The New Covenant People Are: A Dialogue with Paedobaptists

In recent months I’ve written a few posts on paedobaptism (infant baptism).  As students of theology know, theology is never done in a vacuum.  For example, Alexander Campbell, one of the leaders of the 18th century Restoration Movement (Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, Churches of Christ), came to the US from Scotland as a Presbyterian.  Eventually he would gave up his Presbyterianism, after a few doctrinal disputes.

Alexander Campbell would go on to receive baptism at the hand of a Baptist minister.  But eventually Campbell would be faced with the question of whether to baptized his infant children or not.  You see, his Presbyterianism came into play here.  After studying the matter at length, Campbell decided that he did not need to baptize his infant, concluding that they were not proper subjects, not part of the new covenant people of God.

Last weekend, I had a dialogue with two Presbyterian colleagues of mine regarding Jeremiah 31:31-34 and the question of who are the new covenant people of God.  With the help of Tom Schreiner of Southern Seminary, I shared with my colleagues that based on the language of Jeremiah 31:33, 34, which is regenerational in nature (compare Ezekiel 36:25-27), the new covenant people of God are the regenerate, not the unregenerate–therefore excluding believers infant children.

But alas, my Presbyterian brothers thought that Schreiner and myself were over-stretching here, making a logical leap that is not warranted by the text of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

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This entry was posted in Baptism, Baptists, Infant Baptism, Paedobaptism, Presbyterianism, Thomas R. Schreiner and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

40 Responses to The New Covenant People Are: A Dialogue with Paedobaptists

  1. angelanowak says:

    Once you got a view, it is for life. Unless God interfere in His good time. That had been my experience. may the Lord give you His strengths to give glory in your serving for Him.

  2. Jim Killion says:

    I was baptized as an infant. As a result when I made the decision to be a follower of Jesus when I was 17 and was told that I then needed to be baptized, my response was, “I have already been baptized.” This caused much inner turmoil over the next 3 years of my life. After much studying of scripture, I realized two critical things:

    1. Both Peter & John the Baptist said the same thing, “repent & be baptized.”
    2. Everyone in scripture who was baptized did so of their own volition.

    Since baptism follows repentence & is an act of the will, I made the choice to be baptized.

    Baptism serves as a powerful witness to the world of what Christ has done for us. In my humble opinion, infant baptism cheapens this ordinance.

    Soli Deo Gloria,
    Jim

  3. Simon says:

    Jim,

    1. Peter and Paul did not live in an individualistic world. The Scripture is clear that when the head of the household repented and was baptised, so did his whole family. Now, did they all make an individual decision to join the Church? I don’t think this is what the Scripture means.

    2. Following my point in 1. above, do you know that everyone in those household baptism did so of their own volition? Do you know whether there were any infants in those households? So I don’t think you point stands.

    Baptism is entry into the Body of Christ, the Church. It is a saving sacrament as St Peter so clearly puts it. It is not a witnessing or proselytizing tool.

    • TC says:

      Simon, if I may chime in here. (1) I think we need to note the discontinuities between the Old and New Covenant. This is the import of a text like Jeremiah 31.

      (2) A principle of who comprise the new covenant community must be established first before we can decipher those household baptisms.

      (3) I don’t think Peter means for us to understand baptism as a saving sacrament. If that were true, then the NT has two ways of being saved, first the covenant of faith, as in Abrahamic faith, and then in baptism. But since Scripture knows only one way to be right with God, then I believe you have made too much of Peter’s words.

    • Jim Killion says:

      Excellent points – however, I can only speak to what is specifically written in the text, so an opinion that the household was not baptized of their own free will is just an opinion, nothing more.

      • Simon says:

        As is the assertion that the household must have been baptised individually of their own volition – this is only an opinion too. What I am appealing to is how all Christians everywhere have done it up until the anabaptists.

