Saturday, 29 December 2012

'Mere Christian' thoughts on the baptism of infants


In some established, mostly Catholic, Christian societies; infant baptism has been the norm, and baptism regarded as essential to salvation - and performed as an emergency by anybody at hand if an infant was about to die.

Yet in some devout Protestant churches, baptism is something that happens (if it happens) mostly in teenage or adulthood, and is therefore implicitly regarded as optional to salvation.


Catholic baptism makes sociological sense in that, in an already-existing Christian society, pretty much everybody is brought up a Christian unless they opt-out.

People in such societies are not 'born again' because they have never known anything different - they are swimming in a sea of Christianity, do not need specific instruction in Christianity - it is all that they have ever known.

Thus baptism is not about choice, but a normal practice - a necessity, but also very preliminary to the real business of a Christian life.

(In such societies, the most highly religious people adopt the religious life (monasticism), and seek to become Saints.)

When baptism is of infants, and near universal, and linked with salvation; the fate of the unbaptized infant becomes a major theological concern and problem - with various proposed solutions, such as Limbo.


By contrast, in some Protestant societies, baptism is a matter for adults, and is therefore an opt-in.

The background assumption seems to be that people will not be Christian unless they specifically choose to become a Christian.

The religious life is conversion focused, and the convert is born-again very explicitly. There is much need for teaching, since one cannot assume that the average citizen knows what it means to be Christian.

Since baptism is not quick, or universal, and is not of young children; then the specific Catholic concern over the salvation of infants is not prominent.

(e.g. Devout English Puritan reformers of the Book of Common prayer wanted to stamp-out the practice of emergency baptism by midwives - the implicit attitude being that it was better for infants to die unbaptized than for such practices to encourage the wrong attitude to baptism.)


Infant baptism, and baptism generally, is therefore one of the major differences between (sincere, devout, real) Catholic and Protestant Christians.

My only observation is that the general attitude concerning children throughout the New Testament seems to suggest that the salvation of children is not a problem.


This is not a matter of theology, but a matter of what is suggested by the stories, and what is left-out of the theology, or is ambiguous or unclear. 

There seems to be an implicit background assumption that (young) children are innocent in practice (leaving aside the aspect of original sin) - and the salvific concern is with adults able to comprehend and choose.

This could imply that the eternal fate of children is so bound-up with, assimilated-to, that of adults (parents) such that no separate treatment of the matter is possible; or that children have 'different rules' including a free pass of some sort - perhaps that sin is an 'adult' phenomenon (with a borderline between child and adult that is necessarily imprecise).


This line of argument tends to support the Protestant theology, however it does not invalidate the Catholic practice of infant baptism.

On the one had it supports the Protestant idea that infant baptism is not necessary to salvation; on the other hand it does not support the (sometimes) Protestant idea that infant baptism is wrong, invalid, and should be prohibited.


I must admit that, although I personally was baptised as an infant and not by immersion in the Catholic-Protestant Church of England, I find it hard (in my simple-minded way) to understand why it is that adult baptism by immersion as depicted so prominently and explicitly in the New Testament has become so unusual among the major Christian denominations.

Leaving aside the consequences of not doing it; it just seems very obvious that when Baptism is done, it would be done in the manner of the New Testament accounts.

I'm not saying that differences from NT baptism practice have any particular bad consequences - at any rate, I don't see this in church history, not clearly; but I find it genuinely hard to comprehend why baptism would be changed, on the basic principle that if a church fundamentally changes baptism practice (given that baptism is so obvious and fundamental to the conversion process in the NT) then what would not be open to change?



Bruce B. said...

After having six of them, children don't seem so innocent to me anymore. You can see their sinfulness by age two and maybe even earlier.

I don't disagree with you about immersion.

Dale James Nelson said...

It would be worth your while to read Joachim Jeremias's short book Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries.

I have a photocopy of William Wall's History of Infant Baptism, but haven't read it yet.

The History appears to be available as a reprint. It would predate the reign of "historical-critical" handling of the Bible and Christian sources.

I'll just say for now that the rejection of infant Baptism seems to me to be associated with the development of a dubious theory of the "age of accountability." Does the Bible witness this doctrine, or is it something developed to support the restriction of Baptism to older people?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I wasn't really talking about the *rejection* of infant baptism; but the rejection of what seems to be normative in the Bible: adult baptism by immersion.

Or, having adult baptism as a norm looks like a simple copying of Biblical practice; while having infant baptism as a norm seems to be a consequence of theological/ philosophical inference.

But adult baptism as a norm seems to imply that baptism of infants is unnecessary. and this in turn seems to imply that "something happens" between infancy and adulthood which makes baptism necessary in adults but not children.

However, engaging in this kind of logical inference may be to introduce an unnecessary (and distorting) element of philosophy; alien to most humans who do not think abstractly.

Most people may simply accept that God wants his people to be baptized at such and such an age - and not try to understanding the logical implications of this command. They just try to obey.

FHL said...

Not to get too deep into this, I just want to say that other ways of interpreting the NT that shows infant baptism as being the norm. For example, I pulled this out of one of my Coptic books:

'We baptise little children because the Holy Bible indicates this. The Holy Bible mentions baptisms of whole families or of a person with his entire household, and there is no doubt that there must have been children in those families. The following are a few of numerous examples:

(a) The baptism of the jailer at Philippi: St. Paul and St. Silas said to him: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household" (Acts 16: 31). This means that the jailer's belief would be the first step which would lead his household to salvation. That is why it is said after that: "Thenthey spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house" and then "immediately he and all his family were baptised" (Acts 16:32,33).

The Holy Bible did not exempt little children from the household of the jailer at Philippi but said about their baptisms: "...he and all his family”, of course including little children.

(b) In the event of baptising Lydia, the dealer of purple cloth, it is written: "And when she and her household were baptised" (Acts 16: 15).

(c) St. Paul the Apostle said: "Yes, I also baptised the household of Stephanas" (1Cor.1: 16).

Could all these households have been without little children?

(d) The Holy Bible does not mention that there were no little children among those who were baptised on the Day of Pentecost.'

FHL said...

*blech!* I know I can't edit posts, but my grammar was so absolutely atrocious that I need to say something. I meant "I just want to say that there exist other ways of interpreting the NT that show infant baptism as being the norm."

Dale James Nelson said...

The Biblical norm actually is adults being converted and baptized with everyone in their household.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL & Dale - Fair points. It is hard to capture (legalistically) what this suggests about baptism.

No catechism, no delay, some adults, various children and others unable to consent or comprehend fully except in obedience to the head of house - a mixture of individual conviction plus the father serving as the family decision-maker... none of this seems to resemble any actual denomination currently operating, nor the practice of the early church (e.g. at the time of Augustine which I was reading about the other day).

I presume all of this was by immersion - to discard that seems to have been a radical step.

Baptism is clearly important, yet the matter seems unamenable to theology and legalism.

Samson said...

none of this seems to resemble any actual denomination currently operating

LOL... hopefully we can all agree on this, and draw a much-needed laugh from it.

On the "entire household" passages: without having done further research, off the top of my head I would be wary of interpreting these to mean that young children were necessarily baptized. NT writers very often engaged in what looks, according to our Western mode of thought, like bordering on misinformation - so that, for instance, the other day I was re-reading Bruce Malina's Windows on the World of Jesus, and he mentions that Near Easterners would sometimes say things like "I have X number of children" - where "X" is the number of *sons* the speaker has - daughters were not "counted" as part of the family for purposes of the discussion.

I suspect something similar *may* be going on in the "he and all his family were baptised" passages - that young children may not have been "counted" as part of the "household".

Dale James Nelson said...

Dr. Charlton, I don't think that the Biblical evidence makes it clear that the Christian Baptisms it records were necessarily by immersion. Indeed, it seems that some, at least, since they were so immediate and the people involved were not standing by rivers or pools, couldn't have been immersive. My understanding is that the Greek verb involved certainly is not restricted to immersive washings.

My further understanding is that all the evidence is that the ancient Church baptized infants and that this practice is not questioned until about AD 200, by Tertullian when in his Montanist phase. There, as I remember it,his objection is not that infant Baptism is a departure from the apostolic practice -- which would be an excellent debating point to make, if he could have made it* -- but that baptizing infants is unnecessary because they haven't committed sins. His remark, then, presumes that Baptism of the babies of Christian parents was normal (he apparently knows of none who delay).

And of course if infants and very young children were not supposed to be baptized, the Bible would tell us so. For example, when, in 1 Corinthians 10 St. Paul says that "all Israel" was "baptized into Moses" at the Crossing of the Red Sea, he would have needed to take pains to show that the OT passage doesn't apply to whole groups of people (families, children, etc.) but just to some. Similarly, when in 1 Peter 3 the apostle refers to the Ark and the drowning of the world that was, and he says that this was a "type" (see the Greek) of "Baptism that now saves you," he would have to manage the point such as to avoid suggesting that Baptism saves people who haven't already been converted... indeed saved.

