Infant Baptism

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Protests against the church institution of infant baptism had been almost completely silenced by persecution before the Reformation period. The sparse and somewhat unclear information on the opponents of infant baptism seems to show that many did not oppose it as such, but only because it was performed by officials unworthy of the office and was therefore invalid.

When the reformers shouted the watchword of the sole authority of the Scriptures, and defended this principle tenaciously against the Roman Church and its claims of authority, it was inevitable that along with other usages of the Roman Church, also its method of baptism would be subjected to a serious examination in the light of the Scriptures. Diligent study of the Bible led many to the apparently new discovery of the fact that the New Testament not only knows nothing of all the ceremonies in which the rite of baptism came gradually to be clothed, but also that it does not even mention infant baptism or cite an instance of such baptism, indeed that infant baptism could not be made to agree with the teachings of the apostles.

The fact that there is no trace of infant baptism in the New Testament is recognized today almost unanimously by theologians. Even Schleiermacher (p. 1) said openly, "All traces of infant baptism presumably found in the New Testament must first be put into it."

Paul always saw faith and baptism together. "Naturally Paul and with him the original church could not conceive of baptism without faith. The question of the effect of baptism on an unbeliever did not enter his field of vision" (Stromberg, 27). If it is a fact that faith is a prerequisite for baptism, then infant baptism has no meaning. Only a sacramental conception can consider it necessary for salvation.

Catholic theologians rest their case for infant baptism on tradition. But the Protestants demand Scriptural evidence. J. A. Mohler (Symbolik, Par. 30) comments: "That infant baptism is in the Protestant view of the sacraments a totally incomprehensible act, there is no doubt; if the sacrament is effective only through faith, of what value may it be to an unconscious child? The Anabaptists, about whom Luther was so excited, drew from the premises he had given, very simple demands, and he was therefore unable to refute them without sacrificing his own views." Schleiermacher admits that the symbolic books of the Protestant churches "view infant baptism apart from all historical aspects and undertake to justify it in and for its own sake, but inadequately and on mutually contradictory grounds (Der christliche Glaube II, Par. 138).

Similarly Luther's proofs for the justification of infant baptism are not unified, but show a clearly discernible uncertainty. Since Luther in his controversy with the feared Anabaptists found himself compelled to base his arguments on Scripture, he utilized the passages which are still cited today and which seem to justify infant baptism.

At first Luther based his proof on the creed (Sermon, 1518) or on the faith of those who present the child (13 January 1522). But in 1522 he already began to claim faith on the part of the child. No one could prove the opposite. Children were more receptive than adults (as in his exposition of Galatians in 1519). In addition to reference to circumcision Luther also uses New Testament references. Above all, Matthew 19:14 seems to him a principal argument. See his elucidations in the sermon for the third Sunday after Epiphany in the Kirckenpostille. He very positively defends his claim that children have a faith of their own. In his booklet, Von der Wiedertaufe an Zwei Pfarrherrn (1528), he says, "No one is saved through the faith of others, but only through his own. . . . Baptism helps nobody and should be given to none unless he believes for himself." That children without faith of their own receive grace through baptism is "a dream." That the faith of the church can substitute for the faith of the individual is only the opinion of Sophists and without foundation in the Scriptures. The idea that the child is baptized on his own future faith is rejected by Luther as early as 1523. "Faith must be present before or at the baptism, otherwise the child is not rid of sin and the devil." The concept that by baptism the child is merely received into "Christendom," is "made up out of the imagination." A baptism in which the same presuppositions cannot be made for the children as in adult baptism, and in which the child does not receive the same as an adult, is no baptism at all, but rather only a "play and mockery of baptism."

In answer to the question how a faith of their own comes into being in infants, Luther has various answers. He says the petitions of the godfathers secure it to the child. Or, the priest acts in Christ's stead and gives the children faith and the kingdom of heaven. In addition to the "strong" and "firm" Scriptural references (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15, 16), Luther also cites 1 John 2:13: "I write to you, little children." He also points to the baptism of entire households; then again to circumcision, which made believers of Abraham's children. How much more should this apply to baptism. John the Baptist's leaping in his mother's womb is incredible without presupposing faith (Luke 1:41).

In reply to Romans 10:17, that faith comes from preaching, Luther asserts that children, precisely because they are without reason, are so much the more able to believe. Therefore if a baptism is to be safe, infant baptism is safest of all. Historical proof is also employed at times by Luther, by referring to the long existence and generality of the practice of infant baptism. Then he points to the gifts and achievements of men baptized in infancy as evidence that infant baptism is pleasing to God.

