Baptism and Infant Baptism

At the end of his sermon on the day of Pentecost - the day some have called the "birthday" of the Church - the apostle Peter said this:

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call." (Acts 2.38).

That tells us five things, right at the start of the Church's life. First, baptism was an action relating to "the promise" God made originally to the Jews ("you and your children") but ultimately to the whole Gentile world ("all who are far off"). Secondly, it was an action relating to the "forgiveness of ... sins" and "the gift of the Holy Spirit". Thirdly, people needed to "repent" as a condition of being baptized. Fourthly, it was "in the name of Jesus Christ" - it meant a new commitment to Jesus Christ and his lordship. And, fifthly, everything depended on God's call - the promise was "for all whom the Lord our God will call."


The Promise

"The promise" referred to here needs to be understood in the context of the whole movement of God towards men and women that you read about in the Old Testament. This movement involved what the Bible calls God's "covenant". A covenant promised benefits and blessings; but it also carried some obligations. In the Old Testament (and in the New Testament) the covenant God made with Abraham was of great importance as God called Abraham to be the head of his special people - in the first instance the Jews (Genesis 17). As time went on the prophets made it clear that the promise of the covenant was a promise of eternal rather than temporal benefits and blessings, and that Abraham's "children" would come from all over the world as they were called by God (Isaiah 49). Then Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke of God's promise of a renewed covenant whose main characteristic would be the giving of the Holy Spirit in a new way. It was this new covenant between God and those he calls to be his people that Jesus inaugurated by his death on the Cross:

"This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26.28).

Sometimes in the Old Testament God's promise to his people went along with a required ritual action. This action was as much God given as his promise. And like the signing and sealing of a document today, it was both an act of mutual commitment and a reminder (if necessary) of what had been promised and accepted. So on the day of Pentecost, Peter was saying that the promise of the new covenant had been fulfilled. The Holy Spirit had come in a new way. But his Jewish hearers needed to trust this promise and be baptized as a ritual act to show that they did trust it. Nor was this totally unlike what had happened to Abraham. Abraham (and his sons) were commanded to have "circumcision" as a ritual act. God said:

"You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you" (Genesis 17.11).

The difference, of course, is that baptism was and is for everyone - men and women - not just for men (as circumcision was), and not just for Abraham's natural descendents but for people of every race and nation ("for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call"). But baptism certainly looks like God's guarantee of the benefits and blessings of the new covenant as circumcision was of the old. As Article XXVII of the Thirty-nine puts it: by baptism "the promises of the forgiveness of sins, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed."


The Great Commission

But why did Peter demand baptism? The answer is that just a few days before Pentecost Jesus himself had given his disciples these instructions as "marching orders" for the church:

"go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28.19-20)

The disciples, of course, were familiar with baptism through the ministry of John the Baptist. He used baptism as a ritual act in his call to repentance. Even Jesus had made use of baptism in the early stages of his ministry (John 4.1). There were also, it seems, ritual "baptisms" among the various groups of Jews, certainly for the admission of Gentile proselytes (or converts); and for these Jews baptism was always connected with cleansing from moral defilement - it was "for the forgiveness of sins".

The distinctive thing about John, therefore, was not his ritual. The distinctive thing was his calling to repentance and baptism not just Gentiles who were converting to Judaism but Jews themselves - those who could say: "we have Abraham as our father" (Luke 3.8). He was saying that the Jews were really no better than the Gentiles.

Christian baptism (post Pentecost), however, was distinctive from John's and Jewish baptism in that it was not just a ritual for repentance but a ritual that says the new covenant age of the Spirit had (and has) dawned. It was (and is) a baptism relating to "the gift of the Holy Spirit". John had said: "I baptize you with water, but he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1.8).


Were Infants Baptized in New Testament Times?

Who were baptized on the day of Pentecost? We are told (Acts 2.41):

"Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day."

