In the perennial debate between Credobaptists and Paedobaptists over the validity of infant baptism, the book of Acts frequently becomes the battleground over which both sides attempt to display the exegetical superiority of their baptismal stance over the other. Thus, for example, Presbyterian theologian Gregg Strawbridge, in his attempted rebuttal to the pro-Credobaptist book A String of Pearls Unstrung by Baptist theologian (and ex-Presbyterian) Fred Malone, makes heavy use of the book of Acts in his attempts at counteracting the Baptist position.[1] In particular, he places most of the emphasis on four passages: Acts 2:38-41, 15:1-11, 16:31-34 and 18:8.

His commentary on these passages, laced as they are with cross-references to other scripture texts and appeals to the grammar of the Greek, have a superficial semblance of erudition and unassailability. Upon further consideration of the texts in question, however, I have come to the conclusion that none of them prove what Strawbridge aims to prove. Hence, I shall endeavour to exegete each of these same passages, in order to demonstrate that, not only do they not buttress the Paedobaptist position, but actually prove the opposite—that these texts from Acts are best understood in light of a Credobaptist stance.

First Text: Acts 2:38-41

Greek Text (NA28) English Translation (NASB)[2]
Πέτρος δὲ ⸂πρὸς αὐτούς· μετανοήσατε, καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ⸀ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι ⸆ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν ⸄τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν⸅ καὶ λήμψεσθε τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος. ⸀ὑμῖν γάρ ἐστιν ἡ ἐπαγγελία καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις ⸁ὑμῶν καὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς εἰς μακράν, ὅσους ἂν προσκαλέσηται κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν. ἑτέροις τε λόγοις πλείοσιν διεμαρτύρατο καὶ παρεκάλει αὐτοὺς λέγων· σώθητε ἀπὸ τῆς γενεᾶς τῆς σκολιᾶς ταύτης. οἱ μὲν οὖν ⸀ἀποδεξάμενοι τὸν λόγον αὐτοῦ ἐβαπτίσθησαν καὶ προσετέθησαν ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ψυχαὶ ὡσεὶ τρισχίλιαι. Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.

Whenever this passage is brought up in debates over the proper subjects of baptism, it is a curious habit amongst many Paedobaptists to only quote the first half of verse 39, which states “For the promise is for you and your children,” as though that all by itself was sufficient to settle the argument. Even Strawbridge in his rebuttal to Malone quotes only this half-verse, taking it for granted that by having done so, the matter has been settled in favour of Paedobaptism.[3]

The out-of-context misuse of this half-verse has not escaped the attention of Baptist exegetes, however. Reformed Baptist theologian James R. White, in his debate on baptism with Presbyterian minister William Shishko, has pointed out this tendency among Paedobaptists to end their citation of verse 39 with “and your children.”[4] The reason for this becomes clear once one reads the surrounding context of the verse, as several factors in both the preceding and proceeding verses militate against the Paedobaptist interpretation, which will be mentioned in turn.

First is the fact that the entire passage is a summons to repentance by the apostle Peter, after he had just finished declaring the Gospel to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Acts 2:14-36). Peter’s preaching is so compelling that, as verse 37 states, “when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” Peter’s response to the crowd in verse 38 consists of two imperative verbs: “Repent” (μετανοήσατε) and “be baptized” (βαπτισθήτω).

The tense of these two verbs merits closer attention, as they are highly significant for exegeting this verse. First, μετανοήσατε is a second person plural, aorist active imperative verb. The fact that it is in the second person plural means that it is addressed to the crowd as a whole. Peter commands everyone within earshot to repent, indicating that he has in view individuals who are cognitively able to understand a command to repent, and thus respond to it.

Of greater interest, however, is the verb βαπτισθήτω. Here, the author shifts from the second person plural to the third person singular, which indicates that he is now addressing individuals in the crowd, and intends the response of baptism to be individualistic. This individualism is heightened by the addition of the phrase “each of you” (ἕκαστος ὑμῶν) as the subject of βαπτισθήτω. The significance of these grammatical points is explained by New Testament scholar C. K. Barrett, who states, “μετανοήσατε, which, in the plural, is presumably addressed to the whole house of Israel (v. 35), and βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν, which is specifically directed to the individual members of the crowd.”[5]

Of equal interest is that βαπτισθήτω is a passive imperative. This indicates that the subject of the verb is being acted upon, rather than being the agent of the verb. Thus, βαπτισθήτω is what Daniel B. Wallace calls a “causative/permissive passive.” He states that the phrase “βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν” is best understood as meaning either, “each one of you, permit yourselves to be baptized,” or, “each one of you, ask to be baptized.”[6] Köstenberger, Merkle and Plummer, in their Greek syntax book, concur with Wallace, stating: “This verb could be classified as a permissive passive indicating that the command involves allowing someone else to baptize an individual.”[7]

The implication of the tense, voice and mood of βαπτισθήτω is clear: Peter expects the response to his summons to repentance to be by individuals, rather than households, and he also expects those coming forward to be baptized to be capable of requesting (or, at the very least assenting to) baptism.

