Who should be baptized? Should the church baptize only those who profess faith in Christ or should we also baptize the infant children of believers as well?
This is the crux of the disagreement between paedobaptists and credobaptists and that is the focus of this booklet. But what are paedobaptism and credobaptism?
Paedobaptism, from the Greek paidion meaning “young child or infant,” is the belief that the sign of baptism should be applied to the infant children of believers. Those who hold this view include Presbyterians, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, et al. That’s a daunting collection of denominations that disagree with the credobaptist position. To be sure, most of church history has held to infant baptism.
Credobaptism, from the Latin credo meaning “I believe,” is the view that the sign of baptism should only be applied to those who show signs of regeneration (being born again), namely profession of faith in Christ. Children should therefore not be baptized unless or until they have professed an understanding and reception of the gospel. This is the view of Baptists, Anabaptists, and many non-denominational churches today.
Given that most denominations for most of church history have agreed with paedobaptism and that most of my theological heroes are paedobaptists, why am I not? Well, because I’m convinced that Scripture makes a more compelling case for credobaptism and that paedobaptists misunderstand and thus misapply the sign. This isn’t just because infant baptism isn’t explicitly mentioned in Scripture (that’s an argument from silence), but rather because all of the implicit arguments that paedobaptists make are weighed and found wanting. When you actually examine the texts that paedobaptists use, those very same texts actually and ironically support the credobaptist position. As the Westminster Confession states, doctrine must either be established by appeal to explicit biblical texts or “good and necessary deduction” of texts. In the case of paedobaptism, the deduction required to support it is neither good nor necessary. That’s a big claim, to be sure, but one which I think can be supported by Scripture.
This blog is intended to respond to some of the major planks of the paedobaptist position and to show why their arguments are not as solid and substantial as they may initially seem. In fact, many of the very texts to which paedobaptists appeal actually support credobaptism when considered carefully. We will respond to seven of the most common defenses of paedobaptism and try to make a case for credobaptism along the way.
Claim 1: Baptism is analogous to circumcision.
As with many of the paedobaptist arguments, this is true on the surface. Baptism IS definitely analogous to circumcision. However, below the surface, the meaning of the statement is actually quite different from what is often thought.
The analogy between circumcision and baptism is certainly biblical. After all, Paul writes:
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. (Colossians 2:11–12)
So, in some sense, baptism is parallel to circumcision. But how?
Most paedobaptists would say that as circumcision was the sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant, so baptism is the sign and seal of the New Covenant. So far so good.
But what are the implications of this? Well, paedobaptism suggests that as circumcision was applied to the children of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, so baptism should be applied to the children of the new covenant.
The problem with this is two-fold. First, it misunderstands the symbolic meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament. Second, it misunderstands the nature of the new covenant and, in particular, what is distinct about the new covenant.
How does the paedobaptist argument misunderstand the meaning of circumcision in the Old Testament? Well, circumcision as a sign was intended to signify something. What did it signify? It signified first that a “seed” or “offspring” would come forth from the line of Abraham and bring about deliverance. That is why the sign was applied to the male sexual organ, in order to connect the sign to what was signified (an offspring resulting from a sexual union). In addition, circumcision was always intended to point beyond itself to the deeper idea of a circumcised heart. For example, see the following:
Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (Deuteronomy 10:16)
And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)
The Old Testament is thus speaking of a different type of circumcision, one made not with human hands, but with the Spirit. One not of the male sexual organ, but of the heart.
If baptism had simply replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant, one would expect that the issue of Judaizers in the church would have been easily dismissed. When they taught that one must be circumcised to be saved, Paul or Peter would have simply said, “circumcision is no longer necessary because baptism has taken its place.” But notice that isn’t what they said. That isn’t how the apostles argued in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council or how Paul argued in Galatians or Romans (the two books in which Paul most clearly speaks of the inefficacy and irrelevance of circumcision in the new covenant).
Why didn’t Paul and the other apostles argue against circumcision by appealing to baptism? Because though there is an analogy, it is not in the exact place that paedobaptism expects. As with any analogy, there is both similarity and dissimilarity. We are like sheep in some ways, but not others. Jesus is like a vine or door in some ways, but not others. All analogies have points of contact and contrast. Likewise with the parallel between circumcision and baptism.
