In order to unlock this post, you must first name six songs (because anyone can name five!) that have the word “water” in the title. With that stipulation, the following songs, even though they are all about water, would not count. In other words, “NO” to songs like “Come Sail Away,” “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” And “YES” to our loophole song of the day, “Waterloo” (ABBA). Even though it is not about water, it still would count since it has “water” in the title. How many can you name in a minute? Go! (That’s right, don’t read on; name that song, and then five more). Here are my six: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon and Garfunkel), “Smoke on the Water” (Deep Purple), “Black Water” (Doobie Brothers), “Wade in the Water” (the spiritual), “Cool Water” (The Sons of the Pioneers) and “Dirty Water” (originally by the Standells, more recently by the Drop Kick Murphys). You know, I do love that dirty water!
Okay, that was just to get you in the mood because in this series we are talking about water; that baptismal water. More specifically, we are asking if baptismal water can rightly (biblically) be applied to infants. Now, this one question entails all sorts of others. For instance . . .
- Is it proper to rebaptize someone? (the real question here is: Is it possible an earlier baptism didn’t take?)
- What is the proper mode of baptism? (Which is God’s intent: dunking, sprinkling, pouring, or power washing?)
- Who is allowed to baptize someone? (Pastors, pastors who won’t lapse any time soon, any believer, or any believer who is also a lifeguard?)
- Does baptism save?
- More importantly, does baptism do anything at all?
Let’s say it together: That’s a lot of water questions! To make things worse, we ended our discussion last week on a discouraging note. We quoted Scot McKnight as saying: “Right up front, I admit there is no text in the New Testament that explicitly reveals the practice of infant baptism in the apostolic church. No text in the New Testament ever says explicitly, ‘So Paul baptized Publius’ three-day-old daughter Junia.’” (page 4, It Takes a Church to Baptize, Brazos Press, 2018). So, if we can’t just turn to the New Testament to answer our questions, where do we start? Let’s start AFTER the New Testament with the 2nd century church.
Here, the evidence is overwhelming. We have written confirmation that infant baptism was the practice of the western church in 180 AD and in the eastern church in 233 AD. Do you need proof? Here’s what Aristides in his “Apology” (a 2nd Century document) says: “But slaves and maidservants and children, if some of them have any, they persuade to become Christians because of their love for them; and when they have become such, they call them brothers without making a distinction.” In short: children are understood to be part of the Christian family. Irenaeus (in “Against Heresies”) writes: “He came to save all through means of Himself–all, I say, who through him are born again to God–infants, and children and boys and youths, and old men.” Hippolytus (in “The Apostolic Tradition”) wrote: “The children should be baptized first. All of the children who can answer for themselves, let them answer. If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family.” John Chrysostom (in “Against Julian”) says: “For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by [personal] sins, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his [Christ’s] members.”
Tertullian argues against infant baptism, but by arguing so strongly against it, we see just how prevalent it was in the second century. He writes: “So let them come when they are bigger, when they can learn, whey they can be taught where to come; let them become Christians when they are able to know Christ.” Again, Tertullian is arguing here against the practice, but by arguing against it we see that infant baptism must have been a widespread belief throughout the church (a modern scholar even says, “Tertullian is endeavoring ‘by every means in his power to stem the tide of infant baptism.’” And Augustine (in “Genesis”) says: “The custom of Mother church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be scorned, nor is it to be regarded in any way as superfluous, nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything except apostolic.” That’s quite a heritage! I think it is clear that by the second century the church was deeply immersed in the practice of infant baptism. And look at those names. It wasn’t happening in some backroom by some third-rate pastor (one day, I hope to be third-rate!). It was being done everywhere because the top theologians of the early church believed this was the practice handed down to them by the apostles.
But let’s slow this waterpark down a bit. Maybe we should not dismiss Tertullian’s argument too quickly. It is clear that Tertullian believed that adult baptism was far more preferable to infant baptism because only adults can make a wise and meaningful decision to follow Christ, infants can’t. Shouldn’t that fact alone tilt the argument in favor of adult baptism? To say out loud what we all are thinking: Yes, the early church practiced infant baptism, but could they have been wrong?
So, let’s ask the question: Should baptism be limited only to adults? I do not believe so. Why? Three good reasons.
First, limiting baptism to adults sees the sacrament as a step of obedient faith whereby a person comes to Christ. Infant baptism sees the sacrament as welcoming the child of believing parents into the covenant community. After all, everyone (infants, children, men and women) should be allowed to benefit from all the blessings of the believing community–blessings like wisdom, prayer, mutual support, love–and everyone should be included in the worship of God. Jesus himself welcomes little children to himself saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” In short, baptism is a rite that initiates believing adults and their children (even their infant children) into the covenant community as God’s children.
Second, this view sees baptism as our response after coming to faith and emphasizes our active role in that process, but is that the best way to picture our salvation? Doesn’t a helpless and passive baby better represent our standing before God who saves us even while we are dead in our trespasses and sins?
Third (and this is key), in the Old Testament God commanded believers to give the sign and the seal of the covenant to their children. Now, I believe baptism replaces circumcision in the flow of biblical history (we will talk about that next week); but even if you didn’t accept this position, do you think God is more gracious today than he was in the Old Testament or less? If he is more gracious today, then why would he want us to stop giving the sign of the covenant of grace to our children? God has always worked through families. Why would he stop now? Here’s the good news: He doesn’t. Peter, on the day of Pentecost standing in front of thousands of Jewish men and women, says (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 will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Remember, Peter could have drawn a line between the practices of the Old Testament and what he feels ought to happen in his day, but he doesn’t. If there was a difference, we would expect some sort of elaboration on what he means when he says “and your children,” but there is no clarification given which seems to imply that Peter believes that the sign of the covenant (baptism) should be given to children of the new covenant.
Now, if this was the only verse that speaks about whole households being baptized, we could perhaps ignore it, but it is not. Consider these verses:
- Acts 11:14: “He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.”
- Acts 16:15: “When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.”
- Acts 16:31: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
- Acts 16:33: “At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.”
- Acts 18:8: “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:16, “I also baptized the household of Stephanas.”
A writer on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s website asks:
“How would the early Christians—mostly Jews steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures—have understood these verses? God’s Word nowhere says that these households did not include children. Indeed, a Jewish mind would immediately assume that they did! If covenant children were no longer to receive the covenant sign, wouldn’t this have caused tremendous confusion in the early church? Wouldn’t the early believers have needed instruction to the contrary, as they did about so many other problems? Why, then, can’t you find any? This doesn’t make sense . . . unless God actually did continue his mode of relating both to believers and their children!” Exactly!
Bottom line: While the case for infant baptism is not at this point water tight, it’s starting to look pretty good. Yes, it is way too early to declare victory, but it is never too early to celebrate God’s grace in whatever form it comes to us. So, sing with me (I know it doesn’t have “water” in the title, but there is water in the tub!): “Splish splash, I was taking a bath, long about a Saturday night; A rub dub, just relaxing in the tub, thinking everything was alright. . . .”