Friday, August 23, 2013

James D. G. Dunn on the New Testament and Infant Baptism

Over the past few months The Gospel Coalition has published a few posts on the subject of "Why I Changed My Mind about Infant Baptism." Two such posts have been written by prominent PCA pastors Sean Michael Lucas (First Presbyterian Church, Hattiesburg, Mississippi) and Liam Goligher (Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia), both of whom were nurtured in the faith in credo-baptist circles in America and Scotland, respectively.

Not surprisingly, what ultimately precipitated their change of mind was a discovery of the doctrines of grace, which led to a reconsideration of other elements of classic Reformed theology. Goligher indeed found the ultimate basis of paedo-baptism in the so-called covenant of grace, the organizing principle of the classic Reformed theology of his native Scotland and the Presbyterian churches emanating from it [On a side note, he contrasts this with the classic dispensationalism in which he was reared, but—as is all too common with Reformed writers—he badly misrepresents what that system believes about salvation through the ages. Considering that Charles Ryrie's Dispensationalism Today[i] was published in 1965, such misrepresentation really is inexcusable. And I write this as one who, though raised in that classic dispensationalism, no longer hold to its distinctives.] Interestingly, both Lucas and Goligher were led to reconsider their previous views about baptism after being influenced strongly by the system of Reformed theology to which they had been attracted by their graduate studies in theology, not as a result of biblical exegesis per se.

As a soteriological Calvinist reared in classic dispensationalism, I understand the pull Reformed theology exerts acutely. Baptists, at least here in America, are all too often characterized by "easy believism," anti-intellectualism, and a stifling legalism that measures piety at least partly by the avoidance of trivial external "worldly" behaviors. Even worse, so-called "Bible Churches," "Community Churches," and—worse still—megachurches which adhere to credo-baptism have all too often substituted historic Christian worship for the mess of pottage provided by "contemporary" entertainment-based services. Reformed theology harks back behind the contemporary Zeitgeist or fundamentalism's 19th-century ethos to the 16th and 17th centuries, ultimately finding its origins in the thought of perhaps the most learned and intelligent thinker God has given his church, the great Calvin himself. When one adds to this the fact that a growing number of Reformed theologians are vociferously protesting the use of the "Reformed" label by credo-baptist Calvinists like John Piper and the "Young, Restless, and Reformed" crowd, one understands immediately the tendency of many young Calvinists to take the metaphorical plunge into the advocacy of paedo-baptism.

Nevertheless ... I am a New Testament student by training. I am very wary of, and hence not beholden to, theological systems, no matter how venerable or apparently intellectually rigorous (Indeed, I find it hard to imagine how anyone could make the outrageous claim that any pre-critical confession, no matter how well-thought out, could possibly contain “the system of doctrine taught in scripture” and thereby command complete assent). What matters to me, as it should to any Christian, is what the Bible, in this case the New Testament, teaches on a given subject. To put it differently, what is needed is a reaffirmation of the classic Protestant principle of sola scriptura—the notion that Scripture, properly and historically interpreted, must be allowed to trump tradition. And it is here, in my measured opinion, that the case for infant baptism falters badly. Indeed, there are no clear examples of prescribed or practiced paedo-baptism in the New Testament. Texts like 1 Corinthians 7:14 are simply too insubstantial and ambiguous to bear the weight preachers like Lucas and Goligher place on them. Indeed, the fact that St. Paul here writes that the unbelieving spouse is rendered “sanctified” (hÄ“giastai) by his or her union with a believer renders it highly unlikely that he intends an oblique reference to baptism when he describes the offspring of such unions as “holy” (hagia). Moreover, the use of Acts 2:39 as warrant for infant baptism (“The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call”) simply boggles the mind. Are all who are “far off” likewise to be baptized on the off chance that they will be recipients of the effectual call? At best the biblical arguments proffered by supporters of the “covenant” baptism of children suggest infant baptism as a possible, though unstated, implication of the texts in question. But that possibility diminishes significantly when one considers what the New Testament actually says explicitly concerning the significance of Christian baptism in such texts as Romans 6.[ii] Simply put, it is transparent that other factors are involved in the switch to a paedo-baptist position than the exegesis of holy Scripture.[iii]

Some thirty years ago I read an early work by the current doyen of British New Testament scholars, the moderately evangelical James D. G. Dunn, entitled Unity and Diversity in the New Testament.[iv] Professor Dunn was raised as a Scots Presbyterian, and today is a member of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. So he has no credo-baptist axe to grind on the matter of infant baptism. Thus what he wrote on the subject all those years ago has remained imprinted on my mind as a cautionary word against adopting a position for the wrong reasons without sufficient scriptural warrant:

