Some Thoughts on Infant Baptism

If by seeing the title of this post you are expecting a formal treatise on infant baptism, you are mistaken. That has been done elsewhere by much smarter people than I. All I’m interested in is providing a basic starting rationale for why, as a Wesleyan, I like infant baptism.

Becca and I will be having Savannah baptized in just a few weeks. It has been quite a journey for me to agree with infant baptism. The idea of it sounded ludicrous to me just a few years ago, but that was because I only understood it in the Roman Catholic sense. Traditionally Catholic theology of the sacrament asserts that unbaptized babies either go to Hell or “limbo”. As a Protestant, this is one issue that I simply don’t agree with the RCs on, but did you know that all the Protestant Reformers including Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin held to infant baptism, as did John Wesley? Did you know that infant baptism, properly understood, has been the practice of the historic Christian church since the Apostolic period? In other words, as long as the church has existed Christian parents have baptized their infant babies, a practice given to the Church by the apostles themselves.

The evidence is there in both Scripture and in church history. In fact, baptism, as the sign of the New Covenant, is the New Testament equivalent to the sign of the Old Covenant, circumcision, in the Old Testament, which, as you know, was offered to every baby boy in Israel on day 8, not as a result of their personal faith, but as a sign of God’s covenant of grace with Israel. But more on that in a bit. My point here is that infant baptism is not some obscure practice observed by Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox alone, but rather a deeply celebrated sacrament of Christ and His Church universally observed from the very beginning.

But what about “dedication”? Infant dedication, while a practice allowed by all Protestant evangelical bodies, does not have a celebrated history. It is a recent practice that springs from reactionism to the concept of infant baptism in the Catholic church. Besides, Becca and I don’t like dedication because it seems to be more about what we do as parents than what God has done in Christ, which is what baptism is all about.

In my own estimation, there are two factors at work in the general Protestant opposition to infant baptism: 1. Hatred of Catholicism, and 2. The influence of Baptist theology. Because so many Protestants hate Catholicism (mainly baby boomers and their parents), and because Baptist theology has influenced all Protestant denominations in some way, the general thing to do is react to infant baptism so strongly that we want to do away with it altogether. I was once there. But as I have learned more about what baptism is I can see now that “believers baptism”, while a perfectly valid option, is not the only way.

God has extended His life to all people in the world — white, black, red, yellow, male, female, Republicans (and Democrats), old, AND young. The benefits of this extension of His life do not begin in Heaven, but here and now in the life of His Church. While it is true that adults who are able to make a profession of faith are baptized after the fact, God has made a provision for those who are unable to have faith for themselves to experience the full benefits of life in Him and His Body. It is this life in the Church, or “ecclesial life”, that is Life in Christ. There is no life apart from Him in His Church.

John Wesley himself points out that there is no biblical mandate forbidding the baptism of children or infants. On the contrary, since God directed circumcision for eight day old infants (Gen. 17), and baptism was given in place of circumcision, scripture allows it. Consider also Christ’s command to his disciples that they not refrain from bringing children and infants to Him (Luke 18:15-16). Consider also that all of Israel entered into the covenant with God, not just the ones who were mature enough to enter into it on their own volition (Deut. 29:10-11). Furthermore, the blood on the doors of Jewish families that first Passover (Exodus 12) saved the children inside. God’s saving grace was given to children (who could not make decisions for themselves) based on the faith of their parents! Wesley also points out that on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), when thousands believed and were baptized, it is reasonable to think that the Jews would have brought their entire households, including infants, to be baptized. Plus, it was their manner to include their entire households in the salvation experience (Acts 16). So for us we take serious the words of Joshua 24:15: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Infant baptism does not negate the need for personal faith in Christ. Savannah will arrive at that point in her life as she grows up. In that day, and through confirmation, she will choose whether or not to live up to her baptism in Christ, just like Jewish men chose to assume the mantle of the covenant when they reached the appropriate age.

Historically and theologically there is room to think about infant baptism. We usually have either a hyper-Catholicism which removes all personal decision about salvation, or the other side that says it’s all about our belief that saves us. If you are living in the fullness of what the Church of Christ in the Spirit is, that is salvation. Contrary to modern self-centered American spirituality, it is never just “me and Jesus”. Your experience never makes you a Christian, it’s your life in Christ and Christ in you that saves you. His life saves me, and that life is always communal. We tend to only ever focus on the will. But what is a baby and it’s place in the church? Are babies only important when they can make a decision? Why can’t they be a constant symbol of all our lives in Christ? Of never being able to do anything on our own? Life in Christ is not “I believe without anybody else’s help!” but rather, “I believe,” but only in the context of someone blessing me with grace before I ever knew.

Perhaps if we posed the question a different way we’ll arrive at a better understanding. The question isn’t “can a baby will” but “can a baby receive“. Baptism is NOT about “my decision” but about God’s grace in Christ freely offered to all to receive. I wholeheartedly believe that Savannah, in her own unique way as a baby, can receive the life of Christ now, just as she receives her physical life from Rebecca. We don’t force food down her throat, she freely receives it. Something in her body, call it hunger, prompts her to swallow. One day she may choose to not eat, but right now the hunger in her body yearns for sustenance and she gladly receives what is freely offered. If her body hungers so much, how much more does her young spirit? And if Becca is capable of meeting her bodily need, how much more can Jesus meet her spiritual need? I believe that Jesus offers himself to her in his fullness now and will feed and nourish her spirit, even before she can ever “have faith”. She may one day choose to reject him, but so could an adult.

There are many, many more reasons (theological, doctrinal, practical, ect.) to support infant baptism, but I’ve said enough for now. I have offered you biblical, historical, theological, and practical reasons for the practice as an orthodox Wesleyan evangelical. I’ll leave you now with some links to a couple great articles on the topic. Please take the time to read these. Once you are done reading and thinking about what you’ve read, I am open for dialogue.

-Keith Drury has a piece on his blog titled “Why We Baptize Babies”. It’s a nice short defense of infant baptism by a Wesleyan scholar in laymen’s terms.

-Steve Blakemore has a much more technical piece titled “By the Spirit Through the Water: John Wesley’s ‘Evangelical’ Theology of Infant Baptism“.

-For a previous discussion on fetal personhood, see my previous blog topic, “Is a Fetus a Person?“.

11 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Infant Baptism

  1. Sean, that is a great post. I really enjoyed reading and hearing echoed my same concerns and thoughts on the matter of infant baptism.

    Jackson was infant baptized and I actually just baptized Adam Godbold’s little boy the other month. It ought to be a blessed celebratory sacrament for the community of faith.

    But because of divisive theologies and thoughts there is often antagonism that ensues in any discussion or occurrence of infant baptism. Most of these people are simply assuming something they have never actually looked into or thought about.

    I was one of those people once. My dad was one. We have changed our minds. All smart people are willing at least to change their minds. Open at least, for real dialogue and thinking.

    Thanks brother for continuing the dialogue. I will point people to this article for years to come. And, thanks for those articles at the end of your article. I had read them before for my own “conversion” to infant baptism.

    For me and Jessica the day Jackson was baptized was one of the greatest days of our life.

    (sorry for the length; it is a passionate subject for me)

    p.s. – would you mind me sharing this on my blog?

  2. Marshall,

    Thanks for the compliments. I figured that these thoughts would resonate with you. I remember well seeing the pictures of Jackson’s baptism on your blog not too long ago.

    I think you are spot on in your assessment of the antagonistic attitude of most Protestant evangelicals towards infant baptism. There are many false assumptions people make concerning the issue, most of which (as I already stated) flow from reactionism. I mean, if those dirty Catholics do something then we can’t do anything that even closely resembles what they do, right? Plus, the modern American version of the Gospel is so hyper-individualistic, affective and will-centric that we cannot conceive of anything as precious and beautiful as a Christian family receiving God’s life together, let alone the Church.

    With that said, I have no problem with believer’s baptism. Never have; never will. My problem is with people who refuse to at least consider the possibility that their preconceived notions about any alternatives might be based more on ignorance than fact. (Not that everyone who disagrees with infant baptism fits into this category, but many do.) While my post is in no way an exhaustive treatise from someone who has worked out all the fine details, the ideas it contains are enough for me to at least start moving in a new direction theologically. Those of us who believe in infant baptism stand in good company; those who don’t are pretty much on their own.

