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 Issues | Infant Baptism | Subjects

The Child's Right to Baptism

J. Stafford Wright


2. The Subjects of Baptism

The next question to be decided is whether the infant children of Christian parents are fit subjects for Baptism. Here it must be recognised that there is no single text in Scripture that will settle the matter one way or the other. If there is no text telling us to baptise them as infants, there is no text telling us to wait till they are older. There is certainly no text to justify a dedication service for infants as distinct from Baptism. The problem must be decided from the general tone of Scripture and from what we know in the Bible of the mind and purpose of God.

The question may fairly be stated thus: Is there anything in the New Testament to lead us to suppose that God's attitude towards the children born under the New Covenant is different from what it was towards the children born under the Old?  In the Old Testament the children of believers received the outward sign of the Circumcision.  Although Circumcision was a seal of faith (Rom. 4.11), it was applied to children who as yet were incapable of faith. It was the sign which marked them out as recipients of the Covenant blessings of God. When a Jew preached the Jewish Gospel to non-Jews, his message would be “Repent, believe, and be circumcised!” Yet if the hearer believed and became a Jew, not only would he himself be circumcised, but his children would be as well.

It is thus the duty of those who oppose Infant Baptism to show where God says that infants under the New Covenant are in an inferior position as regards the reception of the Covenant sign or title deeds of blessing.

This argument from the analogy of Circumcision is exceedingly strong. Besides the fact that in Col. 2.11,12, Circumcision and Baptism are inseparably linked together, we might well ask what is the New Testament parallel to the “Sacrament” of Circumcision if it is not Baptism. The Passover has the Lord's Supper as its parallel, and Circumcision has Baptism. Circumcision in the Old Testament and Baptism in the New Testament are normally necessary for the child of God. They are the initial marks which distinguish the people of God from the people of the world. If God intended to exclude the children from the New Covenant, it would have been necessary for Him to say so expressly. Instead of that, the promise is given “unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2. 39).

Actually there is one clear passage which shows that the child of a believer is in some way different from the child of unbelievers. In 1 Cor. 7.14, Paul declares, “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving husband is sanctified by her husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.”  “Unclean” and “holy” are used here as what we might call Covenant words. In his letters Paul addresses all baptised Christians as “holy” though many were far from being actually holy. But he addresses them as those who had been set apart for God by a definite transaction. And it is not at all unlikely that Paul's use of the term “holy” for the child of a Christian parent implies that the child had been baptised. But whether it does or not, it shows that the child of a Christian parent is within the circle of the Christian Covenant, while the child of an unbeliever is not.

It is pointed out that in this verse Paul also says that the unbelieving partner is sanctified by the believer, and that accordingly one should hold logically that the unbeliever ought to be baptised. But the passage must be read in its context. A husband or wife, converted after marriage, wondered whether to break up the marriage for the sake of the children. Paul declares that the holy status of the Christian overrides the pagan status of the unbeliever, so that the children are to be treated as Christian children rather than pagan.

A further argument in favour of the Baptism of infants is that the Jewish custom in Christ's time and earlier was to baptise converts with their children, in addition to circumcising them. It is certain that the Jews would never have introduced the practice of baptising converts once Christianity had come into existence. This custom was familiar to the disciples. Hence, when Christ gave them a command to baptise converts, such a statement would necessarily convey to them the command to baptise the children also, unless Christ had expressly stated that He was departing from the usual Jewish practice and excluding the children. In the same way, if Christ had given a command to circumcise converts, the disciples would have circumcised the children as well as the believing adults.

Church History is often used as an argument against Infant Baptism, since there is no mention of it before about 150 A.D. Actually, it is a powerful argument in favour of it. History never records Infant Baptism corning in as an innovation. About 200 A.D. Tertullian is opposed to it, because he believed, as certain others did, that sins after Baptism had terribly serious consequences. Hence he wished to postpone Baptism till as late as possible. If he could have supported his case by pointing out that Infant Baptism was something new and unscriptural, he would certainly have done so.

About 215 A.D. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus speaks of it as well established. “They shall baptise the little children first. If they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer, or someone from their family.”

The argument from the silence of the New Testament and of the primitive Church writings about the Baptism of infants is a very precarious one. A thing may exist in common use, and yet not be mentioned by writer after writer.  Infant Circumcision offers a parallel. In the whole of the Old Testament Infant Circumcision is only mentioned four times i.e., Genesis 17 and 21.4; Exod. 4.25,26; Levit. 12.3.  That is to say, it is only once mentioned as having been enjoined on Israel by divine law (Lev 12.3), and in 36 Books it is not mentioned at all.  Yet it was practised right through the Old Testament.

We may feel certain that Infant Baptism is not only allowable, but definitely willed by God, and that all children of Christian parents ought to be baptised. If we are convinced of this, we can go on to the third question. Remembering that Baptism is for those within the Christian circle; that is, for adults who believe, for their children, or, as a minimum, for those who are to be brought up under Christian influence. This is what the Church of England Prayer Book assumes, and the Services and statements are drawn up with this in view. In all interpretations of the language we must remember that.


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