Where does the Bible condemn infant baptism? My answer is nowhere. But a first premise is useless without supporting evidence. Bearing this in mind, let’s start by considering whether there is good evidence for some Christians to oppose the baptism of infants and small children.
First, many Protestant Christians believe baptism is only a symbolic act. They believe it has no actual changing effect on the baptized person. Second, they may hold that baptism should only be made available to those who have personally made an informed decision to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. To those who are below the age of reason baptism is a no-no and as a result, a no-go. Third, the Protestant may also assert that infant baptism is unbiblical and for that reason to be rejected.
Truthfully, if these three beliefs are true then the rejection of infant baptism is duly merited. However if they are not the Protestant confronts a serious dilemma. I often begin my answer to the objection towards infant baptism with a question of my own: “Do you believe that baptism is only a symbolic act?” The response is typically “yes” to which I reply something like, “I agree with you that babies should not be baptized if baptism is only an action symbolizing one’s commitment to Christ and nothing more, but…” This is where I make my case beginning with an answer to the first question: Is baptism merely symbolic?
Is Baptism Merely Symbolic?
No. It is much more than just a symbolic ritual. Since the first century, Christians have believed and taught that baptism is a means through which we receive grace from God. In other words, ever since the foundation of Christianity Christians have professed that baptism is not merely symbolic but sacramental.
The Letter of Barnabas (A.D. 75), Shepherd of Hermas (A.D. 80) and the Second Epistle of Clement (A.D. 80) are three examples of first century Christian writings that affirm an actual effect caused by baptism. In fact, these letters along with a multitude of other early century Christian writings collectively assert that not only does baptism remit sins and cleanse the soul, but that it is actually necessary for salvation. Because of its “regenerating” effect it brings the Christian into a covenantal relationship with God; that is into a “family bond.” Because of this new life “breathed” by God into the soul at baptism, the newly baptized Christian whether child or adult becomes clean and fit to enter heaven. But without the Sacrament of Baptism and the sanctifying grace it conveys, the soul remains stained by Original Sin (at least) and because “nothing unclean shall enter it,” heaven remains an impossibility for as long as such sin prevails (1).
Even the Protestant historian, J.N.D. Kelly, admits “From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church…As regards its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins” (2).
Furthermore, even reformers like John Calvin believed that baptism renewed the soul and by virtue of its life-giving effect, brought us into a family bond with God. In other words, Calvin believed baptism to be sacramental whether he used such wording or not (an external sign communicating grace). In his work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote that “in baptism, God, regenerating us…makes us his own by adoption…” (3)
Baby Baptism In The Early Church
As you can see, the historical evidence strongly favors a “more-than-symbolic” understanding of baptism in the early Church; but did the early Christians baptize babies? St. Hippolytus writes around A.D. 215: “The children shall be baptized first…If there are any children who cannot answer for themselves, let their parents answer for them, or someone else from their family” (4). Origen of Alexandria writes around A.D. 249: “In the Church, baptism is given for the remission of sins, and, according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants” (5). These, among the other early Christian writings and grave inscriptions from the first centuries after Christ strongly suggest that it was indeed common practice for infants to be baptized from the genesis of Christianity.
Here the Protestant may respond, “You may be able to show me early Christian writings that support infant baptism, but was this practice truly held as orthodox? Were these writings and the beliefs and practices they affirm accepted by the majority of the Christian body?” It’s a good question and an important one. For the Catholic, it should suffice to point out that only one dispute over infant baptism is noted in the early Church, taking place in the 200s. This dispute was not to settle the question of whether babies should be baptized, but rather, whether babies were being baptized soon enough. Because baptism replaces circumcision in the New Covenant, some early Christians (typically converts from Judaism) were stuck in their old ways and were waiting until the eighth day after birth to baptize their children just as they were required to do with circumcision (6&7).
The leaders of the Church recognized that this practice of delaying baptism would actually “deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth” (8). Early Church bishop, St. Cyprian of Carthage, was instrumental in addressing this issue in the third century, as is clearly evident in his writings from that period (9).
What Does The Bible Say?
Perhaps we should start by asking what doesn’t the Bible say. If we are asking whether there are any explicit accounts or affirmations of infant baptism in the Bible, the answer is no. So if the Bible does not explicitly condemn or confirm infant baptism, does it leave us at a standstill without an answer? Of course not. We can dig up plenty of implicit evidence from the Scriptures that helps to support the case for sacramental infant baptism.
First, consider that baptism replaces circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the way in which a male child was brought into full solidarity with God’s covenant people, Israel. Even Jesus, after the customary eight days following birth, underwent this rite of initiation (10). But Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that the new circumcision is a “circumcision made without hands” as we are “buried with him in baptism, in which [we are] also raised with him..” (11)
St. Paul reiterates the covenantal bonding effect of this new rite of initiation in his first letter to the Corinthians (12), leading us to ask our separated brothers and sisters: “Is it not reasonable that God would welcome infants into a family bond with Himself in the New Covenant, if, in the Old Covenant He was willing to do so with eight-day-olds?” Remember Jesus’ words to his apostles: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (13).
