Objectivising the Covenant: Infant Baptism

This recent blog from Mark Thompson, ead of Theology at Moore College in Sydney (http://markdthompson.blogspot.com/2008/11/federal-vision-iii.html) points to the danger of practicng infant baptism as it confuses our children in their status:

(BTW:I do believe that children can be part of the covenant-just read the Pauline epistles. But it is based on faith in Jesus. However young-one can have faith, simple faith in the Messiah. But really-paedobaptist in actuality do believe in baptismal regeneration-the way they treat their children-I know-I did that for the last 15 years of my married life. All creation is His-but one must accepts God willingly to be his treasured possession.  You might think it is Arminianism- but grace does not swallow-up faith. It in fact sustain and nourish it. It is not unimportant. And our Irresistible Grace or Effectual calling emphasizes this response of faith.)

As I have made clear in a previous post, I am unconvinced by the extensive use of the word ‘covenant’ (and the concept it conveys) to describe the character of our relationship with God and with each other. Undoubtedly the Bible speaks of ‘covenants’. Scripture makes clear there was a covenant with Abraham, with Israel, with David, and there is now a new covenant brought into effect through the blood of Jesus (but which was itself promised through the prophets). However, the terminology of covenant is not writ large on every page of the New Testament as it is on just about every page of covenant theology in general and the Federal Vision in particular. Jesus does use the language of covenant during the Last Supper (Matt. 26:28). Hebrews speaks unambiguously about a new covenant which supercedes the old (Heb. 8). The language and the concept are not entirely absent from the New Testament. But neither are they the consistent pattern of its description of life in Christ.

The imposition of covenant language at points where it does not appear in the New Testament has a number of effects. First, it tends to obscure the dominant language of ‘gospel’. Of course Federal Visionists speak of the gospel. They haven’t abandoned the concept or the terminology for a moment. However, it tends to be nowhere near as prominent in their theologising as it is in the New Testament. Second, the concept of covenant has been historically (and still is today) easily confused with the quasi-legal notion of contract. In one sense this is very hard to avoid whenever you start speaking about obligations and sanctions. Yet it appears that the structure of one of the major Old Testament covenants, the covenant with Israel at Sinai, is read into both the covenant with Abraham and an implicit covenant with Adam and into the new covenant as well. Certainly Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 9:15) and this new covenant is the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20), but I think there is a genuine risk of freedom and grace being swallowed up by a new legalism which might even turn joy into an obligation. The ethos of covenant theology seems different from that of the New Testament, notwithstanding the fact that it is meant to be drawn from the New Testament.

However, I move from discomfort to outright concern when I read the Federal Vision approach to baptism and the objectivity of the covenant. Once we start to speak of the act of baptism making a real difference to the baptized, ‘[r]egardless of the state of their heart, regardless of any hypocrisy, regardless of whether or not they mean it’, when we suggest that by virtue of the act itself ‘such a person is now a visible saint, a Christian’, we have moved a considerable distance beyond the teaching of the New Testament. This concern is not ameliorated in the slightest by caveat that ‘God has made a statement concerning this person, and the one baptized has an obligation to say amen to God’s statement through how he goes on to live his life.’ The attempt by Douglas Wilson to make use of the Catholic slogan ex opere operato takes things further and is problematic at a number of levels (unwise given the history of the expression, misleading given the New Testament emphasis on a union with Christ by faith and in the Spirit).

This has its most practical impact, of course, when it comes to the baptism of children and infants. I have never believed that the covenantal framework is necessary to justify the baptism of the children of Christian parents. (Each of my four daughters was baptized within a few weeks of being born.) God certainly does deal with us in the network of relationships in which he has placed us, he has made promises regarding Christian homes and the children he chooses to give to us. The Federal Visionists are right to rail at the individualism which is so rampant in our churches and is more the result of post-seventeenth century secular philosophy than the Scriptures. They are right to suggest that the normal expectation of Christian parents is that their children will grow up never knowing a day when they did not love Jesus. They are right to insist that Christians bring up their children as Christians, teaching them to pray to ‘Our Father’ and to relish the fact that ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so’ (and of course the Bible tells me so by pointing me to the cross). However, Federal Visionists want to say much more about baptism, and especially the baptism of infants, than would seem warranted by the statements of the New Testament.

It seems to me that this is one of those places where there is considerable room for Christian freedom. We know from the pages of the New Testament that when pagans or Jews were converted they were regularly baptized ‘in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. There are plenty of examples. In some of those cases households were involved and a great deal has been made of this in some circles. However, the simple fact, it seems to me, is that we do not know what happened when the converted and baptized once-pagan now-Christian had children. For one reason or another this was not such a big issue that it should be addressed directly in the apostolic letters. Those tend to address first generation believers and only occasionally second generation believers. So I take it that we have a measure of freedom in this matter. A good case can be made from the New Testament for the baptism of infants, when those infants are the children of Christian parents. I’m persuaded by that case and have acted on it. But a good case could also be made for baptism being delayed until the child is able to confess their own faith. I might not find it as convincing, I might think it replaces the promissory nature of baptism with a confessional or testamentary element that changes its basic character, but in the absence of direct teaching on the matter in Scripture, I want to recognise the freedom of Christian parents to take that option.

(My Note: I think they better study baptism outside of the theological construct of the covenant-and see it under the new covenant, kingdom and the gospel-so that there is a direct link beween them-than this covenant theology. It tends to push us to find ghost anywhere where there is none)

Here is one of the most disturbing pastoral effects of the Federal Vision controversy, at least as I and some of my friends have experienced it. Little grace is shown towards those who differ on the issue of infant baptism. The decision not to baptize children is parodied as denying them covenant blessings, or in more unguarded moments, spiritually disadvantaging them. The language can be quite emotive and it can raise the prominence of the baptism issue way beyond its place in the teaching of the New Testament. As a result Christians are polarised and the spectre of division raises its ugly head. It becomes a matter of primary importance to challenge those who do not practice infant baptism. In extreme cases, accusations of ‘spiritual neglect’ and ‘abuse’ have been levelled.

It is hard to see how this has happened. How has the practice of baptism, even more precisely, the timing of baptism, and the theology associated with it, become the litmus test for Christian orthodoxy? Given that practitioners of adult baptism are vitally concerned for the spiritual welfare of their children too, given that they are trusting God for their children’s future too, praying genuinely and earnestly, and given that the Bible really says very little about baptism and certainly next to nothing about when baptism was administered in the second generation of Christians, why has such energy and emphasis been placed at this point?

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2 responses to “Objectivising the Covenant: Infant Baptism

  1. Have you seen the new collection of books by Douglas Wilson from Logos Bible Software?

    It contains, among other things, an interesting book on infant baptism.

    I thought you might be interested: Douglas Wilson Collection

    • Have not seen his collection. And I no longer used credit cards-since I was not a good steward in the past.But I am still collecting his articles from Credenda Agenda

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