“And I will establish my covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
“At that time the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time. And Joshua made him sharp knives, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins… For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, till all the people that were men of war, which came out of Egypt, were consumed, because they obeyed not the voice of the Lord: unto whom the Lord sware that he would not shew them the land… And their children, whom He raised up in their stead, them Joshua circumcised.”
“The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.”
Order of Contents
Start Here – MacPherson
An adherent is someone who is baptized but does not come to the Lord’s Table. This category includes (but is not limited to) persons who:
Were baptized as a child, have grown, married, and have had children, but do not profess personal faith, and they desire their children to be raised in the church.
Persons who have been baptized as children, but who struggle with assurance of faith and are hence reluctant to come to the Lord’s Table.
New converts to Christianity who are not yet ready to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
Professing believers who are under the discipline of the church and have been barred from the Table.
Should their children be baptized?
The answer depends largely on Covenant Theology. If such baptized church members who do not communicate at the Lord’s Table are externally in the Covenant, then their children are too, and should be baptized. If such church members are not externally in the Covenant, then neither are their children, and their children should not be baptized.
The older view of the Reformation and puritan era was largely: Yes, baptized church members who do not partake at the Lord’s Supper are still externally in Covenant with God, and hence their children should be baptized, baptism being the sign and seal of being externally in Covenant with God.
Start with MacPherson’s 8 pages below, which is a necessary introduction to the question. Then see the writings of the most prominent persons in church history who have answered this question: Samuel Rutherford ** and Thomas Boston.
MacPherson, John – The Idea of the Church and Membership in it, p. 82-90, 8 pages, being part of Lecture 2 from his, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology, 1903
MacPherson, of the Free Church of Scotland gives the best introduction to the topic, giving the historical background and theological issues relating to the difference of opinion between Rutherford and Boston.
** – Denotes a Westminster divine
Calvin, John – Letter 549: to John Knox, Answers to Different Ecclesiastical Questions, 1559, 4 paragraphs, being pp. 74-76 of Letters of John Calvin, vol. 4
The Discipline of the Reformed Churches of France – Ch. 11, ‘Of Baptism’, Canon XI 1559 in Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, vol. 1, p. xlvi 1692
As it is forbidden for those suspended from the Lord’s Table to, as a surety or proxy for someone else, present a child for baptism, so this assumes, without further legislation, that it was allowable for such persons to present their own children for baptism. That ‘surety’ in fact means this is clear from the surrounding context, both before and after this canon.
Abbott, Robert – Section 9, ‘A Question by the Way, about Baptizing Bastards of Impenitent Christians’ in A Trial of our Church-Forsakers. Or A Meditation Tending to still the passions of unquiet Brownists, upon Heb.10:25 1639
Abbott (1588?-1662?) was a reformed Anglican.
Rutherford, Samuel **
‘On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents’ 1642, 29 pp. being ch. 12 of his A Peaceable and Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland. An updated, easier to read edition.
Rutherford (1600-1661) was a Westminster divine, and minister of the Church of Scotland. To see how Rutherford interprets 1 Cor. 7:14, and hence Westminster Confession 28.4, see the 9th Argument, 4th Objection.
On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents, Part 2 1644, 16 pages, being the 2nd Part, Chapter 4, Section 6 of The Due Right of Presbyteries, pp. 256-66, with a 3 page extended outline
Rutherford further argues against the Independent John Cotton.
Whether Covenant-Right to Baptism be Derived from the Nearest Parents only, or from the Remoter, the Grandfathers? 1658 being Book 4, Ch. 8 of A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church Discipline
Apollonius, Willem – ‘Whether those Infants whose Next Parents do not by a solemn Church-Covenant join Themselves to some particular Church are not to be baptized in the Church, but are to be accounted as incapable of Baptism and to have no right to Church-Privileges’ 1645 being ch. 4 in A Consideration of Certain Controversies at this time Agitated in the Kingdom of England: Concerning the Government of the Church of God
Blake’s work was intended to be a defense of the majority view and practice of his day (1652) on this point and other points related to God’s Covenant of Grace. From the original title:
“Vindiciae Foederis, or a Treatise of the Covenant of God… in the several kinds and degrees of it, in which… the just latitude and extent [of it is] clearly held forth and fully vindicated… infant baptism in that latitude as now in use in reformed churches maintained.”
Cawdrey, Daniel ** – A Sober Answer to a Serious Question Propounded by Mr. Giles Firmin, minister: Whether the ministers of England are bound by the Word of God to baptize the children of all such parents which say they believe in Jesus Christ. Which may serve also as an appendix to the diatribe with Mr. Hooker, concerning the baptism of infants, 1652, 30 pages, the book is incomplete: the end is missing.
Mather, Cotton – The Great Works of Christ in America, vol. 2, p. 276-316 Buy 1702, 40 pages
Mather (1663-1728) gives the historical account of this issue coming to prominence in old congregationalist puritan New England. He sides with baptizing the children of adherents.
