A warning to the reader: This is really long for a blog. I’ve stopped trying to pretend that I can ever fit what I have to say into 700 words. For those of you who may not want to read it as a blog, here is a pdf: Infant Baptism – Waldroup
Just over two years ago I had a decision to make. My first son had been born, and I needed to decide if I was ok with having him baptized as an infant. Growing up Baptist, I was taught that infant baptism was not only incorrect but also misled those who practiced the tradition. But at the time of my son’s birth I had been worshipping as an Anglican for more than six years, and Anglicans traditionally baptize their children shortly after birth.
On the one hand, I understood the Baptist position, which has two main planks in its argument. First, the only explicit mentions of baptism in the Bible seem to be credobaptisms (believer’s baptism), when a confession of belief comes before baptism. Babies are not able to confess belief in anything, so obviously they cannot participate in this type of baptism. All churches that practice baptism of some kind (which is most everyone) recognize believer’s baptism as an important step for any adult convert.
Second, Baptists have always emphasized the pragmatic problems of infant baptism, namely, that many churches practicing infant baptism imply that it provides lifelong salvation for the child even after he or she has grown into adulthood. I am unaware of any Protestant church that explicitly teaches this (I’m not educated enough on the Catholic stance to comment), as most churches that practice infant baptism accompany it with confirmation at a later date, when children must choose to accept the faith for themselves. However, it is clear that many people believe that baptism ensures salvation, regardless of what one does as an adult.
The Anglican Approach
Despite these reasonable concerns from my Baptist background, we went ahead with my son’s baptism. At the time, I was ambivalent about infant baptism, but I decided to go ahead in honor of the Anglican heritage, as I had seen how other Anglican traditions had helped me grow and develop as a Christian. Being Anglican includes infant baptism, and so in my uncertainty, I submitted to the tradition.
Now with another child on the way, whom we also plan to baptize, I have been reflecting on infant baptism and how my views have changed over the years. I am very glad I submitted to the tradition, a step that was admittedly foreign and strange to me (after all, sola scriptura was my heritage). Today I am not only comfortable with infant baptism, but I actually think it is a more logical and appropriate beginning to spiritual formation for children than other approaches.
To explain my reasoning, first let me introduce the key texts of the Anglican baptism liturgy. We are members of the Anglican Church of North America, a conservative branch of Anglicanism, and part of our baptism liturgy reads as follows:
“Dearly beloved, Scripture teaches that we were all dead in our sins and trespasses. Our Savior Jesus Christ said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” and he commissioned the Church to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Therefore we will ask our heavenly Father that these candidates, being baptized with water, may be filled with the Holy Spirit, born again, and received as living members of Christ’s holy Church.”
A bit later in the liturgy, the Priest clarifies a key point, part of which I have bolded for emphasis:
“Today, on behalf of this child, you shall make vows to renounce the devil and all his works, to trust God wholeheartedly, and to serve him faithfully. It is your task to see that this child is taught, as soon as he is able to learn, the meaning of all these vows, and of the Faith that you will profess as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. He must come to put his trust in Jesus, and learn the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and all other things which a Christian ought to know, believe, and do for the welfare of his soul. When he has embraced all these, having become a disciple of Jesus, he is to come to the Bishop to be confirmed, that he may claim the Faith for his own and be further strengthened by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ and his Kingdom.”
I understand how the first paragraph above and others in the liturgy might confirm the worries of many a credobaptist. However, it must be taken in conjunction with the second paragraph, where it is clear that personally putting one’s trust in Christ is what ultimately renders one a “disciple of Jesus.” And in fact, the final sentence of the first paragraph, while heavily implying salvation at the moment of baptism, does not explicitly say that the baptism confers salvation. Rather, it asks God to save those who are baptized, timing unspecified. I will clarify my own interpretation of why this makes sense in due course.
A possible backstory for infant baptism
With that background of what Anglicanism teaches through the liturgy, let’s begin by addressing the historical context of the New Testament. We must remember that Christianity was a brand new religion. It was impossible for people to be born into Christian families when the world was only learning about what Christianity was. You could only become a Christian by converting from some other religion (regular Judaism, paganism, etc.). In Second Temple Judaism, converts to Judaism were baptized to inaugurate their conversion. Christianity, as a new version of Judaism, would have naturally encouraged such baptisms when people converted to Christianity, even if Jesus had not commanded it directly.
But what would have these Christian Jews (or Gentiles) done when they had new children, born into a Christian household? In Jewish custom, the main physical marker of entry into the Jewish community shortly after birth was male circumcision. It didn’t matter what children believed, they were a part of the covenant community regardless, and could later choose whether or not to embrace this covenant or to reject it.