    Feel free to point as many people to this as you want. Thanks for sharing your own thoughts. Never apologize to me for the length of a comment. I just enjoy the dialogue.

  3. Sean,

    I should probably just research this, but can you explain to me, or tell me where baptism replaced circumcism?

    On another note, I enjoyed your post.

    While I tend to disagree that a parent’s choice to immerse or sprinkle their infant, has the same Spiritual consequences as one’s own giving of themselves in obedience toward Christ’s command to be saved, and then baptised, I see nothing wrong with a parent “baptizing” their children.

    My one question would be, are you going to tell your daughter that she has already been baptized, and she no longer needs to make that decision on her own?

    What would your answer be, or what will it be, when she comes to you and says that she wants to be baptized of her own accord?

    There were two people in my Circlevile Bible College class who had been baptized as infants. Both said that they felt that they needed, and wanted to be baptized again as an adult…

    One of them went through with it, and the other one had not because it would have caused turmoil in her relationship with her parents.

    In your study of baptism, which is far greater than I have studied for sure, what is the relavence of baptism if not an individual act. Surely it is not the act of water touching the skin, but rather an internal decision… Can a parent make that decision for their child? I guess that is where we differ.

    I do not hold to the, “antagonistic attitude of most Protestant evangelicals towards infant baptism.” Rather that as an infant we can no more be baptized, Spiritually, through the choice of another any more than we can be saved by our parent’s will and actions.

    I will tell you this, being that I have always enjoyed, and repected your take on things… You have at least perked my ears, and have forced me to listen to a voice of reason. I must now go and contemplate…

    -Matt

  4. Matt,

    Thanks for the comment. You’ve always been good for stimulating dialogue, and I’m always happy to see you on here. Let me try to answer your comments and questions in order.

    -The New Testament doesn’t have an explicit teaching on baptism in regards to replacing circumcision, per se. However, in Colossians 2:11-12 Paul does appear to be essentially connecting or equating the two: “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.” On this Wesley makes the point that few details other than what God is doing in baptism are listed. “No stress is laid on the age of the baptized, or the manner of performing it, in one or the other; but only on our being risen with Christ, through the powerful operation of God in the soul.” (Explanatory Notes)

    -I don’t understand why baptizing an infant and them come to faith when they reach their appropriate age is in any way less spiritually significant than when someone believes and then is baptized. The baptism is no different in either one, only the time of when that person has come to the point of personal decision. There is only one baptism, and that is Christ’s. We are baptized into his baptism — infants prior to personal decision, adults subsequent to. In either scenario, it isn’t the faith that makes the sacrament what it is, but God and His graciousness in Christ through the Spirit. Baptism is about what God has done and is doing, not about what I choose to do or not to do. It is the same as saying, “I/we receive” not “I will”.

    -My job as a parent is to teach Savannah about God and His covenant, including the nature of grace and the regular means of it. I will teach Savannah to love the Lord, and when she reaches the appropriate age she will be faced with whether or not to live up to her baptism.

    As for being rebaptized…hopefully I will have explained baptism correctly enough so that she has a proper understanding of the sacrament and won’t see the need to go through it again. A proper understanding of baptism would see the error of rebaptism, so my job is to make sure she doesn’t think she needs it.

    As for your friends, there are many adults who were baptized as infants and later “felt” as though they needed to be rebaptized. Despite what they “feel” I would say that they simply don’t understand the sacrament properly. Rebaptism is simply unnecessary.

    -Forgive me for the bluntness of this comment, but I think you are mistaken if you think baptism is an “individual act.” You see, that’s the problem with the popular Baptist/American evangelical view of baptism, and salvation as a whole. It is so horribly individualistic. There is no room in that kind of theology for anyone other than me and Jesus. On the contrary, God initiated the covenantal system/s because salvation is a corporate experience. Yes, individual persons are saved, but that salvation is defined and experienced socially. That is because God Himself is social in His inner nature. You and I cannot exist as persons (saved individuals) alone any more than Jesus can be a divine Person alone. His personhood is found in, through, and for the other two Persons. Likewise your Christianity, while a concrete and unique thing to you personally, is found in, through, and for God and the church. An anti-social salvation is no salvation at all.

