It is a subject about which much has been written: baptism. And that is easy to understand. A kind of impasse seems to have arisen between defenders of infant baptism [i] – who are mainly found in Reformed circles [ii] – and the proponents of baptism by faith. The latter can be found in the evangelical movement and of course among the Baptists. In the latter case, baptism by faith is so characteristic that the name of the movement is derived from it.
Both Reformed theology and evangelical theology confess that the Bible is the Word of God from cover to cover. Differences of insight therefore do not arise from the influence of modern liberal theology, critical reflections on Scripture or other forms of putting the authority of the Bible into perspective. Many books or articles on this subject begin with the remark that people want to let the Bible speak for itself. And yet different conclusions are reached. How is that possible?
I started looking for answers. I have tried to adopt a starting point that is independent of theological movements. I studied theology at a non-denominational university, where I am very interested in exegetical themes. I am a natural science researcher by profession who can reason and draw conclusions analytically and without bias. And I feel at home in both experimental Reformed churches and evangelical churches. My wife and I recently made the transition from a Reformed church to a Baptist church. This was the reason for me to take a closer look at this subject.
This article begins with a discussion of the texts dealing with baptism. There aren't even that many. And then it will turn out that purely on the basis of the interpretation of these texts it is not possible to make the decision. Because the texts can often be interpreted in different ways. What I read somewhere is typical: nowhere in the New Testament do we find an unambiguous example of a child being baptized, but neither do we find anywhere an example of a child who grows up in a religious family and is baptized when he becomes an adult.
This means that other considerations also play a role in the discussions. In addition to the exegetical considerations, this is the answer to the question of whether infant baptism has always existed, or whether this practice only developed later. The complication in answering this question is that we have very little extrabiblical data from the first, second and third centuries. We will check the relevant data.
Thirdly, the discussion is strongly dominated by theological themes such as the meaning of baptism, original sin, the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament, the meaning of the covenant, etc. It appears that theology plays the decisive role in the position one takes.
In practice, there is a fourth point that plays a major role in the background, namely church tradition. Over the centuries there has been much discussion about baptism, and this is reflected in church traditions. Personally, I believe that traditions should not play a role in taking one's own position, and that is why this will not be discussed now.
I have read a large number of texts and books by proponents of infant baptism or faith baptism. It exegetes both the relevant Bible texts and provides a theological approach. I have also found texts by people who grew up in an evangelical or Baptist tradition and defend infant baptism, and conversely texts by people who grew up in a Reformed tradition and defend faith baptism. The historical data is mainly found in texts by those who defend infant baptism, although I have also found a book by those who defend faith baptism discussing the same historical texts [iii]. In this way I have gained a very good insight into the arguments and counterarguments that are used on both sides. I try to discuss them as neutrally as possible. I then try to come up with my own assessment of the data.
2.1 The baptism of John (Matt. 3:1-12; Marc. 1:4-8; Luk. 3:1-18; Joh. 1:25-28)
John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, of cleansing and washing away sins and of renewal of life. When we read the Gospels, the baptism by John comes quite suddenly. This strongly suggests that this baptism must have been a not entirely unknown phenomenon, and indeed it is generally accepted that the baptism by John is closely related to proselyte baptism as it was customary. More about this later.
Baptism was a sign of confession of sins; a sign that repentance and faith are necessary to enter the Kingdom of God. The conversion had to be visible in a sanctified walk of life. It is not Jewish origin that is necessary, but actual conversion.
John's baptism was temporary. It was an announcement of the Kingdom of God that will dawn through the coming of Jesus, and will be redeemed through the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire (see also Acts 1:5). The baptism that Jesus commanded is not only a cleansing with water, but also an inspiration with the Holy Spirit. In that sense this baptism also differs emphatically from the baptism of John. We read in Acts about Christians who were baptized by John, and then rebaptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 19:1-7).
Defenders of adult baptism sometimes argue that as Christians we should follow the example of Jesus and therefore be baptized by immersion as adults. This ignores the temporary nature of the baptism by John, say the opponents. In fact, if this reasoning is followed consistently, these Christians would also have to reintroduce circumcision since Jesus was also circumcised.
It may also be noted that before Pentecost, Jesus' disciples also baptized at the same time as John (John 3:22-26). So there was no distinction then between the baptism of John and the baptism of the disciples of Jesus.
One may wonder whether children were also baptized by John. Given the connection with the call to conversion, it does not seem likely that young children were also baptized. On the other hand, proselyte baptism - which is closely related to the baptism of John - did involve parents and their (small) children.
