Going Deeper on Baptism

August 23rd, 2008

Mike Burgess was kind enough to comment on my previous entry on infant baptism.  (Mike is a Roman Catholic, formerly-Reformed, with whom I was previously discussing another matter at Beggars All blog.)  My reply become long enough that I’m going to make it a new entry.

If you don’t mind me dropping by to comment, I’d like to offer a few reflections on your post. I appreciated the civil interaction with you on the Beggars All thread.

When I was Reformed, I was a paedobaptist and paedocommunionist. There is a lot of really insightful paedocommunionist material available on the web from vital, Reformed men. You might look into it simply for research as you ponder these things. I can point to some if you’re interested.

No, not at all! Welcome to my blog.  I appreciate some challenge from various perspectives.  I also want to have a healthy respect for tradition–for the thoughts & reflections & commentary of other believers.  I think that’s an important, even vital part of Bible study.

I’m about to post an entry with links to the sermons, discussions, and debates on this topic which I’ve been reading & listening to lately. You would be more than welcome to add some recommendations.

The point here is that, using the remnant analogy, those Reformed men don’t fit your objection to the “inconsistency” charge.

I’m not sure what you mean by “the remnant analogy”. (Something like, “God’s covenant community has always consisted of the external community, with a smaller remnant of true believers–covenant signs have always been properly given to the children of those who believe, even if those children are not necessarily part of the remnant”?)

Yes, those who allow their children to take communion are not being inconsistent–not in the way I mentioned in my Example 1. I am aware that some do practice paedocommunion, which makes them consistent. But I have heard the argument from someone who does not practice paedocommunion, so the criticism applied. (In retrospect, I don’t know why I said that paedobaptists “usually” require a profession of faith for communion–I actually don’t know what the percentages are. I’m going to correct the other entry.)

Still, I expect that all paedobaptists face somewhat similar questions. If an adult converts and is baptized, and that convert has children, which of their children should be baptized? Infants? Kindergarteners? Teenagers? 25-year-olds living with their parents? 40-year-olds who have their own children, where extended families live under the same roof? Servants & slaves, who (in Biblical terms) are part of the “household”? (I’m curious–do you know Catholic practice in these matters?)

I wondered at your reaction to the citizen analogy. What made you ask if you should baptize your neighbor? Are you a pastor? I didn’t get that from your profile. Or were you just speaking metaphorically?

I’ll summarize my reaction to Pastor Pauls’ “citizens” argument.

Jesus told us to baptize all nations. But the Great Commission doesn’t mean that we baptize every member of “all nations”–it means that we preach to all nations, and all groups are candidates for baptism. We baptize those who respond to the preached word, professing faith and repentance. Pastor Pauls’ argument would tell us to baptize anyone & everyone, without regard to whether they have heard & accepted the gospel. Baptists approach children the same way everybody (?) approaches adults–on the basis of professed faith.

(As far as “me” baptizing my neighbor, I was speaking somewhat loosely. I do believe baptism normally ought to be in the context of a local church, and it’s not very likely that I would perform the baptism. However, I don’t know that a layperson can’t–it’s just not normal practice. I believe the Catholic church allows for laypeople performing baptisms in extraordinary circumstances. Still, I have been at baptisms where the father performed the baptism of his child–I don’t know a solid reason to object to that. If I ever have children, and they trust in Christ, I may perform their baptism.)

Secondly, are you making an assertion that infants can’t have faith? I will leave aside for the moment Biblical teaching on vicarious faith and sacrifice, etc. But I would refer to Psalm 22:9-10, Psalm 71:6, and Luke 1:15, 41 as evidence that God graciously bestows faith even in infants (infants in the womb even!).

Short answer:

No, I believe God can regenerate & give faith to infants, as with David and John the Baptist. But we credobaptists baptize those who profess faith, not those who could conceivably have faith. And we do not baptize to bring about faith in the person baptized. Faith precedes baptism, and baptism is a profession of faith.