  4. David Beirne says:

    One might assume that the baptisms described in the NT (esp. Acts, 2:42ff, 10:44ff, 8:26) give a better expectation of what NT baptism was–believers only. IMHO, paedobaptist examples based on such passages regarding households coming to faith, children coming to Jesus (who obviously would not have been infants and did in fact come of their own will), etc. are not as convincing as actually looking to the scriptural accounts of baptisms. And I agree that Peter is not teaching baptism as saving sacrament but the testimony of a good conscience toward God. If St. Peter so clearly put it otherwise, why would there be so much controversy around it?

  5. Simon says:

    TC, Peter clearly says that baptism saves. Why should we not take him at his word? How do you know that this statement should be read through the Protestant Pauline lenses? The fact is that our salvation is a mystery. All things in the Christian life help us towards salvation. There’s no one silver bullet. And I think if you take the whole sweep of the New Testament into consideration, this is hard to argue against.

    • TC says:

      Simon, I take the whole sweep of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments into consideration here. Justification by faith is what I see running all the way through. Of course the matter of baptism is another issue. I am speaking here of the sign and the thing signified. The way the OT uses circumcision is instructive here.

      There is no mystery how a person gets right with God, beginning with the covenant of faith made with Abraham and running all through Scripture. Nothing could be clearer. See Galatians 3.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      Simon,

      One thing that is clear is that in the New Testament people were baptised immediately after repenting/believing. That’s why baptism can be equated with salvation. The N.T. picture is one of baptism following a confession of faith in Christ. That’s why so many of us believe that credobaptism precedes paedobaptism.

      Whether Acts 8:37 is part of the original, or a scribal addition, it is instructive nonetheless:

      “And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.”

      • Jon Hughes says:

        Even in Acts 16, it states that the Philippian jailor “rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.” (vs. 34, NKJV).

  6. Simon says:

    Jon, No doubt that there had to have been a conversion of adults in the first generation of Christianity. The question is whether children of believers were effectively excluded from the Church until such time as they could make some sort of declaration and confirmation of faith. I just don’t think this is likely. And, in fact, the overwhelming testimony of the Church is that this was not what the baptism is to be practised.

    The jailor in Acts 16 in no way states that everyone made an individual decision. If the head of a household believes then the whole family follows. There simply wasn’t this notion of everyone doing their own thing.

  7. Simon says:

    TC, are you mixing up justification (“getting right with God”) and salvation? Our salvation is a mystery of the co-suffering love of God.

    • TC says:

      Simon, I believe there are places where justification and salvation are indistinguishable. For example, this can be seen in Acts 13 and 16 and definitely in the writings of Paul. But if you mean salvation as holistic, encompassing one’s justification, then I follow. But we may also speak of future justification as well as future salvation. No mixing up going on here.

      • Simon says:

        TC, if we take the whole sweep of Scripture, then I don’t think Justification and Salvation can be used interchangably – even if they appear to be so in certain places. This is exactly why Peter can say that baptism saves. He is not making a blanket statement about salvation, but we can know that baptism is an essential part of our salvation from this statement. Someone who would take a Reformed view of justification and salvation would simply never make such a statement. Again, taking the whole sweep of Scripture into consideration.

  8. Simon says:

    David, The downfall for credo-baptists is that no where in the text of the Bible does it deal with the question of whether it is right to baptise infants. You cannot construct a complete theory of baptism simply from taking examples from the text.

  9. TC says:

    Simon, we both clearly have different understandings about the sacrament of baptism. Nowhere in Scripture is it portrayed as a mystery. Where?

    You talk about the whole sweep of Scripture in reference to salvation, but it seems like you’re not taking your own advice, since you are only camping out at 1 Peter 3:21 on baptism and salvation. I pose the same to you: Why not consider the whole sweep of Scripture?

    • Simon says:

      Well, the Church does acknowledge sacraments as mysteries. In fact in the Christian East, sacraments are known as mysteries. How is baptism a sacrament? How is it a vehicle of grace? What formula or philosophical understanding can you use to explain what happens at baptism or any other sacrament for that matter? That is the point. The sacraments are mysteries. No where in Scripture does it state explicitly that the Trinity is a mystery, yet the Church affirms this. In fact, the doctrine of the Trinity is not explained in the Scripture. So just because there is explicit statement in Scripture to this effect, does not mean that it isn’t a mystery. I would be very skeptical of anyone who would presume to know everything about baptism and how it is sacramental. Sacraments, by their very nature, are mysteries. Who can know the mind and workings of God? The point of the sacraments is to participate in them.

      Ah TC, that was my exact point about Peter. It gives a partial view of salvation. I didn’t say that it is the only thing we have to look at. I specifically said that he is not making a blanket (or all-encompassing) statement on salvation. But, it seems to me, that the Reformed position of elevating what St Paul has to say about righteousness, salvation and justification in Romans and Galatians above the rest of what Scriptures teach (particularly the Gospel accounts) is not taking the full sweep of Scripture. Because you necessarily have to explain away texts like 1 Peter 3:21, the Gospels, Ephesians, James and Revelation to name a few.

      • TC says:

        Simon, mystery in a salvific sense? Which church? But neither is St Paul overturning what is said in the Gospels or anywhere else. Paul is contextualizing, if you will. For example, in Galatians 3, Paul speaks of the gospel being preached beforehand to Abraham and so on.

        Baptism has its place and must not be misplaced. I believe there is some confusion here between sign and the thing signified.

  10. Jon Hughes says:

    @ Simon: “Someone who would take a Reformed view of justification and salvation would simply never make such a statement.”

    You’re absolutely right here. That’s why Scripture is bigger than our reductionist ‘systems’. If Reformed believers were (hypothetically speaking) the only recipients of divine revelation, Scripture would read a lot more systematically and would be packaged in a far more manageable and controllable fashion! James wouldn’t have said what he said about “works”, and Peter wouldn’t have quite put it that way about “baptism”. We all know that if a new church member had written out his testimony reflecting the above in a Reformed church, the pastor would have insisted that he re-write it! (We all know this is true!!!) One of the reasons why I hold to the inspiration of Scripture is precisely because of its diversity as well as unity.

    In all honesty, however, your own tradition – albeit wonderfully intricate – is yet so convoluted that I’d be crying out for something solid to take hold of. That’s why I remain within evangelicalism. It encourages me to take hold of Christ in simplicity of faith, whatever my ‘system’.

    • TC says:

      ” One of the reasons why I hold to the inspiration of Scripture is precisely because of its diversity as well as unity.”

      Jon,

      I believe this unity in diversity was intentional. But regarding matters of justification and salvation, I believe the text is clear. However, we must consider the whole of Scripture, that inner logic, and not simply isolate a text here and there.

      • Jon Hughes says:

        TC,

        Scripture simply isn’t as clear as we suggest it is. No Reformed believer could write that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24); or that those who patiently do good and seek for glory and honour and immortality will be given eternal life by God (Romans 2:7); or that those who have done good will come out of their graves to the resurrection of life (John 5:28,29).

        Any exegesis of these passages would be ‘qualified’ by those who read Scripture through an imposed grid. James, Paul, and the Lord Jesus Himself would be vetted by today’s evangelical gatekeepers.

        We’ve got to move on from “faith alone” – the only time these two words appear together is in James 2:24! This alone (no pun intended) should tell us something. I prefer an emphasis on God’s grace producing both faith and works in the life of the believer. This reflects Scripture as a whole, and can and should should produce a truly biblical ecumenism.

        Hopefully that’s not too heretical for you…

  11. TC says:

    Jon, on the issue of how a person is put in the right with God, I think it is. But that’s another issue, I reckon.

    Yes, the reformed believers that a person is justified by both faith (Rom 3:28) and works (Rom 2:13). But it’s how we understand both.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      TC,

      A person is made right with God by God’s grace. Nothing heretical about that.

      • TC says:

        Yes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9 ESV).

