The Reformed world is one which is largely characterized by agreement. For all that Reformed men and women like to debate the minutiae of Reformed Theology, the fact remains that these disputes are largely insignificant when contrasted with the larger issues of the faith. The Reformed world is a fairly harmonious one, and in many areas of faith and practice, Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, Dutch Reformed, and so on, are happy to call each other allies. This is likely due to the theologically robust and historically time-tested nature of Reformed Theology as a whole. It is a movement which, since its inception, has been rooted in a staunch Biblicism and bolstered by the confession of Church history even prior to the Protestant Reformation. Differences in more minor subjects are no cause for estrangement.
A Rift in the Reformed World
When it comes to the issue of baptism, the Reformed find themselves in another friendly disagreement. The two camps on the issue are the credobaptists, who baptize confessing Christians only, and the paedobaptists, who baptize confessing Christians and their children. Like other differences in doctrine, the Reformed on either side are happy to call each other allies. Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists often call each other great friends, and are happy to align themselves together against many other philosophies and ideologies which seek to undermine the faith. The Reformed world often has larger fish to fry in the practical day-to-day than baptism. At the beginning of the week, each side is content to go and worship with their own church and administer the sacrament of baptism according to their own convictions.
That said, lest we make too little of this issue we should understand that the Reformed do not accept each other’s view on baptism according to some notion of pluralism or relativism. This is not an issue of Christian liberty. One mode of baptism is Biblical and one is not; they cannot both be right. One party is right, and the other is wrong. Unlike eschatology, which is another point of division among Christians everywhere, the baptism debate is a debate over the mode of a sacrament. In week-to-week church life, the most dramatic effect you will see due to issues of eschatology will be found in the general optimism or pessimism of the church body about the future in the long term. Contrast the worship at a very optimistic postmillenial church with the pessimism of a dispensational one. Most churches are somewhere in the middle, and more importantly each churchgoer can carry their own eschatological conviction without it being brought into conflict with the worship of the rest of the church. This is not the case with baptism. A man with young children and credobaptist convictions who attends a Presbyterian church will be encouraged, if not expected, to have his children baptized. Conversely, a man with paedobaptist convictions who attends a credobaptist church will not have any outlet to express his conviction to baptize his children, as the elders of the church will not permit him to do so. What’s more is that a credobaptist church will often ask a congregant who was baptized as a child and came to faith later in life to be re-baptized as an adult. These modes of administering the sacrament are fundamentally in conflict with each other and incompatible with one another. God commands us to baptize and to be baptized, and He commands us to do it in a specific way. Embracing baptistic pluralism by “being tolerant” of other baptistic views, or asserting that scripture does not speak clearly on the issue of baptism, does God no honor. God is honored when we prayerfully consider the implications of His word to every aspect of life, and obey them. Every man ought to be convinced in his own mind that what he believes about a particular issue is nothing short of the truth.
The Historical Backdrop of the Controversy
The history of this debate is a rather rocky one in Church history. The perception of many evangelical churchgoers is that the early church, in and around the time of Christ, were nearly or fully doctrinally perfect. Unlike us today, they had no uncertainty in the teachings and commandments of Jesus pertaining to things like eschatology and baptism. Somewhere between then and now, things went very amiss, and the church has been attempting to slog her way back to where she was before. Nothing could really be further from the truth. Even a cursory study of the early church reveals that they often were engaged in debate about lots of different issues. The first few centuries of the church were marked by persecution, but also by stiff battles with heresy. Many debates about the nature of God, the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Jesus’ human and divine natures, and so on, were commonplace and had to be settled by the church. Though many early church fathers wrote about their take on baptism, it just wasn’t an issue which was on the table. Many modern Christians would view the historical modes and explanations of baptism as quite strange. At various points in church history the idea of baptismal regeneration (the view that baptism saves) rose to popularity. At other points, it was believed that baptism washed away sins and left the believer in a purified state that could be tarnished again by sin, thus prompting the believer to delay baptism as long as possible during their lifetime (this is why Constantine was baptized on his deathbed). Others, like Augustine, believed that baptism was a means of washing away the stain of original sin, and saw the application of baptism to infants as a necessary measure for salvation in the church. For many reasons, the church has remained in a state of relative ambiguity on the topic of baptism for centuries, and as such, the history of baptism is a long, complex, and somewhat disjointed story. In light of this, as messy as the Protestant Reformation was on some issues, it was actually somewhat of a clarification on baptism.