In contrast to this strong emphasis on the objective effect of the sacrament of baptism, which to be sure cannot be imagined without faith on  the part of the child, Zwingli saw in baptism only a symbol of the obligation the candidate assumed. Zwingli was at first an opponent of infant baptism. In his book on baptism (1525) he confesses, "The error led me astray a few years ago, that I thought it would be much better not to baptize children until they had arrived at good faith." Hubmaier mentions in his Gespräch von der Kindertaufe (Nikolsburg, 1526) that when he and Zwingli had conferred together in May 1523, in Zürich, Zwingli had granted that infants should not be baptized. Felix Manz confirms this in his Schutzschrift (letter of defense) to the city council: "I am certain that Master Ulrich understands this idea of baptism, that is, that infants should not be baptized, much better than we, but I do not know for what reason he does not announce it openly."

In his conflict with the Swiss Brethren Zwingli changed his opinion completely. In his writing to the Strasbourg theologians on 16 December 1524, he already defended infant baptism, comparing it with circumcision, which was replaced by baptism according to Colossians 2:11. When in 1 Corinthians 7:10 the apostle calls the children "holy," baptism is presupposed! As an example of the baptism of infants he cites the baptism of John the Baptist, which was not at all different from Christian baptism. He calls untrue the assertion that the apostles inquired into the faith of candidates before baptizing them. Sometimes it had been done, sometimes omitted.

In his book, Welche Ursach geben zu Aufruhr und wer die wahren Aufrűhrer sind (1524), Zwingli grants that there is in the New Testament no clear command for infant baptism; but since it contains no clear prohibition either, we must refer back to the Old Testament; and thus he speaks of circumcision again. In the book, Vom Tauf, vom Wiedertauf, und vom Kindertauf (1525), Zwingli expresses himself thus on the baptism of infants: "The children of Christians are no less God's children than their parents, just as in the Old Testament. And if they are God's children, who will object to their being baptized?" Circumcision was a symbol of what baptism is to us. As the former was given to the children, the latter should be also.

With convincing and striking arguments Hubmaier refutes the ground Zwingli presents for infant baptism. Colossians 2:11 speaks of the circumcision not made with hands. Thereby baptism is not made the equivalent of circumcision, but its higher position is brought out. It is not a mere outward act, but an inward process. The "shadow" of the Old Testament is wiped out. The word "baptize" is not used in Scripture in the sense of "teach," as Zwingli asserts. The baptism of John is not identical with the baptism, of Christ. The former signified confession of sin, the latter faith in pardon. Baptism assumes the confessing faith and the obligation to live in accord with God's will. When Zwingli points out the Greek word "disciple" and asserts that teaching follows baptizing, Hubmaier replies that one can become a disciple of Christ only through teaching and faith. Only when teaching and faith precede does one receive baptism, without thereby putting an end to teaching; Christian understanding must continue to grow. As further evidence for infant baptism Zwingli cites Mark 10:14: "Suffer the children to come unto me." Hubmaier makes it clear that this does not mean they should be baptized (Usteri, 256).

Calvin's concept of infant baptism is peculiar. He considers the children of Christian parents sanctified by their descent and in God's covenant; hence they are entitled to the sign of the covenant.

Schleiermacher (d. 1834) made an attempt in his teaching on faith to hold to infant baptism as a church custom, of course abandoning Luther's position. He declares infant baptism to be an imperfect baptism, the effect of which is suspended until the recipient has become a personal believer. He says, "Infant baptism is  a complete baptism only when, after instruction is completed, the confession of faith is considered the last act belonging to it."

But Schleiermacher admits openly: "But we cannot maintain the necessity of a baptism thus divided into two parts, which, however, happens when one damns the Anabaptists and Mennonites for assuming that children who die unbaptized can be saved. . . . Therefore it would have been very reasonable to abandon infant baptism at the time of the Reformation, in order to approach more closely to the institution by Christ, and we could still do so. . . . It would then be normal to leave it to every Protestant family to decide whether they want to present their children for baptism in the customary way, or not until they have confessed their faith, and we should explain that we repeal the old condemnation pronounced on the Anabaptists on this point and that we are willing to maintain church communion with the Mennonites, if they will only not declare simply invalid our completed infant baptism; on this point it should be easy to reach an agreement."

This generous attitude is held today by not a few theologians, and they act accordingly.

