Volume 40 - Issue 1

‘Fathers of Faith, My Fathers Now!’: On Abraham, Covenant, and the Theology of Paedobaptism

By David Gibson


The figure of Abraham creates a covenantal framework for biblical theology that allows baptism to be considered in relation to the Bible's developing story line. On this credobaptists and paedobaptists agree. I suggest, however, that reflecting on Abraham also requires baptism to be located in relation to the doctrines of Christology and anthropology, and the theology of divine agency in covenant signs, in a way which points to the validity and beauty of infant baptism. Locating baptism in this way sketches a theology of paedobaptism which has a richer view of Jesus, a more attractive understanding of creation, and a more powerful conception of what God is doing in the sacraments than is present in credobaptist theology.

‘That feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand—
how I have loved this life.’

Rev. John Ames, in Gilead.1

Collin Brooks wrote that the difference between David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in a debate was that while Lloyd George had the gift of getting on the right side of a man, Churchill had the gift of getting on the right side of a question.2 Christian brothers in debate are charged with emulating both British Prime Ministers: there is a need to be on the right side of our brethren and the question. The former is surely not difficult; the latter is arguably more difficult.

Debating baptism-its mode, its subjects, and its meaning-is notorious ground for speaking past each other, precisely because the folly of standing on any other ground can seem so self-evident to both sides. Furthermore, changing one’s mind on the issue is connected to so many more issues than merely theology. Livelihoods, family relations, professional careers, and even ministries are often weighty factors in how one reaches decisions. Upton Sinclair said, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’3 In light of this, some may suggest the waters are best not muddied any further.

Martin Salter and I have a good track record of ignoring such suggestions, and have previously thrown ourselves into each other’s shallow and deep waters respectively in the attempt to convince that the other position is mistaken.4 Now we are going to try again. Perhaps this is naïve. But we are going to try boldly. Churchill said, ‘Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.’

The task in our essays is to explore the place of Abraham in the theologies of baptism espoused by padeobaptists and credobaptists.5 In this article I will treat Abraham in paedobaptist theology by suggesting that the question we need to be on the right side of is this: Who is a child of Abraham? We could inflect it slightly: How does one become a child of Abraham? Some may feel this is the wrong question and that it skews the whole presentation; others will think it is the right question but that I am on the wrong side of the right answer. But I ask it precisely because I take it to be the question which Paul is engaging and answering in the polemical sections of Romans and Galatians. Any perspective on Abraham and the theology of baptism can emerge only on the other side of trying to answer this question first of all.

I will make my case with three points, and for the sake of interest will frame my points polemically against the credobaptist position. I will argue that the credobaptist approach to the Abrahamic covenant has, first, an inadequate Christology; second, an unbiblical anthropology; and third, a reductionist theology of baptism. Put differently, Abraham in paedobaptist perspective reveals credobaptists to have an impoverished view of Jesus, a dualist doctrine of creation, and an anemic conception of divine agency in covenant signs. These points are intended to widen the lens of a potentially moribund debate and to provoke a spirited-but-smiling interchange among brothers, not a bitter exchange among opponents.6

1. The Christology of Baptism: Its Covenantal Structure

Credobaptists argue that Christ as the seed of Abraham is a fulfillment motif which renders invalid the genealogical principle on which the practice of paedobaptism rests so heavily. The genealogical principle is what we find in Gen 17:7 and passim: ‘I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come.’ What God establishes with Abraham, as head of his family and household, God also establishes with his family and household, and that principle within the covenant of grace continues across both old and new administrations. But here is the credobaptist objection:

[T]he covenantal argument for infant baptism also fails to see that the genealogical principle is transformed across the covenants; it does not remain unchanged. Under the previous covenants the relationship between the covenant mediator and his seed was primarily physical-biological (e.g., Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David). But now, in Christ, under his mediation, the relationship between Christ and his seed is no longer physical but spiritual, i.e., it is brought about by the work of the Spirit, which entails that the covenant sign must be applied only to those who in fact profess that they are the spiritual seed of Abraham.7

With such highlighting of the spiritual seed of Abraham, one could easily get the impression that this aspect of biblical theology is unknown to classic Reformed theology. In fact, it is not a challenge to paedobaptism, precisely because the Reformed understanding of how the covenant is fulfilled in Christ is far richer and more nuanced than many standard Baptist presentations.

Although the contexts are not identical-and there are important differences and nuances in argument-Abraham is a major player in the argument of Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans.8 In each case, Paul is concerned to show that the righteousness which justifies comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works of the law. Douglas Moo argues that Paul singles out Abraham as the reference point for expanding his argument, not just because the Jews saw him as their father, but because he was esteemed as the exemplar of Torah-obedience with his righteousness tied to that obedience. In contrast, Paul seeks to show this was not in accord with OT Scripture. More than this, Paul focuses on Abraham ‘because of the decisive role the OT gives to him in the formation of the people of Israel and in the transmission of the promise. Both Paul’s insistence that justification is by faith alone and his concern for the full inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God make it necessary for him to integrate Abraham into his scheme.’9

In Galatians, the particular context is table-fellowship with Gentiles and the argument from Abraham is introduced with the issue of whether the reception of the Spirit is based on observing the law or faith in Christ. In Romans, the argument from Abraham is connected to how the circumcised and uncircumcised are justified. In both cases, Paul is expounding Gen 15:6 against his interlocuters: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” The matter of sequence is absolutely crucial: Abraham believed God and was counted righteous before he received the sign and seal of circumcision. This sequencing of faith first, and everything else second, is at the heart of Paul’s argument as to why the Gentiles can now be treated as righteous in God’s sight without being circumcised or observing the law. For it was always so.

In Galatians, however, the matter of sequence is tied to a bigger issue of chronology. It is not just important that faith came before circumcision; it is just as important that the promise came before the law. Paul’s understanding of biblical chronology is the key to Gal 3, and it is what we need to see in examining v. 16, which is one of the central verses credobaptists use in developing their fulfillment critique of the genealogical principle: ‘Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say “And to offsprings”, referring to many; but, referring to one, ‘And to your offspring’, which is Christ.’

The strangeness here is not really Paul’s singular understanding of the collective plural noun-there are good ways of understanding this.10 Rather, the question here is: why does Paul need to make this point at all? Why does he need to say the promises were spoken to Abraham and Christ? Answer: chronology.

For if chronology is the linchpin of Paul’s argument-which came first, promise or law?-then notice that by so arguing, Paul has a problem. It is easy to prove that the Abrahamic covenant came before the Sinai covenant, that promise came before law, but then did not the law come before Christ? Paul is going to argue in v. 17 that the covenant came first and the law (430 years later) cannot annul what came first. But Paul’s own argument about chronology could be turned against him by the Judaisers; it does not help to argue that what comes earlier is more foundational when the law comes earlier than Christ.

This is why v. 16 is so important. Paul is saying that the promise, which came first, was in fact a promise given to Christ and not just to Abraham. F. F. Bruce says that the prefix προ in προκεκυρωμένην (v. 17) indicates that the covenant was validated at the time it was given, long before the law, and was complete in itself with all the confirmation it required from the authority of the God who made it.11 That covenant, validated before the law arrived, was a covenant with Christ. So if Christ is the seed of Abraham who received the promises as well as him, then there is a vital sense in which, while Christ appeared after the law, he nevertheless also preceded it. I think this point is essential to Paul’s argument. Before Moses ever appeared on the scene, before Sinai, Paul is arguing that Abraham’s covenant was also Christ’s covenant.

