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Calvin on the Sacraments: Infant Baptism (Part 2)

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After a brief introduction to the "analogy argument" of John Calvin, it is time to let him address his objects. Without a doubt it takes a great exegetical skill to handle the objections since they develop from many different Biblical books and authors. This actually was crucial to my conversion from the believer baptism to infant baptism view.

After lengthy study, I simply felt that the whole of Scripture is emphatic about the covenants. And from the covenant the promises, signs and families. I found all of these themes including the Gentiles in the gospel (Eph 2:11-18). The gospel didn't overturn the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. No, they became our fathers and we inherited their covenants. So while many of the exegetical arguments for Believer Baptism are good, I found them to be lacking the whole context of Scripture and the natural cohesion I saw in Covenant Theology.

Calvin's Responses

The first argument is always "there is no Biblical account of infant baptism" and Calvin responds to this first,

For although this is not expressly narrated by the Evangelists, yet as they are not expressly excluded when mention is made of any baptised family (Acts 16:15, 32), what man of sense will argue from this that they were not baptised? If such kinds of argument were good, it would be necessary, in like manner, to interdict women from the Lord’s Supper, since we do not read that they were ever admitted to it in the days of the apostles. But here we are contented with the rule of faith. For when we reflect on the nature of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, we easily judge who the persons are to whom the use of it is to be communicated. The same we observe in the case of baptism. For, attending to the end for which it was instituted, we clearly perceive that it is not less applicable to children than to those of more advanced years, and that, therefore, they cannot be deprived of it without manifest fraud to the will of its divine Author. (ICR, 4.16.8)

I have heard the objection that we cannot be sure that there were children in the houses. I find this a little silly. The word οἶκος (

oikos

3624) which is used to describe who was baptized is the same word used in the LXX to describe who should be circumcised by Abraham (τῆς οἰκίας σου). This included not only babies born of the father's seed but even those birthed of the slaves. Reading this back into the NT, it seems quite clear that the writers were communicating a defense of communal commitment to the covenant just like God commanded Abraham. The writers would never emphasis "infant baptism" when it was an obvious cultural and theological point to include "the household" in the covenants.

The second argument is that the two signs point to different covenants. Calvin has already addressed this with his argument of analogy but includes exegetical arguments this time,

Certainly, if circumcision was a literal sign, the same view must be taken of baptism, since, in the second chapter to the Colossians, the apostle makes the one to be not a whit more spiritual than the other. For he says that in Christ we “are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” In explanation of his sentiment he immediately adds, that we are  “buried with him in baptism.” What do these words mean, but just that the truth and completion of baptism is the truth and completion of circumcision, since they represent one thing? For his object is to show that baptism is the same thing to Christians that circumcision formerly was to the Jews. Now, since we have already clearly shown that the promises of both signs, and the mysteries which are represented by them, agree, we shall not dwell on the point longer at present. (ICR, 4.16.11)

The second argument is an argument of analogy and Scripture. It attempts to contrast Abraham's "children of flesh" to the church's "children of spirit". This outstanding argument states that inclusions in the covenant only comes when one is "spiritually born". This is one of those that always tugged at my Baptist theology heartstrings. Calvin addresses this briefly,

Under the appellation of children the difference they observe is this, that the children of Abraham, under the old dispensation, were those who derived their origin from his seed, but that the appellation is now given to those who imitate his faith, and therefore that carnal infancy, which was ingrafted into the fellowship of the covenant by circumcision, typified the spiritual children of the new covenant, who are regenerated by the word of God to immortal life. In these words we indeed discover a small spark of truth, but these giddy spirits err grievously in this, that laying hold of whatever comes first to their hand, when they ought to proceed farther...We certainly admit that the carnal seed of Abraham for a time held the place of the spiritual seed, which is ingrafted into him by faith (Gal. 4:28; Rom. 4:12). For we are called his sons, though we have no natural relationship with him. But if they mean, as they not obscurely show, that the spiritual promise was never made to the carnal seed of Abraham, they are greatly mistaken...The Lord therefore promises to Abraham that he shall have a seed in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and at the same time assures him that he will be a God both to him and his seed. All who in faith receive Christ as the author of the blessing are the heirs of this promise, and accordingly are called the children of Abraham. (ICR, 4.16.12)

Calvin sees the objection that could still be raised. He addresses Paul in the book of Romans specifically,

Opposition to this is produced a passage from the Epistle to the Romans, in which the apostle says, that those who are of the flesh are not the children of Abraham, but that those only who are the children of promise are considered as the seed (Rom. 9:7). For he seems to insinuate, that carnal relationship to Abraham, which we think of some consequence, is nothing. But we must attend carefully to the subject which the apostle is there treating. His object being to show to the Jews that the goodness of God was not restricted to the seed of Abraham, nay, that of itself it contributes nothing, produces, in proof of the fact, the cases of Ishmael and Esau...This proves what he afterwards affirms—viz. that salvation depends  on the mercy which God bestows on whomsoever he pleases, but that the Jews have no ground to glory or plume themselves on the name of the covenant, unless they keep the law of the covenant, that is, obey the word. (ICR, 4.16.14)

