May 25, 2023

Derek Thomas on Marcel, Murray, and Infant Baptism

Stephen Nichols & Derek Thomas
Derek Thomas on Marcel, Murray, and Infant Baptism

Presbyterians and Baptists both have the same Bible, but at times they reach different conclusions. Today on the Open Book podcast, Stephen Nichols is joined by Derek Thomas to discuss several writings that led to his becoming a paedobaptist.

The books addressed in this episode include Baptism: Sacrament of the Covenant of Grace by Pierre-Charles Marcel and Christian Baptism by John Murray.


Dr. Stephen Nichols: Well, welcome back to another episode of Open Book. We’re once again with Dr. Thomas. We’ve been doing all these Brits, but we still have a Brit—we’ve got John Murray here we’re going to get to in a second—but we also have a Frenchman, Pierre Marcel. So, we’re breaking the British barrier, finally, and we’re crossing the English Channel.

Dr. Derek Thomas: With some tension.

Nichols: As we should expect—some tension.

Thomas: Because when I first read these books—these are two books on baptism—and I first read them in the spring of 1978. So, I have now married, I am in Mississippi at Reformed Theological Seminary, and I’m a Baptist—a Reformed Baptist.

Nichols: With being under the tutelage of Geoff Thomas, a very significant figure in the Reformed Baptists.

Thomas: Yes. And there was a book by David Kingdon, another Brit, called Children of Abraham, which for a long time was the—at least in British circles—was the definitive Reformed Baptist treatment of baptism, adult baptism, baptism on profession of faith from a covenantal and Reformed perspective, and arguing the case that circumcision in the Old Testament was first and foremost a badge of national and ethnic identity, and only secondarily was it significant as something spiritual—a necessary case, I think, for a Reformed Baptist understanding to imply discontinuity of practice from old covenant to new covenant. And that’s where I was. And I was basically an advocate of David Kingdon’s book, Children of Abraham.

Nichols: But you’re in a seminary that’s primarily more Presbyterian.

Thomas: Well, yes, almost totally and exclusively so, and certainly from the point of view of what was being taught in class. And I’m troubled by it.

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: So, I took an elective on baptism, a two-hour elective, and I had to write a paper, “Why I Am a Reformed Baptist.” And I was assigned twenty books on baptism, and they were the standard books, including Beasley-Murray’s book on baptism, Karl Barth on baptism, I remember Jeremias—Joachim Jeremias’ book on baptism—and also Pierre Marcel’s book, which you have in your hands.

Nichols: Which is a translation.

Thomas: Yes. And translated by . . .

Nichols: It says in here, “Translated from the French by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes.” And this was published by Mack Publishing Company in Cherry Hill, New Jersey—let’s see, 1953 . . .

Thomas: The year I was born.

Nichols: . . . was the translation published and reprinted in 1973.

Thomas: Well, this had, for me, some emotional personal content because Geoff Thomas, my mentor and friend, and I was planning to go back to Aberystwyth and work alongside Geoff Thomas as an assistant minister. And Geoff had graduated from Westminster Seminary in 1964–65 and knew Philip Edgcumbe Hughes because he had had classes by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes at Westminster Seminary.

Nichols: So these are two significant forces that are coming at you here from opposite ends, and you’re caught in the middle of thinking through all this.

Thomas: Yes. So the book has some of my comments.

Nichols: I noticed.

Thomas: And they’re comments that are coming from somebody who’s still thinking in terms of a Reformed Baptist point of view.

Nichols: I’ll tell you what clued me into that is the comment here on one of the pages that simply says, “No.” So, you write in the margin, “No, see Beasley-Murray, page 340.” So, these would be Baptist comments, I would say, coming from your Baptist self, but you kept reading and you kept studying. And you went on to Murray, then?

Thomas: Also part of my reading assignment was John Murray.

Nichols: So, this is 1974. It’s falling apart—the book itself has literally come unglued. So the interior of the book has come unglued from the cover. It was published in 1974 by P&R, Presbyterian and Reformed, and you’ve stamped very plainly here on the title page, “This book is the property of Derek W.H. Thomas,” so it’s very clear.

Thomas: I took full ownership rights of my book.

Nichols: If someone was going to take your book, they were going to have a lot of guilt.

Thomas: And students were notorious for borrowing books and not giving them back.

Nichols: I can testify to that.

Thomas: I remember purchasing one of these rubber stamps that you would stamp: “This book belongs to Derek Thomas.” And you could buy these.

Nichols: Yes, and you did.

Thomas: And for a long time I did that.

Nichols: You did do that. I see it; the evidence is right here. You know, tucked inside this book—and you have some margin notes here too—but tucked inside this book are two loose leaves from the old Presbyterian Guardian, with articles written by Murray, his nice little picture there: “Is Infant Baptism Scriptural?” and this is from December 1938, and an article earlier that year, August 1938, “Why We Baptize Infants.” So that’s a nice little treasure stuck. You should stamp this, “Property of.”

