Monday, 18 February 2008

Answers to some questions about baptism

Jam Cary was kind enough to read my response to his thoughts on paedo-baptism:
  1. - Jam's original article

  2. - my reply, part one

  3. - my reply, part two

In between tending to his own new little one, Jam asks some good and necessary questions:

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 [sic] 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!

My answers...

Thanks Jam. The big question which I think is tying all of this together is the question of how we consider the New Covenant - what it is, who is a member (and how that relates to being one of the elect) and the link between membership of the New Covenant, the church and its ordinances. When talking about infant baptism, this is often tied up with the question of how the New Covenant relates to the Old, and how all the other subsidiary bits (the link between Old Covenant membership, membership of the nation of Israel, reception of its ordinances, etc.) changes or doesn't in coming over to the New.

Presbyterian writers such as Doug Wilson tend to emphasise continuity - infants were members of the Old Covenant, received its sign (circumcision), etcetera - and because God's has only essentially one people and not two, we would expect, unless there's been some radical change in the nature of infants, that this would be the case under the New Covenant also. The alternative seems unthinkable - that under the New Covenant God has become less generous, and now tells our infants to hop it until they're a bit more mature.

Baptists like myself have tended to point out that this argument is made fairly inconsistently - Presbyterians have historically generally excluded infants from the Lord's Supper, for good, Biblical reasons. They make sound arguments about the discontinuity with the arrival of the New Covenant with its emphasis upon personal faith and the second birth over against the Old Covenant with its hereditary membership relying only on the first birth which, if they were applied to baptism as well as the Lord's Supper, lead to the Reformed Baptist position. This argument though doesn't work against Pastor Wilson and other Federal Vision advocates, because they've taken the other fork in the road, and actually do argue for paedocommunion.

>From the Reformed Baptist point of view, though, this increased internal consistency in the paedobaptist positions comes at the cost of decreased consistency with the statements of the New Testament on the relationship between the covenants and the nature of the New Covenant. It also leaves behind a good deal of inconsistency in other areas. Presbyterians feel no difficulty in arguing that the physical territory promised to Abraham was a type and shadow of the spiritual inheritance actualised under the New Covenant, and ultimately realised in the new heavens and the new earth - so that no promise of the land of Palestine is given to us living here and now. Israel doesn't belong either to natural Jews or to Christians; the promise was a temporary one; a piece of the scaffolding as the house was being built. The house itself is much more glorious and the scaffolding gets taken down. The kind of Presbyterian argument that goes "look - these littles ones have had their privileges taken away unless we baptise them!" can be made for the Lord's Supper, and also for the land promises - and is invalid in all three cases. Wilson has increased his consistency by adding the Lord's Supper to baptism, but hasn't yet gone the whole way and argued that we must have the land promises as well otherwise our New Covenant privileges are less than the Old Covenant ones.

What this is leading to is this. Under the Old Covenant, Abraham's fleshly children were admitted to the covenant family and received its signs and privileges, but this was merely part of the scaffolding whilst the house was being built. Now that the reality - Christ - has come, the scaffolding gets taken down. The New Covenant is viewed by the (Reformed) Baptist as an era of fulfillment and reality; Abraham's children are those who share Abraham's faith, whether they have some fleshly relationship to anyone else in the Covenant or not. All such distinctions of the first birth - whose family we were born into - were temporary and abrogated.

The New Covenant, then, is truly made only with the elect - those who'll end up in heaven. Nobody will be in heaven merely because of who they were born to, but because they were actually in union with Christ. We live during the period of the "overlap of the ages" - the "already and the not yet". Christ has brought in all that he intends to bring in - but it's not yet been received in all of its fulness. What this means is that the church now is intended to be composed of those who are truly united to him, but because we haven't arrived in the eschaton yet, it still admits some who ought not to be in it - those who are amongst us, but not of us (1 John 2:19). Reformed Baptists see this line of thought as being explicitly taught in the New Testament,  Hebrews 8 being a particularly striking example, comparing the temporary and breakable nature of the Old Covenant with the permanent and unbreakable nature of the New:

6 But now hath he obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also he is the mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
All the members of the New Covenant "know the Lord". It was part of the imperfection of the Old that some (many) of its members actually didn't share Abraham's faith, only his physical descent - they had to be evangelised and exhorted to know the Lord truly, not just outwardly. The New Covenant, though, is made only with the elect.