The 7 propositions put forth affirmatively in favor of the practice by the Synod of Boston in 1662 are concisely stated on p. 279. The Synod’s arguments from scripture for each proposition then follow for 21 pages. Mather’s commentary then follows on pp. 302-315.
Kennedy was a famed conservative of the old Free Church of Scotland. Here he gives an explanation and defense of the practice in the highlands of Scotland from spiritual experience, contra the lowlanders practice and view (held by such notable figures as William Cunningham, etc.). Kennedy rightly distinguishes the scriptural differences between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Girolamo Zanchi 1516-1590
Commentary on Ephesians, p. 226. As quoted by Thomas Boston, Works, vol. 6, ‘Miscellaneous Questions’, Question 6, p. 139-140
The children of those that are indeed in the church, but, because of their unclean way of living, declare that they are not indeed of the church; if they be offered to baptism, they cannot be debarred therefrom, nor ought they. The reason is, because though the parents be wicked, yet their impiety ought not to prejudge their children which are born within the church. But if you say, only the children of the faithful are to be baptized, because those infants only are judged to be within the covenant, and they only holy; I answer, the impiety of their nearest parents is not to be considered here, but the piety of the church in which they are born;—as also their ancestors who have lived godly and holily.
Oliver Bowles 1577-1644 **
De pastore evangelico tractatus, Book 3, Ch. 3, as quoted by Thomas Boston, Works, vol. 6, ‘Miscellaneous Questions’, Question 6, p. 140
All infants who, in the judgment of charity, are within the covenant, are to be baptized. And baptism is to be administered exactly according to this judgment of charity. And that judgment concludes all to be within the covenant, whose parents were sometime sealed with the seal of the covenant.
A Discourse of the Visible Church ToC 1658 as quoted by Thomas Boston, Works, 6:130
“The Word of God, Gen. 17:23, acknowledges that one may have a right to the first seal of the covenant, and that coram Deo, that has no saving grace. Ishmael was thirteen years old, verse 25, when he was circumcised, and therefore of age to answer for himself; yet Ishmael had no saving grace, neither was he within the covenant of Isaac–the covenant of absolute and certain salvation, from which he was excluded, verse 19.
Yet Ishmael has a right to the first seal of the covenant coram Deo, as is most most evident from the immediate command of God, that he that was born in Abraham’s house, must needs be circumcised, verse 12, and accordingly Abraham understood it. He proceeds upon the command of God to circumcise Ishmael first of all. Now what is it that giveth one right to any ordinance but the command, or at least more evidently than the command of God Himself? And that right which we have from God’s command, is doubtless a right coram Deo, and in his sight.”
Cotton Mather 1702
The Great Works of Christ in America, vol. 2, p. 309
Baptism is a seal of the whole covenant of grace; but it is by way of initiation. Hence it belongs to all that are within the covenant or have the first entrance thereinto. And is there no danger of corruption by overstraining the subject of baptism? Certainly, it is a corruption to take from the rule, as well as add to it. Moses found danger in not applying the initiating seal, to such for whom it was appointed. Is there no danger of putting those out of the visible Church, whom our Lord would have kept in?… If we do not keep in the way of a converting, grace-giving covenant, and keep persons under those church dispensations, wherein grace is given, the Church will die of a lingering, though not violent, death. The Lord has not set up churches only that a few old Christians may keep one another warm while they live, and then carry away the Church into the cold grave with them when they die; no, but that they might with all care, and with all the obligations and advantages to that care that may be, nurse up still successively another generation of subjects to our Lord, that may stand up in his kingdom when they are gone.
John Kennedy of Dingwall 1861
The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, Chapter 4, p. 132-133
They of the south [of Scotland, such as William Cunningham and others] maintain, that both the sacraments, being seals of the same covenant, and imposing the self-same obligations, ought to be administered on the same footing, the same kind and measure of profession and of qualification being required, on the part of applicants for either; that no adult should be admitted to the one, without being admitted also to the other; and that the Christian profession required of a parent, in order to the baptism of his child, cannot be complete, without his being a communicant. The result of these views being carried into practice in the Lowlands, or rather the result of their mode of reducing them to practice, is, that with rare exceptions, all the members of a congregation, above a certain age, go to the table of the Lord, and that any parent, who is a communicant, receives, as a matter of course, baptism for his child.
The Ross-shire fathers [in the highlands of Northern Scotland] held, that though in general, the two sacraments were equally seals of the covenant of grace, they do in some respects differ, even as sealing ordinances; that baptism, being the door of admission into the visible Church, a larger exercise of charity is required in dealing with applicants for that sacrament, than is called for in administering the other, which implies a confirmation of those who were members before; that the lessons of baptism are more elementary than those of the sacrament of the Supper; that the connection of the child, and of both the parents, with an ordinary case of infant baptism, calls for peculiar tenderness on the part of church rulers; and that the rule of Scripture requires baptism to be given, on an uncontradicted profession of faith, while an accredited profession is required to justify the church, in granting admission to the table of the Lord. The result of carrying these views into practice is well known; the number of members in full communion is comparatively small, and parents who have never communicated, receive baptism for their children.
