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Infant Baptism

By heath - Posted on 12 April 2006

At work, I am involved in an email discussion group. The most recent topic was baptism. Being the only paedobaptist, I felt I needed to send more than a short email. Here is what ended up being a quick research paper.

My main goal in writing this is not to persuade you that you should baptize your children. Please don't change your mind based on my arguments. I don't want that responsibility. My chief purpose is to show that a valid case can be made for infant baptism. There are many points of theology about which people grow up in the church with very dogmatic yet unproven beliefs. Often their teachers, so-called experts included, have poorly understood the issues at best. Many times this leads to arrogance and self-righteous judgement against the other party.

There are three ways to approach the argument for infant baptism. One is to examine the scriptural evidence and construct a theological case which builds from the scriptural evidence. Then, you can look to how godly men and women of the past and present have taught on this subject. The final resource we have is our own relationship with the Father through Christ by the Spirit. In a theology class, the first order of study is that of theological method. For now, we may just have to make assumptions, challenge, and ask questions of each other along the way. Even the questions we ask of a text are shaped by our own theological history.

New Testament Context

Before we look at the scriptures we should remember the context into which Jesus came. It was a Jewish context. Deut 6:7 says, "You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." The passing on of stories and of the faith was fundamental to the Jewish religion. In addition, the first official ceremony given to Abraham was circumcision. God commands Abraham to circumcise every male in his household. That would have included children and servants. Of this God says, "it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." The original promise to Abraham was chiefly about his children and about how God had given them a promise. This idea permeated the Old Testament church for over 2000 years. At the edge of the promised land, God renewed his covenant with Israel that he made at Sinai and found it significant to mention that witnessing the renewal were "your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel together with your children and your wives."(Deut 29:9-13).

In addition, there was already a practice of baptism in the Jewish faith. John was not the first baptizer. Households (children and all) were baptized as part of a conversion to Judaism. In addition, there are various ceremonial sprinklings and washings required by the Old Testament(Lev 14:8-9, 8:5-6, Ps. 51:1-2;7-10). These all alluded to the washing of sin or filth to make something holy. In all likelihood, this was the tradition in which John the Baptist saw his baptism. Furthermore, the word baptizo is actually used of these practices in Luke 11:38, Mark 7:3-4. Here the "washing" as it is usually translated is applied to Jesus, hands, bowls, cups, and dining couches. If we are to understand what the writers of the New Testament are saying, we must "keep the Old Testament in mind" as we read the New Testament. Not doing so would be like trying to understand the Constitution without understanding English common law and the events surrounding the American Revolution.

Baptism and the Covenant

The first sermon of the New Testament Church is found in Acts 2. In it Peter specifically claims that the promise of the Holy Spirit is for his hearers and their children. Consequently, they should repent and be baptized. Now infants cannot repent, but they can receive the spirit. John the Baptist did. (Luke 1:15) We must acknowledge that children must in some significant way be included in the promise in a way that is distinct from just anyone else. We can imagine what this would have meant to the early Christians who would have been wondering about the implications of this new revelation and its connection to the promise to Abraham and the covenant with Israel at Sinai.

From the mere fact that the sign (circumcision) of the relationship or covenant between Abraham and God was to be applied to his children before they exhibited faith shows us that the mere sign has no power. In fact, the sign was applied to servants and livestock. The sign was to show others that they were in a special relationship with God. It signified that they were under special judgment if they did not live up to the relationship God had initiated. Deut 10:16 an Jeremiah 4:4 confirm that God has more in mind for inclusion in the covenant than just circumcision. They exhort the hearer to "remove the foreskin of your hearts." It is also clear from Israel's checkered history that circumcision without faith is of no use. In fact, to those who did not unite circumcision with faith were to be cut off from the assembly. The reason parents were to teach their children was because being circumcised was not enough. It was nonetheless required (Gen 17:14).

Baptism functions as circumcision in the New Testament. It is a sign that one has entered into a special relationship with God. In Acts 8, Peter argues that since the Gentiles have received the Spirit, they should also be baptized. Why?

it is the sign that they now are related differently to God. Paul links baptism to circumcision (Col 2:11-12) in how each functioned to cleanse the believer from sin and points to Christ's death, the curse for sin. Similarly in order to recieve the blessings of baptism one must unite the rite with faith. If not, it becomes a greater curse (Heb 6).

