The controversy concerning infant baptism has occasioned much difficulty to many students. The great body of the Reformed Churches accept it. A determined and earnest company, however, reject it as unscriptural.
There are two questions that need to be kept clearly distinguished from one another.
The first question relates to the mode of Baptism. The second relates to the proper subjects of Baptism. The first is not touched upon in the Article, but as it occasions some misgivings we may briefly advert to it.
There are those who consider that the word “baptism” in the New Testament means, and can only mean, “immersion” which they understand as the total submersion of the individual under water. They regard any form in a grave and covering it with of baptism by affusion or pouring of water as inadequate and unscriptural. They frequently quote the passage in Acts 8:38 “They went down both into the water, both Philip and the Eunuch.” But it can be pointed out that the reference here is plainly to the ministrant as well, as to the recipient of Baptism, and if it were too literally interpreted, it would teach that the minister as well as the recipient should be submerged. This view is not held by any religious body. Nor does the statement, “Therefore we are buried with Him by Baptism into His death,” compel acceptance of what is called “total immersion.” Burial in Jewish circles did not mean, as it does with us, depositing a body in a grave and covering it with earth. It meant placing a body in wrapped grave-clothes on a shelf or seat within a tomb which could be entered and the reposing body surveyed.
We can point out that the Greek word “baptizo” is used in some versions as an alternative to “rhantizo” in Mark VII:4, and later the same narrative speaks of the baptism of cups and pots and brazen vessels, where the thought is of cleansing rather than immersion. We conclude from these incidental references that while immersion is undoubtedly frequently implied in the references to Baptism, the primary idea is that of cleansing the soul and hence immersion is not an absolute necessity.
But the second reference, that relating to the proper subjects of Baptism, is the more important and the one to which specific reference is made in the Article in the words “The Baptism of young children is… most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” The Roman, Greek, and the majority of the Reformed Communions accept this opinion. A considerable body of earnest people, however, decline to endorse the language of the Article in respect to children. We need to distinguish carefully between early opinions which refused the baptism of children on various grounds, and the views set forth by those who are called Baptists in our time. The word “Baptist” is, of course, not strictly correct, as members of the Church of England are Baptists, as opposed to those who hold the Baptism is unnecessary, having been discontinued by the will of Christ and His Apostles. But the usual sense now attached to the word is to signify those who accept Baptism, but think it ought to be confined to those who are able to profess faith in Christ.
Before proceeding to the defence of Infant Baptism, it may be well to examine some of the more common objections to the practice. It is frequently asserted that we have no direct command in Scripture to baptise infants. In his exhaustive treatment of the subject in Book IV chapter XVI of “The Institutes,” Calvin deals trenchantly with this objection. He says, amongst other things, “If there were any force in such arguments, women might as well be interdicted from the Lord’s Supper, because we have no account of their having been admitted to it in the days of the Apostles” (sec. VIII). This is not a mere logical quibble, as some contend, because Calvin goes on to state “when we consider the design of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the conclusion is easy respecting the persons who ought to be admitted to a participation of it. We observe the same rule also in the case of Baptism.” Calvin contends, we may observe, the principles must govern us, rather than specific assertions. When Paul argued that those who were not of the natural seed of Abraham were included in the promise “In thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed” he was employing this method.
Baptism of households
The argument from the silence of Scripture is precarious. There are only 12 specific instances of Baptism in the Acts and Epistles. Of these four represent groups of believers: The multitude at Pentecost; the Samaritans at the preaching of Philip; the company of Corinthians of whom Crispus was one; and the men of Ephesus. Three represent individual cases: Paul, the Ethiopian Eunuch; and, possibly, Gaius. Five are specifically baptism of households: Lydia; Cornelius: the Philippian Jailer; the household of Stephanas; Crispus, who believed in the Lord with all his house. As Gaius is mentioned as Paul’s host, in the Epistle to the Romans, it is likely his household was baptised with him. Where individual names are mentioned, the majority were baptised with their households. The “house” in New Testament times included retainers as well as the immediate family of the head of the household. It is safe to say that in Baptist circles, the baptism of whole households together is vary rare. Luke, with his usual accuracy, gives point to the argument here used when he recounts that the Gaoler of Philippi rejoiced with his whole house, he himself having believed in God. The masculine singular of the perfect participle is used. If all were at the time professed believers we would expect the use of the plural perfect participle.
