The third chapter of the book, written by Thomas Schreiner, is helpful in a number of ways. As with the previous two chapters, he provides a detailed overview of the biblical material on baptism, showing in several different ways that there is a clear picture of baptism being “an initiation rite for believers.” He does this by surveying the biblical material in a number of different categories – passages that describe the centrality of baptism, passages that unfold in more detail a theology of baptism, and passages that address the problem of overestimating baptism. Throughout the discussion, Schreiner (as with the other contributors, though more clearly and compellingly) demonstrates a love for the biblical text and a high view of baptism as being deeply important for the Christian life.
At a few places in the biblical survey, Schreiner notes texts that are relevant to the question of paedobaptism. In dealing with them, he demonstrates a refreshing sensitivity to the wider hermeneutical issues that are involved. While the case he makes is not ultimately convincing, it serves to show the complexity of the issues involved, helping to move us beyond the demand for mere proof texting. These arguments come together in the last few pages of the chapter, where Schreiner summarizes the implications of his survey for the question of paedobaptism.
First, Schreiner believes that the use of baptism as an initiatory rite, closely associated with faith and conversion, precludes infant baptism. “We have, then, compelling grounds to reject infant baptism” (92). For Schreiner, the associating of the Spirit and faith with baptism serves as compelling grounds, because “It is difficult to see how the reception of the Spirit could be predicated of infants since the Spirit is received by faith” (93). But paedobaptism does not separate baptism from faith, for it embraces the biblical pattern (Old Testament and New) of God sealing his promises sacramentally, promises that must be received by faith. Indeed, Schreiner acknowledges that the paedobaptist argument is strong on this point, insofar as it emphasizes the objective priority of God’s grace. Nevertheless, his claim is that the baptist does a better job of holding together the objective promise and the subjective response. But he fails to see (or acknowledge) that the paedobaptist can make the same claim in response. It is the baptist who makes the subjective response ultimate, while it is the paedobaptist who keeps the sovereign promise of God up front, with our response of faith being in response to what God has already promised.
Second, Schreiner makes an argument from silence: if baptism has replaced circumcision, as the Reformed view claims, then why don’t we ever find Paul using that reality as an argument against the continuation of circumcision? In Galatians, for example, why doesn’t Paul simply come out and say, “baptism replaces circumcision”? This argument from silence is important. There’s a bit of irony here, since an earlier chapter dismisses the Reformed argument form silence (Where does the New Testament ever say children are excluded from the covenant now?) Nevertheless, this is an important argument to which we need to respond. There are several avenues of response, especially regarding the character of the time before 70 AD.
But the most important response is to point to Colossians 2:12, where Paul argues that Gentile Christians need not be circumcised, because they have received spiritual circumcision, having been baptized into Christ. Schreiner’s argument from silence only works because he has already dismissed this passage as being irrelevant. He summarizes his case this way:
“The alleged parallel [between circumcision and baptism] does not stand, however, because the connection is between baptism and spiritual circumcision, not physical circumcision. Hence, baptism is reserved, according to the argument of Colossians, for those with regenerate hearts” (95).
This strikes me as a rather clear case of special pleading. We offer a clear example of baptism taking the place of circumcision, and we are told “well, that’s spiritual circumcision.” Let’s look at the passage in context, as this is a locus classicus for the Reformed approach:
9. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10. and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12. having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:9-12)
Paul is writing to Gentile Christians who are being tempted to think that Christ is not enough, and that they need to submit themselves to some form of Judaism (v. 9). His fundamental argument is that Jesus is enough (vv. 9b-10), and that as believers, they share in Christ and all his benefits (vv. 11-12). They have already received “a circumcision made without hands,” that is, spiritual circumcision, “the circumcision of Christ.” They have already received the reality that circumcision was always about, from the very beginning. And how do they know they have received the spiritual reality that circumcision was always about? They have “been buried with [Christ] in baptism.”
Schreiner thinks that the involvement of spiritual circumcision somehow makes this verse irrelevant to the question of baptism replacing physical circumcision. But physical circumcision is precisely the issue at hand. And Paul’s argument is very clear: you don’t need to be circumcised, because you have been baptized; and having been baptized, you have received all that circumcision always signified and sealed – “a circumcision made without hands.”
The argument from silence fails, because there is no silence. When Paul was confronted with Gentile Christians who were tempted to be circumcised, he told them it wasn’t necessary because they had been baptized. How could he be any more clear? Baptism has taken the place of circumcision, sealing the same promises for the covenant people.
The argument, of course, isn’t that simple, since the Baptist case requires emphasizing the discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments when it comes to the people of God. And that is Schreiner’s third main argument: “It is precisely here that the difference between the old covenant and the new shines forth. In the new covenant everyone knows the Lord (Jer. 31:34), but in the old covenant physical circumcision did not necessarily translate into spiritual circumcision of the heart” (94).
The problem with this argument is that it gets both the old and new covenants wrong. In the old covenant, faith and grateful obedience was required in response to God’s promises. Indeed, for new converts, one had to profess faith before being received into the covenant people (consider Rahab, for example). And there were numerous covenant warnings for those who did not live by faith. Circumcision require faith and grateful obedience as the fruit of faith.
To be sure, Jeremiah 31 promised a time of greater faithfulness; but even on the reading wherein this speaks of a day when there are no hypocrites, surely this isn’t realized until the new creation. Here Schreiner gets the new covenant wrong. When he says “in the old covenant physical circumcision did not necessarily translate into spiritual circumcision of the heart,” he is presumably implying that this disconnect does not obtain in the new covenant. But does Schreiner really want to claim that in baptist churches baptism necessarily corresponds to true faith and regeneration? The New Testament assumes, time and again, that the church of Jesus Christ is a mixed company. There is warning after warning of the danger of apostasy and covenant rebellion (Romans 10 and 11, the entire book of Hebrews, the letters to the seven churches in Revelation, just to name a few examples). The baptist argument depends on this discontinuity, but the evidence for it simply doesn’t hold up.
Schreiner’s chapter is the best of the three biblical survey chapters, treating the paedobaptist position with the most nuance, and providing the most engagement with the deeper hermeneutical issues. But, despite Schreiner’s conclusive language of “compelling evidence” to reject infant baptism, his arguments still point to the need for a fuller doctrinal discussion of continuity between the covenants, and the nature of the covenant of grace in the New Testament church. I’m looking forward to engaging precisely those questions in the next chapter.