Hence in no case (I mean of the heathen, of course) is there any nativity which is pure of idolatrous superstition. It was from this circumstance that the apostle said, that when either of the parents was sanctified, the children were holy; and this as much by the prerogative of the (Christian) seed as by the discipline of the institution (by baptism, and Christian education). “Else,” says he, “were the children unclean” by birth: as if he meant us to understand that the children of believers were designed for holiness, and thereby for salvation; in order that he might by the pledge of such a hope give his support to matrimony, which he had determined to maintain in its integrity. Besides, he had certainly not forgotten what the Lord had so definitively stated: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God;” in other words, he cannot be holy.
Tertullian. (1885). A Treatise on the Soul. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), P. Holmes (Trans.), Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (Vol. 3, pp. 219–220). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.
A few years ago I got a call from a stranger to discuss a struggle. John Crawford was the son of a prominent Baptist pastor struggling with the doctrine of the covenant. Could he really embrace covenantal infant baptism as a Baptist pastor’s son? He struggled with the same thing I did: the nature and recipients of the new covenant. After a few years and a couple wonderful visits to Lancaster Co., John came to a firm conclusion. Not only did he resolve it in his own mind with his lovely family, he wrote it all up in, Baptism is Not Enough: How Understanding God’s Covenant Explains Everything, with a foreword by Douglas Wilson. This very useful book of less than 150 pages, published by American Vision, also includes a 30 minute video of a discussion with John. The video brings you into a very personal engagement with John. You get a sense of his personality and passion.
Baptism is Not Enough is a very readable introduction, not simply to the issues relating to baptism, but especially in understanding the biblical concept of covenant. In fact, that’s the main argument of the book: until you understand the biblical concept of the covenant, then don’t even try to understand baptism. I agree. Here is the chapter sequence:
- Covenant at Creation
- Three Covenant Institutions
- Covenant Structure and Children in the Old Testament
- Covenant Structure and Children in the New Testament
- New Covenant Texts Revisited
- Covenant Structure and the Whole Gospel
If you are looking for a good study of the covenant and a great introduction to the Reformed, covenantal understanding of baptism, this is it.
SUMMARY – Daniel C. Lane presented this paper at the 2006 Evangelical Theological Society. Listen to the audio presentation at WordMp3.com. Lane presents a short history of covenant theology as relating to the defense of infant baptism (e.g., through Zwingli, Ursinus, Bullinger, Calvin, etc.), as well as laying out the standard covenantal argument for infant baptism (e.g., covenant plan = sign of the covenant = circumcision to infants = baptism to infants now).
Lane agrees that 1) Circumcision was sign; 2) it was commanded; 3) baptism replaces circumcision at the functional level as the sign of the covenant; and that 4) there is no explicit setting aside of infants receiving the sign for believers only.
On this, I think #3/4 above are not the standard critique of paedobaptism. Many Baptists are quick to deny that baptism replaces circumcision and rally on that point against paedobaptism (Malone, Hoch, et al). I am glad that Lane accepts the point that circumcision used to be the entrance rite, but now it is baptism, despite many other differences in the rites. They both functioned as a formal admission. Also, he apparently takes the “believe and be baptized” commands differently than most Baptists. These commands are usually taken to be a new standard of admission, replacing the previous procedure of infants for admission.
He urges the critical assumptions of the argument are: One saving covenant; circumcision was the seal of the covenant in the OT; the covenant applies to covenant members and their children.
His focus is on the premise “the covenant applies to covenant members and their children.” He argues that there is no explicit teaching that infants are covenant members and that the general premises of covenant theology do not ensure their membership. “Are the infants of covenant members themselves members of the covenant?” – He argues “no” from Genesis 17.
While he notes in passing that some covenant theologians view the covenant of grace as not necessarily including such infants, e.g., only the elect are in the covenant – He cites several Reformed Confessions that teach their regular inclusion: Heidelberg Catechism (74) and 2nd Helvetic (20). He says the Westminster stops short of this, saying they are members of the visible church, but not the covenant. I agree that there’s a greater naunce in the Westminster, but the WCF clearly says, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27:1) which are to be applied to the visible Church. Further, Lane leaves out crucial statements of the Westminster Catechisms: “Unto whom is baptism to be administered? A. Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, and so strangers from the covenant of promise, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him, but infants descended from parents, either both or but one of them professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are, in that respect, within the covenant, and to be baptized” (WLC 166, emphasis mine). The Shorter Catechism says, “What is baptism? A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s” (WSC 94).
It is difficult to read these Westminster references without concluding such children are in some sense “in the covenant.” The Westminster seems to walk the tight rope between a simple inclusion of the children “in the covenant” (e.g., the visible administration of the covenant) and the stronger assertion that they are included in the “covenant of grace.” I think this is due to a strong “decreetal” perspective on covenant theology. Practically speaking, all paedobaptists (as far as I know) view their children as members of the visible covenant community, at the very least.