In the first edition of Herzog, J. J. and Albert Hauck, Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche. (HRE) the statement is made, that "there is no trace of infant baptism to be found in the New Testament may be considered a fact in scientific exegesis." In the third edition Dr. Feine says, "The practice of infant baptism in the apostolic and post-apostolic period is not demonstrable" (Vol. XIX, 403). In the same volume (446) Drews declares, "There is complete absence of evidence that children were baptized in apostolic times. Whenever the attempt has been made to offer Scriptural proof for infant baptism, it has been a waste of effort."

In fact, the "strong and firm verses" of Luther do not speak for, but against infant baptism. For they (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16) show that the Lord loved the children without baptism. For He caressed and blessed them, but did not baptize them nor command that they be baptized.

The five instances in Acts of the baptism of entire households leave, on careful exegesis, no room for the baptism of small children. As Tobias Beck says, "All the baptized households, according to circumstances mentioned in the account, consisted of responsible persons."

The verse in 1 Corinthians 7:14, on which Luther once requested Melanchthon to enlighten him as to whether it might be used in favor of infant baptism, is definite evidence against any apostolic practice of infant baptism. "Paul would not have used that argument if infant baptism had been customary at that time. Infant baptism is certainly not apostolic" (Olshausen on 1 Corinthians 7:14).

Beyschlag comments on this verse: "Of infant baptism there is in (Paul's) writings as in the entire New Testament no mention; rather, the manner in which he argues in 1 Corinthians 7:14 on the subject of the children of Christians—that, if the non-Christian spouse were unclean and not sanctified by his life with his Christian spouse, then the children of Christians would also be unclean-—is striking proof that there was then no thought of sanctifying children through baptism. Hence only those came for baptism who were compelled by a personal faith.

In their rejection of infant baptism the Anabaptists of the Reformation built their case solely on the Bible, than which they recognized no other authority. Their assertion that there is no trace of infant baptism in the New Testament, neither directions nor an example, and further that the teaching of the New Testament on faith completely excludes infant baptism, they defended with great positiveness and with more or less skill by citing examples and passages from the Bible.

Thomas von Imbroich (1558) opposes infant baptism with unusual skill on Biblical grounds. In Matthew 28 he points out that teaching and faith must precede baptism; teaching should be given before and after baptism; teaching is followed by repentance and faith. By Christian baptism faith is confessed and sealed. But baptism must be followed by godly living. This is the order of Christ and His apostles. His Biblical refutation of the argument that baptism is the same as circumcision and that the baptism of entire households speaks for infant baptism, is really exhaustive. (Gűldene Aepfel in Silbern Schalen, 48-121.)

Servaes likewise clearly shows the incorrectness of infant baptism in his first epistle (Gűldene Aepfel, 53), and in the second (ibid., 73).

Pilgram Marpeck in his Vermahnung discusses the subject at great length. He shows the invalidity and error of infant baptism, and strikingly refutes with Biblical and historical proofs the arguments arrayed in its behalf. Next to Hubmaier's booklet, Marpeck's Vermahnung is the most important presentation of the teaching and practice of baptism by the Anabaptists (Gedenkschrift, 213-250; Marpeck, Pilgram Marbecks Antwort).

Since the Anabaptists of the 16th century viewed infant baptism as being contrary to the New Testament, they logically considered those baptized as infants as not baptized at all. In his booklet Von der Christlichen Tauff  der Gläubigen (1525) Hubmaier writes that the Anabaptists stated quite openly that they had not been baptized as infants, and must therefore be baptized now (Sachsse, 17). Against the favorite proofs for infant baptism Hubmaier argues to the point as follows.

  1. There is a complete absence of Scripture for baptizing children upon their future faith. It is the same as like planting a grapevine at Easter, hoping for future grapes, when the vine may die.
  2. To interpret infant baptism as a symbol of initiation, whether of beginning faith or of the new life, is contrary to Christ's institution of baptism.
  3. The vicarious faith of parents and godfathers is not known in the Scriptures. The candidate for baptism must believe for himself.
  4. The children of believers are not ipso facto believers, for they have not yet heard God's Word. They are on the same plane as other unbelievers. Otherwise there would be two kinds of baptism.

Hubmaier continues that many recognize the erroneousness of infant baptism, but were afraid of "rebaptism." But such baptism is not rebaptism, since they were not baptized as infants. In the sixth chapter of this book Hubmaier discusses the question, "Does the Scripture forbid infant baptism?" He says, "Yes, indirectly, for it commands believers' baptism. If one says: What is not expressly forbidden is permitted, one re-establishes the whole papal system."

Hubmaier also offers historical proofs. The claim that infant baptism had been customary since apostolic times he refutes by referring to the numerous papal edicts which clearly presuppose adult baptism.

