Monday, May 18, 2009

Children in the Covenant

In preparation for my sermon on Mark 10:13-16 and Jesus’ blessing of the children, I read Lewis Bevens Schenck’s book The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church. P&R Publishing did us the inestimable service of reprinting this in 2003 and Frank James, one of my instructors at RTS Orlando during my tenure there, wrote the Introduction.

Throughout the book the contention of Schenck is that the questions of the lawful mode and recipients of baptism have sidetracked us from considering a much more important matter. Namely, what does baptism mean, what is its significance? Particularly when infants are baptized, what is the significance of that baptism?

Schenck’s book, as the title suggests, surveys Reformed opinion on this very question. Its purpose is not to build a biblical case for infant baptism but to consider theological reflection on its significance within the Presbyterian tradition. He begins with Calvin and ends with the confusion that predominated in Presbyterian circles following the rise of revivalism in America. His survey is trenchant and thought provoking, showing the remarkable uniformity among the early Reformed thinkers on the matter as well as the large scale abandonment of that teaching in 19th century Presbyterianism.

Schenck argues forcefully in the first chapter that the predominant opinion among Reformed thinkers, beginning with Calvin and proceeding through the Westminster Assembly, was that infant baptism was applied to children as members of the Kingdom of God. The children of believers were to be reckoned presumptively regenerate based on the promise of God to be God not only to believers but also to their children. Consequently, the children of believers are to be reckoned as believers themselves; not out of any infallible knowledge of their actual status, but based on the promise of God in the Scriptures. As Calvin remarks, “It follows, that the children of believers are not baptized, that they may thereby then become the children of God, as if they had been before aliens to the Church; but, on the contrary, they are received into the Church by this solemn sign, since they already belonged to the body of Christ by virtue of the promise.” (Institutes IV.25) The children of believers belong to God and therefore are to be brought into the visible church via baptism.

As I remarked in my sermon this past Lord’s Day, Calvin’s contention correlates precisely with the words of our Lord Jesus as He welcomes the children into His presence and blesses them. When the parents (most likely) come bringing these little children (all of whom or at least some of whom were nursing infants – Lk 18:15) and the disciples rebuke them for bothering our Lord, Jesus is indignant, angered at the behavior of the disciples. He delivers a dual imperative to the disciples, insisting that he desires little children not simply tolerated or permitted to come to Him but ushered unto Him. He then explain why – “for of such is the Kingdom of God.” Jesus does not commend the action of those bringing the children – “Don’t forbid them because every righteous parent should be bringing his children to me” – rather, He comments on the status of the children themselves. Jesus insists that these children should be brought to Him because they are part of the Kingdom; not that they one day shall be part of it but that they already are. These parents were right to bring their children to Jesus not in the hope that their children would one day belong to Him but because they already belonged to Him.

Given that our children belong to God, what is the purpose of Christian nurture, Christian education, training, discipline, etc? The purpose is to train God’s children to be ever more faithful disciples of Christ, to love and cherish Him all the more, to serve Him faithfully and truly. God freely, graciously has brought these children into His Kingdom by giving them to believing parents. So when we speak to our children, how ought we to speak to them? Ought we to speak to them as though they are over there, unconverted, unbelieving, separate from Christ, non-Christians? No! This is precisely what our Lord forbids. We are to speak to them as believers, exhort them as believers, treat them as members of Christ, as inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Why? Because God in His grace and mercy has promised to be their God and has testified to it in His Word. They are not over there; they are in here.

