Infant Baptism

I had slacked on my baptism series because this post has been a difficult one to publish. I really want to make sure I have my facts straight here and not stir things up based on faulty information. Infant baptism is practiced by a very high percentage of Christianity and it is important to understand the practice and how it is supported by those who practice it.

Advocates of infant baptism have several points they use to support the practice. Let me start with one example from the Roman Catholics who view baptism as a sacrament necessary for all mankind regardless of age due to our fallen nature,

“Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called.50 The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.51″ (link)

First and foremost, Catholics view baptism as necessary for salvation. Supporters of infant baptism make several points they say support the baptism of infants:

  1. Tradition – Some believe the earliest witness to infant baptism dates back to Irenaus in the second century and that the tradition of infant baptism over the last 1800 years carries a lot of weight.
  2. Apostolic origin – they cite Origen and St. Augustine as saying the practice had apostolic origin – See #4 in the 1980 Catholic Instructions for Infant Baptism. That link is to a very interesting document where they even bring up the issue of believers baptism and talk about why it is more important to baptize people when they are infants. More on that in a moment.
  3. Scripture -They believe scripture supports the need for infants to be baptized. The biblical support comes from two sources. The first are passages they believe support original sin. The second are the household baptisms found in Acts (Acts 16:15, 16:33, 18:8, 1 Cor 1:16, 2 Tim 1:16, 4:19). The assumption is that infants and small children would have been baptized along with the adults .
  4. Replacement of circumcision – Many believe that baptism is the new covenant’s form of circumcision. Circumcision was done to infant males on the 8th day of their life. There are many parallels between baptism and circumcision and they view those parallels as including being done as an infant including as a sacrament that gains someone access to the grace of God.

Let’s examine these.

Tradition – Everett Ferguson has a wonderful book on baptism called “Baptism in the Early Church,” which is just under 1000 pages of invaluable information. Ferguson gives the Irenaeus quote that many say is the first witness/support of infant baptism (A.H. 2.22.4).

“He sanctified every age of life by having the like age in himself. For he came to save all by means of himself, all (I say) who by him are born again to God – infants, children, boys, youths, and the old.. He therefore lived through every age, made an infant for infants and sanctifying infants; a child for children, sanctifying these…”

It is not convincing and the word baptism is never even used (Ferguson, 308). Irenaues is saying that Christ went through all stages of life so that he might be able to sanctify all. Ferguson believes that the Irenaeus reference does not actually favor infant baptism and that many of the quotes that people cite to support the practice, when looked at in context don’t actually lend much support at all.

Everett Fergus says the first mention of infant baptism came from Tertullian (2nd century) and was actually written in opposition to the practice. That tells us that the practice was a very early one but it is an assumption to say that it had apostolic origin. Here is what Tertullian had to say (quoted from Ferguson, 364),

According to the circumstances and nature, and also age, of each person, the delay of baptism is more suitable, especially in the case of small children. What is the necessity, if there is no such necessity, for the sponsors as well to be brought into danger, since they may fail to keep their promises by reason of death or be deceived by an evil disposition which grows up in the child? The Lord indeed says, ‘Do not forbid them to come to me.’ Let them ‘come’ they while they are growing up, while they are learning, while they are instructed why they are coming. Let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ. In what respect does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? Should we act more cautiously in worldly matters, so that divine things are given to those to whom earthly property is not given? Let them learn to ask for salvation so that you be seen to have given ‘to him who asks.’ (On baptism, 18)

The sponsors Tertullian mentions are those who stand in the place of the baptized infant in order to make a confession for them. More from Ferguson on Tertullian’s take,

“Tertullian confronts and already definite scriptural argument for baptizing children, namely Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:14. Tertullian’s response underscores the importance for him of teaching, learning, and personal knowledge of and commitment to Christ – the reasons for his advocacy of a delay of baptism until these conditions had been fully satisfied. He joins a host of earlier Christian writers in the affirmation of the innocence of children, a condition making infant baptism incosistent in his view with the generally recognized meaning of baptism as bringing the forgiveness of sins.” (Ferguson, 365)

Apostolic origin – Origen supported infant baptism as seen in his commentary on Romans (V:9) in 244 AD. There he says that it was passed down from the apostles (See under Tradition/Church fathers I.). He doesn’t get any more specific than that. His view was that at birth all are ritually unclean and stained by sin that must be washed away. This is slightly different than original sin. If it was passed down by the apostles I am not sure why Tertullian had such a tough time with it. We don’t have any biblical evidence of apostolic origin (some assume household baptisms give us that support…that is an assumption with no specific verses telling us infants were baptized in those instances).

