- 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
Credo-baptists argue against infant baptism on multiple fronts: 1) from Scripture, 2) from Christian antiquity, 3) from the discontinuity between baptism and circumcision, 4) from the illustrative deficiencies of infant baptism, and 5) from the risks involved in infant baptism.
1) The antitheses from Holy Scripture usually take one of these three forms. a) In Scripture, we have no explicit command to baptize infants, nor do we have any instances of infants being baptized. Therefore, we have no biblical warrant for baptizing infants. b) Biblical baptism is always preceded by faith and repentance, which infants are incapable of. Hence, infants, being unable to meet the conditions of faith and repentance, are not proper subjects for baptism. c) Jesus welcoming the little children means only that God has a special care for children, not that they are valid subjects for His sacraments.
2) The antitheses from Christian antiquity usually revolve around a) the lack of any direct evidence for infant baptism, b) the vagueness of the earliest references to infant baptism, and c) early opposition to infant baptism by notable Christian authors, namely, Tertullian.
a) The antitheses from the lack of historical evidence for infant baptism usually revolve around the Didache, or, The Lord’s Teaching through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations. The Didache is the earliest Christian text outside the New Testament, and provides us with the earliest, extra-biblical instructions for how to administer baptism. This text, however, says nothing about infant baptism, which suggests that Christ and the apostles (whose teachings the Didache is supposed to reflect) did not baptize infants. Paul K. Jewett says the following of this absence:
It is hard to imagine such an omission [of infant baptism] occurring under the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or even Prebyterian, Methodist, or Congregational auspices… is it not, then, highly implausible that the Didache was produced by a community of paedo-baptists who just happened to say nothing about infant baptism?
The implication here is of course that the author(s) of the Didache, in harmony with Christ and the apostles, were not paedo-baptists, but rather held to believer’s baptism. The credo-baptists then argue that this absence of any mention of infant baptism continues throughout the earliest times of the Church up until Tertullian (they deny our evidence from Polycarp and Irenaeus, which we will address next), who, they claim, rejects it. Thus, that we have no historical evidence of infant baptism until the middle of the second-century suggests that it was a later innovation, and, therefore, a departure from earlier, apostolic doctrine.
b) The credo-baptists focus their attack against the early references to infant baptism on Polycarp and Irenaeus. William R. Schoedel argues that Polycarp’s statement that he had served Christ eighty-six years refers simply to his having always served Christ, that is, to his lifetime of service. It is, then, on his view, a more general statement to the effect that he had a long history of Christian service, from which we therefore cannot deduce that he was baptized as an infant. As to Irenaeus, Everett Ferguson argues that our passage from Irenaeus ought to be understood as referring to a general redemption, rather than explicitly to baptism. Irenaeus, Ferguson argues, meant by the redemption of infants simply “Jesus’ work of renewal and rejuvenation effected by his birth and resurrection,” and “without any reference to baptism.” “The coming of Jesus,” Ferguson continues, “brought a second beginning to the whole human race. He sanctified every age of life. Accepting his renovation by being baptized is another matter and falls outside the purview of this passage.” Thus, according to Ferguson, we cannot conclude from this passage from Irenaeus that he held to infant baptism.
c) The Achilles of these arguments from antiquity rests on a passage from Tertullian (155‒220 A.D.). After denying Polycarp and Irenaeus’ testimony as evidence of infant baptism, the credo-baptists argue that actually Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity, presents us with the earliest reference to infant baptism. He says the following of the practice:
And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary – if (baptism itself) is not so necessary – that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfill their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood?
The credo-baptists argue from this passage that Tertullian, whose antiquity lends to his voice great authority, and whose commitment to the apostolic faith still more, here rejects the baptism of infants in favor of delaying it until the baptizand has been sufficiently catechized. That the earliest reference to infant baptism, they continue, consists in a rejection of it, and from one so devoted to the apostles’ teaching as Tertullian, strongly suggests that it was a later, post-apostolic novelty, and therefore alien to apostolic doctrine. This argument from Tertullian’s very early advocacy of the catechumen system against infant baptism is unquestionably the strongest historical argument in favor of the credo-baptist position.
