November 5, 2011

A Question About Infant Baptism

Filed under: Sacraments,Theology — William Witt @ 9:43 pm

I received the following email:

Dr. Witt,

I’ve greatly appreciated many of your posts (your series on the development of doctrine was particularly helpful for understanding what Newman was trying to accomplish and the underlying assumptions of modern Roman Catholic apologists when they try to use it on unsuspecting evangelicals). I also found your summary of the modern debate about normative infant baptism to be helpful in articulating the direction that I have been heading. However, as I read through your article, I could not help but still ask the question: why baptize infants? I’m open (though I had using that term) to infant baptism even though I was reared Baptist and still attend a Baptist church. My frustration with adult-only baptism is that it seems inconsistent with the fact that I was reared (for all intents and purposes) as a Christian even though I hadn’t been baptized. Yet, as you noted in your article, adult baptism is the norm in the NT and the Early Church (Everett Ferguson cemented that fact in my mind). I don’t want to ramble on, but I hope that helps explain my question. Thanks for your time.


My response follows:

Dear Ryan,

This is a really good question.

River Baptism

I would suggest that the question of infant baptism is a classic question of hermeneutics, as opposed to exegesis. That is, how do we appropriate the teaching of Scripture in a different time and cultural setting, to respond to an issue not explicitly addressed by Scripture? In some ways, I would suggest that infant baptism is the classic case of a hermeneutical question in that the very nature of the question raised presupposes a setting different from that of the apostles. That is, baptism in the New Testament presupposes a missionary setting for the church. It presupposes a setting in which the recipients of the Good News were either Jews who had to consider the question of whether Jesus was the promised Messiah and fulfillment of biblical (not yet Old Testament) promise, or pagan Gentiles, and thus, with very few exceptions, all the members of the church would be converts. The practice of infant baptism presupposes a different cultural setting, a setting in which there is now a second (or even a third) generation of Christians who are the children or perhaps even grandchildren of such converts, and perhaps do not even remember a time when family members were not Christians. What is do be done with the infant children of Christians after this first generation? Should they wait until they have reached an age of sufficient maturity to understand the significance of baptism as discipleship and then be baptized, thus preserving the normative model of believer baptism presupposed in the theology of the New Testament (the Baptist model)? Or should they be baptized as infants, recognizing that, as the children of Christian parents, they do not fit into the category of converts (either from Judaism or from paganism), that as children of Christian believers, they in some sense are certainly members of the Christian community from birth, and should thus be initiated into the church as the Body of Christ as soon as possible, understanding baptism to be an initiation into the covenant community in analogy with circumcision in the Old Testament (the paedobaptist model)? The problem arises as a hermeneutical one because the New Testament simply does not address the question, “What is to be done with the infants of Christian converts?”

It seems obvious that the early church at some point must have had to address this question, and, the eventually prevailing practice of infant baptism in the patristic church indicates that it was addressed at some point in the early history of the church, which unanimously embraced the practice of infant baptism. (more…)

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