Recently, my wife and I welcomed our third child into the world. We are looking forward to getting her baptized as Christians have done since the time of the early Church. But… as I’ve become more familiar with the historical Christian faith largely through my conversion to Catholicism, I can understand the need to explain infant baptism to folks who are not Catholic. If you’d like to understand, read on.
Before explaining the importance of infant baptism, it’s necessary to touch on the importance of baptism overall. However, because I don’t want this post to be super long, I’ll simply refer you to some of the places in Scripture where the importance of baptism is strongly emphasized:
John 3:5 “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’”
1 Peter 3:21 “Baptism… now saves you”
Titus 3:5 “he saved us… by the washing of regeneration…”
Rom. 6:3-4 “all of us who have been baptized…”
Mark 16:16 “He who believes and is baptized will be saved…”
Gal. 3:27 “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
1 Cor. 12:13 “…we were all baptized into one body…”
Rom. 6:3,4 “We were buried therefore with him by baptism…”
Matt. 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’”
Obviously baptism does not replace Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, but rather is the means that God chose to transmit the grace to us from that sacrifice as a free gift and a sign of our entrance into God’s covenant family.
To help explain infant baptism and the process of discovering its importance, I’d like to share a quote from Scott Hahn’s conversion story as written in his book “Rome Sweet Home”:
Studying the covenant made one thing clear. For two thousand years, from the time of Abraham to the coming of Christ, God showed his people that he wanted their babies to be in covenant with him. The way to do it was simple: give them the sign of the covenant.
Of course, back in the Old Testament, the sign of entering God’s covenant was circumcision; whereas Christ changed it to baptism in the New Testament. But nowhere did I find Christ announcing that, from now on, babies were to be kept out of the covenant.
In fact, I found him saying practically the opposite: “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19:14).
I also found the apostles imitating him. For example, at Pentecost, when Peter finished his first sermon, he called everyone to embrace Christ by entering into the New Covenant: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children…” (Acts 2:38-39).
In other words, God still wanted children in covenant with him. And since the New Testament gave only baptism as the sign for entering the New Covenant, why should the babies of believers not be baptized? No wonder, as I discovered in my study, the Church practiced infant baptism from the beginning.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we have wonderful descriptions of the Sacrament of Baptism in paragraphs 1213-1284. For now I’ll share paragraphs 1250-1254 regarding infant baptism:
Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.
Christian parents will recognize that this practice also accords with their role as nurturers of the life that God has entrusted to them.
The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole “households” received baptism, infants may also have been baptized.
Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!”
For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism. For this reason the Church celebrates each year at the Easter Vigil the renewal of baptismal promises. Preparation for Baptism leads only to the threshold of new life. Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.
If your baptism into God’s covenant family happened when you were an infant thanks to the faith of your parents, remember Ephesians 2:8,9…
“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God- not because of works, lest any man should boast.”
Even with the biblical principles laid out, many will still argue that the Bible does not specifically command infant baptism, and this is true, but honest Christians are still left with the evidence of tradition.
Now, we should pause for a moment and clarify the concept of tradition in reference to the way it supplements Scripture. For some people, the word “tradition” itself sends up red flags, often as a result of their loyalty to the ironic tradition of “Scripture alone” which has developed among modern groups as the means of determining doctrine while divorced from Church authority. Tradition can be dangerous because you’re consulting the wisdom of previous generations, not just your own experience, and Christianity can turn out to be different than what you assumed. Having said that, I would like to point out that Scripture itself speaks of the importance of tradition:
2 Timothy 2:2 “and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15 “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”
1 Corinthians 11:2 “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”
So if Scripture advocates tradition, we must accept tradition, but naturally we’re left asking “well, how do we know which traditions are faithfully preserved according to God’s will?” Well, that is where we consult the Church, which St. Paul referred to as the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
From “Radio Replies” by Fr. Leslie Rumble, Catholic Answers edition:
…Not all revealed truth was written down. The divine teaching has been preserved and handed down completely in the Catholic Church, both by that section written in the New Testament, and by that section of revealed truth that was not committed to writing but that is declared by the living voice of the Church. For example, which books of Scripture are canonical, the very inspiration of those books, the teachings on infant baptism, or on the matter and form of the sacraments, and many other things, are known to us by the traditional and living voice of the Church only. But as I have pointed out, Christ intended that, for he did not order anything to be written but established his Church and sent it to teach all nations what he had revealed, and its applications in practice.
It’s practically impossible to deny the authenticity of the practice of infant baptism after considering the traditions revealed in the writings of Church history:
In closing, I would like to share a few verses of Scripture that indicate the likely baptism of children and even infants among the first converts to the Christian faith:
Acts 16:15 “she was baptized, with her household”
Acts 16:33 “he was baptized at once, with all his family”
1 Cor. 1:16 “I did baptize also the household of Steph’anas”
For Bible-believing Christians who remain opposed to infant baptism, I will keep coming back to this question:
Does the Bible anywhere restrict baptism to adults?
P.S. I should mention that no one is suggesting that you should go half-drown your infant by dunking him or her underwater. Obviously it’s assumed that the tradition of pouring water over the head applies here:
Baptize as follows: after first explaining all these points, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water on the head three times in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… –The Didache, ca. A.D. 70, as quoted in “Four Witnesses” by Rod Bennett