A Critical Review of
A String of Pearls Unstrung:
A Theological Journey Into Believers' Baptism,
by Fred A. Malone (Founders Press: Cape Coral, FL, 1998)
[Available online at http://www.founders.org/library/malone1/string.html]
Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.
Pastor of All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA www.allsaintspresbyterian.com
In A String of Pearls Unstrung: A Theological Journey into Believers' Baptism, Dr. Malone writes persuasively and brings the fruit of years of consideration to the table in this small work. Though one would await a more substantial defense of his major ideas, this booklet is both concise in its arguments and fairly comprehensive of the relevant issues and passages. In Dr. Malone's own pilgrimage, he notes that John Murray's Christian Baptism(1) originally convinced him of the paedobaptist position. Then after serving as a Presbyterian (PCA) pastor, he found in his infant baptism position "many inconsistencies that, for whatever reasons, I did not find in seminary" (9). As a result of his change of conviction he resigned from the PCA and has served for many years as a Southern Baptist pastor. He has significantly contributed to the leadership of the Founders' Movement, a revival of the Calvinist Baptist theology which was embraced by the founders of the SBC.
He notes that T.E. Watsons's, Should Infants be Baptized? and David Kingdon's The Children of Abraham were helpful in articulating the objections he had with paedobaptism.(2) While he writes that A String of Pearls Unstrung is "not intended to be a definitive work on baptism" (7) - one certainly feels the pressure which a good representative of the Baptist cause can muster against the Reformed paedobaptistic viewpoint. There is no question that many Baptists acquainted with the issue will find consolation in this work. It will, no doubt, raise questions from Presbyterians and Reformed folks, too. In brief, Dr. Malone presents a stirring case because of his personal pilgrimage, his theological informedness, and the allure of his exegetical particulars.
Malone begins by describing his once held view of infant baptism as pearls strung on the necklace of good and necessary inference. In the end, after his demolition, he describes the Reformed doctrine of infant baptism as a "string of twine around the neck of a princess" (55). In order to crush each pearl and fray the string, the text begins with a preface which argues from the Great Commission and the regulative principle.(3) His central point is that the baptism of disciples/confessors and not of infants is "the only form of baptism....which was 'instituted' and 'prescribed in the Holy Scripture...'(8). Then after an autobiographic introduction referencing the paedocommunion question, he addresses each of the "pearls"-- 1 covenant theology, 2 the relationship between circumcision and baptism, 3 specific proof texts (Acts 2:39, and household baptism texts of Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, Stephanas, and Crispus), 4 Jesus' attitude toward children, 5 the sanctification of believers' children (1Co 7:14), 6 the disjunction of John's and Jesus' baptism with Christian baptism, 7 the argument of silence, 8 the argument of expanded blessings, and 9 the testimony of tradition. He closes with a conclusion which appeals especially to Baptists who may be tempted to seek greener Presbyterian pastures.
As I have reflected on Dr. Malone's work, two principles emerge which account his rejection of infant baptism: a formal principle and a material principle.(4)
1. The formal principle is hermeneutical. It involves his view of the implicit authority of Scripture at the intersect of the NT silence on infant baptism and the explicit believers' baptism texts. Malone denies the arguments supportive of infant baptism repeatedly because each relies on "good and necessary consequence" (13, 45, 46, 55). He reasons in this way, "The precepts of confessors' baptism expressly prohibit infants from the covenant sign by their positive delineation of confessing subjects (Mt. 28:18-20). To let silence concerning infant baptism overpower the clear precepts of confessors' baptism is a dangerous hermeneutical method and a clear violation of the regulative principle of worship" (46). This is the heart of Malone's argument. It depends on the following: (a) that the biblical commands for the ordinance exegetically require that only believers be baptized (per his understanding of Mat 28:19-20). And/or at least (b) a precept, command or example which teaches that a confessor ("believer") is to be baptized hermeneutically requires a denial of infant baptism - regardless of necessary inferences supporting infant baptism.
