This, in itself, should be ample proof of the necessity of an authoritative teaching authority as the division is not simply between Catholics and Protestants. Even Christians who claim to go by the plain sense of Scripture are at sharp odds regarding baptism. As Catholics, we are fortunate to have, not only the inspired Scripture to guide us in understanding this doctrine, but the Holy Spirit guided Tradition of the Church, as well as protection from error in the magisterium.
Nevertheless, for purposes of this essay on infant baptism, we will rely solely upon Scripture. We will pull from no church fathers, church councils, or papal writings. Because of this, the argument can be seen in terms that our “Bible-only” brothers and sisters can understand. In addition, this approach will illustrate how truly “Catholic” Scripture is to begin with. Under a close examination of Scripture alone, there can be no doubt that infant baptism is part of God’s plan for salvation.
The argument against infant baptism rests upon two basic foundations: A) the absence of any direct mention of infant baptism in Scripture and B) the idea that baptism must be preceded by repentance (Acts 2:38), belief (Mark 16:16), and confession of faith (Romans 10:9), which are surely actions which are beyond the ability of a newborn.
Regarding point A, one can only agree that there are no direct references to infant baptism in Scripture. There are indirect references, to be discussed later, and there are certainly no places where Scripture directly forbids the baptism of infants and children. It shouldn’t be any surprise to us, though, that in the early Church the overwhelming majority of the Christians baptized would be adults, or that Scripture should only directly mention the baptism of adults.
After all, if Catholics and Protestants were to team up to convert all Muslims, for example, to Christianity, would we show up at the daycares? Of course not. Assuming that we all came to an agreement that infant baptism was necessary, we would still aim our efforts at the heads of the households, those who steered the faith of the entire family, the fathers and mothers. Our efforts would look strikingly similar to the efforts we see in the New Testament.
Still, how could one justify infant baptism if Scripture makes clear that baptism must be preceded by repentance, belief, and confession of faith? The simple answer is that forgiveness of sins is not the only effect of baptism. In fact, this sacramental act accomplishes three things:
- Baptism removes one from a condition of sin through burial with Christ (Romans 6:4) and infusion of sanctifying grace (1 Cor. 6:11) and an indwelling of the Holy Spirit (John 1:33, 3:5, Matthew 3:11)
- Baptism cleans one of committed sin Acts 2:37-38
- Mark of initiation into Christian faith
Children below the age of reason, however, would have no need of repentance or of a rejection of a former faith. However, even with children, baptism is necessary for introducing them into a life filled with grace and initiating them into the Christian faith. After all, by claiming that one must be of the age of reason to be baptized, aren’t we putting salvation in our hands, instead of in the sovereign hands of God? In Jeremiah 31:33, we see that, under the New Covenant, God would write his law “in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” This foreshadowing perfectly captures the idea of infant baptism, where children are baptized so that, through the Holy Spirit, God can write his law on their hearts. Does God need us at the age of reason for this?
To truly understand Christian baptism, one must put himself into the mind of a first century Jew. After all, the New Testament was largely written to a Jewish audience (and also to a first-century Gentile audience, which would have understood the culture and customs of the Jews). In doing so, one verse in particular would stand out glaringly in a study of baptism. In Col 2:11-12, Paul writes, “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
Paul, therefore, draws a sharp parallel between baptism and circumcision (the baptism of the heart). At first glance, this makes absolutely no sense. After all, circumcision is a surgical removal of part of the body (a very sensitive part) as an initiation into the faith. Wouldn’t an introduction into Christianity be better described as a “renewal” of the heart or a “washing” of the heart, as it is in other places? How does the idea of circumcision, an Old Testament ritual of mutilation, help us understand baptism? How could it capture of the idea of sanctification through baptism?
To a Jew, it would have made perfect sense.
Under the Old Covenant, circumcision was marked by four attributes: A) it was performed on males only, B) it was a mark of initiation into the covenant, C) it was performed on infants in anticipation of the faith, and C) it was performed on adult converts, following repentance and belief in the Israelite God.