  12. Simon says:

    Jon, What you are saying makes sense to me. Particularly the part about faith and works both being made possible by the grace of God. Which should lead us to ask, If faith and works are both dependent on grace, then why is only the former required for salvation and not the latter in Reformed theology? For grace makes both possible. And the passages quoted by Jon indicate that works are a part of our salvation. This view can account for all of Scripture without having to explain texts away.

    TC, on the mysteries. Since I have been attending Mass with my girlfriend, I have noticed that at the beginning the Priest asks the congregation to prepare themselves to participate in the “mysteries”. The Orthodox Church calls all sacraments mysteries. How is it that baptism saves? We know we must do it. So that part is not mysterious. But what is it all about? What happens that is salvific? This is a mystery. If you take the view that it is only symbolic and has no significance for salvation, then, yes, no mystery about it (those who take this view contradict St Peter btw). It is then a sort of reenactment and personalisation of Christ’s death and resurrection. But I think the NT is pretty clear, we die with Christ and are raised with him. We are united to Christ and his Body the Church. How can we explain this? It remains a mystery.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      Simon,

      Evangelicals certainly seem to have an emotional response to the importance of “works” when it comes to the salvation of the believer.

      TC,

      Don’t forget verse ten of Ephesians chapter two 😉

    • TC says:

      Simon, I will not say what Scripture doesn’t say. I see nowhere that it’s a “mystery.” Yes, Peter says that baptism saves, but only as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

      To speak of a sacrament as a sign is not foreign to Scripture, so I understand in baptism that we are buried into his death and raised to walk in newness of life thus. In the OT, when a person was circumcised in the flesh did it automatic meant that they were circumcised in the heart? Not at all!

      Jon,

      But notice the placement of works in Ephesians two. It is of no avail to salvation, but once the once is saved, the person must now walk in the good works prepared beforehand, in Christ.

  13. Simon says:

    TC, St Paul refers to our faith as a mystery. In fact if you read the Pauline corpus, mystery is a recurring theme. Now if Paul calls our entire faith a mystery, how much more its parts? One of the problems with Western theology is that is tries to explain too much. It overreaches.

    As for 1 Peter 3, what does the appeal to God for good conscience mean for Peter? And what does he mean by “saves”? Is this not our salvation? Notice that Peter also appeals to the resurrection in this passage, which should be a further hint that he is talking about our salvation, the restoration of all things. I want to ensure the full force of what the word “saves” means in this passage to stand without qualification.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      Simon,

      Likewise, I want to ensure that the full force of what the word “justification” means in James 2:24 stands without qualification. This conversation is enjoyable because it is honest. I don’t like it when inconvenient passages are ‘explained away’ with exegetical gymnastics (or merely overlooked) by Reformed brethren.

      TC,

      Ephesians 2:8-9 is a wonderful passage. Would it be true to say that you interpret other passages through this one? In other words, does it carry more weight? You write above that there are places where justification and salvation are indistinguishable. Is James 2:24 not one of those places, then? If it is one of those places, then Simon has a point when he writes:

      “If faith and works are both dependent on grace, then why is only the former required for salvation and not the latter in Reformed theology?”

      Would you consider a man a heretic for affirming that both faith and works are the product of God’s grace in the life of the believer; and for wanting to biblically examine the Reformed doctrine of ‘justification-by-faith-alone’ based on the ONLY passage that mentions the words “faith” and “alone” in the N.T.?

      And while we’re at it, why did Luther add the word “alone” to his translation of Romans 3:28; and why did he question the canonicity of James? Is this not an example of what Simon refers to above as “overreaching”?

    • Jon Hughes says:

      As for baptism, once again, the fact that it is contiguous with profession of faith in the N.T. explains why it can be equated with salvation in this way.

    • TC says:

      Simon, I’m quite familiar with the Pauline corpus, so where does he refer to faith as a mystery in connection to justification and salvation?

      Yes, Peter already used “salvation” in 1 Peter 1:6ff, in this holistic sense. But we will never agree on this matter sense you hold to baptismal regeneration and I don’t.

