Infant Baptism?

EXAMINING THE PAEDOBAPTIST VIEW OF CONTINUITY

by Steven Langella

When it comes to the subject of Christian baptism within orthodox Christianity the battle lines are drawn between two positions: the Credobaptist position, and the Paedobaptist position. Michael Horton rightly states that, “It is as ironic as it is tragic that although baptism is the sacrament of union with Christ and the communion of saints, the question concerning the proper subjects of baptism is one of the most divisive issues in Christianity today. All Christians affirm that adult converts should be baptized only after they have made a profession of faith. However, disagreement arises over whether children of believers ought to be baptized as well.”[1] Credobaptists claim that the only mode of baptism that the Bible gives us is believer’s baptism. Paedobaptists acknowledge that there are not direct commands or examples found within the New Testament regarding infant baptism, however they insist there is continuity between the Old and New covenants, and only by understanding that continuity can a biblical understanding of infant baptism be found.

But does the Bible teach infant baptism based on the paedobaptist view of continuity between the Old and New Covenants? If Christians are to baptize their infants then we have to answer that question with a resounding “yes”, otherwise we must hold fast to what the New Testament clearly teaches which is believer’s baptism only. By closely considering the following areas of Passover, the Lord’s Supper, and household baptisms, this paper will seek to address the question “Does the Bible teach infant baptism based on the paedobaptist view of continuity between the Old and New Covenants?”

Does the Bible teach infant baptisms based on the paedobaptist understanding of the relationship between circumcision and baptism? Paedobaptists argue that because children were given the sign and seal under the Abrahamic Covenant, then it is only logical that children of believers should also be given the sign and seal under the New Covenant. Paedobaptist Mark Ross makes the following statement, “Those who subscribe to covenantal infant baptism maintain that baptism has now replaced circumcision as the mark of covenant membership, and that baptism’s meaning and application are essentially the same as circumcision’s in the Old Testament period.”[2] Herein lies the foundation for the paedobaptist position, namely that the meaning and application of circumcision and baptism are essentially the same. Instead of focusing on the similarities that exist between baptism and circumcision, and both sides acknowledge that there are similarities, the following points will focus on the obvious discontinuity between baptism and circumcision to test the paedobaptists claim that the meaning and applications are “essentially the same”.

A closer examination of the Passover and the Lord’s Supper will help to determine whether or not circumcision and baptism are effectively the same. In the Old Covenant, all who received circumcision were also partakers of the Passover Meal. This was not a voluntary act; rather it was a requirement for all who received circumcision. Even the unclean were not exempt from keeping the Passover. They were simply given a grace period and made to wait till the following month to partake of the meal:

“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, if any one of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is on a long journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. 11 In the second month on the fourteenth day at twilight they shall keep it. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. 12 They shall leave none of it until the morning, nor break any of its bones; according to all the statute for the Passover they shall keep it” [3] (Num. 9:10-12).

The Passover was so important that God made provision, even for those who were not able to eat the supper due to their current circumstances. The penalty for those who were able to partake of the Passover but refused was excommunication. “But if anyone who is clean and is not on a journey fails to keep the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people because he did not bring the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin” [4] (Num. 9:13).   Just as all circumcised individuals were required to partake of the Passover, all uncircumcised foreigners were forbidden to partake of the Passover:

“And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you”[5] (Exo. 12:43-49).

If circumcision and baptism were identical in their meaning and application, then it would seem strange to forbid baptized children to partake of the Lord’s Supper under the New Covenant while circumcised children were required to partake of the Passover Meal under the Old Covenant. But that is exactly what paedobaptists teach. Louis Berkof makes the following statement:

Those who must be excluded from the Lord’s Supper. Since the Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of and for the Church, it follows that they who are outside of the Church cannot partake of it. But it is necessary to make still further limitations. Not even every one that has a place in the Church can be admitted to the table of the Lord. The following exceptions should be noted:

