Thoughts about the Baptism of Infants

Bill Pratt, at “Tough Questions”   has an interesting post and poll asking about infant (or paedo) baptism

I encourage you to visit his site for this, and many other excellent discussions. But I wanted to bring at least some of my thoughts over here. In general, I am not fond of getting off into the “family squabbles” inside Christianity. I would rather stay with what sets us apart from those who are not Christian.  But these internecine differences can point up more fundamental issues, such as how we read Holy Scripture, that are worth some thought.

Having spent my formative spiritual years as a Baptist, and my parenting (now grandparenting) years as an Anglican, this is an issue that has captured no little attention form me, and I think I have come to some terms with it.

First, my children were baptized as infants, mostly as an act of submission on my part. I deeply thought, and still think, God had directly called me into the Anglican/Episcopalian church, and not as a missionary. He called me to work in that vineyard, and sit under that teaching. What I have come to understand over the last 30 years is that there is a lot more to our “one-ness” before God than we westerners like to think. I believe there is something real about my children being “in me” in the same way that I was “in Adam” and am “in Christ”; and that my wife and I are “one flesh,” the church is “one body” and the God Himself is “Three in One” Fundamental reality is plural-unity (neither exclusively corporate, nor exclusively individual, but something deeper) and in the things He has made, the more like Himself, the more things exhibit this quality.

My priest at the time said that, baring a functioning local community (and this was in the Capital C community days in the Episcopal Church) paedo-baptism probably makes no sense.

It is something I see only dimly, as through a mist, and could well be wrong. But I think that Baptizing infants, in the context of being “one Body” and modeling the family an the Church after what we see in the Holy Trinity is sound.

My daughter has a simpler take on it: She is a thoroughly evangelical Episcopalian, and her husband, like me, a reformed Baptist. They struggled a great deal with this issue as well, but as my daughter said,

why should the only item in my home, not dedicated to the Glory of God, be my son?

It has been suggested that my argument so far is weak, in that it is centered in man’s reason, rather than in the Holy Scriptures. I think that all the above is founded there, but I will acknowledge that it flows not from direct Scriptural statements, but from implication and extension. As such, I have been asked for a defense of paedo-baptism from Holy Scripture (and surprisingly, just from the New Testament as if only it is the Word of God. That was one of the earliest heresies the Church had to confront), and I will get to that. But first, I would like to present some other avenues: First, there is the reformation point (at least in the English reformation) about how to read Scripture: From William Whitaker – In his “Disputation on Holy Scripture” He puts eight (if memory serves) points, which I would summarize thus; Read under the cover of prayer, and expect the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Read for the plain sense first, allegorical and metaphorical only in such as they are consistent with the plain. Read as they were intended, historical for history, poetic for poetry, etc. Read as one voice behind the human author. God does not contradict God. If one section seems to contradict, you have not fully understood one or (more likely) both. In like manor, the OT and the NT tell one story, of One God, who “changeth not”. Finally, Read in Community. Others, in this age and in ages past have also wrestled with God’s revelation to us. Learn from them. If you find yourself understanding differently from those you have reason to esteem in the Lord, tread carefully. The example he used was St Augustine. Trust Augustine because he was a Godly and learned (although fallen)man who pointed ultimately to the Scriptures. If from the Scriptures he is wrong, the Word is the primary source. But you should “double-check” your reading. Similarly, “Councils can and have erred…” ; trust God’s Word more than any council. But I mustn’t confuse
“the Bible says…” with
“my understanding of the Bible says…”
one is authoritative, the other not.

OK, why this long ramble through things I expect you already know? Because there is a tendency in American evangelical Christianity to set up “what I read” as the authority, and disregard what has been called the Vincentian Canon:

“…take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

If almost all the church, early, eastern, western, catholic, protestant, have one understanding, then check your work very carefully before disagreeing. Numbers do not, of course, prove truth; if it did, Luther should have been ignored. But if I disagree, not just with Rome; but with Constantinople, Geneva and Canterbury too, there is room to doubt, not God’s word, but myself.
And such is the case with paedo-baptism.

