Presbyterian Baptism

olivetreeI’m posting on baptism. In seven years of blogging, I’ve not done it much, if at all, before. One of the reasons I’m doing it now is that some Presbyterians seem to struggle with an explanation for why they baptise infants.

Theologically, Presbyterians baptise children because we understand that the Promises made to Abraham have not been altered, have not been changed, but have been ratified, secured, made certain in Jesus Christ. There is only one People of God. From the beginning with Abram, God has promised his people that he will be a God to them and to their children. He has promised a relationship with His People which is different to that with other people. All of Abraham’s descendants were born into covenant with God and the males were marked with the sign: circumcision. That doesn’t mean they were all people who had faith – and that is fundamental to understanding covenant in scripture. It draws a wider circle than ‘those with saving faith’, or ‘the elect’, or ‘the regenerate’. There were two ways into the People of God in the Old Testament: be born a Jew, or become a Jew through professing Yahweh as God and being circumcised.

When Jesus Christ comes, there is not a new beginning, as if God starts a new People of God. The Old and New Testaments witness to the fact that the coming of the Messiah beings a New Covenant which reconfigures the Existing People of God around Jesus as the Divine Messiah and which replaces the Law of Moses (which only led God’s people until the Messiah, Gal 3:23-24, 4:3). It does not replace the covenant with Abraham. It is a renewal amongst the People of God, the tribes of Israel and Judah. It’s what the prophets write about (e.g. Jer 31:31-32), it’s what Jesus speaks about, it’s what happens at Pentecost, and it’s how the apostles understand what has happened with the coming of the Christ.

Romans 11 stands as the clearest example of this. There is only one olive tree. Its roots are in the Promises to Abraham (11:16). When Jesus the Messiah comes, bringing the New Covenant renewal, the tree is shaken and pruned (11:17). Only those who acknowledge Jesus as Messiah can remain in covenant with God (11:23). Some branches are cut off. But, subsequent to this New Covenant moment, Gentiles can be grafted into that tree, whose roots are in the Promises to Abraham (11:17, 24). They do not join a different tree. It’s the same tree, the same covenant. The Promises to Abram still constitute it and they are ratified in Jesus (Gal 3:14). The promises are still to Abraham’s children (Acts 2.39), but now anyone who professes the faith of Abraham, now faith in Jesus the Messiah, is counted amongst the People of God (Rom 4:16; Gal 3:7-9, 29). Therefore, the Church is the same (albeit reconfigured) Covenant People of God that was constituted when Yahweh appeared to Abram. Richard Hays puts this very well:

It is no accident that Paul never uses expressions such as “new Israel” or “spiritual Israel”. There always has been and always will be only one Israel. Into that one Israel Gentile Christians such as the Corinthians have now been absorbed. Echoes of Scripture, 96-7

In the New Covenant, baptism becomes the sign of entry into the People of God. We are either baptised because our parents already belong to the People of God, or we come into the People of God from outside through professing our faith in Jesus. When we baptise a child, it is a sign that the child stands in a relationship to God that is different to the child of someone who is not a Christian. The child is not regenerate, nor necessarily elect (the words that are used to describe someone’s standing to God with respect to their final salvation), but they are members of the covenant community, the Church, the Israel of God (Gal 6:16).

The Church cannot simply be thought of as being comprised of  ‘those with saving faith’, or ‘the elect’, or ‘the regenerate’. It draws a wider circle. That’s how Covenant works. The Church is a visible body – like the Jewish nation. People enter it through professing faith in Jesus. And their children enter too, because the Promise is also to them. Children born to the Professing are born into it. Some of those who profess may fall away. Some of the children may not profess faith, they may not respond to the Promises of the covenant. Those who do profess but are unfaithful in profession are disciplined and perhaps eventually put outside the Church.  But within the Church we will find the professing and their children, and within that circle there is a slightly smaller one, ‘those with saving faith’, ‘the elect’, ‘the regenerate’.  No-one can discern where this smaller circle is drawn – and it’s no-one’s business to try to (here’s the root of so many problems in Highland Calvinism). But, the wider circle of the covenant is an objective reality. That these two circles exist, that the objective nature of the Church is different to membership of the elect, ought not to bother us. After all, how else do we explain texts like John 15, 1 Corinthians 7 and Hebrews 4? And, after all, it’s how Calvin understood things.

So, why are some Presbyterians wavering? When I hear Presbyterians explaining baptism as basically the Baptist view, with the baptism of infants then a sort of tacked-on addition to that view, I wonder how it got to this. I come across Presbyterians saying things like: the baptism is a sign of the faith that we hope the child will have. Or, the baptism is a sign of what Jesus Christ has done for that child. Even the explanation that the baptism is the sign of the faith of the parents of that child is not wholly adequate. In my humble opinion it is because these Presbyterians are buying into an Evangelical view whereby infant baptism is seen as an anomalous addition to a concept of baptism (the Baptist one) that is basically agreed on by all (E/e)vangelicals.

In fact, evangelical Presbyterians and Evangelicals (I would judge these different categories) do not share the same view of baptism. They have fundamentally different views on the theological basis for baptism. And, they have fundamentally different views on what the Church is. Presbyterians that turn towards other traditions for resources and for theological education have got to recognise this. If you’re listening to Driscoll or Piper, for example, they do not hold the same Reformed theology as Presbyterians do.

The whole issue is of fundamental importance. It’s not about defending some romantic notion of a Scottish or Reformed tradition. It’s about understanding God, the Church of Jesus Christ and our mission in the world.

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