No Proof of Paedobaptism: An Evaluation of Jared Oliphint's post "Not Your Average Paedobaptism"

| July 8, 2015

When I first came to believe the Bible’s teaching on unconditional election, I acquired some new theological heroes. But my new heroes also baptized their babies. I reasoned, “Men like Calvin, Owen, and Edwards were saturated with the Bible, and they were right about God’s gracious purpose of election. How could they be wrong about infant baptism?” So, I read as many Reformed books and articles on paedobaptism as I could find. In the past, when I studied the Reformed literature on election, I looked up the relevant passages, followed the exegesis easily, and it was clear that the Bible teaches unconditional election. But that was not my experience when I studied the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism. I was ready to believe. I wanted to believe. But the arguments for infant baptism seemed based on questionable exegesis and theological inference built on theological inference. My heart was broken. I couldn’t follow my new theological heroes into paedobaptism.  I love my paedobaptist brothers. They are dear friends and co-laborers in the gospel. I am theologically closer to Reformed paedobaptists than to any other kind of believer. But on this point, I am convinced that they are wrong.

Jared Oliphint recently wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition in which he made a case for infant baptism on the basis of the distinction between the internal and external aspects of the covenant (Berkhof calls this the “dual aspect” of the covenant of grace). Oliphint argues that the new covenant is breakable, and that understanding the allegedly breakable nature of the new covenant helps make sense of infant baptism. I’m going to show you why Oliphint’s argument is unconvincing to this Reformed Baptist.

1. Oliphint says the new covenant is a mixed body. 

The bulk of Oliphint’s case for infant baptism rests on the argument that the new covenant is a mixed body of believers and unbelievers. He makes this argument from Hebrews 10:26-30 and John 15:1-6.

It is, however, theoretically possible for a Baptist simply to grant Oliphint’s point. A Baptist might say that when people are baptized and join a local church, they are automatically included in the new covenant, whether they’re believers or not. If an unbeliever is inadvertently baptized, he’s still a true member of the “outer circle” of the new covenant. He’s a part of the ecclesiological aspect of the new covenant (unbelievers and believers), but not the salvific aspect of the new covenant (believers only).

But this “two circle” Baptist might also argue that the Bible doesn’t give us a warrant to baptize infants (Gal 3:7, 16; Ac 15:5, 10) and that it only commands us to baptize those who credibly confess faith in Christ (Mk 1:4; Matt 28:19; Ac 2:38); therefore, we should only baptize confessors.

I submit that Oliphint’s main point is not necessarily an argument for paedobaptism at all, only for a mixed new covenant, which a Reformed Baptist might consistently affirm without doing any damage to his main hermeneutical argument for believers-only baptism (Gal 3:7, 16; etc.).  The main argument for believers baptism is that according to the Reformed hermeneutic of New Testament priority, the Old Testament genealogical principle (“you and your seed”), which was given to preserve and continue the seed of Christ, is fulfilled and abrogated now that Christ has come (Gal 3:7, 16; etc).

2. I say the new covenant is a pure believers covenant. 

Though theoretically a Reformed Baptist might grant Oliphint’s point about the mixed nature of the new covenant, that is not my position, nor is it the historic Baptist position. The reason is purely exegetical. Let’s look a little more closely at the two passages Oliphint provides in support of his position.

Hebrews 10:26-30 says, “[26] For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, [27] but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. [28] Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [29] How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

Oliphint interprets this passage to refer to an unbelieving member of the new covenant who eventually shows his true faithless colors, leaves his false confession, and abandons the covenant of which he was once truly a member. On Oliphint’s view, the possibility of an unbelieving covenant member falling away from the covenant accounts for infants who were baptized, but who will later prove themselves unbelievers, and fall away from the covenant. These were once “in” by infant baptism. But now they are “out” because their unbelief has shown itself. But is that what this passage is really teaching?

First of all, note that the book of Hebrews is addressed to those who have “confessed” faith in Christ and have joined the church through a confessors baptism (Heb 3:1; 4:14; 10:22-23). There isn’t a word in this book about the baptism of non-confessing infants. The burden of Hebrews is to warn that some people outwardly confess Christ, while there remains within them an “evil unbelieving heart” (Heb 3:12).

