baptism: reading between the lines

[ Update: This was written before February 2016 when CCC became part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) / North Texas Presbytery. The case for infant-baptism remains the same.]

A few years ago our church adopted a dual-practice approach to baptism.* That does not mean that we baptize people twice. As the Scripture says, “There is one baptism.” It simply means that we allow for the baptism of people of any age who profess faith in Jesus Christ and we allow for the baptism of infants and young children of Christian parents who want their children to be baptized.

We adopted this approach to baptism in an effort to demonstrate fidelity to the Scriptures, unity in Christ, charity for one another, and liberty of conscience. It allows us to take baptism very seriously, just not as seriously as we take the gospel of God’s grace.

Although the proper moment of baptism is an in-house discussion between brothers and sisters in Christ, we recognize that our dual-practice approach to baptism has raised concerns among some of our Christian family and friends. While all agree that believer baptism (aka, convert baptism) is a biblical practice, not all agree that infant baptism (aka, covenant baptism) is.

Here are some of the reasons people have given us for opposing the baptism of infants and young children:

“Baptism is the most important decision anyone can make.”

“Baptism is the first act of obedience for a believer.”

“Baptism is a sign of a person’s commitment to follow Jesus.”

“Baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace.”

These reasons are usually followed by statements like “and since infants cannot make a decision, believe, act in obedience, make a commitment, experience conversion, they should not be baptized and do not need to be baptized.”

Setting aside Matthew 21:16 and Luke 1:41 for the moment, let me say that we find their understanding of baptism to be overly man-centered.

Since I have responded to that many times in other posts herehere, and here, I will move on to the main reason people give us for opposing the practice of baptizing infants and children:

“There is not a single command or example in the New Testament that supports such a practice.”

Most of the other reasons seem to flow out of this one, so I want to focus my attention here.

Setting aside 1 Corinthians 10:2 for the moment, I wonder: Where does the Bible tell us to do something only if we have a command or example in the Bible? Where does the Bible tell us to believe something only if we can find a command or example of it in the New Testament?

I understand the desire to speak where the Bible speaks, and to be silent where the Bible is silent, but (surely) we can agree that speaking where the Bible speaks requires speaking much more than commands and examples. (Just look at all those stories, proverbs, songs, and prophecies!) If we cannot agree on that, let’s end the conversation now — and let all studying, teaching, preaching, and explaining the Scriptures cease once and for all.

The fact is that we all agree that speaking where the Bible speaks requires us to make interpretations and applications. So, why do we differ on things like baptism? What it all boils down to is hermeneutics — the different ways we read the same Bible. Those who affirm infant-baptism read the Bible one way, and those who deny infant-baptism (and affirm convert-baptism only) read the Bible another way.

Is one way right and the other way wrong? Is one way better than the other?

Before answering those questions, I would like to propose a simple Bible reading experiment.

Lately, I have been reading Luke and Acts for a mini-series on Spirit, Gospel, and Mission. In his books, Luke the Physician writes that Jesus and the apostles said:

Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. (Luke 24:44)

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:46-47)

The OT prophets say that the Christ will suffer and on the third day rise from the dead. (Acts 3:18)

God spoke by the mouth of the prophets about the refreshing times and restoration of all things by the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 3:19-20)

All the prophets from Samuel on spoke about Jesus Christ as the true and better Moses. (Acts 3:24)

All the OT prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43)

They did not recognize Jesus nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath. (Acts 13:27)

Paul reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” (Acts 17:2-3)

The prophets and Moses said this would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:22-23)

Clearly, Jesus and the apostles were not New Testament-Only theologians. Although they preached from the OT scriptures, neither were they were OT-Only theologians. More on that in a moment. Suffice it to say for now that the OT Scriptures formed and informed their doctrine and practice. But the Gospel reformed and transformed the way they read the OT Scriptures.

Now for the Bible reading experiment.

Using your approach to reading the Bible, the same one you use either to affirm or deny the practice of baptizing infants and children, please answer the following:

Where do the OT prophets actually say anything about Christ‘s suffering and rising from the dead on the third day? Is there any specific Book, Chapter, and Verse to prove that the OT prophets actually said all these things about our Lord Jesus Christ?

