Baptism and the visible church
Bringing the issue of whose children are to be baptized to the attention of the church may be disturbing for us, nevertheless raising it is timely. The issue impacts in special way the doctrine of the sacraments. Attention here is limited to the narrower sacramental issue 'Who have a right to baptism for their infant children?' Principal Cunningham in his Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation complained that even some of those who had subscribed the confession were satisfied with some defective and confused notions on the subject of baptism and on the subject of the Lord's Supper, while they scarcely even have a fragment of an idea of a sacramental principle, or any general doctrine or theory on the subject of the sacraments.
This state of things still prevails. Having pondered the subject over a number of years I appreciate something of its many and varied problems. Perhaps I can bring to the discussion an element of needed pastoral concern if nothing else.
A few preliminary observations need to be made.
Firstly, we are not discussing an abstract impersonal point of theology. The matter is of great sensitivity to parents' hearts. Doubtless there are some parents who look on the matter as one of religious convention and perhaps wish that they were not ecclesiastically expected to observe it. But to the large majority of our parents it is a matter of profound concern regarding the religious state of their children. To withhold from them the right to have their children baptized on questionable dogmatic grounds or on grounds of rigid administrative practices is religiously devastating. To be denied baptism can result in distressing religious discouragement for them and may even imperil their gospel interest. It also strikes at their confidence to adequately parent their God-given children. These are supremely important matters.
Secondly, it is not generally realised the bearing this matter has on our gospel proclamation. Failure to appreciate the significance of infant baptism can result in a serious flawing of gospel application to a large body of those attending on our gospel ministry. The cutting edge of gospel application is blunted to some extent. When those baptized in infancy are treated in our gospel ministry in the same manner as the unbaptized there is something amiss. If the sacrament of baptism when administered to infants is so insignificant in its import as to make no meaningful difference between them and the unbaptized it would surely be best to discontinue the practice. But if it is significant, as the reformers thought and as our confession holds it to be, then to deal in our gospel ministry with those who are already baptized as if they were no different from the unbaptized is a serious flaw.
Thirdly, the issue is not new to theological debate. The question came into acute prominence in reformed churches in conjunction with the revival movements of the early to mid 18th century, the celebrated 'Half-Way Covenant' controversy in New England being perhaps the most notable historical example. Closer to home there were the differences of opinion between Samuel Rutherford and the men of his era and those of a later period like Thomas Boston. With the 18th century men there was a change from the traditional reformed position. It must be remembered in any historical evaluation of this difference, that Boston was reacting to religious formalism in the church in Scotland much the same as Jonathan Edwards was in New England. Their position must also be evaluated in the light of the greater emphasis on subjectivism in the Revivalism of the times. Later on we have the difference in the Free Church between the men of the North of Scotland and those of the South. Dr. Kennedy in his The Days of the Fathers in Rosshire gives a very full account of this division of opinion. As recently as 1973 a Report on the matter was submitted to our General Assembly which failed to produce any unanimity in our church on the question. Perhaps one of the most interesting and penetrating discussions of Infant Baptism took place in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands during the first half of this century. This controversy lies behind much of what G.C. Berkouwer has written on infant baptism in his excellent work on "The Sacraments".
These differences of opinion show the difficulties involved in the subject and the need for caution against undue dogmatism. The question of whose children are to be baptized cannot be settled satisfactorily in a scholastic fashion. Making the customary distinction between saving faith and the faith of assent will not do. Whatever validity there may or may not belong to that distinction it is not the solution of the matter. Nor can it be settled administratively by insisting that only those who sit or agree to sit, at the Lord's Table can have their children baptized. It will not do to fail to distinguish between receiving baptism and coming to the Lord's Table. The question must be considered in a wider theological context to come to any satisfactory conclusion on it. It will be sufficient here if we look at two points immediately germane to the issue: the nature of the church and its membership; and the import and implications of infant baptism. Then the question, Whose children are to be baptized? will be considered.
The nature of the church and its membership
The need to consider something of the nature of the church and its membership should be quite apparent. Let us suppose, as some do, that only those who are accepted as regenerated belong to the church. There are indications that there are leanings in our church in that direction. The question of the place of infants and young children in the church then becomes acute. Can they truly belong to the church if evidence of regeneration is necessary to church membership? Of course if they cannot belong to the church because of lack of evidence of regeneration, then they cannot be baptized. It is objected that the infant children of the regenerate, even if they are not regenerate, belong to the church. But then the major premise that only the regenerate belong to the church breaks down; unless we assume that all the children of the regenerate are themselves regenerate. The bible will not allow us to make that assumption. If it is said that these infants do belong to the church but not in the same sense as their regenerated parents do, that really amounts to having two visible churches — one of regenerated parents and the other of yet unregenerate children. This view, I hold, is not in accordance with our Confession. Thornwell's view of the church as having an inner sanctuary of the communicant members and an outer court of baptized non-communicants tends in this direction. Our own system of members and adherents is not too dissimilar. Dabney's warning against the intrusion of the spirit of independency was not unnecessary then, neither is it today.
At the other extreme there are those who view the church as merely an external visible organization. It has its articles of belief and gospel ordinances. Membership of the church hinges upon believing what the church teaches, doing what the church requires and making a regular use of the external ordinances. Salvation is thought of primarily in following the church's teaching and being obedient to its prescribed practice. As long as one remains in communion with the church his salvation is more or less assured. The problem with this view is that it ignores those features of the church which are most fundamental in the scriptures — union with Christ in its federal, legal and vital aspects. Our Confession says that ordinarily there is no salvation outwith the church, yet salvation is not in the church or from the church; it is in Christ alone. Any view of the church failing to be emphatic on this point is utterly detective.