3) The credo-baptists often argue from the disconnection or discontinuity between baptism and circumcision in order to circumvent the paedo-baptist argument from their continuity. Some argue, a) that the connection between baptism and circumcision rests entirely on a single passage, namely, Colossians 2:11‒12, which is insufficient biblical evidence for its establishment. Others argue that, b) Paul in this passage actually sets up a sharp dichotomy between Christian baptism and circumcision when he contrasts the circumcision made “without hands,” that is, spiritual circumcision, with physical circumcision, or, circumcision made with hands. This in turn gives rise to a number of dualistic arguments based on the contrast between the physical and the spiritual, the most notable of which is that physical circumcision is merely physical, having to do with physical descent alone, and spiritual circumcision is utterly spiritual, which is to say, exclusive of physicality altogether; for which reason they cannot be paralleled as in the paedo-baptist argument from continuity. c) There are still other arguments aimed at the connection between baptism and circumcision that focus on their discontinuity, such as that of Gavin Ortlund, who argues that circumcision and baptism are discontinuous for the reason that physical circumcision was inter-generational, including children, grandchildren, and future generations, while baptism is only for believing parents and their children. He poses the following question based on this critique: “consider the following scenario: John Sr. is a devout believer, John Jr. has never professed faith in Christ, and John III is one week old. Should John III be considered a member of the church and a proper candidate for Christian baptism?” This restriction, Ortlund argues, is expressive of a discontinuity between baptism and circumcision, thus problematizing the paedo-baptist argument from continuity. There are other arguments against this connection, but they are, for the most part, reducible to the above three antitheses.
4) The fourth antithesis to our position is that infant baptism is symbolically deficient. Baptism is an illustrative symbol or picture of union with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. The immersion of adult believers effectively portrays this by burying the baptizand in the water, the baptizand dying by a symbolic drowning, and their being raised up from out of the water. Infant affusion does not, and cannot, portray this union, and is therefore illegitimate as an illustrative symbol of this redemptive event.
5) The final antithesis we will address is from the riskiness of infant baptism. It is argued, (correctly) that all Christian communions, denominations and parties accept the validity and efficacy of the immersion of adult believers. It is only infant baptism that is contested amongst Christians. Therefore, it is safer that we stick to adult immersion, since we are certain of its validity and power to produce its effect from the universal consent of all Christians, while we do not enjoy this same certainty with respect to the controverted practice of baptizing infants. The risks involved in infant baptism, then, argue against its administration as unsafe.
1) We begin by responding to the arguments from Scripture, which constitute the greater bulk and power of the credo-baptists’ arguments against the orthodox position on infant baptism.
a) To the argument from the lack of an explicit command to baptize infants, we respond: in the Great Commission, we have a general and universal command to baptize, which, on its own, includes all classes of persons, thus alleviating the need for an explicit command to baptize this or that class. Indeed, any added stipulations, preconditions, or exceptions to this general command would itself require proof before we betray the plain and literal sense our Lord’s commission, so that the burden of proof for excluding infants actually rests on the side of the credo-baptists. Furthermore, the argument from the lack of explicit command, if applied with equal rigor to the credo-baptist doctrine, argues as much against that doctrine as against ours. For if we were to insist on an explicit command for the approval or confirmation of any doctrine, we must reject that aspect of the credo-baptist doctrine which holds that infants are not proper subjects for holy baptism, since we are not explicitly commanded in Scripture to exclude infants from baptism. Thus, the credo-baptist doctrine, under its negative aspect, enjoys no more explicit biblical warrant than the paedo-baptist. Even more, in applying the rule of explicitness still further, our credo-baptist friends would be required to abandon their doctrine of the age of accountability (which is essential to their position) on pain of inconsistency, for this is no more explicitly present in Scripture than infant baptism, purgatory, or the perpetual virginity of Mary. To put the final nail in the coffin, there is a horrifying consequence to this rule of explicit command in that, if taken seriously, it would require us to jettison the divinity of the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, or, in a word, the entire Christian system, for all these doctrines are gathered by inference from biblical premises, not from explicit mention or command. These consequences being absurd, rather, monstrous, we can safely infer the absurdity of its hermeneutical foundations. Therefore, the rule of explicit command/mention, being unnecessary given the general and universal command of our Lord to baptize, more against the credo-baptist than against the orthodox doctrine, and entailing doctrinal consequences no Christian would admit, makes for no argument against infant baptism.
