The Baptism of Disciples Alone: Book Review

Fred Malone’s book makes the case for believer’s baptism

Fred Malone’s The Baptism of Disciples Alone from Founders Press is a critical examination of paedobaptism and a compelling argument for the practice of believers-only baptism, also known as credobaptism. In each chapter Malone presents the case for credobaptism, contrasts it to the arguments for infant baptism, and constantly appeals to the words of Scripture as the final arbiter between the two.

The below review is not meant to dive deep into the arguments Malone makes, but instead to give a summary of how he approaches this important conversation. My hope is that I will give enough information to encourage you to pick up a copy yourself, without making the error of attempting to distill an entire book into a book review.

The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism

Fred Malone has examined the issue of credobaptism and paedobaptism from inside and out on both accounts. His defense of credobaptism is written with kindness and understanding along with a firm persuasion of the truth of the baptism of believers only. Exegetically, doctrinally, and ecclesiologically this book gives clarity to a debate that is now some centuries old.

A Brief Sketch of The Baptism of Disciples Alone

Malone, who spent several years as a Presbyterian minister before returning to his prior Baptist convictions, certainly has enough experience with paedobaptism to summarize the doctrine accurately. Even so, he wisely allows a prominent proponent of infant baptism to present the case for its biblical standing.

“Christian love and integrity require that we avoid building ‘straw men’ when representing the views of those with whom we differ.”

To that end, Malone quotes John Murray’s Christian Baptism at length, at times summarizing and critiquing Murray’s position. However, he largely allows Murray to speak uninterrupted, saving his refutation of the points made for the proceeding chapters of the book.

By reviewing the case for infant baptism in this manner, Malone is able to zero in on the core of the Reformed paedobaptist argument as made by Murray:

Supporting as they [paedobaptists] do the assertion of the Westminster Confession that those teachings which “by good and necessary consequence” can be deduced from Scripture are as binding as those taught plainly and explicitly, they deduce from the relation between circumcision and baptism, from the covenantal character of the gospel and the Christian faith, and from statements regarding household salvation and baptism, the practice of paedobaptism. [1]

Are these various deductions valid? And if they are, is it appropriate to base such an important doctrine on inference? These are the questions that Malone asks and answers in the remaining chapters of his book, beginning with a brief look at several rules of biblical hermeneutics.

Principles for Interpreting Scripture

In chapter two, Malone discusses principles of properly interpreting Scripture and alleges that the case for paedobaptism is in violation of many of them, due to the lack of any explicit instruction regarding the baptism of infants in Scripture. Instead, the paedobaptist must make the claim that since the New Testament does not explicitly prohibit infant Baptism the conclusion based on “good and necessary consequence” is able to stand.

Additionally, Malone asserts that the practice of baptizing infants is in violation of the regulative principle of worship. This is especially significant since many Reformed believers, and particularly Presbyterian churches, hold to this principle. The regulative principle states that rather than being free to worship God in any way that is not expressly prohibited, believers are instead limited to worshipping Him in ways that are expressly prescribed in Scripture (Westminster Confession of Faith 21:1). Since baptism is a part of worship, we are not free to go beyond the words of Scripture in regard to how this ordinance is carried out and to whom it can be applied.

Without being uncharitable to those of the paedobaptist position the author clearly shows that the case for infant baptism is built on a weak foundation. Malone concludes “…supposed ‘good and necessary inference’ from the Old Testament cannot carry more weight than the New Testament command and example expressly set down in Scripture, especially for the ‘sacraments instituted by Christ Himself.” [2]

A String of Pearls Unstrung

It is admitted by even staunch paedobaptists like John Murray that the case for infant baptism must be made without “an overt and proven instance of infant baptism” in Scripture. [3] Instead, it requires a series of arguments that must be taken cumulatively in order to be persuasive.

Malone likens the case for infant baptism to a string of pearls, and he takes it upon himself to unstring these pearls one at a time. This is precisely what he does in the following chapters as he refutes the case for paedobaptist doctrine from the following angles: the covenant theology of the Bible, the relationship between circumcision and baptism, the proof texts concerning baptism, Jesus’ attitude towards children, the disjunction of the baptism of John and Christian baptism, the argument of silence, the argument of expanded blessings, and the testimony of tradition. [4]

[One particular proof text given in support of paedobaptism is Acts 2:39. For more on this, see my article Does Acts 2:39 Support Infant Baptism? A Baptist’s View.]

There is a separate pamphlet titled “A String of Pearls Unstrung” which can serve as a summarized version of this book. While a full summary for each of these eight ‘pearls’ is outside the scope of this review, several of the more significant arguments are discussed below.

To begin, Malone alleges that paedobaptists have overstepped Biblical boundaries in their covenant theology, an error which is necessary to justify the practice of infant baptism and one that accounts for the significant differences between different paedobaptist proponents.

[Learn more about the theological reasons for the difference between paedobaptist and credobaptist views in my article The Source of the Baptism Debate]

This problem, as Malone sees it, can be summarized in three points:

First, infant baptism proponents are using the Old Testament to interpret the New, rather than the other way around.

Secondly, paedobaptists recognize unity between the Old and New Covenant while largely missing the distinct differences between the two.

Third, paedobaptist covenant theology fails to see that the New Covenant is effectual, with guaranteed blessings for every member (and therefore limited to believers). [5]

Because of these errors, paedobaptists wrongly equate Old Testament circumcision with New Testament baptism. As a result, they conclude that the New Covenant includes organic relations (infant children) just as the Old Covenant did (as signified by the act of circumcision).

