Thursday, January 7, 2016

Paedobaptism Evidence in the New Testament

As admitted earlier, there is no direct evidence for paedo-baptism (just as there’s no direct evidence for credo-baptism), so the following arguments are strictly circumstantial—like fingerprints at a crime scene. Taken individually they’re not very compelling, but taken together they present a strong case that the Covenant model established in the Old Testament is carried through into the New Testament. 

Households were Baptized

The covenant understanding of baptism is evidenced by the presence of households baptisms in the Bible. The usual form of the argument goes something like this: “The New Testament records five places where the word household is explicitly used (Acts 10:47-48, 16:15; 16:30-31; 18:8; 1 Cor 10:16-18) and because children are part of a household in covenant, onl-y the profession of faith of the head is needed before the sign is applied to the children. In the city of Philippi the jailer believed, then his house was baptized.”
The Baptist response is always, “But based on the earlier evidence in Acts, it’s evident the people in the house first heard and believed and then were baptized. Nowhere in those verses are children mentioned, so what you’re doing is making an argument from silence.”
At this point the wrong answer is to argue, “Ah, but it never says children are excluded either!” for this makes it difficult for the Baptist to see that he has it exactly backwards: the thrust of the argument is that all baptisms are actually household baptisms, and our understanding should be done back to front. The right thing to do is point out the very existence of the word is evidence for the Presbyterian model, and no debate on whether there were children in the house is needed.

The reason for this is twofold. The first is because covenants are always headship affairs, and the New Testament affirms the man is the head of the family (Eph 5:23). The second is that if you adopt the household model as dominant then the earlier events in Acts fit the data nicely, but if you adopt the individualistic model then the later baptisms don’t really follow. What I mean is, at Pentecost there were Parthians, Medes and Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs present, men who’d made the pilgrimage across the world to be at Jerusalem in accordance with the command of Deut 16:16. In other words, men who were the heads of their families had come to Jerusalem. The record is consistently of men, family heads, being baptized, and this holds true until Lydia who is baptized along with her house (and who may be a single woman in charge of the house in any case).
If however you start with the notion that they were just individual people all along, then the introduction of household baptisms later in Acts doesn’t fit very well. The meaning is of the word is reduced to “all the people living under a roof,” and there’s no real reason why the text should be so consistently insistent that entire households were baptized. The honest Baptist is puzzled as to why the text doesn’t more clearly affirm belief from everyone during a household baptism, but the Presbyterian points out that if you accept his view you’d have your answer.

One last thing in passing that’s not necessarily persuasive to a Baptist but is worth mentioning: if the household model is accurate then there’s an interesting parallel between Abraham and Pentecost. In Abrahams day, the command to circumcise all the males resulted in a large number adults and an unrecorded-but-presumably-small-number-of infants being circumcised (Gen 17:23). After that, the majority of recipients of the covenant sign were infants born into the house. At Pentecost the initialization of the sign in like manner resulted in a large number of adults receiving the sign (Acts 2:41), and later we settle down into the majority of recipients being infants.

The Apostles Were Jews

How would Jeremiah have understood the promise of the New Covenant? More importantly, how would the Apostles have understood it? Would they see it as turning a corner in redemptive history and requiring the exclusion of children, or would they have understood it to be a further revelation of salvation? It was prophesied of that in the New Covenant eunuchs and Gentiles would be included, which indicates it was going to expand and be more inclusive, not less. Does it follow that because the sign expanded to washing (which can be applied to both men and women), that an exclusion of infants is in order? No.

Further, having grown up with the Old Testament, the Apostles would’ve understood that a sign is given so that those under the head can see that they are indeed under a covenant. As Jews they would’ve understood that the sign is for everyone one behalf of whom the covenant was made, strictly on the basis of their association with their head. Infants included. Knowing this, why would Peter have promised the New Covenant to the hearer’s children without qualification (Acts 2:39) if such a misunderstanding was not only possible, but certain? Would Paul have constructed his olive tree analogy in Romans 11 if he was thinking in a Baptist fashion? No. And this of course dovetails with the next piece of evidence, that the New Testament recognizes the children of believers as having a special place in the church.

Children Are In the Covenant

Is there a difference between a child who grows up under believing parents and one who doesn’t? Does a believer’s child have a right to participate in the life of the church? I don’t mean something drastic like “should they be up at the pulpit preaching,” I mean something very ordinary, like: should they be singing along with the congregation during “Jesus loves me”?
This isn’t an abstract question. If the Baptist is right then we must keep our children from such actions until they make a credible, mature profession of faith and demonstrate true repentance over their sin or else we've taught them to presume upon the goodness of God and hardened them in their impenitency. Unless they can credibly affirm faith the answer must be no, they have no business taking Christian privileges or promises upon themselves or we are guilty of sin.
Yet Baptists do teach their children the Scriptures, they do encourage prayer to God, and they do sing songs about how He’s our Father, or rescuer, or savior. In short, they behave like Presbyterians—just like how an Arminian prays like a Calvinist when push comes to shove. So while they may argue against covenant theology with their words they still affirm it with their deeds.