In response to (a), that the biblical commands for the ordinance require that only believers be baptized, Malone does not exegetically demonstrate this. He interprets Matthew 28:19 to require that only individual professing disciples are to be baptized, though he does not provide any exegetical rationale for his interpretive conclusion. Unwittingly in this, he draws what he takes to be a necessary inference to support his cause (though he is unhesitating in chiding paedobaptists for "good and necessary inferences").However, on the Great Commission he is simply mistaken on a basic grammatical level. When the Greek text of Matthew 28:19 says "Make disciples of all nations," there is no grammatical basis for saying that this means, "individuals from all nations, not national entities" (8); and that the "baptizing them" refers to "those who were made disciples" (8). Rather, it commands, "Disciple all nations, baptizing them (nations)." Matheteusate panta ta ethne (disciple all the nations) baptizontes autous, (baptizing them). The accusative case pronoun "them" (autous) refers to "nations" (ethne), the nearest and obvious noun referent. It cannot refer to "disciples." "Make disciples" is a verb (matheteusate). Given both the grammar of this command and the Jewish practices of proselytism in the minds of the original hearers, if the term "baptize" were replaced with "circumcise" -- I do not believe any first century Jewish Rabbi would have taken the intent in this command to exclude infant circumcision for the exclusive adult "disciple" circumcision.
Honesty with the text should require Baptists to admit that there is simply no command in explicit terms which requires the exclusive baptism of professing believers. Certainly no passages in the NT "expressly prohibit infants from the covenant sign" (46, my emphasis). It is a loose use of important words like "expressly," which makes Brother Malone assert that passages can "expressly prohibit infants from the covenant sign" (46, my emphasis), even if the words "infants" or "little children," etc., do not appear in the passages.
In response to (b), that a precept, command or example, of adult confessors' ("believers'") baptism amounts to a denial that an infant of a believer is to be baptized - regardless of inferences supporting infant baptism: I believe that Dr. Malone's view of the hermeneutical issue lacks an adequate appreciation for the original audience of the NT message. Hence, Pastor Malone has a hermeneutical log in his own eye, the (hermenuetical) horizon of the origianl audience is not considered.
To explain, observe that the lack of explicit reference goes both ways: there is no explicit case of the infant baptism of a believer's child (I readily admit); andneither is there an explicit case of the "professors' baptism" of a Christian's child who grows up and is "believer baptized." There is an absence of an explicit basis for both sides. This point is not appreciated (or even acknowledged) from the Baptist side. Most Baptist polemics just hammer away at the examples of the baptism of adults, as though this settles the case - ironically, the childless eunuch becomes the paradigm for settling the question of children. There is an even louder silence, however. If the situation had really been (as the Baptist argues) that there is no covenant sign of inclusion for children whatsoever, it is very remarkable that the Judaizers did not protest. If they protested against Gentiles (adults and children) not having to be circumcised, how much more would they have protested that their own infant children were no longer considered in covenant with God!
So then, I would argue that the absence of explicit infant baptism, is adequately accounted for if one considers the purpose of the narratives of baptism in Acts, and the religio-cultural mindset of the NT audience.(5) Conversely, if the NT reverses the millennia old pattern (inclusion of children in the signs of covenant), an explicit reference to the "confessors' baptism" of a believers' child needs to be present to correct the antecedent mindset of the NT audience. Such a reference is not present, in either command or example. Hence, given the specific dynamics of culture, antecedent mindset, and the pattern of previous covenant signs, the positive indications for "confessors" to be baptized do not logically or hermeneutically entail that only such confessors be baptized. We might call this theeunuch fallacy. These confessors are coming into faith in Messiah from outside of Christian faith. Therefore, these cases do not, of themselves, answer the issue of the baptism of a Christian's child.
The study of the pattern of household baptisms in the baptism narratives upsets the presumption of an individualistic Baptist perspective. The pattern is recognizable to the reader of the OT. Of the nine narrative passages on baptism, four are household baptisms, four other cases consisted of only adult men (Pentecost, eunuch, Paul, twelve disciples of John), and the other case is of "men and women" in Samaria.(6) When the gospel crossed to the Gentile territory, every baptism was a household baptism, except when we are expressly told that those present were "twelve men," who were Jews and not Gentiles, after all (Acts 19:7). The Gentile households of Cornelius, Lydia, the Jailor, Crispus, Stephanas and possibly Gaius (who is named, apparently, as a household head with Crispus, 1Co 1:14)(7) were all baptized. After seriously reflecting on this pattern, I am not at all persuaded that the "the precepts of confessors' baptism" confirm a radical change to an exclusive individual administration of the sign of entrance into the covenant.
