In Defense of Paedobaptism
This brief work will cover reasons why I feel infant baptisms are valid. By valid, I mean they are Scriptually-based and actually do something to the recipient in the God’s eyes. This topic has been the cause of a great divide within the Body of Christ, even if it exists silently in the background away from the sensitivities of those who differ. Therefore, the goal of this endeavor is not only to show why infant baptisms are valid, but it also serves as an attempt at unifying the Church on this particular point. I pray that God opens the hearts and minds of those who are separated on this issue, and that we may continue to show love for one another despite these differences.
The framework of this essay is as follows: First, I will lay out, to the best of my ability, the anti-paedobaptist (credobaptist) view and their arguments against paedobaptisms. Second, I will offer some critiques and refutations of their arguments. Following this, I will offer arguments in favor of paedobaptism while anticipating objections to them.
Paedobaptism - The practice of baptizing infants and small children.
Reasons Against Paedobaptism
Those who disagree with paedobaptism emphasize the fact the infants (including young children) cannot have faith in Jesus. They base this on what they claim is the pattern of conversion found in the New Testament: Person X hears the Good News, believes it, and then gets baptized. Since infants cannot fulfill that criteria, they shouldn’t be baptized. According to credobaptists, belief must come prior to baptism. As a result of this, or perhaps existing presuppositionally, they interpret Mark 16:16 as a formula:
“Whoever believes and [then] is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
Furthermore, the Great Commission can only be fulfilled by adults, which is another reason why they claim that credobaptism is consistent with the New Testament. Does it really make sense to let little children, who possess no faith, into the New Covenant when they can do nothing to further the kingdom of God? Is there really a difference between baptizing an infant and baptizing someone who doesn’t believe in Christ? Credobaptists will often claim that this reveals the hypocrisy on the part of paedobaptists. If you wouldn’t forcibly baptized an unbelieving pagan, then why would you forcibly baptize an unbelieving child?
Objections to their Reasons
However, not all is what it seems. Although credobaptism is by no means a baseless doctrine, it remains fueled by presuppositions that exist prior to reading the text and which are fed into their interpretations. For example, in Mark 16:16 the credobaptist interprets this as a formula by inserting “then” into the verse (mentally, of course). Under this rendering it is clear that one should have belief prior to getting baptized. However, Mark 16:16 doesn’t say that at all. No English translation I can think of includes “then” in between believe and baptized. The reason for this is simply because the Greek doesn’t include it.
I submit that Mark 16:16 is a criteria rather than a formula. Although there are times that we can use phrases with identical wording to express either formulas or criteria, I think it isn’t so in this case. For example, I might say “I am going to the store and to the bank” and mean it as a criteria for a completed errand. Perhaps I was simply stating a goal that I wanted to complete, rather than expressing a specific order. Contrarily, I could also use that exact phrase and mean it to express a formula, as if the store took priority over the bank. However, absence of context or clarification, it’s hard to say which is more accurate. If anything, this shows that the credobaptist’s usage of this verse as proof is dubious at best. They must be assuming more than this if their case is to be valid.
What’s left for them to use is merely to point out the general pattern of conversion found in the New Testament. After Pentecost, when the disciples received the gifts of the Holy Spirit for the first time, it’s clear that adults who came to the faith believed first and then received baptism. There’s no disputing this. However, this alone is not enough to validate their position. First, it’s an appeal to ignorance to suggest that because no infant is explicitly mentioned by name as having received baptism, that therefore only adults should be baptized (i.e. it’s fallacious to say ‘–p has not been proven true à p is true’). Another way of stating it is to say that the absence of explicit verses promoting paedobaptism is not evidence that credobaptism is de facto valid. Since paedobaptism doesn’t simply operate on a ‘faith with baptism’ model, then obviously their appeal to ignorance (which also begs the question) doesn’t work. Paedobaptism is concerned with God’s covenant dealings with His children, while credobaptism is concerned with the faith of the individual receiving it. These aren’t dichotomies. Therefore, it simply won’t work to point to adults receiving baptism as proof that infants shouldn’t receive it. There are no verses which explicitly state “Only baptize adults”, but it would be fallacious of me to claim that therefore infants can be baptized in light of this.
The important thing to grasp here is that a context can be given which would explain why only adults are explicitly mentioned as receiving baptisms. Obviously only adults can utilize the gifts of the Holy Spirit and be used as instruments in bringing forth God’s Kingdom on Earth. Only adults can bear witness to the love and power of Jesus Christ, or at least communicate it effectively. Therefore, it’s no surprise why adults are preached to throughout the land and also why they are mentioned receiving baptism. Moreover, an infant’s identity is contingent upon their parents, and very rarely are infants mentioned by name in the Bible (unless it is a brief history of a Biblical character like Isaac). It’s obvious that the first fruits of the faith would be adults, since infants would be tucked away and kept hidden from the apostles by unbelieving parents.
