Infant Baptism Defended

Infant Baptism Defended
Louis Berkhof
(“Systematic Theology” published by The Banner of Truth Trust)

Objections to infant baptism.  A few of the more important objections to infant baptism call for brief consideration.

(1)  Circumcision was merely a carnal and typical ordinance, and as such was destined to pass away.  To put baptism in the place of circumcision is simply to continue the carnal ordinance.  Such carnal ordinances have no legitimate place in the New Testament Church.  In our day this objection is raised by some dispensationalists such as Bullinger and O’Hair, who claim that the baptism instituted by Jesus Christ is connected with the Kingdom and that only the baptism of the Spirit has a proper place in the Church.  The book of Acts marks the transition from water-baptism to Spirit-baptism.  Naturally, this argument would prove all baptism, adult as well as infant, illegitimate.  In this representation of the matter the Jewish and Christian dispensations are placed over against each other as carnal and spiritual, and circumcision is said to belong to the former.  But this argument is fallacious.  There is no warrant for placing circumcision altogether on a level with the carnal ordinances of the Mosaic law.  Says Bannerman:  “Circumcision was independent either of the introduction or abolition of the law of Moses; and would have continued the standing ordinance for admission into the Church of God as the seal of the covenant of grace, had not baptism been expressly appointed as a substitute for it.”  It may be admitted that circumcision did acquire certain typical significance in the Mosaic period, but it was primarily a sign and seal of the covenant already made with Abraham.  In so far as it was a type it naturally ceased with the appearance of the antitype, and even as a seal of the covenant it made way for an unbloody sacrament expressly instituted by Christ for the Church, and recognized as such by the apostles, since Christ had put an end once for all to the shedding of blood in connection with the work of redemption.  In the light of Scripture the position in entirely untenable, that baptism is connected with the Kingdom rather than with the Church, and is therefore Jewish rather than Christian.  The words of the institution themselves condemn this view, and so does the fact that on the birthday of the New Testament Church Peter required of those who were added to it that they should be baptized.  And if it be said that Peter, being a Jew still followed the example of John the Baptist, it may be pointed out that Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, also required that his converts be baptized, Acts 16:15,33; 18: 8;  1 Cor. 1:16.

(2)  There is no explicit command that children must be baptized.  This is perfectly true, but does not disprove the validity of infant baptism.  It should be observed that this objection is based on a cannon of interpretation to which the Baptists themselves are not true when they hold that Christians are in duty bound to celebrate the first day of the week as their Sabbath, and that women must also partake of the Lord’s Supper; for these are things not explicitly commanded.  May not the silence of Scripture be construed for, rather than against infant baptism?  For twenty centuries children had been formally initiated into the Church, and the New Testament does not say that this must now cease, though it does teach that circumcision can no more serve for this purpose, The Lord Himself instituted another rite, and on the day of Pentecost Peter says to those who joined the Church that the promise is unto them and to their children, and further to as many as the Lord Himself shall call.  This statement of Peter at least proves that he still had the organic conception of the covenant in mind.  Moreover, the question may be raised how the Baptist himself can prove the correctness of his own position by an express command of Scripture?  Does the Bible anywhere command the exclusion of children from baptism?  Does it command that all those who are born and reared in Christian families must profess that faith before they are baptized?  Clearly, there are no such commands.

(3)  A closely related objection is that there is no example of infant baptism in the New Testament.  It is perfectly true that the Bible does not explicitly say that children were baptized, though it does apprise us of the fact that the rite was administered to whole households.  The absence of all definite references to infant baptism finds it explanation, at least to a large extent, in the fact that Scripture gives us a historical record of the missionary work of the apostles, but no such record of the work that was carried on in the organized churches.  And here, too, the tables may be easily turned on the Baptist.  Will he show us an example of the baptism of an adult who had been born and reared in a Christian home?  There is no danger that he ever will.

