Friday, July 15, 2011

The Continuity of the Covenant in Calvin's Theology

There are many who are deeply indebted to Calvin’s theology, but who see his doctrine of infant baptism as unacceptable or even dangerous. It is considered as an unfortunate carryover of Romish doctrine in the Reformers’ thought. (This is an incorrect assumption that we have dealt with in a previous post.) Consequently, Baptists and those who hold a baptistic view of baptism see themselves as completing the Reformation Luther began and Calvin advanced. These Calvinistic Baptists generally believe that they have are doing no injustice to Calvin’s system by discarding just this one doctrine. This is because they assume that all of the other parts of Calvin’s system are independent of the doctrine of baptism. This is perhaps understandable; however, one wonders whether Calvin saw the doctrine of baptism in this kind of isolation.

Calvin’s conception of the relationship of baptism to other important doctrines is actually very easy to discover. In a passage discussing infant baptism, Calvin attacks the Anabaptists by arguing that their rejection of the identity of infant baptism and circumcision results in a frightening corruption of Scripture.

Calvin says, “Now let us examine the arguments by which certain mad beasts ceaselessly assail this holy institution of God. First of all, since they feel that they are immoderately cramped and constrained by the likeness between baptism and circumcision, they strive to set these two things apart by a wide difference so that there may seem to be nothing in common between them. For they say that these two signify different things, that the covenant in each is quite different, and the calling of children under each is not the same. . In asserting a difference between the covenants, with what barbarous boldness do they dissipate and corrupt Scripture! And not in one passage only – but so as to leave nothing safe or untouched! For they depict the Jews to us as so carnal that they are more like beasts than men. A covenant with them would not go beyond the temporal life, and the promises given them would rest in present and physical benefits. If this doctrine should obtain, what would remain save that the Jewish nation was satiated for a time with God’s benefits (as men fatten a herd of swine in a sty), only to perish in eternal destruction?” (lV.16.10)

Infant baptism is actually not Calvin’s largest concern. What he is riled about is what he fears is an inherent danger to all of Scriptural doctrine if the Anabaptist argument is accepted. The only way he sees that infant baptism can be rejected is if the continuity of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant is denied. If this is done then the Old Testament saints become simply recipients of material blessings at the expense of their salvation.

It should be very obvious then that Calvin would disagree with those who claim that they can simply remove paedobaptism from his system without harming it. Denying paedobaptism is denying the covenant. This endangers all other doctrines of Scripture. Everywhere in Calvin’s writings we encounter this relating of doctrines to the covenant. By doing so, Calvin demonstrates the danger to all doctrine by the Anabaptist approach.

To prove this, we’ll look at Calvin’s argument for the continuity of the Old and New Covenants. Essentially, Calvin proposes that God always covenants His people to Himself by the same doctrine. So he says, “All men adopted by God into the company of his people since the beginning of the world were covenanted to him by the same law and by the bond of the same doctrine as obtains among us.” (II.10.1)

A little further on, he says, “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation” (II.10.2).

Even the Mosaic legal system has to be seen in conjunction with the one divine covenant, “I understand by the word ‘law’ not only the Ten Commandments, which set forth a godly and righteous rule of living, but the form of religion handed down by God through Moses. And Moses was not made a lawgiver to wipe out the blessing promised to the race of Abraham. Rather, we see him repeatedly reminding the Jews of that freely given covenant made with their fathers of which they were the heirs. It was as if he were sent to renew it. This fact was very clearly revealed in the ceremonies.” (II.7.1)

There is one covenant of God in different administrations in terms of progressive redemptive history. Calvin describes it in this way,

“The Lord held to this orderly plan in administering the covenant of his mercy: as the day of full revelation approached with the passing of time, the more he increased each day the brightness of its manifestation. Accordingly, at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam it glowed like a feeble spark. Then, as it was added to, the light grew in fullness, breaking forth increasingly and shedding its radiance more widely. At last – when all the clouds were dispersed – Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, fully illumined the whole earth.” (II.10.20)

“For the same reason it follows that the Old Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and was confirmed by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it summed up in Christ. Who, then, dares to separate the Jews from Christ, since with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole foundation of which is Christ?” (II.10.4)

Now of course, this raises an interesting issue: If the grace of the covenant in the Old Covenant era is the same as that of the New Covenant era, then their sacraments must have equal significance also. This is exactly what Calvin says Paul believed,