Did that three thousand include "women and children"? Sometimes in New Testament times when there was a higher total, the numbering was of men only. This happened in Jesus' miraculous feeding of the five thousand:

"The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children" (Matthew 14.21).

So did the three thousand include men and women but not children? Or did they include men, women and children? There is no reason to assume that women and children were not present for Peter's Pentecost sermon. We know that the core group of believers that met after the Ascension in the "upstairs ... room" included women as well as the eleven apostles (Acts 1.13-14). If some of these women were wives of the apostles (cf 1 Cor 9.5), it is likely there were some babies or children present as well.

We don't know whether the group of believers "numbering about a hundred and twenty" (Acts 1.15) before Pentecost was, or was not, a hundred and twenty "besides women and children." Similarly we don't know whether the three thousand "God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven" (Acts 2.5), who were converted that Pentecost, included women and children. It is, however, extremely unlikely that women and (their) children were not present as Peter preached at this festival time.

Jews took infants and very young children to their religious events. In the Old Testament immediately after Samuel's birth, Elkanah (his father) "went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord" at Shiloh. Elkanah was expecting Hannah and the baby to come as part of this family visit. But on this occasion she perferred to keep the baby at home until he was weaned (1 Samuel 1.21-23). In the New Testament when Paul left Tyre, Luke tells us that ..."... all the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray" (Acts 21.5).

The New Testament tells us very little about children. Yes, Jesus had a great concern for children, and, compared with the pagan world of the first and subsequent centuries, the early church had enormous respect for children from conception to adulthood. Nevertheless, the early church was not like today in being so child-centred. Rather, as in Old Testament times, the early church saw children as truly dependent on their parents, spiritually as well as materially. They were uniquely embedded in their families. The spiritual status of their parents, or even of one believing parent, became the child's spiritual status. On the day of Pentecost babies and very young children present could well have been considered to be sharing in their parents "repentance" and so have qualified for baptism.


1 Corinthians 7.14

In 1 Corinthians 7.14 Paul says:

"For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy."

Using the language of "covenant" this verse says that children of believers are within the new covenant.

As D.W.B.Robinson comments:

"'holy' here does not refer to moral attainment; it is rather a term applied to those who are members of the 'people of God', whose status, given by God, is one of 'holiness', which means set apart by God for himself ... Thus the children of those who belong to the 'people of God' are likewise reckoned to be members."

And W.A. Strange says:

"Paul states this [children being 'holy'] not as a problem, but as an established and agreed point ... It seems to be a matter of family solidarity that one parent being 'holy' (a Christian) affects the status of the children, and even the status of the other spouse ... This verse is a difficult one for the modern reader. But the point for our purposes is that Paul counts the children as in the community of faith, not out of it."

So Paul considers the children of believers at Corinth exactly as he considers the whole church at Corinth. Here is his opening address to the Corinthians:

"To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ - their Lord and ours" (1 Cor 1.2)

But how did the believing wife or husband know that their children were "holy"? How was this an established and agreed point in the way that it wasn't an established and agreed point with regard to the unbelieving partner? There has to be something objective to which appeal could be made. In the light of subsequent history, the baptism of the believing partner along with her (or his) child or children is the most plausible suggestion. That, of course, would mean that infant baptism was a practice of the apostolic church. It would also mean that when you read of "household baptisms" in the New Testament (as with Cornelius, Acts 10.24,48; Lydia, Acts 16.15; the Philippian gaoler, Acts 16.33; and Stephanas, 1 Cor 1.16) children, if in the family, were included in those "households".

For sixteen centuries the church, almost universally, seemed to believe that children, indeed infants, were included in households and were baptised in the
apostolic period. But at the Reformation a minority group of radical Reformers, the Anabaptists, challenged that received wisdom, while in the 20th century there were also a considerable number who expressed doubts.