Having exhausted the exegetical significance of the verbs in verse 38, we may now move on to the oft-cited prooftext: “For the promise is for you and your children….” To understand what Peter is trying to communicate here, we must complete his train of thought by citing the rest of his sentence: “…and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” In considering the proper exegesis of verse 39, we must first ask the question, what is the “promise” that Peter is referring to? The answer is given in the immediately preceding clause in verse 38b: “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is reinforced by the fact that the last time Peter uses the word “promise” is in verse 33: “Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.” This makes the Paedobaptist interpretation of this passage problematic, since none among them would venture to say that every Christian parent’s child has the Holy Spirit, simply by virtue of having Christian parents.[8]

Next, we must note that there are two phrases in Peter’s sentence, the separation for which is indicated by a comma in the English translation. These two phrases are best understood as an apposition, that is, the use of two noun phrases within the same clause to refer to the same person (or, in this case, group of persons).[9] The fact that these two phrases constitute an apposition is significant for considering the identity of the three groups specified in the first noun phrase: 1) “you,” 2) “your children,” and 3) “all who are far off.” Each group is modified by the second phrase: “as many as the Lord our God will call (προσκαλέσηται) to Himself.”

It is worth noting that προσκαλέσηται here is in the subjunctive mood. According to Köstenberger, Merkle and Plummer, the use of the subjunctive indicates that the precise identity of those who are called is, at this point, not yet determined: “Remember that the subjunctive mood does not communicate uncertainty (as if God may or may not call some) but rather indefiniteness (he will call some but we have yet to find out precisely whom).”[10]

Hence, when Peter says “the promise is for you,” he means those among his listeners who are called by God. The same holds true for “all who are far off,” which is a common Biblical way of referring to Gentiles (Cf. Isaiah 57:19, Acts 22:21, Ephesians 2:13, 17). Peter, of course, does not have all Gentiles in view, but only those who are called by God. Thus far, the use of the second phrase in the apposition to qualify the first and third groups in the first phrase is uncontroversial to both Credobaptists and Paedobaptists. Yet, matters become more complicated for Paedobaptists once we apply the same logic to the second group in the phrase, which is “your children.” If we allow this second group to be modified by the second phrase in the apposition, then it is clear that Peter is not referring to all believers’ children, but only those among their children who are called by God. Hence, verse 39 cannot be used as a blanket statement allowing for the baptism of believers’ children.

Finally, let us consider verse 41: “those who had received his word were baptized.” This verse wraps up everything that we have discussed so far about what Acts 2 teaches about the subjects of baptism. Clearly, baptism is administered not to every individual who heard Peter preach, but only among those among them who “had received his word” (ἀποδεξάμενοι),[11] and thus became his disciples. Verses 42-47 describe how these newly-minted disciples expressed their faith by becoming active members of the Church, having fellowship together, breaking bread, praying, sharing their possessions, and praising God—all of which are activities that presuppose a living, active faith among the baptized.

In light of all that has been said, it is clear that Acts 2:38-41, far from proving the practice of Paedobaptism, is thoroughly Credobaptist in orientation, stressing the necessity of responding in faith to the Gospel message as a prerequisite for baptism.

Second Text: Acts 16:31-34

Greek Text (NA28) English Translation (NASB)
Oἱ δὲ εἶπαν⸆· πίστευσον ἐπὶ τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν ⸇ καὶ σωθήσῃ σὺ καὶ ὁ οἶκός σου. καὶ ἐλάλησαν ⸀αὐτῷ τὸν λόγον τοῦ ⸁κυρίου ⸋σὺν πᾶσιν τοῖς ἐν τῇ οἰκίᾳ αὐτοῦ⸌. ⸂καὶ παραλαβὼν αὐτοὺς ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ τῆς νυκτὸς ἔλουσεν⸃ ἀπὸ τῶν πληγῶν, καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη αὐτὸς καὶ ⸄οἱ αὐτοῦ πάντες⸅°παραχρῆμα, ⸂ἀναγαγών τε⸃ αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸν οἶκον ⸀παρέθηκεν τράπεζαν καὶ ⸄ἠγαλλιάσατο πανοικεὶ πεπιστευκὼς τῷ θεῷ⸅. They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

That this passage is mentioned at all in arguments for Paedobaptism is astounding, since baptism is only mentioned in passing, and almost as an afterthought. Yet, because verse 33 states that the Philippian jailer’s entire household was baptized, this text has become the centrepiece for the argument that baptism is to be administered not only to individuals, but to entire households, including infants. Here, Strawbridge makes much of the fact that the verb “believe” (πίστευσον) is a second person singular imperative verb, which indicates that only the jailer’s faith is in view, and that the benefits of the jailer’s faith also extend to his household (ὁ οἶκός σου). Strawbridge thus concludes: “The construction here is apparently more supportive of the covenantal-household solidarity position, at least on the surface of the text.”[12]

There are two major problems with the how Strawbridge interprets verse 31. First, he misconstrues the function of singular verbs. The fact that it is singular rather than plural does not preclude its being addressed to entire groups of people. Thus, for example, in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:1-17), all the pronominal suffixes and verbs expressing God’s commands and prohibitions to the children of Israel are expressed, both in the Hebrew original and in the Greek Septuagint (LXX), in the second person singular. Obviously, this does not mean that the Decalogue is only addressed to a single individual, but rather that every person who hears the Decalogue bears an individual responsibility to obey the commandments.[13] In a similar vein, Paul’s use of the second person singular does not mean that he is addressing the jailer alone, but that he expects an individual response from each member of the jailer’s household to his call to believe.