That there is some discontinuity between the two signs is obvious even to paedobaptists. After all, circumcision was only applied to males, but baptism applies to male and female. So there is already at least one element of discontinuity, but paedobaptism simply doesn’t recognize how far that discontinuity extends.
Immediately after drawing the analogy between circumcision and baptism, Paul writes this:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses… (Colossians 2:13)
Notice that in the context of the analogy between circumcision and baptism, the issue is trespass and sin. And baptism is the answer for that. Baptism signifies what circumcision did not. Which means that baptism isn’t really analogous to physical circumcision, but rather to the spiritual circumcision that Deuteronomy 10 and 30 (and other places we will mention shortly) uphold.
And what is the result of that spiritual circumcision? Well, God’s people know and follow His word. But how? Well, by faith. And what does faith have to do with Colossians 2 and baptism? Verse 12 says that we are buried with Christ and raised “through faith.” Even one of the chief passages upon which paedobaptist theology is built actually underscores the necessity of faith! The faith of a Jewish infant was irrelevant to the question of whether he should be circumcised (as we will see shortly), but faith is of utmost importance when it comes to baptism.
In other words, baptism is similar to physical circumcision in the sense that both are covenantal signs, but it is really spiritual circumcision of the heart to which baptism points! Given that the fruit of such spiritual circumcision is faith, it stands to reason that baptism should be explicitly connected to faith! That is where the analogy should really be drawn.
So, who should be baptized? Well, those whose hearts have been circumcised as evidenced by faith in Christ!
Claim 2: Baptism is the Sign and Seal of the Covenant
He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well… (Romans 4:11)
As circumcision was a sign and a seal of the Abrahamic covenant, so baptism is a sign and seal of the New Covenant.
It is a sign in the sense that it signifies some reality, it is an outward sign of invisible grace. And it is a seal in the sense of serving as an assurance of the promises that God makes with His people.
Sometimes theology of the “Reformed” or “Presbyterian” variety is called covenantal theology. Often, being “Reformed” is equated with being covenantal and being covenantal is equated with believing in the entire system of theology coming out of Calvin’s Geneva, including paedobaptism. In other words, many Reformed brothers and sisters would not consider a credobaptist to be truly Reformed or covenantal. However, there is a case to be made for a Reformed and covenantal credobaptism. The 1689 London Baptist Confession is a good historic example of this type, as is the more modern “Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ” book edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright.
Credobaptists, no less than Presbyterians, believe that God’s covenants are central to understanding His redemptive work. They simply disagree on some of the implications of that. Paedobaptism implies that since circumcision was applied to the children of those within the covenant community of Israel, so now baptism should be applied to the children of those within the covenant community of the Church.
But, as mentioned earlier, this misunderstands the meaning of the sign and the nature of the new covenant, and in particular what is new about the new covenant.
Let’s talk a bit more about the meaning of the sign.
What did circumcision signify? After all, it was a “sign” and signs by definition signify something. So what did circumcision signify?
Well, on one hand, it signified the need for a circumcised heart. But in addition to that, it also signified that the Messiah would come through the “seed” of Abraham. Through Abraham’s “offspring,” kings would come and all the nations of the world would be blessed. That was why it was significant that circumcision was applied to the male sexual organ. We talked about that earlier.
Now, think about the application of that sign to Hebrew infants. What if those infants didn’t believe? If a Hebrew child never embraced YHWH’s promises, would their lack of faith in anyway affect those promises? Of course not! Even if all of Israel had been apostate, God could have nonetheless brought forth the Messiah through the seed of Abraham.
The Messiah was going to come through Abraham’s seed regardless of whether or not any individual Israelites believed those promises. In that sense, the personal faith of the child was inconsequential as to the question of whether or not they should receive the sign. Hebrew boys were circumcised regardless of faith, because circumcision didn’t necessarily signify personal faith.
But what of baptism? What does baptism signify as a sign? Look at the following passages:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18–22)
And Peter said to them, “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)
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4–6)
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. (Colossians 2:12)
Baptism symbolizes death to sin, burial in Christ, deliverance from the wrath of God, resurrection to new life, repentance, faith, being brought to God, an appeal to God, and forgiveness of sins.
But are those things true of non-believers? Are unbelievers forgiven, buried with Christ, delivered from wrath, raised to new life, etc.? Of course not!