This means we need to nuance the language we use when speaking here about Christ and the promises given to Abraham. Salter uses the word ‘fulfillment’ on several occasions, and that is right and proper, but I would argue that staring at Gal 3:16 leads us to say not just that Christ fulfills the promise to Abraham but that the promise was made to him as well. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Paul is here arguing for, or dependent on, belief in Christ’s pre-existence; that is not his point. Rather, the assertion is simply that when Christ appeared in time he did so as the one with whom the Abrahamic covenant was made, not simply as the one who fulfilled it. For that is what the text actually says. Christ’s relationship to the promise is twofold: he received it, as well as fulfilled it.

As far as I can tell, this perspective has been all but lost in modern biblical studies. But a text like Gal 3:16 was fertile ground for the development in classical Reformed theology for the belief that the covenant of grace was made with Christ in a way which structured the way in which it was also made with Abraham and his seed. This verse funded the belief that Christ is not just the fulfiller of the Abrahamic covenant; he is also the foundation of it. The position is well expressed in The Westminster Larger Catechism:

Question 31. With whom was the covenant of grace made?

The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.

This is not exegetically unwarranted. Bruce says of Paul’s surprising point in Gal 3:16: ‘In the first instance the reference is to a single descendant, Christ, through whom the promised blessing was to come to all the Gentiles. In the second instance the reference is to all who receive the blessing; in v. 29 all who belong to Christ are thereby included in Abraham’s offspring.’12

In the great federal passages Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15, Paul does not argue from Adam and Abraham, but from Adam and Christ as the two great covenantal heads. In Isa 42:6, the Lord addresses his servant: ‘I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles.’ Christ is a covenant representative, the second Adam who restores what the first Adam lost, and so he is the mediator of the covenant of grace and the head of a new humanity. Focusing on Adam and Christ is a startling bypassing of the whole story of Israel and the promises to Abraham, unless, of course, what God was doing redemptively in Abraham and the promises is somehow included in what God was doing in Christ.

This is what Reformed theology has argued. Bavinck, for instance, says that Noah, Abraham, Israel and others were not the actual parties and heads in the covenant of grace (although we might say that the choice of ‘actual’ is infelicitous): ‘On the contrary, then and now, in the Old and New Testaments, Christ was and is the head and the key party in the covenant of grace, and through his administration it came to the patriarchs and to Israel. He who had existed from eternity, and had made himself the surety, also immediately after the fall acted as prophet, priest, and king, as the second Adam, as head and representative of fallen humankind.’13

This understanding within Reformed theology itself became the soil in which grew the idea of a covenant of redemption, the pactum salutis, which helped to distinguish within the covenant of grace as it was ‘ready-made from all eternity’ between the three persons of the Trinity with Christ as head and guarantor, and as it was applied and executed in time with Christ as mediator.14 The covenant of grace is founded on Christ, fulfilled in Christ, and bequeathed by Christ.15 This understanding is nicely expressed in The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter eight, on Christ the Mediator:

It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man; the Prophet, Priest, and King; the Head and Saviour of his Church; the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world; unto whom he did from all eternity give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.16

The credobaptist critique of the genealogical principle works by focusing on Christ as the fulfillment of the covenant of grace, but it is undermined by not reflecting at all, as far as I can see, on the fact that Christ is its foundation before he fulfills or bestows it. Salter and others, such as Gentry and Wellum, argue that the covenant of grace is a story with a destination that paedobaptists have failed to arrive at: it is heading somewhere, namely, to fulfillment in Christ. But I wish to suggest that the covenant of grace is a story with a beginning that credobaptists have failed to start: it is founded on Christ before it ever progresses to Christ. The credobaptist traces a line from Abraham to Christ, but in reality the line to be traced is from Christ to Abraham to Christ again. Abraham is Christ’s seed, before Christ is ever Abraham’s seed.

Two implications follow. First, notice what this does to Gentry and Wellum’s argument that under the previous covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David) the relationship between the covenant mediator and his seed was primarily physical-biological. That simply cannot be true. If from all eternity the Father gave to his Son a people to be his seed, the foundational relationship has always been spiritual, not physical (although I hasten to add that I dislike Gentry and Wellum’s distinction between physical and spiritual, at least as they understand it). In other words, the primary relationship between God and his people is a decretal one, primary in the sense of being logically and chronologically prior to any outworking of that relationship in space-time history. The seed are in Christ before they are in the world. Arguing for ‘physical-biological’ in the old covenant and ‘spiritual’ in the new is first and foremost the result of an inadequate Christology.

This leads to the second implication. It is this understanding of the covenant of grace which provides a deep covenantal foundation to the way that Paul is arguing in Galatians and Romans. What we find in Salter’s work, and also at the heart of Gentry and Wellum’s critique of paedobaptism, is that in the new covenant the primary relationship between God and his people is a spiritual one based on faith: ‘all of the realities of the new covenant age and the benefits that come to us are because of our faith union in Christ.’17 Paedobaptists, of course, do not disagree with this. On the contrary, if the covenant of grace is made with Christ and his people who are his seed, then it follows that he does not save them in two different ways, either physically in the old covenant and spiritually in the new covenant, or by the law or works or circumcision in the old covenant and by faith in the new covenant. Paul’s whole point in both Romans and Galatians is that there has only ever been one way of salvation, and it is by faith, and neither by bloodline nor Torah-obedience.

To try and put this even more clearly, Paul cannot be arguing that because Christ is the fulfillment of the promise, the genealogical principle is therefore invalidated. For the very promise, being founded on Christ, in itself and from the moment it was given, showed that genealogy was never a guarantee of inheritance or true sonship. The genealogical principle could be as invalid at the time of Abraham as it was around a meal-table in Antioch, as Peter says, ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ to the ritually unclean. Paul rebuked Peter because it was his very genealogy (‘we who are Jews by birth know that . . .’) which should have taught him that neither it nor the law makes him clean: he was not justified by being either a Jew, or a law-keeper, or by being both together (Gal 2:15). The repeated rebuke of the prophets to Israel was that genealogy as a source of religious pride was an insult to the God who himself had instituted the genealogical principle!

From the beginning of the covenant with Abraham onwards, you could be a son of Abraham and a child of God. From the beginning, you could be a son of Abraham and a child of the devil. From the beginning, you could be a Jew and yet not be a Jew (Rom 2:28-29). You could be a son of Abraham and yet not be a son of Abraham. From the beginning, you could be circumcised and have Abraham as your father, or not have him as your father, depending on whether you walked in his footsteps of faith or not. From the beginning, you could be uncircumcised and have Abraham as your father, or not have him as your father, depending on whether you had his faith or not. It is not that there is now a spiritual understanding of the genealogical principle-it was always there.

This is an attempt to argue that if Paul is saying that the promise fulfilled in Christ introduces something fundamentally new into the Abrahamic covenant, then Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians falls apart, for its very logic depends on him giving the Judaisers their own Scriptures and showing them that what he is saying is not, in fact, new but has always been the case. Rather, what is new now is that because the curse of the law has been removed in Christ, the gates to God’s family are taken off their hinges. In Christ, the genealogical principle is not abandoned; it is recalibrated to a truly international scale.

