Baptists and Presbyterians: Why We Disagree

We all know what the Bible says, and we have some ability to figure out what it means, but we disagree because we assume different things a priori.

The New Testament contains no “magic bullet” verse to abolish one side or the other in this debate, although both sides sometimes act as if it does. The New Testament does not say, “You shall baptize the infant children of believers when they are 8 days old, just as Abraham had them baptized when they were 8 days old.” Nor does it say, “The infant children of believers must not receive the sign of baptism until they make a credible profession of faith.” Those verses simply do not exist. Biblically, this issue of baptizing the infant children of believers remains difficult, even upon close examination, and that is why good Bible teachers remain divided by it.

 

It has been interesting to see the response to my post last week on “15 Arguments in Favor of Covenant Child Baptism.” The Aquila Report picked up the post and put it on their facebook feed, which generated lots of feedback, positive and negative, and a response post from Tom Chantry. My post last week was too short to deal in-depth with the theological and exegetical issues behind our disagreements on this vital issue. But I don’t want this blog to become all about baptism, so this will probably be my last post on this issue for a while.

When you have men such as Al Mohler, John MacArthur, John Piper, Alistair Begg, Charles Spurgeon and James P. Boyce on one side of an issue and men like R.C. Sproul, Ligon Duncan, J.I. Packer, J. Gresham Machen, John Calvin and James M. Boice on the other side, I don’t know that we’re ever going to have the definitive, lock-down, air-tight argument for either side in this world. If we are, it’s surely unlikely to come from me in a blog post!

I was hoping to point interested readers to my longer paper, where I do address some of these issues in greater depth. But in the same place where you can find my paper, you can also find many other fine resources on the issue:here. But, again, even with these many articles, sermons, booklets, etc., the issue is not likely to be settled anytime soon.

Here’s why: The New Testament does not offer us a clear verse or passage to allow one side to prove the other side wrong. So much of the argument hangs on what presuppositions and what framework you bring to the text. We all know what the Bible says, and we have some ability to figure out what it means, but we disagree because we assume different things a priori.

Here are some of the key differences we bring to the text, which I think lead to our disagreement:

1. A different understanding of how the covenant is administered in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Presbyterians see more unity than disunity between the Old and New Testaments. We believe that just as we need to distinguish between national Israel and spiritual Israel in the Old Testament age, so we need to distinguish between the visible church and the invisible church in the New Testament age. We believe this distinction is absolutely vital for understanding the covenant and the church.

It’s interesting that both the advocates of federal vision and the proponents of credo-baptism deny or minimize this vital distinction, which is made clear in Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Now, I know that Chapter 26 of the London Baptist Confession maintains this distinction somewhat, in a modified form from the Westminster Confession, but I have found that many Baptists have simply argued that the church is made up of “the redeemed” or “those who are born again,” as if any man could with confidence judge such a thing.

The real issue here is whether or not God excludes the children of believers from the covenant community (the visible church)? The words of Jesus and the words of Paul would both argue strongly for the inclusion of young children of believers in the visible kingdom of God, the church.

2. A different understanding of our children. I have raised my children as disciples of Jesus from the earliest possible age. I have taught them to love, obey and follow Jesus. Yes, I know they need the Holy Spirit to make them born again and to cause them to truly trust Christ with a saving faith, but I am not looking for a “moment of conversion” in my covenant children. I am praying for a looking for real, saving faith, however it may come. I am hoping it grows in them as they grow, as has been the testimony of many (perhaps most?) who have grown up in the church.

3. A different expectation of continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Basically, Presbyterians are supposed to believe that the Old Testament continues to have relevance in the life of a New Testament saint, except in those areas where the New Testament explicitly makes changes. This is why we keep the Lord’s Day and tithe, but also why we don’t eat kosher or avoid wearing blended fibers. This is also why we identify ourselves as spiritual Israel and read “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16 as a reference to the church. Baptists seem to operate under the assumption that the Old Testament has no continuing relevance in the New Testament, unless the New Testament explicitly commands it, which is why Baptists don’t tithe or honor the Lord’s Day . . . oh, wait, yes they do. At least as much as most Presbyterians. Hmm . . .

4. A different connection between the sacraments. Presbyterians believe that the outward form of the sacrament of initiation changed from circumcision to baptism but that it retains much of the same function. We see the same thing in the continuity between Passover and the Lord’s Supper, which is why we don’t observe Passover, because we observe it every time we take the Lord’s Supper. Fulfillment alters the form and something of the significance, but it doesn’t alter the sacramental meaning.

5. Different assumptions about the meaning of baptism. I’ve repeatedly heard Baptists refer to baptism as a “public profession of faith.” On the other hand, Presbyterians believe that baptism points more to the grace of God in cleansing us from sin and pouring out His Spirit than to our faith. Also, Baptists will see “buried with Christ” (Rom. 6:4 & Col. 2:12) as allusions to mode, whereas Presbyterians see them as indications of the main sacramental meaning of baptism: union with Christ by the work of the Spirit. So, Presbyterians will see the “pouring” out of the Spirit as an allusion to mode, but Baptists do not.

