Gavin Ortlund Critiques Paedobaptism on the Basis of Circumcision

Dr. Gavin Ortlund presented a very interesting paedobaptist challenge at the Evangelical Theological Society, San Diego (November 20 – 22, 2019). The title was: “Why Not Grandchildren? A Critique of Reformed Paedobaptism” – You can hear his talk here. Listen to our interaction in a WordMp3 iView podcast – I interacted with him directly.

Dr. Ortlund argues that circumcision was for the multi-generational “nation” Israel (eg., “all the seed of Abraham”), it is inter-generational (grandchildren/future generations); however Reformed infant baptism is claimed only for “you and your children” (eg., merely, “generational”). So he argues there is an actual discontinuity between recipients of circumcision and the recipients of baptism (for the Reformed paedobaptist). He points out that Calvin, Knox, Rutherford, et al (early Reformation) agreed that any child, grandchild, greatgrandchild of a believer had a right to the rite. His helpful example is John, sr. is a faithful believer; John, jr. is unfaithful; What do we do with John, III? Should he be baptized (as an infant)? Contemporary paedos do not baptize John III. There is discontinuity on circumcision’s recipients and baptism’s recipients.

I interact with this challenge. My view is that the first generation of circumcision is for the whole household, then it should be generation after generation. If a generation becomes unfaithful then there is a pastoral problem about kickstarting then next generation (eg., the Wilderness generation). I provide examples of grandfathers raising their “children” (actually grandchildren) who could properly bring their (grand)children to baptism, as well as the question of foster child baptism.

Listen to the podcast for the conversation. Here are few matters we did not address:

  • Exegetically: Gen. 17 states that, “I will make nations of you” – but this starts with the household (oikos in Greek; bet in Hebrew). Genesis 17:23 – “Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him.” Genesis 17:27 – “All the men of his household, who were born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.” Therefore, it starts with the household as is explicitly stated (3x). It is not that “a nation” (singular) will come (Israel), “nations” plural will come, not only Isaac/Israel, but sons of Keturah (Midianites, Keturah may have been Hagar) and Ishmaelites. At any rate, we know Ishmael was circumcised. Contra brother Gavin, circumcision is not a “national sign” of Israel since Ishmael received the sign, yet was not in the nation of Israel (Gen 17:20-25). Rather, it is a sign of Abraham’s faith, a sign of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4), a sign of inclusion into the covenant that Yahweh would be his God and his children’s God (over many generations). This inclusive rite and faith promises Gentile inclusion in Paul (Gal. 3-4; Rom. 4, 15): God intended all the families of the earth to be engrafted into Abraham’s promise of the restoration of fallen humanity (Eph. 2:15). It started with Abraham but is for “all the nations of the earth” (Mt. 28:19-20).
  • Logistically: Why deny that circumcision was generational in practices (parents bring infants)? How would it possibly work to circumcise those born/adopted if not one generation bringing the next to circumcision? Would an eight day old child not need to be with his mother? Would the mom hand off the grand baby to the grand dad and send them off to this ritual procedure with nothing to do with it? Would a distant relative (yet “nationally” connected, as Gavin suggests, nieces and nephews) be abducted for this covenant rite? Does circumcision entail kidnapping the child for a time, for this minor medical procedure? Use your imagination, but the point is that it is plainly, logistically, and theologically intended to be one generation after the next generation, not generation contra generation, not generation despite generation. This seems to be the meaning of, Genesis 17:9 – “throughout their generations.” If Gen. 17 is not clear, Peter specifies, “you and your children” (Acts 2:39). See a longer article with dozens of “you and your children” references (“Covenantal Infant Baptism: An Outlined Defense” on this site).
  • Theologically: The best this Gavin’s (interesting) argument could do against paedobaptism is show an inconsistency in current paedobaptist practice (if Gavin is right about intergenerational circumcision). Well, I grant that there may be many inconsistencies in current paedobaptist practice. This is not a refutation. Rather, paedo-inclusion is to be practiced consistently, as is evident in Gen. 17. This is a rather foundational redemptive passage on how we address the households and children of those in covenant.
  • Pastorally: To anticipate an objection: the true “seed of Abraham” must believe: yes. But my Baptist brothers mean a self-conscious expression of someone over about 4 years of age. Before that they are not the “seed” or “descendants” or “children” – this is all despite the actual meanings of the words, “seed, descendants, and children” — but Isaac, Jacob, and many that followed believed and realized the covenant sign’s meaning in their lives as they become mature. The baptist view confuses entrance into the covenant relationship with the mature expression of this life of faith in relationship. We should not reject the least child in the household of faith for the covenant sign as a means identification in the very promise of God. It is a rite, an ordinance, a sacrament, a hope, a prayer, a wish, an ardent desire and everything else good we want for a new and beautiful person who just entered the world, perhaps a child or a grandchild. Like my newly minted delight, our first grandchild, Marlowe — how could I not want all the best for her? Blessings and salvation to her. Does she have a right to the rite because of her dad, mom, granddad, grandmoms, great grandmoms, great great grandmoms, great, great, great grand moms — or even her 8th great grandfather, Robert Allen Strawbridge, the first Methodist preacher/circuit rider in America? Well — all of the above. But it only takes one such believer to make her a covenantal “saint” (hagios), as Paul taught (1Co. 7:14). But would not any of these desire or “the desire” of baptism’s end for her? Like all believers we have the most sincere hope for this little one to grow up to know forgiveness in Jesus, express a mature faithfulness, know our Triune God deeply, accomplish mighty things in the kingdom, and live forever in the New Creation. Baptism (in our day) is the tangible expression of this wish-hope-longing-faith. Baptists and Paedobaptists desire the same thing: faithful children who grow to faithful adults. Baptism is (I think we agree) the sign of this faith. Circumcision was this sign in Abraham’s day. As Paul states: “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (Rom. 4:11). It is precisely because of this pastoral, parental, multi-generational desire, that we should raise our children in the culture and counsel of Christ (Eph. 6:4). The sign and seal of this desire is baptism.
  • Calvinistically: While Gavin marshals Calvin (on Gen. 17) to the effect of circumcision as an inter-generational (what he takes ia a “national”) sign, there is more to Calvin here. Gavin argues that circumcision was a national sign without the relevant spirituality captured in “believers and their children” (ie., Reformed paedobaptist view). I am not sure from reading Calvin on Gen. 17, this is an accurate summary. Gavin misses a major emphasis of Calvin on Gen. 17: “since circumcision is called by Moses, the covenant of God, we thence infer that the promise of grace was included in it. For had it been only a mark or token of external profession among men, the name of covenant would be by no means suitable, for a covenant is not otherwise confirmed, than as faith answers to it. And it is common to all sacraments to have the word of God annexed to them, by which he testifies that he is propitious to us, and calls us to the hope of salvation; yea, a sacrament is nothing else than a visible word, or sculpture and image of that grace of God, which the word more fully illustrates….We now consider how the covenant is rightly kept; namely, when the word precedes, and we embrace the sign as a testimony and pledge of grace; for as God binds himself to keep the promise given to us; so the consent of faith and of obedience is demanded from us….And Abraham is not only commanded to dedicate and to offer unto God those born in his house, but whomsoever he might afterwards obtain.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries (Complete), trans. John King; Accordance electronic ed. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1847), paragraph 1399ff. I rest my case with brother Calvin.

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Gregg Strawbridge

Rev. Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D. is the pastor of All Saints Church in the Lancaster, PA area.

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