely an exercise in missing the point.’51 Baptists agree that people live embedded in familial, national and cultural structures that shape our identity and that can work for or against our reception of the Gospel. The question is whether membership of a Christian household by itself gives someone a right to baptism.

Third, while Gibson suggests that credobaptism risks being ‘sacramentally docetic’, could it be that paedobaptism risks both overplaying and underplaying the value of creation? It risks overplaying creation because it conflates grace and nature in conflating natural birth and spiritual birth. Gibson asks, ‘can the bond between my children and me be only a bond of nature, or can it be a bond of grace as well?’52 The answer is that the bond of nature can be a means of grace, as he teaches and embodies the Gospel to them, but that paedobaptism risks conflating the means with the grace itself.53 Credobaptist theology distinguishes the means that God uses – the covenant household – with the grace that God bestows through it – the regenerate heart. This is why Reformed paedobaptist churches have always had trouble combining the realistic language of the New Testament with the status of baptised children. Gibson’s essay reflects this. At times, he reflects the language of the New Testament about baptism, quoting Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead: ‘A touch of water and these children are given the whole of life.’54 However, at other times it seems that the word ‘given’ in this sentence has a very provisional, attenuated sense. He later writes, ‘Without faith, with grace spurned, the sign of covenant blessings becomes the promise of covenant curses’.55 Yet this is true of all human beings as soon as they hear the gospel. One struggles to explain, on Gibson’s account, how the situation of the baptised infant is different to any other individual to whom God promises righteousness if they believe and curses if they reject him. The baptised infant, therefore, is like every other individual under the sound of the Gospel in God’s world.

However, paedobaptist ecclesiology also underplays the doctrine of creation since it denies that the covenant of grace with the elect is made fully visible in the life of the church. As we have seen, Reformed paedobaptists, by placing the infants of believers in the new covenant, draw a distinction between covenant and election. This means that gathering of the elect never finds full visible historic expression since the covenant community and the elect are discontinuous. The covenant community is the husk in which the elect seed is to be found, as it was under the old covenant. Credobaptists have a higher view of creation and human history; they believe that since the historic, visible, covenantal death and resurrection of Jesus, his covenant elect can be historic and visible too in a way that they were not before the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost.56 Contrary to the paedobaptist, the credobaptist believes that the Spirit’s work of regeneration can be reliably, if not infallibly perceived, and so it possible for the visible church to be made up of those that give evidence of regeneration through a profession of faith.

3. Children

What, though, of the credobaptist view of children? Paedobaptists often argue that their view flows inexorably from a biblical doctrine of infants. Gibson explains that ‘paedobaptists work from a theology of infants before we develop a theology of infant baptism.57 Ferguson writes:

The (paedobaptist) covenantal principle enables parents to teach their children in home, Sunday School and congregational worship to pray with theological consistency ‘Our Father in heaven…’ Can a credobaptist do that with theological consistency? I doubt it.58

Doug Wilson speaks even more robustly to Baptists: ‘Our Lord issued some of his sternest warnings to those who caused the little ones to stumble.… The only way out of such a horrible situation is … repentance. Rather that than a millstone around the neck.’59 No Baptist parent will dismiss these claims lightly. Does credobaptism mean that they must view their child as ‘the newly arrived Amalekite sitting sullenly off to the side in his high chair’?60

The premise of the argument is that if children are not baptised (and in Wilson’s case admitted to the table) then they must be treated as pagan idolaters, unable to offer prayer or worship acceptably. Offered this dichotomy – Are your children Christian or pagan? Will they worship God the Father or an idol? – it is no wonder that many feel paedobaptism is the only possible position. However, to this paradigm we can offer three lines of response.

First, do the Scriptures suggest that such a binary division of humanity is correct? There are clear examples of those outside the covenant community offering prayer and worship that is received favourably by God. An Old Testament example would be the sailors in Jonah 1 offering sacrifices to God presumably without receiving the covenant sign. One wonders whether Naaman or Nebuchadnezzar ever received the covenant sign, though both are presented as people who are recipients of God’s grace. Perhaps the most telling example is Cornelius, a man undoubtedly outside the covenant community, who is explicitly told in Acts 10:4, ‘Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God’, before he is baptised. God’s dealings with humanity are always focussed on but never limited to those who have received the covenant sign and the visible covenant community.

