Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace

We looked previously at how important covenant theology is to the Reformed arguments for paedobaptism. Within the Reformed argumentation for paedobaptism, there is no more essential doctrine than the covenant of grace. On this point Booth, a Reformed paedobaptist, notes, “There are also other evidences in the pages of Scripture that support the truth of infant baptism. Nevertheless, the foundation of the argument consists of the unified covenant of grace evident in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.”[1]

picture of grace to signify the covenant of grace

There are many reasons the covenant of grace is essential to the Reformed position on paedobaptism. Primarily, it provides the theological connection between circumcision and baptism, so that “baptism and circumcision have essentially the same meaning.”[2] Additionally, it provides a framework to see the continuity in the people of God, and God’s dealing corporately with households in the New Testament.[3]

It should be noted that, historically, many credobaptists (people who believe a profession of faith must precede baptism) have argued against paedobaptism while simultaneously embracing covenant theology and the covenant of grace.[4] So, I am not claiming that one must embrace infant baptism if he or she holds to a covenant of grace. However, I would propose that the Reformed paedobaptist arguments would have no foundation without this particular understanding of the covenant of grace. And since I am hard pressed to see the covenant of grace as an accurate theological category, I propose it is valid to challenge that major presupposition.

The Importance of the Covenant of Grace to Reformed Paedobaptists

Covenant theologians argue for the unity between Old and New Testament by appealing to one covenant—the covenant of grace—which appears in various manifestations. Zwingli is largely viewed as the pioneer of this argument, popularizing this form of argumentation due to his constant arguments against the Anabaptist position.[5] However, if there is one covenant in Scripture, why does Scripture speak of multiple covenants?

The Baptism Debate

In response to passages which clearly reference two distinct covenants (e.g., Heb 8, 2 Cor 3; Gal 4–5), Zwingli wrote, “Two covenants are spoken of, not that they are two diverse covenants, for this would necessitate not only two diverse people, but also two gods.”[6] In other words, even though the Scriptures talk about multiple covenants, this is not the reality.

Zwingli spoke very boldly against the idea of multiple covenants.

“Paul speaks of two testaments, but the one he calls a testament by a misuse of language, when he wishes them to be understood who, although they were under that one eternal covenant and testament…. Paul therefore called the way of these a testament, not that it was a true testament, but by a copying or imitation of those who so named it.”[7]

It is perhaps revealing that the concept of a singular covenant is so important in Zwingli’s case against the Anabaptists that he attributes a “misuse of language” to the Apostle Paul.

Modern Reformed paedobaptists also assume a singular covenant in texts which refer to plurality. For example in response to Romans 9:4, “They are Israelites, and to them belong … the covenants [pl.],” Venema says, “However diverse and particular may be the various dispensations or administrations of the covenant of grace—so that we may even speak of ‘covenants’ in the plural (Rom 9:4)—they do not differ as to substance.”[8]

In other words, Venema argues from the presupposition that there is one covenant of grace, and so when Scripture refers to a plurality of covenants, it is really only referring to different manifestations of that one covenant.

Critiquing the Concept of the Covenant of Grace

By way of an initial critique, I would say there seems to be two methodological problems with this line of thinking. First, there is the problem of falsifiability. The standard Zwingli and Venema (and others) use for their interpretation is not falsifiable nor testable. A covenant of grace is presupposed in many of these texts, and so when there is mention of multiple covenants, it is explained away as a reference to various administrations of the same covenant. Thus, there is no way to disprove the idea of a singular covenant in that line of thinking. Secondly, and more importantly, this presuppositional reading of these texts seems to ignore the more natural reading of coextensive covenants in simultaneous operation.

In addition to this general assessment, I would put forward 4 specific reasons why we should understand the covenants mentioned in Scripture to be individual and unique covenants, not various manifestations of one covenant of grace.

1. Ancient Near East Covenantal Structures

Although this is certainly not the most important of arguments, it should be acknowledged that there is no evidence in the ancient world that covenants were viewed as manifestations of other covenants. The most natural reading of covenantal agreements between nations, individuals, or even God and His people would be that each covenant stands or falls on its own.

Neither Moses nor anyone else in the ancient world ever called any collection of covenants a single covenant (the one exception being a covenant and its renewal, so, e.g., the Sinai covenant and its renewal the Moab covenant constitute the final form of the Mosaic covenant, which is always referred to subsequently in the Bible in the singular as the law or the covenant the Lord made with Israel, etc.). Nothing in the Bible mandates that the Noahic covenant-new covenant collection be called one covenant.[9]

2. Scripture Speaks of Covenants (as a Plurality)

This may seem like an obvious piece of evidence, but I believe it sets a strong foundation for expectation. In contrast to many of the statements that are made by Reformed paedobaptists, the New Testament speaks of a multiplicity of covenants. For example, as already referred to, Romans 9:4 says, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” Of importance to our argument is the fact that covenants (αἱ διαθῆκαι) and promises (αἱ ἐπαγγελίαι) are both in the plural. Moo points out that Paul’s reference to covenants (plural) is most naturally a reference to the covenants mentioned in the Old Testament (e.g., Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) since intertestamental writings use the plural reference to refer to all the covenants (cf. Sir. 44:12, 18; Wis. 18:22; 2 Macc 8:15).[10] Paul’s point is that Israel was given unique privileges through a variety of covenants and promises (both plural).