Second, the book isn’t written to those who are “in” the new covenant. It is written to those who confess Christ (Heb 3:1; 4:14; 10:22-23). Hebrews teaches that those who are actually in the new covenant never fall away from it (Heb 3:14; 6:17-20; 10:14). In fact, Hebrews tells us that one of the main reasons God gave the new covenant is because the old covenant was broken. God says, “I will establish a new covenant . . . for they did not continue in my covenant” (Heb 8:8-9). Notice God’s own logical ground for giving the new covenant.  He says, “they did not continue” in the old covenant; therefore, I have made a new one. Then God lists the unilateral effectual blessings that flow from the new covenant, guaranteeing that it will not be broken like the old covenant was broken.  In the new covenant: 1. God’s law is written on our hearts (8:10), 2. God brings us into faithful and vital communion with Himself (8:11), 3. God forgives all our sins, and never remembers them again (8:12). The burden of Hebrews is to tell the visible church: “Make sure you’re in the new covenant! Make sure your confession is sound! And don’t turn from your good confession – make sure you really believe it! And finish the race you confess to have begun!”

Third, the key to Oliphint’s argument for a mixed new covenant of believers and unbelievers is found in Hebrews 10:29, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and has outraged the Spirit of grace.” Oliphint argues that this describes someone who was truly in the new covenant, sanctified by its blood, but who later fell away from the covenant, rejected Christ and came under His wrath.

There are two serious problems with Oliphint’s interpretation:

1. It proves too much. Does Oliphint really believe that all baptized infants and unbelievers in the covenant are “sanctified” (v. 29) by the blood of the covenant? What about the Reformed doctrine of definite/effectual atonement? Does Christ’s blood sanctify unbelievers? Is Oliphint advocating a kind of limited Arminianism? What about the teaching in the book of Hebrews, just one chapter earlier, that Christ’s blood is effectual to save? It says that Jesus died, “securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12). His blood “secures” or renders certain, an “eternal,” permanent, “redemption” by which Christ has bought liberty for all His covenant people. Hebrews also says, “A death has occurred that redeems” (Heb 9:15). This doesn’t say His blood potentially redeems, or makes redemption possible. It says that Christ’s blood actually redeems! Hebrews tells us that Jesus “sat down” in the courts of heaven because there is no more work for Him to do! His blood made complete “purification for sins” (Heb 1:3), securing perfect redemption. Oliphint’s exegesis seems to entail a weakening of the nature of the atonement and a broadening of the extent of the atonement.

2. It assumes too much. The phrase in verse 29, which speaks of someone who “has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” requires careful exegesis. This is a disputed text, and scholars offer various interpretations. But just consider the phrase, “by which he was sanctified.” That phrase could be translated “by which it was sanctified.” That translation is consistent with Hebrews 9:18-28, which argues that while the blood of animals sanctified the old covenant, the blood of Christ, which is better, sanctifies the new covenant. Therefore, this passage is not talking about someone who was in the new covenant and sanctified by Christ’s blood, only to fall away. Rather, it’s speaking of one who merely confessed faith in Christ, who was baptized and joined the church, but who never actually entered the new covenant. He profaned the blood of the covenant by which it was sanctified. He rejected the sacrifice of the new covenant, leaving him no sacrifice by which to be saved.

Therefore, I conclude that Hebrews 10:26-30 does not prove that the new covenant can be broken, or that unbelievers may join the new covenant only to fall away later.

There’s another passage Oliphint uses to make his case for a breakable new covenant.

John 15:1-6 says, [1] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. [2] Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [3] Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. [4] Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. [5] I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Oliphint says this teaches that it is possible to be in Christ and in the new covenant but then to fall away. He says John 15:1-6 describes those who are in Christ ecclesiologically but not salvifically, which explains how people can fall away from Christ, but not from salvation.

Baptists don’t deny that there is such a thing as “external union” or “ecclesial union” with Christ. Most Baptists don’t, however, collapse internal union and external union into the one new covenant. I believe that in John 15:1-6, Christ is explaining what happened to Judas just a few chapters ago (Jn 13:21-30). The new covenant hadn’t yet been instituted (Heb 9:17); so, it’s impossible to say that Judas was “in” the new covenant in any sense. This passage can’t be speaking of the new covenant, since it had not yet been established.

