Drew Trammel has written a thoughtful and courteous response to my “Why I Changed My Mind on Baptism” piece from last month. Drew draws attention also to Mark Horne’s video response. Since these two and a number of other responses have made a very similar counter-argument, I thought it might be helpful to offer a brief rejoinder. Hopefully these discussions can sharpen and encourage us all, whether we end up changing our minds or not!
Drew helpfully summarizes my argument in a 4-point syllogism. His disagreement is with the second premise, which concerns the inter-generational nature of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 17. (I think Drew states this premise too strongly, in a way that even I would not affirm, but lets not quibble over that just now.) Drew argues that, contrary to my post, both circumcision and baptism required parents who professed faith, and thus the paedobaptist is not inconsistent. He writes, “Israelite children of faithless or apostate parents would NOT receive circumcision” (emphasis his). He discusses, with a number of helpful proof-texts, the reality of excommunication from the nation of Israel, and the possibility of Gentile proselytes joining into the covenant people. I agree with a lot of what Drew says here! But I think its an error to suggest that eligibility for circumcision was conditional on the faithfulness of one’s parents. A couple of points will, I believe, bear this out.
1) First of all, it may be worth noting that the idea that an Israelite’s parents had to believe in order for that Israelite to be eligible for circumcision is not the historic reformed view. Calvin, for example, in his commentary on Genesis 17, was emphatic that while the outward rite signified in the inward reality, it was not conditional on how the inward reality had been received: the sign of circumcision was for all the offspring of Abraham, irrespective of inward appropriation. The reason Calvin maintained this view is because he was a good exegete of Genesis 17:9-15, which specifies the intended recipients of circumcision to be the seed of Abraham, not the seed of Abraham whose parents also believe. It was an intergenerational and national covenant, and its initiatory sign was for all males throughout the nation and throughout its generations.
2) The attempt to make the Abrahamic covenant conditional upon each individual family professing faith does not line up with what we read throughout the Old Testament. Are we to envision, for example, all the moms and/or dads in Israel being lined up at Gilgal in Joshua 5:2-8 to be examined by Joshua concerning the credibility of their profession of faith, in order to determine whether their children were eligible for circumcision? No, the entire nation was circumcised, according to Joshua 5:8, because — as specified by Genesis 17 — circumcision was for the entire nation, not just for believers and their children within the nation. In fact, so much did the sacrament continue apart from inward appropriation of its meaning that at her worst moments, God could lament that the entire nation had not appropriated the sacrament inwardly (Jeremiah 9:26)! If Drew were right, and Israel operated as paedobaptist churches operate, then I suppose in Jeremiah’s day just about the entire nation would have to be excommunicated!
3) There is no hint in the Old Testament that Israelites were excommunicated from the covenant, either by death or expulsion, simply because they had failed to profess faith in God. Rather, according to the texts Drew cites, excommunication occurred as a response to high-handed acts of rebellion like witchcraft and idolatry (Deuteronomy 17:5 speaks of the kind of idolatry in view here as an “abomination”). Drew seems to acknowledge this when he speaks of excommunication as occurring in cases of “outright rebellion or apostasy” and among “those who overtly and unrepentantly rejected God.” This is a far cry from contemporary paedobaptist practice! In other words, the mere fact of excommunication in the Old Testament does not establish anything until we ask some careful questions about the conditions of excommunication, and how they compare to the practice of contemporary paedobaptist churches. “Stone the sorcerer among you” is not equal to “examine the credibility of their profession.” In other words, the threat of excommunication for specific offenses, introduced in the Law, did not redefine the Abrahamic covenant to make it tantamount to “those who believe and their children.” Rather, God’s people remained a fundamentally national and inter-generational body, as dictated by Genesis 17:9-15; and this was the entity from which one was excommunicated, or into which one was grafted.
4) But if we admit that the nation of Israel did not require a profession of faith from parents, and paedobaptist churches do, then … well, that is the whole point. In order to meet the required burden of proof, the paedobaptist must demonstrate biblical grounds for an ecclesiology of “those who believe and their children.” This is a very specific ecclesiology, and the vague principle that God works inter-generationally does not satisfy the required burden of proof to establish it. So when B.B. Warfield claims, “God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it…. He has nowhere put them out” — it is a fair question to ask, “which children?” Paedobaptists argue from continuity, but smuggle in a discontinuity in the process. They want to accept principle B on the basis that it is the continuation of principle A, and principle A has nowhere been abrogated. But what if principle A and principle B are fundamentally different principles? What if “you and your seed after you for the generations to come” and “those who believe and their children” are two fundamentally different ways of getting “children” into the church?
5) Lets close by projecting our original John Sr./John Jr./John III scenario back a few thousand years to illuminate this present issue:
Suppose there is a devout, pious Hebrew grandfather living just after King Solomon’s rule. His son (lets call him “Hebrew father”) has not rejected God overtly or committed any of the sins that require stoning or getting expelled from the land. He lives among God’s people and is considered a Hebrew. But he has never professed personal knowledge of God, embraced the covenant from the heart. Now are the sons of this Hebrew father proper recipients of circumcision? If the paedobaptist says yes, then he/she has to tell us why we should not similarly baptize the grand-children of believers, since the primary paedobaptist argument is from continuity with circumcision. If the paedobaptist says no, then he/she has to tell us where in the Old Testament there is textual warrant for requiring a parental profession of faith prior to circumcision, since Genesis 17:9-15 defines the proper recipients as the inter-generational offspring of Abraham, and the practice of God’s people throughout the Old Testament bears this principle out.