Contradiction in the Westminster Confession

I just read through W. Gary Campton’s new book “From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism.” It is not the end-all-be-all of books on the subject (it is not intended to be – he provides extensive footnotes to dig deeper), but it is a very lucid walk through the subject focusing specifically on the WCF from a well qualified former paedobaptist who has published many books, such as What Calvin Says, Sola Scriptura, and Meet Jonathan Edwards. At the very least no one can object that he just doesn’t understand covenantal, reformed theology and needs to take a Covenant 101 class.

I’ll be posting several interesting points that I came across in the book, but wanted to start with the basic thrust of the book: The Westminster Confession of Faith is contradictory in what it teaches about baptism.

It is a fairly straightforward thesis:

  1. WCF 27.1 says a sacrament is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. A sign which “represents Christ and His benefits”, and a seal which “confirms our interest in Him.” WLC Q162 likewise says “A sacrament is a holy ordinance instituted by Christ in his church, to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation;”
  2. WCF 28.1 says “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church, but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life: which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his Church until the end of the world.”
  3. WLC Q31 says “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.”
  4. “Hence, when the WCF 28.4 goes on to say that ‘not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized,” it contradicts its own definition of baptism. Sections 28:1 and 28:4 of the Confession do not comport.

Crampton comments on at least 2 different ways paedobaptists have attempted to get around this contradiction. First:

Having seen the problem, Cunningham (wrongly) attempted to solve it by claiming that the baptism of adults has a different meaning than the baptism of infants. Only the baptism of professing adults “embodies and brings out the full idea of the ordinance.” This was also the solution of James Bannerman, who likewise recognized the dilemma presented in the Standards. He wrote:

“The proper and true type of baptism, as a sacrament in the church of Christ, is the baptism of adults, and not the baptism of infants… It is abundantly obvious that adult baptism is the rule, and infant baptism the exceptional case… And it is an error… to make baptism applicable in the same sense and to the same extent to infants and to adults.” (James Bannerman, The Church of Christ)

Both Cunningham and Bannerman dichotomized the significance of water baptism, and in so doing, differ with the teaching of the Westminster divines who claim that their definition is serviceable to the baptism of both adults and infants. Furthermore, in Ephesians 4:5, the apostle Paul denies the dichotomy presented by Cunningham and Bannerman. The apostle Paul said there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (p.14-15)


Presumably seeing these problems, some paedobaptist theologians teach that the children of believers are in the covenant of grace in an “external aspect” or “external sphere” rather than in an “internal aspect” or “spiritual phase.” In this sense they are “covenant children” and should be baptized (Thornwell, Dabey, Vos). Vos explained it this way:

“There are two phases of the covenant of grace, (a) a legal or external phase, and (b) a vital or spiritual phase. We may think of these two phases as two circles, one within the other – an out and an inner circle, the legal or external sphere of the covenant of grace. But only those truly born again are in the inner circle, the vital or spiritual sphere of the covenant of grace. Some people are born in the external sphere, the outer circle, are non-elect persons and never come to Christ. Every one that is of the elect will, at some time in his life, come into the inner circle, the vital or spiritual sphere.” (Vos, Blue Banner of Faith, 1959, Jan-March issue, 36)

What Vos has done is to redefine the covenant of grace to meet his presupposition that infants of believing parents are in the covenant and should be baptized. The new definition includes the non-elect [contrary to WLC Q31]. This is an oxymoron to be sure. It is simply unreasonable to speak of God’s (saving) “grace” bestowed covenantally upon the non-elect. Rather is must be said that if the covenant of grace, as the Westminster divines properly define it, is with the elect in Christ, there cannot be an external aspect to it. If one is elect, then he is elect, and he will be “inwardly” regenerated by the Holy Spirit.

And if some attempt to argue that Crampton has an axe to grind and is looking for contradiction where there is none (which is an absolutely absurd argument considering Crampton’s background and personal theological journey from paedobaptism to credobaptism), you can find the exact same conclusion regarding contradiction in the Standards reached by paedobaptists Meredith Kline and Mark Karlberg. In his “Federalism and the Westminster Tradition“, Karlberg notes the following:

Baptism as the sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace identifies and secures, according to its proper purpose, the salvation of those chosen in Christ (in the mystery of God’s electing purpose). Hence, not all recipients of the baptismal ordinance receive the saving benefits of Christ’s atonement. Baptism, like circumcision previously, enunciates the dual sanctions of the covenant, blessing for obedience and curse of disobedience. In all cases Christian baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the covenant family of God, the church visible. It does not guarantee salvation for all who receive the sign. The fruits of justification (and regeneration which precedes justification) are manifested in converted lives – lives evidencing true repentance, faith and obedience. Here we must distinguish properly the benefits of the Covenant of Redemption to the elect and the wider (common grace) benefits of the Covenant of Grace to the unregenerate who find themselves included within the covenant family in its historical formulation.