2.2 The baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3:13-17; Marc. 1:9-11; Luk. 3:21-22; Joh. 1:29-34)
By allowing Himself to be baptized by John, He sets the example for the Israelites. He shows that through John and Him, God's promises will be fulfilled. The Spirit of God then descends on Jesus, so that He is equipped for His work. But it is also a sign of the new Kingdom, in which God will be present with His Holy Spirit.
It is often stated that we as Christians should also follow this example of Jesus. However, that is not entirely correct, since this baptism of John - as we have seen before - was only temporary and since Pentecost has been succeeded by the baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
2.3 Jesus blesses the children (Matt. 19:13-15; Mar.10:13-16; Luc.18:15-17)
People bring children to Jesus to have them blessed by Him. The disciples want to prevent that, but after an admonishing word from Jesus to His disciples, He blesses the children. The Greek word that Matthew uses refers to small children, younger than 7 years old. Luke even speaks of infants.
This text shows that little children fully belong in the Kingdom of God. For that reason, defenders of infant baptism refer to this text, even though this text has no relationship whatsoever with baptism, as opponents of infant baptism emphasize.
2.4 Mission order (Matt. 28:19; Mark. 16:15-16)
Shortly before the Ascension, Jesus gives this command to His disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Fathers and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." This text has been much discussed because it seems to give an order: first disciple and then baptize. However, grammatically speaking this cannot be deduced from this text in Greek. In addition, because of the missionary situation, it is of course self-evident that the Gospel must first be proclaimed before the Gentiles to whom the Gospel is proclaimed will be baptized. The same applies to the parallel text from Mark: 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
In Peter's speech during the feast of Pentecost we encounter the following statement: 'For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God shall call' (Acts 2: 39). This can be read as a confirmation of family thinking, in which children belong to the people of the covenant. Others argue that Peter is referring here to the coming generations and not to those who were children at that time. It is further pointed out that this is not about baptism but the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, on the other hand, if this promise of the Holy Spirit also applied to children, it is difficult to explain that they should not be baptized.
2.6 After Penktecost
As the Gospel spreads, many come to faith and are subsequently baptized. For example, we read: “But when they believed Philip preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).
The so-called 'house texts' are much discussed. Pagans come to faith and are baptized, along with their 'house'. Does this mean that small children were also baptized, or can this conclusion not be drawn? This concerns the following texts:
- Hand. 10:46-48 and Hand. 11:14: Cornelius and all his house were baptized. Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, so it is unlikely that Cornelius had children. The reason for Peter to baptize is the fact that he sees that the Holy Spirit has also fallen on these people. The question is whether this can also be said for children.
- Hand. 16:15: Lydia and her entire household were baptized. Because the house of Lydia's husband is not mentioned here, but the house of Lydia, there are interpreters who assume that she was not married.
- Hand. 16:30-34: The Philippian jailer and all his servants were baptized. In Hand. 16:34 it says that he rejoiced that he and all his house had believed. This may mean that it only concerns adults, because children cannot be said to have come to faith. On the other hand, the jailer asks: what must I do to be saved, and the answer is: Put your trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your house.
- 1 Kor. 1:16: Paul baptized Stephen's family.
In all these texts the word 'house' is used, which also includes children, if present. Defenders of infant baptism point out that the very use of this word "house" indicates that, just as in the Old Testament, people in New Testament times think in terms of families joining the covenant of God.
2.7 Paul and Peter
There are a number of texts by Paul and Peter that deal with baptism.
In Rom. 6 a comparison is made of the baptism, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the baptism of believers: 'Do you not know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? "Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:3-4). Baptism is therefore an image of the believer's connection with the saving work of Jesus Christ.
1 Cor. 7:14 is a text that has been much discussed in relation to baptism, even though this text does not actually deal with it. The text is about a marriage in which one of the two partners has come to faith. For Paul, that is no reason for divorce, because the unbelieving husband is sanctified in his believing wife and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the believing husband. The unbeliever therefore participates in the holiness of the believer. This does not mean that the unbelieving spouse is also saved. This requires personal faith. But God is concerned with them in a special way, not least because their husband has become a believer. According to the Corinthians, marrying an unbeliever would profane the marriage. Paul denies that. And he uses the argument: 'Otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy'. In other words, if one of the parents is a believer, then the children are holy. Holiness is apparently transferable in some sense. Children of a believing parent are not unclean. This means there is no reason to baptize these children, according to defenders of faith baptism. After all, anyone who is not unclean does not need to be cleansed through baptism. In this reasoning, 'unclean' is equated with 'without sin', and it is highly questionable whether this is Biblically justified. But this text can equally be read as a confirmation of infant baptism, since this text teaches that children are sanctified in their parents.
