During seminary I became convinced of infant baptism. This might come as a surprise to some folks, since I have been somewhat discreet on social media about this development. This is mainly because I was still a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an active member at a Baptist church as I wrestled with this issue, and I did not want to appear divisive. But as of last October my wife and I joined a Presbyterian church here in Louisville, last December I graduated from Southern, and this May I came under care of the Ohio River Valley Presbytery in the PCA and began a one-year pastoral internship. So it now seems appropriate to write about this topic.
This post is a semi-autobiographical account of how I came to change my mind on this issue. Initially, the need for a post like this was impressed on me after a couple different people I know, upon hearing that Ivy and I have become Presbyterian, wondered if we had gone liberal. This is understandable, since the PCUSA is the largest Presbyterian denomination in America. But the notion that I have drifted leftward is mistaken. After graduating seminary, I am even more, not less, convinced of issues like the inerrancy of Scripture, male-only eldership, and the sinfulness of homosexuality. I am currently a candidate for ministry in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which is a theologically and morally conservative Presbyterian denomination. Nothing on that front has changed.
More generally though, I wanted to write this post so that family and friends can have a better idea of what exactly has changed in my views and how that change came about.
At some point before I attended Bible college at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I decided that I needed to sit down and figure out this whole baptism issue. While John Piper, the chancellor of the college, was a credobaptist—meaning he held that only professing believers should be baptized—many other contemporary Reformed preachers and teachers were paedobaptist (e.g., R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, Tim Keller)—meaning they hold that the infants of believers also should be baptized. While I had grown up Baptist, I had never really studied the Scriptural arguments for or against credobaptism. I figured that since there were such reputable Reformed teachers on either side of the issue, I ought to look into the other side. I wanted to be sure I was going to the right Bible college, after all. I was open to becoming a paedobaptist, if I came to see that the Scriptures require it.
I do not remember all of what I read on either side of the issue, but this should give you some idea. I read just about every article and sermon by John Piper written in favor of credobaptism or against paedobaptism that I could find—I remember in particular this sermon and this article. I read a few other articles on credobaptism that I was able to find online. I also read a few articles on the paedobaptist side: something like this and this.
I felt the pull toward the paedobaptists, but I found their arguments complicated and hard to grasp. They spoke a lot about covenants and circumcision and Abraham, and so on, and I had not yet read through the Bible more than once or twice and was still getting oriented to its history and structure. The credobaptist arguments, on the other hand, were much simpler and easier to grasp: there are no examples of infant baptism, and there are examples of credobaptism, and we see the apostles going around proclaiming, “Repent and be baptized.” But these fairly standard arguments, while simple, did not seem to me very strong. The paedobaptists countered that there are lots of things that we do not have an explicit example for in Scripture that are not for that reason condemned (women taking communion, for example). And while we have examples of believers being baptized, this does not mean that only believers were baptized, nor need the summons to “repent and believe” imply anything further than that the apostles were addressing non-Christian adults in an evangelistic setting. While Scripture has no explicit example of infant baptism, it does not explicitly forbid infant baptism, either. So the most common credobaptist arguments seemed answerable. On the other hand, I wasn’t quite convinced of the paedobaptists’ own arguments yet, which I still struggled to understand.
Then I found it—Stephen Wellum’s chapter in Believer’s Baptism, where Wellum gives his new covenant argument for credobaptism. Briefly, he holds, on the basis of the new covenant promise given in Jeremiah 31:31–34 and its usage in Hebrews 8:6–13, that the new covenant is new and better than the old because the old covenant community, Israel, was a mixed community, consisting of both believers and unbelievers, regenerate and unregenerate. The new covenant, however, which Jesus brought in the New Testament, promises that all who are in it will be saved. The new covenant community, then, is a fully regenerate community. Again, in the old covenant one “gets in” by natural birth, while in the new covenant one “gets in” not by natural birth, but by new birth—by regeneration and faith. Only the regenerate are members of the new covenant, and since baptism is the sign of entry into the covenant community, only those who evidence themselves to be regenerate by means of a credible profession of faith should receive the sign of the new covenant.
Wellum’s argument basically settled it for me. I attempted to find a paedobaptist argument online that responded to his argument, but I couldn’t find anything at the time. I presumed this was because he was right and no answer could be given. At the very least, if the paedobaptists were ever going to win me over to their side, they would need to offer me a plausible response to Wellum’s new covenant argument. In the absence of that, I felt pretty good about being a Baptist.
A Weird Baptist
So I went to Bible college. I am incredibly grateful for my years at Bethlehem College and Seminary. The Lord grew and matured me in a number of areas during my time there.
