One of the questions that should concern pastors, Old School Presbyterian or not, is “what is the status of the children of believers or ‘Covenant Children’?” That question, after all, will dramatically affect the way in which we preach and teach and what we say when we baptize the children of believing parents and often it will be the make or break question that determines whether we press the youngest members to “close with Christ” and exercise their own personal faith in the Lord Jesus.
There are some excellent books that discuss this subject from an OSP point of view such as B.M. Palmer’s excellent work The Family. However, one of the books addressing the subject of covenant children, that is being recommended on that subject more and more often these days is The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant originally published as an article in Christendom in 1940, and subsequently reprinted by Wipf and Stock and now being reprinted by P&R. The fact that this work has come into vogue and is being reprinted by a Reformed publishing house and recommended by Reformed theologians is rather alarming for a number of reasons, not the least of which being how little people generally know about it’s author and the actual Presbyterian doctrine (as opposed to substance of Schenck’s thesis.) Let me try to briefly explain what I mean.
Lewis Bevens Schenck was certainly not a Presbyterian of the Old School nor would he have described himself as such, at best he was a theologian of the so called “mediating” (i.e. between the liberals and the fundamentalists) camp, and nowhere near as conservative as Old Princetonians like Charles Hodge. I believe Frank James mentions his neo-orthodoxy in the new introduction to the P&R edition, but as I only have a copy of the Wipf and Stock edition of his work, I cannot confirm this. However, you don’t need an introduction to see the “mediating” influence in his theology. In pages 141-147 of the Wipf and Stock edition (all quotations hereafter will follow this edition) Schenck speaks highly of Horace Bushnell’s appalling “Discourses on Christian Nurture” mentioning only briefly that the only problem with this work was not the thesis (i.e. that Christian nurture produces Christian children) but Bushnell’s anti-supernatural explanation of how this comes about. For those of you unfamiliar with Bushnell himself, here is a brief bio from the Concise Dictionary of Christianity in America:
“Bushnell, Horace (1802-1876) Congregational theologian and pastor. Bushnell was not a popular preacher, and his lack of success in effecting conversions abetted his search for a new system that would transcend the Old School/New School debates then exercising New England Congregationalists. His Christian Nurture (1847) represented a covert attack on revivalism as a source of church growth. In God in Christ (1849), he asserted that all religious language, including that of the creeds, must be understood as poetical and not literal. Such a view almost immediately involved him in charges of heresy.* His Vicarious Sacrifice (1866) advanced a “moral influence” theory of the atonement* that became influential among liberal Protestants. Bushnell is thus often likened to Coleridge or Schleiermacher, battling the dry rationalism of Protestant scholasticism and restating religious truths in terms of human experience. More than any other single thinker, Bushnell laid the intellectual foundations for American Protestant modernism and the Social Gospel.”
Schenck had much of the same visceral dislike for preaching that convicted of sin and called men to conversion, in fact in his chapters following his initial arguments on Baptism, he takes men like the Tennants to task for bringing men to state of despair in their preaching. He especially disliked the idea of the application of this preaching to the church, which from Schenck’s position made no sense. The children of believers were already regenerate, so why should they be subjected to preaching that was designed to convict them of their sin and drive them to close with Christ? In essence he felt such preaching would produce only depression as it might cause children of God to doubt their own salvation. Here though, Schenck is not only arguing against the Tennants and those involved in the First Great Awakening, he is arguing against Reformed works like Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Alleine’s “Alarm to the Unconverted,” Guthrie’s “Christian’s Great Interest” and Edward’s “The Religious Affections,” all of which are calls to conversion that combine conviction of sin with the gospel promises to all who would flee to Christ. Moreover all of these works take for granted that the churches are filled with baptized but manifestly unconverted people, which was historically the case when they were written. More importantly, Schenck is also taking for granted that the experience of repentance, which the Westminster Confession describes thus –
“By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments“
– will never be and should never be the personal experience of a child of the church. This of course makes nonsense of the preaching of the OT Prophets and NT Apostles who called to repentance and faith in God those who had been born as members of the covenant community and who already had the sign and seal of that covenant applied to them.
Admittedly, Schenck does mention the Invisible/Visible church distinction, but in speaking of children, he states that we give them the sign of admission into the Visible Church because we presume them to already be members of the invisible church by regeneration.