We are face to face here with the celebrated problem in Reformed dogmatics: the distinction between the church as invisible, as known perfectly only by God, and the church as visible as it may be known by us. It cannot be urged too strongly that there must be no bifurcation of the visible church — God has only one church in this world. It includes indeed not only those who are truly saints but also hypocrites. Nevertheless the church is one. Only thus can we speak of the Church's catholicity. This one church of God has an aspect of hiddenness or invisibility as it also has its manifest or visible existence and ever will have. The hiddenness of the church consists, first, in the fact that it is owing to the eternal election of God that there is a church, and it is God's eternal election which determines ultimately who are those who infallibly belong to church.
Secondly, the church of God's elect breaks into historical existence through an act of God whereby, through the gospel, he effectually calls those chosen by him into vital union and communion with Christ. In Christ they become a new creation. These things in themselves are beyond the range of our perception but their effects become outwardly manifest in the lives of those chosen from eternity and called in time through the gospel. In a sense the most immediate effects, such as faith, hope and love etc. are still hidden in the depths of the heart but the work of faith, labour of love and patience of hope are manifest. So really when we speak of the church invisible what is meant is that we cannot know with absolute certainty who are those chosen and effectually called of God.
From the fact that there are these outward manifestations of God's election and effectual calling in the lives of the saints one might think that those who belong to the church could be unmistakably known. But this is not the case. The gospel also operates in the lives of others with outward manifest effects, though they are not chosen by God and effectually called by him into vital union and communion with Christ Jesus. They are indeed outwardly called by God through the gospel but this calling for various reasons does not affect a vital union between them and Christ. Yet there are manifestations of gospel operation in their lives too. The distinction between the two parties is indeed radical, but the dissimilarities between then are largely hidden from us in the depths of the heart. They are not so apparent to us that we can say: 'Such an one has been begotten of God and such an one has not been begotten of God'. The scriptures clearly tell us that we cannot separate wheat from chaff here. We must ever bear in mind God's word to Samuel: "Man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart". Even in judging of the outward appearance our judgement can diverge vastly from God's. Compare Luke 16:15: "That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God".
For a survey of Reformed authors on this point see Heinrich Heppe's Reformed Dogmatics, Chapter XXVII sections 11-17. In the chapter on the church in the Institutes, Calvin says,
I have observed that the scriptures speak of the church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the church they mean the church as it really is before God — the church into which none are admitted but those who by gift of adoption are the sons of God... Often too by the name of church is designated the whole body of mankind throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord's Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it. In this church there is a large mixture of hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance.
Others express themselves somewhat differently but all to the same effect.
Nowhere is the distinction presented with such clarity and succinctness as in the Westminster Confession Chapter XXV Sections 1-3. The whole chapter is a gem. Louis Berkhof deals very thoroughly in his Systematic Theology with this matter of the invisible and the visible church. He commends Chapter XXV of the Westminster Confession. A very valuable analysis of this chapter is found in Robert Shaw's Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith. The distinction is of supreme importance, not just from the point of view of our doctrine of the church but because our doctrine here determines the way in which we prosecute the church's ministry. I believe that only by doing full justice to this truth can our ministry meet the needs of those under our pastoral care.
The distinctions drawn by the notions of visibility and invisibility can be pushed too far. Some statements made by Bannerman in his Church of Christ are open to this charge.
He says, "The church of Christ stands revealed before the eyes of men, embodied in an outward system of administration and ordinances and discipline; and men are called upon to enter within the church and are promised if they do so they shall enjoy certain advantages even outwardly and distinct from any saving benefits in this church state".
The fact that certain benefits accrue to nominal members of the church is not disputed but that sinners are called to nominal membership and mere external benefits as distinct from salvation is another thing altogether. A more careful statement on the matter of the church's invisibility and visibility can be found in Principal Cunningham's Historical Theology Volume I Chapter I Section 1.
All of this does not mean that the visible church is without clear identity. It has marks whereby the true church may be distinguished from the false. Nor does it mean that the members of the visible church have no distinctive marks. The members of the visible church are clearly distinguishable from the world. But what is clear from these extended remarks is that one may quite properly be a member of the church visible without necessarily being a member of the church invisible. It is not a question of someone surreptitiously gaining entrance into the visible church and not being legitimately a member of it. Even though one may not be chosen by God to salvation and be effectually called by the Holy Spirit into union and communion with Christ he may still be quite properly a member of the visible church. But membership in the church visible is not the same in all respects with membership in the church invisible. The relationship of members in the visible church to God is not the same in respect of saints and hypocrites.
What is church membership?
It was commonly stated there is a right in foro ecclesiae as distinct from a right in foro dei: a right at the tribunal of the church as distinct from a right at God's tribunal. This was the position of Rutherford and, interestingly, also of Boston. It is worth quoting Boston at some length on this point. In volume 6 of his published works it is stated:
That we may the better succeed in this enquiry there is one distinction that must be taken notice of; and that is there is a twofold right to church privileges; there is a right IN FORO DEI, or before the Lord; and there is a right IN FORO ECCLESIAE, or in the judgement of the church. Where these two are confounded men multiply words to no purpose. A person may have a right to church privileges before the Lord, who has no right before the church; and contrariwise, one may have a right thereto before the church to church privileges that bath no right thereto before the Lord.
There were those who argued for a right before God even for nominal members. It may be possible to make a case for that view though the right must be of a different nature to that of one who is a son of God through faith in Christ Jesus. One can argue for the God-given right of Esau to circumcision even though the scriptures say "Esau have I hated". What are the criteria for membership in the visible church?
Our Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism make explicitly clear that baptism is necessary to membership. Indeed we may go further and say that one cannot ordinarily be a member of the visible church until one is baptized. In regard to membership in the church our subordinate standards generally approach the question from an adult believer's request for baptism. The Confession states, "Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church" and the Larger Catechism, 'Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament ... whereby parties are solemnly admitted to the visible church'.
