Lately, I’ve been having a lot conversations about baptism. Some of these have been with credobaptists who wonder about the scriptural justification for infant baptism. Some with those who were baptized as infants, but now attend a church that adheres to believer baptism, and are required to be re-baptized in order to be a member. This post is my explanation, to those who wonder, why some Christians insist that infant baptism is baptism. This is a difficult task because, in the case of most protestant denominations who practice it, infant baptism has everything to do with “Covenantal Theology.” This is more of an worldview, than just an interpretation of scripture, so to actually understand infant baptism, you really need to be looking through the lenses of Covenantal Theology.
Just a few terms: paedobaptists baptize children; credobaptists baptize believers.
I have no problem with credobaptism. No paedobaptist does; it is clear that the church in Acts baptized adults. I go to a church that baptizes believers only. It is an important issue, but it is not, as they say, a “Salvation issue.”
I believe that there is adequate historical and scriptural evidence that infant baptism was normative in the early church. I also think that baptism of infants is, today, a counter-cultural practice to which all Christians might consider returning.
The historical evidence points to infant baptism being practised in the early church. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) speaks to the universality of infant baptism saying it is “held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.” There is only a century separating John the Apostle and the Church Father Origin, who was certainly baptized as an infant in around 180 AD. It is reasonable to assert that the practice of baptism as performed in the earliest days of the church, was imitated in the decades that followed; they did what they saw done. By itself, historical evidence like this is not an adequate reason to accept infant baptism, but it can be used as a support to scriptural evidence.
Scripture ought to be our guideline when trying to determine who to baptize. So the question is, What do the scriptures say?
Well, this is inconclusive. There can be clarity, but to achieve it, you have to read every verse regarding baptism from a particular perspective. If you read it with one perspective, one can convincingly argue that believer baptism is scriptural; if you read it from another, then infant baptism is the way to go. Proof of this is that both credo- and paedobaptists use exactly the same texts to support their views.
Those who baptize infants start with a covenantal perspective. God deals with his people using Covenants. The mark of the Old Covenant was circumcision, carried out long before a child could make any personal response to God. Abraham circumcised Isaac at eight days old (Genesis 21:4). Babies born into a believing home receive this sign of the covenant, and it is clear that the faith of the parents is sufficient for the whole household, including the children. Clearly, children were a part of the Old Testament people of God.
Circumcision was a sign–it pointed to something else–a transformation of the heart. In Deuteronomy 10:16 this is referred to as the “circumcision” of the heart. We also find this language in Jeremiah (4:4). In Ezekiel 36:24-27 it’s called a new heart, a heart of flesh as opposed to one of stone.
Importantly, outward circumcision did not guarantee the inward transformation. In Jeremiah 9:25-26 it says, “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab–and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” The sign of circumcision was not simply a sign of belonging to a racial group, or even a particular religion–it was a sign of spiritual transformation. One which the recipient of the sign may or may not experience.
Paul sees circumcision in this way as well. In Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29, he emphasizes that what counts is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” He then comments on God’s first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom 4:11). Paul reinforces the idea that physical circumcision is a sign for spiritual transformation. He also says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12). Here we see that faith precedes the sign of the covenant, but once received, the faith of the adult is sufficient for the whole household, including children.
The general pattern of scripture shows important parallels between circumcision and baptism; both are a signs of the covenant of the righteousness we receive by faith, both symbolize the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith; both point to the cleansing and renewal of the heart, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus. In the case of circumcision, God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises. The New Testament doesn’t explicitly identify the recipients of the sign of the New Covenant.
Protestant denominations seem to agree that baptism is a sign of union with Christ, symbolizing righteousness in Christ and participation in his Death and Resurrection which can be receive only by faith. Credobaptists argue that since baptism symbolizes grace received through faith, the recipient ought to have professed their faith before receiving the sign. Paedobaptists say that, just like circumcision in the Old Covenant, baptism is not a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted, but a sign that it has been offered.
I believe this is the key difference between the two views, so let me say it again, for the sake of emphasis: Supporters of believer baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted by faith. Supporters of infant baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been offered and will be received only by faith. You don’t need to accept either view, but you must conceded that both are reasonable readings of the supporting texts.
I think that many of the credobaptist objections to infant baptism are resolved when we allow the sign of baptism to stand as a sign of God’s covenant promises (which can only be received through faith) and not a sign of the acceptance of these promises. If this point is conceded, then we ought to be baptizing babies. The question now is whether or not it is to be conceded.
I think this point ought to be conceded and here’s why: there is no scriptural reason for children to be treated differently under the New Covenant than they were treated under the Old. The Israelite children were clearly considered part of the covenant community–they received the sign of circumcision. I think it is appropriate to assume the continuity between the two covenants unless there is explicit biblical reasons not to. If the children of Christians are to be considered outside of the New Covenant community, then we would expect this significant change to be explicitly expressed in the New Testament writings. All the other ways where the New diverges from the Old is explicitly articulated. Here’s the list:
- circumcision is no longer a requirement
- both Jews and Greeks must be baptized
- no more animal sacrifices
- dietary laws no longer apply
- temple worship is replaced by the “Spiritual Temple”
The New Testament offers no shift in the relationship of children to the covenant, moving them from inside through the covenant sign of circumcision, to outside through exclusion from the covenant sign of baptism. If children were suddenly outside the covenant, a radical change in God’s way of dealing with his people, surely there would have been some discussion, if not a major controversy, that would have been recorded in the New Testament.
Indeed, what is remarkable about the New Covenant is that it became more inclusive. Where the Old Testament sign of circumcision was restricted to males and, in general, Jews. The New Testament covenant adds women and Greeks. It seems inconsistent that the sign of the New Covenant would become less inclusive in just this one way.
In conclusion, paedobaptists would say that every objection raised against the baptism of infants can be raised against circumcision. If these objections are invalid for circumcision, they are invalid for baptism.
There are other dimensions and arguments to infant baptism that I have not gone into because they, too, are not conclusive.