Three Fallacies in the Believer’s Baptism View
In the debate I did with James White, I wanted to provide a simple way to address some complex issues of interpretation relating to baptism, so I named three fallacies that (I believe) attend the Believer’s Baptism view. This post addresses the second fallacy: The Vipers in Diapers Fallacy.
I am indebted to Pastor Mickey Schneider (the founder of the PCA!) for this name. He suggested that the Southern Presbyterians (Dabney/Thornwell, etc.) believed that covenant children were nothing more than “vipers in diapers.” I have not researched this to confirm their specific views, but it sounds consistent with what I know of them. Certainly many Presbyterians (past and present) hold a much less robust doctrine of covenant children than I do. In the film, A River Runs Through It, the Presbyterian minister said that Methodists are “just Baptists who can read.” Dabney and Thornwell may just be Baptists with a theology. (Don’t take offense, my 6th Great Grandfather was the first Methodist preacher in America, Robert Allen Strawbridge and I was born’d and reared a Southern Baptist.)
The Vipers in Diapers fallacy assumes the status of a covenant child is the same as a pagan adult or an apostate adult. Calvinists believe that total depravity applies to all, but this doctrine must be harmonized with grace. I feel sure that I still have “total depraved” and yet, I am saved. For me to deny that I am in Christ, though I am painfully aware of my sin, is not faithfulness, but faithlessness. The only hope of my sanctification is accepting both sin as a reality in my life and grace through Christ alone. Applying this to covenant babies is the confusion of stamping the model of adult conversion on covenant infants. While I am expressive and conscious of my sins and the grace I have received, children are neither. The right stance for Calvinists who embrace paedo-inclusion is not to deny our children’s depravity (that is hardly a matter to debate), nor to deny that grace in all its extravagant goodness applies to them. I think it is a failure of faith (in covenant promises) to be agnostic on our infant children’s status.The right posture is to believe with all our hearts that they have received the fullest measure of the grace of God in the womb and then raise them with the bold faith that they are the Lord’s. This is not presumption if we are “grabbing them by their baptism” at every moment of their sinfulness. God may be both kinder than you think and harsher than you can imagine.
I have heard many a Baptist defense of “believer’s only” baptism which began with John’s Baptism and argued it excludes children on the grounds of requiring individualistic repentance. So Matthew 3:7 says, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'” Many Baptist defenses take such texts to exclude children. But – Is this text addressing the children of the faithful? Are these vipers babies? Or, are the adult apostates? The answer is obvious. However, this text and those like it are pressed into the Baptist cause by saying this is a radical change in the new covenant. Whereas in the OT children were included, but now they are excluded because only repentant “believers” may be admitted to the covenant and the covenant rites (baptism). This not only overlooks the whole covenant purpose (God to you and your children), but it is just plain false with respect to the Old Testament. Do we not find similar admonitions from Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and every other OT writer? Calling fleshly Israelites to repent of their apostasy is hardly a new covenant phenomenon! John was not inventing a new mode of ministry by calling for their repentance; neither does John explicitly exclude children. There is not a word about children in John’s preaching, except the expectation that he would turn their hearts to their fathers. This cannot be consistent with the Baptist cause. Would it not be a better hermeneutic to get our views of children from texts that address children? On this the New Testament is not silent.
1) In the first case, Jesus was a child and Matthew’s first dozen uses of the word “child” (teknon) refer to the Child, Jesus. I doubt Baptists will be converted by this point, but it is very strong evidence that simply being a child is not the same as being a “devil” or “heathen” or “unregenerate.” Along these same lines, in Luke we are told that John was filled with the Spirit in the womb and that he did a holy dance as an embryo. Since John was least in the kingdom, what can this mean except that in the new age to come under Christ, myriads more embryos will leap for joy in knowing their Lord. And so they do.
2) Jesus fed not only adults, but children (Matt. 14:21). This reflection (to use a Calvinism) may be “spat upon” by Baptists, but he who has ears, let him hear. The Bread of Life which was united to the person of Christ in thanksgiving and then distributed to the 5000 men, was no less given to the thousands of children present. It seems likely that Jesus was more concerned to feed the children than the adults. The Church today ought to feed the children.
3) The obvious texts that address children as part of the kingdom refute the “vipers in diapers” thesis. The most critical term here is “toioutos” –
Matthew 18:3–5 – “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “And whoever receives one such (toioutos) child in My name receives Me;
Luke 18-15-17 – And they were bringing even their babies (brephos) to Him so that He might touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such (toiouton) as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all.
The most persuasive Baptist defender, Paul K. Jewett writes, “When the Jews cried out against Paul (Acts 22:22), ‘Away with such a one (toiouton)!’ they could hardly have meant, Away with someone like this man Paul.” (Baptist Defense: Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace)
These texts plainly teach that “such” (toioutos) children belong to Christ’s kingdom. This implies that the children of the faithful (i.e., those bringing their children to Christ) are subjects of the kingdom and thus in a different status than adult apostates or pagans.
4) If nothing has been convincing thus far, we have the apostolic word which explicitly teaches that children of believers are in a different status: 1 Cor 7:14 – “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified (hagiozo perf. tense) through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified (hagiozo) through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy (hagios pl. “saints”).” The Baptist scholar, AT Robertson, noted that the sanctification of the spouses means that “the marriage is holy and need not be set aside.” True enough. However, what Jewett (Baptist) and others confirm is that the children’s hagios is “covenantal” holiness. Exactly! Jewett concedes that the children of believers are part of the “saints” (54); that the children of believers are in the kingdom (60); that household proselyte baptism most likely existed concurrent with Acts (64); that circumcision and baptism are both signs of entrance to the covenant community (86); that circumcision and baptism are both “seals” (86); that the “two signs, as outward rites, symbolize the same inner reality” (89); that baptism “occupies the place of circumcision in the New Testament” (89); that “circumcision means ‘essentially’ what baptism means in the New Testament” (96); and that the sanctification of children (1Co 7:14) is due to the “marriage covenant” as in the Jewish/Mishna sources (136).
It is a fallacy to view the children of believers as pagans or apostates. They have a different status in the Old Testament, surely. But the New Testament explicitly teaches that they are in a separate category from pagans or unregenerate apostates.