Gavin Ortlund, a PhD student at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, recently wrote a brief article for The Gospel Coalition’s blog, entitled “Why I Changed My Mind About Baptism” Mr. Ortlund was baptized into the Church of Scotland and raised as a Presbyterian. Through the course of his study, he has departed from the paedobaptist position and become a credo Baptist (i.e. believer’s baptism). His article gives a brief summary of the reasoning behind this transition. The article has garnered quite a bit of attention, with 120+ comments on the article and 540+ facebook “likes” at the time of my writing. My attention was drawn to this article by an interview with Mark Horne on the City of God blog.
Here’s a link to the Gavin Ortlund article:
Here’s a link to the City of God Mark Horne interview, which I have not watched completely:
Although I am sure Mr. Ortlund would be more detailed and complex in his reasoning given more writing space, in this short article he distills the issue down very simply to one nagging question: Why not baptize grandchildren? To gain a better understanding of this question, here is a direct quote from the article:
B. B. Warfield offered a helpfully succinct statement of the case for Reformed paedobaptism: “The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until he puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of his church and as such entitled to its ordinances. Among these ordinances is baptism.”
This appeal to continuity with circumcision is at the core of the Reformed paedobaptist argument. Question 74 of the Heidelberg Catechism refers to baptism as the New Testament replacement of circumcision. John Calvin claimed that “whatever belongs to circumcision pertains likewise to baptism.” John Murray spoke of an “essential identity of meaning” between circumcision and baptism. And so with Berkhof, Marcel, Owen, Edwards, and countless other theologians and confessions.
But this appeal to continuity raises a question. Who exactly were the proper recipients of circumcision? To whom is Warfield referring with the word children? Circumcision is given in Genesis 17:9 to “you and your seed [offspring, descendants; Hebrew zerah] after you, for the generations to come.” The individuals in view here are the intergenerational descendants of Abraham. The faith of an Israelite child’s parents was not what determined the child’s right to circumcision; it was the child’s association with the nation of Israel. In other words, the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham. It wasn’t the “children of believers” who had the right to the sacrament of initiation, but the “children of Abraham.” So, given paedobaptist presuppositions, why not baptize the grandchildren of believers, too? If we’re really building off continuity with the Old Testament precedent, why stop at one generation?
The argument that Mr. Ortlund makes is quite simple:
- Paedobaptistic practice rests on the principle of continuity with circumcision.
- In the Old Testament, all physical descendants of Abraham were circumcised, regardless of the faith or faithlessness of their parents.
- Paedobaptists do not baptize the grandchildren of believers if the parents are not Christians.
- Therefore, Paedobaptism is an inconsistent position.
I want to respond to this argument because it is a highly influential argument for people of the baptistic mindset, because it held me away from the paedobaptist position for several years, and finally, because I think it is a fairly easy criticism for paedobaptists to answer.
First of all, Point 3 is obviously true. Paedobaptists do not believe that infants and young children should be baptized based on their grandparents’ faith in Christ. After all, Jesus’s command in Matthew 28 is to go, make disciples, baptizing, teaching. It is a simple enough case that, while a grandparent can in some ways teach their grandchildren, they do not have the authority to decide if those children will be truly discipled in the church of Jesus Christ. Baptism makes you a disciple of Jesus Christ, a member of the covenant people. Grandparents do not make that decision, parents do.
Point 1 as I have stated it above is a rather broad statement that could be clarified and nuanced significantly. After all, paedobaptists recognize that there is dramatic change in the covenant with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The entire covenant, if you will, goes through a death/resurrection and comes up as a new creation. In other words, paedobaptists and covenant theologians do not claim a wooden, blanket continuity between the covenants, but they do see many significant continuities, including the ongoing inclusion of the children of believers in the people of God. However, I think this statement is true enough in the context we are discussing. The quotes that Mr. Ortlund gives from Warfield, Calvin, and Murray are quite clear as to their meaning.
Which brings us to Point 2. This is where I believe the argument fails. Mark Horne’s answer to this question (found at timestamp 14:20 in the video) was quick and to the point – he does not believe that the children of faithful grandparents and faithless parents in Israel would have been circumcised. Let’s examine this. Ortlund’s underlying rationale is this: “the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham.” Parental faithfulness to YAHWEH did not determine a child’s qualification for circumcision; rather, it was physical descent from Abraham. Simple enough, but is it correct?
Faithless Israelites and Exclusion from the Covenant
First, let’s take the case of a circumcised yet faithless parent of Abrahamic descent. Was that parent’s child circumcised? To start with, we must remember that the Mosaic law was added to the Abrahamic covenant as the administration of God’s requirements for his people from the time they became a nation until the death and resurrection of Jesus. We see this in the way that circumcision is taken up into the Mosaic covenant in Leviticus 12:3. With that in mind, we must look into the case with more specifics – in what ways did that parent’s faithlessness manifest itself?