Boston, Thomas – Who Have Right to Baptism, and are to be Baptized? †1732 94 pp. being from his Works, vol. 6, ‘Miscellaneous Questions’, Question 6, p. 125-219.
Boston (1676-1732) was a Church of Scotland minister and gives the fullest argument against the baptism of the children of adherents. Boston gives personal background to this piece in pp. 155-156 of A General Account of my Life.
Hodge (1797-1878) was a professor of systematic theology at old Princeton and is writing from the later American context. As usual, he has a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, is organized, and is very clear. Hodge gives the next best defense of this later viewpoint after Boston.
Compare also p. 246 of Hodge’s Church Polity, where he says things that seem to be more consistent with the older view.
Murray, John – ‘Whose Children are to be Baptized?’ 1980 6 pp. being Chapter 6 of his Christian Baptism Buy pp. 77-82 Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing
John Murray (1898–1975), the Scottish-American theologian of early Westminster Seminary deals with the question briefly. Unfortunately there is a lack of interaction with the arguments of the other side.
On the New England New Divinity
“Insisting that only those who were admitted to the Lord’s Supper could have their children baptized (and requiring transfers from “impure” churches to make a full profession of faith), the New Divinity pastors were often indistinguishable from the Separatists, and frequently cooperated willingly with Isaac Backus [a calvinistic baptist] and the growing Baptist movement. (Allen Guelzo, Edwards on the Will: A Century of American Theological Debate, 1989, pp. 125-126)”
The Westmister Assembly on the Baptism of the Children of Adherents
Westminster Confession 28.4
“Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ,[l] but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized.[m]
As the term ‘believing’ in Scripture generally, and in 1 Cor. 7:14, commonly refers, as Rutherford shows on p. 18 ff. of his first article, to visible professors who are in the Church, so the term includes those parents who may not have spiritual, saving faith and may in fact be under the discipline of the Church, not communicating at the Table. As the Confession simply reduplicates Scriptural terminology, so must a proper interpretation of the Confession allow for the Scriptural practice.
The Westminster Confession does not limit baptism to the children of parents that are member of local congregations, or to children that will become members of local congregations. This is because Christ’s Church is not limited to membership in local congregations, but is constituted of all persons that profess the true religion and their children, whether or not they are members of a local church (church government not being of the essence of the Church, but only for its well-being). Thus Westminster Confession 25.2 says:
“The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel… consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion,[b] together with their children;[c] and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ…
Rutherford defended this necessary inference from the teaching of the Confession, that children born of professing believers outside of local congregations have a divine right to baptism, in 1644 while the Assembly debates were taking place in The Due Right of Presbyteries, Part 2, Ch. 4, Section 5, pp. 185-203. His Scriptural arguments are irrefutable. As such believers are in the Covenant, so are their children, who thus have a right to be baptized.
The nature of the Assembly’s Confession was that of a consensus document: the end result after majority votes were propositions that the differing parties could agree on, though what they disagreed on was not mentioned and usually not excluded where the Confession is silent. Thus, positive affirmations in the Confession may not, and often do not, exclude other positive and true propositions in other respects.
It is an easily provable historical fact that the dominant reformed and presbyterian view and practice since the Reformation, as Rutherford and others argue, was that baptism may be administered to children who are the descendants of godly predecessors beyond their parents, as the covenant in Gen. 17 extends to all natural descendants immediately, and is not limited solely to succession by mediate parents. It is also very clear that a distinctive of the Separatists and Independents during the early 1600’s was that they limited baptism to only the children of believing parents.
The reformed and presbyterians at the Assembly could agree with the Independents that baptism should be administered to the children of believing parents, as WCF 28.4 says. However this positive assertion does not rule out other cases, and must be historically understood as consistent therewith:
Rutherford argued at the Assembly, in the context of whether the Westminster Directory of Public Worship should include vows of the parents in its baptismal administration, that such can nowhere be found to be a Scriptural requirement (see pp. 81-84 of David Wright’s ‘Baptism at the Westminster Assembly’).
Rutherford could defend the reformed and presbyterian practice of baptizing the children of professing grandparents, etc., because, as he argues convincingly, especially from the Old Testament practice, children of professing forefathers remain in the covenant, though their immediate parents were cut off therefrom. Thus, still, persons, and only persons in the external aspect of the Covenant of Grace are to be baptized.
When the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Directory of Public Worship and the Confession in 1645 & 1647 respectively, it did nothing to change the practice of the baptism of the children of adherents in the Church of Scotland and Rutherford still defended this practice to its full extent in writing as late as 1658 in A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker.
“Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, whom thou hast borne unto Me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, That thou hast slain My children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them?”
“Yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day… Keep therefore the words of this covenant, and do them, that ye may prosper in all that ye do. Ye stand this day all of you before the Lord your God… with all the men of Israel, your little ones… That thou should enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God makes with thee this day: That He may establish thee today for a people unto Himself, and that He may be unto thee a God…”