Schenck substantiates that this approach to children was the predominant position of the Presbyterian tradition leading up to the Great Awakening in America. As a result of the Great Awakening, however, this conviction was undermined. In the place of Christian nurture and education as the normal pattern of discipleship came the camp meeting, the conversion experience. The Great Awakening insisted that the only legitimate sign of an interest in Christ was a measurable conversion experience. Conversion included first a period of conviction and then an abiding “sense” of relief in Christ. Schenck’s explains:
It was unfortunate that the Great Awakening made an emotional experience, involving terror, misery, and depression, the only approach to God. A conscious conversion from enmity to friendship with God was looked upon as the only way of entrance into the kingdom. Sometimes it came suddenly, sometimes it was a prolonged and painful process. But it was believed to be a clearly discernible emotional upheaval, necessarily ‘distinct to the consciousness of its subject and apparent to those around.’ Preceding the experience of God’s love and peace, it was believed necessary to have an awful sense of one’s lost and terrifying position. Since these were not the experiences of infancy and early childhood, it was taken for granted children must, or in all ordinary cases would, grow up unconverted.
Schenck’s critique of the Great Awakening is subtle and powerful, exposing its deleterious effects upon the training of Christian children.

He continues this critique in the next chapter in which he highlights how the Great Awakening made inroads into Southern Presbyterianism and undermined the consensus within Presbyterianism over the significance of infant baptism. Thornwell and Dabney, two of the greatest Southern Presbyterian theologians, insisted that children are not baptized because they belong to Christ but only because they reside in a privileged position of instruction. Baptism in the case of an infant, therefore, did not signify his regeneration, which was assumed not to have occurred yet, but only the spiritual blessings that one day he would receive, provided that he believed. “Children in the covenant then were classified with the offenders and ‘enemies of God.’ They were to be regarded as presumptively unregenerated.” (96)

The consequence of this position was the recommendation by certain men to revise the Book of Discipline in order to remove baptized children from the possibility of church discipline unless they had made a personal profession of faith. Schenck’s analysis of this suggestion is compelling. He utilizes the voice of the Princeton Theologians to critique the novelty of these positions. Taking up such central concepts of original sin, sanctification, the covenant, and the church, Schenck demonstrates the departure of many Presbyterians from the historic position of the church and the Scriptures.

His comments on the conditionality of God’s covenant with His people are excellent. “Man earned nothing by meeting the demands of the covenant. All the requirements of the covenant were covered by the promises of God; that is, God promised to give man all that he required of Him. The covenant of grace, as its name infers, was a covenant of the unmerited love and favor of God.” (121) Consequently, if “in Israel many entered into an outward relation with Israel, who did not enjoy the inward covenantal relation, this only showed that the true conditions of the covenant relationship had not been met.” (123) In other words, external membership among the people of God in the Old Testament was not real membership and could by no means classified as faithfulness. Likewise today.

He closes his book by contrasting in a number of significant ways the Reformed principle of training children with the revivalistic principle. “The principle of the Reformed faith, that the child brought up under Christian influence should never know a time when love to God was not an active principle in its life, was displaced by an assumption that even the offspring of the godly were born enemies of God and must await the crisis of conversion.” (153) His discussion of the centrality of the Christian nurture and training of covenant children is trenchant as is His insistence that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit all these efforts are for naught. In this his critique of Horace Bushnell’s notions of covenantal nurture is edifying.

The largest inadequacy of Schenck’s book is his treatment of Calvin’s rejection of paedo-communion. He takes up the issue in only one paragraph and fails to interact sufficiently with Calvin’s inconsistency. As Paul Jewett substantiates in his critique of infant baptism, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, paedobaptism and paedocommunion go together. If infants truly are presumptively regenerate, members of the household of God, members of the Kingdom of God, then why would we withhold from them the sacrament of the Supper? Why would God refuse to feed those whom He numbers among His people? Schenck does not address this matter at all – though given the scope of his study that is excusable.

On the whole, Schenck’s book is a valuable resource for understanding the deleterious effects of the Great Awakening on the nurture of covenantal children. In many ways, Schenck’s book is a helpful corrective to Iain Murray’s otherwise excellent book Revival and Revivalism. It seems to me that Murray is himself an advocate of the “conversion pattern” as the normal method of God’s dealings with his people. Schenck demonstrates it inadequacy and encourages us to love and train our children in faith and hope.