Baptism, according to our standards, is clearly the sacrament of admission to the visible church as a member. As regards infants of believing parents the statement of the Directory for Public Worship sums up the Reformed teaching on the matter superbly: "They are Christians and federally holy before baptism and therefore are they baptized". They are in the church by their very birth and in their baptism they are publicly received into it. This is the first criterion for membership in the church.
Profession of faith
Our church's Practice defines this as a confession of faith in accordance with the word of God and the standards of the church. The basic definition of a confession of faith according to the standards of our church is,
The visible church ... consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children.
A Confession of Faith then is to profess the true religion.
Other statements found in the subordinate standards like "professing faith in Christ" must not be given such a subjectivistic connotation as would bring inconsistencies into our standards in their teaching on the matter. The direction of our church's practice in the matter bears this out.
Without any inquisitorial minuteness, their outward conduct may be judged of, through the observation of the minister or one of the Ruling Elders. If there be nothing in what is thus seen decidedly inconsistent with their profession, and fitted to subject the parties to church censures, and if no charge against them be brought before the Session, it is not competent for the Session to reject them merely on account of what the minister or any elder may conceive to be the state of their minds, unless their profession or their knowledge be defective.
When a person avers that he believes in the 'one only living and true God and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God the one and only saviour of sinners' surely he is making a confession in accordance with the word of God and the standards of our church, even though he may lack assurance of his personal salvation and the comfort which assurance brings. The church has divine warrant to receive his confession as a credible profession of faith if as our practice states it is not contradicted by blatant disobedience (cf. 1 John 5:1).
Even Boston for all his subjectivistic tendencies accepted that position. Page 133 volume 6 of his works states,
Visible believers and such as have a profession of religion, probably signifying their having a saving interest in Christ have a right to baptism before the church, so that they may be admitted thereto though they have no saving grace yea or never shall have it. This may be allowed without a scrupulous enquiry of their state before God.
There has been an intrusion to some extent of the spirit of independency into the church's thinking on this matter. It is manifest in the way in which some deal with an applicant seeking the right to baptism; with others in the way they deal with candidates for the right to partake of the Lord's Supper. It can also be detected at times in the directions given in preaching on these matters.
A life and conversation becoming the gospel
In a sense this is the most crucial issue in the whole matter. It concerns the upholding of Christian discipline in the church. The problem here is setting the standard of Christian conduct and upholding it in the church's practice. Of course the ultimate standard is the scriptures but the church must have its scripture-based order. In setting standards there are two evils to be avoided. There is on the one hand the danger of setting norms that go beyond the word of God, making something to be sinful which the word of God does not do or extolling as a good work what is not so warranted by the word of God. The tendency to be more zealous about local tradition in such things than for the teaching of the word of God is ever present. On the other hand an improper use of Christian liberty lowers the standard of Christian living cancelling out the effectiveness of the church's witness. There is great need for church courts to be blessed with the spirit of wisdom in seeking to deal with this very sensitive and critical issue in dealing with applicants. Certainly in judging of the right to sealing ordinances great care needs to be taken before denying anyone that right on the basis of rumour, suspicion, lack of experience and such like. In the present theological climate there is a danger that the profession of a conversion experience will qualify a person even though one's obedience and knowledge leaves much to be desired. This ought not to be.
A competent knowledge of religious truth
In regard to this aspect of things it is obvious a great deal of discretion must be left to local church courts. In some instances, if not in most, the issue is confined to establishing that one has an experience of salvation. This is especially the case in respect of judging in admission to the Lord's Table. As long as this is done without the Session seeking to become a Judge of the secrets of the heart it may not be completely disallowed. But in granting the right to sealing ordinances, a competent knowledge of the faith is much more important, especially a knowledge of the nature and use of the sacraments. A major concern for us as a church are our pedagogical deficiencies. The discontinuance of adult catechetics has left a vacuum. Nothing other than bible studies and fellowship meetings has been put in its place. These are inadequate means for the instruction of applicants. This I fear is not just a question of methodology. It goes far deeper. It is a matter of the feelings usurping the place which should belong to the understanding. Is this indicative of a theological shift from a strong covenant emphasis to a largely experiential approach to preaching and personal religion? If this is so it will have deleterious and farreaching effects upon the church's ministry. Is the loss of power due primarily to this shift in emphasis? I remember the late Principal Miller saying that he thought the decline in gospel power in Caithness resulted from the displacement of solid doctrinal preaching by a pronounced experimental approach.
Leaving the criteria for membership without further comment, what is the present situation in our church with respect to our baptized members? Our subordinate standards state quite clearly that baptism, "Puts a visible difference between those that belong to the church and the rest of the world". However, in our church's administration membership is limited to those who sit at the Lord's Table. The membership of those who have been baptized but do not sit at the Lord's Table is not recognized. Clear proof that this is so is furnished by the Form of Concurrence in Call. "We the subscribers, ordinary hearers ... hereby declare our hearty concurrence in the call addressed by members of said congregation to Mr. S. T. to be THEIR PASTOR" (Capitals mine). There is an incomprehensible callousness in this piece of legislation. Those who do not sit at the Lord's Table do not even have a pastor according to the form of Concurrence in Call. Whatever voting rights should belong or not belong to non-communicants this denigration of their position within the church should be remedied. The cry will immediately go up we can't have the WORLD selecting a minister. Of course not, but I thought their baptism 'Put a visible difference between them and the world'. It ought to according to our standards but it does not do so according to our practice. Can this depriving of the baptized be justified in the light of our subordinate standards?
