Some Difficulties in Covenant Theology’s View of Baptism as a “Seal” -- By: Daniel C. Lane

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 165:658 (Apr 2008)
Article: Some Difficulties in Covenant Theology’s View of Baptism as a “Seal”
Author: Daniel C. Lane

Some Difficulties in Covenant Theology’s View
of Baptism as a “Seal”

Daniel C. Lane

Daniel C. Lane is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.

By the 1520s, when the Reformation was only a few years old, it was wrenched and divided by debate over infant baptism. For the Anabaptists (in what came to be called the Radical Reformation) the logic of the Reformation indicated that the sacraments were for believers only; so they abandoned infant baptism in favor of believers’ baptism. However, the main branches of the Reformation, following Luther and Calvin, continued to affirm infant baptism. Both sides granted that the Scriptures give no explicit command to baptize the infants of believers, nor does any verse explicitly state that baptism is to be limited to believers only.

Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, and Zachary Ursinus1 developed a defense of infant baptism based on their view that there is one divine-human covenant that brings salvation since the Fall. Zwingli was using this defense by 1525–1526, as reflected in his disputes with the Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier.2 In brief this “covenantal defense of infant baptism” argues as follows: Contrary to the prevailing impression that the Bible reveals two covenants, the Old and the New, there is in fact one covenant that brings salvation, one “covenant of grace,” between the Old and New Testaments.

This covenant applies to believers (i.e., covenant members) and their children. The sign and seal of this covenant in the Old Testament was circumcision. In the New Testament, baptism replaces circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant. Therefore just as circumcision was applied to the infant children of members of the covenant community, so also the infants of believers are to be baptized. Representative presentations of this view can be found in Hodge, Berkhof, Hoeksema, Beckwith, and Jewett.3 Perhaps its most extensive exposition is by Pierre Marcel.4

A key point is their view of sacraments as “seals,” which confirm the covenant to the recipient. Referring to circumcision, for example, Calvin wrote, “The Lord, immediately after making the covenant with Abraham, commanded it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament.”5 Similarly the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 reads, “They [the sacraments] wer...

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