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: 

  1. Admitting that the infant children of the people of God were in fact members of the Church under the Old Testament economy,
  2. And having seen also that the Church in the New Testament is the same Church (in terms of its identity, structure, and abiding nature),
  3. 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. 

___________________________________

Footnotes:

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)

 

About The Author

I am the guy who knows in part, and sees through a glass darkly.

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7 Responses

  1. Charles Roberts

    My sincere and grateful thanks for your having written and published this article. You have articulated very well indeed, what I, and many other Reformed pastors have been thinking for a long, long time. This is a much needed call to attention, especially in light of how some popular ministries have chosen to look the other way on the issue of covenant baptism, to the point where those who deny the Biblical teaching about the Sacrament have come be dominant in the popular mind among those of who call themselves Reformed.

    Reply
    • Paul Liberati

      Hi Charles, thank you for your comment and your encouraging words. I too have see the total lack of attention this important topic has received in recent times – more often than not, it is brushed to the side as unimportant and somehow inconsequential. I couldn’t disagree more! I personally wrestled with this issue for an entire year before I finally abandoned my baptist presuppositions. And because I have such a heart for my brothers in Christ who remain in the baptist camp, I do my best to articulate the points with clarity and simplicity. And God has certainly blessed my labors in this area, as I have seen a number of my brothers bring their families into the Reformed (biblical) Faith, baptize their children and join themselves to confessional Reformed churches. In the end, it’s all about the Covenant. That’s the key to biblical Christianity.

      Reply
      • Charles Roberts

        A friend of mine, who had been concerned about the same issues, and to drive home the point, refused to use the terms “Reformed” Baptists; instead he used “Five Point Synod of Dordt” Baptists!

      • Paul Liberati

        Hi Charles, I can agree that “reformed baptist” is a misnomer. Unfortunately, the term “reformed” has been reduced to the so-called “Five Points,” and yet even that is an abstraction, since the Synod of Dort produced more than the Canons! As I look back on my own journey and reflect on how God brought me from a baptist theology into Reformed Christianity, I am forced to acknowledge that at best, I was a “baptist predestinarian.” And by the way, this shouldn’t be offensive to our baptist friends, instead it should be readily received, and maintained with a humble appreciation for the differences that exist in key areas of our theologies.

  2. Kevin

    Hello Paul,

    I myself am a Reformed Baptist, and by that I do not mean merely a Calvinistic Baptist. I actually agree with you that it is illegitimate for many Baptists to call themselves Reformed merely because they adhere to the 5 points of Calvinism. However, Baptists themselves do have a robust history of confessionalism within the Reformed tradition. I for example, hold to the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Some may still call this tradition something other than Reformed, and instead prefer to call it “Particular Baptist,”
    as it was called in the 1600s. I won’t argue with that, but still, there is a Baptist history of covenant theology that is not dispensational and does not force Baptists into a form of Arminianism.

    See here for some introductory resources on confessional Reformed Baptist covenant theology: http://www.1689federalism.com/

    See here for another brief explanation of 1689 federalism: http://www.placefortruth.org/content/case-credobaptism-0

    See here for a specific response to the Romans 11 argument you cited above: https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/the-olive-tree/

    See here for a discussion of apostasy passages in Scripture: https://contrast2.wordpress.com/?s=hebrews+10

    Reply
    • Paul Liberati

      Hi Kevin, thank you for your comment. As far as a confessional history, I agree that particular baptists have a rich history. I myself, while not part of a confessional church, utilized the 1689 LBCF for more than 7 years. I am very familiar with it, and in fact, very thankful for it. We have much in common brother!

      As far as the material you provided for Romans 11, I cannot say that I am convinced that the baptist has ground to stand. For example, the opening observation in the article was that the Reformed interpretation begins with assumptions about the text. But then after documenting legitimate diversity within the Reformed tradition, the writer simply goes on to insert his own assumptions about the text.

      Dealing with the grafted branches he writes, “Note, the individual Gentiles were not added by profession but by belief.” That’s interesting. Because the text does not require that, nor allow for it, since the passage describes a provisional grafting of Gentiles that can be reversed by excision, in the same way and on the same grounds that the Jews were cut off. The parallel is clear.

      In John 8:30, 31 the Bible says, “As he spake these words, many believed on him. Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.”

      So what is being attributed to these Jews? A profession or belief? The reason I ask is because if you follow the dialog, Jesus ends up calling these same people the children of the devil and concludes that his word has no place in them!

      My point is that often times the term “faith” or “belief” is used by the writers of Scripture in a non-technical sense. We have to be aware of this, so as to avoid one of two possible errors.

      1. The first is the error of assuming that those with true faith can somehow lose that faith and cease to believe the gospel, thereby forfeiting their salvation.

      2. The second is the error of assuming that warnings of apostasy do not apply in the NC as they did in the OC. I have already documented some passages from Hebrews that militates against such a conclusion (see my end note), and showed that Jesus in John 15 was appealing to Jeremiah 2 (a very strong parallel).

      The problem with the article is that it makes the second error. Because the writer begins by assuming that the only ground for grafting in branches is true and saving faith, he must go on to assume that the warning passage in verse 21 (“For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.”) is a mere hypothetical impossibility. If this was true, then we must accuse Scripture of providing God’s elect with idle warnings (but remember Jesus in John 8)!

      In conclusion brother, I am not convinced that the baptist interpretation of Romans 11 is sound. I was a baptist for most of my Christian walk, and have taught the Bible for almost 10 years from a “Reformed Baptist” perspective. The reduction of Israel to typology, the belittling of warning passages, and the dividing asunder of the Abrahamic Covenant into “two covenants” ultimately began to haunt me. So today I am a paedobaptist due to my conviction that Reformed Covenant Theology is true biblical theology.