One of N. T. Wright’s chapter headings in his latest book on Paul, where he treats Rom 4 and Gal 3, is ‘The People of God, Freshly Reworked’.18 I think the Reformed, with our stress on the one people of God throughout all of Scripture, can be comfortable with this. For as a concept, at least, the idea of a fresh reworking of God’s people is not in the introduction of something radically new into the covenant, but in how the death of the Messiah under the curse of the law allows what was always there now to be drawn out and come to fruition: a single family of Jew and Gentile in covenant relationship to the God who made the world. The gospel announced in advance to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him can now in fact be taken to the nations-the death and resurrection of the Seed of Abraham sets free a world imprisoned by sin by lifting the curse pronounced against it. But this is a change in scale, not in soteriology. It is a change of administration, not a change of substance or structure. The Mediator is one. The covenant is one. Salvation is one. ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ For Jew, Gentile, Christian, it is and always has been so.

Who is a child of Abraham? Abraham and Paul both return the same answer to our question. Old covenant and new covenant, the answer is the same: a child of Abraham is one who has the faith of Abraham in the God who gives righteousness to those who believe. A child of Abraham is one who has faith in Christ and belongs to Christ (Gal 3:29). How do you become a child of Abraham? By coming to Christ and believing in him. You become a child by having faith.

2. The Anthropology of Baptism: Its Covenantal Subjects

I am aware, of course, that the final lines of the above point are precisely where my credobaptist brothers and sisters remain perplexed. They may wish to point out that the title of my article has a follow-on line, ‘Fathers of faith, my fathers now! because in Christ I am‘.19 If you become a child of Abraham by faith in Christ, then how is it possible to regard children who do not have this faith as Abraham’s children and therefore worthy recipients of covenant signs?

In his lovely exposition of the Heidelberg Catechism, Karl Barth expresses just such incredulity when he comes to Question 74. Are infants to be baptized? The Catechism’s positive answer to this question ‘comes as a surprise’ because up to now ‘we have heard that baptism is the confirmation or establishment of faith by the assurance of its origin in the blood and spirit of Jesus Christ.’ In Barth’s view, ‘All the previously discussed constitutive marks of baptism (especially the faith of the baptized) are suddenly ignored.’20 At the same time, Barth admits of the Catechism’s position that ‘Baptism is handled in this unexpected and unfounded way in all classical Protestant theology, even in Calvin.’21 The sheer breadth and impressive pedigree of the mistake must at least give credobaptists pause. What is going on when justification sola fide can be as highly prized as it is in Reformation theology and when baptism as sign and seal of that faith is as joyfully administered to infants as it is in Reformation theology? One clue is that sola fide is understood covenantally.

I will argue in this second point that if the genealogical principle is not invalidated in the new covenant, then it is one part of forming a biblical anthropology of fathers and children, and covenant heads who act in representative ways towards their progeny. In credobaptist theology, by contrast, an unbiblical category of human person opens up: the autonomous individual who relates to God outside of the normal web and complex of family relationships, societal location and covenantal structures. The way to enter a relationship with Christ is only by personal volition, and this is because faith must be personal and individually real. The latter is true, of course, but the means of reaching that point in credobaptist theology is crudely modern and divorced from how the Bible conceives of the family, and in particular the father.22

Pause for a moment and think how strange our evangelical concept of ‘asking Jesus into my heart’ as a decisive conversion moment would be in the world of OT covenant relationship. Do we see anything resembling a normative crisis moment conversion of children to Yahweh in the OT? We do not. Rather, faith in the God of the covenant as the heart of the covenant relationship is meant to be passed down through the generations to those born within the covenant. One of the primary means for this is education (Deut 6:4-9). In Ps 78, Asaph is determined to pass on ‘what our fathers have told us’ (v. 3). The things learned from those who went before him will not be hidden from the children who come after him: ‘we will tell the next generation’ (v. 4).

Another means of transmission that God uses-along with nurture, inculturation, and education-is the sign and seal of the covenant. In my view, this is where so many credobaptist critiques of paedobaptism founder. Credobaptists often struggle to understand paedobaptism for the simple reason that their conception of circumcision is inadequate. Salter’s explanation of the meaning of circumcision in the OT gives subordinate importance to the apostle Paul’s explanation of its meaning in Rom 4:1l: circumcision is the sign and seal that God gives righteousness to the one who has faith. Instead, while credobaptists typically admit there was a spiritual meaning to the rite, the weight of emphasis falls on its meaning being tied to land, blessing, dynasty, and the provision of a male line to Christ.23

This mistake marks a decisive fork in the road between credobaptist and paedobaptist theology, not least as far as the place of Abraham within each is concerned. With Barth, for instance, there is significant stress on circumcision as a physical marker of national distinction, such that this premise has interpretive influence over his understanding of Israel and the church.24 Paedobaptists, however, contend 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. It was a mark of the everlasting covenant. In 17:10, God even calls circumcision itself ‘my covenant’ (more on this below), and in 17:13, this covenant in the flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.

So when Gen 17 is read alongside Rom 4:11, a theological premise of paedobaptism emerges. Abraham had faith and then was circumcised. It was sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith, and yet it is that same sign and seal which he is told to place on his male offspring. Same sign, same meaning: his children do not receive a circumcision which meant something different for them than it meant for Abraham. It was for Abraham the mark in his flesh of the eternal covenant, which had at its heart the truth that God counts as righteous the one who has faith-which he did. It was for his children the mark in their flesh of the eternal covenant, which had at its heart the truth that God counts as righteous those who have faith-which they did not. Yet.

Paedobaptists read and love the same biblical texts as credobaptists that portray baptism as a death and resurrection with Christ, and as a sign of putting off the sinful nature and putting on Christ to show the new man in faith-union to him. Rom 6, Col 2, and Gal 3 really are in our Bibles. But none of these stop us from baptising our babies because we see Abraham giving the sign of spiritual realities-the everlasting covenant, no less!-to those as yet incapable of cognitively embracing those realities. And he is our father. I baptize my children because I am a Christian father who has Abraham as my father. Rather than just being connected to him out there, somehow, in the biblical ether, in Christ he is our covenant father. So we should do what he did. We should walk in his footsteps. We should have his faith. And therefore we should sign and seal our children as belonging to that same covenant of faith.

Perhaps it helps to identify this as the heart of the paradigm shift from reading the Bible as a credopbaptist to reading it as a paedobaptist. I read Gal 3:26-29, for instance, and see the clear definition of the true Abrahamic family as marked by faith in Christ, and I see the close proximity of baptism to this spiritual reality, but I understand baptism here to function in a parallel way to circumcision in the OT. The true Abrahamic family was always defined by living faith and, just like baptism, circumcision was a sign and seal of that living faith. And from Abraham onwards it was applied to the children of those who were justified by faith. More could be said about this paradigm. In John 1:12-13, for instance, my understanding is not that it used to be possible to be a child of God by natural descent in the old covenant, whereas it is now impossible in the new covenant. Rather, the children of God according to promise and spiritual rebirth, a line which was always there in the OT, is now being climactically displayed as the line to which Jesus holds the rights of entitlement.

Our father Abraham circumcised, and Christian fathers baptize, because in biblical anthropology, cognition does not have to be the first step towards belonging. Personal understanding is, of course, a necessary step towards embracing the reality of the covenant, but within families it does not come first. For not only is the genealogical principle not invalidated in the new covenant because that covenant is in fact founded on Christ, not just fulfilled by him; so too it is not invalidated in the new covenant because the genealogical principle is Adamic, not just Abrahamic. Maybe better: it is creational, not just redemptive. The genealogical principle is simply how God has made the world to work.

