Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw

Posted by R. Fowler White

In this post and (God willing) a series of posts to follow, I plan to work through the chapters of Jeffrey D. Johnson’s book, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Free Grace Press, 2010). Yes, it’s been out a while, so perhaps you’ve seen it mentioned here and there. The initial reasons for my interest in the book are that I was once a convinced credobaptist myself (even publishing on the topic!) and that Johnson’s book has been applauded by some noteworthy (self-identified) “sovereign grace Baptist” leaders, such as Tom Nettles and Richard Belcher, Sr. The more significant reason that I picked up the book, however, is that it is part of a relatively recent flurry of activity among Baptists who have been reexamining covenant theology (e.g., Tom Wells, Fred Zaspel, Gary Long), and Johnson states that his own position on covenant theology is very similar to that of Meredith Kline, Michael Horton, and Kim Riddlebarger (p. 22 n. 70). All these factors provoke my interest in Johnson’s critique of paedobaptist covenant theology.

Johnson divides his book into two major parts, the first of 16 chapters on “The Fatal Flaw” behind paedobaptist theology and the second of 8 chapters on what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism” and in which he discusses the relationships between Abraham, Moses, and Christ. For the purpose of interaction, I don’t expect to review each of these 24 chapters in detail, but to focus on what Johnson tells us is the primary thrust of his book, namely, “a direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Even with that emphasis, “the purpose of this work is not so much to convert the die-hard paedobaptist as much as to help prevent credobaptists from changing their position” (p. 20). In addition, the book is not offered merely to deliver negative commentary (ibid.). For Johnson “there are many sturdy stones, which must be left alone” (ibid.) in paedobaptist covenant theology. Not least among those stones is the progressive unfolding of God’s eternal plan of redemption in each of His covenants throughout history. Given Johnson’s purpose and primary thrust, I’ll leave aside the helpful introduction in which he surveys the history of infant baptism and various paedobaptist interpretations of its rationale and settles on engaging presbyterians who’ve adopted the Westminster Confession. I’ll use this opening post to look at his first two chapters (pp. 25-48), where he takes on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and the analogy between circumcision and baptism.

Zeroing in on the paedobaptist appeal to OT inferences to fill in where no NT command exists, Johnson argues that those inferences leave too many uncertainties to justify infant baptism. He insists that, if OT inferences are really to make up for a missing NT command, then some related issues should also be considered: 1) that, besides baptism, no duty of the local NT church comes from the OT; 2) that baptized children are excluded from the Lord’s Supper even though circumcised children were included in the Passover meal; 3) that the NT church experienced much confusion on almost everything related to the old covenant; 4) that the NT church experienced major controversy over circumcision in particular; and 5) that NT Gentile converts, largely ignorant of circumcision’s meaning, doubtless needed instruction on baptism and its participants. With these uncertainties as backdrop, Johnson moves on to take up the circumcision-baptism relationship itself, intent on showing that the two ordinances are only analogous and not identical. Contending that “the NT must set the limits of the analogy” (p. 45; see also p. 47), he concludes that they are similar, not in that both involve children, but only in that both signify circumcision of the heart (regeneration). Citing Jer 31.34, he goes on to urge that, “unlike the old covenant, the new covenant leaves no room for unbelieving participants” (ibid.). All told, then, Johnson maintains that neither OT inferences nor the circumcision-baptism relationship can be authoritative for determining the nature of baptism or its participants (p. 47).