One of the modern reasons why the Reformed are split into different camps is due to the fact that we categorize ourselves according to three different streams of theological tradition. The first stream are the Dutch Reformed, who confess a set of Reformation-era documents called the “Three Forms of Unity”, namely, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. The last document was written during the Remonstrant period in the early 17th century as an answer to the Remonstrants, who are known in modern parlance as Arminians, to condemn their particular view of free-will salvation. Ironically, is from the Canons of Dort, and not from Calvin, that we get the “Five Points of Calvinism”. The second stream are the Reformed Presbyterians, who confess a document drafted to be the doctrinal standard of the Church of England in 1646 called the Westminster Confession of Faith. This document was drafted by a group of men called the “Westminster Divines”, who were commissioned by the Church of England to codify a robust confession of faith for the church to adopt. In many ways, the Westminster Confession is the standard for regulating worship in the Reformed world. The third and final stream are the Reformed Baptists, who essentially modified the 1646 Westminster Confession to produce the 1689 London Baptist Confession (also known as Second London), as an answer to some minor issues regarding church polity and baptism. The split over the issue of baptism is clear here: of these three bodies of documents, the first two affirm the paedobaptist viewpoint, while the third affirms the credoaptist viewpoint.
For the historical reasons stated above, it is an oversimplification to state that paedobaptism was the historical view of the Church, and that the credobaptist view only arose during the 16th century. Augustine, for example, did not hold to the same view of paedobaptism that Calvin did, even though both Augustine and Calvin were paedobaptists. Both men baptized babies, but the operating theological assumptions about what was going on when the sacrament was administered were very different for each of them. I submit as a historical note that the Reformed views of baptism, the Reformed paedobaptist and the Reformed credobaptist, arose at roughly the same time in history, within the span of no more than a century. This is to say that historically, the baptismal playing field is level.
Because of this level playing field, many Reformed Christians who want to grasp historical Biblical Christianity find their feet planted squarely in midair on the issue of baptism. I struggled with the issue of baptism for many months as I considered the implications of scripture on the subject, frequently debating the topic with friends who were paedobaptists and credobaptists alike, often taking the opposing side of my interlocutor for the sake of the argument. Many times I was outright confused, and a handful of times I was brought to the point of outright despair. At the time, the arguments for the paedobaptist view were quite compelling to me, but the silence of the New Testament on the issue left me uneasy. The Regulative Principle of Worship dictates that worship ought to be regulated by the example of scripture; if it is not in the text, it should not be done. This is contrasted against the Normative Principle of Worship, a view which dictates that whatever is not forbidden in scripture pertaining to worship is allowed to be done. Many of my Reformed convictions are Regulative, on account of the fact that scripture is sufficient to be the final authority on worship for the church. I was uneasy with how much the paedobaptist view seemed to draw on the Normative Principle; nowhere in the epistles, for example, does Paul clarify that children also ought to be baptized, or for what reason they ought to be. On the other hand, embracing the credobaptist viewpoint meant that I was now at odds with many of the Reformed men I had benefitted with in my life. I have no business sparring with the likes of Calvin, Luther, Knox, Edwards, R.C. Sproul, or any other prominent Reformed paedobaptists. The study of historical theology is often a sanity check for the deductions of theologians. If no one before you has ever believed what you believe, or more likely if you believe something that is historically a minority position in church history, you are likely embracing some form of error or heresy. While I was surely not in danger of heresy in any way, the fact that I disagreed with many of these men meant that I did feel like I was missing something.
The Paedobaptist View
The standard paedobaptist argument is rooted in a covenantal understanding of God’s purposes to redeem history. Understanding the covenantal nature of God’s redemptive work in history is one of the central tenets of the Reformed faith, and serves to distinguish it from many other streams of Christianity. Reformed Christians understand God’s redemptive work in history to be rooted in a theological Covenant of Grace. Our first parents broke the covenant that they had made with God in Eden, but God was pleased to make a new covenant with man. The terms of this covenant were clear: one day God would send a Messiah to restore the world, and whoever had faith in Christ would be restored with it. Faith alone is what saved both Abraham and C.S. Lewis, both Moses and Polycarp, David and R.C. Sproul, and every other saint at every other point in history. Every other covenant that God makes with man in the Bible, such as the Adamic Covenant, the Noahic Covenant, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Mosaic Covenant, the Davidic Covenant, and so on, is simply the outworking evidence of the Covenant of Grace. Through Christ, God accomplishes all of His promises in all of His covenants, just as Paul writes, For all the promises of God are “Yes” in Christ. (2 Cor 1:20)
The meat of the paedobaptist argument is built upon a particular view of Reformed Covenant Theology. The argument starts with the observation that God made a covenant with Abraham, and Abraham accepted the word of God by faith. As a sign of his faith, God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and every male among him. The circumcision was a mark of the covenant promise that God had made to Abraham, a sign that men and boys alike, those of faith and those not of faith alike, were to be called the covenant people of God. Likewise, the argument goes, we are given the sign of baptism as a sign of faith under the New Covenant in order to signify that we are the covenant people of God. And since circumcision was given to every male among Israel, men and boys alike, faithful and unfaithful alike, so baptism ought to be given to every member of the “covenant community” of Christian believers: those who believe in Christ and their children.
Where Reformed Baptists Drop the Ball
Reformed Baptists often fail to address this argument on its own terms. The paedobaptist view is rooted in Covenant Theology, and its language is covenantal in nature. By contrast, the credobaptist view is often argued for by an appeal to the Regulative Principle alone. In essence, since there is no command in scripture to baptize our children, and no examples of child baptism, then there is no good reason to do so. The Baptist’s observations are true, and even the examples of “household baptisms” in the book of Acts are either explicitly examples where the whole household believed and was baptized, or else they were examples where it is simply unclear from the text whether there were infants present or not. Many Baptists provide clear and definitive exegesis on these passages, and many paedobaptists agree with them. In addition, the Baptists astutely mentions that there is no explicit command from Jesus or the Apostles to baptize children, or what might be the reasons for doing so. Paedobaptists concede this as well, though they ought to see this as an anomalous gap in the Apostle Paul’s writings. Paul often goes to great lengths elsewhere describing the implications of the New Covenant for worship, but he nowhere mentions paedobaptism. These are compelling observations, but they are not enough to address the argument that the paedobaptist makes on their own. Without a credobaptist argument that refutes the covenantal claims of the paedobaptist, the end result of these observations will only be cognitive dissonance, which is only successful in producing men and women who have their feet planted squarely in midair on the baptism issue.
One work that does a great job of addressing paedobaptism with a Reformed and covenantal approach is A Critical Evaluation of Paedobaptism by Reformed Baptist Dr. Greg Welty. I personally found this to be an immensely helpful and clarifying article in favor of the Reformed Baptist position. It is well-written, engaging, readable, and accessible even to laymen like myself. For anyone who is seeking a covenantal explanation of the Reformed Baptist position, I highly recommend it.
A Covenantal View of Credobaptism
Welty’s position is that the essence of the Reformed Baptist view may be grasped in properly understanding the differences between the Old and New Covenants. We ought not to try to manufacture continuity where there is none, “Christianizing the Old Testament” and “Judaizing the New Testament”, as he puts it. The “fundamental hermeneutical error of paedobaptists” according to Welty is that they, “rightly stress the unity of redemptive history, while wrongly ignoring the movement of that redemptive history”. While both the Old and New Covenants are ultimately related to each other through the Covenant of Grace, scripture does not draw an equivalence between the Old and New Covenants.
