- Infant Baptism: A Treatise in Defense of Infant Baptism, Written in the Scholastic Style – Part I
- Infant Baptism: A Treatise in Defense of Infant Baptism, Written in the Scholastic Style – Part II
- Infant Baptism: A Treatise in Defense of Infant Baptism, Written in the Scholastic Style – Part III
It should be stated that I am writing this treatise primarily for those already holding to the doctrine of infant baptism, that they might have a clearer and more precise understanding of why it is they believe the way they do concerning this article of faith. However, for those open to instruction, I will not be offended if they find this treatise helpful in understanding the orthodox and catholic position on the baptism of infants. I have chosen to write in the scholastic style for reasons of accessibility and clarity, and for ease of organization. I have, moreover, divided this treatise into three parts: 1) the thesis and its proofs, 2) counterarguments and defenses, and 3) practical application. This is mostly for reasons of space, since this treatise is intended for online publication, and not for a full essay length text. With that, let us begin.
The topic of infant baptism pertains to the extent of baptism, that is, to the question, “to whom does baptism apply?” Put another way, “who or what counts as a proper subject for baptism?” While maintaining a variety of different baptismal practices, the Church has always maintained that infant children are proper subjects for holy baptism. As with adults, God, by means of baptism, incorporates infants into Christ’s body, the Church, gives to them the gift of the Holy Spirit, pardons them from the guilt of original sin, spiritually regenerates them, and adopts them as His own children and covenant partners. Though controversial in American Christian circles today, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) remains faithful in upholding this true and wholesome doctrine, and defends it against those who would deny to infant children the benefits of this sacrament.
We prove the validity and fittingness of infant baptism, 1) from Scripture, 2) from the consensus of antiquity, 3) from the contrast between the Law and the Gospel, 4) from the continuity with circumcision, 5) from the analogy with new birth, 6) illustratively, 7) pastorally, 8) from the general character of orthodoxy and heresy, 9) from the historical association of the denial of infant baptism with heresy, and 10) from the consequences of its denial.
1) We prove that infants are fit subjects for baptism first from the Scriptures. We divide this proof into six parts: a) the proof from the Great Commission, b) the proof from the necessity of baptism for salvation, c) the proof from Christ welcoming the little children, d) the proof from household baptisms, e) the proof from the holiness of the children of Christian parents, and f) the proof from the silence on the subject in Scripture.
a) Beginning with the Great Commission, Jesus commanded his disciples to go and “baptize the nations” (Matthew 28:19), which has the force of “all peoples,” without any added stipulations or preconditions. This command, then, taken as it stands, is universal in extension, and therefore comprehends infant children, who undoubtedly constitute a part of those nations to be baptized. We therefore receive this commission in its plain, literal sense, admitting all to the laver of regeneration, infants included.
b) In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). “Water and the Spirit,” of course, is a reference to baptism, which, in turn, is declared to be necessary for entry into God’s kingdom – which is to say, for salvation. Thus, since baptism is necessary for salvation, and since we are not guaranteed any exception to this rule, we do not tempt God by denying this sacrament to infant children, but rather administer it to them (with haste in the case of infants at risk of imminent death), lest they depart this life without the grace necessary for a blessed estate in the next.
c) During his earthly ministry, Jesus placed his hands on the little children and blessed them, and welcomed them, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for such is the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). He also warned those who would put before these children a stumbling block, to wit, by preventing them from so coming, that “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). Now, at that time it was possible to come unto Jesus in the flesh, but for those of us alive today, baptism is the means by which we come unto him. Hence, applying this passage to our own times, we honor Christ’s desire to receive the little children, and duly consider his threat against those who might try and prevent them, by the means proper to our age, that is, by admitting them to holy baptism.
d) The Scriptures also give us multiple examples of entire households being baptized. In the Acts of the Apostles, we have the examples of Lydia (Acts 16:15), Cornelius (Acts 10:24‒28), and the jailer (Acts 16:32‒33), and in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we have the example of Stephanus (1 Corinthians 1:16), all of whose households were, by all appearances, baptized immediately and without catechesis. While it cannot be known for certain, it is highly probable that infant children were included in these household baptisms, all the more so since ancient households (oikos) were usually quite large and multigenerational, including immediate and extended family, and even slaves. Thus, we take these examples as plausible evidence that infants were baptized in the biblical record, and that infant baptism is therefore a biblical and apostolic practice.