Second, the New Testament offers clear warrant that unbaptised members of Christian families partake in a kind of holiness. While 1 Corinthians 7:14 is often adduced as a ground for paedobaptism, its implications in fact run the other way. Paul’s concern is to establish the holiness of the spouse, for which the holiness of the children is drawn in as support. Paul is drawing a parallel between the unbelieving spouse and the children and his argument is that what must be true for one, the children, is true for the other, the unbelieving spouse. Since both the unbelieving spouse and the children are part of the family unit, both are holy. But, for Paul’s argument to work, both parties must be in the same relationship with the visible church, otherwise the comparison is invalid.61 Since no one argues that the unbelieving spouse was baptised, logically the same must be true of the children. Neither are baptised, yet both are considered holy. This suggests that the New Testament conceives of a ‘holiness’ that families with Christian members partake in that does not follow from having been baptised. As David Wright puts it, ‘This is, I think, the only place in the New Testament where children are in view of whom we know for certain whether they have or have not been baptized. They have not – but are said to be already “holy”’.62 Of course, the we must establish what Paul means by ‘holy’ (ἅγιά).63 Thiselton’s conclusions seem to present no problem to credobaptist theology and practice:

The lifestyle of the Christian partner cannot but affect the ethos and to some extent the values and lifestyle of the home, whether this be the husband or the wife. The spouse’s example, witness, prayer and living out of the gospel make the spouse (and the children) in this sense holy.64

Again, the stark binaries offered by much paedobaptist polemic seem foreign to the text and theology of the New Testament. Indeed, the language of 1 Corinthians 7:14 suggests that it is entirely possible for Baptist parents to raise their children in a sanctified, even covenantal, way without baptising them. This idea is further reinforced when we note that many of the households that Robert Rayburn uses as examples of the Presbyterian doctrine of covenant succession were, in fact, Baptist.65 Rayburn admits this is the case. Of course, it may be that those Baptist families were inconsistent with their theology of baptism, but perhaps it is more likely that what Rayburn calls ‘covenant succession’ does not require paedobaptism to hold true. Indeed, Wilson’s argument in his essay on baptism and a theology of children is rather weakened by his admission that he learned his theology of children from his Baptist father.66 Was Wilson’s father inconsistent? Possibly so, or perhaps treating children as Amalekites is not an inevitable corollary of credobaptism.

Finally, all Christian traditions and practices must wrestle with pastoral difficulties presented by the special status of children. There is a danger that in withholding the covenant sign from young children, those children may be discouraged in their faith or feel the need to produce a startling account of how they have been suddenly converted. However, these dangers can be avoided when set, as many Baptist parents have done, within a proper pastoral and theological framework implemented in a loving, Christ-centred home. The adoption of paedobaptism does not eliminate these challenges. Indeed, the liminal nature of childhood poses questions to all churches. Most paedobaptist churches face the question of when child should become communicant members and even in churches that practice paedo-communion, there will be a moment when the child moves from receiving the elements as a child of the believing family to receiving them as a believer themselves. In paedobaptist and credobaptist churches, pastors must discern the hearts of those under one’s pastoral care, mindful of the danger of presumption on the one hand and the danger of introspection and doubt on the other. While a child in a Baptist household may wonder why they have not received the visible sign of the covenant, a child in paedobaptist household may wonder whether their nascent faith really does meet the conditions of the covenant that their baptism placed upon them. Indeed, since the Westminster Confession teaches that, ‘the efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered’ (28.6), correlating the application of baptism with the precise moment of saving faith is not the first priority in administering baptism. Rather, baptism should be administered when the church can confidently affirm with Peter in Acts 10:47 that ‘surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptised with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ Precisely because the Scriptures does not teach a conversionist paradigm where each individual must have a sudden ‘conversion experience’, the church is at liberty to view conversion as a process, crowned and sealed by its affirmation in baptism.

Perhaps, then, the paradigm of Gentile God-fearers in the book of Acts provides an analogy for how parents should view their unbaptised children. God-fearers were connected to the covenant community, were taught and learned the Scriptures and were clearly able to offer acceptable prayer and worship to God, yet had not received the sign of the covenant. So also, children in Christian homes, while they have not received the covenant sign, can still be taught to pray to the Father, in the name of the Son, by the Spirit, with the expectation that they will be heard without theological inconsistency until such time as the church can publically and visibly affirm their faith and regeneration in the waters of baptism.