The important thing to notice is that there were separate rites for marking initiation into the community of God if you were a convert versus if you were born into a family already in the community of God. For converts there was baptism, and for infants there was circumcision. (Jews would also purify themselves with ceremonial washing on many other occasions, but in my understanding, the two signs of baptism and circumcision were the primary markers for entrance into the community of God as an adult and child, respectively.) However, it was unclear what should be done for Christian children, as circumcision had been deemed unnecessary in the early days of the church.
So what was the family to do? Very early on, infant baptism began to be practiced and debated. In the 2nd century two church fathers, Irenaeus and Origen, both mention the practice and indicate it is already traditional. It seems reasonable to me that this early development of infant baptism was intended as a way to celebrate the initiation of a child into the community of God in the same way Jewish children were initiated into the covenant community via circumcision. With the abolition of circumcision as a meaningful rite for Christians, something else was adapted to take its place. Baptism for adult believers likely would still have been a commonplace as well, but now there was an option for children born into households of faith.
Material signs of grace
Now let’s turn to the theological questions, where the real issue lies for Baptists. First let’s discuss the concern that infant baptism has led to bad belief in the church. I would argue that bad teaching has led to bad belief about infant baptism, but this is not a reason to throw out the ritual altogether. Baptists and others stopped practicing communion regularly because they believed the Catholic church had transformed the Eucharist into a stumbling block for believers, by making it into a sort of magic potion that absolves you regardless of your actions or beliefs. And indeed, there is a huge problem with this in some portions of the church.
Humanity often distorts the material signs of God’s grace, but this human distortion does not invalidate the use of material rituals in the church. In Numbers 21, God commands Moses to craft a bronze serpent, which he was to hold up in front of the Israelites. Those who looked upon this snake would be healed from wounds inflicted by an infestation of snakes among their camp. In this instance as in many others, God chose to use something in the material world as a means of grace to his people.
Later, in 2 Kings 18:4, we learn that this bronze serpent had been kept, and the Israelites had begun to worship it as an idol! God surely knew this would happen, but he still chose to use a physical act as his means of grace. Bad practices (or bad teaching) did not invalidate the original act. And in fact, later Jesus compares himself (in John) to this very bronze serpent, once again confirming that God chooses to work through the material world, and this is good and right, even if we humans then distort the works of God into something evil.
The same is true of the Eucharist and Baptism. That is, bad teaching that leads people to believe infant baptism on its own is a lifelong guarantee of salvation is not sufficient reason to say that infant baptism is an incorrect practice. (This also applies very much to communion, and I would argue for the weekly practice of communion—at a minimum—as a very important material reminder of God’s grace. But another topic for another time.)
Differences in Doctrine and Practice
Baptists teach that belief must precede baptism, which is their strongest theological claim. However, in practice, the way Baptists treat childhood salvation does not align with this teaching. In the Baptist tradition, there is something called “the age of accountability.” Until this age when saving knowledge and understanding of God’s grace can be acquired, a child is not held to the same standard of faith as adults.
So if a young child dies, Baptists assume that child “goes to heaven” despite never having met the requirements of faith (the phrase “go to heaven” conjures up dualistic images of spirit and body that are not Christian whatsoever, so I only use it here and elsewhere to specifically reference the language many Christians use when speaking about what comes after death, though elsewhere I will use phrases like “the Kingdom of God” to better capture both the embodied resurrection life and the present manifestations of that Kingdom through life in Christ). He is by all practical purposes a Christian, a member of Christ’s body the church, and reckoned with the saints in the book of life. In reality, every Protestant I know believes something similar. Children cannot be held responsible for not having the same type of faith we have as adults, and across the Protestant spectrum, most Christians believe all children before a certain age would enter God’s Kingdom upon death.
But what we don’t often say is that if a child “goes to heaven” upon death, that means the child has salvation. There is no getting around this. Children are sinful (Ps. 51:5), whether you believe this as a result of Original Sin, or simply by observation. Sin separates us from God, and so in order to be saved and spend eternity with God, that sin must be dealt with. It is only dealt with by God’s grace through the blood of Jesus. We believe that children, somehow, acquire this salvation.
How does this happen? Ephesians 2 teaches that we are saved “by grace through faith” – is the grace operating without the faith? Or is the faith just a different sort of faith for children? The following phrase does say “and this is not of yourselves,” so my tentative understanding is that God grants faith to children just as he grants faith to adults, though childhood faith is of a more visceral, less intellectual order. This aspect of the discussion is, however, somewhat of a mystery and likely always will be.
Regardless of the exact mechanism for salvation, there is ample evidence in Scripture that children should be viewed as part of the Kingdom of God and are in fact exemplars of his Kingdom. Here are a few samples of the evidence, with my emphasis added:
Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Upon you I have leaned from before my birth; you are he who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually to you.
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise?’” [Quoting from Ps. 8:2]
1 Corinthians 7:14
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.
