The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism. By Pierre Ch. Marcel. Translated from the French by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes. London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1959, 256 pages.
Reviewed by Fred A. Malone
Considered a classic work on infant baptism for decades, Pierre Marcel’s The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism is a “must” read for anyone who wants to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of the Paedobaptist position. Marcel was a pastor of the French Reformed Church, Editor-in-Chief of LaRevue Reformee, Vice-President of the Calvinist society of France, and lectured in the Free Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris. His purpose in writing was to refute the attacks upon infant baptism led by Karl Barth and F. J. Leenhardt.
Marcel takes his antagonists on in vigorous style. Highly respected as a defender of the Reformed Faith in France, Marcel’s work is highly respected by Paedobaptists worldwide as a classic argument and is highly recommended by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, the equally esteemed translator of this work. Marcel rejects the voice of tradition in the second and third centuries, used by many Paedobaptists, as having any validity in the argument. As we all wish to do, he desires his argument to be based upon sola Scriptura.
Divided into three parts, the book covers a general study of the sacraments, the covenant of grace, and baptism as a sacrament of the covenant of grace. The first part sets forth Marcel’s premises and presuppositions, while the second and third explain his theology of the covenants and of infant baptism. As Marcel states throughout the book: “The covenant of grace is the foundation of baptism.”
From this premise, he argues that the covenant of grace is the historical outworking of the covenant of redemption and, by biblical definition, includes the organic seed of believers. Therefore, since the covenant of grace to Abraham included his organic seed who received circumcision as a sign and seal of the covenant, so the covenant of grace in the New Covenant administration automatically includes the organic seed of believers who may receive infant baptism. For Marcel, the only acceptable evidence which could possibly exclude children of believers in the New Covenant administration of baptism would be a positive statement in the New Testament which specifically prohibits the baptism of infants.
His primary argument against Baptists is that they hold to a priori notions which color the way they read Scripture and interpret clear biblical texts on the covenants, thus coming to a faulty position in the end. He believes that a priori notions have little effect the paedobaptist position.
As a Baptist who once was convinced by Marcel’s book to become a Presbyterian, and who has read this book five times, the reviewer now notices a number of weaknesses in Marcel’s presentation. There are exegetical errors, hermeneutical mistakes, and contradictory language which bothers the close reader.
First, the exegetical. Marcel erroneously uses Eph. 1:13-14 and 4:30 to establish baptism as a seal of the covenant of grace corresponding to Abraham’s circumcision, which was a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised. He states that “the exegetes” understand “after having believed you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” to refer to baptism as a seal of the covenant of grace. However, “the [Paedobaptist]exegetes” such as Charles Hodge and William Hendriksen do not even mention baptism in these texts and understand the seal to be the Holy Spirit’s sealing of the heart. This is what Baptists have contended all along, that the only seal of the New Covenant mentioned in the New Testament is the Holy Spirit who seals the heart of every New Covenant member. Thus, the fulfillment of circumcision as the sign and seal of Abraham’s faith is not baptism, but Holy Spirit regeneration, the seal of the New Covenant. The sign of that sealing is baptism. Therefore, those “disciples” alone who exhibit outward repentance and faith as evidence of Holy Spirit regeneration are baptized (Matt. 28:18-20; John 4:1; Acts 6:1; 9:26, 38;11:26, 29; 13:52; 14:20, 22, 28).
A second exegetical error identifies the parable of the wheat and the tares as a justification for including the unregenerate in the kingdom of God, the church, and the covenant of grace. This is specifically applied to the unregenerate children of believers thereby entitling them to baptism (126-127). Marcel erroneously joins this parable with the root and branches metaphor of Rom. 11, thus condemning efforts to separate the wheat and the tares in building the church. However, the parable of the wheat and the tares is clear. The field is the world, not the church as Paedobaptists often claim (Matt. 13:38). This attempt to refute the Baptist argument of baptizing disciples alone confuses the issue. We all agree that a person may be baptized and yet unregenerate in the church. The issue is that certain New Testament texts are misinterpreted by Marcel to fit his a priori theology of infant baptism. His accusation that Baptists approach texts with a priori prejudices does not stand when compared with his own exegesis.
A third exegetical error concerns Col. 2:11-12, often used by Paedobaptists as a proof text to support baptism as the fulfillment of circumcision thereby permitting infant baptism by “good and necessary inference.” He states:
The text of Colossians ii. 11 f. plainly links circumcision to baptism and teaches that the circumcision of Christ, that is to say, the circumcision of the heart, signified by the circumcision in the flesh (cf. Rom. ii. 28f.), is achieved by baptism, that is to say, by that which baptism signifies They are grafted into Christ by means and in virtue of the circumcision which Christ Himself endured at His death for sin, at the same moment as they are buried and resurrected with Christ by baptism (156).
