Saturday, March 23, 2019


I think the traditional arguments for infant baptism and believer's baptism are indecisive and basically cancel each other out. I think the strongest argument for infant baptism is sociological: Was there a 1C cultural presumption that the religion of (underage) children is the religion of their parents? A default ascriptive status. If so, ir carries the presumption that the rite of Christian initiation extends to children of Christian parents. Conversely, if believer's baptism was, in fact, the original position, then we'd expect the NT to be much more explicit since it would need to counter the cultural presupposition. I recently linked to a detailed exposition of that argument:

I find the sociological argument mildly persuasive, although it's not a knockdown argument. 

I think the best argument for believer's baptism goes like this: the church fathers began to view baptism as a rite that washed away the guilt of original sin. That development led to the complementary development of infant baptism. Dying unbaptized babies were damned because they died in a state of original sin. Given high rates of infant mortality, infant baptism was a preemptive measure to ensure the salvation of dying infants. 

I think that's a plausible historical reconstruction. Although patristics is not my bailiwick, I think it's easy to document that confluence of factors. 

However, it's possible that infant baptism was the original practice, with a different rationale. What happened wasn't the novel introduction of infant baptism, but the novel introduction of a new rationale that co-opted the original rationale. 

As a Zwinglian, I don't think either side has much to gain if they are right or much to lose if they are wrong. The real danger is when faith in the (alleged) efficacy of the sacraments usurps faith in Christ. It becomes important when people make it more important than it is. 


  1. I think the best argument for believer's baptism is the New Testament's detailed teaching on the nature and efficacy of the New Covenant, and the privileges enjoyed by New Covenant members (particularly when considered in contrast with those of the Old Covenant).

    > I think the strongest argument for infant baptism is sociological: Was there a 1C cultural presumption that the religion of (underage) children is the religion of their parents?

    Did the early church consider their faith in the Messiah using "a religion" as their fundamental category? That seems to me to need a lot of fleshing out to understand all the assumptions, theological, cultural and historical, involved. It's easy for us in the 21st century, especially after the enlightenment, to just ascribe Christianity to the category of "religions". I don't deny that there was some sort of such category there in the 1st century particularly for Romans, who formed policy in how to treat the "religions" of the nations they conquered. But, I think there's a lot of work to do to apply that directly to the entirely Jewish early church in the first years when Christian baptism was first encountered and embraced by them.

    Did they see their recognition of Jesus as the Messiah as being the embrace of a new religion? My initial and instinctive reaction to that is "no". (I don't deny that I'd need to do some spade-work too to make a fully-fledged argument). They saw themselves as Jews - true Jews; real Jews; Jews receiving the fulfilment of the Abrahamic promises. I think if somebody told them that they'd just undergone a "rite of initiation into a new religion" they'd have been very perplexed by that suggestion. The reality, and one I think they self-consciously appreciated, was quite different: rather, it was that those who didn't believe were in process of divorcing themselves from what they were.

    As such, probably the great number of the early church carried on circumcising their infants, because they saw that as the great mark of Jewish identity and initiation. There are then plenty of questions as to what happens in subsequent generations, and amongst the Gentiles. But if the fact of the exclusively Jewish composition of the church at the beginning for a number of years is recognised, then things take on a different aspect.

  2. "Did the early church consider their faith in the Messiah using 'a religion' as their fundamental category?"

    The argument isn't what the church considered to be a fundamental category, but what the general culture did, and whether that would require pushback from the church (or NT) if the assumption was mistaken.

    Moreover, the issue isn't whether religion was viewed as a separate category more almost the opposite: one inseparable element in a person's social identity.

    1. But that doesn't affect my point. The general culture also in the formative years considered Christians as just a one more movement within Judaism. Jews who became Christians wouldn't have been seen either within or without the church as having changed their "religion". That's a later development. Circumcision would have still be seen as the fundamental initiation rite into Judaism for some considerable time; even after Gentiles began to join the church in significant numbers, the key question being debated was whether they needed the Jewish initiation rite to to so. The answer given in the New Testament isn't "no, because baptism is now the social marker of a Christian"; it's "no, because faith in the Messiah, evidenced by possession of the Spirit, is all that is required".

      The idea of baptism as an initiation rite in its own right would have taken some significant number of years after that to emerge. My problem with the case being made in that article is that it collapses all this historical development into an instant switch in which Judaism (religion)/circumcision (initiation rite) is replaced neatly by Christianity/baptism. But that's not true to the developments and years needed to achieve them. It's an anachronistic flattening.

      During the apostolic era, the fundamentally Jewish foundation of the church could not be lost site of, even if/where Gentiles came to dominate. The apostles were all Jewish, and everywhere everyone knew that they were being invited to embrace a form of something that was essentially Judaism (accept YHWH as one the true Creator + God, place their faith in the Messiah, recognise the 39 books as the Scriptures given by God, seek the advancement of YHWH's kingdom in the world, etc.), and join an assembly that began with the calling out of Abraham and his family, as (for Gentiles) foreign branches grafted into that tree. There was no other "Christianity" on offer. The conception of Christianity as an **alternative** religion to Judaism can't really come until after AD70, and after the implications of AD70 have been understand and worked their way through. Only after that can baptism start to be looked upon as "an initiation rite into a new religion".