The second problem with Strawbridge’s handling of verse 31 is that it ignores the salvific element of the call to faith. Immediately after “believe,” Paul immediately states, “and you will be saved” (καὶ σωθήσῃ). Strawbridge wants to connect faith with eligibility for baptism, but if there is any benefit at all connected to faith here, it is not eligibility for baptism, but salvation. The connection between πίστευσον and σωθήσῃ is further strengthened by the fact that both are in the second person singular. Given that Paul immediately follows up these two verbs with “you and your household,” Strawbridge’s argument clearly proves too much, for if the jailer’s faith is sufficient to render everyone in his household eligible for salvation, then it is likewise sufficient to save everyone in his household. Yet no Paedobaptist would venture to say that anybody is saved simply because the head of their household is a believer. If one wouldn’t dare apply such reasoning to salvation, then it is equally incongruent to apply it to baptism.

Strawbridge’s comments on verse 34 fare no better. Here, he repeats his grammatical error by misconstruing the fact that “rejoiced greatly” (ἠγαλλιάσατο) and “having believed” (πεπιστευκὼς) are both in the singular. He argues:

[H]ad Luke wished to emphasize that every individual member of the household believed, he could have used the plural of the very same word/participle [sic], just as he did in Acts 15:5, “But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed (pepisteukotes, plural).” The nuance of Luke is very apparent, then, just as it is in 16:31, the Jailer does the action, the household is brought along in an accompanying action. Certainly is false to say that Luke’s emphasis was not that each member of the household believed; again this is parallel to 16:31. Luke is saying he (the Jailer) “rejoices greatly” and he (the Jailer) “had believed” (perfect tense).[14]

As I pointed out already, however, it does not follow from the fact that a verb is singular that only one actor is in view. After all, context weighs just as much as the tense of the verbs in determining their subjects. A good example of this is in 1 Samuel 1:21, which states: “Then the man Elkanah went up with all his household to offer to the LORD the yearly sacrifice and pay his vow.” Here, the verb “went up” (יַּ֛עַל) is in the third person singular,[15] yet it is clear from the context that despite its being singular, more than one actor is in view here, since the verb is modified by the adverbial clause “with all his household” (וְכָל־בֵּית֑וֹ).[16]

In fact, if we were to stretch Strawbridge’s reasoning to its very limits, we would have to also conclude that only the jailer was baptized, since the verb ἐβαπτίσθη in verse 33 is also a singular verb. Thus, the very grammatical argument that he attempts to deploy in support of Paedobaptism is turned on its head, and undermines the very point he is trying to make from this passage.

“But,” says the Paedobaptist, “the verb ἐβαπτίσθη is modified by the phrase ‘he and all his household’ (αὐτὸς καὶ ⸄οἱ αὐτοῦ πάντες). So we know from the context of the rest of the verse that the singular form in and of itself does not limit the proper subjects of baptism.” This is certainly true, and we are glad that Paedobaptist exegetes recognize this fact. However, it perplexes Credobaptists why this exegetical principle, though uncontroversial when employed in verse 33, is not allowed when we insist on it for the very next verse. After all, we find “with his whole household” (πανοικεὶ) therein, which indicates that the subjects of the actions therein are the entire household.

In response to this argument, Strawbridge attempts to separate πανοικεὶ from “having believed,” stating that the adverb only modifies the indicative verb “rejoiced:”

Since it is placed after “rejoiced” (eggaliasato) and before “having [had] believed” (pepisteukos)– it most likely modifies the action of the verb which is first in the order of possible modifiers. Morever [sic], since egalliasato is the action verb and pepisteukos is a particle [sic] (perfect tense at that), it seems even more unlikely that the adverb would modify the particle [sic].[17]

The problem with this argument is that it atomizes the verse too much, creating separations that Greek grammar does not allow for. It is true that, as an adverb, πανοικεὶ primarily modifies the finite verb in the phrase, which is ἠγαλλιάσατο. However, it does not follow that it does not also modify subsequent verbs in the same phrase. It is noteworthy that πεπιστευκὼς is actually an adverbial participle that modifies ἠγαλλιάσατο. To be more specific, πεπιστευκὼς is a “causal participle,” which “indicates the cause or reason or ground of the action of the finite verb.”[18] If belief is the cause behind the jailer and his household’s rejoicing greatly, then it seems highly incongruent for the household to be rejoicing if they have not believed themselves. This means that “[he] rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household” forms a single unified sentence unit, with the main verb “rejoiced greatly” being modified by the two adverbial clauses “having believed in God” and “with his whole household.” Here, the vast majority of English translations, from the King James Version onwards, translate this phrase in such a way that “with his whole household” is understood to modify both “rejoiced greatly” and “having believed in God.”[19]

To put it in simpler terms, let us have the following sample sentence: “Jami ran with Luis because there was a race.” Here you have the main verb “ran,” which is modified by the two adverbial clauses “with Luis” and “because there was a race.” If we take each adverbial clause separately, we understand the sentence to mean that 1) Jami ran with Luis, and 2) Jami ran because there was a race. However, this does not preclude the second adverbial clause also modifying the first, for if Luis is running with Jami, then it makes sense to say that Luis is also running because there was a race.