Presbyterians however do not baptize children because they assume they are regenerate, nor indeed because they presume them to be anything. Rather they know that the children of believers are members of the visible church by birthright, and thus have a right to the sign of membership in the covenant community. They are therefore definitely members of the outward covenant, but we do not however, know, that they are members of the invisible church as well until such time as they close with Christ. To teach them to presume that they are elect and regenerate because they are the children of believers or on the basis of any external ordinance is not only unscriptural, it is dangerous to their souls. The only grounds for believing one is saved must be found not in external facts, but in the believer’s knowledge that they personally believe in Christ and are in union with Him. As Cunningham put it: “trusting to the person and the work of Christ as the only ground of their hope, and looking to the state of their hearts and motives as the only satisfactory evidence that they are in a condition of safety.”
“The administration of the rite is not based on our knowledge of the secret decrees of God, thus in some cases baptism may be administered to those who only come into external relation with the Church visible, though baptism itself is a sign of the spiritual relation. The ground of the baptism is not presumptive election, or presumptive regeneration, or presumptive salvation. The ground is found in the command of God that Covenant parents and their children are to be sealed with the Covenant sign.”
We are actually forbidden to presume that anyone is saved without evidence of it or as JC Ryle put it,
“Some tell us that all baptized people are members of Christ by virtue of their baptism. Others tell us that where there is a head knowledge we have no right to question a persons interest in Christ. To these views I have only one plain answer. The Bible forbids us to say that any man is joined to Christ until he believes. Baptism is no proof that we are joined to Christ. Simon Magus was baptized, and yet was distinctly told that he had no part or lot in this matter (Acts 8:21).
Head-knowledge is no proof that we are joined to Christ. The devils know Christ well enough, but have no portion in Him. God knows, no doubt, who are His from all eternity. But man knows nothing of anyones justification until he believes. The grand question is: Do we believe? It is written, He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him. He that believeth not shall be damned (John 3:36; Mark 16:16). If Bible words mean anything, to be without faith is to be without Christ.”
I would encourage you to consider this notion that we should presume that our children are elect, regenerated, and members of the invisible church as the grounds for their Baptism against the words of the Scottish Presbyterian David Dickson (1583-1663) regarding baptism and the status of covenant children, the following quotations are all for his “Truth’s Victory Over Error”:
“Because the children of believers were, by a divine right, circumcised under the Old Testament. Therefore, the children of believers under the New Testament ought to be baptized, because the one hath succeeded the other. That baptism succeeds to circumcision is evident, first, because they both seal up the very same thing. Next, as circumcision was the initiating seal under the Old Testament, so is baptism under the New; and because the apostles did administer it so early to the disciples, at the first appearing of their new birth and interest in the covenant. Moreover, because, by baptism, we are said to put on Christ, Gal. 3:27. That they both seal up the same thing is evident by comparing Rom 4:11 with Mark 1:4; Acts2:38; where circumcision is declared to be a seal of the righteousness of faith, and baptism is held forth to be a pledge of the remission of sins; as also maybe seen, Rom. 4:6-8. See Col. 2:11, 12, where the apostle teaches that our being buried with Christ in baptism is our circumcision in Christ; which shows that baptism hath succeeded to us in the room of circumcision. 8th, Because the apostle says that the infants but of one believing parent are holy, 1 Cor. 7:14; that is, are comprehended in the outward covenant of God, and have access to signs and seals of God’s grace, as well as they that are born of both believing parents. …”
But regarding why Baptism and Regeneration are not inseparable, Dickson points out the following in answering,
“Because the baptism of the Spirit, at one time goes before, at another time follows, baptism with water, Acts 10:47; Matt. 3:11. 7th, Because very many that are baptized within the visible church are damned, Matt. 7:13, 14. 8th, Because, in those that are come to age, faith and repentance are prerequired to baptism; and therefore, before they be baptized, they have the beginning of regeneration, Acts 2:38. 9th, Because not all that are baptized are elected, Matt. 20:16. But all that are elected by God, are in time regenerated, 1 Pet. 1:2. 10th, Because the Holy Ghost is a most free agent and worker; and therefore his operation, whence the efficacy of baptism depends, whereby we are regenerated, is not tied to any one moment of time, John 3:8. llth, Because baptism is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance, even as the Lord’s supper is.”
The point being that in the elect, the grace that is vouchsafed to them at their baptism may be administered by the Holy Spirit either at the time of their baptism, or before, or commonly after it. But when we baptize our children, we know that they are in the visible church, and we also know that they are federally holy, we know that they have access to inestimable privileges, but as much as we might like to, we cannot know for certain if we are holding a Jacob or an Esau! We pray that they will be one rather than the other, we know that they have greater privileges (by far) than unbelievers, but we know also that unless they close with Christ, and personally believe in Him, which may be described as a volitional act as Cunningham does, then they too will perish and their baptism and membership in the covenant community will be a cause of greater condemnation rather than blessing.
