Infant baptism

Infant baptism

Infant baptism is the Christian religious practice of baptizing infants or young children. In theological discussions, the practice is sometimes referred to as paedobaptism or pedobaptism from the Greek pais meaning "child." The practice is sometimes contrasted with what is called "believer's baptism," or credobaptism, from the Latin word credo meaning "I believe", which is the religious practice of baptizing only individuals who personally confess faith in Jesus, therefore excluding small children.

Most Christian churches practice infant baptism. Among them are the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, the Anglican Communion, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Church of the Nazarene, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Continental Reformed.

Groups within the Protestant tradition that reject infant baptism include Baptists, most Pentecostals, Mennonites, Amish, Community of Christ, Plymouth Brethren, Seventh-day Adventists, most non-denominational churches and other Arminian denominations. Infant baptism is also excluded by Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians and Latter-day Saints.


The exact details of the baptismal ceremony vary among Christian denominations. Many follow a prepared ceremony, called a rite or liturgy. In a typical ceremony, parents bring their child to their congregation's priest or minister. The minister then applies water to the child. As the water touches the child, the minister utters the words "I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (see 19).

Most Christians baptize their baby by either pouring water (affusion) or by sprinkling water (aspersion) on the child. Some Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions baptise their babies by totally immersing them in the font.

Although it is not required, many parents and godparents chose to dress their baby in a white gown called a christening gown for the baptism ceremony. Christening Gowns often become treasured keepsakes that are used by many other children in the family and handed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, this gown is white or slightly off white and made with many laces, trims and intricate details. In the past, a gown was used for both baby boys and girls. In more modern times, it has become appropriate to baptize boys in christening outfits. Also made of white or off white fabric, the christening outfit consists of a romper with a vest or other accessories. After the baptism ceremony, these articles of clothing are preserved as a memory of this very special and significant event in the child's life.


Scholars disagree on the date when infant baptism was first practiced. Some believe that first-century Christians did not practice it. Others believe that they did, understanding biblical references to individuals "and [their] whole household" being baptized (, ) as including small children and infants.

While the earliest extra-biblical directions for baptism, which occurs in the Didache (c. 100), seems to envisage the baptism of adults, rather than young children, since it requires that the person to be baptised should fast, writings of the second and early third century indicate that Christians baptized infants too. Irenaeus (c. 130–202) speaks not only of children but even of infants being "born again to God and three passages of Origen (185–c. 254) mention infant baptism as traditional and customary. Tertullian (c. 155–230) too, while advising postponement of baptism until after marriage, mentions that it was customary to baptise infants, with sponsors speaking on their behalf. The Apostolic Tradition, attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (died 235), describes how to perform the ceremony of baptism; it states that children were baptised first, and if any of them could not answer for themselves, their parents or someone else from their family was to answer for them.

Some writers who believe that baptism of infants began to be practiced only after the first century - in the third century it was certainly the universal practice and was believed to be of apostolic origin - posit a link between it and the use of baptism by methods other than immersion, methods which, in spite of the evidence of the Didache, some claim did not at all exist in the first century.

From at least the third century onward Christians baptized infants as standard practice, although some preferred to postpone baptism until late in life, so as to ensure forgiveness for all their preceding sins.


The basic theology of Christian denominations often varies (see Material principle). For this reason, the meaning of baptism itself and infant baptism in particular depends greatly upon the Christian tradition to which the baptismal candidate belongs.

Agreements among paedobaptists

While there is no scriptural evidence, some believe that infant baptism is the New Testament form of circumcision. In the Old Testament, all male converts to Judaism, male infants born to Jewish parents, and male servants were circumcised as ceremony of initiation into the Jewish community. Paedobaptists believe that baptism has replaced Old Testament circumcision and is the religious ceremony of initiation into the Christian community. Beyond this, very little is agreed on the subject among Christian denominations.

During the medieval and Reformation eras, infant baptism was seen as a way to incorporate new-born babies into the secular community as well as inducting them into the Christian faith .

Differences among paedobaptists

Paedobaptists disagree about the precise significance of infant baptism and the exact justification for it. These differences generally revolve around the following issues:

  • What baptism does, if anything
  • What spiritual effect baptism has on the infant being baptized
  • The extent of the effect of baptism beyond a symbolic expression

This disagreement is rooted in the interpretation of more fundamental areas of theology, such as the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of the sacraments.

Christian groups who practice infant baptism divide approximately into four groups of opinion:

Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church considers baptism, even for infants, so important that "parents are obliged to see that their infants are baptised within the first few weeks" and, "if the infant is in danger of death, it is to be baptised without any delay. It declares: "The practice of infant Baptism is an immemorial tradition of the Church. There is explicit testimony to this practice from the second century on, and it is quite possible that, from the beginning of the apostolic preaching, when whole 'households' received baptism, infants may also have been baptized. It notes that, "when the first direct evidence of infant Baptism appears in the second century, it is never presented as an innovation", that second-century Irenaeus treated baptism of infants as a matter of course, and that, "at a Synod of African Bishops, St. Cyprian stated that 'God's mercy and grace should not be refused to anyone born', and the Synod, recalling that 'all human beings' are 'equal', whatever be 'their size or age', declared it lawful to baptize children 'by the second or third day after their birth'. Infant baptism is seen as showing very clearly that salvation is an unmerited favour from God, not the fruit of human effort. "Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called... The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth.

The Church has no official teaching regarding the fate of infants who die without Baptism, and theologians of the Church hold various views (for instance, some have asserted that they go to Limbo, which has never been official Catholic doctrine). "The Church entrusts these infants to the mercy of God.

Other ancient Christian Churches

The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and the Assyrian Church of the East also insist on the need to have infants baptized as soon as is practicable after birth. For them too baptism is not merely a symbol but actually conveys grace. