In the early days of writing this blog I discussed how, having been a lifelong Southern Baptist, I came embrace both Calvinism and Presbyterianism. I always planned to write in more detail about how I came to embrace infant baptism, which was for several years the main sticking point which kept me in the Baptist church even though I agreed with the Presbyterians in other respects. I have delayed writing about this partly because I feared it would be a time-consuming topic, and partly because with so many able defenses of paedobaptism having been written, I am manifestly unqualified to add another. Because of this, my approach today will be to list in order several considerations that led me to ultimately change my position (in other words, a “personal testimony” of sorts), and then recommend books for further reading on both sides of the issue.
- The Bible commands baptism, but actually says very little about it.
I only landed on this first point after quite a bit of study. While Baptists often believe (as I did) that their position is the one most clearly espoused by the New Testament, an honest examination of the biblical data shows that we are actually told remarkably little about the rite. We read that Christ commanded it and that people received it, but we are told practically nothing about mode (dipping, sprinkling, or pouring), or about the possible inclusion of subjects beyond the converts themselves. The reports of household baptisms in Acts 16 and 1 Corinthians 1 point to the possible inclusion of even those who had not yet personally believed the Gospel when the heads of their households were baptized.
The Baptist will naturally gravitate toward the reports of the baptism of converts, as these are the most clearly attested in the New Testament. However, the household baptisms prevent this from being an “open and shut case.”
- Early church history seems to favor the Baptist position in some respects, but it is not a “slam dunk” case.
Similarly, early Christianity was largely a missionary faith, so it should be unsurprising that baptism of converts—and that only after an extended period of catechesis in many cases—predominates in the early records. Still, infant baptism is implied if not always directly attested remarkably early, a fact which, along with the New Testament reports of household baptisms, should at least give pause to Baptists.
- Both Baptist and Presbyterian theologians have written good books advancing good arguments for their positions.
When I was first examining this issue and devouring books on the subject I had quite a bit of difficulty. Whenever I would read a book by a Presbyterian on the subject, I would be struck by the logical consistency of his arguments. And yet, when I would read a book by a Baptist, I would be similarly struck by the consistency of his arguments. It seemed like both positions had able defenders who loved the Lord and His Word and were able to handle that Word and the historical data very well. Yet both positions couldn’t be right. I struggled with this for some time until I finally understood that…
- Presuppositions matter!
From my earliest encounters with Baptist vs Presbyterian arguments over baptism I would hear or read Baptists accuse Presbyterians of building their argument for paedobaptism upon God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. Because there is no baptism in Genesis 17, I thought this was absurd and wondered how the Presbyterians could possibly defend against this charge. It was some time later when I discovered that they did not try to defend against it at all; instead they embraced it and proudly declared that they did begin their argument in Genesis 17, drawing a comparison between circumcision and baptism as the initiatory rites of the church in different periods of her history (cf. Colossians 2). In time I came to understand that the Presbyterian understanding of the church and of God’s covenantal dealings with mankind assumed a continuity of God’s dealing with us throughout human history, one which saw God entering into covenant relationships with believers and their children from the very beginning. Indeed, rather than the Presbyterians needing to answer an apparent absurdity, I increasingly began to see that it was the Baptists who needed to explain their beginning a theology of baptism and the church in Matthew rather than in Genesis, and the increasingly (to me) absurd position that our unchangeable (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17) God would deal with people in one way during one period of history, and then deal with them in an entirely different way during another period of history.
I came to see that weighing good Baptist arguments against good Presbyterian arguments was a fruitless enterprise. The matter would have to be decided at a deeper level: whose presuppositions were right? Was it right to build a theology of baptism and the church beginning in Matthew and reading both forward and backward, or to begin with Genesis and trace God’s covenantal dealings with His people throughout history until the fullest revelation in the Person of Jesus Christ? I could not help but believe the latter.
- The practical angle: is baptism an initiatory rite, or a testimonial one?
A final, more practical consideration was to ask how baptism functions in the life of the believer and that of the church. In the Southern Baptist context, baptism is seen as the new believer giving personal testimony to his own faith in Christ. Because of this, a valid baptism is said to occur only when the person receiving it actually believes. If after falling into some sin or merely after introspection a baptized person comes to believe himself to have not been truly converted when he received baptism, he is admonished to submit to the ordinance again, to be “truly baptized.” I will confess to having done this myself, something I now believe to have been in error. After all, neither the Scriptures nor the early church give any testimony to a person receiving “rebaptism.” It simply isn’t there, and thus this practice is highly suspect.
As I studied baptism, I came to understand that Presbyterians—and, I believe, the Scriptures—present baptism not as a rite of the believer’s personal testimony, but of initiation into the covenant community. Indeed, Jesus commanded the apostles to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them (in that order, Matthew 28:18-20). I began to ask myself “what is a disciple?” and “are all disciples converts?” The answer to the first question is one that is being taught, being subjected to the teaching and discipline of a certain teacher or a certain faith. Are children being raised in Christian homes “disciples” by that definition? They are, indeed. The answer to the second must be “no.” Do we not read in John 6 that some of Jesus’ “disciples” recoiled at His harder teachings and “no longer walked with him” (v. 66)? If one who is truly converted cannot become “unsaved,” then these “disciples” were evidently not “converts.” We baptize professing believers and their children, all disciples, and all the while praying that each one will be truly converted, repenting of sin and confessing personal faith in the Lord Jesus.
On a personal note, I must say that this understanding of baptism has been rather freeing. When I believed baptism was my “personal testimony of having been saved,” I was always tortured by the thought that perhaps I hadn’t “really” believed at the time and needed to be baptized yet again. Indeed, every time I came to a fuller understanding of the Scriptures and of my own sin such thoughts would come. Others might conclude from the Southern Baptist understanding that baptism after the initial experience of conversion is the culmination of the Christian journey, rather than the beginning. Seeing baptism as the initiation into the Christian life allows one to embrace the biblical understanding that we keep growing in grace and knowledge of Christ throughout our lives. We keep learning, keep repenting, keep believing. We are called to self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5), but the standards the Bible presents (in Galatians 5:22-23, the entire book of 1 John, and elsewhere) are not of “looking back” to see if we truly believed when we were baptized, but rather to examine our lives in the present to see if we are “bear[ing] fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). By viewing baptism not as my own testimony but as God bringing me into His church through this means of grace, I am free to strive after godliness now without worrying about whether I “did it right” in the past.
As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not qualified to mount an extended theological defense of the Presbyterian position or a refutation of the Baptist one. The foregoing thoughts are thus mostly of a personal nature. I will conclude this post, though, by listing several books which I found helpful when considering these matters. This list is by no means comprehensive, and does not even list all of the books that I own or have read on the subject. As you will see, there are thoughtful and erudite scholars on both sides of the issue.
Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism by J.V. Fesko
Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Children by Daniel Hyde
Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries by Joachim Jeremias
The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland by Joachim Jeremias
Christian Baptism by John Murray
From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism by W. Gary Crampton
Christian Baptism by Adoniram Judson
The Baptism of Disciples Alone: A Covenantal Argument for Credobaptism vs Paedobaptism by Fred Malone
Should Babies be Baptized? by T.E. Watson
What Has Infant Baptism Done to Baptism: An Enquiry at the End of Christendom by David F. Wright