A Historical Argument against Infant Baptism from Herman Bavinck

I am a committed credobaptist. I believe that baptism is to be offered only to those who are able to give profession of faith in Jesus Christ. A profession in Christ necessitates one is able to have an understanding of certain things: who Christ is; what Christ has done; and why Christ is needed. For reasons that should be obvious, this rules out the baptism of infants. They are physically and mentally unable to profess faith in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, this conviction of mine does not prevent me from reading from and talking to those brothers in the Lord who baptize infants. As I have read John Calvin and B.B. Warfield I have been flummoxed in seeing how they can be so right on what baptism does and does not signify, yet be so blind (in my eyes (no pun intended)) to whom baptism should be offered to. It seems they often make true statements, but do not realize the implications of those statements.

I have not yet entered into Herman Bavinck’s discussion of infant baptism, but while discussing regeneration he makes a couple statements that I think should influence his thinking on the matter. But knowing something about him, and looking at the table of contents in the book I am reading, I know he will not make the connection.

In briefly sketching the history of the church and her belief about regeneration Bavinck writes,

When, having gradually stopped being a missionary church, the church gained its members more from its own children than from among Jews and pagans and for that reason universally introduced infant baptism, people continued to maintain the close connection between baptism and regeneration but had to modify it in important ways. (Reformed Dogmatics, vol IV, p. 54)

This is really a stunning admission from someone who believes in infant baptism. Notice again Bavinck’s identification of the origin of the practice: “having gradually stopped being a missionary church, the church gained its members more from its own children than from among Jews and pagans and for that reason universally introduced infant baptism.”

The reason, according to Bavinck’s understanding, was NOT a careful study of Scriptures; an appeal to apostolic teaching or tradition; or the implications of some covenant of grace. The reason was strictly pragmatic, i.e. most of our members are being born into the church so we might as well baptize them.

Now I am sure that later on, Bavinck will do his best to build a Scriptural argument for infant baptism. But how will he deal with the fact that he has already undercut his position with this historical argument? When you admit that for the first 100-150 years of the existence of the church she did not practice infant baptism and then later state that infant baptism is biblical you are necessarily stating that the church was unbiblical for the first 100-150 years of her existence. The church built upon the foundation of Jesus and the apostles. The church not just built on the apostles, but built by the apostles.

So how could Peter, John, and Paul been so wrong about baptizing infants?

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12 thoughts on “A Historical Argument against Infant Baptism from Herman Bavinck

  1. Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the covenant. There is zero evidence from the OT that says otherwise.

    Infants WERE part of the covenant. If a Hebrew infant died, he was considered “saved”.

    However, circumcision did NOT “save” the male Hebrew child. It was the responsibility of the Hebrew parents to bring up their child in the faith, so that when he was older “he would not depart from it”. The child was born a member of the covenant. Then, as he grew up, he would have the choice: do I want to continue placing my faith in God, or do I want to live in willful sin? If he chose to live by faith, he would be saved. If he chose to live a life of willful sin and never repented, and then died, he would perish.

    When Christ established the New Covenant, he said nothing explicit in the New Testament about the salvation of infants and small children; neither do the Apostles nor any of the writers of the New Testament. Isn’t that odd? If the new Covenant no longer automatically included the children of believers, why didn’t Christ, one of the Apostles, or one of the writers of the NT mention this profound change?

    Why is there no mention in the NT of any adult convert asking this question: “But what about my little children? Are you saying that I have to wait until my children grow up and make a decision for themselves, before I will know if they will be a part of the new faith? What happens if my child dies before he has the opportunity to make this decision?” But no, there is no record in Scripture that any of these questions are made by new converts to the new faith. Isn’t that really, really odd??? As a parent of small children, the FIRST question I would ask would be, “What about my little children?”

    But the New Testament is completely silent on the issue of the salvation or safety of the infants and toddlers of believers. Another interesting point is this: why is there no mention of any child of believers “accepting Christ” when he is an older child (8-12 years old) or as a teenager and then, being baptized? Not one single instance and the writing of the New Testament occurred over a period of 30 years, approximately thirty years after Christ’s death: So over a period of 60 years, not one example of a believer’s child being saved as a teenager and then receiving “Believers Baptism”. Why???

    So isn’t it quite likely that the reason God does not explicitly state in the NT that infants should be baptized, is because everyone in first century Palestine would know that infants and toddlers are included in a household conversion. That fact that Christ and the Apostles did NOT forbid infant baptism was understood to indicate that the pattern of household conversion had not changed: the infants and toddlers of believers are still included in this new and better covenant.