Thomas: I should.

Nichols: This could disappear, too, you know. So was it Murray that was helpful? Well, let’s not say helpful.

Thomas: Not initially. John Murray was troubling to me on one level.

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: His use of the argument, “Suffer the little children to come into me for of such”—toióutos, I think, in Greek—“is the kingdom of God.” And he makes a very big case that Jesus is actually saying that the kingdom is made up of infants like these, the brephos, the suckling infants, infants who can’t talk. And he made a big case of it. And I thought: “This is making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s making a whole cake out of a few grains of wheat.”

Nichols: And there could be some dangerous implications there, or some unhelpful implications there.

Thomas: Yes. I have since gone back to John Murray, and I do think that he makes the case for the suspicion that I always felt that the paedobaptist argument had—that you were necessarily making a case for regeneration. And there’s no doubt that Murray does say some things. There are some sentences in the book that I still find disagreement with. And you found an email.

Nichols: There is an email tucked in here. Conversation you had. Shall he remain nameless?

Thomas: No, let’s out him.

Nichols: This is Ligon Duncan.

Thomas: This is Ligon Duncan. This is in 19—when was it? 2004.

Nichols: Did they have email in 2004? Yes, so this is April 1, 2004: “To Derek Thomas from Ligon Duncan,” and the subject line is “John Murray.”

Thomas: “John Murray.” And Ligon is taking odds with John Murray, which is brave, on some issues.

Nichols: But he’s also quoting the confession here, so he’s trying to say there might be a better way. I do think—you know, I come from a Baptist background; my father’s a Baptist pastor, and I think a lot of people who’ve migrated to the Reformed world—but those who aren’t to the Presbyterian side of things and on the infant baptism side of things, for those who haven’t migrated there, I think they just harbor suspicions that most people who have infant baptism have a sort of nascent view of regeneration going on there. And it’s helpful sometimes to just address that.

Thomas: Yes. And for me, doing this course, this elective on baptism and having to write a defense of why I was a Reformed Baptist, which I did—and then within a week it began to fall apart. It wasn’t because there was one sentence in Murray or one text in Pierre Marcel’s book that I hadn’t seen before.

Nichols: Right.

Thomas: Actually, there weren’t any texts that I hadn’t seen before and hadn’t thought about, but it was more of a gestalt. It was more of a way of putting all the pieces together. And you kept looking at these pieces that were lying on the table and you think, “No, that’s a rabbit eating an Easter egg.” And then you look away and you look at it again and, “No, it’s a witch on a broomstick.”

Nichols: Right. No, I get it.

Thomas: It’s the same pieces, same information, but just a different way of putting it.

Nichols: Your paradigm is changing.

Thomas: Yes. And it really was that. But I found myself unable to make the case for discontinuity of practice from old covenant to new covenant. And Jeremiah 31 was particularly important for me.

Nichols: The consistency of the covenant, the continuity, not the discontinuity—that is the puzzle piece, I think, for many.

Thomas: So, I remember writing to Geoff Thomas after I’ve suddenly realized, “I think I’m a paedobaptist, whatever that means.” And I still believe in Reformed theology and covenant theology, which I’d always done, really from the time that I began to think theologically at all after my conversion. And so, I never was an Arminian in that sense, and certainly was never dispensational. I had to learn about dispensationalism.

Nichols: That’s funny.

Thomas: And I had to read Dispensationalism Today by Ryrie in class.

Nichols: Ryrie, sure.

Thomas: And you have very personal contact with Ryrie in your background.

Nichols: Sure, yeah, I did not have to learn it; I was raised in it.

Thomas: Right.

Nichols: Yes.

Thomas: But you knew Ryrie.

Nichols: I did, yeah.

Thomas: But to me, this was all very strange and weird and something very American. And I think . . .

Nichols: Even though Darby was . . .

Thomas: . . . I think coming from Texas somewhere, the great state of Texas.

Nichols: The Republic of Texas.

Thomas: I wrote to Geoff Thomas to say, “I think I’m a paedobaptist,” and I still remember the painful letter that I wrote and the painful letter that he wrote in reply. We’re still best friends.

Nichols: Yes. He’s an honorable man. He’s a very honorable man.

Thomas: But it was a very definite transition in my life, brought about by a couple of books.

Nichols: By books. By two books, one of which is falling apart. Well, thank you, Dr. Thomas. I very much appreciate these conversations, and it’s a real joy to be here with you and talking about these books. Thank you.

Thomas: Thank you.

Nichols: I’m Steve Nichols, and you’ve been listening to Open Book, a podcast about the power of books and the people they’ve shaped. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, consider checking out my other podcast, 5 Minutes in Church History. Find it on your favorite podcast app, or visit That’s the number 5. We’ll see you next week in the library, as you join us for another episode of Open Book.