As to the want of instances of infants being baptized in Scripture, this argument, if it proves anything, proves too much. For we have no biblical instances of Americans, Chinese, the old and infirm, the developmentally disabled, or any number of other groups of people being baptized, yet we do not for this reason preclude them from the grace conveyed in this sacrament. Put simply, we cannot infer from the lack of a biblical instance of a certain class of persons being baptized that that class and the individuals therein are therefore not proper subjects for baptism. However, even supposing (though by no means granting) the basic form of this argument, the weight of probability still rests on the side of those claiming that infants were likely included in the household baptisms in Scripture, and so provides a probable instance of biblical infant baptism. But even if one were to scoff at this probability, and recalcitrantly insist on an explicit instance of infants being baptized in Scripture, we answer that such an insistence is ill founded, since the baptism of infants lies outside the purview of those biblical texts which record the various instances of baptism. The Acts of the Apostles (wherein the vast majority of biblical instances of persons being baptized are recorded) is a contingent book with a particular story to tell, namely, the story of the apostles’ adventures in spreading the Gospel, converting the heathen, and establishing the Church. But the practice of baptizing the infant children of Christian parents belongs to a different and later story, a story that requires, presupposes, and appertains to the Gospel already spread, the heathen already converted, and the Church already established: it is a question belonging to the story of established Christendom, not to the story of the fledgling church in its missionary, evangelical mode. The topic of infant baptism, then, is foreign to the object of the Acts account and the story it tells, and, therefore, even supposing (though, again, not granting) its absence, says nothing of its validity or invalidity. For these reasons we reject this argument from the supposed lack of an explicit instance of infant baptism in Scripture.
b) In response to the argument from infants being unable to meet the conditions of faith and repentance, we answer that infants are indeed capable of faith, and are therefore proper subjects for holy baptism. To be sure, infant children are unable to express their faith in words, but it is clear from Scripture that they have it nonetheless, and even show evidence of it. John the Baptist leapt for joy in his mother’s womb at Christ’s presence (Luke 1:44), David was filled with hope while still at his mother’s breast (Psalm 22:9), and babes are said to praise God (Psalm 8:2), all of which requires and presupposes faith on the part of those infant children (unless we were to admit a sort of Christian joy, hope, and praise completely devoid of faith, which none would do: for “without faith it is impossible to please God” [Hebrews 11:6]). Should one continue in disbelief in infant faith, we respond that the faith of the sponsors of those infants to be baptized redounds to their benefit, thereby satisfying the condition of faith. Just as in Scripture, where God rewards the faith of parents with the spiritual deliverance of their children (Matthew 15:22‒28), so God rewards the faith of sponsors with the spiritual regeneration of their infant baptizand. Now, concerning repentance, it is not a necessary condition for receiving the sacraments in the same way faith is. Jesus, being without sin, had no need for repentance, yet was baptized all the same. Likewise, Old Testament circumcision was similarly connected with repentance, but was not for this reason argued to exclude infants from receiving it. The arguments from the condition of repentance, therefore, carry no more weight against the orthodox position than the arguments from the condition of faith.
