Donatist, Anabaptist, and Presbyterian Confusion

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Infant Baptism Among Evangelicals

Baptism fresco on the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy In the classes I’m teaching at a Presbyterian school, the discussions frequently turn to the question of infant baptism. The questions and comments are interesting, to say the least, and sometimes shocking. One pastor described how his church baptizes an adult whom they have already baptized as an infant. Another said that some parents don’t believe in either infant baptism or infant dedication, so the congregation “just prays” for the baby!

Credobaptists (believers’ baptism only, hereafter referred to as Baptists) and paedobaptists (believers’ and infants’ baptism, hereafter referred to as Reformed) differ right from their main presuppositions. Baptists see baptism as a profession and testimony of their own faith before the congregation, while the Reformed see it as a sign and seal of God’s promise to covenant children (Gen. 17:11) and of the washing away of sins of adult believers (Tit. 3:4-6).

For those who don’t understand why Reformed churches practice such a “Roman Catholic tradition” as infant baptism, here’s a summary of Reformed arguments for baptizing infants:

(1) Old Testament circumcision and New Testament water baptism are linked together as they are both visible signs and seals of God’s salvation blessings in the one covenant of grace (Col. 2:11-12). Since the sign of circumcision was applied to all the children of Israelites when they were eight days old, then the sign of water baptism must also be applied to all the infant children of the New Testament church.

Baptists argue, “Infants can’t profess faith.” But Abraham did not wait for Isaac to profess faith in Yahweh; he was circumcised on his eighth day of life. Again they protest, “We don’t know whether this baby will believe or not.” But Ishmael was circumcised when he was 13 years old, and we know later that he did not believe (Gal. 4:28-31). Also, countless Israelites with the sign of circumcision perished in the wilderness under God’s judgment for disobedience (Psa. 95:10-11). And there are many today who have been baptized as adults, but who later reject the faith.

This link with circumcision also precludes the common Baptist practice of re-baptism. Because Baptists regard infant baptism as a person’s testimony of his faith, and an infant is incapable of believing, they view infant baptism as invalid. This is what the 16th century radical Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) taught. But the Reformers argued that circumcision, the sign of initiation into the Old Testament covenant community, was applied only once on eight-day-old males (indeed, it is medically impossible to be performed more than once on the same male!). In the same way, since baptism is the sign of initiation into the New Testament covenant community, it should only be a one-time rite of passage, not to be applied again and again.

Re-baptism has been around since the 3rd and 4th centuries. Donatus, a 4th century schismatic from Carthage in North Africa, also practiced re-baptism, teaching that baptisms were not valid if they were conferred by pastors who later denied their faith in the face of Roman persecution. Donatists admitted to their membership only those who were willing to be re-baptized. Their sect was condemned as a heresy by the Council of Arles in 314, and later, Augustine disputed against them. The bishop of Hippo argued that baptism is the work of Christ, notwithstanding the spiritual condition of the pastor performing the rite.

Early Christian painting of a baptism in the Saint Calixte Catacomb (ca. 3rd century)Is your child a Samson, a Samuel, a John, or a Jesus?
Being mainly stepchildren of Donatists, Anabaptists, and Arminians rather than heirs of the 16th century Protestant Reformers, most Christian parents today, not understanding what Biblical baptism is, opt to have their children “dedicated” in an infant dedication service. This is so because they don’t believe that an infant child of a believer can already be filled with the Holy Spirit at birth (Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:15) – that a person must be able to exercise his own free will to be saved. They therefore consider their children as unregenerate pagans when they are born, but then, inconsistently, raise them up as if they’re believers, teaching them to pray to God, to read the Bible, and to sing, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” After all, there must be some sort of a relationship between infant children, even if they’re pagans, and the church.

However, contrary to popular belief, infant dedication was not a universal practice, not in the Old Testament, and certainly not in the New Testament. What about Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptizer? In the case of Samson and John, they were “dedicated” (set apart) for special ministries in God’s redemptive plan as “Nazirites”: Samson will save Israel from the Philistines (Jgs. 13:3-5) and John will “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” as Christ’s forerunner (Luke 1:16). Samuel, on the other hand, was consecrated by his mother also as a Nazirite for a lifetime of Temple service (1 Sam. 1:11, 28).

But surely, don’t we have the best example of infant dedication in Jesus, when Mary brought him to the Temple when he was 41 days old (Luke 2:22-24)? No, this was no infant dedication! In the first place, Mary went to the Temple for her ceremonial purification rites following her son’s birth (Exod. 13:2, 12; Lev. 12:3-7). Secondly, Mary was fulfilling God’s command to all Jewish parents to make an offering for all firstborn sons in remembrance of the redemption from death of Israel’s firstborn sons through the blood of the Passover lamb (Exod. 12:11-14, 13:11-15), a foreshadow of what Jesus became to all believers (1 Cor. 5:7).

