James Henley Thornwell's View of How to Treat Covenant Children

Discussion in 'Covenant Theology' started by B.L. McDonald, Mar 22, 2019.

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  1. B.L. McDonald

    B.L. McDonald Puritan Board Freshman

    Hello friends,

    The good exchange over on the General Pattern of Baptism in the NT thread made me interested to learn more about some of the views our Reformed Presbyterian friends have regarding covenant children and how they are to be regarded and I came across an article tonight that had a very interesting passage from The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell.

    As highly regarded as Thornwell is I imagine this quote is familiar to some here. Whether you've interacted with it before or it's the first time you've read it, what is your reaction to it? Can anyone shed light from a historical theology perspective whether this view is/was popular in some pockets of American Presbyterianism? Are there many flavors/stripes within covenant theology today?

    Thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts on this! I very much appreciate it. I've learned a lot this past week from everyone and am thankful for you all.

    At last...here's the passage, which can be found in pages 341-346 of the volume here.

    But in heart and spirit they [that is, the baptized covenant infants] are of the world. In this aspect, how is she to treat them? Precisely as she treats all other impenitent and unbelieving men—she is to exercise the power of the keys, and shut them out from the communion of the saints. She is to debar them from all the privileges of the inner sanctuary. She is to exclude them from their inheritance until they show themselves meet to possess it. By her standing exclusion of them from the Lord’s table, and of their children from the ordinance of Baptism, she utters a solemn protest against their continued impenitence, and acquits herself of all participation in their sins. It is a standing censure. Their spiritual condition is one that is common with the world. She deals with them, therefore, in this respect, as the Lord has directed her to deal with the world…. Is not their whole life a continued sin? Are not their very righteousnesses abominable before God? Repentance to them is not the abandonment of this or that vice; it is the renunciation of the carnal heart, which is enmity against God: and, until they are renewed in the spirit and temper of their minds, they can do nothing which the Church is at liberty to approve as done by them…. As of the world they are included in the universal sentence of exclusion, which bars the communion of saints against the impenitent and profane. They are sharers in its condemnation. They are put, as impenitent, upon the same footing with all others that are impenitent. As rejecters of Christ, they are kept aloof from the table of the Lord, and debarred from all the rights and privileges of the saints. Their impenitence determines the attitude of the Church towards them; for God has told her precisely what the attitude should be to all who obey not the Gospel. What more can be required? Are they not dealt with, in every respect, according to their quality?.... Is it not equally clear that their condition, as slaves, determines their treatment in all other respects, until they are prepared to pass the test which changes their status? Is not this precisely the state of things with the Church and its baptized believers? Are they not the slaves of sin and the Devil, existing in a free Commonwealth for the purpose of being educated to the liberty of the saints?...But, until they come to Him, it as distinctly teaches that they are to be dealt with as the Church deals with all the enemies of God.
  2. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Junior

    I suspect many on this board of Thornwell's persuasion on baptism will bristle at such language. Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.
  3. TheOldCourse

    TheOldCourse Puritan Board Sophomore

    I hope that you read the rest of this section in Thornwell as well, as taking these sentences by themselves gives a false impression of his thought. You not only left out his earlier remarks where he does indeed differentiate covenant children from the world, your "passage" is actually a series of statements spread over six pages without much of Thornwell's qualifying and contextualizing language.

    In context, I don't have a problem with his statements. Taken alone, I would.
  4. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Passages such as this (Dabney, too) are what pushed me towards Klaas Schilder's view on children and the covenant.
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  5. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Junior

    Fair enough. But I can't recall the paedobaptists on this board ever employing such language of the children of believers. As the General Pattern of Baptism in the NT thread shows, many are absolutely loath to speak of their children as unbelieving and unregenerate.
  6. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Junior

    Presumptive regeneration?