The main reason for doubting is simply that there is no overt statement in the New Testament to the fact that infants were included in the "households". The subordinate reason for doubting is a belief that conscious repentance in the case of everyone is necessary for admission to baptism. That would exclude all babies and young children. But if we discover that as a matter of fact the apostles baptized the babies and young children of Christian households, that belief will have to be revised. 1 Corinthians 7.14 suggests the simplest starting point.


No Overt Statements

To address these doubts, first another question: how do we know whether women were baptized in those household baptisms? The answer is: "only because of one text and one woman." We are told that Lydia was baptised in Acts 16.15. Had we not been told in that one verse, we could have been doubtful about women's baptism in the church in the age of the apostles. We know that there were distinctions made in the early church between men and women. Without that one text could we not have wondered if baptism was for "men only", like circumcision?

Neither Mark, Luke or John tell us about the "women and children" at the feeding of the five thousand. Unless Matthew had filled us in, we would never have known that "women and children" were also present. And no one has told us plainly whether or not children or infants were suitable candidates for baptism. Had they done so "an enormous quantity of ink could have been saved, and the church could have been spared a divisive and troublesome controversy ... It was not of any consequence to Luke or Paul to tell their readers whether these households had any children, and if so, whether they were included or excluded when the other members were baptized" (W.A.Strange).

So how do we go about trying to solve this problem about the facts?

First, it is worth noting that Paul not only hasn't filled us in with all the details we want in the 21st century, he also himself did not seem to have baptism in theory or baptisms in practice or who did, or did not, do the baptizing at the top of his consciousness. His was a somewhat relaxed attitude. It is hard to see, therefore, these disputes as being of primary matters of doctrine. In 1 Corinthians 1.14 he says this:

"I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius ... Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else" (1 Corinthians 1.14,16)

Secondly, it is also worth noting that there is one small piece of evidence in John 4.49 regarding the profile of New Testament "households". When John tells us about Jesus healing an "official's son", we are told that the son was not just a pais (Greek for a "child") but a paidion (Greek for a "very young child"). "Servants" are, then, mentioned reporting the goodnews of the miracle. And in verse 53 we read:

"so he [the official] and all his household believed".

Common sense says, exegeting "scripture in the light of scripture", it looks as though a household would include men, women, very young children and servants. So if this incident had been post-Pentecost, the very young child and the servants might have been baptized as being in the "household". We must note also that the "very young child" experienced the benefits of his father's faith and not his own. It was his father's faith that led to the miracle of the child's healing.

Thirdly, there is evidence that children of Jewish proselytes were "baptized" along with their parents at the time of Jesus. If this was common practice, we may assume that John the Baptist baptized very young children or babies (as occasion required) along with their mothers (and fathers). If this was common practice that is why we are not told about it in the case of John. It was not a distinctive. What was distinctive was John's calling Jews to repentance and not just Gentiles. And if this was common practice in Jewish baptisms perhaps that is also why the fact of children in household baptisms was not mentioned in the texts. The New Testament writers thought there was no need to spell it out that children were included, as most readers assumed they were.

Fourthly, there is no single piece of evidence in the New Testament of a child being brought up as a Christian and baptised at a later age. As Anthony Lane says:

"If the problem with infant baptism is inconclusive evidence that it happened in the [early] church, the problem with the alternative theory [dedication with later baptism] is total lack of evidence. It is true that the New Testament evidence for the baptism of infants is inconclusive, but at least there are passages which may plausibly be interpreted as implying that infants were baptised - such as Acts 16.33. By contrast there is no evidence at all for the later baptism of Christian children. There is no record of such a baptism and no hint in the epistles that such children should be seeking baptism ... It is noteworthy that in the New Testament epistles the instruction given to the churches includes instruction to children (Eph 6.1-4; Col. 3.20). These children, [however], are not encouraged or instructed to be baptised, nor are their parents instructed to work to that end. Instead, the children are addressed as Christians, which fits best with the theory that they are baptised."


Around the Year 200 AD

Fifthly, along with the argument from 1 Corinthians 7.14 (about "holy" children), the most significant argument relates to the period when we can be certain about what happened. We can then work backwards - from the definite to the less definite.