Notice point C. Though adult conversions to Judaism were rare, they did occur but had to be preceded by a rejection of the sinful and false lifestyle from which the convert had come, just as in Christianity today. This did not, however, preclude the possibility that infants would be baptized. Just as infants in the Old Covenant were circumcised in “anticipation” of the faith, so infants under the New Covenant are baptized in anticipation of their parent’s faith. In addition, infants were circumcised as a mark of initiation into the covenant, for the same reason Christian infants are baptized today. Remember, Christ did not come to abolish the Old Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Given the connection that Paul draws between circumcision and baptism, we should not assume differences that are not directly spelled out in Scripture.
Thus, the second point of those who believe that baptism is reserved for adults only falls flat.
We must always read the New Testament with a thorough understanding of the Old Testament and the Covenant it recorded. The New Testament was not meant to be a “from scratch” exposition of Christianity. Rather, as Christ came to fulfill the Old Law, the gospels, the epistles, and Revelation are meant to build upon and clarify what we learn in the Old Testament, but not to replace it. With this in mind, we should examine the more important verses in the New Testament regarding baptism. In order to avoid bias, however, we will not read them as 21st century Christians; rather, we’ll read them like 1st century Jews.
To begin, we need to visit Paul and Silas as they pray and sing hymns among the jailors in Acts 16. After a great earthquake, which opened the doors to the prison, the jailor woke and was prepared to kill himself, thinking the prisoners had escaped. Upon hearing Paul’s voice, however, he fell before them and asked, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” The answer is remarkable. “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” Paul and Silas tell him, “And you will be saved, you and your household.” Now, as it turns out, everyone in the jailor’s family was old enough to appreciate the message preached by the two disciples.
Yet Paul and Silas did not know this. They had not had conversation with the jailor before the earthquake. They did not ask him how old his family was. They didn’t even tell him that his family had to believe before being saved. The faith of the jailor, the head of the household, would have been sufficient to bring the entire family into the faith. It is a nice coincidence that everyone in his family was of the age of reason, but Paul and Silas were apparently not working on this assumption when they made the promise of salvation to the jailor’s entire family.
We see entire households being baptized numerous times in Scripture: 1 Cor. 1:16 (Stephanas), Acts 14:15-16 (Lydia), Acts 18:8 (Crispus), and Acts 10:47-48 (Cornelius). In Biblical times, a “household” included ones spouse and children, as well as any servants and their children.
For those who believe that baptism should be reserved to those who are of the age of reason, one of the most commonly cited proof-texts is Acts 8:12, which reads, “But when they [Samarians] believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” On face value, this seems to support adult baptism. However, just as in the case of similar verses (Acts 2:41), where many adults were baptized, we have to remember that the primary objective of the apostles was to convert the heads of the households, who would then return and have their families baptized at the newly established local churches.
Secondly, it is hard to miss that Acts 8:12 reads that “both men and women” were baptized, not “only men and women.” Why is this important? Remembering that baptism is a circumcision of the heart, we can understand that a first century Jew would have assumed that baptism was only open to males, as circumcision had been. However, Luke, in writing Acts, wanted to emphasize that baptism, the circumcision of the New Covenant, was open to both sexes, men and women. This is why the inclusive “both” is used as opposed to the exclusive “only”. Jesus came, not to abolish the Old Law, but to fulfill it. Thus, we are to follow the Old Testament types (in this case, circumcision) as they are modeled for us unless the New Testament develops the doctrine beyond that. While the New Testament is silent on forbidding children from this fulfillment of circumcision (of which they took part), it speaks to the inclusion of women.
If we are to speak where Scripture speaks and be silent where Scripture is silent, as our Bible-only friends like to say, then we must respect that Scripture has not spoken in prohibition of infant and children baptism. On the contrary, one of the most beautiful gifts of baptism is the infusion of God’s grace, which knows no age limit and isn’t restricted by some arbitrary “age of reason”.
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter proclaims in Acts 2:38-39. “For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” The promise is made to our children, and not just in the sense that they will one day, themselves, be adults. For Christ asked that the children be brought to him (Matt 19:42), and people responded by bringing even infants (Luke 18:15-16) forward for him to touch because “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Christ touches us today, through the Holy Spirit in the cleansing waters of baptism. We are initiated into the Christian faith and receive the sanctifying grace that allows us to choose Christ over sin. For those who believe that baptism requires the ability to reason, one must reconcile with the fact that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while he still remained in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), long before he reached the age of reason. Given this, should it seem so strange, if God can extend his graces to an unborn child, that he would do the same for our infant children through the sacrament of baptism?