Infant baptism: Is it biblical?

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Those of you who tune into BatesLine for political commentary likely won't care about this, but it's my blog, so I can indulge myself with notes about a topic of discussion around our lunch table today -- the topic being the history and origins of infant baptism (aka paedobaptism, household baptism, covenant baptism) as it is practiced in our church and why my wife and I disagree with it.

My wife and I grew up in churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. (Her childhood church was a rare congregation also affiliated with the American Baptist Convention.) In 1990, we started attending at a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Bible-believing offshoot of the mainline Presbyterian Church. The church's strengths in missions, music, and adult Christian ed, and their offer (at that time) of seminary extension classes were all appealing to us, so we joined and got involved.

We came when the senior pastor of the time didn't place a great deal of emphasis on the doctrine; a few of the elders and deacons were not paedobaptists. A few years after we joined, all that changed under a new pastor from a more traditionally Presbyterian background, and those officials who dissented from paedobaptism were removed from their responsibilities (although many of them remained involved in the church in other ways). We love our church, but we have that one difference of opinion: βαπτίζω means "immerse" and only a follower of Jesus is a proper subject of baptism.

In my 22 years at this church, I've been confronted with all the arguments in favor of paedobaptism. The arguments have always seemed to me to have massive gaps and internal contradictions. For example, if 1 Corinthians 7:14 justifies baptizing the children of believers, it also justifies baptizing unbelieving spouses of Christians.

A resource I found especially helpful was a series of tapes on the doctrine of baptism by Greg Nichols, then an elder at Trinity Baptist Church in Montville, N. J. Trinity is a Calvinistic Baptist church, agreeing with Calvinistic Presbyterians on most topics other than infant baptism and church governance. Nichols led an adult Sunday School class through a 32-week series covering every imaginable aspect of baptism with a special focus on the arguments made by Reformed (Calvinist) paedobaptists. I still have the tapes, but I just recently discovered that the audio has been converted to MP3, and the entire series is online.

Click here for a detailed outline of "Infant Baptism: Is It Biblical?" by Greg Nichols. Here's another link with just the titles of each talk and a link to the audio.

More recently, Pastor Nichols has written a book on covenant theology, partly to refute the notion that rejecting paedobaptism means rejecting the unity of God's redemptive plan. (A sample of the book may be found here.)

RELATED: If you'd prefer a shorter, written treatment of this issue, see Fred Malone's personal account of his journey away from paedobaptism to disciple-only baptism, "A String of Pearls Unstrung." Malone's rethinking of the issue cost him his job as a Presbyterian minister. It began with his reading of Exodus 12, and wondering why, if children of believers are to be added to the covenant community by baptism, they should be excluded from the covenant meal, and then noticing the inconsistent hermeneutic applied by Reformed paedobaptists to baptism and communion. (Malone has also published a book on the subject: The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism - Revised and Expanded.

And in the Winter 2012 issue of the Founders Journal, Robert R. Gonzales, Jr., observes that John 1:12-13 bolsters the case for baptizing only those who make a credible profession of faith in Christ.

MORE: At a much more basic level, here is a pamphlet, "The Truth about Baptism," by I. M. Haldeman, pastor of the First Baptist Church of New York City from 1884 to 1933. The pamphlet explains what baptism is, what it means, and why Christians are obligated to be baptized.

UPDATE: I'm informed that Greg Nichols's title at Trinity Baptist Church was "elder," and I have corrected the text above accordingly. My use of the term "associate pastor" was based on my understanding of his role -- a preacher and teacher, but not the principal preacher and teacher.

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3 Comments

Graychin said:

Yes, you're right. It IS an esoteric matter.

Those who practice infant baptism (e.g. Roman Catholics) choose "godparents" to make the profession of faith on behalf of the infant. The sacrament of Baptism is believed to wash away the infant's inherited stain of Original Sin.

So for the benefit of the uninformed - what's the point of baptism in your tradition? Is it necessary for salvation? If not, what is your view of its value? Do you do it just because John the Baptizer and Jesus did it?

Or is the whole thing just too complicated to explain in one paragraph?

In the Baptist tradition, we baptize because Christ commanded it in the Great Commission -- make disciples, baptizing them -- and we have the examples throughout the book of Acts of people coming to faith, believing, and then being baptized. Baptists consider baptism an act of obedience and an outward sign of an inward transformation, but we do not consider it necessary for salvation nor a guarantee of salvation. Baptism is an act of allegiance and identification.

Let me point you to the 1689 London Confession of Faith, to which many Reformed (Calvinist) Baptists adhere, and which shaped later Baptists confessions and statements of faith. I've left out the scripture references, which you can find at the link:

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life. Those who do actually profess repentance towards God, faith in, and obedience to, our Lord Jesus Christ, are the only proper subjects of this ordinance. The outward element to be used in this ordinance is water, wherein the party is to be baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Immersion, or dipping of the person in water, is necessary to the due administration of this ordinance.

In the Calvinist paedobaptist tradition, baptism is ambiguous. It can have the significance described above, if applied to a person seeking baptism on the basis of his own faith. But when applied to children of believers, it is supposed to signify the same thing as circumcision -- membership in the covenant community, which is not the same as salvation, a guarantee of future salvation, or cleansing from sin. You will hear Calvinist paedobaptists refer to covenant promises, but you can never pin one down to explain what promises apply to their children that don't also apply to every son of Adam and daughter of Eve.

As you rightly point out, in the Catholic tradition (and Orthodox and Anglican too, I think), the same vows apply whether the subject of baptism is an infant or an adult convert, but for infants, someone takes the vows on the infant's behalf, which vows the child will affirm for himself at confirmation. Calvinist paedobaptists sometimes point to the antiquity of the practice of paedobaptism by the Catholic church, but the meaning they assign to paedobaptism only arose in the 17th century.

David Van Author Profile Page said:

Great insights!
I have just a few points to add, if I may.
By starting an ordinance of infant baptism, the Constantine Church left a void where baptism used to be.
When a child grows up in a Christian home and church, he reaches a point where he willfully dedicates his life to his savior. Had he been an un-churched convert, He would naturally demonstrate his new life thru baptism, but his parents already did that for him without his consent or willful allegiance.
So the Constantine Church created an entirely new sacrament of Confirmation. This is a well-meant effort and demonstration, but it would have been better to just baptize the person at the point of his willful dedication.
In my Catholic childhood, I made sure to study and get confirmed in the 8th grade, but like most other Catholics, I never intended to study religion after I attained my Confirmation.
Years later, when I met Jesus, I left my Catholic affiliation and vowed to remain a student of faith for the rest of my life.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 16, 2012 11:19 PM.

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