The Baptized Body – 5

“Leithart’s real problem is that one can tell the difference between a circumcised boy and an uncircumcised one, but a sprinkled baby looks no different to an unsprinkled one.”

Chapter 1 continued

See the Baptism links page for all articles in this series.

Sacraments Are Not Signs, Means Of Grace, Or Symbols

In the next section, Dr Leithart deals with three errors:

1) The tendency to treat signs rationalistically, as nothing more than a means of communicating ideas from one mind to another mind; and,

2) Talking about sacraments as “means” tend to mechanize them, turning the sacraments into machines that deliver grace rather than moments of personal encounter with the living God.

3) Symbolic exchanges (such as language) are not the “real relationship,” which is invisible and could occur just as well without them.

Concerning the first, he concludes that if a sign is given to bring something else to mind, then the marriage between the sign and the reality takes place only in our heads. A sacrament is designed to teach, but it is also an action performed at God’s command by the church, and is thus a mighty act of God for the redemption of His people and the world.

Concerning the second, he concludes that baptism is not a means of grace but the grace of God itself. We cannot have God’s gifts without having God Himself.

Concerning the third, he concludes that the modern view that symbols are not “real life” is mistaken. The symbolism in the sacraments is less like that of a painting or metaphor and more like a handshake, a wave or a kiss. It is real because it is a relational act. Sacraments are graces that connect us with God.

A mighty act of God?

Leithart’s thinking here is clear and logical, and to some I’m sure he appears to make some real moves towards clearing up the confusion. To my mind, however, all he has done is grab the thick fog which surrounds the issue in Reformed circles, cut it into nice squares and put the vapor into neatly labeled boxes.

Concerning the communication of ideas from one mind to another, this minimum standard for signs is not even the case with either circumcision or sprinkling of infants. They haven’t a clue what is happening and never remember the event. Leithart’s real problem is that one can tell the difference between a circumcised boy and an uncircumcised one, but a sprinkled baby looks no different to an unsprinkled one.

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Take water from the Jordan and baptize the sons and daughters of Israel a second time.” Though all the people who came out had been baptized, yet all the people who were born on the way in the wilderness after they had come out of Egypt had not been baptized. So Joshua sent men among the children of Israel to identify which sons and daughters had been baptized and which had not been baptized, but since all the sons and daughters were infants at the time and had no memory of the events, and their parents’ carcasses had fallen in the wilderness so there were no longer any eye-witnesses, no one could discern who had been baptized and who had not been baptized. So the Lord slew them all.

All of Old Israel was “baptized into Moses” in the Red Sea. They were now dead, but the very fact that their descendents remained free of Egypt, and Joshua and Caleb were eyewitnesses of the event, meant that there was no question concerning who was baptized. All Israel was baptized as “one flesh.” This was a mighty act of God. There was an unquestionable result, an evidence of the act.

A personal encounter with God?

Of course, we can’t take the New Covenant sign and neatly insert it into the Old Covenant without making a mess of the entire narrative. I would argue that this is exactly what paedobaptists do by misinterpreting circumcision as “personal encounter with God” and then mongrelizing it with New Covenant baptism. They make a mess of the entire New Covenant narrative.

Besides the fact that this assertion of a personal relationship flies in the face of the claims of paedobaptists that the Covenant is “objective,” a paedobaptism is no more a “personal encounter with God” than is a circumcision. And we must ask why none of the Old Covenant females were allowed to receive this “grace.” If paedobaptists insist on such a high level of continuity between the Abrahamic and New Covenants, these are questions which they should be able to answer easily. But they have read their misunderstandings of baptism back into circumcision, and make a mess of both rites. A “Covenant child” under the Old Covenant was not defined by circumcision, but by the circumcision of those who mediated between them and God. Baby girls were “Covenant children.” And none of the male “Covenant children” were circumcised between the Red Sea and Jericho. Were they not “connected to the Tabernacle” (as Doug Wilson claims)? Of course they were, including the females. The question is how were they connected?

The answer is through the vow taken by all Israelites who could understand and speak (which makes nonsense of the paedobaptistic claims that credobaptism leaves infants, the mute and the retarded out of the New Covenant). The literary structures of the New Testament consistently correspond faithful profession and baptism to this Old Covenant oath and the Covenant Sanctions. Here is where we find the “personal encounter with God.”

This is also the reason why Moses needed to repeat the Law to the new “uncircumcised” generation of Israel. To hold them accountable to the Law, they first needed to hear the Law. So even within “the circumcision” we have levels of Covenant authority, hearers and speakers.

The New Covenant does have an “objective” aspect. The entire world, not just “the Lord’s people,” is under this covenant. Nobody asked the nations if they wanted to now be accountable to God, but they are indeed. God just did it, in Christ. All infants are already under this obligation, but baptism is for those who respond and become mediators of His grace. As my friend Don Schmitt recently posted, “The New Covenant is not about God and His people. It is about God and all peoples.”

So, who took the New Covenant vow? Well, Jesus did. He is the “Amen,” and unlike Israel, He kept the Law. Those who believe also take the New Covenant “vow” when we profess our faith. This makes us blameless mediators of God’s grace.

A real relationship?

The difference between the first Pentecost at Sinai and the last Pentecost at Zion must not be minimized. Three thousand were slain at the first and three thousand believed and were saved at the last. Paedobaptists consistently minimize the conversion experience because their baptism is defined by the first Pentecost. It takes the obligations of the Covenant vow and imposes them upon people who cannot keep it. Their “New Covenant” is still about stoicheia, external Law. Somehow, they think the Church is the only “people” who are under obligation to God. They obviously haven’t thought this through. Everything in God’s perfect Word is skewed and distorted to make room for this foreign body.