Arguments in Favor of Paedobaptism
So the credobaptist’s two main points are dubious at best and certainly don’t stand as explicit proof that only confessing adults should be baptized. But where does that leave infant baptism? Are there verses that support this practice? The following are reasons why I think paedobaptisms are valid:
First and foremost, baptism is directly compared with old covenant circumcision. As the Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians 2:11-12:
“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.”
This is significant because Abraham was circumcised along with his household (children). His children certainly didn’t believe in the tenants of Judaism, but they were circumcised regardless. This was the sign that one was in the covenant, and it most certainly extended to unbelieving infants (Gen. 17:12). This was the fabric of Jewish belief for nearly 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.
The implications are powerful in light of this. If unbelieving children were circumcised in the Old Covenant, and baptism is directly compared to circumcision, then it seems reasonable to conclude that infants were also expected to be baptized. The burden of proof rests with the credobaptists. They need to show that the Old Covenant command to circumcise infants is now abrogated in baptism.
Such a radical change from (Old Covenant) paedo-circumcision to (New Covenant) ‘only-those-capable-of-expressing-faith’ baptism requires explicit textual support. However, no explicit textual support is ever offered. Although there is no direct verse commanding paedobaptism, one must remember that it is credobaptists, not paedobaptists, that have the burden of proof. Therefore, the New Testament’s silence on the issue stands in favor of paedobaptists, for we assume (absent of evidence to the contrary) that the New Covenant sign of membership extends to infants like it did in the Old Covenant.
To illustrate this point, which will also serves as the crux of my entire argument, I will offer a plausible scenario:
As a young Jewish man hearing the Gospel in Jerusalem, you become convinced that Jesus is Lord. Your pregnant wife also embraces Jesus as her Lord and Savior. However, before you can receive your baptism, your wife goes into labor. After a few tense hours, you become a father of a baby boy. Filled with joy, you proclaim the good news to your new Christian friends. A few days after the birth of your son, you head to the local Christian body to discuss your baptism and your son’s circumcision. Your wife, carrying your son, walks with you. Upon arriving, you are stunned to learn that circumcision is no longer a part of the New Covenant. The discussion between you and the Christian leader now turns to baptism…
This brief illustration leaves off suddenly in order to prove a point. This scenario probably went on often in Jerusalem. Lifelong Jews had to get used to a New Covenant in Christ despite remaining fresh in their Judaism. Circumcision was the one of the most central practices in the Jewish community, as it symbolized their very identity. With that in mind, the point I wish to make is simple: If infant baptism was heretical then where is the early condemnation from the Apostles? Are paedobaptists expected to believe that this issue never came up once in the Jerusalem church? As central a practice that circumcision was to the Jews, especially its being applied to infant boys, it becomes historically certain that it would have been discussed. Are we to believe that rogue Christians (which would later become the majority) baptized infants of believing parents secretly for a hundred or so years away from the view of God-inspired Apostles? To think that this secrecy took place is to entertain a silly and unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. Therefore, without documented condemnation from the Apostles and the high historical probability that the topic would have come up in the Jerusalem church, paedobaptists can reasonably assume that the Old Covenant promise to infants has not been abrogated in the New Covenant.
The paedobaptist view also makes sense of the various household baptisms found in the New Testament. I believe the usage of the word ‘household’ is not an accident, but rather referring to the Old Covenant promise of household circumcision. Why include these household references otherwise? For example, in Acts 16:15 it is interesting to notice that it is only Lydia’s faith that is mentioned. She is baptized along with her household. Similarly, Abraham believed and he, followed by his household, were circumcised. This is Old Covenant terminology at play in the New Testament. If paedobaptism (household baptism) was abrogated, then why mention households at all if it could be interpreted as Old Covenant terminology? Again, Scripture’s silence on the issue stands in favor of paedobaptism.
How does one make sense of Jesus’ words in Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16, Matthew 19:14? Moreover, how does one make sense of Matthew 18:1-6? Isn’t Jesus using the faith of a little child as a model for adults? Jesus speaks highly of children in all passages in which they are mentioned --- “For to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” If children aren’t in the New Covenant, then none of Jesus’ words seem to make sense. If they are in the New Covenant, even if only some, then shouldn’t they receive the sign of the covenant? Much more could be said here, but it isn’t my aim to exhaust every example found in Scripture.
There are various objections to my arguments that are offered by the opposing camp. One objection in particular comes from Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology:
“We should not be surprised that there was a change from the way the covenant community was entered in the Old Testament (physical birth) to the way the church is entered in the New Testament (spiritual birth). . . In all these contrasts we see the truth of the distinction that Paul emphasized between the old and the new covenant. The physical elements and activities of the old covenant were ‘only a shadow of things to come’, but the true reality, the ‘substance’, is found in the new covenant relationship which we have in Christ (Col. 2:17).”
He goes on:
“Therefore it is consistent with this change of systems that infant (male) children would automatically be circumcised in the old covenant, since their physical descent and physical presence in the community of Jewish people meant that they were members of that community in which faith was not an entrance requirement. But in the new covenant it is appropriate that infants not be baptized, and that baptism only be given to those who gave evidence of genuine saving faith, because membership in the church is based on an internal spiritual reality, not on physical descent.” (pg 977-78)
Although it’s true than many things in the Old Testament receive their fulfilment in Christ (New Testament), and that there is a ‘physical/spiritual’ dichotomy present, ultimately it is irrelevant to my argument. First, it should be noted that all examples of this dichotomy are explained as being fulfilled in the New Testament. However, this is not the case with circumcision and baptism. No verse explains this drastic transition that credobaptists assume is in the text. Moreover, I find it interesting that the author prefers to use the terms ‘old testament’ and ‘new testament’, rather than ‘old covenant’ and ‘new covenant’. Although seemingly trivial, it helps point us back to the real issue: Circumcision and baptism are the ‘signs’ of the covenants. Therefore, as signs, they are much different than the ‘physical/spiritual’ dichotomies Grudem mentions.
Following Grudem’s example, James White (a respectable and successful apologist) builds upon this objection when he debated Pastor Shisko. He states that circumcision was only for male members of the family whereas baptism included women. Moreover, he claims that circumcision included land rights within the family while the same concept is abrogated in the New Covenant. White, like Grudem, expresses this idea that circumcision and baptism actually share more differences than they do similarities. Therefore, according to them, we shouldn’t be surprised if infants aren’t included under baptism.
Nevertheless, White’s argument is structurally invalid. Again, all the differences between circumcision and baptism are either abrogated, continued, or expanded. Either way, all of them are clearly listed in Scripture. Yes, only men were circumcised in the Old Covenant. However, in Acts we see women receiving baptism. As for land rights existing alongside of circumcision, baptism comes with the promise of the entire world! It’s expanded and explained in Scripture. As was said before, no verse claims that infants are not to receive the sign of the covenant. Therefore, the paedobaptist assumption is more reasonable than a credobaptist interpretation. If infant baptism was never supposed to be a thing, then why not say so in Scripture? Why the silence?
Excluding Roman Catholic doctrine, I believe that infants who are baptized are not automatically saved, as if baptism is enough for that end. As Mark 16:16 states, there must be baptism and belief. We differ from credobaptists in that we don’t make belief a prerequisite to baptism. We are merely claiming that after an infant baptism, parents must instruct their children in the Lord so that, by the grace of God, sincere faith in Christ will come.
Although sincere belief is necessary for salvation, one cannot look into the heart of another with absolute certainty. Therefore, there are Christians who really do not believe in Christ when they walk up to receive their baptism. Yes, they might have happy feelings toward Christ and recite a simple creed for the pastor before baptism, but this doesn’t mean they are regenerate, sincerely-believing, Christians. What if these insincere Christians later repent and develop saving faith; shall they be re-baptized because their former baptism was done in weak faith? A paedobaptist will say no, since we claim that their original baptism is still valid. This leads me to my last point.
Baptism is something that others do to the participant. The pastor (or priest) baptizes in the name of the Trinity and with water. More importantly, God counts that person into the Body as a member of the New Covenant. Contrarily, credobaptism is egocentric. It’s about ‘me’, ‘my faith’, and ‘my external show of faith to others’. This isn’t wrong per say, but it misses the mark and the entire point of baptism in the first place. It’s not my faulty faith that makes my baptism valid, it’s God. Unless man has authority over God, then it isn’t faith that makes baptism valid.
Furthermore, paedobaptism is in keeping with the Gospel message. Christ died for us, and salvation is therefore something that we don’t earn ourselves. Baptism is also something that is done to us, and not something we do to ourselves. We should rely on the spoken Word and water, and not hold it hostage to our faith.
Paedobaptism is also more harmonious than credobaptism. Paedobaptists still baptize adults and have no problem re-baptizing someone who is unsure of whether they were baptized as an infant. Credobaptists reject infant baptism and will require adults to be re-baptized regardless. I, as a paedobaptist, can disagree with ‘belief only’ baptisms, but still look at those who practice them as brothers and sisters in Christ. Credobaptists may not be as eager to return the favor because they might see those who received an infant baptism as existing outside the New Covenant.
Finally, we cannot ignore the praise our Lord has for children and infants. Using a child’s faith as a model for adults isn’t a trivial thing. The Lord explicitly says, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16). He isn’t saying, “Let the children who believe come to me” or “Let the children who have displayed adequate faith, and have recited the proper creed, come to me.” Therefore, we shouldn’t be like the disciples in that scene and try to get in between young children and Jesus.
To conclude, I have shown why infant baptism is valid. It does justice to all of Scripture and makes sense of early church history. The opposing view, in arguing for their position, begs the question by assuming that faith is a prerequisite to baptism when it is nowhere taught in Scripture. I have shown that the burden of proof is on the credobaptist to show a verse abrogating the old covenant promise to children and infants. Without this verse, their case is impotent and circular. It is my sincere hope that we get this correct and allow the little ones among us to receive the sign of the New Covenant, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”