In 1 Cor. 10:1-4 we read: 'For I am grateful, brethren, that you know that our fathers were all under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea , all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank of a spiritual rock that went with them, and that rock was Christ. A parallel is drawn here. The people shared in the grace of God during the exodus from Egypt. Yet they were not allowed to enter the country due to their disloyalty. Likewise, the Corinthians who have been baptized and received the gift of the Holy Spirit should not think that they will go unpunished if they do not sanctify their lives. An interesting point is that New Testament baptism is referred to here with a collective image from the Old Testament. Moses is emphatically seen here as a representative of the entire people.
1 Cor. 12:13 says, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks or bond or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” This text is used to indicate that there is only one baptism, and not an infant baptism for children of believers and a baptism of faith for pagans who come to conversion. However, the question is whether this is a correct application of this text. In addition, we must realize that strictly speaking this text is talking about the baptism with the Holy Spirit and not about water baptism. There is still a lot to be said about the relationship between water baptism and the baptism with the Holy Spirit, but that goes too far now.
You become part of the body of Christ through baptism according to this text. This can argue for both infant baptism (baptism confirms that children of believers belong to the body of Christ) and baptism by faith (baptism based on faith makes you part of the body of Christ).
In Gal. 3:27 says: “For all you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Putting on Christ is an active act that should not be expected of children, according to the defenders of baptism by faith.
In 1 Pet. Peter speaks about the ark in which 8 people were saved through the water. And then he continues: “Now the baptism, which is not the removal of filthiness of the body, but the petition of a good conscience toward God, saves you now, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (…)” (1 Pet. 3: 21). Baptism is therefore not an outward cleansing but an inward change, which gives us a good conscience. Putting off bodily impurity is an active act. This cannot be expected of young children. Others point out that Noah's example once again illustrates the importance of the collective nature of the family, as Noah's wife and children shared in Noah's salvation.
The text from Peter also contains a nice reference to the Jewish traditions surrounding the mikvah. Before entering a mikvah of living water to be ritually cleansed, one had to first be cleansed of external dirt in a bath.
Defenders of baptism by faith point out that there are various texts in which baptism is linked to a changed life: Rom. 6:3ff. (newness of life); Gal. 3:27 (put on Christ); Col. 2:12 (raised with Christ); 1 Peter 3:21 (a prayer before God of a good conscience). Young children cannot be said to have a changed life. Against this, defenders of infant baptism argue that we must realize that at that time (almost) all Christians who were baptized were converted pagans or Jews.
2.8 Baptism instead of circumcision?
A number of defenders of infant baptism argue that baptism has replaced circumcision. Particular reference is made to Col. 2:11-12 'In Him you also were circumcised with the circumcision made by no hands, having put off the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism. In Him you have also been raised together through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." However, this is not about a contrast between baptism and circumcision, but about the contrast between circumcision that is the work of human hands and circumcision through the shedding of the old body. This circumcision of Christ means that we are buried with Him (of which baptism is the picture) and raised with the remission of our trespasses.
For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that many defenders of infant baptism also do not use the argument that baptism has replaced circumcision [iv].
2.9 Meaning of the word 'baptism' (baptizein)
There is debate about whether the Greek word for baptism necessarily indicates complete immersion. Or is sprinkling with water also possible? If we check the dictionary, it turns out that this word has different meanings. It is used, among other things, for ritual cleansing according to Jewish tradition such as 'immersing cups, pitchers and brassware' (Mark 7:4) and washing oneself before eating where complete immersion does not take place (Luke 11:38). . Then this word is used for the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus. And finally in a metaphorical sense, such as the passage through the Sea of Reeds (1 Cor. 10:2), the rescue of Noah in the Ark (1 Pet. 3:21; the noun is used here) and the death of Jesus ( Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50).
Some interpreters argue that the Old Testament concept of 'baptism' - which can also be something other than complete immersion - has been given a new meaning in the New Testament and still refers exclusively to complete immersion. However, as we have already seen, this word is also used in the New Testament for ritual washings that do not involve complete immersion and in a metaphorical sense.
After Jesus was baptized we read that He came up out of the water. This can be read as confirmation of the fact that baptism took place by immersion. Others argue that this is not evidence that complete submersion occurred, and that it remains questionable whether this was possible since the water level in the Jordan River was insufficient for complete submersion for much of the year.