Remember that circumcision was applied to infants regardless of faith since circumcision didn’t imply faith, but rather pointed forward to the fulfillment of God’s future promises. But what of baptism? In that case, baptism points to things that are only true of God’s elect. Circumcision was applied regardless of faith, but baptism necessarily implies faith. Otherwise, the sign doesn’t really signify the covenant. The sign can’t very well signify faith and repentance, for example, if it is applied regardless of faith and repentance.
That brings us to the question of what is new about the new covenant.
When it comes to the new covenant, we aren’t restricted to merely reading the New Testament. Rather, the Old Testament itself spoke clearly of a new covenant that God would make with His people. Consider the following:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34)
While other passages express a similar idea (see in particular Ezekiel 36:22-32), this is the only place in the Old Testament where the phrase “new covenant” is used. Considering the prevalence of that phrase in the New Testament (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 8:13, 9:15), Jeremiah 31 is an important link to understanding the background usage. When Jesus or Paul used the phrase “new covenant” they were thinking of Jeremiah (and related passages).
So notice where YHWH through Jeremiah locates the distinctiveness of the new covenant. Notice it is “not like the covenant that I made with their fathers” in some sense. Again, we see that though there is certainly some continuity between the covenants, there is also very intentional divine discontinuity between covenants. So where is the discontinuity according to this passage? What is so new about the new covenant?
Jeremiah writes that YHWH would put His law within them and write in on their hearts. This is similar language to the idea of a circumcised heart that we considered earlier. Again, baptism doesn’t signify exactly what circumcision itself signified, but rather, baptism signifies the fulfillment of what circumcision pointed to, namely a circumcised heart that loves and obeys God. This is the new covenant promise. The Mosaic Covenant was a covenant of the letter, but the New Covenant is of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3) in the sense that the Spirit writes the law on the hearts of His people in fulfillment of Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s prophecies.
In addition to this, YHWH says that the new covenant implies forgiveness of iniquity and sin. All who are in covenant with God in the New Covenant sense have forgiveness of sin which was certainly not true of all who were circumcised. But I want you to really focus on the fact that in the new covenant “they shall all know me.” This is of utmost importance if you want to understand what is unique about the new covenant. How is the new covenant not like previous covenants? Well, at least in part, it is dissimilar in the fact that all who are covenant community members are also believers.
In other words, Israel was always a mixed community of believers and unbelievers. There was always a remnant or elect within the larger nation (Romans 9:6-7). You were a member of the nation of Israel and thus the covenant community regardless of your personal faith. Thus you received the covenantal sign regardless of personal faith in YHWH.
Now, the question is, should the Church mirror that? According to Jeremiah, the answer is no. Unlike Israel, the Church should not be a mixed community. Rather, “they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” Again we see that whereas it was perfectly appropriate to circumcise a child irrespective of faith, it would be entirely inappropriate to baptize a child irrespective of faith. That would be to read continuity into the covenants in the exact place that God has said there should be discontinuity.
Read the previous sentence again slowly because this is crucial to see. Paedobaptism relies on a continuity between the covenants in the VERY PLACE where Jeremiah said there would be discontinuity. That is vital to understand. In fact, if you grasp the significance of this point, the most fundamental underlying assumption of paedobaptism (at least the Presbyterian and Reformed variations thereof) begins to unravel. It is not exaggeration to say that if the Church is unlike Israel in this one place, Presbyterian and Reformed paedobaptism fails entirely.
But, some may object, do not many churches have unbelievers in their midst? Are not many local churches in reality a mixed community?
The answer to that is obviously, “of course.” And yet, there is a profound difference between a bug and a feature to a theological system. An example of this might work in regards to Calvinism vs. Arminianism. We have all met arrogant Calvinists. So does this discount Calvin’s view of predestination? No. Why not? Because pride isn’t a feature, but a bug in the system. In fact, Calvinism is inherently humbling. What could be more humbling than the reality that we were chosen not because we were worthy or did something right or even because we exercised our own wills, but rather simply and only because of the mercy of God? So the fact that there are arrogant Calvinists is really owing to the fact that those Calvinists have not fully swallowed the meaning of Calvinism. Arminianism, on the other hand, contains the code for pride as a feature of the system. You are saved because of your faith, your will, your choice. In other words, many Calvinists are proud in spite of the naturally humbling theology of Calvinism while many Arminians are humble in spite of the naturally pride-inducing theology of Arminianism. For Calvinism, pride is a bug, for Arminianism, it is a feature.
Take that same distinction between a bug and a feature and apply it to baptism and to the reality of a mixed community. For the paedobaptist, a mixed community is a feature, it is deliberate, designed, purposeful. Every time a baby is sprinkled or effused or immersed, the church community gains a non-believing member. That is not accidental or incidental, but intentional. Paedobaptists believe that not only IS the church a mixed community, but that it SHOULD BE a mixed community of believers and unbelievers.
On the other hand, for credobaptists, it is a bug, an accident. Unbelievers might manage to make it through our processes and procedures, but those processes and procedures exist to minimize that possibility. Faithful credobaptist churches attempt to guard the waters to make sure that those who are baptized have a credible profession of faith. The fact that unbelievers make it through the waters is owing only to our lack of omniscience.
So it is not inconsistent for credobaptists to say that the church is not a mixed community, even when in reality our local churches might be less than perfectly pure.
Lastly, because Israel was primarily a biological community (with notable exceptions of Gentiles being grafted in), the primary way to enter the community was physical. You were born into the nation. You were thus born into community and the covenant.
But that’s not the case for the Church. The Church isn’t physical (composed of a particular race or ethnicity), but spiritual. Thus the way in which you enter the community and the covenant isn’t by birth, but re-birth.
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)
since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God… (1 Peter 1:23)
It may surprise some to learn that with our paedobaptist brothers and sisters, credobaptists are actually in agreement that we should baptize “infants.” However, the type of infancy is not physical, but spiritual. We baptize all who have been born again, reborn, regenerated by the Spirit unto faith in Christ. Whereas the Abrahamic covenant signified by circumcision was about being of the family of Abraham, the New Covenant is about being in the family of God. All who were united to Abraham (by blood or marriage or whatever) were to be circumcised regardless of personal faith, but we are only united to Christ by faith and thus baptism is only to be applied to those who give credible profession of such.
For an in-depth scholarly treatment of how a proper understanding of the covenants supports credobaptism, consider “Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ” edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright.
Claim 3: Acts 2 Extends Covenantal Promises not only to Believers, but their Children as Well
And Peter said to them, “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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38–39)
This is a passage that is often used by paedobaptists to demonstrate that God’s covenant extends to the families of His people. The logic is as follows: since the promise is for “you and your children,” therefore you and your children should be baptized. Implicit is that even your unbelieving children should be baptized.
But is that what the passage actually teaches? I don’t think so for a few reasons
First, notice that the passage doesn’t merely mention “your children,” but also “all who are far off.” If the implication of this passage is that we should baptize our children regardless of faith, then we should also baptize “all who are far off” regardless of faith. Given that paedobaptists don’t agree with forced baptism of unbelievers in general, they are inconsistently applying the passage. Whatever is implied by “and your children” is also true of “all who are far off.” If baptism regardless of faith is appropriate for your children on the basis of this passage, then it is also proper for all who are far off.
Second, notice the qualifier “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Who should be baptized? Not all our children, not all who are far off, but rather all whom the Lord calls to Himself. In other words, Peter clarifies in the very passage who this promise is for and it isn’t based on procreation, but God’s calling (which elsewhere refers to the concept of election).
Third, notice the reference to a promise. Peter says, “the promise is for you and for your children.” But what is that promise? Well, good exegesis demands that you search the context to determine the meaning of a term.
So let’s look at how that word is used in the surrounding context.
A few verses before this passage, Luke writes:
Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. (Acts 2:33)
Backing up a chapter, we read this:
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4–5)
Given that Luke is the prologue to Acts, we might also look toward the end of that gospel where he writes,
And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:49)
What do each of these uses of the word promise have in common? Well, the promise refers in each either explicitly or implicitly to the Holy Spirit. In the context of Luke/Acts, the promise denotes the Spirit Himself.
You see that even in Acts 2:38-39. Immediately before saying “the promise is for you and for your children,” he says, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” So, again, we see that the promise that Peter (and Luke) is referring to isn’t just any promise in general, but the particular promise of the Spirit.
So, let’s do an exercise. Let’s look back at Acts 2, but rather than reading the word “promise” let’s replace it with “Spirit.”
And Peter said to them, “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. For the [Spirit] is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38–39)
If the paedobaptist methodology is correct, then this passage would be implying that God has promised to give the Spirit to all of the children of believers. After all, they are using this passage to argue for baptizing all of our children. But the overwhelming majority of paedobaptists would clarify that paedobaptism doesn’t mean that God will necessarily save all of our children.
