Dispatches from the Font: Doug Wilson's Case for Infant Baptism (Part 3)

In his chapter, "The Olive Tree and Olive Shoots" (chapter 7) of his book To A Thousand Generations: Infant Baptism - Covenant Mercy to the Children of God, Doug Wilson argues from Romans 11 that the apostle Paul's teaching on the grafting in of the Gentiles into the people of God, out of which the Jews have been broken off, implies that there is one people of God and that the nature of this people has not changed over the change from Old Covenant to New Covenant.  In a key sentence he writes, "Paul is arguing" in Romans 11 "that the nature of the tree has not been changed by the transition from the Levitical administration to the New Covenant" (p. 90).  Of course the way this plays into his case for infant baptism is that if the nature of the people of God has not changed, then the terms of entrance into it as well as exclusion from it are the same.

The problem with this argument is two-fold. One is that Paul is using metaphorical language and it is a mistake to squeeze the metaphor of meaning at every point, which is what Wilson seems to be doing.  The second problem is that Paul is not in fact arguing that "the nature of the tree has not been changed."  That is not his argument at all.  He is arguing that the pride and presumption of the Jews led to their downfall and that if the Gentiles don't watch out it will be their downfall to.  That's Paul's point; it is not about the nature of the one people of God.

Because that's not Paul's point, we have to be careful that we don't read into the imagery more than what is there.  But here is another instance where Wilson has reached a conclusion that is not demanded by the evidence.  The fact of the matter is that many Baptists (myself included) would not dispute that there is one people of God.  What we would dispute is that this implies that the nature of the people of God has remained unchanged across the covenants.  Stephen Wellum argues: 

No doubt there is only one people of God throughout the ages; that is not in dispute. However, in the OT promise of the new covenant (Jer 31:29–34) and its fulfillment in Christ (see Luke 22:20; Heb 8–10), the nature of the covenant communities are not the same, which entails a difference in the meaning and application of the covenant sign. Specifically, the change is found in the shift from a mixed community to that of a regenerate community with the crucial implication that under the new covenant, the covenant sign must only be applied to those who are in that covenant, namely, believers. [Schreiner, Thomas R.; Wright, Shawn; Clendenen, E. Ray. Believer's Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology Book 2) (p. 138). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.] 

This is exactly right.  Again, Wilson wants to flatten the distinctions between the covenants in a way not warranted by Scripture.  

What is really happening in Paul's day, and what constitutes the background to what Paul is talking about in Romans 11, is this.  The Old Covenant which constituted the nation of Israel as God's people was being abrogated.  The New Covenant was inaugurated and the New Covenant community, the church, established.  In God's plan and because of the Jew's unbelief, Israel was cut out of the people of God and by and large did not become a part of the church.  This is symbolized by the natural branches being cut out.  The Gentiles, through faith in Christ, were grafted into the people of God, now determined by the church, a community which is only entered into by faith.  This is fully consistent with the Baptist position, the one I believe is more faithful to the Scriptural evidence.   

One question I think needs to be asked is this: were the Jews cut out of the church?  The answer is no.  The Jews who were cut out because of unbelief were actually never a part of the church.  They were considered part of the people of God (the olive tree) insofar as they were members of the Old Covenant community.  You cannot therefore infer from how they came to be on the tree in the first place to the nature of covenantal membership for the Gentiles which is determined by the New Covenant.

This passage is explicitly about faith and unbelief.  Paul's point is not that babies should be members of the covenant, but that if you do not believe you fall under God's judgment.  On the other hand, if you have faith in Christ you are grafted onto the church.  And this is fully consistent with the Baptist position.



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