Monday, 21 November 2011

For and Against Infant Baptism

I have been thinking about infant baptism for a while now and now I am more torn than I thought I would be. I grew up in a Baptist context where only full immersion adult Baptisms were done. For most of my life I have strongly held that view. But now I have been attending an Anglican church which has a different view on the matter (along with the other mainstream denominations). Although I still held my ground of not doing it to my new daughter, the opposing arguments have more weight than I originally thought. The best (free online) resource I found that looked at both sides was a debate between John MacArthur (Baptist) and R.C Sproul (Presbyterian). I respect both MacArthur and Sproul and so found what both of them were saying compelling.

Below, mostly for my own thinking, is a point-counterpoint summary of both arguments, placed under the 5 points that MacArthur framed the debate, Sproul didn't structure his response in that way, so his bits are a little artificial  If you have more time, skip this post and read (or listen to) MacArthur's talk and then Sproul's response that I am trying to summarise.

1. Infant baptism is not in Scripture
Both: Nowhere in scripture is infant baptism endorsed or forbidden, both sides have to use inference.
MacArthur: Since it is not in scripture there is no reason to condone it. What other rituals can you do this reasoning with?

MacArthurMatthew 18:1-5 is about how we treat other believers using children as an illustration. It's not about baptism. Matthew 19:14 (and in Mark 10 and Luke 18) is saying God has a special care towards children, but it's not about infant salvation. Jesus doesn't baptise them or commands it here. Acts and 1 Corinthians mention lots of households been baptised. In these references it is "all who heard" the message who are baptised. They follow the pattern of all hear the gospel, all believe, all receive the Holy Spirit, all were baptized. No infants can do such, nor are any mentioned. Again in John 4:53 "households" means the believing people and not babies as they couldn't have believed. Acts 2:38-39 mentions “your children” which is reference to the future generations of Jews and Gentile will receive the Holy Spirit the same way. Not the immediate infants in the crowd. 1 Cor 7:13-14 means don’t divorce your unbelieving partner because both that partner and children in the home will feel the goodness of the grace of God upon you. If it is a defence for infant baptism, then why can't it also be used as a mandate for the baptism of that unbelieving partner as an adult cause you can’t have one and not the other.

Sproul: Every single reference to adult baptism in the book of Acts is 100% irrelevant to the issue as they involve the first generation of believers. If the opponent of infant baptism could point to one case of an adult baptism in the New Testament where the person who is being baptized as an adult was the child of Christian parents when that person was an infant, then he would change his mind on the issue, but there isn't. The very language of 1 Cor 7:13-14 ("set apart", "unclean" and "holy") is covenant language, meaning the the children of a believing parent is also under the same covenant- they too are to be set apart (holy).

Me: I think trying to build a doctrine off 1 Cor 7:13-14 is quite hard as the meaning of the text is a little unclear.

2. Infant baptism is not New Testament baptism
MacArthur argued that the method of baptism for infants, the sprinkling of water is not how the Bible describes baptism.

Sproul commented quickly near the end that he disagrees with the "Baptists who insist that the Greek word baptizo can only mean immersed because in the Septuagint, the translated text of Leviticus 14 where two birds are used in a sacrificial way and these two birds are killed, the one has its blood drained out of it and the other one has to be baptizo in the blood of the first one. There just ain’t enough blood in the first one to immerse the second one... But that is a secondary issue and not a primary issue" Which I agree with - the method of baptism can be a whole other debate.

3. Infant baptism is not a replacement sign for the Abrahamic sign of circumcision
MacArthur: Nowhere does the New Testament ever say infant baptism replaces circumcision. Nonetheless some claim inferential evidence without any specific statement of Scripture. Circumcision was a sign of ethnic identity and not an act of faith. It also only applied to boys. A better New Testament parallel would be to look at the baptism of John as it prefigures Christ and has the meaning of repentance, which is the meaning baptism also later takes on.

Sproul: No one in history has argued that there is an identity between circumcision and baptism, but there is one of relationship. The issue is if there is any continuity between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New Testament. The are both signs of a different covenant but both covenants are one that God had promised to redeem His people. It is too simplistic to say circumcision is only for ethical or national identity, Paul in Romans refuted that idea. Abraham received the sign of the covenant after he believed the promises of God and then says his children are to also receive it. That at least sets up a Biblical precedent of God commanding a sign to be given to to a person who doesn't possess what that sign signifies. The new covenant is better than the old one as it is more inclusive. Its not just for boy, but also girls, Jews and Gentiles. The old sign did included infants to take part, so when this new more inclusive sign came along why was it not pick up where the old practice left off - including infants in the covenant sign.

Me: I was really surprised that Col 2:11-12 didn't get much of a look in as I think that is the only New Testament passage that mentions both circumcision and baptism so closely together.

4. Infant baptism is not consistent with the nature of the church
MacArthur think baptising infants confuses the clear identity of a redeemed church as there are many in the world who were baptised as a child but are not part of the visible church and the issue is, are then in the Church or not?

Sproul says there is not one word in the New Testament or the writings of the church fathers in the first 400 years that that over throws the practice of including infants in the sign of baptism. In fact the first reference outside the Bible mentions that it was universally practised in the church. (John Piper (Baptist) thinks the first reference by Tertullian possibly means the practice was in dispute around 200 AD). Sproul also refers to how Paul says that circumcision doesn't save anyone, only those who are inwardly circumcised are. You can have the sign without faith, but you can't have what the sign signifies without faith. Baptisms (or circumcision) doesn't justify anyone.

5. Infant baptism is not consistent with Reformational soteriology 
MacArthur hold that there is no faith in the child so there is no comprehension of the gospel so there is no repentance in the child. Baptising infants confuses the doctrine of  justification by grace through faith alone. It would be better and nothing would be lost if you deferred the sign until someone shows saving faith

Sproul's point above about the non saving effect of the outward sign of circumcision and baptism is relevant here. He also says that it is the parents responsibility to say to the child “You received a sign of the promise of God, you received the sign of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And let me tell you what that sign means: If you trust in this promise of Christ, you will be saved.”

Some Thoughts
I started to see that both sides have a slightly different take on the meaning of Baptism. Is it a sign of personal repentance or a (non-saving) sign that you are under a covenant of God? The Baptists take a straightforward reading of the Bible, saying that the model is you believe and then you get baptised as the sign is for all who repent. The other mainlines take a more holistic view of the signs of the covenants and lean on the promises of what they mean. Straightforward reading of the Bible is good, but you do get into trouble when dealing with texts like Revelations (and other passages with tricky contexts and generas) . Holistic readings are also good, but you do get into trouble when you might be drawing connections that are not there.

Another thing that I read by a Baptist actually made me think his last (9th) point shot himself in the foot. He was arguing against child baptism and suggests it is a western/cultural/individualistic trend, where as if you push  that a little bit further, isn't the Baptists adult baptism an individualistic sign that forgets the large covenant promises of God to his people?

So I still haven't gotten my daughter baptised, but my thinking has moved slightly.

There are a host of other resources out that on the net and just a few days ago a link to this chapter on adult baptism and its connections to the covenants by Stephen Wellum came through my RSS feed. That looked interesting.


  1. "So I still have gotten my daughter baptised, but my thinking has moved slightly."

    Umm... is that above comment correct??

    Other than that, a lovely read :)

  2. thanks sir nerdalot for pointing that typo.

    I forgot the n't at the end of have which changes the whole meaning (I do that a lot actually).

    I've updated the text to mean what I wanted it to say.

  3. No worries, will you be getting her dedicated instead or haven't you made up your mind yet?