In his book, To a Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism – Covenant Mercy For the People of God, Douglas Wilson, Pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho attempts to make a Biblical case for infant baptism. He begins by setting the bar impossibly high when he states: “we must be content with nothing less than a clear biblical case requiring infant baptism.” (pg. 9, italics in original). The problem here is obvious. Wilson is attempting to show that the Bible requires something that it never even mentions. Infant baptism is never commanded, modeled, suggested, described, displayed, or spoken of in a single verse of Scripture, Old Testament or New. So any attempt to suggest its “commanded” will require a certain amount of creative exegesis, illogical logic, and massive leaps to inferred assumptions that have no Biblical support. Even most paedobaptists will admit that the Bible never speaks of infant baptism and the case must be made from assumptions and church history, rather than explicit exegesis. This utter lack of infant baptism in the Bible has always been the “elephant in the room” for the paedobaptists; and after reading this book one can be assured that the elephant remains, as big and obvious as ever.
Wilson is a former Baptist who has changed his views on several issues, including baptism. No doubt motivated by the Reformers cry of Semper Reformanda (Always Reforming); Wilson has sought to examine church and life in light of Scripture and humbly (and commendably) seek to make changes accordingly. But to jettison Believer’s baptism in favor of infant baptism is to reform in the wrong direction. He’s abandoned the clear Biblical teaching in favor of a church tradition view rooted in Roman Catholicism. In this book, he takes it a step further by attempting to accomplish the impossible and make a case for the Biblical mandate for infant baptism, when it nowhere exists.
One of the main debates between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians centers on the understanding of the “Covenant.” Presbyterians will invariably say that Baptists don’t understand the Covenant; and Baptists will say that Presbyterians don’t understand the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, Israel was a “type” of the elect under the New Covenant. The sign under the Old Covenant was circumcision, which was required of all Israelite males. In the New Covenant the sign is baptism which is required (for obedience, not salvation) of all members of the New Covenant. To receive the sign under the Old Covenant you had to be born. To receive the sign under the New Covenant you have to be “born again” (John 3:3). Wilson muddles the two covenants together and argues for the New Covenant sign to be administered to infants, just as the Old Covenant sign was. But to do this is to miss the typological nature of Old Testament Israel. All Israelite males received the sign because they were a type of the Elect (i.e., Christians) who likewise receive the sign of the New Covenant. To force the sign upon an infant in the New Covenant would be akin to taking an unwilling pagan (not a slave or convert) from a nation other than Israel, and forcing circumscision upon them in the Old Covenant. Such “circumcision” would be pointless and invalid because the recipient is not really a part of “Israel” just as an unregenerate infant is not really a part of the “church” in any genuine sense; and should therefore not receive the New Covenant sign until some sort of evidence exists that they possess saving faith and are indeed a part of the New Covenant. To say that they are included because of their parent’s faith is to grossly misapply the scriptural passages which speak of “promises to your children.” And such misapplication occurs throughout this book.
The title for the book comes from Deuteronomy 7:9, “Know therefore that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” Wilson uses this passage and other similar ones to attempt to show the generational promise of the Covenant. Of course the promise in this passage speaks to those who “love Him and keep His commandments” which requires regeneration. In other words the promise is not to those born, but to those “born again.”
Likewise Psalm 103:17-18, which Wilson cites: “But the lovingkindness of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, To those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them.” Again notice the promise is to ‘those who fear Him…..those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them.’ That is, obedience, from a pure heart of reverent love for God, which would not describe an infant.
One of the quintessential Old Testament passages describing the New Covenant is found in Jeremiah 31: 33-34: “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” In the New Covenant, everyone “knows” God, because everyone in the New Covenant is born again by the Spirit, indeed they have the Spirit living within them. They possess saving faith and have God’s law “within them.” When we see these people coming out of spiritual death into life in the New Testament we also see them obediently receive the sign of the New Covenant by being baptized….as believers, by immersion. And not one of these is a sprinkled infant. The Biblical case for infant baptism is simply non-existent.
Rather than begin with the Scriptures and proceed forth to practice, Wilson begins with Infant baptism then backs his way into the Bible, with many curves and sharp turns by way of creative logic; followed by a couple of quantum leaps over obvious inconsistences to land on a handful of texts that never really mention infant baptism. Wilson is clearly a very intelligent man and a skilled philosopher and debater. Indeed one would have to use great philosophical talent to argue for something that exegesis will not prove.
