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 Issues | Infant Baptism | Introduction

The Baptism of Infants

By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.

Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977


Chapter 2: The Witness of the Old Testament

In our discussion of New Testament practice we have already been led to think and speak in what are substantially Old Testament terms. The ideas of the holy community, the covenant people, and the covenant sign all go back very deep into the Old Testament. It is not surprising that there should be this recurrence in the New Testament, for to our Lord and the apostles the Old Testament was the word of God in which they were steeped and which they were consciously fulfilling. It is, therefore, necessary and right that we should set against this Old Testament background not only the message and mission of the Lord Himself but also that of the apostles, including their sacramental administration.

We must not be misled at this point by any form of rationalistic or even evangelical severing of the Bible. The witness of the Old Testament can be depreciated in more than one way. The liberalizing critics set it aside as a lower form of religious development, and in their case New Testament teaching and practices easily share the same fate. But those who resist liberalizers may easily fall victim to the dispensationalists who see in the Old Testament, and often enough in much of the New, a word of God which has no direct relevance to the church age and therefore to believers today. In this connection it is interesting that the earlier baptists of the sixteenth century had a very marked tendency to disparage the Old Testament and indirectly to destroy the proper unity of Scripture. Even evangelicals who do not accept a fully developed dispensationalism may so wish to emphasize the difference between the Law and the Gospel that they lose sight of the higher unity of God's purpose, word, and work. In any case, as we shall see, the Old Testament covenant and its sign really pre-date the Law, for as Paul points out in Romans (Romans 4, 13f.; also Galatians 3, 17f. and Luke 1, 55, 72-73) they were given to Abraham as a promise four hundred years and more before the Law was promulgated at Sinai.

It is, of course, indisputable that there are differences between the old covenant and the new. It is also indisputable that much of the Old Testament, and especially of the Old Testament legislation, is no longer directly applicable to the Christian and the Christian life. But all the same, we must be very careful how we state the differences, for did not Christ Himself tell us that the Law itself was not to be to destroyed but fulfilled, and that not one jot or tittle would pass from it until the fulfilment (Matt. 5, 17f.; cf. Romans 3, 31, etc)? The basic difference is not one of two opposites, nor of a lower which is completely replaced by a higher, but of a promise which gives way to its redemption, of a type which is taken up into the reality. The old covenant is the covenant of promise, the new covenant the covenant of fulfilment. But at bottom the covenant itself is the same, just as the purpose, word and work of God are the same. The Old Testament is superseded by the New only in so far as it is fulfilled in the New. The external details may differ, but there is an underlying consistency of the divine action, message and command.

In relation to baptism, we see this at once and conclusively in the fact that the New Testament finds two types of Christian baptism in the Old Testament history. It is tempting to look for other types as well, as for example in the crossing of Jordan or the cleansing of Naaman the leper. But although these incidents have a considerable value for purposes of edification, we cannot give to them any dogmatic significance. The case is otherwise with the two pictures singled out by the two leading apostles: the ark by Peter (I Peter 3, 20-21) and the Cloud and the Red Sea by Paul (I Corinthians 10, 1-2). Both these types bring out the very intimate connection between the Old Testament and the New, and both of them have a bearing upon the question under discussion.

It is hardly necessary to draw out the main and obvious parallels. The theme in every case is the great biblical theme of divine salvation in the midst and almost as it were in spite and by way of divine judgment. The picture is that of the deliverance of an elect people. The motif of the covenant is strong in both instances. In the first case it is the covenant with Noah, who himself becomes the head of a new race. In the second it is the covenant with Abraham which finds its first fulfilment in the redemption and calling of his physical descendants, with a view to the promised seed in whom all the nations will be blessed. In both instances, too, we find that the redemptive work of God is accompanied by the offering of sacrifice, the burnt-offering of Noah when he came out of the ark, and the passover prior to the exodus and the Red Sea deliverance. But this is a subject in itself.

