Interview with Steve Wellum on Baptism and the Covenants
Steve Wellum is professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY). Most recently he is the author of a chapter on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants (available in PDF online for free) in the book Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Steve on the covenants and baptism. It’s long (by blog standards), but I’d encourage both paedobaptists and credobaptists to persevere to the end!
In your chapter you write that “at the heart of the advocacy and defense of the evangelical Reformed doctrine of infant baptism is the argument that it is an implication drawn from the comprehensive theological category of the ‘covenant of grace’ . . . In many ways, all other arguments for infant baptism are secondary to this overall line of reasoning.” To begin, how do Reformed paedobaptists define the “covenant of grace”?
The Reformed paedobaptist conception of “the covenant of grace” may be defined in a number of ways, but at its heart it is understood as God’s sovereign gracious choice by which he chooses to save a people for himself by providing sinners life and salvation through the last Adam, the covenantal head of his people, the Lord Jesus Christ, as well as all that is necessary to bring the elect to saving faith by the effectual work of the Holy Spirit. Historically within Reformed theology, “the covenant of grace” has been contrasted with the “covenant of works.” The covenant of works was made with Adam as the head of the entire human race. To Adam and his entire posterity, eternal life was promised upon the condition of perfect obedience to the law of God. However, due to his disobedience, he, along with entire human race, was plunged into a state of death and condemnation. But God, by his own free and sovereign grace, chose to save a people for himself, which Reformed theology identifies as “the covenant of grace.”
So why is infant baptism an entailment or implication of this understanding of the “covenant of grace?”
Simply because given that the “covenant of grace” is an organic unity across the ages, this entails—so the argument goes—that the people of God (Israel and the church) are essentially one (in nature and structure), and that the covenant signs (circumcision and baptism) are also essentially one, especially in regard to the spiritual significance of those signs. Furthermore, Reformed paedobaptists argue that since one cannot find any repeal in the NT of the OT command to place the sign of “the covenant of grace” upon covenant children, so the same practice should continue today in the church, given the underlying unity of the covenant across the ages. In a nutshell that is the Reformed covenantal argument for infant baptism.
Do you disagree that there is such a thing as the “covenant of grace,” or is your argument rather that infant baptism is not a proper implication from it?
What I argued in my chapter is that “the covenant of grace” is a misleading category. Let me explain it this way. It is beyond question that the theme of “covenant” is an important unifying theme in Scripture. However, if we are not careful the notion of the covenant of grace can flatten the biblical presentation of God’s plan of salvation in terms of biblical covenants. In truth, “the covenant of grace” is really a comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one. This does not mean it is illegitimate. After all, theological terms are often used in theology, which are not necessarily biblical terms—e.g., Trinity. However, the problem with the theological category—“the covenant of grace”—is that, if one is not careful, it tends to flatten the relationships between the biblical covenants across redemptive history without first allowing each covenant to be understood within its own redemptive-historical context, and then how each covenant relates to the other biblical covenants, and then how all the covenants find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. I have no problem in using the category “the covenant of grace” to underscore the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the essential spiritual unity of the people of God in all ages. But if it is used, which I contend is the case in Reformed theology, to downplay the significant amount of progression and discontinuity between the biblical covenants, especially as fulfillment takes place in the coming of Christ, then it is an unhelpful term. In fact, I argued in my chapter that it would be best to place a moratorium on the category, especially if we want to make headway in the baptismal debate. In its place, we should speak of the one plan of God centered in Jesus Christ. And, furthermore, in speaking of the “covenant,” we must think in terms of the plurality of biblical covenants as we carefully unpack the relationships between the covenants across the canon. In short, it is imperative that we do a biblical theology of the covenants which, in truth, is an exercise in inter-textual relations between the covenants which, in the end, preserves a proper balance of continuity and discontinuity across the canon in regard to the biblical covenants. It is only when we do this that I am convinced we will make headway in our debate over the relationship between the biblical covenants without prejudicing the debate in one direction or the other.
Do Reformed paedobaptists equate the Abrahamic covenant with the covenant of grace?