It is very convenient for Dr. Malone to address the household cases of Cornelius, Lydia, the Jailor, Crispus, and Stephanas, as mere isolated "proof texts." (As though paedobaptists are grasping for "pearls" for their necklace of twine.) But Malone's response is inadequate because no consideration is given to the pattern of the household reception of baptism, as it relates to Luke's purpose. It is not as though we have a hundred cases of baptism and there are these exceptional, anomalous few household cases. We have nine individuals named; five clearly have their households baptized; two do not have households (eunuch, Saul); one is dubious (Simon); and Gaius is left (1Co 1:14, please notice the parallel with Crispus). This is not a promising set of statistics for the Baptists.
The quick reply that "but every member of the household believed" will not be persuasive to one who considers the exegetical particulars of the two household/believing cases (16:31-34, 18:8). Should we not ask whether the exegetical nuances of these texts support the individualist (Baptist) thesis or the covenant family thesis? Malone does not. In the Jailer passage (16:31-34) and the Corinthian passage with Crispus (18:8), the Greek texts use the singular verb, not the plural to describe the action of believing (pepisteukos is singular in 16:34 and episteusen is also singular in 18:8). These texts do not say, the Jailer (or Crispus) "and (kai)" his household believed (plural verb) - something Luke surely would have said if he was seeking to correct the covenantal household concept established in the previous 2000 years of biblical history. Rather, these texts teach what any OT person might have expected: the household head believed (singular verb) and his household was "with" (sun) him in that belief.
2. The material principle is theological. It involves Dr. Malone's view of the New Covenant. In his Baptistic covenant theology, the New Covenant differs from the previous administrations especially in the recipients of the covenant. Only regenerate people are covenanted with in the New Covenant. Hence, only regenerate people should receive the visible symbols of covenant membership, baptism and communion. We can only appropriately diagnose their regenerative state by their profession; ergo, "confessor's baptism." In the formulation of "confessors' baptism" or "professors' baptism," which he prefers over "believers' baptism," Dr. Malone is likely grappling with the issue of presumption. Warfield framed the point, "... no one, however rich his manifestation of Christian graces, is baptized on the basis of infallible knowledge of his relation to Christ. All baptism is inevitably administered on the basis, not of knowledge, but of presumption."(8)
The chief evidence for Malone's view is (a) summarized on p. 19, "Therefore, based on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and its description of regeneration in the New Covenant participants, and in light of Christ's definition of the entrance requirements to the kingdom (Jn. 3:5, 6) and church (Mt. 16:16-18), I cannot say that children of believers are 'in' the New Covenant or church or kingdom or 'God's people' until they show, by outward confession, evidence of regeneration." Malone's view entails that the New Covenant has no covenant breakers and there are thus no stipulations for judgment. (b) Another component of this argument is given on p. 19 under the heading, The New Covenant Sacrifice. He reasons, "If Christ's sacrifice is offered up only for His elect people as the 'New Covenant in My blood' (Lk. 22:20; Mk. 14:24), how can the unregenerate children of believers be said to be 'in' the New Covenant, church and kingdom without an effectual Mediator? They cannot" (20).
On 2a, there are many passages in the NT which teach the possibility of apostasy from the visible covenant community (Heb 6:1-4, 10:28-30, Joh 15:2, 6, Rom 11:21). There are many passages which teach that the New Covenant has stipulations for judgment (Mat 16:19, 1Co 11:29-30, 34, Heb 10:30-31, 1Pe 4:17). There are many passages which teach that the kingdom includes regenerate and unregenerate (Mat 8:12, 13:24-31, 41, 47-50, 21:43, 25:1-13, Luk 13:28, Rev 11:15). And virtually every prophecy and exposition of the New Covenant ostensibly includes the children of believers in the New Covenant (Deu 30:6, Jer 30:9, 30:18-22, 31:1, 31:17, 31:33-37, 32:15-18, 32:37-40, 33:22-26, Zech 10:6-9, Joel 2:1-29, Isaiah 44:3, 59:20-21, Mal 4:5-6, Luk 1:17, 2:49-50, Acts 2:39, Acts 3:25, 13:32-33, Rom 4:13-17). In Dr. Malone's discussion of the locus classicus of the New Covenant, Jeremiah 31:31-34, he does not include or make reference to verses 35-37 which emphatically include the offspring of Israel in the New Covenant promise:
Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day, And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: 36 "If this fixed order departs From before Me," declares the LORD, " Then the offspring of Israel also shall cease From being a nation before Me forever. " 37 Thus says the LORD, "If the heavens above can be measured, And the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done," declares the LORD.We have God's own promise of the inclusion of "the offspring of Israel" in the covenant. This prophetic word is at least as good as the minor child's "profession" of faith, as to their inclusion in His visible people.
