Answering three exegetical and common fallacies concerning a Westminster Standards’ view of baptism
This section is mainly directed at handling objections that arise from the credobaptist church community against paedobaptism. Why? It is because in England and Wales this is where the most voices of disapproval are heard. Their primary points of dissent also provide a suitable platform to exegetically defend the Westminster Standards’ doctrine of baptism. Simultaneously, engaging in this pursuit does also expose large gaps within a baptistic hermeneutic, not only for baptism, but for the gospel, and the credobaptist approach to the unity of Scripture. Within the scope of this essay, I intend to respond to the three most common arguments that I have personally encountered. These form the basis of what I would deem to be three exegetical and common fallacies concerning a Westminster Standards’ view of baptism.
The New Testament is silent concerning the baptism of infants/children
Without doubt this is the hottest and most emotive topic for discussion. The baptist theologian, Stephen J. Wellum, contends that “it does not seem to bother them [Reformed presbyterians] that in the NT there is no express command to baptise infants and no record of any clear case of infant baptism”.12 This is obviously a representative statement for credobaptists and certainly Spurgeon makes the same charge. Considering that the Book of Acts was a missionary situation, to which all would agree, I will not restrict the practice of baptism to only include new-born infants but also to the children of believers. It would be unlikely for the gospel to come to a Gentile city and for baptism only to be applied for infants, and not to include the children of those converts because they were beyond infancy.
We run into reverse logic in the counter-arguments of those who deny baptism to the children of Christians. It would be just as easy to reply that “it does not seem to bother them [baptists] that there is no express command to exclude believers’ children from receiving the sign of baptism”. One common fallacy is that those who practice a covenantal position, only baptise infants; it often comes as a revelation to some, when they discover that we baptise adults following conversion also, but only if they have never been baptised before. However, we do not want simply to appeal to theological logic, but to the Scriptures.
There is majestic harmony to the beginning line and closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus Christ is introduced as “the son of Abraham” and the new covenant commission is to “make disciples of all nations”, “to baptise them” in (into) the name of the Trinity, and to teach them in an ongoing sense, to “observe all” that Christ commanded (Matt. 1:1 and 28:18–20). The links with the ongoing fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant to “all nations” are undeniable. The newness of the new covenant is stunning, but this can only be fully appreciated if we understand Christ as “the son of Abraham”. To think of the title “the son of Abraham” is to be reminded of God’s covenants and indeed Malachi prophesied that Christ will be “the messenger of the covenant” (Mal. 3:1).
God preached the gospel to Abraham, according to Paul (Gal. 3:7–9) and promised him that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). This spoke specifically of the Gentiles, but also of the inclusion of families. When God “made a covenant” with Abraham (literally, made is “cut” kāraṯ and a “covenant” is bǝrīṯ), the Lord said “To your offspring I give this land” (Gen. 15:18). Thus the covenant of God was not to Abraham alone, but also to future posterity.
Almighty God promised Abraham: “I will establish [literally, is hăqimōṯī] my covenant between me and you and your offspring ... to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Gen. 17:7). The Hebrew verb construct used here for “I will establish” is the active verb form Hiphil, which means God will actively fulfil his side of the covenant. J. V. Fesko explains that God first “cut” a covenant with Abraham which he then “establishes”, not only with Abraham, but with his “seed”.13 The promise also required that Abraham had to to keep the covenant, and circumcision was to be “a sign of the covenant” (Gen. 17:9–14). Abraham applied the “covenant sign” to all the males in his household; failure to do so would mean a breaking of the covenant and any uncircumcised would be “cut off from his people” (Gen. 17:14).
The Abrahamic covenant clarifies the classic biblical structure of God’s covenant dealings with his people. This can be understood to be likened to a chain, one which has four links, which are: “Command–sign–promises–responsibilities”. Abraham applied the sign of circumcision by God’s command, but he was also required to “command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord ... so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him” (Gen. 18:19). This does not exclude the doctrine of election but God has ordained that his election operates along the lines of this covenant framework, though not exclusively. God can sovereignly call people outside of these covenant dealings to himself, if he chooses.
Now the “penny should drop” metaphorically speaking. Those who were circumcised were “Abraham and his son Ishmael ... all the men in his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner” (Gen. 17:26–27). Later the sign of circumcision was applied to “Isaac when he was eight days old” (Gen. 21:4). Abraham had already “believed the Lord” (Gen. 15:6) and he was counted as righteous (Gen. 15:6), as the NT abundantly testifies (Rom. 4:9–25; Gal. 3:14, 29). But, what about 13-year-old Ishmael, the men in the household, and later baby Isaac? If some contest that circumcision is not the foreshadow of baptism, then what is? This sign was not applied as an “adult believer’s only circumcision”. To the contrary, God reveals in the OT that the communication of his grace is generous and inclusive, not exclusive and narrow.
Every covenant in the Bible includes children (Gen. 1:28; 2:9, 17; 9:9; 17:10; Deut. 5:6–21; 6:4–7; 2 Sam. 7:12–16; Acts 2:38–39; Eph. 6:1–4.). Every biblical covenant requires the believing parent(s) to uphold God’s covenant through an obedient life to the Lord and to teach their children to do the same. This understanding enhances a doctrine of the family, of which the Scriptures simply assume. From Adam to Noah, from Moses to David, from Pentecost until the Second Coming of Christ, an individualistic faith is precluded. The idea of God administering his covenant of grace, in a way that is bereft of a covenant sign to be applied with promises to children, is alien to the whole of the Bible. God’s covenants embrace the future posterity of faithful and obedient believers.
This is what Peter preached in Jerusalem: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38–39). The new covenant follows the same identical structure of: “Command–sign–promises–responsibilities”. A believer is to receive the covenant sign, with their children, and sometimes the whole household, and the promises are the “forgiveness of sins” and the poured out “Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4; 2:33, 39); and this must include the responsibility of discipleship through the church (Matt. 28:18–20). When those “afar off”, those “whom the Lord our God calls to himself”, are grafted in, as the Gentile household of Cornelius was, then the same covenant pattern applies, as Peter modelled in Acts 10:23–48. This narrative ends with the baptism of Cornelius, his relatives and friends, following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Why did I suggest that “the penny should drop”? It should now register in your mind that the apostle Paul baptised the whole households of Lydia, the Philippian jailer and Stephanas (Acts 16:15; 16:33; 1 Cor. 1:16) in the NT, as a “sign” of their commitment to Christian discipleship. The new covenant initiation sign instituted by Christ was baptism, and it was commonly applied to whole households when someone believed, including their children, and it was no longer restricted to the physical seed of Abraham. After Pentecost, once someone believed, Christian baptism was applied to Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, and boys and girls of parents in the faith (Gal. 3:27–29). The Abrahamic covenant of command, sign, promises, and responsibilities, flow harmoniously via the gospel for all nations, on the basis of the command of Jesus Christ, “the son of Abraham” (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15–16; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8).
Anthony N. S. Lane has a decisive article to demonstrate “fairly conclusively that by the last quarter of the second century infant baptism was well established across the Roman Empire”. Lane concludes that: "There is no hint anywhere in the surviving Christian literature from the first five centuries that anyone objected in principle to infant baptism, that anyone considered it improper, irregular or invalid. If it was a post-apostolic innovation, this silence is remarkable".
What is most likely is that there was some diversity with respect to the practice of infant baptism. However, to argue against the initiation of children into the church through baptism, finds no support from the post-apostolic church. “The evidence from the NT that babies were baptised is impressive, though not conclusive” asserts Lane. The evidence from the post-apostolic church is unambiguous that the baptism of infants took place unopposed.