Scottish Presbyterian William Guthrie drives this simple truth home in his previously mentioned work, The Christians Great Interest:
“Believing on Christ must be personal; a man himself and in his own proper person must close with Christ Jesus-The just shall live by his faith. (Hab. 2:4.) This says, that it will not suffice for a mans safety and relief, that he is in covenant with God as a born member of the visible church, by virtue of the parents subjection to Gods ordinances: neither will it suffice that the person had the initiating seal of baptism added, and that he then virtually engaged to seek salvation by Christs blood, as all infants do: neither does it suffice that men are come of believing parents; their faith will not instate their children into a right to the spiritual blessings of the covenant; neither will it suffice that parents did, in some respects, engage for their children, and give them away unto God: all these things do not avail. The children of the kingdom and of godly predecessors are cast out. Unless a man in his own person have faith in Christ Jesus, and with his own heart approve and acquiesce in that device of saving sinners, he cannot be saved. I grant, this faith is given unto him by Christ; but certain it is, that it must be personal.”
This quote is simply irreconcilable with the notion of presumptive regeneration and also of baptismal regeneration. As much as we might dislike admitting it, the person who can find no evidence in his “heart or motives” that he has been united to Christ, has no reason to believe he is saved regardless of his being a child of the covenant.
Finally, please note that Schenck, caricatures the Southern Presbyterian position as a negative presumption. What this means is that Schenck, who presumes that the children of believers are regenerate, assumes that his opponents must presume that they aren’t. This is not the Southern Presbyterian position. In fact the Southern Presbyterian position was simply that of the Scots and Puritans before them, namely that the children of believers are:
1) Members by birth (not baptism) of the Visible Church
2) Part of the outward covenant of God
3) Subject to the inestimable privileges and responsibilities of being part of that community
5) Heirs of salvation and the promises of the Covenant if they close with Christ
They are what we have come to call, non-communing members of the church.
Because of the recent reprinting of The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant by P&R, Maurice Roberts reviewed Schenck’s work in the Banner of truth in 2005. Roberts concluded his review with this strong critique and warning:
“The point at which this reviewer would express strong disapproval of Professor Schenck’s book is his emphasis on presumptive regeneration and the full membership which he conceives as going along with it. It is one thing to believe that the infant children of believing parents are entitled to enjoy the privilege of baptism because of their covenantal relationship to their believing parents, but it is another thing to ground their baptism on a presumption of their being regenerate.”
“The Westminster standards ground the baptism of infants neither on a presumption of their regeneration nor on a presumption of their election. Their explicit words are: ‘The infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized’ (Confession of Faith, 28.4). They further state: ‘Grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated’ (28.5).
There is not a word here about presumption of regeneration or election. On the contrary, the framers of the Westminster Confession make clear their view that not all who receive baptism are necessarily regenerate either before or after they have received their baptism. If further clarity were needed, they go on to state, ‘The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered’ (28.6). If the question is asked, ‘Then who does receive regeneration?’, they answer: ‘The grace promised is not only offered but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time’ (ibid.). To state the matter like that is much the same as saying that regeneration is definitely not assumed in children at their baptism.
With the concept that the children of believing parents, either one or both of them, are in God’s covenant, and so are members of the visible church in a limited sense this reviewer has no difficulty. But Schenck wishes to go further. He wishes such children to be treated as presumably regenerate. This too might be appropriate in some cases. One does not doubt there are children who at an early age show many signs of being converted to Christ. Children can be regenerate from their mother’s womb as John the Baptist certainly was. But this is not normal. Speaking of this, Archibald Alexander has argued, ‘Comparatively few are renewed in infancy and childhood’ (“Thoughts on Religious Experience”, 1844, heading to chapter 2). To make the unusual the basis for assuming church children to be regenerate as a matter of routine strikes this reviewer as a perfect formula for producing a dead and formal church in the short space of one or two generations. After all, Nicodemus was a church child and yet he was totally unacquainted with the saving grace which a new birth alone could give him. Is not this the case with many thousands of church children like him? If such a privileged person as Nicodemus could be so ignorant of the essential element in a man’s spiritual life, namely renewal by God’s Spirit, is it not likely to be the same with most of our children born into Christian homes today?”
“Presumptive regeneration of church children is about the last thing we wish to see in our churches at this hour.”
[Children in the Covenant: a Review Article, Maurice J. Roberts, Banner of Truth, June 2005]