Baptizing Infants: Sacrament, Harmful, or No Big Deal?
This is admittedly hardly a hot topic in contemporary theology. It has been a lot more in other parts of history, particularly the Reformation era when the Anabaptists shook things up by rejecting infant baptism and suggesting baptism was only for believers. Before I look at the Anabaptists’ (and more recently in history, some evangelical groups’) argument in favour of what is called believer’s baptism, or adult baptism, I wanted to share the arguments I’ve found for the opposing view, that of allowing infant baptism. Earlier this summer I picked up a Handbook of Catholic Theology that is a very nice resource, and most of my knowledge of the arguments for infant baptism came from that as well as what I’ve heard from my times in the United Church of Canada which is one denomination which does practices it.
While reading the section on it my mind was not at all changed but it does raise some interesting points. The New Testament does arguably speak of it, implicitly, when it talks about baptizing whole families or households (1 Cor 1:16 and Acts 16:15). The second biblical argument given is that Jesus blesses little children, too young to decide for themselves, which counters the central requirement in the argument behind believers baptism, in Mark 10:16. The third biblical argument given is that baptism is seen as a replacement for what circumcision did under the old covenant, entry into the family/nation of God, which was to be done soon after birth.
The only one I’d give a little bit of weight to is the first, because it is definitely reasonable to assume there were young children there, although it was definitely not guaranteed. Not a lot more to say on that one. It doesn’t say there was. It doesn’t say there wasn’t. Either way you are probably most likely to assume there was if you are a proponent of infant baptism anyway and to assume that there weren’t if you’re a proponent of believer’s baptism anyway. All in all, it is a wash.
The second requires a different concept of baptism, so if you accept that different concept than it works. This is another fundamental aspect of the debate which is clearly related: is it a sacrament (a way of receiving God’s grace) or an ordinance (a command for Christians but not inherently a special source of grace otherwise)? How you answer that is more likely to change how you answer whether infants or only believers should be baptized. Since there are those who do view baptism as simply a blessing – just a nice thing to do for the child and the church and maybe even tied into salvation whether the infant wants it or not. In that framework, it doesn’t really have anything to do with symbolizing an entry into the family of God, the church. And that is what this text says: that children are blessed. Jesus blessed lots of people, many of whom responded with following him, many of whom didn’t. If baptism is simply a blessing, then this makes sense, but it also strips a lot of the meaning from it. I’m presupposing that baptism is not a formula for receiving grace against your will, so I end up clearly on the side of dismissing this argument as missing the point of baptism.
The other way that I’d look at that second argument is that God surely wouldn’t exclude his love from children who don’t know any better. Agreed. But does that make them Christians, members of the universal church of believers? I don’t think God excludes any adult who does know better from his love either – they just don’t always accept it – and I don’t think anybody would really consider them a part of the church either. I know this gets into other bigger questions about what makes a Christian, which I won’t get into more here. You may disagree with these assumptions, in which case my argument makes no sense. Again this is the question of the meaning of baptism and it is not as simple as whether infants should be baptized or not.
The third is completely missing the point in my opinion. Old Covenant, New Covenant. Its called the New Covenant because it isn’t the same as the old covenant. If the others held more weight for me, this would maybe be a bonus, but at least from my theological understanding, this one doesn’t really help the case at all.
A more interesting argument is a historical one. Many Protestants will be quick to ignore this section and claim Scripture alone with no influence otherwise, but I caution quickly that all churches rely heavily on tradition (and on other things like experience). To ignore it is to pretend we don’t have a bias and to dismiss how many for centuries before us have interpreted the gospel. So I suggest we look to our history and respect it even while wrestling with how it stacks up with Scripture. So with that caveat…Origen
The Handbook points out that Origen (ca 185-254), one of the church fathers, explicitly traced back infant baptism to the apostles. Was he right? Not a clue, and neither the Handbook nor anything else I’ve seen seems to indicate any knowledge of whether infant baptisms were performed before this. Even the Didache (Chapter 7) which is dated a bit after the end of the writing of the New Testament, somewhere between 125 and 160 if I remember correctly, does not say anything about infants being baptized but it does say that the person being baptized must fast for one or two days previously. I’d have to think that would be a bad idea to force on an infant, so did this text only apply to adults, or was it assuming that it was only adults who would be being baptized anyway? So I am curious historically when it started because it definitely was early, whether with the apostles or at least within a few generations, but this also doesn’t really make a convincing case for me. Even if the apostles did perform infant baptisms, does that mean they were right to do so?
Worth Fighting Over?
So I am inclined to see believers baptism as more accurate to the Scriptures. But I’m also inclined not to pick a fight over it because there are still valid reasons behind subscribing to infant baptism and I don’t think there’s all that much harm done. This was a huge issue at the time of the Reformation, because of that deeper question I referenced of what makes a person a Christian, but it typically isn’t a deal-breaker for most ecumenical conversation (including from me).