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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 .
- 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.