Before we leave this passage, however, one last question must be taken into consideration, and that is this: If the conversion of the head of the household suffices for the baptism of infants in that household, then what about his wife, or his adult children, or his servants? After all, these are members of his household as well, and if the Paedobaptist argument holds, then these should also be considered eligible for baptism, irrespective of whether or not they have faith. The Paedobaptist response to this is mixed, though the majority of them are of the opinion that personal faith is still required of these household members before they get baptized.[20] Thus Presbyterian theologian John V. Fesko states:

But while the unbelieving spouse might be sanctified, this does not automatically entitle the person to the sign of the covenant, because as an adult, he or she must make a profession of faith, as would be the case for slaves within a household. This is evident in that Paul instructs the believing spouse to remain married to the unbelieving spouse if he or she is willing to do so (1 Cor. 7:12–13). Peter gives similar instructions to Christian wives whose husbands do not obey the Word of God (1 Peter 3:1–2). Baptism cannot be coerced on one who refuses to believe.[21]

A little further down, he continues: “Paul, for example, addresses the question of what a believer should do if he or she is married to an unbeliever (1 Cor. 7:12–16). There is no indication that the unbelieving spouse should be baptized.”[22] Finally, he states frankly that this requirement of personal faith prior to baptism, though it applies to household members who are of age, does not apply to children: “Paedobaptist theologians… argue that unbelieving spouses and slaves would not be baptized, but that children are the legitimate recipients of baptism.”[23]

Here, the special pleading inherent in the Paedobaptist position becomes evident. The necessity of personal faith prior to baptism is recognized for all members of the household, be they husband, wife, manservant maidservant, or adult offspring. Yet strangely, this recognition is either lost or ignored when infants are in view. Somehow, the fact that they are not of age means that they are exempt from the requirements that are expected of everyone else prior to being baptized. But where in scripture does one find such an exemption? Would it not make more sense to catechize such young children so that, when they are of age, they may take that step of faith for themselves? This way, when their parents are asked if they would like to see their children follow Christ through the waters of baptism, they may, like the parents of the man born blind, reply: “He is of age; ask him” (John 9:23).

In conclusion, Acts 16:31-34 does not support the contention that the conversion of the head of the household suffices for the baptism of the entire household. Instead, it teaches the exact opposite: That every member of the household had come to faith in Jesus individually in order to be baptized and saved. This passage, like the previous one, clearly teaches that baptism is for professing disciples alone.

Third Text: Acts 18:8

Greek Text (NA28) English Translation (NASB)
Κρίσπος δὲ ὁ ἀρχισυνάγωγος ἐπίστευσεν ⸂τῷ κυρίῳ⸃ σὺν ὅλῳ τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτοῦ, καὶ πολλοὶ τῶν Κορινθίων ⸀ἀκούοντες ἐπίστευον ⸆ καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο⸇. Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.

This baptismal passage is much briefer than the others, and does not lend itself to detailed exegetical study. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy because the conversion and baptism of Crispus is mentioned again by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:14. As well, Strawbridge includes it among the passages from Acts that he uses to argue in favour of Paedobaptism. He writes:

Again the text does not say, Crispus’ and (kai) his household believed (plural verb)–something Luke surely would have said if he was seeking to correct the household-covenantal solidarity concept in his First Century readers. Instead, “believed” is episteusen, an indicative, aorist, active, 3rd person, singular. The way the household is brought in is with the preposition “sun” used with datives of “holos” (all) “ho oikos” (the household) (su.n o[lw| tw/| oi;kw| auvtou/().[24]

Without going into too much detail here, Strawbridge’s argument based on this verse falls into the exact same pitfalls as his arguments based on Acts 16:31-34. He again makes more of the singular form of the verbs than the grammar allows. The fact that the household is being connected to Crispus in his act of believing (σὺν ὅλῳ τῷ οἴκῳ αὐτοῦ) is downplayed as having no real significance.

However, once one dispenses with the erroneous grammatical argument and read the verse on its own terms, it is clear that baptism and faith are regarded as inseparable. As well, the household does not merely passively benefit from Crispus’ act of faith, but is clearly coming to faith as well. Nobody who doesn’t approach the text assuming a priori that Paedobaptism is true would come to any other conclusion than that the passage is teaching that Crispus and all his household believed and was baptized.

Making this connection explicit is the next sentence phrase, which says that the Corinthians who heard the Gospel “were believing and being baptized” (ἐπίστευον καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο). The inseparability of the two verbs is reinforced by the fact that both are in the third person plural imperfect indicative. The only difference is that ἐπίστευον is in the active mood, whereas ἐβαπτίζοντο is in the passive mood, which is best explained by it being a causative/permissive passive (which was explained earlier in our discussion of Acts 2:38)—a fact that even further buttresses the contention that those in view are of age enough to assent to baptism. Thus, Acts 18:8 provides a clear cut argument for a Credobaptist position.

