Sociology and the New Covenant – 1

or The Fiction of Prelapsarian Babies

“A paedobaptistic sociology is a misrepresentation of the Gospel. It conflates the cutting of Adam with the crushing of the serpent.”

The most biblical, thoughtful and consistent paedobaptists (the Federal Vision), believe that the failure of America’s baptistic culture can be remedied through a biblical application of paedobaptism. The answer to modern individualism is a coherent Christian sociology. I agree with that. What I disagree with is their insistence on a Covenant sociology that was made redundant at Pentecost.

Peter Leithart insists that the raising of our children is not to be a raising to be a Christian but a raising as a Christian.

Infant baptism … implies that instilling of Christ-like character runs along the track established in creation, for the Christian training of the child, of a Christian child, begins immediately upon his birth. God does not form a Christlike character by laying a second set of tracks but by restoring and transforming the “natural” tracks. From the beginning, consistent paedobaptists treat their children as Christians so that the social and cultural nurture of the child is simultaneously his or her nurture in Christian character and faith. This simultaneity recovers the condition of the original creation. If Adam had never sinned, he would have raised his children through instruction and certain forms of discipline (schedules, gradual introduction of responsibility, etc.), and the result of this nurture would have been mature godly character. The created means of nurture would have been simultaneously nurture and admonition in the Lord, so that coming to physical and psycho-social maturity would have been indistinguishable from coming to “religious” maturity. Sin is responsible for the gap that now exists. Because of the sins of parents and the original and actual sins of their children, it is possible for an infant to come to physical and a kind of psycho-social maturity without also growing in godliness. Paedobaptism implies that the gospel’s solution to this gap is not to lay an entirely new set of tracks but to close the gap by redeeming the original created means from sin. [1]

The idea that the Gospel transforms more than a person’s “heart” but changes an entire culture is exactly the medicine we need. The problem with this paedobaptistic theory is that it simply takes the old creation, dusts it off, and packages it as new. The entire point of the Gospel is that it not only puts the old creation to death, it also calls it back out of the grave. This means that although we must be preaching the Gospel to our children, the act of conflating “nature” with “supernature” before the last day is only going to bring confusion. It must assume that, somehow, a “Christian child” already possesses a new nature, either from birth or in baptism, and some of the materials I have read from Federal Vision authors basically assert that their children are prelapsarian — until they lapse, that is. This teaching runs against the grain of the entire body of Scripture.

What exactly was the condition of the original creation? The pattern of maturity is physical (Adam is), social (Adam knows), and ethical (Adam does). This is Genesis 1, Genesis 2 and Genesis 3. Adam was made in God’s image “physically,” divided to image God “socially,” and called to image (represent) God “ethically.” [2]

What this means is that God’s pattern of nurture and maturity in the prelapsarian world was never “in parallel” as Dr. Leithart asserts. It was always “in series.” The cutting of Adam’s side was a “social cutting.” The investiture of Adam with clothing was not a sociological clothing but an ethical one. His robe was to be a sign of ethical maturity, not a sociological badge. His bloody skins were a sign that his ethical failure had been covered. Thus, even before the Fall, there was “nature” (physical/social) and “supernature” (ethical/Spirit). They were a united process, but a trinitarian one. To conflate the preaching of the Gospel to a child with that child’s repentance and rebirth is to leave the Spirit out of the Trinity. The Father knows of the Son and the Son knows of the Father, but their unity in the Spirit is cut asunder. They are not “of one mind.”

Until the call of Abraham, there was no “sign” of any kind applied to infants. Humanity, in the big picture, was a single body. Noah’s children were not set apart from those of unbelievers by a “Covenant sign.” They were set apart socially, certainly, and ethically (Noah’s sons married godly “daughters,” unlike the other sons of Seth). But no physical sign was required. The first “Covenant sign” was a symbol of death, a cutting of flesh that would eventually move humanity, in the big picture, to “knowing.” By the faithful hand of Father Abraham, it created a social “other.”