(4)  The most important objection to infant baptism raised by the Baptists, is that, according to Scripture, baptism is conditioned on an active faith revealing itself in a creditable profession.  Now it is perfectly true that the Bible points to faith as a prerequisite for baptism, Mark 16:16; Acts 10:44-48; 16:14, 15, 31, 34.  If this means that the recipient of baptism must in all cases give manifestation of an active faith before baptism, then children are naturally excluded.  But though the Bible clearly indicates that only those adults who believed were baptized, it nowhere lays down the rule that an active faith is absolutely essential for the reception of baptism.  Baptists refer us to the great commission, as it is found in Mark 16:15-16.  In view of the fact that this is a missionary command, we may proceed on the assumption that the Lord had in mind an active faith in those words.  And though it is not explicitly stated, it is altogether likely that He regarded this faith as prerequisite for the baptism of the persons intended.  But who are they?  Evidently, the adults of the nations that were to be evangelized, and therefore the Baptist is not warranted in construing it as an argument against infant baptism.  If he insists on doing this nevertheless, it should be pointed out that on his construction these words prove too much even for him, and therefore prove nothing.  The words of our Saviour imply that faith is a prerequisite for the baptism of those who through the missionary efforts of the Church would be brought to Christ, and do not imply that it is also a prerequisite for the baptism of children.  The Baptist generalizes this statement of the Saviour by teaching that it makes all baptism contingent on the active faith of the recipient.  He argues as follows:  Active faith is the prerequisite of baptism.  Infants cannot exercise faith.  Therefore infants may not be baptized.  But in that way these words might also be construed into an argument against infant salvation, since they not only imply but explicitly state that faith (active faith) is the condition for salvation.  To be consistent the Baptist would thus find himself burdened with the following syllogism:  Faith is the condition sine qua non of salvation.  Children cannot yet exercise faith.  Therefore children cannot be saved.  But this is a conclusion from which the Baptist himself would shrink back.

The ground for infant baptism is:

(1)  The position of our confessional standards.  The Belgic Confession declares in Art. XXXIV that infants of believing parents “ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as the children of Israel formerly were circumcised upon the same promises which are made to our children.”  The Heidelberg Catechism answers the question.  “Are infants also to be baptized?”  as follows:  “Yes, for since they, as well as adults, are included in the covenant and Church of God, and since both redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, the Author of faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to adults, they must also by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be engrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.”  And the Cannons of Dort contain the following statement in 1, Art. 17:  “Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with their parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleased God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor. 7:14).”  These statements of our confessional standards are entirely in line with the position of Calvin, that infants of believing parents, or those who have only one believing parent, are baptized on the basis of their covenant relationship.  The same note is struck in our Form for the Baptism of Infants:  “Since, then, baptism has come in the place of circumcision, the children should be baptized as heirs of the Kingdom of God and of His covenant.”  It will be observed that all these statements are based on the commandment of God to circumcise the children of the covenant, for in the last analysis that commandment is the ground of infant baptism.  On the basis of our confessional standards it may be said that infants of believing parents are baptized on the ground that they are children of the covenant, and are as such heirs of the all-comprehensive covenant-promises of God, which include also the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit unto regeneration and sanctification.  In the covenant God makes over to them a certain grant or donation in a formal and objective way, requires of them that they will in due time accept this by faith, and promises to make it a living reality in their lives by the operation of the Holy Spirit.  And in view of this fact the Church must regard them as prospective heirs of salvation, must regard them as under obligation to walk in the way of the covenant, has the right to expect that, under a faithful covenant administration, they, speaking generally, will live in the covenant, and are duty bound to regard them as covenant breakers, if they do not meet its requirements.  It is only in this way that it does full justice to the promises of God, which must in all their fullness be appropriated in faith by those who come to maturity.  Thus the covenant, including the covenant promises, constitutes the objective and legal ground for the baptism of children.  Baptism is a sign and seal of all that is comprehended in the promises.