e) The apostle Paul tells us that the children of believing parents are made holy (1 Corinthians 7:14). But without baptismal grace, children – like all those who are unbaptized – are “brought forth in iniquity” (Psalm 51:5), “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), “evil from youth” (Genesis 8:21), “under the curse” (Galatians 3:10), “dead in Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:22), or, in a word, unholy. Now, nothing can be holy and unholy at the same time, these being contrary to one another; hence, for the children of Christian parents to be made holy, it is necessary that they first be cleansed of these contrary defilements. Baptism alone accomplishes this. Therefore, the holiness of the children of Christian parents requires and presupposes their having been baptized, and, consequently, is implied in this passage from the inspired apostle.
f) Finally, aside from individual verses and passages, the general direction of the New Testament, together with with the absence of any discussion of infant baptism in Scripture, suggests that it is a biblical and apostolic practice. The New Testament, and especially Paul’s letters, is in large part a story of the transition from the Old to the New Covenant, from Law to Gospel. Throughout this story, there is everywhere controversy surrounding the changes brought about by the new dispensation, including with respect to Gentile inclusion in the covenant, circumcision, dietary practices, and holy days, amongst other issues. It is beyond reasonable doubt, then, that a change as dramatic as the exclusion of infants from initiation into the covenant community, which had always been maintained under the old dispensation, would have provoked a strong, perhaps even violent reaction from those Jewish traditionalists resistant to the new program. That such a reaction is entirely absent from the New Testament is suggestive that no such change was introduced, and that, during the apostles’ times, infants remained valid subjects for inclusion into the covenant by means of the initiatory rite, that is, by baptism.
2) Next we prove the doctrine of infant baptism from the witness of Christian antiquity. We divide this proof into three parts, or, sets of evidence: a) evidence from the apostolic age, b) evidence from the Ante-Nicene period, and c) evidence from the Post-Nicene period.
a) Beginning at the apostolic age, St. Polycarp of Smyrna (69‒155 A.D.), a disciple of the apostle John, alludes to his baptism as an infant before being martyred. When admonished by the proconsul to renounce Christ and swear to the genius of Caesar, Polycarp answered him, saying, “Eighty and six years have I served Him [Christ], and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” Now, for ancient Christians (and for the orthodox today), service to Christ begins at baptism, as shown in the ancient baptismal liturgies, in which the baptizand (person to be baptized), or their sponsor, rejects service to the world and the devil, and swears to serve Christ. Having been eighty-six years old at the time of his death, Polycarp’s statement must then refer to the commencement of his Christian service at birth, that is, to his baptism as an infant. We therefore take Polycarp’s infant baptism as evidence of the antiquity and apostolicity of the practice.
b) Moving on to the Ante-Nicene period, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130‒202 A.D.), a disciple of Polycarp, clearly includes infants among those fit for baptism when he says, “For He [Jesus] came to save all through means of Himself – all, I say, who through Him are born again to God [renascuntur in Deum, i.e. baptized] – infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men.” St. Hippolytus of Rome (170‒235 A.D.) is still more forthright, saying, “Baptize first the children, and if they can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.” Likewise, Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185‒253 A.D.), though hesitant about the practice for its occasioning unhelpful inquiries, nevertheless admits infant baptism as valid and apostolic in origin: “The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.” Origen’s testimony is particularly compelling, since, given the rationalistic tenor of his theology, he is naturally predisposed against the baptism of infants for their lacking the use of reason. That he admits the apostolicity of infant baptism against his own theological inclinations, then, shows that he took it as a plain and historical fact that it was a practice handed down by the apostles. The testimony of St. Cyprian of Carthage (210‒258 A.D.) deserves quoting at length.
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you [Fidus] say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council… we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man.
Notice that, for Cyprian, the question is not whether or not infants should be baptized, but when. That Cyprian takes infant baptism for granted, arguing only over the finer details of its administration, indicates just how firmly established the practice was during his time.
