A short history of baptism
In the New Testament, believers were certainly baptised; children (and even babies) may have been included in ‘household’ baptisms (e.g. I Corinthians 1:16), but we cannot be certain. 500 years later, virtually all baptisms were of very young infants, and believers’ baptism ceased to exist in ‘Christian’ countries (because everyone had already been baptised). But we really know very little about how, when and why church practice changed so radically. What little evidence there is for infant baptism in the early church is indirect, and can be interpreted in more than one way. Credobaptists can therefore play it down, while paedobaptists talk it up.
In the New Testament, believers were baptised as soon as they professed conversion, with little or no delay (e.g. Acts 2:41). But a course of instruction beforehand soon became the custom, especially for non-Jewish converts. Eventually, candidates had a period of three years’ probation, to see if they were of good character, followed by a period of intensive instruction in Christian doctrine leading up to their baptism.
By the late 2nd century, many Christians believed that baptism dealt with your past sins but not your future ones, and so it was prudent to delay baptism for as long as possible – ideally until you were about to die.
The first definite mention of infant baptism comes early in the 3rd century (which means that it probably dates from quite a while before that), and the practice had become widespread by the end of the 3rd century. This was because the teaching had developed that baptism was absolutely essential for salvation. People took this to imply that unbaptised infants who died went to hell (later, this sentence was commuted to ‘limbo’), and the high rate of infant mortality led to an enormous pressure to baptise infants quickly. As Western Europe came to be regarded as a Christian society, virtually all baptisms were of infants from the 6th century onwards.
`Believers’ baptism’ was practised by a number of heretical cults from early times. It was revived by some Protestant groups at the beginning of the 16th century, and these became the forerunners of the Baptists.
When discussing a subject like infant baptism, when one’s point of view is so often formed by one’s own church tradition (your ‘own’ tradition always seems to be the normal and natural one), it’s important to know where people are coming from. My personal story should explain why I am strongly in favour of believers’ baptism.
I was ‘christened’ as a baby (I won’t call it baptism, because my parents were unbelievers; it was done, I think, because it was expected of them). If I had grown up in a Christian family, I might have regarded it as a positive thing; instead, I now think it was simply pointless.
Then, at the age of 17, I became a Christian. A few weeks later, a friend of mine (who at the time did not know that I had given my life to God) invited me to watch his baptism at the local Baptist church. I went mainly out of curiosity. I did not yet associate ‘church’ with my experience of meeting Jesus, but I had heard of immersion baptism and I was interested to see what it was like.
All I remember now of the service is one thing. As I watched my friend being ‘dunked’ under the water in the baptistry, some words came into my mind as clearly and abruptly as if they had just been spoken in my ear: “You must be baptised!” And my immediate, instinctive reaction was to grip the seat of my chair firmly and shout (silently) back: NO! Not only was I shocked by the fact that God was actually talking to me (something totally outside my experience and expectations), but I have had a fear of water ever since I was a small child. I find even the thought of having my head under water quite terrifying, and despite several attempts I have never managed to learn to swim. Why should God ask such a thing of me?
Over the next few months I tried out several churches, but was drawn back to that little Baptist church. Nobody from the church said anything to me about baptism (because they knew about my fear), but God kept on nagging me. Eventually He said to me, “Do you love Me more than you are afraid?” What could I say to that? I mentioned to someone at the church that I knew I should be baptised, and it was arranged very quickly (for which I was grateful, as it gave me no time to get too stressed about it!) I was baptised just a few weeks later. I remember opening my eyes under the water and seeing bubbles on the surface above me – and not feeling in the least afraid…
Baptism and circumcision
The first generation of Christians were all converts from Judaism or paganism and were baptised at their conversion. But what about their children? Sooner or later two questions must have arisen: should children too young to express faith for themselves be regarded as part of the Church, and at what age (or stage of faith) should they be baptised? Frustratingly, the New Testament does not answer these questions, and we have very little to go on.
The main argument in favour of infant baptism is that it admits children to the new covenant, in the same way that Jewish babies (the male ones, at least) were admitted to the Abrahamic covenant by circumcision. But is baptism the ‘Christian equivalent’ of circumcision? There are indeed some similarities: both are signs, signifying participation in a covenant. But there is one very major difference: Jews are born into Abraham’s covenant by physical birth, whereas we enter the new covenant by being born again through repentance and faith. And so while it is entirely appropriate for the heirs of Abraham to be circumcised soon after physical birth, Christian baptism is most logically administered at the time of spiritual birth, whenever that may be.
John the Baptist preached the uncomfortable truth that being born into a covenant family does not automatically make you a child of God. His message was basically this: that in order to enjoy the covenant blessings promised to Abraham, it was not enough to be a physical descendant of Abraham (which was what circumcision signified). It was necessary to make a personal confession of sin and commitment to God, expressed in baptism. As Jesus explained to Nicodemus, a Jew circumcised (and thus admitted to the covenant) eight days after he was born, “You must be born again” (John 3:7) – “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) – in order to enter the Kingdom of God.
In fact, this principle was not radically new; John simply gave it a new means of expression. From the time of Moses onwards, the prophets had repeatedly called on the Israelites (who were already circumcised physically) to “circumcise your hearts” (Deuteronomy 10:16;Jeremiah 4:4). Paul expresses the same idea in his letter to the Colossians: baptism is equivalent to the spiritual circumcision of the heart, not to the physical circumcision of the body (Colossians 2:11,12). If infant baptism is made equivalent to infant circumcision, it acquires exactly the same shortcomings: by itself, it is not enough. Sadly, being born into a covenant family – even a ‘new covenant’ family – does not automatically make you a child of God. Consequently, churches that baptise infants have had to invent a second ceremony – confirmation – to make up for the deficiency.
So what of the children of Christian parents? We know that they have a special relationship with God, because Paul tells us that “they are holy” (I Corinthians 7:14) – even if only one of their parents is a Christian. When such children (including babes in arms) were brought to Jesus by their parents, He welcomed and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16) – but there is no suggestion that He or His disciples baptised them. So young children can be regarded as members of the Church, not in their own right but on a ‘family ticket’ with one or both parents – just as (until 1998) British children under the age of 16 normally travelled abroad not on their own with their own personal passports, but with a parent and named on that parent’s passport. Their baptism – like their own passport – can wait until they are able to confess their faith independently, at whatever age that may be.