4. Conclusion

In view of this discussion, one may ask what, in a credobaptist view, baptism actually does? Steve Holmes has pointed out that ‘perhaps bizarrely, Baptists have been remarkably poor at developing a theology of baptism over their history.’67 Can credobaptism offer an adequate account of what baptism means?

First, baptism is never less but always more than a testimony of faith on behalf of the baptised. While faith is a pre-requisite of baptism, we do ‘testify our piety’68 before God, angels and men in the sacraments, yet this does not exhaust baptism’s significance. Requiring a profession of faith before baptism does not, as Gibson claims, empty the rite of any objective significance; it simply to say that faith-union with Christ is the pre-condition for receiving either of the sacraments. Gibson takes Salter to task for saying, ‘Without faith, of course, the subject of baptism is simply getting wet, nothing more’. He writes:

Note what is happening here: the definition of baptism is dependent on the position of its subjects. Without faith, baptism is not baptism. It is just getting wet. In this construction, one form of spirit-matter dualism is overcome by another. For the union of sign and thing signified has become so separate that without the thing signified the sign has actually ceased to exist.69

It is hard to see how what Salter is saying about baptism is very different to what Augustine says regarding the Lord’s Supper, as cited by Calvin:

A little after, (Augustine) says: ‘And hence, he who remains not in Christ, and in whom Christ remains not, without doubt neither spiritually eats his flesh, nor drinks his blood, though with his teeth he may carnally and visibly press the symbol of his body and blood.’ Again, we are told that the visible sign is opposed to spiritual eating. This refutes the error that the invisible body of Christ is sacramentally eaten in reality, although not spiritually. We are told, also, that nothing is given to the impure and profane beyond the visible taking of the sign.70

This is merely to say that the Reformed view of baptism is consistent with the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper since both see faith-union with Christ as a prerequisite for the partakers of the sacrament. This does not empty either sacrament of their objectivity nor their covenantal context. Though both require faith from the recipients, both the Lord’s Supper and baptism, as we shall see, are primarily divine actions towards sinners. Therefore, it is not sufficient to see baptism in ecclesiological terms alone. It is true that baptism is enacted by the visible church, marks our entry into the visible church and therefore carries significant implications for church disciple and church life. However, if this exhausts the meaning of baptism, we risk seeing baptism as merely a sociological ritual empty of any divine activity. Rather, baptism has ecclesiological significance because it has soteriological significance as a divine act directed towards sinners that marks them out as his people.

Therefore, it is important to regard baptism is fundamentally something that God does through the church for the one baptised. Brandon Jones summarises this well:

The Spirit graciously uses baptism as a confirming sign and seal of a believer’s initiation into the new covenant, thereby strengthening his or her consciousness of salvation.… God, through his Spirit and community, confirms that he has covenanted with the believer in baptism.71

Baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, is a means that the Lord uses to unite the believer to Christ and as such does not merely represent or commemorate an individual’s conversion but is part of their conversion itself. Only when a person is baptised is their conversion to Christ fully complete, marked and affirmed by the physical sign of water as administered by the church. This preserves a proper view of baptism’s instrumentality, while maintaining that faith-union with Christ is a necessary condition of its application. Baptism, then, operates as God’s sealing of his new covenant promise to circumcise our hearts through the death and resurrection of Christ. It is to be a tangible means of assurance of comfort to the believer knowing that God, through his church, has administered the covenant sign as a seal of his promises to them as one who is united to Christ. Stanley Fowler explains, ‘Some who are baptized are not in fact saved, and some are saved apart from baptism, but the normal way in which grace meets faith is in a believer’s baptism.’72

It is undoubtedly true that many credobaptists have held a low view of the sacrament of baptism. It has been reduced to merely a public profession of a new lifestyle choice, stripped of its covenantal and creational context, cut off from the traditions of the church. No wonder, then, that many have found Reformed paedobaptism to offer a richer, fuller account of baptism than the brittle, merely symbolic account that prevails in many baptistic churches. However, as I hope I have shown, this is by no means inevitable. In fact, credobaptism reflects the covenantal logic of the Scriptures and a high view of created means as channels of God’s redemptive purposes. Peter Leithart, drawing on Augustine, suggests that the new covenant sacraments are ‘conjugations’ of those of the old.73 This seems a fruitful analogy for a credobaptist theology of baptism. What circumcision promised in future tense and imperative mood, baptism now declares in a perfect indicative and with the change in tense and mood is the appropriate change in subject. The Christian can come to the waters of baptism and hear neither an imperative nor a future tense promise, but a perfect indicative: you have been saved.

