Earlier this month I completed Douglas Wilson’s book To a Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism ~ Covenant Mercy to the Children of God. For anyone who is interested at all in the baptism debate I highly recommend you pick up a copy. Its relatively short (123 pages), well written, and aimed to sympathize with the sentiments of a baptistic audience (Wilson used to be a baptist).
In all honesty, I was surprised with the places Wilson went in this book. I was expecting Wilson to take the reader through a quick biblical survey showing the continuity between the Old and New Testaments and the continuation of child inclusion in the covenant. Now, Wilson does do this, however, he mainly focuses on getting the reader to understand what was going on in the first century. Here’s how he puts it:
Unlike many modern believers, [Peter’s audience at Pentecost] Knew their Old Testaments. If anyone at that time had seriously maintained [that the New Covenant] meant the children of believers were now to be excluded unless they came into the covenant on their own as a separate individual, this would have been, in the first century, an incomprehensible doctrine. We must not come to the text of Scripture with our modern debates in the forefront of our mind. Our modern debates should be settled by Scripture, but this does not mean they are found in Scripture. The issue for us should be to learn what their debates were. And as the history of the church reveals in Acts, their central debate was over whether or not Gentiles had to include their children in the New Covenant by means of circumcision—the question was not whether the Jewish Christians had to start excluding their children. (pg. 15)
Wilson argues that we are all to ready to impose our current arguments about baptism on the scriptures before we ever consider what their arguments were. Moreover, he explains that if we do in fact look at the content of their arguments then it is very likely that we will find much light for our own.
During the first century, the main question that the church was facing had to do with the way that gentiles were brought into the faith, into the covenant. In the administration of the Old Covenant, a gentile who converted was to be circumcised as a sign that he and his family were now apart of the covenant people of God. The contention found in the New Testament is about whether or not gentiles converts to Christ need to circumcise their children as a sign of their covenant membership.
Paul and the other apostles are adamant in the New Testament that gentiles do not need to baptize their children as the Jews do because the administration of the Old Covenant (including circumcision) was passing away, as the administration of the New Covenant (including baptism) was being established. This being the case, Wilson points out an often overlooked reality in the whole debate. During this unique time in history you had Jewish Christians who were circumcising their male infants on the eighth day into Christ. The Jews, along with the New Testament writers, believed that all the symbols of the Old Testament pointed to Christ (including circumcision). This meant that Christian Jews where now following the mosaic administration faithfully in the twilight of its existence (the completion of the Mosaic administration being 70AD when the temple was destroyed). Furthermore, this meant that there were infant members of the church in the first century. Are we really to believe that Jews were circumcising their infants as a sign of their inclusion of the New Covenant and not baptizing (the lasting sign of the New Covenant) them as well? Moreover, do we think that the gentiles are looking at the Jews wondering why they are including their children in the covenant while they are waiting for their kids to make a profession of faith? When we look at the context we see an entire different set of concerns than the ones that we seem to have. Before moving on let me offer another quotation:
In conclusion, the way baptists and paedobaptists handle the modern debate over infant baptism frequently shows how far removed we are from the debates of the first century. Our debates center around a question like this: “Do you mean to say that you think the Gentiles in the first century baptized their infants? Where did you get that?” In the first century the question was more like this: “Do you mean to say that the Gentiles don’t have to circumcise their infants?” It was a foregone conclusion in the first century that something must be done with the infants—after all, if at least one parent was a believer, the children were holy (1 Cor. 7:14). (pg. 78-79)
The other significant (in my estimation) thing that Wilson points out in the book is the fact that neither circumcision or baptism symbolize the spiritual condition of the individual, but rather point as signs to Jesus. Here’s how he puts it:
Just as circumcision was a sign and seal of the Christ who was to come, so baptism is a sign and seal of the Christ who came. Circumcision looked forward in history, and Christian baptism looks back in history, but they both testify to the same Christ, the same Lord of the Covenant. Neither circumcision nor baptism primarily testifies concerning the inward state of the individual who bears the sign and seal; they testify of Christ. (pg. 49)
One of the main arguments against infant baptism is the argument that an infant is not capable of displaying everything that baptism stands for. The New Testament teaches that baptism is a sign of death, burial, resurrection, & faith in Christ. The Baptist will often ridicule the paedobaptist saying “How can you believe in baptizing infants when the Bible says that baptism is a sign of faith? Infants can’t have faith!” Hashed out in those terms the baptist has a point. However, they also have a problem. The problem is that the Bible teaches that circumcision too is a sign of faith; yet circumcising infants in the administration of the Old Covenant is not contradictory. Why? Because both circumcision and baptism are signs of Christ, not believers. Here is a longer quote that sums up Wilson’s thought in this area:
Uncircumcised believing Abraham is thereby the father of uncircumcised believing Gentiles. Believing Abraham, circumcised after justification, is thereby the father of believing Jews, circumcised before justification. Abraham was circumcised as a sign and seal of the righteousness he had by faith. That righteousness was not his own personal faith, it was Christ. Circumcision was his seal that Christ, his righteousness, would in fact come. So when Abraham took this seal in his body, he was thus marked as the father of all believers in Christ—Jew and Gentile both. This is important to note because Abraham’s circumcision was not his personal testimony of his own personal faith. It was God’s testimony, sealing his righteousness—which must not be identified with his faith. (pg. 98-99) (emphases mine)
Ever since the Enlightenment, our society has become increasingly individualistic. Unfortunately, the result of this have been to turn the teaching of the Bible into individual mantras to live by. This is not how the Bible was written and it is not how we are to live. Some may believe that the entire debate over baptism is a silly thing. Who really cares about these external signs anyway. While this sort of response sounds very spiritual, we must remember that we are not Gnostic. We live in a physical world and whether we like it or not we are always using some symbol. The same could be said of liturgies. It’s not whether your church has a liturgy it’s which liturgy your church is using. We need to take the Bible as a whole and we need to take it seriously. I think Douglas Wilson’s book does a wonderful job of describing what Baptism is all about and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the debate!
Food for thought!