    Circumcision nor Baptism was considered a “Get-into-heaven-free” card. It was understood under both Covenants that the child must be raised in the faith, and that when he was older, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the faith and receive everlasting life, or choose a life of sin, breaking the covenant relationship with God, and forfeiting the gift of salvation.

    Which of these two belief systems seems to be most in harmony with Scripture and the writings of the Early Christians?

      • You are correct in that the earliest non-Scriptural reference to Baptism—the Didache, discusses only adult baptism. But again, there is no mention of excluding infants in Christian household conversions in this document. At the beginning of Christianity, the majority of converts would have been adults.

        Infants had always been included in household conversions ever since Abraham and the 300 men, boys and infants of his household converted to the new faith in the Book of Genesis. If Christianity was a new manner of conversion that excluded infants, wouldn’t it be very likely that this “Baptism Instruction Document” would have said SOMETHING to the effect that infants and toddlers are no longer included in household conversions??? “DON’T BAPTIZE INFANTS AND TODDLERS!” But, no mention of this is made in the Didache. The ABSENCE of such a statement in this first century Christian document is striking evidence in SUPPORT of infant baptism!

        I always get a chuckle when credo-Baptist evangelicals use the Didache as a reference on Baptism. The Didache very clearly states that immersion in FRESH water, such as in a river or lake, is the preferred method of Christian baptism. But, immersion is NOT mandatory; pouring and other forms are acceptable alternatives according to the first century authors of the Didache.

        Many evangelicals of Baptist origin will not accept any baptism as valid unless performed by immersion. If we are going to agree that the Didache is a valid source for early Christian practice, credo-Baptists must give up their insistence on mandatory immersion.

        (In addition: Baptists do NOT follow the instructions of the Didache regarding the mode of baptism when they baptize in baptismal tanks in their churches. The water in a baptismal tank is not “living”.)

  2. Here are statements by the Early Church Fathers regarding Infant Baptism:

    Irenaeus: For he came to save all by means of himself — all, I say, who by him are born again to God — infants, children, adolescents, young men, and old men. (Against Heresies II.22.4)

    Hippolytus: And they shall baptize the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let their parents answer or someone from their family. And next they shall baptism the grown men; and last the women. (Apostolic Tradition 21.3-5)

    Origen: I take this occasion to discuss something which our brothers often inquire about. Infants are baptized for the remission of sins. Of what kinds? Or when did they sin? But since “No one is exempt from stain,” one removes the stain by the mystery of baptism. For this reason infants are baptized. For “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Homily on Luke 14:5).

    [After quoting Psalm 51:5 and Job 14:4] These verses may be adduced when it is asked why, since the baptism of the church is given for the remission of sins, baptism according to the practice of the church is given even to infants; since indeed if there is in infants nothing which ought to pertain to forgiveness and mercy, the grace of baptism would be superfluous. (Homily on Leviticus 8:3).

    [After quoting Leviticus 12:8 and Psalm 51:5] For this also the church had a tradition from the apostles, to give baptism even to infants. For they to whom the secrets of the divine mysteries were given knew that there is in all persons the natural stains of sin which must be washed away by the water and the Spirit. On account of these stains the body itself is called the body of sin. (Commentary on Romans 5:9)

    Cyprian: In respect of the case of infants, which you say ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after birth, and that the law of ancient circumcision should be regarded, so that you think that one who is just born should not be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day, we all thought very differently in our council. For in this course which you thought was to be taken, no one agreed; but we all rather judge that the mercy and grace of God is not to be refused to any one born of man… Spiritual circumcision ought not to be hindered by carnal circumcision… we ought to shrink from hindering an infant, who, being lately born, has not sinned, except in that, being born after the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death at its earliest birth, who approaches the more easily on this very account to the reception of the forgiveness of sins – that to him are remitted, not his own sins, but the sins of another” (Letter 58 to Fidus).

      • Here is a portion of this interesting article:

        Baptizing an infant is understood to be an “unbelievers baptism.” It is this thought which I propose to contradict with the Holy Scriptures by showing not only the possibility but also the reality of infant faith.

        Infant Faith, Old Testament and New

        Do babies have faith? While we might be tempted to answer this question with reason or by experience, there is only one trustworthy place to find the answer: the Holy Scriptures. What, then, does the Bible say?

