Is Infant Baptism an Unscriptural Practice? Part 1: Understanding Baptism

Infant baptism, in stained glass (From St. Peter's List).

Infant baptism, in stained glass (From St. Peter’s List).

So, my last post, in addition to being fascinating exegesis, had a point. I didn’t even realize the point at the time, but our dear brother Eugene has brought up an important question that just happens to fit with the direction I was moving in. May we thank the movement of the Holy Spirit! As it turns out (I didn’t intend it initially, but caught myself before I spent four hours writing a tome!), this is a topic worthy of more than one post, so here begins a series.

Many evangelical churches reject the practice of infant baptism (or “paedobaptism”) as an unscriptural practice, especially those who derive their thoughts on Baptism from the Anabaptist tradition — the Baptists today (who are more descendants of the Calvinist tradition than of the Anabaptists, except for this view), the Churches of Christ, and many others who have descended from the Second Great Awakening in America. I will argue, from Scripture, that the baptism of infants is not only scriptural, but an apostolic and essential Christian doctrine, taught and practiced since the earliest days of the Church.

Bible

This argument goes to the heart of our understanding of what Baptism even is: for according to one’s understanding, the baptism of infants either becomes critical or it becomes nonsensical. For many Protestants, understanding Baptism is reduced to only their personal interpretation of the Scriptures; but for a truthful view, we must look not only to the Scriptures, but to how the earliest Christians understood the Scriptures. This is not an argument about sola scriptura. Even proponents of that view must admit that Scripture is written in a language we don’t innately understand, in a culture very different from our own. How we understand the words of Scripture, in our language and in the context of our own culture, might be quite wrong, if we presume concepts and views that neither the biblical authors nor their recipients would have understood. The correct interpretation of Scripture, as even most learned Protestants have acknowledged, is to strive to understand as fully as possible the language and cultural context in which culture was written.

St. Irenaeus

St. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 120–200).

And the way to do that is to look to writings outside Scripture. Hardcore proponents of sola scriptura recoil at the very idea; for it is “Scripture alone” that we need as our rule of faith. But consider even that statement: “Scripture alone is our sole rule of faith.” Even relying on Scripture as one’s sole rule — the authority on which matters of doctrine and practice are founded — does not dismiss the importance of other writings. Many Protestants read and reflect on the teachings and commentaries of the great Protestant leaders of the past — Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Spurgeon, and many others — drawing great inspiration and edification from them. Are they using their words as a “rule of faith”? No, they say, but merely as helps in understanding the rule of faith. And the matter of reading the writings of the Early Church is absolutely no different: Even if one does not accept that the Church Fathers speak with authority, their words can be a great help in understanding Scripture — for they were the earliest disciples of the Apostles; the ones to whom the Apostles themselves would have explained their writings. They are the ones in the best position to help us understand Scripture — both by speaking the language and understanding the culture in which Scripture was written, and by having received their understanding of Scripture from the Apostles themselves, or from the Apostles’ disciples; and they are the best ones to show us how the Early Church believed and how they put those beliefs into practice.

Believer's baptism

Beliver’s baptism (From here).

So, with these thoughts in mind, we will continue to the next leg of our journey: What is Baptism? The two major views that I will explore are the traditional, catholic understanding, which is my own: that Baptism was established by Christ a the Sacrament, an outward, physical action that represents and actually accomplishes an inward spiritual reality, by which He washes away our sins, infuses us with His sanctifying grace, regenerates us and gives us a new birth in Him, unites us with His Body the Church, and gives us the gift of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; and the view of many evangelical Christians, called “believers’ baptism” or “credobaptism”: that baptism is only a sign or ordinance that merely symbolizes the spiritual reality that our sins have been forgiven and that we are united to Christ; that it is only for believers, those who have actually come to a mature understanding and faith in Jesus Christ, as a public profession of their faith for them to make before God’s people, the Church. Stay tuned!

(See also the rest of my series on Baptism and on the Sacraments — which, I kind of petered out on; sorry. I will pick that up again after my thesis is in the can. I covered Baptism, Confirmation, and some on the Eucharist — but the Eucharist was a lot to chew!)

10 thoughts on “Is Infant Baptism an Unscriptural Practice? Part 1: Understanding Baptism

  1. “but for a truthful view, we must look not only to the Scriptures, but to how the earliest Christians understood the Scriptures.”

