Wednesday, 6 February 2008

A reply to a paedo-baptist brother

My preferred theological self-designation is "Reformed Baptist". This means that I stand in an identifiable historical stream of the last 400 years. Those in this stream self-consciously believe and teach the doctrines of grace, the covenantal structure of God's dealings with man, the gracious heart and essential continuity of his covenants, and that the New Covenant is the final of God's covenantal dealings with man in history, which is a covenant of fulfillment and perfection. The outcome of that is that Reformed Baptists believe and teach that God's saving covenants are essentially the unfolding of a single, gracious covenant. They deny the position of their dispensational brethren, who teach that God's covenants in history, whilst allowing for a continuity of purpose and even a measure of graciousness, are essentially distinct entities which progress by means of replacement rather than a maturation corresponding to the idea of infancy advancing to adulthood.

I recognise, though, that a considerable number of brethren in history who have held to the Reformed faith have not been Baptists, and that the Reformed Presbyterian position has been self-consciously articulated and held for at least 50 years more than the Reformed Baptist position.

Interacting with a paedobaptist brother

In this post I want to interact with the thoughts of a paedobaptist brother, James Cary. I've not met James, but I think we have met a number of people in common through links with the city of Oxford.

In his blog post, here (, James seeks to set out some of the reasons for infant baptism, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the practice. I'm going to take the opportunity to disagree, and I hope I will help James and others like him particularly by showing him some of the actual reasons why Reformed Baptists believe as they do.

Paedobaptist arguments

Firstly, I'd like to poison the well by saying that many paedobaptist writings badly misrepresent Baptist arguments. When I as weighing up the question of baptism, beginning with a leaning towards the paedobaptist side, I read as many paedobaptist books as I could get my hands on. The strong impression that you receive from such books is that there are, or ought to be, only two positions: dispensationalism, or paedobaptism. The procedure in such books often goes like this: 1) Refute dispensationalism. 2) Bingo! This might be excusable once or twice, or if the books were only aimed at dispensationalists.

To understand the effect of this on a Reformed Baptist, my paedobaptist brethren (henceforth PB) need to imagine the procedure of ploughing through several books which claim to prove the Biblical case for the Baptist position, which proceed like so: 1) Refute Roman Catholicism. 2) Bingo! If I were to argue "baptism doesn't automatically put people into heaven, therefore you should be a baptist", or "there are really only two consistent positions - either be a Roman Catholic or become a Baptist", then after several book-loads of that my PB would be getting a little bit tired. However, those same brethren seem to have no problem, as Randy Booth does in his book, stating exactly the same thing about the dispensationalist and paedobaptist positions. The section dealing with "objections to paedobaptism" in these books could in many cases almost have been copied from one to the other, but rarely addresses any actual objections that a Reformed Baptist is likely to have; even such theological luminaries as John Murray fall down here.

How many arguments?

My brother James writes with a warm recommendation of Douglas Wilson's book "To a thousand generations". I would like to add to this recommendation - you should not only read Pastor Wilson's book, but try and get 5 or 6 others by other paedobaptist writers. When I was investigating the question and did so, I observed an interesting phenomena. One paedobaptist book on its own often presents a persuasive case. If, however, you get 5 or 6 of them and read them all, then you begin to notice a few interesting differences in the argument at critical points. I'm not talking about different as in complementary arguments here - I'm talking about different as in contradictory. One Presbyterian writer says that children must be baptised because they are already covenant members; another says they must be baptised because they are entitled to become such. One writer says that they must be baptised because we can legitimately presume they are regenerate; another says that their is no such promise and we must baptise on a mere command. Tracing out the different lines of argument, comparing and contrasting led me to see that each made a case that was pretty well refuted by another. There is an excellent little book by Thomas Watson (not the English Puritan!) which unpacks some of this with wonderful clarity.

To my PB considering writing rather than reading a book on paedobaptism, I'd recommend they pop along to the website of Reformed Baptist Academic Press and order a number of titles. It's quite disappointing whenever I open a new book or pamphlet on paedobaptism to find that once again it's actually dispensationalism rather than credobaptism that's being refuted. Picking on a weak alternative instead of a strong one is only convincing to those who aren't going to study more widely in the area.


Having got all that off my chest, I'd now like to put a number of points in response to James' well thought out article.

You can have that bit!

1. I completely concede to my brother that the thoughts of the copywriters in The Times do little to advance the Baptist case. (Point 1) My own Baptist well is a little bit poisoned by James lumping some strange ideas in on the Baptist side through the article he refers to, and I'd like to lump them out again, please!


2. James also seeks to lump in the Baptist case with some form of hyper-Calvinism. He worries that the Baptist position is in some way equivalent to seeking to decide infallibly on "who is and is not a Christian" or preventing church membership until we are "sure they are Elect Christians who will therefore not require any church discipline" (point 2). Here my brother is making a category error. Baptists (at least of the Reformed stripe) do not baptise only those who make a credible profession of faith because they are concerned about only letting in the elect. Being a Baptist is not the same as being a hyper-Calvinist (actually the majority of the latter in history been paedobaptists). The idea is not to "exclude the non-elect", but rather to correctly identify the constitution of the New Covenant. The New Covenant is made with believers only. The new Israel - the Israel of God - is made up of those who have the faith of Abraham - the seed of Abraham by faith (Galatians 3:7). Church membership which came solely through the flesh - through the first birth - was part of the "scaffolding" of the ancient church whilst it was still under construction. It was, to change metaphors, the baby-walker that the infant needed until it came to maturity. When maturity came, it could be taken down. The Lord intended that the New Covenant would be made only with Isaac - the children of the promise, the second birth - and that Ishmael should at that time be cast out.

The aim, then, is not to exclude the elect, but to correct identify the nature of the New Covenant.

Infants or Children?

3. James also makes an equivocation that is very common in the paedobaptist literature. He regularly slides between the question if baptisting infants and baptising children. The difference is crucial, because when we are discussing children we are discussing those who can give us some actual evidence of New Covenant membership - who can show us the hallmark of New Covenant reality, namely the faith of Abraham. Infants cannot; children can.

Because (Reformed) Baptists (henceforth RBs) seek to baptise those who give a credible profession of faith, infants and children are a whole different ballgame. I was converted as a child - but not, unlike John the Baptist (!) as an infant (Luke 1:15). If we're talking about children then the question is "what is a credible profession of faith for someone at this age"? If we're talking about infants, though, that question can't even be asked - it makes a category error. With children we can discuss what child-like faith looks like, and the care we need to take and how we can encourage faith without leading them into presumption or mistaking their willingness to please their parents for genuine love to Christ, etecetera. With infants, though, none of that makes sense. Paedobaptists regularly slide between the two, and end up doing silly things - one often gets the impression from the paedobaptist literature that Baptists must hate their children, forbid them from coming to Jesus, leave them in the church car park on Sunday, refuse to instruct them at home, etcetera etcetera. This is one of the logical conclusions that flows from this equivocation, but it would be helpful if our PB would show us where RBs have actually made this mistake rather than merely assumed that because their logic says so that therefore it must be. James makes this error in points 3-5 where he contrasts paedobaptism with "adult conversion".

To be continued...

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