Infant baptism is one of those issues that won’t go away, but which is a pretty big decision for a lot of people. So here are my thoughts on this question, such as they are. I hope they’re helpful. They are by no means definitive; and in fact writing this has clarified a number of issues for me that I need to think further about, so I’m happy to interact with people on this. This is a fairly long post, which I hope some people will bother to read and think about. Because of this, I will also make it available to download as a pdf on the essays page.
Why I believe in infant baptism — ten thoughts
1. Baptism is not an optional extra for Christians. Despite the exegetical wrigglings of some, this seems to me to be obvious. Jesus commissioned his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…” (Matt 28:20); and the practice of baptism accompanying conversion to Christian faith is taken for granted throughout the New Testament (e.g. Acts 8:37), and used as the basis of theological reflection (e.g. Rom 6:4). The argument that when Paul refers to Christians being buried with Christ in baptism (e.g. Col 2:12) he means Christ’s death—his “baptism” (Mark 10:38)—seems to me inadequate: it doesn’t account for Jesus command, and it ignores straightforward evidence like John 4:1–2, Acts 10:47, and 1 Corinthians 1:13–17. Baptism with water was normal for Christians from day one. It came from Jesus. We should keep doing it.
2. So what is baptism then? Baptism is, very basically, a sign, a symbolic act, a ritual that signifies something, or as theology has typically called it, a sacrament. What does baptism signify? Most fundamentally, baptism signifies what happens when a person’s life is transformed by Jesus. Baptism is a sign of new birth with Christ. There are two aspects to this. First, baptism signifies the washing, or cleansing from sin, that comes through union with Christ (e.g. 1 Cor 6:11). Second, baptism symbolizes burial and resurrection, going down and coming up. This is a bit less obvious; and especially when you don’t have some kind of full immersion in water going on it’s not very clear. But it’s still there, as it should be, as Paul draws heavily on this image: “we were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6:4). Baptism symbolically enacts how a person’s life is transformed by Christ: they are cleansed of their sins, they die and rise again, there is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).
3. There is a sense, therefore, in which baptism is a word. Baptism says something; it proclaims a reality: “this woman’s life has been recreated in Christ”. Sacraments have thus been understood in Christian history as “visible words”. But whose word? Not the minister’s. Nor the candidate’s. God’s. Baptism is a visible word from God, a divinely given announcement of the definitive reality of a particular life.
4. Baptism is a sign, a visible word, of new life in Christ. However, it is not identical with this reality. A sign is not the thing it signifies. It is connected to it; but they are distinct. Emphatically, therefore, baptism does not equal conversion, it signifies it; it proclaims it, but it does not achieve it. People are not saved by being baptized; they are saved, and this is depicted and announced in baptism. How are they saved? Through sharing in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ through faith. How else? Baptism is an expression of this more fundamental reality.
(5. As an aside therefore, if forced to answer the intensely irritating question whether people absolutely need to be baptized in order to be saved, I would say no. However, this whole way of approaching things is misguided. Quite apart from being badly reductionistic — why do we want just the bare minimum? — it assumes we know how exactly salvation happens in someone’s life, how people are brought to new life in Christ. Yet I suspect that this is actually a more obscure reality than we think, and one which is perhaps quite inaccessible to us. We should presume that Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave us baptism. Perhaps part of the reason was to give a clarity to our experiences that he knows we need.)
6. A sign, then, is not the same thing as the reality it signifies. It seems to me that one interesting implication of this is that there is nothing essentially wrong about baptizing someone at a time quite removed from the moment they confess Christian faith. Someone who has been a follower of Jesus for years can still be meaningfully baptized; and a baptism is not rendered meaningless because the child does not responsibly own their faith for some years to come — indeed, does any baptism actually coincide with the event of conversion? Perhaps the Ethiopian eunuch’s? Infant baptism is therefore not ruled out by the argument that it is often distant in time from an individual’s personal decision to follow Christ.
7. But correspondingly, infant baptism is also not ruled in by the argument that people can be Christian their whole lives long! Why not let everyone, then, be baptized as an adult? Yet we shouldn’t confuse what is logically legitimate with what is best practice. It makes sense for the sign of baptism to relate temporally to the reality of coming to faith. That’s why new converts are normally baptized soonish, and it’s why, I think, the New Testament so often speaks of people’s baptism as the moment they were saved (e.g. Galatians 3:27). But it’s for precisely this reason that it makes sense for many people who grow up as Christians to be baptized as infants; or do we want to reject the possibility that someone can grow up as a believer even from their earliest days?
8. But, someone may protest, what good is a sign that I can’t remember! I think three things need to be said here. First, baptism is not just a sign for the candidate; it is also for the congregation, including Christian parents. Why should they be denied the assurance and comfort that comes from baptism? Yes, there are those who grow up to repudiate their infant baptism; but there are also those who don’t, and the former case should not tarnish the later. This is especially relevant for parents of a child who dies early. What are we saying by refusing to baptize such a child. Again, do we not think God can save children? Second: that said, however, the sign is, centrally, for the benefit of the person being baptized. This must, therefore, be taken into account in infant baptism, where the candidate cannot normally remember the event. So the parents have the obligation of assuring the child of her baptism and explaining its significance — baptism certificates are very valuable here. Also, if you are going to baptize infants, you’ve got to have something like confirmation, a moment when the person claims their baptism as his own. Third, we need to be careful before unthinkingly treating memory as a stable factor in this whole equation. Remembering is a tricky thing — on the whole straightforward, but by no means one hundred per cent reliable. There are many other conceivable ways in which someone might not be able to remember their baptism and yet know it had happened to them, or need to be assured of this by others.
9. Infant baptism has a few other significant pluses. First, infant baptism detaches the sign of baptism from any particular response made by the individual (though it emphatically does not detach it from response per se). This can be appropriate and, indeed, helpful for people who grow into faith and along the way make many responses, perhaps of increasing maturity and comprehension, none of which can be identified as “the moment” they became a Christian without some arbitrariness and doubt. Indeed, all types of baptism can play this role, of bringing a clarity and unity to what was a complex and sometimes drawn out process in someone’s life by declaring, “this is what has happened here, in this person’s journey, they have been saved”. Infant baptism does the same thing, just at a different moment. Second, infant baptism makes it plain that salvation is more about God’s work than our response. It is only God’s sovereign, powerful grace that saves anyone; and God can save even helpless, dependent children — indeed only helpless, dependent children (cf. Mark 10:13–16). Third, infant baptism reminds us that God can and does save people who cannot make an intelligent response, whether they be children, or the mentally ill or severely disabled, or perhaps the senile. To say that only those who make an intelligent response can be baptized is to shut God’s mercy off from those we know receive it.
10. Finally, though there are real complexities and problems raised by infant baptism, these need to be carefully considered. The great difficulty for many, of course, is those whose baptism as an infant makes no obvious impact on their lives. In this category are the great bulk of “cultural” baptisms. However, it seems to me that to blame this problem on infant baptism itself is in many cases completely unreasonable. The fault, surely, lies with the parents who promise to bring their children up in the faith and then make no effort to keep their promises, or with the churches and ministers who happily baptize without any real challenge to the parents or any attempt to integrate them into the community. You could argue that the practice will inevitably breed these problems, but that does not seem to me to be self-evident, nor indeed sufficient to turn us against it. But what about those children of diligent Christian parents who do not stay true to their infant baptism. This is indeed a challenge. But it must be pointed out that this is not greatly different to the case of those who, having been baptized as adults, go on to abandon their faith. A tragedy, a mystery, a worry; but it doesn’t stop us baptizing.