This means, then, that those in the church who don't truly "know the Lord" are not true members of the New Covenant - not true Christians - whether they be baptised, eat the Lord's Supper, or not. They are those who John says are in the church, but not of it (1 John 2:19). Because we cannot see into a person's heart and know whether their professed love to Christ is the real thing or not, we have to admit people to the church on the basis of their profession of faith - whether it is credible or not. If they live exactly as they lived before they professed to know Christ, then their profession is doubtful. If they live differently, then it is creditable, and we baptise them. We might turn out to be wrong, and our error might only get discovered on the day of judgment.

At this point I've contradicted the scheme of the Federal Vision several times, though I've agreed with historical Presbyterianism as far as it deals with adults. My beef with historical Presbyterianism is that it says that there is a different set of rules for children - they belong to an "external" or "secondary" phase of the covenant, until they have faith (that's an oversimplification and many will disagree, you'll have to pardon me!). My beef with the FV is that whilst it says that the rules are the same for children and adult - they both become covenant members upon baptism - it gets the nature of covenant membership wrong.

That's laying the foundation which I hope will make my answers to your questions more intelligible...

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 [sic] 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!

I agree with Doug Wilson that a Christian is the same as a member of the New Covenant. However, I disagree with him by saying that a member of the New Covenant is the same as a member of the elect, someone who is in saving union in the Lord Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection and who will hence persevere to the end.

The same standard is to be applied to children as to adults, namely that they evidence the reality of their relationship to Christ by showing the hallmark of New Covenant membership - faith. That is, that they have received and believed the gospel, and rested on the Saviour who it is all about.

Now, the difficult bit of course is that faith, as expressed by a little child brought up in a Christian household, will look a bit different to faith expressed by someone who used to, as Wilson would say, ride with the Hell's Angels. In one it's more likely to be more like the gradual flowering of a plant, rather than a radical shift from darkness to light. The question then becomes more about how to identify and encourage infant faith, avoiding the twin dangers on the one hand of squishing it by failing to support it and treating our children like heathens (!), or on the other hand preventing it from developing properly by encouraging presumption - telling our infants how they're elect, going to heaven and saved, just because they said a few words about loving Jesus just to please mummy or daddy.

This is a difficult balancing act I think, and the main thing we need is lots of patience and trust. God uses means - faithful Christian parents - to bring little ones to faith. I understand the desire of Christian parents to define their children into a specially privilege category (covenant youth, presumptively regenerate, or even actual Christians through baptism), but what we actually need to do is just exercise patience and trust, and allow time for the reality to show itself.

I can't lay down any hard and fast rules about age, as the child's own level of understanding and development and own personality will all play a part. Baptists are vulnerable to the charge that we deny our children the benefits of baptism and church membership - means which are meant to help them grow - but we're tied up to this by our understanding of the New Covenant. We appreciate that the sphere for Christian growth is inside the church and not outside of it and so are eager to see them baptised if and when they can give a credible profession of faith relative to their age - but it's not as if we leave our children in the car-park on Sunday's and tell them that they can't come in until they show us they're elect. They get the teaching and admonition too. It's only a sacramentalist theology that makes actual eating of the Lord's Supper essential for every stage of Christian growth that can insist that we're making a mistake.

I might well suspect that my children are Christians a good while before being baptised, and be cautious about baptising them prematurely. I see this as a lesser danger than giving them false assurance, because their initial expressions that they love Jesus may just be that they want to please their parents by saying so. I'd like to see the evidence of dislike of sin and true remorse when caught in wrongdoing before I have confidence that they're really sorry over their sins and not just saying so because they know it's the right thing to do.

What I'm saying is that there's no neat and packaged answer. When is a little one's profession of faith credible? We all agree that it can't be credible at age 1 month, as all they can say then is "gaa". We all agree that by 10 or 12 or whatever the reality ought to be visible (and I've seen it in many younger than that; I was converted at 7). So, at some point they cross the line from one to the other - but there's no one-size-fits-all answer for all of them. Raising children is tough - as I'm sure you're already appreciating!

How do we know their faith is genuine? We don't, any more than with an adult. We don't, contrary to the caricature in many paedobaptist books, baptise upon the belief that we have an infallible knowledge that their faith is genuine, any more than we do with an adult. We baptise on the basis of a credible profession, just as paedobaptists do with their adult converts. It's just that with little ones there are several more complicating factors for working out this credibility, and for some of the little ones they're not yet up to making a profession that could be weighed and judged by the church, even though their faith may actually be geniune, saving faith and if they die tomorrow they will certainly be with the Lord Jesus. (I'm not discussing the subject of infant salvation here, BTW!).