[1] David Gibson, “‘Fathers of Faith, My Fathers Now!’: On Abraham, Covenant, and the Theology of Paedobaptism,” Them 40.1 (2015): 14–34. I am very grateful for Dr Gibson’s charitable comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Cornelius P. Venema, “Covenant Theology and Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 202.

[5] This is a summary of Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 23.

[6] Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Infant Baptism Response,” in Baptism: Three Views, ed. David F. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2009), 59.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. MacNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.16.9.

[8] For further discussion of the distinction, see Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 226; Cornelius P. Venema, “Covenant and Election in the Theology of Herman Bavinck,” MJT 19 (2008): 69–115.

[9] Venema, “Covenant Theology and Baptism,” 214.

[10] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 22.

[11] James D. G. Dunn, “What Was the Issue between Paul and ‘Those of the Circumcision’?” in The New Perspective on Paul: Collected Essays, WUNT 185 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 153. See also Martin Salter, “Abraham in Reformed Baptist Perspective,” Them 40.1 (2015): 47.

[12] Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Infant Baptism View,” in Baptism: Three Views, ed. David F. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 104.

[13] See, for example, 2 Samuel 5:1 where the two are linked.

[14] Nehemiah Coxe, “A Discourse of the Covenants That God Made with Men before the Law. Wherein, The Covenant of Circumcision Is More Largely Handled, and the Invalidity of the Plea for Paedobaptism Taken from There Discovered,” in Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, ed. Ronald D. Miller, James M Renihan, and Francisco Orozco (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 97.

[15] David Gibson, “Sacramental Supersessionism Revisited: A Response to Martin Salter on the Relationship Between Circumcision and Baptism,” Them 37.2 (2012): 197.

[16] Coxe, “A Discourse of the Covenants,” 106.

[17] Salter makes this point in “Abraham in Reformed Baptist Perspective,” 38n13.

[18] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. Thomas King, reprint ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 449.

[19] See on this point, Henri Blocher, “Old Covenant, New Covenant,” in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. A. T. B. MacGowan (Leicester: Apollos, 2006), 264.

[20] BDAG 729.

[21] William Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Lexington, KY: Judson Press, 1969), 260.

[22] This does not mean that Christ was not the head of the Abrahamic covenant, as Gibson charges Baptists with believing (“Fathers of Faith,” 18–20). In fact, Coxe states that, ‘this covenant was made in and through Jesus Christ. It is not Abraham but Christ that is its first head’ (“A Discourse of the Covenants,” 76). The point is that Christ, in the flesh, is head of the new covenant in a different way.

[23] John Owen, “An Exposition of Hebrews 8:6–13. Wherein, the Nature and Differences between the Old and New Covenants Is Discovered,” in Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, ed. Ronald D Miller, James M Renihan, and Francisco Orozco (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005), 173. Owen is discussing Heb 8:6.

[24] Ferguson, “Infant Baptism View,” 96–97. Gibson’s account is open to a similar critique in “Fathers of Faith,” 32–33.

[25] See Hebrews 9:14–15 and Galatians 3:13.

[26] Gibson, “Sacramental Supersessionism,” 203.

[27] One might argue that birth to Christian parents is, or should be, sufficient evidence to count someone a spiritual son of Abraham. However, the difficulty with this is that not even being born to Abraham himself was sufficient to make one a spiritual son of Abraham.

[28] Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia, trans. Henry D. Zylstra (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1976), 150.

[29] For a lengthy, but illuminating, discussion of this topic see Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014), 5–100.

[30] Lillback, The Binding of God, 226.

[31] Ibid., 224.

[32] Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, 546.

[33] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 3:228–35; See also Venema, “Covenant and Election in the Theology of Herman Bavinck” for further discussion.

[34] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:231.

[35] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 285. The three confessions are the same except that Westminster and Savoy include the word ‘both’ before ‘mixture’.

[36] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 32–33.

[37] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants: A Concise Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 673.

[38] Stephen J. Wellum, “The New Covenant Work of Christ,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 534–5.