A few brief comments are perhaps called for on the subject of infant baptism. It is one of the standing ironies of the diversity of Christian theology and practice that the chief means of accomplishing regeneration for so many centuries has had so little foothold in the NT, and has not clearly been encompassed even within the wide-ranging diversity of first-century Christian practice. For it has to be recognized that infant baptism can find no real support in the theology of baptism which any NT writer can be shown to espouse. And the more we recognize that a primary function of baptism throughout the first decades of Christianity was to serve as a means of expressing the initiate’s faith and commitment, the less justified in terms of Christian beginnings would the practice of infant baptism appear to be. The strongest support from within the NT period would probably come from the Corinthians …, but that is not a precedent many would want to argue from.
A more circuitous justification can be attempted with greater promise through the concept of family solidarity—that the child of a believing parent by virtue of that fact stands within the circle of (the parent’s) faith (1 Cor. 7.14). And no one would want to deny that Jesus blessed infants during his ministry (Mark 10.13-16). The real question is whether Christian baptism is the appropriate expression of this status within the family of faith, or whether baptism is the means whereby the children of today are brought to Jesus and blessed by him. The household baptisms of Acts 16.15, 33, 18.8 and 1 Cor. 1.16 might provide sufficient (NT) precedent; but the case is hardly proved, since it is far from certain that the households included small children: Acts 16.15—was Lydia married? 16.34—all rejoiced in the middle of the night; 18.8—all believed; 1 Cor. 16.15—all served. The supporting argument from circumcision’s being administered to Israelite (male) infants as part of the covenant people of Yahweh depends on how one assesses the relation between the old Israel and the new: as we have seen, the new covenant equivalent of old covenant circumcision is the circumcision of the heart, the gift of the Spirit, not baptism; and membership of the new covenant is through faith in Jesus Christ, not by natural descent (see particularly Gal. 3). The weakness of the family solidarity argument then is that it explains the child’s status within the circle of faith, without necessarily justifying the further step that he/she ought therefore to be baptized—for certainly that status is not dependent on baptism, nor is the blessing of Christ. Consequently if baptism is to retain its regular significance within the NT, as the expression of the baptisand’s faith, it should probably be reserved for that time when it can serve to express the child’s own commitment, a practice which can be followed without detracting in any way from the status of the child of a believing parent within the circle of faith. In short, for all the diversity of faith and practice in first-century Christianity it remains doubtful whether it stretches so far as to include infant baptism.[v]

Professor Dunn, I believe, is right. To put it simply, the case for infant baptism in Reformed theology rests almost entirely on a theological understanding of the relationship between the old and new covenants in which their salvation-historical discontinuity is downplayed in the interest of subsuming both under the rubric of an overarching, hypothetical “covenant of grace.” Rightly understood, however, the Old and New Covenants are not structured identically. The Old Covenant was a national covenant into which boys and girls were born, with circumcision functioning as the badge of covenant identity for male children of Abraham. No one is born into membership of the New Covenant, however. Membership there, as Luke records Peter as proclaiming, is reserved to those whom God calls (Acts 2:39) and who accordingly respond in repentance, faith, and baptism (Acts 2:38). Baptism in the New Testament is not only the concrete expression of the faith that saves; it is the means provided by God to picture the union of the believer with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6)—the very union by virtue of which the believer is “justified” (Gal 2:17), constituted a member of God’s eschatological covenant people who will be acquitted at the great assize on the last day. As such baptism can be viewed as the means by which God concretely declares the justified status of the baptisand that the Spirit effected when, through the word of the gospel, he created in the believer that faith through which he or she became united with Christ. Baptism, in other words, is not a mere badge, even a theologically pregnant one, like circumcision was. But, as Dunn rightly points out, circumcision of the foreskin has as its New Covenant counterpart the circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6; Rom 2:26-27), not baptism. Baptism, on the other hand, proclaims what has already happened to the believer who submits to it. Therein lies the inherent contradiction in evangelical practice of paedo-baptism.

[i] Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody, 1965).
[ii] Despite the valiant-yet-unsuccessful effort by John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: P&R, 1974), to argue that the significance of infant baptism must be the same as that for adult believers/converts.
[iii] One such matter is the acknowledged practice of infant baptism dating back at least to the second century. See, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.22.4; Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 21.3-5; Origen, Commentary on Romans 5:9. Origen indeed claims the tradition of baptizing infants went back to the apostles. On the practice of paedo-baptism in the early church, see the back and forth between the Lutheran New Testament scholars Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004 [1960]) (for) and Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004 [1963]) (against).
[iv] James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977).
[v] Unity and Diversity, 160-61. See also Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998) 457-59.