      In case you haven’t had a chance to read this, here is a great treatment on the Sacraments from a Reformed Perspective.

      http://www.reformedonline.com/uploads/1/5/0/3/15030584/the_sacraments_a_reformed_perspective.pdf

      Blessings in Christ!

      Reply
  3. Kevin

    Thank you for the graciousness of your response, Paul.

    I can’t say I agree with your interpretation of John 8 – neither did Calvin (see his commentary on John 8 for a rather common Reformed interpretation). However, granting your understanding of the use of “believe” in the sense you say it is used there, I also don’t see how it follows that false belief is included as something that can be said to legitimately graft someone into the olive tree in Romans 11.

    You write: “Because the writer begins by assuming that the only ground for grafting in branches is true and saving faith…”

    I don’t think this is an assumption. If it is, it is one made by a lot of Reformed interpreters of this passage who are not Baptist. The passage itself says that they were grafted in as those who “stand fast through faith.” Even paedobaptist John Murray writes, “The last clause in the verse [‘but you stand fast through faith’] gives the reason why they will be grafted in, more particularly the reason why the grafting in will not fail when unbelief is renounced.” He also writes, “The observation that ‘by their unbelief they were broken off’ is made in this instance, however, to emphasize that by which Gentiles have come to stand and occupy a place in the olive tree, namely, by faith. The main interest of the context is to rebuke and correct vain boasting. The emphasis falls on ‘faith’ because it is faith that removes all ground for boasting. If those grafted in have come to stand by faith, then all thought of merit is excluded (cf 9:32; 11:6; 3:27).”

    You say that the author of the article I shared “must go on to assume that the warning passage in verse 21 (“For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.”) is a mere hypothetical impossibility. If this was true, then we must accuse Scripture of providing God’s elect with idle warnings.”

    I don’t think that that necessarily follows. I think Calvin’s response to this idea and his explanation of the warning (cited in the article) is as good as any:

    “In the person of the Gentiles he brings forward what they might have pleaded for themselves; but that was of such a nature as ought not to have filled them with pride, but, on the contrary, to have made them humble. For if the cutting off of the Jews was through unbelief, and if the ingrafting of the Gentiles was by faith, what was their duty but to acknowledge the favor of God, and also to cherish modesty and humbleness of mind? For it is the nature of faith, and what properly belongs to it, to generate humility and fear. But by fear understand that which is in no way inconsistent with the assurance of faith; for Paul would not have our faith to vacillate or to alternate with doubt, much less would he have us to be frightened or to quake with fear.

    Of what kind then is this fear? As the Lord bids us to take into our consideration two things, so two kinds of feeling must thereby be produced. For he would have us ever to bear in mind the miserable condition of our nature; and this can produce nothing but dread, weariness, anxiety, and despair; and it is indeed expedient that we should thus be thoroughly laid prostrate and broken down, that we may at length groan to him; but this dread, derived from the knowledge of ourselves, keeps not our minds while relying on his goodness, from continuing calm; this weariness hinders us not from enjoying full consolation in him; this anxiety, this despair, does not prevent us from obtaining in him real joy and hope. Hence the fear, of which he speaks, is set up as an antidote to proud contempt; for as every one claims for himself more than what is right, and becomes too secure and at length insolent towards others, we ought then so far to fear, that our heart may not swell with pride and elate itself.

    But it seems that he throws in a doubt as to salvation, since he reminds them to beware lest they also should not be spared. To this I answer, — that as this exhortation refers to the subduing of the flesh, which is ever insolent even in the children of God, he derogates nothing from the certainty of faith.”

    I think it is hard to dismiss the author’s argument (and that of other Reformed theologians) that point of Romans 11 is to describe a one-time event in redemptive history. It is not talking about the regular functioning of the visible church. Looking at the context of the whole chapter from the beginning, the passage teaches that there is a remnant of Israel (spiritual Israel, Rom. 11:4-7) that the Gentiles are grafted into by grace through faith. However, the natural branches (natural Israel) have been broken off for their breaking of the Old Covenant. The passage is actually dealing with the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic covenant throughout, describing the end of the typological/natural/physical covenant.

    I think this passage from the article is particularly salient: “Since the type [natural/physical Israel] is cut off, there remains no more natural connection to the root [Abraham]. Thus all natural branches without faith were cut off. They can be grafted in again (v24) only if they come to have faith. And wild branches can only be grafted in through faith. So how can natural branches of the wild olive tree (natural offspring of Gentile believers) be grafted in? They cannot. Every branch must have a connection to the root, and the root is Abraham. The natural connection to Abraham has become obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), which is why the natural branches were cut off. The only connection to the root (Abraham) that remains is faith, through which one is made a spiritual seed of Abraham.

    Are the unregenerate children of believers connected to Abraham (the root) in any way? No, they are not. They are connected to their parents naturally, but their parents are not the root. Abraham is. And here we see a foundational flaw of paedobaptism. They put every believer in the place of Abraham, claiming that every child of the believer is set apart. This was never the case. No Israelite was set apart because of their parents’ faith. A Jew was set apart because he was a child of Abraham – because he was connected to the root.”

    I think this is a more viable interpretation of this passage, and one that shows that explaining this chapter via an internal/external New Covenant membership understanding is not necessary or warranted.

    Anyway, I understand we disagree, but God bless you as well!

    Reply

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