Baptists and various other Evangelical groups believe that baptizing infants is contrary to the Bible. Catholics, in contrast, see it as not only Biblical, but salvific. The stakes are huge on this one, because it might be the difference between a person dying baptized or unbaptized. So let’s consider the case against infant baptism (and why it fails), followed by the case for infant baptism.
You can find the typical arguments made against infant baptism presented by GotQuestions?. I’ll be presenting their arguments (all of which I reject) in red. Their arguments here are pretty standard fare, but if I’ve overlooked any arguments against infant baptism, feel free to add them in the comments below. GotQuestions begins its case this way:
Spinello Aretino, The Infant St. John the Baptist presented to Zacharias (1390)
There is much confusion about baptism in the various Christian denominations. However, this is not a result of the Bible presenting a confusing message on baptism. The Bible is abundantly clear of what baptism is, who it is for, and what it accomplishes.
Ironically, I agree with this: the Bible is clear. But as we’ll see, it presents exactly the opposite teaching of what GotQuestions presents. Let’s consider each of the three arguments they raise:
This is a weak argument from silence. Spelled out, it would go something like this:
- We don’t know of any infants who were baptized in the Bible;
- Therefore, there were no infants baptized by the Apostles;
- Therefore, the Church must have forbidden baptism to infants.
But there’s no way to jump from (1) to (2), or from (2) to (3). To see why this argument fails, replace infants with teenagers. After all, we don’t know of any teenagers who were baptized in the Bible, either. Sure, we know of entire households baptized (Acts 16:15, Acts 18:8), but we don’t know whether those households included infants or teenagers.
So the Bible is equally silent on teenager baptism as infant baptism. But nobody jumps from that silence (1) to claiming that teeanger baptism didn’t occur (2), or is forbidden (3). It would be absurd to make those logical leaps.
The argument from silence is particularly unconvincing in the face of two further facts: (a) there’s no prohibition against infant baptism, and (b) the Biblical silence is easily explained.
- For (a), consider that the Bible doesn’t say you can’t baptize infants. So the argument from silence cuts both ways. In fact, we’re told to baptize everyone (Matthew 29:19), so the lack of any special instructions for infants seems to argue for infant baptism rather than against it.
- For (b), we know why the Bible doesn’t talk about infant baptism. At the time, almost all of the new Christians were converts: almost nobody was born a Christian, because Christianity was too new. The Book of Acts focuses on the Apostles’ conversion of their Jewish and pagan neighbors. It’s not until late in the Apostolic age that we start to meet Christians like St. Timothy, who come from Christian families (2 Timothy 1:5).
|Pietro Longhi, The Christening (1755)|
The second argument is that infant baptism destroys the symbolism of Baptism, which defeats the point:
Infant baptism is the origin of the sprinkling and pouring methods of baptism – as it is unwise and unsafe to immerse an infant under water. Even the method of infant baptism fails to agree with the Bible. How does pouring or sprinkling illustrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
It seems like an utterly trivial point whether the baptism is by immersion or sprinkling, but for GotQuestions, baptism is only a symbol. Sprinkling obscures that symbolism, and destroys the point of Baptism. Underlying this is a denial that Baptism does anything:
Baptism does not save a person. It does not matter if you were baptized by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling – if you have not first trusted in Christ for salvation, baptism (no matter the method) is meaningless and useless.
I mentioned before that I agree with GotQuestions that the “Bible is abundantly clear of what baptism is, who it is for, and what it accomplishes.” Let’s consider that Biblical evidence, starting with 1 Peter 3. After explaining how Noah and his family “were saved through water,” St. Peter says (1 Peter 3:21-22):
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
Jesus likewise says (Mark 16:16), “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” So here’s where the dispute is:
- GotQuestions explicitly denies that Baptism saves you: “Baptism does not save a person.”
- The Bible explicitly affirms that Baptism saves you: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.” (1 Peter 3:21).
Since there’s no way to rationally hold both that Baptism does and does not save, either GotQuestions or the Bible must be wrong.
