This is a critical evaluation of Presbyterian infant baptism, also known “paedobaptism” or “pedobaptism”.
If anyone on earth had the opportunity and the pull to become a paedobaptist, it was me in my early twenties while living in Cincinnati, Ohio. Despite having been saved in a Baptist church and going to a Baptist-affiliated college, Presbyterians had an arguably greater influence in my life, especially in relation to my theological development regarding Calvinism and presuppositionalism. I had no qualms attending Presbyterian churches or dating Presbyterian women. I actually became convinced of Presbyterianism for part 2008, though I never announced the switch because I felt more study was in order. That study, obviously, led me to reaffirm my original view of baptism. All of this say: 1) I have always had and still have tremendous respect for my Presbyterian brethren, 2) no one can accuse me of any phobia toward Presbyterianism.
Why Do Presbyterians Baptize Babies?
This question needs to be answered right off the bat so that those unfamiliar with Presbyterian baptism do not confuse it with concerning motives for baptism of certain other groups within Christendom.
Presbyterians do not believe that baptism saves a child (e.g., Catholicism) or is the occasion at which God applies saving faith to a child (e.g., Lutheranism). Rather, Presbyterians administer baptism to children for the exact same reason that Hebrews circumcised their male children: because they believe God commands them to apply the sign of the covenant to their children. Consequently, Presbyterians regard their children as being part of the people of God, just as Hebrews believed that their children were part people of God. Moreover, just as not all Israel was true Israel (i.e., not all Hebrews were saved), neither do Presbyterians believe all those who are part of the visible New Covenant family are saved.
Interestingly, the Presbyterian conception of paedobaptism appears to be novel to the 16th century (with Ulrich Zwingli beings its first major proponent) whereas extrabiblical historical records indicate that credobaptism had a strong following as early as the first century. Previously, and even amongst the other Reformers, paedobaptism always referred to baptismal regeneration. Since I do not care to argue with paedobaptists over the historicity of their doctrine in this short article and since I do not consider historical arguments as authoritative as biblical arguments, I am not claiming this point about paedobaptism’s possibly recent origins as an argument against it.
Five Weak Arguments For Paedobaptism
I am only going to focus on one argument for paedobaptism in this essay because it is unquestionably the best argument. The others I am familiar with are strained or inconclusive. This does not mean they are uncommon. Below are five of them, which I hope I am presenting fairly.
- The argument from examples of household baptisms. This argument points to the places in scripture where an entire household is baptized and, on the premise that such a household would or could include infants and children, concludes that infants were baptized. Somehow a leap is made from this description to a prescription.
- The argument from the Greek word for baptism. This argument demonstrates that the Greek word “baptizo” (to baptize) can refer to sprinkling and is sometimes used this way in the New Testament. This does not prove paedobaptism, but safeguards against the claim that baptism doesn’t necessarily exclude infants.
- The argument from historical modes of baptism. This argument seeks to show that paedobaptism was practiced in the early church, which lends credence to the idea that scripture teaches paedobaptism.
- The argument from promises made to children. This argument uses verses like Matt. 19:14 and Acts 2:39 to to show that the promise of salvation is available to children, even infants, therefore it is good administer the sign of the covenant to them out of hope for God’s promises. Proponents of this argument usually emphasize the optimism of Christianity (not unlike postmillenialism) over the pessimism of the baptist view (e.g., infants are “vipers in diapers”).
- The argument from training children in the Lord. This argument claims that verses like Ephesians 6:4, which tells parents to bring up children in the training and admonition of the Lord, can only be obeyed if Christian parents regard their children as believers, which implies that they are part of the new covenant, which implies that they have received the sign of the covenant.
I do not care to spend any time discussing these arguments because I think their flaws are obvious. While they would serve as noteworthy corroborative evidence if paedobaptism had already been established by a more rigorous argument, they do not by themselves, or even a lumped together, produce a rigorous argument. Thankfully, a rigorous argument for paedobaptism does exist.
The Best Paedobaptist Argument: The Argument From Continuity
Here is the best argument for paedobaptism that I am aware of. I adapted it from an OPC elder in his primer on covenant theology. Though I appreciate him presenting a formal proof, I think his proof is unnecessarily wordy and, more importantly, fails to mention some critical covenant theology assumptions, which is why I’m rewriting it as follows:
- If the Abrahamic Covenant continues today then its precepts are still binding.
- An Abrahamic Covenant precept is that male infants receive the sign of covenant, circumcision, on the eighth day.
- The Abrahamic Covenant continues today.
- The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant and its precepts were changed: the sign is now water baptism, the eighth day requirement was removed, and the gender requirement was removed.
- Infants should receive baptism.
The form is valid but the argument is not sound for these reasons:
- The third premise is false because the Abrahamic Covenant does not continue today. Rather, it was abrogated at the inauguration of the New Covenant. This point is discussed at length when I present a formal proof against paedobaptism.