There is another argument. Those who argue that John baptized by full immersion usually see this baptism as an extension of proselyte baptism. This baptism indeed took place by complete immersion, but also completely naked. And the latter is difficult to imagine in Eastern culture outside the Jordan where men and women walked together.
The following text is also pointed out: 'And John also baptized in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there' (John 3:23). This may indicate the practice of baptizing with full immersion. But the question is whether this is correct. The Greek does not say 'much water', but 'many waters'. The name of the place literally means 'full of springs'.
According to Paul, baptism means that you are buried with Christ and rise with Him (Rom. 6:1-14). This is difficult to combine with a baptism that is not full immersion.
If baptism is seen as a sign of cleansing, then it is obvious to also consider sprinkling with water as an alternative to immersion. After all, in the Old Testament cleansing also takes place by sprinkling (Isa. 52:15; Eze. 36:25 ff.).
I came across an interesting thought somewhere. According to Jewish traditions, baptism was required in living water. Preferably in a flowing river, but otherwise in a bath filled with water from a river or rainwater. Pouring a baptized person with water perhaps portrays the idea of living water better than a bath filled with tap water.
3. Historical data
3.1 Proselyte baptism
When Gentiles wanted to join the Jewish people, they were baptized, including the children. The children were baptized first, then the adults. The men were circumcised prior to baptism. Children born after the transition were not baptized. After all, they belonged to the people of Israel. If the woman was pregnant at the time of baptism, the child does not need to be baptized at birth.
Around 215, Hippolytus (in The Apostolic Tradition) writes the following about baptism: 'The persons to be baptized must undress and first the children must be baptized. If they can answer for themselves, they should answer. If they can't, their parents or a family member should answer. Then the adult men must be baptized, and finally the women, after they have loosed their hair and taken off their gold ornaments. This procedure is very similar to proselyte baptism. Before this, women also had to loosen their hair and take off their jewelry.
The Jewish ritual bath used for baptisms is called a 'mikva'. Purification in a mikvah was necessary for the initiation and cleansing of a priest, for women after their monthly period and for pagans who wanted to become Jews. Women had to loosen their hair and remove all jewelry before immersing themselves. The similarity with proselyte baptism and Christian baptism is striking. There were many mikvaot (plural of mikvah) present in Jerusalem because of the temple service, after all every Jew who wanted to bring a sacrifice in the temple had to first be cleansed in a mikvah. This also explains how it was possible that thousands of people were baptized after Peter's speech at Pentecost. They undoubtedly used mikvaot for that.
Various interpreters argue that the mikvah does not appear in the Old Testament, and this phenomenon is therefore not relevant to the theology of baptism. The question is whether this is not too simplistic [v]. Ritual cleansing by water certainly occurs in the Old Testament. Jacob must wash with his family before making an altar in Bethel (Gen. 35:2). Before God appears on Sinai, the people must wash their bodies and clothes (Ex. 19:10). In Leviticus we find many texts about ritual cleansing by water. And the prophets also refer to this. So we read in Jer. 2:22 “If you wash yourselves with lye and use plenty of soap, your iniquity will remain as a blot in my eyes, declares the Lord GOD.” This ritual cleansing was clearly connected with the forgiveness of sins (see also, e.g., Isa. 1:16; 4:4; Eze. 36:25). Yet we must read carefully. In many cases this involves a ritual sprinkling or immersion, and we do not clearly encounter a complete immersion of persons. With possibly one exception, namely Naaman who baptizes himself seven times in the Jordan when he is healed of leprosy.
From Rabbinic literature we know that there were a series of regulations regarding the cleansing procedure in a ritual bath, the mikvah. The mikvah was so important that when a new community of Jews settled somewhere, they were more likely to build a mikvah than a synagogue. The ritual cleansing had to take place in 'living water'. That is water from a source, river or the sea. This means that at one point in Jewish tradition, various Torah laws regarding the purification of persons were interpreted to require complete immersion. The cleaning of sacred objects, as we find it fully elaborated in the Jewish tradition, also has its origins in the Torah (Lev. 11:32). It is not clear how far back in time the full immersion of individuals goes. Proponents of baptism by complete immersion tend to see complete immersion wherever there is a ritual cleansing by water. Opponents argue that the mikvah is a late Rabbinic tradition that cannot be found in the Old Testament itself, and that full immersion does not or hardly appear in the Old Testament.