[footnote]There are three leading covenants in the Bible – the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. The question is often raised: Is the new covenant made with Christ and the elect, Christ being the mediator of the historical covenant? How are we to view the new covenant in Christ’s blood, the fulfillment in history of the eternal Covenant of Redemption? First it must be said that the administration of the historical Covenant of Grace is not restricted to the elect. (Here is a place were the Federal Visionists, once again, confound matters – alongside many other theological misconceptions and deviations they erroneously draw from Scripture. To be sure, our tradition is partly to blame for current misinterpretations and misformulations.)

The Covenant of Redemption is the “compact” made between the Father and the Son, involving the full participation of the Spirit in the accomplishment and application of Christ’s redeeming work on behalf of the elect, and them alone. The Covenant of Grace in its historical outworking… is broader than election. That is to say, its administration over the course of history includes some nonelect within the visible church (whether new or old economies)…

…Considering the Westminster Larger Catechism (31), it would appear that Meredith G. Kline’s line of interpretation, shared by some of the Puritan divines, did not with the day at the Westminster Assembly – or so it would appear. But here is where matters become much more subtle and complex. As one studies the literature of the period (and in the time leading up to the Assembly), various theological nuances must be acknowledged. The answer to question 31 of the Larger Catechism provides insight into what is the proper purpose of redemptive covenant, namely, election to salvation. However, redemptive covenant, as historically administered over the course of time, is broader than election. Q&A 31 must be read in the light of what is taught in Q&A 61-66. Tension [read: contradiction]? Yes. Need for reformulation and clarification? Yes. Although the Covenant of Redemption is not explicitly identified in the Confession, the substance is taught in chapter 8. In the final analysis, the answer to the Federal Visionists is not exegesis of the Westminster Standards per se, but engagement with Scripture and the confessions, the former being the final arbiter. Theological formulation does not end with these confessional writings, as important as they are in the life and witness of the church and in the history of doctrine.

page 20

Karlberg also notes in his review of David Engelsma’s Covenant of God and the Children of Believers (also in Federalism and the Westminster Tradition) :

…And although the author is quite dismissive of Baptist thinking on the subject, perhaps we might give him reason to reconsider – for the sake of unity in truth, and truth in unity (as witness to genuine Reformed catholicity). Indeed, the Reformed Baptist tradition has something substantive to contribute in the ongoing debate (p142)… There is simply no guarantee that the children of godly parents are saved (i.e., numbered among the elect). The household principle that informs the administration of redemptive covenant in its historical outworking is not identical with the principal of sovereign, electing grace. All this to say, redemptive covenant [Covenant of Grace] is broader than election. Denial of this fundamental truth lies at the root of Engelsma’s covenant confusion. (Here is where the Baptist tradition is rightly critical of Reformed teaching – more precisely, one strand of Reformed thinking.)

Just a word about the Reformed confessions: Invariably these contain – here and there – theological inconsistencies and contradictions requiring correction and reformulation. This is not the place to address shortcomings, as I see them. The problem in Engelsma’s argument is that he has been selective in his own reading of confessional Reformed theology. The issues are far more complex and ambiguous than Engelsma would have his readers believe. The reality of this circumstance in the history of Reformed doctrine gives license to Norman Shepherd and others to assert what they understand to be the “true intent” of the framers of the confession – a highly speculative enterprise, to be sure. Better that we content ourselves with what actually lies before us on the written page. And, as Engelsma would fully agree, in the final place it is the teaching of Scripture, not the secondary standards of the church that is decisive… (page 144)

…Engelsma concludes: “There is one, and only one, doctrine of the covenant that magnifies and safeguards the sovereign grace of God in his work of salvation in the sphere of the covenant. This is the teaching that the grace of God in the sphere of the covenant, as everywhere else, is particular. God’s gracious covenant and covenant grace are for the elect alone” (202). Previously we were told to distinguish between (true) membership – in the covenant – and what, ultimately, is hypocritical membership – in the sphere of the covenant. Part of the blame for this confusion of formulation rests with the statement made in the Westminster Larger Catechism: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed” (quoted on p. 205). Better is the Reformed doctrine of the “Covenant of Redemption,” which recognizes the vital distinction between the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son (in the Spirit) on behalf of the elect and the historical administration of redemptive covenant (the “Covenant of Grace”) made with elect and nonelect. The operation of the “household principle” in the administration of God’s covenant is conclusive. All this to say, even the theology of the Westminster divines can be improved upon in terms of clarity and consistency! (page 147)


