Those who do not believe in infant baptism point out that the New Testament gives no command for believers to baptize their children. This is true. But it is equally true, that the New Testament gives no command against infant baptism. It says nothing negative about infant baptism at all. In this post, I will try to show that if God did not want his people to practice infant baptism, he would have commanded them NOT to do it, because they would have automatically assumed its practice from their historical and theological backgrounds. Indeed, this is why God gave no teaching on it in the New Testament, because he knew that they would have assumed its practice.
The Historical Antecedent of Christian Baptism Included the Baptism of Infants.
The baptism of converts to the biblical faith is not found in the Old Testament. Instead, it was a practice developed in the inter-testamental period. Scholars today call it Jewish proselyte baptism. Gentiles who wished to convert to the biblical faith were required by Jews in the period to be baptized. It is in this period that we see the proliferation of mitzvahs, what we might call Jewish baptisteries, in Judea. Gentiles were considered to be dirty in their sins and had to be cleansed before they could join God’s covenant community.
This is the background to John’s baptism. What is shocking about John’s teaching is that he was calling Jews to be baptized. He is saying, “You are no better than Gentiles. You are just as sinful as they are. You need to repent just as much as they do.” Jews, proud of their covenant relationship with God, found this shocking for many trusted in their heritage rather than practicing true faith and repentance. John was shaking them up, saying that without true faith and repentance, they were just as much under God’s wrath as the Gentile nations.
What is applicable to our discussion is this: not only was the new Gentile believer baptized, his entire family was baptized. This is what the early Christians, who were all Jewish, would have been used to in the practice of baptism from their Jewish roots. The convert AND their family, were baptized. Of course, this perfectly explains the 3 instances of household baptisms that are mentioned in the New Testament. This also explains why there is no command to baptize the children of believers. It would have been assumed as the normal practice. But this background also makes the lack of prohibition in the New Testament of infant baptism, a powerful argument in its favor. If God truly only wanted his people to practice believers baptism, he would have had to correct their preconceived cultural notions about the practice of baptism. He would have had to say, “don’t do that”. The fact that he does not give such a prohibition is a testimony that he was OK with their continuing the practice of household baptism. The family of the believer is baptized as well as the believer.
The Connection between Jewish Proselyte Baptism and Circumcision
There were two things that a Gentile had to do to convert to the God of the Old Testament during the inter-testamental period. First, he and his family had to be baptized as was noted above, but secondly, he and the male members of his household would have to be circumcised. Baptism for converts was a tradition developed in the inter-testamental period. Circumcision for converts was commanded by the Old Testament.
This reinforces the point I made earlier. Both the ceremonies that the early Jewish Christians knew of for converts involved not only the believer but also his family. This was programmed into their cultural and religious belief and practice. If it was God’s will to stop this practice, he would have made this explicit. He would have directly prohibited it. There is no such command in the New Testament. God was at least OK with their continuing the practice of infant baptism which would have been the normal assumption they would have made considering their historical background. My point is this. First, there was a strong connection in the mind of 1st century Jews between baptism and circumcision These were the two ceremonies that a Gentile convert had to undergo to become a member of God’s covenant people. Secondly, in both these ceremonies, not only did the believer undergo the ceremony, but so did his children (the male children only, of course, in the case of circumcision.)
Baptism as the Fulfillment of Circumcision
The New Testament sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is the fulfillment of an Old Testament ceremony: Passover. The Lord’s Supper is actually instituted during the Passover rite and thus Passover gives meaning and context to the practice of the Lord’s Supper. This is universally agreed on by all Christians. The question can thus be asked, if the Lord’s Supper had an Old Testament antecedent, what is the Old Testament back ground to baptism? What ceremony foreshadows the practice of baptism? The natural answer to that question is circumcision. The two ceremonies are parallel in their theological meaning:
- Entry Rites: As was noted above, both were required of new converts to the faith. They are both entry rites into the faith signifying the person had been accepted into their new faith.
- Social Identity Markers: They both were marks of belonging to the covenant people of God, separating the believer from the world, marking them out as members of the church.
- Being Made Clean: They both represented making the new convert clean, their old life of moral filth having been washed away.
- Symbols of Justification by Faith: They both were outward signs of inward faith, of being justified by faith.
- Renunciation of the Old Life: Both represented the believer putting away the old sinful nature in order to live in new obedience to God.
In addition to these parallels, Paul directly links the two ceremonies in meaning in Colossians 2:11-13. “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” Before we saw that baptism and circumcision were linked in cultural and religious practice. Now we see that they are linked theologically as type and anti-type. As prophesy and fulfillment. As shadow and reality.
The early Christians would have meditated on how the two practices were alike and different and how they shed interpretive light on each other. Having this powerful cognitive and spiritual link between the two ceremonies, we see again that if God did not want baptism to be given to the children of believers, he would have had to have made that perfectly clear with a direct command. Otherwise the early Christians would certainly have baptized their children just as they previously had circumcised them under the old covenant. The theological logic outlined above would have driven them to do so. Baptism was the fulfillment of circumcision. Children of believers received circumcision; therefore, children of believers would have been baptized. Again, this is why there is not a direct command for this practice. It was so radically a part of their spiritual DNA, they would have assumed its practice.
In Church History After the New Testament.
If the apostles and Jesus universally taught believers baptism only and that infant baptism was wrong, we might ask where the baptist theologians were in the early church? One early church father seems to allude to the practice of infant baptism in the late 2nd century. In the early 3rd century, another says it was the universal practice of the church. Assuming my Baptist brothers are correct, how did we get from the universal practice of believers baptism at the end of the 1st century to the universal practice of infant baptism in the early 3rd century. We know how much we debate these things today. Where was the theological upheaval between the believer’s baptism bishops who remained true to the Apostles teaching and the infant-baptist innovators in the 2nd century? There is no evidence of such a debate in church history until the 16th century. Either the early church so quickly and universally abandoned believers baptism in the 2nd century that no trace of that change exists, or infant baptism was the practice all the way back to the Apostles and that is why there is no evidence of controversy in its practice in the late 2nd century.
The New Testament gives no command for infant baptism nor does it give any command against it. I have tried to show the cultural and religious backgrounds leading up to the New Testament would have strongly been in favor of its practice and that there is no evidence that the early church after the New Testament ever had any other practice. Of course, the Bible alone is the only rule for our faith and practice, but these historical backgrounds give us a strong indication of what the biblical practice would have been.