Pentecost brought a real relationship. It took those who claimed Abraham as their father, and those who could not, and connected them to the true Father by the Spirit. There were miraculous signs between Pentecost and Holocaust (AD70) because the Jews needed such a witness. But what was the thing that actually connected people with God? It was the Gospel, by the Spirit. It was not baptism. It was not the Lord’s Supper. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were not signs for believers so much as for unbelievers. When the writer of Hebrews exhorts the Jewish believers to keep meeting together, it was not merely the significance of meetings outside the Temple and synagogues that was important, it was the fact that they were meeting together with Gentiles.

Because a paedobaptism has no visible effect on an infant, and the infant does not respond in any “Covenantally significant way” (such as frightening armies with its superhero cry, based on the misuse of a bad translation of Psalm 8), Dr Leithart says that the baptism is the evidence of a real relationship with God. If this is the case, and this “real relationship” looks nothing like a two-way correspondence, why was there any need for another Pentecost? Tear away the sophistry, and view the New Covenant process without distortion, and we can see that the evidence of a real New Covenant relationship was repentance, profession and faith. Rather than extending a kind of New Covenant circumcision to all nations (which is what Dr Leithart’s vision boils down to), circumcision became obsolete. Why is this? Because the foundation of the New Covenant is not social but ethical. The personal encounter really is personal, not just in the minds of intelligent but deluded Christians. The real relationship really is a relationship, not just a legal contract. Neither of these things have to be redefined by the credobaptist as Dr Leithart attempts to do here.

But what about signs as a “mighty act of God”? This is a big problem, unless of course we are willing to approach baptism with the sacrificial mindset inherent in all of Scripture.

Abraham saw some great miracles, and showed great faith. But he did not conquer Egypt. The promises to him echoed the promises to Adam, which concerned fruitfulness of Land and womb. They were Physical. Jacob saw fewer miracles but showed greater wisdom, outsmarting the various serpents who would hijack the Covenant. His greatest enemies were his blind father (initially), his brother, and his treacherous uncle. His victories were fundamentally Social. Joseph experienced dreams but saw no miracles. Not a single one. Yet Pharaoh described him as a man filled with the Spirit of God. His faith was more mature than that of Abraham and Jacob. He conquered Egypt, and his victories were all Ethical. So, what was the sign in the narrative of Joseph? It was Joseph himself, a prefiguring of Jesus.

The fog in Reformed circles (and their confessions) concerning sacraments, signs and symbols clears completely when we realize that it is regenerate, Spirit-filled saints who are the signs. The New Covenant is fundamentally Ethical. All the miraculous signs were for the final era of childhood, between AD30 and AD70, after which only faith, hope and love remained, as Paul says. Infants cannot display these things in any way that would convert the heart of Pharaoh, or Nebuchadnezzar, or the Jews. The union of Jew and Gentile in baptism and fellowship was a reversal of the enmity, the hatred between them. Our love for each other remains a sign today.

To drag the New Covenant back to a souped-up mongrelized circumcision and relabel it as an “encounter with God” and a “real relationship” is to miss the entire thrust of the Bible, as illustrated in Genesis 3. Adam was called beyond childhood to maturity as a representative of God. If his heart was circumcised by the Law of God and he responded in faith, he would encounter God and have a real relationship with Him as a son in whom God was pleased. Jesus fulfilled that calling and was baptized and commissioned when ethically mature as a Prophet, a legal witness to those under Covenant. Paedobaptism is a confusion of that high calling with the curse upon the Land and the womb. We must not obscure the prophetic authority of the Church and the accountability of all people to God.

The New Covenant sign is “the sign of Jonah” (“dove”): the death, resurrection and efficacious witness of God’s prophets and prophetesses to the nations.

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2 Responses to “The Baptized Body – 5”

  • Chris W Says:

    As a complete aside, do you connect the three days and nights in the belly of the fish with the death and resurrection, or with Jesus’ time spent in Jerusalem (the ‘belly’ of the land of Israel)? I heard this second interpretation given by James Jordan. Trouble with the first interpretation is that Jesus only spent two days and nights in the grave (unless he was crucified on a thursday, but that doesn’t fit with the Day of Atonement typology).

    Getting back on topic…
    Regarding the connection between baptism and child-rearing seen especially in Wilson’s understanding of the rite, I suppose you respond with the fact that even in Solomon’s time, God-fearing gentiles outside of the covenant could still find the book of Proverbs edifying and use it to raise their kids. If the Queen of Sheba can benefit from Solomon’s wisdom, then so can everyone else!

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Thanks for keeping at it!

    I think “heart of the Land” being the ground makes more sense, especially when we read Jonah’s prayer in the abyss. The answer might be the Hebrew reckoning of time, which doesn’t satisfy, but I’m not a Hebrew.


    Yes, we are dealing with a fractal, so the Scriptures have a great deal of influence on the Gentiles over time. This is, in fact, why Gentile nations are held accountable for judgment in the prophets: they were not ignorant of the truth. God was already extending his tent.

    Leithart is brilliant on this:

    The problem with the “circumcision = parenting” assumption is that it is rubbish. Circumcision was sacrificial. Israel as a nation was to be a living sacrifice. Parenting was simply one facet of keeping the Law, and the delegation of that authority came from the Covenant oath at Sinai, not from circumcision.

    Thanks again for reading, and for taking the time to comment.