Longer answer:

Passages like 1 Peter 3:18-22, Col. 2: 8-14, and Rom. 6: 1-14 (connecting in verse 1 back to Rom. 5, on justification by faith) establish something important about baptism: It is connected with faith, burial & resurrection with Christ, and an actual appeal for a clean conscience through Christ. It is not something given to people who God may or may not actually regenerate.

You, as a Catholic, will argue that implies baptismal regeneration: That God brings to life those who the Church baptizes–including infants.  (Also adults who receive baptism unworthily, without genuine faith & repentance ?).  Or you’ll argue for a kind of vicarious faith, which you mentioned in passing.

I will argue that it implies believer’s baptism: That baptism is a conscious appeal for a clean conscience through Christ, an act of obedience that is part of the entire process of turning to God in faith & repentance, entering the new covenant in His blood. (Though there may be false brothers who sneak in, without the circumcision of the heart of being raised with Christ through faith–a circumcision made without hands.)

Either way, it excludes the awkward middle ground of Protestant paedobaptists who reject baptismal regeneration–like Presbyterians.  They try to make baptism a sign of hoped-for blessings, not a sign of the realized blessings of salvation. I believe that Reformed paedobaptists run into major problems with these passages.  (Am I correct in thinking that Lutherans–and Anglicans?–believe in baptismal regeneration? Or that baptism secures the gift of infant faith?)

Presbyterian-style paedobaptists do have a possible way out, which you mentioned: The idea of vicarious faith–baptizing one person on the basis of another’s faith. To that, I’ll say briefly: (1) Yikes! (2) If you want to go there, show me a NT connection between baptism and vicarious faith. (If you reply with “baptism for the death,” I’ll say that’s a pretty thin reed to support the weight of your position. And there’s no suggestion that “the dead” in question lacked faith.) 3.) If you want to go there, show me a NT connection between salvation in general and vicarious faith. 4.) Even if you do go there–and even if you’re right–it’s important to notice that you need to go there. Paedobaptists who don’t go there still have the problem I pointed out.

(Sidenote: Baptists believe that baptism is a sign of realized blessings, even though the sign can be wrongly given to false professors. You can argue against that–you might think that it’s nonsensical–but it is still distinct from the Reformed notion of hoped-for blessings. Also, BTW, I should say that I’m not entirely comfortable with the common baptist language of baptism being “just a symbol”. I do believe we are saved before we are baptized, but “just a symbol” seems like an awkward way of articulating that. It feels like it minimizes baptism too much.

Hmm… Also, when I say that it’s a sign of “realized” blessings, I’m aware that some of the blessings of the new covenant aren’t realized yet–some of the blessings are “not yet”, and some are “already”. But true believers have the down-payment of the Spirit–so I’m saying that baptism is a sign of blessings that have been “realized” at least that much.)

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5 Responses to “Going Deeper on Baptism”

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  2. Mike Burgess says:

    Thanks for the gracious welcome.

    In regard to household baptisms, the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church explicitly mentions that children who have not fully attained the use of reason and others who are not responsible for themselves (non sui compos) are to be treated as infants. Those are considered adults who are at least 14 years old and have attained the use of reason. So, essentially, you can see how this plays out under current disciplinary mandates. An adult who wishes to become Christian and/or wishes to ‘convert’ brings with him his non-adult children, who are to be considered ‘infants.’ Those he may have who are ‘adult’ and have attained the use of reason are to be consulted and their desires are to be followed.

    As to the Great Commission and the baptism of the nations, I agree that it is not to be done indiscriminately. There were, apparently, instances when (for example) Jesuit missionaries baptized masses of people, irrespective of their age or station or rational function, and it is my understanding that they were A) motivated by charity, B) authorized to do so by their ordinaries, and C) operating under the assumption that those whom they baptized were ‘infants,’ so to speak, since they were not as “civilized” as Europeans were and were presumed to be bereft of any modicum of education and thus not properly in possession of the right use of reason. This practice was condemned eventually, although I do not have a specific recollection of where. Current disciplinary procedures give the ordinaries of various jurisdictions guidelines while recognizing latitude.

