The Understructure of Infant Baptism: Covenant Theology

The Understructure of Infant Baptism: Covenant Theology December 2, 2019

In my last article, I offered some explanation as to why so many American Evangelicals don’t understand the theology and practice of infant baptism. I argued that, due to a preconditioned hermeneutic to read the Bible with a dispensational paradigm, many miss the cultural and scriptural substrata (Covenant Theology) for pedobaptism. If you have not read that article, I encourage you to do so; this article is the second in the series and builds on that important premise.

As we continue, we must remember that the Bible was not written in a cultureless vacuum. Since man began writing Holy Scripture under the inspiration of God, there’s been an ongoing, intricate, sovereign intertwining of cultures and faith. I am reminded of Acts 17 when Paul, preaching to the men of Athens, says, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him (v. 25-27, ESV).

God is orchestrating a beautiful grafting of many peoples into one for Himself. Beginning with the promise of redemption in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15) He continues its fulfillment within the Church today. As we seek to understand the grand narrative of redemption from start to finish, we find endless reasons to praise the Lord of the universe.

In this article, I will provide brief overviews of dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, and argue for a covenantal reading of the bible. For anyone intending to build a scriptural argument for Infant Baptism (as this is our ultimate objective of this series) must first learn to understand the bible Covenantally. Covenant Theology is the understructure supporting the scriptural argument for Infant Baptism.

 

Dispensational Theology

While there is no shortage of Christian denominations and interpretations of the bible, in general, there are two primary approaches to understanding scripture: a dispensational approach and a covenantal one. Although within each main category exist numerous variations, both are platforms by which we understand the framework and process of salvation in the bible. Specifically, they assist in appropriating the relationship between the law and the New Covenant, secured by the Cross of Christ.

If you grew up in an Evangelical Protestant church west of the Mississippi River, there is a decent chance you read the bible with dispensational glasses. That is, you understand there to be a fundamental and operational divide between the Old and New Testaments. They exist as distinct dispensations, each with its own beginning and end – functioning independently of one another. Although these dispensations may point to and reference one another, they are siloed unto themselves with largely distinct purposes.

You might be surprised to learn that Dispensationalism didn’t exist until it took form in the 1800’s under the British theologian, James Darby. Darby, while studying Isaiah 32, saw implementations that led to one of the more unique elements of dispensationalism. Namely, that there is a clear-cut distinction made between the people of God in the Old Testament (Israel) and the New Testament (the Church). Some have gone as far as to argue that the two are so distinct as to have unique paths for salvation. Admittedly, most now do not adhere to this. I would consider this heresy. But such a position evidences the broad spectrum of differing theologies within the framework of dispensationalism. One only has to casually scan a list of self-proclaimed dispensationalists to observe their contrasting theologies (John Hagee, John MacArthur, Tim LaHaye, Michael Vlach, and Bruce Ware).

Dispensationalists argue for more discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament than continuity, and in doing so, point out that some practices (such as circumcision) ended within its own dispensation; it served a purpose and its purpose has ended. Therefore, circumcision has no practical relevance for the church today. Reading the New Testament with such a mindset is where arguments for the believer’s only baptism model arise. Nonetheless, this hermeneutic  leaves Dispensationalists with a challenge of sorting the Old with the New. They must discern if a verse relate to Israel or the church, and in what scope (ecclesiology, eschatology, etc.). This hermeneutic tends to lead one to a very literal reading of the New Testament (sometimes resulting in the Solo Scriptura mentality I mentioned in the last article).

Dispensationalists will point out (and I will agree) that there are no explicit examples of infants being baptized in the New Testament; it is here that many give no further consideration to the issue. If the Bible does not explicitly give the command in the New Testament, it is not to be done. Yet, I contend this is more a product of hermeneutical framework than scriptural reality. Covenant Theology helps us here, as you will see.

While I will not claim to be an expert on dispensational theological systems, I do believe it to be a short-sighted framework for reading and interpreting the bible. Having said that, I know many wonderful Christians who, deeply convinced by scripture, hold to such theological framework. Grayson Gilbert, a dear friend, and co-blogger at The Chorus in The Chaos is one – although, he distances himself from the terminology because of the baggage it often carries and many of the views of its mainline proponents. Nevertheless, my aim is not to provide a detailed critical review of dispensationalism. Perhaps, one day he can add some breadth to this study and provide his own insight.

I will now move on to our primary topic for this article, Covenant Theology.

 

Covenantal Theology

It is within a Covenant Theology system that any rightful understanding of Infant Baptism must begin. For, as mentioned, isolated on its own, the New Testament does not explicitly say “baptize all the babies of believers.” Instead, the Covenantal Theologian recognizes that the New Testament does not stand on its own; it is an extension of the Old. Indeed, the two parts are flowing together into one single redemptive thread. They’re working together for the fulfillment of one divine promise: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” (Ex. 6:7; 29:45; Ezek. 11:20; 2 Cor. 6:16; Rev. 21:3). This as the cited verses indicate, this promise runs throughout the whole of scripture. It is a major theme of scripture, climaxed with Jesus upon the cross.