While I was in college a couple of my classmates became convinced of paedobaptism. I remember putting Wellum’s new covenant argument to them and asking them for a response. I do not remember how they replied, but I was not convinced at the time. Wellum’s new covenant argument still held the day for me. I recall an elder at Bethlehem Baptist Church leading a class period in which he explained how he came to change his mind from paedobaptist to credobaptist views. The question for him was: is the new covenant perfect now, or is it perfect later? For him, he came to believe it was perfect now—meaning that the new covenant community is entirely regenerate, and therefore we should only baptize those who evidence themselves to be regenerate by a credible profession of faith. This sounded good to me, and so I remained credobaptist for the rest of Bible college.
In other areas though, I was becoming a weird Baptist. I was thinking through some other issues relating to baptism, and beginning to adopt views that are atypical for Baptists and which, in retrospect, served to pave the way for my later change of mind.
First, while I was in college there was an online kerfuffle among credobaptists over whether or not young children who profess faith should be baptized. Mark Jones critiqued Jonathan Leeman’s view that parents should wait to baptize their children until they reach adulthood or are close to it. This led to reactions from Andrew Wilson, Joe Rigney, Patrick Schreiner, and Wilson again. Previous posts on this subject resurfaced from Trevin Wax, John Starke, and Justin Taylor. I followed all of this with some interest, having been baptized at age 7. Reading an old article from Vern Poythress against indifferentism and rigorism really sealed the deal for me: we should not look with suspicion or skepticism on child-like professions of faith; rather, we should extend to them the judgment of charity and baptize them young.
Second, I came to hold that you should be baptized only once. One problem with baptizing young children is that as they enter into adolescence they can go through a season of rebelliousness and become caught in cycles of sin. As they mature through this, they will often experience a great strengthening of faith at some point and enter into a new state of spiritual maturity. This can lead to a crisis of faith: Was I really saved when I was baptized as a child? Did I have true and genuine faith at the time? If not, or if I’m not sure, do I need to be re-baptized?
The deeper question here is whether the validity of baptism depends upon the presence of saving faith or merely upon the presence of a profession of faith (whether or not it is saving). I came to hold the latter: the mere profession of faith is all that is required in order for baptism to be rightly administered. Future lapses of faith or even outright apostasy does not nullify the fact of baptism. If you leave the faith and come back later, you do not need to be baptized again. To make the validity of baptism depend on the presence of saving faith is to leave too much room for doubt, vacillation, and uncertainty. Sensitive consciences, the introspective, or even just those with an inclination for the melodramatic will always find the ability to question their genuineness, and thus to seek re-baptism again and again. But we cannot infallibly read someone’s heart, nor are we entirely competent to read our own. Baptism is more objective than all of that, or so it seemed to me.
Third—and this is where things really start to get dicey—by the time I was wrapping up my undergraduate studies I began to think that infant baptism was improper, but not invalid. Those baptized as infants were baptized at the wrong time (before profession of faith) and with the wrong mode (by sprinkling or pouring), but they were still baptized. They do not need to be re-baptized in order to become members of a church or partake of the Lord’s Table.
An important backdrop to my wrestling with this issue is historical controversy over John Piper’s position of open church membership. The central question was whether we must exclude from church membership and from the Lord’s Supper those who were baptized as infants and who are also convinced that Scripture teaches that infant baptism is a valid mode of baptism and that re-baptism is improper. John Piper argued no: the door to the local church should be as wide as the door to the universal church. In order to get into the universal church, one simply must repent and believe. It does not make sense to require more than this as an entry requirement for the local church, because then you would effectively be excommunicating someone over a secondary, non-salvific issue. To bar someone from the Lord’s Table or from local church membership is, in effect, front-door excommunication. If there were no other churches around, you would effectively be shutting them out of the church. Now, Piper still maintained that infant baptism is invalid. Strictly speaking, he thought that those who were “baptized” as infants were not actually baptized. He just thought that they should still be allowed to church membership and the Lord’s Table, provided they evidence themselves to be regenerate and true believers. Misinterpreting the teaching of Scripture regarding a secondary issue is insufficient grounds to deny someone membership in the church or fellowship at the Table. Piper lost this argument at Bethlehem Baptist Church, and he received criticism from Mark Dever, Wayne Grudem, and other Baptists on this point.
Throughout college I agreed enthusiastically with Piper here; however, I came to question whether we should really say that those baptized as infants have not been baptized at all. After all, this is not how we normally talk. Baptists tend to speak of how it is wrong to baptize babies, not of how it is impossible to do so. This does not settle the matter of course, because in speech we often use a kind of shorthand, and it is much easier to criticize “the baptism of infants” than “the so-called ‘baptism’ of infants.” But it still raises the question of which aspects of baptism—as to its elements, mode, or circumstances—are (1) essential for its validity, without which there is no baptism at all; which aspects are (2) essential for its health or well-being, without which a baptism is merely defective and improper; and which aspects are (3) purely accidental, which affect neither its validity nor its well-being and can differ from church to church.