Or, let’s reread it by interpreting the promise on the basis of the immediately preceding verse. Peter says, “repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins…and you will receive the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the promise is that if you repent and are baptized as a sign of that repentance, then you will receive the Spirit. Now, that passage is certainly true not only for those hearing Peter speak, but for their children and those who were far off. And, this actually reinforces the credobaptist reading. How so? Because it again connects baptism with repentance and receiving the Spirit. If infants don’t repent and don’t receive the Spirit, then in what sense would they fit into this passage? What is baptism if not a sign of repentance and of receiving the Spirit?
Again, we see the importance of the phrase “all whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.” Who should be baptized? Who will receive the Spirit and repent? All whom the Lord calls to Himself. Not just those who heard the gospel that day, but also their children. And not just they and their children, but also all who are far off (probably signifying the gospel going to Samaritans and Gentiles in the context of Acts). Anyone and everyone whom the Lord calls to Himself will receive the promise of the Holy Spirit.
So who should be baptized on the basis of this text? Well, all who repent and believe as evidence that the Lord has called them to Himself. Again, we see that paedobaptist usage of this text misunderstands and misapplies the text because of presupposed theological convictions rather than allowing the text to speak on its own.
Claim 4: 1 Corinthians 7 says that the Children of Believers are Holy
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:12–14)
The paedobaptist perspective is that since the children of believers (or, in this case at least, the children of one believer) are holy, therefore they should be baptized.
Now, it is always tricky to take a passage which isn’t about a particular topic and to allow it to bear much weight on that topic. Such is the case with 1 Corinthians 7. In a passage in which baptism is not in view (explicitly or implicitly), we want to be careful lest we apply the text to an area which neither Paul nor God intended.
That said, since this passage is often used by paedobaptists, it is important to consider.
When we do, we might ask why, if this is the logical application of the passage, we would not baptize unbelieving spouses?
Think about it. Notice that Paul doesn’t merely say that the children of believers are holy, but that an unbelieving husband or wife is also holy. But if the fact that children are holy means we should baptize them regardless of faith, why would we not also baptize spouses regardless of faith?
There is an inconsistency and a selective reading on the part of paedobaptism in applying the logic of this passage to unbelieving children, but not unbelieving spouses. It is like applying Acts 2 to argue that you should baptize your children, but not “all who are far off.” That is an irresponsible and improper handling of the text. You can’t have it both ways. Either the idea of holiness implies the necessity of baptism (for children and spouses) or not. You can’t argue that it does for one and not the other
So, should we therefore baptize unbelieving spouses in order to be more consistent? Not at all. Rather we should recognize that this passage has nothing to do with baptism at all. Paul’s point isn’t that the children of believers should be baptized. Rather, he is simply arguing that the children of believers will experience some of the benefits of the gospel simply by virtue of having at least one godly parent. They are thus holy (or “set apart”) in that sense. This is part of the overall point which is that believers should not divorce their unbelieving spouses.
Claim 5: Jesus Loves the Little Children
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. (Matthew 19:13–15)
That Christ loved and listened to children is obvious to anyone who reads the gospels. And yet does that imply that we should baptize infants? It does not.
Why not? Well, consider the implications of that line of thinking. For instance, Jesus also welcomed sinners. So should we baptize sinners regardless of their profession of faith? Jesus loved the sick. Should we baptize sick people whether or not they believe? Of course not.
Why not? Because the fact that Christ loves children or lepers or widows or the poor has nothing to do with the question of who should be baptized. In order to know who should be baptized, we should interpret passages actually dealing with baptism and not drawing inconsistent and inaccurate inferences.
Claim 6: Paedobaptism is the Older View
Tradition is important. Woe to those who fail to listen to and learn from those who have come before. Yet history itself is not authoritative. Was Luther wrong because Rome had long held to the efficacy of indulgences? Are modern Christians wrong for opposing slavery though most Christians until the 1800s had not? Of course not.
While history is helpful, it is not our ultimate canon. As Cyprian of Carthage (3rd century) once remarked, “a custom without truth is but error grown old.” So, even if paedobaptism is the older view, that wouldn’t necessarily prove anything.
However, in two important senses, paedobaptism isn’t actually the older view.