If the unbelieving Israelite parents reject YAHWEH and worshipped other Gods, then Deuteronomy 17:2-5 is very clear: they die. If they pursue spiritism or witchcraft, they die (Leviticus 20:27). If they profane God’s Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17), they die. If they tempt others away from worshipping YAHWEH (Deuteronomy 13:6-11), they die. And finally in all matters of sin against God, or sins of one man against another, the people were to submit to the decisions and justice of the priests and elders, who’s purpose was to teach the people about God and His law, and arbitrate disputes (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). If any man refused to listen to the priest and judge deciding his case, then he was killed!
Another form of punishment for some sins was excommunication, or being banished from the community of Israel. Some examples of those sins that called for excommunication were: eating a peace offering while unclean (Leviticus 7:20-21), eating parts of a sacrifice devoted to God (Leviticus 7:25), offering a sacrifice somewhere besides the tabernacle (Leviticus 17:8-9), and a whole litany of offences in Leviticus 18. Leviticus 18:24-30 sums up the situation very well:
Leviticus 18:24-30 24 ‘Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. 25 For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. 26 But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you 27 (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); 28 so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you. 29 For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people.30 Thus you are to keep My charge, that you do not practice any of the abominable customs which have been practiced before you, so as not to defile yourselves with them; I am the Lord your God.’”
The point of all of this is that there wasn’t a lot of room for outright rebellion or apostasy in Israel. Those who overtly and unrepentantly rejected God were to be either killed or excommunicated from the covenant people. Obviously, in one case there would be no future children, in the other case they would not be circumcised as part of the covenant. Although Israel tended to drift away from God into rebellion, this was not the expectation or design. What was expected was holiness – because they were God’s people. The fact that even the leaders and priests often rebelled against God and allowed apostasy to persist in the covenant people should not affect our thinking on this. In the covenant, properly maintained, unrepentant sin was to be dealt with. Faithfulness to God was paramount – not just physical descent from Abraham.
Faithful Foreigners and Inclusion in the Covenant
The passage in Leviticus 18 provides a good segue way into the flip side of this question. What about non-Israelites who did believe in YAHWEH and were faithful? Remarkably, as Leviticus 18:26 indicates, sojourners would be dwelling with the Israelites, and they were to be held generally to the same standard of behavior. A sojourner, or stranger, then, was like the gentile God-fearers mentioned in the New Testament. They were required to conform to God’s law. They could live independently (Leviticus 25:47), although they often lived as hired labor for Israelites. Numbers 15:14-16 gives additional insight into the position of sojourners within Israel:
Numbers 15:14-16: 14 If an alien sojourns with you, or one who may be among you throughout your generations, and he wishes to make an offering by fire, as a soothing aroma to the Lord, just as you do so he shall do. 15 As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the Lord. 16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.’”
The foreigners, then, could make sacrifices and join in with the assemblies at the tabernacle. Sojourners also had access to the cities of refuge (Numbers 35:15), and protection under the law (Exodus 22:21).
It is apparent, then, that the law again and again makes accommodation for the fact that there will be foreigners living peacefully among the Israelites, worshiping YAHWEH, and obeying His law. They could not live in the land as pagans or they would have been killed. However, this in and of itself did not make them members of Israel, God’s priestly, covenant people. For there is at least one critical ceremony that they were excluded from: the Passover.
Exodus 12:43-45 43 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it; 44 but every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it. 45 A sojourner or a hired servant shall not eat of it.
The Passover was reserved for those specifically incorporated into the covenant with Abraham through circumcision. This is how we know that the standard definition of a stranger or sojourner meant a foreigner living peacefully and faithfully within Israel, but uncircumcised. However, this does NOT mean that foreigners were absolutely excluded from the Abrahamic covenant, as Mr. Ortlund’s article seems to suggest. If a foreigner wanted to draw near to God as part of the covenant people and keep the Passover, he could indeed do so, by meeting the requirement of circumcision – i.e. joining the covenant.
Exodus 12:48 48 But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it.
This man has essentially become an Israelite, in the religious sense. He is now like a native of the land in all respects. And most importantly for the argument under consideration, he does not come alone. “Let all his males be circumcised.” He brings his family and servants with him, just as Abraham did originally in Genesis 17. His children, though having no physical connection to Abraham, and through no decision of their own, now belong to the Abrahamic covenant. This draws into very serious doubt the assertion from Mr. Ortlund’s article that “…the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham. It wasn’t the “children of believers” who had the right to the sacrament of initiation, but the “children of Abraham.”
I join Mark Horne in his assertion that Israelite children of faithless or apostate parents would NOT receive circumcision, at least by the standards and design of the law. I hope this is made clear in the scriptures shown above. I would also challenge the assertion that belonging to the people of God in the Abrahamic/Mosaic covenants revolved solely around physical descent. Rather, I assert that Israel was intended to be a religious people, with the physical family of Abraham at its center. Faithfulness and worship of the God of Israel was paramount. God would accept non-Israelites who put their faith in Him (along with their children), and He would reject physical descendants of Abraham that rejected Him (along with their future children), even in the Old Covenant era. This, in my opinion, robs Mr. Ortlund’s argument concerning the baptism of children with faithful grandparents of all its force.