Dippin’ and dunkin’: The puzzle of baptism

by Richard on February 25, 2005

Half Pint House is frustrated about the baptism of children.

I’m concerned because I’m a member of a church that practices this and we are about to attend a seminary that teaches this. And I do not understand it. And I want to.
I realize none of you can solve all my baptist-turned-presbyterian problems, but all I’m asking right now is for someone to give me the “presbyterian” answer to the above questions.

Adrian Warnock responds

Let me know if you get answers to these questions. As a non-paedobaptist I doubt you will get very clear ones. For me, if there is any doubt at all about whether babies should be baptised we should leave them unbaptised.

I shan’t be able to give a Presbyterian answer to this (though our good friend Eugene might if he’s listening) but I can give a brief answer from my Methodist perspective.

First, a word about the “mechanics” of baptism. Although full immersion seems to have always been the preferred method of baptism in the church (and it certainly carries the symbolism of dying and rising with Christ most richly), from the very earliest records of the church we know that other mehods have been a possibility. For example, The Didache, written about 100AD says

And concerning baptism, baptize thus. Having first recited all these things, baptize in the name of the father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in running water. But if thou hast not running water, baptize in other water; and if thou canst not in cold, in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water thrice upon the head in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

I’m not suggesting that The Didache has the force of scripture, but it does come from the very earliest days of the church and it is clear evidence that it is not the precise mechanism of baptism that is ‘effective’. Whatever else it may be, baptism is not magic. While we’re on the subject of the mechanics, lets not forget that the baptism of children does not always involve dipping or sprinkling. (I’m pretty sure the Orthodox go the whole hog with their babies) Similarly, many churches will baptize adults by sprinkling or similar. So what we’re talking about is not the validity of the form of baptism, but of infant baptism as opposed to believers baptism.

Some opponents of infant baptism argue that it can’t be valid because the child isn’t able to answer for themselves. Baptism can only be given on profession of faith. First, I’d say that the notion of faith being purely a matter of individual commitment is a relatively modern one. For most of history and for most of the world’s religions, belonging has come before believing. There is even evidence of this in the New Testament. In Acts 16, when Lydia comes to faith she and her whole household were baptized. More important for me than this, though, is the fact that infant baptism points us to the free, undeserved grace of God. Every time we baptize a child we affirm that God’s love is not dependent on our understanding or commitment. in the words of a service I sometimes use:

“We bring this child whom God has entrusted to us and claim for her all that Christ has won for us. Christ loves her and is ready to receive her, to embrace her with the arms of his mercy and to give her the blessing of eternal life.”

Before we can act for ourselves, God comes to us! That’s the gospel in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Just as for believer’s baptism, the context of infant baptism is faith. The faith of the parents and godparents. The faith of the church. We declare that faith and pray that the little one will grow to confess that faith for herself before the world. But the first move is always with God.

I have to be honest that the practice of infant baptism cannot be well-argued from the New Testament. The best that can be done is to claim that it might be implicit in the practice of household baptism, though that is far from certain. But we do know that it is a very ancient practice in the church, as the situation changed from a church of adult converts to include the children of Christian parents. It is mentioned in the writings of Tertullian, Hippolytus and Origen so we know that it was widely practised by the year 200 or so. Furthermore, the Reformers affirmed that the baptism of infants was a gift from God. Calvin declared that the baptism of Christian children was precisely analogous to the circumcision of Jewish boys in infancy:

If reason is listened to, it will undoubtedly appear that baptism is properly administered to infants as a thing due to them. The Lord did not anciently bestow circumcision upon them without making them partakers of all the things signified by circumcision. He would have deluded his people with mere imposture, had he quieted them with fallacious symbols: the very idea is shocking. I is distinctly declares, that the circumcision of the infant will be instead of a seal of the promise of the covenant. But if the covenant remains firm and fixed, it is no less applicable to the children of Christians in the present day, than to the children of the Jews under the Old Testament. Now, if they are partakers of the thing signified, how can they be denied the sign? If they obtain the reality, how can they be refused the figure? The external sign is so united in the sacrament with the word, that it cannot be separated from it; but if they can be separated, to which of the two shall we attach the greater value? Surely, when we see that the sign is subservient to the word, we shall say that it is subordinate, and assign it the inferior place. Since, then, the word of baptism is destined for infants why should we deny them the signs which is an appendage of the word? This one reason, could no other be furnished, would be amply sufficient to refute all gainsayers. The objection, that there was a fixed day for circumcision, is a mere quibble. We admit that we are not now, like the Jews, tied down to certain days; but when the Lord declares that though he prescribes no day, yet he is pleased that infants shall be formally admitted to his covenant, what more do we ask?
Institutes 4.16

(On reflection, it is Calvin’s support of infant baptism that would probably appeal most strongly to those of the Presbyterian persuasion)

The fact that the vast majority of the Christian Church in every generation has practised infant baptism does not make it right, of course. Doctrine is not decided by ballot! But it should give pause to those who loudly deny its validity and (worse) question the faith of those observe it.

