Warfield on “the Argument in a Nutshell” for Infant Baptism

Benjamin B. Warfield sums up the argument in favor of infant baptism as follows:

“The argument in a nutshell is simply this: God established his Church in the days of Abraham and put children into it. They must remain there until He puts them out. He has nowhere put them out. They are still then members of His church and as such entitled to its ordinances. Among these ordinances is baptism, which standing in similar place in the New Dispensation to circumcision in the Old, is like it to be given to children.” (The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. IX, p.408)

The first thing that Warfield points out is that “God has established his church in the days of Abraham and put children into it.” And so the starting point and key to understanding his argument is a right understanding of the church and the covenant of grace.

In his book, Christ & Covenant Theology, Cornelius Venema includes an entire chapter dealing with Covenant Theology and the practice in infant baptism. In this chapter, he interacts with Warfield’s treatment of the subject (citing the statement quoted above), providing a brief overview of Covenant theology, and then showing how this view applies to infant baptism. There he writes,

“The Reformed practice of baptizing believers and their children, as Warfield rightly maintained, is largely based upon an understanding of the biblical doctrine of the covenant of grace. In the principal writings of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, and in the great confessional symbols of the Reformed tradition, the one argument for paedobaptism that repeatedly stands out is the covenant argument. Children, like adult believers, are to be baptized because they belong to the covenant community in Christ.” (p.258).

Venema then goes on to flesh out the covenant argument in what he himself calls “a series of steps, moving from the more general and basic elements of covenant theology to its specific implications regarding the proper recipients of Christian baptism” (Ibid).

He points out that one of the most important elements of Reformed covenant theology is that there is “one covenant of grace throughout redemptive history” (p.270), the same in substance, but differing in how it is administered. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

“This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.” (16.5)

Another way of saying this would be to say that there has always been one way of salvation, whether in the Old Testament or in the New. In Galatians 3:7-9, Paul writes,

“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” (ESV)

Those who are “of faith” (i.e. those who trust in Christ alone for salvation) “are the sons of Abraham” (v.7).  All of the Old Testament saints were saved by grace through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), just as we are today. Their faith looked forward to the Christ who was yet to come; while our faith looks back to the Christ who has already come.

And God’s covenant with Abraham included even his infant offspring, who were also to receive the sign and seal of that administration of the covenant of grace, that is, the sacrament of circumcision. Genesis 17:9-12 says,

“And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. . . .” (ESV)

When you consider the fact that the sign and seal of the covenant (i.e. circumcision) was explicitly commanded by the Lord to be applied to infants (8-day-old male children!) in the Old Testament, many of the arguments against infant baptism begin to crumble under their own weight. As Calvin puts it, “For what will they [i.e. critics of infant baptism] bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.16.9).

That is why John Murray writes the following:

“If infants are excluded now, it cannot be too strongly emphasised [sic] that this change implies a complete reversal of the earlier divinely instituted practice. So we must ask: do we find any hint or intimation of such reversal in either the Old or the New Testament? More pointedly, does the New Testament revoke or does it provide any intimation of revoking so expressly authorised [sic] a principle as that of the inclusion of infants in the covenant and their participation in the covenant sign and seal?” (Christian Baptism, p.49)

Do we find any hint of such a reversal? No, we do not. And so Murray concludes by saying,

“In the absence of such evidence of repeal we conclude that the administering of the sign and seal of the covenant to the infant seed of believers is still in operation and has perpetual divine warrant. In other words, the command to administer the sign to infants has not been revoked: therefore it is still in force.” (Christian Baptism, p.50)

In other words, the burden of proof actually rests upon those who reject infant baptism, not on those who affirm it. There would actually need to be an explicit prohibition in Scripture forbidding us from baptizing infants, rather than an explicit command telling us to do so.

Calvin on Infant Baptism

Calvin's InstitutesIn Calvin’s somewhat lengthy treatment of the sacrament of baptism in His Institutes of the Christian Religion, he devotes nearly 2/3 of that space (around 35 pages or so in the McNeill edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles) to the subject of infant baptism.

One of the many arguments that John Calvin makes in support of the practice of infant baptism is based upon the words of Jesus in Matthew 19:14, where our Lord says,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (ESV)

At first glance this statement does not appear to have much of anything to do with baptism at all. And yet, as Calvin goes on to say, “For we must not lightly pass over the fact that Christ commands that the infants be presented to him, adding the reason, ‘for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven'” (4.16.7). When one takes the time to consider Christ’s words in this passage regarding infants, it becomes clear that they really do have something to say about the basis for infant baptism.

Calvin goes on to explain:

“And thereupon he attests his will by his act when, embracing them, he commends them with his prayer and blessing to his father. If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to them, why is the sign denied them which, so to speak, opens to them a door into the church, that, adopted into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the kingdom of heaven?” (Ibid.)

Christ not only received these little ones, taking them up in His arms and blessing them (Mark 10:16), but, as if that were not enough, goes as far as to say that to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven! And, as Calvin points out, if the kingdom belongs to them, how then can the “sign” or mark of that kingdom rightly be denied them?

