The doctrine of infant baptism (paedobaptism) has a long and controversial history that extends back in recorded Church history to the early Church fathers, many of whom point to the Scriptures for further historic records. The practice is viewed as a clear extension and privilege accorded by covenant theology (cf. Col 2:11-12). As circumcision marked members of God’s people—including infants—during the Covenant of Works period, so too does baptism serve as the mark of the new members of God’s family under the new Covenant of Grace.
Serving both as an argument for and against the practice, there is agreement that no where do the scriptures specifically ordain the baptizing of infants. This argument from silence offers support (there is no injunction against the practice) and denial (there is no command to baptize infants). It is this silence that makes the practice controversial in the eyes of many in the modern Church. It also makes doctrinal support difficult to explain, since an understanding requires multiple layers of theology woven together for its foundation.
Paedobaptists divide the history of God’s people into two covenantal periods. The first period began with the interaction of God and His creations in the Garden. Upon their failure to obey, humankind was unable to maintain eternal life on their own. A ‘works’ covenant was established between God and man; so long as man obeyed the rules, redemption would be provided by the sovereign God. All those covered by the agreement were to be physically marked by circumcision, separating them from other peoples of the world. As the Bible records, humankind generally failed to maintain their end of this agreement. The coming of the Savior heralded a new covenant of grace, one in which those who placed their belief and faith in Christ would be redeemed. He gave as a symbol of this covenant the practice of baptism.
The paedobaptist roots their argument in a consistency requirement between the two covenants. In the first period, all of the males of Israel were circumcised, including the infants and children. They were considered full members of the people of God. At the transition to the covenant of Grace, paedobaptists insist that membership in God’s people must still include the youngest in the family since no scripture records instructions to the contrary. Thus, infants are baptized as a sign of their participation in the covenant.
The scriptural thread that connects the doctrine is long, spanning the Bible from the beginning of the story to the epistles circulated among the early Church. God’s covenant with Abraham is marked by circumcision (Gen 17:9-14). This marking is to remain in place until the new covenant (cf. Jer 31:31-34) is initiated by the coming of Jesus (Gal 3:14-4:7). Though inexplicit with regard to the physical marking, the Lord ordains a new rite of membership in the family, baptism (Mt 28:19-20). The book of Acts records the arguments of the Jerusalem council (cf. Ch 15) regarding the need to discard circumcision as the mark of belonging. Paul states in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 7:14) that the children of believing parents are holy (set apart), connecting the meaning of the two rites (Col 2:11-12).
It is important to note at this point a distinction between the Catholic sacrament of baptism extended to infants and the doctrine applied in Protestant churches. The Catholic sacrament is seen to confer grace ex opere operato, that is ‘by the work performed’. In other words, salvation is conferred by the proper application of the sacraments. The Protestant understanding of an infant baptized is significantly different. Any grace conferred to the infant is via the conduit of the parent’s faith, their belief covering the entire family unit.
John Murray argues in his classic book on the subject, Christian Baptism, that “if infants are excluded now, it cannot be too strongly emphasized that this changes implies a complete reversal of the earlier divinely instituted practice…in other words, the command to administer the sign to infants has not been revoked: therefore it is still in force”. [pp 49-50] Bryan Chapell concurs, saying “The absence of a scriptural command to prohibit administering the sign of the covenant to children after two thousand years of observing such a practice weighs significantly against the view that the apostles wanted only those who were able to profess their faith to be baptized.” [Why do We Baptize Infants, pg 16]
Grace and peace.
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