c) Moving on to the argument from Jesus’ welcoming the little children, this is perhaps the weakest of the credo-baptists’ arguments from Scripture. It is plain from this passage that Jesus includes infants as proper subjects for baptism: for when he says that the Kingdom of God belongs to the little children, he undoubtedly includes under this belonging the means necessary for entering that Kingdom, namely, baptism. Thus, any interpretation of Jesus’ welcoming the little children that reduces it to a general care for them is a shameful weakening of the passage, since this welcoming cannot be understood apart from the necessary instrument for God’s bringing persons into His care (God is wrathfully, not care-fully disposed towards the unbaptized). Moreover, even if we were to suppose that Jesus is not here explicitly extending baptism to infants, the principles and ideas upon which infant baptism is grounded are present all the same: Jesus confers spiritual grace to little children (as intimated by the sacramental act of laying hands on and blessing them), reserves for them a special place in God’s kingdom, which is to say, salvation, and is angry against those who would prevent them from receiving this grace and taking their rightful place in that kingdom. Hence, since Jesus’ welcoming the little children contains in itself all the principles and ideas underlying infant baptism, we can, by just and plain inference, draw out these implications in support of its truth and validity.
2. We now turn to the credo-baptists’ arguments from Church history, beginning with the absence of early witnesses to infant baptism.
a) The argument from the absence of early Christian witnesses to infant baptism, including the absence from the Didache, is an argument from silence, which, while in principle legitimate, requires certain conditions for it to be a good one. One such condition is a sufficient volume of resources: the more resources available, the more conspicuous the absence of something from those resources, and, consequently, the stronger the argument from silence. But the Didache is only one resource, one amongst very few resources from that period in Christian antiquity (and the only textual one pertaining to baptismal practices). Therefore, the argument from silence on this front, both from the Didache and in general, is of severely limited force. But even if one were to press this argument, our answer remains the same as with the lack of explicit reference to infant baptism in Scripture: during the first century or so of the Christian Church’s existence, it operated in a nigh-exclusively missionary, evangelical mode, and was therefore preoccupied with the spreading of the Gospel and conversion of the heathen, not with the status of those born into the established Church, which would be a concern for a later time. Thus, that there is little to nothing said about infant baptism in the textual evidence from this early period in the Church’s history says more about the nature and spirit of that period than about the legitimacy of infant baptism, and therefore argues nothing against our doctrine.
b) As to Polycarp, the notion that he was referring simply to a lifetime of service is an unwarranted departure from the plain and simple meaning of his statement. If he meant that he had served Christ for a long while, or even for most of his life, he could have easily said as much; instead, he explicitly gives the exact duration of his Christian service in years, clearly, and, in all likelihood, deliberately extending that service back to the beginning of his life at his baptism as an infant. If it is retorted that he meant only a generic service, in that he was providentially guided by God throughout his whole life for the purpose of bringing him to conversion, catechesis, baptism, and a life spent in ministry, we answer that no such generic service was known to the ancient Christians. In the ancient Christian worldview (and for the orthodox today), the world was a cosmic battlefield, upon which God, the angels, and the powers of light warred against the devil, his fallen angels, and the powers of darkness. According to this worldview, a person served either one or the other: there was no neutral alignment, or generic service to Christ outside being baptized into his service, accepting his cruciform yoke, rejecting the world and the devil, and so on. That Polycarp would consider himself a servant of Christ at the beginning of his life, without the means necessary for his leaving the service of the world and its prince, the devil, and entering into that Christian service, is therefore highly implausible, if not impossible, given his worldview and cosmology.
