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SAMUEL MILLER, BAPTISM, & COVENANT THEOLOGY

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2004

Samuel Miller was one of the early professors at Princeton Theological Seminary. As a Presbyterian he wrote a book that defended infant baptism. Miller’s book was fine, but his appendix on baptismal regeneration seems problematic. Of course, his initial attack on superstition is quite warranted, but I am speaking of what he says under II:

But there is another view of the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which is sometimes taken, and which, though less pernicious than that which has been examined, is still, I apprehend, fitted to mislead, and, of course, to do essential mischief. It is this: that baptism is that rite which marks and ratifies the introduction of its subject into the visible kingdom of Christ; that in this ordinance the baptized person is brought into a new state or relation to Christ, and his sacred family; and that this new state or relation is designated in the scripture by the term regeneration, being intended to express an ecclesiastical birth, that is, being “born” into the visible kingdom of the Redeemer. Those who entertain this opinion do not deny that there is a great moral change, wrought by the Spirit of God, which must pass upon every one, before he can be in a state of salvation. This they call conversion, renovation, etc.; but they tell us that the term “regeneration” ought not to be applied to this spiritual change; that it ought to be confined to that change of state and of relation to the visible kingdom of Christ which is constituted by baptism; so that a person, according to them, may be regenerated, that is, regularly introduced into the visible church, without being really born of the Spirit. This theory, though by no means so fatal in its tendency as the preceding, still appears to me liable to the following serious objections.

His first claim, that “It makes an unauthorized use of an important theological term,” is entirely bogus for people outside his own theo-linguistic tradition. The word “regeneration” only occurs twice in Scripture, once for the coming of the kingdom age (Matthew 19.28) and once, according to the prooftexts of the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 165), in reference to baptism (Titus 3.5).

On other terms such as “born from above,” “born again,” “reborn,” etc, I would very much like to see a non-circular argument that these refer to an interior transformation worked directly by the Spirit which irreversibly guarantees persevering faith–that is, “great moral change, wrought by the Spirit of God, which must pass upon everyone before he can be in a state of salvation.” The phrase in First Peter 1.3, occurs in a passage with a great deal of common language with the context of Paul’s use of the word “regeneration” in his letter to Titus. More tellingly, it is paralleled by a later reference to baptism in First Peter 3.21. Peter also says his readers have been born again through the Word of God (1.23), but again, where is the proof that this is not simply a metaphor for hearing the Gospel message and being brought into a new family through baptism?

As it stands, Miller’s claim that others are making “unauthorized us of an important theological term” is based on nothing more than his own desire to use the terminology differently than others. In my judgment none of Miller’s statements here are at all plausible to anyone who does not already agree with his hermeneutic. Since Miller surely knows that those representing other ecclesiastical traditions will take the book as a statement of the Presbyterian argument for his position, it is curious why he did not use argumentation that might persuade them. As it is, he has simply declared as a principle a way of interpreting Scripture in conformity to the conclusions that he wishes to reach.

Miller’s second objection is even stranger than the first, both from the standpoint of the Scriptures and from the standpoint of the actual doctrinal documents to which Miller, as a Presbyterian clergyman, claimed to adhere.

If men be told that every one who is baptized, is thereby regenerated ­ “born of God,” “born of the Spirit,” made a “new creature in Christ” ­ will not the mass of mankind, in spite of every precaution and explanation that can be employed, be likely to mistake on a fundamental point; to imagine that the disease of our nature is trivial, and that a trivial remedy for it will answer; to lay more stress than they ought upon an external rite; and to make a much lower estimate than they ought of the nature and necessity of that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord?

This is, on the face of it, an attack on the New Testament. Consider the following:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38).

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name (Acts 22.16).

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6.1-3).

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (First Corinthians 12.12, 13, 27).

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3.27-29).

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2.8-14).

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3.5-7).

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him (First Peter 3.18-22).

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith all these texts are references to water baptism. Granted, it is not exactly unconfessional to deny that Titus 3.5 speaks of baptism (though mistaken, in my opinion) since Presbyterian ministers are not required to agree with the footnoted Scripture verses used to support doctrinal statements. Nevertheless, these statements don’t seem to show the same kind of concern which Dr. Miller expresses concerning the likeliness to “mistake on a fundamental point.” Is this baptismal language not guilty of the same accusation that Miller makes regarding “ecclesiastical birth”? If so, I don’t see how this objection can be honoring to Scripture as God’s own Word. We should not criticize brothers who are trying to use the Bible’s own terminology simply for using the terminology.

In addition to running aground on Scripture, Miller’s criticism does not match up to Presbyterian doctrine. While the Westminster Confession’s and Catechisms’ Scriptural citations are not considered a part of the required doctrinal standards themselves, the case should be different when these document actually quote or allude to Scripture in a way that undeniably appeals to a certain text. For example, Romans 6 quoted above is not only footnoted in the Westminster Larger Catechism but is obviously behind the text itself:

Q167: How is our Baptism to be improved by us?
A167: The needful but much neglected duty of improving our Baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body [emphasis added].

It wouldn’t be hard to multiply citations from the Westminster Standards. It never seems even acknowledged by Miller that the Confession affirms precisely that every baptized person is “born into the visible kingdom of the Redeemer.” Baptism admits the baptized person into the Church, “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (28.1; 25.2). One is thus placed in a new relationship that is explicitly called, both in Scripture and in the Confession, a family where God is father and Jesus is the elder brother. One’s solidarity with the old family of Adam is covenantally ended in favor of solidarity with the new Adam. To claim that a change to a new family in which one is Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3.29) must never be referred to by the metaphor of “birth” or “rebirth” seems quite arbitrary and unnatural. Again, we are simply being ordered to speak and think in certain ways and interpret the Bible accordingly. But where is there any argument from Scripture?

In light of this, Miller’s criticism of the wording in the Book of Common Prayer is rather amazing given the kind of prayers that were used by the Reformers. Consider Martin Bucer’s 1537 Strasbourg liturgy for infant baptism:

Almighty God, heavenly Father, we give you eternal praise and thanks, that you have granted and bestowed upon this child your fellowship, that you have born him again to yourself through holy baptism, that he has been incorporated into your beloved son, our only savior, and is now your child and heir…

Such examples are easy to find both in the Reformed liturgies and in the Reformed catechisms.

We should also consider the other point of Miller’s criticism, that the people taught in the importance of this “external rite” as an entry into the Church will “make a much lower estimate than they ought of the nature and necessity of that holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” I fail to see any logic to this. Romans 6 shows such “slippery slope” holds no pull on the Apostle Paul who warns his hearers that “the end of those things is death (v. 21), later elaborated in the declaration that “if you live according to the flesh you will die” (8.13). Paul warns the Corinthians of destruction if they do not pursue the way of faith and repentance (First Corinthians 10.1ff), without worrying that his assurances in chapter 12 are in tension with his warning. On the contrary, “we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain” (Second Corinthians 6.1).

We should also remember Augustine’s controversy with Pelagius. The entire doctrine of original sin as it has come to us in Church history was done by pointing to the universal and historic Church practice of baptizing infants. The idea that such language, “in spite of every precaution and explanation that can be employed,” must lead to the notion that “the disease of our nature is trivial” can only seem preposterous to anyone who has read Augustine’s anti-Pelagian works. Augustine was highly recommended by John Calvin in his Institutes, especially his work, On Rebuke & Grace. This distinctively Reformed Protestant heritage makes Miller’s fears hard to understand. The slippery slope, if history is any guide, works precisely the other way.

What is amazing about the view which Miller is opposing is that it seems so obviously covenantal. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith,

Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace [of Law and then Gospel], differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

Compare this with what is said regarding the visible Church:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.

The Church is the Gospel Administration of the Covenant of Grace. Her “external rite” is promised Christ’s “own presence and Spirit.” Yet Miller seems oblivious to this correspondence between his targets and his own theology. His opponents are simply saying that Baptism does exactly what the Westminster Confession says that baptism does–put the baptized person into God’s family–and yet he treats the entire view as alien and suspect.

