From credobaptism to paedobaptism
I’m writing this for our Christian brethren who summarily dismiss us who baptize infants with remarks such as, “That’s a Catholic invention” or “That’s unbiblical.” Before you do, know that the greatest pastor-theologians throughout church history were (and are) paedobaptists who have studied the two sides of this issue deeply with mind and heart.
Rev. Leon M. Brown is one of these diligent pastor-theologians. His “Baptism: The Doctrine That Caused Tears” is a five-part series on Dr. Scott Clark’s Heidelblog retelling his pilgrimage from credobaptism (believers’ baptism) to paedobaptism. He is a veteran of the United States Navy, a graduate of Westminster Seminary California (MDiv, 2011; MA Historical Theology, 2012), Assistant Pastor of New City Fellowship (PCA) in Fredericksburg, VA, and is presently pursuing doctoral studies in Old Testament and the Ancient Near East.
I’m summarizing here the salient points in each part, but it would be best to read the whole series.
Part 1 is an introduction to his three-year journey, “a journey that caused much frustration, many sleepless nights, and even tears.” For him, the most common Reformed paedobaptist arguments from Abraham’s circumcision (Gen 17; Rom 4:11), Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:38-39), and household baptisms never convinced him. However,
Somehow these reformed theologians managed to maintain their paedobaptist conviction. What was I missing? How could one who saw no express command to baptize infants still baptize infants? This was the rub. I saw inconsistencies in the reformed position that I thought others were merely sweeping under the proverbial rug because of a series of reasons: the church has been baptizing infants for hundreds of years, the Reformers taught this, or the Confessions said it. None of this was good enough for me. If I was going to change my position, I needed to be convinced by the Scriptures that the reformed position was accurate.
The question of the continuities or discontinuities between the Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism was his main subject in Part 2. Though “theological heavyweights” such as Bryan Chapell, Robert Booth, Meredith Kline, Joel Beeke, R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, John Murray, Pierre-Charles Marcel were not in his corner, Genesis 17, Romans 4:11–12 and Colossians 2:11–12 could not convince him that there is that continuity. His questions still persisted:
What relationship would I discover between the baptisms in the Old Testament and Christian baptism in the New Testament? Where does circumcision fit into the grand scheme? Is there a place for covenant? Each of these questions needed to be addressed in order to determine baptism’s significance, its relationship to covenant, and the proper recipients of this most cherished sacrament of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In Part 3, Rev. Brown struggled to answer the question, “Are children in the covenant or not?” He studies the new covenant as stated in Jeremiah 31:31-34, especially when the prophet says, “For they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (verse 34). He remembers his thought after reading and studying this passage numerous times, “What part of ‘they will all know me from the least to the greatest’ don’t paedobaptists understand?’” Rev. Brown says that Fred Malone, a former paedobaptist who had influence him greatly as a Baptist, argues that the new covenant requires that every member, without exception, will have the law on their hearts, and so disqualifies infants from baptism.
But with further studies of the passage, Rev. Brown concludes,
Jeremiah’s usage of the phrase does not mean all without exception but all without distinction (that is, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile) … Hence, it seems clear enough that, while this passage unfolds the glories of the new covenant, it cannot be utilized to undermine the reformed paedobaptist position of child inclusion in the new covenant. In fact, when a proper interpretation of Jeremiah 31:31–34 is espoused along with the classic reformed distinction of the administration of the covenant as opposed to the substance of the covenant, one can see how Jeremiah’s new covenant promise aligns with child inclusion…
In Part 4, he opens his post rehashing how he was unconvinced by the use of infant circumcision in Genesis 17:9-10 and New Testament household baptisms without any mention of children. After reading 70 books and numerous articles, writing seminary papers, and hundreds of conversations, he was not going to change his mind … until he read Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Q. XX.III in vol. 3). To his shock, Turretin presented the Great Commission as grounds for baptizing both adults and infants!
I did not see how that was possible until I considered the Greek, but it was not as if only paedobaptists recognized the construction of the Greek grammar. Baptists fully acknowledged it, too … The two present participles ‘baptizing’ (baptizontes) and ‘teaching’ (didaskontes) specify the manner [and means] in which disciples are to be made.” … In other words, disciples are made by baptism and by teaching. Thus, the so-called Great Commission should be read, “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, by means of baptizing them…by means of teaching them” (Matt. 28:19–20). This proper rendering of the Great Commission is consistent with the Reformed paedobaptist view. It is no wonder the apostle Paul addressed children and told them to be obedient in the Lord (Eph 6:1). They were disciples initiated into the covenant community by means of baptism and rendered as having the ability to receive God’s instruction and obey their parents. This was not some natural law command. They were to obey their parents in the Lord the same way their parents were to love each other in the Lord (Eph. 5:22, 25).
And so “the scales began to fall.” This was not an easy decision to make, but was fraught with life-changing ramifications:
Embedded within the Great Commission itself was a command to baptize that included both adults and infants. Should I change my mind? What would I tell my wife? What would I tell my friends? What would I tell one of my Baptist professors who spent so much time with me? In which church would I now serve? I had two potential calls to Reformed Baptist congregations and they were zeroing in on calling a pastor. It was also the last semester of the initial portion of my seminary education. What would I do? I had some major decisions to make.
In Part 5, Rev. Brown summarizes the salient points that convinced him, plus an epilogue:
The new covenant promise clearly did not exclude children, or infants, of believing parents (Jer 31:31–34). The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants included children (Gen 17:7–10; Ezek 37:24–28). The Mosaic and Noahic covenants contained promises and blessings that were both to parents and children (Gen 6:18; Exod 20:1-17; 1 Pet 3:18-20). God had always blessed families though his covenants and now, I concluded that nothing changed today.
Not only that, but the Lord also blessed children—at certain times only males but at other times both males and females—in his covenant with covenant signs. Whether it was baptism or circumcision, children (even infants) were included (Matt 28:18–20; Rom 4:11–12; 1 Cor 10:1–4; 1 Pet 3:18–20). Hence, what was once a stumbling block was now an entrance to a new understanding.
His final words are of caution and consideration of others who might differ:
As you continue to study, remain prayerful and humble. Don’t seek to trap your brothers and sisters in a theological corner by asking certain questions as I did, but ask questions for which you are sincerely seeking answers. The Spirit of God will guide you as your continue to study his word.
For a more biblical-theological treatment of another long pilgrimage from credobaptism to paedobaptism, see Dennis Johnson’s “How My Mind Has Changed.”