Around the year 200 AD there is clear evidence for the baptism of infants or children. Before that we have no definite information one way or the other about infant baptism. But in this period there were Hippolytus at Rome, Tertullian at Carthage, Cyprian (also) at Carthage, Origen in Alexandria and inscriptions on Christian tombstones. All are unequivocal. All make it clear that babies and little children were being baptized at this time.

However, there is no evidence that baptizing infants was a recent innovation. Rather, the evidence goes the other way, namely that this was an established practice and, most definitely, an established practice that some of the early church fathers much regretted! Tertullian (165-225), for example, in his work On Baptism urges that baptism should be delayed:

" ... deferment of baptism is more profitable, in accordance with each person's character and attitude, and even age: and especially so as regards children. For what need is there, if there really is no need, for even their sponsors to be brought into peril, seeing that they may possibly themselves fail of their promises by death, or be deceived by the subsequent development of an evil disposition? ... So let them come when they are growing up, when they are learning, when they are being taught what they are coming to; let them be made Christians when they have become competent to know Christ. Why should innocent infancy come with haste to the remission of sins?"

Tertullian's problem is that of "post-baptismal" sin. Tertullian was holding to the non-biblical idea that sin after baptism could not be forgiven. Therefore, postpone baptism, he taught, until much later. He never, however, opposed the principle of infant baptism. He just thought it was an unwise strategy. Tertullian never suggested that infant baptism was a recent innovation and was un-apostolic. Had he believed that, he would have said so. Tertullian was not a man to pull any of his punches.

Origen, in fact, positively claimed that the practice of infant baptism did go back to the apostolic age. Origen was born about 185 AD and into a Christian family. Growing up he would have known people in their sixties and seventies. If none of these people had been baptised as infants and they knew nothing of the relevant history, it is unlikely that Origen would have claimed the practice to be apostolic. Only 30 years before Origen's birth Polycarp was martyred, the godly bishop of Smyrna. At his martyrdom in 155 AD he declared that he had been a Christian from childhood:

"For eighty-six years I have been Christ's servant and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

That takes Polycarp's birth back at least to 69 AD and the death of Paul if he was baptized as a child, or earlier if he wasn't. Polycarp knew whether or not infants were baptised in the time of the apostles. So people even in their forties and fifties, let alone sixties and seventies, when Origen was in his teens would have had reliable information.

To quote Anthony Lane again:

"Theology can of course change subtly over the years, but a simple fact like whether or not babies were baptized can easily be remembered. Polycarp knew from his own experience whether or not babies were baptised in the late apostolic age and it is unlikely that he and others took this information to the grave with them. This does not preclude changes taking place, but it does mean that informed Christians at the end of the second century, were not as ignorant of early practice as is usually assumed."


Augustine and Later

The details of baptism are surely matters of secondary importance. However, the paradigm of baptism is clearly the baptism of new adult converts. But the majority in the history of the Church have found it hard to deny that for the children of at least many converts infant baptism was taking place in the apostolic age. When a significant number wanted to oppose the baptism of infants, it is unthinkable that no one pointed out that it was a non apostolic practice, but a more recent innovation.

Following the influence of men like Tertullian in the third and fourth centuries there were a lot of fine Christians who deferred baptism until a later age. So infant baptism was not always universal in the early church. Yet no one complained about infant baptism being a recent invention. One famous later example of those who deferred is Augustine (354-430). He documents in his Confessions how his mother wouldn't have him baptised as an infant. But, then, due to Augustine himself, infant baptism once again became the norm for Christian households. Augustine re-affirmed the doctrine of original sin and, against the Pelagians, reaffirmed the doctrine of the grace of God as the key element in salvation. For salvation is due to God's grace, not our faith: faith is simply the "spiritual" hand that receives God's gift of salvation - Ephesians 2.8:

"it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God."