c) The Fathers writing after the Council of Nicaea differ in no way from their Ante-Nicene counterparts. St. Gregory Nazianzen (329‒390 A.D.), when asked about the baptism of infants, responds, “Are we to baptize them [infants] too? Certainly, if any danger presses. For it is better that they should be unconsciously sanctified than that they should depart unsealed and uninitiated.” For Gregory, then, not even consciousness, much less the use of reason, is required for the validity and efficacy of baptism, which therefore may be administered to infants for their initiation, sealing, and sanctification. Perhaps most famously, St. Augustine of Hippo (354‒430 A.D.), whose testimony is of considerable force, confirms and defends infant baptism as valid, salutary, and apostolic in multiple places. “Since others respond for children, so that the celebration of the sacrament may be complete for them,” says Augustine, “it is certainly availing to them for their consecration, because they themselves are not able to respond.” Again: “The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded as in any way superfluous, nor is it to be believed that it is anything but apostolic.” To the writings of the Post-Nicene Fathers we append the Post-Nicene Second Council of Mileum (ca. 416), which states in its third canon, “Whoever says that infants fresh from their mothers’ wombs ought not to be baptized, or says that… they draw nothing of original sin of Adam, which is expiated in the bath of regeneration… let him be anathema.” To sum up, the witness of the pure and primitive Church, whether in the apostolic, Ante-Nicene, or Post-Nicene age, consistently attests to the validity and apostolicity of infant baptism, arguing strongly in favor of our doctrine.
3) For our third proof, we argue for infant baptism from the contrast between the Old and New Covenants. The Old Covenant was, as a rule, more severe, condemnatory, and exclusory than the New: “by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified” (Romans 3:20); “for as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse” (Galatians 3:10); “the law was given by Moses [that is, to the Jews, to the exclusion of the Gentiles]” (John 1:17). Conversely, the New Covenant is generally less exacting, more gracious, and more inclusive than the Old: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30); “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13); “the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the Gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). The general movement from the Old to the New Covenant, then, is a movement away from judgment and exclusion towards grace and inclusion. Thus, in a manner consonant with this movement, we maintain that infants are proper beneficiaries of baptismal grace, and are included in the covenant, lest we reverse and run against this general movement by introducing more and greater conditions for grace, and excluding more persons from covenant membership, under the New Covenant than under the Old.
4) Our fourth proof is derived from the continuity of baptism with circumcision. In the covenant established with Abraham, God included infants by means of the sacrament of circumcision. Christian baptism is the fulfillment, replacement, and continuation of circumcision, and is therefore alike and continuous with that which it fulfills, replaces, and continues, except where God has given an express word to the contrary. But God has not expressly excluded infants from the sacrament of baptism. Therefore, in continuity with circumcision, we continue to include infants in the covenant by means of the “circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11‒12), that is, by the sacrament of baptism.
5) Fifth, we prove that baptism extends to infants from the analogy with new birth. Baptism is frequently referred to in Scripture as a “new birth”, or, being “born again” (John 1:13, 3:3, 1 Peter 1:3), which places baptism and natural birth into an analogical relationship, with baptism being the analogy and natural birth being the thing analogized. Now, it is a rule in analogical relations that, while not alike in all respects, the analogy and the thing analogized must be alike in all fundamental or significant respects. But one of the essential and distinguishing aspects of natural birth is that the child born is entirely passive in the process of his or her being born into the world. The life of the child is due entirely to the agency and efforts of others, and not to the child, who passively receives the fruits of those efforts as sheer gift. Infants receiving baptism are likewise entirely passive in their new, spiritual birth, receiving its benefits without their active cooperation, which gives to infant baptism a greater analogical conformity to natural birth than believer’s baptism, seeing as the latter involves the intellectual and volitional cooperation of the baptizand. This more perfect correspondence between infant baptism and new birth is illustrative of its truth.
6) Sixth, we prove the doctrine of infant baptism by its illustrative fittingness. It is agreed on all hands that we are justified by the grace of God alone, and not by our works. The baptism of infants, therefore, who are unable to perform any good works so as to begin to try and merit justification – or even presume to do so – and yet receive this gift in baptism nonetheless, is a fitting, powerful, and beautiful illustration of this established truth. Indeed, there is perhaps nothing in the Christian religion that better exhibits to us our spiritual powerlessness, dependence upon God, and His sole and exclusive privilege in justifying sinners, than the fact that helpless babes are, by His grace, declared and made just in holy baptism. The illustrative power of infant baptism with respect to the Church’s teaching on salvation, then, points to its truth and validity.
