I recently saw an entry by the minister David Robertson on his reasons for the baptism of his infant Granddaughter. This wasn’t with the aim of reheating overdone debates, despite the piece being aimed particularly at Baptists. Yet it prompted me to go back to the reasons why my wife and I are waiting to baptise our son. Moreso because I am part of a paedobaptist tradition and yet find the traditionally understood practice lacking on a number of levels. Robertson also mentions a number of scriptural arguments which I will briefly revisit here.
I will say at the outset I do believe the baptism of infants can be valid and warranted. Any baptism done in the name of the Trinity is valid to my mind. So this isn’t a question of what is right, but what I believe is a better way. In the Church of England the phrase ‘good disagreement’ is thrown around a good deal and is quite possibly one of the most unhelpful phrases I can imagine but this issue, I think, is one in which the potential fruit from reconciling different positions could be truly great.
Because children are of the covenant
For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.Acts 2:39
Robertson reminds us that salvation isn’t an individual act but a communal one. Our salvation is by our inclusion in the covenant. Yet the use of terms in Acts 2:39 are relational bonds and have no reference to time. Unless people who accept this reading think that people who do different than them don’t intend or seek the salvation of those in their family the question isn’t of ‘if’ but ‘when’ baptism occurs. This can also be applied to the typological argument of baptism and passing through of the red sea.
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.1 Corinthians 10:1-2
Again the families, clans, and tribes of Israel went through and this can be read for a Justinian practice of mandating the baptising of an entire people. One that endured even until after the Reformation and was one of the major causes for Anabaptist persecution by both Protestants and Catholics. Yet even within the logic of the typology one can maintain the relational taxonomy and yet parse the timing of the baptism.
If use the Acts 2:39 verse as an argument for the baptism of newborns we should neither just limit it to that of newborns from believing families but all infants. We could extrapolate ‘all who are afar off’ to mean we should baptise even those who don’t come from a covenant family background. To limit this reading to just the familial unit is a selective reading. Indeed this argumentation is in favour of a Justinian practice of an entire people or nation being baptised since a nation constitutes a family of families. Yet one may legitimately ask at this point what role does baptism have to faith, we might say ‘well baptism doesn’t save, faith does that’, we might say like the Lutherans ‘well it creates faith’ or like the Catholics that ‘the act itself saves’ yet these all might legitimately be vulnerable to the criticism of John the baptist:
Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.Matthew 3:8-11
Or the prophet Ezekial when he said:
If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they empty it, and make it so desolate that no man may pass through because of the beasts, even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters; only they would be delivered, and the land would be desolate.Ezekiel 14:12-16
Or in the words of 2nd Clement:
For thus also says the Scripture in Ezekiel, If Noah, Job, and Daniel should rise up, they should not deliver their children in captivity. Now, if men so eminently righteous are not able by their righteousness to deliver their children, how can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled? Or who shall be our advocate, unless we be found possessed of works of holiness and righteousness?2 Clement Chapter 6
Because the majority of baptisms in the New Testament are Household baptisms
Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.Acts 16:14-15
So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.Acts 16:31-34
Even if we grant the claim of this being the most common mode of baptism, which I would query, these arguments to my mind, in the context of a court would constitute at best circumstantial evidence for what is being put forward. In the context of Lydia, this is the strongest case, yet we don’t know the composition of the household given she was presumably a single women and presumably without children. We’re therefore left to infer in making such claims.
In the context of the Jailer we hear “they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” plainly stating that all those baptised were preached to. This is a plainer account than that of Lydia’s household with the Jailer “having believed in God with all his household”. Yet both these accounts, and all like them, are circumstantial compared to the clearer and more detailed descriptions of baptism put before us upon reception and profession of faith.
Again this isn’t to deny the validity of such practice only to ask ourselves what might be the better way.
Because the New Covenant is more generous than the old
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.Colossians 2:11-12
To me this is an extension of the initial point in its return to the covenantal framework. In the initial entry we see asked “Why do we have no example in the New Testament of a child born into a Covenant home having to wait until they were of age until they were given the Covenant sign?” which I think actually creates more problems than it solves. Again, why not baptise everyone at birth irrespective of parentage? Who does the work of circumcision? Is it human or God? Moses saw a distinction between the circumcision of the flesh and that of the heart.