In my chapter I contend that the potential danger of Reformed theology to flatten out the biblical covenants is precisely what happens in their defense of infant baptism. For the most part, I argue that the paedobaptist equates the Abrahamic covenant with “the covenant of grace” as though it was actually that covenant. This is the primary reason why they argue that the genealogical principle and the continuity of covenant signs is so easily carried over into the new covenant. But, from my view, the problem with this approach is twofold. First, Reformed theology does not first attempt to understand the Abrahamic covenant in its own redemptive-historical context, in all of its diverse features (e.g. national/physical, typological, spiritual). Secondly, Reformed theology does not then relate well the Abrahamic covenant to the overall plan of God vis-à-vis the biblical covenants by seeing the differences or discontinuities between the covenants, especially as they find their fulfillment in Christ. This is born out by the paedobaptist tendency to reduce the Abrahamic covenant merely to its spiritual realities while neglecting its national and typological elements, and then seeing how all of these elements find their consummation in Christ and the new covenant.
So, in the end, I do not agree that infant baptism is an entailment from a proper understanding of the biblical covenants, especially as viewed in light of the fulfillment that our Lord has inaugurated in the ushering in the new covenant sealed by his death.
What is your view on the proper relationship between the “covenant of grace” and the “Abrahamic covenant”?
I have hinted at this in my above answer, but let me state it more directly. If we think of “the covenant of grace” in terms of the one eternal salvation plan of God centered in Jesus Christ, then the Abrahamic covenant is a specific covenant in redemptive history, along with the Noahic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenant, which, as they unfold across history ultimately reveal to us how the God’s plan of salvation comes to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the Abrahamic covenant is part of the one plan of God, but it must first be understood in its own immediate context in all of its diverse dimensions, before we think of its relationship to that which comes after in terms of the progress of revelation as given in the various covenants spelled out in redemptive history.
How do you define the “new covenant”?
The new covenant is the covenant which our Lord Jesus Christ has inaugurated by his life, death, resurrection, and glorious exaltation to the right hand of God. It must be viewed as the culminating covenant in the sense that all of the previous covenants have been leading to it and anticipating it, in a variety of ways. Like the other covenants, it is part of the one plan of the Triune God to save a people for himself, but viewed vis-à-vis the previous covenants, it is the covenant which has now brought to fulfillment all that God promised and all that the OT anticipated and longed for, all the way back to the initial promise of Genesis 3:15.
You argue that both the “structure” and the “nature” of the “new covenant” have fundamentally changed from the “old covenant.” How so?
When I argue that the “structure” and “nature” of the new covenant is different than the old covenant, I am particularly thinking of the Mosaic covenant, but it would also have application to the other OT covenants as well.
Let’s start with the structural changes from the old covenant to the new covenant.
By “structure,” I mean that the old covenant, which was more “tribal” in orientation (to use Don Carson’s words for it), was a mediated covenant through various covenant mediators, particularly prophets, priests, and kings. When one wanted to know the will of the Lord, you went to the prophet. When one wanted to have forgiveness of one’s sins, you went through the priest, and so on. Hence the strong emphasis is on the Spirit of God being poured out, not on each individual believer, but distinctively on prophets, priests, and kings, and a few designated special leaders (e.g. Bezalel). Given this hierarchical structure of the covenant community, when these leaders did what was right, the entire nation benefited. However, when they did not, the entire nation suffered for their actions. But Jeremiah 31:29ff anticipates a day when the new covenant will not be mediated in this way. All of those who are part of the covenant community will have the Spirit (e.g. Joel 2; cf. Acts 2); all will know the Lord (Jer. 31:32ff); all will be priests, indeed prophets, priests, and kings. This is not to say that there is no mediator in the new covenant. Rather, it is to say that through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the fulfillment of the tribal leaders of the OT—our great prophet, priest, and king—and the previous covenant mediators, the entire new covenant community is now allowed to have direct access to the throne of grace, by virtue of his glorious work for us. Related to this anticipation is the OT promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit and his empowering work in the new covenant era. That is why Joel 2, Ezekiel 36, and other places anticipate a universal distribution of the Spirit in the new covenant community, which means that the very tribal “structure” of the covenant community has changed. In the NT, this point becomes the basis for the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers.”
And what about the change in the nature of the covenants?
This change of “structure” also means that there has been a change of “nature.” Under the old covenant, Israel was a “mixed entity,” namely a community of believers and unbelievers (not all Israel was Israel to use the language from Romans 9). But with the coming of the new covenant in Jesus Christ and the giving of the Spirit in eschatological fulfillment, the new covenant community is viewed as a regenerate people. Furthermore, this change of “nature” is also linked to the work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant age. The NT is clear that it is the Spirit who has brought life and who enables God’s people to follow God’s decrees and to keep God’s laws, thus making us covenant-keepers and not covenant-breakers. It is the Spirit who unites us to Christ so that all Christians, by definition, are those “in Christ” who have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9). In fact, I argue that this is precisely what Jeremiah 31 anticipates—which has now arrived in Christ. Thus we could say it this way: under the new covenant all will know the Lord in a direct fashion, and all will have the law written on their hearts and experience the full forgiveness of sin. Thus, in contrast to the old covenant community which was a “mixed entity,” the new covenant community will be a regenerate people. This is what I mean when I say that the “structure” and “nature” of the new covenant is different than the old.