An example of (1), aspects essential for validity, would be the application of water in the Triune name. Without this, we do not have a Christian baptism at all, as all orthodox Christians would agree.
Examples of (2), aspects essential for health or well-being, might be whether a pastor or a layperson should baptize, or whether the baptism should be done in a church assembly or spontaneously in a fountain at the park. These matters may be viewed as pertaining to what is appropriate or inappropriate, ideal or not ideal, and yet getting this wrong does not nullify the baptism entirely.
Examples of (3), aspects purely accidental, might be what the baptizer or the one baptized should wear, whether it’s a white robe or a T-shirt and a swimsuit. It might also include the precise wording of the things spoken by the baptizer, and whether or not the one baptized shares their testimony as part of the rite. It might also include whether baptism is done every Sunday or on select Sundays throughout the year.
Someone may put an issue in (2) that another would put in (3), or vice versa. This is to be expected, as the distance between (2) and (3) is lesser than the distance between (1) and either (2) or (3). If we disagree over matters in (2) and (3) we at least still have a baptism, though it may be either more or less healthy or proper or in accordance with biblical principles. If we disagree over matters in (1) we do not have a baptism at all. There is a clear difference between the sort of issues that fall under either (2) or (3), and the sort of issues that fall under (1).
Most Baptists assume that the issues of the timing of baptism in relation to the profession of faith (whether the baptism follows or precedes it) and of the mode of application (whether full immersion or pouring/sprinkling) are in category 1, rather than category 2. But why? I found that many Baptists simply don’t even ask this question. For my part, I could not see a reason why infant baptism should be treated as a category 1 error rather than a category 2 error. So, around the time I graduated college, I was inclined to view those baptized as infants as culpable of a category 2 error: their baptism was improper and unideal, but it was still a baptism. While this view is atypical among Baptists, I at least had a few credobaptists on my side: at the time I knew of Andrew Wilson and Karl Barth, and more recently I have found out that Joe Rigney and Gavin Ortlund also articulate this position.
I should also note—though I realize this is not by any means conclusive—that my study of church history in college further challenged me to ask this question. One of the things that my undergraduate education did was widen my horizons, and gave me a deeper appreciation for world history and the church’s rich and varied theological heritage. So I was reading with pleasure the early church Fathers, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Bavinck, and many others. As I was doing so, I was not viewing them with suspicion as those who may not have really been Christians at all, but as my fathers in the faith. But then I was immediately faced with a question: Were all of these theological giants unbaptized? Even worse: Was Christ’s church left, for around 1400 years, without baptism? While I did not think it impossible that this might be the case, it did not seem plausible, and it at least meant that those arguing that infant baptism was invalid, rather than merely improper, had quite a burden of proof on their hands.
Fourth, and more briefly, from my study of Scripture, church history, and Reformed dogmatics, I adopted a Calvinistic view of sacramental efficacy rather than the Zwinglian viewpoint more typical among today’s Baptists. Instead of viewing the sacraments as primarily a matter of one’s own self-expression, whether of faith or repentance or anything else, I viewed baptism as first and primarily a divine expression, a means of grace by which God speaks and strengthens our faith. Baptism is a tangible, visible word through which God in a unique way proclaims his saving promises: as surely as your body is washed clean with this water, so surely is your body and soul spiritually washed clean of sin and guilt by the blood of Christ and the sanctification of the Spirit. Baptism is first of all a divine testimony before it is a human testimony. There are a number of Reformed Baptists who may agree with this, to be sure, but they are a minority among Baptists today, and the logic here fits very well within a paedobaptist perspective and less comfortably in a credobaptist one.
Finally, as I was learning Koine Greek and becoming more comfortable with it, I was becoming less sure that the Greek word βαπτιζω (baptizo) and its cognates only ever mean immerse. In fact, by my first semester of seminary I came to hold that the immersion-only view could not well-explain texts like Mark 7:4 (majority reading); Luke 11:38; Acts 1:5 with 2:16–17, 33; 1 Corinthians 10:1–2; and Hebrews 9:10. All of these texts use the word baptizo or its noun form, and yet seem clearly to refer to something other than submersion. In some cases it even seems to be referring to water coming down from above. Alastair Roberts had an article on this that I found intriguing at the time, and later I found John Murray argue explicitly for the position that I had arrived at.
So at the close of my first semester of seminary I was still a Baptist, but I was a pretty weird Baptist. Essentially the only thing that was keeping me Baptist was not hearing a good alternative to Stephen Wellum’s reading of the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 31:31–34. Again: I had assumed that I had not heard a good answer to it because there wasn’t one. The new covenant is new and better because it is an entirely regenerate community, and this new covenant is perfect now, not later. I couldn’t really see another way of reading it.
