About a month ago, WTS Bookstore ran a special deal on Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children by Daniel Hyde. I had seen some people speak favorably of his presentation, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to pick up a number of copies for give-aways to help people understand why we in the Reformed tradition baptize the children of believers.
“Misunderstanding and false assumptions about infant baptism abound.”
A few things to keep in mind. Not all who baptize children do so for the same reasons. The reason why Reformed Churches follow this long-standing practice is different than why other parts of the church do. We don’t baptize any children, but only those who have one parent who professes faith in Christ and is a member of the local church.
One of my elders read the book at the same time I did. We had very different experiences reading the book. He found some parts confusing. But, having read numerous books on the subject of baptism, I was not confused by any of it. Perhaps there was unfamiliar terminology used. So, it is possible that this succinct treatment is not as accessible as I think it is.
In his introduction, he talks briefly about why this is such a hot button issue. He uses a quote from Spurgeon that I’ve often seen on the internet that implies that the practice is “Popery” and led to the damnation of countless millions. Spurgeon is failing to distinguish between the practice and the rationale. Outwardly, Reformed churches may look like Roman Churches in this regard, but our rationale is well-thought out and quite different from theirs. Popery it isn’t. But, is it biblical?
The first chapter, called Opening Matters, centers on presuppositions. Here I have discovered the reason for so much of the talking past one another in this matter- different presuppositions. Those assumed beliefs cause us to look at the data differently. As long as we only look at the data, and not the presuppositions that drive our interpretation of the data (this is true for most such debates, both secular and sacred), we don’t understand one another and begin to talk past one another. I am aware of my presuppositions, and try to talk with others about theirs, with mixed results. The differences in interpretation are really differences in presuppositions. He lays out the “givens” as the Sufficiency of Scripture, the Perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture, and Christian Charity. Scripture is sufficient to address this issue. But that doesn’t mean it will provide an explicit answer to the question. Many presuppose it will- and since it doesn’t, well, the practice is thought unbiblical. The Westminster Confession of Faith, in addressing the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture notes that not all subjects are addressed as clearly as the essential issues. Some rely upon “good and necessary consequence”. This means that proof-texting will not give you the answer- you have to think through the issue, noticing connections, similarities etc. You have to use the mind God gave you, under the illumination of the Spirit, to see the implications of Scripture. One presupposition he doesn’t mention specifically, is that some limit the discussion to the NT. This violates the biblical presupposition of 2 Tim. 3:16ff. All of Scripture is helpful to understanding this topic, not just the NT. This trips up so many people. Lastly, we need to be charitable in our discussion. Name-calling is not helpful. This does not mean we avoid theological terms to identify positions. But Spurgeon’s comment lacked charity and discernment. Let’s leave the inflammatory rhetoric aside.
Hyde then moves on to defining terms. This is so important in the discussion, and frequently does not happen. People then assume you are using their definition of a term. This happens often in this discussion, particularly when talking about being “in the covenant” or “covenant community”. Credobaptists often assume we think they are saved by virtue of church membership. So, he briefly defines baptism, sacrament, grace, covenant, and the covenant of grace so readers will understand how he is using them. To understand him properly, they have to keep those meanings in mind instead of assuming their own meanings of the terms. In counseling, we call this “checking understanding”. This is how you do it with a book.
He finally beings his argument for the baptism of infants with Circumcision and Baptism, the 3rd chapter. Here, I suspect, is part of where my elder lost him. He is heavily dependent on Meredith Kline’s By Oath Consigned. This is actually very much a lay version of Kline’s rather difficult (for the uninitiated) book. Part of the discussion is about signs of the covenant being ordeals. There are covenant promises that are sealed in the signs, but there are curses involved for those who break the covenant that is sealed by the sign. Circumcision included a symbolic judgment in the cutting of the flesh. If the circumcision of the heart does not follow the circumcision of the flesh, the person himself will be cut off. It is also a sign of consecration- “I will be their God, and they will be my people” is often repeated in connection with signs of the covenant. This, rather than the promise of the land, is the main part of the sign of circumcision in Genesis 17. Many credobaptists completely ignore this in the text, assuming it is about the land. It is, obviously, a covenant sign. It is outward, visible and represents spiritual realities that can be received by faith alone. It pointed to the circumcision of the heart, regeneration, which is one of the promises of the New Covenant as well. As we study circumcision, we begin to see the great similarities it has with baptism.
“By understanding this we can see that the meaning of circumcision is essentially the same as baptism.”