Not only is the practice of infant baptism (also known as paedobaptism) the majority practice in the Christian church throughout the world, but it has been such ever since the apostolic age, and so throughout the history of the church. Simply put, it clearly has both the majority of the church as well as the majesty of history on its side. These considerations, while certainly not primary, must not lightly be set aside.

Add to that the undeniable fact that the sign of the covenant was explicitly commanded by the Lord to be applied to infants in the Old Testament (i.e. circumcision), and many of the arguments against infant baptism begin to crumble under their own weight. As Calvin puts it, “For what will they [i.e. critics of infant baptism] bring forward to impugn infant baptism that may not be turned back against circumcision?” (Institutes, 4.16.9).


Calvin on the Mode of Baptism

Calvin's InstitutesThere is no small amount of debate and disagreement regarding the manner or mode of baptism. Some argue that total immersion is the only proper, biblical way to baptize in accordance with the Lord’s institution of the sacrament, while others hold to sprinkling or pouring as the proper manner or mode.

What was Calvin’s position on this subject? It may surprise you to know that he appears to have viewed immersion as most clearly representing the practice as it is described in Scripture.  In his Institutes of the Christian Religion he describes baptism in the following way:

“These things [i.e. washing away sins, sharing in Christ’s death, being united to Christ, etc.], I say, he performs for our soul within as truly as surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded by water.” (Book IV, Ch. XV.14, Italics added.)

So Calvin viewed baptism as involving the baptized person being “submerged” and “surrounded by water.”

Now, did Calvin view immersion as being somehow essential to baptism (i.e. as the only proper mode of baptism)? No. He goes on to write,

“But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water -these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.” (Book IV, Ch. XV.19)

Part of that last sentence is debatable, as the New Testament writers used the Greek words for “baptize” or “baptism” to describe things that could not be reasonably thought of as referring to anything approaching immersion. (See Mark 7:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:2, etc..) As John Murray  concludes,

” . . .though the word baptizw and its cognates can be used to denote an action performed by immersion yet they may also be used to denote an action that can be performed by a variety of modes. Consequently the word baptizw itself cannot be pleaded as an argument for the necessity of immersion as the mode of baptism.” (Christian Baptism, p.26)

But notice that both Calvin and John Murray are in agreement that the mode of baptism (whether by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling) is basically a matter of indifference. (Calvin above states that this is “of no importance.”) And this is also the stated position of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well, which puts the matter this way:

“Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.” (Westminster Confession of Faith 28.3)

So when it comes to the manner or mode of baptism, there is room for some disagreement and diversity of practice among the churches. On these things we may (as the saying goes) feel free to “agree to disagree.”

John Calvin on Baptism

It is noteworthy that in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin devotes well over 50 pages to the sacrament of baptism.

There he starts with a brief section dealing with the meaning of baptism, describing it as “the sign of initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted [sic] in Christ, we may be reckoned among God’s children” (Book IV, Chapter XV.1).

He then goes on to speak of the dual purposes or “ends” of baptism (and for all sacraments) as consisting in serving our faith before God, and in serving our confession (i.e. profession of belonging to Christ) before men. You could say that the former is directed toward the benefit of the Christian himself, while the latter is directed toward others (both inside and outside of the church).

Much of what is said about baptism in evangelical circles in our day seems to focus almost exclusively on the latter of these two things (i.e. that it serves as a profession of faith to others, and of one’s commitment to believe in, belong to, and obey the Lord Jesus Christ). On the other hand, much of what is said about baptism is some Reformed circles at times seems to emphasize the former at the expense of the latter. Calvin rightly avoids both of these extremes.

Calvin then notes that baptism is the “token and proof” (or sign and seal) of at least three (3) things:

  1. Our Cleansing from Sin – He notes that our baptism “is like a sealed document to confirm to us that all our sins are so abolished, remitted, and effaced that they can never come to his sight, be recalled, or charged against us” (p.1304).  Calvin then adds a wonderfully pastoral word of exhortation, stating, “Therefore, there is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their faults, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood” (p.1306-1307).
  2. Our Mortification and Renewal in Christ – Another benefit of our baptism is that “it shows us our mortification in Christ, and new life in him” (p.1307). He cites both Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:11-12 as clearly teaching this. He then puts these first two things (i.e. cleansing from sin and mortification & renewal) together by adding, “Thus, the free pardon of sins and the imputation of righteousness are first promised to us, and then the grace of the Holy Spirit to reform us to newness of life” (ibid). In other words, baptism is the sign and seal, not only of forgiveness or justification, but also of sanctification (our dying to sin in Christ and walking in newness of life in Him) as well!
  3. Our Union with Christ – Lastly, he mentions that in our baptism our faith receives the “advantage” or benefit of “its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted [sic] into the death and life of Christ, but so united to Christ himself that we become sharers in all his blessings” (ibid). In other words, we are not just baptized into certain benefits of Christ’s work of redemption (as if they could be abstracted from Him), but rather into Christ Himself!

What a beautiful and robust picture of what baptism is a sign and seal (or “token and proof”) of to those who are in Christ, and how it serves our faith in Christ, strengthening us in our assurance of salvation in Him!