Children, though they were allowed to eat the Passover in the days of the Old Testament, cannot be permitted to partake of the table of the Lord, since they cannot meet the requirements for worthy participation. Paul insists on the necessity of self-examination previous to the celebration, when he says: “But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup”, 1 Cor. 11:28, and children are not able to examine themselves. Moreover, he points out that, in order to partake of the Supper in a worthy manner, it is necessary to discern the body, 1 Cor. 11:29, that is, to distinguish properly between the elements used in the Lord’s Supper and ordinary bread and wine, by recognizing those elements as symbols of the body and blood of Christ. And this, too, is beyond the capacity of children. It is only after they have come to years of discretion, that they can be permitted to join in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[6]

Here Berkhof rightly acknowledges that an infant is not capable of meeting the requirements of the Lord’s Supper. If circumcision and baptism were identical then it would only seem logical that just as all circumcised children partook of the Passover, so all baptized children should partake of the Lord’s Supper. In his book The Fatal Flaw, Jeffrey Johnson makes the following statement, “It does not seem obvious for covenant children to partake in the ordinance of baptism without it also being equally obvious for them to observe the Lord’s Supper.”[7] Johnson goes on to say, “Paedobaptists not only claim that baptism has replaced circumcision, but again they claim that the Lords’ Supper has replaced the Passover. This is true”.[8]  I have to agree with Johnson’s contention that many paedobaptist are “inconstant in their hermeneutic”.[9] Under the New Covenant paedobaptists administer the rite of infant baptism, but deny the same children the rite of the Lord’s Supper, and rightly so. Unfortunately for the paedobaptist, this fact moots their own claim that the “meaning and application are essentially the same”. If they are the same then naturally just as children were permitted to partake of the Passover, they too should be able to partake of the Lord’s Supper. It becomes apparent that though there are similarities between the two, the dissimilarities are far too great to overcome.

Another area that paedobaptists (though not all) appeal to for their support of infant baptism is “household, or oikos baptisms”. There are a total of five household baptisms recorded in scripture; four in the book of Acts, and one in 1st Corinthians. For the sake of brevity only the following two household baptisms will be briefly examined in order to see if they hold up to the paedobaptist claim of continuity between circumcision and baptism: the Philippian jailer’s household, and the household of Stephanas. The reason for the exclusion of the remaining three is due to the fact that Lydia’s household is inconclusive at best. Here the Bible does not offer enough information to support either a Paedo or Credo position. Cornelius’ household clearly reveals that only those who received the Holy Spirit were baptized. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). In the case of Crispus’ household Acts 18:8 clearly states, “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household.” It would be hard pressed for anyone to believe that infants were part of Crispus’ household since the scripture clearly states “his entire household” believed. Paedobaptists are correct to deny infants the rite to the Lord’s Supper due to their inability to meet the requirements of self-examination. This principle must also be applied to baptism as well. If we are consistent in our hermeneutic, then it is obvious that there were no infants baptized in Crispus’ household, since they would not have the ability to believe. Therefore, only the remaining two household baptisms will be considered.

In the Old Covenant every head of household was required to make sure that every male in his household was circumcised, whether he believed in Yahweh or not. Faith was not a requirement for circumcision:

“He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:12-13).

Since paedobaptists claim continuity, they transfer this same practice over to New Testament baptism. Paedobaptist Bryan Holstrom states the following in his book Infant Baptism and the Silence of the New Testament:

“What is important to recognize here is that the Jewish understanding of ‘household,’ to which Paul and the other apostles would have adhered, included all dependent members who resided in the home. This would include not only a person’s spouse, but any and all children, and even servants and soldiers who might be quartered in the home. All of these were considered to be a part of one’s household. Yet in each of these five cases the reference is to a household being baptized, despite the fact that no other persons are mentioned by name or noted as having also believed. Rather, reference is made only to the faith of the household head (we are left to presume that Lydia was the head of her household).[11]

According to Holstrom, and most paedobaptists, only the head of household was required to believe in order for a whole household to be baptized. A closer examination will show that this, in fact, was not the case.

