A Defense of the Presbyterian Doctrine of Infant Baptism—Finally

The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church, by Lewis Bevens Schenck. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2003. Pp. xvii + 188. $15.99 (paper).

Infant Salvation in the Covenant

The message of this reprint of a work first published in 1940 is precious. It is traditional, confessional Presbyterian (Reformed) doctrine that infant baptism means the infant salvation of the elect children of godly parents. Parents and the church must view and rear the baptized children as elect and regenerated. “The doctrine of the historic Reformed church [is] … that ‘since the promise is not only to parents but to their seed, children are by the command of God to be regarded and treated as of the number of the elect'” (p. 127). Right, covenantal upbringing consists of the gradual nurture of the children in the salvation they possess from infancy.

Christian nurture was, then, the appointed, the natural, the normal, and ordinary means by which the children of believers were made truly the children of God. Consequently it was the method which these leaders believed should be principally relied upon and employed for the salvation of their children. They recognized a marvelous adaptation of this means to the end which it was intended to accomplish, and they were convinced that success was assured to them in its use by the covenant promise of God (p. 145).

Schenck demonstrates that this doctrine of infant baptism was that of John Calvin, Charles Hodge, Abraham Kuyper, and others, as well as that of all the Reformed confessions. Reformed orthodoxy was in fundamental agreement with Calvin.

Baptism has no significance for Calvin if it does not mean admission to the visible church on the ground of the covenant promise, which includes the presumptive regeneration of the children in the covenant. Calvin looks upon the child in the covenant as God’s child, forgiven of sin and regenerated, with the new life as a latent seed, already at work in its heart. The child then opens its eyes redeemed on a world in which by careful nurture it is expected to grow and develop in the Christian ideal of life and character. The important point is that this child is presumptively a Christian (p. 13).

Although “presumptive” and “presumptively” do not do justice to Calvin, for Calvin did not presume, but believed that infant baptism means infant regeneration, and although the analysis does not make as plain as it could that Calvin referred to the elect children of godly parents, this account of Calvin’s doctrine is right. Calvin saw infant baptism as signifying infant salvation.

That this was Calvin’s teaching, Schenck proves by this quotation from Calvin:

The offspring of believers are born holy, because their children, while yet in the womb, before they breathe the vital air, have been adopted into the covenant of eternal life. Nor are they brought into the church by baptism on any other ground than because they belonged to the body of the Church before they were born. He who admits aliens to baptism profanes it …. For how can it be lawful to confer the badge of Christ on aliens from Christ. Baptism must, therefore, be preceded by the gift of adoption, which is not the cause of half salvation merely, but gives salvation entire: and this salvation is afterwards ratified by Baptism (p. 13).

Presumptive Unregeneration

Schenck takes dead aim at the radically un-Reformed doctrine of infant baptism that was prominent in Presbyterian churches already in 1940 and that prevails today. This is the teaching that infant baptism means nothing more than that the children of believers are formally and externally set apart as likely, or possible, candidates for salvation in later years. The children are viewed, and taught to view themselves, as unregenerated. As regards their spiritual condition, baptized children of believers are no different from the ungodly world.

A Presbyterian theologian who taught this un-Presbyterian doctrine of infant baptism put it this way:

While they [baptized children of believers] are in the church by external union, in the spirit and temper of their minds they belong to the world.—Of the world and in the Church—this expresses precisely their status, and determines the mode in which the church should deal with them (p. 93).

Accordingly, parents and church do not rear the children in godliness. Rather, they try to convert them, just as missionaries try to convert the heathen outside the church. And the conversion looked for by parents, church, and children alike is a dramatic experience.

This is the miserable doctrine of infant baptism taught and practiced today by many churches that profess the covenant with the children of believers and baptize infants. The doctrine is not Presbyterian (Reformed). It is Baptist through and through. This is why these nominally Presbyterian (Reformed) ministers can readily cooperate with those who are Baptist in name as well as in fact. An outstanding instance is the Banner of Truth organization, headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland. Presbyterian in reputation and much of its leadership, the organization and its ministries allow themselves to be heavily influenced by Baptists and the Baptist denial of the covenant. The editor of the magazine and now also the Editor of the Trust are Baptists, to say nothing of many of the writers and lecturers.

