Must the answer to every question depend on who we decide to ask? And even if this be granted concerning them that are of the world, ought this to be the case concerning them that are in the Church? These are the kinds of questions that confront Christians the moment we are presented with two different answers to one and the same question, like, Who should be baptized?
On the one hand, while our Baptist friends teach that those who profess faith in Jesus Christ are the only proper candidates for baptism, the Reformed strictly maintain that the infants of believing parents are also to be baptized. The interesting thing, however, is that both camps appeal to the Bible in support of their respective positions, sometimes even pointing to the same passages of Scripture to substantiate their conclusions. In other words, despite our general agreement on where truth is to be found, there somehow remains between us a fundamental disagreement on just what that truth is. And so the question necessarily follows—What can possibly account for this difference?
Categories of Interpretive Criteria
As a former Baptist now Reformed, I want to suggest that the difference is not itself in the Bible we are reading – but in the way we are reading the Bible. In other words, there are two different kinds of hermeneutics being employed which are affecting the analyses of the scriptural data. This means that there are two sets of underlying assumptions being brought to the text, which directly affect the reading of the relevant passages. The problem then, are not the passages but the presuppositions of those who appeal to them. The primary purpose of this (and the next) installment is two-fold: first I want to delineate these hermeneutical and presuppositional differences, and second, I will try to make the case that the Reformed practice of infant baptism is the true and consistent biblical doctrine.
To begin the delineation process, I should mention that in this discussion there are at least two basic categories of interpretive criteria; the logical and the ethical. The logical category deals mainly with the question of whether we can legitimately conclude truth by good and necessary consequence. Several questions apply. Must every practice of the Church be sanctioned by an explicit scriptural command? Or may the Church also validate her practices by proving that they are the inescapable conclusions of related Scriptural premises? Which of these approaches is more reasonable and consistent with the Word of God? Which one avoids the pitfall of arbitrarity, and provides the Church with the necessary criterion for the discovery and formulation of Christian doctrine?
The ethical category deals with a slightly different but related question; one that examines the revelational expectations we have toward God. Several more questions apply. If God has once spoken in Scripture, whether by promise, principle, prohibition, or command, how long should we expect the binding nature of that Word to endure? In other words, Does every command of God given in the Old Testament need to be repeated in the New Testament for it to remain in force? Or should we rather assume that all of God’s commands are automatically perpetual, unless and until He Himself canonically revokes them? Which of these two dispositions should characterize the heart of the Christian interpreter? Are the expectations that we place upon God’s revelation a true reflection of Spirit-wrought reverence and fear of God? Or have we overstepped our boundaries, by attempting to abolish that which God Himself has never abrogated?
These are not very difficult questions to ponder, and the way that I’ve stated them shows where I stand on the issue. But still, these questions are not for mere effect. My hope is that the prayerful reader will consider them carefully, and that eventually (if not now) the profundity of the matter will descend upon him. Regardless of the outcome though, my aim in this post will be to vindicate the thesis that any fruitful discussion on Infant Baptism must begin on a presuppositional level, examining first the legitimacy and consistency of one’s own interpretive criteria.
Historic Baptist Explicitism
When confronted with the question of infant baptism, the Baptist will inevitably respond with an appeal to his own interpretive criteria. One such theologian of the late 17th century, Hercules Collins, is a perfect example. In his 1680 adaptation of the Heidelberg Catechism we read,
Are infants to be baptized? None by no means, for we have neither precept nor example for that practice in all the book of God. Do the Scriptures anywhere expressly forbid the baptism of infants? It is sufficient that the divine oracle commands the baptizing of believers, unless we will make ourselves wiser than what is written.
The argument above can be summarized to say first, every practice of the Church must be founded upon an explicit command of God in Scripture. Second, when there is no explicit command to be found, we must (at minimum) find in Scripture some example where members of the Church practiced it. And finally, this hermeneutic of “explicitism,” if I may so coin the term, is absolutely necessary to prevent us from going beyond that which is actually written, thereby exalting ourselves above the Scripture.
Now certainly, we can all agree that applying this criterion would simplify the process of biblical interpretation, but is it really helpful in bringing clarity and confirmation to the Church when consistently applied? Unfortunately, the answer is No, and in fact, it actually ends up causing more problems than it tries to resolve.
First, if the Church must cease from every practice not commanded or explicitly described in Scripture, then we must immediately begin to exclude women from the Lord’s Supper. After all, even Collins, if he would be consistent, would have to agree that “we have neither precept nor example for that practice in all the book of God.”