Jesus alludes to this same dynamic when talking to Nicodemus in John 3. It is both of the water and Spirit that one must be born. The outward sign is nothing without faith. Peter also makes the connection in Acts 8:16 when he argues for water baptism of Cornelius' household because they have received the spirit. It almost seems as if it occurs here in reverse order. For the church is not that dissimilar to ancient Israel. It is made of the "wheat and the tares" until the final consummation of Christ's coming. In fact, Paul in 1 Cor 10:1-5 says that all of the Israelites were baptized by passing through the cloud and through the Red Sea. He uses this argument to exhort his readers to persevere in righteousness because although baptized, the Israelites did not persevere in faith. Similarly all those who profess faith and are baptized are not guaranteed eternal life.

Credobaptists rightly wait for a confession for adults. I would argue that this is what is seen in Acts 8:36-37. In addition, these verses are notably missing from early manuscripts and even left out of some current translations such as the ESV. However, we never see any discussion of these issues in the context of child. As the father of young children, there are real issues here. The New Testament is a pastoral book. In a cultural context as I described, it would seem that these issues would be addressed. Instead, we find mentions of household baptisms that in all likelihood contained children. The technical language also reflects that this is a pattern that is repeated and not isolated events.

It is merely confession that entitles adults to baptism in the new covenant. The same was true of converts to Judaism under the old covenant. Children receive circumcision, and if Paul is right, baptism under the Mosaic Covenant. What entitles children to participate in the relationship of God with his people? I would argue that is by virtue of their birth to Christian parents. In a sense, everyone already does this. They just do not apply the sign of the covenant.

Christ's Baptism

The first specific instance of baptism we hear about is the baptism of Christ in Matt. 3:16. Though, John thought himself unworthy, Christ sought to identify his ministry with that of John's. John rightly recognizes Jesus as the point of his ministry. This passage brings up three important points in our discussion of baptism. First, many use the fact that Jesus "came up out of the water" as proof that Jesus had been immersed. If John saw his baptism in line with other baptisms mentioned in the Old Testament, the odds are Jesus was not immersed. Imagine a scene where Jesus and John step down into the water from the bank. John uses bowl or his hands to dip out water and pour it over Christ's head. As Jesus steps up onto the bank the Holy Spirit descends on him.

This brings us to a second point. There are more passages that connect baptism with the Holy Spirit than there are to Christ and his death. (Acts 1:5, John 1:33, Luke 3:16, Mtt 3;11, Matt 28:19, John 3:5, Acts 2:3, Acts 8:16, Acts 10:47-49, 1 Cor 12:13) That is not to say that these are insignificant, but the connection between the Holy Spirit and baptism is rarely talked about outside of charismatic circles. Baptism is connected to the application of the benefits of Christ. The s Holy Spirit unites us with Christ in his death which entitles us to the forgiveness of sins and and in his life to all the benefits of a son of God. God is often spoken of as pouring out his Spirit. Here the mode of baptism by pouring can been seen.

It is in connection to the receiving of the benefits of Christ's death that both Peter (1Peter 1:2) and the writer to the Hebrews refer to the sprinkling clean of the believers heart (10:22). In fact, there is an extended discussion in Hebrews of how the sprinkling in Christ is better than the sprinkling that of the artifacts of the tabernacle and that of Israel by Moses. I would not argue that baptism is required for salvation. The thief on the cross and Cornelius are proof of that; however, I would argue that it has more than symbolic value. I don't think we do justice to the scriptures if we deny that there is some mysterious power connected to the sacraments of the church. As we saw earlier it is a sign of a new relationship to God and his people.

The third point from John's baptism is that this is not Christ's real baptism. If so, what is Christ talking about in Mark 10:38 when he asks, "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" What does Jesus mean when he says, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!" Christ's death on the cross is his baptism. Here we can also see the connection between circumcision and baptism. Paul, in Col 2:11-14, connects the cross, circumcision, and baptism. Our baptism is our identification with Christ in his baptism and circumcision. Christ was cut off from God in his death on the cross for us. Our unity with him in his death frees us from the penalty of being cut off ourselves. Having identified with him in his death, we will be raised with him to new life in Christ. This is also what Paul is talking about in 6:2-4. While immersion might be a helpful picture of death and resurrection. It is not necessary for understanding these passages. As noted earlier, sprinkling or pouring might be just as valid a metaphor because of the connection to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit or the sprinkling clean by the blood of Christ.

