Gavin Ortlund has been kind enough to offer a rejoinder to my initial critique of his blog post against infant baptism. I appreciate Gavin’s taking the time to respond to me, and I also hope that this exchange will be useful, edifying, and encourage everyone reading it to examine the Bible very thoroughly for themselves on this topic. I also want to thank Gavin for his charitable demeanor and I have every intention of maintaining that. Before diving into specific responses, I think it is good to take a step back and state the big picture. It is clear that what is under debate here is the nature of the old (pre-Christ) covenants between God and His people, and how our perspective on these covenants (specifically the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants) impacts our view of the New Covenant in Christ. Gavin has clearly stated his position in his original article, that the church was “defined by physical descent throughout the OT (Genesis 17:9), and defined by spiritual descent throughout the NT (Galatians 3:7).” This view allows for the difference in covenant entry rites that Baptists perceive. While seeing some similarities between circumcision and baptism, the perceived discontinuity between the covenants (physical Old Covenant/spiritual New Covenant) causes the credo Baptist to withhold the New Covenant sign from infants. Children entered into the Old Covenant because it was familial and nationalistic, but New Covenant entrance is based on a cognitive repentance and acceptance of Christ. Therefore, only those with cognitive reasoning skills belong in the church, thus credo Baptism. It is discontinuity that permits the exclusion of children from the New Covenant.
I, on the other hand, am arguing for a different perspective on the Old Covenant – and thereby for stronger continuity between the Old and New Covenants. I am arguing that individual faithfulness or faithlessness to YAHWEH would override one’s family lineage – even in the Old Covenant. Therefore circumcision was a sign to be granted – not indiscriminately or exclusively to all the seed of Abraham, but to Israelites and gentile families living faithfully within God’s covenant. This continuity suggests that children should be brought into the New Covenant, just as they were in the Old. That’s the big picture.
Religious People With Family Roots
In response to Gavin’s first point, perhaps a few lines to clarify what I am saying are in order. There is no doubt at all that the race of Israel, the descendants of Abraham were specifically chosen by God for a special grace under the Old Covenant. They were entrusted with the oracles of God (Romans 3:1-2). The covenant belonged to them as a people by inheritance, along with the adoption as sons, the giving of the law, the temple service, the promises, etc. (Romans 9:4-5). Circumcision was a special sign for the descendants of Abraham as the priestly nation, as long as they would keep the covenant of God (Exodus 20:5-6). As I said in the conclusion to my original post, “Israel was intended to be a religious people, with the physical family of Abraham at its center (Underline added for new emphasis).” However, while saying that, I still maintain that faithfulness to YAHWEH would outweigh one’s family ties IF the covenant had been properly maintained by Israel. Keeping the covenant is critical to ongoing inclusion in the covenant, as God states from the very beginning (Genesis 17:14). I hope to continue to demonstrate that.
Professions of Faith
In his point number 2, Gavin opens with the following statement: “The attempt to make the Abrahamic covenant conditional upon each individual family professing faith does not line up with what we read throughout the Old Testament.” He argues later that unlike modern day Presbyterian churches, that require a statement of faith to join the church and have one’s children baptized, no statement of faith was required in Old Covenant Israel. To this, I would like to point out that there are verbal statements of faith that reflect our subjective beliefs towards God and Jesus, but there are also visible, action based statements of faith. As James says, “show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works (2:18).” The statement of faith required for church membership would be about the easiest thing in the world to fake, whereas ongoing actions that demonstrate our faith are actually much harder. I suggest that the life of the covenant people under the law of Moses was to be composed of repeated, ongoing, and often costly statements of faith in YAHWEH that were concrete and objective.
For example, truly resting on the Sabbath would have been costly in an agrarian society. God claims one day in seven, and if you work on the Sabbath, you’re to be cut off from the people. The ongoing atonement of the sacrificial system would have been very costly to each Israelite, as they give up one of the best of their flock for every non-intentional breaking of the law. In bringing the sacrifice, they confess that they are guilty and need to be restored to YAHWEH. If they sinned willfully then they faced the penalties of the law, as I discussed in my earlier post. They had to strive constantly to keep themselves clean and undefiled to enter the tabernacle and worship. This was not the “country club Christianity” that many people with a perfectly credible verbal statement of faith practice! A person maintaining themselves faithfully under the law of Moses is an objective statement of faith. We see throughout the Old Testament that when Israel was becoming unfaithful to God, that lack of faith quickly flowed out of the heart and was expressed in numerous failures to obey God’s laws regarding sin, atonement, forgiveness and worship. A verbal, subjective statement of faith is very often the weakest link in a person’s testimony – because it’s the easiest to fake.