Scripture – The strongest point here are the household baptisms in Acts 16 & 18. If you read Acts 16:31-34 it sounds like the salvation of the household was dependent upon the faith of the jailer himself (the head of the house). Again, this is layered with all kinds of assumptions. Do we know children were baptized in the households? In Beasley-Murray’s book “Baptism in the New Testament” he tackles Jeremias’ assumptions about the signficance of the household baptisms. Jeremias believed that the whole house must include every single person in the house. Bruce makes an interesting parallel in the case of Cornelius’ household (Acts 10:44-48). Beasley-Murray points out that in that instance the Holy Spirit was poured out on the entire household so that everyone spoke in tongues and praising God. He says if we are to be consistent here that would require the infants in the house to be just as involved in speaking in tongues and praising God as it would involve in them in being baptized (p.315). In this instance “all” would not include every member of the house.

How does that go along with the necessity of faith for salvation? We have no way of knowing who that included but reserve the possibility that it included the entire household. The scriptural argument is inconclusive and filled with assumptions. here is the key question – Would the apostles have practiced something incompatible with the rest of the New Testament teaching regarding baptism? In other words, if the rest of the New Testament teaches that faith is a part of baptism, how then can you conclude that those without faith were baptized by those who taught the necessity of faith for the baptized? More on that in the next point.

Replacement of circumcision – Circumcision and baptism have some similarities. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant. Baptism is a part of the new covenant. However, it is not a perfect 1-to-1 match. Otherwise we would be baptizing only 8 day old males. There are significant differences. In Romans 4, Paul makes the point that Abraham is father of both the circumcised and uncircumcised who have faith. In other words, circumcision no longer matters. Faith does matter and it matters especially when it comes to baptism.

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” – Colossians 2:9-12

Here Paul parallels baptism and circumcision. He calls our baptism a circumcision done by Christ through faith in the power of God. That is incompatible with infant baptism. Faith and baptism are inextricably linked. We see this connection in the Gospels as well. When Jesus commissioned the apostles he told them to make disciples by teaching and baptizing (Matt 28:19-20). We see the connection in Acts (Acts 8:12,13, Acts 18:8). I could site many other examples and verses but it boils down to this – we don’t have any examples or teaching that baptism is to be practiced on unknowing or unwilling participants. Baptism is always a choice. It is a choice to turn from worldly ways to turn to follow Jesus Christ.

I don’t personally find any of the pro-infant baptism arguments to hold water. For those of you who are reading this who worship in a group that practices infant baptism, I would be very interested in hearing your view and response to this post.

Click here to read one person’s defense of infant baptism.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

10 Responses to Infant Baptism

  1. This is a good analysis of the difficulties involved in trying to make infant baptism as old as the New Testament. I also like the concepts found in Jeremiah’s prophecy quoted in Hebrews 8:11.

    And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.

    How can “all know” God unless they have been taught already? Yet, following infant baptism, when the child becomes old enough for catechism, he must be taught – and then “confirmed” in the faith he is assumed to have had as an infant.

  2. mokus says:

    It seems obvious to me that Tertullian’s concern against infant baptism is due to the cogency of the act for whom it is administered, and by extension the greater risk of falling away for those baptized at a young age. Nothing in what Tertullian says diminishes the sufficiency of infant baptism itself—quite simply, Tertullian thinks it is wisest to wait. Some later took this to the other extreme waiting closer till death…

    Most of the complaints about infant baptism (and again, I don’t want to argue for infant baptism) are predicated on a debatable anthropology, and perhaps a reductionistic view of baptism. Certainly children are innocent—Catholics know all about the ‘Massacre of the innocents—but the issue of ‘original sin’ is about being a part of mankind, a mankind barred from access to the tree of life. Original sin, aside from all of the typical caricatures, signifies mankind’s lost-ness and state of exile. In my view your criticisms take this too narrowly toward the individual. Of course a child is innocent of actualized personal sins—but is he/she a new creation, does he/she not need Christ? Are we to paint back unto scripture a neutral view of childhood? (this is more the ahistorical anthropology of Pelagius—where we are all born little Adams and Eves)

    Thinking outside of our highly individualized culture, it is very unrealistic to imagine the conversions of families in the early church as not including any children. Baptism, for them, was about participating in the drama of redemption. It is highly doubtful that they sat around to ponder the ‘age of accountability’.