Paul also addresses children directly in his letters as members of the community of Christ (telling them to obey their parents in the Lord – Eph. 6:1, Col. 3:20). And baptisms of entire households very likely could have included children, though we cannot be sure (Acts 10, 16:14-15, 31-34; 1 Cor. 1:16).
“Let the Children Come Unto Me”
I am not sure we can ever know exactly what is happening, but I think it is clear that children are members of God’s Kingdom, and following Jesus’ example, we should recognize them and allow them to come to Jesus. Indeed, Jesus’ words indicate not only that children can and should be incorporated into his Kingdom, but that adults are often a hindrance to that activity. Adults need to be told to let the children participate – this is still true today where kids are often treated as subclass members of the church.
If we recognize this point, things begin to get clearer on infant baptism. Baptists essentially believe children have salvation, but would not describe the child as having been saved or born again. Most of the time, they just don’t discuss this issue. But if the child does in fact have salvation, even if we can’t explain how, then they are members of Christ’s body the church, and we should treat them as such.
Ultimately this suggests that infant baptism’s real value is what it indicates about God’s relation to children and how we, the adults in church, should treat them as a result. It signifies in a material rite that God has grace even on the smallest among us, and that until they reach the age of knowledge, they too are members of Christ’s body. It is clear that children must choose Christ for themselves at some point, but that does not mean that they ever need to know a day apart from Christ in order to choose Christ when they reach maturity. Infant baptism acknowledges the mystery of children’s membership in Christ, rather than claiming it isn’t true or simply ignoring the implied salvation of children contained in the doctrine of the age of accountability.
Baptist teaching in practice
I want to emphasize that having grown up as a Baptist, I was loved, generally well-taught, and encouraged by many good role models. So while I may quibble with some Baptist doctrine, many Baptist churches are doing good work, and I want them to continue to thrive. However, since Baptists do seem to base some of their distinctive practices on a reaction to Catholic practices and their doctrinal implications, I think it is only fair to consider what the practices of Baptist churches also imply about doctrine.
Because Baptists are not clear about the salvation status of children—by both affirming the understanding that children are not accountable, implying salvation, but never clearly allowing children to join the church or participate in its key rituals, implying a lack of salvation—there is a sense that parents need to be on the lookout and make sure they don’t let much time pass between the age of accountability and the child’s declaration of faith and subsequent baptism. After all, it would be a tragedy for the child to be of accountable age and to suddenly die without professing faith.
This pressure often causes children to profess faith and be baptized young, out of the best intentions. I was one of those children, professing faith at 4 and being baptized at 5, and I know scores of others like me. Again, I do not bear any ill will toward my parents or the church leaders who simply wanted me to know Jesus, and did in fact teach me to do so. But let’s be honest, I did not know Jesus with the type of faith Baptists emphasize when I was 4 years old.
I professed what my parents had taught me to profess, and believed it as a 4 year old is able, but that is not very deeply. I had not made the faith my own in any meaningful way, and no child can do so until they have developed their own will, distinctly separated from their parents’. That process has hardly begun at age 4; it only truly develops in middle school and comes to fruition in high school or later.
For me, I began to experience my first waves of doubts about salvation in middle school, and also then began to understand what it meant to be a Christian. Over the subsequent years, through middle and high school, I made the faith my own and could have more justly professed faith independently. But until that point, my baptism was more a mark of my parents’ wishes for me, and their dedication to bring me up in the faith, than anything else.
However, even though my profession of faith at age 4 could not possibly operate in the way Baptists teach, the Baptist church would still have treated me as saved. And indeed I was saved – not by my profession of faith, but simply because I was not of accountable age. I would have been saved whether I had professed the faith or not. The baptism did not serve the purpose Baptist doctrine intended—the visible sign of an independent personal faith—but because Baptists treat the baptism as legitimate nonetheless, they are acknowledging the child’s salvation, even if in reality the child is only saved because he is young. Ironically, the baptism ends up marking the child as a member of the church, a reality that has been true since birth, even though the child has no meaningful initiative in the matter.
The Convergence of Baptist Practice with Anglican Doctrine
The result of Baptist practice, then, is exactly the same as that of infant baptism – it is an action initiated by the parents as a sign that the child will be raised in a certain way and acknowledging the mystery that children are in fact saved before the age of accountability. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that baptism at a young age does not signify the child had saving faith of his own in most cases.
But because of an unwillingness to face the reality of children’s immature intellects, Baptist doctrine leaves holes in the story. First, it implies that children are not fully saved or members of the church prior to baptism, though I would argue they are. And second, it offers no follow-up practice, such as confirmation, to force the question upon children once they have matured – will you accept Christ for yourself, or will you reject him? This question will still arise for Baptist children, but they are left to ask it on their own, without any prompting, and perhaps with a sense of shame about their doubts in their prior confession of faith and baptism.