Fourth Text: Acts 15:1-11

Greek Text (NA28) English Translation (NASB)
Καί τινες κατελθόντες ἀπὸ τῆς Ἰουδαίας ⸆ ἐδίδασκον τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς ὅτι, ἐὰν μὴ περιτμηθῆτε ⸂τῷ ἔθει τῷ Μωϋσέως⸃, οὐ δύνασθε σωθῆναι. γενομένης ⸀δὲ στάσεως ⸋καὶ ζητήσεως⸌ οὐκ ὀλίγης τῷ Παύλῳ καὶ ⸂τῷ Βαρναβᾷ πρὸς αὐτούς⸃, ⸄ἔταξαν ἀναβαίνειν Παῦλον καὶ Βαρναβᾶν καί τινας ἄλλους ἐξ αὐτῶν⸅ πρὸς τοὺς ἀποστόλους καὶ πρεσβυτέρους εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ ⸆ περὶ τοῦ ζητήματος τούτου. Οἱ μὲν οὖν προπεμφθέντες ὑπὸ τῆς ἐκκλησίας διήρχοντο τήν °τε Φοινίκην καὶ Σαμάρειαν ἐκδιηγούμενοι τὴν ἐπιστροφὴν τῶν ἐθνῶν καὶ ἐποίουν χαρὰν μεγάλην πᾶσιν τοῖς ἀδελφοῖς. παραγενόμενοι δὲ εἰς ⸀Ἰερουσαλὴμ ⸁παρεδέχθησαν ⸀1ἀπὸ τῆς ἐκκλησίας καὶ τῶν ἀποστόλων καὶ τῶν πρεσβυτέρων, ἀνήγγειλάν τε ὅσα ⸉ὁ θεὸς ἐποίησεν⸊ μετʼ αὐτῶν. ⸂Ἐξανέστησαν δέ τινες τῶν⸃ ἀπὸ τῆς αἱρέσεως τῶν Φαρισαίων πεπιστευκότες °λέγοντες ὅτι δεῖ περιτέμνειν αὐτοὺς παραγγέλλειν τε τηρεῖν τὸν νόμον Μωϋσέως.

Συνήχθησάν ⸀τε οἱ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ⸆ ἰδεῖν περὶ τοῦ ⸁λόγου τούτου. Πολλῆς δὲ ζητήσεως γενομένης ⸆ ⸂ἀναστὰς Πέτρος⸃ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς· ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί, ὑμεῖς ἐπίστασθε ὅτι ἀφʼ ἡμερῶν ἀρχαίων ⸄ἐν ὑμῖν ἐξελέξατο ὁ θεὸς⸅ διὰ τοῦ στόματός μου ἀκοῦσαι τὰ ἔθνη τὸν λόγον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου καὶ πιστεῦσαι. καὶ ὁ καρδιογνώστης θεὸς ἐμαρτύρησεν αὐτοῖς δοὺς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον καθὼς καὶ ἡμῖν καὶ ⸀οὐθὲν ⸁διέκρινεν μεταξὺ ἡμῶν τε καὶ αὐτῶν τῇ πίστει καθαρίσας τὰς καρδίας αὐτῶν. νῦν οὖν τί πειράζετε τὸν θεὸν ἐπιθεῖναι ζυγὸν ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον τῶν μαθητῶν ὃν οὔτε οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν οὔτε ἡμεῖς ἰσχύσαμεν βαστάσαι; ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ πιστεύομεν σωθῆναι καθʼ ὃν τρόπον κἀκεῖνοι. 

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had 1great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue. Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren. When they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed stood up, saying, It is necessary to circumcise them and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses.”

The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that 1in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”

Those unacquainted with the finer details of covenant theology as it relates to baptism may wonder why this passage is included in our discussion of baptism in the book of Acts. After all, baptism isn’t even mentioned in it. Nevertheless, Strawbridge spends more time on Acts 15 than any other passage in his attempts to argue for Paedobaptism. For this reason, I have saved it for last, and will now endeavour to interact with Strawbridge’s arguments.

First, it is worth repeating an argument that Dr. Malone makes in favour of Credobaptism, which Strawbridge quotes before attempting to rebut it. On pg. 47 of A String of Pearl of Pearls Unstrung, Malone states:

If baptism is the direct counterpart of circumcision, then why did the council [Acts 15] not simply say, “You and your children have been circumcised in the baptism of Christ and need not physical circumcision”? Here the argument of silence speaks against baptism as the direct counterpart of circumcision and in favor of salvation by grace or regeneration as its direct counterpart and abrogation (15:11).[25]

Strawbridge feels the force of the argument, for he admits that it is convincing to many. Nevertheless, he disagrees with it on the grounds that it does not take into consideration what he calls “the hermenuetical [sic] horizon of the first hearers.”[26] To put it simply, the Jewish Christians understood the covenant to be inclusive of children, which was why the covenant sign of circumcision was applied to Jewish males. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that these Jewish Christians, by virtue of their background, would have assumed covenantal continuity, and would have naturally understood the New Covenant sign (baptism) to be applicable to infants as well.