And so on. So far as I can tell, the Book of Acts shows the conversion of households when the father accepts the faith. The next generation, raised as Christians, would see to the Baptism of their infants, surely.

*There'd have been a controversy that would have left its mark in the ancient records. We know, for example, about the debates they had regarding how to fix the date for celebrating Easter. That topic, surely, is not as important as whom to baptize. But there is no controversy about baptizing infants in the ancient Church so far as I recall, except for Tertullian when he'd already entered his schismatic phase. However, I admit I'm not looking things up in my sources, and others might have some evidence to bring forward... Don't take my sentences as the last word.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Where in the NT is it specified that baptism is exclusively for adults, or exclusively by immersion? The three forms (immersion, infusion, aspersion) have always been valid and no one is considered superior to the others.

As for the baptism of infants, what harm can be done by doing so, even if there is not much chance that the child will be raised in the faith? André Frossard aptly called 'sacristy bureaucrats' the priests who refuse to baptize children when in doubt of further Christian education.

If baptism can be 'conditional' in certain circumstances, for example in doubt that it was previously validly administered, it is not a sacrilege in such circumstances then or now.

Bruce Charlton said...

Thanks for these helpful comments on baptism.

For me, the range of thoughtful and devout opinion on this matter is evidence of some profound error in our (analytic, logical, theological, philosophical, historical) way of discussing and evaluating such matters.

I feel sure that the matter of baptism, and also of the Mass/ Eucharist/ Lord's Supper - were meant to be simple, understandable by a child, explicable in just a few sentences - and yet we seem to have been (almost from the beginning) plagued by dissent and variation.

Perhaps one helpful way of thinking about it is that God instituted these sacraments and other practices for our help, and they are helpful, but they are never essential to salvation - nor even to high levels of sanctification theosis (there are so many counter-examples), yet their rejection or the development of legalistic views is hostile to salvation/ theosis, yet the rendering of such matters into indifference or personal choice is also hostile to salvation/ theosis.

As so often it seems that intellectuals have a much harder time of being good Christians than do children and simple folk - who seems much more able (and inclined?) to take things as they were (apparently) intended by God, and not to make something different of them.

Bruce B. said...

In my opinion, the thirty nine articles gets it right: "Generally necessary for salvation." Maybe some saintly men are exceptions and God isn't limited to any one means of grace. If we know what He commands us to do, how can we resist?

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - yes. There are always exceptions and 'loopholes', but to be always looking for loopholes is a very bad attitude, and one that easily becomes self-reinforcing.

Dale James Nelson said...

"[W]e seem to have been (almost from the beginning) plagued by dissent and variation" about infant Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar.

I suppose it depends on what one thinks of as "the beginning."

So far as I know, there's no evidence that Baptism of infants was controversial for the better part of two centuries, as indicated in my comments above. When Tertullian questions it, he is already at odds with the catholic Church on other grounds. (I think the problem may have been that the Church assigned unduly severe penalties for sins committed after Baptism. Tertullian thus reasons that it might be well to let the kids accumulate some sins before they get them washed away by Baptism, which is a one-time washing-away, and after it one must remove sins by penance. There are problems there as regards the doctrine of Baptism, the role and function of repentance in the forgiveness of sins, etc. But we are still a long way from the idea that infants should not be baptized because they haven't reached the "age of accountability" and the ability to make a decision for Christ, i.e. "believers' Baptism" -- which I think doesn't appear till well into the second Christian millennium. However, I could be misunderstanding Tertullian and wrong about the history.

As regards the doctrine of the Sacrament of the Altar, if I am not mistaken it isn't until, again, almost the second Christian millennium that we have a questioning about whether It is indeed the Body and Blood of Christ.

In other words, my impression is that there were debates about ecclesiastical discipline in connection with these sacraments, but less significant controversies about what they were in themselves. Baptism was the sacrament of regeneration; the Sacrament of the Altar was the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ given to penitent believers for the forgiveness of their sins -- although the Roman church messed this up with serious error about -how- the Mass was involved with forgiveness, namely the idea that it was an action of the Faithful undertaken to propitiate God rather than God's free gift to the Faithful. (May I be corrected if this is wrong or overly simple.) I think this problem may have developed mostly in the late first millennium or early second millennium. At any rate, the issue was -not- about the Real Presence.

So, unless I am mistaken, it's really not till the Reformation era that the ideas became entrenched, in some places, that Baptism is not a sacrament in which God effects regeneration (including that of infants) but an ordinance, a public testimony of one's desire to be a Christian, and that Christ's Body and Blood are not really present in the Lord's Supper, but rather that in its essence it is a devout memorial of His work long ago.

But check the sources I've referred to. This is off-the-cuff.

Dr. Charlton, I will send you by email the interesting anecdote about Zwingli's dream. Zwingli was the early 16th-century Swiss reformer, so strongly opposed by Luther, who rejected the Real Presence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - What seems to happen recurrently through human history is that people seem to find it almost impossible actually to live by the anything which is 'optional' - and societies either tend to become of the 'everything not forbidden is compulsory' type; or else the 'anything goes' type.

So that the (admirable) Lutheran ideal of "what is commanded is compulsory, what is not forbidden is permitted" does (I think) tend to go one way or another - for example Calvinism is more like "everything commanded is compulsory, everything not commanded is forbidden").

I think that this suggests that - whatever might be logical or desirable - Christianity must (or will), in order to be durable, have sufficient content to be a way of life.

Attempts to rationalize Christianity (like the Reformation) tend over time to lead to a very narrow and incomplete life, which is hard to tolerate.

On the other hand, a fuller Christianity - such as Eastern Orthodoxy - while it provides a much richer scope for life, also contains much material that is impossible to justify simply and directly - but which must be ascribed to tradition or derived from the application of reason. And it can be difficult/ impossible to draw the line in this elaboration, as happened with the pre-Reformation Catholic church, which included many abuses and had drifted a long way from a proper focus on Christ.

I'm afraid I don't have an 'answer' to this 'dilemma' - it just seems to be a constraint on Christianity in this world.

Samson J. said...


If we know what He commands us to do, how can we resist?

To me this is the essence of calling baptism "necessary" for salvation. It's "necessary" in the sense that if you are really "saved", you will do what God has commanded: be baptized.

Bruce B. said...

I read somewhere that Whitsunday is so named because there were a large number of (presumably immersion) baptisms on that day since it was one of the first days of the year that was warm enough to baptise. I assume that this tradition goes back to Catholic times so it seems that English Catholics were using baptism by immersion.

Bruce Charlton said...

I think I tried to cover too many points in this post, and one of the things I wanted to bring-out got lost

- this is that in an established and up-and-running Catholic society there is not a 'born-again' phenomenon among adult Christians. Therefore is is natural to baptize infants.

However, either when Protestantism is introduced to a Catholic society and people are re-converted - or else in pagan or non-religious societies; then people are usually only becoming Christians by conversion as adults - therefore adult baptism after being born-again is the norm, and people start to regard infant baptism as strange, and perhaps wrong.

I am not trying to say anything about right or wrong here, but just that the different average/ usual age of baptism can be seen to fit with the different average age at which people join a denomination.

Wm Jas said...

I suppose you know the (rather extreme) Mormon position on this, laid out in Moroni 8:

"Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell."

Actually, Mormons routinely baptize eight-year-olds ("little children" by most definitions). Eight as the supposed age of accountability is derived from 1 Peter 3:20-21, which seems to connect baptism with the number eight -- especially if the Authorized Version's "figure" is read as "number" rather than "similitude."

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Yes, I'm aware of this. The Mormon position makes (sociological) sense in terms of its having recently been entirely composed of (adult) converts but working towards a younger age of baptism as the religion became stable and self-reproducing.

Baptism at eight is, however, a very different thing than infant Baptism - many eight year olds in the US are about as smart (in terms of IQ) as many adults in other parts of the world.

But any rule is bound to be a matter of drawing a sharp line through a gray area.

The other factor is of course that Mormons have a different understanding of 'original sin' and children are conceptualized as innocent until corrupted.

Therefore there is no 'need' for infant baptism, and eight seems about right to get in with the baptism before corruption is too advanced yet late enough that the child knows enough about what is going-on.

On the whole, (as so often!) I think the Mormon practice fits with concrete common sense human understanding - without requiring too much abstract justification.

[Of course there are some (few, fortunately) children who do very obviously seem to be evil from very young. This would suggest, in an observational sense, than either extreme of universal childhood innocence or universal childhood depravity are seriously over-simplified - as always, there is no *equality* in human affairs. Perhaps the best common sense type of working solution is to regard children as innocent, but with a few exceptions who have inherited 'bad blood' or maybe have been (?demonically) 'possesed' in some way - these are, I think, more or less the traditional conceptions in hunter gatherer tribes.]