And bless them for this inconsistency. For the Bible affirms in a number of places that children of believers are entitled to the blessings exclusive to the church. 
  • Acts 21:5 says the children, who were disciples, knelt down and prayed for Paul.
  • In Eph 6:1-3 and Col 3:20 Paul commands the children who heard his words to obey their parents, a command that only makes sense for those already in the church. If the Baptist model is correct then Paul should have instructed the parents to make sure their children obey them, because the church is only composed of the redeemed, those suspected of being elect, who make a mature profession of faith. But he doesn’t, which indicates the covenant model is the correct one.
  • In Matt 19:4 Jesus said of little children that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” He didn’t say, “The Kingdom belongs to those with child-like faith,” which is what the Baptist asserts. To be sure their statement is true, but the point is that Jesus didn’t rule out that children are a part of the kingdom when He could have. Often when the Presbyterian brings up this verse the Baptist counters with, “But there’s no water here.” And to that we agree. This isn’t evidence children were baptized, it’s evidence the Baptist position is wrong. 
  • 1 Cor 7:14 has children of believing parents being declared holy. This can't be equivalent to legitimate like the Baptist wants because children of married people are always legitimate. Instead, Paul’s use of the word holy is invoking covenant language imported from the Old Testament. In the same way that Peter declared Cornelius was not to be called unclean or outside the covenant (Acts 10:28) so too is the child of the believer not unclean, but holy. This is clear evidence that familial solidarity remains true in the New Testament, since the mere presence of believing parents sanctifies the child and makes them holy.
  • Matthew 11:25 has Jesus thanking the Father for revealing His good will to children. Therefore children are recipients of God’s good pleasure and revelation about Christ—which sounds exactly like what the New Covenant is.
  • In 2 Tim 3:14-17 Paul praises Timothy for knowing the Scriptures since infancy. How would this have happened under a consistent Baptist paradigm?

There are three retorts to all this. The first is for the Baptist to say, “Ceci est absurde.”
But the Presbyterian can come back and say “no, it’s not absurd, it's reductio ad absurdum. This is your belief taken to its logical stopping point. As Greg Welty, one of your own, says, ‘Parents can have confidence that God hears the prayers of their children to the extent they have confidence that their children have renewed hearts.’
Which is just another way of saying, ‘yes, the Presbyterians are right, if we Baptists were more consistent we’d have no place for our physical children in our churches.’”
The second answer is that now in Christ we form a spiritual family. These passages are talking about spiritual infancy, not a physical one. But after a moment’s thought (and I don’t use this dismissive lightly) this must simply be discarded as unworkable. That's clearly not what these passages are teaching.
The third answer is to say the principle of child-covenant inclusion is done away with in Christ, being a sign of His coming and a shadow of His presence exclusive to the Old Testament. But can this assertion be substantiated from the New Testament? It’s convenient if true, but is it? No. It’s nowhere mentioned in Scripture and amounts to something like wishful thinking. I say that as someone who once believed this constituted a valid counter-argument. It doesn’t.

The Warning Passages

There are a number of places in the New Testament where the writer warns his readers to take care to guard their salvation, and these indirectly count as a very popular argument against the credo-baptist (see for example Mark 13:13; James 5:11; 2 Cor 13:5; 1 Tim 1:18-20). In the book of Hebrews, which explains and expounds the New Covenant, there are at least five such warnings: 2:1-4; 3:7-19; 6:4-8; 10:26-3; 12:25.

Just as the mere presence of the word household is problematic for the Baptist, so too are these warning passages. The reason is that they understand the New Covenant to be equivalent to salvation, which means only true believers enter it. But we also know from other Scriptures (for example 1 John 2:19; Rom 8:29-30, John 6:38-40; Phil 1:4-6, etc) that it’s impossible for a true believer to lose their salvation. So how do we reconcile these two things?
The best answer is that these are hypothetical warnings designed to keep the believer on track. If a Christian were to apostatize, hypothetically speaking, then it would turn out he was not among the elect nor in covenant to begin with.
That’s not a bad answer, all things considered. But it makes better sense to see these verses as actual warnings for actual events that could actually happen to someone who was under the covenant but not in salvation.

This is the only way to reconcile the fact that some men lose their salvation (1 Tim 1:18-20) but to all of them God will still say “depart from Me, for I never knew you.”