To the counterargument that Irenaeus, in the passage before quoted, might not have been referring to baptism, but simply to the redemptive work of Christ considered in general, and as to its effects in sanctifying every stage of life, we respond that Irenaeus elsewhere uses the same language deployed here with explicit reference to baptism (e.g., Against Heresies, bk. 3, ch. 17, sec. 1), placing it beyond reasonable doubt that the reference here is to the baptism of infants. Moreover, for Irenaeus, like all the ancient Fathers, the gifts of redemption are all intimately bound up with the sacrament of baptism (almost to the point of identification), so that it is next to impossible that he was here referring to infants’ enjoying these gifts without the necessary instrument for their application.
c) As to Tertullian, his testimony argues as much for as against the baptism of infants; for, in critiquing infant baptism, he treats it as an established practice, and even mentions the finer detail of baptismal sponsors. That is to say, he is self-consciously arguing against what he recognizes as an established and developed practice in the Church, which, in addition to our own proofs from antiquity, still further evidences its being commonplace during his time. Furthermore, he never actually rejects infant baptism, but only claims that waiting until after catechesis is preferable. This omission is of particular importance. Tertullian is a highly polemical and aggressive writer, and is fond of accusing his theological opponents of doctrinal novelty and departure from apostolic doctrine and practice, and of heresy. That he does not do this in the case of infant baptism, then, but only argues for a better alternative, intimates that he recognized infant baptism – even if only begrudgingly – as of older, perhaps even apostolic origin, and as doctrinally orthodox (even if not the preferable course). Finally, and perhaps most important, Tertullian’s argument against infant baptism is not the standard credo-baptist one. He argues that the baptism of catechized adults is preferable because of the responsibility sponsors bear to the baptizand for their spiritual and moral development, and from the dangers resulting from accepting that responsibility; he does not argue from the impossibility of infants satisfying the conditions of faith and repentance, as in the credo-baptist position. Thus, to turn the credo-baptist antithesis from the lack of historical evidence against their own doctrine, while there admittedly might not be a great deal of ancient evidence for infant baptism from antiquity, there is no evidence at all for the contemporary credo-baptist position, not even from their supposed champion, Tertullian.
3) In response to the arguments from the disparities and disconnect between baptism and circumcision, we respond as follows.
a) That the connection between baptism and circumcision is explicitly mentioned only once in Scripture says nothing of its truth or importance. Christ’s descent into hell and preaching to the saints of old (1 Peter 3:18), the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1‒2), and the inspiration of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), amongst other doctrines, all appear or are alluded to but once in the Bible (at least explicitly), yet we hold them to be true and vital Christian doctrines nonetheless, and reason from them as valid premises in theological disputation. It is a crude notion that a doctrine’s truth and importance is directly proportionate to the number of times it is mentioned in the Bible, as if theology were a simple matter of arithmetic. Therefore, this argument amounts to nothing.
b) We admit with the credo-baptists that the efficacy of spiritual circumcision does not consist in any power belonging to the water of baptism considered in itself, but to the interior operation of the Holy Spirit, so that we can join them and the apostle Paul in affirming a spiritual circumcision “made without hands.” Nevertheless, as is so often the case, God conjoins this spiritual, interior operation with a physical medium, namely water, which serves as a vehicle or instrument of this grace. To deny this is to oppose the instrument (water) with the action (the Holy Spirit’s interior operation), contrary to the usual manner of God’s working through secondary, instrumental causes. Therefore, we confidently maintain that the Pauline doctrine of a “circumcision made without hands” does not deny, but rather clarifies the orthodox doctrine by specifying its operative agent and principle, and therefore constitutes no argument against our position. As for the dualisms built upon the foundation of this false spirit/matter dichotomy, illicitly drawn from mistaken readings of this passage, as in the merely physical nature of circumcision and the utterly spiritual nature of baptism, we deny them. The law being spiritual (Romans 7:14), it is doubtless that the rite of initiation into that legal community was itself also spiritual, and that the ancient Hebrews benefitted spiritually for having received it (e.g., in the form of divine favor, miracles, theophanies, etc.). It is equally evident that the spiritual benefits of the New Testament are frequently and closely associated with physical, material means, as in the use of anointing oil (Matthew 26:6‒13, James 5:14, Hebrews 1:8‒9) and the laying on of hands (Leviticus 1:4, Acts 8:17, 1 Timothy 5:22). Spirit and matter, then, being closely connected, cannot be so sharply divided as these dualistic arguments suppose, for which reason we reject them.