That’ll have to do to be going on with. I hope I’ve done enough to convince Adrian and others that infant baptism has a perfectly reasonable place in the life of the church even if his corner of that church does not practice it.

Update: Blogotional provides a Presbyterian perspective

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }


dh 02.25.05 at 10:40 pm

I feel that Faith IS individual first. Many people “belong” to a church but don’t Believe. Just because other religions have belonging before Faith doesn’t make our Faith the same. When the entire family was baptised could their have been Faith before their baptism that wasn’t mentioned because it was understood or obvious to the readers?
I believe in Belivers baptism. I do feel we can dedicate the infant for Christ. This is equivelant to praying for the infant and the family to assist the child in coming to the knowledge of Christ. Which the Bible mentions. God’s love is not contingent upon our individual Faith but for us to receive a relationship with Christ and to be in the Kingdom does require an individual Faith. “If YOU confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that Christ is risen from the dead you shall be saved” “I am the way the truth and the life no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (notice not through any other religion or god but Christ)


Richard 02.25.05 at 11:06 pm

But belonging can and does lead to believing. And this is not just in “other faiths”. But I’m not trying to convince anyone to change their minds about this. It would be nice to persuade a few that infant baptism is not an unreasonable practice though. ;)

On the question of faith: Does it always have to be an individual’s faith for it to be effective? The paralysed man of Mark 2 was healed (and forgiven) because of the faith of his friends, not his own. Maybe that little story is not a bad analogy for infant baptism…


DaveW 02.25.05 at 11:28 pm

Has anyone prayed with young children and not been astounded by their faith. I am often stunned by their trust in God and profound ability to express it, often in very wonderful and imaginative ways that pull me up short and make me say “Wow”. How clearly they can show up our lack of a trusting faith. So it brings to mind Matthew 19: 13-15.


Bene Diction 02.25.05 at 11:33 pm

I was adopted and was 8 before my new parents took us to a church to get sprinkled.
It was the community/commitment/dedication thing. I only sort of understood it.
It meant something to the minister and something to my adoptive parents. Because of the adoption it was private.
As an adult believer I took and chose the time to get dunked - the symbolism of dying and rising with Christ.
It was decent someone cared enough about me to take the time to have me dedicated as a kid.

So, I have no idea what ‘camp’ I fall into, and is not a theological discussion I can enter into.


Adrian 02.26.05 at 12:21 am

Sorry, you have given me more ammunition I am afraid! Let the debate begin! (Have cited you over on my blog)


John 02.26.05 at 12:30 am

In reply to Richards comment…being healed physically is not a prerequisite for being born again and neither is infant baptism. :)


Eugene 02.26.05 at 9:39 pm

I can relate to Adrian. I have struggled with the issue of infant baptism. I was brought up in an Anabaptist denomination until I was
18. When I turned nineteen I was sprinkled baptised in a Presbyterian Church. I struggled with the issue of infant baptism, but I believe
in the covenantal construct that as members of the body of Christ our
children are our responsibility to be brought up to know Jesus Christ and to belong to Jesus Christ and the community he established. The method by which we bring them into the community is baptism. Baptism
replaced the circumcision of our Jewish forefathers and in a way widens the circle because all ethnic groups and both genders can be baptised (circumcision was only performed on Jewish males at infancy).

Richard is right the believer then belonging then being baptised is a modern construct. It is also an individualistic construct (which I despise because it diminishes the role of church and our need to be in community with fellow Christians).

As to the method of baptism the Baptists are somewhat misguided on the method. The Jordan River did not always be a deep river, sometimes it was a mere creek or trickle. So it is unclear if Jesus was merely sprinkled or fully immersed. Also texts like Matthew 28:19-20 are unclear about the making of disciples. Is baptism the rite of initiation into discipleship or is it post-discipleship? The Scriptures are unclear and could argue both.

The practice of full immersion baptism was first recorded in 1645. From 1522-1645 it was recorded that the Anabaptists sprinkled adults.

Even the Greek word baptiso is unclear.

I may sound wishy-washy in my argument. I am all for infant baptism because I believe we should incorporate children into the church community and I do believe that belonging instills belief as we go down the road of faith. I do not take umbrage to those who believe in believers full immersion baptism, but I do not want them to think it is the only way or mode to baptise, as Richard clearly showed with the Didache quote from 110 A.D.

Eugene McKinnon


dh 03.08.05 at 10:50 pm

To Eugene, Couldn’t we do dedication rather than baptism? Baptism in the Bible was only referenced as being AFTER a person accepted Christ. I have no problem with dedication with regard to church community. Maybe the paralized man DID have Faith but it wasn’t mentioned by Mark? I definiately do not see a distinction between Baptism and circumsision. Apples and oranges.


dh 03.08.05 at 10:51 pm

Great point Adrian, I do believe that there are more references to Baptism being a post-Faith action.

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