There is yet another qualification of the argument from silence. While it is true that there is no specific mention of the baptism of infants, it is noticeable that there is no case on record of the children of baptized persons being later baptised, nor is there any injunction to parents to see that their children are baptised when they attain the knowledge of God. If we take A.D. 30 as the year of our I.ord’s Resurrection, by the time the Epistle to the Romans was written, at least 26 years had elapsed since Pentecost. It is almost inconceivable that complete silence on the duty of children to come forward to Baptism should be maintained. Peter, addressing a Jewish company accustomed to circumcision, said, “The promise is unto you and to your children and to them that are afar off.” Why the threefold distinction you, your children (even if children means simply descendants), and them that are afar off, unless children were regarded as within the covenant? To the same purpose Paul writes “Else were your children unclean, but now are they holy.”
Baptism a sign of God’s covenant
This brings us to the positive arguments for Infant Baptism.
Rogers, the first commentator on the Articles, admits that “by express terms we be not commanded to baptise young children.” Notwithstanding this admission, he assigns five reasons why Christians should adopt Infant Baptism. Briefly summarised they are: (1) The grace of God is universal… therefore the sign and seal of grace is universal; (2) Baptism is unto us as circumcision was to the Jews; (3) Children belong unto the kingdom of heaven, and are in the covenant; (4) Christ gave commandment that all should be baptised, therefore young children are not to be exempted; (5) Christ hath shed His blood for the washing away the sins of children, as of the elder sort.
Not all these reasons have the same validity. It might reasonably be objected to (5) that if it were interpreted literally, it would justify the baptism of the children of heathen parents, irrespective of any guarantee that they would be brought up in the Christian faith. The Spanish conquerors of the West Indies interpreted this argument brutally when they baptised the children of their native opponents, and then dashed their brains out. They were, of course, governed by the Roman Catholic idea that Baptism conferred the grace of regeneration, and were unaware of Rogers’ argument. The other arguments are not open to a similar objection. When Rogers states in (1) that the grace of God is universal, we can reasonably argue that when the grace of God reaches a community, God establishes His covenant with them and with their seed. The sign of that covenant is at once a pledge of God’s grace, and a challenge to faith. It weakens the testimony to withhold it and fosters the idea that the individual response is the first element in regeneration, rather than the operation of the Holy Ghost.
Then again, in dealing with (2) (Baptism is unto us as circumcision was to the Jews), we find the argument enforced by the deliberate conjunction of circumcision with Baptism. Paul writes to the Colossians (2.11, 12): “circumcised with the circumcision made without hands buried with Him in Baptism,” and to the Philippians (3.3) saying: “we are the circumcision”. With reference to (3) we may notice that Calvin, in referring to the incident in the Gospels where infants are brought to Christ, pertinently asks: “If it be reasonable for infants to be brought to Christ, why is it not allowable to admit them to Baptism?” “If, of them is the kingdom of heaven, why shall they be denied the sign?”
It may be worth while to contradict a popular slander against Calvin, that he taught that “Hell was crawling with unbaptized infants.” He teaches, on the contrary, that infants are the subjects of God’s regenerating grace, and that while Baptism is commanded and should therefore be observed, nevertheless “the notion ought to be exploded” which “adjudges all unbaptized persons to eternal death”; and he adds: “Moreover, they sentence all infants to eternal death, by denying them Baptism.” Again he says: “Now it is certain that some infants are saved: and that they are previously regenerated by the Lord, is beyond all doubt.” (4) Christ gave commandment that all should be baptised. It is sometimes objected to this argument that the text reads in Matt 28:19: “Go ye therefore and teach all nations.” But it needs to be borne in mind that the word translated “teach” in the first part of the text is the Greek word “Matheteusale,” which means “make disciples of” or “enlist as pupils.” The injunction is followed by two participles “baptising” and “teaching” and it is at least significant that “baptising” comes first.
These comments may serve to show that “the baptism of young children is… most agreeable with the institution of Christ.”
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, 3 March 1961. This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.