Presbyterian without Promise (Murray Edition)
A couple days ago I lamented how some Presbyterian increasingly neglect the writing of John Calvin on baptism and God's objective promises contained within. Their dismissal of John Murray is equally frustrating. Though in their defense, Murray challenges everything that is wrong with modern Presbyterianism. Wooden (read ungracious) confessionalism cannot withstand his exegesis. Comfy Westminsterian Covenant Theology finds itself asked difficult questions by Murray.
But to the important points, did Murray support God making promises to parents about their children? Does God promise salvation?
Well first it's is sufficient to say that Professor Murray did not affirm "presumptive regeneration,"
"Hence to aver that baptism is dispensed to infants on the ground of presumptive election or presumptive regeneration appears to be without warrant and also introduced this perplexity into the question at issue." (Christian Baptism, 41)
This statement seems to be a clear refutation of Abraham Kuyper and Charles Hodge who both stated their cases for infant baptism in this language. Baptism is not dispensed because of a presumptive status. Murray is clear on this particular issue immediately after stating,
"It is true that in administering this ordinance we plead the promises which God has attached to faith and obedience and we rest our faith and hope upon God's faithfulness. But our faith in God's promises would not appear to be placed in its proper relationship to infant baptism if it were conceived of as the ground for baptizing infants." (Christian Baptism, 41)
It should be clear that Murray associated clear promises of God to the ordinance of Christian baptism. Murray confirms that baptism is a pleading of God's promises and that these promises are inherently attached to our obligation to faith and obedience. Ultimately though this "faith and obedience" is not some legalistic thing but simple "faith and hope upon God's faithfulness." That Murray addresses promises here is crucial. Earlier, Murray addressed a significant issue that Karl Barth had with infant baptism: infant and adult baptism must represent the same thing.
So these promises are the same in adult and infant baptism. Thus Murray started this portion of Christian Baptism by asking "what is infant baptism?" Murray answers,
"If it is proper to administer baptism to infants, then the importance of baptism must be the same for infants as for adults. It cannot have one meaning for infants and another for adults. Baptism is the sign and seal of membership in Christ body, the church" (Christian Baptism, 45)
"We must not seek the solution of the anomaly by saying that circumcision and baptism or signs and seals merely of external covenant privilege and blessing, that is to say, of external relationship as distinguished from the internal and spiritual blessing dispensed in and through the covenant of grace...it is not contended that the distinction between an extra covenant relationship and the internal covenant relationship isn't necessarily improper. This indeed may be a proper and even necessary distinction...what is being contended for is the baptism may never properly be said to be the sign and seal of the external relationship rather than of the covenant itself and it's richest and deepest blessing. There is not the slightest warrant from Scripture for the notion that baptism or, for that matter, circumcision is simply the sign and seal of external privilege." (Christian Baptism, 51-52)
Knowing these things it makes sense that John Murray was crucial in my conversion to Presbyterianism. After being convinced of infant baptism by John Calvin I was left wondering what I actually believed about the practice. Both Murray and Luther stood in front of me explaining infant baptism. Though both quoted Scripture one provided a more thorough perspective of the entire Scripture on the issue—Murray:
"Baptized infants are to be received as the children of God and treated accordingly." (Christian Baptism, 56)
If this offends Baptistic or pseudo-Presbyterian sensibilities concerning John 1:12-13, then it can only be presumed that God's promises have not been understood. But Murray was not done with his rather epic piece on baptism. He did not make the ordinance sacramental in its own right. Murray was not Catholic. He was not Lutheran. He was Reformed and focused on a God of promise,
"As seal it authenticates, confirms, guarantees the reality and security of this covenant grace. It is not indeed indispensable to the grace sealed; the grace exist prior to the seal in the sealed does not produce the grace sealed. But just as God confirmed his promise to Noah by the bow in the cloud and confirmed his promise to Abraham by the interposition of an oath, so he confirms to us the reality and security of the highest of spiritual relationships by adding the seal of baptism. God does not need baptism to confirm himself in his faithfulness. It is additional certification with which he provides us so that we may thereby be confirmed in the faith of his grace." (Christian Baptism, 84)
It should be clear that baptism conveys a promise. He is a God of promises. So what is this promise? What are parents to think about the baptismal waters that cover their children?
"Respecting infant baptism we must ask: what comfort or assurance may be entertained regarding infants who have been baptized? In this connection, also, the same principle has to be noted and stressed. The Scripture does not extend to parents who have received baptism for their children, nor to the church of God, an assurance or guarantee that the children concerned or without condition the partakers of the graces signified and sealed by baptism. The faith of God's covenant grace and promise cannot be entertained in respect of children and children's children in obstruction from covenant keeping and faithfulness. To divorce the faith of God's promise from the faithful and persevering discharge of covenant obligations is presumption and mockery. The faith of God's coming to grace to children is always in a context. It always has an environment. For there are no obstructions in God's economy of mercy. The environment is in a word faithfulness. The degree of faith and assurance that God's promise to them will be fulfilled is proportionate to the extent to which the fear of God, the keeping of His covenant, and the doing of His commandments rule in the heart and life. Such faithfulness to God's covenant is an embrace of commitment; it includes all that is involved in the bringing up of children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, a nurturer which is not simply Christian but a nurturer which is administered by the Lord himself and of which parents are but the delegated instruments or intermediaries of execution. This nurture is the means through which God's covenant Grace and promise come to realization and fruition." (Christian Baptism, 88-89)
God's promise is prior to its fulfillment. Its fulfillment is found in covenant keeping. There is no assurance without faith. But faith is valid because it rests on divine promises already given. Is any of this allowed to be said these days? In Presbyterian churches, it must otherwise God's covenant nature and nurture are undermined. I will conclude with the final words in Murray's much regarded Christian Baptism:
"In the operations of saving grace God fulfills his purpose in accordance with covenant provisions. One of these gracious provisions is that God is not only God to the believer but also to his seed after him. It is in the faith of this institution, in the embrace of its promises, and in the discharge of its obligations that believing parents present their infant seed for baptism as the sign and seal of the covenant of grace. They commit them not only to God's care but also to his covenant faithfulness. The efficacy of infant baptism principally consists in this that it is to us the certification or seal that God works in accordance with this covenant provision and fulfills his covenant promises. It is, after all, the Lord's own nurture which infant baptism signifies and seals." (Christian Baptism, 90)
May God be blessed and praised. May infant baptism continue.