On the one hand, Marcel wants to say that the circumcision of Christ in the heart is the fulfillment of physical circumcision. On the other hand he actually says that the fulfillment is “by baptism.” Does he really mean to say that one is “grafted into Christ” at the same moment that he is buried and resurrected “by baptism?” Does he mean physical baptism or spiritual baptism at regeneration? His language is so imprecise that one wonders if he is teaching sacramentalism. Marcel is so intent on identifying circumcision and baptism that he claims that the circumcision of Christ is achieved “by baptism, that is to say, by that which baptism signifies.” Well, which does he mean? By physical baptism? Or by that which it signifies, which is the circumcision of the heart by Christ? It cannot be both. Baptists say that circumcision is fulfilled by that which baptism signifies. Marcel says “by baptism” itself. Such imprecise exegesis and expression is typical of his arguments. Other examples such as his treatments of Act 2:38-39 or 1 Cor. 7:14 could also be cited.
Besides exegetical errors, Marcel makes a number of hermeneutical mistakes. First, as so often happens in paedobaptist theology, he completely identifies the Abrahamic Covenant as the covenant of grace, thereby including an organic element in the very definition of a covenant. This is a hermeneutical mistake simply because there are other divine covenants described in the Scripture which have no organic element attached, for example, the Noahic Covenant. If one wishes to include Noah’s family as an organic element, then one must ask if in-laws should be included in covenant concept and signs. The definition of a covenant must be defined from Scriptural usage first as a promise, oath, or bond (Heb. 6:13-18). Then each covenant’s stipulations must be determined by written revelation, not “good and necessary inference.” This is Puritan theologian John Owen’s view (see his Hebrews 8 commentary).
For instance, the Abrahamic Covenant included the organic seed of Abraham, heart-changed or not. However, the New Covenant, by self-definition, shifts to a more individual covenant which only includes those who have a changed heart and the forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:27-34;32:40). Marcel’s a prior definition of a covenant automatically to include organic seed in the New Covenant is a major hermeneutical mistake which, absurdly, would require a New Testament statement to prohibit infant baptism, even if it were never practiced (121-122). To Marcel, the positive commands and examples which define the New Covenant and institute baptism in the New Testament are not enough to define baptismal candidates as exclusively those who repent and believe. The a priori assumption of organic seed in the Covenant of Grace carries more authority to Marcel than explicit statements of revelation.
Marcel’s view is a violation of the Reformed regulative principle of worship and a violation of the hermeneutical principle that the New is the final interpreter of the Old. Marcel actually states that God gives “general instruction” to the church concerning baptism in the New Testament and we, like we must do in preaching preaching, must apply it concretely to life by baptizing infants according to “normative principles” (190). This astonishing admission that infant baptism is established on “normative principles” reveals that it violates the regulative principle. Thus, the regulative principle is transformed into the normative principle, allowing one to go beyond Scriptural elements of worship into unprescribed practices, as long as the church calls it application. John Frame has justified drama and dance in just this same manner (see his Worship in the Spirit and Truth, 93). What can come next by such inference and application?
Finally, there is a lot of confusing, unsubstantiated, and contradictory language in Marcel’s work. He actually states that it is more likely that those who are baptized as infants will be converted than those who are baptized upon profession of their faith (232). No evidence is cited for this assertion despite the current weaknesses of many Baptist denominations. Further, this claim rings hollow in light of overwhelming witness of nominal Christianity among Paedobaptists around the world today.
Other confusing language surrounds his discussion of the efficacy of baptism. While stating that the covenant of grace does not promise the salvation of every seed individually, but only in a collective sense, he also says, “Beyond doubt the promises of the covenant will be fulfilled when parents, clinging to these promises by faith, entreat and supplicate God, in the name of these promises, to be faithful to His promises in regard to their posterity” (113). He blames the lack of salvation among children of the covenant upon parental failure. They have believed only for themselves, not for their children as well (113-114).
Well, which is it? Does the covenant of grace only promise salvation in the collective seed, or is it each parent’s fault when a child is not saved? It cannot be both. What guilt and burden this places upon faithful parents! Furthermore, how can this be reconciled with God’s sovereign distinction between Jacob and Esau (Rom. 9).
Because of this confusing and contradictory language, one is baffled by what position parents and children are placed in when they reach the “age of discretion,” which is twelve according to Marcel (99). If they do not commit themselves to the covenant by that age, then they may be subject to the discipline of the church for covenant breaking (131; this concept is so stated in the PCA book of church order). If they do not commit, the testimony of the parents is placed in jeopardy. Such confusing and contradictory language can only place enormous pressure upon parents and children to conform without true conversion.