As for the question of whether it’s okay to baptize by pouring rather than immersing, consider this passage from the first-century Didache: showing that pouring was permitted during the Apostolic age:
Now about baptism: this is how to baptize. Give public instruction on all these points, and then “baptize” in running water, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” If you do not have running water, baptize in some other. If you cannot in cold, then in warm. If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand.
So the Church at the time of the Apostles permitted the pouring method of Baptism when necessary. Yet many Protestants prohibit it. Why? For these Protestants, the symbolism of Baptism is critically important, because that’s all it is to them. In contrast, the Didache shows that the Apostolic Church wasn’t overly hung up on the symbolism, because they recognized that Baptism was much more than a symbol.
GotQuestions claims that “Water baptism by immersion is a step of obedience to be done after salvation as a public profession of faith in Christ and identification with Him.” In other words, it’s primarily something that we do for God. We declare our conscious choice for Christ. This is closely tied to the idea that it’s just a symbol. But as we’ve already seen, this isn’t true: Baptism does something. And in the action of Baptism, God is the primary actor in Baptism, as He is in all the Sacraments. He acts in Baptism by saving us, and removing our sins.
We see this clearly in the passage we’ve already looked at in 1 Peter 3, in which he says that Baptism is “an appeal to God for a clear conscience” (1 Peter 3:21). That is, we’re asking God for a clear conscience (by having our sins forgiven), not telling Him that our conscience is already clear.
|Pietro De Cortana, Ananias Restoring the sight of Saint Paul (1631)|
We see this also in Acts 22:16. There, St. Paul recounts how Ananias told him “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” Paul already believed at this point, and his sight was already restored (Acts 22:13), yet he still needed to have his sins forgiven. And those sins were washed away in Baptism. This wasn’t just some symbol of a past event: Baptism actually did something.
This pattern is found throughout Scripture, including in the Old Testament. St. Peter noted, in the passage we looked at above, that Noah’s Ark prefigured baptism with its theme of salvation through water. St. Paul makes the same point about the Israelites passing through the Red Sea under the Cloud of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 10:1-4). Other examples abound, like the healing of Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5. Christ signifies this in His miracles, restoring sight through washing (John 9:11). Even the symbolism of Baptism points to this: water is associated with cleansing to signify the spiritual signifying that Baptism brings about.
Here’s how St. Paul describes God’s action in Baptism (Ephesians 5:25-27):
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
But when the kindness and generous love of God our Savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of His Mercy, He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by His grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life
In reducing Baptism to a symbol, and one that only adults who view themselves as saved Christians can perform, these Protestants have ironically reduced Baptism into a good work for us to perform for God, rather than the gratuitous work of God in wiping away our sins and bringing about our salvation.
Having seen that the case against infant baptism is weak (and built upon false assumptions about Baptism), let’s consider the case for infant Baptism:
|John Phillip, Baptism in Scotland (1850)|
Baptism is how we are brought into the Church, the Kingdom of God. This is, I hope, a relatively uncontroversial point, and we see it in Acts 2:41-42: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That is, they were “added” to the Church because they were baptized. (This passage is sometimes cited as “proof” against infant Baptism: I’ll address that aspect further in the Conclusion). Likewise, Paul says that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Cor. 12:13). We also hear this proclaimed directly by Jesus Christ in John 3:5, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”
So, if Baptism is how we’re added to the Church, we’re faced with an oddity: if infant Baptism is forbidden, then there’s no such thing as Christian babies. There are Jewish babies and Muslim babies and all sorts of other babies, but not Christian babies. Infants and small children aren’t allowed into the Kingdom of God, because they’re not old enough to make a profession of faith. Now consider that oddity in light of Luke 18:15-17,
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
In the parallel account, Mark adds that Jesus “took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them” (Mark 10:16), the action tied to sending the Holy Spirit upon them (Acts 8:18; Acts 9:17).
These children, even infants, being brought to Jesus are so small that they are being carried there. And Christ is blessing them and saying that the Kingdom belongs to them. Notice how strikingly different Christ’s approach is to that of the Baptists. While the Baptists act as if faith is something that we have to mature into and work towards, Christ treats it as the opposite: little children are naturally trusting; they live by faith, because they’re too weak to do otherwise. To close the doors of the Church to these children – to prevent them from being Christians during these, their most formative years – does them a terrible disservice.
