The only hint in the Anglican Formularies that the practice of Infant Baptism was being rejected by anyone in the mid-sixteenth century is the sentence at the end of Article XXVII. This states: “The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” In the earlier version of this Article the wording was: “The custom of the Church to christen young children is to be commended, and in any wise retained in the Church.” This sentence appeared because of the existence of a very small group of radical reformers called “Anabaptists,” who insisted on re-baptizing those already baptized as infants, because they held that baptizing infants, who did not profess faith, was wrong.
Everywhere else in the Formularies the practice and custom of baptizing infants is taken for granted, especially in specific services for baptizing children in church and, in emergency, in houses. So let us place ourselves in the sixteenth century, within the mindset of the English Reformers, and ask how it was that they could say that Infant Baptism is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ,” that is, his commission in Matthew 28:19-20 to make disciples, baptize and teach.
What to hold in mind
The first thing that we need to bear in mind is that they looked at the Bible as One Canon in Two Testaments, not as two separate Testaments joined into one Canon. Today where we start from is different. In a University Faculty or Seminary there is a department of Old and another of New Testament Studies, usually with little contact between them, and each looks to its own professional groupings and societies. Thus modern reading of the Bible tends to move from treating the Testaments separately and then perhaps seeing connections between the two.
So while the distinction between the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament was very clear to the Reformers, their first thought was not the difference and distinction but the unity of the two, because both are inspired by God—“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The first homily in the First Book of Homilies (1547) of the Church of England, “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture,” moves from Old to New Testament and back again with a freedom that moderns would find hard to emulate.
The second thing to bear in mind is that they understood the unity of Scripture, not only in that each part and the whole are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but also in that both Testaments declare and explain the one covenant of grace, established and given to mankind by the Holy Trinity. This covenant was made known originally to Abraham (see Genesis 17) and, as St Paul explained in his Epistle to Galatia, was then focused via the Mosaic covenant between God and the tribes of Israel until the birth of the Messiah, and then it reached its primary expression in the “new covenant” established by the Lord Jesus Christ (see the Epistle to the Hebrews). Jesus came to fulfill not to destroy the Law and the Prophets of the Mosaic Covenant. So in the Lectionary the Reformers read and meditated upon the One Bible, using both the Old and New Testaments at both Morning and Evening Prayer and they did so on the old doctrine that “The New is in the Old concealed; the Old is by the New revealed.” So, for example, the “Man” of Psalm 1 is in the first place the righteous, godly Hebrew husband and father, but in the whole scope of Scripture, he is the new Adam, the Son of Man, the Messiah, who, for all men, Jew and Gentile, obeyed the law of the Lord and made atonement for mankind’s sin.
The third thing to bear in mind is that the Reformers were very much influenced by the Fathers of the Early Church in the way they read the Old Testament and this meant that they used what we call typology naturally and often. One only has to read the two Books of Homilies to be made aware of how much they read and depended upon the commentaries and sermons on the Bible by the Fathers, notably Chrysostom and Augustine. And one only has to look at the Service of Public Baptism for Infants in The Book of Common Prayer to see their commitment to typology as a way of reading the whole Bible as One Canon. In the first sentence of the first prayer the Minister prays:
Almighty and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the Ark from perishing by water; and also didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy Baptism…
“Figuring” may be rendered “representing” or “typifying.”
The fourth thing to hold in mind that what we know and experience in contemporary western society as individualism did not exist then. The American experience, especially, has been to exalt individualism (it is central to the Constitution and legal system of the U.S.A.), and having this fundamental mindset modern readers of the Bible are worlds apart from the Early Fathers and the sixteenth-century Reformers as they read the Bible. Put simply, the normal way for an American in 2007 to read the Bible is from the perspective of each human being as “an individual.” In contrast, in other societies both in the present and very much so in the past, the Bible is/was read by “a person in relation to others, to the created order and to God.” Certainly it was read and heard personally by individual persons, but those persons did not consider themselves as “individuals” with only self-chosen connections with others, but as a necessarily connected person, defined by having relatives and belonging to others. There is no individualism in the classic Anglican Formularies (The Book of Common Prayer, The Thirty-Nine Articles and The Ordinal) or in The [Two Books of] Homilies of the Church of England. In contrast, the literature, preaching and context of the emerging and growing “Baptist” churches over the last century and more in America, especially, cannot be explained without the rising presence of individualism in culture and society. The local church is a community of individuals and Baptism is the self-chosen act of an individual who claims to believe.