I would like to take the specific historical case that Gavin mentions and “turn it on its head” so to speak. I agree that Joshua did not make each individual Israelite come before him for an examination of the credibility of their profession. But in a similar way to what I describe above, a strong objective profession of faith is being made here, none the less. If they had wanted out, nothing would have been easier: reject circumcision, and be sent on your way (Genesis 17:14). Instead, all present submit themselves: (1) to the painful process of circumcision for themselves and their sons and (2) to undergoing circumcision and the significant healing process immediately upon entering enemy territory, with the flooded Jordan river at their backs! The Israelites would have no doubt remembered the story of their forefathers, Simeon and Levi, slaughtering the men of an entire city by tricking them into circumcising themselves (Genesis 34:25)! Unlike their fathers, who as a whole rejected God because they feared the inhabitants of Caanan, this generation responded to an even greater test with faithfulness! The end of Joshua recounts of this generation: “Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, and had known all the deeds of the Lord which He had done for Israel. (24:31)” I cannot accept that this generation’s actions in the conquest followed by ongoing obedience to YAHWEH are not far stronger indications of their faith than a few words spoken under examination by the elders. Faithfulness was the profession of faith that God required.
Covenantal Design Versus Outcome
I believe there is a strong distinction that Gavin misses between the intent of the Abrahamic covenant (and the follow up Mosaic covenant) and the way in which Israel administered the covenant in her checkered history. The design is clear: beginning in Genesis 17, we see that covenant keeping was required. Also within the law, it was very clear:
Exodus 20:5-6 5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
God is patient, God is kind and merciful – but he would deal with covenant breakers. The intent of the covenant pertains to relationship with God: righteous behavior, maintaining yourself clean before Him, making atonement for sin, and true worship of YAHWEH. Covenant breaking involves the abandonment of these things. The greatest commandment, which sums up the law, is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-7:
Deuteronomy 6:4-7: 4 “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
This great creed of Israel is NOT the calling of a nationalistic, nominally religious people. It is the battle cry of a people fiercely loyal to God, who in each generation teach their sons (and daughters) to walk in faithfulness that they might continue in God’s blessed covenant.
But confusion tends to set in when we observe how things played out in the history of Israel. God hoped that they would carefully follow the law and keep covenant (Deuteronomy 6:1-3) that he might continually bless and multiply them, but they did not. The role of the priests and elders of Israel was to carefully guard the covenant, dealing with sin and faithlessness in life or worship and guarding the purity of the covenant people (Deuteronomy 17:8-13), much as New Covenant church elders are called to do. However, the leaders of Israel themselves repeatedly became faithless and did not guard this purity – much as New Covenant elders often do! Eli and his sons (1 Samuel 2:12:ff.) are an excellent case in point. Eli was the final guardian of God’s worship in the tabernacle. And yet he did not follow the law and have his sons killed or even excommunicated when they were unrepentant over eating God’s portion of the sacrifices and even sleeping with women in the doorway of the tent of meeting! When Eli failed, God put his sons to death Himself, and cursed Eli’s house in the process. This also led to the removal of God’s presence from the tabernacle, in the form of the Ark of the Covenant being captured.
Gavin’s use of Jeremiah 9:26 also provides an interesting case study. Gavin says “So much did the sacrament continue apart from inward appropriation of its meaning that at her (worst) moments, God could lament that the entire nation had not appropriated the sacrament inwardly” It is here that I see the most confusion between God’s intention for the covenant and Israel’s faithless administration of the covenant. Jeremiah 9 is a lament of God over his faithless people. The entire point is that Israel is circumcised but they are living as if they are uncircumcised! This is a problem BECAUSE the covenant was so much more than a family oriented, nationalistic covenant. It was about walking faithfully with God. It was supposed to penetrate into their hearts (Deuteronomy 6:6-7, 10:15-16) but it didn’t. They were not faithful. Gavin makes the statement : “If Drew were right, and Israel operated as paedobaptist churches operate, then I suppose in Jeremiah’s day just about the entire nation would have to be excommunicated!” I’m glad he agrees with me on that point, because it’s clear that just about the entire nation at that point DID need to be excommunicated. Because the leaders failed to maintain the purity of the covenant people through excommunication, God did it himself! He excommunicated the entire nation (or at least what remained) from the land and from the temple worship through the Babylonian conquest and deportation.
The Conditions of Excommunication
In point 3, Gavin says there is no hint in the Old Testament that the Israelites were excommunicated from the covenant simply because they had failed to profess faith in God. I would say, rather, that they were to be excommunicated from the covenant if they failed to meticulously follow any one of the numerous regulations of God’s worship. For example, failure to circumcise, eating leaven during Passover week, mixing up a similar mixture to the anointing oil used for the priests, working on the Sabbath, eating the wrong parts of sacrifices, eating sacrifices while unclean, and many, many more worship and moral regulations. If you failed in one of these requirements unintentionally, the proper sacrifice had to be made. Simply put, if you are not professing faith in God, then why put yourself through the never ending hassle of maintaining your access to Him? The conditions of excommunication were unrepentantly failing to worship God correctly, or unrepentantly disobeying Him. As far as I am aware, these are the conditions of excommunication for most modern churches, paedobaptist or otherwise. In accepting new members, they merely utilize the profession of faith as a quick barometer of whether or not the perspective member is faithful to God’s covenant. I’m sure Israel practiced something similar whenever they allowed a new Gentile household into the covenant. “Wait, are you sure you want to be circumcised if you don’t believe in God?”
Believers and Their Children (Covenant Households)
In point 4, Gavin would like a demonstration of a Biblical ecclesiology of “those who believe and their children.” In his view, it seems, Abraham’s family constitutes the first and only “covenant household”, and which carries on throughout all his generations. However, as I demonstrated in my first response, it is clear that new converts into the covenant (gentiles) indeed come as covenant households! They come just as Abraham originally came, with children and servants included (Exodus 12:48). Gavin did not provide a reason for this within his ecclesiology, or even address it in his response. Abraham, while certainly unique in the purposes of God, also demonstrates a broader principle: when God claims you in history, he claims your seed with you. These gentiles were in effect “new Abrahams”, coming from uncircumcision into circumcision.
David also has an ecclesiology of “believers and their children” in the Psalms:
Psalm 22:30-31 30 A seed will serve Him; It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation. 31 They will come and will declare His righteousness To a people who will be born, that He has performed it.
Psalm 90:16 16 Let Your work appear to Your servants And Your majesty to their children.
Psalm 102:27-28 27 “But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end. 28 “The children of Your servants will continue, And their seed will be established before You.”
Psalm 103:17-18 17 But the lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, And His righteousness to children’s children, 18 To those who keep His covenant And remember His precepts to do them.
The language David uses over and over again is Abrahamic language (seed, generation, establish, everlasting), and he is applying it, not just to these children as descendants of Abraham, but as the children of all his faithful servants! Those who KEEP HIS COVENANT and remember His precepts to do them. The language brings to mind Genesis 17 again:
Genesis 17:18-19 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” 19 But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his nameIsaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him.”
Notice that Isaac receives the same promises that Abraham did concerning his seed, as do all the servants of YAHWEH (which would have included natural Israelites AND gentile converts) in the Psalms mentioned above.
Finally, in response to Gavin’s John Sr./Jr./III scenario, I can only reiterate what I have already said. In talking to John Jr. his elder might need to ask why he continues in such faithful actions towards YAHWEH when he doesn’t believe any of it from his heart. Why keep offering all these sacrifices and keeping himself clean, to maintain access to God’s tabernacle? Truly faithful covenant keeping without an inward appropriation was not the common problem in ancient Israel. The problem was people disbelieved God, and it QUICKLY bubbled to the surface in failure to keep God’s law. Do I believe that John Jr. could have been an ongoing hypocrite who did in fact keep the law well enough to get by? Yes, it’s possible, but it’s also possible in paedobaptist churches that require a profession of faith and even in credo Baptist churches who wait for a truly credible conversion experience and adult profession of faith! Hypocrisy is always a problem in God’s church, but no leader in Israel or modern day can see into men’s hearts. They can only accept what a person says and then observe their lives to see if it is consistent with their profession. This is another continuity across all ages of the church. And as with ancient Israel, the modern church would do well to deal with gross, unrepentant sin issues – the great indicator of a false profession of faith.