What concerns us for the moment is the subsidiary but not unimportant fact that in both these typical instances the covenant is not merely with the individual (Noah or Moses—or should we say Abraham?), but with the family or people. Not Noah only, but his sons, his wife and his sons’ wives were preserved in the ark (1 Gen. 7, 7). Not Moses only, or the male Israelites, but all the children of Israel, the men, their wives and their little ones walked upon dry land in the midst of the sea (Exodus 14, 13f.). The point is not merely that in the actions which are the types of baptism children share the experience with their parents, although this in itself is suggestive enough. It is rather that the covenantal action of God is not with individuals only but also with their families, so that those who belong to them are also separated as the people of God and in a very special sense come in the sphere of the divine work. Of course, if the pictures had merely been chosen at random, it would be fanciful to emphasize these points. But when they have been given to us by the Holy Spirit Himself through apostolic witness we do well not to overlook this important aspect of the matter. Indeed, we need very strong reasons if we are going to believe that the family relationship in the type has been completely set aside in the New Testament fulfilment.

But there is more to it than that. For when we look deeper into the New Testament we see that baptism as the new sign of the new covenant takes the place of circumcision as the former sign of the old. Even a cursory reading of the whole Bible shows us that the sacraments instituted by Christ, baptism and the Lord's Supper, correspond in a very striking way to the two covenantal signs of the Old Testament: the Lord’s Supper to the Passover and baptism to circumcision. The main difference between the old signs and the new is almost immediately clear and explains the replacement. For the earlier signs both involved the shedding of blood, pointing forward to the future atonement. But the new signs are without blood, for blood is no longer necessary now that Christ has offered Himself one sacrifice for the sins for ever (Hebrews 10, 12). But that is by the way. The co-relation of the signs obviously belongs to the very substance of the biblical teaching. But it is also brought out explicitly in the text of the New Testament itself. In the case of the Lord’s Supper it is to be found in the institution. The Lord gave the sign of the new covenant at the very moment when He was keeping the final sign of the old, and in a form and with words which left no reasonable doubt as to His meaning. In the case of baptism the connection is made by the apostle Paul in Colossians 2, 11-12 where it is revealed that the significance of both circumcision and baptism is fundamentally the same, since both speak to us of the ‘circumcision without hands’ which we have in Jesus Christ.

Now this equation is important for two reasons. In the first place we recall that according to the institution in Genesis 17 circumcision was to be administered to the children of covenant members on the eighth day (Genesis 17, 10-14. In the eighth day there is perhaps a forward look to the day of the new creation—the Lord’s Day). This is of a piece with the witness of the two types of Christian baptism, the ark and the Red Sea, for it means that children are included with their parents in covenant separation and therefore in the covenant sign. The only difficulty in relation to circumcision is that it was restricted to male children, whereas the range of Christian baptism is extended to both male and females, who are all one in Christ (Gal. 3, 28). The true explanation is perhaps to be found in the anticipatory nature of the Old Testament sign. It pointed forward to the coming of the promised seed and the shedding of the pre-figured blood. But while the promised seed was the seed of the woman, (Gal. 4, 4) it was of course the male-seed (Gal. 3, 16. Cf. Isaiah 7, 14; 9, 6). Salvation was to come to both male and female by the blood of the divinely ordained Son. There was, therefore, a peculiar aptness that the forward-looking sign should apply specifically to the male, just as there is a peculiar aptness in the wider range of the backward-looking sign now that male and female are all one in the one Saviour-substitute. This difference in administration is very plain in the New Testament. But we look in vain in the New Testament for the further explicit difference that whereas the sign of circumcision was given to the infants of covenant-members the sign of baptism is reserved for those who can make a conscious decision of faith. The example of Christ Himself and the first believers, who were all baptized as adults, does not help us, for it is exactly parallel to the first circumcisions in the Old Testament, the circumcision of Abraham, or that of the Israelites after their desert wanderings, or that of any strangers who were incorporated by conquest, purchase, or proselytizing into the covenant people. In view of the correspondence, and the absence of any clear indication to the contrary, it is reasonable to suppose that the sign of the new covenant applies to children no less than the sign of the old, and that as it is widened out to include both male and female adults, so it is widened out to include both male and female infants.