There is another striking argument that full immersion may be relatively old after all. The large laver in the temple had a diameter of about 4½ meters and a depth of 2¼ meters. The capacity was 44,000 liters (1 Kings 7:23-26; 2 Chron. 4:1-6). This strongly suggests that the ritual cleansing by the priests also involved complete immersion, otherwise there would be little point in making the vessel so large.
For our study it is important to note that when ritual immersion occurs in Rabbinic traditions, the person to be cleansed always submerges himself, without the help of others [vi]. There had to be witnesses. So when John baptizes, the baptized themselves go under water while John is a witness. A depiction of the baptism of Jesus in the catacombs of Rome from the second century shows John standing at the edge of the water and extending his hands to Jesus who has baptized Himself. The practice that we know from the practice of many evangelical Christians and Baptists, namely that one or two people hold the person being baptized under water, has no Biblical basis. Also in the old church the person being baptized himself went under water, completely naked. When the person being baptized emerged from the water again, he was given white clothes.
Finally, a point to consider regarding the question of the relevance of Rabbinic traditions. Until about the year 100 there was no separation between the Jews on the one hand and the Messianic Jews and the Gentile Christians on the other. The Messianic Jews adhered to Jewish rules, and the Gentile Christians were asked to adhere to the same rules as the proselytes – the so-called Noahide commandments[vii] – to ensure that coexistence with the Jews was not hindered. All the books of the Bible were written before the year 100. So it is very unlikely that when thinking about baptism we can completely ignore the Rabbinic traditions about ritual cleansing.
3.2 Ancient witnesses
As mentioned earlier, the number of texts about baptism from the first centuries is very limited. There is no text before the year 200 that explicitly mentions infant baptism. But it is a fallacy [viii] to conclude from this that there was no infant baptism. For example, it is possible that infant baptism was so obvious that it was therefore not mentioned.
There is a text by Origen from approximately 200 in which he states that infant baptism is a tradition of the apostles (Ep. Ad Rom. 5:9). Proponents of faith baptism argue that Origen is lying and only appeals to the apostles to increase his authority. It is further claimed that in Origen's time baptism of very young children had begun, but the general practice was still baptism by faith. Cyprian, a bishop from the third century, also states (in letter 72) that infant baptism was a teaching of the apostles.
Reference has already been made to a text by Hippolytus that speaks of the baptism of children. Proponents of baptism by faith claim that this remark must be an addition from the 4th century, without further substantiation being given, because the baptism of children only originated in the 4th century [ix].
At the Synod of Carthage around the year 250, infant baptism is considered the rule [x], but there were also opponents such as Tertullian. This resistance of Tertullian in particular is widely reported by opponents of infant baptism. Wrongly, because Tertullian's resistance shows that infant baptism was then generally practiced in North Africa - to which the comments relate. Moreover, in this text he specifically speaks of the baptism of children who came along when their pagan parents joined the church. Apparently it was customary for godparents to be responsible for the Christian upbringing of these children, and Tertullian believes that this means they take too much responsibility. As Tertullian a few years later in a discussion of 1 Cor. 7 writes again about baptism, he seems to be positive about infant baptism, although there are also people who read this text by Tertullian differently and argue that he is not talking about baptism here at all.
It is interesting to mention that according to the Didachè (± 100 AD) it is possible to pour over the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit instead of baptizing in running water: 'You must baptize as follows. Having said all the above, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit with running water. If you don't have running water, baptize with other water. If it is not possible with cold water, then with warm. If you have neither, pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Around 112, Pliny, governor of Bithynia under Trajan, wrote a letter to the emperor. He asks for advice on how to persecute Christians. In this letter he writes that even the smallest children were included in the congregation. That could indicate that they were baptized.
Various authors point out that epitaphs of children who died early teach us that they were considered religious by their Christian parents. This could indicate that they were also baptized, because in the language of the time only baptized people were referred to as believers. Around 120 Aristides described a funeral of a child. He praised God because the baby “departed sinless.” It is not likely that what is meant here is that the child was born innocently. It is more obvious to think of the fact that the child has been baptized.
Other examples are cited by defenders of infant baptism. Around the year 160, at the age of 86, Polycarp was given the choice of either blaspheming Christ or being martyred. He then speaks the words: 'Eighty-six years I have served Him and in nothing has He wronged me. How then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?'. There are those who say that Polycarp here refers to his infant baptism.
Around 180, Irenaus writes in one of his writings about the church in Lyon that 'infants, little children, young men and the elderly are born again to God through Christ'. Given the context of the text, there is every reason to assume that he is talking about baptism here, it is stated.