“Indeed, the apostle makes the Israelites equal to us not only in the grace of the covenant but also in the signification of the sacraments. In recounting examples of the punishments with which, according to Scripture, the Israelites were chastised of old, his purpose was to deter the Corinthians from falling into similar misdeeds. So he begins with this premise: there is no reason why we should claim any privilege for ourselves, to deliver us from the vengeance of God, which they underwent, since the Lord not only provided them with the same benefits but also manifested his grace among them by the same symbols.” (II.10.5)

“Because the Word of God was present in the Old Covenant, eternal life was also a key blessing of the covenant that tie Old Covenant saints shared with the New Covenant believers, the spiritual covenant was also common to the patriarchs…Now since God of old bound the Jews to himself by this sacred bond, there is no doubt that he set them apart to the hope of eternal life…Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham and other patriarchs cleaved to God by such illumination of the Word. Therefore I say that without any doubt they entered into God’s immortal kingdom. For theirs was a real participation in God, which cannot be without the blessing of eternal life.” (II.10.7)

Calvin asserts that even the very formula of the covenant possessed by the Old Testament saints demands that they be seen to be possessors of eternal life.

“…let us pass on to the very formula of the covenant…For the Lord always covenanted with his servants thus: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people…” But one cannot obtain such a presence of him without, at the same time, possessing life…They had a clear enough promise of spiritual life in these words: “I am…your God.” For he did not declare that he would be a God to their bodies alone, but especially to their souls. Still souls, unless they be joined to God through righteousness, remain estranged from him in death. On the other hand, such a union when present will bring everlasting salvation with it. (II.10.8)

Having read these statements then, we can now understand Calvin’s vehemence against the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism. This rejection makes the Old Testament covenant into a material covenant and injures several important doctrines associated with it. If the Anabaptist basis for rejecting infant baptism prevails, then there is no progressive revelation and preparation for the Messiah in the Old Covenant. Since the Old Testament covenant was only material, Christ would be never present before them, and salvation would have been withheld. Equally serious, there would have been no Old Testament counterpart of the grace of justification which was founded on Christ. If such a carnal covenant were correct, Paul’s argument on the example of Israel’s punishment for disobedience supported by the equality of sacraments of the Old and New Covenants would be in complete error. Moreover, the Word of God present in the covenant formula would be severed from eternal life.

These errors are what drive Calvin to speak of infant baptism as a safeguard of Scripture and doctrine. If paedobaptism is taught, the continuity of Scripture in the one divine covenant of grace is affirmed. To reject infant baptism is to deny the unity of the covenant and thus to result in such confusion.

Of course no modern Baptist would make the assertions that Calvin refutes here. But we are still left with a glaring inconsistency. If the Old Covenant was a history of redemption, and Christ as Mediator was being gradually revealed, who was the Old Covenant saints’ ground of justification? If God’s Word was truly present, how could the sacraments not be spiritual as well? Yet all stripes of Baptists reject the equation of circumcision and infant baptism. They assert that circumcision was merely a material-political sign, not primarily a spiritual sign as is New Covenant baptism. They cannot agree with Calvin at the first points, disagree with Calvin at the last point of the spirituality of the covenantal sign of circumcision and still remain consistent. If we grant this, Calvin would argue that nothing prevents the New Covenant believer from claiming the same promise by the spiritual sacrament of infant baptism that the Old Covenant believer claimed in the spiritual sacrament of infant circumcision.

All citations are from Calvin's Institutes


  1. Good stuff. I did a short piece on Calvin's doctrine of infant baptism in my seminary's journal. Take a look:

    Anyway, brother, keep on writing! Thanks.

  2. Wow, Tim! Your piece was excellent. I come from a Pentecostal background, so coming around to the paedobaptist position was for me an arduous journey. I enjoy studying the subject so mcuh because I see in it a principle about the nature of salvation, viz., that everyone enters the kingdom like a baby - empty-handed. The child is a metaphor of the Reformed doctrine of Predestination.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. Hi. I appreciate the reference to Calvin here, as reading his Institutes in 2009 has been one of the highlights in my studies. I refer to him often. Your article is quite helpful in terms of sorting thru the baptist issue, so I wanted to thank you for it.
    I've been trying to send you a comment, but your website seems to be malfunctioning. Let's see if this one gets to you. Thanks.

  4. Hey Anonymous,

    I'm glad you were able to comment. As is the case with all voluminous writers, Calvin never says everything relavant to a subject in one place. Indeed, sometimes his best remarks on any given subject are where you least expect them to be. I thank God for searchable documents!


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