    Kuyper taught “the doctrine of presumed or assumptive regeneration by which he meant that a covenantal child is assumed to be a child of God until and unless the opposite becomes evident in his or her life. The 1834 seceders did not accept Kuyper’s position” (Henry Vander Kam, Schilder: Preserver of the Faith, p.14). There was in 1905 a denominational compromise on the subject, but in his later controversy with Kuyperian theology, “Schilder opposed Kuyper’s theory of ‘immediate regeneration.’ There was for him a failure to appreciate the regenerating Word” (“Always Obedient”, p.14). Schilder also opposed the theory of J.Ridderbos that God’s covenant was established in and through regeneration. One consequence of Kuyper’s teaching on baptism was that thousands of people grew up in the Reformed Churches who from the pulpit and within their Christian schools were addressed as if they were regenerate – had they not been taken to the font? Ministers baptising would think (or even say) “let’s hope it was a true baptism.” This view of baptism was commended as an ‘objective’ alternative to the ‘subjectivism’ which the older Puritan-inspired preaching brought to regeneration. Yet while Schilder rejected Kuyper’s belief in the presumptive regeneration of the children of believers linked to their baptism Schilder’s own view, judged in pastoral and evangelistic terms, does not seem to be much different. Schilder linked their regeneration with the promises of God. Both emphases in the resulting groups of churches resulted in the children being treated as if they were regenerate.

    —Geoff Thomas, Banner of Truth Magazine, Jan. 1999, Learning from the Life of Dr. Klaas Schilder (Part II).
  7. JTB.SDG

    JTB.SDG Puritan Board Sophomore

    Good discussion.

    Off the cuff, I see some analogies in how we see/think of/interact with our precious covenant children and how our Savior saw/thought of/interacted with His disciples. It seems their understanding was progressive, through the gospels. They were like the blind man Jesus healed, who at first saw men walking around like trees. If you try to answer the question: When was he healed? It's not so easy necessarily. There is some mystery here. Would Jesus use the language above in speaking about Peter before he declared mid-way through the gospels: "Thou art the Christ"? On one level, perhaps. On another level, no way.

    It's worth noting that there is a wide range of thought on this question even within those who believe infants are in the covenant. Jonathan Edwards is said to have described covenant children as "little vipers". Others presume regeneration. Others still are more in the middle (if you can call it that) and see their children as set apart (1 Cor. 7) but don't presume anything until they begin to see some real evidence of their conversion (Beeke).

    - - -

    FYI, there may be some dispute about the Edwards quote: https://www.puritanboard.com/threads/vipers-in-covenantal-diapers.7043/

    - - -

    Another edit: Again, the Edwards quote may well be inaccurate or taken out of context. Even if it's not, it's not accurate to portray this as a common view (I didn't mean to do that). If anyone still holds this they would be an extreme minority. From what I know, the latter two views are the more traditional Reformed views.
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2019
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  8. B.L. McDonald

    B.L. McDonald Puritan Board Freshman

    Yes, there does seem to be a wide range of thought. This is what I was hoping to learn about. Do you know of any research that has been done to study the doctrinal development (or range of views) since the reformation? I'd be interested to see whether a particular view of covenant children was more common during a particular era or perhaps even in a particular place. Thank you for posting this brother.
  9. B.L. McDonald

    B.L. McDonald Puritan Board Freshman

    I take your point. My use of the word "passage" inadvertently gives the wrong impression since it is indeed not one long continuous body of text. However, I did note this was from the six page section that I hyperlinked. The text attributed to Thornwell in my OP was not synthesized by me, but by a Presbyterian minister who was critiquing Thornwell's position. I double checked the pages cited from Thornwell's Collected Works to make sure it was indeed cited accurately, but I did not read the whole volume. My hope was to make some of what Thornwell said accessible instead of asking everyone to read dozens of pages from an old archived scan that I hyperlinked.

    Since you are familiar with Thornwell's works would you say his views towards covenant children are representative of his time? Were there views common among Presbyterians in the South that differed from their contemporaries in the North?

    Have a great night!
  10. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    The difference is bigger than Thomas makes it out to be. For Kuyper you couldn't be baptized until you were regenerate. But he knew that an infant was not necessarily regenerate.

