Friday, January 14, 2011

How You View The Church Affects Your View Of The Sacraments

The longer I study theology, the more I see how one point of doctrine or practice hangs upon another. Since my shift from Arminian Pentecostalism to Reformed soteriology, I have noticed that little by little, other aspects of my thinking have changed as well. As my grasp of the Reformed understanding of Covenant has become firmer and clearer, I have noticed profound changes on many other aspects of my theological stances. Sometimes the changes have been sudden, like a lightbulb going on; other times the changes have occured by imperceptible degrees. This realization, more than anything else, has shown me the importance of doctrine. It frequently turns out that any thought I have about some given subject hangs upon a previous question and affects a subsequent issue. My views on the Church, end times, and the sacraments have all undergone monumental changes stemming from my finally submitting to the Scripture's actual teaching about the nature of salvation.

One of the most profound changes in my theology has been regarding the question of the subjects of baptism. Here again, is a question which hangs upon a previous question. Inability to see this fact stunts most dialogue among Christians regarding the issue. Our doctrine of the Church will inevitably determine how we answer this question of who are fit subjects for Christian baptism. If we believe what Rome teaches - that She is the institute of salvation and it is only through the instrumentality of Her ordinances that we are united to Christ - then we will answer the question one way. But if we answer the question as Protestants, believing that Christ puts us in relation to the Church (and not the other way around) and that only those who are already in relation to Him have a right to the privileges of His house, then we will answer the question in quite a different way.

All Protestants are agreed upon the foregoing assertion. The division in Protestant ranks occurs when we inquire how "relation to Christ" is to be determined or defined. Some have a very narrow view and therefore are exclusive in administering baptism. They seek demonstrative evidence of participation in Christ before they baptize. This is the Baptist view and hence, this is why they exclude infants from baptism. If we define "relation to Christ" in a wider sense, we tend to be more inclusive. The former position is, as I said, the Baptist view; the latter is the general Protestant view. Since the Reformation, the Protestant view of the Church has been that of a Covenant community which acknowledges that covenant is not coextensive with election. Baptism is the sacrament which grants entrance into the Covenant people; it does not assert, affirm, guarantee or even suggest election.

The weakness of the Baptist system, as I see it, is that it attempts the impossible. No minister on earth (or in Heaven, for that matter) can read the heart. What does that mean? It means that no one, no matter how wonderful a display of Christian character he exhibits, is ever baptized based on a certain, infallible knowledge of his relation to Christ. We all are far too familiar with people who, at one time, appeared to be shining examples of Christian character, who are now up to their ears in sin. I personally know of men who were once preachers, who are now self-proclaimed atheists. No baptism is ever, ever administered based on knowledge. Presumption is the best that can be attained. Once one admits this, the whole Baptist argument is ceded. Furthermore, it seems that the only ground for the presumption of inclusion in Christ's body that can be invented is personal profession of faith. I hesitate not in stating that a human profession is no more solid a foundation upon which to build than is a Divine promise. It follows therefore that if baptism is administered, always and only, on presumption, and not knowledge, then we must baptize everyone we presume to belong to God's people. This most certainly must include the infant children of believers since there are so many precious promises of God to pious parents concerning their children - promises, I might add, that are as comforting and encouraging to devout credobaptist parents as they are to devout paedobaptist parents.

Children of believers in the Church of God in its Old Testament form were included, at God's express command, in the Covenant people by the parallel rite of circumcision. Never was there a hint that they would at some point in time be exluded from the people of God. The New Testament goes to great lengths to assure us that salvation in the New Testament ecomony is much more inclusive: There is no Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian, male or female, slave or free. Are we to take it for granted that though the doors have been flung open to men and women from every tribe and tongue, yet the children of the Covenant people are to be banished and treated as pagan children until they can make a profession of faith which give us nothing more certain than presumption of inclusion in Christ's Church anyway?

Furthermore, the historical evidence for the practice of infant baptism needs to be explained. It was the universal practice of the Church for 1500 years. I say that the burden of proof falls to the objectors since they are parting ways with historic Christian doctrine and practice. There is no hint anywhere in all of the corpus of patristic literature of paedobaptism being a Gentile innovation. The earliest believers were largely Jews and it is from them the the Gentile believers learned to read and understand the Old Testament and it is from them that Gentile believers learned Christain doctrine and practice. There is explicit reference to infant baptism in the works of Irenaeus. It is noteworthy that Irenaeus mentions the practice as if it were something that all of his readers well well aware of. The way that the subect is dealt with by Augustine and the Pelagians makes it clear that it was the universal and unquestioned practice of the Church during that period of time. The same can be said of the earlier ages of Cyprian and Tertullian. Whenever the practice has been objected to, the objection has always seemd to rest on one of two contrary misconceptions: an overestimation of the effects of baptism or an underestimation of the need of salvation for infants.

Those who held to Tertullian's erroneous view saw baptism as a removing of sins committed up to the date at which the sacrament was administered. The danger was that one might commit many more sins, for which there woud be no removal. Hopefully you can see what a faulty view this is of the efficacy of the atonement. Sins are forgiven and washed away by Christ's meritrious, vicarious sacrifice - not by baptism. Overvaluing baptism in this way belittles Christ mediatorial work and demands sinless perfection after baptism. Babies can not be expected to live a life of sinless perfection, nor can anyone else for that matter. This is why advocates of Tertullian's view tried to put baptism off as late as possible. Some were said to postpone until their deathbeds. There is an inherent danger in this system: no one knows when he or she will die. In postponing your baptism, you run the risk of dying unexpectedly and never receiving baptism. This meant that you die without having your sins washed away. That is, in a nutshell (or better yet, nutcase) the flaw in baptismal regeneration.

The other view is just as flawed. The question of whether infants need salvation is an uncomfortable subject and many a Calvinist has been villified for suggesting the possiblity that there might be non-elect people who die in infancy. This of course means that there could be sweet, lovable, innocent little babies in hell. This is a train of thought that not many have ever had the nerve to go down. It is a painful subject, no doubt. But regardless of anything else, we must ask: When does a person become a sinner? If we answer that we, as Scripture declares, are all estranged from the womb and conceived in iniquity, then there doesn't seem to be anything inherently unjust about a baby suffering hell for being a sinner. We find that hard to swallow since we all instinctively think of babies are morally innocent. But no self-respecting Protestant, the foregoing implications aside, will say that people are born in a state of moral innocence like Adam and their being a sinner is a trait that develops later in time. We all affirm that we are born sinners. And so it seems that advocates of the opposite of Tertullian's view are guilty of an equally eggregious blunder. They affirm that all people are sinners, infants included, but baptize on the basis of a system that only holds together logically if infants are morally innocent and have no need of salvation. Let me back up and clear the decks: baptism does not convey salvation. But among other things, it signifies that every member of the Covenant people of God stands in need of the same washing from sin, and that adults, like infants, bring nothing to the table.


  1. The credobaptist position actually results from the same error as the baptismal regeneration of the Church of Rome: the confusion of the visible church with the invisible church. With that distinction, the Reformed position on paedobaptism makes perfect sense. This is exactly what Paul means when he says that the children of even just one believing parent are "holy." He cannot mean that they are automatically believers. Rather he teaches, as you mention above, that they are within the covenant, which makes them different from the children of pagans. Excellent article!

  2. Thanks Chris. The single most influential sentence I ever heard on this subject (the one that changed my view to paedobaptist) was this: Covenant is not coextensive with election.


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