The absence of a NT command to baptize infants – What shall we say about Johnson’s claim that OT inferences leave too many uncertainties to warrant infant baptism? In my view, the uncertainties that Johnson highlights do little to discourage the paedobaptist appeal to the OT to locate the warrant for infant baptism. For example, when he argues that, besides baptism, no requirement for the local NT church comes from the OT, Johnson asks us to presuppose that the administrative principles of the NT church originated without any connection whatsoever to OT Israel. Leaving aside the question of baptism, this is a bridge too far: we cannot simply concede that the administrative principles of the NT church generally or the basis of its membership specifically are disconnected from OT Israel. After all, we know that God is administering one household in redemptive history, not two (Heb 3.1-6). Going on, Johnson observes that, unlike circumcised children, baptized children are excluded from the covenant meal. We acknowledge, of course, that paedobaptists differ on this point, though we cannot pursue it here. Suffice it to say, then, that back of Johnson’s objection is the debatable assumption that the function and basis of the OT ordinances differ from those of the NT. Further, Johnson points out that almost everything related to the old covenant, including circumcision, created confusion or controversy in the NT church that was eventually dominated by largely uninformed Gentile converts. The difficulties of the transition from the old covenant to the new notwithstanding, Johnson offers no evidence that there was ever confusion or controversy in the NT church about the membership status or baptism of children. In sum, Johnson’s collection of uncertainties does not touch the fundamental concern of the paedobaptist argument from the OT. More pointedly, if the administrative principles of the NT church, including the basis of its membership, originated without any connection to OT Israel as Johnson argues, there would have been an obvious and profound need for and expectation of an exposition not unlike the one we find in the Epistle to the Hebrews to make this change emphatically clear. Instead we find that the principles and practices of the NT church are stated in language that imitates the language in which the principles and practices of OT Israel were stated.

The circumcision-baptism relationship – Moving on to Johnson’s take on the circumcision-baptism relationship, we can agree with him that the relationship is one of analogy and not identity. There are clear differences between the two (thus the denial of identity), but both rites testify to the same realities (thus the affirmation of analogy): death to sin and new life to God (otherwise known as circumcision of the heart). In fact, because both rites speak as one, we can understand better why circumcision became obsolete and baptism superseded it. The transition came to pass because Christ’s death-and-resurrection was both a circumcision (Col 2.11) and a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). Whether we say that Christ was circumcised or baptized in His death and resurrection, God’s witness to us is that the death He died He died to sin, and the life He lives He lives to God (Rom 6.10). In that light, it makes sense that the circumcision of Christ made circumcision obsolete as a covenant sign, while the baptism of Christ established baptism as the covenant sign that continued to testify of the realities formerly signified by circumcision.

Meanwhile, however, the differences between the two and the change from the one to the other do nothing to revoke the membership status of children in God’s covenant. How can we be so sure? Because the NT narrates the administration of baptism by the apostles in language that imitates the narration of the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. In particular, the apostolic company is said to have baptized households (Acts 11.14; 16.15, 31-34; 1 Cor 1.2), just as God is said to have baptized the household of Noah in the flood (1 Pet 3.20-22; Gen 7.1) and the households of “our (circumcised!) fathers” in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor 10.1). Strikingly, in the baptism into Moses, the baptized are even said to have been those who “feared the Lord and believed in Him and His servant Moses” (Exod 14.29-31). Paedobaptists might ask, then, shall we dispute that those OT baptisms included both parents and their children? Can we imagine Joshua saying anything other than, “as for me and my house, we were baptized into Moses”? If baptism into Moses was administered thus to our circumcised ancestors, it at least strains credulity to maintain that the apostles administered baptism into Christ differently to those who are the descendants of those baptized into Moses. To press the point still further, paedobaptists might ask, would not the Jews at Corinth (Acts 18.1-8), who were among those addressed in 1 Cor 10.1, have justifiably inferred that just as parents and children were baptized into Moses, so also parents and children were to be baptized into Christ? Consider here especially what Crispus, the ruler of Corinth’s synagogue, and his household (Acts 18.8) would have been thinking. Insofar, then, as we observe the parallel language in the narration of the baptisms of Noah’s household, Israel’s households, and the church’s households, there is warrant sufficient for paedobaptists to urge that the apostles’ practice of baptism into Christ took place on the same principle as did OT baptism and circumcision: “you and your household.” All this to say, then, that we can agree with Johnson that the relationship of circumcision and baptism is one of analogy, but we cannot agree that the analogy makes infant baptism less than clear. To the contrary, the administration of baptism in the NT imitates the administration of circumcision and baptism in the OT. To be sure, other questions and passages remain to be considered.