(2)  Difference of opinion among Reformed theologians.  Reformed theologians did not agree in the past, and are not even now all unanimous, in their representation of the ground of infant baptism.  Many theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries took the position described in the preceding, namely, that infants of believers are baptized, because they are in the covenant and are as such heirs of the rich promises of God including a title, not only to regeneration, but also to all the blessings of justification and of the renewing and sanctification influence of the Holy Spirit.  Others, however, while recognizing the truth of this representation, were not wholly satisfied with it.  They stressed the fact that baptism is something more than the seal of a promise, or even of all the covenant promises; and that it is not merely the seal of a future good, but also of present spiritual possessions.  The view became rather prevalent that baptism is administered to infants on the ground of presumptive regeneration, but even those who accepted this view did not all agree.  Some combined this view with the other while others substituted it for the other.  Some would proceed on the assumption that all the children presented for baptism are regenerated while others would assume this only in connection with the elect children.  The difference of opinion between those who believe that children of believers are baptized on the ground of their covenant relationship and of the covenant promise, and those who find this ground in presumptive regeneration persisted up to the present time and was the source of a lively controversy, especially in the Netherlands during the last period of the nineteenth, and the beginning of the twentieth, century.  Dr. Kuyper at first spoke of Presumptive regeneration as the ground of infant baptism, and many readily accepted this view.  G. Kramer wrote his splendid thesis on Het Verband van Doop en Wedergeboorte especially in defense of this position.  Later on Dr. Kuyper did not use this expression any more, and some of his followers felt the need of more careful discrimination and spoke of the covenant relationship as the legal, and presumptive regeneration as the spiritual ground of infant baptism.  But even this is not a satisfactory position.  D. Honig, who is also a disciple and admirer of Kuyper, is on the right track when he says in his recent Handbook van de Gerefomeerde Dogmatiek:  “Wedo not baptize the children on the ground of an assumption, but on the ground of a command and an act of God.  Children must be baptized in virtue of the covenant of God” (translation mine).  Presumptive regeneration naturally cannot be regarded as the legal ground of infant baptism; this can be found only in the covenant promise of God.  Moreover, it cannot be the ground in any sense of the word, since the ground of baptism must be something objective, as the advocates of the view in question themselves are constrained to admit.  If they are asked, why they assume the regeneration of children presented for baptism, they can only answer, because they are born of believing parents, that is, because they are born in the covenant.  Naturally, to deny that presumptive regeneration is the ground of infant baptism is not equivalent to saying that it is entirely unwarranted to assume that infant children of believers are regenerated.  This is a question that must be considered on its own merits.

It may be well to quote in this connection the first half of the fourth point of the Conclusions of Utrecht, which were adopted by our Church in 1908. We translate this as follows:  “And, finally, as far as the fourth point, that of presumptive regeneration, is concerned, Synod declares that, according to the confession of our Churches, the seed of the covenant must, in virtue of the promise of God, be presumed to be regenerated and sanctified in Christ, until, as they grow up, the contrary appears from their life or doctrine; that it is however, less correct to say that baptism is administered to the children of believers on the ground of their presumptive regeneration, since the ground of baptism is the command and the promise of God; and that further the judgment of charity, with which the Church presumes the seed of the covenant be regenerated, by no means intends to say that therefore each child is really regenerated, since the Word of God teaches that they are not all Israel that are of Israel, and it is said of Isaac:  in him shall thy seed be called (Rom. 9:6,7), so that in preaching it is always necessary to insist on serious self-examination, since only those who shall have believed and have been baptized will be saved.”

(3)  Objection to the view that children are baptized on the ground of their covenant relationship.  It has been said that, if children are baptized on the ground that they are born in the covenant and are therefore heirs of the promise, they are baptized on another ground than adults, since these are baptized on the ground of their faith or their profession of faith.  But this is hardly correct, as Calvin already pointed out in his day.  The great Reformer answered this objection effectively.  The following is a translation of what Kramer says respecting Calvin’s position on this point: “Calvin finds occasion here in connection with infant baptism, now that he has taken the standpoint of the covenant, to draw the line farther.  Up to this point he has not called attention to the fact that adults too are baptized according to the rule of the covenant.  And therefore it might seem that there was a difference between the baptism of adults and that of children.  The adults to be baptized on the ground of their faith, infants of the ground of the covenant of God.  No, the Reformer declares, the only rule according to which, and the legal ground on which, the Church may administer baptism, is the covenant.  This is true in the case of adults as well as in the case of children.  That the former must first make a confession of faith and conversion is due to the fact that they are outside of the covenant.  In order to be admitted into the communion of the covenant, they must first learn the requirements of the covenant, and then faith and conversion open the way to the covenant.”  The very same opinion is expressed by Bavinck.  This means that, after adults find entrance into the covenant by faith and conversion, they receive the sacrament of baptism on the ground of this covenant relationship.  Baptism is also for them a sign and seal of the covenant.