To the question whether unbaptized children are saved, Hubmaier points to God's love, for if God dealt only according to justice, no one would be saved. But no definite answer could be given. Matthew 19:14 Hubmaier explains from the Greek to mean not the children themselves but the humble.

In his book of 1526 (Der Uralten und gar neuen Leerern Urteil, das man die jungen Kindlein nit taufen solle bis sy im Glauben underricht sind) Hubmaier replies to Zwingli's arguments for infant baptism. Here historical proofs are given much room. Statements of numerous Church Fathers are mustered for adult baptism and against infant baptism. In the foreword Hubmaier condemns the abuse of letting infants partake of communion. On the same plane is the abuse of administering baptism to children who do not yet believe. In addition to the proofs he adduced from Scripture in his last book, he would here bring human testimony.

The material was without doubt assembled with great pains. But Hubmaier often cites inexactly and on unreliable sources, frequently errs in dates, so that many of his historical proofs do not stand historical scrutiny. But in his assertion that church history affords protests against infant baptism and certain evidence for the continuance of the baptism of believers in old Christian families, Hubmaier was entirely correct. Modern historical research has confirmed these facts. The fact, for instance, that among the many pictorial sketches of baptisms in the catacombs of the first centuries not a single infant baptism is depicted, is important archaeological evidence.

The practice long continued, precisely in Christian families, of not baptizing infants, can only be explained on the basis of established custom. The rise of doctrines on baptism in contradiction to tradition, and in all parts of the Roman empire, without evoking sharp objection on the part of leading theologians and councils, is a psychological impossibility. Even bishops did not baptize their own children. These cannot have been isolated instances. They would have attracted attention and been attacked if there had existed a firm tradition of infant baptism. The omission of infant baptism in many Christian families of the third and fourth centuries cannot have been a matter of innovation, but of holding to an old practice.

Among the well-known men of that time Ambrose must be mentioned, who was born in Trier about 340, as the son of a Roman prefect of Gaul. The family had adopted Christianity a century before. Among their progenitors was the martyr Sotharis. After his father's death, his mother moved to Rome. Ambrose was not baptized until his thirty-fourth year. Jerome, the Christian scholar and translator of the Bible, was born in Dalmatia (ca. 340) of Christian parents. He was baptized in Rome by Pope Liberius in 360.  Augustine, the son of the pious Monica, was not baptized until 387, when he was 33 years old. Gregory (d. 390), bishop of Nazianzus in Cappadocia, was baptized in his thirtieth year, after he had completed his studies. His brother Caesarius and his sister Gorgona, both certainly Christians, were baptized shortly before their death. Their mother, Nonna, was descended from an old and respected Christian family. She dedicated her son Gregory to the Lord with prayer, placing his infant hands on the Bible. Basil (d. 379), bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, belonged to an old Christian family known for its many martyrs, but he was not baptized as an infant. The same is true of the patriarch Nectarius (d. 398) and of Ephraem Syrus (d. 373). Chrysostom, whose mother Anthusa prayed and read the Bible with him, was baptized after he was a lawyer and after three years of instruction, by bishop Meletius of Antioch.

The oldest writings of the post-apostolic period contain no evidence of infant baptism. The oldest certain evidence of the rise of this practice is found in Tertullian in his De baptismo. He, however, objects to it, and advises postponing baptism until after the candidate has received instruction. Hubmaier is correct in maintaining that the views of the Pelagians or of Cyprian prove nothing, for the utterances of the Church Fathers are authoritative only if they coincide with those of the Scriptures (1527, Von dem khindertauff); Origen did not declare himself in favor of infant baptism; furthermore he was frequently in error too. This is correct. Origen's alleged testimony for infant baptism comes from the free Latin translation of Rufinus, who was interested in fitting Origen's teaching to the later orthodox dogma (Heussi).

The rise of the practice of infant baptism is shrouded in darkness. There is neither any information of the beginning of the practice nor any synodal resolution to introduce it. Neander (214 ff.) finds several elements in the spirit of the post-apostolic period that were favorable to the introduction of infant baptism; e.g., the idea of the magical effect of baptism and of its necessity for salvation. Von Stromberg (162) points out the fundamental religious mood, which found expression in the mystery religions. "Surely none of the Christians of the first and second generations were free of mystery-piety."

