When it comes to the matter of continuity, the Baptist and Reformed traditions are almost mirror opposites. While the Baptist presumes that all commandments and practices of the Old Testament are automatically discontinued in the Church unless they are (explicitly) restated in the New Testament Scriptures, the Reformed hold quite the reverse.
Dr. Greg Bahnsen 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. 1
The two approaches thus enumerated, couldn’t be stated in clearer terms, and yet someone may ask, What does this have to do with infant baptism? After all, how can we possibly argue that the Church in the New Testament somehow continues to practice that which the Church in the Old Testament never practiced in the first place? However, there is much more to to be said about the Reformed understanding of continuity, particularly about the primary and foundational level at which we must seek to identify its presence.
First and foremost, the matter of continuity is a question which concerns the essential identity of the Church in the New Testament, seeking to answer the more fundamental question of whether it is a new and separate entity, distinct from the Church in the Old Testament. It’s only when we have properly understood the Bible’s teaching on this point, that we can begin to address the question of whether or not the children of believers ought to be baptized. Therefore, in this installment I want to examine two passages of Scripture that weigh in on this particular question of ecclesial continuity.
Ecclesial Continuity Stated
Ephesians 2:11-22; One House or Two?
Speaking to the identity and abiding nature of the Church, the apostle Paul often reminded the New Testament congregations to which he wrote that although they were predominantly Gentile assemblies, they were not to conclude on that basis that they were in fact a new and separate entity, distinct from the Church in the Old Testament. Admitting that before the coming of Christ, the Gentiles were (in large measure) “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” (v. 12b) and “strangers from the covenants of promise” (v. 12c), the apostle nevertheless went on to ensure them that by virtue of the cross-work of Jesus Christ, they were “no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (v.19). Note that the imagery employed by the apostle Paul is specifically designed to prove that there is an essential continuity of structure in the Church, from the Old Testament to the New.
As Paul drew upon the imagery of God’s house, similar to what we find in 1 Peter 2:5, it cannot be reasonably maintained that he viewed the Church in the New Testament as some new and separate architectural building project, discontinued from the framework of the Church in the Old Testament. Instead, he pointed out rather vividly, that both peoples, Jew and Gentile, have been “framed together” (v. 21) and “builded together” (v. 22a) to form “an habitation of God through the Spirit” (v. 22b). This “household of God,” says Paul, is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the Chief Cornerstone” (v. 20). This is unquestionably the language of structural continuity.
The truth is, the apostle Paul, aware of the misconceptions of his readers, was actually refuting the notion that the New Covenant, ratified by the blood of Jesus Christ, somehow brought in the beginning of an additional ecclesiastical entity, thereby creating two distinct but co-existing peoples of God. In doing so, he made it abundantly clear that Christ died to remove every obstacle that stood in the way of a true, full, and permanent consolidation of two previously separated peoples.
Romans 11:16-24; One Tree or Two?
Another passage of Scripture which speaks to the identity, nature, and structural continuity of the Church under both testaments, is found in Romans chapter 11.
Samuel Miller comprehensively and definitively states,
That the apostle here is speaking of the Old Testament church under the figure of a good olive tree, cannot be doubted, and is, indeed, acknowledged by all; by our Baptist brethren as well as others. Now the inspired apostle says concerning this olive tree, that the natural branches, that is the Jews, were broken off because of unbelief. But what was the consequence of this excision? Was the tree destroyed? By no means. The apostle teaches directly the contrary. It is evident, from his language, that the root, and trunk, in all their “fatness” remained; and Gentiles, branches of an olive tree “wild by nature” were grafted into the good olive tree;” – the same tree from which the natural branches had been broken off. Can anything be more pointedly descriptive of identity than this? But this is not all. The apostle apprizes us that the Jews are to be brought back from their rebellion and wanderings and be incorporated with the Christian church. And how is this restoration described? It is called “grafting them in again into their own olive tree”… Surely, if the church of God before the coming of Christ, and the church of God after the advent, were altogether distinct and separate bodies, and not the same in their essential characters, it would be an abuse of terms to represent the Jews, when converted to Christianity, as grafted again into their own olive tree. 2
So far then, we have already seen that the New Testament Church is not a new building project, separate from the the standing edifice of the Church in the Old Testament. And now, under a different metaphor, we see the same fundamental truth; that the Church in the New Testament is not the product of an additional arboricultural planting. Rather, as Miller points out, there was only a grafting of additional shoots into an existing tree, previously planted.
In addition to this, once we consider that there has not only been a grafting in of some, but also a breaking off of others, we are left to conclude that this olive tree, being an emblem of the whole Church, cannot be comprised only of those which are regenerate. And this too, is an important factor in the nature of the Church. In verse 20, we find that the natural branches (i.e. the Jews) were broken off “because of unbelief.” And yet, in verse 22, a warning of the same possible outcome is given to the wild branches (i.e. the Gentiles) whom God has now grafted in; that if they do not continue in His goodness, they “also shall be cut off.”
Verse 21 brings out the abiding parallel:
For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.