As the means of entrance into the People of God, Baptism replaces circumcision. St. Paul uses this imagery to describe Baptism in Colossians 2:11-12:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
This “circumcision of Christ” is Baptism,
Yet circumcision occurred on the eighth day after birth (Leviticus 12:3). It was only in the case of converts that circumcision was delayed. Of course, circumcision preceded faith for these Jewish boys. But that was part of the point: they were brought up as Jews. Likewise, when we baptize children, we promise to bring them up as Christians.
This is part of a parent’s responsibility to his or her child. Kids don’t know right from wrong, and they learn these things first from their parents. This means that parents have both the right and the duty to raise their children in the true faith. This is reflected nicely in Joshua’s proclamation (Joshua 24:14-15):
Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.
This was true of Old Testament Judaism, and it’s true of New Testament Christianity. Infant Baptism acknowledges the obvious: children tend to believe whatever their parents teach them about God, at least at first. You don’t see a lot of devout Christians with atheistic or skeptical four year-olds. Those children born into Christian families should be raised to start from the perspective of faith.
|Peter Paul Rubens,
The Virgin and Child Surrounded by the Holy Innocents (1618)
This point is straightforward: Scripture repeatedly ties Baptism to salvation. And it doesn’t treat it as the effect of salvation, as Protestantism does. It treats it as a necessary condition for salvation.
As we’ve already seen, Jesus says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5), while Paul said that God “saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5), and Peter said simply “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). And Jesus promises that “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). So Baptism saves.
For this reason, the early Christians were adamant about baptizing children right away. Listen to what St. Cyprian of Carthage said to Fidus on this subject back around 253 A.D.:
But in respect of the case of the infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man. For as the Lord says in His Gospel, “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” [Luke 4:56] as far as we Can, We must strive that, if possible, no soul be lost.
Notice the two camps: one view says that infants should be baptized right away, while the other says that we shouldn’t baptize infants… until they’re eight days old, to better signify that Baptism is the new circumcision. Both of these positions are firmly pro-infant baptism. And the first view wins out because they realize that baptism saves, so we shouldn’t take any chances with the souls of our children. It’s solid logic that we could use more of.
One problem with the credobaptist view is that it views Baptism as some sort of milemarker we arrive at after we have faith. But Scripture presents Baptism as one of the ways that we’re enabled to live the life of discipleship in the first place. Listen to God’s promises in Ezekiel 36:24-28:
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. You shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
As I have mentioned before, there are four features of Baptism detailed there: (1) the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon us in Baptism; (2) it cleanses us from sin (as Acts 22:16 says); (3) not only does it cleanse us from present sins, but it enables us to avoid sinning in the future, with the imparting of a new spirit. That’s how it both justifies and sanctifies us, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11; and (4) it incorporates us into the People of God.
So one of the ways that Baptism saves us is through the Holy Spirit’s pouring out the graces that enable us to be true disciples of Christ. That’s why Baptism is more like the starting line than the finish line for the faith. That’s probably also why Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations involves first “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19) and then “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20).
If you deprive children of Baptism, you’re cutting them off from the very graces that are so critical for discipleship, and even cutting them off from the saving graces they need to go to Heaven. That’s an insane and deadly game of chicken to play with your kids’ souls.
Hopefully, the above has shown both that there aren’t particularly strong reasons to oppose infant Baptism, and there are very strong (life-and-death strength) reasons to favor it. I want to close by considering St. Peter’s Pentecost homily from Acts 2.
Those who oppose infant baptism often cite Acts 2:41, because the three thousand we hear about being baptized appear to be adults who have first come to belief. That’s not surprising: Scripture elsewhere counts just the male heads of household, as Matthew 14:21, and Mt. 15:38 show. What is surprising is what happens right before that. St. Peter specifically said to these three thousand listeners (Acts 2:38-39):
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.
That illustrates several of the themes we’ve considered so far: Baptism is primarily the work of God, it washes away our sins, and it extends to both those old enough to hear the Gospel message and their children. To cut them off is to deprive your children of what God has promised them, and to deprive them of the faith that you owe them as their parent.