Thus, Jesus’ “dedication” rite as a model for infant dedication services today raises some baffling issues: Why is the mother’s purification rite not included in the service? Why is there no offering for the redemption of the infant from death? Why are all children in the same family, not just the firstborn son, dedicated? Are those children (like Samson, Samuel, John, and Jesus) being consecrated by God for special, extra-biblical work in His (uncompleted!) redemptive plan? These issues are not intended to make fun of infant dedication, but they are real. They seem to be silly because infant dedication is nowhere taught in the New Testament. And none of these old covenant ceremonial rites are still in force in the new covenant because all the Law has been fulfilled by Christ (Matt. 5:17; Heb. 8:4-6).

Finally, in these four examples, the sign of circumcision was not replaced by the “dedication” service – all four children were previously circumcised on the eighth day; so also today’s “dedication” service does not replace water baptism.

(2) The New Testament pattern is very clear: when the head of the household believed, all the members of the household are baptized. Although the New Testament is silent on infant baptism, the silence is thunderous with numerous examples! It mentions five household (oikos) baptisms (Cornelius’, Acts 10:48; Lydia’s, Acts 16:15; the Philippian jailer’s, Acts 16:31-33; Crispus’, Acts 18:8; and Stephanus’, 1 Cor. 1:16). These five household baptisms are but examples to show us the Biblical pattern of salvation: when the head of household believed, baptism of the whole household followed.

In addition to these baptized households, there are numerous other examples of household salvation: Zacchaeus’, Luke 19:6-10; the official’s, John 4:53; the 3,000 believers on Pentecost Sunday who were told that the promise of salvation was “for you and for your children,” Acts 2:38-39; and Onesiphorus’, 2 Tim. 1:16. Following the Biblical pattern, these thousands of household salvation would have been followed by thousands of household baptisms. How absurd it is to assume that there was not even a single infant or small child in these thousands of households!

This is so because the New Testament household baptism is a continuation of the Old Testament oikos pattern. From Noah (Gen. 7:1; Heb. 11:7), to Abraham (Gen. 18:19), to Jacob (Gen. 47:12), to Israel (Exod. 1:1), and to Rahab (Jos. 6:25), God’s gracious covenant always emphasized household salvation, which included infants.

(3) The witness of church history from the early church to the 16th century Reformation is overwhelmingly in favor of infant baptism. Not a single early church father rejected infant baptism, except Tertullian in the 3rd century. He was not actually against infant baptism, but advocated postponing baptism until much later in life because of his superstitious view that baptism results in the forgiveness of sins. Thus, in his view, the later a person is baptized, the more assurance he has that his future sins will be forgiven. Before rejecting infant baptism as the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, pause for a moment to consider this: by the second century, infant baptism was the universal practice of the church, not just in isolated, corrupted churches! Only in the 16th century did a major sect, the radical heretical Anabaptists, reject infant baptism.

My baby: before a covenant member, now a pagan!?
It should be noted, further, that for the first 1,500 years of church history, no controversy over this issue arose until the Anabaptists came. Picture yourself as a first century Jewish parent who formerly strove to abide by the letter of the Mosaic Law, giving your children the sign of the covenant (circumcision) when they were eight days old. Through the apostles’ preaching, you came to faith in Christ, and you were given the sign of water baptism.

Now, you wanted your children to be baptized, but you were told that infants and young children are not to be baptized. What a shock! Your children were members of the old covenant community! But now they are not members of the new covenant community? Should I treat them then as pagans? Didn’t the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews say the new covenant is better than the old? Isn’t the new covenant more inclusive than the old, even including the Gentiles? Then you hear your other relatives, neighbors, friends – thousands of Jewish parents – having the same questions.

Circumcision as a sign of membership in the covenant community was an extremely important part of the Jewish faith. Why? Because it was God’s command to Abraham, to Moses, and to all their generations, and violation of this commandment incurred the penalty of death (Gen. 17:14)! Since the first converts to the Christian faith were Jews, they wanted even baptized Gentile converts to also be circumcised as a sign of their membership in the covenant community. This great debate in the early church was the main reason why the first Christian council assembled together in Jerusalem (Acts 15). And Paul dealt with the same issue against the Judaizers in the Galatian church (chs. 2, 5, 6), frequently arguing against Gentiles’ circumcision in his other letters (Rom. chs. 2-4, 15:8; 1 Cor. 7:18-19; Eph. 2:11; Phil. 3:3-5; Col. 2:11-13, 3:11; Tit. 1:10).

Why, then, is there no record in the New Testament nor in any other early church writing of a controversy that raged because Jewish parents protested the exclusion of their circumcised infant children from membership in the new covenant? The answer is because the early church continued applying the sign of membership in the covenant community, from circumcision in the Old Testament to baptism in the New Testament, to their infant children.

For further reading:

Clark, R. Scott. “A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism.”
Hyde, Danny. Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Infants. Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2006.
Johnson, Dennis E. “Infant Baptism: How I Changed My Mind.”
Kinneer, Jack D. “Does Baptism Mean Immersion?”

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