Other problems which inevitably arise from a consistent application of this criterion are of a far more serious nature, leading to the demise of Christian orthodoxy altogether. This is true because when we deny theological conclusions which are based upon logical deduction, we inadvertently deny several other more essential Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and the hypostatic union of the two natures of Christ, just to name a few.
Another important example (though perhaps a bit less obvious) pertains to the doctrine of the final resurrection. This biblical doctrine is an essential, orthodox Christian teaching, and yet before the writing of the New Testament, there was no explicit statement in Scripture concerning this final eschatological event. It was partly for this reason that the Sadducees rejected the concept altogether (Mat. 22:23). Fortunately however, our Lord was not an “explicitist” and in his Mosaic defense of the resurrection to the Sadducees, he employed the hermeneutic of good and necessary consequence—deducing the truth of the resurrection from two (otherwise) unrelated premises.
Jesus answered… as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.
Apparently then, the people of God in the Old Testament no less than in the New Testament were to understand, and believe in the resurrection of the dead, even if it was not explicitly stated in Scripture – (see John 11:24). The problem with the Sadducees was that they were simply unwilling to concede the validity of logical inference in their hermeneutic. And for this reason, they erred greatly, missing the mark on one of the most important teachings of the Bible.
In Hebrews 6:1-2, the writer makes it clear that the resurrection of the dead is not only biblical, it’s absolutely foundational.
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
It’s no wonder therefore, that our Lord gave them the serious and embarrassing rebuke, “Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures” (Mat. 22:29)!
With respect to the question of whether the baptism of infants is biblical, the matter is really no different. Because again, we must begin with asking the more fundamental question of What is the proper biblical hermeneutic? More specifically, Are we truly deriving our interpretive criteria from the Scriptures, or are we imposing our own assumptions and expectations upon the Word of God? Could there be something critical, some important point of doctrine, some foundational aspect of practice, that our Baptist friends are missing, simply because they have unwittingly adopted the erroneous hermeneutic of the Sadducees? And in doing so, have our Baptist friends rejected the very hermeneutic that Christ himself severally employed? These are question which, in part, have just been answered. And yet, they really need to be pressed for all they are worth, lest the weight of their significance be underestimated, or altogether disregarded.
Historic Baptist Repetitionism
Before the biblical (not explicit) case for infant baptism can be made, there is another hermeneutical presupposition that needs to be addressed. For lack of a better term, I will again presume to coin one that I think captures the essence of this assumption –“repetitionism.” This is fitting, because our Baptist friends often argue that it is illegitimate to appeal to commands given in the Old Testament if they are not repeated again in the New.
In addition to the fact that there are several commands found in the Old Testament that are nowhere repeated in the New (e.g. prohibition against bestiality) we should keep in mind that the matter is actually a bit more comprehensive. The matter at hand properly fits under the larger discussion of “continuity vs. discontinuity,” and for this reason we should discuss it within a consideration of the larger frameworks of Covenant (Reformed) and Dispensational (Baptist) theologies.
When it comes to the issue of continuity the Baptist and Reformed traditions are not just dissimilar – they are mirror opposites. While the Baptist presumes that all commandments and practices of the Old Testament are automatically discontinued for the Church in the New Testament unless there is a reaffirmation of such commandments and practices (explicitly) stated in the New Testament Scriptures—the Reformed hold quite the reverse. Dr. Greg Bahnsen, on page 3 of his 1985 publication By This Standard, explains,
We must assume continuity with the Old Testament rather than discontinuity. This is not to say that there are no changes from Old to New Testament. Indeed, there are—important ones. However, the word of God must be the standard which defines precisely what those changes are for us; we cannot take it upon ourselves to assume such changes or read them into the New Testament. God’s word, His direction to us, must be taken as continuing in its authority until God Himself reveals otherwise. This is, in a sense, the heart of “covenant theology” over against a dispensational understanding of the relation between the Old and the New.
The two approaches thus enumerated couldn’t be stated in clearer terms. But how exactly does this relate to the question of infant baptism? The answer is, Everything! Especially when the respective frameworks of continuity and discontinuity are tested at the most foundational level of the discussion – church membership. Since baptism is an ordinance given to and for the Church, the biblical administration of baptism must be consistent with the biblical doctrine of the Church.
So then, here’s the final questions to consider. Does the Bible teach the unity and continuity of the people of God through all ages? Or does it teach us that the Church in the New Testament is a new and separate entity, distinct from the Church in the Old Testament? How one answers this question inevitably determines how he will answer the principal question, Who should be baptized? In the next installment I will argue for the continuity of the Church in all ages, and try to show why Reformed Covenant Theology most accurately represents biblical ecclesiology.