I recently had a discussion with a good Presbyterian brother on the subject of baptism, particularly as it pertains to paedobaptism (baptizing believers and infants of believing parents) vs. credobaptism (baptizing believers only). Briefly, several years ago I transitioned from a traditional Covenant Theology/paedobaptism view to something more like a New Covenant Theology/credobaptist view, largely through an on-going attempt to subject my own hermeneutical principles to Scripture. (This is the criticism which is often volleyed back-and-forth between dispensationalists and covenant theologians, namely, that one says the other’s system of interpretation contains unbiblical presuppositions which lead to forced and incorrect interpretations of the text at times. Since I often like to attempt to seek some unity within controversy, I tend to agree with both of them. *smile*)
That being said, there is no boldly explicit Scripture passage which states “Baptize infants” or “Baptize only believers,” etc. Thus, the controversy. One’s conclusion on the matter generally rests on conclusions one has drawn elsewhere on more explicit and clear matters of revelation, such as the progression of revelation, the nature of covenants (particularly the New Covenant), the apostacy warning passages of the New Testament, the semantics of baptizo, household baptisms, John’s baptisms, etc., etc. Frankly, I think a compelling biblical case can be made for both positions, granting certain assumptions in each case. However, I’d like to give a few of the reasons why I have settled on a credobaptist position. Feel free to use the comments section to ask questions, post counter-arguments or poke holes in my arguments. I would gladly affirm the Bible’s teaching in this matter (as in all others), whatever that proves to be.
All of that being said by way of introduction, here’s some thoughts pertaining to baptism:
It seems that the debate hinges quite heavily on one’s understanding of the relationship between the sign/seal of the Old Covenant (circumcision) and that of the New (baptism). This is often said to be intimately related to the amount of continuity or discontinuity one sees among the biblical covenants themselves (classically, Covenant Theology adhering to a continuous view, Dispensationalism a discontinuous view).
It would also appear that a pivotal text of Scripture is Col. 2:11-12 and context, since this is the one NT text which creates an explicit link between circumcision and baptism.
The paedobaptist sees baptism portrayed in the NT as a continuation of the earlier covenant sign of circumcision. If baptism is the parallel or continuation of circumcision, we ought to baptize the children of believing parents, just as Abraham circumcised both Isaac and Ishmael.
Meanwhile, the credobaptist tends to see baptism as the NT sign of the “anti-type,” for which OT circumcision is typological. If circumcision is a “type,” given to those physically descended from Abraham, then the physical sign of the “anti-type” should only be given to spiritual descendants of Abraham, after they have been spiritually “born again” into the New Covenant.
(Note: Typology is a form of revelation whereby an object, person, law, ritual, etc. is used to reveal a more significant spiritual reality in a tangible manner. Example: The OT sacrifical atonement system was a type intended to reveal in principle and prophetically point to the eventual perfect sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ, the anti-type.)
This is, in my opinion, a reasonable framing of the discussion, using the best argument from both sides.
The important question then is, What is the relationship between baptism and circumcision? Or, more specifically, are baptism and circumcision related by parallel or typology?
As mentioned before, it seems that the pivotal text in this regard
is found in Col. 2:
9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
In Col. 2 Paul is giving insight into what God has done for us historically, as well as what He has done in us through Christ’s redemption. He uses two images to depict what God has done in us: circumcision and resurrection. With regard to circumcision he says, (vs. 11) “in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” This is a circumcision performed “without hands,” a spiritual circumcision, in which it is not the foreskin which is cut away, but “the body of the flesh.” “By the circumcision of Christ,” we have died to the sinful rebellious nature, been “buried with Him in baptism,” and have been resurrected with Him to new life through faith in the God who raises the dead. (Forgetting for a moment the current debate, aren’t these fantastic portrayals of all that is ours in Christ?)
Okay, this is the crucial juncture of the discussion. One’s interpretation here largely influences one’s position with regard to baptism. Notice, first, that this is a spiritual circumcision performed without hands. Paul is referring to a spiritual NT counterpart to the physical OT ritual. Baptism is then linked to that spiritual counterpart in vs. 12. What is the NT counterpart to the OT rite of circumcision? It is NOT the rite of baptism. The NT counterpart to OT circumcision is the spiritual circumcision of Christ cutting away the old, sinful “body of the flesh.” Baptism, then, is the external expression of this spiritual act of Christ. The “type” is circumcision; the “anti-type” is the Spirit of Christ’s work of regeneration, for which baptism is the sign. (I will forego any discussion of the error of “baptismal regeneration” at this point, since we are discussing Protestant views of baptism. The confusion on the Roman Catholic’s part may be somewhat understandable, but it has to be recognized that the sign [baptism] is not identical with the thing signified [regeneration].)