    In which case we’ll drop the doctrine of original sin since Augustine the Manichean invented it very late.

    • “Resisting the erring, the lustful propensity of his flesh (since he had lost his natural disposition and child-like mind, and had come to the knowledge of evil things), he girded a bridle of continence upon himself and his wife, fearing God, and waiting for His coming, and indicating, as it were, some such thing: — Inasmuch as, he says, I have by disobedience lost that robe of sanctity which I had from the Spirit, I do now also acknowledge that I am deserving of a covering of this nature, which affords no gratification, but which gnaws and frets the body.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies III.23, ca. A.D. 180)

  2. i noticed you left a comment (not a nice one) on my blog. my apologies i have not posted your prior comment. i will do so when i have the appropriate time to respond. as you can imagine, i lead a busy life beyond the confines of the blogsphere. and stuff happens. two tough funerals this week, people with terminal diseases, multiple crises, etc., etc. so you will have to forgive my delayed response. don’t mistake my delay as a sign of weakness and please ponder before throwing words such as “maligning” around. if you look at the body of my work, in deed, words, and attitudes, you will quickly find out that i have taken the high road and have always chosen to treat people of other faiths with the utmost respect. and remember: i am not on a crusade to enlighten anyone about the truth of my beliefs. that is not my life mission. stay tuned, if you care, and you will get your response when i have the time to do so. thank you.

    • Hi. I am sorry I failed to respond to this comment in a timely manner. I have a busy life, too, trying to finish my master’s thesis, and I guess it slipped through the cracks. I am sorry that my comment came across as not-nice. My concern was and is that you were not willing to let my comments see the light of day where others might see them, even though they contradicted what it was you were presenting. You suppose, even in your comment now, that Catholicism is “another faith,” while it’s quite clear to me that we are brothers in the same Christ. I have offered nothing derogatory toward your beliefs; only that your beliefs about Catholics are mistaken.

  3. Can you really trust your English Bible to be God’s true Word?

    Have you ever had an evangelical or Reformed Christian say this to you:

    “THAT passage of the Bible, in the original Greek, does NOT mean what the simple, plain reading of the passage seems to say in English.”

    It happens to me all the time in my conversations with Baptists, evangelicals, and fundamentalists on this blog. They state: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” was mistranslated. “This is my body…this is my blood” is a metaphorical expression, “Baptism does now save us” is figurative speech for what happens to us spiritually when we ask Christ into our hearts.

    What they are basically saying is that unless you speak ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek…you can’t read and really understand the Bible without the help of an educated Churchman!

    This morning I came across an excellent article on this subject, written by Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran pastor. I am going to give the link to his article below. I have copied a couple of his statements here:

    “So here is a question that we all need to ask ourselves when doing this (refusing to accept the simple, plain, English translation of a passage of Scripture): If a verse seems to disprove your theological beliefs, and you translate it in some way that doesn’t fit with any of the dozens of major English translations of the Bible, and that unique translation just happens to fit your own theological biases, could it be that it is in fact you who are in the wrong? Could you be reading your own preconceived theological convictions back into the text?”

    ” I know it can be frustrating when you are constantly told that Scripture can’t be understood unless you learn (an ancient) language or read ancient documents that you don’t have either the time or the energy to study. Honestly, if you have a few good English translations at your side, and you take the time to compare them to one another, you have all the tools you need to understand the meaning of the Bible.

    Link to Pastor Cooper’s original article:

    http://justandsinner.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-wrong-use-of-biblical-languages.html

    • So, what are you supposing, and how is this relevant to my post?

      I agree with everything you’re saying and everything Pastor Cooper said. It is a good piece, and I thank you for sharing it with me. Through the centuries of English Bible translation and textual criticism, I think we have hammered out the literal body and meaning of the scriptural texts pretty well. Most English Bible translations produced or revised within the past century or so, I would say, are pretty reliable and accurate. As he says, comparing different English translations is a valuable tool for bringing out nuances in meaning, which any English-speaker can and should take advantage of. (I do study Greek also, for whatever it’s worth.)

      Unfortunately, understanding the literal meaning of Scripture doesn’t always give us a complete understanding of its meaning. Sometimes the language was meant quite literally, and can’t be understood any other way. But very often the language describes spiritual realities and symbols and concepts for which varying interpretations can be defended. The classic and still most niggling example is of course Paul’s teachings on justification. What does it mean to say that “faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness”? What does it mean to say that “we become the righteousness of God”? What was Paul getting at when he said that “we are justified by faith in Christ, not works of the Law”? And most important, how should all of this be understood against the teachings of the rest of Scripture, such as James, who says that “man is justified by works and not by faith alone”?

