Though infant baptism has been the majority practice of historic Christianity, its propriety has been solemnly challenged by godly Christians of various denominations. The question surrounding infant baptism rests upon several concerns. The New Testament neither explicitly commands infants to be baptized nor explicitly prohibits them from being baptized. The debate centers on questions surrounding the meaning of baptism and the degree of continuity between the Old Covenant and New Covenant.
The most crucial objection from those who oppose infant baptism is that the sacrament of baptism belongs to members of the church and the church is a company of believers. Since infants are incapable of exercising faith, they ought not to be baptized. It is also stressed that of the baptisms recorded in the New Testament there are no specific references to infants. A further objection is that the Old Covenant, though not conveying salvation via biological bloodlines, nevertheless did involve an ethnic emphasis on the nation of Israel. The covenant was passed through family and national ties. In the New Testament, the covenant is more inclusive, allowing Gentiles into the community of faith. This point of discontinuity makes a difference between circumcision and baptism.
On the other hand, those who favor infant baptism stress its parallels with circumcision. Though baptism and circumcision are not identical, they have crucial points in common. Both are signs of the covenant, and both are signs of faith. In the case of Abraham, he came to faith as an adult. He made a profession of faith before he was circumcised. He had faith before he received the sign of that faith. Abraham’s son Isaac, on the other hand, received the sign of his faith before he had the faith that the sign signified (as was the case with all future children of the covenant).
The crucial point is that in the Old Testament, God ordered that a sign of faith be given before faith was present. Since that was clearly the case, it is erroneous to argue in principle that it is wrong to administer a sign of faith before faith is present.
It is also important to notice that the narrative record of baptisms in the New Testament are of adults who were previously unbelievers. They were first-generation Christians. Again, it has always been the rule that adult converts (who were not children of believers at the time of their infancy) must first make a profession of faith before receiving baptism, which is the sign of their faith.
About one fourth of the baptisms mentioned in the New Testament indicate that entire households were baptized. This strongly suggests, though it does not prove, that infants were included among those baptized. Since the New Testament does not explicitly exclude infants from the covenant sign (and they had been included for thousands of years while the covenant sign was circumcision), it would naturally be assumed in the early church that infants were to be given the sign of the covenant.
History bears witness to this assumption. The first direct mention of infant baptism is around the middle of the second century A.D. What is noteworthy about this reference is that it assumes infant baptism to be the universal practice of the church. If infant baptism were not the practice of the first-century church, how and why did this departure from orthodoxy happen so fast and so pervasively? Not only was the spread rapid and universal, but the extant literature from that time also does not reflect any controversy concerning the issue.
In general, the New Covenant is more inclusive than the Old Covenant. Yet those who dispute the validity of infant baptism make it less inclusive with respect to children, despite the absence of any biblical prohibition against infant baptism.
- The New Testament neither explicitly commands nor forbids infant baptism.
- To make their case, opponents of infant baptism point to the differences between the Old and New Testaments and to the fact that baptism is a sign of faith.
- Advocates of infant baptism point out the continuity between circumcision and baptism as signs of faith.
- Most baptisms in the New Testament were of first-generation adult converts, who, of course, could not have been baptized as infants.
- The record of baptisms in the New Testament includes “household” baptisms, which would seem to include children and infants.
- Church history bears witness to the universal, noncontroversial practice of infant baptism in the second century A.D.