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.