    Regarding ‘faith’, everyone agrees that one must have faith to be saved—but is when you come to a knowledge of Christ therefore a critical factor in baptism? Will baptism not ‘work’ if you don’t know enough? Those who practice infant baptism believe that faith can come and grow after baptism. You, however, want to make it essential for faith to come first. But this cuts against the actual experience of many in the early church.

    I’ll say it again, I’m not ‘for’ infant baptism—but I will not go against the early church in making it an essential issue of fellowship or salvation. I will preach believer’s baptism—I won’t preach against those who practice infant baptism.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Mokus,

      Thanks for your comment. The reason I am putting faith before baptism is because there are so many times in the New Testament that put the two together. I have already mentioned enough above to not write them all again here. Colossians 2 puts faith and baptism together as being a part of our connection to the resurrection. I am sure paedobaptists would say that faith will eventually come and make the whole picture complete. I just don’t find that in the New Testament. Also, which takes less speculation? That children were baptized in these households in Acts (which it never says they were) or that believers were baptized (which is clearly demonstrated)? I am not writing this to be anyone’s judge. I just think it is important that people are informed on what they believe and why.

  3. lowdhamstation says:

    I would like to come to this from a pragmatic, rather than a theological perspective. I find myself in a small village, where the local church is Anglican – Church of England to be precise. And I agree that the theological arguments are not very conclusive.

    But whilst I would robustly refute that Baptism is a ‘ticket to heaven’, the denial of baptism can be a ticket to hell. Let me explain. In a village context, the village church is a centre of village life and community. Also, enshrined in English law is the right to be baptised, which means we cannot simply turn people away. But more than that – if the village church turns people away who are making a step closer to God, that can remain with them all their life. I have heard of people saying that ‘when I wanted my child baptised, I was turned away, and I’ve never been inside a church since’.

    Although the Church of England cannot legally turn people away who come for baptism, we can insist that we spend 3 or 4 sessions with the parents and Godparents explaining the meaning of baptism, and the nature of the very serious vows they are planning to make. And we can also offer a service of blessing for the child, fulfilling some of the social demand for ‘church acceptance’ whilst still leaving the opportunity for the child to be baptised later. What a great evangelistic opportunity this is – to spend quality time explaining the Gospel to people who have come forward in a Spiritual context! I have also heard many stories of people who had some faith, and the introduction to their child’s baptism has been the start of a true and living Faith. Now what did Jesus say about a flickering candle?

    And I agree wholeheartedly with Mokus – that I will preach mature baptism, but will not preach against infant baptism. And I will not reject people that I believe God welcomes. Should we be less welcoming that God?

    The pragmatism come up again in my situation. In a independent church, you are free to set your local practice, but in the Church of England, or any of the big denominations, I think Christ will return before we get policy changed!

  4. mattdabbs says:

    In my opinion this whole thing comes down to making disciples. Jesus said to make them by teaching and baptizing. People on both sides of the issue say that is what they do, just the order is different. The problem I have seen with baptizing adults is that we often don’t educate people well at all. Some times people don’t really know what they are doing. I remember one lady who asked to be baptized. I was walking through the building after Bible class and someone caught me and asked me to baptize her. So I did. Afterward, I was mentioning things to her in passing, just basic things that she had absolutely no knowledge of at all. Many people in that category leave and never come back. Did we make a disciple there or what? It is entirely possible to just get someone wet. I won’t be the judge of which is which. Only God knows. Thankfully it is God who works through baptism and he can do that whoever and to whomever He wishes. It is not for me to judge. It is for me to study the scriptures and be informed on what the New Testament teaches about baptism.

  5. mokus says:

    Matt,

    Agreed, people should be informed as to what they believe and why. And you are right, faith and baptism do go together. I don’t know anyone who denies this.

    Though this is perhaps too pluralistic a view for those who can only read scripture for positive demonstrations of orthodox Christian practice (those who want something akin to a civil war reenactment of the faith), I have really enjoyed N.T. Wright’s views on baptism: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Believing_Belonging.htm

    His main aim is to confront exactly the problem you mentioned: to make sure people are clear regarding the story of what our baptism is participating in.

    i doubt many will like what Wright says, just as I don’t like how many people I have seen mentally bullied into being re-baptized out of their past ‘denominational’ baptism…

  6. Paul Smith says:

    Matt, thanks for the article. I know I’m a crank, but I could not help but bust a gut when I read the first sentence of your last paragraph, “I don’t personally find any of the pro-infant baptism arguments to hold water.” If that is not a world class pun worthy of inclusion in the punniest things I have read all year I don’t know what is. If it was intended – you, my friend, are a master. If it was unintended then I still have to tip my fedora to you. 🙂

    Keep up the good work with your blog. I enjoy your thoughts.

