Earlier this week in Orlando, FL, Dr. James White and Dr. Gregg Strawbridge engaged in debate on the topic of baptism. Over the past few weeks I took the opportunity to write a few articles and discuss some more recently published books that support the Reformed Baptist perspective. I did so for two reasons. First, I thought it might be of interest to both Baptist and paedobaptist readers. For my Baptist brethren who read the blog or receive the newsletter my plea would be to hang on for a little while longer. I promise we will soon step off the baptism train and onto more common ground.
The other reason I took the opportunity was because just in the last few years, some very helpful books have been written that support the Reformed Baptist position. Why are they so helpful? Because they are more self-consciously covenantal in their approach. They discuss the topic of baptism by focusing on the nature of the New Covenant and the doctrine of the church. Give me your understanding of the New Covenant and most likely I will know where you stand on the issue of baptism.
In his opening statement Dr. White stated his desire to move the conversation forward. I thought his entreaty was warranted given the fact these two men debated the same topic back in 2007. With skillful rhetoric and his characteristic bravado, he did his part in working to refine the discussion. In a generous and more laid-back fashion, Dr. Strawbridge also contributed to attaining greater efficiency. Yet, a formal debate has constraints. I do believe the debate moved the conversation forward slightly but there were some important points left on the table that should be further digested.
Someone asked me prior to the debate about what trajectory the discussion would take and where I thought it might culminate. I answered that undoubtedly the primary contention would end up centering on the nature of the New Covenant and texts from Hebrews as well as Jeremiah 31. Why? Because therein lies the lynchpin for both positions. Over the past few decades, much of the debate has been distilled down to this primary question: What defines New Covenant membership?
This is precisely the point at which Jeffrey Johnson identifies the “fatal flaw” in the paedobaptist position. The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism is a constructive work written a few years ago. It is one of the books referenced above that deals with the topic of infant baptism from within the foundational context of God’s covenants.
Perhaps Tom Nettles says it best on the back cover of the book. “Jeffrey Johnson has produced a thorough, vigorous, and impressive interaction with covenant theology as it is used in support of infant baptism.”[i] I could not agree more. Johnson covers all his bases. Just when you think he is going to let a key argument go unaddressed, he takes it on completely so as to lay it to rest. The content is well ordered and he tracks through each discussion with clarity and humility.
He earned my full attention in the introduction of his book. He begins by acknowledging different paedobaptist positions and clarifies which position is under critique in his book.
In order to keep our thoughts and arguments in line, it is important to keep the various divisions of paedobaptism distinguished.
I have narrowed my focus to the Presbyterian position of infant baptism. It is this division of paedobaptism that Baptists must be most concerned. [ii]
Although I do not agree with his characterizations of some of the paedobaptist positions, I do find his approach helpful. This sort of “sighting-in of the rifle” is too often skipped and the result is a diluted argument.
His ultimate target is why the book has been so impactful among Reformed Baptists. It is also why I find it an important book with which to interact, albeit briefly and in just a couple of short articles. In the following statements Johnson lets you know he will still his crosshairs over the heart of his opponent.
The primary thrust of this book is not upon the various flaws of ‘infant baptism,’ as it is a direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted. Rather than trying to sever every branch from the tree of infant baptism, I have endeavored to undercut its foundation. In order to uproot the tree of infant baptism, its deepest roots must be exhumed, examined, and refuted.
The foundation for infant baptism (at least from the Presbyterian standpoint) is paedobaptist covenant theology.[iii]
From here Johnson begins his long and thorough discussion regarding the continuity or discontinuity of the Old and New Covenants and their interaction with the reformed concept of the Covenant of Grace. He points out the nature of the Old Covenant as a covenant of works and the New Covenant as the one and only promised Covenant of Grace. (He also picks up this discussion in his more recent book, The Kingdom of God. I would commend this work as well.) So as to avoid being too redundant, I will choose not to interact with these topics as I sought to do so here. I will revisit some of that previous content with clarifications at a later date.
By chapter eight, Johnson begins to hone in on his supposed “fatal flaw”. The chapter is entitled, Reductio Ad Absurdum.