If we look at the whole, not all texts are equally clear. Yet one can hardly deny that children were also baptized in the first centuries. Various authors who defend baptism by faith do not deny this, but of course maintain that this is not Biblical.
For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned here that in addition to the passages described above, there are the necessary descriptions of baptism by faith in ancient literature. There is no doubt that it was practiced by the early Christians, and was indeed the most commonly practiced form. The question is whether when pagans came to faith their children were also baptized. And the question is what happened to children of religious parents: were they baptized as children or only later after they had openly believed? The problem is that Christianity grew so rapidly during the period we are talking about that we have to assume that most of the people (or all of the people?) who received faith baptism came from paganism.
At first, baptism was mainly seen as a symbol of the relationship with Jesus. But this shifted in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Then baptism took on a performative function; baptism actually achieved forgiveness of sins and guaranteed access to heaven. In combination with the elaborated doctrine of original sin, this led to the baptism of infants where baptism was supposed to wash away original sin, mainly under the influence of Augustine's theology. On the other hand, there were also those who practiced baptism as late as possible – shortly before death – so that one could enter heaven without sin. In fact, it was assumed – wrongly – that one did not have to be so strict with the Christian lifestyle until baptism, and for that reason postponed baptism as long as possible [xi]. This performative function of baptism is today defended neither by the proponents of infant baptism nor by the proponents of faith baptism [xii].
3.3 Children at the Lord's Supper
A point of attention that most literature on baptism ignores is the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Based on texts about Sunday celebrations in the old church, it is assumed that children also participated in the celebration of the Lord's Supper [xiii]. The Lord's Supper is the fulfillment of the celebration of the Passover meal. The children of the family also participated in the Passover meal. For that reason too, it is obvious that children participated in celebrating the Lord's Supper. It is obvious to assume that these children were baptized. In the third century, baptized infants were also given wine with the Lord's Supper.
Much later, the sacrament of Confirmation was introduced at the age of 7. After this sacrament was administered, people were allowed to participate in the Lord's Supper. During the time of the Reformation, people distanced themselves from this sacrament, for which there is no Biblical basis, and started with catechesis and confession. The public confession of faith gave permission to celebrate the Lord's Supper. It is striking that discussions are now taking place in various reformed churches as to whether children may also participate in the Lord's Supper.
It is not clear whether pagans only joined in celebrating the Lord's Supper after they had been baptized. This was certainly the case in the third century, but we do not know whether it has always been the case. The tendency to postpone baptism as long as possible – as mentioned in the previous paragraph – even led at a certain point to the Lord's Supper being greatly neglected, as there were (almost) no more people who were allowed to partake of it.
That children of religious parents only participate in the Lord's Supper after they have been baptized as adults - as is now customary in evangelical and Baptist churches - was certainly not the practice in the first centuries.
4. Theological considerations
Some theologians who oppose infant baptism claim that baptizing children makes no sense because children have not yet committed any sins. These theologians therefore deny original sin. Paul's text in 1 Cor. 7:14 that the children of believing parents are sanctified in their parents is interpreted in such a way that the chance that these children will come to faith at a later age is greater than children who grow up in a non-Christian family. But this does not mean that children from a non-Christian family are lost if they die young.
A fully developed dogma on original sin is not found until the fourth century. But that's nothing special; all dogmata only emerged in the course of church history. The question is whether the Bible teaches that children are 'conceived and born in sins', to quote a text from the Reformed baptism form.
Reference can be made to a number of texts from Paul's letter to the Romans:
Rom. 3: 21-26 “Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been manifested, the law and the prophets testifying, the righteousness of God through faith in [Jesus] Christ, to all who believe. because there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. To Him God has presented a means of propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, having forgiven the sins previously committed through the forbearance of God - to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He himself is righteous, even if he justifies him who believes in Jesus.
Rom. 5: 12-21 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, so death spread to all men, because all sinned. for before the law there was sin in the world. But sin is not imputed when there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the same way as Adam transgressed, who is a type of the one to come. But it is not so with the gift as with the transgression; for if through the one man's trespass many died, much more the grace of God and the gift that is by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. And it is not so with the gift as with the sinning of one; for judgment led from one trespass to condemnation, but the gift of grace led to justification from many trespasses. For if by one man's trespass death reigned through that one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness will live and reign through one, Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one act of transgression brought condemnation to all men, so also one act of righteousness brought justification to all men. For as through one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so through one man's obedience many will be made righteous. But the law was added, so that the transgression increased; But where sin abounded, grace more than abounded, that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness unto eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
In this context reference can also be made to Ps. 51:7 where David says: 'Behold, in iniquity was I born, in sin my mother conceived me'.