This is all well and good, and it is certainly true that we should take the Jewish background of the New Testament into consideration when we exegete it. However, we should not take this hermeneutical principle too far. Second Temple Judaism is a complicated phenomenon that requires careful study. In particular, we ought to remember that Judaism is not a monolith. They comprised many different sects—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.—and it is often-times overly-simplistic to refer to a certain idea as the Jewish viewpoint on the matter, when Jewish opinions oftentimes run in different, sometimes completely opposite directions.[27]

Besides, even if the Hebraically-minded disciples of Jesus thought a certain way about a given theological topic, it doesn’t follow that they were correct in their thinking, for we often see their Master correcting their erroneous ideas. For example, the disciples had a politicized and militaristic view of the Messiah which prevented them from seeing the priestly and redemptive aspects of his mission, and when Peter gave voice to this misconception, Jesus immediately rebuked him as Satan and chastised him for his humanistic manner of thinking (Cf. Matthew 16:21-23). Likewise, we are told in Acts 1:6-8 that the disciples had a conception of the Kingdom of God which was worldly and nationalistic, for they ask him, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, exposes the folly of the disciples in these words:

He showeth that the apostles were gathered together when as this question was moved, that we may know that it came not of the foolishness of one or two that it was moved, but it was moved by the common consent of them all; but marvellous is their rudeness, that when as they had been diligently instructed by the space of three whole years, they betray no less ignorance than if they had heard never a word. There are as many errors in this question as words. They ask him as concerning a kingdom; but they dream of an earthly kingdom, which should flow with riches, with dainties, with external peace, and with such like good things; and while they assign the present time to the restoring of the same, they desire to triumph before the battle; for before such time as they begin to work they will have their wages. They are also greatly deceived herein, in that they restrain Christ’s kingdom unto the carnal Israel, which was to be spread abroad, even unto the uttermost parts of the world…. Lastly, It was a saying common in every man’s mouth, that, in the most miserable captivity of the people, they should all be comforted, with the expectation of the kingdom that should be. Now, they hoped for the restoring hereof at the coming of the Messias, and hereupon was it that so soon as the apostles saw their Master Christ risen from the dead, they straightway began to think thereupon; but, in the meantime, they declared thereby how bad scholars they were under so good a Master. Therefore doth Christ briefly comprehend in this short answer all the errors whereinto they fell in this their question….[28]

Therefore, we should not assume that the New Covenant community, in its theologically mature state, simply lifted its ideas about the nature of God, of the Messiah and of the covenants out of Judaism. Rather, it took whatever was good in Judaism, grounded as it was in a common grace-endowed meditation upon the Hebrew Bible, and modified it accordingly in light of the new revelations they were receiving from the promised Holy Spirit, which Jesus said would lead them into all truth (Cf. John 14:26, 16:13).

Furthermore, as far as the relationship between baptism and circumcision is concerned, while it is true that both are covenant signs, that one similarity should not lead us to ignore the differences between them, as though there were no differences in terms of mode, symbolism or recipients. In point of fact, when the New Testament does connect baptism to circumcision, it is not to physical circumcision that baptism is connected to, but to circumcision of the heart (Cf. Deuteronomy 30:6). Consider the following statement by Paul, for example:

And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also braised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions (Colossians 2:11-13).

If, as Paul argues, baptism is connected with circumcision of the heart (i.e. regeneration), then we have solid theological grounds for the practice of Credobaptism, since it is clear that baptism is only to be administered to those who display saving faith as evidence of regeneration.

Finally, it is true that we should assume that there is continuity between the Old and New Covenants unless there is a reason within the text for us to think otherwise. That being said, however, the principle of continuity should not be used to flatten real distinctions between the covenants. After all, the New Covenant is clearly a better covenant. Hebrews 8:7-8 refers to it as “faultless” (ἄμεμπτος), which it clearly states to not be the case with the Old Covenant, since God is said to “find fault” (μεμφόμενος) with it.[29] It is also called an “eternal covenant” (διαθήκης αἰωνίου) in Hebrews 13:20, which is a clear contrast with the breakable nature of the Old Covenant (Cf. Jeremiah 31:31). Finally, Jeremiah 31:31-34 tells us that the key difference between the Old Covenant and the New is that, unlike the Old, the New shall not be a mixed covenant, but will be comprised entirely of those who know the Lord and have their sins forgiven:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “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.”

The implications of this passage are so strong that many Paedobaptists that I have discussed this passage with have conceded that it seems prima facie to preclude the idea of a mixed covenant community. How most of them have attempted to get around this passage is by saying that while the New Covenant has already been inaugurated, it has not yet been fully consummated. Hence, Jeremiah describes a future consummation of the New Covenant where only regenerate members will remain within it. Until then, the New Covenant, like the Old, remains a mixed covenant, with believers and unbelievers in it.[30]

The already/not yet distinction undoubtedly has merit as a hermeneutical principle, and all Reformed exegetes, Credobaptist or Paedobaptist, accept its validity as applied to the Kingdom of God, and to the fulfillment of eschatological promises contained in the Scriptures. However, the limits of how far to apply this principle are a matter of dispute.[31] In particular, we may question whether this distinction is a valid one to make in interpreting Jeremiah 31:31-34. Paedobaptists may say that this principle applies to that passage, but such must be demonstrated, not merely assumed.[32]

For this, we must let scripture interpret scripture, and it is instructive for us to consider that this passage is cited verbatim in Hebrews 8:7-13. Interestingly, in verse 8, the Greek verb συντελέω is used to render the Hebrew verb “make” (כָּרַת) in Jeremiah 31:31. The Dictionary of Biblical Languages (DBL) states that this verb means “complete, finish.”[33] Louw and Nida state that this verb has the sense of “to cause to exist by virtue of its having been finally accomplished.”[34] Hence, the author of Hebrews has in view here a covenant that is not only to be inaugurated, but also fully consummated.

Then, in verse 13 the author states, “When He said, ‘A new covenant,’ He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear.” By using the perfect tense for “made obsolete” (πεπαλαίωκεν), he indicates that the inauguration of the New Covenant has already taken place, and its completion can be felt at the time of the author’s writing vis-à-vis the passing away of the Old Covenant.[35] The author further teaches that the consummation of the New Covenant takes place, not at the eschaton, but with the passing away of the Old Covenant. Since the Old Covenant had already passed away with the destruction of the old Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70, we may safely say that this consummation has already taken place.[36]

All these considerations, taken together, militate against Strawbridge’s simplistic appeal to “the hermenuetical [sic] horizon of the first hearers” in his attempt to interpret Acts 15 in support of Paedobaptism. Nobody in the Jerusalem council connected the dots the way Strawbridge did, and to say otherwise is to go way beyond the Scriptural data and into the realm of speculative theology.

Conclusion

Having considered the four major prooftexts from Acts that are used by Dr. Strawbridge in his arguments against Dr. Malone, we may safely conclude that, for all his sophisticated and clever reasoning, Strawbridge misses the mark in trying to interpret the prooftexts that he uses. The arguments he produces he puts forward in defense of Paedobaptism fall apart because they rely upon selective citation of texts, special pleading in the application of grammatical rules, and an improper appeal to mutually agreed upon hermeneutical principles. In fact, as I have demonstrated in this essay, not only do the texts he cites not vindicate the Paedobaptist position, but a thorough consideration of their grammatical and historical contexts furnishes abundant evidence for Credobaptism.

Endnotes

[1] Gregg Strawbridge, “A More Detailed Response: A String of Pearls Unstrung: A Theological Journey Into Believers’ Baptism, by Fred A. Malone,” Wordmp3.com, http://www.wordmp3.com/files/gs/malonemore.htm. While I will make mention of other Paedobaptist theologians besides Dr. Strawbridge, I shall use his article as my primary example of an apologetic for Paedobaptism, primarily because, since it is online, readers may check his arguments for themselves and compare them against what I have stated herein.

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).

[3] Strawbridge, “A More Detailed Response.”

[4] “Anti-Baptists and Citing Only Half of Acts 2:39,” YouTube, https://youtu.be/Wl1yEM9bEsU.

[5] C. K. Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1, ICC (Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1994), 153–154, emphasis mine.

[6] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 441 n. 110.

[7] Andreas J. Köstenberger, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament (B&H Publishing, 2016), Kindle Location 7451.

[8] Some Reformed Paedobaptists attempt to get around this difficulty by positing the doctrine of “Presumptive Regeneration,” which states that the children of Christian parents ought to be regarded as regenerate by default, until they prove otherwise by unbelief. This doctrine has proved controversial among Reformed theologians, as not all of them accept it, and for good reason: Nowhere in scripture are we told that we are to regard the children of Christian parents as regenerate by default. The doctrine of “Presumptive Regeneration” is therefore nothing more than an ad hoc explanation for a practice that must be made, like the proverbial Procrustean bed, to fit the scriptural data which testifies to the necessity of saving faith as a prerequisite for baptism.

[9] “Apposition,” Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/about-words-clauses-and-sentences/apposition.

[10] Köstenberger, Merkle and Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, Kindle Location 7475.

[11] The definition of this participle, according to Louw and Nida’s lexicon, is, “to come to believe something to be true and to respond accordingly, with some emphasis upon the source—‘to accept, to receive, acceptance, reception,’” which heightens the Credobaptist implications of this verse. (Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 371.).

[12] Strawbridge, “A More Detailed Response.”

[13] Thus explains the translation note in the New English Translation (NET) for Exodus 20:2. Commenting on the verb “brought you” (הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ), it states: “The suffix on the verb is second masculine singular. It is this person that will be used throughout the commandments for the whole nation. God addresses them all as his people, but he addresses them individually for their obedience.” (“Exodus 20,” Lumina, https://lumina.bible.org/bible/Exodus+20, n. 5.)

[14] Strawbridge, “A More Detailed Response.”

[15] Someone may object to the use of this verse as a parallel on the grounds that it is in Hebrew, rather than Greek. It suffices to respond that the Greek LXX also uses the third person singular verb (ἀνέβη).