Where does paedobaptist covenant theology lead, when its presuppositions are worked through to their natural conclusions? In this chapter we look down this dangerous road to show that a thoroughgoing synthesis of the old and new covenants becomes complete absurdity (reductio ad absurdum).
Thankfully, however, most covenantal paedobaptists are inconsistent with themselves.[iv]
I will go ahead and state it outright – I agree with Johnson on this last point. There is nothing that gives someone more pause than apparent inconsistencies when they are searching for answers. These need to be cleared up. Of course I believe the Reformed Baptist position to contain inconsistencies as well. It is for this reason (inconsistency on both sides) that it is so important to keep refining the discussion.
What Johnson eludes to on page 94 of the book comes to full expression in Chapter nine entitled, The Fatal Flaw of Paedobaptist Covenant Theology. What is this flaw? In a subsection with the heading, The Fatal Flaw, he states it succinctly: “Placing covenant-breakers in the covenant of grace destroys the covenant.”
This honing-in and focus uncovers a linchpin for both sides. If it can be shown that there are no covenant-breakers in the New Covenant in time and space, then the credobaptist stance becomes quite formidable. If there are those who can be in covenant and cast-out at any point in history, then the paedobaptist position is preserved.
From here I would like to point-out what I see to be a soft spot in Johnson’s argument. He takes something for granted. In multiple passages throughout the book he appeals to specific New Covenant texts and assumes what I believe needs to be proven. He assumes that scripture plainly limits New Covenant membership to God’s elect. He cites key passages without wrestling with opposing interpretations. I will provide a few examples.
The New Testament is not only silent upon the issue of infant baptism, it specifically and openly teaches that those who have been regenerated are the only members of the new covenant (Heb 8:7-13).[v]
Moreover, if we are to base the participants of baptism on the nature of the new covenant, we are obligated to restrict the participants to those who “know the Lord.” As the Scripture emphatically says concerning the new covenant, “For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34). This declaration and explanation of the new covenant is clearly referring to believers alone.[vi]
The Bible clearly says that all those who are in the new covenant know the Lord and have been forgiven of their sins (Heb 8:11-12).[vii]
All Christians must make their calling and election sure. This does not mean, however, that the new covenant is breakable. Jeremiah made it very clear that this is an impossibility (Jer 31:31-32).[viii]
The book of Hebrews makes it clear that the new covenant, unlike the old, cannot be broken. All its members know the Lord and have had their sins (past, present and future) forgiven (Heb 8:11-12).[ix]
…but the sign of the new covenant should only be received by those who personally know the Lord (Heb 8:11).[x]
The difference in the new covenant is that there are none who do not know the Lord: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:34).[xi]
The above passages and interpretations are essential Johnson’s argument against infant baptism. Yet, he takes for granted that his view of the texts is either held in common by his opponents or perhaps too plain to bother with an extensive refute of any opposing interpretations. I see this as a soft spot because his assumptions are critical to pointing out the “fatal flaw” of paedobaptist theology.
As a brief aside, it is probably important to at least state that I do take issue with other aspects of the book. I do not see Johnson deal sufficiently with the confessional nature of all covenants, the full and continuing validity of covenant representation within the family and church on earth, as well as the interaction between the three God-ordained covenant institutions. I deal with all of these issues in video and in print here. Although each of these contentions has bearing on the larger discussion, the issue of elect-only membership in the New Covenant remains the keystone.
It is not surprising then that this is also where the White vs. Strawbridge debate seemed to climax – the issue of New Covenant membership. The key to moving the conversation forward is to address the passages that Johnson, White and others depend on for their Baptist position. I do not see a “fatal flaw”. I see a weak reed that results from a fatal misunderstanding of a few texts in Scripture. I hope to address these next.
[i] Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2010), back cover.
[ii] Ibid, 20.
[iii] Ibid, 21.
[iv] Ibid, 109.
[v] Ibid, 43.
[vi] Ibid, 47.
[vii] Ibid, 123.
[viii] Ibid, 125.
[ix] Ibid, 127.
[x] Ibid, 158.
[xi] Ibid, 176.