First, it is helpful to note that when we talk about paedobaptism, we are not talking about one monolithic concept. In a sense there is no one unified theology of paedobaptism, there are instead multiple variants of paedobaptism (each with their own unique theological convictions). Paedobaptism might be considered a family of diverse paedobaptisms (plural). Consider again the list of denominations that practice paedobaptism: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, etc. Now, although each of those practice the same outward sign, there are a lot of differences. In fact, they would vehemently disagree with each other on a number of their core assumptions in regards the sign.
For instance, while churches in the West tend to sprinkle, the Orthodox do not (they immerse infants). Not only that, but there are profound theological differences between Catholics, Presbyterians, and Lutherans (for example). According to Catholics, baptism is a sacrament in which grace is imparted or infused into the recipient. With this Lutherans would disagree. Furthermore, baptism is the moment in which regeneration occurs in both Lutheran and Catholic teaching. Now, with both of those nuances, Presbyterians would vigorously disagree!
So, when a Presbyterian, Anglican, or Lutheran says that their belief is older, that isn’t actually correct. The only Western view of paedobaptism that exists prior to the Reformation was the Roman Catholic view in which justifying and regenerating grace is imparted. So the only form of paedobaptism which could play the “long line of tradition” card would be the Catholic view (and Greek Orthodox).
Again, though there are similarities between Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic paedobaptism, the nature of the dissimilarities are important. Though infant baptism itself has millennia of history, the Presbyterian, Reformed, and Lutheran varieties are less than 500 years old. Given that credobaptism was practiced during and even slightly before the Reformation (not only by Anabaptists, though most commonly associated with them), then credobaptism is at least as old as those versions of paedobaptism.
But is it even true that Roman Catholic paedobaptism is the older view? Well, that is actually begging the question. The very question which we are trying to answer is which view is biblical. Whatever view is biblical is oldest and has the substantive weight of history and tradition. Credobaptists and paedobaptists agree that paedobaptism was the dominant position of the medieval period, but the disagreement concerns the early church and patristics (church fathers). For an extensive overview of the evidence, the best scholarly source is the massive “Baptism in the Early Church” by Everett Ferguson. The following data is from Ferguson’s work.
According to Ferguson, “Tertullian provides the first certain literary reference to infant baptism, and that because he opposed the practice.” Tertullian’s “On Baptism” was written around 200 A.D. and he argues against infant baptism as if it is a relatively novel development and thus not the historic view from his perspective. As Ferguson writes, “his opposition is an indication that the practice was neither long established nor generally accepted.” In other words, there is absolutely no evidence for the practice of infant baptism for the first century and a half of the church and all of the evidence that we do have argues strongly for baptism only of those who professed faith in Christ (see in particular the lengthy catechumenate in the early church). We don’t see infant baptism referenced at all until sometime around 200 A.D. and that first reference implies that it is a recent and inappropriate development.
Later in the 3rd century, various references to the baptism of infants are found, but almost always in the case of emergency or “deathbed” baptism. The dominant view of the early church was that baptism affected regeneration. Given that none could be saved apart from being born again (John 3), many early Christians believed this implied that none could be saved apart from baptism. Therefore, if a child was near death, baptism was applied as an emergency condition. However, as Ferguson notes, “if children were healthy, there is no evidence that their parents presented them for baptism.” In fact, many of the church fathers and other noted bishops and pastors of the early church were not baptized as infants though they had believing parents.
We don’t see instructions for parents to baptize their children until the late fourth century and “the routine baptism of babies belongs to the fifth century and after, when evidence for accommodations of the baptism ceremony to the presence of infants begin to appear.” In particular, “infant baptism became a normal practice in the West after Augustine.” By the sixth century, the baptism of infants was established as general practice in both the West and East.
Why was paedobaptism normalized after Augustine? Well, because of his conflict with the heretic Pelagius in which the Church agreed that man is born inherently sinful. Pelagius taught that man is morally neutral, but Augustine’s view of original sin won the day and Pelagianism was condemned. But if man is inherently depraved (as Augustine taught and the Church confesses even today), then that implied that even children are born with the stain and guilt of Adam; and, if that is the case, then many inferred that they must be baptized. Why? Because according to Roman Catholic paedobaptism the act of baptism is when regeneration takes place and the guilt of original sin is washed away. This was the dominant view of the Western church through the middle Ages.