In Gen 17, God leads Abraham into the covenant home to show him hanging on the wall a portrait of redemption as ‘a renovation of creation spoiled by Adam rather than a new creation ex nihilo.’25 How so? N. T. Wright observes that the promises to Abraham directly echo the commands to Adam and Eve (‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’), only the reverberation is now gift not command. The original divine mandate, seemingly thwarted by the fall into pride, rebellion and sin-not to mention fratricide, barren wombs, and patriarchal misbehavior-will be realized through divine faithfulness.26 Bavinck says that the covenant of grace ‘pronounces the deep and beautiful truth’ that because Adam has been replaced by Christ, the humanity that fell in the person of the first is restored in the person of the second; it is not just individuals who are saved but the whole structure of an organism that is saved, and the structure of the organism that the elect form in Christ is derived from the original creation in Adam. The covenant of grace does not ‘leap from individual to individual but perpetuates itself organically and historically.’27 In making the covenant with Abraham and his offspring-we must note the recurrence of that phrase all the way throughout Gen 17:1-14-God is not, in soteriology, imposing a new structure on created order but rather, in soteriology, using that created order to achieve his redemptive ends.

At the heart of this structure is federalism, one expression of which is this: dads dominate. To be a husband, to be a father, is to be a head, and to be a head is to shape the life of those who are joined to you, whether in voluntary union in marriage or adoption, or in their involuntary union to you in paternity. Husbands and fathers do not choose to be a head-you are one-the only choice you make is what kind to be. And for our little ones, we do it without one bit of their say so. What I do as a father, forms. What I do as a dad, dominates. Douglas Wilson argues this even holds when a father abdicates responsibility to the extent of desertion, for now his instrument of choice for dominating a home is the empty chair.28

The family is the chief organism in world culture and its inherent federalism runs counter to at least some credobaptist understandings of voluntarism. Barth protested that infant baptism is ‘arbitrary and despotic’, and is ‘an act of violence’, because it is an unwilled imposition on the child of something they have not voluntarily chosen.29 But, as Peter Leithart points out, this is surely a naïve proposition: ‘Infants are never brought up in a religiously neutral setting, having no religious identities or biases imposed on them. If imposing religion on a child is an act of violence, every child is a victim of violence.’30 Instead of imposition, the biblical worldview is that of inclusion. Scripture teaches ‘that all our generations are connected to one another-humanity is more like a river than a series of ponds.’31 It is not strange for David to say, ‘You made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast’ (Ps 22:10). The reality of belonging to God from the very start of life is beautifully expressed: ‘From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God’ (v. 11). Elsewhere in the Psalms, trust in God is traced back to its earliest foundations: ‘For you have been my hope, O Sovereign Lord, my confidence since my youth. From my birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother’s womb’ (Ps 71:5-6). ‘The promise of the covenant nation that is sealed with the claiming of Abraham’s sexual organ will be realized through the loving pedagogy of the family. Politics and society are conceived in the bedroom and are cradled in the family.’32

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that such including of the helpless within a world of care and love, and the nurture and instruction of the ignorant and unformed, is a reflection of the hospitality displayed by the gospel itself. In a striking essay, B. B. Warfield examines the place of children in the Gospels and concludes that ‘the most vivid emblems provided by society to image the dependence of God’s people on his loving protection and fostering care’ are the helplessness of infancy and the dependence of childhood. He goes so far as to say that because the family was to Christ the nearest of analogues to the divine-human relationship, his teaching about God and his people was largely only ‘a transfiguration of the family’.33

Helplessness and dependence mark the littlest in our homes-yet Jesus says the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as them (Matt 19:13-15). I know that credobaptists are often perplexed about the relevance of this text to the issue of baptism, but its bearing lies in the fact that paedobaptists work from a theology of infants before we develop a theology of infant baptism. Jesus does not say that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like little children; rather it belongs to ‘such as these’ (v. 14). When Calvin argues, in discussion of this passage, that Christ came to enlarge not restrict the Father’s mercy, he is working from a covenantal frame of reference. A biblical theology of covenant charts the drama of exclusivity developing into increasing inclusivity, as the gospel to Israel progresses towards its intended fulfillment as the gospel to the nations. If children were included in covenant promise in the OT, would we really expect Jesus to exclude them as he comes to fulfill all that had been promised?

However, if it is a question of separating what Jesus Christ did from baptism, which ought to be considered the greater? That Jesus Christ receives them, lays His hands on them in sign of sanctification, and prays for them, showing that they are His own, or that we, by baptism, testify that they belong to His covenant?34

Martin Salter and other credobaptists argue that the fundamental problem with my line of reasoning here is its failure to take into account the substantial discontinuities that exist between the covenants, not least when it comes to children and families, as evidenced by passages such as Jer 31:29-34.

One argument is that the tribal-familial structure of the old covenant disappears at the coming of the new covenant.35 Jer 31:29-30 says, ‘In those days they shall no longer say: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.’ This proverb relates to children bearing the consequences of their fathers’ sins from a previous generation (cf. Ezek 18:2-3; Lam 5:7). Credobaptists interpret this to mean that God was doing away with the tribal-familial system that was so integral to the old covenant, in which the actions of an older generation had consequences for the next generation. In this case, the sins of pre-exilic Israelite fathers meant that their children suffered in exile. And so, by implication, the same holds for God’s blessing in the new covenant: no longer can the fathers be blessed by God and children automatically receive the same blessing as it was in the old covenant: ‘to you and to your children after you’. Rather, blessing would now work the same way as curse: on the individual level only. In relation to sin, ‘everyone shall die for his own sin. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge’ (Jer 31:30). In relation to grace, it no longer runs in families, but only comes to each person individually as they respond to the gospel.

This interpretation, however, does not sufficiently attend to the passage’s own context, both within Jeremiah and wider afield within the OT itself. The context of the proverbial saying is the exile: the generation in exile are bearing the consequences of a previous generation’s sins. Jeremiah’s point is simply that future generations in the new covenant will not experience an exile again like this for the sins of a previous generation. Note what Jeremiah says just prior to the saying: never again will God uproot, tear down, overthrow, destroy or bring disaster on his covenant people as he did with this exilic generation (Jer 31:27-28). Second, the words “But everyone shall die for his own sin” (v. 30) is an allusion back to Deut 24:16-an old covenant text. Within the old covenant with Israel, the people were held personally responsible for individual sins-this is not a new element in the new covenant. Rather, there is continuity between the old covenant and the new covenant in regard to personal responsibility for sin, and in this particular context, this means that God will not bring about another exile. That there is a change in the familial structural within the new covenant does not follow.

Closely connected to this is the contention of credobaptists that in the new covenant, the essentially mixed nature of the old covenant disappears: ‘”No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord’, because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord‘ (v. 34). It was part of the old covenant to have people within it who did not know the Lord in a saving way, but in the new covenant this will be impossible. Naturally this cuts against the grain of children being included in the way I have been arguing. However, the credobaptist reading of these verses is again vulnerable when their context is examined, both narrowly and more widely.

The phrase ‘they will all know me’ (v. 34) could either mean they will all know me without exception, or it might mean they will all know me without distinction. The immediate context suggests the latter meaning because the phrase is followed straight away by the totalizing merismus phrase ‘from the least of them to the greatest’. The ‘all’ of v. 34 is being interpreted in a particular way even within the same verse.