Similarly, Ephesians 2:12 reads, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” F.F. Bruce notes that covenants (plural) here refer to the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants.[11] The point in Ephesians 2:12, similar to Romans 9:4, is that the nation of Israel had been given special privileges through covenants that the Gentiles had not been given.

This seems to be a strong argument against the idea of a covenant of grace, since it is obvious Gentiles could be saved in the Old Testament through faith, yet clearly the focus of Romans 9:4 and Ephesians 2:12 is highlighting the special privilege Israel had through covenantal relationship with God.

3. The Missing Priestly Covenant in Covenant Theology

The priestly covenant (Num 25:10–13) is an oft ignored, but essential component to consider in this discussion. The context of Numbers 25 is that Israel had “yoked himself to Baal of Peor,” engaging in vile idolatry (v. 3). The Lord brought a plague upon the people of Israel to punish them, until Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, stopped the plague by killing a man of Israel and his seductress (vv. 7–8). In light of Phinehas’ actions, the text notes the following:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13 and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel’ ” (Num 25:10–13).

Notably, this covenant uses language that is often given as evidence for the covenant of grace by Reformed paedobaptists. This covenant is an “eternal covenant” (עוֹלָם), given to the descendants of Phinehas, very similar in structure to the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. It is also called a “covenant of peace” (25:12b) which is the same phraseology used of the new covenant (cf. Ezekiel 37:26a). Reformed paedobaptists often argue that the covenant of grace can be discerned by these kinds of descriptions, but I have not seen a paedobaptist insinuate that the priestly covenant is a manifestation of the covenant of grace.

Although some might wish to connect the priestly covenant fundamentally with the Mosaic covenant, it is obvious that the priestly covenant is to be viewed as distinct from the Mosaic covenant. For example, Zadock’s line, descendants of Phinehas (1 Chron 6:50–53), are said to be serving in the future Ezekielian Temple (Ezek 44:15; 48:11).[12] Similarly, Jeremiah 33:17–18 talks about the perpetuity of the Davidic covenant and Levitical covenant side by side. This point is even more concretely made in Jeremiah 33:20–21 where God says that neither “my covenant with David,” nor “my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers,” can be broken.

The big point is that although the priestly covenant is ignored by proponents of covenant theology, it is very clearly represented in Israel’s theology. So much so, that the covenant even finds perpetuity along with the Davidic and new covenants. Given the character and quality of the priestly covenant, it does not fit well into a system as a manifestation of the one covenant of grace. 

4. The Covenants Found in Scripture Operate Coextensively

Going off the previous point, it is apparent that covenants in the Old Testament operate coextensively. This means that each covenant cannot simply be viewed as manifestation of one covenant of grace, but that each covenant is uniquely contributing something to the storyline, in many cases functioning simultaneously and in conjunction with other covenants. This is apparent in many passages.

For example, Isaiah 24:4–5 speaks of all the earth having broken the “everlasting covenant.” This reference to a generic covenant with the world seems to fit best with the Noahic covenant,[13] although it could be a reference to the obligatory relationship between creature and Creator.[14] Of course Isaiah is writing from within the framework of the Mosaic covenant—the Mosaic covenant forms the basis of Isaiah’s covenant lawsuit in Isaiah 1.[15] Thus, Isaiah is demonstrating awareness of multiple covenants operating simultaneously.

Similarly, David’s usage of psalms demonstrates his awareness of multiple covenants in operation at the same time. For example, in Psalm 105:8–11, there is a clear reference to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Psalm 106:45 we also likely have a reference to the Abrahamic covenant. David quotes both of these psalms in 1 Chronicles 16:8–36 showing that, if he was not the author, he at least had intimate awareness of the theological details of these psalms. David is also the author of Psalm 103:17–18, which is a reference to the Mosaic covenant. Psalm 110 is also a psalm of David, written with the Davidic covenant in mind. Clearly, David’s own life, as well as the testimony of the psalms in general demonstrate that covenants operate coextensively and have overlap.

The coextensive nature of covenants and the implications for continuance is perhaps nowhere more plain than Jeremiah 33:20–21, which I alluded to before, but will now quote in full.

Thus says the Lord: If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night will not come at their appointed time, then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken, so that he shall not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with the Levitical priests my ministers.

