Baptism of “believers and their children”: A surprising covenantal discontinuity.

When I was studying at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia, I had a number of very interesting conversations about baptism with Norman Shepherd, with whom I took a couple of seminars. I was at a Presbyterian seminary because I wanted to study in a context where Reformed theology was a shared conviction. As a Baptist, I inevitably found myself out of step in regard to baptism but I did my best to understand the Presbyterian understanding and to assess fairly its biblical rationale. One of my attractions to Westminster was that the decisive moment in my becoming a Calvinist 10 years earlier had come through reading John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Sadly, Murray had retired and moved to Scotland by the time I got to the school, but I read his Christian Baptism with care. I recall being befuddled that he was a pedobaptist because his description of the meaning of baptism seemed to me to lead more naturally to believer baptism.

Before my time at Westminster, Paul Jewett had written a thesis there, examining the case made for infant baptism on the basis of continuity between the covenant signs of circumcision and baptism. I enjoyed Jewett’s work very much, and I agreed with him that Reformed pedobaptists were wrong to assume that baptism should be administered to the children of new covenant believers, since circumcision had been administered that way under the Abrahamic covenant. Jewett’s thesis was later published by Eerdmans (Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace) and it remains a fine case for credobaptism within a strongly covenantal theology. Jewett rightly argues that differences in the qualifications for membership in the new covenant community require different application of the new  covenant sign of membership. The discontinuity follows from the fact that membership in the Abrahamic covenant had been genealogical, because of its national and physical elements, but the new covenant is purely spiritual, so membership is given only to those who are circumcised of heart, and therefore only they should be baptized. It is approaching 40 years since I studied at Westminster, but I still agree with Jewett on this matter.

A couple of days ago, however, I encountered a new argument for believer baptism which I had never thought about before, and I think it adds significantly to the critique of Presbyterian baptismal practice. Gavin Ortlund was baptized as an infant in the Church of Scotland, was raised in a couple of Presbyterian churches after his family moved to the U.S., attended two Presbyterian churches during his undergraduate years, and then studied at a Presbyterian seminary. But he eventually became convinced that the case for pedobaptism was erroneous, and he was baptized as an adult believer. Ortlund writes:

 In conversations with friends, I learned to state my primary dissatisfaction with the Reformed (sometimes called “covenantal”) argument for paedobaptism in the form of a question. “Why Not Grandchildren?” 

Ortlund was well aware of the case made for pedobaptism from covenant continuity, but he says:

But this appeal to continuity raises a question. Who exactly were the proper recipients of circumcision? To whom is Warfield referring with the word children? Circumcision is given in Genesis 17:9 to “you and your seed [offspring, descendants; Hebrew zerah] after you, for the generations to come.” The individuals in view here are the intergenerational descendants of Abraham. The faith of an Israelite child’s parents was not what determined the child’s right to circumcision; it was the child’s association with the nation of Israel. In other words, the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham. It wasn’t the “children of believers” who had the right to the sacrament of initiation, but the “children of Abraham.” So, given paedobaptist presuppositions, why not baptize the grandchildren of believers, too? If we’re really building off continuity with the Old Testament precedent, why stop at one generation?

Why, indeed? I had never thought of the problem this way, but it adds considerably to the challenge that Reformed pedobaptists face. From Jewett I had become convinced that the Reformed pedobaptist understanding rests on an understanding that overemphasized  covenant continuity too strongly, but here Ortlund points out that Presbyterian practice departs from old covenant practice in a surprising way, by limiting admission to the covenant community to the children of covenant parents.

Ortlund states the problem well:

 To get from “every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money” (Gen. 17:12) to “those who believe and their children” is, it seems to me, an error of failing to appreciate the newness of baptism only after it’s an error of failing to identify the meaning of circumcision in the first place.

Better, and more continuous with circumcision and the OT precedent, I think, to define the church simply as the children of Abraham: defined by physical descent throughout the OT (Gen. 17:9), and defined by spiritual descent throughout the NT (Gal. 3:7).

I found this account  of Ortlund’s change of mind very interesting, and you may want to  read the rest of his post.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “Baptism of “believers and their children”: A surprising covenantal discontinuity.”

Another factor to include: as some point, God cut off the “domestic” olive branches, which we might call national Israel. We read about this in the Prophets. So the continuation of the Abrahamic covenant wasn’t automatically given.

So if this was acknowledged even in the OT, might this mitigate or alter the author’s thesis?

Very interesting point you make!
Something else that came into practice in some Reformed (Presbyterian) churches in South Africa, is the reinstatement of the baptism of John the Baptist. The argument is that he baptized people who had been circumcised and been within the covenant. Yet he did not administer the Christian Baptism, since that was only given by Jesus at the end just before His departure. The baptism of John was a sign of repentance and renewed devotion to God. And that is how they see it. Baptism of both people baptized as infants, as well as adults, but turning back to Christ and wanting some kind of ceremony to commemorate their new devotion!

The grandchildren of a convert likely don’t join the church with you but I’m sure if they were in youre care as a Presby then you’d baptize them. The continuity I think is visible Israel is circumcised and the visible church is baptized

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