It is important to realize the new covenant is here being contrasted not with the Abrahamic covenant, but with the Mosaic covenant (vv. 31-32), and so therefore the ‘no longer’ constituents of the new covenant should be seen in opposition to certain constituents of the Mosaic covenant. In that context, we can understand ‘no longer will a man teach his neighbor’ as an explicit reference to the ceremonial law, because the matter of a man teaching his neighbor or brother to know the Lord was the distinctive duty of the Levitical priesthood (Deut 33:8-10). They had this duty by virtue of occupying a special place as those known by, and who knew, the Lord (Num 3:12). When this language, then, is itself immediately followed by ‘from the least of them to the greatest’, a strong case can be made that what is being referred to is classes or ranks of persons who were intimately connected to the Levitical priesthood.36 This is why the presence of Jer 31 in Heb 8, a text specifically concerned to develop the nature of Christ’s non-Levitical priesthood, makes perfect sense. It is not that the coming of Christ introduces something radically new into the nature of the Abrahamic covenant by now making it entirely ‘pure’ as opposed to ‘mixed.’ When Jesus inaugurated the new Israel with twelve apostles was it wholly regenerate, or mixed? Rather, in the new covenant, Christ renders obsolete the particular ministry of Levitical priests which was a defining feature of the Mosaic covenant.

But a wider reading of Jeremiah’s new covenant promise is also significant. Regularly overlooked is the parallel promise of the new covenant in Jer 32: ‘They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them’ (vv. 38-39).37 The Hebrew phrase ‘for good’ (לְטוֹב) occurs only once here, not twice, as in most English translations, so that, as Neil Jeffers says on this passage, ‘The good to the people cannot be differentiated from the good to the children.’38 There is one good to both.

Jeffers says he can find only one credobaptist treatment of this new covenant promise to children, Fred Malone in The Baptism of Disciples Alone, who argues that the ‘good’ being referred to here is that it will be good for those children who are raised in a heart-changed home. But is that likely to be the deepest meaning of the good that God is offering here? In the very next verse we learn that this covenant made with them is ‘an everlasting covenant’ (v. 40). Given the presence of the covenant formula (‘my people, their God’), the repetition of the phrase ‘everlasting covenant’, and the repetition of the genealogical principle (‘them and their children’), then surely here we are seeing the Abrahamic covenant, the everlasting covenant, being promised in a new administration, and with all the blessedness that God intends for those who belong to him-and it includes the children of his people. This reading of the passage is consistent with other ‘new covenant’ passages, nearly all of which are noticeably absent from credobaptist treatments of the new covenant.39

In the New Testament, then, it cannot be a coincidence that the threefold categories for circumcision in Gen 17 (Abraham, his seed, foreigners in his house) is matched by the threefold categories for baptism in Acts 2:39: ‘The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-for all whom the Lord our God will call’ (you, your children, the far off). This is because the genealogical principle is redemptive and it is creational. It is how God made the world to work.

The significant thing about the household baptisms in Acts is not arguing ad infinitum over whether there were or were not infants in those houses-the best we can say is that we do not know. The significant thing, rather, is that there were such phenomena as household baptisms at the very point in redemptive history when, apparently, the structure and blessing of households had been abolished: what the head of the house did, or what a parent did, everyone did. In Eph 6:1-2, children are told to obey their parents in the Lord, to honor them in keeping with the first commandment with a promise (cf. Exod 20:12). Quite apart from what Paul must be assuming about their covenant status to be applying a covenant promise to them, this is the application of creational and redemptive federalism all at the same time: parents as head and Christ as Lord, and children do what both require.

My argument is that 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: does the natural world have anything in common with the spiritual world?

Michael Horton argues in his recent book, Calvin on the Christian Life, that there are at least three models of relating God to the world. The medieval and Roman model blended God and the world, most visibly in the sacraments, with the doctrine of transubstantiation. The Reformed got the relationship between God and the world right, not least in the sacraments, by arguing that God and the world are distinguished but not separated.40 On the other side of these two views, however, grew up the Anabaptist tradition, and Horton points out that at least one prominent Anabaptist scholar acknowledges that the movement was indebted to a Greek dualism between spirit and matter.41 Anabaptism displays a theological commitment to discontinuity ‘between God and creaturely reality that is evident also in relating spirit and matter, soul and body, church and state, invisible and visible church, God’s saving work and the external means of grace. In short, the bond between God and the world is broken.’42

Here Horton is seeking to penetrate the philosophical presuppositions latent in the more commonly known Anabaptist discontinuity thesis, that is, between the Old and New Testaments. This notion-that the old covenant consists of inferior earthly, physical promises as opposed to the new covenant with its superior spiritual promises relating to eternal life-has encountered a long history of Reformed rebuttals.43 But its presence lingers on in subdued form as I have shown in my earlier response to Salter’s original essay and, as we have seen here, in the work of Gentry and Wellum. In Salter’s Reformed Baptist worldview, and in Gentry and Wellum’s progressive covenantalism thesis, the bond between God and the world is broken because they make it only spiritual when it comes to the new covenant in Christ. That cannot be the biblical outlook, because in Abraham and his offspring-the covenant founded on Christ and his elect-the bond between God and the world is redeemed, not broken.

The credobaptist worldview is, I submit, in the end a fundamentally unattractive aesthetic. It sees less in the world than God intended by so radically separating nature and grace. In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the elderly Rev. John Ames is writing down all the things he will never be able to say to his young son. The novel has some charming cameos on baptism. When Ames says in a description of infant baptism, ‘That feeling of a baby’s brow against the palm of your hand-how I have loved this life’, he is not talking about the ministerial life, or church life, but simply life.44 He is talking about the sheer blessing of the genealogical principle, physically and spiritually, and what it feels like to be a human being in deep bonded relationship to another human being. So conceived, baptism is not itself the gospel, but its function as sign and seal of the gospel is being enacted within the created order. Indeed, in Lila, the third of Robinson’s Gilead vignettes, Lila’s first encounter with the gospel is when she gatecrashes a baptism. In an achingly beautiful moment, her own lost and destitute childhood, spent as a wandering outcast, stands in stark opposition to a world of tender inclusion and adopting grace. In seeing more than she understands, Lila speaks better than she knows: ‘He was going on about baptism. A birth and a death and a marriage, he said. A touch of water and these children are given the whole of life.’45

Such a vision of life prompts this question: if the bond between God and the world is broken in credobaptist soteriology, does credobaptism risk being sacramentally docetic? For, necessarily, credobaptism 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.

Paedobaptist anthropology, in contrast, prompts this question: can the bond between my children and me be only a bond of nature, or can it be a bond of grace as well? Abraham and Christ in the covenant of grace show it can be both-and, not either-or. ‘Grace does not remain outside or above or beside nature but rather permeates and wholly renews it . . . [Christianity] creates no new cosmos but rather makes the cosmos new. It restores what was corrupted by sin. It atones the guilty and cures what is sick; the wounded it heals.’46

3. The Theology of Baptism: Its Covenantal Significance

A dualist account of spirit and matter can take different forms. There can be the separation of spiritual and physical in terms of the recipients of baptism, as I have hinted at above; there can also be a separation of spiritual and physical in terms of our definition of baptism.

In this section, I will argue that credobaptism’s understanding of baptism as a covenant sign is so thinly drawn that the physical act of baptism can come to be separated from what it spiritually signifies. Where this happens, persons who have been baptized with water in the triune name can nevertheless come to be regarded as not having been baptized, most likely due to the absence of faith at the time of the baptism or subsequently, perhaps evidenced in willful apostasy. The spiritual and the physical are disentangled from each other, and the former trumps the latter as in some way expressing the ‘essence’ of the sacrament.

