Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 9)

Part Eight

Federal Theology and the Baptism of Infants

“[W{hen Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3:15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or will ever be saved – in any period of human history – is a member of the covenant of grace.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 95.

When dealing with the subject of baptism we are still dealing with the covenant of grace; Covenant Theology’s main lens. As I’m treating infant baptism (paedo-baptism) here it is important to note that Reformed Baptists who hold to CT approach the subject differently. I will treat that separately.

The term “federal” comes from the Latin foedus which means “treaty” or “pact,” but has come to mean “covenant,” although the Reformers like Calvin and Beza were not dogmatic on the point. But the covenant in view is not any covenant that can be easily found in the Bible. As the quotation above shows it is the dominant covenant of grace that is dictating doctrine. Hence, it is not the biblical covenants that drive the theology of baptism and headship in CT.

It will help to cite a leading covenant theologian on the matter:

“In the first place, remember, humanity is not an aggregate of individuals but an organic unity, one race, one family…The law of solidarity does not explain the covenant (of works or grace) but is based on it and harks back to it…” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 102, 105.

Bavinck indicates that the solidarity of the human race is covenantally bound. It is bound either to the covenant of works (meaning that the unsaved or non-elect are under it) or the covenant of grace (meaning that the saved or elect – or “historical elect” are under it). This grouping of all the elect into one category in the covenant of grace is the epitome of Federal Theology.

Solidarity of Federalism

Concentrating on the elect (or the children of the elect) in the covenant of grace one needs to appreciate the fact that there is no room within this federal view for more than one people of God. This of course means that the prophecies concerning national Israel and its Davidic kingdom emanating from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:1-4; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 46:13, etc.), and covering all the territory God pledged to Abraham in Genesis 15:17-21 cannot be literally fulfilled (this land will all be Israel, not simply Israeli held territory). That would mean that national Israel would be separate from elect Gentiles and thus there would be at least two peoples of God; Israel and the Church. Federal solidarity does not permit such a thing. Remember that the covenant of grace dictates the hermeneutics of CT. Therefore, the one-people-of-God requirement demands that the prophecies about Israel’s restoration be reinterpreted to produce the needed unity.

The Sign of the Covenant of Grace

CT’s believe that the covenant of grace had as its sign or token the circumcision of eight-day old boys under its Mosaic aspect. But the elect after the cross is greatly extended to include Gentiles; or rather, “Israel” is extended to include a Gentile super-majority. This “New Israel” or “True Israel” as it is often called, cannot have the same token as under the Mosaic economy, so a change in the sign had to happen under the auspices of the New covenant iteration of the covenant of grace (See e.g., O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 280.). After the cross the sign is changed to infant baptism, usually by sprinkling. as a replacement for male circumcision. As Belcher says, “Circumcision is an outward sign pointing to an inward, spiritual need.” (Richard Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 252). Sprinkling babies is thought to be a biblical way to show the same (cf. e.g., Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, 635).

“With the permanence of the Abrahamic covenant, why is the sign of the covenant no longer circumcision in the New Testament? The simple answer is that the New Testament reveals that baptism replaces circumcision in the new covenant era (Col. 2:8-12).” – Michael G. McKelvey, “The New Covenant as Promised in the Major Prophets,” in Covenant Theology, edited by Guy Prentiss Waters, et al, 194 n. 8.

It should be noted that the “baptism” in Colossians 2:12 cannot in the first place be sprinkling, and in the second place it is almost certainly not water baptism but the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) which is in Paul’s mind.

This replacement of the sign of the covenant and the change of “Israel” from a super-majority of Hebrew Jews to a super-majority of Gentiles does not (in the minds of many contemporary CT’s) involve a replacement of one Israel with the “New Israel.” But I shall address this question in another installment.

Obviously, because infants are involved, and they are not able to understand the Gospel, the paedo-baptist approach entails the inclusion of non-regenerate people within the covenant as well as believers (though amazingly, some Reformed theologians think these babies may be regenerate!). However, though they may be “in the covenant” these non-regenerate people are not viewed as “full members” of the covenant community. Their inclusion is in the basis of what are called the “genealogical principle” and the “representative principle.” The genealogical principle says that the children of the elect will (or are expected to) come to faith, whereas the representative principle has them under the headship of Christ. Further, as Christ is seen as “Israel” those “in Him” (i.e., in the covenant of grace) are “Israel” represented by Him.

2 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 9)”

  1. I appreciate the explanation of the argument from covenant theology. Do you think infant baptism is inconsistent with Dispensational theology? Leaving CT aside, I have always thought there was an adequate basis for infant baptism in the principle of household solidarity (Gen. 18:19, Joshua 24:15) which I think we see in the household baptisms of the NT. I also believe that most of the Bible’s teaching on parenting and children (eg. Proverbs, Ephesians 6:1-3) indicates that parents are to view their children as being on the same side of the antithesis.

  2. Good question Michael. I do not think we can point to an incorporative aspect to the New covenant and the Church. There may be more of a case for the Remnant.

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