First, it seems clear that this blatantly depreciates the sacrament of baptism, especially infant baptism. If our baptized are not members of the church what are they? The truth of the matter is that they are judged and treated in administration and even often in gospel application as if they were no different from the world. Plainly they are not given their true covenant status. If we take off our ecclesiastical blinkers we will see that we are faced with a major problem here. How can those who do not sit at the Lord's Table since they are not members be given the right of baptism? One can understand from this difficulty the demand that applicants for baptism should come to the Lord's Table. But is that the answer? I am afraid that it will not do to say they ought to come to the Lord's Table to become members and thus they would have a right to baptism. The Lord's Supper is not the sign and seal of church membership. Baptism is. The very symbols used in the two sacraments mark out their distinctive functions in the church. Bread and wine are the symbols of nourishment; water is the symbol of initiation. If sitting at the Lord's Table is what makes one a member of the church, baptism has been made meaningless.
My conviction is that making the Lord's Supper the sign and seal of membership in the church arose out of a devaluation of baptism, more especially infant baptism. R. L. Dabney deals with this matter in his Discussions Evangelical and Theological Volume 2 page 325. He says,
There is therefore no consistent stopping place for us between treating all baptized persons as bona fide members of the visible church until their membership is legally severed, and accepting the Anabaptist theory of the church. We must either go the whole length or give up our principles.
I have long been persuaded that the deplorable state we are in on the question of baptism must be solved in this way.
Of course membership carries responsibilities and accountability as well as privileges. Our baptized members should submit to the discipline as those who go to the Lord's Table in everything but exclusion from the Lord's Table which can't apply to them. There is no reason why there may not be suspension from church privileges for baptized members for a limited period or sine die. Discipline can take many forms, leading in the case of the obdurate to severance. How otherwise are we going to be rid of the scandal of the outrightly ungodly receiving the sacrament of baptism?
This criticism of our present practice is not meant to erase the distinction between sitting at the Lord's Table and receiving the sacrament of baptism. Even the most cursory glance at questions 166 and 171 in our Larger Catechism is enough to show that one may seek for and receive baptism and yet hesitate to come to the Lord's Table. How the church deals with this problem in her ministry is another matter. The church needs to use all her pastoring skills in dealing with trembling souls. Every encouragement which is proper must be given. But this must be more by way of patient instruction than a simple urging to duty. There can be no room for any form of coercion. There is no design here to reduce the wonder of the Lord's Supper as a means whereby we feed upon Christ even upon his body and blood. The clear implications are rather of the need of a fresh approach, a covenantal approach, to the matter of baptism and thus raise the appreciation of the richness of the blessing God is giving to us in this sacrament and also raise our standards of practice in observing it.
This will be done not by grounding the right to it on some form of subjective experience, or putting pressure on people to come to the Lord's Table but in the far more demanding way of requiring a degree of knowledge of the faith and a standard of gospel obedience more in keeping with profession of faith being made. There is a most serious aspect to the growth of undue subjectivism in our church. There is an increasing tendency to marginalize our non-communicant membership. In our homiletics they are treated without due consideration of their covenant status with its special relationship to God and their covenant title to gospel salvation. They are often told since they do not profess to be converted they have no more right to gospel blessings than those who are without the church. These things it is implied belong to the saints and not to them. This is what happens when a pseudo-spiritualism with its holier than thou attitude begins to take a grip. It is a new pharisaism which disdains those who are not sufficiently pious.
But the Reformed position on membership is characterised by a deep compassion and generosity towards those who lack assurance of faith or are full of fears at the thought of appearing before God. Drawing its strength from the veracity of the covenant God, the church pursues its ministry of comfort and prayer for her troubled children who have been set apart to God by the sign of the covenant. In the strength of that covenant promise the church against hope hopefully believes that though a prodigal son may be far from home the eye of the heavenly Father is upon him and that the prodigal will return to the Father's home in the fullness of time.
The sacraments are appointed for the visible church. Baptism is the sacrament of membership in the church. It is much more: it is the sign and seal of God's covenant of grace with believers and their children.
Two conclusions follow:
- One, to receive the sacrament is a great privilege and an awesome responsibility,
- Two, receiving it is not an infallible attestation of salvation but there must be no diminishment of its profound religious import to the recipient. It is of major importance who has a right to receive the sacrament.
Attention was previously drawn to a right before God and a right before the church. It is the latter right which is at issue. In respect of infant baptism the question is which parents have a right to receive baptism for their infant children. Without doubt this is an important matter. But our church's preoccupation with this point has deflected it from duly attending to the far more urgent and important matters of the ground and import of the ordinance. The question of who receives baptism belongs, more particularly, to church order. The issues of ground and import concern the validity of infant baptism and its significance.
One may have an acceptable church order in administering the sacrament and still be hopelessly defective on the crucial points of its validity and significance, also this preoccupation, one could say obsession, with order has distracted the church's attention from the apparent lack of adequate comprehension and conviction on the more important aspects of the ordinance of infant baptism in our church.
A glance at our present situation
My own experience is that very few in our congregations have the remotest conception of the import and sanctity of the ordinance. Few are perturbed by this. How can we account for this ignorance and apathy? In part at least it is due to the unsatisfactory manner in which the baptismal service is often attended to. A visitor to our church likened it to a PS at the end of an irrelevant letter. But even when the service is more correctly attended to there is little conviction that the sacrament has profound significance for the infant being baptized and for the gathered congregation as a whole. One need only observe the contrasting attitudes to the observance of the two sacraments as proof of this.
There are also indications in our church that so-called believer's baptism is seen by some as the real baptism and that infant baptism is only a pale shadow of the real thing. Some have sought rebaptism because they lack confidence in the fullness of their baptism as infants. Others are pressured into rebaptism by evangelicals who otherwise will not countenance then as fit for full ecclesiastical fellowship with them. Too often the demand for rebaptism has to do with "The Mode of Baptism". For paedobaptists who usually baptize by sprinkling to assent to rebaptism on the ground of mode is to concede the claims of immersionists quite improperly.