The classical Reformed view of the sacraments, however, is that God’s saving work and the external means of grace are to be distinguished but not separated. That is, being baptized is not identical to being saved, but being baptized might have something to do with being saved (1 Pet 3:21). God’s saving work is not separated from his signing and sealing work, and because the way in which God saves, signs and seals is covenantal, then physical and spiritual cannot be separated.

Consider the wording at the introduction of covenant signs. There is often more on view than we expect. In Gen 17, circumcision is itself called ‘my covenant’ (v. 10). In v. 13, God says, ‘My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant.’ This is striking. At face value, there seems to be some kind of identification between the sign and the thing signified, so that it is not just that circumcision points to the covenant, but that the covenant itself is somehow cut in the flesh. At the same time, circumcision is also called a ‘mark’ or ‘sign’ of the covenant (v. 11), so that there is another sense in which the sign is not the thing signified. There is a reality to the covenant that is more than circumcision itself.

But notice what this means. It is not that there is physical circumcision over here which is just that, purely physical, and then the spiritual reality over there which it points to, the eternal covenant. Rather they are joined together in some kind of union. In Matt 26:26, Jesus says, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’, and then offering the cup he says, ‘this is my blood of the covenant’ (v. 28). We know how much ink (and blood) has been spilt on the meaning of ‘is’ in these words. But we observe Jesus does not say the bread is like his body, or points to his body, nor likewise the wine: he says each is his body and blood, respectively.

This language ensures the signs of the covenant actually are something, before they are subjectively appropriated by those who receive them. There is an objective aspect to the sacrament, not diluted by the absence of faith nor concentrated by the presence of faith. The mark in the flesh is the everlasting covenant, yet the crying child knows nothing but the pain of the blade. What makes circumcision a covenant, and what makes bread and wine a body and blood, is not the elements themselves (for many nations circumcise and not all bread and wine are sacramental), nor the response of the recipient to the elements, but rather the words spoken about the elements. This is why Calvin, for instance, can say ‘Baptism was given to us by God, first to serve our faith in Him, secondly to serve our confession before God.’47 The order is significant. God is serving us in baptism before we serve him by being baptized. This means that ‘the proper substance of baptism’ is found by ‘understanding the promises which are given in it.’48 God is speaking a visible word in water, and that word remains his word regardless of whether or how we hear it.

God is the primary actor in the sacraments who speaks his covenant promises to his children. Michael Horton has attractively developed the promissory nature of the sacraments:

As in secular treaties, biblical rites are means of binding strangers to the Other who summons them to his fellowship: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Particularly in the case of a royal grant, the ratification ceremony is the handing over of a gift. Neither, on the one hand, is it the testator’s transformation of the physical instruments (i.e., the parchment and the wax seal) into his personal body, nor, on the other hand, is it merely a symbolic event. Rather, it is an official, public, and legally binding rite according to which the inheritance is delivered to the beneficiary. It is not the transfer of substance, but the transfer of title to an inheritance that the covenantal context presupposes.49

This is an attempt to rescue sacramental ontologies from alien philosophical categories, where the emphasis in protracted debates tended to fall on the issue of substance and accidents, and in various ways some kind of transformation of the physical matter was believed to take place. Instead, ‘words and signs together constitute an act of covenant making, analogous to political unions or personal unions, as in marriage or adoption.’50 Baptism and the Supper are signs of the Abrahamic covenant of grace, and so they are the sign and seal of the divine promise to be our God and to have us as his people. In water, bread and wine, we literally feel with our bodies and taste with our mouth his bountiful promise to wash us clean and bind us to him. Therefore, in a covenantal framework,

Sacraments involve a giving of gifts from one person to another, not an exchange of substances. Its interest is not in what happens to the signs but in what happens between persons through them, not how Christ is present in the sacraments, but that he is present in saving action towards us. Grace is God’s favor, and the sacraments ratify God’s favor towards us. Their purpose is to reconcile enemies, not elevate nature beyond itself.51

At the same time, Horton’s stress on the personal divine-human relations displayed in baptism and communion rightly points to the fact that the signs and seals of the covenant oblige the human partner to faith and obedience. This itself has been developed in J. V. Fesko’s biblical theology of baptism.52 Fesko shows, in light of its OT antecedents, that an exegetical and theological account of baptism locates it in the wider biblical themes of new creation, covenant judgment, and eschatological judgment. Just as covenants were made with words of promised blessing, so too there were promised curses if the terms of the covenant were not obeyed. The signs of the covenant are performative words which visibly enact both aspects of the covenant. Just as circumcision pointed to the cutting away of the hardness of heart required by a covenant received entirely by faith, so too the breaking of the covenant leads to an individual being cut off from the people (Gen 17:14). Just as baptism points to the outpouring of the Spirit-the eschatological fulfillment of God’s covenant promises bringing new life and new creation to God’s people-so too the same Spirit ‘comes upon the creation like a flood. Like the waters of the Noahic deluge, the outpouring of the Spirit drowns the wicked in judgment.’53 The sacraments are sign and seal of God’s promises of blessing and cursing.

In many forms of credobaptism, however, two important things which I have been arguing for above are often missing, with deleterious effects for a theology of baptism. First, by tending to emphasize Calvin’s second point about baptism over his first, that is, by making baptism primarily a sign of our faith displayed before God and the world, and thereby allowing the promissory nature of God’s action in baptism either to recede into the background or disappear altogether, the definition of what baptism actually is tends to be drawn more from the realm of human response than divine agency. By effectively making the connection between personal confession and true baptism individual and not covenantal, the close union between sign and thing signified becomes suspended on human action not the word of divine promise. Second, by tending to focus on the blessing aspect of baptism, but not its signification of covenantal sanctions, baptism comes to lose some of its pedagogical and hortatory potential within the life of the believer. In both respects, in different ways, the dualism of spirit-matter is present.

Evidence of this can be seen in Karl Barth’s powerful fragment on baptism at the end of the Church Dogmatics in IV/4. Leithart is right to say that Barth’s interaction with infant baptism should be carefully considered by anyone attempting a theology of baptism;54 certainly Barth has been strangely under-utilized in this regard by evangelical credobaptists. At the same time, however, the Achilles heel of Barth’s account is his relentless determination to safeguard the integrity of human action in baptism, such that he radically separates water baptism and Spirit baptism in an untenable manner. As John Webster says, ‘The exegesis is sometimes surprisingly shoddy, dominated by special pleading, as well as by what seems to be at times an almost Platonic distinction between water baptism (an exclusively human act) and baptism with the Spirit (an exclusively divine act).’55

Recent credobaptist exegesis represents an advance in this regard on Barth’s handling of certain texts, for it is recognized that ‘Spirit baptism and water baptism were part and parcel of the complex of saving events that took place at conversion.’56 In texts like Rom 6:3-4, 1 Cor 12:13, Col 2:11-12, Paul does not neatly delineate water baptism and baptism in the Spirit as separate entities. Salter follows Douglas Moo in arguing that ‘The NT connects faith and repentance, the gift of the Spirit, and baptism closely together, implying the presence of all of them in each instance.’57 Salter can even affirm that ‘for Paul, baptism effects a vital union with Christ.’58

At first glance, this sort of language seems to overcome Barth’s problematic dualism of spirit-matter. Indeed, it appears counter-intuitive to claim that it is credobaptists who risk separating the physical and the spiritual in baptism, for it is not they who insist on applying water to infants (physical) separated by several years from living faith in Christ (spiritual); rather, the credobaptist seems closer to Paul in recognizing that ‘baptism sits within a complex of events including regeneration, cleansing, incorporation, repentance, faith, reception of the Spirit, and so on.’59

On the contrary, however, I submit that Salter, for instance, errs not in what he holds about the complex of events, but in the lack of a covenantal context for this complex of events. For his understanding of the complex leads him to this position: ‘Without faith, of course, the subject of baptism is simply getting wet, nothing more.’60 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. Here, the absence of faith effectively unbaptizes the baptized; it is able to do so because baptism only is what it is according to how the recipient responds to it. Furthermore, because the word of promise in baptism has only been heard as a word of blessing, then where the baptized either have yet to respond or where they eventually turn their back on the blessing, there is nothing left to say. God is gagged, the promise is voided, and the now unbaptized travels alone again in the world.