I stumbled upon some very succinct notes from Kline articulating the view Karlberg describes above. Comments on the A. A. Hodge One-Covenant Construction of the Redemptive Order consists of brief comments from Kline arguing against the view of the Covenant of Grace articulated in the WCF/WLC. In summary, he notes:

Through its failure to distinguish satisfactorily the two very different arrangements in the redemptive order [CoG and CoR] and the resultant blurring together of contradictory elements, the one-covenant construction of A. A. Hodge (and WCF/WLC) has at least these liabilities:

1. It leads to a definition of the covenant community (church) in Baptistic terms as consisting of believers or the elect, contrary to the Presbyterian doctrine that the church consists of those who profess Christian faith and their children.

2. Arguably (as I suggested at the faculty forum), it has contributed by its formal fusing of the works and grace principles to the confusion of the two and even the repudiation of the works principle in the teachings of Fuller, Shepherd, et. al.

These are precisely the two points of contention with WCF I have striven to work out and articulate on this blog. I do not think Kline’s “solution” of making the Covenant of Redemption a covenant made with the elect to be a viable option, but I will have to save that for another post.

7 thoughts on “Contradiction in the Westminster Confession

  1. Pingback: The Transtestamental New Covenant « Contrast

  2. Hugh

    In your studied opinion, are the Westminster Standards the pinnacle, the apex, the acme, in other words, the best arguments going for infant baptism?


    1. Well, yes and no. The WS are not written as arguments for infant baptism, so in that sense, no they are not. But the best arguments for infant baptism are held by those who do hold to WS, so in that sense yes (though as Karlberg opines – it could use some improvement)


  3. markmcculley

    Mark Mcculley—I don’t agree with Engelsma but this is his response:

    My main response to Karlberg is as follows. First, Westminster’s statement about covenant and election is not vague or under-developed, so as to stand in need of further development (by M. Karlberg). It is either true or false. Either the NT covenant of grace was made with Christ and the elect in Him (as Galatians 3 teaches in clear language), or it was made and is made with baptized persons apart from the headship of Jesus Christ. In the latter case, the covenant is uncertain, conditional, and dependent on humans, as is also the promise by which the covenant is made and as is then also salvation itself.

    The issue, as the book of Galatians is concerned to reveal, is whether the covenant of grace and its salvation is universal and conditional or particular and gracious.

    Norman Shepherd and the federal vision, like the “liberated” Reformed theology that Shepherd admittedly is propounding and developing, are the in-your-face development today of the theology of a universal (all baptized persons), conditional covenant, divorced from Christ as head of the covenant. Our day represents the crisis of covenant theology, as 1618-19 represented the crisis of the gospel of grace in the Netherlands.

    Waffling on the issue of the day, as Karlberg does, is in fact surrender of the gospel of an unconditional (particular) covenant of grace.

    Second, the administration of the covenant of grace is wider than election. This is simply to acknowledge that the administration of the gospel, that is, the preached and reading of it, is wider than election. The assertion in the context of the great controversy now raging is either deliberate ambiguity or lack of understanding concerning the issue. More were circumcised than the elect in the OT. More are baptized than the elect in the NT. I am not now referring only to infants of believers. Adults baptized in the apostolic time included reprobates, for example, Annanias and Sapphira, and all those referred to by John’s epistle, “they went out from us but they were not of us.”

    But the covenant in the OT and in the NT was and is with the elect alone, as Westminster clearly confesses on the basis of Galatians 3. Those who go out from us, the believing church, never were of us, never were covenant friends of God with us.

    This is the issue: not how wide is the administration of the covenant, but how wide is the covenant of grace. Does election determine covenant friendship with God and the salvation it bestows? Election! Election! accompanied by reprobation! Always in the history of the church the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense. And always the source and foundation of the confession of grace.

    David J. Engelsma


  4. Bill Stanek

    I’m not seeing the alleged contradiction. Baptism does indeed confirm our interest in Him, not just as those receiving baptism, but those conferring baptism on others, including their children, which makes these little ones recipients of the covenant of grace, at minimum becoming beneficiaries of all temporal blessings available to the household of God, and pursuant to their personal faith in Jesus Christ.


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