    You said “But we credobaptists baptize those who profess faith, not those who could conceivably have faith.” This is one of the salient points, of course. Paedobaptists conclude from the Scriptural record that covenant membership is to extend to “you and your children,” as we see in Acts 2 and elsewhere. This is the same conclusion to be drawn from Colossians 2, as I said.

    With regard to vicarious faith, I think the Gospels are replete with specific instances. See for example Matthew 8:5-13, 9:1-7, Mark 5:21-24, 9:16-42 and Luke 9:37-42. 1 Corinthians 7:14 gives further weight to the already heavy evidence for the “NT connection between salvation in general and vicarious faith” that you desired to see explicated. Please tell me if you have problems with the “forgiveness of sins” being equal to “salvation” in Matthew 9:2, “And there people brought to him a paralytic lying on a stretcher. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.'” Nota bene, “they” are the ones who had faith, and their faith was what brought about the forgiveness of his sins (his salvation). I think I have already intimated the connection between circumcision and baptism; I won’t belabor the point of elaborating on the significance of covenant entrance for salvation under the OT or NT auspices.

    Now, you may well object about the status of those granted covenant entry in the New Testament as being eternally secure, but suffice to say I believe there’s sufficient (copious, even) Scriptural warrant for considering it otherwise. I mention this because the regenerative nature of baptism is not negated by falling away any more than the Old Covenant entry was negated by falling away. I don’t want to get sidetracked by discussion of Hebrews 6, for example. I’ll be interested in your response, if you wish to do so. Thanks again for the interaction.

    Oh, one last thing, the Church does not teach that baptism operates ex opere operato when there is an obstacle put in the way by the one upon whom the sacrament is conferred, so the question of an adult who is baptized but consciously rejects the grace by refusing to believe that it is salvific, say, is answered by remembering the complementary principle of ex opere operantis. That is another petal of the TULIP which is beyond the current scope of the issue.

  3. Tim says:


    This is going to be a partial reply. This gets to be a big topic, and to interact seriously on some of the points we’re raising would require more time than I have quite at the moment. (I’d like to say more about Col. 2 in particular. I’m thinking about a possible follow-up entry that may end up being applicable.) Even this partial reply got a bit big!


    On Catholic law and household baptisms: If you recall, this question came up in the context of the problem baptists have to face: At one point do we decide that a child has “attained the use of reason” (in your words) enough to make their own credible profession of faith? How young do we baptize them? I said that non-baptists have to face similar problems. And that does seem to be the case–the Catholic church has had to address the question of when a child “attains the use of reason”. Our applications of the question are a bit different–but the issues in the question are very, very close.


    On the references you gave for vicarious faith: The one that really gives me pause is 1 Cor. 7:14. The reference to children there does seem to be suggestive. I’ll have to spend more time with that one. (For the others, they are all–save one–references to physical healing. Not the strongest references when we’re talking about salvation/forgiveness. Is it the case that God only heals when faith is present, just as he only forgives? And if so, how does that adequately demonstrate that God would forgive on the basis of another’s faith? And as for the paralytic in Matt 9–is there reason to think that “their faith” doesn’t include “the paralytic’s faith”?)

    Another key point is this: There is no hint of this “vicarious faith” in passages discussing baptism & salvation. (Except, possibly, 1 Cor. 7:14. As I said, I’ll think about that one. But I’m skeptical. Paul said both that the unbelieving spouse is “sanctified” and that the children “are holy” because of the believer’s faith. Unless you say that they have their sins forgiven, how is this applicable?)


    On indiscriminately baptizing the nations: Good, I’m glad to hear that such practices were condemned. So, for our conversation: When we look at “those who are far off”, what is the criteria for baptism? That someone believes and repents. (I think that’s basically the case in Catholicism, too. As you said, the sacraments (like baptism) don’t confer grace unless the recipient is inwardly receptive. It’s not accepted Catholic practice to baptize adults who have not expressed belief, is it?) It is believers that are baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit.

