Covenant Theology and Infant Baptism

By Elias Ayala (M.A.T. & Mdiv)

Covenant theology has been described by some theologians as a hermeneutical principle, whereby one reads the scriptures through the lens of God’s covenant workings among His people. We see as early as the book of Genesis that God establishes His covenant with His servant Abraham, and remembers that covenant and reconfirms it in Abraham’s seed, Isaac and Jacob. Out of this covenant flows further covenants established throughout scripture with Noah, and David, and finally reaches its zenith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, who establishes the new covenant in his blood. Each covenant established by God build upon the others, such that the preceding covenant is not overthrown by latter covenants, but rather are expanded upon, clarified and fulfilled by their establishment.

Interestingly enough, the notion of covenant has also been detected within the eternal relationship between the members of the trinity, whereby the Father covenants with the Son and promises the Son a particular people for his possession. Whereas the Father promises a people to the Son, the Son in turn redeems them and purchases them from out of the world and atones for them and seals them with the promised Holy Spirit. Hence, beginning with this eternal covenant between the members of the trinity, the following covenants expand upon that initial covenant and thus describes the outflow and fulfilling of that eternal covenant in time and space. The clearly biblical point to keep in mind, is that God has always and continues to relate to His people through covenants. As a matter of fact, God relates to all of His creation through the lens of covenant. On this view, there are really only two types of people in the world: Covenant keepers and covenant breakers. All those who are outside of Christ are breakers of the covenant and thus incur various judgments and consequences as a result of their rebellion against their creator. The natural man enjoys the benefits of living in God’s world, but does not keep covenant with the One who created all things, nor does he give thanks to the one who allows His rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

External Signs of the Covenant

Typically, when a covenant was established by God there was external signification of that covenant. A few examples would include the rainbow as an external sign of the covenant God made with Noah, and circumcision as an external signification of the Abrahamic covenant. According to covenant theologians, the external sign of the Abrahamic covenant has been replaced by the New Testament practice of baptism, which is the external sign of the New Covenant. For in baptism, believers are buried with Christ (going down into the water), and thus raised with him (coming out of the water) to new life.

Covenant, Circumcision, Baptism and the Children

According to the terms of the Abrahamic covenant, the people of Israel were to circumcise their male children 8 days after birth so as to associate them with the covenant community. This was a very important aspect of the Abrahamic covenant, so much so that God almost wiped Moses out for not having circumcised his own son. By this command to circumcise all male infants, it is clear that infants were to be included within the covenant family with the external signification of circumcision. Now it is important to note, that according to covenant theology as understood within Protestant circles, the act of circumcision by no means guaranteed the salvation of the Old Testament Jew, and likewise, the baptizing of an infant within the New Covenant context by no means guarantees the salvation of the infant. Both the Old Testament practice of circumcision and the New Testament practice of baptism were merely external significations of association to each covenant respectively. A circumcised “Jew” in the OT, and a baptized “Christian” in the NT era did not guarantee the salvation of those individuals.

Now to the issue of infant Baptism. Why do Reformed Protestants of the Covenant Theological tradition baptize infants? First, we need to make the important distinction between Roman Catholic infant baptism, and Reformed Protestant infant baptism. Reformed Protestants, contra the Roman Catholic position, deny the notion of baptismal regeneration. On the Protestant view, baptism does not save in any way, shape, or form; however, baptism is the external action performed by all those who profess Christ and who desire to make an external association and public acknowledgement of faith and union with Christ. Furthermore, on the covenantal view, baptism is given to the infants of believing parents so as to associate them with the covenant family of God. This does not entail their salvation, but merely their association with the covenant community. Upon raising the child in the ways of the Lord and in congruence with what it means to be a covenant keeper, the child, upon coming of age may profess faith in Christ which would evince the reality of their regeneration.

As to the question of whether this is the correct way of understanding the nature of the covenants within scripture as it relates to the appropriateness of infant baptism is an in-house theological debate that sets some flavors of covenantal theologians apart from their Baptist brethren. However, whichever view is correct, a study of covenantal theology definitely brings to light the importance of understanding the concept of covenant as it is a defining feature of Old Testament theology. In as much as covenant teaches us how we relate to God and how He relates to us, it is a worthy topic of study and research.

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