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.Deuteronomy 30:6
Something which John the Baptist affirms in Matthew 3. Now some can say baptism isn’t the washing of the heart, only the washing of the flesh yet the writer of Hebrews would seem to dispute that point when he writes:
Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.Hebrews 10:22
Showing the two are joined together. Indeed I think here we see the separation of the two in our cultural understanding of the role of baptism is partly responsible for the evangelical notion of being born again as something distinct from baptism. Evangelicalism and indeed anabaptism is therefore an inevitable side effect of the ubiquity of paedobaptism. That when Jesus said:
… Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit …John 3:5-6
In Jesus’s mention of being born again to Nicodemus we see the incarnation and union of the flesh and the spirit. Not separate. The telos of baptism, the ends to which it is ordered, distinguishes it from the circumcision of the old covenant and its absence of the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The new covenant is more generous because it embraces the believing Gentile. For not everyone circumcised was saved, yet that clearly isn’t the expectation of baptism. Christ’s own baptism is the archetype of our own and in it we see the Holy Spirit descend upon him, therefore in its normative (although we see via Cornelius’s Household not exclusive) mode the same is to be expected of the new Christian.
Because children belong to the Church
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.Ephesians 6:1
With this next point we can parse infants and newborns. The admonition to obey parents and the addressal of the relational bonds affirms the capability to understand and observe the commands of the parents. However, Paul goes further by adding ‘in the lord’ which reminds us of 1 Timothy 5:
Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity.1 Timothy 5:1-2
It seems fair to say that in the context of the passage the admonition to obey one’s parents in the lord extends beyond genetic ancestry but membership of the church. Even with reference to biology we see in Ephesians 6:4:
And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.Ephesians 6:4
Which could apply to presbyters as much as natural fathers. Yet the child in this instance seems capable of being taught which would highlight the elasticity by which the term ‘children’ is being employed as a pretext for baptism at the point of birth by advocates of the practice.
Because children are holy
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.1 Corinthians 7:14
There’s not much argument in this apart from implying that since children are holy they should be or have been baptised. The implied logic here is messy and I think misses the point of the passage. John Chrysostom I think explains it better:
If any after marrying or being married have received the word of godliness, and then the other party which had continued in unbelief still yearn for them to dwell together, let not the marriage be broken off. For, says he, the unbelieving husband is sanctified in the wife. So great is the superabundance of your purity.
What then, is the Greek (husband) holy? Certainly not: for he said not, He is holy; but, He is sanctified in his wife. And this he said, not to signify that he is holy, but to deliver the woman as completely as possible from her fear and lead the man to desire the truth. For the uncleanness is not in the bodies wherein there is communion, but in the mind and the thoughts. And here follows the proof; namely, that if you continuing unclean have offspring, the child, not being of you alone, is of course unclean or half clean. But now it is not unclean. To which effect he adds, else were your children unclean; but now are they holy; that is, not unclean. But the Apostle calls them, holy, by the intensity of the expression again casting out the dread arising from that sort of suspicion.John Chrysostom, Homily 19 on First Corinthians
Chrysostom references the preceding chapter saying the concern over being married to a unbeliever after conversion stems from the purity of oneself and ones children.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.1 Corinthians 6:15-17
And yet Chrysostom reassures us “Well: it is one body; nevertheless she becomes not unclean, but the cleanness of the wife overcomes the uncleanness of the husband” ergo the children are holy. The union they are a product of isn’t sinful if someone in a marriage has accepted Christ. This is independent of, but does not excuse, baptism and the passage doesn’t assume their holiness is dependant on baptism.
Because they need the Holy Spirit
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.Acts 2:17
I agree with this, we all need it. Where we differ is that he would affirm baptism in anticipation of future faith ‘who knows when the spirit will work’ he writes. Yet if we return to Christ’s baptism the prototype indicates it is at baptism itself. Something he rejects and yet the early church universally affirmed. Yes the holy spirit can descend at different times, Cornelius’s Household is perhaps the best example and Simon Magus never received it despite his baptism. Yet this framing completely abstracts baptism from the reception of the holy spirit which seals our faith, through which we are saved. How can the sign so fully depart from that which is signified? Do Presbyterians generally assert the same thing takes place in communion? No. So it seems inconsistent to assert such in baptism.