    And that takes me back to Acts 2, which you mentioned here:

    You said “But we credobaptists baptize those who profess faith, not those who could conceivably have faith.” This is one of the salient points, of course. Paedobaptists conclude from the Scriptural record that covenant membership is to extend to “you and your children,” as we see in Acts 2 and elsewhere.

    Mike, I find it interesting that you did exactly what I said that paedobaptists tend to do with Acts 2:39: Quote the first part (“for you and for your children”), not mention the part about “for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself”, and not offer any explanation for why you treat the children differently than the “far off” people.

    Here’s the passage again:

    And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)

    You say that Acts 2 extends covenant membership to “your children”. I agree entirely–in the same sense that it extends covenant membership to “you” and to “all who are far off”. Those of the nations–“all who are far off”–are only baptized if they believe & repent, i.e. if God calls them to himself. The Jews being addressed–“you”–are only baptized if they believe & repent, i.e. if God calls them to himself. You don’t think that covenant membership is automatic for them–they have to believe and repent. But you think it’s automatic for the children of those who believe & repent–and somehow, you say you’re getting that from this passage.

    You insert a difference in how the three groups are handled, but say that you’re getting that difference out of this passage. I really don’t see how you can do that. I don’t even see how you think you can do that.

  4. Mike Burgess says:

    You said, “For the others, they are all–save one–references to physical healing. Not the strongest references when we’re talking about salvation/forgiveness.”

    I believe that Matthew 9:5-6 speak directly to your concern here, Tim. The physical healings in the Gospels were not meant to convey a mere physical healing. Death entered the world through sin, as you know. Jesus’ power to reverse the curse was made manifest by the outward signs that showed the restoration of health and life. These are the strongest references when we’re talking about salvation/forgiveness.

    “Is it the case that God only heals when faith is present, just as he only forgives? And if so, how does that adequately demonstrate that God would forgive on the basis of another’s faith? And as for the paralytic in Matt 9–is there reason to think that “their faith” doesn’t include “the paralytic’s faith”?

    Working in reverse order, I think there is a reason to think that there’s a bigger picture you might be missing. I admit that the paralytic might have had faith, too. He might not, which would bolster my case, but either way, Jesus took into account the faith of others. So it is, we say, with covenant children. As to whether it is the case that God only heals if faith is present, I think the narrative of Mark 6 (which roughly parallels Matthew 17, I think, where Jesus fulfills the Isaian prophecy?) makes the connectio intimate, but I dare not limit God’s sovereignty. Neither do I wish to ignite a Thomist/Molinist-Calvinist/Arminian thing. 🙂

    As to the case of treating covenant children differently than adults who are far off, I should have thought this obvious. Pagans are distinct from covenant people. “You and your children” are one class of people, and “those who are far off (and their children)” are another. You have created a third group where there isn’t one. The Jews were circumcised if they believed. Thus, Abraham and a few other adult converts here and there. The rest of the circumcised were given the sign on the eighth day, in accordance with the Law. There is no disparity here: the faithful Jew was to treat his son as a faithful Jew, and give him the sign of covenant membership. It would have been unfaithful on his part to withhold covenant status and the sign of such status from his sons. Paul distinctly equates circumcision with baptism in Colossians 2:11-12. I just don’t see any way around that. This logic of treating covenant children as members of the covenant with at least vicarious faith unless and until they fall away (I realize there are differences of opinion on that matter) is also at the heart of the paedocommunion debate in Protestant circles. (It’s a disciplinary issue in Catholic and Orthodox circles.)

    Thanks for the engagement, Tim. Thanks for the prayers, too. It seems like I will need as much as I can get. (Don’t we all, though?)

    God bless.

  5. […] pretty much done with my recent entries on infant baptism, but I found a couple more resources on the subject–about infant baptism in […]