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Infant Baptism
By W. T. Conner, 1937

Majority of professing Christians teach it.
      Infant baptism is an institution believed in and advocated by the great majority of professing Christians in the world. It is advocated by the Roman and Greek Catholic churches and by practically all those denominations that came out of the Roman Catholic Church during and after the Reformation. Yet there is a considerable body of professing Christians, including Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism. In this the Baptist view with reference to this matter is set forth. Perhaps I can best do so by putting it in the form of some questions and seeking to answer these questions.

      New Testament does not teach it.
      There are very few people among scholars who would say in any definite way that the New Testament teaches infant baptism. Most of them will admit that infant baptism is not found in the New Testament directly, either in precept or example. Some, however, do hold that it is there by inference or by implication. Among those whom I have consulted, I find Cardinal Gibbons among Catholics and Philip Schaff among Protestants holding rather definitely that infant baptism is to be inferred from certain things found in the New Testament. Cardinal Gibbons sets out his view on this question in his book, Faith of Our Fathers and Dr. Schaff's view is to be found in the article on "Baptism" in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. On the other hand, we find Dr. J. Agar Best, an English Wesleyan, stating in his book, A Manual of Theology, that the New Testament says nothing about the baptism of infants (p.401) He goes on to list the passages sometimes relied on to teach infant baptism in the New Testament and shows that these passages do not, either by inference directly or indirectly, teach infant baptism.

Not taught by passages used in its favor.
      Some of the passages relied on to teach infant baptism are as follows: Matt. 19: 13ff, where Jesus receives and blesses little children; 1 Cor. 1:16, 16:15; Acts 16:15, 31ff, which refer to household baptisms; 1 Cor. 7:15 in which Paul refers to the children of a believing husband or wife as being "holy." It is to be noticed that in the case of Jesus and the children, nothing is said about baptism. He did receive and bless little children. It is also to be noticed that His disciples objected even to that, which shows clearly that Jesus was not accustomed to baptizing little children or they would have raised no objection. And in no case is there evidence in these passages, either directly or indirectly, that any of these children were baptized. So far as the household baptisms are concerned, in most cases there is very good evidence that there were no infants in these households. There are statements in connection with them that will show that they were believers. Paul says with reference to the household of Stephanas that they ministered to the saints. With reference to the jailer and his household it is distinctly said that Paul preached to them, that they all believed and that they were all baptized. It is more than likely that in referring to these households the New Testament writers are referring to the head of the house and those associated with him, including the servants. There is no evidence that in any of them were infants included and to base the doctrine of infant baptism on such slender evidence shows that the advocates of infant baptism have a very poor case so far as New Testament proof is concerned. This applies to 1 Cor. 7:4 as well as to the passages above referred to. Whatever Paul means by the children of believers being "holy," he certainly does not mean that they are Christians in the sense that believers are. And if Paul had taught that the children of believers ought to be baptized, this would have been a very good place for him to say so and he said nothing about it. So we agree with Dr. Best that the New Testament says nothing about the baptism of infants.

How infant baptism originated.
     The first definite case in Christian history of infant baptism is found at Carthage in North Africa about 252 A.D. A certain Fibus, a bishop of that region, was in doubt as to whether baptism should be administered immediately upon the birth of children or be postponed to the eighth day. He appealed to Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, for advice. Cyprian called a council of some sixty bishops of that region and submitted the matter to them. They advised against postponement (See McGlothlin, Infant Baptism, pp. 64ff). It seems that if infant baptism had been a common matter in the churches up to that time such questions as this would not have arisen. There is no clear case in history of the baptism of infants before this. Considered from a doctrinal point of view the practice of infant baptism grows out of two ideas: One is the idea that the child is born sinful and needs the grace of God to be saved. The other is the idea that baptism is a regenerative transaction and washes away sin. If it had not been for the idea of baptismal regeneration infant baptism would scarcely have arisen. Dr. McGlothlin in his book on Infant Baptism shows how the doctrine of baptismal regeneration began to appear soon after the apostolic age. This idea grew among the bishops and the churches of the early centuries until it became firmly fixed; and out of this doctrine grew the practice of infant baptism. As Baptists see it, infants are born sinful; but they repudiate the idea of baptismal regeneration and, therefore, repudiate the practice of infant baptism which grew out of this doctrine.