Rather, this passage teaches us that Judas was in a kind of external union with Christ. He was outwardly and physically associated with Jesus. He followed Christ from town to town. He sat under Christ’s ministry and participated in times of fellowship with all the disciples. In that sense, Judas was externally united to Christ, but he was not in the covenant of grace, nor was he in vital union with Christ. Traditional Calvinistic Baptists believe this is what happens to some people in the church covenant. We baptize all who credibly confess faith in Christ, and the church agrees to receive them into the church covenant. This is external union with Christ. Sadly, some of these leave their confession and walk away from external union, just like Judas did. This passage proves no more than that.

3. The lack of a case for infant baptism.

In the last section of his post, Oliphint tries to connect his argument for a mixed membership in the new covenant with infant baptism. I believe this is the weakest section of his post. Oliphint says that when we understand that the new covenant is a mixed new covenant, infant baptism comes into clearer focus as we read the rest of the New Testament. He submits only two key texts to prove his point. Neither has anything to do with infant baptism.

1. 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. I need to point out that this is a “dry text.” There is no water here. But Oliphint says that if we understand that the new covenant includes believers and unbelievers, then when an unbelieving spouse converts to Christianity, it should be clear that the whole family is covenantally holy (they’re members of the new covenant), including the unbelieving spouse and all the children.

The problem with Oliphint’s reading is that this passage isn’t talking about the new covenant or baptism at all. According to the context, Paul is answering a question about the marriage covenant and whether a believing spouse should remain married to an unbelieving spouse.

Paul isn’t saying that when one spouse converts to Christ, the whole family should be baptized and join the church. He’s saying that when one spouse converts, the marriage covenant remains intact. Mixed marriages are holy, when one spouse converts. Therefore, Paul says, don’t leave your unbelieving spouse! The children of such a mixed marriage are not illegitimate. They are “holy” in the sense that they are the fruit of a legitimate marriage.

Moreover, Oliphint isn’t really arguing here for infant baptism, but for spousal baptism, and apparently for the baptism of children of all ages upon the conversion of one spouse. That’s not the argument made in the Westminster Standards, nor is it one of the standard arguments of historic paedobaptists.

2. 1 Peter 4:17. This is another “dry text.” It doesn’t say or imply anything about infant baptism; so, I’m not sure why it’s listed under a heading that purports to explain what a mixed covenant has to do with baptism. 1 Peter 4:17 says, “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God.” Throughout the Bible, the phrase “household of God” refers to the temple. In the book of 1 Peter, and the rest of the New Testament, however, temple language describes the company of true believers in Christ (1 Pet 2:4-10). When Peter speaks of judgment beginning at the household of God, he doesn’t mean that true believers are going to be destroyed; rather, he’s speaking of their disciplinary refinement and purification. This is clear from the parallel statement in verse 18, which says that the righteous will be “saved.” That’s a common theme in 1 Peter. 1 Peter 1:6-7, for example, says that the sufferings of believers are designed to purify believers to prepare them for entry into heaven. Therefore, I submit that 1 Peter 4:7 isn’t a good argument for infant baptism or for a mixed new covenant.

In conclusion, I am grateful to Jared Oliphint for engaging this question, but I remain a convinced Baptist. I am very grateful for Jared’s charitable spirit and clear articulation of his position. I’m also grateful that the Gospel Coalition is willing to host posts from differing views about ecclesiology, since our doctrine of the church is one of the vital supports to the doctrine of the gospel itself. We need to talk ecclesiology if we care about the gospel. And while we may not agree on the nature of the church, this side of heaven, I believe it is important for us to keep talking about it, listening carefully to one another, and learning from one another in love.

Additional Reading:

The Baptism of Disciples Alone by Fred Malone

A Critical Evaluation of Paedobaptism by Greg Welty

Baptism and Covenant Theology by Walt Chantry

Paedoism or Credoism by Rich Barcellos

*Edit: July 22, 2015 – One of the commenters below pointed out some problems with the way I handled the GK grammar in my argument.  I agree with his critique and have edited accordingly.