Notice what verse 11 stresses about the new work of Christ herein: it is a circumcision “without hands.” Water baptism is, of course, a ritual done “with hands.” If we simply say that this NT ordinance of baptism done with hands corresponds to the OT ritual of circumcision done with hands, then we miss the most important truth: something new is happening, in the creation of the people of God called the “church of Christ.” We are being set apart by God through a “circumcision without hands.” We are being raised from the dead by God. Baptism is a sign of that resurrection, not a continuation of the OT sign. There is a New sign of the covenant because the covenant people are being constituted in a New way: by spiritual birth, not physical birth.
All of the OT types are Christocentric. They find their fulfillment in the NT person and/or work of Jesus Christ, who is the “guarantee of a better covenant, founded on better promises.” (Heb. 7:22, 8:6)
As John Calvin puts it in his Institutes, “For what is more vain or absurd than for man to offer a loathsome stench from the fat of cattle in order to reconcile themselves to God? Or to have recourse to the sprinkling of water and blood to cleanse away their filth? In short, the whole cultus of the law, taken literally and not as shadows and figures corresponding to the truth, will be utterly ridiculous.” (2.7.1)
This interpretation also moves my view outside of the “continuity vs. discontinuity” arguments, since I agree regarding the continuity between the Old and New Covenants, I simply argue for a different kind of continuity than the classical Covenant Theologian: typological continuity which is Christocentric, rather than parallel continuity which is centered on the Covenant of Grace.
I would reject the Seven Dispensations framework of classical Dispensationalism, while also rejecting the One Covenant with Multiple Administrations framework of classical Covenant Theology, finding much more in common with the Baptistic Covenant Theologians of yesteryear (such as the framers of the 1646 London Baptist Confession of Faith) or the contemporary New Covenant Theologians.
Briefly, I think Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians make the same mistake: each is seeking a physical fulfillment for OT prophecies, types, figures, laws and shadows which are spiritual realities in Christ. The Dispensationalist and the Covenant Theologian begin with very different premises, but both come to the conclusion that a group of physical descendants must be the fulfillment of certain OT promises to ancient Israel. The Dispensationlist makes a sharp distinction between the Church and Israel, declaring that national, ethnic Israel must fulfill the promises given to them under the Old Covenant (through a re-nationalization in 1948 and so on). The Covenant Theologian declares that the physical children of believers today must fulfill the promises given to Abraham’s physical children (national, ethnic Israel) by being baptized into the New Covenant. As I said, both seek physical fulfillment for what are spiritual realities.
To round out the biblical argument above, I’ll add three brief points and leave it at that.
1.) The baptism of households in the NT seems to me to be less central and more peripheral, though some would disagree. Gregg Strawbridge’s arguments for paedobaptism largely rest on his conclusions regarding the household baptisms as paradigmatic for the New Covenant. However, I think both sides can give reasonable explanations for this within their own frameworks, without bending the Scripture. From the Baptist perspective, if we take the historical example of Cornelius’ household in Acts 10 as an exemplar for the other household baptisms mentioned in the NT there is no problem for the credobaptist since Cornelius “feared God with all his household” (vs. 2). At the end of the chapter the Holy Spirit fell on “all who heard the word” and Peter baptizes them all. When Paul says he baptized the household of Stephanus in Corinth it makes a certain amount of exegetical sense to allow the in-depth historical account of the first household baptism in Acts 10 to exert an influence over the understanding of the “household language” (interpreting the less detailed passages in light of the more clear ones). This, of course, doesn’t settle it, but as I said above I think the household baptism point is moot, since both sides can adequately explain it.
2.) The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. If physical baptism is the New Testament counterpart of Old Testament physical circumcision in the direct 1:1 correspondence way which is given in the paedobaptist position then what was the point of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? If physical baptism is the direct counterpart of physical circumcision, signifying the same things to the same people, then why all of the controversy over whether or not it was necessary for Gentile believers to be circumcised? The point would be made moot by the Covenant Theologian’s understanding of baptism. Simply explain that physical baptism is the New Covenant reiteration of physical circumcision and, voila, problem solved. Everybody’s happy. But it was not that simple, was it? At this point the paedobaptists must admit that their view of baptism and circumcision is different in some key ways from that of the Apostles.
3.) Apostasy and the New Covenant. Apostasy is merely a necessary, though not sufficient condition for infant baptism. One can believe the New Covenant has an eschatological element to it and that the church is a mixed multitude of elect and non-elect until Judgment Day but still have no explicit ground for paedobaptism, given the argumentation supplied above.