Review: The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant

REVIEW: Lewis Bevans Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant

(Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing 2003). lge. pbk., xx + 188 pp.


Reviewed by Rev Dr Rowland S. Ward, minister of Knox Presbyterian Church, Melbourne, Australia.
This review appeared in the Confessional Presbyterian, Vol 2 (2006) pp 181-184


The republication of this historical study of the significance of infant baptism in the Presbyterian Church should be welcomed by conservative Presbyterians even if they find cause to disagree with some of the author’s arguments, and are less than satisfied by aspects of his historical reconstruction and arrangement. The modern introduction by Frank A. James III enhances the volume, and there is a useful bibliography and an index.

Dr Lewis Bevans Schenck (1898-1985) was a North Carolina man descended from German stock and brought up in an Episcopal home. He joined the Presbyterian Church as a young man, trained for the ministry at Union Seminary, Virginia, was ordained in 1924 and served in West Virginia as an assistant pastor. Realising his call to teach rather than pastor, he earned a ThM from Princeton in 1926, and taught at Davidson College, North Carolina 1927-66. The book now reviewed was first published in 1940 as a revised form of his 1938 Yale doctoral dissertation.

Schenck held that the place of children in the Presbyterian Church had become confused through the impact of revivalism so that the key role of the nurture of the church and family was neglected because of the excessive emphasis on a conscious conversion experience. I would imagine that Dr Schenck may have been influenced by neo-orthodoxy in his overall teaching career, but his book draws almost exclusively on orthodox Presbyterian theologians to illustrate its thesis, and should be judged on its merits.

The first chapter (pp. 3-52) is foundational, for it seeks to answer the question, ‘What is the historic doctrine of the Presbyterian Church concerning children in the covenant?’ Schenck shows that Calvin taught that (1) the Abrahamic promise – ‘I will be God to you and to your seed after you’ – was a spiritual covenant including the promise of eternal life; (2) baptism for both adults and children had the significance of a seal of purification and forgiveness of sins as well as a seal of ‘regeneration’, by which term Calvin meant not only the inception of new life but its outworking in sanctification throughout life; (3) children are not baptised to make them children of the covenant but because they are already in covenant according to God’s promise; (4) as Jesus embraced the little children brought to him, we would need a good reason to refuse to admit children of believers to baptism, since baptism is a symbol of our communion and association with Christ; (5) admission to church membership is always on the basis of a credible profession of faith on the part of older persons but their children also have the right of church membership by virtue of God’s promise; both classes are presumptively Christians in the judgment of charity, and should be treated accordingly so as to grow and develop in Christian character; (6) baptism is not a mere empty sign, nor does it automatically convey grace; rather, it confirms and seals what is already true in the promise of God; (7) it is certain some infants are saved and therefore such infants must have been regenerated, and our inability to observe or understand this is no argument against it; indeed, the promise of God assures us that covenant children dying in infancy are saved; (8) against those who say only those able to profess repentance and faith should be admitted to the church, the response must be that only those who are presumptively Christ‘s children should be admitted, and this includes the children of believers, since the promise of God is a true pledge of adoption to them; further, the entirety of what is represented in baptism need not be present at the time the sign is administered to children, anymore than was the case with circumcision.

Schenck then more briefly reviews the teaching of Zwingli, Bullinger, Knox and the European Reformed Confessions, concluding with the Westminster Standards, and finds them in agreement with Calvin. One could note the Westminster Directory: ‘That the promise is made to believers and their seed; and that the seed and posterity of the faithful, born within the Church, have, by their birth, interest in the covenant.’ Again, ‘…they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptised.’

In this lengthy first chapter there are a few matters one would express differently. For example, Schenck’s comments on Cocceius (pp. 33-34) are really out of sequence. Also, in the way common in earlier scholarship, they overstate the role of the German/Dutch theologian in formulating traditional covenant theology. Such was quite mature before Cocceius wrote his first work in 1648, and Schenck unconsciously concedes this in his references to the Puritans on page 43. In reviewing the Westminster Directory for Public Worship no notice is taken of the possible significance of the omission of specified questions for parents presenting their children for baptism from the final text. But these points do not affect Schenck’s basic outline, which, to my mind, fairly represents the historic Reformed doctrine. However, in view of the points developed in Schenck’s next chapter some elaboration of the early Reformed position would have been appropriate.

In his second chapter (pp. 53-79), Schenck considers the development of revivalism. His essential argument is that modifications of the traditional doctrine encouraged formalism and in reaction produced a stress on conscious crisis conversion as the only true evidence of salvation, an experience also demanded of children.

