Yeah, so I was reading along as if I didn’t have anything else to do. I’ve been working on the rough outline of what to say to Doug Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations for a while now – at least since his office sent me a copy to review – and since I have spouted off about this elsewhere, I’ll spout a little here today and let you good people have a whack at what I’m thinking.
The first thing I’d say about Presbyterian baptismal theology is this: it’s consistent. That is to say, it hangs together very well. It’s obviously well-considered. All the pieces fit the way I’d like them to fit. It’s very systematic, which of course is very appealing. So they baptize babies, and they have this long list of reasons why it’s a great idea to do so, and the ideas seem to flow one from another.
And in Mr. Wilson’s case, he does one better than most of them: he means it and is willing to live with all the consequences. That’s not saying that many Presbyterians are hypocrites (not any worse than most Baptists are, anyway), but it is saying that, for example, if baptism equals covenant membership, and somebody gets covenant membership, we can’t go and start ex-covenanting them because we didn't really in-coveant them. So some baby that grows up to be Pope, to use the most aggravating example available, can’t be said to be “not a Christian” even though he necessarily advocates the essential belief that Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven, or that one earns forgiveness in confession through penance. In Mr. Wilson’s view, if you got baptized, you’re in – and you put yourself at great peril if you behave as if you are actually “out”.
And that’s based on the whole matter of the covenant, right? Baptism is the covenant sign; it’s the initiation into the covenant, and that covenant is manifest in the church. Covenantalism – seeing God as establishing relationship as covenant – is the backbone of this view, whether it be the “I abjure FV” Presbyterianism or “I affirm FV” Presbyterianism.
This is a brief(?!) summary, so please forgive (and feel free to amend in the comments for my edification) any oversimplifications or errors.
But I’m not announcing that I’ve left the Baptist church for Presbyterianism today, so where am I driving this bus? Well, I’m going to spend all summer (so clear your calendars) recapping as much of the first 3 centuries of written stuff about baptism as I can round up to see if that’s what the fellows leading the church and exhorting others were saying about this rite back in the proverbial day. And let's be honest: it's a mixed bag.
Now, why do that? Because, in the first place, I don’t think any of these guys came out and said, “Pheh! Baby Baptism!” But at the same time, what did they say about baby baptism? And most importantly, what did they say about what baptism is for, what it does, and what we can use it to understand. I know I have personally been thinking and journaling about this for more than 2 years, and I’m at the place where I’m ready to think and write about this from the perspective, “If Scriptures says only this much (which is enough, btw), what did that teaching produce in others?”
Thus, we begin with Justin, in his First Apology, Chapter LXI.—Christian baptism:
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above; he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”As I read this, I find three key points of interest, not necessarily underlined for emphasis, above. The first is this: Justin is very keen on associating the act of baptism with something in particular, namely the forgiveness of sins. There can be no doubt about that – if you want to refute that, you’ll have to go do that someplace else. You can’t read his statement highlighted in yellow, above, and come away with the idea that he didn’t really think baptism was associated with regeneration.
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.
The big question, however, is how is baptism associated with regeneration? Does baptism cause regeneration? The blue highlighted section speaks to that specifically – concluding with the final underlined section.
The second key point of interest is what Justin does not specifically associate with baptism – namely, the new covenant. He calls this act a “[rite] we have learned from the apostles”, but the particular reason for the rite is not inclusion in the new covenant: it is to actively demonstrate choice and knowledge in what Christ has done for us. What is so exciting – from my baptistic perch – about this affirmation is that Justin has here contrasted the act with what we receive as children from and by our parents. From our parents we have received bad habits, and wicked training, but in Christ we receive something else which we demonstrate in baptism.
The last key point I would underscore for you is that Justin says we “dedicate ourselves to God” in baptism. Notice that he doesn’t mean that we apply baptism to ourselves (as someone leads us “to the laver”, as Justin says), but that in baptism we “dedicate” ourselves – which is to say, we commit or devote ourselves. We are willing, in other words, to do this thing. I'm sure that will lead to an explosive paedofaith steel-cage match, but here there's no way to construe what Justin is talking about as being infants with an unobserved faith.
Now, many of the people who read this blog are about to say, “well, what about Ignatius? What about the Epistle of Barnabas?” Dude: I said I was going to take all summer. Don’t get crazy because I didn’t start with your favorite ECF on this topic. We will get there. Let’s talk about this one – and I’d be willing to take any other part of First Apology into account in order to get clarity on this passage and this point.
Have at it.