    2. Sorry for all the typos + homonyms and artefacts of brain going faster than fingers can cope with...

  3. I might be wrong, but I thought the ancient Romans had the idea that each people-group had their own god and, as such, in order to totally subjugate a people-group, the Romans had to incorporate each people-group's gods that they defeated into their own pantheon of gods. Something along those lines.

    Anyway, if something like this was true, then perhaps that suggests something like an ancient version of cuius regio, eius religio. If so, then perhaps this in turn suggests individual families in a people would likely have had assumed children had the same God as their parents.

    Admittedly, this is threadbare.

  4. David made Great points.

    I think it should also be remembered that the doctrine of Original Sin wasn't fully developed even by the Apostles (Paul included). Especially a more Catholic understanding of the doctrine. So, in the first century there wouldn't have been a sense of urgency in making sure a child's sins were washed away lest it die in that state unexpectedly. Though, that's not to deny that there were Jewish speculations about infant sins and hereditary sins (as can be seen in John 9:2 and in light of the 2nd Commandment that teaches God visits the iniquity of the fathers to 3rd and 4th generation for those who hate YHVH).

    Also, baptism in the Christian community (again a Jewish sect) could have been more naturally seen as being the Messianic (in contrast to non-Messianic Judaism) counterpart to ritual baths and the bar mitzvah. But a "bar mitzvah" that now included females. I wouldn't be surprised if the later Jewish practice of a bat mitzvah was influenced by Christian baptism and other aspects of Christian theology/practice that elevated females. And isn't it true that Jewish ritual baths were performed either primarily or exclusively on non-infants? Mostly for either purification purposes or for conversion to Judaism. Given the under developed doctrine of Original Sin, children would have been seen as relatively innocent and so not needing spiritual cleansing by water. The baptisms in the Gospels (John's and later the Lord's) of Jews were not for the purpose of converting to a new religion, but for repentance and preparation for the coming Kingdom of God which they already hoped/waited for AS Jews.

    In 1 Cor. 1:17 (15-17) Paul implied that the preaching and reception of the Gospel (and its benefits) aren't essentially tied to baptism. The incident where the disciples initially forbade parents from having Jesus bless their children would seem odd if they were previously baptized along with their parents. Even many paedobaptists admit that infants weren't baptized under John the Baptist's and Christ's baptism. If they weren't baptized then, what changed? As has been said, Christianity wasn't a new religion, but another Jewish sect. The point is that even many paedobaptists admit that the Doctrine (e.g. rationale) and Practice of infant baptism developed EVEN in the Apostolic church. Despite disagreement as to how slowly or instantaneously it became Apostolic dogma.

    In 1 Cor. 7:14 Paul could have launched into a developed explanation of why believers who had unbelieving spouses Need/Needn't fear that their children weren't baptized. That he didn't would be consistent with the early church not practicing paedobaptism. He didn't need to precisely because of his theology that the extension of the benefits of holiness was centered around **Belief** in the Gospel (a very Protestant, rather than Catholic, view).


    1. Given that the Gentile church understood that circumcision wasn't necessary for their baby boys, and since baby girls already weren't circumcised in Judaism [already half the infant population], there wouldn't have been the felt theological need to have a Christian counterpart to Non-Messianic Jewish circumcision. Especially if they wanted to avoid a heresy similar that which came to a head among the Galatians that tied rituals to salvation.

      Though, being emotional humans, and not perfect theologians, it's very natural for Christian parents to want to do SOMETHING to signal that their children are somehow connected to/with their religion. That's why even modern Baptists have a longing for some kind of church dedication for newborns. So, I do suspect that infant baptism was practiced early on in the church. Not universally as an official Apostolic dogma but as a harmless concession (maybe even by some Apostles) that eventually developed into what we find in the patristic literature.

      It's PRECISELY the fact that there is this natural parental tendency to want to initiate their children into their religion with some sort of ritual that the facts that 1. the origins of infant baptism are not clearly traceable to the apostles, and 2. that there were some who clearly delayed their baptism in the post-Apostolic church that suggests to me that believer's baptism is more likely the original Apostolic teaching. If infant baptism was a universal practice by all Christians at the end of the 1st century, then why are there still some teachings and practices in the church that suggest credobaptism in later (yet still early) centuries (like to the 4th)? At the very least there was often an absence of teaching regarding infant baptism in literary sources that gave lengthy and elaborate instructions regarding baptism in general. Weren't some of the church fathers themselves raised in Christian homes and weren't baptized as infants, but as adults (and after catechetical instruction)? Though, admittedly some don't count even though baptized as adults because both parents were Christians in their infancy.