The Abrahamic Pattern: A Response
A respondent on an email list made the following observations to my earlier post, “Why Baptize Infants?” It’s posted below with his gracious permission.
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Why Baptize Infants? Because God said to Abraham, ‘I’ll be a God to you and to your children after you’ that’s why… Abraham is the pattern of the Covenant of Grace or the Administration of Salvation, that is what we mean. The administration of free, gracious, unconditional acceptance with God. He’s the pattern of that all throughout scripture. And so it’s articulated in Genesis 17 where you see the institution of the Covenant children in the visible Covenant Community, into the sphere of the Administration of Salvation. You see that in Genesis 17 and everyone, all the male children are to be admitted into the visible Covenant Community. Abraham is always the pattern. - R. Scott Clark
Let’s just grant all these claims as undisputed fact, for the sake of argument. In particular, let’s grant the following master principle:
(1) “Abraham is the pattern of the Covenant of Grace or the Administration of Salvation… Abraham is always the pattern.”
Let’s also grant some particulars about the Abrahamic situation:
(2) “God said to Abraham, ‘I’ll be a God to you and to your children after you’.”
(3) “…the institution of the Covenant children in the visible Covenant Community.”
(4) “… all the male children are to be admitted into the visible Covenant Community.”
The problem is that, even if we grant (1), we have been given little guidance as to why we should insist *(2)-(4)* constitutes the pattern that is to be perpetuated into the New Covenant era. Why those specifics? Why not *other* specifics of the Abrahamic era?:
(5) Circumcision as the covenant sign.
(6) The covenant sign applied to males only.
(7) The covenant sign applied on the eighth day.
(8) Circumcision sealing the promise of physical descendants, kings, nations, and the land of Canaan.
Paedobaptists accept that there is quite a bit of discontinuity that is compatible with the Abrahamic ‘pattern’. They accept (1) but reject the application of (5)-(8) today, even though (5)-(8) were just as much a part of the Abrahamic pattern as (2)-(4). Only if one already accepted their conclusion would one think that adherence to (1) implicated (2)-(4) *rather than* (5)-(8).
Thus, what if someone summarized the Baptist view as:
(9) Even as circumcision ordinarily followed physical birth into physical Israel, so baptism follows spiritual birth into spiritual Israel.
(10) Those considered as the Abrahamic seed today, and subject to the covenant sign, are those who are of the faith of Abraham.
Why wouldn’t *that* sufficiently conform to, instantiate, or otherwise legitimately apply the pattern of Abraham? After all, it’s not as if the Bible tells us that (2)-(4) are required to faithfully implement the ‘pattern’ of Abraham, rather than (9) or (10). And if rejecting (5)-(8) is consistent with affirming (1), why can’t we reject (2)-(4) as well? Who gets to decide for us that (9) or (10) is an insufficient instantiation of the Abrahamic pattern?
The fact of the matter is that simple appeal to the master principle of (1) *doesn’t* select for (2)-(4), or (5)-(8), or (9)-(10), as to what is faithful to the ‘pattern,’ since they are all part of the pattern. The only reason you’d insist that (1) requires (2)-(4) instead of (5)-(8) or (9)-(10), is that you’ve already decided that *paedobaptism* is the only faithful application of (1). That is, it’s an argument that can only persuade the already persuaded.
That’s why arguments for paedobaptism, like arguments for Molinism, strike me as evocative, ingenious, but ultimately unconvincing. I can see what they’re trying to argue. What I don’t see is a cogent argument.
I’m not sure that we *should* concede Clark’s master principle of “(1) Abraham is the pattern of the Covenant of Grace or the Administration of Salvation…Abraham is always the pattern.” I was only doing so for the sake of argument. Principle (1) seems to be in tension with the Westminster Standards themselves. After all, WLC 31 states that “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” Unless we’re willing to say no one was saved (and therefore elect) prior to Abraham, this means that the covenant of grace was made with the elect prior to Abraham. That sheds remarkable light on what is ‘normative’ for redemptive history. Apparently, for at least 4000 years (Adam to Abraham), there was the covenant of grace but no application of a covenant sign to the infants of covenant members. Clearly for next 2000 years (Abraham to Christ) there *was* such an application. So what’s the norm, historically speaking? No covenant sign applied to infants, by at least a 2-to-1 margin! So principle (1) looks less obvious than at first sight.
Also, there is the matter of Noah and his children. The apostle Peter ‘links’ baptism with Noah’s flood, and God purposed in that generation to save not only Noah but his children from calamity. But what are we to infer from this? “Could this not be a pre-Abraham administration of the covenant of grace that includes children?” Sure, it could! But possibilities don’t make plausibilities or probabilities. ‘Including children’ is conspicuous by its *absence* during this 4000 year period; it’s virtually impossible to generalize from one example to a norm for the period. You can’t make a chain out of one link. Besides, the inclusion of Noah’s children would make perfect sense quite apart from covenant-of-grace considerations. If God wants the human race to continue, it is to be expected that he would preserve Noah’s children, and not just Noah, from the flood.
Notice that God says to Noah in Ge 6:18 that “I will establish my covenant with you,” rather than “with you and your offspring.” Yes, the covenant with Noah clearly had implications for his family’s survival (it could hardly be a covenant *with Noah* if its positive sanctions did not benefit Noah in some way). But the wording of Ge 6:18 is in significant contrast to that of Ge 17:7 “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you.” Optimistically reading the Abrahamic covenant of Ge 17:7 back into Ge 6:18 tends to flatten out these relevant details.
(Ge 9:9-12 cannot be a reference to an administration of the covenant of grace, since that would imply that birds, livestock, and beasts are regarded as elect in Christ ;-)
For further reading on how far NT references to Abraham will really take you, see the White Paper from The Center for Theological Research at BaptistTheology.org, “From Circumcsion to Baptism”
tldr; The ‘Abrahamic pattern’ is unfortunately a blunt instrument, not a magical talisman we can wave around to get what we want. Since the perpetuity of the Abrahamic pattern into the present era is acknowledged on all sides to be compatible with quite a good bit of discontinuity, citing an aspect of this pattern ((2)-(4) above) doesn’t help us to see whether it’s part of the pattern that is to be perpetuated. You can drive a Baptist Mack Truck quite easily through this Abrahamic tunnel.