In the case of the Philippian jailer, the paedobaptist appeals to Acts 16:31-34:

“And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”  And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”

The paedobaptist would assert that only the jailer believed, but his entire family was baptized. But they fail to acknowledge important facts. Paul preached the word of the Lord to “him and to all who were in the house”. That means everyone in the house heard the Gospel. The result was that all were baptized. The only logical conclusion is that the reason Paul baptized the whole household was because all believed. The text does not tell us if there were infants in the house, or children for that matter. It only tells us that, “his entire household believed”. The major problem with trying to squeeze this text into a paedobaptist position is the following verse Acts 16:34, which states:

“Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”

If the jailer was the only one to believe, it would be a real stretch to believe that all who heard the Word of the Lord by the mouth of Paul, rejected the Gospel, and yet at the same time rejoiced that the head of the house accepted the message. Also, the fact that they would submit to water baptism after rejecting the message would seem a bit strange. Moreover, if there were infants in the household, would they have the mental aptitude to rejoice with their father because he believed the Word of God? Fred Malone makes the following comment regarding infants and their ability to rejoice, “It is true that infants in a household can detect joy and participate in it, but I do not believe that infants can rejoice because they realized their father had found faith in God.”[12] These two facts exclude this text from supporting infant baptism.

The next household to consider is that of Stephanus. In 2 Corinthians 1:16 we find the apostle Paul claiming that he baptized the “household of Stephanas”. At first glance it appears that scripture does not really give us any more information about this household. Standing alone, this verse could be used by paedobaptists to support infant baptisms. Paul simply baptized a whole household. Period. But that period is actually a comma. It is not the end of the story. Using the simple principle of interpretation taught by the Reformers known as the Analogy of Faith the problem regarding Stephanas’ household is solved. It is not until you read through fifteen more chapters that the name Stephans comes up again in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 16:15, Paul further elucidates on this mysterious household of Stephan’s:

“Now I urge you, brothers—you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints.” (1 Corinthians 16:15). 

Without this verse we would be left to agree with the paedobaptists take on 1:16. But Paul goes on to explain that all the members of Stephanas’ household, who were the first converts in Achia, have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. Clearly, Paul did not dunk unconverted sinners into the waters of baptism.   He only baptized “converts”. And these converts were devoted to the service of other Christians. It would be doing a great dishonor to scripture to suggest that infants were part of the baptized converts. The only conclusion that one can come to when reading these texts is that the members of Stephanas’ household were old enough to acknowledge their sin, repent, believe in the Gospel and undergo water baptism as a testimony to their faith. These two texts fail to show continuity between household circumcisions and household baptisms.

Under the Old Covenant all circumcised males were required by God’s Law to partake of the Passover. Participation in the Passover was not contingent on faith or age.   If baptism is the same as circumcision, then all baptized infants should be recipients of the Lord’s Supper. But this is not the case. Paedobaptists are correct to fence the communion table and permit believers only to partake. This clearly shows that there is a vast difference between the ordinances of circumcision and baptism. When it comes to the issue of households in the Old Covenant, we see clearly that circumcision was not contingent upon age or faith, but all males in every household were required to be circumcised. Not so in the New Covenant ordinance of baptism. Only those who believed and were converts by their profession of faith were permitted to undergo baptism. Based on the evidence found in the scriptures, it is clear that the Bible does not teach infant baptism based on the paedobaptist view of continuity between the Old and New Covenants.

In spite of the sincerity of paedobaptists and their desire to remain faithful to scripture, the clear teaching of scripture simply does not support the doctrine of infant baptism. Therefore, the only clear and evident mode of baptism found in all of scripture is believer’s baptism.

 

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[1]  Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, 794.

[2]  Strawbridge, Gregg. The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism. Phillipsburg, N.J.:P&R Pub., 2003. (Kindle Locations 1061-1062).

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Num. 9:10-12) Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[4] Ibid, (Num. 9:13).

[5] Ibid, (Exod. 12:43-49).

[6] Berkhof, L. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938, 566.

[7] Johnson, Jeffrey D. The Fatal Flaw: Of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism Conway: Free Grace Press, 2010, 31.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Gen. 17:12-13) Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[11] Holstrom, Bryan. Infant Baptism and the Silence of the New Testament. Greenville, SC; Belfast, Northern Ireland: Ambassador International, 2008, 69.

[12] Malone, Fred A.. The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism Versus Paedobaptism. Rev. and expanded, 2nd ed. Cape Coral, Fla.: Founders Press, 2007, 124.

[13] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (1 Cor. 16:15) Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

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