Unfortunately this low view of the ordinance is not without historical roots in our church. According to Cunningham and Bannerman not only is the ground for infant baptism different from adult baptism but the import of baptism in the case of infants is different. The basis of their position is that in adult baptism prior intelligent faith is required on the part of the recipient. This is what makes his baptism full baptism. In the case of infants there cannot be this prior intelligent faith therefore their baptism, it is claimed, is less than full baptism.
In more recent times theologians such as Oscar Cullman, G.C Berkouwer, Pierre Ch. Warcel and John Murray and others, who have attended to this point with great thoroughness, differ from Cunningham, Bannerman et al. Marcel after making a very thorough investigation of the Reformed Confessions and the writings of the early reformers concludes there are no grounds in either the confessions or the reformers' writings to warrant the thought that infant baptism is less full than adult baptism. John Murray explicitly rejects Cunningham's and Bannerman's position, He says,
Wm. Cunningham and James Bannerman for example maintained that a line of demarcation must be drawn between ... the baptism of infants and that of adults. But when Cunningham says it is adult baptism alone which brings out the full idea of the ordinance or when Bannerman says that it is an error ... to make baptism applicable in the same sense and to the same extent to infants as to adults there does not appear to be good warrant for such discrimination.
The fullness of infant baptism
Some have held that for infant baptism to be full baptism there must be a work of the Spirit of God in the infant recipient prior to his baptism. John Murray deals very thoroughly and effectively with the notion that prevenient grace, in some way or other, is necessary to the fullness of infant baptism. He says, "When the church practices this institution and complies with the divine command no further judgement respecting the secret purpose of God, (Presumptive Election) nor respecting God's secret operation in the hearts of those baptized (Presumptive Regeneration) is required as the proper grounds on which the ordinance is administered. To require any further information beyond the divine institution would be to go beyond the warrant of scripture" (Brackets mine). To make presumptive election or presumptive regeneration the basis of our faith in presenting our infant children for baptism is without biblical warrant. This would pervert the covenantal ground for infant baptism.
Others say that infant baptism only becomes full baptism when the infant later comes to intelligent faith, until then, it is said, this baptism is only partial baptism. This is why some after a conversion experience seek rebaptism. They think because they were baptized before they came to intelligent faith that their baptism was only partial baptism and they desire rebaptism in order to have full baptism. But justice is not done to the import of infant baptism, nor indeed to adult baptism in any mode, if it is thought that baptism to attain its fullness must await intelligent faith on the part of the recipient. The thought is then inescapable that it is our faith-response, which completes the import of baptism. But this is contrary to the very nature of faith. Faith never augments God's grace whether in the Word or in the Sacraments. So when the infant comes to faith what happens is that he then fully appreciates and appropriates the significance of his baptism, which was complete baptism from the very moment that he was baptized. Geerhardus Vos puts this with great spiritual beauty, as was his wont.
When that infant later enters into covenantal consciousness by active faith, this faith sums up all that is included in the covenant, so that the wide rich world of God's works of grace are opened up to his sight, a perspective looking backwards and forward. It is just this beautiful outlook which leads one to call the idea of the covenant a mother idea.
The fullness of infant baptism is bound up with its objective integrity and does not for its fullness await the faith-response of the recipient. Pierre Ch. Marcel writes, "But it is from the subjective point of view of the recipient alone that unbelief renders the sacrament void of its significancy and efficacy. If by his manner of receiving the unbeliever renders what he receives ineffective, God on his side still does not cease to offer and what he offers preserves no less its property and its nature". Similarly John Calvin in his Institutes,
Therefore you will ask do the wicked by their ingratitude make the ordinance of God fruitless and void? I answer, that what I have said is not to be understood as if the power and truth of the sacrament depended on the condition or pleasure of him who receives it. That which God instituted continues firm and retains its nature however men may vary; but since it is one thing to offer and another thing to receive, there is nothing to prevent a symbol, consecrated by the word of the Lord, from being truly what it is said to be and preserving its power, though it may at the same time confer no benefit on the wicked and ungodly".
It should not be concluded from this that our baptized infant children are one with the unbaptized. They are federally holy before baptism. Nor must it be concluded that just because they have not yet come to intelligent faith that baptism confers no benefit on them. Paul protests against devaluing God's ordinance in such a way, "What profit is there in circumcision?", he says; "much every way". The point is clearly made in these quotations taken from Marcel and Calvin that the objective integrity of the sacrament is independent of the recipient's faith and the integrity of the ordinance is not nullified by unbelief. It is this objective integrity of the sacrament which makes infant baptism full baptism prior to intelligent faith on the infant's part.
To sum up this matter of the fullness of infant baptism we may be quite confident concerning our baptism as infants and that of our infant children that it was not partial baptism but baptism in all its fullness. It is truly the sign and seal of our engrafting into Christ; partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace; and an unreserved commitment on our part to belong to the Lord. It is full baptism in its twofold aspects of union with Christ and our engagement to belong to the Lord. May the Holy Spirit who leads unto all truth deepen our understanding of the wonder of our baptism so that as often as we recall it we may be assured and reassured of the covenant mercies of our God.
Some have balked at the idea of infants being consecrated to serve the Lord lifelong since it is not a personal decision by them to do so. This for Barth, along with other things, invalidates infant baptism. The objection is invalidated by the representative principle in scripture and, as is so often pointed out, contrary to the practices by which society worldwide is governed. It is voluntarism with a vengeance. On that basis it was wrong for God to require the circumcision of an infant. The infant did not present himself for circumcision. For the propriety and legitimacy of consecrating our infant children to the Lord in baptism it is sufficient for us that the Lord requires it.