Because they need Forgiveness
Peter replied, “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…Acts 2:38
The key aspect here is repentance. The impression I get is that the vision of the ordo salutis or order of salvation seems fairly jumbled here, or atleast doesn’t come across clearly. Robertson, and those like him, seem to be saying ‘be baptised and repent’ (who knows when the spirit will work) when Peter plainly states ‘repent and be baptised’ by way of contrast.
Because of Faith
Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”Mark 2:3-5
The reasoning that we “can’t have faith for other people” but can bring them to Jesus in faith. I agree with this but this is why my Son was dedicated. To ask God to draw my Son to himself, that he might never know a time where God isn’t present in his life but in the knowledge that I cannot have faith or righteousness for him. In the words of 2nd Clement “if men so eminently righteous are not able by their righteousness to deliver their children, how can we hope to enter into the royal residence of God unless we keep our baptism holy and undefiled?” and if the ordo salutis indicates repentance goes in advance of baptism then that is what must be done. I can bring my son to God in faith he will heal him, but I should not try and bring this about in my own strength like Abraham forsaking Sarah for Hagar.
Because Jesus wants us to bring the Little Children to him
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.”Mark 10:13-16
Robertson admits from the outset that this passage isn’t about baptism. I agree, I also say ‘let them come’ as children, let them come and know Christ, experience him and be baptised into his body. It’s a cliche that anyone with reservations about the baptism of newborns is seeking to stop children getting baptised. Thats certainly not the case with me, I pray daily that my son will never know a day without the love and knowledge of Christ and may be baptised as soon as possible.
What does concern me is when Robertson then calls dedication a “dry baptism”. This is not what a dedication is, nor is dedication a form of ‘baptism lite’. It is something else that has closer parallels to the old churching of women after childbirth. It is a thanksgiving with precedent amongst the Church Fathers themselves. He does affirm baptism as a sacrament and says therefore one should have a baptism rather than a dedication but again at the expense of the ordo salutis revealed in scripture.
Because God is Faithful
But from everlasting to everlasting the LORD’S love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.Psalm 103:17-18
I do not think any Christian would disagree with this! Yet is this the role of baptism? As with a good number of these points I think they could have been collapsed down into a more concise summary.
Closing appeal to antiquity
In Robertson’s closing remarks he writes:
I could add historical reasons – AA Hodge points out that this was the practice of the early Church – Irenaeus (born AD 97); Justin Martyr (138), Tertullian (160), Origen (185), Cyprian (253) and Augustine (354) all testify to it. You could, of course, argue that the Church very quickly went wrong- I think it is unlikely!Ten Biblical Reasons Why I Baptised My Granddaughter (and Children).
Yet this is playing a little bit fast and loose with the facts. Historian Andre Lagarde wrote:
Until the sixth century, infants were baptized only when they were in danger of death. About this time the practice was introduced of administering baptism even when they were not illAndre Lagarde, Latin Church in the Middle Ages, 37
In more detail and as posted here previously Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote:
Even in the fourth century St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil, and St. Augustine, having Christian mothers, still were not baptized till they were adults. St. Gregory’s mother dedicated him to God immediately on his birth; and again when he had come to years of discretion, with the rite of taking the gospels into his hands by way of consecration. He was religiously-minded from his youth, and had devoted himself to a single life. Yet his baptism did not take place till after he had attended the schools of Cæsarea, Palestine, and Alexandria, and was on his voyage to Athens. He had embarked during the November gales, and for twenty days his life was in danger. He presented himself for baptism as soon as he got to land. St. Basil was the son of Christian confessors on both father’s and mother’s side. His grandmother Macrina, who brought him up, had for seven years lived with her husband in the woods of Pontus during the Decian persecution. His father was said to have wrought miracles; his mother, an orphan of great beauty of person, was forced from her unprotected state to abandon the hope of a single life, and was conspicuous in matrimony for her care of strangers and the poor, and for her offerings to the churches. How religiously she brought up her children is shown by the singular blessing, that four out of ten have since been canonized as Saints. St. Basil was one of these; yet the child of such parents was not baptized till he had come to man’s estate,—till, according to the Benedictine Editor, his twenty-first, and perhaps his twenty-ninth, year. St. Augustine’s mother, who is