Strikingly enough, Schenck begins with Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) who advocated baptism of the children of all who would seriously attend on the preaching of the word irrespective of whether they professed saving faith. One has some question as to the appropriateness of the citation of Rutherford in this connection. (1) As one of the Scottish Commissioners at the Westminster Assembly, it should hardly be supposed without adducing argument that Rutherford varied from the Westminster Standards with whose formulation he had had so much to do. (2) Schenck does not seem to have read Rutherford except through his secondary source, John Macpherson’s fine work, The Doctrine of the Church in Scottish Theology (Edinburgh, 1903), Schenck even overlooks Macpherson’s references (p. 86) to many other writers, whom Boston sought to confute, who held similar views to Rutherford, nor does he consider that assertion of a principle, as in Calvin and the Confessions, need not exclude some modifications found needful in the complexity of practical application. For example, in 1570, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland decided that children of excommunicated persons might be baptised if presented by a faithful member of the church. As for other writers, William Bucan (d. 1605) of Lausanne argued for the baptism of the infants of the faithful and those born of baptised parents, even those who are unfaithful, since the sins of the fathers should not be visited upon the children and their seed is contained in the covenant promise. He adds, ‘Neither is the piety of the next parents to be considered so much as the piety of the church in which they are born, and which is, as it were, their mother; as likewise their ancestors who lived godly.’ He cites Romans 11:16, ‘if the root be holy,’ that is, the first parents, ‘so are the branches,’ and supports the baptism of the children of the excommunicated and also of the children of Papists, noting that the children of unbelieving Jews were still circumcised. So Rutherford was not quite the innovator Schenck suggests.

When we further consider the careful discrimination of the old Reformed in their insistence that the distinction between the visible and invisible church must be consistently maintained, and thus only visible profession is essential for the one and invisible grace for the other, we can understand better where Rutherford and others are coming from. However, this is not to deny that there was formalism in the church of the early 18th century, but the reason I think is more related to the greater laxity in practical oversight when compared to Rutherford’s day, although this is not to say that Rutherford’s view, shared by people like Richard Baxter, is beyond criticism. Macpherson suggests (p. 90) that Rutherford’s concern was for the salvation of sinners, that many were called to the privilege of hearing, and should be encouraged so that they might become of the elect. On the other hand, in the early 18th century Thomas Boston opposed Rutherford’s position, without naming him, out of the same concern for the salvation of sinners. He saw in the formalism and false peace of his day a hindrance to salvation. It’s probably fair to say that Rutherford at least tested the boundaries of Westminster doctrine in some respects, whereas Boston made some excellent points but ran the risk of advocating a visible profession that required a man to be a believer rather than a credible professor. Schenck seems to think Boston was a reversion to the original doctrine (p. 54), and that people like Bowles and Baxter agreed with him. Here he misreads Macpherson who says the very opposite (p. 86). In the sense that looking for marks of grace to qualify for church membership was characteristic of revivalism, we might look more to Boston for a precursor.

Schenck is on somewhat better ground in his references to the Half-Way Covenant in New England, although even here he does not trace the relevant matter of the interest in felt experience to its New England origins. The story is well known. In 1662 some Massachusetts Puritans agreed to a half-way membership status for those who had been baptised as infants but were not able to testify to a conversion experience. Such could still have their children baptised if they acknowledged God’s claims on their lives and accepted the church’s discipline despite their unwillingness to profess faith in Christ. A further step was taken in 1707 by Solomon Stoddart. He treated the Lord’s Supper as a converting ordinance and allowed the unconverted to partake. Much coldness and formality became characteristic of the churches of New England leading to eventual reaction.

My take on revivalism is to indeed recognise the impact of formalism, which was widespread, to note that the earnestness of the mid 17th century was missing in the early 18th century, and that to some degree the wrong use of the visible/invisible church distinction was to blame. But the inevitable reaction did not revert to the Westminster and early Calvinist doctrine, but to an emphasis on religious experience. Why so? In part it can be seen as a pendulum swing, somewhat like the rise of Pentecostalism in the face of 20th century liberalism. But it also can be seen as taking up the separatist idea of the church as comprised of a regenerate membership. The early Puritans had not required such a test of conversion. Edmund S. Morgan argues that this practice originated in Massachusetts, spread to Plymouth, New Haven and Connecticut and back to England. This is surely relevant in assessing the historical development, but Schenck does not refer to it.

In the 1730s and 1740s the first Great Awakening found fertile soil in the formal worship in many churches and among the many unchurched on the frontier. The emphasis on experience, and the revivalistic emphasis fostered at the Tennant’s Log College, impacted on Presbyterians. The reaction to formalism produced a stress on conscious, crisis conversion as the only true evidence of salvation, an experience also demanded of children. Thus the only way to God was popularly seen as involving terror and misery arising from conviction of sin preparatory to the experience of God’s love and peace. The 1741-58 Old Side/New Side division of Presbyterians resulted. After reunion there was a period of indifference until the Great Revival of 1800, which saw a renewed and rather lasting emphasis on revivalism. Schenck (p.78) quotes Dr Samuel Miller writing in 1832: ‘I confess I deeply regret that the use of camp meetings should be resumed in our body. To say nothing of the irregularities and abuses…they have always appeared to me adapted to make religion more an affair of display, of impulse, of noise, and of animal sympathy, than of the understanding, the conscience, and the heart….’

