In my last post I ended with a powerful syllogistic argument given by B.B Warfield.

The argument in a nutshell is this:  God established his Church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.  They must remain there until He puts them out.  He has nowhere put them out.  They are still then members of His church and as such entitled to its ordinances.  Baptism is one of those ordinances.

At this point, however, it may be objected by our Baptist brethren that acknowledging the continuity of the Church does not necessarily require us to acknowledge the continuity of the sacraments, nor of their application, seeing that the sacraments of the Church are simply outward expressions of the particular economy under which the Church operates during a given dispensation, concerning which the Church has in fact experienced a great and significant alteration. (Phew!)

In other words, things have changed!  If not the Church itself, then at least the administration under which the Church is now functioning.  Because of this, there emerges a critical point of discontinuity in precisely the wrong place for those who advocate the practice of infant baptism.  

In response, and with all due respect of course, I want to begin by acknowledging any common ground existing in the objection itself, thereby affirming what need not be denied; namely, that the sacraments of the Church are in fact outward expressions whose elements appropriately correspond to the particular economy under which the Church is operating at a given time.  True as it may be, however, we should go on to point out that this really only accounts for the differences between a New Testament sacrament and its Old Testament counterpart on a redemptive-historical level.  

To be sure, the sacrament of circumcision contained certain outward elements (i.e. bloodshed, and exclusive male eligibility) which God Himself deemed most fitting for its predominantly anticipatory character, as that great covenantal sign which pointed forward to the coming of the Son of God, and his propitiatory bloodshed on the cross.  

And certainly, the sacrament of baptism contains different outward elements (i.e. water, and inclusive gender eligibility) which God Himself considers to be most fitting for its symbolic correspondence to the universal, redemptive, and evangelistic activity which characterizes this portion of history, subsequent to the cross.  

Louis Berkhof confirms the point,

The Old Testament sacraments pointed forward to Christ and were the seals of a grace that still had to be merited, while those of the New Testament point back to Christ and His completed sacrifice and redemption… During the old dispensation there were two sacraments, namely, circumcision and passover… As belonging to the Old Testament dispensation, it [circumcision] was a bloody sacrifice… The passover was also a bloody sacrament… The Church of the New Testament also has two sacraments, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  In harmony with the new dispensation as a whole, they are unbloody sacraments.¹

To state it less succinctly, we can see that in the unfolding of God’s redemptive purpose in history, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of all (sacramental) shedding of blood, for by it he had perfectly and therefore permanently satisfied the justice of God, having been put to death for the sin of fallen man.  As a result, his final and decisive work of redemptive bloodshed, effectively opened the way for the universal, purifying ministry of the Holy Spirit, symbolized in water baptism.²  Again, because the point seems needless to deny, it may help to simply affirm the proposition, though not without offering some contribution, that we might help in providing that which was lacking in the original objection.

And yet, we have to ask,  Is it enough to agree with the proposition and simply add to it an explanation of what accounts for the differences between circumcision and baptism, by an appeal to the economic development of redemptive history?  Surely, the objection as a whole requires more of an answer, so as to demonstrate why these outward differences are still insufficient to warrant the Baptist conclusion, i.e. the exclusion of our infant children from the reception of the covenant sign.

Sacramental Continuity

The Circumcision of Christ

While the Reformed readily admit that there are important differences between circumcision and baptism, these differences are not of such consequence as to demand the verdict of our Baptist friends; namely, that the infant children of believers are no longer eligible sacramental candidates.  Instead, the Reformed have historically, and confessionally maintained, that because baptism carries on the same essential meaning, and therefore has the same essential function, as did circumcision in the Old Testament, we are left with no scriptural or theological reason to question the abiding necessity of applying the sign of the covenant to our children. 

On this point, perhaps more than any other, the historic Reformed Confessions stand in unified, military formation, arrayed shield to shield and voice to voice, for the defense and confirmation of our children’s right to baptism.  As even a cursory survey of the confessional statements will show, there are several points which are almost always included in their sections on baptism; two of which are the passionate denouncement of the Anabaptist doctrine³ and the scriptural appeal to the sacramental continuation of circumcision through baptism.

Concerning the latter, the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 74) states that the children of believers,

… are also by baptism, as the sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old Testament by circumcision, in the place of which in the New Testament baptism is instituted. 

And again, the Belgic Confession of Faith, (Article 34) says that our children,

… ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children in Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made unto our children… Moreover, what circumcision was to the Jews, baptism is to our children.

At the risk of being redundant, it may be helpful to emphasize the points here.  First, the statement of the Heidelberg Catechism could not be more explicitly worded.  New Testament baptism, the Catechism asserts, has come “in the place of” circumcision.  But why is that?  In the subsequent statement, taken from the Belgic Confession, we find the reason.  It is because baptism signifies and seals “the same promises” that were signified and sealed in circumcision, so that, “what circumcision was to the Jews, baptism is to our children.”  

In other words, while it’s true that God has discontinued the first sacrament (circumcision having become economically unfitting in the present era), He has nonetheless replaced it with another sacrament of equal significance.   In the altering of the form therefore, from the bloody rite of circumcision to the cleansing rite of baptism, there nevertheless remains an essential identity of meaning and function between the two.  

But is all of this just Reformed dogmatism and theological sophistry, or do we find this teaching somewhere within the pages of Holy Scripture?  In keeping with the language of the Belgic Confession, that “Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ,”4  Zacharias Ursinus, the chief author of the Heidelberg Catechism, provides us with the scriptural warrant.

Under the Old Testament infants were circumcised as well as adults. Baptism occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament, and has the same use that circumcision had in the Old Testament.  Therefore infants are to be baptized as well as adults.  The first proposition needs no proof.  The second is proven by what the apostle Paul says: “You are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein you are also risen with him” (Col. 2:11, 12).  Baptism, therefore, is our circumcision, or the sacrament by which the same things are confirmed unto us, and to as many under the New Testament as under the Old by circumcision.5

While perhaps there are some Baptist theologians today, who attempt to undermine the force of this conclusion, granting from the text only that “there is some correlation between circumcision and baptism,”6 this is by no means the consensus in Baptist scholarship.  For example, Paul K. Jewett, the late Professor of Systematic Theology of Fuller Theological Seminary, readily admits that the grammar of the text itself renders the Reformed conclusion virtually inescapable.

The use of the aorist passive throughout the passage (περιετμηθητε, συνταφεντεσ, συνηγερθητε) makes it evident that to experience the circumcision of Christ, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, is the same thing as being buried and raised with him in baptism through faith. If this be true, the only conclusion we can reach is that the two signs, as outward rites, symbolize the same inner reality in Paul’s thinking. Thus circumcision may fairly be said to be the Old Testament counterpart of Christian baptism.  So far the Reformed argument, in our judgment, is biblical.  In this sense, “baptism,,” to quote the Heidelberg Catechism, “occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament.”7

The Sign and the Thing Signified

Another passage which comes into play here is Romans 4:11, which tells us that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, as a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while yet uncircumcised.”  The apostle’s statement here is very informative.  In the context,  Paul is seeking to prove to his works-oriented readers that Abraham’s circumcision played absolutely no part in his justification.  Therefore he poses the question as to whether Abraham was circumcised before or after God had declared him righteous.  For if Abraham was circumcised after he was declared righteous by God, then it cannot be reasonably argued that justification is by circumcision, let alone by the works of the law (which came 430 years later according to Galatians 3:17).  

To the contrary therefore, Paul argues in Romans 4:3 that justification is by faith alone, as he reminds his readers of what the Word of God says in Genesis 15:6,

For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. 

In Paul’s mind, this is the lynch pin to his doctrine of justification, since God did not institute the sacrament of circumcision until Genesis 17:7.  Therefore, the chronological order of justification and then circumcision, is seen to be the death knell to the legalistic argument of Paul’s opponents.  

We say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised (vv 9-11).

Consequently, and for precisely the same reason, Paul’s argument in Romans 4  has often thought to be the “tolling of the bell” for the Reformed practice of infant baptism as well.  After all, since justification, which requires faith, came before circumcision, then on what basis can Christians today possibly presume to administer baptism to their infant children who are incapable of faith?8  

Even granting that baptism has now come in the place of circumcision, shouldn’t the manner in which circumcision was first administered regulate the way baptism is now administered?  If Abraham believed before he was circumcised, shouldn’t our children be required to believe before they are baptized?

Unfortunately however, those who would appeal to the sacramental pattern acknowledged in this passage, and attempt to employ this reasoning in opposition to infant baptism, would be missing a very key element in the history and chronology of Abraham’s administration of circumcision.  

While it is certainly true that Abraham first believed the promise of God, was justified, and then received the sign of circumcision, God did not expect Abraham to uphold, guard, and maintain this same pattern in the life of his children.  To put it more accurately, God did not even allow Abraham to wait for his children to give their own expression of faith before he was to circumcise them.  Instead, God expressly commanded Abraham to apply the seal of circumcision to his infant children at eight days old (Genesis 17:12; 21:4) – almost immediately after they were born.  For this reason, the very passage which is many times thought to be a devastating blow to the Reformed practice, actually turns out to be one of its strongest support beams.  

 


End notes:

¹ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (1996) pg 619-620

² This description is in keeping with the language of the Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 69, which states, “How is it signified and sealed unto thee in Holy Baptism, that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?  Thus: that Christ instituted this outward washing with water, and joined it with this promise: that I am washed with His blood and Spirit from the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as certainly as I am washed outwardly with water, whereby commonly the filthiness of the body is taken away.”

³ For example, the Belgic Confession of Faith (1561) Article 34, Paragraph 5 reads, “Therefore we detest the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with the one only baptism they have once received, and moreover condemn the baptism of the infants of believers.”  And the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith (1566), Chapter 10, Paragraph 7 reads, “We condemn the Anabaptists, who deny that newborn infants of the faithful are to be baptized.”

4  See the very last sentence of Article 34 in the BCF

5  Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, Electronic Version, edited by Eric D. Bristley (2004) for the Synod of the Reformed Church in the United States, found here.

6  John Piper, How Do Circumcision and Baptism Correspond? A sermon published on August 29, 1999, of which both audio and written form are hosted at www.desiringgod.org

7  Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism & The Covenant of Grace, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (1978), pg. 89

8  The assumption that infants are incapable of faith, has been included for the sake of argument, although it must be stated that this notion is entirely unscriptural.  First, it cannot be imagined that John the Baptizer, who was filled with the Holy Ghost “even from his mother’s womb,“ (Luke 1:15) was without faith. But also we find the Psalmist extolling God, “Thou art He that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts” (Psalms 22:9).  Even if the argument be reduced to the fact that infants lack the capacity to give expression of their faith by verbal proposition, such an argument must acknowledge the cracks and fractures of important, and necessary theological qualifications.  For instance, we find an indisputable confirmation that even nursing infants can, and sometimes do, give verbal expression of their faith in Jesus Christ.  Our Lord himself said as much, as he quoted Psalm 8:2, asking the Pharisees, “Have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?” (Matthew 21:16).  

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