Paedobaptism

I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on different features of the doctrine of the church and would like to hear some thoughts on Bavinck’s ten propositions concerning ‘the validity of infant baptism’.  As someone reared in a Roman Catholic family but converted in a Baptist setting, I’ve been intrigued for some time by the paedobaptist teaching of the Reformed, whose tradition I find salutary with regard to so many areas of theological enquiry.  Here are Bavinck’s big ten in summary (see Reformed Dogmatics 4:525-32):

1)  At the inception of the church it was natural for baptism to concern primarily adult converts and this is what we see in the New Testament.  However, because valid inferences as well as explicit statements of biblical teaching are binding for the church, the legitimacy of infant baptism doesn’t depend on it being explicitly narrated or commanded in the NT.

2)  Baptism is the new covenant counterpart to circumcision, which was, of course, granted to the infants of Abraham’s family in the Old Testament.  Baptism and circumcision are of the same essence, but the former exceeds the latter in grace, not least because it is given to both male and female.

3)  Covenant and election are two distinct categories and the former (in which sphere the sacraments are administered) concerns persons in their historical existence in communion with one another.  In the OT, children are ‘regarded in connection with [parents]‘ and God ‘established a communion of parents and children in grace and blessing’.  ‘While grace is not automatically inherited, as a rule it is bestowed along the line of generations.’

4)  In the NT, children are still regarded as participants in the covenant and this is evidenced as Jews in the Gospels reject Jesus and in response Jesus calls into question their status as God’s people but still in kindness regards Jewish children as ‘children of the covenant’.

5)  The apostolic ministry proceeds along the same lines, with the church taking the place of Israel and households as organic wholes in the book of Acts converting to Christ and sharing in common blessing (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14).  ‘Scripture knows nothing of a neutral upbringing that seeks to have the children make a completely free and independent choice at a more advanced age.’

6)  Grace in the new dispensation surpasses the grace of the former, which in the bestowal of grace didn’t discriminate based on age.  Therefore, in the new covenant era, children all the more should be counted among the recipients of grace.  Indeed, just as children ‘are partakers of the condemnation in Adam without their knowledge’, so they can undergo the influence of the Spirit in regeneration without being cognizant of it.

7)  Children of believers even more fittingly than adult believers themselves receive the sacrament of baptism.  For the former are under the grace and blessing they enjoy in union with their believing parents and may not even live to an age at which they can consciously reject that grace.  Even when children reach an age at which they might consciously reject God’s grace, unless ‘the contrary is patently evident’, they ought to be regarded as partakers of salvation.  This is further supported by the fact that the next generation of the church is formed primarily of children of believers.  In contrast, adults who profess faith and receive baptism are already at a point where they may turn from Christ and thereby prove that they were not elect and thus their baptism resting on a true partaking of God’s grace is a riskier proposition.

8)  Though infants ought to receive baptism, this in no way offers an infallible pronouncement about their spiritual future.  There will be some who reject the covenant blessings and yet ‘[t]he basis for baptism is not the assumption that someone is regenerate, nor even that regeneration itself, but only the covenant of God.’

9)  The essence of baptism isn’t compromised by a lack of results in the life of one who turns away.  ‘True, essential Christian baptism is that which is administered to believers.’  Again, ‘the fruit of baptism is only enjoyed by those who are elect and therefore come to faith in God’s time.’

10)  Baptism communicates the same benefits that the word has already communicated to the believer: regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and incorporation into the church.  Baptism simply communicates them in a different manner in order that faith may be strengthened.  God is able to grant to infants regeneration and the capacity to believe  and likewise is able to grant them this confirmation of grace in baptism.

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4 thoughts on “Paedobaptism

  1. Wow. 10 points without one mention of the Gospel; that says it all really! The Sacraments are the acted Word, and both forms of baptism declare something true about the Gospel – one, the priority of grace; the other, the life of discipleship. Thank God that the Church practices both forms.

    Whether or not the practice of infant baptism is alluded too in Scripture (which I think it is) matters little, if at all. So Forsyth: ‘To say that infant Baptism, as a witness to the Gospel and its faith by an act of the Church directed on the individual, is not scriptural because it is late, would be also to say that no existing form of Church government is scriptural, since none reproduces exactly the conditions of the first century. Or it would be to say that the spirit had no power in the Church to modify practice so as to give effect to faith’s principle in new circumstances, but that the praxis of the first century is binding for ever. It would mean, for instance, that the Supper should be a real meal or follow it, and should be weekly, and taken reclining, or that we should restore for the sick extreme unction. The full scope of Baptism, or any other institution or doctrine, could not be reached in the practice of the first century. Let us correct any magic by a scriptural principle to which both Protestant forms bear witness. Both can express the evangelical conception of faith. And in both Baptism acts on the subject psychologically and not subliminally, in the one case by a crisis, and in the other by a nurture. In the one case it embodies a new and fontal experience, in the other it begins a regenerative education, or what would now be called a creative evolution’.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve always felt that the argument that infant baptism is the ‘new covenant counterpart to circumcision’ is, to put it mildly, something of a stretch. It’s certainly not Calvin at his best!

    Some time back too, Byron Smith posted a number of thoughts on this (which I link to here: http://cruciality.wordpress.com/2010/01/30/thinking-baptism/). As did Andrew Errington: http://andrewerrington.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/why-i-believe-in-infant-baptism-%E2%80%94-ten-thoughts/

  2. Paul K. Jewett has, in my opinion, a great answer to these questions in his book, “Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace.” Paul

  3. There are at least three kinds of baptism of interest in the New Testament: 1) baptism by water; 2) and baptism by the Holy Spirit. But especially interesting to me, the 3) baptism of “fire.”

    The first, by water, seems rather formal and ineffectual to me: being sprinkled with water in the first year of life, before you are even really conscious, probably has little effect on your mind or spirit.

    The second, by the Holy Spirit, is more interesting. Though it is also given – or alluded to – at birth, it seems to relate, at least ultimately, more to the more meaningful moment, when you make a conscious decision in your own mind and “spirit,” to accept the axioms, the “spirit,” of God.

    But finally it is the third,the baptism of “fire,” that seems far more relevant and important, to adults. Roughly it seems to be the apocalyptic moment or “day,” when God arrives to “judge” us – and among other things, when God comes to note sins, even in those who think they are very religious, very Christian. In that moment, even priests and holy men, are “test”ed with “fire”; and false ideas are burned away, like dead “chaff,” “tares,” or dead “branches.”

    What is that baptism of “fire” about? For me, the baptism of “fire” is at least anticipated, by the moment when we “mature” in our religion. When we learn go beyond the formulas we learned in church. In fact, it is in part the moment we are exposed to a more critical, scholarly theology. When we find that growing “judgement,” teaches us that many common ideas about God seem not to hold up, to the “fire” of critical review.

  4. Pingback: links for 2010-12-20 | The 'K' is not silent

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