Schenck begins his 3rd chapter – The Threat of Revivalism – (pp. 80-103) by writing: ‘The disproportionate reliance upon revivals as the only hope of the church and the proclamation of the Gospel from the pulpit as almost the only means of conversion, amounted to a practical subversion of Presbyterian doctrine, an overshadowing of God’s covenant promise.’ He traces the neglect of infant baptism in Presbyterian churches in the 19th century, citing Charles Hodge’s survey (p. 84). This showed that in 1807 there was one child baptised for every 5 members but a steady decline had reduced the ratio to one for every 20 members in 1855. He cites the pleas of leaders such as Ashbel Green, Samuel Miller and J.W.Alexander, who sought proper care for baptised members, rather than that they be left without care as if they were not members of the church and had no obligations by virtue of God’s covenant.

Confusion in American Presbyterian thought is illustrated by a number of examples. Some took up essentially the notion involved in the half-way covenant. They distinguished two aspects to the covenant, one merely outward, ecclesiastical and legal, and the other spiritual, in a rather dualistic fashion so that the external covenant was not seen as ‘interpenetrated by the internal covenant’, to quote Louis Berkhof. Schenck asserts (p.86) that Dr Stuart Robinson even took the position that the Abrahamic covenant was actually not the covenant of grace at all, and T.E.Peck likewise. Thornwell and Dabney taught that baptism made a child a child of the covenant, meaning an ecclesiastical covenant by which the child had the right to instruction. Until they showed a new heart they were to be treated as unregenerate baptised children. The seal of God’s covenant was only a symbol until they had faith.

The differences came to a head in the debate on revision of the Book of Discipline at the General Assembly of 1859. Some, such as Charles Hodge, wished to retain the wording that said all baptised persons ‘are members of the church, are subject to government and discipline’ and when adult ‘are bound to perform all the duties of church members.’ Others, such as Thornwell, wanted to state that all baptised persons are under the church’s ‘government and training’ and to add that only those, however, who have made a profession of faith in Christ are proper subjects of judicial prosecution.’ With the Civil War, the church was divided. In 1863 the Northern Church adopted without dissent the disputed part as it was in the original book, while in 1879 the Southern Church adopted without controversy Thornwell’s draft. Thus a change had occurred from the historic Reformed doctrine, a change that in many respects adopted Baptist ground so far as the baptism of infants was concerned. Interestingly, in 1934 the Northern Church made a modification in line with the South without exciting any controversy, but Schenck does not mention this.

The Defence of the Doctrine forms the subject of chapter 4 (pp. 104-147). This chapter does not seem entirely aptly named as the first part is spent to show that the rise of the New England Divinity (which divided the church 1838-1869) impacted on the doctrine of redemption and regeneration, and therefore on the doctrine of baptism, because of its different doctrine of original sin. But as it proceeds we do come to read a positive exposition of the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism as held by the Old School. Schenck writes, ‘The theological system of Princeton Seminary was essentially that of John Calvin, received through the medium of Francisco Turretin and the Westminster Standards’ (p.132). He concludes that, over against the crisis conversion idea of revivalism, which tended to regard infants as unconverted pagans, Christian nurture was ‘the appointed, the natural, the normal, and the ordinary means by which the children of believers were made truly the children of God’ not, of course apart from ‘the regenerative act and effectual cooperation of the Holy Spirit’ (p.145).

A short chapter, The Resultant Confusion, completes Schenck’s book (pp.148-158), although it does not take the history beyond the 19th century. This would have been the ideal point at which to summarise his conclusions and lay out a charter for reform. As this is not done effectively, the ending is a bit limp. Having said this, don’t think this book is not of real worth. It deals with an issue of perennial importance and its concern to recover the emphasis on the promise of God sealed in baptism, and the corresponding obligations of the baptised, are issues of great practical significance.

Given the controversy over Abraham Kuyper’s presumptive regeneration position, one might well be rather discriminating in one’s language when speaking of the basis of Christian baptism. It seems better to emphasise the promise of God in his covenant as the warrant to baptise rather than presumed regeneration. Of course in the West today we do not face the high infant mortality of an earlier age. But an earlier age did place their confidence in family and Christian nurture in dependence on God’s Spirit, not in spurts of evangelical fads and fashions or spasmodic revival efforts. The promise of God gave incentive, and encouragement. In our individualistic age we need to recover the older Reformed doctrine. If Schenck’s work helps to stimulate a fresh treatment of the theme, brought up to date and dealing with some more recent aberrations, or if it otherwise stimulates a return to a more Biblical position, it will be well worthwhile.