Why have so many godly Christian leaders through the years believed in infant baptism? Isn’t it obviously unscriptural?
Actually, no. I believe that to baptise the infant of a believer is not only in harmony with Scripture but is more likely to have been the apostolic practice than to exclude infants. Controversy over baptism has often generated unwarranted dogmatism, superficial interpretation of Scripture, arrogance, judgmentalism and general lack of charity. If we fall into those sins we’re in the wrong, even if our theology is correct!
Firstly, we need to be honest and admit that the NT does not tell us one way or the other whether the apostles baptised infants. It doesn’t say they did, and it doesn’t say they didn’t. So any argument about the issue is, in one sense, an argument from silence. Both views on baptism depend upon inferences from Scripture. So the first point is that dogmatism is unfounded. Some Christians will continue to lay down the law because there is no NT reference to infant baptism. But more thoughtful Christians will realise that this doesn’t settle the matter.
Secondly, it is obvious that to interpret Scripture properly we need to get into the mind of the writers and try to understand the words as they would have meant them. The problem is that we read Scripture with the mind, outlook and prejudices of 20th century, western Gentiles. But almost all the NT writers were first century, oriental Jews.
Christianity has been increasingly dominated by Greek thought over the centuries, and the original Hebrew understanding of Scripture has been undermined.
One main difference is that, whereas we think in very individualistic ways, the biblical writers thought very much in corporate terms. They held strongly to the solidarity of the family. Jewish people still hold strongly to family solidarity. It would have been unthinkable for the biblical writers to embrace a faith without committing their children to it as well.
Dominant in their thinking was the idea of covenant. They knew that God had made a covenant with Noah which included children (Gen 6:18; 9:9). Later he had made a covenant with Abraham which included children, hence the covenant sign of circumcision was given to babies (Gen 15:15; 17:7-13). The covenant at Sinai was added to the Abrahamic Covenant to make clear the conditions of obedience through the law. Is it likely that they would think the “better covenant” (Heb 7:22; 8:6) sealed in the blood of Christ would exclude children? That certainly wouldn’t be better for children!
Paul tells us in Romans 4 (see also Gal 3) that the new covenant is the flowering of the Abrahamic Covenant. (What the NT calls the “old covenant” is the one made at Sinai). Abraham was justified by faith and circumcision was a sign of justification by faith. So the true meanings of circumcision and of baptism are parallel (Rom 4:11; Col 2:11-12). Yet circumcision – the sign of justification by faith – was given to infants who were incapable of faith. Are we to conclude that under the better covenant (the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant) children must not receive the covenant sign?
Paul calls the children of a believer “holy” in 1 Cor 7:14. This is a technical term meaning they are in a covenant relationship with God. And baptism is the sign of the new covenant. When I first held my children in my arms, I didn’t think they were excluded from the covenant. On the basis of Scripture (not sentiment), I believed they were included. Of course, they needed to come eventually to repentance and faith, just as circumcised babies under the old covenant needed to. And I believe that our act of faith in baptising them was one factor in their eventually coming to faith.
I do not believe that water baptism in itself saves a person. The Bible teaches four elements: repentance, faith, Baptism in the Spirit and Baptism in water. We all agree with that but some Christians say they must come in that order, which describes my experience. Others of us believe that Scripture supports water baptism coming first with believers’ children.
You may take the former view but please respect the integrity of those who believe infant baptism is in harmony with Scripture.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction