One of the most divisive theological debates among Protestants is Infant Baptism. Some traditions take this practice for granted, some are easygoing about it and don’t make a big deal one way or the other, while others are vehemently opposed to baptizing infants. The purposes of this article are to set out seven summary points to help explain to someone unfamiliar with Infant Baptism the purpose behind the practice, attempt to clear up some common misunderstandings, and build some bridges across these “waters that divide.”
Most church traditions today who insist on Credo-Baptism (requiring mature belief before baptism) typically do not have much emphasis on Church History. This can be either passive (lacking an emphasis on the value of history in Christian education), or active (denying the value of history in Christian education). Either way, the result is the same: there is a disconnect between practitioners of Credo-Baptism and the bulk of the history of Christianity.
The first Credo-Baptists were part of a movement called Anabaptists, a term meaning “people who get baptized again.” They rejected the validity of infant baptism, and therefore would “re-baptize” such persons as adults, once confessing faith in Christ. Over time, the term “Anabaptist” became a term for particular movement, more often known for being pacifists, and a new family of churches called Baptists emerged. Baptists practiced Credo-Baptism, but were otherwise more like mainstream Protestants, and still a very small minority. In the mid-1800’s Revivalism became a powerful movement in the USA, and from this tradition Baptists and their non-denominational counterparts eventually birthed the Fundamentalist movement and today’s Evangelical movement. Through those forces of history, Credo-Baptism rapidly gained popularity, to the point where it is a view numerically comparable with Pedobaptism (baptizing young children).
Despite its current popularity in the United States, however, Credo-Baptists still have to contend with the fact that their view simply did not exist before the 1500’s. Those who study Christian history usually find they have to soften their stance against Pedobaptism, or deal with history with a high degree of suspicion, asserting that the true faith must have been persecuted by the Church for many centuries. A position which, I would argue, does not meet up to Jesus’ promise that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against his Church (Matthew 16:18).
Many proponents of Credo-Baptism often think of Infant Baptism as something that Roman Catholics do, and are baffled at how fellow Protestants could do such a thing. One of the main paradigms for Reformed Christians for understanding Baptism is the context of the New Covenant. Put briefly, the Bible describes two main covenants: one given through Moses to Israel and one given through Jesus to the Church. The Old Covenant finds its fulfillment in the New, so it and its observances no longer apply to us, though there does remain a valuable set of parallels between the Old and New Covenants. After all, both were given by the same God to form a people of his own!
In the Old Covenant, individuals were initiated into the people of God by being born into it. The outward physical sign of this inward spiritual reality was circumcision (for boys only). In the New Covenant, circumcision has been replaced by Baptism. One of the best places in the New Testament for explaining this is Colossians 2:8-14.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
What we find here is that Paul describes baptism as the “circumcision made without hands.” What the Old Covenant circumcision portrayed, New Covenant Baptism also portrays and communicates. So, just as an 8-day-old boy would be circumcised to become a child of God under the Old Covenant, now a newborn boy (or girl!) is baptized to become a child of God under the New Covenant. It’s a matter of belonging to God’s family, or more technically, God’s “Covenant Community.” This, of course, assumes and requires that the parents themselves are faithful members of the Church already.
What a few Protestant traditions (along with the Catholic tradition) add to the covenantal layer is also a sacramental layer. Children are not only brought into God’s family through baptism, they’re also brought into the life of Christ. The earlier quote from Colossians 2 hints at this, but note also what Romans 6:3-6 says:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
As an Anglican, I would also quote Article 27 of the 39 Articles of Religion, one of our foundational theological documents:
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.
What Romans 6 describes and Article 27 argues for is a powerful picture of Baptism being an “instrument” that God uses to crucify and bury us with Christ and to raise us from spiritual death to new life. It is an act where God’s “promises of the forgiveness of sin” is made visible, and to which we can look for assurance that “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” at the End of the Age.
Suffer Not the Little Ones
The Anglican Article 27 also adds, “The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” Its lack of condescension to defend this position is a witness of how off-the-grid Credo-Baptism was back in 1571 when this was written. The Covenantal likeness of Baptism and Circumcision may be a sufficient explanation for some, but further Scriptures may be examined to understand the incorporation of young children and infants into the practice of Baptism.
In Matthew 19:14, Jesus said “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” On its own this verse (and its context) speaks nothing of baptism directly. But what it does do is put forth a theology of infants belonging to God’s kingdom, which does impact how we view child “membership” in the Church.
In 1 Corinthians 7:13-14, Paul hinted at the same idea. “If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” Children of even only one Christian parent are considered clean and holy. What does this mean? Because we believe in the doctrine of original sin, Paul can’t be saying that young children are sinless. Rather, he must be speaking of their status at some level. And where else can one gain a status of cleanness or holiness but from Christ?