    Paul

  7. Paul Smith says:

    Matt, as I was filing your article I found a reference in a book written by William A Quayle, a Methodist minister. It is lengthy, but interesting: “There are sinners in this world, very many of them; but there are no persons born sinners…There is every sort of difference between being born ‘sinful’ and being born ‘sinner.’ Everybody is born ‘sinful,’ ‘as the sparks fly upward,’ but to sinfulness there attaches no guilt. We are not responsible for a bent. To sinnerness there attaches guilt. ‘Sinfulness’ and ‘sinnerness’ are radically different terms. We are born sinful: we make ourselves sinners. To doubt that the babe dying is safely housed in heaven would be strange atheism.” He goes on to say, “The Roman Catholic baptizes children to save them from hell. The Anglican communion baptizes children for baptismal regeneration. The Methodist baptizes children for neither of these reasons. The Methodists baptize babes because they belong to the kingdom of God, and in answer to the convincing saying of Jesus, Lord of redemption, ‘of such is the kingdom of God.'” I had never heard of that reasoning before, but thought I would pass it along fyi.

    Paul

  8. Jon says:

    Hopefully this is not too late, but I would like to make a brief response from a conservative Lutheran perspective:

    Lutherans would start with scripture, in particular the institution of baptism in Matt 28:19-20, to establish baptism. Probably a fundamental issue is a different understanding of what baptism is: Lutheran theology emphasizes God’s promises associated with baptism, as scripture states in I Pe 3:21 (“baptism now saves you”) and Mk 16:16 (“whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”). Baptist theology often emphasizes the “act of the will” or “decision” associated with baptism, and it appears that the Restoration movement followed with an understanding that agrees somewhat in this respect.

    Focusing on the promise of saving that is associated with baptism, since scripture speaks of saving as entirely God’s work (Eph 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”), it follows that baptism is also entirely God’s work. Therefore, the validity of a baptism is not caused by the thoughts or faith of the recipient but by God’s word of promise attached to baptism. However, it is faith that grasps and receives the treasure given in baptism. Luther summarized this idea as: “For my faith does not make baptism, but receives it.”

    This forms the objective nature of baptism. One consequence would be that even if someone were originally baptized for less than perfect reasons (with their faith lacking at the time), the baptism itself would still be valid and they wouldn’t need to be rebaptized if they later come to repentance and believe what God gave them in their baptism. I’m not aware of any examples of rebaptism in the Bible (other than possibly Acts 19, which involves the issue of John’s baptism), even though recipients may have been lacking in their faith at the time. The objective quality is important because if baptism depends on the recipient’s faith when it was administered, the validity of the baptism would be open to doubt. Instead, scripture uses baptism to say that new life was given to you in your baptism and this is who you now are by God’s grace (Rom 6:3-5, Gal 3:27). In other words, it is entirely God’s work.

    Applying this to the question of infant baptism, Lutherans view the command to baptize in Matt 28:19-20 to apply to both adults and young children alike. The command is quite general in who the recipients are (“disciple all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”), and this could be viewed similarly to having an important vaccine and commanding people to “immunize all nations.” This leads to a question of who has the burden of proof, whether those who would baptize infants must prove that infants are included, or those who reject infant baptism have the burden of showing infants are not included in the command.

    Following from the institution of baptism, the examples in scripture you mentioned above, especially from Acts, are specific examples of applying this command. In the specific example of Acts 2:37-41, Peter was preaching to adults so that the proclaimed word would create faith in Christ, and the people who believed also heard God’s promises associated with baptism and therefore baptism followed their coming to faith. In the context of other examples in Acts, in which adults who didn’t believe came to faith through the preached gospel, it was similarly appropriate that baptism followed. However, such examples do not necessitate children too young to make similar professions of faith and other outward evidence of belief being excluded from baptism, if the adults gaining the desire to be baptized is not the essential thing but God’s promise is. (This also relates to your discussion with mokus.) I wonder if using examples to establish the necessity of giving proof of faith prior to baptism could be related to the CENI hermeneutic that has influenced the Restoration Movement and tends (at least from my observations) to place God’s commands and scriptural examples in an almost equivalent role for establishing doctrine. Another important issue in the different understandings of baptism is related to faith, as Lutheran theology does not exclude infants from possessing faith (as related to the issue of Mk 16:16 saying that whoever [both] believes and is baptized will be saved).

    There are many more details from your post that could be commented upon, but this response mainly to your “Scripture” support topic has become longer than intended. Hopefully it provides some insight into this perspective.

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