    -As for whether it is the water itself touching the skin or an inner commitment that matters, let me say this. Water itself can never convey grace. It is God who makes Himself objectively present through the means of grace, IE. the water, that conveys grace. Is grace conveyed through infant baptism? You better believe it is. It may only be prevenient grace, but it is grace nonetheless. Would you say that grace is conveyed in adult baptism? I should hope so. But saving grace is conveyed when personal faith accompanies baptism, and the same is true with infants, only the timing differs. In either situation, the sacrament is an outward sign of what God has done and means of grace. Never is it about what you or I do.

    I hope I have not more fully muddied the waters. I appreciate and share your desire to arrive at the truth. I’m still learning and my ideas are still developing. I have not arrived at any dogmatic conclusions. But when faced with the two options, I feel comfortable aligning myself with the side that is supported by Scripture and tradition and makes the most sense theologically.

    Please don’t think that I am advocating infant baptism alone. What I want to do is arrive at a proper understanding of baptism, grace, and salvation in general. It just so happens that I think infant baptism fits into the schema.

  5. I guess I need to think and pray about this a bit further…

    Currently, I do not believe that baptism can be done by a parent for a child any more than a parent can feed their infant bread and wine and say that they have partaken in communion.

    … but I am still thinking…

    🙂
    -Matt

  6. Matt/Sean,

    No one remembers their physical birth. The family remembers. And if you notice the liturgy of infant baptism you will see that not only the parents but the family and the church are to remember.

    This is obviously later is to be confirmed, by faith in Jesus Christ, in the person baptized as an infant. However, it is to be confirmed and not redone. I don’t personally have a problem with it being redone if that is what the person wants. But I see no biblical or theological reason for it having to be be redone.

    We derive our physical life from another and our spiritual life comes to us from another and through another and we live our lives toward another and in another, etc.. It only seems logical that infant baptism would also image this “otherness”.

    As goes infant baptism, the family of God remembers. This again bites at our American individualism. It becomes a social event directly connected to the body of Christ and not to our decision alone. And, this is only for those who grow up in a Christian family.

    If that is not helpful disregard it.

  7. Marshall,

    Those are great thoughts. Thanks for sharing them, and thanks for the link to here on your blog.

    Another thought…

    I’ve been doing my thesis this semester on the eucharistic theology of the Wesleys, and one thing stood out to me the other day. The Wesleys call all to the Table, both believers and sinners. Their logic is that God has ordained the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace whereby He offers His life to all mankind. While it is for the believers, it is also a “converting ordinance.”

    On All, who at his Word draw near,
    In Faith the Outward Veil look thro’:
    Sinners, believe; and find Him here:
    Believe; and feel He died for You.
    Hymns on the Lord’s Supper 73:4

    The reason I bring this up is it causes us to rethink what the sacraments are. They are not mere dead signs that point to some past work of God. We reject Zwingli’s memorialistic view. Instead they are God’s channels for conveying Triune life to all who would receive, with the end in mind of participation in His life. The purpose is reception and participation, yet we water it down by stripping away all mystery and arguing over the metaphysics and who they are for. I find that profoundly sad, and I hope we will be able in our Wesleyan churches at least to recapture the mystery and beauty of the sacramental life.

  8. Sean,

    Great post! I’m a little late getting into the discussion, but I think you’ve adequately expressed about everything I believe about infant baptism. Jill and I are planning to have Jovi baptized in the coming months.

    I figure I’d throw in my two cents and tell a couple of stories. I think that the American-evangelicalism anti-infant baptism mentality has actually devalued all forms of baptism. Here’s what I mean: As you’ve already mentioned most evangelical (Baptists and unfortunately most Wesleyans) hold some form of Zwingli’s memorialistic view of baptism which places all of the emphasis on the person’s will to be baptized, not the grace of Christ received in the sacrament itself. As soon as one holds such a memorialistic view, what is the point of baptism? It is just a sign of the choice that the person made. When the choice becomes the only focus, receiving the grace of baptism becomes secondary and ultimately unnecessary.

    The result is that many non-Baptist evangelicals don’t really care about baptism at all. I know a guy who’s been a Christian for most of his life and has been serving in ministry for years who has never been baptized! He just said, “Ah, I really don’t think it’s that important,” despite the fact that Jesus commanded it!