[16] The connection becomes even stronger if we quote this clause in the LXX, which reads: “καὶ πᾶς ὁ οἶκος αὐτοῦ.” This creates a direct verbal parallel with the references to the jailer’s οἶκός in Acts 16:31-34.

[17] Strawbridge, “A More Detailed Response.”

[18] Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 631.

[19] There are a few exceptions to this rule. For example, the RSV and its successor translations, the NRSV and the ESV, all translate this passage in such a way that πανοικεὶ modifies the finite verb only. Thus, the ESV translates it: “And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” However, this is a minority reading as far as English translations go, and in any case, the exegetical arguments just provided militate against translating the passage as such.

[20] I personally know of a small minority of Reformed Presbyterians who believe that you should, in fact, baptize unbelieving spouses, servants and adult children. Not only does this raise the spectre of coerced baptisms, but also produces all sorts of pastoral quandaries, such as whether a manifest unbeliever can be considered a member of the church, how church discipline would apply to such a member, and what functions within the church such a member could partake of. And all of this, of course, to say nothing of the fact that nowhere in the New Testament does one find any instances of a manifest unbeliever being baptized without first being called to repent and believe.

[21] John V. Fesko, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), Kindle location 7904.

[22] Ibid., Kindle location 7931.

[23] Ibid., Kindle location 7939. Some Paedobaptists have attempted to vindicate this distinction by pointing out that infants, unlike unbelieving adult members of the household, are to be considered obedient disciples. There are two problems with this statement: 1) this response assumes the unbiblical notion of “Presumptive Regeneration” (see footnote #8), and 2) why is obedience a prerequisite for being a valid recipient for baptism? Isn’t merely being a covenant household member a sufficient condition? This line of reasoning appears to be a borrowed element from the Baptist stance on the proper subjects of baptism.

[24] Strawbridge, “A More Detailed Response.”

[25] Cited in Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] To use just one example, my M.T.S. thesis is on the topic of High Christology in Second Temple Jewish literature. Most non-specialists in Jewish history are unaware that there is a High Christology in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, yet, as I demonstrate in my thesis, such an idea can, in fact, be found in the writings of Philo, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. I mention this fact to demonstrate that sometimes, Jewish opinions on theological issues may run in a different direction than what is expected—something that ought to be kept in mind when examining the question of how Jewish Christians would have regarded the New Covenant.

[28] John Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 43–44.

[29] The NET commentary on this word is instructive at this point: “The ‘fault’ or limitation in the first covenant was not in its inherent righteousness, but in its design from God himself. It was never intended to be his final revelation or provision for mankind; it was provisional, always pointing toward the fulfillment to come in Christ.” (“Hebrews 8,” Lumina, https://lumina.bible.org/bible/Hebrews+8, n. 15.)

[30] In support of this, Paedobaptists will point out that verse 34 teaches that nobody in the New Covenant will teach his neighbour to know the Lord, arguing that this cannot apply to the present age because we still need to teach people within the Church to know the Lord. However, this argument confuses who the “neighbour” in view is. In the context of Jeremiah 31, it is clearly a reference to fellow covenant members, which is not the same thing as all members of visible local churches. Furthermore, the argument assumes that all visible church members are within the New Covenant, which is precisely the point in dispute. Finally, Paedobaptists would never apply this logic to the preceding clause about putting the law in their hearts, nor to the proceeding one about God forgiving his people’s sins, since those are undoubtedly present realities, as is acknowledged by both camps. Therefore, this particular Paedobaptist argument is nothing more than a combination of begging the question and special pleading.

[31] Hence the eschatological differences between Amillennialists, Premillennialists, and Postmillennialists.

[32] For a valiant attempt at justifying the Paedobaptist interpretation of  Jeremiah 31:31-34, see Richard L. Pratt, “Jeremiah 31: Infant Baptism in the New Covenant,” Third Millennium Ministries, http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/ric_pratt/TH.Pratt.New.Covenant.Baptism.pdf. For a refutation of Pratt’s arguments, see Fred Malone’s sermon, “The Hermeneutics of Baptist Covenant Theology,” Sermon Audio, https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=11160516169.

[33] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), #5334.

[34] Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 158, emphasis mine.

[35] This is reinforced by the author’s use of the phrase “In speaking of a new covenant” (ESV). The phrase in Greek is “ἐν τῷ λέγειν.” According to Köstenberger, Merkle and Plummer, this is best understood as an “Infinitive of Means,” that is to say, God’s act of calling the “New Covenant” such ipso facto renders the previous covenant obsolete. See Köstenberger, Merkle and Plummer, Going Deeper with New Testament Greek, Kindle Locations 9657- 9673, esp. n. 830.

[36] For further information on Jeremiah 31, Hebrews 8, and their relationship to the New Covenant, there are two sermons that I would highly recommend for further study. The first sermon is Fred Malone, “The Hermeneutics of Baptist Covenant Theology,” (see footnote #32). The second sermon is Jeffrey D. Johnson, “Hebrews 8 and the New Covenant,” Sermon Audio, https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=928151253402.

Advertisements