The timeliness of Schenck’s warning against this apostasy from the Presbyterian doctrine of infant baptism and therefore from the covenant is illustrated by the publication last year of a fat volume in which many Presbyterian and Reformed theologians from many different denominations advocated and defended the doctrine of infant baptism Schenck condemns. The book is erroneously and misleadingly entitled The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism. Ironically, the publisher is the same as the publisher of The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant (see my review article, “A Presbyterian Case for the Baptist Rejection of Infant Baptism,” in the February 15, 2004 issue of the Standard Bearer).

Anti-Covenant Revivals

The cause of the falling away of Presbyterians from the Presbyterian doctrine of infant baptism was the “Great Awakening” under Jonathan Edwards, the Tennents, Whitefield, and others in the early eighteenth century. The theory of the salvation of the church and of individuals by revivals insists that salvation be a matter of dramatic conversion experiences. Applied to the children of believers, as it was by all the revivalists (Edwards famously regarded his own and others’ baptized children as “little vipers”), the notion of revival destroyed the truth of infant baptism. In its place came the hope that God would one day save the little baptized heathen by a conversion experience urgently exhorted upon, and often extorted from, the children by parents and wandering “evangelists.”

The Great Awakening made an emotional experience, involving terror, misery, and depression, the only approach to God. A conscious conversion from enmity to friendship with God was looked upon as the only way of entrance into the kingdom. Sometimes it came suddenly, sometimes it was a prolonged and painful process. But it was believed to be a clearly discernible emotional upheaval, necessarily “distinct to the consciousness of its subject and apparent to those around.” Preceding the experience of God’s love and peace, it was believed necessary to have an awful sense of one’s lost and terrifying position. Since these were not the experiences of infancy and early childhood, it was taken for granted children must, or in all ordinary cases would, grow up unconverted. Infants, it was thought, needed the new birth, as well as adults. They could not be saved without it. But the only channel of the new birth which was recognized was a conscious experience of conviction and conversion. Anything else, according to Gilbert Tennent, was a fiction of the brain, a delusion of the Devil. In fact, he ridiculed the idea that one could be a Christian without knowing the time when he was otherwise (p. 71).

Heathenizing the Church

This un- (and anti-) Presbyterian doctrine of infant baptism is grievous error. It is sin against infant baptism and covenantal salvation. In addition, it implies a doctrine of the church that is both defaming of and dangerous to the body of Christ. The church is described as a gathering of regenerated (adult believers) and unregenerated (children). As an assembly whose membership includes a large number of unregenerated persons—all the children—the church becomes a mission field. Preaching to the church, which is by definition the assembly of those called out of the ungodly world, takes the incongruous and disobedient form of mission-preaching to heathens, albeit baptized heathens. Christ tells pastors to feed His sheep and lambs. The revivalist and Baptistic doctrine of infant baptism in Presbyterian and Reformed churches has pastors feeding the sheep and converting their “little vipers.”

Later, when the unregenerated children grow up and marry, these unbelievers are permitted to baptize their own unregenerated children. Although Schenck does not make the observation, what this amounts to is the horrific doctrine that God establishes His covenant with unbelievers and their unsaved children.

Further, since the children are viewed as unregenerated, no church discipline can be exercised upon them.

What was the use of judicial discipline for children in the covenant, anyway, it was argued? No claim was made that they were in Christ, and their offenses were consequently no reproach to His

name. Besides, it was thought to be absurd to use spiritual remedies on one who had “no adaptation to receive them,” who had “never heard the voice of God in his soul” (p. 95).

Schenck is right, explaining Calvin’s doctrine: To baptize infants while denying the infant salvation of elect children is “a denial of the truth of God’s covenant promise” (p. 21).

It is worth noting that Schenck shows that historic Presbyterianism has always distinguished “the essence and the administration of the covenant” (p. 122). The administration of the covenant includes many who are not saved. The “essence” of the covenant is enjoyed only by the elect. All the children of believing parents are in the sphere of the covenant. Only the elect children are in the covenant.

The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant is no longer the doctrine of covenant children of most Presbyterians. May it become so once again.