Owen on Covenant Baptism and the Argument of Silence

The Works of John Owen, Volume 16: The Church and the Bible Some years ago when I was studying the doctrine of baptism I came to the conclusion that the Reformed position is biblical: both infants and adults should be baptized based on the truths of the covenant of grace (Gen. 15-17).  I see the argument from silence as proving the Reformed view of baptism rather than disproving it.  That is, since God never tells his people to exclude children from the covenant sign or promise, we should continue to include them.  Jesus blessed little children; children of one or two believing parents are “holy;” Paul writes ethical admonitions to households as Christian households, and the promise in the NT is not just for believers, but their children too, as it was in the days of Abraham.

John Owen discusses this quite well in his essay, “Of Infant Baptism and Dipping” found in volume 16 of his Works.  Here is Owen’s (slightly edited) third point supporting infant baptism based on the argument of/from silence:

…A spiritual privilege once granted by God unto any cannot be changed, disannulled, or abrogated, without a special divine revocation of it, or the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the place of it; for:

1. Who shall disannul what God has granted? What he has put together who shall put asunder? To abolish or take away any grant of privilege made by him to the church, without his own express revocation of it, is to deny his sovereign authority.

2. To say a privilege so granted may be revoked, even by God himself, without the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the place of it, is contrary to the goodness of God, his love and care unto his church, [and] contrary to his constant course of proceeding with it from the foundation of the world, wherein he went on in the enlargement and increase of its privileges until the coming of Christ. And to suppose it under the gospel is contrary to all his promises, the honor of Christ, and a multitude of express testimonies of Scripture.

Thus was it with the privileges of the temple and the worship of it granted to the Jews; they were not, they could not be, taken away without an express revocation, and the substitution of a more glorious spiritual temple and worship in their place.

But now the spiritual privilege of a right unto and a participation of the initial seal of the covenant was granted by God unto the infant seed of Abraham, Gen. 17:10, 12. This grant, therefore, must stand firm for ever, unless men can prove or produce:

1. An express revocation of it by God himself; which none can do either directly or indirectly, in terms or any pretense of consequence.

2. An instance of a greater privilege or mercy granted unto them in the place of it; which they do not once pretend unto, but leave the seed of believers, while in their infant state, in the same condition with those of pagans and infidels; expressly contrary to God’s covenant.

All this contest, therefore, is to deprive the children of believers of a privilege once granted to them by God, never revoked, as to the substance of it, assigning nothing in its place; which is contrary to the goodness, love, and covenant of God, especially derogatory to the honor of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

John Owen. The Works of John Owen. Ed. William H. Goold. Vol. 16. Edinburgh: T&T Clark. Print.

shane lems


2 comments on “Owen on Covenant Baptism and the Argument of Silence

  1. bubaflub says:

    “children of one or two believing parents are “holy;””

    I’m surprised to see this as one reason for infant baptism. How is 1Cor. 7 about baptism?

    • Thanks for the question. If you look at Q/A 166 of the Westminster Larger Catechism and its proof texts, it should make sense. “Holy” or “set apart” is covenantal language. Hope this helps!

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