Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A reply to a paedo-baptist brother, continued

Part two!

Infants and Children, continued

4. Once you can swallow point 3, a lot of James' other concerns melt away. Look at it this way. My PB baptise adults. They do so on what standard? On the standard of a credible profession of faith. Therefore I know that the PB understand this concept, and have thought about how to apply it - in fact, I know they have.

What gets me, though, is how those same PB seem to forget all about this idea when the question of splashing the babies comes into play. It suddenly seems to become a very difficult and unworkable concept - so difficult that it's better to adopt the paedobaptist position. James writes a bit about this in his points 4 through 6. "I'm not sure that Adult 'conversion' is the norm. In post-Christendom Britain, it may be - but globally and historically, this is not the case. We've all read wonderfully exciting tales of conversion like 'Run Baby Run' and 'The Cross and the Switchblade'. But this is not a normal conversion story. The New Heavens and New Earth will be packed with people who grew up in Christians homes, were raised as Christians and could not pin-point a single moment at which they became 'a Christian'." Amen, Hallelujah - I am almost one of those people (I can pin-point the moment I was converted), and my wife is another (she fits the description exactly). This, though, has diddly-squat to do with chucking water over the babies. James is setting up a false dichotomy: either we must all believe that everyone is converted in Run Baby Run fashion, or we must get infants wet. I don't accept this dichotomy any more than I accept that the Baptist case is proved by showing that Roman Catholicism is mistaken.

Argument from Silence

5. James makes a rather novel argument from silence. "If we read what the debates of the New Testament times are, the debates are whether Gentiles, and their households, should be circumcised. The idea that infants should be neither circumcised nor baptised was not even considered. And was assumed by Christendom for the next 1500 years. (See Wilson for more on this. It's excellent and very persuasive)". I think that James found Wilson excellent and persuasive here because he was already persuaded. I can only conclude this because I think that Wilson was at his weakest here when analysed critically.

a) Granted that infant baptism as a practice has an impressive pedigree from the 4th century until present times (the evidence from before the 4th century being much less impressive), the key point becomes this. Until the 16th century, the argument for infant baptism was not the one that was used from then onwards. I mean this: Douglas Wilson's argument for infant baptism is as much as a theological novelty as the Reformed Baptist one is, give or take 50 years. His own route to paedobapism is travelled even less in the times before the Reformation that the Baptist route. If, in fact, the Presbyterian case is correct, then the Presbyterian has just as stiff a task on his hands as the Reformed Baptist. It seems more plausible to me to believe that the church introduced a wrong practice in baptism and hence had to search for an argument to justify it than to believe that the church carried on an apostolic practice in baptism but completely forgot why and instead invented bogus arguments for it (baptismal regeneration, washing away of original sin (Augustine), etcetera) - the true, covenantal argument not being recovered or even mentioned in any clarity until a millennia later.

b) Is brother James aware that the form of the argument from silence here which he finds so compelling is precisely the same one used by Rome to justify a whole range of practices of its own which have no backing from early church history? The reason why the New Testament and the church for many centuries since was completely silent about the use of images, veneration of Mary, purgatory, etcetera, is because these things were completely assumed and not even questionned until the Protestant Reformation - so they say. The silence on them is there because if we weren't so "dull" in reading the Bible, we'd see, allegedly, that these things are all a perfect fit with the Biblical theology and so people wouldn't even bother asking questions about them. Wilson uses exactly the same argument to explain the Bible and church history's silence on the covenantal argument for infant baptism, and I find it no more convincing in one case than t'other. In both cases, though, the argument is actually pure bunk. From the very earliest days some very fundamental questions were being asked; even in Biblical times heretics were teaching that the Christ hadn't come in the flesh and hadn't died on the cross (2 John) or even that justification was not by faith alone (Galatians) - to argue that something as subtle as the covenantal argument for paedobaptism was absolutely assumed without question by everyone is thoroughly ridiculous. I found this the weakest part of James' post.