herself a Saint, was a Christian when he was born, though his father was not. Immediately on his birth, he was made a catechumen; in his childhood he fell ill, and asked for baptism. His mother was alarmed, and was taking measures for his reception into the Church, when he suddenly got better, and it was deferred. He did not receive baptism till the age of thirty-three, after he had been for nine years a victim of Manichæan error. In like manner, St. Ambrose, though brought up by his mother and holy nuns, one of them his own sister St. Marcellina, was not baptized till he was chosen bishop at the age of about thirty-four, nor his brother St. Satyrus till about the same age, after the serious warning of a shipwreck. St. Jerome too, though educated at Rome, and so far under religious influences, as, with other boys, to be in the observance of Sunday, and of devotions in the catacombs, had no friend to bring him to baptism, till he had reached man’s estate and had travelled.An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine By John Henry Newman. Chapter 4. Instances in Illustration, Section 1. Instances Cursorily Noticed, Instance 3. Infant Baptism, Paragraph 6
What often goes unspoken in this reasoning for a ubiquity of baptism amongst newborns is that the simplest understanding of the early church practice was that it varied in time, place, and context. More plainly we saw a variety of modes and timings often existing alongside one another and were not given initially as a pretext for schism amongst believers. I need not do so here for having done so in my series accessible on the topic.
Unless we are willing to denounce as heretics or withhold fellowship from all Christians today and prior to us who have ever held to a variance in practice across time and space we need to assume more librality in our stance on this issue. My personal view is that any baptism done in the name of the Trinity should be considered valid. Yet the normative and ordained ordo salutis, as Justin Martyr explains, sees us turning from children “born without our own knowledge or choice” to children “of choice and knowledge” baptised in “the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe … in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed.”
Conclusion: As an Anglican
The only thing I will add is my current exceptions with my own traditions practice. The Anglican Church, like many Western traditions, has carved off confirmation or chrismation into its own separate rite for children. I detail why I think that is here. Yet it is contrast to the Eastern and Early Churches that it has done so and I think it is to their loss.
The Catechetical Lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem, written comparatively late for the early church in the 4th century, detail Chrismation as part of the baptismal liturgy. Not as something that follows months or years later. Even before the Reformation in England children were confirmed at ages as young as three giving an indication of how much the rite has changed its understanding today to stand in as a form of coming of age ceremony.
Another knock on effect of this is withholding of communion from children. This is something I emphatically disagree with. If you are baptised you should partake of communion and the earliest baptismal liturgies culminated in communion. The only exception to this is those undergoing Church discipline.
The final point is in the Book of Common Prayer itself which I otherwise hold in great esteem. The baptism of infants is one of the few liturgies that actually asks the parents to speak in the 1st person in place of the child:
A large candle may be lit. The president addresses the candidates directly, or through their parents, godparents and sponsors:
In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.
Therefore I ask:
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
I reject them.
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
I renounce them.
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
I repent of them.
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?
I turn to Christ.
Do you submit to Christ as Lord?
I submit to Christ.
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?Baptism and Confirmation, Common Worship, The Church of England
I come to Christ.
This actually has precedent going back to the 7th century as far as I’m aware and are vestigial legacies of the scrutinies and confessions expected of catechumens during their baptism that have been transposed into later liturgies after the ubiquity of infant baptism in the Church. Personally, to speak on behalf of a child is a step too far. I can understand people speaking in ‘hope’ of their child in a Reformed context or in a Lutheran context and the faith of the community but to speak as if one is the child is a bridge too far. Although an interesting attempt at trying to maintain historical continuity with liturgies dating back to when the practice of catechism in advance of baptism was much more normative. Something I think we should get back to.
I wish I could get my son baptised in a rite maintaining the continuity of chrismation and communion as soon as possible but the only option for that in my current context is to see him baptised as an adult. I guess perfect really is the enemy of good in this context.