There are so many things in which the churches of different denominations agree. We all agree that we are sinners, that we are in need of a savior, and that savior has come in the person of Jesus Christ. We agree that Christ is building His church, that He has given us the Bible to preach and teach, and that one day He will return.
However, there are a few things where Christians do not agree. One of those things is baptism. The subject of credobaptism vs. paedobaptism in relatively recent years has become the topic that divides denominations, churches, and families. It divides theologians who would otherwise agree on most any theological issue under the sun. Baptism is practiced worldwide in the eastern and western churches and has been for 2,000 years. Yet, despite its long history, baptism is one of the most, if not the most, divisive subjects in the church today.
So, why is this subject the source of so many disagreements among fellow believers? Some would say that the Bible lacks evidence for infant baptism. Others would say that babies cannot possibly have faith and that a person must have faith in order to be baptized. Whatever the case may be, there are legitimate reasons for disagreement on both sides of the table regarding this sacrament.
The aim of this article is to make the case for infant baptism using biblical evidence, covenant theology, church history, and the fact that it is absolutely necessary in the church today. This will be positively put forth in favor of infant baptism without much arguing against credobaptism, though that is inevitable. Evidence from the Old and New Testament will be discussed, as well as the way in which the subject at hand has been done throughout the centuries. Briefly, the modes of baptism will be touched upon in terms of whether or not the method used makes a difference.
First of all, baptism is a sacrament that is ordained by God and commanded by Christ in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). There is no dispute among any Christian believers that baptism is vital to the life of individual Christians and the life of the church. It is biblical with numerous mentions in the New Testament (Romans 6:4, Ephesians 4:5, Colossians 2:12, 1 Peter 3:21, etc.). Baptism has its foundation in God’s Word. The sacrament would not be feasible if it were not. As Calvin puts it in the Institutes, “For a sacrament, unless it rests upon the sure foundation of God’s Word, hangs by a thread.”
Secondly, baptism is to be given not only to sinners who have professed faith in Christ, but also to their children (Acts 2:39). The baptism of infants is simply believing the promise of God that he has made to believers and their children, as the Apostle Peter points out in his sermon in Acts 2. Section 4 of Chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes this point in saying, “Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized.”
Additionally, there are many instances, especially through the book of Acts, of “households” believing and thereafter being baptized (Acts 16:15, 33, 18:8). It is also specifically mentioned in the Pauline epistles (1 Corinthians 1:16, 16:15). Though it is not expressly stated that infants were baptized, there is little doubt that these households would have included infant children and children who could not profess faith. Simultaneously, there is no command to keep the sacrament of baptism away from the infant children of believers.
Some may argue that households did not necessarily include infants or, at least, did not include them in baptism. However, the term “household” goes back into the Old Testament and generally includes both young and old. Bryan Chapell points out rightly that in the Old Testament, “we find that a household included all of one’s resident dependents: spouse (if living), children (if present), resident relatives, and dependent servants not earning regular wages (e.g. Gen 14:14-16; 17:23; Ex. 12:3-4).” This definition of who a household included continued into the New Testament. As Chapell again says, “No effort was made by the New Testament writers to indicate that children were no longer included in households…”
What is interesting and evidential is that most of the baptisms that are mentioned in the New Testament are “household” or “family” baptisms. Only occasionally (Acts 8:26-40) are there mentions of baptisms for one individual. Dr. John Frame says, “the principle is that God is gathering families, not just individuals into his kingdom. As families come into the kingdom, children come, too…”
The corresponding sign to baptism was circumcision in the Old Testament. This will be fleshed out in more detail in the Covenant Theology section, but it is also necessary to touch on briefly here. There is evidence of God’s promise to his people that he would be their God and their children’s God after them. Circumcision was not the only way that God showed this promise, just like baptism is not the only way that he shows his promise in the New Testament. Though, as Bavinck points out, “The covenant of God with its benefits and blessings perpetuates itself from child to child and from generation to generation (Gen 9:12, 17:7, 9, Ex. 3:15, 12:17, 16:32; Deut 7:9; Ps. 105:8, etc.)”
A final and most striking point to make in terms of biblical evidence is the point that Calvin makes in book four and chapter 16 of his Institutes. He speaks on the time when Jesus asked that all the children come to him (Matthew 19:14 “for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven”). Calvin goes on to say, “If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism…If the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, why is the sign denied…How unjust of us to drive away those whom Christ calls to himself!”
It is difficult to understand how God made his promise to parents and their children in the Old Testament and then repeats that promise in the New Testament (Acts 2:39), but somehow the sacrament of baptism is refused to infants, as credobaptists believe. The sign of circumcision was given to a covenant child at the age of eight days (Gen 17:12), so there is no reason why the sign of God’s promise (baptism) wouldn’t be given to an infant of eight days old today.
There is not much to separate between the biblical evidence for infant baptism and church history. That is simply because the church, from its earliest days, has practiced what the Bible teaches, which is that baptism was to be administered to both believers and their children. This belief is solid across the board ecumenically. With respect to time of the administration of baptism, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed all agree that it (baptism) should be soon after birth.
Much like the lack of specific mention in the New Testament, there is little said in the writings from the early church. This might lend itself to the argument that if there is little said of infant baptism, then, of course, there was little done with regard to infant baptism. However, this is simply not true. Justin Martyr, one of the early church fathers, wrote specifically on infant baptism, even using the same phrasing as Christ in the Great Commission. Martyr uses the word μαθητεύσατε (to make disciples) to refer to those who had been baptized in infancy. This is a clear indication that the command that Jesus gives to the disciples in Matthew 28:18-20, which included baptism, also implied baptism of infants. Baptism would have been so understood as a continuation of the promise of God in the covenant that infant baptism was a given.