Hence, Pastor Malone's exposition of the nature and recipients of the New Covenant and Christ's New Covenant kingdom is rather selective. His view fails to be comprehensive of all that Scripture teaches on these subjects. Hence, I believe that as we strive to embrace a fully systematic view of the New Covenant, we must insist that the New Covenant Church (the covenant community) has regenerate and unregenerate. We must distinguish between its visible and invisible realities. Likewise, the kingdom, as the domain and rule of our Savior-King, involves His rule over both regenerate and unregenerate, at least in this present interadvental age. Jesus says this, in rather plain language, "The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, 42 and will cast them into the furnace of fire; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mat 13:41-42). Finally, the New Covenant proper is the treaty words or stipulations of God's relationship to His people, that is of the NT administration of his covenant of grace. Is the covenant purely for the invisible people of God? No. Both its signs are given, as visible signs to visible people. Does that covenant include stipulations of wrathful judgment and cursing for visible members of the covenant community who are finally unregenerate? The whole book of Hebrews witnesses against Dr. Malone on this point, especially verses 10:28-31.
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY." And again, "THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE." 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:28-30)On 2b, the New Covenant sacrifice argument, Dr. Malone argues that one cannot be "'in' the New Covenant or church without an effectual Mediator" and so "how can the unregenerate children of believers be said to be 'in' the New Covenant, church and kingdom without an effectual Mediator?"(20). His argument in syllogistic form is as follows:
All New Covenant Church members have effectual redemption.This is a logically valid argument, but the first premise is false. Malone admits (in the same paragraph), "false professors were addressed as members of the church" (20). The equivocation is obvious: Malone, in the first part of the argument appeals to the invisible-spiritual, church membership; but his intended conclusion extends to the visible church, namely, no unregenerate infant is part of the visible church. Brother Malone has simply equivocated on his concept of the church in the argument.
Unregenerate infants do not have effectual redemption.
Therefore, unregenerate infants are not New Covenant Church members.
All Calvinists agree that no elect person (finally) will be without an effectual Mediator; but this is not to admit that all that are in the visible church have effectual particular redemption. Neither is Malone able to baptize only those who have such a redemption. Again, as Warfield says, all baptism is performed on the basis of presumption. Malone is simply in error: no "violence is done to the doctrine of particular redemption," since the invisible church alone is in view in particular redemption.(9)
Dr. Malone begs the question when he qualifies his argument by saying these unregenerate church members are "addressed on the basis of their profession, not on the basis of their parents' faith" (20). The question we are attempting to settle is whether (according to Scripture) such minor children are accounted as visible church members on the basis their covenantal relationship to believing parents - to stipulate that no member of the visible church is such "on the basis of their parents' faith" is simply petitio principii. This is the conclusion of the argument (which Malone still has not proven), not the proof of the Baptistic conclusion.
It is unfortunate that Malone speaks of the OT saints as though they are separate and distinct from Christ's sacrifice for "the Church." He says that by the inclusion of the infant seed of believers "severe violence is done to the biblical truth that 'Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her'" (20). But the Church (ekklesia) was in the wilderness (Acts 7:38; Deu 4:10, 18:16 LXX), as visible and invisible. Did not Christ die for His elect in the OT Church (Rom 3:25)? And did they not account their little ones as part of the visible Church, according to the very command of God? God clearly put such infants in His visible Church in Abraham's day. They have not been put out. They have not been put out by God, that is.
Hence my conviction is that no argument can be developed to exclude the infants of believers from the NT visible Church which does not truly do violence to the continuity of the people of God in both testaments. If one objects at this point, the objector is back with Brother Scofield, maintaining two peoples of God, two plans of salvation, and two radically different ecclesiologies.
The Fundamental Critique
The most fundamental response then is: (a) Malone, I believe, is exegetically mistaken on the warrant for exclusive professors' baptism. (Mat 28:19, Jer 31:31ff).(10) He has not shown his view grammatically from Matthew 28:19 and he has not shown his view contextually from Jeremiah 31:31ff (remember the verses defining "My people," inclusive of their little ones, which come before and after Jer 31:31-34). (b) It is a hermeneutical flaw of no small proportion that he grounds the positive case for exclusive confessors' baptism on texts which do not address the exclusion of infants.