And if you baptised them and then rejected their faith as an adult, would they still be a member of the Elect? I'm not too sure I understand this question! (Who's doing the rejecting? Me or them?). In general, though, Baptists understand the real members of the New Covenant to be the same as the elect. A person who apostatises is evidencing that they were never really in the New Covenant at all - though of course they may repent, in which case they'll demonstrate that they were. I find no Biblical evidence that Pastor Wilson's analogy with marriage - a public covenant with lists so that you can work out exactly who is in and who isn't - is the correct understanding of how the New Covenant works. It makes no allowance for statements such as John's, about those who were with us but not "of" us - on Pastor Wilson's understanding the two are one and the same up until the point where we break covenant and leave.

Whew! Hope that wasn't too long.


James Cary said...

Hello. Me again.
I'm a little confused. You say:
"I agree with Doug Wilson that a Christian is the same as a member of the New Covenant. However, I disagree with him by saying that a member of the New Covenant is the same as a member of the elect, someone who is in saving union in the Lord Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection and who will hence persevere to the end."

My impression from "To a thousand generations" is that Wilson doesn't think New Covenant Members and The Elect are one and the same. Both Wilson and Leithart argue that apostasy is possible within the covenant community, and therefore excludes one from saying covenant members are Elect. Perhaps he says something different in other books, but I'm not sure we're in agreement here on what Wilson says. I certainly would not say that on baptism, my infant daughter would be joining the Elect. How can baptism with water guarantee such a wonderful privilege? It cannot, but it can admit her to the Covenant Community of the Church. And I pray that she makes her salvation sure by showing fruit in her life - from a very young age - and continues to do so until a ripe old age.

David Anderson said...

Hello James,

you have rightly described Wilson's position and that is what I meant to say! It is me, the Reformed Baptis,t who holds that being an actual member of the New Covenant and one of the elcet is the same thing. RBs hold that the New Covenant is made with the elect in Christ, and them only - not with hte elect plus their seed, nor the elect plus those who are baptised; just the elect.


James Cary said...

aha. There's the problem, then. I simply can't see how the two are the same. I used to think they were, but have since changed my view and I have to say they seem to click many other previously difficult passages of the Bible into place. (eg. the middle two seeds in the parable of the sower? The seed grew! But there was no perseverence. Elect or not?)

So, big overlap, yes. But I think saying the members of the New Covenant are the Elect causes more problems than it solves. Hence our different theologies of baptism.

David Anderson said...

Hello James,

I think you are correct to say that the differences between Reformed paedobaptists, Federal Visionists and Reformed Baptists come from our different understandings of the nature of the New Covenant.

To deduce points of doctrine from a parable that is not intended to directly address those points is a fundamental interpretative error. The parable of the sower was not given by our Lord to address the question of the relationship between election and membership of the New Covenant, but to explain that the preached word will meet with a range of responses, the difference between which is explained by the states of the hearers' hearts, not the word itself. Arminians of course also use the parable to establish their doctrine - pointing out that some of the seeds grew and fell away, just as you do. There's no way you could decide between their position or yours - it's not really the parable that is teaching either, but a barrel-load of assumptions brought in before interpreting it.

B B Warfield has a great section somewhere in volume 1 or 2 of his writings (my books are all on a shipping container, so apologies for the lack of precise reference!). Liberals of his day used the parable of the prodigal son to assert that reconciliation with the Father was possible without any need for atonement. Warfield does a great job of exposing the illegitimacy of this way of using the parables. Many fringe movements in Christian history, not just the Federal Vision, have leaned on non-central aspects of the parables to support points of doctrine, and this ought to make us more critical here.

The nature of the New Covenant, and its nature in relationship to previous administrations, must be established by the direct exegesis of passages which are directly addressing those questions. The New Testament is hardly silent on the question of how the covenants were related; such issues caused major controversies in the early church (which is why I think that it's ludicrous for Wilson to simply assert that the Federal Vision viewpoint or its consequences were assumed as obvious by everyone and never needed discussing).

Passages such as Hebrews 8 which I quoted in the blog post would be primary sources. There are many others, throughout Hebrews, and in Galatians, and in the preaching of Jesus and John the Baptist, where they explain just who is and isn't in God's covenant people, explaining the essential nature of faith and the perfective and final nature of the New Covenant.

Federal Vision theology undermines the perfection of the New Covenant, because it teaches that New Covenant members do not in fact all enjoy the privilege of a perfect mediator who will ensure their safe arrival in heaven, contrary to the sections in Hebrews dealing with just that question, etcetera. It's too such places that we surely need to turn, rather than incidental phrases here and there which are parts of passages emphasising different points.