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15 Comments

  1. Stephen Welch said,

    September 20, 2019 at 4:01 pm

    Hi, Fowler. I hope you are doing well. I appreciate you writing on this topic. I have a couple in my congregation who are “reformed” Baptist, but they have no small children, so that is not an issue. I have discussed this topic with them many times and they would follow the arguments of the men you have mentioned, so this is particularly helpful to me. They are not convinced of household baptisms in Acts, but I am not sure how well they understand the issue. They did mention after my discussion on circumcision that this was a badge of entrance into OT Israel, so there is still some dispensational leanings. I look forward to hearing more in your postings.

  2. roberty bob said,

    September 22, 2019 at 2:51 pm

    Although you have chosen to leave alone the practice of infant covenant children sharing in the communion of the saints at the Lord’s Supper, which is the new covenant Passover meal, your agreement with the analogy (baptism : circumcision as Lord’s Supper: Passover) shouts in support of the practice.

    Baptism is the “union” sacrament.
    The Lord’s Supper is the “communion” sacrament.

    If a person — even an infant — lives in union with Christ, as baptism attests, would you withhold communion with Christ from such person?

    Credobaptists will stick to their guns as long as we Reformed stick to our own inconsistency.

  3. Phil D. said,

    September 22, 2019 at 3:10 pm

    As a credobaptist I for one can assure you my beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with the so-called inconsistency you perceive.

  4. Roy Kerns said,

    September 22, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    exercise left for the reader: after the initial Passover, who was to participate and where? Answering this question will resolve an enormous number of other questions.

  5. Ron said,

    September 23, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    “Credobaptists will stick to their guns as long as we Reformed stick to our own inconsistency.“

    Brother,

    If that were true, then I wouldn’t expect to see the numbers of credos who become paedobaptist (but not paedocommunionists) that we do. Moreover, if what you’re saying is correct, then I think we would see a greater attraction to the allegedly more consistent paedocommunion position, but we don’t. In other words, why do credos who don’t “stick to their guns” stop short of the supposedly more consistent view, if in fact your more “consistent” view is what we need to attract people to infant baptism?

    It’s rather apparent that what attracts the greater number to infant baptism is the traditional Reformed view, not your view. So, totally aside from doctrine, your thesis seems a bit flawed to me.

  6. roberty bob said,

    September 24, 2019 at 8:49 am

    Baptist Practice:
    Get Married to Jesus willingly, knowingly, professing faith in him.
    Partake of marriage supper willingly, knowingly, professing faith.

    Reformed Practice:
    Get Married to Jesus unwillingly, unknowingly, no profession of faith.
    Partake of marriage supper willingly, knowingly, professing faith.

    So, we Reformed marry infants to Jesus who do not yet have the capacity to make a marriage vow, but then we require marriage vows of those same married infants before allowing them to partake of the marriage supper.

    Why do we do this?

  7. rfowlerwhite said,

    September 24, 2019 at 10:36 am

    1 & 6 RB: My very brief comments on Jeff Johnson’s claim of paedobaptist inconsistency were worded very deliberately for a couple of reasons.

    As a participant in the 2003 colloquium on Federal Vision theology, I have a clear memory that we who were (and admittedly still are) critics of the FV affirmed to the FV advocates that we were eager to join them in having children, as early as possible, profess their discernment of the body and the blood and therefore participate in the Table. In other words, we were clear that the Table was not just for discerning adults, but for discerning children too.

    More to the credobaptist’s point about inconsistency, my view is that there is a functional consistency between instructions regarding Passover participation and those regarding Supper participation. As I see it, Moses’ directions, particularly regarding the children’s question in Exod 12.26, require of Israel that all who take part in the Passover meal, be they children or their parents, discern the meaning of the Passover meal lest any of them think it is just another meal. In other words, for children to ask and then learn the meaning of the Passover meal is tantamount to requiring those who would take part in the Supper to discern the meaning of the bread and the cup. The apostle’s concerns in 1 Cor 10.14-22 and 11.17ff. echo the concerns of Moses for Israel (cf. 1 Cor 10.1-13). The behavior of some in the Corinthian congregation at the Table showed that too many were failing to discern the Supper’s meaning and were turning it into just another meal. In fact, their observance was making a farce of the Supper’s proper meaning. It looks to me then that the function and basis of the apostle’s Supper instructions are consistent with the function and basis of Moses’ Passover instructions. The common aim of Moses and Paul was that all who took part in the covenant meal, whether adults or children, would discern its proper meaning. Otherwise, it was just any other meal or worse.

