Should Small Children be Baptized?

By A paper by Mark Koonz based on a reading of Michael Green's "Baptism" |  August 10, 2011

 

Should Children be Baptized?  Seven Reasons to Practice Infant Baptism listed by Michael Green.  These reasons are taken largely from Michael Green’s book “Baptism:  Its Purpose, Practice, and Power” published by Hodder and Stoughton, and also by InterVarsity Press.  It is worth purchasing new or used, and will be a welcome addition to your library. It is a fine a clearly-written discussion of the meaning of baptism, including “baptism in the Spirit.”  For these reasons, I want to promote it by using it and bringing it to your attention.

 

The reason why this is being posted on Emmanuel Lutheran Church’s website as a resource is because people from non-Lutheran backgrounds often have questions about why we baptize young children and infants as well as adults.

 

(1)  Children were admitted into the Old Testament Church.

 

Genesis 17:10-14; Romans 4:11 speak about the importance of circumcision, which infant males had to receive in order to belong to God’s covenant people.  Did those babies have any say in what happened to them?  They were circumcised simply because they were born into a believing family.

 

In the New Testament baptism replaces circumcision as the mark of belonging to God’s new covenant (Colossians 2:11-12; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38,41,47; Galatians 3:24-27; Romans 6:3-4).

            “Children were admitted into the Old Testament Church. Are they to be excluded from the New Testament Church?  Has God grown less gracious with the passing of the years?  Are children meant to be worse off under the New Covenant than they were under the Old?”

 

 

(2)  The whole family was baptized when proselytes came over into Judaism.

 

“When a family came over into Judaism from some pagan background, three things took place.  The head of the family offered sacrifices. The males in the family were circumcised.  And everybody – but everybody – was baptized.  They sat in a bath and baptized themselves, ‘washing away Gentile impurities.’

             This practice was pre-Christian.  What shocked the Jews was when John the Baptist demanded that all Jews undergo baptism, not just converts.

 

 

(3)  Whole families were baptized in New Testament days.

 

       There is every reason to think the first Christians – all of them Jewish – practiced baptism that included the entire family.  There is no hint that young children were excluded. See Acts 11:14 (Cornelius’ household), Acts 16:15 ( Lydia’s household), Acts 16:33 (the Philippian jailer’s household), 1 Corinthians 1:16 (Stephanas’ household).

 

 

(4)  Jesus accepted and blessed children too young to respond.

 

      Mark 10:2-16.  From the second century onwards [the 100s AD] this passage was used to justify infant baptism.  “Tertullian shows that the words were so interpreted in his day (de Baptismo 18:5), and the Apostolic Constitutions (6:15) base the practice of baptizing children on the words, ‘Do not hinder them’ . . . to ‘hinder’ became a technical term for refusing baptism.”

 

First, Jesus loves tiny children and welcomes them to himself.  Second, Jesus is willing to bless them even when they are too young to understand.  Third, tiny children are capable of receiving a blessing at the hands of Jesus.  Is it any wonder this passage was later applied to baptism?

 

 

(5)  The church down its history has baptized children.

 

      Polycarp (about 69-155 AD) declared at his martyrdom, “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong.”  This takes us back to around the year 70 AD when many apostles were still alive.  It is most certainly a reference to infant baptism.  If he had been a child of 8, 10, or 12 years old when he was baptized, then he would have been nearly 100 years old at his martyrdom, a phenomenal age in the ancient world that would have called for special comment, but this is not what the record indicates.

 

 

(6)  Infant baptism stresses the objectivity of the gospel.

 

      Our salvation depends on what God has done for us. Infant baptism “points to the solid achievement of Christ crucified and risen, whether or not we respond to it.” Yes, we are called to repent and believe as we grow older, but infant baptism precedes our response and “reminds us that we are not saved because of our faith but through the gracious action of God on our behalf which stands, come wind come weather.”

 

 

(7)  Infant baptism stresses the initiative of God in salvation.

 

“All agree that baptism is the seal on the covenant between God’s grace and our response.  But you have to administer this sacrament at some time or other.  Should it be attached primarily to man’s response, or to God’s initiative?  That is the heart of the question.” 

“Supremely, baptism is the mark of God’s prior love to us which antedates our response and calls it forth.  For the Baptist, baptism primarily bears witness to what we do in responding to the grace of God.  For the paedobaptist [child baptizer], it primarily bears witness to what God has done to make it all possible.”

 

 

In the next section I review material, based on Michael Green’s fine book, as well as other information, with a focus on Green’s Reason 5.

 

Why do we baptize young children? 

Reason 5:  The Church has always baptized children throughout Her history.

 

The evidence we have of the early church shows it was their practice to baptize infants and children in Christian homes.  Remember that at that time larger gatherings took place in secret, for fear of arrest in Rome and other places.  Larger gatherings, such as the hundreds of Christians who went into the catacombs near Rome, were for the purpose of celebrating communion together.  In other parts of the Roman Empire Christians may have gathered outdoors for communal baptisms where and when they did not fear arrest by the local magistrates, and where and when the weather permitted them to get into a river or stream.  However, many baptisms of children took place in homes.  This was a time of intermittent persecution, and those attending a baptism in a home could be limited to a few and carefully selected.