The eternal roots of the divine promise find themselves, not just with the creation and fall of mankind, but instead, originating in eternity past. Before the world ever was, God predetermined there to be a people for Himself and plan for redemption. Somehow in the majesty and infinite wisdom of the Godhead, the gospel was understood to be the means by which God would be most glorified. Consider the words of Peter’s Pentecost sermon:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23, ESV).”

Peter is saying, to the very men who crucified our Lord, that such an act of evil was actually part of the “definite plan” of an eternal and infinite God. It’s important to say state that God did not commit this act. Yet, somehow, within eternity past, the Godhead worked this mystery of redemption for His glory and His purpose – making a people His own.

We find elsewhere in scripture verses that speak of the Lamb being slain from the “foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) and that in Christ, we [Christians] were chosen “before time” to be holy and blameless (Eph. 1:4). In summary, the plan of redemption was not a staggered development of individual dispensations. Rather, it is a careful orchestration of divine-human covenants woven together for a singular purpose. Therefore, the fall of Adam, the salvation of Noah, the practice of circumcision, the founding of Israel, the kingship of David, and the cross of Christ are all working together, in grace, towards this objective.

Consider the powerful words of 2 Peter 2:9-10 when he expounds on the shared identity between the church and Israel:

“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”

Here we find that the church, by way of faith, has become the people of God. We’re an extension of the same people/nation God established with Abraham. The unfaithful have been cast aside and, by the imputed righteousness of Jesus, others are added. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 11 when he writes, “if some of the branches were broken off, and you [Gentiles], although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree (11:17). This builds on Romans 9 when he also says, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel (Romans 9:6). By a saving faith in Jesus, men of every tribe, people, and tongue are united under God (Rev. 7:9). There are not distinct peoples with distinct paths of salvation, but instead, one bride of Christ, predestined from eternity past.

Within a covenantal-minded hermeneutic, we can begin to appreciate baptism, not as a new practice isolated within the New Testament, but as sacrament built upon what was established in the Old Covenant and practiced by the people of God for thousands of year. Whereas circumcision was the covenant sign given to Israel, with the expansion of a better, new covenant we find Baptism serving a similar function. Therefore, we’re not dependent only on the New Testament to understand the practice of baptism, but we must also consider the Old Testament’s influence and the role of circumcision. I will address this in more detail in a future article in this series; the Bible has much to say.

Another point worth making, due to frequent misconceptions, is that the Old Covenant was actually a covenant of grace – not just works. The implications of this truth are useful in understanding the relationship between the Old and New Covenants. Mark Jones, author of Knowing Christ, explains it this way:

“Was the old covenant, administered in the time of Moses to God’s people, a gracious covenant or not? Was it essentially conditional in contrast to an essentially unconditional new covenant? To answer this, we must understand the old covenant in its larger context, particularly chapters 17–24 of Exodus. Chapter 19 shows that the Israelites were the recipients of God’s salvation, not just physically from Egypt but spiritually, too (vv. 4–6). The obedience of the Israelites (vv. 7–8) was not commanded in order that they might be redeemed, but because they had been redeemed (Ex. 18:10).”

He goes on to say:

 “Persevering in the covenant was contingent upon faith and obedience, but that does not mean grace was absent. Obedience is the visible ratification of the genuineness of faith; grace and faith are organically related as “root and fruit” in a way that shows marked continuity between the old and new covenants…..the difference between the old and new covenants is not that the old covenant had conditions for the people and the new covenant does not. Under the old covenant, the people had to put their faith in God and show their faith by their obedience while remembering that God alone—not their obedience— saved them. Furthermore, the difference is not that the new covenant has grace and the old covenant did not. Redemption always comes before God’s call to obey Him (Deut. 7:6–8; 9:6; Eph. 2:8–10; James 2:14–26).”

 

Conclusion

Although it was the basis for much of the theology within the Reformation, covenantal hermeneutics find their origin within the Church Fathers. It is an ancient theological system of God’s plan for redemption. It is also the basis for how we build a scriptural argument for Infant Baptism. We need the Old to properly understand the New. A tree, no matter how mature, always contains the substance of the seed from whence it originally came. Although it may grow bigger, better, become beautiful, and bear much fruit, its origin is always present. Such is the same for Covenant Theology.

There are literally volumes that could (and have been) written about Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. Below are a couple of links for further study on both sides of the issue. It’s also worth mentioning that although it exceeds the scope of this series, there are some Baptist theologians who identify themselves as Covenantal Baptists – a middle ground of sorts. Covenantal Baptists (sometimes called Reformed Baptists) numbers have swelled recent years. They acknowledge some continuity between the Old and New, but limit its effects in certain areas – such as Baptism. While not a focal point, I will do my best touch on their position throughout the series. I have also included a link to some reading material on their viewpoint as well.

In the next article, I will work to draw out in more detail the scriptural implications, rooted in covenantal theology, for baptism, familial units, and federal headships.


Some additional resources and suggested reading:

Covenant Theology by Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III (an easy to digest video series)

The Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson (perhaps, the best book on the subject of Covenant Theology)

Continuity and Discontinuity (Essays in Honor of S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.): Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testamentby John Feinberg (a resource that explores both sides of the issue from their respective camps)

The Covenantal Baptist Position Briefly Stated by Fred Malone

Understanding Dispensationalists by Vern Poythress


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