What then does all of this have to do with baptism?
Everything. Under the old covenant, one could make a distinction between the physical and spiritual seed of Abraham (the locus of the covenant community is different from the locus of the elect). Under the old covenant, both “seeds” (physical and spiritual) received the covenant sign of circumcision and both were viewed as full covenant members in the national sense, even though it was only the remnant who were the true spiritual seed of Abraham. But this kind of distinction is not legitimate under the new covenant where the locus of the covenant community and the elect are the same. In other words, one cannot speak of a “remnant” in the new covenant community, like one could under the old covenant. All those who are “in Christ” are a regenerate people, and as such it is only they who may receive the sign of the covenant, namely baptism.
Is the “new covenant community” co-extensive with the “visible church”?
It all depends on what means by the “visible church.” In Reformed thought, the “visible church” is the church that becomes visible in the ministry of the Word and the practices of the sacraments. But it is also viewed as an entity of believers and unbelievers, what I call a “mixed entity.” If one defines “visible church” in this way, I would not say they are co-extensive. Why? Because the new covenant is comprised of all those who are joined to Christ by faith, hence believers and a regenerate people.
At this point, what is often questioned is this: On any given gathering of the people of God are there not unbelievers in the midst, or even false professions of faith which then are viewed as the visible church? No doubt, it is the case that in any gathering of God’s people there are unbelievers and false professions. The difference is that in the new covenant we do not view these individuals as joined to Christ, in faith union with him, and members of the new covenant community. They have not experienced the forgiveness of sins and the law written on the heart. Under the new covenant to be a member of it, one by definition is joined to Christ by faith, been born of the Spirit, and thus is a regenerate person. Just because there are false professions does not mean that they are part of the covenant community. However, under the old covenant, given its national/physical component, there were plenty of Israelites (covenant members who had received the sign of the covenant) who were not “true Israel” (those of faith in the covenantal promises of God). But this kind of distinction is foreign to the new covenant.
Why do you believe that all members of the “new covenant community” are regenerate and that the new covenant itself is unbreakable?
I believe this for a number of reasons:
- Jeremiah 31 and other OT texts anticipate this truth. Jeremiah 31 not only strongly contrasts the new covenant with the old in terms of the unbreakable nature of it (v. 32), but it also teaches that the new covenant community will be comprised of people who all know the Lord, who have the law written on their heart (which I take it to be very close to language of circumcision of the heart, i.e., regeneration), and whose sins have been forgiven. These realities can only be true of a regenerate people.
- The NT announces that the new covenant has been inaugurated and ratified by the sacrificial death of Christ and that it is now in force. Intimately tied to the arrival of the new covenant is the eschatological fulfillment of the giving of the Spirit to all those in the covenant community (see the OT expectation in Joel 2, Ezekiel 36; cf. Acts 2). In the new covenant, God has poured out his Spirit on all those in the community, and the Spirit of God is presented as the agent who not only gives us life but also enables us to follow God’s decrees and to keep God’s laws, thus making us covenant-keepers. The Spirit also unites us to Christ, thus to be “in Christ” is to have the Spirit (Rom. 8:9) and the Spirit’s work is viewed as a permanent, effective work, which I take it to mean that those who are born of the Spirit and united to Christ by grace through faith, who are part of God’s new covenant community, are those who will never fall away and who are preserved forever by God’s grace and power.
- The NT also proclaims the “better” nature of the new covenant that Christ has inaugurated. The “better” nature of the new covenant is seen in light of the perfection of Christ’s work which is qualitatively better than all that has preceded—better promises, better sacrifices, indeed a better covenant. But what is better about this new covenant? It is this: because of who our Redeemer is and what he offers as a sacrifice we now have a more effective sacrifice and thus a more effective covenant, which cannot be broken. To speak of the new covenant as a breakable covenant is to diminish the person and work of the new covenant Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Some Reformed paedobaptists, like Richard Pratt, would argue that you are operating with an over-realized eschatology, emphasizing the “already” but neglecting the “not yet” aspect of the “new covenant.” How do you respond?