In my opinion, the Bible clearly teaches that sin is in us from birth. On the other hand, it should also be noted that this 'original sin' is nowhere connected with baptism. That is something that only became the case later in church history.
The Old Testament focuses strongly on the family. Being born as a boy in a religious family was enough to be circumcised. The question is whether this is the same in the New Testament. Theologians who defend baptism by faith have a strong tendency to see a contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament: in the Old Testament covenant is collective, but in the New Testament the covenant is individual. That is a bit exaggerated on both sides. In the Old Testament too, everyone is ultimately asked individually to believe; Even then, the fact that one was born a Jew was not sufficient to be saved. It was about the 'circumcision of the heart'. On the other hand, you may wonder whether the New Testament did not think more collectively than is suggested here. Reference can be made to the so-called 'house texts' and Peter's statement that the promise is for all hearers and their children (Acts 2:38). We have already seen that these texts are read differently by defenders of baptism by faith; they argue that vicarious faith is not Biblical. Parents cannot believe for their children. Defenders of infant baptism point to a number of other examples of vicarious faith:
- When friends bring a paralytic to Jesus' bed, Jesus forgives the paralytic's sins on the basis of the friends' faith (Matt. 9:2)
- Because the Canaanite woman believes, her daughter is healed (Matt. 15:28)
- Because the centurion of Capernaum believed, his servant was healed (Matt. 8:13)
Opponents of infant baptism point out that in the Old Testament there is a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, and the covenant is missing in the New Testament. However, that is too simplistic. On the one hand, the New Testament states that the covenant with Israel now also applies to believers from the Gentiles (Eph. 2:12), on the other hand, the New Testament points out that the promise of a new covenant has been fulfilled by Jesus Christ. (Heb. 8:8). This promise of a new covenant is already announced in the Old Testament:
Jer. 31:31-34 “Behold, the days come, declares the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: my covenant which they broke, though I was their lord, declares the Gentlemen. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after these days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and write it in their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall Be to me a people. And they shall no more teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and will not forgive their sin. remember more'.
In this context, the text from Ezekiel 18:20-24 is striking. Here it is clearly stated that everyone has their own responsibility: 'The soul that sins, it will die. A son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall a father bear the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous will rest on himself alone, and the wickedness of the wicked will rest on himself alone. But if the wicked turn from all his sins and keep all My statutes and do what is right and righteous, he will surely live. he will not die. (…) But if a righteous man turneth from his righteous walk, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations which the wicked doeth, shall he live? None of his righteous deeds will be taken into account. For the unfaithfulness which he hath committed, and for the sin which he hath committed, therefore shall he die.
This text is expressly addressed to the people of the time of the prophet Ezekiel. It is striking that there are defenders of baptism by faith who relate this text to the new covenant entered into by Jesus. Needless to say, in the context of this text in the book of Ezekiel, this is difficult to defend.
It is clear that baptism by faith fits in with our time of increasing individualization. This undoubtedly partly determines its appeal in our time. But that does not mean that this is also Biblical.
4.3 Choose or be chosen
When someone comes to faith, there are two sides to it. On the one hand we can say that this person has made the right choice, on the other hand they will also confess that it was God who chose us (see also Eph. 2:8-9). With a baptism of faith the first aspect quickly becomes more central, with infant baptism of course the second aspect because a child cannot yet choose for himself. If one strongly emphasizes the fact that baptism is an answer to the profession of faith, then one will defend baptism by faith. If, on the other hand, more emphasis is placed on the covenant with God with which God comes to us, then children are more likely to be baptized. Whatever view one defends, one must try to find a good balance between these two aspects. It is God who extends His hand to us, it is the believer who wants to accept that outstretched hand in obedience.
4.4 What does baptism mean?
Before coming to a conclusion, let us first summarize the meaning of baptism. We can express this in three points:
a. Baptism is a sign of the washing away of sin. Hand. 22:16 And now why do you hesitate? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling upon his name.”
b. Baptism is a sign of the washing away of sin. Hand. 22:16 'And now, baptism is a sign of sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rom. 6:3-4 “Or do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We are therefore buried with Him by baptism into death, that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. Do you still hesitate? Arise, be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling upon his name.”
c. In addition, baptism also has a meaning as a sign of entry into the covenant. 1 Cor 12:13 “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks or bond or free, and we were all made to drink into one Spirit.”