Another Way of Reading It
I actually first heard of a fairly compelling alternative reading of the new covenant promise in Jeremiah 31:31–34 from one of my Baptist professors during my first year at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I will spare his name for the purposes of this blog post, but I remember sitting in his class one day, listening to him give his understanding of the new covenant promises that are found in the Old Testament. He argued, first, that we have to do justice to the original audience of the new covenant promises: the nation of Israel. Jeremiah promises that the new covenant will be made not with an amorphous group called “God’s people,” but “with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). The question of how Gentiles have anything to do with this new covenant promise is a good one, and one that we find the answer for in Romans 11:16–24: Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree of Israel by faith. Because of this, the promises originally given to Israel also apply to Gentile believers in the church, but the original, specific referent to Israel needs to be acknowledged.
He went even further than this, and argued that we cannot wrench Jeremiah 31:31–34 from its context. In prophetic literature, the new covenant promises are part of a broader picture involving the return from exile, the restoration of Jerusalem, the reign of the Messianic king, the nations flowing to Jerusalem, the abolition of death, worldwide judgment, etc. The new covenant promise is a package deal, bound up with all of these other things, and my professor held that these other things clearly are not fulfilled yet, though we do see their inauguration in the first coming of Christ and his present work in the world through his church. This means that the new covenant as well, while having been inaugurated by Christ, still awaits its complete fulfillment. We do not yet see the new covenant here in its fullness in the same way that we do not yet see all things subjected to Christ, sin and death eradicated, and the nations discipled. After all, Jeremiah says that in the new covenant we will not have to tell one another to “know the Lord,” and yet there are still those among us who do not know the Lord (1 Cor 15:34; 2 Tim 2:16–19). We still have to practice church discipline, hypocrites exist among us, and we must admonish one another every day, lest we be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin and fall away from the living God (1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 1:20; Heb 3:12–13; 10:24–31; 12:15–17). Ultimately, my professor argued, the new covenant will not be fulfilled until Jesus’ second coming.
I actually raised my hand in class and asked, “Then why aren’t we Presbyterians?” I was amazed that a Baptist could make such an argument! It was just the sort of response I could imagine a Presbyterian giving to Wellum’s new covenant argument. My professor responded by referring to how we see the pattern in the New Testament of first repenting, then being baptized, and other such arguments. But these were just the sort of arguments that did not carry the day for me.
Surprisingly, at the time this didn’t have much of an effect on me. I carried on being a Baptist for another couple months without thinking too much about it. There were other things going on in my life that distracted me for awhile. I put these thoughts on hold.
But by the start of my second semester of seminary, I was no longer a convinced credobaptist, though I was also not a convinced paedobaptist. It is a little bit mysterious how I arrived at my uncertainty regarding baptism: it just kind of hit me all of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue. Between my first and second semester, my wife and I had decided to switch churches in Louisville. It was during the few days between the membership interview and being presented as members the next Sunday that I found myself to be a baptism agnostic.
It just hit me one day that I did not have very good reasons for being a credobaptist. Wellum’s new covenant argument was the one thing that had me convinced, but even another Baptist professor at my seminary was able to articulate a plausible alternative reading. Surely there were thoughtful interactions with Wellum’s argument from Reformed paedobaptists that I had not read. I was not careful enough in my initial research. So I declared myself undecided on the whole issue of credo- vs. paedobaptism, and read some stuff from paedobaptists. My undergraduate and graduate education was all done by Baptists, so I had heard and understood their side of things quite well, though I threw in Tom Schreiner’s (ed.) Believer’s Baptism for good measure. A sampling of some of the more significant paedobaptist resources I read are John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants, Doug Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations, Gregg Strawbridge’s (ed.) The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Robert Letham’s A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Baptism, and David Gibson’s “‘Fathers of Faith, My Fathers Now!’: On Abraham, Covenant, and the Theology of Paedobaptism.”
By the end of that study I found the paedobaptist case compelling, and by the end of my second year of seminary my wife and I had to leave our Baptist church, which required that members not have a settled conviction against credobaptism. Now after graduating seminary this past December, I am glad to be a member at a PCA church in Louisville, a pastoral candidate in the Ohio Valley Presbytery, and serving a one-year internship at my church.
The question of whether or not Christians should baptize their infants and young children is important, but it is a secondary issue. As an aspiring pastor, it was especially requisite that I should personally struggle through this, but I am sure glad to be on the other side of it.
Hopefully friends and family find this semi-autobiographical account of how this change came about helpful. In a future post I plan to more directly explain my views on infant baptism, address some related issues, and share a fuller, annotated bibliography of resources I found helpful. Until then, like a good Presbyterian, I would direct inquiring minds to the Westminster Confession of Faith.