One effect of the conditioning factors described above is that the early Fathers and the Reformers took it for certain that Jesus, his disciples, and Gentiles who came into the Church after being Jewish proselytes, naturally thought of the infant children of both Jews and Christians as rightful heirs of God’s covenant of grace. This did not remove the duty of all human persons—man, woman and children—to be faithful servants of the LORD God, but it did declare with certainty their standing in terms of the Covenant. God had chosen them and they were to respond appropriately!
From this perspective the Baptism of infant children of those already in the covenant of grace was “most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” And it was also, from this perspective, clearly seen as assumed or presented in the whole Canon of Scripture, even though there is not a simple command anywhere which says, ‘Baptize infants,” or a simple description anywhere of the actual Baptism of an infant.
The fact of the matter is that what exactly one sees— either in the words of a document or the faces of a crowd of people— much depends on the spectacles one wears as one looks and the mindset or mental frame of reference one employs as one thinks. Using the lens of modern individualism, one can only see the baptism of the self-conscious “individual” who has decided for himself/herself to be baptized, and, on these terms, to baptize an infant is nonsense, although to dedicate an infant to God does make sense as an act of free people.
Within the approach of the Early Fathers and Reformers to the whole Bible one sees the appropriateness, rightfulness and evidence of/for Infant Baptism in the following:
1. The death of Jesus upon the Cross at Calvary which was “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” As the Second Adam, the New Man and New Israel, Jesus represented all mankind and died not for his own sins but as the Representative and Substitute of sinful mankind, including all new born infants. Thus we may say that all children belong to Christ, for he has redeemed them, and so they are, in the right context and under the right conditions, the appropriate recipients of the sign and seal of that redemption, which is Baptism.
2. Children have a divinely-given and divine-required place in the Abrahamic covenant of grace. This is made clear by the word of the Lord God heard by Abram in Genesis 17:9-14, after a series of encounters recorded in Genesis 15 and 16, where God establishes his covenant of grace with Abram and his offspring. The Lord told Abraham:
You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised… Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from my people; he has broken my covenant.
In the person of Abraham circumcision was the sign and seal of an existing faith in the Lord God (see Paul’s comment in Romans 4:11); but with respect to infant boys it is the pledge and seal of the covenant status and blessings promised to them. Though administered by man, it presents the movement of God to man, the bringing of the very young man into covenant relation. But what of the status of women and girls for whom there was in their flesh no specific sign and seal of covenant membership given? The covenant which requires male circumcision operates on the principle of the unity of the head of the household/family with its members and so the family is included in the head, which is the male, who is the husband and father. Thus females are certainly in the covenant of grace and are required, along with males, to trust, love, obey and serve the LORD God, walking in his ways and keeping his commandments (see the account of the covenant ceremony in Deuteronomy 29 where the presence of children is recorded in verses 10-12). What circumcision points to, prefigures and typifies, as a sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant of grace, is Baptism in the “new covenant” administered to adults and infants, but now also both to males and females, because this final, complete and everlasting phase of the historical administration of the covenant of grace is the clearest and richest, and so the covenant blessings are made over specifically and really to all the elect of God.
In Colossians 2:11-14, St Paul makes an explicit connection between spiritual circumcision and Christian baptism. In the Old Testament circumcision had been spiritualized as circumcision of the heart and the equivalent of both repentance by man (Leviticus 26:41; Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4 & 9:26; Ezekiel 44:7,9) and cleansing of the heart by God (Deuteronomy 30:6). It is the latter, God regenerating the heart of man, which texts in the New Testament link to Christian Baptism (see John 3:5 & Titus 3:5). The apostle connects spiritual circumcision and Baptism when he writes to Colossae:
In Christ you were circumcised with a circumcision without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.