      And herein lies one of the greatest failures of sola scriptura. Paul simply didn’t give us enough context to get a full grasp of what he was talking about. He didn’t fully explain in technical and precise detail. We have only two or three oblique references to justification in Paul, in the context of rejecting the heresy of the Judaizers, not of teaching a positive doctrine. Some people really do twist the meaning of Scripture to fit their own theologies — in the context of this post and my series on Baptism, I don’t think there’s any way one can honestly arrive at the conclusion, from the words of the texts alone, that Baptism is merely symbolic. But I would suggest that the great majority of disagreements and disputes among Protestants over these past 500 years have stemmed from honest and defensible differences of interpretation in the often ambiguous texts. No matter what Protestants like to argue, Scripture doesn’t “interpret itself,” any more than the Constitution of the United States “interprets itself.”

      And that’s why we have to be sure to place Scripture in its proper context, and examine the understandings its earliest recipients took away from it — those who were taught by the Apostles themselves or by those who were taught by the Apostles. If a modern interpretation disagrees with the understanding of the earliest Christians, then we have a much greater problem than simply two people today disagreeing about the meaning of the text. It is the epitome of hubris, I think, to suppose that we, who live 2,000 years departed from the Apostolic Age, in a quite foreign culture and place and time, reading Scripture in a foreign language through the interpretations of a translator, could have a more authoritative understanding of the meaning of Scripture than those who lived in its own time and culture, who spoke and understood its original language, who were taught its very meaning by its original authors or by those who were taught by the original authors.

  4. Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the covenant. There is zero evidence from the OT that says otherwise.

    Infants WERE part of the covenant. If a Hebrew infant died, he was considered “saved”.

    However, circumcision did NOT “save” the male Hebrew child. It was the responsibility of the Hebrew parents to bring up their child in the faith, so that when he was older “he would not depart from it”. The child was born a member of the covenant. Then, as he grew up, he would have the choice: do I want to continue placing my faith in God, or do I want to live in willful sin? If he chose to live by faith, he would be saved. If he chose to live a life of willful sin and never repented, and then died, he would perish.

    When Christ established the New Covenant, he said nothing explicit in the New Testament about the salvation of infants and small children; neither do the Apostles nor any of the writers of the New Testament. Isn’t that odd? If the new Covenant no longer automatically included the children of believers, why didn’t Christ, one of the Apostles, or one of the writers of the NT mention this profound change?

    Why is there no mention in the NT of any adult convert asking this question: “But what about my little children? Are you saying that I have to wait until my children grow up and make a decision for themselves, before I will know if they will be a part of the new faith? What happens if my child dies before he has the opportunity to make this decision?” But no, there is no record in Scripture that any of these questions are made by new converts to the new faith. Isn’t that really, really odd??? As a parent of small children, the FIRST question I would ask would be, “What about my little children?”

    But the New Testament is completely silent on the issue of the salvation or safety of the infants and toddlers of believers. Another interesting point is this: why is there no mention of any child of believers “accepting Christ” when he is an older child (8-12 years old) or as a teenager and then, being baptized? Not one single instance and the writing of the New Testament occurred over a period of 30 years, approximately thirty years after Christ’s death: So over a period of 60 years, not one example of a believer’s child being saved as a teenager and then receiving “Believers Baptism”. Why???

    So isn’t it quite likely that the reason God does not explicitly state in the NT that infants should be baptized, is because everyone in first century Palestine would know that infants and toddlers are included in a household conversion. That fact that Christ and the Apostles did NOT forbid infant baptism was understood to indicate that the pattern of household conversion had not changed: the infants and toddlers of believers are still included in this new and better covenant.

    Circumcision nor Baptism was considered a “Get-into-heaven-free” card. It was understood under both Covenants that the child must be raised in the faith, and that when he was older, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the faith and receive everlasting life, or choose a life of sin, breaking the covenant relationship with God, and forfeiting the gift of salvation.

    Which of these two belief systems seems to be most in harmony with Scripture and the writings of the Early Christians?

    Gary
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  5. Pingback: Denying Original Sin (Baptism in Depth) | The Lonely Pilgrim

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