As to the Holy Scripture itself, there are several things to consider. As an aside, let me point you towards a couple of articles that do a better job of this than I can – the first is by Gregg Strawbridge, “Baptism in the Bible and Infant Baptism” here

The other is by Dr. RC Sproul, Jr., one of those men with whom I disagree only with trepidation (and there are a few spots!) here

The “proof-text” portion of the argument, which is often the least reliable, would go something like this. We are nowhere in the NT given explicit instructions to baptize infants. But likewise, we are never given explicit instructions to forbear from such baptisms. Since we cannot argue from silence, we must dig deeper. We are never given an example of a person, having come to faith and being baptized, having children who later came to faith and were baptized themselves. But we are given several examples in the NT of “household baptisms” as well as household conversions. A quick thumbnail would be Cornelius, Lydia’s family in Acts 16:15, The Philippian jailer in Acts 16:33, and Stephanas in I Cor 1:16. In fact, other than the mass conversions as in Acts 2, the accounts of “household baptisms” are roughly the same number as those of purely individual baptisms, particularly if we set aside those like the Ethiopian eunuch and Saul, both of whom were childless, as offering no support in either direction.

The expected protest to these examples would be that the NT nowhere says that those in the household had not also come to faith. Perhaps Paul baptized the household of Stephanas because they had all confessed Jesus. But that is again arguing from silence, and has no validity unless one already assumes that all baptisms were credo-baptism. The plain reading of these texts does not support that idea.

At this point, admitting that the NT is still inconclusive, one could look to the nature of Baptism, and consistency with what we have seen of God before. There are two main understandings. One of which is the idea of “Baptismal Regeneration,” or the idea that the Sacrament of Baptism itself is salvific. One can find a verse of two that seems to support that, but I reject any idea that adds to, replaces or modifies in any way salvation by other than faith in Christ Jesus. As I expect most folks who find there way to this post agree with me here, I won’t take time elaborating ( you are welcome to port your dissent, and we can kick that around a bit!) The other idea is that Baptism is the sign (not the substance) of entrance into a covenantal relationship with God. Throughout the OT, whether in Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses or David, the covenant of God was always with a People. Yes, it required individual decision. (choose YOU this day…) but that covenant was for the Generations. Not JUST corporate, but not JUST individual either. (That gets me back to my “Pural-Unity” idea about the nature of God as triune is reflected is His creation))

As a final example, Israel was ransomed from Egypt (and note how the progeny of Israel are known by his name, Israel. they are in some way “in him”) by the blood, and through the waters of the red sea. They took their entire household with them. They had to decide to trust God, but they didn’t leave their babies in Egypt until they were old enough to trust God for themselves.

Of course, these examples are not proofs, either. But they do suggest something of the ways of God, and when taken as a whole with the NT accounts, and the mostly united voice of the Church through (almost) all centuries and in (almost) all places, I think it makes a pretty compelling case that the reluctance I feel for infant baptism lies more in my post-enlightenment and western worship of the individual against the corporate than it does in the truth of the matter.

Another minor point, with perhaps a larger one behind it. I have seen the anti-infant baptism argument summed up thus:

“An infant obviously cannot believe on her own, so if baptism is only a sign of the faith a person possesses, then why are infants baptized?”

If this were so, I think I would have a hard time disagreeing. But I would suggest that there is a false premise here. I would think that baptism is not so much a sign of the faith the person possesses, as it is a sign of what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do.

Again, part of the “background noise” of our culture is that we are very “me” centered. It took me a long time to get over the idea that a “good” worship service had much to do with what I “got out of it”  Worship is not about me, it is not for me. It is about God, about the Lamb who was slain being worthy to receive it. Now, I have found that when I enter worship that way, with a prayer that God grant me to worship Him as He deserves, that I tend to “get more” out of it. (But that is only consistent with he who dies to self will live, etc.)

Baptism cannot be about MY faith, but God’s faithfulness, and His gift.

As such, it hardly matters whether “I can believe on my own” -as a matter of fact, even at 20, when I was baptized, or now at 54, I can’t believe on my own.

“No one can come to Me, unless the Father draws him.”  

 Visit Bill’s blog, and weigh in yourself!

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