      • Simon says:

        TC, What is the “mystery of faith” that Paul is referring to? I think we tend to be excessive in making theological categories. What is the “faith” that Paul says is a mystery? There are many things about our faith that are mysterious. The Virgin conception and birth of Christ for instance (I wonder if this is viewed by the Reformed as a violation of “common sense” like the Westminster Confession says about thereal presence in the Eucharist). Again, using your logic, no where does the NT set forth the doctrine of the Trinity. It may allude to it. This has always been referred to as a mystery. I’m just trying to understand your push back on “mystery”. In your reading of Paul, what do you think he means by “mystery” and what is he referring to? In my opinion, it seems that the Reformed have tried to disenchant Scripture of its mysterious elements and have overreached where we ought not. Perhaps a word study of “mystery” in St Paul is in order ;). I know that his use of the term mystery has really jumped out at me on rereading his epistles.

        Yes we don’t have the same starting points concerning baptism. But what does the text of Scripture suggest? Not just 1 Peter. But what about Romans 6. That sounds regenerational to me. Buried and raised with Christ into new life. To me this just isn’t symbolic, but an actual reality – in some mysterious sense 😉

  14. TC says:

    Jon,

    I do not always interpret other texts in light Ephesians 2:8-10. I think the matter can be traced all the way through both testaments. I hold to covenant theology, and this is the genius of it. We talking the covenant of grace and faith that began with Abraham.

    I dare not consider a man a heretic for so combining faith and works. But I think Paul has already beat me to that in Galatians, calling down the anathema of God for those who frustrate the gospel of grace. If I believe that somehow my good works aids in my salvation, then I have serious theological and biblical problems. Scripture couldn’t be clearer on the matter of where works fit in the life of believers.

    James 2 must be viewed in this light. We do not need to isolate James 2:24 from the rest of Scripture. Look at what Paul says about Abraham and his works in Romans 4:1ff. I don’t think the matter could have been clearer.

    So we need to ask, What does James mean by “justified by works,” except that Abraham’s faith was vindicated, another way to translate the Greek, by works? (see Matthew 11:19).

    I do not see any contradictions when properly understood within the whole flow of Scripture.

    • Jon Hughes says:

      TC,

      I think you’ve just confirmed that the import of James gets minimized.

      As for Galatians, no doubt we’d both agree about the need to not only begin with the Spirit but also continue with the Spirit – rather than the flesh (Galatians 3:3). But surely we don’t have to get into ‘anathemas’ here. The emphasis is on God’s grace producing fruit in the life of the believer. Aren’t “faith” and “works” two sides of the same coin? (Consider Hebrews 11, for example.)

      If I was suggesting that we all need to be circumcised, or something legalistic to that effect, then you’d have a point in what you say about frustrating the gospel of grace. But my main point again: the sole occasion when “faith” and “alone” are found together in Scripture is in a context that militates against the Reformed position on justification. The emphasis should be on God’s grace producing both faith and works in the life of the believer.

      In some ways, this is a time-consuming game of semantics. You agree every bit as much as I do about the need for those who believe in Christ to produce fruit in the spiritual life (John 15:4-5). It’s the overly analytical Reformed preoccupation with the mechanics of it, while ignoring pink elephants in the room like James 2, that gets in the way.

      Anyway, that’s enough from me.

      • TC says:

        Jon, I can live with these thoughts, as long as we don’t believe we need to or can bring anything to procuring our salvation. But yes, genuine faith results in good works.

  15. TC says:

    Simon, there’s (1) that “faith” we exercise to appropriate justification, as in Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6), and there’s (2) “the faith,” referring to that body of Christian doctrine (Jude 3). I have the first here in mind, not the latter, so the Virgin Birth, Trinity, are not what I have in mind.

    If Paul and Peter are teaching baptismal regeneration, then Scripture presents TWO ways of salvation, and Abrahamic faith, which runs all the way through Scripture, is besides the point.

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