So if young children can be considered clean, holy, and belonging to God’s Kingdom, then we have no reason to exclude them from membership in the Church. Now, most practitioners of Credo-Baptism have established the modern tradition of Infant Dedication as a means of recognizing the godly desire and intent to raise the child in the faith. But is a dedication really the same thing as the belonging and holiness that Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 describe?
As always happens when groups of Christians don’t talk to one another enough, misunderstandings have arisen between Credo-Baptists and Pedobaptists. One of the worst mistakes that Credo-Baptists make about Pedobaptists is to assume that Infant Baptism is believed to guarantee the child’s salvation. This simply is not true! Baptizing an infant no more guarantees salvation than baptizing an adult – either can be done before a person falls away and rejects Christ.
One of the more helpful passages of Scripture to describe the admittedly-confusing link between Baptism and salvation is 1 Peter 3:18-22.
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
What Peter is doing here first is drawing an analogy between the Flood and Baptism. Noah and his family “were brought safely through the water” of the Flood to avoid the judgment of the wicked people around them. According to Peter’s analogy, Baptism does the same thing: it saves us through the resurrection of Jesus. It’s not so much about “removal of dirt from the body,” as it is about “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” In Baptism, the work of God (not of man) is sought.
Fallacies of Choice
One final set of issues with how Credo-Baptism is often argued can be found in the logic and thought process involved in the position. “I want my child to choose Christ for himself or herself,” one often hears. This is indeed a good and godly desire that all Christians should have for the next generations, as parents or otherwise! The challenge enters, however, at this point: to what extent do we help our children make that choice? After all, children don’t get to pick their vaccinations, or if they have to go to school. Christian parents also usually bring their kids to church on Sundays – it’s not as though the kids get left at home until they choose to come too!
Certainly there is a desire for every child to “own” the faith on their own. But at the same time, if a parent is convinced that something is true and important and life-giving, they will include their children in the celebration of that truth as long as they can. And so the idea of the child having a choice ends up getting misrepresented. There is a difference between our children choosing to become a Christian and choosing to continue being a Christian. Baptizing an infant is affirming that the child is being raised to be a Christian. Disallowing infant baptism is tantamount to saying that the child is not a Christian until they’ve grown old enough to join the Church on their own volition. But how many Credo-Baptists actually treat their children as non-christians until they confess faith for themselves? Are non-baptized children disallowed from singing “Father Abraham had many sons… I am one of them, and so are you”? Are they taught to pray the Sinner’s Prayer before learning the Lord’s Prayer? I can’t think of any Credo-Baptist who treats their children as little heathens until they choose baptism – rather, they treat them like little Christians whom the Church hopes will grow up and choose to remain as Christians all the days of their lives!
Already, points of similarity have arisen between Credo-Baptists and Pedobaptists concerning how to treat, view, and raise their children. Both sides desire for their children, as Peter said, to “grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). Both sides value mature personal confessions of faith, as this statement from the Anglican Church in North America describes: “Anglicanism requires a public and personal profession of the Faith from every adult believer in Jesus Christ. Confirmation by a bishop is its liturgical expression. Confirmation is evident in Scripture: the Apostles prayed for, and laid their hands on those who had already been baptized (Acts 8:14-17; 19:6).” A form of Confirmation is practiced by most Pedobaptist traditions as a means of giving a place for grown-up children to make their own adult profession of faith, matching how Credo-Baptists treat baptism.
One criticism of the practice of Confirmation is that it is sometimes treated as a sort of mill: send the children to Sunday School or CCD, make them memorize the things they’re supposed to memorize, and at the age of (fill-in-the-blank), they all get confirmed, and it’s as if they’ve “graduated” from church. Such an institutionalized and formulaic approach is admittedly problematic. However, it should be noted that some Credo-Baptist churches fall into the same type of pattern with preparing people for Baptism: send them to membership classes, make sure they learn the right memory verses, have them write and deliver their “testimony,” and that’s that. Whether it’s Confirmation or Baptism, both traditions face the same challenge of helping their growing-up children to make their own authentic declaration of faith for themselves.
Finally, at the end of the day, both Credo-Baptists and Pedobaptists seek to proclaim the same Gospel of salvation through Christ alone. We share the same faith in God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We read the same Bible, declare the same Creeds, pray the same prayers, sing the same songs; we are both among God’s people. While our commitment to the truth of God should be a strong and hearty pursuit, we cannot also lose sight of the fact that not all disagreements need separate us from our brethren in Christ.