The efficacy of infant baptism
When we ourselves to begin with saw infants being baptized we probably questioned what possible benefit could the administration of the sacrament have for an infant who had not even attained to self-consciousness?
The very sight of an infant of days being baptized evokes such a question. Many never get a satisfactory answer to the question and consequently gain no spiritual benefit from being present when the sacrament is dispensed to infants. I have known professing Christians absenting themselves from the baptismal service for this reason. Others just see it as an ecclesiastical ritual which distinguishes Presbyterian churches from Baptist ones, with no appreciation of its import.
This lack of appreciation of the significance of baptism for the infant being baptized and for the assembled congregation must be addressed by the church. Bannerman affords us considerable help on this point with his distinction between the moral and supernatural efficacy of the sacrament.
Up to a certain point", he says, "It is easy enough to explain the efficacy of adult baptism but beyond that fixed point it is impossible to explain it. That point is where the natural efficacy of the ordinance passes into the supernatural efficacy... The sacramental efficacy peculiar to the ordinance is not natural but supernatural - an efficacy not belonging to it from its moral character but belonging to it in consequence of the presence and power of the Spirit of God in connection with the ordinance. This distinctive efficacy of baptism as a sacrament we cannot understand or explain either in the case of adults or in the case of infants. It is a supernatural effect of a gracious kind wrought by the Spirit of God in connection with the ordinance and because it is supernatural it is not more and not less a mystery in the case of infants than in the case of adults.
While Bannerman speaks of the natural efficacy of the ordinance passing over into the supernatural he clearly does not mean that this supernatural effect cannot be present in infant baptism. Though the moral efficacy cannot be present in infant baptism there is nothing to prevent the supernatural efficacy being present as Bannerman clearly implies.
This supernatural efficacy is far removed from any form of baptismal regeneration. The chief thrust of Reformed dogmatics on the sacraments was to underline the necessity of the Holy Spirit's operation in the heart in order that the sacrament might truly be a means of grace. They rejected the idea of God's grace being enclosed within the sacramental element or action. God, they said does not let go of his grace. Because the sacraments are ultimately in the hands of God and not of the church we should look for this supernatural efficacy to accompany them. The reformed position was tolerant of the thought that God at the baptism of an infant might work supernaturally in the infant's heart effecting the necessary renewal of his nature and blessing him with the forgiveness of sins.
Pastorally this means we should be much in prayer that God would in this supernatural way make the sacrament effectual in the life of the baptized infants. Not only was reformed thought tolerant of the possibility of the sacrament being immediately effectual in the case of the baptized infant but it is clear that the early reformers tended to the persuasion that God generally did so work in the hearts of infants brought for baptism. Later reformed theologians tended to think of God's work of renewal as being effected later on in life through the call of the gospel. What is unquestionable is that both early and later reformed theologians entertained confident hope concerning the salvation of baptized children.
This persuasion was articulated most forthrightly in their view of the salvation of baptized infants dying in infancy. Geerhardus Vos states most felicitously this aspect of reformed thought on children in the covenant. He states, "Strength was provided in the days of old, in the golden age of the churches, a glorious comfort finding its most beautiful fruition in the doctrine of the salvation of the children of the covenant who die in infancy". In cherishing this hope they were not blind to the sad examples of history that the grace signified did not always accompany the sign. Our church's official position is more reserved it speaks of the salvation of elect children dying in infancy. The reformers were reluctant to subsume the covenant administration under the decree in such a manner.
The sonship of covenant administration
Another aspect of the significance of the baptism of infants is the sonship of covenant children in the way of covenant administration. It is the clear teaching of scripture that those who were circumcised were designated God's children. Possibly the classical texts on this particular truth are Ezekiel 16:20-21, "Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters whom thou hast BORN UNTO ME ... Thou hast slain MY CHILDREN and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them" (capitals mine). In Calvin's defence of the sacraments against Joachim Westphal he writes,
The promise of God must not be deemed of no moment, as if it were insufficient for the salvation of those whom he calls sons and heirs. Confiding in it I hold that those whom God has already set apart for himself are rightly brought for baptism. We are not now speaking of secret election but of an adoption manifested by the word which sanctifies infants not yet born" (emphasis mine).
Along such lines did Calvin view the import of baptism and covenant administration. In this emphasis on administrative sonship he was in full accord with scripture.
Injustice is done to the interpretation of large portions of scripture when what is addressed by God to his covenant children by way of rebuke, condemnation and encouragement in their unbelief and unfaithfulness is applied to the ungodly outwith the covenant. What a world of difference it makes to the meaning of passages of scripture such as Hoses 13:9: "O Israel thou hast destroyed thyself but in me is thine help" when the special relationship of God to his people, explicit in the text, is given due weight rather than an improper application to mankind at large. Or take a passage such as Hosea 11:7-9. How can one deal biblically with such a passage except in the context of tie sonship of covenant administration? The same is true of large sections of the New Testament. The Lord's parables for example, when notice is not taken of the fact that first of all they have to do with children of the kingdom, have their cutting edge seriously blunted. This is the point made earlier that the question of infant baptism has a crucial bearing on our homiletics.
The privileges of this administrative sonship are just as explicitly stated in scripture. Those who are sons by way of covenant administration have a special covenant title to God's covenant grace.
There is no thought of merit suggested here. Nor is the ill-desert of the children of the covenant less than others. It is the significance of the covenant promise of salvation and its special reference to the covenant children that is underlined (cf. Acts 2:39). At the very least a wonderful enrichment of the sinner's access to God belongs to the children of the covenant. It belongs to the child of the covenant, as he confesses his sins to God and his need of mercy, to plead his covenant interest in God's covenant promises in his supplications for salvation.