7) Our seventh proof, which is closely related to the fifth, is based on the pastoral value of the doctrine of infant baptism. The consolation that justification is a work of God (the efficacy of which is due solely to His promise annexed to the sacrament), and not a work of man, is of immeasurable comfort to the faithful. Conversely, to rest the efficacy of baptism for justification in some measure on the knowledge and understanding of man (for the credo-baptists define faith as, in part, mental assent, which entails the involvement of reason and understanding), attained at the age, and by the use of reason, would be to lay a faulty and uncertain foundation for our salvation, thus depriving us of this comfort. This privation has two problematic pastoral consequences, one positive and the other negative. Positively, the notion that we contribute to our own justification in baptism by our knowledge and understanding can lead to pride. Those who imagine to themselves that their faith (defined as mental assent accompanied by understanding) contributes to their justification in baptism, can easily become vain and boastful on account of that contribution, as if their salvation were, even if only in part, their own intellectual accomplishment – a “mental work”, if you will. Negatively, this notion can lead to uncertainty over one’s salvation. If knowledge and understanding, or, informed mental assent, is a condition for the efficacy of baptism, the faithful would be left to wonder whether or not their knowledge and understanding were sufficient, or adequately informed, and, consequently, whether or not their baptism “took”, so to speak. Doubting the validity and efficacy of their baptism, they would in turn doubt their salvation, leading them to despair. Not so with infant baptism. We rest the entirety of our confidence in God’s grace and promise to work effectually in the sacrament, not in our knowledge or understanding, which humbles the proud and comforts those in doubt. The pastoral utility of infant baptism, then, along with the pastoral deficiencies of the contrary doctrine, both recommend the truth of the former.
8) We now prove the doctrine of infant baptism from the general character of heresy and orthodoxy. It is a defining characteristic of heresy that it remains (by the grace of God) relatively local and eccentric. Donatism, for example, was a predominantly North African idiosyncrasy, of which Greek, Syriac, and Coptic Christians knew very little; Nestorianism was peculiar to Constantinople and the Antiochians; and Pelagianism, with its rejection of special grace, was largely confined to Britain and Rome, having been almost unknown to the Christian East. Orthodoxy, on the other hand, is characterized by relative universality and uniformity. The true and full humanity of Christ was universally upheld and defended by the Church against the Docetists; the Latin, Greek, and Syriac churches all maintained the Nicene doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father against the Arians; and Manichaeism was condemned by all the various churches spread throughout the Christian world, which uniformly maintained the essential goodness of creation against the Manichees. The idea behind this is simple: that which is accepted by all or most of the ancient churches established by the apostles likely belongs to their doctrine, and is therefore orthodox, while that which is unique to this or that individual church or religious thinker is likely an innovative departure from the apostles’ doctrine, and heretical. The fact that infant baptism was accepted by the ancient and apostolic churches at Asia Minor, Gaul, Rome, Alexandria, Carthage, Cappadocia, Hippo (per our proof from antiquity), or, in a word, the entire Christian world, is therefore highly suggestive of its apostolicity and orthodoxy.
9) Our ninth proof is an indirect one based on the frequent association of the denial of infant baptism with known heresy. It is well known to students of Church history that infant baptism was denied by a great many heretical sects, including the Pelagians, Socinians, Heracleans, Swermarians, Servetians, and Albigensians, amongst others. To be sure, it is by no means impossible that heretics should hold to some truths of the faith; however, error tends to breed and attach itself to other errors, so that, when we see an idea, doctrine, or practice closely connected with known errors, in multiple instances and over time, we are rightly suspicious of it. Thus, the frequency with which the denial of infant baptism is annexed to other doctrines known and accepted by all to be errors is suggestive of its own erroneous character, and therefore an indirect proof of the contrary affirmation.
10) Finally, we prove infant baptism by the consequences of its denial, or, by reductio. There are three parts of this argument: a) theological, b) historical, and c) hagiographic.
a) Theologically, if we were to suppose the credo-baptists’ conclusion that infant baptism is invalid, it would follow that there were next to no Christians, indeed, no Church, for over a millennium. For the credo-baptists tell us that it was only during the third-century that infant baptism was introduced into the Church, which then became the default mode of baptism for both the Christian East and West, that is, for the entire Christian world. Thus, supposing this view, all those “baptized” after the third-century were not truly baptized, and, therefore, did not receive the gifts of incorporation into Christ’s body, the Church, justification, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, son-ship by adoption in Christ, the remission of sins, or any other of the benefits of holy baptism. All these people, then, remained outside the Church, under condemnation, fleshly and carnal (being without the Spirit), sons of wrath and perdition, and lost in their sins – in other words, they were, and are, all damned. And since there were no truly baptized and saved Christians during that time, it follows that there was no Church, for the Church consists in those persons validly baptized into her communion. All this being supposed, it follows that, though God promised to guide His Church into all truth (John 16:13), that the gates of hell would not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18), and that, through her ministry, He would, to the degree possible, realize his will that all men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), God in fact abandoned the Church to error only a couple centuries into her existence, the gates of hell effectively prevailed against her for over a thousand years, and millions upon millions of souls, being deprived of the means of grace, were lost without hope of salvation. This would be to accuse the Holy Spirit of the grossest negligence in guiding His Church, the Son of deception in falsely assuring his apostles (and us) of the Church’s continued existence and witness in the world, and the Father of a feigned, or, at best, an impotent desire for man’s salvation. It is, in a word, an affront to the most Holy Trinity, which no pious soul can endure. We therefore take these theological absurdities of the denial of infant baptism as an indirect proof of its truth and legitimacy.