Children can and do know God and receive his grace, though in a manner entirely different than we often know God as adults. Infant baptism emphasizes to the parents and the community that God is working in these young ones mysteriously from the start, and that we are called to nurture that budding relationship on the children’s behalf until they can understand God’s grace on their own. We should rejoice when a child transitions directly from this mysterious grace of childhood to a mature, adult faith in Christ, recognizing their sin from birth but also having never known a time when that sin was not forgiven in Christ.
The Mentally Disabled
Mental disability presents a related issue for the church that is worth briefly mentioning in this context. What if someone never comes to a place where they can mentally comprehend and confess the saving grace of Jesus? Both the mentally disabled and children are similar in that they are limited by their intellects in their ability to meaningfully profess faith.
Are these people somehow subpar to the rest of us before God, unable to relate to their Creator due to intellectual limitations, whether due to age or disability? Should they never take communion, be baptized, or participate in other believer-only rituals of the church? Surely the disabled can still be members of the body of Christ, but a rigorous Baptist theology would not allow them to participate in any of the key rituals of the church without a confession of faith. Even if these individuals had great faith, the lack of visible evidence of that faith would limit them.
I do not think Baptists are cruel or mean-spirited; I just think many of them have not fully considered these issues. But these are the consequences of a purely intellectual view of faith, rather than a more mysterious understanding of how the intellectually immature can still be members of the body of Christ. In my view, the way we treat the mentally disabled should be the same as we treat children until the age of accountability. And I firmly believe that both groups should be included as members of the church in all meaningful ways, as I have no doubt these groups will be included in God’s Kingdom in the age to come.
This has been a lengthy reflection, so let me summarize the key points that have led me to believe infant baptism is a good and proper practice for orthodox Christians.
- While there has been bad teaching on infant baptism in many churches, scriptural examples show that bad teaching or practice is not necessarily a reason to discontinue any given practice.
- The official doctrine of most Protestant churches, including the Anglican church of which I am member, teach that when a child matures, he must choose to accept Christ for himself, thus emphasizing the role of personal faith in salvation.
- Scriptural evidence does not rule out infant baptism, and it seems to have been practiced from very early in church history, probably as a way to signify that children would be raised in the community of God, in the same way circumcision was used to signify something similar before.
- Scriptural evidence also makes a strong case for the inclusion of children in the Kingdom of God, both in the Old and New Testaments.
- Until the age of accountability, infant baptism acknowledges in a material sign what all Protestant churches teach: that children do in fact have salvation until reaching a certain level of maturity, regardless of a profession of faith, even if we do not fully understand how this salvation is effected. But churches not practicing infant baptism are loath to refer to this childhood salvation as actual salvation.
- In churches that do not practice infant baptism, the pressure to confess faith is so strong that many children “profess” long before they can actually make such a decision on their own. In these cases, which are many, the child is not meaningfully accepting Christ of their own will, yet the church still treats these children as saved. In reality, these cases are almost identical to infant baptism, in which the parents’ intention to raise a child in the faith is the main cause of the baptism. The child is in fact saved, but not because they have truly owned their faith – they are saved simply because they are young.
- In these cases, the child still must accept Christ of their own volition later on, when they can better understand the decision, but there is no formal structure (such as confirmation) to help them through this process. They must do it on their own, and likely feel shame about lacking confidence in their earlier profession of faith and baptism.
- The mentally disabled present an important example of the same principle. Even if these individuals are limited in their ability to profess faith publicly, we have no reason to believe God would exclude them from his Kingdom. Since we would want such individuals to participate as full members of the church throughout their lives, it suggests we should baptize them early, not late in life, if they are raised in the church. Similarly, any other individuals who are members of the church without a profession of mature faith (i.e., children) should also be treated as full members of the church from as early as possible.
If you accept my thesis, we could still argue that infant baptism is not the best way to acknowledge that children are full members of the church, and this is a valid point to raise. But God has chosen to work through the material. What other material sign beyond baptism can we give to recognize membership in God’s Kingdom? If some other proposal were extant, I would be eager to hear about it, but right now, I am unaware of any other practice that is used in a mainstream church to acknowledge children’s full membership in the church without baptism. Perhaps what would in fact be best is two baptisms for those raised in the church – one for infants and another upon confirmation. But I doubt any churches would be eager to embrace this practice. So from my perspective, the combination of infant baptism and later confirmation is the best current church practice to acknowledge children’s membership in the church while also maintaining the importance of personal faith for salvation.
There is plenty of room for disagreement on these points, and I am only a lay person reflecting on limited knowledge. But as a parent considering how to raise my children, these are the conclusions I have reached. All parents err, and we follow God’s will to the best of our ability, but God’s grace is sufficient to cover the errors we all make raising children.