Infant baptism and child membership
Another matter bound up with infant baptism is the church membership of children. Administratively with us as a church they are a third group along with members and adherents. The validity of our distinction between members and adherents has been challenged already. The same challenge needs to be made concerning classifying children as a third group in church personnel. The true category of children on the basis of the significance of infant baptism is that they are members in a state of minority. The distinction is not insignificant. At the very least we should look on them as prospective heirs of salvation. It poses many questions indeed. Recognizing them as members in a state of minority does not imply the propriety of child communion. That is an issue beyond the scope of this article. As a matter of historical interest on this point of child membership let me quote Peter Martyr as cited by Geerhardus Vos.
But because we must not curiously investigate the hidden providence and election of God, we assume that the children of believers are holy, as long as in growing up they do not demonstrate themselves to be estranged from Christ. We do not exclude them from the church but accept them as members with the hope that they are partakers of the divine election and have the grace and the spirit of Christ even as they are the seed of the saints. On that basis we baptize them.
Such was the way in which the Reformers looked upon their baptized children and their place in the church as members. Such was the affection in which the church in its better days held its non-communicant membership, children and adults.
Anti-paedobaptists cannot hold consistently to the church-membership of children. Have the subjectivistic individualistic tenets of anti-paedobaptism clouded our covenant perspectives so that in our vision and preaching we have lost sight of the holiness of the covenant seed?
Infant baptism and faith
In rejecting Cunningham's and Bannerman's position, that the lack of intelligent faith in the infant recipient renders his baptism less than full baptism, it is not to be concluded that, the question of faith is irrelevant to infant baptism.
No one should conclude from the emphasis placed on the significance of infant baptism that faith in Christ is made superfluous in the matter. All acknowledge that in the case of adults coming for baptism some degree of intelligent faith must be present if the sacrament is to be a means of grace to the recipient. We are not here dealing with the nature of the profession that warrants the granting of baptism to the adult applicant. What is under consideration is what is required in the adult recipient so that his baptism will be a means of grace to him. These are two very distinct issues. All uniformly agree that if faith in the Lord Jesus as Saviour is not present in the heart of the adult recipient his baptism cannot be a means of grace to him, The reason for this need of antecedent faith is that prior to his baptism the adult has no standing in the covenant unlike the children of believers. We have already seen that because of his inclusion in the covenant that baptism may have a supernatural efficacy for the infant baptized without antecedent intelligent faith. Though this is so, the question of faith in infant baptism still needs to be considered. The formula of "By grace through faith" must always be taken account of.
The question of the place of faith in the baptism of infants has engaged the attention of all who have seriously considered the matter. It would be a thesis of doctoral proportions to do even a historical survey of the different ways in which the question has been addressed. Very often this has more to do with the form of statement used than with significant differences in substance. I think it is not incorrect to classify the answers of reformed theologians to the issue under two divisions.
First, some held that the children of believers were spiritually renewed and pardoned prior to baptism in virtue of their covenant adoption. Their holiness as covenant children was taken as a cleansing of their hearts from sin and not just a covenantal or federal holiness. Numerous quotations could be cited to show that this is one of the ways in which reformed theologians defended the practice of infant baptism. Walaeus puts the matter as forthrightly as any,
We require with the scriptures antecedent faith and repentance in the one who is to be baptized, at least according to the judgement of love, both in the infant children of covenant members, and in adults. For we maintain in infants too the presence of the seed and the spirit of faith and conversion is to be ascertained on the basis of divine blessing and the evangelical covenant.
Some spoke of a kind of seminal holiness in virtue of union with Christ which they said was the root of internal holiness. Others spoke of holiness in virtue of the secret operations of the Holy Spirit prior to baptism even from the womb. In these ways they made antecedent renewal the ground for the administration of infant baptism. This comes perilously close to the presumptive regeneration position. There were many indeed who held that we should not doubt that God did work renewal and bestow forgiveness on the baptized infant but saw that as the fulfillment of the covenant promise and not as the ground of baptism which they held strenuously to be nothing other than God's covenant arrangement.
Secondly there were those who did not see the correlation between faith and baptism as being necessarily simultaneous with the moment of administering the sacrament to the infant. Berkouwer says that the question of the simultaneity of the correlation between faith and baptism did not trouble Calvin since for him all baptism, whether adult or infant, was grounded upon the covenant and not upon the subjective state of the recipient. Perhaps a comparison of the case of Abraham and his son Isaac may cast some light on this matter. In Abraham's case circumcision was principally retrospective as Romans 4:11 so clearly evinces. But in the case of Isaac the sign was primarily prospective. Surely one may conclude from this comparison the correlation between faith and baptism need not be simultaneous with the moment of administering it.
Our own confessional position is very much along this second line of approach. There are two matters in particular that of supreme importance. One: the efficacy of the sacrament is not limited to the time of administration. In the case of baptism it is life-long. Two: in meeting the possibility that the child baptized was not renewed and pardoned at the time of his baptism our divines fell back upon two particular truths. First they laid hold of the expansiveness of divine election and secondly they acknowledged the freeness and sovereignty of God's way in fulfilling his covenant purposes and promises in the lives of his covenant children (cf .Confession of Faith chapter XXVIII section VI).
