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 Issues | Infant Baptism | Introduction

The Baptism of Infants

By the Revd G. W. Bromiley, M. A., D. Litt.

Vine Books Ltd (Publishers to Church Society) , 1955, 1976 & 1977

 

Chapter 1: The Practice of the New Testament

The chief difficulty in relation to New Testament practice is that there is no plain and direct evidence. Jesus Christ did not specifically tell His disciples to baptize infants nor did He specifically forbid them. The few accounts that we have of apostolic baptisms do not actually say that infants were baptized, nor do they say that they were excluded. If there had been direct evidence of this kind either way, the controversy would hardly have arisen and it certainly could not continue.

This silence of the New Testament can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand there is the baptist contention that in the New Testament we do have accounts of the baptism of adult converts and that this, therefore, is the exclusive rule. But it is nowhere denied that in a missionary situation like that of the early church the first baptisms will be those of adult converts. The churches of England and Scotland and even the Roman Catholics still practise adult baptism where the Gospel is preached for the first time. On the other hand, it can be argued that the inclusion of the children of these adult converts is so much in line with Jewish thought and practice that it is everywhere taken for granted in the New Testament. In this respect the witness of the Old Testament has an importance which must not be underestimated.

Now in favour of the first view we clearly have to be careful in our assuming of things which the New Testament does not explicitly state. Many Romanist inventions both in practice and doctrine depend upon silences of the New Testament which have been filled in with the help of arbitrary human imagination and the supposed traditions of the apostles. In these circumstances, is it not wiser and safer to keep to what we are explicitly told in the New Testament and, therefore, to make every baptism an adult baptism in what is essentially a missionary situation? That is the baptist contention reduced to its bare essentials.

The conclusion is not unreasonable. But before we rush to it there are certain things which we do well not to forget. The first is that there are undeniable cases where silences in the New Testament do have to be filled in by way of legitimate inference. The classic example is still the best. From time immemorial women have been admitted as communicants on equal terms with men. But when the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was instituted Christ did not command any women to ‘do this’, and in the few records we have of New Testament communions there is no case where women are explicitly stated to have been present. If no responsible body of Christian opinion has ever held that women ought to be excluded from the Lord’s table, it is not because of an explicit statement but because of a legitimate inference. This being the case, the lack of an express commandment or example is not of itself a decisive argument against baptism of infants.

The second point is that there is a certain amount of external evidence that the disciples would understand baptism to apply to the children of converted and professing adults. We need not discuss this in detail because it is only incidental to the scriptural discussion. Its value, if at all, is corroborative. But this does not mean that we ought to dismiss it altogether. It takes two main forms. The first is that from the first century A.D., and perhaps earlier, the Jews themselves practised baptism as a rite for the initiation of proselytes, and they definitely included all existing children with their parents. Whether the Christians copied the Jews or the Jews the Christians need not concern us. The practice simply shows us how the convenant people of the Old Testament viewed the matter. The second is that from at least the latter part of the second century and the beginning of the third, in Irenaeus and Origen, there is a clear and consistent witness in favour of infant baptism. This leaves an interval of almost a century. But even in the comparatively scanty Christian literature of that intervening period there is a possible reference in Justin Martyr. And in the case of lrenaeus we are only the third generation from the apostles, for Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp, who claimed to be the disciple of the apostle John.(1)

The third point, however, is the one which really counts. It is upon this, therefore, that the main emphasis must fall. We may state it in this way. Quite apart from the external evidence, there are in the New Testament itself plain indications that the children of Christians are regarded as members of the divine community. In these circumstances, the inference of an accepted custom of infant baptism seems to be at least possible if not absolutely legitimate. Indeed, we can put it much more strongly. The indications are so clear and widespread that, as in the case of women communicants, the onus of proof really falls on those who wish to deny the practice because of the alleged silence of the New Testament. We must now look at these references in detail.

The first is the attitude of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself to children and His statements concerning them during the course of His earthly ministry. It is true, of course, that there is no direct reference to baptism. It is also true (e.g., in Matthew 18, 3) that our Lord draws from childhood the lesson of our own new birth as children of the Kingdom of God. But the interesting and significant thing is that the Lord Jesus Christ also has an interest in children not merely as parables but as they are in themselves. Thus He receives the children into His arms and blesses them (Matt. 19, 13f.; Mk. 10, 13f.; Luke 18, 15f). He is angry when His disciples try to keep them from Him (Mk. 10, 14). He tells us that the things of God are hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to babes (Luke 10, 21). He takes up the statement of the Psalmist (Psalm 8, 2) that out of the mouths of babes and sucklings God has perfected praise (Matt. 21, 16). He does not seem to share in the very least the rationalistic view that the Holy Spirit cannot do His work of illumination except in those who have an adult understanding, or that children cannot be proper subjects of His Kingdom, and, therefore, we might think, of the sacraments of the Kingdom. Indeed, He speaks very plainly about ‘little ones who believe in Me’ against whom ye must not offend (Matt. 18, 6). The saying repeated in all the first three Gospels is no less definite: ‘Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Matt. 19, 14; Mark 10, 14; Luke 18, 16).