Came from false belief in baptismal regeneration.
      Roman Catholics unhesitatingly and unequivocally base infant baptism on the idea of baptismal regeneration. Cardinal Gibbons sets this out clearly in his book, Faith of Our Fathers. And he takes the Baptists to task for jeopardizing the salvation of their children in failing to baptize them. He advises them to be on the safe side and have their children baptized (p. 275). He goes on to say that baptism washes away original sin and also actual sins. The child does not have actual sins to be washed away but it does have original sin and, therefore, according to the Catholic view, should be baptized in order to be saved. In his book on Infant Baptism, Dr. McGlothlin not only sets out clearly the origin of infant baptism as growing out of the idea of baptismal regeneration, but he also goes on to show how infant baptism grew until it became the prevailing practice in the Roman Catholic Church, so that by the Middle Ages the opponents of infant baptism were greatly in the minority. Infant baptism thus came to be the prevailing practice in Christendom. When the Reformation came and many people broke away from the Roman Catholic Church they carried this practice of infant baptism, with many other Roman ideas and practices, over into the newly organized Protestant churches. In this way, infant baptism became firmly fixed as the belief and practice of the great majority in Christendom. In fairness to Roman Catholics it should be said that they do not hold that unbaptized infants go to hell as do adult unbelievers and heretics. They hold that unbaptized infants go to Limbo, where they are shut out from the face of God and thus do not enjoy the blessedness of heaven; but they are not doomed to the same pains of punishment as are unbelievers and those who reject Christianity. They admit that there may be a form of happiness for these children. According to Cardinal Gibbons, their condition is better than non-existence. He says that some Catholic writers hold that unbaptized infants enjoy a certain degree of natural beatitude, a happiness "which is based on the natural knowledge and love of God" (p. 273).

Does not fit with justification by faith.
      Of course, Catholics continue to administer infant baptism on the ground of baptismal regeneration. They think it a great sin on the part of those who refuse baptism to their children, because they thus risk the salvation of their children. This is also still, in somewhat modified form perhaps, the doctrine of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in America, and the Lutheran Churches. This would not hold true of all the theologians of these churches, as it does of Catholic writers. A good many Episcopalians and Lutherans would repudiate such rigid views with reference to baptismal regeneration. But, in general, it may be stated that these churches still retain the idea of baptismal regeneration as the ground of infant baptism. For those who do hold to infant baptism as grounded in baptismal regeneration, there is, of course, no difficulty in holding to infant baptism. But when Martin Luther in thundering tones introduced anew into the world the idea of justification by faith, he introduced a principle which if consistently carried out would have destroyed infant baptism. The Reformers preached everywhere that men are justified on the merits of atoning work of Christ on condition of faith. When they did this they were getting back on New Testament ground. But these same Reformers brought over from the Catholic Church the idea of infant baptism. These two things -- justification by faith and infant baptism -- are inconsistent with each other. And when the Reformed Churches brought these two ideas into the same system they could not make them fit. When they gave up the idea of baptismal regeneration, other grounds for infant baptism had to be found.

Practice is justified on different grounds.
      So we find in present day Protestant churches that practice infant baptism different grounds assigned for the practice. As one reads the grounds assigned by different authors for infant baptism, he is reminded of what Dr. Mullins used to say, that these churches had a system of spiritual bi-metalism. In other words, they had one standard for baptism and church membership as applied to adults and another as applied to infants. Some of these authors regard the baptized infant as a church member and others do not. Some of them regard them simply as having been put in a better condition for church instruction and, upon conversion, church membership. Altogether, it seems that infant baptism is rather embarrassing for non-sacramental churches.

Grace said to include believers' children.
      The Presbyterian or Reformed Churches usually advocate only the baptism of children of believers. They do this on the ground that the covenant of grace includes children of believers as well as believers. They look on this covenant as being parallel to the covenant with Abraham in the Old Testament. The children of Jews were to be circumcised and thus brought within the national covenant with Jehovah. In a similar way, Presbyterians regard the children of believers as somehow included in the covenant of grace. They sometimes talk about the church as going back to Abraham. They regard baptism as superseding circumcision. Along with this, they speak about religion as being a family matter. They also include the idea of the obligation of the parents to instruct their children and train them up in the admonition of the Lord. This perverts the nature of Christianity as a personal and spiritual religion. The covenant with Abraham included his natural descendants. All of the male children of Abraham were to be circumcised and enjoy the benefits of Abrahamic covenant. But Christianity is not a matter of natural descent. John the Baptist warned the people of his day that they could not escape the judgment of God on the ground that they were the children of Abraham. Christianity is a spiritual and personal matter. The covenant of grace includes only those who personally believe. The covenant idea does not give sufficient ground for infant baptism.