Bottom line, infant baptism developed slowly. It began with emergency or deathbed baptism, but didn’t really become the established position of the Church until the sixth century. During those intervening years, there was much theological development and attempts to justify the evolving practice.
Again, it is certainly true that the vast majority of church history has favored paedobaptism, but, as we have seen, it is speculative at best and even inaccurate to assert that paedobaptism is older than credobaptism. The overwhelming evidence of the first couple of centuries of the church was that believer’s baptism was the norm. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox variants of paedobaptism slowly developed over the 3rd through 6th centuries, but Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, and other Protestant variants were not seen until the 16th or 17th centuries and by then contemporary credobaptism had reestablished precedent as well.
Claim 7: The Existence of Household Baptisms Suggests Infant Baptism
In the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians, we see the phenomenon of entire households being baptized. This implies one or more of the following according to many paedobaptists. First, one might argue that these households included infants. However, since that is an argument from silence (the Bible never says the ages of the members of the household who were baptized), that particular line of defense isn’t always all that popular. So, while not discounting that some infants might have been included in the household, other paedobaptists would simply say that household baptism shows solidarity with the Abrahamic covenant and the way that God works not just through individuals, but families.
To be fair, household baptism is not a huge theme in the New Testament, so we don’t have a large sample size, but its presence demands a response. There are only two explicit mentions of household baptism in the book of Acts, although the narrative of Cornelius’ conversion probably implies the same. When you add in the one reference to the baptism of the household of Stephanas in 1 Corinthians, that brings the number to at most four references. Given the limited information, it should be easy for us to consider each and every instance in more detail. Consider the following four accounts:
In Acts 10, Luke references the household of Cornelius and towards the end there is a mass baptism. Although the text doesn’t explicitly say that his household was baptized, that is probably implied.
But notice what it says in verses 44-48
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44–48)
According to these verses who was baptized? Those who 1) heard the word and 2) received the Spirit. Notice also the implication of Peter’s question. Water should not be withheld because they had received the Spirit. In other words, if they hadn’t received the Spirit, water should have been withheld. Notice also the word “all” in the first verse mentioned. The Spirit fell on ALL who heard the word. It is hard to imagine this passage as supporting infant baptism given how baptism is associated with things that we would relate to conversion.
The next reference to household baptism (and the first one to explicitly use that phrase) is in Acts 16 with the conversion of Lydia.
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:11–15)
Notice that Lydia was a worshiper of God and that the Lord opened her heart to pay attention and that she was judged to be faithful. Nothing more is said of the condition of the household although in both Jewish and Roman cultures, the husband/father as the paterfamilias would have typically determined the religion of the household. If Lydia had a husband and if he were baptized as part of the household, then it was only because he was also converted. And if he was converted it stands to reason that others in the household met the same condition. However, since no further context is given, any attempt to reconstruct her household’s spiritual condition is speculative at best.
But such is not the case in our final two examples of household baptism.
The Philippian Jailer
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And 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 wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (Acts 16:30–34)
Notice that the first reference to the household is in regards to salvation. But if we read it through a paedobaptist lens, we run into some questions. For instance, what does it mean that your household will be saved if you believe? Does that mean that they will be saved regardless of whether or not they also believe (which no Christian denomination has ever held)? Does this mean that if the jailer believed, then God promised to save everyone in his household? Of course not. Even paedobaptists would disagree with that.
So what does it mean? Well, it means that all who believe will be saved. Like Acts 2, the promise isn’t just for the jailer, but also for his wife and kids and any other who hear and believe.
That reading is confirmed as we continue the narrative. All who were in his house were said to hear the word and they rejoiced that he had believed. Notice the connection between baptism and rejoicing! While it is possible for a child to rejoice in the womb (John the Baptist, for instance), that certainly isn’t normative, as even most paedobaptists will agree. But from this passage, we see that those who were baptized seem to have also been granted faith and repentance through the proclaimed word. They too responded to the word. All of the household was baptized because, as was the case with Cornelius, all heard and believed the gospel.
The final reference to household baptism is not from the book of Acts, but rather 1 Corinthians. There Paul writes:
I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else. (1 Corinthians 1:16)
The surrounding context doesn’t give us any clues as to the condition of the household (were there infants included, did they all believe, etc.). However, at the end of the letter there is clarity.
Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints… (1 Corinthians 16:15)
There the household is referred to as consisting of “converts.” The Greek is literally something more akin to the “firstfruits,” but the idea is the same. Rather than implying that the household consisted of believers and unbelievers, the text fairly clearly refers to them as believers.
What does this survey of household baptisms in Scripture demonstrate? Well, a few things:
- The entire argument is often founded upon the presumed presence of infants within the household. The text itself does not necessitate such a reading. There is no convincing evidence of infants in the households (though to be fair, there is no explicit statement otherwise either). Thus, this is at best an argument from silence.
- Second, even if there were infants, that doesn’t mean that they were baptized. One could say that a household was baptized, but not necessarily mean that absolutely every single member was baptized. For instance, the gospels say that all Judea was going to be baptized by John the Baptist, but we surely don’t conclude that every single Judean without exception was doing so. So even if infants were included in the household (which we don’t know), we couldn’t necessarily conclude that they were baptized along with the others.
- The texts in question have hints which suggest (and strongly at that) that all who were baptized had been converted. Those who were baptized were those who feared God or heard the word or rejoiced or were converted. These are all different ways of pointing to the same reality which is that those who were baptized were those who had heard and believed. In three of the four accounts of household baptism, there is strong evidence in the text itself to suggest that everyone who was baptized was saved. To use texts which teach the baptism of believers to infer infant baptism is to go against the grain of Scripture and to engage in eisegesis.
While household baptisms should challenge the individualistic way that many Christians tend to read Scripture and should encourage us that God still works through the institution of the family, that phenomenon itself doesn’t support paedobaptism. In fact, as we have seen, it actually supports credobaptism since the context of at least three of the four passages contain strong hints that only believers were baptized.
Who should be baptized?
In order to answer that, we must appeal not merely to superficial arguments, but rather delve deeply into questions like: What is the nature of the new covenant? How is it similar and dissimilar from the Abrahamic or Mosaic covenants? Who is in covenant with God today? What do covenantal signs signify?
Although many of my credobaptist brothers and sisters might attempt to defend their position by resorting to strawmen fallacies or arguments from silence, my hope is that this blog shows that a compelling exegetical case can be made for believer’s baptism and that many (if not all) of the very texts that allegedly support paedobaptism actually do no such thing. The difference between the two positions is not that credobaptists only consider explicit texts while paedobaptists use logical implication (a charge I’ve often heard from my Presbyterian kin). Rather, the difference is whether or not the deductions of paedobaptism are good and necessary or are rather built upon unhelpful presuppositions that are not grounded in Scripture.
So, in conclusion, why am I confident in credobaptism?
- The context surrounding the descriptions of baptism throughout the New Testament suggests that all who were baptized had believed or at least professed belief.
- The meaning that the apostles associate with baptism (dying to sin, burial with Christ, raised to walk in newness of life, forgiveness, reception of the Spirit, an appeal to God for a good conscience, etc.) are all only true of believers.
- There are no mentions of infant baptism in Scripture and even those passages which are used to support it like household baptisms actually suggest that only believers received the sign.
- There is no historical evidence of infant baptism for the first couple of centuries of the church and even the first recorded mention of it was a critique of the practice by a church father and the particular theological convictions of most Reformed paedobaptists today doesn’t show up until the Reformation or later.
- When the entire church was forced to deal with the question of circumcision at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and throughout Paul’s ministry against Judaizers, no mention is made of baptism. That seems a huge oversight if baptism has simply replaced circumcision in as analogous a manner as paedobaptism suggests.
- The nature of the new covenant community is different at the very place where paedobaptists claim continuity. Unlike Israel, which was always and intentionally a mixed community (“not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring” Romans 9:6-7, et al), the church is by definition a spiritual people in relationship with God by grace through faith. Again, the new covenant is discontinuous at the exact place where paedobaptism demands continuity.
- The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were entered by birth whereas the New Covenant is entered by means of re-birth. The son of a Jew was a Jew regardless of faith, but the son of a Christian is only a Christian by faith. Since the covenant was different and the means of entering the covenant is different, the entry sign should thus function differently. Circumcision was applied to infants in relationship with Abraham whereas baptism is applied to those who have been born again unto relationship with Christ.
Although we love and appreciate the vast accomplishments and theological advancements of our paedobaptist brethren, and though we allow paedobaptists to join our church, we remain convinced that believer’s baptism is the proper biblical position and thus we preach, teach and practice accordingly.