John Owen on Baptism

This is the last article on the baptising of our children, and I thought it would be good to give the last word to someone who has been described as the greatest Biblical theologian England has ever seen – the 17th century preacher, John Owen.


We’ve seen over the last few articles that the Church in the NT baptised her children, and that this was a practise that continued in the years immediately following the Apostles.  But we also noted that from quite early on this practise was contested.  Remember Tertullian in the second century?  Some 1400 years later we find the same discussion carrying on!  After a dubious consensus in the Middle Ages, the Reformation re-opened this debate with a vengeance.  The Church of England followed the ‘magisterial’ European Reformers (particularly Calvin in the 39 Articles) in her teaching on Baptism.  But in the mid-1600’s, the conversation polarised when an Anglican minister, John Tombes went into print arguing against the received doctrine of the Church of England that children should be baptised.  He provoked a short article from the then Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, John Owen, who brilliantly summarises the arguments, and so a short journey through his essay might help crystallise the issues as we move on.


Owen begins by reminding us what the question is, and what it is not.  It is not ‘whether professing believers … not baptised in infancy ought to be baptised’.  They should.  Neither is it whether faith and repentance should precede baptism when administered to adults.  It should.  And it is not whether every child should be baptised.  They should not.  Owen clarifies the issue: ‘the question is only concerning the children or infant seed of professing believers who are themselves baptised’.  He acknowledges the practise has been abused over the years, but that does not mean there is no right, proper and biblically mandated use for it.  In the light of such abuse we shouldn’t abolish the practise, but reform it according to a more Biblical pattern, administered correctly and followed up with catechesis. 


After some initially quite aggressive polemic, Owen moves onto more constructive ground, acknowledging that the debate is not about a few isolated proof texts, but is rather a discussion over how the Bible as a whole is structured.  He maintains the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant from Old to New Testament, and rather playfully asks if God has made things worse for children since Christ’s coming in the flesh, if they are indeed no longer incorporated into the sacramental life of the covenant?  He contends that passages such as Is.44:3 do not suggest that God intends to ever go back on the inclusion of children within the covenant arrangement.  This seems to be corroborated, argues Owen, by passages such as Eph.6:1-3 in which the Apostle clearly relates to children as included in the life of the covenant, and subject to its blessings (cf. Dt.21:18-21).  He is optimistic about the possibility of young children having a vital faith in Christ (though it may not have the cognitive sophistication of an adult’s faith); but is reluctant to argue from this

to the legitimacy of baptising children.  He does argue that if some children are in fact saved at a young age, there should be no de facto reason for children to not be baptised.  But he clearly prefers to look back to Reformers such as Luther or Calvin, and follows their insistence that baptism represents God’s promise rather than the believer’s faith.  As such, children are as capable as anyone else of receiving the grace signified in baptism: ‘They are certainly partakers of [that grace], namely such as die in infancy … therefore they may and ought to be baptised’.  This is a powerful point to make, and it serves him well in his role as a pastor.  In 1674, he wrote to close friends of his who had recently suffered the loss of a young daughter: ‘Your dear infant is in the eternal enjoyment of the fruits of all our prayers; for the covenant of God is ordered in all things, and is sure.  We shall go to her; she shall not return to us.  Happy was she in this above us, that she had so speedy a [removal from] sin and misery, being born only to strengthen your faith and patience and to glorify God’s grace in her eternal blessedness…’.


He then argues that children and their parents are by nature part of the same covenant, are dealt with by God on the same terms, and have the same rights to the signs to that covenant.  This sets Owen up for the now familiar suggestion that Christ fulfils the covenant made with Abraham (Owen cites Rom.15:8 & Mal.3:1).  He argues that if the offspring of believers are no longer to be included in the sacramental life of the covenant, then Christ has not confirmed the truth of God in His promise to Abraham.  Owen raises the stakes by linking this issue with the integrity of God’s character!  If God is trustworthy, He must continue to relate to the offspring of believers in the terms of the covenant He made with Abraham (Gen.17:7; other examples include Josh.24:15).  Christ has fulfilled the covenant with Abraham, the original promise of which included Abraham’s children.  If children are no longer to be so included in the same covenant as their parents, then Jesus has not done what He promised to do.


It might be worth reminding ourselves that a theologian like John Owen can vigorously argue his convictions about baptism to the point of entering into public controversy; yet was committed to pursuing Christian fellowship those with whom he disagreed.  His respect and admiration for the Baptist pastor John Bunyan is well chronicled.  This remarkable balance of engaging passionately with an issue on the one hand, whilst on the other not allowing it to become a cause for division, was part of the genius of John Owen, and is something I suggest we should strive to emulate in our deliberations.

Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF