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A Rationale for Infant Baptism (Colin Buchanan)

[An article that first appeared in the Church of England Newspaper]

In terms of the world Churches, to baptise infants, far from being an obvious practice, is actually a highly divisive and misleading one.


If, as is claimed, the Pentecostalist strand of evangelical Christianity has numbers now in excess of 400 million (ranking second only to the Roman Catholics), then these, plus the Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Independent Evangelical Churches, and many smaller anti-paedobaptist denominations, provide a great phalanx of opponents of infant baptism.


So we cannot affirm in the face of this phalanx that we simply continue infant baptism because it is a received tradition, or, say, an evangelistic opportunity. 


There has to be a better rationale, or we should discontinue it.  And we ourselves, who claim that the bible is our supreme authority, can hardly live with a good conscience alongside that if, in our heart of hearts, we know that infant baptism is actually unbiblical and misleading.  We cannot stay here on bad arguments, but merely note the folly of resting on unsure grounds.


Clearly in the New Testament baptism was given to adult converts as part of imparting the gospel to them and of registering their response.  Was it then given to infants?


The earliest actual ‘camera-shot’ evidence that infants were baptised is admittedly not in the New Testament, but in the writings of Tertullian in North Africa around 190-200 AD, where he is trying to change what was then current practice by urging that infants should not be baptised.  So the practice existed in the second century - when did it begin?  Was it there from the start, perfectly traceably in Scripture itself?


The following lines of evidence, when put together, point to the answer ‘yes’.


1.             The Old Testament sign of the covenant of God, circumcision, was given to infants - yet its meaning, according to Paul, was that of a sign of the righteousness which comes through faith (Rom 4.12).


Yet baptism is also - indeed far more so - a sign of the righteousness which comes through faith (cf Rom 6.3-4, Gal 3.26-27).


If circumcision could properly belong to infants before they professed faith, is there not a strong possibility that baptism is also open in appropriate cases to infants?


2.             The baptism of proselytes (converts to Judaism) is known in the late first century AD, and families so baptised brought their children into baptism with them.


Certainly, in the atmosphere of Roman Empire women could become Jews in their own persons, which may have suggested the need of a ritual initiation other than circumcision.


If the practice began round the Empire before the 20s AD, then it is a clear background factor in the New Testament.  It would add to the likelihood that converts to Christ took their children into Christian baptism with them.


There were proselytes present on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2.10), and they heard that the heart of their existing Judaism was in fact Jesus Christ, that the promise was to them and to their children, and that they were now to be baptised into the name of Christ (Acts 2.38-39).


If their children had been baptised into Judaism with them, it is almost unimaginable that they did not now take their children into Christian baptism with them.


3.             There are the New Testament references to ‘households’ being baptised: Lydia’s (Acts 16.15); the Philippian jailer’s (Acts 16.33), Stephanas’ (1 Cor 1.16) – and possibly also Crispus’ (Acts 18.8).  These do not quite say that infants were present among those being baptised (in other words, we still lack ‘camera-shot’ evidence), but the broad inclusive word for a whole household neither distinguishes the ages of those baptised, nor suggests that all were above a certain age, nor rules out any groups as being part of the ‘household’.


These unselfconscious, passing mentions of New Testament practice are almost of themselves determinative.


4.             We need to look at the baptism of adult converts in the New Testament also. They were baptised on the spot; indeed it is almost appropriate to say they were converted in the water - in principle they entered it as applicants, they emerged from it as converts (see, eg, Acts 2.38-41, Acts 8.35-38).


So there was no probationary period leading from first profession of faith to later baptism, such as there has been usual in most parts of Christian history and missionary practice since then.


Of course, there have been good pastoral reasons for the introduction of probationary or ‘catechumenal’ preparation, and there may be good pastoral reasons for preparation for adult baptism today.  But the archetypes in the New Testament show no such preparation, and our theologising about baptism must work from the archetypes and not from later adjusted practice.


Baptism came at the very beginning of the Christian life, as true ‘initiation’.  Amongst its many meanings was that it established a basis of treating people as believers thereafter.


The baptised are believers; and the believers are baptised.  If in Acts 10 the Spirit falls upon Gentiles (which had hardly been anticipated), then all that Peter can say is ‘Quick! Get the water!  We cannot leave these new believers unbaptised a second longer!  (Acts 10.44-48).


The New Testament does not allow for unbaptised believers; all that can be said to them is ‘Quick! Get the water!’; and thus delaying the baptism of the children of believers runs the risk (or underlines the policy) of creating a category of unbaptised believers as they grow up.


5               Lastly, in this cumulative argument, there persists a question from the New Testament:  ‘How should believers bring up their children?’  If the answer is ‘As unbelievers to be later converted,’ then baptism is certainly inappropriate.  But is that the answer?


If children in believing homes are being taught to pray to God as ‘Father’ and to trust in the love of Jesus, who is present with them, then they are in fact being treated as believers from the start, and should then be baptised from the start.  To treat them in other respects as believers (even in a tentative way) and yet not to baptise them is to fly in the face of the New Testament use of baptism.


How then do we fit our understanding of infant baptism into the whole picture of baptism?


The New Testament provides a great range of baptismal motifs: repentance, conversion, adoption, rebirth by the Spirit, being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, becoming a disciple, being put under the headship of Christ (or the name of the Holy Trinity), being transplanted into the body of Christ, walking in newness of life morally, and becoming an inheritor of eternal life and of the final resurrection.


It appears reasonable to suggest that everything that is involved in being Christian at all is symbolised in baptism.


Thus we go on to say that, whether baptism is given to an infant or an adult, thereafter that baptised person has the same symbolism of the same baptism pertaining to him or her as a baptised person, irrespective of when the baptism was given.


And it should be noted that the appeal to baptism in the New Testament is not an appeal to remember one’s baptism (as though one could recapture the exact psychological state in which one underwent baptism and to respond to its meaning)  both tasks for the here and now, not dependent upon whether one’s memory can ‘pick up’ the actual experience.

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