Almost seven years ago my first son was 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 unable to verbally confess belief, so obviously they cannot participate in this type of baptism. All churches—including those that baptize infants—practice believer’s baptism for adult converts.
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 explicitly teaching that baptism without ongoing discipleship is a guarantee of salvation, 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. Many churches also teach that salvation requires ongoing faith throughout life, or put another way, that one can lose one’s salvation (e.g., Heb. 6:4-6). Indeed, this is my own view. However, it is clear that many people believe that infant baptism ensures salvation, regardless of what one does as an adult.
(Read this essay as a pdf here: Infant Baptism.)
The Anglican Approach
Despite these reasonable concerns from my Baptist background, we went ahead with my son’s baptism. I was ambivalent about infant baptism at the time, 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 several years later, we have also baptized two other infant children, and I have revisited 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. 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, 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 affirming your faith by putting your trust in Christ is the necessary follow up for a child to remain a “disciple of Jesus.” Salvation requires personal faith, as is clearly taught in scripture, and all agree that when a child is old enough to make informed decisions, the traditional, intellectual faith is indeed a requirement for salvation.
The backstory for infant baptism
But let us step back and consider how this practice came into existence in the first place. We must remember that Christianity was a brand new religion when the Epistles and Gospels were being written. 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 (traditional 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, probably 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 (especially Gentile 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. Many others have written more extensively on the positive argument for infant baptism from scripture. I would especially direct you to Andrew Das’s Baptized Into God’s Family, which lays out the key arguments for infant baptism from scripture. With few exceptions, I subscribe to his arguments. Rather than go into detail on all of the arguments from scripture, I will focus instead on only a few key points, and then discuss why Baptist practices break down logically.
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 practice 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 gets you into heaven regardless of your actions or beliefs. And indeed, there is a 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 rites 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. In fact later Jesus compares himself to this very bronze serpent (John 3:14-15), 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 Incarnation is of course the supreme example of God choosing to work through the material world—and especially humanity—to bring about his ends.)
To summarize, bad teaching that leads people to believe infant baptism without ongoing discipleship 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.)
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. 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 many Christians (particularly of a Baptist persuasion) would not 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 is 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; it is a gift of God.” If faith is a gift of God anyway, why is it so hard to believe that God would gift the youngest of us with faith in him?
Indeed, the paedobaptist believes that even an infant can have faith, albeit one that cannot be verbally or intellectually articulated (e.g., Ps. 22:9). Having now had three children, I do not find it hard to believe that a baby can have faith. The baby clearly relies on and trusts his mother for all his needs, and the baby learns to rely on his parents even before he can communicate with words. If human parents can form such a relationship with their child, surely God can.
So Paul’s words apply just as much to infants as to adults: we are saved by faith, and that faith is a gift of God. For adults, that faith must be intellectually acknowledged (in most cases – see below), but for children, that faith is of a different type.
This idea of infant faith can be hard for some to accept. But 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 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.
As a result, in addition to its power in the life of the child, infant baptism also teaches us 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, taught the Bible, and encouraged by many good role models. So while I may quibble with 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. Now with two children over the age of 4, it is very obvious to me that 4-year-olds do not have the sort of intellectual faith that is ordinarily required for credobaptism.
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 in terms of my intellect. I had not made the intellectual 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 an intellectual 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 because I intellectually understood and professed my faith in the manner required by Baptists, but because I really did have faith in God in the way a child can, in the way most children do.
I would have been saved whether I had verbally professed the faith or not. The baptism did not serve the purpose Baptist doctrine intended—the visible sign of an independent intellectual faith—but because Baptists treat the baptism as legitimate nonetheless, they are acknowledging the child’s salvation. Ironically, the baptism ends up marking the child as a member of the church, which is the true state of the child, even though the child has no meaningful intellectual 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 through a type of faith that cannot be intellectually expressed. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that baptism at a young age does not signify the child intellectually chose to follow God in the way an adult can.
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 (or at least, should be). And second, it offers no follow-up practice, such as confirmation, to force the question upon children once they have matured – will you continue to follow Christ of your own volition, 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 budding 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 intellectually 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 intellectually 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 rites of the church? Of course not! Surely the disabled can still be members of the body of Christ like anyone else, 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; but I think these issues are often swept under the rug. Yet 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 before maturity. 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 originally 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 intellectual faith in salvation.
- Scriptural evidence does not rule out infant baptism, and it seems to have been practiced from very early in church history as a way to signify that children were part of the community of God, in the same way circumcision was used to signify covenant membership for Jews.
- Scriptural evidence also makes a strong case for the inclusion of children in the Kingdom of God, both in the Old and New Testaments.
- Infant baptism acknowledges in a material sign what all Protestant churches really practice: that salvation at an early age does not depend on an intellectual profession of faith. 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 in the way required for credobaptists, 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 intellectually chosen to follow Christ – they are saved by means of a different kind of faith.
- In these cases, the child still must choose to follow 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 intellectually, we know God does not 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.
I am only a lay person reflecting on these matters, but these reflections have given me great comfort that ultimately God will accomplish his aims. Raising children is very difficult, and first among my concerns are that my children learn to know and follow God. All parents err, and we follow God’s will to the best of our ability, but it is comforting to know that God’s grace is sufficient to cover the errors we all make raising children.
 Early Jewish Christians would not have recognized their own belief as a “new type of Judaism,” but rather as the logical conclusion of traditional Judaism. Nonetheless, in retrospect, Christianity clearly diverged from and became a different religion than what was to become Rabbinic Judaism.
 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.