Abraham’s circumcision introduced a social sign (circumcision) in preparation for an ethical one (baptism). All men were still made in the image of God (physical) but now there was a social divide. It was not a division between believers and unbelievers, even though that was the eventual goal, as it was with Adam. That division would only come when the Abrahamic Covenant fulfilled its purpose, when God “closed up the flesh,” the Jew-Gentile divide, and presented Adam with His bride. Adam and His bride were united in mind and body by the Spirit, and the serpent and his followers became the perpetual ethical “other.”

Circumcision, a sociological sign like the cutting of Adam and Abraham, was not replaced with another sociological sign but with an ethical one—an investiture. This means that paedobaptism conflates hearing the Law with doing the Law, which puts it at odds with the Gospel of Jesus. Every paedobaptism is an act of blood (cause) instead of an act of spirit (effect). In conflating nurture (knowing) with maturity (doing), it actually combines two things that were not even joined in the prelapsarian creation. Understood in this manner, it promotes a sociology that did not even exist in Old Covenant Israel, at least, not at God’s hand. The “objective” separation of every Israelite (social) was for the means of a “subjective” response to God (ethical). Like Dr. Leithart, the Pharisees conflated the social with the ethical, Abraham’s circumcision with Abraham’s faithful obedience. Their Judaism was an “Adam in stasis,” a body of open flesh, locked into a deep sleep with no desire for a Gentile bride. With the coming of Pentecost, the ethical (spiritual) unity of Jewish believers and Gentile believers rendered the sociology of Judaism obsolete. The social (knowing) gave way to the ethical (doing).

“For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.” (1 Cor. 7:19)

A paedobaptistic sociology is a misrepresentation of the Gospel. It conflates the cutting of Adam with the crushing of the serpent. The solution to the ethical failure of credobaptists is not a superseded sociological sign. When Adam sinned, God did not put him once again into a deep sleep and cut his other side. But if a paedobaptistic sociology is not the solution to the failure of a credobaptistic culture, then what is?

[1] From the appendix, “The Sociology of Infant Baptism” in Peter J. Leithart, The Baptized Body, pp. 115-116.
[2] See Sons of the Law.

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4 Responses to “Sociology and the New Covenant – 1”

  • Steven Opp Says:

    Could you expand on the difference between a sociological sign and an investiture? Is the former always visible while the latter is action? Resurrected Jesus’ scars are a sociological sign while his power to walk through walls is an investiture?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Steven – those are good observations, and certainly related, but I think people need to get and handle on the basic ones first. The details in the Gospels are microcosms of greater realities – Jesus embodies things that will take place in the Bride and the World. We do see the same thing in Genesis as well. Garden-Land-World is threefold, but each of those stages is also threefold. Jesus’ upbringing (under the nurture of the Law) prepared Him for ministry. But His death under the Law prepared Him for a greater ministry.

    I’ll think some more on it, but I think they are all visible and all involve some action. The point is who is ‘doing’ the action. The Father does the ‘cutting.’ Jesus’ scars are a testimony to the sign of Jonah, but they are not the sign. Jesus’ walking through closed doors is an expression of His investiture, but is not His investiture. Same as His being described as the Lamb in Revelation 5 is part of His Ascension, but is not His Ascension.

    I really like your thoughts, but I guess I want to hammer in the big stuff first – Adam as the singular foundation for all humanity. I’ve found that with a subject like this, the force of the argument can be lost in a cloud of more minor questions if one is not careful – as the White House knows only too well.

    The big pattern is being, hearing and doing, Light, Law and Spirit, so your observations do fit, but “fractally.”

  • Steven Opp Says:

    Yeah, sorry for the rabbit trail. Feel free to erase that first comment, it was a little random, I won’t be offended:) And good one about the White House

  • Mike Bull Says:

    No, it was good. I always appreciate your thoughts – especially the random ones.

    I just didn’t want the point diffused (or confused) but expounded upon. I was also thinking that the multiplication of Israel in Egypt was social and the time in the wilderness (“proving”) ethical. The direction concerning robes is in Numbers.