"Progressive materialization of the sacred" and the "concept of mysteriously working forces in the act of baptism disconnected baptism from the personal experience of salvation, and faith in baptism was emptied of its most valuable content" (Stromberg, 166). A complete reversal had taken place in the primitive Christian idea of salvation. Its beginnings can be noticed early in post-apostolic literature. Hermas says, life is given by the baptismal water, and the forgiveness of all past sins, therefore it is necessary to salvation. Barnabas teaches that in baptism the Christian enters into possession of salvation and the indwelling of God. Similar expressions are found in Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and others.

When the mysterious effect of the objective means of grace known as sacraments is assumed, then an important premise for infant baptism has been given. Nevertheless the generalizing of the practice was slow. Tertullian (De baptismo, 18) is still an opponent when he declares, "To be sure, the Lord says: and forbid them not to come unto me. Then indeed they may come when they are grown, when they learn, when they are taught there where they are coming. They may become Christians when they can know Christ. Why does the age of innocence hasten to have its sins forgiven? In temporal affairs more care is taken. Should heavenly possessions be entrusted to one to whom earthly goods cannot be entrusted? Let them first understand how to request salvation, that it may be granted them at their request."

In Cyprian infant baptism finds a zealous defender. He too sees in baptism the means of the new birth, release from the devil, death, and hell, and of the granting of the Holy Spirit. Under Cyprian's influence 66 bishops declared themselves in favor of infant baptism in 253. They should be baptized as early as possible (Ep. 64, 2; see De baptismo); they receive the Holy Spirit (Ep. 64, 3). In the crying and wailing of infants Cyprian heard the request for the grace of baptism (Ep. 64, 6).

After Cyprian the baptism of infants became current practice in North Africa. A similar resolution was passed in 305 by a synod at Elvira in Spain. Logically infants also participated in communion (De lapsis; Const, Apost. VIII, 12, 13; Dionysius, Areopagiticus. De hierarch. eccl. VII, ii; Augustine's epistles, 23, etc.). This custom remained in vogue for centuries in the West, and in the Greek Orthodox church has continued until today, immediately connected with confirmation.

Augustine, in his controversy with the Pelagians, found it necessary to strongly emphasize infant baptism. Pelagius sponsored infant baptism in rejecting original sin, Augustine promoted it because of the sinfulness of children. Without baptism, says Augustine, there is no rebirth and no salvation.

The retention of infant baptism is in the final analysis an ecclesiastical matter. Those who consider the church of believers on the basis of voluntary membership the correct form cannot favor infant baptism. Those who favor a church including as nearly as possible the entire population or at least the masses, will consider infant baptism as the act of accepting them into Christendom and the means of relieving all the descendants of church members of the necessity of making the decision. The principle of the mass-church demands infant baptism. From this standpoint the practice still has many zealous defenders, who freely admit that it was not an early Christian practice, but only a later church custom.

Among the Anabaptists the question of the meaning and use of baptism only in the total framework of church life became of such great importance that to the outsider it usually seemed the main point of their doctrine. Today as well, the question of infant baptism gains or loses its significance and interest in connection with the questions of the nature of the Christian Church.

The question of infant baptism received serious attention in the mid-20th century again in continental state church circles, particularly because of the open repudiation of infant baptism by Karl Barth in 1943 in his pamphlet, Die kirchliche Lehre von der Taufe. His son Markus Barth published in 1951 a large work, Die Taufe ein Sakrament? in which he took basically the same position, as did Johannes Schneider's Die Taufe im Neuen Testament a year later. Both latter works give an exhaustive exegetical discussion of all New Testament passages dealing with baptism. Many pastors in the Swiss, German, and Dutch state churches openly followed Karl Barth's lead, although it was difficult for any of them to put into practice their convictions and to refuse to baptize the infants brought to them. The strongest counterattack against Barth was that by Oscar Cullmann, also professor at Basel, in 1948 in his booklet, Die Tauflehre des N.T., although H. Grossmann had already attacked Barth's position in his booklet Ein Ja zur Kindertaufe in 1944. Cullmann sought to prove that the early church must have practiced infant baptism. J. Jeremias, professor at the University of Göttingen, had already attempted this proof in 1938 in his earlier booklet, Hat die älteste Kirche die Kindertaufe geűbt? Both Cullmann and Jeremias rely more upon historical evidence than exegetical proof. B. H. Unruh in 1950 carefully examined and refuted the arguments for infant baptism in his "Zur neuesten Literatur űber die christliche Taufe," followed by Paul Schowalter in 1953, "Noch einmal: Die Tauffrage”

See also Baptism; Dedication of Infants


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Author(s) Johannes Warns
Harold S. Bender
Date Published 1958

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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 34-38. All rights reserved.

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