Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Infant Baptism

Baptism signifies many things: faith, redemption, resurrection, adoption, and sanctification. It is a sign of the New Covenant, so being covenantal it also signifies God’s promise to His church.

Baptism is a sacramental sign of (or ordinance signifying) regeneration 1, not a cause. Faith alone, through grace and by the working of the Holy Spirit, regenerates.

The question that has received much debate is whether infants should be baptized (paedobaptism), or should baptism be reserved for those old enough (let us call them adults) to make a credible profession of their faith (believers baptism).

I cannot add anything to this debate. I certainly will not be persuasive one way or another. I intend only to point out the big picture reasons, from a reformed perspective, for supporting paedobaptism. Complicated, thought provoking, un-bloggish detailed discussions are but a Google search away.

This post concerns the debate between two camps that agree that baptism, however practiced, is a sign of the promise of salvation. The debate with those who think baptism is something more than this is an entirely different and more serious question, and is not addressed here.

Given that both camps agree that baptism is not cardinal, it is surprising (and sad) how vitriolic the debate can become. Countercharges of “Romanist” and “Judaist” used pejoratively are fairly common. Reasoned, gracious debate is not the norm.

Infant baptism is by far the more prevalent practice throughout the history of Christianity. Explicit references to infant baptism can be found in 2nd century literature, and debate about paedobaptism versus believer’s baptism is a fairly recent development. That says nothing about which side is right—it’s just history.

Oh If Only…

It would be nice if scripture were explicit about this. But nowhere in scripture does it explicitly say to baptize infants, and nowhere does it say to exclude infants.

I don’t agree with anyone from either side of the debate that claims the scriptural accounts of baptisms are sufficient proof of their position. Each side must make a case based on inferences.

About 25% of the accounts of baptism refer to families. Again, none of these is explicit as to whether or not infants were included.

Most of the baptisms described in the New Testament concern adults. This is understandable in that these were first generation Christians—it only makes sense that those coming forward would be adults who accepted Christ.

Believe and Be Baptized

It is important to remember that those churches that practice infant baptism, for example the Presbyterian (PCA) denomination, do not baptize just “anybody”. An adult cannot trundle into the church and demand to be baptized. An adult must be able to make a credible testimony attesting to his belief. The many scriptural accounts of adults who believed and were baptized may be an important plank in the argument for believer’s baptism, but the supporters of paedobaptism would agree that since they were adults a profession of faith was required. Thus these accounts, in and of themselves, do not preclude the baptism of infants as a covenantal sign.

The Circumcision Parallel

Much of the support for infant baptism comes from parallels with circumcision as a sign of the Old Covenant and baptism as a sign of the New Covenant. In some sense, your view depends in part on how much continuity you see between the old and new. Supporters of paedobaptism emphasize the continuity, those arguing against it don’t.

Circumcision was:
  • A sign of a covenant.
  • A sign of faith.
  • Was applied to adults of faith (e.g., Abraham).
  • Was applied to children prior to any profession of faith (e.g., Isaac).

If circumcision was applied to those prior to expression of their faith then, the argument goes, why not baptism?

And if the New Covenant is, by including Gentiles, more inclusive, why would the covenantal sign be less inclusive by excluding infants?

Now Batting less than 1.000

One thing is for sure, in either case (paedobaptism or believer’s baptism) some who never attain a saving faith are baptized, be they infants who never accept Christ or adults who have fallen prey to “easy-believism”.

On that cheerful thought, I am done.

1 Baptismal Regeneration is not free of debate among scholars within the Reformed Community (See, for example, Joel Garver's article here). However, those discussions are well beyond the scope of this blog. Part of this "internal" debate is related to the changing definition of regeneration. And part of it is a defense of the Westminster Confession, which, it must always be remembered, might itself be in error. But there is real substance to this question that is glossed over in this blog.

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