Infant baptism as a means of grace.  Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  It does not signify one thing and seal another, but sets the seal of God on that which it signifies.  According to our confessional standards and our Form for the administration of baptism, it signifies the washing away of our sins, and this is but a brief expression for the removal of the guilt of sin in justification, and for the removal of the pollution of sin in sanctification, which is, however, imperfect in this life.  And if this is what is signified, then it is also that which is sealed.  And if it be said, as it is sometimes in our Reformed literature, that baptism seals the promise(s) of God, this does not merely mean that it vouches for the truth of the promise, but that it assures the recipients that they are the appointed heirs of the promised blessings.  This does not necessarily mean that they are already in principle in possession of the promised good, though this is possible and may even be probable, but certainly means that they are appointed heirs and will receive the heritage, unless they show themselves unworthy of it and refuse it.  Dabney calls attention to the fact that seals are often appended to promissory covenants, in which the bestowment of the promised good is conditional.

But baptism is more than a sign and seal; it is as such also a means of grace.  According to Reformed theology it is not, as the Roman Catholics claim. The means of initiating the work of grace in the heart, but it is a means for the strengthening of it or, as it is often expressed, for the increase of grace.  This gives rise to a rather difficult question in connection with infant baptism.  It can readily be seen how baptism can strengthen the work of faith in the adult recipient, but it is not so apparent how it can operate as a means of grace in the case of children who are entirely unconscious of the significance of baptism and cannot yet exercise faith.  The difficulty, with which we are confronted here, naturally does not exist for the small number of Reformed scholars who deny that baptism merely strengthens an antecedent condition of grace, and claim that it “is a means for the impartation of grace in a specific form, and for the specific end of our regeneration and in grafting in Christ.”  All the others must, of course, face the problem.  Luther also wrestled with that problem.  He made the efficacy of baptism dependent on the faith of the recipient; but when he reflected on the fact that infants cannot exercise faith, he was inclined to believe that God by His prevenient grace wrought an incipient faith in them through baptism; and, finally, he referred the problem to the doctors of the Church.  Reformed theologians solve the problem by calling attention to three things, which may be regarded as alternatives, but may also be combined.  (1)  It is possible to proceed on the assumption (not the certain knowledge) that the children offered for baptism are regenerated and therefore in possession of the semen fidei (the seed of faith); and to hold that God through baptism in some mystical way, which we do not understand, strengthens this seed of faith in the child.  (2)  Attention may also be called to the fact that the operation of baptism as a means of grace is not necessarily limited to the moment of its administration any more than that of the Lord’s Supper is limited to the time of its celebration.  It may in that very moment serve in some mysterious way to increase the grace of God in the heart, if present, but may also be instrumental in augmenting faith later on, when the significance of baptism is clearly understood.  This is clearly taught in both the Belgic and the Westminster Confession.  (3)  Again, it may be pointed out, as has been done by some theologians (e.g.: Dabney and Vos) that infant baptism is also a means of grace for the parents who present their child for baptism.  It serves to strengthen their faith in the promises of God, to work in them the assurance that the child for whom they stand sponsors has a right of property in the covenant of grace, and to strengthen in them the sense of responsibility for the Christian education of their child.

The extension of baptism to children of unbelievers.  Naturally, only children of believers are the proper subjects of infant baptism.  In several ways, however, the circle has been enlarged.  (1)  Roman Catholics and Ritualists of the Anglican Church proceed on the assumption that baptism is absolutely essential to salvation, since it conveys a grace that can be obtained in no other way.  Hence they consider it their duty to baptize all children that come within their reach, without inquiring as to the spiritual condition of their parents.  (2)  Some call attention to the fact that the promise applies to parents and children and children’s children, even to the thousandth generation, Ps. 105:7-10; Isa. 59:21; Acts 2:39.  In view of these promises they maintain that children whose parents have left the Church have not thereby forfeited their privileges as children of the covenant.  (3)  There are those who externalize the covenant by making it co-extensive with the State in a State-church.  An English child, has, as such, just as much right to baptism as it has to State protection, irrespective of the question, whether the parents are believers or not.  (4)  Some have taken the position that the fact that parents are baptized, also assures their children of a title to baptism.  They regard the personal relation of the parents to the covenant as quite immaterial.  Churches have occasionally acted on that principle, and finally harbored a class of members who did not themselves assume the responsibility of the covenant, and yet sought the seal of the covenant for their children.  In New England this was known as the half-way covenant.  (5)  Finally, the principle of adoption has been applied, in order to obtain baptism for children who were not entitled to it otherwise.  If the parents were unfit or unwilling to vouch for the Christian education of their children, others could step in to guarantee this.  The main ground for this was sought in Gen. 17:12.

 

 

 

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