What makes all of the above much more strained is that he has already made the following comment about the early Church:

It is not forgotten that language which seems, at first view, to countenance the doctrine which I am opposing, is found in some of the early fathers. Some of them employ terms which would imply, if interpreted literally, that baptism and regeneration were the same thing. But the reason of this is obvious. The Jews were accustomed to call the converts to their religion from the Gentiles little children, and their introduction into the Jewish church, a new birth, because they were brought, as it were, into a new moral world. Accordingly, circumcision is repeatedly called in Scripture “the covenant,” because it was the sign of the covenant. Afterwards, when baptism, as a Christian ordinance, became identified with the reception of the gospel, the early writers and preachers began to call this ordinance regeneration, and sometimes illumination, because every adult who was baptized, professed to be born of God, illuminated by the Holy Spirit. By a common figure of speech, they called the sign by the name of the thing signified. In the truly primitive times this language was harmless, and well understood; but as superstition increased, it gradually led to mischievous error, and became the parent of complicated and deplorable delusions.

Obviously, thought Miller doesn’t ever seem to acknowledge it, the view of the early Fathers is that of his Evangelical Episcopal contemporaries whom he is criticizing. Compare what he says about them: Regarding the first and second centuries: baptism brings the baptized, “as it were, into a new moral world.” This fits his description of the modern view he is opposing:

in this ordinance the baptized person is brought into a new state or relation to Christ, and his sacred family; and that this new state or relation is designated in the scripture by the term regeneration, being intended to express an ecclesiastical birth, that is, being “born” into the visible kingdom of the Redeemer.

Why go on to dismiss the propriety of this historical practice? Why not claim victory for covenant theology as being the theology of the primitive Church?

By insisting on opposing this language and practice, Miller has distanced himself and the Presbyterianism he claims to represent from the practice of the Church as we know it from the earliest times. He has, in fact, told readers that history is on the side of his Episcopal opponents. But as we saw above in looking at Martin Bucer’s liturgy, this opposition is not necessary to maintain Reformed Theology. As we see above from question 167 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, his position does not fit well with the doctrinal constitution of his own denomination. Notice that the baptized person is to grow to assurance of pardon, not into the blessing of pardon itself which is assumed to already be his.

I’ll conclude these brief thoughts with a statement of my own concern for Miller’s approach. It seems to me to deny baptism as a seal to the baptized person “to confirm our interest in him” (WCF 27.1). If God does not, in baptism, give us a new status whereby we are entrusted to his care, then how can we trust God for our salvation? If “the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed” by baptism are dismissed, then what have we to “improve” upon by faith? Miller’s concern about the example of Simon the Sorcerer seems misplaced since Simon obviously did not think much of the status that baptism had bestowed upon him, not valuing the benefits but wanting more, and not valuing the great responsibilities either. Certainly Miller would tell every baptized person that they should be “humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism” and have an obligation “to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness.” How can these demands be made if the benefits are not also assured? If the imperative precedes the indicative than how can we avoid falling into moralism rather than the ethic of the Gospel. Consider this statement made at an infants baptism in the French Reformed Liturgy of the Reformation:

Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry ‘it is finished.’ For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, “We love him because he first loved us.”

We love him because he first loved us. The whole point of baptism is that it is the beginning of the Christian life, not something that you earn at some point later. Consider how our children are raised in Presbyterian Churches. They are baptized in infancy and raised in God’s worship every weekday. Within a very short period of time, they are, in most congregations, praying the Lord’s Prayer with their parents. Surely it is not without purpose that they address God as Father. Is allowing them to pray the Lord’s Prayer something that denies faith? Does it not rather teach them faith–teach them to trust God? Will anyone claim that their past baptism into the “house and family of God” is irrelevant to their praying the Lord’s prayer? When our extremely small children sin do we tell them that their is no forgiveness, or do we lead them in a prayer to God and assure them of their forgiveness? Will anyone claim that this practice has no relationship to the initiatory seal of God’s covenant? Truly, baptism is a superstition if it is simply done for show without being a true means of salvation to be received and persevered in by faith in Christ alone.

It is true that some baptized persons reject God’s promises in unbelief. But claiming that baptism signifies nothing to the person being baptized is hardly conducive to encouraging faith. Miller’s attack on superstition is on target but his criticism of other Evangelicals ends up undermining his own tradition. If we want to see people understand the importance, centrality, and sufficiency of faith, we would be better served teaching them to trust God as he communicates his blessings to his people in Word and Sacrament.

Copyright © 2004



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