Obviously, I would strongly disagree with this kind of assessment. In fact, I would argue that this kind of objection not only is a misunderstanding of inaugurated eschatology, but it implicitly begs the question. For this kind of objection to stick, one has to first assume that the “already” aspect of the new covenant is that in this interim period between the comings of Christ, the new covenant community is still a “mixed” entity, while in the “not yet” it will then be a regenerate community. But this is not what the NT says. Hebrews, for example, establishes the reality of the new covenant in the church without any hint that the full establishment of a regenerate community is yet future. Pratt rightly notes that the promise that Jeremiah holds out is a salvific promise which anticipates a community of regenerate people. But the NT clearly states that the new covenant is now here (e.g., Hebrews 8, 10). The structural changes of the old have given way to the new. No doubt, we still await the “not yet” aspects of our redemption, but this does not entail that the community is not “already” a regenerate people. Instead, in Christ’s coming the new age is here, the Spirit has been poured out on the entire community, we now presently experience our adoption as sons including the full forgiveness of sins, even though we long for the end. That is why, in a parallel fashion, when the reality of a full forgiveness of sins is anticipated in Jeremiah 31, we do not argue that in the “already” a partial forgiveness takes place while we await the “not yet” forgiveness in the future. No, justification is now (Rom 8:1), even though we will still stand before the judgment seat of Christ and hear the end-time verdict rendered. The same must be said in terms of the new covenant community.
Reformed paedobaptists argue that baptism fulfills and replaces circumcision. What’s your view?
The crucial question that needs to be asked is this: Does circumcision signify the exact same spiritual realities as baptism? If so, then it is quite easy to argue that baptism fulfills and replaces circumcision, but this is precisely what the NT does not teach. No doubt these two covenant signs are parallel in a number of ways, but they ought to be viewed as covenantal signs tied to different covenants. Remember, we must first treat each covenant in its own redemptive historical context and then think through how they relate to each other. Circumcision is an OT sacrament established in a specific context, and the same is true of baptism in the NT. But, in my view, it is a mistake to equate the two in a one-to-one fashion.
What did circumcision signify in the OT?
In my chapter, I try to argue that circumcision in the OT signifies a number of things. First, in the context of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, its primary purpose was to mark out a physical seed in preparation for the coming of Messiah. In this regard it did its job well. But now that Christ has come its job is complete and the NT has abrogated it as a covenantal sign. Second, circumcision, as incorporated into the Mosaic covenant, continued to mark and delineate the nation, but by its very nature the nation was constituted as a mixed entity. Even in the darkest moments of Israel’s history, the prophets never questioned Israel’s right to circumcise their sons even though they reminded them that physical circumcision was not enough; what was ultimately needed was faith in the promises of God tied to a circumcised heart. Furthermore, under the Mosaic covenant, there was another purpose of circumcision that begins to point to spiritual and typological realities. In this regard, physical circumcision pointed to a need of a spiritually circumcised heart (see the promises in the new covenant), and in this sense, it is typological of regeneration.
So what changes in the NT?
When one comes to the NT, it is clear that circumcision is not only abrogated and as such it is no longer a covenantally significant sign for the people of God, whether they be Jewish or Gentile believers, but also that now that Christ has come the law-covenant has been fulfilled and the God-given divisions tied to that law-covenant have been removed (Eph. 2:11-22; Gal. 6:15). The new sign of the new covenant is that of baptism. But baptism does not anticipate a circumcision of heart, rather it testifies and announces that one has been joined to Christ and that one is a true spiritual seed of Abraham. Baptism is not a sign of physical descent, nor is it a sign that anticipates gospel realities, which is precisely how it must be viewed in infant baptism. Rather it is a sign that signifies a believer’s union with Christ and all the benefits that are entailed by that union.
So would you be comfortable saying that baptism is analogous to circumcision?
Yes, baptism is analogous to circumcision in that it is an initiatory rite, but it is not a mere replacement of it. Nowhere does the NT say that circumcision is now unnecessary because baptism has replaced it. The NT never gives this answer because baptism is a new rite, applied to everyone who has repented and believed; indeed, who have been born of the Spirit, united to Christ, and thus demonstrated that they have entered into the new covenant realities inaugurated by our Lord. Circumcision, in a whole variety of ways, anticipates the coming of Christ and the new covenant era; baptism is a sign that says that Christ has come, the new covenant is here, and that those to whom the sign is applied are those who have entered into faith union with Christ. Circumcision, at the end of the day, in a typological way, may anticipate and point to these new covenant realities, but it does not testify that all of these realities are true of us. Baptism, on the other hand, is a NT ordinance, commanded by our Lord, which communicates the grace of God to those who have faith, something which could never have been said of circumcision. Baptism is a new rite for the new covenant people of God; it is not a mere replacement of circumcision.
Would you agree, as reformed paedobaptists maintain, that the burden of proof is on the credobaptist? They argue that the church in the first century would have assumed the genealogical principle of children receiving the covenant sign unless being explicitly told otherwise, and that Acts 2:38-39 would have been understood to give children of believers the sign of baptism. How do you respond?
Burden of proofs are often slippery. If one assumes the Reformed view of “the covenant of grace,” their understanding of the continuity across the covenants, the mixed nature of the covenant community, the unchanging nature of the genealogical principle, and a certain reading of Jeremiah 31, then, obviously, the burden of proof is on the credobaptist. But this, in the end, begs the question. At point after point, one has to first prove these assumptions. At the end of the day, one must attempt to do justice to the OT in its context as well as how the NT understands the nature of fulfillment. One has to be a “whole-Bible” Christian, reading the OT in its redemptive-historical situation, seeing how the NT thinks through these issues, and then how we relate the whole to the parts.
Given my attempt to understand the relation of the covenants differently, which I believe does justice to the whole of Scripture better than the paedobaptist position (in this sense I want to argue that I am more covenantal than they!), I do not accept the burden of proof upon me since I do not accept their premise. So, for example, why should we think that the church in the first century would have assumed that the genealogical principle should be interpreted in physical terms? The NT does not teach this. In fact, where is there evidence in the NT that the genealogical principle is ever: “to believers and their children?” The only sons and daughters of the Lord Jesus Christ in the NT are those who are regenerated and exhibit saving faith in Christ. Paul’s burden in the NT is not to argue physical descent, but to show that both Jew and Gentile, whether it be men, women, boys, or girls, are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
No doubt, under the previous covenants the genealogical principle, that is, the relationship between the covenant mediator and his seed was physical. But now, in Christ, under his mediation, the relationship between Christ and his seed is no longer physical but spiritual, which entails that the covenant sign must only be applied to those who in fact are the spiritual seed of Abraham, sons and daughter of God in Christ, by faith. In many ways, since this is precisely what Jeremiah and the OT anticipate in terms of the coming of the new covenant era, and since this is precisely how the NT understands these relationships, the burden of proof is on the paedobaptist to show that the new covenant is something different than both the OT anticipates and the NT announces and proclaims.
What, in your view, does baptism signify?
Baptism signifies a believer’s union with Christ, by grace through faith, and all the benefits that result from that union. It testifies and announces that one has entered into the realities of the new covenant and as such, has experienced regeneration, the gift and down-payment of the Spirit, and the forgiveness of sin. It graphically signifies that a believer is now a member of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:22-25). It is our defining mark of belonging as well as a demarcation from the world. It signifies entry into the eschatological order of the new creation—that which our Lord Jesus Christ has ushered in. In all of these ways, baptism is a beautiful God-given rite which displays, proclaims, and testifies to the reality of the gospel.
Why is this debate important for the church?
The debate between Reformed paedobaptists and believer baptists is, thankfully, not a gospel debate. Between credo- and paedobaptists there is much that unites us, and we can be grateful for those agreements and our unity in Christ. However, given our different views of baptism, there are also profound differences that divide us, and it is not helpful to blur the differences merely for the sake of unity. Ultimately baptism is linked to the proclamation of the gospel itself as it proclaims the glories of our Lord Jesus Christ and the full realities of the gospel of sovereign grace. To get baptism wrong is not a benign issue. It not only misconstrues our Lord’s command and instruction to the church, it also leads to a misunderstanding of elements of the gospel, particularly to the beneficiaries of the new covenant and the nature of the church. It may even lead, if we are not careful, to a downplaying of the need to call our children to faith and repentance. Often Baptists are charged with not appreciating the place of their children in the covenant community. Not only does this charge miss the mark in fundamentally misunderstanding the structure and nature of the new covenant community, it also runs the danger of missing what is truly imperative—to call all people, including our children, to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that the promise of the new covenant age becomes ours—and not only to us, but to our children, and to all those who are far off. Baptism, as a new covenant sign, even though it does not bring us into a state of grace, has been ordained by our God as a proper means of grace that we ignore, distort, and downplay to the loss of our spiritual life and mission. Baptism is important. In many ways, how we view baptism is a test case of how one puts the entire Bible together. In that light, may both credo- and paedo Baptists continually go back to Scripture and examine which view is true to the whole Bible, for much is at stake in these debates and disagreements.