c) James needs to ask why the early church was debating circumcision. It was not doing so because it was talking about some kind of covenantal continuity. The context of these debates has little to do with the angle that Wilson comes from. Circumcision was the hallmark of Judaism. Everybody in the debate - whether Jew or Gentile - knew and accepted that. The question was must you become a Jew to become a Christian. The answer is that the New Covenant hall-mark is descendency from Abraham by faith, not by physical birth. Nobody even imagined that Christian baptism should belong to those who descended just by physical birth. Wilson has made a very weak argument from silence which comes from importing his own set of ideas about the covenants into the context. I think it's brilliant rhetoric here for Wilson to find the complete absence of his own doctrine from Scripture and history to be a point in his favour, proving the dullness of his brethren who disagree - but the rhetoric is not matched by the substance.

d) What brother James needs to note is that Paul never made the "killer" argument that a modern Presbyterian would do in the circumcision debates - namely, that baptism had replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Let's play this out:

Judaizer: You Gentiles are second-class Christians - or maybe not even Christians at all!

Gentile believer: How so?

Judaizer: You're not circumcised! Don't you know that the family of Abraham carry the mark of Abraham - circumcision? You're not circumcised, so you're not a proper member of his family!

What does Paul say at this point? Is it...

a) The paedobaptist answer: that the mark of Abraham is now baptism, not circumcision. The sign has changed, though the inner reality and meaning of the two signs is the same?

Paul: You dullards! Don't you know that circumcision is redundant because we baptise our babies now?

or is it...

b) Something else? Does he talk rather about the necessity of faith and the insufficiency of a mere fleshly relationship to Abraham?

Paul: "For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus." There is no continuation of the verse "or by being born into the covenant family", or anything in the letter or wider Pauline writings analogous to it. It just isn't there.

The real and accurate argument from silence, then, is to notice the absence of a) or any equivalent argument from the New Testament. Paul's explanation of the inner continuity and administrative discontinuity of the covenants simply didn't move along the same lines of Wilson's Presbyterian position. The silence does speak of a weak argument - not of the dullness of those who don't follow Pastor Wilson's theology. Paul rather accepts the argument that circumcision is in fact distinctively Jewish, and argues that the defining mark of New Covenant membership is not Jewish works, but faith. Once you see that, we can no longer say as James does that "[Quoting the Baptist:] The New Testament doesn't say that you should baptise your infants! [Responding:] This is how dull we are to God's word." because the New Testament makes the defining mark of New Covenant membership crystal clear. It's everywhere. Are clowns elibible to join the church? Yes, as long as they have the mark of faith. How about people with one leg? Yes, as long as they have the mark of faith! How about children? Yes, as long as they have the mark of faith. It's not because Baptists are dullards that we stumble here and fail to recognise what the silence is saying. There's no need to explain what happens in the special case of clowns, people with one leg, or infants - because Paul's already told us what the distinguishing mark is 100 and more times.

The Jews were members of the then administration of God's covenant because they were Abraham's offspring - according to the flesh. Believers today are members of the presently active administration of God's covenant because we are Abraham's offspring - we have faith. The babies of believers, though, are a strange half-breed - they neither descend by the flesh from Abraham (unless Jewish!), nor do they possess faith (or at least, unless we're told in advance like John the Baptist, we have no grounds on which to know that they do). Their parents have faith, and their babies descend by the flesh from them - but this was a valid criteria for receiving the covenant sign neither in the Old Testament nor in the New. It's a Frankenstein stitching together of both.

To become, or because we've already become?

6. Earlier on I recommended that my PB brethren read more books commending paedobaptism so that they can spot the differences. James says, "Does baptising someone 'make them a Christian?' It makes them a member of the God's covenant people [sic]." From my reading, I don't believe that this is the majority Reformed Presbyterian (henceforth RP) position either now or in history, but it is the Anglican position. (I think that James is an Anglican, but Wilson is a Presbie). Historically, RPs have normally argued that things work the other way round: You baptise because your babies are (so they say) members of God's covenant people and hence they are entitled to the covenant sign - not because baptise has the power to make them members which they weren't before.

Wilson's take on this matter is tied up with his "Federal Vision" theology. We can't really go into one much without going into the other. I don't want to do that here -perhaps later. I'm just flagging this up, though, because I want to encourage my PB to look at some of these "fault-lines" in the various arguments presented for paedobaptism more critically. When I did so, I began asking questions like - "Well, OK - so let's look at this. How do these guys expound the relevant Scriptures to show either that they baptise to bring about membership, or that they baptise because membership already exists?" When I did so, I started to find that the arguments were beginning to look a lot more insubstantial that they at first appeared.

Finishing Up

OK, there we go. That's enough to be getting on with.

Final thing: read a writer who's written much more cogently than I have. If you can't get something from the shop of the Reformed Baptist Academic Press, then Google for Greg Welty's "A Critical Examination of Paedobaptism". It's a masterpiece for brevity and clarity, and I look forward to the day when paedobaptist books will interact critically with something like Welty's position rather than being satisfied merely to refute dispensationalism and then strut around as if the job were done.

No offence to my dispensational brethren - maybe we'll have a chat later! :-)


Dave williams said...

Thanks for this brother. It is good to have a well thought out systematically developed answer in the public realm. I have made the same points by email to James and others -but not anywhere nearly as well as you have done


David Anderson said...

Thanks for the kind words brother!


James Cary said...

Hello, brother!

Thanks for devoting two blogs to address my blog on this difficult subject. I'm rather incapable (and, if I'm honest slightly unwilling) to go through your comments and variations refutations - not least because my infant is about to wake up and expect some attention.

I apologise where I've confused baptists, credo-baptists, reformed baptists and dispensationalist. I simply don't know what the true difference really is. I'm come from a pseudo Anglican, evangelical tradition which is slightly unhappy with infant baptism, but goes through with it anyway.

When I talk about paedo-baptism, I am talking about infants, not children. If I appear to interchange, apologies. I didn't do so knowingly.

I'm simply not equipped to argue about infant baptism that many have been on my comments part of my blog, but I have to say that my gut feeling a year ago would have been to resist baptising my daughter and leave it until 'she had made her own decision'. I would have been wrong in that. I find Wilson and Leithart's arguments persuasive - and nothing a baptist (reformed or otherwise) has persuaded me otherwise. Sorry.

I've only read those to books, Leithart and Wilson, so I've not picked up that many reformed, FV or Presbies or whatever argue for infant baptism for different reasons. In my own mind, I'm fairly clear on what's happening in baptism - which is far more than simply 'flinging water at a baby'. Just as getting married is more than standing in a church and saying 'I will' and exchanging rings.

I still don't feel that everyone who's been blogging and commenting on this whole area have even agreed what it means 'to become a Christian' so until we talk the same language, unity on this subject is a long way off. Fortunately, by God's grace, we all seem to enjoy fellowship, albeit it frustrating!

I would be interested to know your views on what you do with your own children? At what age would you baptise them? And would you consider them Christians before that baptism? How would you know there profession was genuine? And if you baptised them and then rejected their faith as an adult, would they still be a member of the Elect? You are of course more than welcome to ignore all of those questions!

So, many thanks for you comments, which are probably far more thorough and thought-through than my postings. But I still don't agree with you, brother!

In Christ,

David Anderson said...

Hello Jam, thanks for dropping by. Congratulations on the little one. Ultimately of course paedobaptists and baptists have no differences - when our tiddlers have their own households, we all agree we want them to love the Lord Jesus and be baptised members of his body! Despite this, though, our differences are substantial, especially if in connection with things like the Federal Vision. I've put up a new post on the main blog for your questions at the end. Other bits: "credobaptist" is just a synonym for baptist - i.e. believer's baptism alone is Scriptural. I believe too that baptism is more than flinging water, when its subjects are legitimate - I speak of flinging water because of my belief that babies are not legitimate subjects for baptism. A Reformed Baptist is someone who accepts a confession of faith such as the 1689 London confession, which is extremely similar to the Westminster, apart from the questions of baptism and church government; in particular RBs accept covenant theology. This is in contrast to dispensationalists, who are all baptists, who make radical distinctions between the covenants and deny that the church is Israel. God bless, David