This is the reason that we say that baptism is “Christian circumcision”. They represent the same things. This is why Colossians 2 is so important. The Colossians were told to become circumcised to grow in grace, to find spiritual fulness. Paul responds by noting that this is found in Christ, and that circumcision of the heart was accomplished in their baptism (since they were baptized as converts). We also find the curse motif in baptism. The flood informs the discussion of 1 Peter 3. All the world perished in the flood except Noah (who alone is said to be righteous by faith) and his family. Peter uses this to discuss baptism as a sign of the curse and consecration. The flood waters prefigured the waters of baptism (the same is true at the Red Sea). He also uses Romans 4, in which Paul speaks about the connection between circumcision and justification by faith, to show it is the sign and seal of justification by faith (an objective view), not of the faith (a purely subjective view). It is therefore, not tied to chronology. Abraham received the sign after having faith, his children received it prior to faith, as a call to faith.
“For those who believe in what baptism signifies, it is a sign and seal of their blessing in Christ, but for those who reject what baptism signifies, it is a sign and seal of their judgment as covenant breakers.”
He then moves on to Covenant and Baptism, to discuss the biblical relationship between them. Understanding how covenants work is essential to understanding the meaning and importance of baptism. It is, after all, a sign of the covenant. It is a part of God’s unfolding plan of redemption- a plan revealed through progressively revealed covenants. Covenant Theology recognizes the unity of the people of God, in distinction to Dispensational Theology. God brings Gentiles into Israel through faith in Christ. The New Covenant is the fulfillment of the previous covenants (with the exception of the Noahic Covenant which remains in effect until the renewal of the cosmos at the return of Christ). Paul labors this point in Galatians with reference to the Abrahamic Covenant. Matthew makes this point in Mt. 1:1 with regard to the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants.
“Basically, the New Testament teaches that the new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant come to maturity.”
Therefore we see overwhelming continuity, not discontinuity. Here is a major presupposition. Covenant Theology, unlike Dispensational and New Covenant theologies, assumes continuity. We find the Scriptures addressing areas of discontinuity. Those are the things made explicit: converts don’t need to be circumcised, the sacrifices are obsolete, food laws no longer binding, etc. The Scriptures to not need to repeat the instruction of children receiving the covenant sign. It would tell us if it was revoked like those other practices. God placed their children, via circumcision in the Church (assembly in the OT), and does not record their removal. We see, in Acts 2, the same type of covenant language we find in the institution of circumcision in Gen. 17. The New Testament authors treat the children as members of the church, even addressing commands to them (Col. 3 and Eph. 6) “in the Lord”. They are treated as member of the visible church.
“The command to obey is based on the fact that children are in the covenant with their parents.”
There is a short chapter on Baptism or Dedication?. This subject was important for me in my transition from believer’s baptism to infant baptism. He traces the practice of dedication in the Bible. It is NOT normative, but connected with either the Nazirite (Samson and John the Baptizer) vow or purification after child birth. Both, as part of the ceremonial law, are fulfilled in Christ and therefore obsolete. In the case of Samuel, it was about consecration. And he was left at the Tabernacle after being weaned. In all cases, it did not replace circumcision. Dedication services are largely about what we do as parents, while baptism is about what God has done. Those are very different. My child needs the sign and seal of what God has done, not the promise of what I will do. My child needs grace, not human effort.
“To enter the waters of baptism is to be united to Christ in his curse upon the cross. The irony is that, as God’s people, we enter the waters of baptism in faith, believing that the covenant Lord himself will deliver us and our children from the curse by the very curse element itself- water.”
Hyde then addresses the mode of baptism. Most Baptists have been taught it is solely by immersion. His purpose is to show that it does not only mean immersion, and that sprinkling and pouring are legitimate modes. My elder did not like this chapter. He thought it would confuse parents into thinking immersion is a legitimate mode of baptism. It is! We do not want to go to the opposite extreme of the Baptists. The WCF, in discussing mode, says that immersion “is not necessary”, but does not prohibit it. Hyde is overcoming the objection that baptism means immersion, and shows from various places where it is done by sprinkling (Ezekiel 36:24-27) and pouring (Acts 1 => Acts 2). One weakness that I found is that he deals with the texts used to promote immersion only near the end of the chapter. I would have addressed those at the beginning. Minor point.
He then provides a history of infant baptism. This is not the argument for infant baptism, but only shows that the church has been practicing it since essentially the beginning. It was practiced for a variety of reasons- some good and some bad. But it was universally practiced until the Radical Reformers began to practice believer’s baptism. There is no record of orthodox groups prior to that practicing believer’s baptism.
All in all, I thought it a good, short treatment of the subject. He dealt with the most important aspects, it relationship to grace, the covenant and circumcision. He spells out, for those who advocate believer’s baptism, why the Reformed Church has continued to practice infant baptism since the Reformation. He wants to help people new to the Reformed Church understand this rather confusing subject that has often seen more heat than light. I do recommend it.