It should be obvious by now how far removed this is from a Reformed paedobaptist conception of baptism as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant of grace. You can no more undo a baptism than you can uncircumcise a son. You cannot undo a gift which has been given. You may return the gift, but in so doing the defining properties of the thing you were given do not change. Covenant signs are something, independent of the response of the recipient, even though the response of the recipient is vital. This does not deny the metaphorical sense in which circumcision can become uncircumcision (Rom 2:25). Paul’s meaning is that there is a way of behaving which treats circumcision as though it had not happened. This should never be so in the covenant of grace. Circumcision of the body was an outward sign of what was required inwardly, and therefore for a Jew to live as if inward circumcision of the heart was optional was to live as though the outward had not happened at all. But a law-breaking lifestyle did not mean, of course, that the outward circumcision had not actually happened.

Paul’s admonition in Rom 6:1-4 is to believers in danger of living as though their baptism had not happened. Throughout the life of faith baptism remains present, perpetually in the hortatory mood. The baptism in water into Christ’s death must correspond to the baptism in the Spirit into new life. The outward must line-up with the inward. It is because paedobaptists understand baptism, like circumcision, to be the speaking of a promise before it is the confession of its receipt, a gift given to be received in solemn faith and profound joy, that we believe it can be administered as a covenant sign to the children of believers. ‘The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered.’61 But every baptism speaks a promise which requires an answer. Regeneration, cleansing, incorporation, faith, the Spirit, union with Christ, justification, these are the gifts given by the covenant Lord which baptism signifies and seals, and to reject the gifts of the King is to reject his rule. It declares an end of friendship and the birth of covenant hostility. Calvin says, ‘We receive nothing from this sacrament except as much as we get by faith. If we are lacking faith, it will be a witness to us to accuse us before God that we have not believed the promise which is given in baptism.’62 Which is a way of saying we always get something from this sacrament.

To baptize an infant is to elevate the seriousness of baptism and to highlight the importance of faith as part of the covenant of grace. For without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). With faith, baptism becomes an effectual means of grace. Without faith, with grace spurned, the sign of covenant blessings becomes the promise of covenant curses, and the baptized in their unbelief live continually as a marked man or woman. Once baptized, always baptized. From baptism onwards, a child bears the family name of the triune God and he or she either brings shame on the household of God and judgment on themselves, or lives within the Father’s care and show themselves to be inheritors of the kingdom of light. 63

Gentry and Wellum say, ‘The New Testament knows nothing of one who is “in Christ” who is not regenerate, effectually called of the Father, born of the Spirit, justified, holy, and awaiting glorification.’64 This is not just explicitly false when viewed in the light of what Christ himself says (John 15:2); it also guts the Christian life of its covenantal context publicly proclaimed in baptism. It seems that the New Testament does know of those who have been sanctified by the blood of the covenant, and yet who expose themselves to more severe punishment by spurning the Son (Heb 10:29). God cannot be gagged, his promise cannot be voided, and no one who has been baptized with water in the triune name ever travels alone again.

Let God be true and every baptized person a liar.

4. Conclusion

Karl Barth argued that unless infant baptism can be shown to be of the very essence of the doctrine of baptism itself then it lacks all theological credibility. This is an insightful challenge to those who gladly confess paedobaptism, and I think Barth is entirely right to demand it of us. Infant baptism is not an appendix to baptism proper. ‘It ought to be a visible part of the very foundations of the doctrine of baptism and of Christian doctrine in general.’65

I am the first to admit that what I have written here is far from equal to the challenge of Barth’s words. I have attempted to locate, however, where such a defense of infant baptism might start from and how it may answer the questions asked of it. As a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, any doctrine of baptism must begin with that covenant and with Abraham our great covenant father. Explored within that context, we see that Abraham is subservient to Christ, and we see that in Abraham God works to renew Christ’s people by giving in grace what Adam had surrendered as command, the mandate to fill the earth with godly seed. The doctrine of covenant signs is, at every turn, the doctrine of grace-what we receive from God is his promise to be our God and to have us as his people. We do not self-constitute as members of his family; we are included under his wings as he spreads them over us in covenant love. And so at the heart of baptism is a theology of Fatherly care and lavish blessing, hand in hand with an anthropology of helplessness and dependence. These things are nowhere more visibly demonstrated than in the baptism of infants.

For you, little child, Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered the shadow of Gethsemane and the horror of Calvary. For you he uttered the cry, ‘It is finished!’ For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven and there he intercedes-for you, little child, even though you do not know it. But in this way the word of the Gospel becomes true. ‘We love him, because he first loved us.’66

* My main title is from Graham Kendrick, ‘O What a Mystery I See’ (Make Way Music, 1988).

[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Picador, 2004), 56.

[2] Collin Brooks, ‘Churchill the Conversationalist’, in Churchill: By His Contemporaries, ed. Charles Eade (London: Reprint Society, 1955), 245.

[3] Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 107.

[4] See our previous exchange: Martin Salter, ‘Does Baptism Replace Circumcision? An Examination of the Relationship between Circumcision and Baptism in Colossians 2:11-12’, Them 35.1 (2010): 15-29; David Gibson, ‘Sacramental Supersessionism Revisited: A Response to Martin Salter on the Relationship between Circumcision and Baptism’, Them 37.2 (2012): 191-208; Martin C. Salter, “Response to David Gibson,” Them 37.2 (2012): 209-10.

[5] Some of this material was first presented in the context of a debate between Martin Salter and myself at the conference ‘Abraham in the Bible, the Church, and the World’, which took place at the John Owen Centre, London, on 9-10 September 2014. I am grateful to the Director, Dr. Garry Williams, for permission to rework and publish my paper, to Martin for his gracious interaction and stimulating challenges to my argument, and also to Jonathan Gibson and Alastair Roberts for further comments.

[6] What follows is a sketch of the theology of paedobaptism that builds on my earlier exchange with Salter which had a more narrowly biblical-theological focus with a particular passage in view (Col 2:11-12). The present article intends to flesh out some of the dogmatic implications of such a reading of the Bible. The aim is a fluent presentation of a big picture, not a detailed defense of all the exegetical brush strokes within the portrait. What I contend for here is dependent on the connection between circumcision and baptism argued for in my first article, and readers are encouraged to take both as part of one thesis.

[7] Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 697, emphasis original.

[8] See N. T. Wright, ‘Paul and the Patriarch: The Role of Abraham in Galatians and Romans’, JSNT 35.3 (2013): 207-41, reprinted in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis, Fortress, 2013), 554-92. Wright outlines six possible options for why and what Paul is doing by including Abraham in his argument (555-56). Editor’s note: for further analysis of Wright’s treatment of Abraham in Rom 4, see the essay in this issue by David Shaw, ‘Romans 4 and the Justification of Abraham in Light of Perspectives New and Newer’.