While this specific teaching of the Apostle to the Gentiles does not prove the existence of baptized infants in the Church at Colossae, it does underline the connections within the One Covenant of Grace in terms of admission and the work of God in the hearts of those admitted.
3. Before the ministry of John the Baptist, and during the period of the Ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, Gentiles who wished to become God-fearers, members of the Jewish synagogue and eventually fully-initiated Jews, began their conversion by going through a ceremony of cleansing by water, in order to wash away all the ceremonial uncleanness accrued by living as a Gentile outside the Torah. This proselyte baptism was administered to all members of the household, the father and husband, the wife and mother, and all the children of both sexes, for the simple reason that all had lived in the Gentile world and were ceremonially unclean. After Baptism only the males were circumcised. However, the existence and knowledge of these household baptisms of Gentiles may well have influenced the way in which the families of heads of households were baptized along with the head himself (see below No 6).
4. The attitude and words of Jesus in relation to children support and underline their place in the covenant of grace. In the Service of Baptism for Infants in The Book of Common Prayer, the Gospel reading is Mark 10: 13-16. We read these words of Jesus: “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Then we learn that “he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.” Following this Gospel-reading there is a very short exhortation upon it by the Minister. In this he declares: “Doubt ye not, therefore, but earnestly believe that Christ will likewise favorably receive this Infant; that he will embrace him with the arms of his mercy; that he will give unto him the blessing of eternal life, and make him partaker of his everlasting kingdom.” Little children are certainly capable of receiving the blessings of the covenant of grace. Perhaps it is appropriate to add that Christ’s words about, and blessing of, children do not prove that he had their Baptism in view; but it does prove that he has a unique love for little children, and it pleased him greatly that they were brought to him in every way possible during his itinerant Ministry. And, we may add, that Baptism is the unique way, and in the case of infants the only way, in which they can be visibly brought to him now for his new covenant blessings.
5. It is most likely that in one or more or all of the baptisms of the members of a household recorded in the New Testament small children were included (as they were in Baptism of Gentile families becoming Jews). There is first of all the baptism of the God-fearer Cornelius in Acts 10: 12, 46-48 & 11.14. Then in Acts 16: 14-15 is the record of the Baptism of Lydia and her household, and in verses 25-34 is the account of the jailor in Philippi being baptized, “he and all his family.” Acts 18:8 refers to the Jew Crispus and his family being baptized and St Paul states: “I baptized the household of Stephanus” (1 Corinthians 1:16). With the head of the household are baptized all its members. It is difficult to believe that there was not one small child in their number! And it is difficult to image the infants and small children left in their cradles while everyone else, servants and all, were baptized.
6. The way that St Paul writes to children in his Epistles assumes that they are members of the household of God, “in Christ” and thus baptized. In Colossians 3:20-21 he addresses both children and their parents, presuming both are in church membership. “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Then in Ephesians 6:1-4 he writes: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (this is the first commandment with a promise), that you may live long in the land. Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Those who want absolutely clear proof of “beyond all reasonable doubt”, that is, of the kind needed in a modern American court in a criminal trial, that Infant Baptism took place in the apostolic age, will never find it. For such proof they need to wait until the late second century, when specific references to it begin to appear. Then, for example, we find Tertullian (160-225) of Carthage in North Africa testifying to Infant Baptism as a well established practice (On Baptism, 18 & On the Soul, chap.39) in the Church he knew. And from circa 200 onwards there is abundant proof of the administration of Infant Baptism in the Church of East and West. However, it should be sufficient for us that the Early Church did baptize infants from Christian homes and did so because the Bible they read daily proclaimed to them loud and clear that to such belongs the kingdom of God, not by right but by sovereign grace.
[For serious discussion of the evidence from the Early Church see Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries (1960), the response by Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants (1963) and the reply from Jeremias, The Origins of Infant Baptism (1965).]
Please respond to Peter Toon at firstname.lastname@example.org with any comments or helpful criticism. thanks