In a nutshell, Wilson’s argument is this: although infant baptism is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, the covenant sign of circumcision was still practiced and required of Jewish Christians, but not Gentile Christians. And since Jewish babies were receiving a sign you would also have to administer a sign to Gentile babies to include them in the church as well. And since circumcision was clearly not required of Gentiles they must have done a different sign, namely infant baptism.
But the philosophical house of cards Wilson builds is itself based on the incorrect assumption that Jewish Christians were required to circumcise. Was it required? Not according to the Apostle Paul, who unleashed a vitriolic, Holy Spirit-inspired diatribe against the very thing Wilson is claiming. “Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:2-6 NASB) While Wilson may be right to conclude circumcision was still practiced by some early Jewish Christians; it would be incorrect to say it was required. And if you remove circumcision as a requirement for Jewish Christians in the early church, then Wilson’s entire house of cards falls because it eliminates his basic premise for requiring infant baptism for Gentile Christians.
With the issue of baptism, we are talking about one of only two ordinances that Jesus instituted in the New Testament. We are not talking about an obscure text on the validity of snake-handling, or trying to decipher how Endor’s witch conjured up Samuel. Given the importance of baptism as a perpetual ordinance commanded by Jesus in the Great Commission, one would think the Bible would clearly state how it is to be administered. Indeed the Bible does. The word “baptize” means to immerse; and every example of it in Scripture is of a person old enough to profess faith in Christ. Wilson’s arguments that “baptize” can mean things other than “immerse” is unconvincing, being largely based on the use of “baptize” regarding Spirit baptism, which when compared to water baptism is like comparing apples to oranges. If infant baptism was meant, and certainly if it’s required, then why is the New Testament completely silent about it? Why is there not one single example of it? Why is there no commandment for it? Why is it that the only way to justify it is to lurch into a long, confusing dalliance on the nuances of Covenant Theology coupled with examples from extra-Biblical sources from church history? Again, this is a church ordinance. Why is the Bible utterly silent on its application to infants?
Certainly, Christian parents are to love and nurture their children; raising them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. No Christian parent can look at Scripture and deny their responsibility to raise their children to be godly. But it is no insult to a child to withhold from them an ordinance that Scripture doesn’t say to administer to them. It would be equally fallacious to somehow see a child with Christian parents as being any way “in covenant” with God more than a child with non-Christian parents. While there’s no denying the advantage to being raised by godly parents in a Christian home, the child of Christians is just as depraved and unregenerate as the child of pagans. And both will remain that way apart from the regenerating, electing, grace of God. An electing grace, I might add, that is unconditional, as Wilson knows full well and teaches (as a Calvinist).
I’ll conclude by saying Douglas Wilson is obviously a very intelligent man, whom I have no doubt loves the Lord greatly. In many areas I would stand in complete agreement with him and I have in the past enjoyed and been edified by some of his writings. His well-known debate with Christopher Hitchens (‘Collision’) is a stellar example of Van Tillian Presuppositional apologetics at work. His adherence to the five points of Calvinism would further make him a theological comrade. And his apparent disdain for the anti-intellectualism so prevalent in many Baptist circles would find a hearty agreement with me. But he also seems to be given to extreme positions on this, and other issues (i.e., Federal Vision theology). If one quickly breezes through this book they may come away saying, “he must be right” although they’ll likely have a headache trying to follow the logic. But if one reads the book slowly and actually looks up the cited Bible verses to read them in context, one will see that more often than not the verses were not used by the Biblical writers to say what Wilson is expounding. Perhaps Wilson is hoping the reader will simply take his word for it and be dazzled (confused?) by his skills for argumentation, rather than study this issue more deeply. Whatever his motivation, the reality is that the argument for infant baptism falls flat in this book; and it will always fall flat with any book that purports to prove, from Scripture, that infant baptism is required. It’s not required. It’s not taught. It’s not modeled. It’s not even mentioned in passing. Believer’s baptism is all of the above, and therefore the “elephant” of Biblical silence unfailingly remains in the room for all paedobaptists, and Believer’s baptism should remain (and will hopefully abound) based on clear, Biblical teaching.