For the biblically-minded and biblically based, traditional Reformed Catholic Christian of the Anglican Way (living in the West and particularly in the U.S.A.) the commendation of the wonderful Sacrament of Baptism—particularly as administered to infants—presents several major problems or difficulties in today’s religious context.
Let us focus on two of them—the biblical basis/authorization (Part One) here, and the connection with regeneration (Part Two) in a later essay.
In the modern context where, in a massive variety of translations and paraphrases, the Bible is read by people from within their own cultural and personal contexts—not least the reality of expressive individualism—the finding of “proof-texts” for justifying infant baptism is virtually impossible. One can argue from the requirement of circumcision in the Old Covenant, but here one faces the charges of irrelevance and sexism for circumcision was only administered to infant boys (including Jesus!). One can argue from the baptism of households mentioned in the New Testament (see e.g., Acts 16:33) claiming that small children were probably included, but here one is arguing a probability or possibility not a sure fact and the argument is quickly dismissed. And one can argue from silence claiming that this practice was taken for granted because infants were always seen as within the kingdom of God (cf. the words of Jesus in Mark 10:13-16), but, here again, the argument is not compelling to someone living within western society where “family” is not the same as in biblical times. Further, one can appeal to reason and claim that the Christian Church for centuries has administered Baptism to infants and therefore there must be good reasons for it or the Church would not have done it. This approach fails because “tradition” does not have authority for people today as it did a century or more ago.
So where can one begin in discussion with a modern person who holds an open Bible ( say the NIV) in his hand and wants to hear a biblical basis for infant Baptism? It would appear that there is not one way, for people are different in all kinds of ways.
Here is one possible approach.
1) The Church of God in the period after the apostles had the solemn and high duty and privilege of collecting the books that were to become the Canon of the New Testament. This was a process of discernment and authorization took a century or more. In this period the Church saw itself as under the authority of the Lord Jesus and of his Word as found in Scripture and so they collected and authorized the Canon with great care. During the time that this was going on, and when it was completed, the Church was both baptizing adult converts and the infants of baptized church members. Thus it is clear that the Church did not see anything in the Word of God written, or in the experienced Lordship of Christ, forbidding infant baptism. In fact the opposite is true—they surely would not have done it, if they did not see it as required by the Word of God written and according to the mind of Christ.
2) The Church of God in what we call the patristic era read the Bible in a very different way to what we do. Our general approach, because of our being westerners, secularized and individualistic in mindset, is to see things primarily from our own personal, individual perspective—my relationship with God. (After all, the USA has a Constitution and a Legal System which is based on the doctrine—from Locke and others—that each of us is an individual, and this has overflowed into culture generally.) The approach of the early Church, while not neglecting the personal dimension, began from the corporate, the covenantal and the “we” rather than from the individualistic and the “I”. So there was one Family of God, the Household of God, the Body of Christ—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. And a Christian family was a unity—man and wife one flesh in procreation—and thus the children born of the union were “holy to the Lord” and within the covenant of grace. Thus, as with boys only in the old covenant, so with girls and boys in the new covenant, the sign and seal of belonging, Baptism was administered as a sacrament.
3) Infant Baptism as a Sacrament authorized by the Lord Jesus cannot be justified on biblical grounds unless the Bible is read—as the Church read it—before the arrival of expressive individualism from the Enlightenment onwards (and even from the late Renaissance onwards in some ways). That is, the Bible has to be read on its own terms and its own doctrine of the nature of man as God’s creature, made in his image and after his likeness. In other words, there has to be in place the doctrine of the unity of the family and the reality of the covenant of grace wherein “the promise is to you and to your children” (Acts 2:39). Here the obvious and moral thing to do is to baptize the infant so that God makes him not only a potential but also a real member of his elect family. And everything in the Bible seems to point in this direction for the Bible is covenantal in that God makes the covenant of grace and calls his sinful creatures into it in order to save and sanctify them for glory.
4) It is significant that the Baptist movement, wherein Baptism is usually seen as a personal witness and confession of faith by adults, only really took off when individualism had been absorbed into the mindset of the West, from the eighteenth century onwards. We recall that the Anabaptists were a very small minority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, in today’s western culture, only Baptism as the free act of a convinced individual seems to make sense and also seems to be what the Bible itself, read as a contemporary book (especially if translated according to dynamic equivalency principles), presents.
5) So only in a church where (a) an attempt is made to read the Bible on its own terms and in the way the Church has read and heard it, and (b) worship, preaching and teaching avoid the expressive individualism of our time and instead focus on the person-in-relation in covenant, fellowship and family, will Infant Baptism makes sense. Here also there will be the commitment to nurturing the baptized infants so that they do grow up as Christians.
We may note in closing that for liberal progressive Christians in the mainline denominations like The Episcopal Church, Infant Baptism is basically severed from all traditional and meaningful Biblical ties and is usually seen in cultural and communitarian terms, where the infant is made a part of the church community (which is a free association of individuals). In Roman Catholicism, the doctrine that the Church teaches and, if necessary, the Bible proves, is in place, and so the questioning about the biblical justification for infant baptism is either absent or not so intense as in American Evangelical Protestantism generally—and even here the cultural and communitarian context is often present.
Part Two on Regeneration to follow.
[For the way the Early Church read the Bible see J.J. O’Keefe & R.R.Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, John Hopkins Univ Press, 2006; and for the powerful presence of individualism in the U.S.A., see Mary Ann Glendon. “Looking for ‘Persons’ in the Law”, First Things, December 2006 and P.A. Lawler, Stuck with Virtue. The American Individual and our Biotechnological Future, ISI Books, 2005]