I’m working my way through the 3 main sections of Baptism: Three Views. In my previous post, I worked through the essay by Dr. Bruce Ware on Believers’ Baptism (aka credobaptism) and the responses by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson and Dr. Anthony Lane. This time through I’ll be working through the essay by Ferguson on infant baptism (paedobaptism) and the responses.
Previously I talked about the power (for good or ill) of presuppositions. If Ferguson’s presentation in Systematic Theology II (Ecclessiology and Sacraments) was anything near as compelling as this essay, my presuppositions were working for ill that day in 1993.
Presuppositions become far clearer in the responses of Ware and Lane. But I found Ferguson’s essay an incredible example of how great theologizing is to be done. Instead of expecting explicit statements as if we are all 6 years old, Ferguson thinks through biblical data to see connections and “good and necessary consequences.” Not all things are clear (as we might like) in Scripture, but they are addressed in just this way.
Ferguson starts with a caution based on 1 Corinthians 1:17 in which Paul “prioritized gospel preaching over baptismal administration without thereby minimizing the important role of the latter.” A different approach from Ware who warned of disobedience in the matter of baptism (though that is true).
One of Ferguson’s presuppositions is that our understanding of the gospel (as well as ecclesiology) expresses itself in our theology & practice of baptism. His other main presupposition is the unity of the Scriptures (and the people of God, which is what I meant by ecclesiology). There is some discontinuity, but less than you find in any form of dispensationalism or New Covenant Theology. Ware and Lane’s insistence upon New Testament teaching diminishes the authority of the Old Testament as the very word of God to operate as 2 Timothy 3 indicates (and the OT is to what Paul refers since the NT was not yet written in Timothy’s youth).
Ferguson clears up one misunderstanding: we baptize converted believers and their children. We don’t baptize children unless they have a believing parent. If an adult converts, we do baptize them (and oh that we baptized more). Like Ware, he mentions historical evidence which can be interpreted in any number of ways. This is not the main argument for either man.
“If it were practiced, why this frustrating silence? If in fact it were not, why do we find an equally frustrating absence of recorded protest against such novelty-“
Ferguson begins his biblical argument with a history of the covenants in Scripture. Each of them (with the exception of the Davidic covenant) includes a visible sign (rainbow, circumcision, Passover & Sabbath, and finally baptism). The Noahic covenant remains in effect until the judgment. The Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic are fulfilled in Christ. But all of them are of the one covenant of grace. So, baptism (and the Lord’s Table) belong to a “larger pattern” and this matters to their interpretation. Doctrines cannot be viewed in isolation, but all are connected together though distinct. An error in one will inevitably cause an error in others. This is the fundamental point that must be addressed as a result. Your theology of baptism is primarily a result of your presuppositions regarding the relationship of the covenants and your ecclesiology. It is not a result of proof-texting or what the Bible explicitly says. Those passages are in a larger context which affects their meaning.
Ferguson brings up Romans 4 to show the use of “signs and seals” of the covenant. Ware criticizes him later for this, saying it has nothing to do with baptism. Yet Ware used this very text himself to teach about baptism (and wrongly at that). Paul’s teaching is important here- it is faith, not the sign, that saved. But the sign points to righteousness by faith. Abraham believed before he received the sign. For his descendants, it was for the faith they’d have to express after receiving the sign. The sign points to the reality but is NOT the reality. Ware repeatedly stumbles over this point. His theology of baptism would mean God really goofed with the administration of circumcision.
“Implicit in this language is that what is symbolized is realized only by the work of the Spirit and consciously enjoyed only through faith. … Objective signification grounds the subjective realization.”
The signs belonged to different administrations of the covenant of grace. With the fulfillment in Christ there is an expansion of the sign revealed in part by the Abrahamic & Davidic promises. Mt. 1:1 explicitly says Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham. The point is that He will fulfill both covenants. Ferguson brings this background to Mt. 28, though Ware & Lane cry foul. Why does Jesus have authority? He sits on the throne of David! Why is it for the nations? To fulfill the promise to Abraham. There is a covenant context which is received from the introduction of the gospel. It does not need to be repeated as if we’re third graders. It is the whole theme of Matthew’s gospel account.
Ferguson also addresses another covenant dynamic that dominates the Old Testament, but also is present in the New (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Revelation 2-3, Romans 9-11 & Hebrews). God makes his covenant with his people who then respond. Some with faith (and obedience) and receive blessing. Others with unbelief and disobedience and receive cursing. We see this functioning in 1 Cor. 11 regarding the Lord’s Table. In 1 Cor. 10 Paul warns them that the Exodus generation was “baptized” in Moses (that would be all of them), and “ate & drank” Christ (the 2 New Covenant signs) but fell in the wilderness. The implication is they too could fall if they fall into idolatry (unbelief & disobedience). The idea of a pure church is unbiblical.
