Book Review: The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism

It is more difficult to review an edited collection of articles than I expected, let alone one with 15 articles from diverse authors within the Reformed paedobaptist (i.e. infant baptism) camp like The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (edited by Gregg Strawbridge). Regardless of how much my review falls short, this book is a (mostly) fantastic collection of essays that thoroughly and convincingly show that infant baptism is not only biblical but essential to a proper understanding of our covenant-keeping God and His promises to believers and their children. I’d recommend it to paedobaptists and skeptics alike who are in any stage of life.

Since I’m not sure the best way to review a book of this nature (give a summary of each chapter? Blog through the book chapter by chapter? Review the book as a unified whole, discussing major themes?), I decided to try the more challenging third option, but hopefully more rewarding for me and any readers out there in blogdom. So without further ado…

One of the great strengths of this book is its unwavering commitment to Scriptural backing for giving the covenant sign and seal of baptism to the children of believers and for the inclusion of children in the covenant of grace. While not necessarily breaking new ground, the authors exhibited powerful defenses of key biblical passages (passages dear to both sides of the debate) like Hebrews 8, Jeremiah 31, Acts 2, Genesis 17, and Romans 4, to show that these passages either support infant baptism or do not deny it by any stretch.

A key concept in a full understanding of infant baptism is contained in one word in the title: covenantal. Many of the authors discuss the everlasting covenant of grace made with Abraham in Genesis 17, ratified through Moses, David, and the prophets, and continued through Christ and the apostles. Discussions about the covenant of grace in this volume ranged from the transition of the old covenant to the new (Randy Booth); what is and isn’t new about the new covenant (Jeffery Niell); infant baptism relating to the new covenant (Richard Pratt); the similarities between circumcision and baptism (Mark Ross); and the differences and continuations in administrations, participants, and meanings associated with the old and new covenants (Cornelius Venema). Niell’s, Venema’s, and Booth’s essays were particularly crushing to the anti-paedobaptist argument, as well as Joel Beeke’s article on the ratification of the old covenant in the new.

There are many strong covenantal arguments for the inclusion of children in the covenant, as the authors show. Since God has made an everlasting covenant (Genesis 17), and nowhere does God narrow the membership in the covenant (Niell’s detailed discussion is especially helpful here), and the covenant’s continuation is ratified by Christ and the apostles (Beeke’s article is brilliant in this regard), and nowhere is there evidence of excluding children from the covenant, children of believers should still be included in the covenant of grace.

The burden of proof in this regard seems to be with the Baptists. As Doug Wilson writes in his essay,

“Many key texts address this matter of generational faithfulness. Before considering them, it must be noted that the great force of these passages is cumulative. Paul Jewett [respectfully cited throughout the volume as the strongest and most consistent Baptist apologist] once commented that when baptism is considered as an isolated subject, the paedobaptist case is weak, in his view. But when the discussion moves to the topic of the covenant, the paedobaptist case becomes a juggernaut.” (p. 288)

As a new covenant sacrament instituted and commanded by Christ, it helps to look at Scripture in its covenantal redemptive whole and not just examining the verses that mention baptism. Both sides lack explicit warrant for what to do with the children of believers. But this argument from silence is stronger with the paedobaptist side, as such a monumental shift in not including the children of believers in the covenant, as several authors point out (Jonathan Watt’s article on biblical households is very helpful here), would surely have rocked the ancient church’s world enough for it to be mentioned in Scripture.

In showing the scriptural warrant for covenantal infant baptism, the authors raise many helpful questions for Baptists to consider, including 1) Aren’t the children of believers considered differently than adult pagans throughout Scripture? 2) Why is there no explicit narrowing of inclusion in the covenant in the New Testament, especially as regards such a monumental shift in the early church’s thinking regarding children and households? 3) Do not both sides “argue from silence,” which would render the argument against infant baptism, on the grounds that there is no scriptural command for it, moot? 4) Is there not explicit warrant for the inclusion of children in the new covenant community throughout Scripture, including key passages like Jeremiah 31, Matthew 19, Acts 2, and many more?

Crucial discussions on key concepts like the relationship between the old and new covenants, the meaning of covenantal sacraments as signs and seals of God’s promises for us and our children instead of confirmations of our faith and piety, the role of children in the covenants and in God’s eyes must be wrestled with, the authors write. As several of the authors point out, at the heart of the debate is not the act of baptism, but the biblical view of covenant and God’s promise-keeping in and through the covenantal structure.

It might be said that this book and my review are just confirming my already-formed views. That is true in a way, but besides laying out the case for covenantal infant baptism, the authors also evenhandedly and convincingly respond to archetypal credo-baptist arguments (especially responses to MacArthur, Piper, and Jewett as well as favorite Baptist new covenant passages like Jeremiah 31, Hebrews 8, and Romans 4). The book responds to every anti-paedobaptist objection I could think of, and more. The authors also challenged me in newer, deeper ways including reflecting on our covenant-making and keeping God, the importance of covenant faithfulness, the parents’ and church’s role in and through baptism, and the weightiness of baptizing our infants into God’s covenant. It is a thorough and at times difficult read, and I found myself challenged, convicted, and questioning at many points.

To close, editor Strawbridge has several of the book’s essays posted online, which you can find at www.paedobaptism.com. Some of the strongest essays in the book are posted there, including Bryan Chapell’s, Beeke’s, Niell’s, Bierma’s, and Wilson’s. Other helpful articles in the book not mentioned already include Strawbridge’s masterful historical account of the evolution of anti-paedobaptist arguments and a thorough debunking of them as well as Bierma’s essay examining infant baptism through the major Reformed confessions. Not-as-helpful articles include (surprisingly) R.C. Sproul, Jr.’s meandering closing chapter; Dan Doriani’s informative but out-of-place grammatical exposition of Matthew 28 and Mark 16; and Joseph Pipa’s well-written but out of context article on the right mode of baptism. Overall, however, this collection of essays is edifying, God-glorifying, informative, and convincing. I give it a hearty recommendation.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism

  1. Nice review. I also highly recommend this book, for what it's worth. I've read it three times and plan to read it again at some point. I don't think we can over study a subject like this. Our children are a blessing from the Lord. We should act accordingly. To act in a manner as to ‘exclude’ children from a covenant of grace should stop and make us think. The Baptist view isn't the safe view as many see it. We're not protecting our children or the church by making them prove themselves as a prerequisite for entry into the covenant. God is gracious to us despite our sin. We should respond accordingly. And teach our children the meanings behind what they're a member of not what they could be a member of if they would only have the intellectual capacity to do so.

  2. (Hi, Jimmey!)Joel, good job working through this whole book and posting a helpful review. I've recommended this book a LOT, but mainly because of Bryan Chappell's opening essay which I find to be a good summary of the position. I've not made my way through the whole book, but hope to do so, especially having read about the many other helpful essays and topics you've pointed out.

  3. Joel, Does the book address paedo-communion? If so is there any sort of consensus on the issue. If the issue is not addressed, do you know if Strawbridge et al published a work on that issue? Cheers, JRM

  4. The book only addresses paedocommunion in passing. Wilson and Sproul, Jr. are really the only two to even allude to it. Strawbridge edited another collection called The Case for Covenant Communion, with contributors including Wilson, Rayburn, Meyers, Jordan, Leithart, and Wilkins (among others). The covers even look similar.

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