Either infant baptism is willed by Christ, or it is not; it cannot be both. If Christ’s intention was for parents to baptize their babies, then parents who refuse to do so deprive their child of grace freely offered. If Christ did not desire infants to be baptized, then parents who do so subject their child to a useless, unbiblical ritual and prevent their child from a meaningful baptism later in life.
Making the case for infant baptism won’t work if baptism is only a symbolic ritual that requires a person’s free choice to accept Christ as their Lord of all. But if baptism is more than a symbol—say, if baptism somehow saves us—then the case for infant baptism is much easier to present cogently.
So there’s a lot on the line with this question. Luckily the Bible is rather clear about whether or not baptism is more than a mere symbol.
First a definition. By baptism I mean a ritual that, by washing with water and a prayer to the Blessed Trinity, makes the baptized a member of the Church, cleanses the baptized of all sin (and remits all punishment due to them), and gives supernatural grace.
The first letter of Peter teaches that baptism now saves us (1 Pet 3:21). Jesus taught that unless a man is born of “water and spirit” he will not enter the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5). St. Paul alludes to the cleansing power of baptism when he teaches that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (Eph 5:25-26). Paul also recalls the words directed at him from the devout man, Ananias, who urged him to act with haste after his conversion: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name (Acts 22:16).
Now proper understanding of Scripture is not a matter of one’s own interpretation, as St. Peter warns. Thus if there is any doubt as to the original Christian interpretation of these passages, all that is needed is a venture into the writings of the early Church Fathers who were unanimous in their understanding of baptism as a sacrament (a sign that makes actual what is signifies and really changes the person on the receiving end) and in their understanding of baptism as a real spiritual “washing.”
“‘I have heard, sir,’ said I, ‘from some teacher, that there is no other repentance except that which took place when we went down into the water and obtained the remission of our former sins.’ He said to me, ‘You have heard rightly, for so it is’” (The Shepherd of Hermas 4:3:1–2 [A.D. 80]).
“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly . . . are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’ [John 3:3]” (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).
“Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life. . . . (Baptism 1 [A.D. 203]).
For more early Church references in regards to baptism, click here.
The point is that the symbolic idea of baptism is a rather new and not at all traceable back to the first centuries of Christianity. When the Bible says in one place that we are saved or justified by grace (Eph 2:8), and in another place by faith (Rom 3:23), and in another place by works (Jam 2:24), and yet in another place by baptism, the Word of God is not contradicting itself; rather, it is proposing a rich theology that can be best summarized in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
Which brings us back to baptism. Are there any good reasons to baptize infants given that baptism is not merely symbolic and despite the fact that they cannot choose Christ for themselves as infants? I think, yes. Here are some thoughts:
We are saved by grace. Baptism confers a free gift of God: God himself, the Holy Spirit. Jesus won our salvation once and for all on the cross—and won back for us the right to be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).
St. Paul teaches in his letter to the church in Ephesus that “by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8-9). Baptism is about the faithful disposing themselves (or their dependent loved ones) to receive grace. In fact, we see the faith of parents proving to be sufficient in the obtaining of grace for their children throughout the New Testament Scriptures. Consider, for example, when Jairus appeals to Jesus to heal his daughter and she is brought back to life on account of his faith (Mk 5:21-43). “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well,” urges Jesus. Consider also how the faith of the Roman centurion led to the healing of his servant.
The sacraments are not magic. They require faith; and in the case of infant baptism (or the severely disabled) they require the faith of the infant’s parents.
Baptism of infants is implied in the Scriptures.
In the Old Testament circumcision was administered on the eighth day after birth as an external sign of an infant’s belonging to the people of God. In the New Testament it makes sense that the “new” circumcision of baptism—one spiritual and not literal—might be administered as both a sign and a cause of the child’s adoption by the Father through the Holy Spirit into the family of God (see Rom 8:14-17).
Peter in his first sermon after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost proclaims to the crowd, “Repent and be baptized every one of you for the forgiveness of your sins….and the promise is to you and to your children…” (see Acts 2:38). In the Acts of the Apostles we are also told that entire households were baptized. No exceptions are mentioned. St. Paul also recalls baptizing the household of Stephanus in his first letter to the Corinthians.
An infant is justly born with original sin because of the sin of Adam, their “first father”. Is it not, then, all the more just that because Jesus paid the price for all on the cross, that all babies may be saved by the merits of Christ alone? Adam sinned, and every baby is born affected. Jesus saved, and every baby ought to receive the grace won for all. This a fortiori argument was one of St. Thomas Aquinas’ justifications for the fittingness of infant baptism (III, 68, 9). He quotes St. Paul who writes:
“If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”
Failure to baptize infants is a deprivation. If baptism is a sacrament (which it is) and gives “free”, unmerited grace (which it does) then there is no good reason for Christian parents to hold back their children of the cleansing waters of this sacrament.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14). Interestingly, the only debate about infant baptism in the early Church was a third-century squabble about whether or not it was too long to wait eight days (as the law prescribed in regards to circumcision in the Old Covenant) to baptize a newly born baby. The following quote from Cyprian of Carthage illustrates the conflict:
“As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).
Baptism is only the beginning of a person’s journey of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1996) describes the grace that we receive in baptism as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” As a baptized infant increases in age this “seed of grace” planted at baptism begins to bloom inasmuch as he grows in faith, hope, and love.
Baptism anticipates the sacrament of Confirmation. Critics are right to point out that infants cannot claim Christ as their personal Saviour. Thus the sacrament of Confirmation exists as a sort of intensification of the grace of baptism where, upon rejection of Satan and sin and personal acceptance of Christ as Lord, the person who was baptized as an infant experiences a full outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the result of their maturing faith later in life.
Again I want to be clear that I understand the Protestant’s difficulty in accepting infant baptism (and I also understand that not all Protestants reject the sacramental view I’ve defended). The Bible does not explicitly endorse or reject infant baptism—it leaves the question somewhat open—and one’s interpretation of the Bible will ultimately decide how the sermon of St. Peter or the baptism of households are understood.
This is where the early Church writings are indispensable to Catholics and Protestants alike because it unveils for us how the first Christians understood the Gospel. Protestants must choose an interpretive tradition: either their own personal interpretation, perhaps one of the Reformers, or that of the early Church. No Christian can afford to avoid the place where the best arguments lead. Right doctrine matters and can have a bearing on one’s salvation, as St. Paul warned Timothy:
“Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Tim 4:16)
In the end I see no good reason to adopt the fairly novel idea of a merely symbolic baptism (I believe the Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, was the first prominent Christian figure to argue this). Based on the evidence—biblical and historical—I’ll continue to stick with the priests, bishops, and teachers of early Christianity and, ultimately, the Catholic Church’s constant teaching for two millennia.