    Schilder rejected all of that. Schilder presumed upon the covenant promises. Thomas's last sentence in that quote is completely false. Kuyper didn't presume they were regenerate. He hoped they might be. He suspected they probably weren't. That's why if you go to Kuyperian churches today, a church of 800 might have 20 people take the Lord's Supper
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  11. jwithnell

    jwithnell Moderator Staff Member

    The church after the Reformation continued the practice of holding their children as part of the church. What drove the question in another direction had to do with the question of accepting an infant baptism from the Roman church. (Quite literally -- the re-baptisers.)

    The Puritans had formula for examining their children, everone really, for signs of faith. To some extent this seems a wise practice to avoid presumption. (I've reared my own children with a practice from this era, warning them they cannot be sure they'll live another moment, day, week or year -- that they could be making an accounting before God at any time.)

    It's possible that odd quotes from covenant theologians may be addressing the faulty notion of an age of innocence. This theology became part of the Friends, Mennonites, and others related to the Anabaptists.

    (Many modern protestants adopt this view without thinking. It is likely present in most main-line churches.)

    This distinctive cuts off the foundation of saving faith, for if one were to be born in innocence, why couldn't one continue? What's the need of a savior?

    Contrast that to the notion that each one of us is born in sin but as part of Christian homes and churches, are given every advantage in coming to faith through being present in the church, the teaching of the word, prayer, and discipline.

    No where in the OT, the early church, or the age of reformation do you see children excluded until they show some proof they should be included. Non-believing adults, certainly, our children? Never.
  12. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    I know of some neo-Puritans who would forbid their children to say the Lord's Prayer, for what right did these vipers have to call God their Father?
  13. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    Who were the ‘neo’ Puritans?
  14. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    In one lecture Gerstner said something like that. It was on "The Puritans" in his church history course. He specifically said they are vipers in diapers and putting "covenant" in front of it doesn't change anything. His words. The Neo-Puritans who specifically said that were old-timers in Mississsippi churches from a few decades ago.

    I also believe, but I am not 100%, that RCjr (I know, consider the source) mentioned that about Gerstner.
  15. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritan Board Doctor

    If you hold to Thornwell's position on this subject, then no matter how Reformed or Presbyterian you claim to be, you are a Baptist who drinks and smokes. :cheers: :detective:
  16. jwithnell

    jwithnell Moderator Staff Member

    I appreciated Dr. Gerstner's influencing a whole generation of young pastors to consider the puritans.

    In the late 80s, it seems like we saw a surge of folks that took extremes either making no distinction between children and adults (paedocommunion such as at Tyler, Texas) or driving a wedge between younger and more mature believers.
  17. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Junior

    Well, a Baptist that drinks, smokes, and sprinkles your baby anyway. Are you being facetious or sincere? You don't really think those espousing Thornwell's view are unworthy to be called Presbyterian? Do you?
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2019
  18. Contra_Mundum

    Contra_Mundum Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger Staff Member

    The diversity of opinions on this or any other subject within the Presbyterian world is no more suggestive of the truth of any one of those opinions based on its "resonance" with a dominant opinion found in another circle;

    than, for example, the lawfulness of allowing a Presbyterian--baptized at three weeks--to commune at the Lord's Table in a Baptist church, may be determined by comparing some Baptist writer's opinion on the subject to the dominant practice (open or closed communion) in some other ecclesiastical grouping.

    The most that could be said about JHT's published views on a proper regard for non-communicant Presbyterian children is that some analysis finds resonance with other theologians in diverse traditions that include English and N.E. Puritanism, Baptists of various times and places, besides his own Presbyterian stream.