    More could be said, but I’ll leave it there for now.

  8. roberty bob said,

    September 24, 2019 at 11:35 am

    To discern the “body” is to recognize all who are “in Christ” and make sure that all such members are welcome at the Lord’s Table. Right?

    By failing to welcome all such persons, some in the Corinthian church failed to discern the body; it’s not that they didn’t know the meaning of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, but that they abused it in a body-divisive way.

  9. rfowlerwhite said,

    September 24, 2019 at 11:51 am

    8 RB: I don’t disagree with you. I take it from 1 Cor 10.16-17, for example, that the discernment required of us includes discerning our communion in Christ’s body and blood. To do one, we must do the other.

  10. roberty bob said,

    September 24, 2019 at 12:10 pm

    I, too, have noticed that covenant children in the 6-8 age range are now making their public profession of faith. I see this as a healthy corrective to the traditional practice of professing in the 18-21 range. Furthermore, I have observed in American Anglican churches parents carrying their little ones with them to the communion rail — and that these infants are being given the bread and cup.

    As for the Reformed, why is it not necessary to know what union with Christ through baptism means before undergoing this marriage rite? If it is not necessary — and baptism also is grounded in Christ’s ordeal on the cross — then why, if one is married to Christ, must she wait, wait, wait to have supper with him until she comprehends the cross?

  11. rfowlerwhite said,

    September 24, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    1 Stephen Welch: Hey, Stephen. For what it’s worth, I wasn’t convinced of household baptisms in Acts. I was convinced of household baptisms in the OT. With tongue-partly-in-cheek, it looks to me that Moses and Joshua, Paul and Peter, would have known nothing else.

  12. Stephen Welch said,

    September 24, 2019 at 5:10 pm

    Hi, Fowler. Yes, you are correct. It is rooted in the O.T. I came to the paedobaptism position based on Dr. Scott Clark’s argument on households in Acts. It struck me then as it does now that Peter said the promise is to those Jews and their children. That was the turning point for me.

  13. roberty bob said,

    September 27, 2019 at 11:53 am

    In the New Testament one reads several admonitions addressed to those who have been baptized. While the baptized infant does not yet have the capacity to obey, much less understand, apostolic exhortation, he is nonetheless being admonished. As the infant matures, he will gain the capacity to take to heart and apply to life. Meanwhile, the baptized infant is regarded as a having membership in Christ’s covenant family. He participates in the life of that family according to his capacity. The same is true for the mentally impaired.

    If baptism is given to the entire covenant household (sacrament of union with Christ), then isn’t the Lord’s Supper also for the entire household of faith? The mature members who partake are those with the capacity to self-examine, so it is incumbent upon them to do so. The infants and children would be seated at the Table so that they experience from their early days the blessing of having supper with their Lord Jesus. If our Lord God has ordained that infants give Him praise — and they do! — why would you keep them away from His Table?

  14. Ron said,

    October 6, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    “In the New Testament one reads several admonitions addressed to those who have been baptized. While the baptized infant does not yet have the capacity to obey, much less understand, apostolic exhortation, he is nonetheless being admonished.”

    That’s equivalent to saying, adults who don’t understand French, who are admonished in French, are being admonished. In the like manner, of the room is filled with only infants and “admonishment” is pronounced, so what?

    Those who cannot comprehend x can’t be expected to heed x.

  15. roberty bob said,

    October 7, 2019 at 12:04 pm

    All persons who have been baptized into Christ — and that would include baptized infants — are exhorted to count themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

    All persons who would partake of the Lord’s Supper are admonished to examine themselves and rightly discern the body of Christ.

    Infants are incapable of counting themselves dead to sin and alive to God, yet we baptize our covenant infants nonetheless; these same baptized infants are incapable of examining themselves and rightly discerning the body of Christ, so we forbid them to partake of the sacramental communion meal.


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