Lying on my stomach, with twenty-one inches of posterity cradled between my arms, all the world seems condensed to a queen-sized bed. Little fingernails, little joints, little kidneys – my wife and I made this, by God’s grace. Everything about this child (aside from his eternal soul) is a result of the providence of God operating through the secondary means of parenthood. Even further down, there are certain qualities about this child that come only from his father – and these are the gifts I am considering now.
As long as our race has wandered outside of Eden, fathers have given gifts: “When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth” (Genesis 5:3). These gifts may be divided into two categories: certain and conditional. Certain gifts are given at conception, and they certainly impact posterity. Every father, by default, gives these gifts. Conditional gifts are given after birth as fatherhood is exercised, and they conditionally impact posterity. Some fathers, by faithfulness, give these gifts. This article will consider certain gifts, and the next article will consider conditional gifts.
The inheritance which I certainly give to my posterity is the covenant of life and the headship of Adam. As a descendant of Adam, his first sin (whereby he transgressed the covenant of life) is imputed to me and original sin reigns in me from conception. I inherit from Adam an Imago Dei that is volitionally marred – which is to say, my will is hell-bent against the image of God within me. I am this way because I was fathered in the image of my father, he in the image of his father, etc.
I have passed this willful corruption and covenantal failure on to my son. I have given him a heart that despises God and a covenant broken beyond repair. Practically, this means that I have given him a curse and an ambition to amass more curses. He has inherited death (2:16-17) in a fallen world (3:16-19) and gladness in it all (Romans 3:10-18).
Your Baptism is Showing
After this point, one’s view of baptism starts showing. This is because baptism is a covenantal sign: who we baptize is determined by who is a member of the New Covenant. For this reason, proper discussion on baptism must range Genesis-Revelation, and must be focused on covenant theology. Let us consider the covenantal distinctions between Paedobaptist (paedo) and Credobaptist (credo) theology.
Paedo theology considers every child conceived by Christians to be a member of the New Covenant. As Israelites were members of the Old Covenant by birth, so too are Christians members of the New Covenant by birth. Under both covenants, foreigners could be brought in, though this has occurred far more often in the New Covenant.
Therefore, paedo theology considers a further distinction among fatherly gifts. There are certain and conditional gifts. Among certain gifts, there are universal and special. The universal gifts are the Imago Dei, the covenant of life, and original sin (i.e. that this covenant of life is passed-on as a broken covenant). The special gifts essentially constitute the covenant of grace. Paedo doctrine does not posit that Christian procreation causes salvation (as if human choices were the linch pin upon which redemption swings). Rather, paedo doctrine asserts that the promise of the covenant of grace (which is consistent from old to new covenant) is passed on from Christian parent to babe.
Studying covenantal inclusion in the Old Testament is one of the best ways to understand how this works in paedo theology. A basic paedo presupposition is that the inclusion of posterity in the covenant was not abolished in the transition from Old to New. God’s promise to Abraham (“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” [Genesis 17:7]) remains potent for Christians today (“Repent and be baptized every one of you…. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” [Acts 2:38-39]). Some credo arguments against paedo doctrine would be pagan critiques of Old Covenant by-birth membership (which was God’s idea).
Credo theology considers every child, whether conceived by Christians or non-Christians, to be born outside of the New Covenant. Old Covenant by-birth inclusion was a matter of national and spiritual covenantal mixture, which is separated in the New Covenant: “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). The New Covenant is the eschatological covenant of grace (Jeremiah 31:31-34), by merit of which believers in the Old Covenant were saved (Romans 3:21-26). Some paedo arguments against credo doctrine seem ignorant of this point, critiquing radical dispensational theology instead of traditional credo doctrine.
Credo theology recognizes no “universal/special” distinction among fatherhood’s certain gifts. All promises of the covenant of grace are reserved for those who place faith in Christ, and so a parent has no New Covenant blessing to administer via procreation. Therefore, the covenantal sign (baptism) must be reserved until faith is evident in the child.
These two positions, though radically different in terms of defining the New Covenant, should be considered orthodox today. Further, amidst the disagreements, they have a congruent testimony concerning fatherhood. The only substantial gift a father gives to his children through procreation is the broken covenant of life – which is essentially the gift of death.
A father who knows Christ has the promise of grace to give his children, whether through proclamation alone (credo) or covenant also (paedo). Yet the substance of grace is never a father’s to give. A father cannot elect his child unto salvation. A father cannot powerfully call his child from the grave. A father cannot authoritatively declare his child “righteous” in the sight of Almighty God. A father cannot preserve his child in faith through invisible strengthening. A father cannot physically and finally raise his child from the dead and bestow upon him eternal glory.
These things are totally outside of the right and ability of any father. All that we have is the promise of grace kept safe in the Gospel. This is an affirmation both paedo and credo theology may affirm, and it is a practical insight into fatherhood that we all would do well to take to heart. The only gift I definitely give my children is death.
This is a particularly deep wound to the soul, as I watch toes wiggle in the crib beside me. I’ve started fatherhood off on a grave note. “Welcome to the world, son. Everything here is fallen, the blood running through your veins is cursed, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” All fatherhood is exercised from curses.