The Methodist position.
      Some Methodists also rely on the covenant idea, but they do not believe in administering infant baptism to the children of believers only. As a rule, they teach infant baptism on somewhat different grounds. They make something of the idea that baptism supersedes circumcision; but they also place stress on the idea of dedication of the infant child to the service of God and the obligation of the parent to give the child religious training. The language of the Methodist Discipline formerly suggested the idea of baptismal regeneration. The minister baptized the child with this language: "Forasmuch as all men are conceived in sin, and that our Saviour Christ saith, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," etc. (See Discipline, M. E. Church, South for the year 1894, p. 200.) This language comes over from the English Prayer Book and it would not be fair to hold that Methodists generally hold to baptismal regeneration. Perhaps, it would come nearer to the general idea of Methodism today to say that they hold that the child is born without guilt, within the kingdom of God and that it is the part of the church and the parents to so rear the child that it will not depart from the kingdom. The minister now baptizes the infant with this language: "Forasmuch as all men, though fallen in Adam, are born into this world in Christ the Redeemer; heirs of life eternal and subjects of the saving grace of the Holy Spirit," etc. (See Discipline for 1926, p. 311.) No matter what the ground assigned for infant baptism, the practical results of it are largely the same. There are no assignable and definite benefits that can be pointed out as the result of it. Catholics claim for it a regenerative and saving efficacy. Protestants usually repudiate this idea and seek other grounds for it. But the practical result is to bring into the church unregenerated people and thus destroy the New Testament ideal of the church.

Not in but contrary to clear Bible teaching.
      Let us take a more particular look now at the objections to infant baptism. I shall name four, the first being that it is not in but directly contrary to New Testament teaching. We do not find it in the New Testament, either directly taught or as an inference from anything that is said there. And anything that we do not find in the New Testament in precept or example, or as a fair inference from what is said, there, we should be slow to incorporate into our beliefs and practices. If this is a safe principle, then we should certainly be slow to recognize infant baptism. If it is to be practised in our churches, it must be on non-scriptural grounds. To say the least of it, this makes Baptists hesitate. When the Bible teaching is examined carefully, it is found to be directly contrary to what is taught in regard to infant baptism. In the New Testament nobody was baptized except those who had heard the Gospel and accepted it. New Testament baptism is always faith baptism. It was the baptism of those who exercised faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord. This is recognized by many advocates of infant baptism; but they claim that after Christianity is established in a country, it then becomes a family matter and that the whole population or at least all the members of Christian families should be baptized, given Christian training and church membership. We hold, however, that this is directly contrary to Christian principles. There is no such thing as proxy religion. Every man must hear the Gospel and believe it for himself and then be baptized for himself. Hence, we hold that infant baptism and faith baptism are directly contrary to each other. The New Testament churches were made up of those who had exercised faith and had been voluntarily baptized for themselves. And these two kinds of baptism could not any more exist side by side, consistently with each other, than oil and water will mix.

Destroys voluntary element of religion.
     Infant baptism takes the voluntary element out of religion. In the Old Testament we have a national religion. Jehovah entered into a covenant with the descendants of Abraham and adopted them as his people. Under Moses these descendants of Abraham were organized into a nation and this nation ideally became the kingdom of Jehovah. He ruled over them and they were His subjects. He was their God and they were His people. Under this arrangement the voluntary element was largely lacking in religion. A man was born into this theocracy by natural birth. He was not consulted about it. He was a Jew because he was a descendant of Abraham. At a certain age he was made "a son of the law" and held responsible for observing it. Religion was largely, therefore, a matter of natural descent. It is true in the Old Testament that there was such a thing as personal piety. We find this especially in the Psalms and the Prophets. The Prophets denounced merely formal religion and emphasized personal worship and service to God. But this element of personal piety was something in addition to the national. When we get to the New Testament. personal piety becomes the whole thing, and the national element is left out. Christianity is not a national thing, nor a family matter, nor a racial matter. It is primarily personal.

God works in and through the individual.
      Christianity does reach out into all the relations of life and affects all these relations. Yet its implantation and growth are God's work in and through the individual. The fight all through the history of Christianity has been to preserve this personal, ethical and spiritual character of Christian faith. Anything that tends to obscure this supremacy of God's dealing with the individual both in conversion and spiritual growth is the enemy of revealed faith. Whenever religion formally becomes a national matter, or a family matter, or an institutional matter, its personal and spiritual character is destroyed. We sometimes talk about Christian nations, but, properly speaking, there is no such thing. There can be no such thing from a national Christian point of view. Whenever a nation adopts Christianity as its legal religion, it ceases to be revealed Christianity. Christianity may not properly be adopted as the legal religion of any country, for the simple reason that when it is adopted, its Christian character is destroyed. Neither can it be a family matter. A man is not a Christian because his parents were such, nor is he a Christian because he has had a certain type of training. This is not to minimize the importance of the family from a Christian point of view. It is to say that before any man can be a Christian, his own spirit must settle the issue with God. If he does not personally receive Christ, he cannot be a Christian. If one is surrounded by Christian influences in the home and otherwise, he is much more apt to make the supreme choice that makes him a Christian. Yet being brought up in a Christian family does not in itself make one a Christian. To take an unconscious infant, therefore, and go through a religious ceremony with it and call this infant baptism is a misnomer. The Baptist position is that infant baptism cannot be Christian baptism. Christian baptism must be the baptism of a candidate who has heard the Gospel and voluntarily accepted it. "Involuntary" baptism is something that cannot be. It must be voluntary on the part of the candidate or it is not baptism.