History of Baptism

I wish I had time to spell out the history of baptism. Suffice it to say that paedobaptism has prevailed for much more of church history. Early church fathers seem to have practiced infant baptism. Conclusive evidence exists in the 3rd century of the practice. Until shortly after the Reformation, credobaptism is virtually unheard of. However, in America, believer's baptism is the dominant position. Internationally, Catholics and Anglicans weight the church to the other side.

Personal Experience

I have really only seen paedobaptism practiced in conservative presbyterian churches. I believe it was practiced well. It enhanced the sense of community and the "it takes a village" attitude toward "covenant children." One argument I have often heard is that children will think they can do anything because they have already been saved. I would argue that this attitude is rampant in churches that would make people re-baptize if they were baptized as infants. The churches I was in seem to at the very least exhibit no more of this attitude than baptist churches.

Hours more could be spent in exegesis, historical study, and personal reflection. Currently, I have no more time. I would appreciate your responses.

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Wow, you are having a discussion like this at work? What are the backgrounds of your coworkers?

Thanks for organizing a case for infant baptism in a concise manner (it's helpful for assessing the idea, many times in explaining a concept the disorganization of thought mucks up the communication, I can tend to this sometimes).

There is diverse theologic thought on baptism, salvation, and infants out there and as well as to the priority of issue each advocate holds for them. Maybe your readers (me for one) could get a better understanding of your view with a few questions:

First off, good job on stating clearly that baptism is only a "sign" of the reality of faith; faith being the crucial thing. I think I can safely assume this means you advocate that salvation is independent of baptism (one needs not be baptized to be saved). Let me know if I misunderstood.

- Your goal was to provide a valid case for the legitimacy of the practice of infant baptism. Would this case allow for baptism to be practiced diffently? Is it an option to not baptize infants and only adults (is it a sin to not baptize infants?)

- In connecting circumcision with baptism, what most accurately describes their relationship?

a.) same, just different appearance (e.g. prejudice is "against" in ways of color, or "against" in ways of money, etc)

b.) similar, sharing things in common, but differences that make it distinct (e.g. basketball and an orange / basketball and a football)

c.) subset / part of whole (e.g. piston of an engine / line and a triangle)

d.) other (e.g. theres a better way to describe it)

- In regards to "so called experts", should we take this to mean, other views dont have qualified experts that hold their view? (I'm pretty sure you don't mean that, something more like even though other views have experts, "so called experts" can pop up and confuse things. but just checking)

In some ways, PDI is a great place to work. There are about 15 people on the email list. They range from ex-presbyterian to KJV-only fundamentalist baptist to moderate baptist. It is an interesting group. The hardest thing right now is getting my work done while emails discussing inerrancy, etc are flying by. We are going to start a discusion group that meets at lunch soon, so maybe the email traffic will die down.

You did understand correctly about baptism being a sign. It would probably be helpful if I posted some of the email replies I wrote. Baptism does not produce salvation, but, in scripture, the sign is often spoken of as the covenant. In literary terms, it is a synedoche.

Does this allow for credobaptism? In a sense, it does, but if you were in a good Presbyterian church, the elders would strongly exhort you to baptism you child. Basically, I would consider all children of Christians to be in the convenant, so they should be baptised just like a new adult believer should be baptised. However, it is better to be a baptist in a presbyterian church because you are, at least, allowed to practice it. I, as a presbyterian in a baptist church am not able to unless I sneak some water up during the baby dedication.

On the relationship between circumcision and baptism: I'd probably say the relationship is like option a or b. I have been reading a book that refers a lot to the hard drive industry, and you're a techie, so maybe the best analogy is a hard drive and flash memory. They serve the same function for the most part, but operate differently. This is really the crux of the argument. Basically, because the Gospel opens up a relationship with god beyond racial and cultural lines, God replaces a culture specific sign with an a-cultural sign. In addition, it also has some different associations. Circumcision was bloody like sacrifices and pointed forward to Christ. Baptism has links to washing and points to Christs washing us clean from sin. However, it still functions the same with respect to marking the people of God.

Finally, my reference to "experts" was more about pastors and Sunday school teachers and not to real experts. There is definitely a resonable case for believer's baptism. In fact, a couple of the teachers at RTS, the seminary I went to, were baptists. One was probably one of the most important evengelical theologians of the last century.

Thanks for the good questions.

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