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?
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?
lines of evidence, when put together, point to the answer ‘yes’.
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).
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?
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.
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
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.
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).
their children had been baptised into Judaism with them, it is almost unimaginable that they did not now take their children into Christian baptism
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’.
unselfconscious, passing mentions of New Testament practice are almost of
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
To view the other pages - click on the boxes below