[39] This does not mean, as Neil Jeffers argues, that since we cannot infallibly know if anyone is regenerate, that we should never baptise anyone. See Neil Jeffers, “‘And Their Children After Them’: A Response to Reformed Baptist Readings of Jeremiah’s New Covenant Promises,” Ecclesia Reformanda 1.2 (2009): 147–48. The New Testament is clear that a clear profession of faith is sufficient evidence of regeneration and thus baptism. See 1 Corinthians 12:3.

[40] Salter, “Abraham in Reformed Baptist Perspective,” 46.

[41] Wellum, “The New Covenant Work of Christ,” 534–35.

[42] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 27.

[43] ibid., 28. Gibson is quoting Michael S. Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 41.

[44] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 28–29.

[45] B. R. White, The English Baptists of the Seventeenth Century, A History of the English Baptists v. 1 (London: Baptist Historical Society, 1983), 59; Michael A. G. Haykin, Kiffin, Knollys and Keach: Rediscovering English Baptist Heritage (Leeds: Reformation Today, 1996), 26–32. See also James M. Renihan, “‘Truly Reformed in a Great Measure’: A Brief Defence of the English Separatist Origins of Modern Baptists” Journal of Baptist Studies 3 (2009): 24–32.

[46] W. Robert Godfrey, “The Belgic Confession and the True Church,” in By Common Confession: Essays in Honor of James M. Renihan, ed. Ronald S. Baines, Richard C. Barcellos, and James P. Butler (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2015), 274.

[47] Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, 153.

[48] See Michael A. G Haykin, “‘His Soul-Refreshing Presence’: The Lord’s Supper in Calvinistic Baptist Thought and Experience in the ‘Long’ Eighteenth Century, with Particular Reference to Anne Dutton and John Sutcliff” (paper presented at the Institute for Christian Worship, Louisville, KY, 28 February 2008); Haykin, Kiffin, Knollys and Keach, 77–81. For an account of the seventeenth-century Baptist view of baptism, both general and particular, see Stanley K. Fowler, More Than a Symbol: The British Baptist Recovery of Baptismal Sacramentalism (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2002), 10–32.

[49] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 29.

[50] This is Peter Leithart’s particular concern in “The Sociology of Infant Baptism,” in The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007), 123–24. His argument that credobaptism means that choice ‘takes a much more prominent, even crucial, role’ seems to me to be well directed at the vaguely Arminian Baptistic practice of much of American evangelicalism but not to touch credobaptism that is embedded in a Reformed, monergistic, soteriology.

[51] These are Gibson’s words to describe Salter’s original article. Gibson, “Sacramental Supersessionism,” 191.

[52] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 29.

[53] See Salter’s comments in “Abraham in Reformed Baptist Perspective,” 47–48.

[54] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 28.

[55] Ibid., 33.

[56] For one exegetical argument for this principle see Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 700–3.

[57] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 25. Italics original.

[58] Ferguson, “Infant Baptism Response,” 60. Italics original.

[59] Douglas Wilson, “Baptism and Children in the Old and New Testaments,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 301. In fairness, Wilson is directing his words not merely at credobaptists and credocommunionists, so Baptists can at least take comfort that they stand in good company!

[60] ibid., 300.

[61] Since the reader could simply respond, ‘but my child has been baptised and my spouse has not been’.

[62] David F. Wright, “Baptism at the Westminster Assembly,” in Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective: Collected Studies (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), 254.

[63] For discussion of the interpretation of this term see Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 531–33.

[64] Ibid., 530. Italics original.

[65] Robert S. Rayburn, “The Presbyterian Doctrines of Covenant Children, Covenant Nurture, and Covenant Sucession,” Presbyterion 22 (1996).

[66] Wilson, “Baptism and Children in the Old and New Testaments,” 286–302.

[67] Stephen R. Holmes, Baptist Theology, Doing Theology (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012), 90.

[68] This is Calvin’s language in Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.1.

[69] Gibson, “Fathers of Faith,” 32.

[70] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.34.

[71] Brandon C. Jones, Waters of Promise: Finding Meaning in Believer Baptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 132. See also Stanley K. Fowler, Rethinking Baptism: Some Baptist Reflections (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015).

[72] Fowler, More Than a Symbol, 210. Jones and Fowler’s books are both excellent discussions of the theology of baptism from a credobaptist perspective.

[73] Peter J. Leithart, The Priesthood of the Plebs: A Theology of Baptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 32–47.

Graham Shearer

Graham Shearer is a student at Oak Hill Theological College, London and a member of Trinity West Church, Shepherd’s Bush.

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