Infant baptism, as a verbum visibile (a visible word), especially speaks of God's grace in salvation, if it is thought about carefully. However, for many people today baptism is believed to be more a sign and seal of their profession of faith than of God's grace and his pouring out of his Holy Spirit. True, God's grace has to be received by repentance and faith. But most important is faith in God's promise, which, as Peter said at Pentecost, is not only for Jews and their children but "for all whom the Lord our God will call."

Whatever faults Augustine may have had, he was clear on the grace of God. So his theology of baptism became an orthodoxy. Up until Augustine's time, infant baptism was a practice looking for a theology. Augustine, by pointing out the reality of sin and that salvation is not due to our faith but God's grace, provided that theology, whatever limitations it may have had.

But by the time of the Reformation infant baptism was so indiscriminately adminstered that the Anabaptists wanted to do away with it entirely. They did
not carry the day, though. The Magisterial Reformers - Luther, Calvin and the Anglicans - retained the practice. Godly moderate Baptists, however, in England kept the criticisms of infant baptism alive.

Then, alongside growing theological liberalism and secularism, that had begun in the 18th century, and that mushroomed in the 19th century (not least in Germany), and that then became an avalanche all over 20th century Europe and America, there was indiscriminate infant baptism in the modern age. This caused more and more of a scandal. Writing in 1952, one American Congregationalist, C.T.Craig, suggested that the concern about baptism in general and infant baptism in particular was due to ...

" ... the increasing awareness of the anomaly of a situation where millions of baptized persons have no active relation with the Church."

In such a context the rejection of infant baptism often seemed a safe measure. Also the Protestant spiritual renewal beginning in the 1950's in the US was associated with Billy Graham (Baptist), in the UK it was greatly influenced by the IVF/UCCF and the London Bible College that were both funded significantly by the remarkable and generous John Laing (Plymouth Brother with baptist views), and in various other countries it was led by Pentecostals (also with baptist views). This has meant for many that a rejection of infant baptism has been uncritically accepted as axiomatic and "the truth".


The Church of England and Jesmond

What is the (official) doctrine of the Church of England on infant baptism? It is not so rigorous as the doctrine of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland which is found in the Reformation Westminster Confession and that says:

"not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents are to be baptized."

Article XXVII simply says (among other things):

"The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ."

That, it needs to be noted, was a revision of an original which included the words "commended and ... retained". "Commended and" were deleted.

There is, therefore, not such a three-line whip in the Church of England as in the Church of Scotland. As an Anglican clergyman, I am fully committed to the historic practice of the Church of England and persuaded that it is the biblical way. But the Church of England has always been comprehensive over secondary matters. While having a dominant theology of baptism that embraces infant baptism, it is also generous to those who differ.

According to the Preface to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the Prayer Book service of Publick Baptism of such as are of Riper Years was included because "by the growth of Anabaptism ... crept in amongst us, [it] is now become necessary." This was a (reluctant) concession to the Anabaptists. In that same spirit, in the 1980 Alternative Service Book, there was introduced for the first time a service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child in the Church of England.

So our own practice at Jesmond, as we say in CLASS 1, is that ...

"we baptize young children. This, however, is only where they will be brought up in a Christian family. It is on the basis of their parents' faith. There are also Thanksgiving Services for those who do not want their children baptized."

Our own policy at Jesmond means that

"we don't agree with the extremes of either the paedo-baptist position or of the adult-baptist position. We don't agree with those who say all children must be baptized, even when they come from non-Christian families, nor with those who refuse to recognize as baptized those baptized as infants [and confirmed as adults or renewing their vows]."


Conclusion

Pastorally and theologically there is much more to say about infant baptism. But let me conclude with this comment. If the apostles baptized infants, they made it clear that Christian parents should bring their children up as members of the new convenant community, the church, but needing in adulthood to confirm that membership. They did not intend their children to be brought up as outside the community but needing in adulthood to opt in.

Back to top