In the second place, we notice that by its very institution and nature circumcision is a covenant sign. At this point we need to beware of a common misunderstanding. We cannot dismiss circumcision as part of the ceremonial law. In point of fact it was given long before the Law in the sense of the Sinaitic law. And it is significant that there is very little mention of circumcision in the later codes in Exodus and Leviticus. The law of circumcision had come down from the time of Abraham, and it had been given to Abraham as the external ‘token’ of the covenant which God had made with him: “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised’ (Genesis 17, 10). Circumcision was more than a legal enactment. It was sacramental in character—note the common sacramental identification of the sign with the thing signified. It had been established as a sacrament at the very time when the covenant itself was established which underlay the separation of Israel and which was fulfilled in the blessing which came to all peoples in Jesus Christ.

Now in this account of the institution of circumcision as the covenant-sign we are again in that world of thought which has already become familiar to us. In the first chapter, for example, we saw that the children of believers are regarded as having a special status of sanctification. We have seen further that the two Old Testament types of baptism both stand in a particular relationship to the divine covenant which is not with the individual only but with the family or nation. We now find that this covenant sign of circumcision is expressly connected with the divine election and calling not only of Abraham but of ‘his seed after him in their generations’ (Genesis 17, 7). The covenant of which it is a sign is indeed an everlasting covenant, and God engages to be God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee’ (Genesis 17, 7). For this reason the sign itself is to be administered not only to Abraham and to the adults of his household but to all his descendants as well and to the various strangers who may in different ways attach themselves to him.

But the covenant which God made with Abraham has not been abrogated by the new covenant which Christ gave in His own blood, for as Paul tells us in Romans 4 there is a direct line between the covenant which God made with believing Abraham and the covenant which He has established with those who are justified by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 4, 9f.; cf. Luke 1, 55, 72-73. The distinction in Hebrews 8, 6f. is between the covenant of Sinai and the new covenant in Christ, and therefore does not affect the argument). The covenant of the New Testament is rather the fulfilment of that age-old covenant, not only with the descendants of Abraham but with all the nations of the earth. Because the covenant has now been fulfilled the anticipatory sign of circumcision is no longer necessary. It has been replaced by the new sign of the new covenant, which is Christian baptism. But the covenant itself remains, filled out, extended, but not discarded, not altered in essential character. The promise is still ‘unto you and to your children,’ and to as many as God shall call. New believers from the nations are added to the old people of the covenant, but there is no reason to suppose that in their case God deals only with the isolated individuals. Indeed, the New Testament itself gives us plainly to understand that this is not so. For as in the case of Abraham, whenever the head of a house is baptized the household is baptized with him. And Paul does not find any difficulty in saying that even if one partner remains an unbeliever, that one is still sanctified in the other and the children are holy. The fulfilment of the covenant has now come, so that its form and scope are altered and the covenant sign is changed, but the covenant itself is still the same everlasting covenant, and the principle of the divine election has not altered.

In other words, when we study the Old Testament witness as it is explicitly adduced in the New, we find very strong support for the conclusions which we reached in our survey of the apostolic practice. In the events which prefigure baptism, and the sign which it replaces, the purpose and work of God are not merely with individuals in isolation, but with families and groups. In every instance the children are included in the divine promise and therefore in the covenant people together with their parents. It is, therefore, natural that their inclusion either in the sign of the covenant or in the event which is the figure of its fulfilment should not be questioned.

Obviously the key to the whole question lies in the covenant itself and its renewal and fulfilment in Jesus Christ. But this means that our next step is the very important one of asking whether we are right to interpret New Testament baptism as a sign of the fulfilled covenant, or whether after all it has some very different significance. This is perhaps the crux of the whole question, unless, of course, we believe that the Old Testament covenant has been completely superseded and the mode of God’s covenantal operation has altogether changed. For if baptism is not a sign of the covenant itself but a sign of something else, then there is no reason to apply it in the same way as the Old Testament signs even though the covenant itself has been fulfilled and remains, as the New Testament forces us to accept. In spite of all the disputes about New Testament texts and their proper exegesis it is here if anywhere that the ways of those who do and those who do not baptize infants diverge. But the divergence, as we shall see, is not merely in the practice of baptism, but in the whole understanding of the ways and work of God. For that reason the baptismal issue has rather more than a superficial importance.


>> Chapter 3 - The Meaning of Baptism





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