How a Presbyterian Principle Reinforces My Baptist Conviction

My son and I went to a community wide service the other day. This began an interesting conversation about the difference between denominations. I tried as best as I could to explain to him all of the different distinctives which both unite us and separate us. Part of our discussion centered around why we’ve been given the name Baptists. This led to an interesting discussion about why I believe in credobaptism (believer’s baptism) and not paedobaptism (infant baptism).

While I hold a good many things in common with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters, I remain a Baptist by conviction. And one of the main reason why I remain a credobaptist actually comes from a principle I’ve learned from Presbyterians (or perhaps more accurately from the Reformation). That principle is the regulative principle.

This principle is defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith:

the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture. (21.1)

Put simply, the regulative principle teaches that everything we do when we gather for worship must be sanctioned by Scripture. This includes the way we administer the ordinances (like baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Westminster outlines this as well:

Prayers: The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: besides religious oaths and vows, solemn fasting, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner (21.4-5)

The regulative principle is a hallmark within Reformed churches. Many churches have slid towards the normative principle of worship—which allows anything not forbidden by Scripture. The regulative principle argues that unless Scripture tells us we should do something within our worship gathering we should not do that thing.

So where does this leave infant baptism?

I stumbled upon these words of Balthasar Hubmaier the other day. He was drowned in the Danube for his views on baptism, hopefully by agreeing with him I do not suffer a similar fate:

It is clear enough for him who has eyes to see it, but it is not expressed in so many words, literally: ‘do not baptize infants.’ May one baptize them? To that I answer: ‘if so I may baptize my dog or my donkey… I may make idols out of St. Paul and St. Peter, I may bring infants to the Lord’s Supper, bless palm branches, vegetables, salt, land and water, sell the Mass for an offering. For it is nowhere said in express words that we must not do these things. (The Anabaptist Story, 90)

Hubmaier is arguing from the regulative principle and the principle of sola Scriptura. This is why I am amazed that good Presbyterians like B.B. Warfield can say,

“It is true that there is no express command to baptize infants in the New Testament, no express record of the baptism of infants, and no passages so stringently implying it that we must infer from them that infants were baptized. If such warrant as this were necessary to justify the usage we should have to leave it incompletely justified. But the lack of this express warrant is something far short of forbidding the rite” (Quoted here)

Warfield goes on to argue that a sign of the covenant was instituted in the Old Testament and therefore must be expressly denied in the New Testament. That to me appears to be the crux of the argument—is baptism the continuation of the covenant of circumcision. Warfield then quotes Lightfoot: “It is not forbidden” in the New Testament to “baptize infants, — therefore, they are to be baptized.

I suppose my Presbyterian brothers and sisters will disagree, but I cannot find an explicit place in Scripture which shows that baptism replaces circumcision. Yes, there is a connection from Colossians 2:11-12, but again what we are doing here is arguing from a good and necessary inference. This is the language of John Murray who says, “Surely the inference is one of good and necessary consequence that infants should be given the sign and seal of that which, by the authority of Christ, they are to be accounted.” Friends, this is the argumentation and the very language of the normative principle and not the regulative principle.

It is not upon these grounds alone, but as one who holds to the regulative principle I simply cannot move from my Baptist conviction that baptism is meant for believers and not for infants who cannot yet believe.



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