            This seems to be the established practice by the early 200s, just five or six generations after the original disciples and apostles founded churches throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. And it does not seem to have been disputed or thought wrong.  Could the early church have knowingly gone against the teaching of the apostles?  It doesn’t seem likely, particularly when they were following an early practice of the Church.  That is, they were doing what their parents’ and grandparents’ generation had done and taught them to do.  Their grandparents’ generation was within three or four generations of the apostles, and they were doing what they had been taught to do by those within one or two generations of the apostles.  So we are looking at a very early practice. 

            It was a widespread practice, and went unchallenged. That means that people thought they were doing the right thing, doing something the apostles handed on as the right practice regarding baptism of families.  Baptism of infants was not looked on as a new innovation, but as a tradition handed on by the apostles.  If people in the early church thought this practice went against the teaching of the apostles, they would not have accepted it.  Or if it was a matter of controversy, there should be some record of it.  Yes, in some places in later centuries it became a matter of controversy, but not with the generations closer in time to the apostles, particularly the early 200s. Let me give you an example of what we know from that early era.

 

            By the yearAD 215 (or earlier) the  theologian and church leader in Rome, Hippolytus, wrote a book called The Apostolic Tradition, which contains a very early form of “The Apostles’ Creed.”  Some scholars actually date this work as written in the AD 190s.  It reflects early Christian teaching.

            Michael Green gets to the heart of why this testimony is important.  “Hippolytus, in The Apostolic Tradition, refers in the most natural way to the baptism of children.  Indeed, he alludes to it as ‘unquestioned rule’.  ‘First, you should baptise the little ones.  All who can speak for themselves should speak. But for those who cannot speak, their parents should speak, or another who belongs to their family.’  Then the grown men were baptised, and finally the women (Apostolic Tradition, 21). Hippolytus’ order of service for baptism had wide circulation, was translated into various languages, and set the standard for more than a thousand years” (Baptism, p. 72).

 

            Nothing we have found to date in early Christian writings contradicts the practice of infant baptism.  Other great centers of early Christianity practiced infant baptism. For example, there is the testimony of the great theologian Origen, a church leader in Alexandria, Egypt, one of the most influential churches in the early centuries.  John Mark, missionary companion of Paul and Peter and author of the “Gospel according to Mark” was buried in Alexandria.  Christians were in Alexandria since the first apostolic generation.  Origen was born in AD 185 to a Christian family and grew up there learning early Christian teachings and practices.

            In Origen’s books he mentions the baptism of infants as a custom of the church.  To him there is nothing controversial about it.  He is very relaxed in all his mentions of infant baptism, indicating that it wasn’t seen as a debatable issue in his time.  In his Commentary on Romans 6:5-7 he says, “For this reason the Church received from the apostles the tradition of baptising children too.”  Origen was born AD 185 and we assume he was baptized as an infant according to the standard practice of the early Christian community in Alexandria. That important church saw it as an apostolic practice.

 

            From Asia Minor, the area where the Apostle Paul established several early churches, comes the testimony of Polycarp.  Polycarp was born about AD 69 and died AD 155.  He was born to Christian parents.  Because he was an important church leader, he was arrested and told to renounce his faith in Christ by taking the oath to Caesar and cursing Christ in public. Polycarp refused, and died a martyr’s death.  He testified before he died about the goodness of the Lord Jesus in these words: “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He never did me any wrong.  How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

            He said he had been a Christian for 86 years, which takes us back to around AD 70, a time when there were many apostles still alive, as well as other disciples who had known Jesus.  This takes us back to the time when some books of the New Testament were still being written and circulated for the first time.  The early Church was young and advancing all over the Roman Empire.

            Now, are we to think that he wasn’t baptized as an infant? If so, then Polycarp would have been 10 or 12 or 14 years old when baptized and starting to “serve Him.” That would make Polycarp between 96 and 100 years old at the time of his death.  Polycarp was quite old, and some of those arresting him marveled that the authorities should take such pains to secure an elderly man, but he was still able to walk and talk well, and nothing in their report leads us to think that Polycarp was closing in on a hundred years.  The early church thought he was 86 years old when he was killed. Polycarp referred to his life as an entire lifetime of serving Christ, indicating that he must have been baptized as an infant.  For the early church did not count a Christian life as beginning prior to baptism. Baptism marked one as belonging to Christ.  Polycarp thus indicates that he was quite young when he was first united with Christ.

[Side note:  Didn’t some delay baptism in the early church?  Does this count against the practice of baptizing infants? Answer:  By the fourth century some adults from pagan backgrounds delayed their baptism because they were afraid to sin after they were baptized, hoping to meet God with a pure conscious at death.  This highlights a theological problem that had developed, but it only applied to some who wanted to convert to Christianity from a non-Christian background.  The church did not maintain such a practice, however, and both in East and West Christian parents were expected to bring their children to the waters of baptism. And adult converts were encouraged to get baptized as soon as possible.  Missionaries in northern Europe would delay until warmer weather, so as not to freeze people to death, but when warmer weather came round the converts were expected to “wade in the water.”]

 

Many early Christian writings do not discuss the age of baptism, but those which do offer support for the practice of infant baptism.  We have yet to find negative comments; we have several positive comments about the practice of bringing children to the water of baptism.

 

For additional reading, consider “The Biblical Doctrine of Infant Baptism” by Pierre Ch. Marcel, translated by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (published:  Cambridge:  James Clarke, 1953, reprinted 1981).

 

A short but important discussion by a great New Testament scholar (don't be afraid:  he's readable for people who aren't experts) is Oscar Cullmann's "Baptism in the New Testament."

 

Another book is “Children of Promise:  The Case for Baptizing Infants” by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, who was famous for his theological translations of Karl Barth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back