Note that we have reference to three covenants in Jeremiah 33 which are operating coextensively.[16] You have the Noahic covenant (“my covenant with the day … and night”), the Davidic covenant (“my covenant with David”), and the priestly covenant (“my covenant with the Levitical priests”). In fact, the entire argument God is employing assumes the coextensive nature of these covenants. The point is that Jeremiah’s audience can be assured on the basis of the continuity of the Noahic covenant that the continuity of the Davidic and priestly covenants will also continue. This also demonstrates that the priestly covenant is unique and set apart from the Mosaic covenant since it is designed to function alongside the Davidic covenant in perpetuity.

Salvation and the Covenant of Grace

One clarification is in order. Oftentimes people assume the covenant of grace simply means that God saves sinners the same way in both Old and New Testaments. That salvation has always been (and always will be) by God’s grace through faith is undoubtedly correct. However, there is no need to equate that reality with a so-called covenant of grace, which is unmentioned in Scripture.

Reformed paedobaptists necessarily use the covenant of grace as a hermeneutical tool to equate the Old and New Testament, and equate circumcision and baptism. However, the above four reasons give initial evidence that the covenant of grace is a spurious category, unknown to the biblical authors or readers. In the following posts, I will continue to discuss stronger evidences that the covenant of grace is not a valid category of biblical hermeneutics.   

[1] Robert R. Booth, Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1995), 10. Cf. Cornelis P. Venema, “Covenant Theology and Baptism,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 202. Venema says, “This debate can be reduced to one principal question: Does the covenant of grace in its New Testament administration embrace the children of believing parents just as it did in its Old Testament administration? However complex and diverse the arguments, pro and con, on the subject of infant baptism may be, this remains the overriding issue.”

[2] Mark E. Ross, “Baptism and Circumcision as Signs and Seals,” in The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, ed. Gregg Strawbridge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 100.

[3] The issues of both circumcision and baptism, as well as households will be dealt with in detail in later chapters.

[4] E.g., Richard C. Barcellos, ed., Recovering a Covenantal Heritage: Essays in Baptist Covenant Theology (Palmdale, CA: RBAP, 2014); Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace: An Appraisal of the Argument That as Infants Were Once Circumcised, so They Should Now Be Baptised (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999).

[5] Ulrich Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldreich Zwingli, ed. Samuel Macauley, trans. Lawrence A. McClouth, Henry Preble, and George W. Gilmore (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1901), 234. “God therefore made no other covenant with the miserable race of man than that he had already conceived before man was formed. One and the same testament has always been in force.”

[6] Ibid., 228.

[7] Ibid., 228–29.

[8] Venema, “Covenant Theology and Baptism,” 216.

[9] Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Biblical Theology: The Special Grace Covenants (Old Testament), vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 13.

[10] Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 2nd ed., NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 583–84.

[11] F. F Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 293.

[12] Irvin A. Busenitz, “Introduction to the Biblical Covenants: The Noahic Covenant and the Priestly Covenant,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 10, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 188.

[13] John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, Rev., WBC 24 (Thomas Nelson, 2005), 378.

[14] Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God (Silverton, OR: Lampion Press, 2017), 165.

[15] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 23.

[16] Interestingly, within Jeremiah 30–33 there are at least 4 unconditional covenants (perhaps 5) mentioned. Vlach notes the following: new covenant (31:31–34); Davidic covenant (33:14–17); Priestly covenant (33:18); Noahic covenant (33:19–22); and perhaps the Abrahamic covenant (30:22). See Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 188–191.

Photo by Alex Shute on Unsplash

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

One Comment

  • Alexander Krause

    The Covenant of Grace is explicit, stated by Paul in a letter to Timothy (2Tim. 1.9 in the Greek text). It is also logically implicit throughout the bible. A certain mindset derives from chopping the bible up. I had that mindset once but God taught me otherwise. I’m not even a Covenant Theology believer really. I could even subscribe to Progressive Dispensationalism to some extent from the last time I heard an exposition of its logic. I don’t really think in terms of these synthetic theologies anymore since they are too rigidly contrived and fairly unnecessary. What did Christians do before these doctrine’s contrivance?
    You stated Credo Baptists can be Covenantal, so its hard for me to see your point in trying to undermine its understanding. The Abrahamic, Davidic Covenants were personal with those named. Even the Mosaic was personal according to Gal. 3.19. Paul summarized the Mosaic according to Lev. 18.5 and its fulfillment was accomplished by only One Person. Phineas’ Covenant, in my view, does subsume under the Covenant of Grace; so, I see things differently in the bible.
    Having attended Presbyterian Churches and conversing with many Pedo folks I see their problem differently. They are just worried, for the most part, of functioning similarly to the Community of Israel in regard to their children. They see the similarities of baptism wrongly. Yes, baptism refers to regeneration and so does Heart circumcision but they don’t equal each other. This is the solution to Col. 2 where they say the text equates the two, it does not.

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