Clearly then, there is a fundamental identity, not only of the the structure, but also of the nature of the Church under both testaments. Just as the Church in her Old Testament economy was comprised of both regenerate and unregenerate members, so likewise in her present economy she remains comprised of the same – and thereby eligible for a warning against the same possible outcome (apostasy)3 unto the same possible consequence (excommunication)4.
To say it again, in slightly different terms: The inspired imagery of Romans 11 forces us to conclude that the Church continues to be structured in the same way as it always had; carrying over both the visible and invisible dimensions of the Older administration. If this were not the case, then the olive tree of Romans 11 simply represents the invisible (regenerate) Church, and the “breaking off” of branches refers not only to a covenantal judgment of unbelieving members, but an actual loss of their salvation!
In light of this, one can appreciate the comment I once received from a friend who concluded, “There is no room for baptistic ecclesiology in Romans 11.” Certainly, any Baptist exegete can ascend the olive tree and boast himself at the top. But by the time he climbs down to verse 22, he will have to either convert to the Reformed Faith, or take up an Arminian banner. There is simply no alternative. But again, what does this have to do with infant baptism?
Ecclesial Continuity Applied
The implications of ecclesial continuity are important, and they relate to the question of infant baptism in the following way:
- Admitting that the infant children of the people of God were in fact members of the Church under the Old Testament economy,
- And having seen also that the Church in the New Testament is the same Church (in terms of its identity, structure, and abiding nature),
- We cannot infer otherwise than to acknowledge that our infant children are still members of the Church today.
B.B. Warfield sums it up well,
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.
1 Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard; 1985, pg. 3
2 Samuel Miller, Infant Baptism, Scriptural and Reasonable, (1834) pgs. 206-208
3 Does Apostasy Exist in the NT?
In support of the conclusion that apostasy remains an abiding reality in the New Testament Church, note that there are several passages in the book of Hebrews warning about this very thing (see especially Heb. 3:7-11; 6:4-6; 10:26-31). The important thing to see in these passages is that the writer to the Hebrews structures each of these warnings in strict parallel fashion, to show that what was historically possible under the Old Covenant is still presently possible under the New.
Another corresponding passage in support of this conclusion is found in John 15:1-6, where Christ, under the figure of a “vine” exhorts his “branches” to remain in him. The language is very instructive. “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away… If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (v. 2, 6; emphasis added). What are we to conclude from this picture? Can our Lord truly be teaching that there are those who are “in him” salvifically, who will one day be lost? And yet Arminian interpreters attempt to use this very passage to prove just that. So how are we to respond?
It hardly seems necessary to show the inadequacy of the standard Baptist solution, that Jesus is here referring to those who only profess to be “in him” but are really not. A better approach is to explain these difficult words of our Lord using more consistent biblical categories; doing away with question of salvation and taking up the concept of covenantal union. Christ is not here speaking salvifically, but rather, covenantally.
The answer to the Arminian challenge is found in that the covenant (under either testament) has never been, nor ever will be coextensive with eternal election or regeneration, so that apostasy from the covenant is possible, while apostasy from saving grace is not. In fact, when we consider that Jesus is here making an allusion to Jeremiah 2:20-21, it becomes all the more sure. In verse 21 God said to Israel, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” Undoubtedly, Jesus is drawing upon Old Testament covenant-imagery and language of apostasy, to emphasize the continuing validity of that imagery within a New Covenant context. This being the case, the structural continuity of the Church under both testaments can scarcely be called into question, having thus received the divine confirmation of Christ himself.
4 How Do Apostasy and Excommunication Relate?
Apostasy in Scripture speaks to the unfaithfulness or the “going astray” of those who are in covenant with God, the root of which is always unbelief. Excommunication, however, is an ecclesiastical discipline, and should be understood as the consequence of unrepentantly breaking or violating the covenant, the jurisdiction of which, imperfectly extends to the officers of the visible Church.
In the biblical view, excommunication is not itself the sure loss of salvation, but the loss of visible covenant standing. Admittedly then, it is possible for a member of the covenant to be unjustly disciplined, and ultimately excommunicated – and yet all the while remaining innocent in the eyes of the Lord. Or it may be, that some members of the covenant will never fall under the discipline of the Church, and yet, due to the secret unbelief dwelling in their own hearts, will ever remain guilty in sin, and unjustified before God.
On this note, take care to observe that Judas Iscariot was an unbeliever in heart, and yet, as it pertained to his standing in the visible Church, he remained (for many years) a member of the covenant in “good standing.” That is to say, that his unbelief, although infallibly detected by our Lord, remained (for many years) visibly undetected by the whole of the disciples. And yet, here is what our Baptist brethren need to grapple with. Despite our Lord’s knowledge of the condition of Judas’ heart, he nevertheless refrained from excluding Judas from the sacraments of the New Covenant (see Luke 22:13-21). This was very practical, in showing us that covenant apostasy is a reality, and yet, we are not to assume that covenant membership, which is visible to those in the Church, necessarily corresponds with election, regeneration, and eternal salvation, which is visible only to God.
5 B.B. Warfield, “The Polemics of Infant Baptism” in Studies in Theology (1932; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker 1981)