    Arguing that his views are more X than Y (in mixed company, if not always) is a bit of stereotype.
  19. Kinghezy

    Kinghezy Puritan Board Freshman

  20. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritan Board Doctor

    Both at the same time. Thornwell's adoption of what appears to be presumptuous unregeneration stands in stark contrast to what he we read in the Westminster Assembly's Directory for the Publick Worship of God:

    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, and right to the seal of it, and to the outward privileges of the church, under the gospel, no less than the children of Abraham in the time of the Old Testament; the covenant of grace, for substance, being the same; and the grace of God, and the consolation of believers, more plentiful than before: That the Son of God admitted little children into his presence, embracing and blessing them, saying, For of such is the kingdom of God: That children, by baptism, are solemnly received into the bosom of the visible church, distinguished from the world, and them that are without, and united with believers; and that all who are baptized in the name of Christ, do renounce, and by their baptism are bound to fight against the devil, the world, and the flesh: That they are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized: ...
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  21. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritan Board Doctor

    One of the funniest things I ever read was the passage in Thornwell's Life and Letters were he was given a cheap cigar, began smoking it, but threw it out the window on the basis that if a man could smoke it, he could steal.

    Edit: you may find the anecdote here. It seems that B. M. Palmer was the victim.
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2019
  22. ZackF

    ZackF Puritan Board Graduate

    Maybe the "children are to be seen but not heard" customs of Thornwell's day played a roll in the assumptions of most Christians. I admit to shooting in the dark here.
  23. Tom Hart

    Tom Hart Puritan Board Junior

    I should hope that any Christian, Presbyterian, Baptist or otherwise would be loath to speak so.

    My child belongs to God.
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  24. C. M. Sheffield

    C. M. Sheffield Puritan Board Junior

    And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.—Matthew 3:9

    I certainly hope your child belongs to God. However, it must be clear, your child in no way belongs to God unless or until they have received and rested upon Christ alone for salvation, as he is offered in the gospel. And I would urge you to never rest assured of their spiritual condition until you see the clear fruits of regeneration in their lives.
  25. Tom Hart

    Tom Hart Puritan Board Junior

    It is a good thing that most who hold the Baptistic position do not take it to its logical ends.
  26. Jeri Tanner

    Jeri Tanner Moderator Staff Member

    A turning point for me was the consideration of Paul’s instruction to the children of the church as church members. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.” It’s the model for how we are to think of and speak to them- with an expectation that they can understand and take instruction to heart as disciples. Just as adult church members should be, our children should be encouraged with gospel promises and warnings to trust and love and obey the Lord.
  27. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritan Board Doctor

    Yes, we should treat the children of believers with the same charity that we extend to all members of the visible church. This approach does not require us to believe in presumptuous regeneration, because there will always be Esaus as well as Jacobs among the natural seed of believers. But since God has promised to be a God unto us and to our elect seed after us, we may expect that our children are among the elect, just as we expect our fellow adult members of the visible church to be among the elect (though some may be hypocrites).
    Last edited: Mar 25, 2019
  28. Blueridge Believer

    Blueridge Believer Puritan Board Professor

    Amen dear brother
  29. BayouHuguenot

    BayouHuguenot Puritan Board Doctor

    Here are some conversations I've had with those familiar with the Netherlands Reformed Church (whose conclusions weren't that different from Southern Presbyterians).

    "I have a large contingent of relatives who are, in fact, believing people, and godly in their lives. Some have never missed a church service in 80 years. Nevertheless, under the influence of this Puritan theology, they have lived all their lives doubting their salvation. And because they lack assurance, they never dare to take the Lord’s Supper. I have sat with them on their death beds, and watched as they died in terror, afraid of being damned. And after they were laid in the casket, their relatives were in terrible distress and despair over their loved ones. I find that doubt to be wicked. So, it is not just a theological matter for me, but a very practical matter."

    A typical sermon would consist of about 45 minutes of exposition of the text. Then they would sing a psalm. Then would come the Application, which might go on for another 30 minutes and which was largely designed to convict the hearer of his wretchedness.

    People told me that weddings were a sad thing. Why? Because weddings lead to babies and babies are going to grow up to go to hell.

    Everything was dark and gloomy in that church. No assurance of salvation. Needed a testimony of your EXPERIENCE to come to the Table, a testimony that would pass the elders' scrutiny. And the young men were pretty loose morally. Who wouldn't be? You're going to hell anyway, most likely.
  30. Reformed Covenanter

    Reformed Covenanter Puritan Board Doctor

    That quote is from David Engelsma, is it not?
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