b) Historically, the credo-baptist account of the history of doctrine claims that the apostles taught the early church the doctrine of believer’s baptism, but that the church abandoned this doctrine some time during the third century. But if it were the case that all those churches founded by the apostles were so taught, and that the doctrine of infant baptism was a later innovation, we would undoubtedly have some record of protests from those faithful to the apostles’ doctrine during the time of the latter, allegedly false doctrine’s purported invention. There would have been councils convened by credo-baptist bishops to challenge the rise of this (alleged) doctrinal novelty, treatises written in defense of believer’s baptism, and against infant, and other marks of intra-Christian controversy, which always attend the introduction of doctrinal novelties into the Church by heretics. But we have no such records: there were no protests, councils, or treatises. Rather, as our proof from antiquity has shown, our earliest records suggest that the doctrine was universally received as valid and apostolic, with virtually no opposition from any church or church leader. Thus, the credo-baptist account of church history requires us to believe a wildly implausible story, with no evidence from our records of ecclesial antiquity to back it up; rather, with records evidencing the exact opposite. The historical implausibility of this account, then, suggests that the opposed, paedo-baptist account of the history of doctrine, and the baptismal doctrine it supports, is the true one.
c) Hagiographically, it follows from the credo-baptist position that all those godly and pious saints who were baptized as infants were not truly baptized, and that, therefore, their virtues were the product of nature, and not of special grace. For without baptism we are left in the state of corrupt nature, lacking the gifts of spiritual regeneration, the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, and all those aids generally thought to be necessary for holiness of life and good works. Supposing this view, we must attribute all the virtues and deeds of those Christians baptized as infants to their own unaided, natural moral effort. The charity of Francis of Assisi, the devotional fervor of Lancelot Andrewes, the missionary zeal of Francis Xavier and John Wesley, the self-denial of Seraphim of Sarov, and, in a word, every godly quality of every Christian baptized as an infant must, on this supposition, be a merely human work, bereft of special grace and the Spirit. But this we cannot do, for it ascribes far too much to the natural powers of man in his fallen state, unaided by special grace. Indeed, it is only by the supernatural assistance of divine grace, which is conferred in baptism, that otherwise sinful and corrupt man can be regenerated, and attain to such lofty heights of piety and virtue. Therefore, we dare not arrogate to carnal man the spiritual excellences of the saints, but acknowledge their source in the grace and operation of the Holy Spirit at work in their baptism as infant children. And with that, we conclude our proofs for the doctrine of infant baptism.
- Anonymous, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, ch. 9. See also Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History, bk. 4, ch. 15, v. 20. ↑
- Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (ca. 180 A.D.), bk. 2, ch. 22, sec. 4. ↑
- Hippolytus of Rome, The Apostolic Tradition (ca. 215 A.D.), sec. 21. ↑
- Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Romans (ca. 248), 5:9. ↑
- Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 58 (ca. 253), sec. 2. ↑
- Gregory Nazianzen, Oration on Holy Baptism (ca. 381), ch. 28. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, On Baptism (ca. 400), bk. 4, ch. 24, sec. 31. ↑
- Augustine of Hippo, On Genesis (ca. 408), bk. 10, ch. 23, sec. 39. ↑
- Second Council of Mileum (ca. 416), Canon 3. ↑
- Of course, we do not push this argument too far, or make it into a demonstration, lest we preclude adult baptism altogether, which is an accepted practice on both sides of the debate. ↑
- For a concise yet insightful work addressing some of these early Christian heresies and their local, idiosyncratic character, see Robert Louis Wilken, The First Thousand Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013). ↑
- The arguable exception of Tertullian will be addressed in Part II of this Treatise. ↑