Summary: Upon the basis of how circumcision was administered, historically, the reformed practiced that the distant offspring of a believer were entitled to baptism, even if their immediate parents were unbelievers, apostates or excommunicates. Modern paedobaptists have rejected this practice, resulting in an inconsistency in their appeal to circumcision.
Joe Anady of the Confessing the Faith podcast interviewed former URC member and WSC graduate Mark Hogan about his change in beliefs from paedobaptism to credobaptism. In Part 3, Hogan mentions one of the inconsistencies that contributed to his change of mind. During seminary he read William Perkins arguing (from the basis of Israel) that the baptism of the believer’s offspring was not limited to the first generation, but extended down the line to include even offspring whose immediate parents were wicked. Hogan found no consistent answer for modern Presbyterianism’s rejection of this logic and practice. Gavin Ortlund explained this point was part of his change of mind regarding the baptism of infants as well.
Circumcision is given in Genesis 17:9 to “you and your seed [offspring, descendants; Hebrew zerah] after you, for the generations to come.” The individuals in view here are the intergenerational descendants of Abraham. The faith of an Israelite child’s parents was not what determined the child’s right to circumcision; it was the child’s association with the nation of Israel. In other words, the lines of covenant throughout the Old Testament weren’t drawn around individual believing families, but around the national family of Abraham. It wasn’t the “children of believers” who had the right to the sacrament of initiation, but the “children of Abraham.” So, given paedobaptist presuppositions, why not baptize the grandchildren of believers, too? If we’re really building off continuity with the Old Testament precedent, why stop at one generation?
Nehemiah Coxe made the same point in 1681.
The promises previously given to Abraham for his natural offspring involve those in remote generations as much as those immediately descended from him. And in some respects they were made good more fully to them than to the others… It was not Abraham’s immediate seed, but his mediate, that became as numerous as the dust of the earth and took possession of the land flowing with milk and honey…
The right of the remotest generation was as much derived from Abraham and the covenant made with him, as was that of his immediate seed, and did not at all depend on the faithfulness of their immediate parents. Thus, the immediate seed of those Israelites that fell in the wilderness under the displeasure of God were made to inherit the land of Canaan by virtue of this covenant with Abraham. They never could have enjoyed it by virtue of their immediate parent’s steadfastness in the covenant…
[I]f I may conclude my concern in this covenant is such that by one of its promises I am assured that God has taken my immediate seed into covenant with himself, I must on the same ground conclude also that my seed in remote generations will be no less in covenant with him, since the promise extends to the seed in their generations.
Covenant Theology From Adam to Christ, p. 90, 97, 106
The reformed generally were in agreement with this point and put it into practice as part of their national understanding of the church. The quote that initially gave Hogan pause is from Perkins’ 1604 commentary on Galatians 3:26-28.
Thirdly, it may be demanded, whether the children of wicked Christians, that is, of such as hold in judgment true religion and deny it in their lives, may be baptized? Answer. They may. For all without exception that were born of circumcised Jews (whereof many were wicked) were circumcised. And we must not only regard the next parents, but also the ancestors of whom it is said, “If the root be holy, the branches are holy” (Rom. 11). Upon this ground children born in fornication may be baptized, so be it, there be some to answer for them besides the parents. And there is no reason that the wickedness of the parent should prejudice the child in things pertaining to life eternal.
Lastly, it may be demanded, whether the children of parents excommunicate, may be baptized? Answ. Yea, if there be any beside the parents to answer for the child. For the parents after excommunication remain still (for right) members of the Church, having still a right to the kingdome of heavens out of which they are not cast absolutely, but with condition, unless they repent: and in part, that is in respect of communion, or use of their liberty, but not in respect of right or title: even as a freeman of a corporation imprisoned, remaines a freeman, though for the time he hath no use of his liberty.
The Works of William Perkins, v. ii, 232
(Note the erroneous reading of Romans 11 that is necessarily required. Perkins must interpret the root not as Abraham, but as every believer. Every believer thus has their own tree of which they are the root down to a thousand generations.)
Perkins was just repeating what previous reformers concluded. In 1559, Scottish Presbyterian John Knox wrote to Calvin asking “whether it be lawful to admit to the sacrament of baptism the children of idolaters and excommunicated persons before their parents have testified their repentance.” Calvin replied
Respecting the questions of which you ask for a solution, after I had laid them before my colleagues, here is the answer which we unanimously resolved to send…
[I]n the proper use of baptism the authority of God is to be considered, and his institution ought to derive its authority from certain conditions, one of the first things to be considered is who are the persons that God by his own voice invites to be baptized.