When we turn from the ministry of the Lord Himself to the apostolic ministry we have no express mention of children as such, but it very soon appears that not individuals only but whole households were recipients of the first baptisms (from Acts 10, 34f). The number of reported instances is not large, but there is no reason to suppose that they were exceptional, at any rate in cases where the head of the household believed. In one of the instances (the Philippian jailor) it is possible that the whole household believed, although the text does not actually specify that each individual member believed and made a confession of faith (Acts 16, 34). In another instance, that of Cornelius, (Acts 10, 34f) the record infers that all those who were baptized were of an age to hear the Gospel.

Yet strangely enough we are not told anything about faith or the confession of it, but about an endowment of the Holy Spirit. This would of course include faith, but it was plainly miraculous in character. In at least two other cases, that of Lydia (Acts 16, 14-15) and that of Stephanas, (1 Corinthians 1, 16) there is no mention at all of an individual faith on the part of all the members of the households who were baptized. Whether or not these particular households included children we have no means of determining. Lydia seems to have been the head of her household as well as her business, but we cannot say that she was a spinster. She may equally well have been a widow and possibly a mother or even a grandmother. The domestic circumstances of Stephanas are no less obscure. What really matters is that in these references we have clear examples of an apostolic practice of household baptism. And in view of contemporary Jewish thinking and the teaching and actions of Christ Himself it is difficult to suppose that in the cases where there were children the apostles would deliberately exclude them. In this connection it is not irrelevant that in his first Gospel appeal in Acts 2, Peter makes it plain that the word and work of God are still covenantal in scope: ‘The promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call’ (Acts 2, 39). We shall see the full force of this only when we consider the voice of the Old Testament which it so clearly echoes.

The Epistles carry the argument a stage further. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul comes up against the difficult question of marriages which have become ‘mixed’ with the conversion from paganism of only one of the partners. In v.14 he lays down a rule of great importance—although we must be careful not to apply it to mixed marriages which are contracted deliberately and unnecessarily. This is that the unbelieving husband or wife is sanctified by the believing, and that therefore the children are not unclean but holy. In relation to the marriage partner the apostle’s meaning seems to be that by virtue of the faith of the one the other is separated for God, enjoying already a definite status within the covenant and coming into a special sphere of evangelical activity and promise. But the same is also true of the children. How much more so, we might suppose, where both the parents are themselves professing Christians.

To evade this conclusion is very difficult, for what else can Paul mean? He cannot be referring to civil legitimacy, for in the eyes of the law the children of a properly contracted marriage are legitimate irrespective of the faith of the parents. On the other hand, if Paul is thinking of legitimacy in the eyes of God, this means legitimacy as members of a separated people. In other words, children are recognized to have a status within the covenant. But if they are recognized as covenant members, it is difficult to see why they should not be granted the sign of the covenant so long as there is no unwillingness on their own part (where they are older), or on that of the unbelieving parent (where they are infants). If both parents are believers the question of unwillingness hardly arises, so that there is no obstacle to children who are already holy, (separated), receiving the covenant sign of separation. Not unnaturally, many baptists attempt to give expression to this truth by holding a service of infant dedication. But in the New Testament there is neither precept nor precedent for a service of this kind. Nor does the Old Testament give us much help. The dedication of a Samuel was for special service, probably as a Nazarite. But children who were dedicated in this way had already received the general sign of covenant separation and status, which was the sign of infant circumcision.

In addition to the important verse in 1 Corinthians 7 we must also notice that the Epistles seem to pre-suppose that children are members of the church. For example, both Ephesians (6, 1) and Colossians (3, 20) contain short instructions to children. Again, I John has a three-fold exhortation to elders, young men and children (I John 2, 13). Sometimes in this epistle all believers seem to be referred to as little children (Cf. I John 2, 18; 5, 21) but in this case it is more natural to take it that the apostle is thinking of physical rather than spiritual age-groups. We can argue, of course, that Paul is simply stating a general duty to parents which applies to adult children as well, i.e., to all those who have parents alive. Or we may point out that the exhortation is of value only for those children who are old enough to be able to make a responsible decision of faith. But the text itself does not make these qualifications. The more obvious interpretation is that Paul is exhorting all children within the covenant to learn and fulfill their specific duty of obedience. This will include older children who have believed, sometimes together with and sometimes quite apart from their parents. But it will also refer to the children of Christian parents growing up within the covenant and already described as saints because from the very first (by their Christian descent) they are separated to the Lord. lf this is the meaning of the apostle it is clear that all the children of Christians are regarded as members of the holy community and that they can and should therefore be marked with the distinctive sign of the covenant.

The passages quoted do not amount to absolute proof. As we have seen at the outset, the whole difficulty of the question is that there is no plain and conclusive direction either way. It is not recorded that children were included in the households baptisms or that they were excluded. There is no command to baptize infants and there is no command not to baptize them. What we do learn from these passages is that within the context of the New Testament thinking itself it is possible and indeed natural to think of infants as members of Christ’s Kingdom and to ascribe to them a definite covenant standing. In these circumstances, however, it is difficult to see how the apostles could have taken it that they were excluded from the sacrament of baptism.

 

Endnotes:

(1) These and many other references have been gathered in an old work which is still valuable: W. Wall The History of Infant Baptism (Ancient and Modern Library of Theological Literature. 2 vols.).

 

>> Chapter 2 - The witness of the Old Testament

 

 

 

 

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