Understanding the distinction between the two will require going back to examine the covenant that God makes with Abraham. God promises Abraham that, even in his old age, his descendants would number the stars (Genesis 15:5). Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), and as a result of his faith God ratified a covenant with Abraham which was marked by blood. To signify this covenant, God gives Abraham the commandment to circumcise himself and every male among him. We see this commandment we see in Genesis 17, where the Lord says to Abraham,
I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. (Genesis 17:7)
This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. (Genesis 17:10)
Circumcision was a mark in the reproductive flesh, signifying the means by which the covenant of Abraham would be passed on to his descendants: under the Old Covenant, covenant children would beget covenant children, and their membership in the covenant was determined simply by their ancestral line or their citizenship in the nation of Israel. This is to say that Old Covenant was claimed by both the young and the old, both the unfaithful and the faithful, because the sign of the covenant was applied to “all men among you”. The paedobaptist uses this observation to justify the practice of applying the New Covenant sign to infants: there were members of the Old Covenant who were not believers, and did not have faith in God like their father Abraham did. We only need to look as far as Esau and Ishmael to be sure that there are those who received the sign of circumcision who were found unrepentant and unbelieving, and this is to say nothing of infant Israelites who did not even possess the capacity for faith or confession. Thus, since infants who were circumcised could not possibly have possessed saving faith, there is no need to baptize only those who profess faith in Christ either.
This view, while seemingly providing a great deal of covenantal consistency between the Old and New Covenants, flatly contradicts the testimony of scripture concerning the nature of the New Covenant. Jeremiah writes,
“The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 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. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Here, Jeremiah draws out the distinction that God makes between the Old and New Covenants. Where Old Covenant membership was marked with belonging to the kingdom of Israel, New Covenant membership is marked with belonging to the New Israel, the kingdom of God. Lest the paedobaptists complain that this is a comparison between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant (and not the Abrahamic Covenant and the New), Welty writes,
Paedobaptists may claim that baptists are failing to recognize that the contrast which Jeremiah is drawing here is between the New Covenant and the Mosaic (Old) Covenant, not between the New Covenant and the covenant as originally administered to Abraham. Since paedobaptists justify infant baptism with reference to the Abrahamic (not Mosaic) Covenant, the fact that Jeremiah speaks of the New Covenant as different from the Mosaic is of no relevance for the question of infant baptism. This point is well taken–the Mosaic Covenant was indeed added to the Abrahamic promises, not repealing or replacing them but furthering their ultimate purpose (Galatians 3:17-19). But reflection upon the realities of the Abrahamic Covenant will reveal that each of the contrasts Jeremiah asserts here between the New and the Mosaic Covenants, is also a contrast between the New and the Abrahamic! Under the Abrahamic Covenant, all did not have the law written on their hearts, or know the Lord, or have their sins forgiven. Covenant children such as Ishmael and Esau, who lived under the Abrahamic but not the Mosaic Covenant, bear eloquent testimony to this fact.
Unlike the Old Israel, the New Israel is those who have had the law of God “written on their minds and hearts”, those who “know the Lord”, and have no reason to evangelize their fellow citizen. It is not merely for those who have been born of the flesh as an Israelite, but those who have been born of the Spirit, whose “wickedness is forgiven” and whose “sins are remembered no more”. A New Covenant member must not only be born, but also be “born again of the Spirit”; not a circumcision of the flesh, but a circumcision of the spirit. They must not merely be children of Abraham according to the flesh, but children of Abraham according to faith. The argument that the Apostle Paul makes to the Galations expounds this point, saying,
Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Therefore, recognize that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (Galations 3:6-9)
He uses this argument again in Romans when he says,
And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them… (Romans 4:11)
Again, this is to say that under the New Covenant, it is not those who are sons of Abraham according to the flesh who are members, but those who are sons of Abraham according to faith in Christ who are.
One of the distinctions that is missed by the paedobaptists is the fact that members of the Old Covenant had the property that their ancestral line necessitated the ancestry of their children. To say it another way, if they were children of Abraham, then their children would also necessarily be children of Abraham; grand-children, technically. This means that if a man was a member of the Old Covenant, his children would also automatically be members of the Old Covenant through circumcision. However, if membership in the New Covenant is by faith alone, as is the attestation of Jeremiah and Paul, then this simply does not apply to members of the New Covenant. As much as we hope and pray, it is a painful reality to Christians that our children are not born sharing the faith that we have, and indeed, we are given no guarantee that they will ever walk in the same promises that we do. Christians are children of Abraham by faith, but this does not necessitate that the children of Christians are also going to be the same. Paedobaptists must either 1) manufacture an obscure notion of their children being “members of the New Covenant” without having the faith of Abraham, or 2) manufacture the notion that their children are “members of the Covenant of Grace” without any salvific grace actually being applied to them. Of course there is great grace in being born to a Christian family, and that is why we Christians must be diligent to teach our children to obey and believe in the Lord as we raise them. But the grace of God which is unique to the New Covenant because of the Covenant of Grace is grace that saves. We must bless, educate, and catechize our children, being dutiful in admonishing them to “know the Lord”, not because they are covenant members, but because they are not. If God grants them repentance, then our children are also our brothers and sisters, and we will no longer have a need to catechize them the way we did when they were younger. In the New Covenant, “no man shall say to his brother, ‘know the Lord’”.
Just as Old Covenant membership was marked in the reproductive flesh as sign of Abraham’s faith, so the sign of the believer’s faith under the New Covenant is baptism. Baptism, done rightly, is a sign which is administered by being fully immersed in the water and emerging from it. It should preferably be living water like a river or a stream, symbolizing the grace which forever flows from God through Christ. It is a picture of being washed of sin, a washing which results in being resurrected according to the resurrection of your Lord. Just as He ratified the New Covenant by dying, being buried in a tomb, and rising from the dead, so you must go down into the water and come back out of it to signify your future death, burial, and resurrection. Just as faith preceded the mark of the Old Covenant, so faith precedes the mark of the New Covenant. Those of faith are covenantally bound to Christ, because they are in Christ, but those who have not made a profession of faith (even if they are children of those who do) have no business receiving the sign of it.
The Burden of Proof
In light of the historical context, it is the responsibility of Reformed Baptists to produce a sound, Reformed, covenantal explanation of baptism. Paedobaptism has been dominant in the Reformed faith since the time of Calvin, and this means that Baptists cannot dismiss it outright. The burden of proof is on the Reformed Baptist to refute the particular view of Covenant Theology that gives rise to infant baptism, and to replace it with a view that is consistent with the testimony of scripture on the subject.
Some Reformed Christians (usually only a few on Reddit or social media) will say that “Reformed Baptist” is a contradiction in terms; you can be a Baptist, or you can be Reformed, but you cannot be both. Granted, if being Reformed means something like “always in agreement with Calvin”, then no Baptist is Reformed, but neither are very many people who claim the title for themselves either. The essence of the Reformed faith is not adherence to a particular stream of theology from a particular set of teachers. The essence of being Reformed is to possess a historically rooted faith derived from a consistent interpretation and a complete application of the scriptures. It is as much something to aspire to as something to possess. The argument I have given in this article explaining the credobaptist view satisfies this definition. Someone who would dare to claim that the English Puritans, or Spurgeon, or Bunyan, or Alistair Begg, or Wayne Grudem, or James White are any less “Reformed” than their paedobaptist brothers has not grasped the historical significance of the term. “Reformation” is an old and useful tool in a calloused hand, not a precious trinket to be propped behind a pane of glass for onlookers to ogle at. With that in mind, I want to urge my Reformed paedobaptist brothers and sisters to continue in the footsteps of their theological forefathers, and reform the Westminster Confession.Share this post:
Chris Carter is the Editor in Chief of The New England Reformer. Chris earned a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics from Clarkson University, but his post-univserity studies have taken him through various topics in theology and church history. He currently lives in Rochester, New York, but he also occaisionally preaches at a small baptist church in his hometown in Vermont.