- The fourth premise is false on all counts: the sign was never changed and the requirements were never removed. Colossians 2:11-12 is presented as evidence that the sign changed, but the text says that every believer is spiritually circumcised and spiritually (or even literally) baptized. Nothing in the text talks about replacement.
The Jerusalem decree (Acts 15) yields a simple refutation of both of these premises, because if either of these premises were true then the apostles led the gentiles astray by telling them that they did not need to keep the law of Abraham. (Bear in mind that according to Gal. 4:21-22, Genesis is part of the law.) Instead, the apostles should have told the gentiles something like, “Actually, the requirement is now baptism, although it is not necessary for salvation.”1 Formally, the Jerusalem Decree Argument, as I call it, looks like this:
- If paedobaptism is true then the apostles led the gentiles astray with the Jerusalem Decree.
- The apostles did not lead the gentiles astray with the Jerusalem Decree.
- Paedobaptism is not true.
The Counter-Argument: The Argument From Fulfillment
Although the Jerusalem Decree argument presented in the previous section is sound, I think a more general argument against paedobaptism is helpful — one in which the theological presuppositions of paedobaptism are directly challenged, particularly the claim of continuity.
- If something is fulfilled then it has been abrogated, including its precepts.
- The Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled.
- The Abrahamic Covenant has been abrogated, including its precepts.
Discussion of Premise 1
The Greek word for “fulfill”, “pleroo”, means “to make full” and “to complete”. In the New Testament it is translated not only as “fulfill” but also “accomplish”, “complete”, and “finish”. Moreover, “pleroo”, according to Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, reflects the sense of the Hebrew word “mala”, which means “to fulfill, accomplish, terminate”. The covenant theologian might object by saying that “fulfillment” doesn’t imply abrogation. I believe it does imply abrogation for two reasons:
- The Old Covenant (i.e., the Mosaic Law) is given the most treatment regarding its fulfillment, and 2 Corinthians 3 and Hebrews 8 are clear that the Old Covenant is “obsolete” and “passing away”. The covenant theologian cannot claim that it isn’t literally obsolete or passing away, or they would have to explain why they do not continue to practice the ceremonial law. Rather, their rejoinder is to claim that only the ceremonial law is obsolete.2 But Jeremiah 31 and 2 Corinthians 3 are not only talking about the ceremonial law. Moreover, what precedent is there for partial abrogation? This appears to be ad hoc solution to a fatal problem for their system. The following verses indicate the Law, which includes Genesis (Gal. 4:21-22), is one unified and indivisible whole. Concomitantly, partially abrogating the law or covenant is impossible3 and abrogating any part of the law or covenant implies that the entire law or covenant is abrogated. (Indeed, we could conclude that since the mark of circumcision was abrogated, the Abrahamic Covenant is abrogated.)
- “[The] Scripture cannot be broken.” (John 10:35)
- “[Till] heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” (Matt. 5:18)
- “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it…” (Deut. 4:2)
- “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law…” (Gal. 3:10)
- “And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.” (Gal. 5:3)
- “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10)
- The abrogation of the Abrahamic Covenant fits better with the scriptural theme of the superiority of Christ and his ministry. This is especially true if we may regard the Abrahamic Covenant as subsumed by the Old Covenant (going back to the idea that Old Testament economy is indivisible) or, better yet, regard the entire Old Testament as subsumed by the Old Covenant. The author of the Argument From Continuity even refers to the Abrahamic Covenant as the Old Covenant in his first premise! The entire Old Testament foreshadows the glory of the New Covenant through countless physical symbols, shadows, and types. Jeremiah 31 paints a picture of an economy that is fundamentally new. 2 Corinthians 3 contrasts death with life and tablets of stone (physical) with tablets of flesh (spiritual).4 John 1:17 indicates that Christ brought something fundamentally new. Indeed, why are the words “old” and “new” used at all? Why were new wineskins needed to hold new wine?
Briefly I should also address the common charge from covenant theologians that new covenant theologians make Christ contradict himself in Matthew 5:17, because destroying / abolishing the law is indistinguishable from abrogating it. First, it is a strange charge because it applies to them as well, since they believe that God abrogated the ceremonial law. Whatever explanation they provide concerning the ceremonial law should apply to the entire law. Second, as for an actual solution to the dilemma: abrogate and destroy / abolish do not have the same meaning in this context. After all, Paul uses a similar Greek word in Eph. 2:15 when he wishes to state that the Mosaic Law is abolished. I agree with Greg Gibson and countless others who believe Christ is contrasting the Old Testament as revelation with the Old Testament as regulation. The Old Testament remains the word of God and will reveal the character and will of God and provide insight to believers at all times regardless of whether its precepts are presently binding.
