Christians disagree—sometimes sharply—on how themes unfold in the OT and NT. Here are a few examples:
- the old covenant and new covenant
- law and grace
- Israel and the church
- promise and fulfillment
- type and antitype
- the Sabbath and Lord’s day
- circumcision and baptism
People cannot study such issues in an isolated way without raising larger biblical and theological structural issues. The hermeneutical spiral is complicated, and the way people approach such issues reveals how they put the Bible together. That’s why, upon the recent recommendations of some friends, I spent several hours this afternoon carefully reading the following essay:
Stephen J. Wellum. “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants.” Pages 97–161 in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. Edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright. NAC Studies in Bible and Theology. Broadman & Holman: Nashville, 2006.
(Note the free PDF.)
This essay by Wellum, who is “neither Dispensational nor Covenantal (in the paedobaptist sense of the term)” (p. 123n44), is a fine example of what it looks like to approach an issue like baptism responsibly in light of Bible’s storyline.
What follows is an outline of Wellum’s essay with quotations from the introduction and conclusion. (I’ve added the numbering.)
Covenant theology, then, according to the paedobaptist, requires infant baptism. In fact, specific details in their argument such as the “mixed” nature of the church, the relationship between circumcision and baptism, and various NT passages utilized to support their view such as the household texts, are all dependent on their understanding of the continuity of the covenant of grace across redemptive history. Ultimately, if Baptists want to argue cogently against the paedobaptist viewpoint and for a believer’s baptism, we must, in the end, respond to this covenantal argument (pp. 97–98).
2. The Covenantal Argument for Infant Baptism
2.1. An Outline of the Argument
2.2. The Nature of the “Covenant of Grace” and Infant Baptism
2.2.1. The “Newness” of the New Covenant
2.2.2. The Nature of the “Covenant of Grace”: Conditional or Unconditional?
2.2.3. The Parties of the Covenant
2.2.4. The Relationship between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Covenant of Grace
2.3. The Nature of the Church and Infant Baptism
2.3.1. The Invisible and the Visible Church [Note esp. the last paragraph on p. 121.]
2.3.2. Evidence for the Paedobaptist View of the Church
2.4. The Nature of the Covenantal Signs: Circumcision and Infant Baptism
2.4.1. The Spiritual Meaning of Circumcision
2.4.2. The Parallel Between Circumcision and Baptism
3. An Evaluation and Critique of the Covenantal Argument for Infant Baptism
[Note esp. pp. 133–35.]
3.1. The Use of the Theological Category, “The Covenant of Grace”
3.2. The Nature of the Abrahamic Covenant and Its Relation to the Biblical Covenants
3.2.1. Abrahamic Covenant as Paradigm of God’s Dealings with Humankind
3.2.2. The Various Aspects of the Abrahamic Covenant
3.2.3. Implications of the Abrahamic Covenant for Baptism
3.3. The Newness of the New Covenant and the Nature of the Church
3.4. The Relationship Between Circumcision and Baptism
4. Concluding Reflections
In truth, the baptismal question is a major test-case for one’s entire theological system since it tells much about how one puts the entire canon together. The Reformed paedobaptist argument is grounded in an explicit view of the covenants; if this understanding of the “covenant of grace” can be sustained, it provides a strong warrant for the position. However, if this understanding is inaccurate, then the entire biblical and theological warrant for the practice of infant baptism evaporates. In this chapter, albeit in a preliminary way, I have argued that the latter is the case. At the heart of the paedobaptist problem, I contend, is a failure to understand correctly the proper relationship between the biblical covenants. In fact, a truly covenantal approach to Scripture, preserving the proper biblical emphasis on continuity and discontinuity between the covenant communities of the old and new testaments, as well as between the covenant signs, demands an affirmation of believer’s baptism (pp. 160).