There were other church fathers who also agreed with Justin Martyr, one being Origen. Origen said, “The Church has received the tradition from the Apostles that Baptism ought to be administered to infants.” Origin is commenting on the fact that infant baptism took place from the churches earliest days. The church father himself lived during the third century, which is early enough to make the case for infant baptism in the early church.
As mentioned earlier, there are very few individual baptisms in the New Testament and the same can be said of the early church after the apostolic age. Families were baptized, though probably not all at once, but perhaps. Even so, it was much more likely that an entire family had been baptized rather than an individual coming to faith and being baptized. The very idea of creating a society of ‘proved’ Christians who would then undergo “Believers’ Baptisms” certainly did not happen from all indications in the early church.
Up until the third century, there is not much mention of infant baptism, but as pointed out before, it was generally understood. Both modes of baptism were practiced until the sixth century, after which, usually, only infant baptism was practiced.
During the third century there was still little mention about the scriptural or theological ground for infant baptism. Still, the lack of talk about infant baptism does not prove much. The Council of Carthage in 253 AD discussed infant baptism, but only in the context of whether infants should be baptized on the eighth day or not.
It is generally understood that infant baptism was initiated by the apostles and adopted as a widespread practice of the church with little resistance. From the sixth century until the reformation, nearly all baptisms that took place were infant baptisms. The only opposition to the practice came when the Anabaptists opposed it.
Throughout the history of the church there has been times of bad theology when baptism was seen and is still seen in the Roman Catholic church as infusion. This is when a person is said to be made righteous and not merely counted righteous. This could have added to the practice of infant baptism throughout the first millennia and up to the reformation. Clinical baptism was given to infants and children who were dying at an early age. This meant that children were being baptized and “made believers” quickly after birth before they died in infancy.
Now to address the “elephant in the room,” if you will, and also put forth the best argument for the practice of infant baptism with Covenant Theology. Baptism in general can be argued as the covenant sign and seal that corresponded to circumcision in the Old Testament. Romans 4:11 is the key text in understanding this correspondence. The sign and seal of righteousness was given to Abraham in the form of circumcision. Sinclair Ferguson tells us that “Baptism functions in relationship to the new covenant in Christ in a manner analogous to the function of circumcision in the Abrahamic covenant.”
Abraham had faith and the sign that marked his faith was circumcision. The promise was to Abraham and his descendants who would also be given the gift of faith. It is important to remember that the sign was given after the covenant had been made; it was neither a condition of the covenant nor a means of manufacturing it. The same can be said of baptism and that is drawn out in Acts 2:39.
The apostle Paul nearly talks about circumcision and baptism as if they are the same thing, which in some ways they are. For they point to the Christ of the covenants. Calvin comments on this portion of scripture in saying, “For he (Paul) is striving to demonstrate that baptism is for the Christians what circumcision previously was for the Jews.”
Baptism is not the gospel, but it points to the gospel. It points to union with Christ and is, again, a sign and seal of the new covenant. As Frame puts it, “it pictures forgiveness, so that people who are baptized as well as those who witness the ceremony will know what the gospel says, that God offers cleansing, forgiveness in Christ.” Baptism, including infant baptism is a seal where God puts his name (Numbers 6:27) on the person baptized. Indeed, this is the reason that when a person is baptized, they are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as Christ commanded in Matthew 28:18-20. Significantly, baptism in the NT is baptism into the name of Jesus. (Acts 2:38; 8:12, 16; 10:48;19:5…)
As has previously been explained, the covenant and promise of God is for both the believer and their children. This is the covenant theme of the Bible from Abraham and Isaac through the day of Pentecost. Infant baptism is a blessing for both the child and the parents. To say that it is a blessing is to say that it is the opposite of a curse in biblical terms. In the NT, Jesus pronounced the blessing of God on infants (Luke 18:15-17). Jesus wasn’t just showing love for the babies.
Modes of Baptism:
Now, briefly, on the modes of baptism, of which there are a few. In some eastern traditions, infants are dunked three times in a font. Obviously, baptism is administered by means of water. In western traditions dunking of infants is not as prevalent, rather the minister or priest will pour water over the child’s head. There is also the practice of “sprinkling” done by many Presbyterian churches in America. The confession addresses the mode of baptism in section three of chapter 28. “Dipping of the person into the water is not necessary: but baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water upon the person.”
The mode of baptism is relatively important, though not as important as the sign and seal itself. However, I would disagree that a baby would need to be dunked three times because the sacrament is administered in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and not the names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The confession also points out rightly in section 7 of the 28th chapter that baptism is to be done once in the life of any person.
In conclusion, infant baptism is biblical and covenantal, corresponding with the sign of circumcision given to Abraham in the Old Testament. It is a historical practice of the church, established by the apostles. It is a blessing for the children receiving the sign and seal, as well as it is for the parents and all who witness the event. The most convincing argument for infant baptism is in Matthew 19:13-15 “Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. And he laid his hands on them and went away.” The case could be made that Jesus baptized the children right then and there without the means of water because he himself was the one who laid his hands on them. There was no need to declare the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because the fullness of God was the one who laid hands on them. But, that is the subject for another time.
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