This is very similar to my argument at the end of the last post. Paul does don't deride and toss away the blessings of Israel for the inclusion of the church. He includes the church in the very blessings of Israel (Eph 2). This includes having our uncircumcision made into circumcision when we obey the covenant by faith. And the symbol of that covenant keeping is baptism. Calvin has much to say on this issue and I'll give him time to speak a few more words,

The case of the Christian Church is entirely of the same description; for as Paul there declares that the Jews are sanctified by their parents, so he elsewhere says that the children of Christians derive sanctification from their parents. Hence it is inferred, that those who are chargeable with impurity are justly separated from others. Now, who can have any doubt as to the falsehood of their subsequent averment—viz. that the infants who were formerly circumcised only typified the spiritual infancy which is produced by the regeneration of the word of God? When the apostle says, that “Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers” (Rom. 15:8), he does not philosophise subtilely, as if he had said, Since the covenant made with Abraham has respect unto his seed, Christ, in order to perform and discharge the promise made by the Father, came for the salvation of the Jewish nation. Do you see how he considers that, after the resurrection of Christ, the promise is to be fulfilled to the seed of Abraham, not allegorically, but literally,  as the words express? To the same effect is the declaration of Peter to the Jews: “The promise is unto you and to your children” (Acts 2:39); and in the next chapter, he calls them the children of the covenant, that is, heirs. Not widely different from this is the other passage of the apostle, above quoted, in which he regards and describes circumcision performed on infants as an attestation to the communion which they have with Christ. And, indeed, if we listen to the absurdities of those men, what will become of the promise by which the Lord, in the second commandment of his law, engages to be gracious to the seed of his servants for a thousand generations? Shall we here have recourse to allegory? This were the merest quibble. Shall we say that it has been abrogated? In this way, we should do away with the law which Christ came not to destroy, but to fulfil, inasmuch as it turns to our everlasting good. Therefore, let it be without controversy, that God is so good and liberal to his people, that he is pleased, as a mark of his favour, to extend their privileges to the children born to them. (ICR, 4.16.15)

Many more arguments are presented that we don't have time to address here. There are some immensely practical words on children as "sons of Adam" and their status until they can make conscious decisions for Christ. I will point briefly that topics such as "age of accountability" and "what happens when an infant dies" are not as murky theologically in infant baptism as they are with believer baptism. In fact, many of the arguments by those who hold to believer baptism for the salvation of infants/children who die can and should be used for the proof that they are

in the covenant

 and

united with Christ

 until they refuse the law and covenant.

The next argument is one for the need of penitence and faith to receive the sign. This is the old faithful argument for Believer Baptism. When we make Baptism

solely represent

 our confession of faith, we reject the God-half of the meaning of Baptism. And we approach the Biblical texts in a completely different (and honestly crippled) way. Calvin addresses this in more words than can be quoted here,

In order to gain a stronger footing here, they add, that baptism is a sacrament of penitence and faith, and as neither of these is applicable to tender infancy, we must beware of rendering its meaning empty and vain, by admitting infants to the communion of baptism. But these darts are directed more against God then against us; since the fact that circumcision was a sign of repentance is completely established by many passages of Scripture (Jer. 4:4). Thus Paul terms it a seal of the righteousness of faith (Rom. 4:11). Let God, then, be demanded why he ordered circumcision to be performed on the bodies of infants? For baptism and circumcision being here in the same case, they cannot give anything to the latter without conceding it to the former...We say, then, that since God imparted circumcision, the sign of repentance and faith, to infants, it should not seem absurd that they are now made partakers of baptism, unless men choose to clamour against an institution of God. But as in all his acts, so here also, enough of wisdom and righteousness shines forth to repress the slanders of the ungodly. For although infants, at the moment when they were circumcised, did not comprehend what the sign meant, still they were truly circumcised for the mortification of their corrupt and polluted nature—a mortification at which they afterwards aspired when adults...This answer at once overthrows all the objections which are twisted against us out of the meaning of baptism; for instance, the title by which Paul distinguishes it when he terms it the “washing of regeneration and renewing” (Tit. 3:5). Hence they argue,  that it is not to be given to any but to those who are capable of such feelings. But we, on the other hand, may object, that neither ought circumcision, which is designated regeneration, to be conferred on any but the regenerate. In this way, we shall condemn a divine institution. Thus, as we have already hinted, all the arguments which tend to shake circumcision are of no force in assailing baptism. (ICR, 4.16.20)

I am leaving out my more arguments simply due to length purposes. Those interested in reading fuller arguments will surely be able to find support both for and against these arguments. The whole of John Calvin's Institutes can be downloaded in PDF and MP3 (!!!) form or borrowed from the Torrey Library.

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BBC: Genesis 2:4