Lane addresses more specifically the arguments of Bullinger and Calvin. He finds them to describe circumcision as both “efficacious” and carnal. Which is it? Lane says the heart of his argument is that “Bullinger and Calvin confused who was commanded to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant with who will be heirs of the covenant.” He argues that receiving the covenant does not guarantee being a covenant keeper.
Lane cites that Gen. 18:19 to discuss the conditionality of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 22 “because you have done this”). While God will accomplish His covenant purposes, the fear of the Lord, a right heart, and obedience are the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant.
The critical failure of covenant theology is the “failure to distinguish who would get the sign versus who would be an heir of the covenant.” This leads Lane to argue a novel point, which explains the title (“compound reading”). The original promise in Gen. 17 does not mean “believers and their seed,” but simply to “Abraham and his seed.” So while the command of circumcision was perpetual, the promise that God would be God “to you and your seed” was only to Abraham. So only Abraham could claim this promise. This is the “double reading” of Gen. 17 (reading 1 is Abraham and his seed; reading 2 is “believers” and their seed). He concludes that from Gen. 17 covenant theologians cannot prove that their physical offspring are in the covenant. He urges that Bullinger, nor Calvin justify this second reading (Gen. 17 = “believers and their seed”). “No where do the Scriptures directly state that the infants of covenant members are themselves also covenant members. No where do the Scriptures use the expression, to believers and their seed, or its equivalent. Rather the promise is consistently said to be spoken to Abraham and his seed.”
RESPONSE – I hope that I have fairly represented Lane’s argument and presentation. It provides some helpful historical information, as well as engages the arguments from a new angle. However, when I got to the end of the presentation, I found myself feeling as though his view rested on a trivial and almost ridiculous point. What the covenant promise means is simply, “Abraham and his seed” and this only applies to Abraham. The fundamental covenant theology error here is assuming that covenantal inclusion extended beyond Abraham’s immediate children.
Really? I think this would be news for the Jews, to say the least. So Isaac had no exegetical right to think his kids were covenant kids? Jacob, Moses, David should have considered their children to be “outside of the covenant”? Now Lane grants that circumcision should have been perpetually applied, but then why do that? Now circumcision really has an arbitrary sense. At least with regular Baptists it only means the “physical” – but the implication here is that it does not certify inclusion into the Abrahamic covenant. Again, I think this would not be a popular OT class, taught in OT times.
Scriptural Challenges to Lane’s “Only Abraham” thesis –
- When Gen. 17:9 says, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you,” it adds the phrase, “throughout their generations.” That would seem to be inconsistent with Lane’s reading.
- Genesis 17:8 teaches succession in “being their God” (i.e., Israel): “I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
- Paul equates “Abraham” and “his descendants” in Rom. 4:13 as those who are given the “promise,” and that the promise is “certain” to such descendants. “For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. . .16 For this reason it is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace, in order that the promise may be certain to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law…”
- The duration of covenant inclusion is quite long, certainly extending beyond merely Abraham’s immediate descendants.
- Deuteronomy 7:9 – “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.”
- 1 Chronicles 16:15–17 (repeated in Ps. 105:8) – “Remember His covenant forever, The word which He commanded to a thousand generations, 16 The covenant which He made with Abraham, And His oath to Isaac. 17 He also confirmed it to Jacob for a statute, To Israel as an everlasting covenant…”
- Israel receives a renewed statement of the very same covenant promise made to Abraham:
- Exodus 6:7 (see also Ex. 19, and Jer. 4:11, 11:4, confirms as well) – “Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God.”
- Leviticus 26:12 – “I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people.”
- Ruth certainly applied this promise herself, millennia after Abraham: Ruth 1:16 “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
When Lane challenges, “No where do the Scriptures use the expression, to believers and their seed, or its equivalent.” If this were true, such a change in covenant recipients and covenant promises could hardly be more drastic! Covenant membership has always and ever included “you and your children” and covenant content is most fundamentally the Lord is “God to you and your descendants” (Gen. 17:7, Deut. 7:9, 30:6, 1 Chr. 16:15, Ps.103:17, 105:8). Consider these new covenant prophecies which are an equivalent of “believers and their seed” for two reasons: a) they are about the new covenant (which specifically requires faith of parent(s) (1Cor. 7:14); b) they explicitly and repeatedly speak of the children of those receiving these promises:
The very first word about the new covenant was in Deuteronomy 30:6:
- Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live . . .
- Jeremiah alludes to the above Deuteronomy passage throughout his prophecy. He emphasizes the inclusion of children in the new covenant promise: Jeremiah 31:1: “’At that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be My people.’”
- Jeremiah 31:17: [Though Rachel weeps for her children (destroyed in captivity), when they return] “’there is hope for your future,’ declares the LORD, ‘and your children shall return to their own territory.’” Notice verse 36 of the classic text of the new covenant, the offspring of covenant participants are explicitly included: Jeremiah 31:33-37: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. ….” If this fixed order departs From before Me,” declares the LORD, “ Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease From being a nation before Me forever. “ 37 Thus says the LORD, “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,” declares the LORD.”