In the case of infant baptism the question of faith does not bear only on the infant himself but also on the parent who brings his child for baptism. I have often been asked the question: "Was my baptism valid or full baptism since my parents were not converted when I was baptized"? It is hoped the question has at least been partly answered by what has preceded in the article. In what relationship does the faith of the parent stand to tie baptism of his infant child? Some take the position that it is the faith of the parent which gives validity to the infant's baptism. Though it is not always explicitly stated that this is so it is often implied in practice. John Murray makes a shrewd observation concerning the faith of the parent in infant baptism. He says,
It is true in administering the ordinance we plead the promises which God has attached to faith and obedience and we must rest our faith and hope in God's faithfulness. But our faith in God's promises would not appear to be placed in the proper relationship to infant baptism if it were conceived as the ground for the baptism of infants
The believing parent recognizes that his child is born in sin and is a child of wrath by nature just as all other children are. The belief that the child is by the covenant grace of God federally holy never means that the sinfulness of the child as a member of the fallen race of mankind is thereby negated. Otherwise what would be the need for baptism?
Nor does the parent bring his child for baptism because he thinks that baptism unfailingly secures the child's salvation either immediately or later on in life; though, as has been shown, it may please God to bless the infant immediately with forgiveness and renewal. The parent yields obedience to the divine injunction looking to the covenant promises which God has attached to the obedience of faith. It is at this point that the raising of the child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord is vital. This is a work of faith in the faithfulness of God and not merely a parental act of family management. All is done in the confidence of God's faithfulness to his covenant. For Calvin and the Reformers as a whole, to doubt that God will give the covenant grace where he has given the covenant sign was dishonouring to God.
Our route to this point has been somewhat circuitous but not needlessly, and I hope not unprofitably, so. From the foregoing it should be clear that any tendency towards aiming at a pure church is unbiblical and disastrous. We must indeed ever remember the church is holy despite its many faults. But it is only the Lord at his coming who will make it wrinkle-free. Not us. The sacraments belong to the church visible. The right to use them is by way of public profession of faith and not by any judgement made as to the secret state of the heart. The test whether the profession made is credible is primarily whether we live as the Lord's disciples ought to do.
The status of covenant children
Emphasis has been placed on baptism as the sacrament of church membership but more so that it is the sign and seal of our interest in the covenant of grace. The baptized infant is in a solemn relationship to God which secures for it many precious gospel privileges. Of these he may not be lightly deprived at any time in life. They are blessed with a sonship in the way of covenant administration which has a large bearing on the ongoing discussion about whose children should be baptized. They must be regarded as God's children. These points have been enlarged upon and are here summed up because the reformed view of the church, it’s membership and the covenant status of the baptized, are often entirely overlooked in dealing with the question we are considering. Inevitably that leads to conclusions at variance with our reformed tradition.
Perhaps a good point with which to begin direct consideration of the question is the Editor's remark that the children of unbelievers should be baptized. I believe the remark was widely misunderstood. If I may rephrase the remark the point made is very relevant. Should the unbelief of the immediate parent prevent his child being baptized? There are various ways to address the question. A short historical inquiry will do for a start. Amongst the early reformers there were some who held that the godlessness of the immediate parent should not prevent the baptism of his child. Heinrich Heppe cites Bucan as stating, "The godlessness of the parent should not mean loss to their children born in the church". It must be said this does not appear to have been the uniform view of the early reformers. However, amongst Calvin's letters we have a reply he sent to Knox. It would appear that Knox's letter to Calvin concerned the point under consideration. Calvin consulted his colleagues in Geneva before replying. The gist of their reply is that one bad link in the chain did not undo the covenant. They looked at the covenant in terms of generations rather than from a rigorous individualistic perspective. Whatever we make of Geneva's response to Knox's question one thing is clear: the early reformers prized so highly the privilege of baptism that they did not rush to deny it to children whose forbears were believers and sons of the covenant.
The position taken by Calvin in response to Knox's letter was also the position of Rutherford nearly a century later. The men of the second reformation did not limit membership of the church to those who sat at the Lord's Table. Those who had themselves been baptized in infancy were reckoned members of the church and consequently had a right to baptism for their children. Questions are indeed raised whether the nature of the profession required by Rutherford and others was biblically adequate. But the principle that the baptized were church members and had a right before the church to the sacraments unless their lives disqualified them was strongly affirmed.
Much is made of Boston's difference from Rutherford on this issue. But Boston also distanced himself quite clearly from the position of Independency. He too recognized that a right before the church to the sacraments was on the basis of a credible profession of faith and not on regeneration. He complained that Rutherford's position led to indiscriminate baptism. Whether the criticism was justified or not is a matter of opinion. It would be strange indeed if Rutherford, who was so thoroughly conversant with reformed thought, should hold such a view when the writings of the reformers so outrightly rejected indiscriminate baptism. Certainly granting a baptized parent who professes faith in Christ — the distinction between faith of assent and saving faith is disallowed as utterly unhelpful — a right to baptism for his child is far removed from indiscriminate baptism.
If the claims made regarding the significancy of baptism is correct then I cannot see how the church can refuse a baptized parent the right to baptism for his child provided he is not grossly ignorant, a non-attender on gospel ordinances or living in insobriety or immorality. Certainly the fact that he does not have assurance of having experienced conversion or that he lacks the confidence to come to the Lord's Table ought not to be held as evidence that his covenant status is disannulled. In all good conscience he can still make a credible profession of faith. To use the Lord's Table or the lack of a conversion experience as the criteria for determining a parent's right before the church for receiving baptism for his child can result in excluding those whose lives are not only utterly blameless but may be truly adorning the doctrine of the gospel.
Perhaps a principle cause of confusion is the failure to distinguish between the church's administration and its ministry. In administration the area of concern is the profession and character of the members of the church. In the church's ministry the matter of principle concern is the heart relationship of each person to the Lord. Does one truly love the Lord and trust in him exclusively for his salvation? Is one on the way to heaven or not? That is the concern of the church's ministry. But in the administration of the covenant the outward and visible aspects of religious profession and living are of most concern. In the church's ministry the call is ever, "Make your calling and election sure". Unless this distinction is recognized we will do violence to the nature of the church as it is set before us in the scriptures.