Malone argues that since only regenerate individuals are in the kingdom, church, and covenant - the infant children of believers cannot be assumed to be in the kingdom, church and covenant (this is an inference). Then he takes the texts which, prima facia, refer to children as part of the kingdom, church, and covenant and provides an alternate (or several alternate) interpretations.(11) So, he treats the texts which do address the status of children in a purely ad hoc manner, i.e., the paedobaptist is grasping for proof-text-pearls. So long as he can provide a crack in the door of these passages, the Baptist is by no means forced to stay in the house of paedobaptism.
But, with all the exegetical clout Dr. Malone seeks to wield, and with all the infractions of hermeneutical procedure he so quickly accuses paedobaptists of, he cannot find one text which addresses children in the NT and then show that the exegetical point is that such little ones are now excluded from the visible church, or covenant, or kingdom. But should we not build our view on the status of children in the new age from texts which actually address the status of children? It is a matter of significant theological incoherence that while Dr. Malone denies paedobaptism the right of using good and necessary inferences, His position must be inferred from what He believes to be the nature of the New Covenant. Hence, the fatal reductio ad absurdum of Malone's view is that he denies the validity of making implications for infant baptism, while at the same time he can only infer the exclusion of infants. His case is a string of inference, too. However, it is not "good" or "necessary."
I believe that the Reformed paedobaptists can argue that children are included from the explicit inclusion of children in the covenant (Deu 30:6, Jer 31:36-37), church (Eph 6:1-4, 1Co 7:14), and kingdom (Mat 19:14, Mar 10:14, Luk 18:16). And we can argue from truly necessary inferences(12) - drawing upon the continuity of the church and covenant and even the examples of baptism (which are consistent with the previous administration of the covenant sign, to households). The string of twine that Dr. Malone described, upon examination, seems a more apt description of his view. Such a view has a visible and invisible covenant community (the church), but a covenant membership of only regenerate individuals. It has a kingdom rule of Christ over wheat and tares, but only wheat are addressed in the covenant stipulations. It has an ecclesiology which admits visible and invisible membership, but a (covenant) theology which admits only regenerate membership. So, I bid my dear Baptist brethren to return to the opulent jewelry of God's great kingdom, and his marvelous tokens of the covenant of grace. The string that I perceive still has a golden luster in the light of the full revelation of God's precious Word.
[A more detailed critique is
1. Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980.
2. I refer the reader to my critique of both these books at http://www.wordmp3.com/gs.
3. The regulative principle of worship, drawn from the Westminster Confession 21:1, is that only that which God prescribes is legitimate in worship. It is most important to remember that what is warranted in Scripture "is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture" (WCF 1:6).
4. These are not Dr. Malone's terms. They are my synopsis of his rationale. For those unfamiliar with "formal" and "material" causes (from the Aristotelian categories), in the Reformation, sola Scriptura was considered the "formal principle" because Scripture is the "formula" or blueprint. Sola fide was the "material principle" because the protest of Luther was essentially made up of this fundamental article. It was the matter from which the movement was made.
5. Luke indicates the pattern of expansion from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth, in v 1:8; the baptismal narratives follow this pattern. More specific detail on this is given in my Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It, available at http://www.wordmp3.com/gs/infantbaptism.htm.
6. See what follows for more discussion on the significance of both men and women being baptized in Samaria http://www.wordmp3.com/gs/malonemore.htm.
7. I refer the reader to my discussion of this in Infant Baptism: Does the Bible Teach It? (above)
8. The Polemics of Infant Baptism in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. IX (Baker, 1991 ).
9. I challenge any student of logic to take Malone's arguments (19-20) and try to form a cogent syllogism which proves the conclusion of Malone.
10. This assertion is supported in scrupulous detail in the two other works on baptism www.wordmp3.com/gs/baptism.htm www.wordmp3.com/gs/infantbaptism.htm
11. Please observe that Malone offers mutually exclusive interpretations of some texts (39-40). E.g., on Eph 6:1-4, he says Paul (a) could have been addressing only the children who are regenerate members or (b) he could have been addressing the children who are unregenerate non-covenant members. He must say it is either (a) or (b) because if he admits that it is both, he is saying the same thing as the paedobaptist view: namely, the children of believers are visible church members, including both regenerate and unregenerate. I think that it is Malone who is "grasping for straws" (40).
12. A necessary inference is a logically valid argument from true premises, such as: 1. the children of believers are covenant members; 2. covenant members are to receive the entrance sign of the covenant; therefore (this follows necessarily from the premises) the children of believers are to receive the entrance sign of the covenant.