  1. Jim, thanks for writing about infant baptism--it's come up recently for us. I have a question (if you have the time!).

    What seems to motivate this debate is not the nature of baptism, but rather whether we are able to know that a person is saved. In any case, my question is this: What does baptism do? Here's where I'm coming from.

    Growing up in an Evangelical Free church, I saw people baptized after they'd personally confessed Jesus as their savior. No one, of course, ever thought that baptism granted them salvation. Salvation came by grace through faith in Jesus. (Baptism was, more simply, a proclamation of that prior faith, or, more complexly, am important part of a persons' saving relationship with God.)

    Currently attending an Anglican church, I see babies baptized. No one, of course, ever thinks that baptism grants them salvation. Salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus, a faith babies are unable to have.

    So what does baptism--any take on baptism--do? No evangelical position holds that baptism saves you. The talk about regeneration seems to be getting to the issue (and indeed, our Anglican baptisms just seem to ask God to make the baby regenerate). You say: "Baptism in the New Testament is not only the concrete expression of the faith that saves; it is the means provided by God to picture the union of the believer with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection". Yet those--"concrete expression" and a " picture"--are pretty much the same thing. It sounds like you're with Dunn, that baptism is properly just a representation of faith.

    But then why the fuss? I'm missing a little bit of what's at issue, and it's the fact that there is an issue that makes me think I'm missing something. If you thought that baptism did effect a spiritual change (beyond the effect a public ceremony would have on psyche of the person being baptized), I'd understand the fuss. I'd also understand the fuss if it was important to use baptism as the mark for whether a person was saved. But given (in your view) that baptism is representational and not even the primary mark of a saved person (the primary mark would be, of course, their life, which is, of course, no single "mark")--why does baptism matter?

  2. As per St. Paul's argument in Galatians, it is faith rather than circumcision that is the only "badge" or identifying mark of the believer who is a beneficiary of the new covenant. Baptism, though, is clearly not an optional extra or an "adiaphora," as the great commission text in Matt 28 and Peter's sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:38) clearly show, not to mention the recorded experience of the Ethiopian eunuch and Paul himself in Acts. What is significant, though, is that baptism is always accompanied by confession of Christ as Messiah/Son of God/Lord, and is seen as the concrete expression of that faith, signifying the washing away/forgiveness of sins. Paul distinctively teaches that it signifies the believer's identification/union with Christ in the saving acts of his death and resurrection (Rom 6). Later Protestant theology has spoken of baptism as the "sign and seal" of the covenant, which is fine. I prefer to see it, as I articulated above, as the symbolic declaration of God himself of the believer's justification by virtue of his or her faith-union with Christ. Thus baptism doesn't confer this blessing ex opera operato, but it is designed to be the visible means of entrance into the community of Christ's followers. In that baptism is a symbolic rite, I don't necessarily dispute the validity of a person's infant baptism, though most churches don't do a good job at emphasizing the confirmation of that baptism in the child's teen years. My main point, however, is that the NT reserves the sacrament for believers as the entrance rite into the church. And this is important: unlike the old covenant, entrance into the new covenant community is not determined by racial or family background, but is occasioned by the faith of the believer. The distinction I made between "concrete expression" and "means ... to picture" was intended to convey the notion that baptism is provided by God and has the force of a divine declaration as well as being the mark of the believer's own faith.

  3. Thank you for your clarifications, Jim, as always, carefully reasoned from Scripture. Although not your main point, one the strongest points of your post was the importance of drawing our convictions from Scripture itself, not from a theological system. So thank you for these words: "What matters to me, as it should to any Christian, is what the Bible, in this case the New Testament, teaches on a given subject. To put it differently, what is needed is a reaffirmation of the classic Protestant principle of sola scriptura—the notion that Scripture, properly and historically interpreted, must be allowed to trump tradition."

  4. Thanks, Jim! I got--so baptism is more than a mere representation of a spiritual reality. It "has the force of a divine declaration", is a "sign" and a "seal". A believer only acts symbolically when they get baptized, but God makes it so that that symbolic act has spiritual consequence, i.e., a part of their being included into Christ's community. (Though of course, really, it is simply faith that enables that.)

    And yeah, it does sound like what you (and Dunn) mean by baptism is closer to what Anglicans mean by confirmation. Which just muddies the waters.


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