- Jeremiah 32:37-40: “Behold, I will gather them out of all the lands to which I have driven them in My anger . . . And they shall be My people, and I will be their God; 39 and I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear Me always, for their own good, and for the good of their children after them. 40 “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; and I will put the fear of Me in their hearts so that they will not turn away from Me.
- Jeremiah 33:22-26: “As the host of heaven cannot be counted, and the sand of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David My servant and the Levites who minister to Me . . . 26 then I would reject the descendants of Jacob and David My servant, not taking from his descendants rulers over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them.”
Other Old Testament prophecies about the coming age of the new covenant are equally clear the children of believers are included:
- Ezekiel 37:24-26: David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd….and they shall dwell there, they, their children, and their children’s children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever. 26 “Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them…. (NKJV)
- Zech. 10:6-9: “And I shall bring them back, Because I have had compassion on them; and they will be as though I had not rejected them, for I am the LORD their God, and I will answer them. 7 “And Ephraim will be like a mighty man, and their heart will be glad as if from wine; Indeed, their children will see it and be glad, Their heart will rejoice in the LORD . . . They will remember Me in far countries, and they with their children will live and come back.
- Joel 2:1-29: Blow a trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! . . .So there is a great and mighty people; There has never been anything like it, Nor will there be again after it To the years of many generations . . . 15 Blow a trumpet in Zion, Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, 16 Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, Assemble the elders, Gather the children and the nursing infants. ….My people will never be put to shame. 28 “And it will come about after this That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy….
- Isaiah 44:3: For I will pour out water on the thirsty land and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring, and My blessing on your descendants.
- Isaiah 54:10-13: . . .Nor shall My covenant of peace be removed . . .13 All your children shall be taught by the LORD, And great shall be the peace of your children.
- Isaiah 59:20-21: “And a Redeemer will come to Zion….”My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from now and forever.”
- Malachi 4:5-6 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD. 6 “And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.
Receiving the Covenant Sign vs Heirs of the Covenant
Lane charges Bullinger and Calvin (et al) with the “failure to distinguish who would get the sign versus who would be an heir of the covenant.” This is ambiguous. Does “heir of the covenant” really mean “heir of the blessings of the covenant”? Does it simply mean covenant membership? All would agree that getting sign doesn’t give you all the blessings. He argues that “receiving the covenant sign does not guarantee being a covenant keeper.” But did anyone ever argue contrary to this? This is a trivial point. No Christian (or faithful Jew) has ever held that mere baptism (circumcision) is sufficient for salvation.
His other arguments lead to the conclusion that getting covenant sign does not mean you are member, e.g., since only Abraham/his children were members in the original sense. “The promise is consistently said to be spoken to Abraham and his seed.” But the claim of distinguishing covenant membership from those who receive the sign of the covenant is just nonsensical. Receiving the sign means that you are a covenant member. You give the sign to someone who has a right to membership. But what of those who were not of the faith of Abraham? Doesn’t this prove they were not in the covenant or not “heirs of the covenant”? Lane tries to resolve the covenant breaking/covenant keeping problem by excluding a person from membership. Those who break the covenant are not in it (?)!
This is where one must have a more robust sense of the covenant content. Covenants include stipulations for judgment and blessing; and all the covenantal administrations in the Bible evidence this (read CIB). This is why the all covenant administrations — Abrahamic, Mosaic, and even the new covenant — include language about “breaking” covenant, or being “cut off” (Gen. 17:14), or “judgment” (1Cor. 11:29, Heb. 10:28). Like many new covenant Baptists, Lane seems to miss the richness of the unfolding covenants of promise which have a visible administration for believers and for the covenant breakers.
Lane’s view, then, is incoherent. He speaks of the sign as not guaranteeing “being a covenant keeper.” This is true enough. But no one can “keep” or “break” covenant unless they are under the terms of the covenant, i.e., “in the covenant.” And yes the new covenant, while it cannot be “broken” in a sense, does have covenant breaking members (apostates from the new covenant terms, e.g., Heb. 10:28-30, see Covenantal Infant Baptism: An Outlined Defense, section IV.).
The answer to the problem of being an “heir of the covenant,” but breaking covenant is not found in excluding members, a priori. It is found in realizing that the unfolding covenantal administrations in Scripture all call for faith and faithfulness as the mature qualifications for receiving all the promised covenant blessings. Faithfulness to the Lord is not the entrance requirement, but the fruit of the covenant grace offered in covenant membership. God’s way is to freely receive little ones and apply the covenant means of grace to them, calling for their maturity and faithfulness. It is not to demand proof of faithfulness apart from His means of grace prior to entrance. Chastisement, discipline, and ultimately judgment which should be applied to straying covenant members. The problem is not in letting children in, it’s in getting adult covenant breakers out.
Charles Lee Irons did a great job discussing the historical debate on household baptism, touching on the “oikos formula.” The title was, “Household Baptism in the New Testament: Assessing the Debate 50+ Years Later.” This is a very informative study.
You can get this free for subscribing to the WordMp3 email list, for a limited time (until Feb. 1, 2015) Lee Irons talk on Household Baptism – the item will always be available here: Irons – Household Baptism.