Second, look at what St. Peter says immediately following his first sermon following Pentecost. He exclaims to the rattled crowd, “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…” (14) Here, Peter outlines both the sacramental effect of baptism, and who the grace of baptism is available to. Pertaining to the children mentioned in St. Peter’s sermon, he gives no specific age specifications but neither does he make any mention of age restrictions. This passage seemingly opens the offer of baptism to all ages, without exception.
Third, there are several examples in the New Testament of entire households being baptized. Take for example, Lydia’s household and the jailer’s household in the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, or the household of Stephanas baptized by St. Paul (15). Keep in mind that some of these households may have included servants and their families. Furthermore, the absence of modern-day contraceptive technologies would have made it quite possible that these families were larger in number, raising the possibility of infants and children being included in the household lot. Also, notice that neither Luke nor Paul mention any excluded family members in these baptisms.
Fourth, the gospel writers make it clear that it was John the Baptist’s baptism that was merely symbolic. Not Jesus’. It is evident that John the Baptist clearly understands this (16).
Fifth, it is not at all contrary to Jesus’ character, as indicated in the Gospels, to give grace to one person at the request of another (and in particular, at the request of a parent).
For example, in St. Matthew’s gospel Jesus heals the centurion’s servant because of the centurion’s faith (17). In St. Mark’s gospel Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, heals the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman and heals a possessed boy, all at the request of their parents (18).
For the Catholic to make the claim that God may bestow grace upon an infant at the request of the parents is certainly reasonable, considering God’s infinite graciousness, and biblical, considering the gospel passages aforementioned.
Finally, we must consider the most important claim made by Catholics regarding baptism: that it is necessary for salvation.
My wife and I were recently invited out for supper by an evangelical Protestant couple, who were admirably quite missionary-hearted. We anticipated good and wholesome ecumenical conversation. We also anticipated some provocative inquiries about Catholicism and we were not disappointed. That particular evening my casual conversation with the other husband eventually came to infant baptism. He asked me if we, as Catholics, baptize infants (I have a sneaking suspicion he knew the answer before he asked me). It was obvious that he wanted to uncover the “elephant in the room,” so to speak, and he was kicking things off with infant baptism. I re-affirmed him that “yes, we do baptize infants.” He immediately followed up with: “You also believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, right?” This too I affirmed with a nod. You can probably guess his next question—indeed it was “Where is that in the Bible?” to which I replied, “First Peter Chapter Three Verse Twenty-One.” He looked at me with a blank look. I could tell he was not familiar with the verse. I wasted no time beginning my explanation: “Just prior to this verse, Peter writes about how God used water to cleanse the world of its wickedness in Noah’s time. He then compares God’s way of physically cleansing the world with water in the Old Testament to His spiritual cleansing of the world in the New Testament, now through the waters of baptism!” His reply was humble and honest, and worthy of brotherly praise. He looked at me dumbfounded and honestly stated: “I didn’t know that verse was there” (19).
Some Final Thoughts
It seems to me that a big reason why a vast majority of Christians do not accept Catholic teachings is because they plain and simply don’t know the biblical basis from which the Church derives them. They have never been shown! Such verses like the “baptism…now saves us” verse in St. Peter’s first epistle are highly problematic for Protestant doctrine and for this reason, it is my fear that these passages are “glazed” over during Protestant instruction. We understandably can’t help but wonder why our separated brothers and sisters have never seen or understood these passages, but they too are justified in crying back: “How can we, unless some one guides me”(20)?
The bottom line is that we Catholics must know our Bible. This is of extreme importance and cannot be overemphasized. Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ (21). We must know what is in it and what is not in it, and be ready to give a sound defense when called to give an account for our beliefs. This is the command of God.
****For more on infant baptism click here.
1 Rev 21:27
2 Early Christian Doctrines, p.193-194
3 Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.17.1
4 Apostolic Tradition, 21
5 Homilies on Leviticus, 8:3
6 Col 2:11-12
7 Lev 12:2-3
8 CCC 1250
9 see Letters 58:2; 58:5
10 Luke 2:21
11 Col 12:1-12; see also Romans 6:4
12 1 Cor 12:13
13 Matt 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16
14 Acts 2:38-39
15 see Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor 1:16
16 see John 1:29-33; Mark 1:8
17 Matt 8:5-13
18 Mark 5:1-43; 7:24-30; 9:14-29
19 For more on the saving effect of Baptism, see also John 3:5; Titus 3:5
20 see Acts 8:31
21 St. Jerome, Commentariorum in Isaiam libri xviii prol.:PL 24,17B.