These really are just intended as observations, not as arguments. Take these as five explanations of why Baptists and Presbyterians who agree on so much else continue to talk past each other on this issue. I just think that if we’re going to respect each other, it’s good to understand where we’re coming from. This is not a simple issue. To pretend otherwise is, on some level, to disrespect the communion of saints.

For those who are interested, here’s a bit of my own personal history on this issue. If you want to take a trip back to the 1990’s and early 2000’s, see below . . .

Personal History

I remember a tract I read when I was a junior in high school. I was attending a Baptist church at the time and, having been baptized as an infant at Knox Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma, was told that I needed to be baptized again if I wanted to join my church. I was intrigued when I saw this tract, as I thought it might help me with my problem. It was titled, “What the Bible says About Infant Baptism.” I opened it, hoping to find a compelling argument, and I saw that it was totally blank inside. The back said something like, “That’s right. The Bible doesn’t teach infant baptism at all. Why then should anyone practice it?” It was short and to the point, and enough to convince me at the time. I was re-baptized shortly thereafter and joined the Baptist church.

Today I realize that Presbyterians could just as easily produce their own tract on baptism entitled, “What the Bible Says Against Infant Baptism.” It, like its Baptist counterpart, would be completely blank inside, and the back would read, “That’s right. The Bible does not condemn infant baptism at all. Why then do some Christians speak so strongly against it?”

Well, exchanging tracts probably won’t get us very far in this long-standing debate. This issue needs more careful discussion and patient explanation than any tract can provide in a few brief paragraphs. Few issues divide great Christian leaders, who otherwise agree on so much, like the issue of baptism. Every year, R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries holds a teaching conference in Florida. The speakers are all good friends who see eye-to-eye on almost everything. They all believe strongly in the inerrant authority of the Word of God, and they would all consider themselves “reformed” in their theology. Yet every year, half of the speakers believe in infant baptism and half of them strongly disagree with it.

The Bible teachers and preachers whom I respect most deeply are all strongly divided on this issue: Charles Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, John Piper, J.I. Packer, R.C, Sproul, John MacArthur, Alistair Begg, John Stott, and John Bunyan. These are all men of God and faithful students and teachers of the Word. I have learned much from all of them, yet I find that they are divided on this key and basic issue.

For a long time after I was re-baptized at the age of 16, I read Baptist explanations of baptism with all of their apparent support from the New Testament, and I was very convinced. I became so convinced, in fact, that I began to ridicule Presbyterians– “This is so stupid. Haven’t these people read their Bibles? The Bible is so clear.” I was dumbfounded that I could figure out that baptism was only for believers, but that men like Sproul and James Boice were so blind to the obvious teachings of Scripture. I was taught that infant baptism was just a remnant of Roman Catholicism that Luther and Calvin didn’t want to eliminate, and I felt sorry for these poor Presbyterians with their Catholic leftovers.

Well over time I began to listen to what Presbyterians had to say about infant baptism. My life circumstances and some of my other convictions had led me back to a Presbyterian church, and I found myself very uncomfortable whenever an infant was baptized on Sunday morning. I started listening to some teachings by Presbyterians. I hoped to understand how they justified their position, not to be converted in my own opinion but simply that I might understand theirs. I heard for the first time the connection between baptism and circumcision (which we will explore later), and I thought it was interesting, although misapplied. I heard for the first time the use of the word covenant in connection to baptism (which we will also explore later), and I again thought it was interesting, but off base.

Wanting to give the Baptists a fair shake in the debate, I scoured the Internet for articles on baptism from both sides. I found both sides making good points, but typically talking past each other.

Finally, I resolved to go back to the Scriptures and re-examine thoroughly and systematically what the New Testament had to say about baptism. I had learned some Greek by this time (taught to me by a Baptist), so I thought I could examine the teaching more clearly. I spent hours poring over the texts. I read the contexts. I read the cross-references. I read sermons by Spurgeon on some of the more interesting texts, and I searched my New Geneva Study Bible for notes on others. I came to one conclusion: The New Testament says a lot about baptism and gives a lot of examples of baptisms, but it does not say clearly whether or not the infant children of believers should be baptized.

The New Testament contains no “magic bullet” verse to abolish one side or the other in this debate, although both sides sometimes act as if it does. The New Testament does not say, “You shall baptize the infant children of believers when they are 8 days old, just as Abraham had them baptized when they were 8 days old.” Nor does it say, “The infant children of believers must not receive the sign of baptism until they make a credible profession of faith.” Those verses simply do not exist. Biblically, this issue of baptizing the infant children of believers remains difficult, even upon close examination, and that is why good Bible teachers remain divided by it.

Now, to say that this issue is difficult is not to say that there are no definite answers to the questions it raises. I believe that as Christians we are called to live our lives in accordance with Scripture in everything, including in how we practice baptism. I hope that my personal struggles in this area will help me to present my case on a fair and balanced manner. A Presbyterian named Steve Brown once said, “Never go to someone about a difficult matter unless they first agree that it is a difficult matter.” I know from experience that those who believe this issue is so “cut and dried” (as I once thought it was) are not of great use to those who are honestly grappling with it.

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.