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 John Hartley

At the Reformation, infant baptism was retained by the newly-emerging “Protestant” churches frequently because their leading theologians held a doctrine of “covenant theology”.  Roughly speaking, this means that the children of believers are included in the covenant and therefore ought to receive the sign of the covenant.

 This view is based on some bible verses: for instance Mark 10:14 “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”, Acts 2:39 “The promise is for you and your children”, or 1 Cor 7:14 “Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”  The most logical form of this view is therefore that which Calvin maintained that the covenant which God makes with those who put their faith in his Son extends unconditionally to their children.  “God pronounces that he adopts our infants as his children before they are born, when he promises that he will be a God to us and to our seed after us.  This promise includes their salvation” (Institutes IV xv 20).

 The problem with this view is firstly that none of the bible verses actually says what Calvin thought, and secondly that experience shows that many children of believers do not grow up as believers themselves.  On the verses:

·         Mark 10:13-16 does not state that the people bringing children to Jesus were disciples at that point, and gives the impression that they were ordinary members of the population, perhaps driven by “folk religion” of the time.  So others “such as these” doesn’t refer just to children of believers.  Some maintain (e.g. John Inchley “Kids and the Kingdom” Tyndale 1977, p35f) that Jesus meant the kingdom belongs to all children (on the basis that toiuotoV toioutos is inclusive and means “these and others like them).  Others maintain that Jesus meant that God’s kingdom belongs to those who have the characteristics of little children (i.e. humility and receptiveness).  Besides this, the verse is notable in that it goes on to record the equivalent of the modern service of thanksgiving for the gift of a child, not the service of infant baptism.

·         Acts 2:39 follows on v38 which seems to say that those baptised are to repent, which of course an infant cannot do.  Also “the promise” referred to presumably means Joel 2:28-31 (as quoted in Acts 2:17-21) which climaxes in the phrase “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” — but infant children cannot call on the name of the Lord, so the promise can only be that when they do come to be able to call on the name of the Lord they will be saved, which again implies that baptism could legitimately be deferred to an age when they can request it for themselves.  Indeed, seeing as the verse says “the promise is ... to your children and to all who are far off”, if it meant children of believers should be baptised it would also mean that everyone ought to be baptised irrespective of faith or lack of it.

·         1 Cor 7:14, speaking to Christians married to unbelievers, says that the unbelieving spouse has been sanctified (made holy) through the believer, and therefore that the children are holy - but if this meant they were saved it would imply that the unbelieving spouse was also saved, which is contrary to verse 16.  If the logic is that the infants should be baptised then the same logic would say the unbelieving partners should also be baptised.

A practice of infant baptism based on these verses would seem to say that everyone ought to be baptised irrespective of faith, and a practice of infant baptism based on the doctrine as stated by Calvin would seem to fly in the face of both the bible and Christian experience.

 So if the idea of “covenant theology” lies behind a justification of infant baptism, we need to ask what kind of covenant is being spoken of.  Often what is meant is an “external” covenant in which God’s promises to the infant are essentially the trappings of faith rather than faith itself: the infant is a member of the church as an organisation (the ‘visible’ church which is the people who meet together, as opposed to the ‘invisible’ church which is the company of all faithful people), the word and sacramental ministry of the church (meaning that the children are present when the word is expounded and the sacraments celebrated), the support of the Christian community (again by being present), the prayers of the faithful, the Holy Spirit (because, after all, the Holy Spirit is given many entry points into the lives of those who come under the regular ministry of the visible church, and John 16:8 teaches that the Holy Spirit has a ministry even in the hearts of those who do not acknowledge him), and so on.  But this “external” covenant does not convey the “inward” benefits, such as rebirth or the gifts of the Spirit, until such time as the child responds in faith.

 After reviewing the above evidence, some modern authors who are nevertheless in favour of infant baptism (e.g. Colin Buchanan “Infant Baptism in Common Worship” Grove 2001) have sought to distance themselves from the phrase “covenant theology”.  Buchanan writes (p9-10) “My case is that the children of believers are properly treated as being themselves believers, and are thus proper candidates for baptism.  This is weaker that Calvin’s “covenant” which says they are elect, and stronger than the “external covenant” view which says they are admitted to certain privileges.”  But the three views are identical in that they are “looking for parental faith and discipleship as the key category which qualifies the infant for baptism.”

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