After a brief and intensive study of baptism, I feel that I can make a compelling case for infant baptism and then an equally compelling case for faith baptism. In the foundation year of the Evangelical College, Willem Ouweneel once made an impassioned plea for infant baptism, followed by an equally impassioned plea for faith baptism [xiv]. After the subsequent debate, a small poll was held to determine who was in favor of infant baptism and who was in favor of faith baptism. Both groups were about the same size.
Exegesis of the texts on baptism alone cannot provide an answer to the question of whether children may or should be baptized or not. The discussion is especially complicated because at the time the New Testament was written, the vast majority, if not virtually all, of the people who were baptized were from the Jews or the Gentiles. There is not one concrete example of someone who is born into a religious family and is baptized as a small child, but there is also not a single example of someone who grew up in a Christian family and is baptized on confession.
Historical data does not provide a clear picture of the practice of the first Christian communities. It is clear that pagans who came to faith were baptized on a large scale. And it seems that – if they had children – their children were baptized too. But when those children grow up and make a conscious choice for their faith, are they baptized again? And what about the children of the second generation: were children of religious parents baptized as infants or only when they had made their own decision as they grew older? The parallel with proselyte baptism does not really help us. After all, within Judaism there was no ritual that marked the moment when a young person consciously came to faith.
This means that we have to take other considerations into account. The first consideration is the concept of covenant. Children born in a family whose parents are religious have a different position than children in a non-religious family. They are holy, in the Biblical sense of the word. Whether you attach the concept of covenant to this or not, for me this is a Biblical fact. But this does not mean that the child is automatically religious, or that children who did not grow up religious cannot also become religious. Everyone is asked to make a conscious choice. Many evangelical Christians and Baptists as well as Reformed Christians recognize this.
Baptism is best approached by words from their meaning. Baptism is a sign of the one-time transition from the world to a new life with Christ. Baptism is therefore also a sign of the forgiveness of sin. And a sign of inclusion in the covenant that God gives.
Based on this meaning of baptism, baptism by confession is the starting point. It is God who offers us His covenant. The one who is baptized accepts that covenant of God. With regard to infant baptism, I agree with the following quote: 'infant baptism is a derived practice, which finds its justification in an appeal to the covenant that God enters into with His church' [xv]. Baptism must be seen in the context of a professing church, which, as the body of Christ, witnesses the covenant with God, and within which the work of the Holy Spirit can take shape.
Personally, I find the combination of child dedication and baptism by confession closest to the meaning of baptism as found in the New Testament. But this is not to say that infant baptism and public confession of faith are not permitted.
As a form of baptism, full immersion does most justice to the meaning of baptism.
Finally, consideration could be given to not only dedicating children of religious parents as infants, but also allowing them to celebrate the Lord's Supper at some point, even if they have not yet been baptized.
[i] This refers to the baptism of children who are still so young that they cannot make their own decision regarding baptism. The term infant baptism is also used, although children up to 3 years old were also baptized in the past
[ii] The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church also practice infant baptism
[iii] Hendrik F. Stander, Johannes P. Louw; De doop in de vroege kerk
[iv] It is striking that in the well-known ‘Beknopte gereformeerde dogmatiek’ by J. van Genderen and W.H. Velema, there is a strong connection between circumcision and (infant) baptism
[v] Grateful use has been made of this for the sequel: Barry Fike; Mikveh – the relationship of Jewish ritual immersion and Christian baptism.
[vi] In Hebrew and Aramaic, the verbs for "baptize" are intransitive
[vii] This is the essence of the decision of the Jerusalem meeting in Hand. 15:1-2
[viii] Namely a ‘argumentum ex silentio’
[ix] Another fallacy, namely a ‘petitio principii’ (circular reasoning)
[x] One of the points of discussion was whether the babies should be baptized two or three days after birth, or whether this should be postponed until the eighth day, following the example of circumcision.
[xi] See: Dr. M.A. van Willigen; Christus volgen, Doop en avondmaal in de Vroege Kerk
[xii] In fact, this teaching is reflected in Roman Catholic theology.
[xiii] See f.i. Robert Banks; Going to church in the first century, en Robert Banks; Paul’s idea of community.
[xiv] Mentioned in an article in the ND (Dutch Journal) of 26 june 2015
[xv] G. van den Brink, C. van der Kooi; Christelijke dogmatiek.