Now God’s promise comprehends not only the offspring of every believer in the first line of descent, but extends to thousands of generations. Whence it has happened that the interruption of piety which has prevailed in Popery has not taken away from baptism its force and efficacy. For we must look to its origin, and the very reason and nature of baptism is to be esteemed as arising from the promise of God. To us then it is by no means doubtful that an offspring descended from holy and pious ancestors, belong to the body of the church, though their fathers and grandfathers may have been apostates. For just as in Popery it was a pernicious and insane superstition, to steal or forcibly abduct their children from Jews or Turks, and forthwith to have them baptized; so likewise, wherever the profession of Christianity has not been altogether interrupted or destroyed, children are defrauded of their privileges if they are excluded from the common symbol; because it is unjust when God, three hundred years ago or more, has thought them worthy of his adoption, that the subsequent impiety of some of their progenitors should interrupt the course of heavenly grace. In fine, as each person is not admitted to baptism from respect or regard to one of his parents alone, but on account of the perpetual covenant of God; so in like manner, no just reason suffers children to be debarred from their initiation into the church in consequence of the bad conduct of only one parent.
In the 17th century, this practice was challenged by Congregationalists who argued “we do professedly judge the Calvinian Reformed Churches of the first reformation from out of Popery, to stand in need of a further reformation themselves.” They argued that excommunicants are not members of the church and that only the immediate offspring of communicant members may be baptized. In response to this pressure, and to defend the national church model, Scottish Prebyterian and leading member of the Westminster Assembly Samuel Rutherford again argued from Abraham and Israel.
Therefore there was no more required of the circumcised but that they were Abraham’s seed according to the flesh, and by that same reason, there is no more required of infants that they may be baptized but that they be born in the Christian church… Now if God be the God of Abraham’s seed far off and near down, to many generations, the wickedness of the nearest parents cannot break the covenant, as is clear… These are to receive the seal of the covenant whose forefathers are in external profession within the covenant. For God commands not Abraham only to circumcise his sons, but all parents descended of Abraham to circumcise their seed: the seed of Abraham carnally descended to all generations… We desire to know whom God forbade to be circumcised that were carnally descended of Abraham? Or show us example or precept thereof in the Word.
But, say they: drunkards, murderers, sorcerers, swearers, and ignorant atheists, both fathers and mothers, whose children you baptize, do not profess the faith, for in works they deny and bely their profession.
Answer: 1. Then you will have the children of none to be baptized but those whose parents are sound and sincere professors in the judgment of charity. But so Joshua failed who circumcised the children of all professing themselves to be Abraham’s sons carnally, though Joshua knew and was an eye witness that their fathers did deny and bely their profession.
New England Congregationalists
In 1662, the New England Synod stated
Partic. 5. It is requisite unto the membership of children, that the next parents, one or both, being in a covenant. For altho’ after-generations have no small benefit by their pious ancestors, who derive federal holiness to their succeeding generations in case they keep their standing in the covenant, and be not apostates from it; yet the piety of ancestors sufficeth not, unless the next parent continue in covenant, Rom. 11.22…
If we stop not at the next parent, but grant that ancestors may, notwithstanding the apostacy of the next parents convey membership unto children, then we should want a ground where to stop, and then all the children on earth should have right to membership and baptism.
Modern presbyterian denomoinations that have rejected the unbiblical national ecclessiology of their forefathers have also rejected this unbiblical practice of the baptism of infants down to the thousandth generation.
For a child to be presented for baptism, at least one parent must be a communicant member of the Church… Only parents who are communicant members of the Church may be permitted to take parental vows.
OPC DPW 3.1.a
One of the few modern defenders of this practice, Gordon Clark, explains the logical implications of this modern abandonment of reformed tradition.
Does the Bible require or prohibit baptisms to the thousandth generation? If it does, and if a generation is roughly thirty years, a thousand generation from the time of Christ would include just about everybody in the western world. Then the church should have baptized the child of an intensely Talmudic Jew whose ancestor in 50 B.C. was piously looking for the Messiah. Or, George Whitefield should have baptized Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine, as children, because one of their ancestors played a small role in the Reformation. Strange as this may seem to many, it ought to have been done if the Bible so teaches.
Some very eminent theologians have so held. The strictest view has not been universal; it is more American than European. The view that only the children of professing parents should be baptized seems to have been the result of colonial revivalism [and/or the rejection of a national church model]… as it… tended to view the ideal church as consisting entirely of regenerate persons… The logical result is the Baptist position; but in Presbyterianism it stopped short at requiring faith of the parents who wanted their children baptized. But if it did not result in Baptist practices, it involved a change in the theology of baptism.
-Gordon H. Clark. What Is The Christian Life? (Kindle Locations 1192-1194). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.
The problem with the modern pratice (as Perkins, Calvin, Rutherford, and the reformed argued in the past) is that circumcision was not administered in this way. This great inconsistency led Hogan and Ortlund to change their minds regarding the proper recipients of baptism.
I encourage you to prayerfully consider this matter.