    My wife, Jill, was actually baptized as an infant. Her mom was raised in a nominally Catholic home but later came to personal faith in a Wesleyan denomination. When Jill was born, her mom’s family pressured her mom into having Jill baptized. Jill’s parents relented and her baptized, but her mom later told me that “it didn’t really mean anything. We saw it more as a dedication.” Despite not believing in infant baptism, they had her baptized anyway. And even though they hold to believer baptism, they never pushed for Jill to be rebaptized when she personally confirmed her faith. My conclusion is that they just don’t care about baptism at all. I believe that God’s grace was still received in Jill’s baptism, even if her parents denied its reality.

    Finally….I figure, hey, if the Catholics are right, Savannah and Jovi will both be safe from Limbo. You just can’t go wrong with infant baptism. =)

  9. Great thing that you post your thoughts on infant baptism. My eldest son was baptized when he was 4 months old and my youngest was baptized two months after he was born. I enjoyed reading your post.

  10. Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the covenant. There is zero evidence from the OT that says otherwise.

    Infants WERE part of the covenant. If a Hebrew infant died, he was considered “saved”.

    However, circumcision did NOT “save” the male Hebrew child. It was the responsibility of the Hebrew parents to bring up their child in the faith, so that when he was older “he would not depart from it”. The child was born a member of the covenant. Then, as he grew up, he would have the choice: do I want to continue placing my faith in God, or do I want to live in willful sin? If he chose to live by faith, he would be saved. If he chose to live a life of willful sin and never repented, and then died, he would perish.

    When Christ established the New Covenant, he said nothing explicit in the New Testament about the salvation of infants and small children; neither do the Apostles nor any of the writers of the New Testament. Isn’t that odd? If the new Covenant no longer automatically included the children of believers, why didn’t Christ, one of the Apostles, or one of the writers of the NT mention this profound change?

    Why is there no mention in the NT of any adult convert asking this question: “But what about my little children? Are you saying that I have to wait until my children grow up and make a decision for themselves, before I will know if they will be a part of the new faith? What happens if my child dies before he has the opportunity to make this decision?” But no, there is no record in Scripture that any of these questions are made by new converts to the new faith. Isn’t that really, really odd??? As a parent of small children, the FIRST question I would ask would be, “What about my little children?”

    But the New Testament is completely silent on the issue of the salvation or safety of the infants and toddlers of believers. Another interesting point is this: why is there no mention of any child of believers “accepting Christ” when he is an older child (8-12 years old) or as a teenager and then, being baptized? Not one single instance and the writing of the New Testament occurred over a period of 30 years, approximately thirty years after Christ’s death: So over a period of 60 years, not one example of a believer’s child being saved as a teenager and then receiving “Believers Baptism”. Why???

    So isn’t it quite likely that the reason God does not explicitly state in the NT that infants should be baptized, is because everyone in first century Palestine would know that infants and toddlers are included in a household conversion. That fact that Christ and the Apostles did NOT forbid infant baptism was understood to indicate that the pattern of household conversion had not changed: the infants and toddlers of believers are still included in this new and better covenant.

    Circumcision nor Baptism was considered a “Get-into-heaven-free” card. It was understood under both Covenants that the child must be raised in the faith, and that when he was older, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the faith and receive everlasting life, or choose a life of sin, breaking the covenant relationship with God, and forfeiting the gift of salvation.

    Which of these two belief systems seems to be most in harmony with Scripture and the writings of the Early Christians?

    Gary
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  11. I continue to think on this point, and I have to say I think Christ would be beettr at understanding our trials in this life if He had been married. Not to disparage another religion, but I’ve always thought it’s odd that Catholic priests offer parenting and marriage advice (my father was raised Catholic and many of my family members still are). I think it’s pretty challenging to offer advice on something you’ve never experienced, kind of like a pediatrician who has a lot of academic experience dealing with children but who has never stayed up all night with a newborn or had to have the talk with his own pre-teen daughter.This is also why I like the doctrine of Heavenly Father having once been like us. He knows what it’s like to be mortal and deal with the challenges related to mortality(though I’d still like to have a chat with Heavenly Mother at some point, too-*-yep, I’m working toward that lightening strike again!).

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