        Psalm 71:5-6 (NKJV)

        5 For You are my hope, O Lord GOD;You are my trust from my youth.6 By You I have been upheld from my birth; You are He who took me out of my mother’s womb.My praise shall be continually of You.

        Note, first of all, that the word ‘youth’ is expansive in Hebrew, used as a word for infants even unto young men and women2. The context of this word indicates what the Psalmist (presumably King David) means by ‘youth’, adding to the text ‘birth’ and coming out of the womb. This is as young as young can be, and to this young youth the Lord is his ‘trust’, his faith, his Confidence.

        In verse 6 we would perhaps prefer a more literal translation. The word translated “have been upheld” by the New King James Version is reflexive, to ‘support’ or ‘brace oneself’.3

        Here are a few different versions:

        New International Version: “From birth I have relied on you.
        ”Revised Standard Version: “Upon thee have I leaned from my birth.”
        An American Translation: “I have depended on you from birth.”

        These phrases, ‘relied upon, leaned upon, depended on’, certainly imply faith. This verse, as the one before it, extols the faith and trust of the child “from birth.” This text tells of the trust and reliance of an infant in the true God, and this text is not alone in the Scriptures.

        As we turn to the pages of the New Testament we find a number of passages discussing the possibility and the reality of infant faith. There are a number of Greek words for ‘child’, and a quick survey of these words will help set the stage for our review of these passages.4

        paidion- [paidion] This is the most common word used of a very young child, infant, child, both boys and girls.

        brephos- [brefoj] This word can be used of unborn babies in the womb [St Luke 1:41,44] or of nursing babies and infants [St Luke 2:12,16].

        mikron- [mikron] Literally, “small one,” this word can be used to describe one’s stature [St Luke 19:3], one’s age [St Matthew 18:6,10,14], or in esteem, influence and power.

        napion- [nhpiwn] This word can be used of an infant, often nursing [Hebrews 5:13], or, in the legal sense, of a minor. [Galatians 4:1].

        thalazonton- [qhlazontwn] One who is nursing [St Matthew 21:16].

        teknon- [teknon] Child, with special reference to the relationship with the parents, used even for unborn babies in the womb.

  3. l guess your website does not allow links. If you would like to read the rest of the article let me know. I can either post it in its entirety or email it to you.

    If I can prove to you that the Bible says that infants CAN have faith and believe, would you be willing to change your mind on whether or not they should be baptized?

    • Well I am pretty sure I know what verses you are going to try to cite, but have at it.

      How were females in the Old Covenant shown to be members of it? What was the sign and seal of the covenant for females since they weren’t circumcised?

      • I tried to post the link, but it did not post. It contains passages from the OT and NT, including the writer of the Psalms who talked about his reliance (faith) in God since birth.

        Jewish children were born into the covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was a sign for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. However, rejecting circumcision for boys was a sign of a lack of faith, and therefore the child was “cut off” from God’s promises. If Jewish children grew up trusting in God, lived by faith, they attained eternal life. If when they grew up they rejected God, turned their back on God and lived a life of willful sin, when they died they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record of Jewish children being required to make a one time “decision” for God in order to be saved.

        Therefore Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision were saved.

        The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may well cause the child, now grown, to suffer eternal damnation.

        “He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned.”

        It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.

  4. If you are an orthodox Christian, and have labored for some time trying to convince a Baptist or evangelical family member or friend of the strong evidence that the Early Church did baptize infants, you will frequently get this response:

    “Ok, so what. The church in Corinth was practicing baptisms for the dead during the Apostle Paul’s lifetime! This fact demonstrates that just because the Early Church may have practiced Infant Baptism does not mean that it was taught by the Apostles or that it is Scriptural.”

    True. Very true.

    However, there is something in this Baptist/evangelical Christian’s statement that is very telling:

    1. Baptism for the Dead caused a controversy in the Early Church. We have written record of this controversy.

    2. There is zero evidence that there was any controversy regarding the apostolic origin of Infant Baptism. Even Tertullian did not dispute the apostolic origin of Infant Baptism.

    The next response from these Christians will usually be this:

    “The Catholics destroyed all evidence of the controversy over Infant Baptism.”

    Really? Can you show us any evidence of this mass evidence burning by the Catholics? And why would the Catholics destroy all evidence of dissenting views on Infant Baptism but did not destroy the evidence of much worse heresies: Arianism, Gnosticism, Pelagianism, etc. etc.

    The Baptist/evangelical argument against Infant Baptism…does not hold water!

    Gary

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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