However, Scripture does not equate circumcision and baptism but instead teaches that “the fulfilled circumcision of the New Covenant is regeneration.”[6] This conclusion is supported by passages such as

Colossians 2:11-12
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Romans 2:28-29
For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.

Therefore, the New Covenant correlation with Old Covenant circumcision is decidedly not baptism. Rather, physical circumcision was replaced by a spiritual circumcision of the heart. Therefore, baptism is to be reserved for those who have experienced this work of the Spirit.

From here, Malone rather quickly describes and refutes the claim that household baptisms in the New Testament lend credibility to the practice of infant baptism. In short, infants are not mentioned in any of these cases, and with Crispus (Acts 18:8) and Stephanus (1 Cor 1:16; 16:15) it is clear that these households demonstrated conscious belief before their baptisms.

In the next two chapters, Malone discusses the validity of several proof-texts given for infant baptism, as well as the appeal to Jesus’ attitude toward children as reasons for baptizing infants. In each instance, the passages are shown to be inconclusive at best. Even John Murray states that these examples “do not provide us with an express command to baptize infants.” [7]

Malone is then able to repeatedly demonstrate that the case for paedobaptism relies heavily on the concept of “good and necessary consequence” rather than Scriptural example. In fact, some point to the fact that the Bible is silent on infant baptism as support for it; since it is not excluded it can be included, they argue. However, this is shown to be a poor argument, as these same groups adhere to the Regulative Principle in other areas of worship and do not use such faulty logic in other areas of doctrine.

Having unstrung the other pearls, Malone closes his refutation of paedobaptism by looking at history and tradition. Many point to the Magisterial Reformers’ adherence to infant baptism as evidence for its validity, despite a lack of Biblical support. This is ironic, given that these same men rightly found fault in Roman Catholicism for doing just that.

Still, even the historical evidence is not found to be strongly in favor of infant baptism. The first explicit teaching on the matter comes to us from Tertullian (circa 200 A.D.) who actually encouraged churches to delay the baptism of young children. [8]

The Didache, which was written between 100 and 125 A.D., contains specific instructions for the performance of baptism. In no way does it either describe or prescribe infant baptism. Just like the previous pearls on the string, this argument also fails to give substantive, compelling justification for paedobaptism.

In a chapter titled “What Difference Does it Make?” Malone gets to the importance of the issue at hand. While Reformed churches that practice infant baptism most certainly do so in good faith and recognize that the act is not salvific, they are practicing baptism in a way that is not authorized by Scripture.

As a result, the church is not comprised of disciples but is instead a mix of regenerate and unregenerate, a reality has many negative consequences. While the same can occur in credobaptist churches, this is due to fallibility in evaluating another’s profession of faith rather than by design. As Malone states, “A church of regenerate disciples is our goal; a good confession before baptism is our method.”

Malone concludes his book and the story of his return to Baptist convictions after years as a Presbyterian minister with a clear statement of Scriptural baptism: “baptism is the outward sign of entrance into the New Covenant by the inward circumcision of the heart, the circumcision of Christ.”[9] Because Scripture teaches that we are to baptize disciples alone, Malone encourages those in the ministry—particularly Baptists—to hold fast to teaching and practicing credobaptism.

My Evaluation of The Baptism of Disciples Alone

As a Baptist by conviction, I find The Baptism of Disciples Alone to be an immensely helpful overview of this debate. It simultaneously provides a clear and thorough refutation of paedobaptism while simultaneously building the Biblical case for credobaptism.

While he certainly does not hold back in analyzing the weakness of the paedobaptist position, Malone discusses this controversial topic with a respectful and gracious tone. He does not resort to ad hominem attacks or the use of straw man arguments to make his points. Rather, he states the opposing viewpoint accurately and then constantly draws the reader to Scripture, showing that such conclusions simply are not warranted by an unbiased reading of the text.

Of the many personal takeaways from this book, this is perhaps one of the most important. The format and style of the book provided a close examination of each side of the argument and a firm (but not vicious) refutation of the paedobaptist view. Malone is certainly to be commended and emulated at this point.

Even though we hold to credobaptism as firmly as our Presbyterian brothers and sisters hold to paedobaptism, there is still room for cooperation and unity in a great number of areas. As the Baptist C.H. Spurgeon put it:

If I disagree with a man on 99 points, but happen to be one with him in baptism—this can never furnish such ground of unity as I have with another with whom I believe in 99 points, and only happen to differ upon one ordinance. [10]

While we who deny the validity of infant baptism should not compromise on this important point, we also should not sever our relationships with those who promote and practice it. There are still many points of agreement between us, and we can enjoy a spirit of cooperation in a great number of ways as we proclaim the gospel of Jesus and train up His followers.

That being said, The Baptism of Disciples Alone does an excellent job in exposing the stark contrast between the paedobaptist and credo positions. By showing the weakness of the former and the strength of the latter, this book is an excellent defense of believers-only baptism.

[1] Malone, Fred A. The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism. (Founders Press, Cape Coral, Florida, 2003), 21.

[2] 45.

[3] Part of a quote from John Murray given on page 12.

[4] 48.

[5] 69.

[6] 108.

[7] 143.

[8] 172-173.

[9] 181.

[10] Sword and Trowel, XXIV, 1883, p. 83

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