Where do the OT prophets actually say that everyone who believes in Jesus will receive the forgiveness of sins? Do the OT prophets give us any explicit commands or concrete examples to support Jesus and the apostles’ reading of the Hebrew Scriptures (the OT in the Bible)?

To be clear: I affirm that what Christ and the apostles said is true. The OT prophets did say everything that Jesus and the apostles said they said. However, I doubt whether a “command-and-example, Book-Chapter-and-Verse” way of reading the Bible can show where the prophets said these things and how they said them. To do so requires a different way of reading the Bible.

At this point someone might be wondering what all this has to do with baptizing infants and children. Much in every way.

If one’s approach to Bible reading does not enable him to see and hear what Luke told us the apostles said about what the prophets said about Jesus in the OT, then it is not likely that he will see and hear what the prophets and apostles said about other things like applying the sign of the covenant to children of believers.

Again, what it comes down to is hermeneutics. Those who affirm infant-baptism read the Bible one way, and those who deny infant-baptism (and thus affirm convert-baptism only) read the Bible another way.

Is one way truer and better than the other? Yes. The way that more accurately reflects the apostles’ approach to reading the Bible — which they learned from Jesus and the Spirit — is the truer and better way.

The apostles’ approach to reading the Bible was covenantal, not dispensational. They read all the Scriptures — not just parts of the Scriptures — in the light of Christ. (We would say their approach was more redemptive-historical than grammatical-historical.) They read the Scriptures front to back and back to front. Such an approach to reading the Bible acknowledges the deep unity and continuity between the prophetic writings and the apostolic writings. Their approach was also Christological. This allows one to see and hear Christ in all the Scriptures, both implicitly and explicitly, for it affirms that all the Scriptures are God-breathed, living and active, and that they point inexorably to Jesus Christ. (Luke 24:27, 44-47; Rom 10:4)

Now, seeing and hearing Christ in all the Scriptures does not come by merely adopting an apostolic technique of reading the Bible. It is a matter of hermeneutics, but not a matter of hermeneutics only. As Jesus opened the minds of the apostles to understand the Scriptures, so must he open our hearts to receive the apostles’ teachings and open our minds to understand the Sacred Writings of the prophets and apostles. (Acts 24:45; Luke 16:14) What they got by inspiration, we must get by illumination.

The main point here is that the approach to reading the Bible that enables us to see and hear the prophets saying all the things that Jesus and the apostles said they said is the same approach that enables us to see and hear what the Bible says about applying the covenant sign of baptism to our children and to converts.

So, when our friends and brothers ask, “Where does the Bible say to baptize infants and children?” we may answer confidently, joyfully, and humbly, “In the same places where it says Jesus Christ had to suffer and rise and from the dead on the third day and that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.” On the lines, between the lines, and through the lines.

If nothing else, such an answer might lead to a more biblical exploration of the Scriptures and a more fruitful conversation about Jesus Christ and the gospel. And that is far more important than pin-pointing the “right” moment of baptism.

Failing that, at least our friends and brothers will know why we really and truly believe that baptizing infants and children of believers is a biblical practice established by God through the prophets and apostles and passed down by our forefathers.

Post-script:

Not long ago I had a light-hearted conversation with some seminary graduates about these matters. When I learned that they were still committed to believer baptism only, I was a little surprised and teased them a little with this question: “How did y’all ever make all the way through a Reformed seminary without embracing infant-baptism?” One grad replied, “Oh, it was easy. I just stayed close to the Bible.” To which I replied: “Ah! So close, yet so far away.” We all had a good laugh. When the conversation ended we parted ways as brothers in Christ — unified on the gospel of grace; diversified on moment of baptism.

May the Lord bless your reading of and reflecting on the Holy Scriptures — including your reading between the lines.

Rembrandt_Two_old_men_disputing_1628

* Our doctrine of baptism is the same as other Reformed and Presbyterian Christians. Our practice differs only in that we make explicit what they make implicit: baptism for infants and children is strongly encouraged not forcefully imposed.

[ Update: As of February 2016 CCC is part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) / North Texas Presbytery.]

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