Confusing the Continuity of Sacraments Between the Testaments
In being theologically Reformed, it lumps me with a large group of believers who adhere to the Doctrines of Grace; but there are times when being Reformed is not enough. I cannot simply be seen as Reformed, because a very critical issue divides those who profess the same theological stance. We can go even farther and say that the majority of Reformed theologians also adhere to a Covenantal view of the Old/New Testaments. That is, they see the Church as the fulfillment of Biblical Judaism, and the Church is not separate but grafted into God’s elect (Romans 11; cf. Romans 4, 9; Galatians 3; Hebrews 8). Unfortunately, some take the supersessionistic view of the Church in perverted manners; and that is manifest most observably in the sacrament of baptism.
In the historical creeds and confessions, two stand out to me as the most powerful. They are the Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter WCF, Presbyterian) and the The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (hereafter LBC, Baptist). While both say great things, only one stands out as truly indicative of a Biblical understanding of the New Testament sacraments under the umbrella of Covenant and Reformed Theology. We can examine both on their stance of baptism:
The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 28: Of Baptism
III. Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but Baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.
IV. Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized.
The 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chapter 29: Of Baptism
2. Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance.
4. Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.
Now, we see two issues from these two creeds that separate the Reformed community. First, the issue of defining what the physical act of baptism entails. The WCF states (number 3) that immersion is not necessary but sprinkling is permitted; but the LBC states (number 4) that the ordinance of baptism is to be engaged with an immersion. The second issue is that the WCF (number 4) states that infants should be baptized, but the LBC (number 2) states only professing believers should be baptized.
Now, my interest in this article is not around the first issue as it is the second. Briefly, the argument for sprinkling is not persuasive in any fashion I’ve encountered. First, nothing in the New Testament even leads to a conclusion that baptism was administered by sprinkling (as if John the Baptist took Jesus into the river to sprinkle his forehead). Also, Strong’s (G907) defines the meaning of the Greek word baptizoÌ? (translated into “baptize”) as, “to make whelmed (that is, fully wet).” This issue is not one that cannot be theologically defined as anything other than complete immersion. But now for the second issue.
Argument for Paedobaptism from the Replacement of Covenants
My Presbyterian brethren would define an argument for Paedobaptism (“paedo” translates “infant,” so this is the needlessly technical term for infant baptism) as follows:
- The sign of the Old Testament covenant was that of circumcision mandated for the all males as early as 8 days old (Genesis 17:10–14).
- The old [Mosaic] covenant was replaced by a new covenant with the arrival of the Messiah (Matthew 26:28; Hebrews 8), and the sign of that covenant is baptism (Mark 16:16).
- Therefore, since there is a new covenant with a similar sacrament, the reasoning and practice behind both administrations must be the same.
I admit myself that argument is a little verbose, but let me elaborate. Since infants were circumcised, they likewise should be baptized since that is a sign of the new covenant. Again, this is a time when being Reformed/Covenant theologian is not enough.
Understanding the Biblical Emphasis on Each Sacrament
The act of circumcision, first of all, was obviously applied only to males; and if we take as the same measure of the replacement theory then we likewise should only baptize male infants. On this point, Presbyterian baptize both males and females as infants. The supporter of infant baptism will declare that it is not enough to say that baptism is only a sign of believers as opposed to circumcision because Paul in Romans 4 says that Abraham after having faith and imputed righteousness, “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised” (vs. 11).
We should understand that this situation, that circumcision was given to Abraham on the account of faith, that he was the first and only. I cannot find another example of anyone else in the Old Testament that believed and then was circumcised. The reason for this is because the circumcision was enacted for a Jewish male eight days after birth (Genesis 17:12). Not only this, but Paul makes the point clear as to why this situation occurred as it did, “and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised” (vs. 12). Abraham was imputed with righteousness uncircumcised “so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them” (vs. 11). And in Galatians Paul speaks more of Abraham being the father of all who believe (the elect regardless of a certain administration of the Covenant of Grace):
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.
It then becomes apparent that this outstanding circumstance is that to which the Presbyterian would base such an argument, and their argumentation stems out of a misunderstanding of that particular instance. Also, at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) did not correlate baptism in any fashion to circumcision; they only decided that it was not necessary to follow the sign of the Old Covenant (Judaic ceremonial law is one great example of something that was done away with in the New Covenant).
Through these arguments, the strongest is that baptism in the New Testament is always attached directly to being administered after faith (Acts 2:38 is one such example). To denigrate the New for the Old, seems to me to be a very basic misunderstanding of the changing of Testaments.
Covenant theology is one, and I would argue the most important, doctrine for us to understand the Bible as a true teaching of God’s redemptive purpose. As we have seen though, being Reformed/Covenant theologian is sometimes just not enough. I agree with John Piper’s sentiment on this issue:
“The Church is not a replay of Israel. It is an advance on Israel. To administer the sign of the covenant as though this advance has not happened is a great mistake. We do not baptize our children according to the flesh, not because we don’t love them, but because we want to preserve for them the purity and the power of the spiritual community that God ordained for the believing church of the living Christ.”