After five consecutive posts on the subject of infant baptism, my friend Jim decides to give a response to my material. Knowing that he’s a baptist, and because I’ve been in several (friendly) debates with him on the larger topic of Covenant Theology, I was expecting for his critique to be somewhat challenging – either to my overall position, or at least to some of my individual arguments. While I can’t say that I was “challenged,” I can say that his comments were at least helpful in that they definitely shed light on how he approaches the biblical arguments for paedobaptism. In that regard, they only confirm my original post on baptist and Reformed presuppositions (found here).
If there is anything to be disappointed about, it would be that Jim has all but glossed my series, and in the very end decided to respond only to the last line of my last article, zooming in on an undeveloped scripture citation (Matthew 19:14) that I tagged on to my concluding statement. Even more disappointing is the fact that the whole substance of Jim’s response amounts to less than (50) words, wherein he points out that Matthew 19:14 has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the practice of infant baptism.
There is no mention of baptism here, nor are infants of believers indicated. Nor does Christ say that all little children belong to the kingdom. What He is saying is that those who make up the kingdom of heaven are like little children in their humility and dependence.
And while Jim may honestly believe that such a response is sufficient to permanently remove Matthew 19:14 from the list of paedo “proof-texts,” I can’t help but feel compelled to offer a much-needed clarification here, not only for Jim himself, but for all who by default happen to agree.
Let’s consider each assertion, one by one.
There is no mention of baptism here.
When Reformed believers cite Matthew 19:14 in the context of a discussion on infant baptism, it’s not because we believe that Jesus baptized the children mentioned in the text. This is an unwarranted assumption, which as far as I know, no Reformed theologian has ever argued for. At the very least, I can say without fear of contradiction, that I drew no such conclusion from this text. To clarify then, I cited this passage because it lends support to the theology of infant baptism – not because it’s an instance of infant baptism.
Nor are infants of believers indicated.
This second part of Jim’s statement is really just a matter of his own opinion. Does he assume that those who brought their children to Jesus were not believers? What indication of their unbelief do we find in the text? In verse 13 Scripture says that children were brought to Him “so that He might lay His hands on them and pray.” But what is the significance of such a practice?
According to John Gill,
Probably some of those infants, if not all of them, were diseased, and brought to Jesus to be cured; otherwise, it is not easy to conceive what they should be touched by him for.
Did you just read that?! You did. And as much as I respect Gill, I think he totally missed the boat on this one. First of all, the context suggests a familiar Jewish custom of annual Rabbinic blessing, where, according to R.T. France, there was “the practice of bringing children to the elders for ‘blessing, strengthening, and prayer’ in the evening following the Day of Atonement (Sop. 18:5).”
But secondly, on an even broader spectrum, the laying on of hands normally signifies the impartation of some spiritual blessing. Matthew Henry, in his commentary on Matthew 19:14, reminds us that in Scripture (Gen. 48:8-22) “the imposition of hands was a ceremony used especially in paternal blessings” which not only “intimates something of love and familiarity mixed with power and authority” but that biblically speaking, it “bespeaks an efficacy in the blessing.”
Did those who brought their children to Jesus understand this? I have no reason to doubt that they did. After all, the writer to the Hebrews included the “laying of hands” within the list of teachings and practices that comprise the “foundation” of the Christian Faith (Heb. 6:1-2). In fact, the writer there identifies those foundational teachings as “the elementary teaching about the Christ.” As to what the exact connection is there I have yet to discover – but it does make for an interesting point to consider. And it certainly renders the suggestion that unbelievers were bringing their children to Jesus a very weak and beggarly hypothesis.
Such an objection then, having no merits in itself, is apparently anticipatory in that it’s probably designed to cut off any possible paedobaptist implications. I say this because in times past I have made it clear to Jim that from the Reformed perspective there are two ways to enter into covenant with God, and thus become eligible for baptism; either by conversion or by inclusion. With respect to inclusion, our position is that only the children of believers are eligible for baptism. Unbelieving parents, or apostate professing Christians, have no reason to assume that their children have an interest in the covenant blessings of Jesus Christ. Therefore they are not to be baptized.
It’s pretty easy to understand why Jim might have felt the need to suggest that these were children of unbelievers. As to how he concluded that from the text of Scripture, however, is still a remaining question.
And then we have this puzzling statement:
Nor does Christ say that all little children belong to the kingdom.
What?! Jim knows that this is not my position, so why did he add this statement? Here it seems as if he’s doing his best to “cover all possible angles” in that he is trying to refute, with a single sentence, two possible interpretations, even though they are diametrically opposed to one another. The belief that only the children of believers are in the kingdom certainly contradicts the belief that all children are in the kingdom. In any event, his statement has no value against the Reformed position.
What He is saying is that those who make up the kingdom of heaven are like little children.
With all due respect, this interpretation, despite its popularity, is very problematic. Not only is it an incomplete (and therefore false) understanding of our Lord’s statement, it also has implications that extend to many other biblical scenarios where this same language is used. What Jesus actually said is, “to such as these” belong the kingdom, meaning again, to all such children of believing parents. That’s the context here.
Now the term “such as these” cannot be reduced to the idea of similarity, but necessarily includes the idea of identity as well. Note that the Greek term here is τοιουτων, which appears in several passages of the New Testament.
First, Galatians 5:22-23 lists several particular fruits of the Spirit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such (τοιουτων) there is no law.
The idea here cannot be that the fruits against which there is no law, are merely “like” the fruits Paul listed in the text, but somehow exclude the fruits he listed in the text! Rather Paul is teaching that there is no law against these particular fruits and every other fruit that is like them. The idea is one of inclusion – not exclusion.
Second, Acts 22:22 records the response of the unbelieving crowds to the preaching of the apostle Paul.
And they gave him audience unto this word, and then lifted up their voices, and said, Away with such (τοιουτον) a fellow from the earth.
Again, the idea here cannot be that the crowds were denouncing every man who was merely “like” Paul. Rather, they were denouncing Paul himself, as well as everyone else who might be like him. This term, as was already shown, is one of inclusion and cannot exclude the very one identified in the text.
Another example is found in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, where Paul gives judgment against the incestuous man.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such (τοιουτον) an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh…
The injunction here cannot be that the Corinthians were to excommunicate every man who was merely “like” the incestuous man, and leave it at that. That would make absolutely no sense. The obvious meaning is that the Corinthians were to remove from their fellowship every man who was behaving like the incestuous man – beginning with the incestuous man himself! So once again, we see the necessity of inclusion – not exclusion – of the one identified in the text.
So then when Jesus says,
To such (τοιουτων) belong the kingdom of God,
he is not saying that the kingdom belongs to everyone who is merely “like” these children, as my friend Sean would have it. Rather, he is saying that the kingdom belongs to these particular children – whose believing parents had brought them to Jesus – and by extension, this includes all other children who are like them.