Discussion of Premise 2
Here are at least three of the reasons why the New Testament considers the Abrahamic Covenant to be fulfilled.
- Since Genesis is considered law (Gal. 4:21-22) and Abraham is considered a prophet (Gen. 20:7), both Matt. 5:17 and Luke 24:44 imply that Jesus fulfilled the Abrahamic Covenant.
- “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” (Matt. 5:17)
- Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” (Luke 24:44)
- Paul’s argues in Galatians 3 that the Abrahamic Covenant is fulfilled in Christ, since Christ is Abraham’s seed.
- Paul says that all of God’s promises are “yes” and “amen” in Christ, which implies fulfillment (1 Cor. 1:20).
Two Bad Credobaptist Arguments
Before I share my argument for credobaptism, I wanted to review the most common credobaptist argument, which is the argument from silence. I would formulate it like this:
- God only wants us to obey what he explicitly commands.
- God does not explicitly command us to baptize infants.
- God does not want us to baptize infants.
Obviously the credobaptist doesn’t present it like this. Usually they just say something like, “If God wanted us to baptize infants, why didn’t he tell us?” A shrewd paedobaptist will immediately respond with, “He did tell us, although not in the exact way you want.” Sadly, I have heard otherwise astute credobaptists deny the paedobaptist’s deductive argument not the on grounds that it has false premises but rather on the grounds that it “imposes logic on scripture” or some other remarkably anti-intellectual claim. This is a denial of logic and an arbitrary stricture created by the credobaptist. I have to wonder, what stops them from applying a similar argument to a denial of the trinity, since it is not explicitly stated and must be deduced?
A similar credobaptist argument goes like this:
- God only wants us to obey what he presents a pattern or example for in the New Covenant.
- The pattern of example in the New Covenant is that we baptize believers only.
- God wants us to baptize believers only.
The first premise of this argument commits the notorious exegetical fallacy of confusing description and prescription. What God describes he does not necessarily prescribe.
The Argument For Credobaptism
The argument for credobaptism is simple:
- We should do what God commands.
- God commands us to baptize professing Christians only.
- We should baptize professing Christians only.
The paedobaptist would say that the second premise is false because God does command us to baptize infants of Christian parents. This article has presented two arguments against this:
- The Jerusalem Decree Argument
- The Argument From Fulfillment
Both are useful, I believe, because they approach the issue from different angles. The first argument narrowly considers the behavior of the apostles and foregoes a discussion on covenant theology. The second argument argues from the larger theme and trajectory of scripture and questions the underlying theological framework of paedobaptism (covenant theology). This is an argument unique to New Covenant Theology, seeing as any covenant theologian (including a Reformed baptist) as well as a dispensationalist would disagree with it.
Although I think the arguments I have presented here are fairly strong, there is still room for debate, particularly on the nature of the covenants and their continuity. In my opinion, the entire subject of how the Old and New Testaments relate to one another is one of the most challenging, and I would be wary of anyone claiming to have certainty in this area. Even Peter stated that some of Paul’s writings were hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). Now if Peter found areas of theology challenging, how much more should we have a posture of humility?
Indeed, sometimes we cling to a position not because the arguments in favor are so robust but because the arguments in favor of the alternatives are weaker. This generally defines how I arrived at New Covenant Theology as my preferred interpretative framework / biblical metanarrative: not because it provides an outstanding deductive arguments that I regard as airtight, but simply because NCT runs into less contradictions and dilemmas than covenant theology (more correctly called “Old Covenant theology”, according to John Reisinger) and dispensationalism.
Practically, what all of this talk about uncertainty means is that I don’t care a whole lot whether someone is a credobaptist or paedobaptist. Regardless of which position Christian parents subscribe to, what is most important is that they:
- Share the gospel with their children regularly.
- Raise their children in the training and admonition of the Lord.
- I first heard this argument through Greg Welty’s reformed baptist critique of paedobaptism.
- I have seen some New Covenant theologians criticize the tripartite division of the law. It is not the categorization of the precepts of the Mosaic Law that is problematic (though the fact that scripture does seem to do it certainly does not bolster the covenant theologian’s case), but the idea that those categories can be individually abrogated.
- By further implication, this forms another sound argument against paedobaptism: “If any part of a covenant is abrogated then the entire covenant is abrogated; part of the Abrahamic covenant was abrogated (by the paedobaptist’s own admission, the sign of entrance into the covenant was changed); Therefore, the Abrahamic covenant is abrogated.” Alas, since this relies on the same presuppositions as the Argument From Fulfillment, for the sake of simplicity I decided to focus only on the latter.
- Another major problem with covenant theology, at least its most consistent form, is its insistence that all covenants are gracious, since all covenants fall under the “covenant of grace”. But Paul states plainly that the “law kills”. Claiming that Sinai was gracious, as covenant theologians are required to do, is perhaps the most flagrant imposition of their system on the text.