Another instance of confusing language surrounds Marcel’s definition of the position of believer’s children in the covenant. Though he may mean “that which baptism signifies,” he actually says, “Original sin is, indeed, partially and in principle nullified by baptism, though not totally so” (147). Baptism for children of believers is warranted because they are “separate from the profane world and are placed neither under God’s judgment nor under Satan’s power. God regards them as members of His kingdom,” (191). God “says that He has removed [condemnation] for the children of the covenant” (108). Furthermore, the Lord “according to the promise, restores liberty of choice to the children of the covenant, with the result that, confronted with the alternative of life or death, they are able voluntarily and freely to embrace the one or the other” (110). Such confusing language seems to remove covenant children from the Covenant of Works, the blinding damage of original sin, the condemnation of God, and places them in a new, third category of men who have more ability than unbelievers.
If this is Marcel’s way of insuring parents when their underage children die that they are safe, or if it is his way to pressure twelve-year olds to acquiesce to the covenant or else enter a new condemnation, it is a weak attempt biblically. There is no biblical basis for such confusing language. Children of believers are just as much under the Covenant of Works as pagan children; everyone is either in Adam or in Christ (Romans 5). There is no third way. And they are just as responsible to repent and believe on the basis of their sins (not on the basis of their covenant position) as pagan children are. Such confusing language may attract parents to baptize their babies to assure their salvation, but it may also prevent parents from calling their children to repent and to believe in Christ under the assumption that they are safe.
Pierre Marcel’s arguments sound convincing to the novice reader and intellectually stimulating to the convinced Paedobaptist. However, the faulty exegesis, logical inconsistencies, confusing language, and theological speculation are too unbiblical to be taken seriously as a challenge to the informed Baptist position. That is, of course, unless one a priori wants to believe it.
The Life and Ministry of John Gano, Volume 1. By Terry Wolever. Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 1998. 454 pages, Hardback, $32.00.
Reviewed by Douglas R. Shivers
Particular Baptist Press, the brainchild of Pastor Gary Long, Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri, has published its second work. This is the first in the “Philadelphia Association Series,” which will chronicle the lives of influential Calvinistic Baptists in America. (The previous volume, The Life and Works of Joseph Kinghorn, Volume 1, is the first in a series dealing with British Particular Baptists.)
Readers will find Terry Wolever, the editor of this work, to be an exceptionally knowledgeable Baptist historian. His rigorous research for this book, including an extensive investigation into the archives of seminaries and historical societies, resulted in a bounty of materials about this little known Baptist giant. As a result, what was intended to be a single volume under 200 pages grew into a sizable two-volume project.
An excellent appendix within the book, “The Particular Baptists in North Carolina: An Appraisal Appraised,” is particularly noteworthy. In this appendix, Wolever interacts with George W. Paschal who seems to think that Particular Baptists were the source of theological and ecclesiological ills. Some of the accusations are tired old things, such as being “anti-missionary.” The editor does a fine job of refuting Paschal’s proposals with solid, historical facts.
Other items of interest include sermon notes by Gano on Ephesians 1:6b, “Wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” The original notes are accompanied by a facsimile. Excerpts from the minutes of period church meetings, as well as Associational meetings in colonial America are also interesting. They give evidence of a warm-hearted Calvinism in early American Baptist life.
It should be noted that, in the presentation of this work, Wolever’s love for the old writers is evidenced in his emulation of their writing style, requiring more dedicated labor in reading. The editor is not overly concerned with presenting the material in a readily digested style for our own generation. Substantial repetition between Wolever’s biographical material and the “Biographical Memoir” by Stephen Gano, John’s son, both of which are provided in the main text, also creates a reading challenge. The memoir would have been better placed in the appendix. Wolever’s warning of a “disjointed flow” (p. 9) may be understated. It is also curious that Wolever takes theological issue with an account of a sermon by Gano in a footnote on page 293 regarding the “free offer” of the gospel. Debate on issues of theological controversy seem misplaced in an historical account.
Despite these textual considerations, this book is a wonderful gift to Baptists. In a time when history in general and Baptist history in particular is considered a wasteland, the work of Particular Baptist Press is a welcome voice in the wilderness. Very few Baptists can align themselves with the historic Baptist community beyond a rudimentary declaration of, “I am a Baptist.” Their knowledge of Baptist history drops into never-never land beyond their own immediate parentage: “I learned about being a Baptist from Grandma, and she got her information directly from the Apostle Paul.”
If you suspect there is more Baptist heritage than “Grandma,” or if you’re already a serious student of Baptist heritage (and can approach textual style with good humor), this book will be a bonus for your history shelf. We’ll be watching for future works from Particular Baptist Press.