Ferguson builds upon his second presupposition, the organic unity of the church, next. The New Testament usually illustrates life in the New Covenant by examples from life in the Old Covenant. The principle of both the covenant and ecclesiology is “you and your seed”. We see it in Genesis 6, only Noah was deemed righteous but his whole family was delivered from the flood (common, not saving, grace). As I mentioned in the previous post it is explicit in Genesis 17, and that language is reflected in Acts 2 regarding baptism.
Ferguson argues that since sin disrupted the first family, God is at work to redeem families (in addition to individuals). Grace does not destroy nature, but restores fallen nature. This is reflected in the OT language, and this is not rescinded in the NT. Just as the children of believers were to be circumcised, so are the children of believers to be baptized now.
The NT expands it. The Spirit is poured out ( called baptism in Acts 1) on all nations, men and women. Sons and daughters. Peter explains this from Joel 2. Ferguson quotes from Warfield in that God put kids in the church, and has not removed them. This gets to presuppositions. We covenant people believe God only needs to announce what He’s changed due to the fundamental continuity we see. Others believe God needs to announce what is unchanged. They default to discontinuity; we default to continuity. What is your default, and why? Only one of them is a biblical default. What do we see God doing? With regard to circumcision, we see God saying it is no longer necessary for Gentile converts. Consider that.
Discontinuity means that God no longer operates in families primarily, but primarily in individuals. This reflects the Enlightenment, not Scripture. We see this continuity in the NT in unexpected ways. In the epistles, Paul addresses all of them, including kids, as saints who are expected to fulfill covenant responsibilities. We see it in Jesus blessing infants brought by parents, not just believing children of age. We see this in Ephesians 6:1-4 where children are issued the command, which was the first with a promise, without qualification as to whether or not they believed. He treats them as members of the covenant community, not as visitors.
All of this shows that the OT principle of “you and your seed” is maintained in the NT with baptism and the children of believers should be baptized (and taught to obey everything Jesus commanded).
In Ware’s response he struggles, as I noted, with the meaning of a sign. In Colossians 2, for instance, he separates (rather than distinguishes) physical circumcision from spiritual circumcision. The former is the sign of the latter, however. Water baptism is a sign of the spiritual reality. The reality of circumcision and baptism, are both found in the death & resurrection of Christ. The 2 signs both point to the same thing since you cannot ultimately separate the sign from the thing signified.
So, just as circumcision could be placed on a person in anticipation of the reality, so can baptism. Ware focuses on the aspect of circumcision related to “ethnic badge”, not the promise of “I will be their God” which is the main point in the Old Testament. Ferguson will later remind him, and us, that we are brought into the people of God- the worshiping community and are the true circumcision. Baptism, according to Paul, marks us as Abraham’s true children (would that mean it replaces circumcision?). We have heavenly citizenship, having been brought into the true Israel (Rom. 9-11). So I suggest he makes much ado about nothing.
Lane, while thinking the baptism of infants is permitted but not mandated, struggles with the covenant theology (he’s yet to lay his hermeneutical cards on the table). He does not want to see baptism connected to the covenant, and makes a statement that the covenant does not play a central role in the New Testament. Ferguson, in his reply, exposes the foolishness of this idea. Lane, in practical terms, places the OT in a secondary position to the NT in authority. Additionally, he comes quite close to teaching the necessity of baptism for salvation. When we get to his essay, we’ll see how close (maybe). Lane comes off more as a proto-emergent theologian who doesn’t want to commit to anything.
In his reply Ferguson makes some more good points. To reject the covenantal paradigm, he says, is to read as a post-Enlightenment Westerner instead of a 1st century Jew steeped in biblical instruction. In other words, Lane is doing exactly what he complained Ware was doing! All of life was seen through the lens of the covenant. The gospel itself follows this paradigm of indicative and imperative: God did this for you, so now live like this. The prophets repeatedly addressed the unbelief and disobedience of the people. They were not living up to their circumcision (often telling them they needed circumcised hearts). Paul reminds the Romans of the same thing- live the new life revealed in baptism (Romans 6). The answer to sin in the church is not credobaptism (he alludes to the disparity of rolls and attendance in SBC churches), but preaching the gospel and all its implications, just as the Scriptures do.
I recognize that I violated all the laws of blogging, and went on far too long. I could have gone longer. As I noted above, I commend this essay to you as an example of doing good theology. Anger, in its various forms, can be an indication of your presuppositions. When an argument angers you, ask why you think in that way? Does the NT place the OT as a secondary authority? I think not, so neither should you. Does the NT reflect a “pure” church? I think not, and neither should you. Does it reveal disunity between the people of God? No, Gentiles are made partakers with believing Israel. We are of the same vine, and speaks of the church in explicitly OT language. Getting those presuppositions wrong can blind you to what is really going in in Scripture. Or, in other words, you misinterpret the Scriptures by removing them from their proper biblical context.