Jesus Baptized

Another small but relevant piece of evidence for the validity of covenant theology is the unique event (recorded only by John) of Jesus baptizing in the Jordan River (John 3:22). There’s fairly good reason to think that it’s at this point that Jesus baptizes His disciples, who in turn baptize the crowds that came to them (John 3:26, 4:2).
What’s interesting about this is that we know at least one of the disciples had been a professing believer for some time by this point (John 1:49-50). But if the Baptist model is correct then by chapter 3 Nathan should’ve already been baptized, because he had genuine saving faith and a credible testimony. That’s what baptism signifies after all. However if the Presbyterian model is correct then he couldn’t be baptized at that time because His objective work of Christ wasn’t revealed until chapter 3. As soon as the discourse with Nicodemus reveals Jesus was the center of the Old Testament, the one who’d be lifted up to give healing and salvation to those who looked on in faith, Jesus takes His disciples to the river and baptizes them. Did they understand as well as they would later? Certainly not. But then again, do we?

The other problem for the Baptist in this event is that Judas is among the disciples present with Jesus. Again, if their subjective understanding of the New Covenant is correct then Jesus should have explicitly excepted Judas, being that he was reprobate and undeserving of the sign. But if our understanding is right then it makes perfect sense that both Judas was baptized and the disciples were baptized upon the revelation of Jesus work.

Now admittedly this is a small argument since there are other ways to make sense out of the text. The credo might say  Jesus was giving a baptism for ministry readiness (like how Levites were commissioned at age 30), or His was a baptism of repentance. Sure it’s a little strange to say that the Lords baptism was the same as Johns, or that baptism is a sign of commission, but it works after a fashion. Nonetheless, even granting the Baptists objections are functional, the Presbyterian understanding is more natural and obvious, and it makes for a better fit.

Strange and Unnecessary Complications

Believing that baptism is the believer’s uniform, or “oath of allegiance,” results in some very strange and not particularly biblical outcomes. As a consequence the people growing up under it have a very unclear grasp of what baptism actually is. In no particular order here are some areas where the current practice of the credo-baptist churches don’t fit with what the Bible says.
  • If baptism is my profession of faith then why is it a passive ordinance in the Bible? Shouldn’t the text speak of it as something I do rather than something done to me or something I submit to?
  • If you’re baptized upon a realization of faith, then what happens when you feel like you didn’t have a proper faith the first time you were baptized? The answer must inevitably be that you get re-baptized since the first time didn’t count. But this prompts the next question: how many times can this happen? Until you feel like it’s worked and you’re done? Until you’re satisfied it was really good this time?
    This isn’t a mean spirited, sarcastic caricature, this is a personal tragedy for me. Growing up it was not uncommon to see people being baptized two, three, four, or more times. But is this Biblical? Does the way the New Testament presents baptism lead us to this conclusion? In fact do we treat any covenant signs this way? Should I make my wife get me a new wedding band every time I inwardly doubt her fidelity, no matter how briefly?
  • If baptism is merely a proclamation of faith to the church then what’s the ultimate point of it? It’s only an expression of a subjective reality and not necessary for salvation after all. But is this how the New Testament speaks of it? Is it an optional event that we can select if we desire greater blessings? No. Peter says in his epistle that baptism saves, and commands the hearers at Pentecost to receive it—strong language that doesn’t comport well with an optional somatic vow.
  • Why is immersion the only valid mode of Baptism? On what basis have the other modes been excluded as unacceptable? Because they don’t picture Romans 6:4 as being buried with Christ better than other verses? More strangely, if immersion is what baptism means then how were the Israelites baptized into Moses when they crossed the Red Sea (1 Cor 10:2)? And how was Jesus referring to crucifixion when He used the word baptism (Matt 20:23)?
  • Lastly, if their view of baptism is the plain and obvious teaching of Scriptures then how did it come to pass that within a generation or two infant baptism became the universal practice of the church? How did absolutely everyone immediately and badly misunderstood the Apostolic teachings? How is it that they then proceeded to persist in error for over a millennia? And once the Reformation happened, why didn’t the Reformers (who had as their founding principle “the Scripture alone!”) not finish off that unbiblical holdover and restore baptism to what it plainly was?

In Toto

As you can see, the overwhelming evidence in the New Testament strongly presents the case that Covenant Theology is the true and correct interpretation of the Bible. We are therefore to do as it indicates and apply the objective sign of baptism to our children (and infants).

At this point the only possible escape is to assert that the reason the Bible doesn’t allow us to put the sign of the New Covenant on infants like we’d normally expect is because it explicitly tells us not to. That is, there’s a God given discontinuity in the Old Testament the Presbyterian hasn’t reckoned with. It’s therefore to Jeremiah 31 that we go as Baptists, to prove them wrong.

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