[9] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 256-57.

[10] Cf. T. Desmond Alexander, ‘Abraham Re-assessed Theologically: The Abraham Narrative and the New Testament Understanding of Justification by Faith’, in He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50, ed. R. S. Hess, P. E. Satterthwaite and G. J. Wenham (Tyndale House: Cambridge, 1993), 7-28; idem, ‘Further Observations on the Term “Seed” in Genesis’, TynB 48 (1997): 363-67.

[11] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Exeter: Paternoster, 1982), 173.

[12] Bruce, Galatians, 172. In other words, by saying that the seed of Abraham is singular at this particular point in his argument, Paul is not denying that it also had a plural sense, as he himself expresses in Rom 4:18.

[13] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 228 (emphasis added).

[14] Ibid., 212-216. Cf. also the discussion in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1994), 176-78.

[15] This understanding of the covenant of grace closely resembles the way that Christology and election have been construed in the Reformed tradition: election is by Christ, in Christ, and known in Christ. Cf. David Gibson, ‘A Mirror for God and for Us: Christology and Exegesis in Calvin’s Doctrine of Election’, IJST 11.4 (2009): 448-65.

[16] Emphasis added. The Scripture proofs in the Confession attached to the phrase concerning a people as Christ’s seed are John 17:6, Ps 22:30 and Isa 53:10. The Scripture proofs for The Larger Catechism, Question 31, are Gal 3:16, Rom 5:15-21, and Isa 53:10.

[17] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 700.

[18] N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2 vols., Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 2:774-1032 (ch. 10).

[19] Kendrick, ‘O What a Mystery I See.’

[20] Karl Barth, Learning Jesus Christ through the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 102-3.

[21] Ibid., 102.

[22] For more on this, see the insightful reflections of Alastair Roberts, ‘A Biblical Gender Essentialism?’, Roberts argues that whereas anthropology in the liberal philosophical tradition focuses on the individual as the fundamental unit of analysis, biblical anthropology, by contrast, is framed by four integrating dimensions: humanity is a kind; humanity is unified as a corporate personality; humanity is sexually dimporhic; humanity is a race. On this latter point: ‘We are born with a particular lineage and as bearers of a legacy. We are a particular node on a family tree. We take up our position within the passage of the generations, within a particular matrix of relations, being conceived within and as a union between our parents, passing on a legacy to our own children in turn.’ See also Alastair Roberts, ‘The Politics of Abraham’s Foreskin’,

[23] See, for example, Shawn D. Wright, ‘Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists’, in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 207-56. In the same volume, Stephen J. Wellum’s essay is more nuanced, ‘Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants’, 97-162. See my discussion of both in ‘Sacramental Supersessionism Revisited,’ 191-208; cf. also O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 147-66.

[24] Barth, Learning Jesus Christ through the Heidelberg Catechism, 103-4.

[25] Peter J. Leithart, ‘The Sociology of Infant Baptism’, in The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2007), 116.

[26] Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 2:785-86.

[27] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, 231.

[28] Douglas Wilson, Reforming Marriage (Moscow, ID: Canon, 1995), 24. The choice of ‘dominate’ is deliberately striking, but I am in agreement with Wilson that on Christological grounds it should not be feared. What kind of Lord-Dominus-is Jesus our Head?

[29] Karl Barth, The Teaching of the Church Regarding Baptism, trans. Ernest A. Payner (London: SCM, 1948), cited in Leithart, Baptized Body, 121.

[30] Leithart, Baptized Body, 122.

[31] Douglas Wilson, Father Hunger: Why God Calls Men to Love and Lead Their Families (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 13 (emphasis original).

[32] Roberts, ‘The Politics of Abraham’s Foreskin’.

[33] B. B. Warfield, ‘Children’, in Selected Shorter Writings, ed. John E. Meeter, 2 vols. (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1970), 1:232-33.

[34] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, trans. Elsie Anne McKee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 525.

[35] See Wellum, ‘Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants’, 141-44.

[36] Cf. Jeffrey D. Neill, ‘The Newness of the New Covenant’, in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2003), 127-55.

[37] Gentry and Wellum recognize this as a second treatment in Jeremiah of the promise of a new covenant, but provide no discussion of the presence of children in the promise. Cf. Kingdom through Covenant, 520-22.

[38] Neil G. T. Jeffers, ‘”And Their Children After Them”: A Response to Reformed Baptist Readings of Jeremiah’s New Covenant Promises’, Ecclesia Reformanda 1.2 (2009): 149. Jeffers provides a similar but not identical treatment of the totalizing merismus phrase in 31:34 to that of Neill.

[39] Cf. Ezek 37:25; Isa 65:23. Deut 30:6, ‘The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live’, is tautologous if the descendants are spiritual seed, because by definition spiritual seed are already circumcised in heart.

[40] Michael S. Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 41. Horton’s argument is that Calvin’s Christology worked with the ‘distinction without separation’ maxim for understanding the union of natures in the person of Christ and that this had a direct influence on several other aspects of his thought.

[41] Ibid., 86. Horton is referring to Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 563.

[42] Horton, Calvin on the Christian Life, 87.

[43] See especially the fine treatment by Willem Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals, trans. William Heynen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), who attends to the historical context underlying the polemic towards Anabaptists in the developing editions of the Institutes, as well as the inner logic of Calvin’s theological thinking.

[44] Robinson, Gilead, 56.

[45] Marilynne Robinson, Lila (London: Virago, 2014), 222.

[46] Herman Bavinck, ‘Common Grace,’ trans. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, CTJ 24.1 (1989): 59, 61.

[47] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, 510.

[48] Ibid., 521.

[49] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 777.

[50] Ibid., 778.

[51] Ibid., 784 (emphasis original).

[52] J. V. Fesko, Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).

[53] Ibid., 246.

[54] Leithart, ‘The Sociology of Infant Baptism’, 122

[55] John Webster, Barth (London and New York: Continuum, 2000), 157. For an alternative account which sees more dexterity in Barth’s position, see W. Travis McMaken, ‘Definitive, Defective, or Deft: Reassessing Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism in Church Dogmatics IV/4′, IJST 17.1 (2015): 89-114.

[56] Thomas Schreiner, ‘Baptism in the Epistles’, in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 75.

[57] Salter, ‘Does Baptism Replace Circumcision?’, 28

[58] Ibid., 19.

[59] Ibid., 20.

[60] Martin Salter, ‘The Abrahamic Covenant in Reformed Baptist Perspective’, Them 40.1 (2015): 44n52.

[61] The Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.6.

[62] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, 517.

[63] For a moving and winsome example of how to let baptism speak in the hortatory mood, see Douglas Wilson’s challenge to Christopher Hitchens in the conclusion to Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2008). Wilson calls Hitchens to see that he carries in his person ‘the standing obligations of repentance, belief, and continued discipleship. Your Christian name Christopher means “bearer of Christ,” your baptism means the same thing, and the Third Commandment requires you not to bear or carry that name in vain. Some, as you have done, revolt against the terms of this discipleship, but it does not mean that the demands of discipleship are somehow negated or revoked’ (66). This is a strongly applied form of what The Larger Catechism, Question 167, means by the ‘needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism.’

[64] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 692.

[65] Karl Barth, CD IV/4, 169.

[66] French Reformed Baptismal Liturgy.

David Gibson

David Gibson is the Minister of Trinity Church, Aberdeen, Scotland. He is author of Reading the Decree (T&T Clark, 2009) and co-editor of From Heaven
He Came and Sought Her
(Crossway, 2013).

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