Destroys spiritual character of church.
      Infant baptism not only takes the voluntary element out of religion; it destroys, also, the spiritual character of the church. This is true whether infants after baptism are regarded as church members or not. In either case the child will tend to regard itself as somehow incorporated by its baptism into the Christian body and will, therefore, miss the great experience of being born again. This will inevitably destroy the spiritual character of the church. The outstanding thing about the churches of the New Testament is that they were spiritual bodies. They were made up of people who had been regenerated by faith in Christ. Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ. It was animated by His Spirit and informed by his life. To baptize infants, therefore, into church membership or into a quasi-church relationship will inevitably destroy the Christian character of the church. That is exactly what took place in Christian history. Dr. McGlothlin rightly insists that infant baptism is the root heresy of Christian history. It destroyed the voluntary element in religion, perverted the Christian character of the church, led to the union of church and state, and was the main factor in bringing on the Dark Ages. Baptists, therefore, do not regard infant baptism as a harmless innovation in Christian history. They regard it, with the heresy of baptismal regeneration on which it is based, as the main factor in the perversion of Christianity and the development of the Roman Catholic Church. They cannot, therefore, regard this practice with indifference. They must protest against it.

Endangers salvation of its recipients.
      Not only does infant baptism pervert the spiritual character of the church; it endangers the salvation of those so baptized. Children who are baptized into the church are likely to place their confidence for salvation in this baptism and church membership. If the doctrine of baptismal regeneration is true, they would have a right to do this. In that case Cardinal Gibbons would be right when he warned Baptists that in opposing infant baptism they are endangering the salvation of their children. On the other hand, if baptismal regeneration is wrong, then Baptists are right in holding that infant baptism endangers the salvation of those receiving it. Baptists hold that salvation is a spiritual transaction and its conditions are purely spiritual conditions. Sometimes Baptists have been accused of holding that baptism is somehow necessary to salvation. This impression has come from misunderstanding the Baptist refusal to receive anything but immersion for baptism. But the real fact is that Baptists are the only large body of Christian people of which I know who insist -- first, last, and all the time -- that an experience of salvation should come before baptism, and that there is no such thing as valid Christian baptism until one has had this experience of salvation. They are, therefore, emphatically anti-sacramental in theology.

Recapitulation of three positions.
     There are three positions on infant baptism -- the Catholic, the Protestant and the Baptist. The Catholic position is that baptism washes away original and actual sins. Baptism is regarded necessary for salvation. Catholics do allow for some exceptions in this matter. Cardinal Gibbons says that those who have the will to be baptized and are prevented will be saved. But their general position is that baptism is necessary to salvation. They take literally those statements in the New Testament referring to this matter which Baptists regard as symbolical. Viewing it as they do, it is natural that Catholics should hold to infant baptism. For them there is no other consistent position. Not to baptize their children means to jeopardize their eternal salvation. The Protestant position tries to combine the ideas of regenerate church membership for adults and infant baptism and infant church membership. The two will not go together. And we invite our Protestant friends to re-examine their position in regard to this matter. We believe that logically and eventually they must give up one or the other. There is a fundamental inconsistency between the two; and the ideal of a regenerate church membership must overthrow infant baptism or infant baptism will destroy the Christian character of the church. The Baptist position is that baptism is memorial and symbolical in its meaning. They hold that baptism does not save nor does it help to save. It memorializes Christ and His saving work and symbolizes our experience of salvation. We hold that no one is a fit subject for baptism until he is old enough to hear the Gospel, does hear it, and voluntarily accepts it. Baptists therefore oppose infant baptism. It is not a matter of indifference to us. We must regard it as a dangerous heresy. To my mind one of the most dangerous tendencies in Baptist life today is the tendency to remove the distinction between the church and the world. I fear that we have been too careless in the matter of receiving members. I fear that many of those who are received have only a superficial Christian experience, if any at all. It is, therefore, no time for us to relax in this matter of a regenerated church membership. We must continue actively to oppose infant baptism as we have always done.


[From Re-Thinking Baptist Doctrines, Victor I. Masters, editor, 1937, pp. 65-80. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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