c) As to the more subtle arguments surrounding the discontinuities between baptism and circumcision, such as that baptism is more exclusive than circumcision was, I for one will take Dr. Ortlund’s bait, and say that I can see no reason why John Sr. might not take the infant John III to the baptismal font (perhaps sneaking him from out of his godless parents’ home at night against their wishes), where the infant John III would, by God’s mercy, receive baptismal grace. Still more, I would venture that this grace, against all odds, and in opposition to the godless parenting of John Jr., nevertheless might bear fruit in John III’s life, inclining him to the things of God, resisting the atheistic tutelage of his parents, and, perhaps, eventually leading him to salvation. I actually find this hypothetical story quite lovely, and a powerful illustration of God’s power and gratuitous grace. But putting this hypothetical aside, even if we were to admit Dr. Ortlund’s conclusion, it remains that the paedo-baptists’ position, for admitting infant children to baptism, is more continuous with circumcision than the credo-baptist for denying them, even if not perfectly continuous with it; so that, in the end, the argument proves more against credo-baptism than paedo-baptism, even if it problematizes the latter.
4) In response to the argument from symbolic deficiency, we respond: it is admitted on all hands that immersion better symbolizes our participation in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. But this does not preclude infant baptism, since infants can be, and are in fact, at least in the Eastern Church and in some Anglican churches, baptized by immersion. Still, what of affusion? It should be kept in view that union with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is not the only effect and benefit of baptism, and therefore not the only criterion for symbolic fittingness. The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit is another benefit of baptism, and therefore an appropriate object of symbolic representation. Affusion, or, the pouring of water upon the baptizand, symbolizes the action of the Spirit descending upon the same, and indeed better symbolizes this particular aspect of holy baptism than immersion. Hence, immersion and affusion are both symbolically fit methods of baptism relative to different aspects of the redemptive event enacted therein. The argument from the relative illustrative superiority of immersion therefore does not touch the issue under debate.
5) Concerning the risks involved in baptizing infants, we respond that the risks are greater on the other side. As we argued in the previous part of this treatise, Jesus said that none will enter the Kingdom save by water and the Spirit, that is, by baptism (John 3:5), so that baptism is rightly considered generally necessary for salvation. Therefore, to defer one’s baptism until adulthood, or to such a time as one is able to believe in the Gospel, is to place that person at risk by withholding from them the only and ordained means for their salvation, which, if not received on account of an early or sudden death, would be dangerous to their soul’s wellbeing. If appeal is made to an age of accountability, that such children as have not yet reached that age are innocent of any sin, original or actual, and are therefore at no risk for dying without baptism, we respond that we can find no such reference to any age in Scripture, nor any exception to the universal rule that all men outside of Christ (which is to say, all those who have not been baptized into Christ) are under divine judgment, and condemned. If it is then argued that God would be neither good nor merciful were he to condemn unbaptized infants, we concede this point, and affirm that God can act extraordinarily, that is, above and outside the general order He has established, for the salvation of those unbaptized infants. But even if this is in fact the case (which we are not guaranteed but for God’s good and merciful character), and all unbaptized infants are indeed saved by the extraordinary providence of God, those parents, who have tempted the goodness of God by neglecting the ordinary means of grace which He has ordained for our use, might not be so fortunate, and will undoubtedly face judgment for their neglect. Therefore, the risks involved in infant baptism are negligible compared to those involved in delaying baptism, which favors our position, thus concluding our apology for the orthodox doctrine of infant baptism.
- Paul K. Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1978), p. 40‒41. ↑
- William R. Schoedel, The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, Vol. I (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2020), p. 65, fn. 9.3. ↑
- Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 308. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Tertullian, On Baptism, ch. 18 (ca. 200 A.D.). ↑
- https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-i-changed-my-mind-about-baptism/ ↑
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ECgOWyWCt3Q ↑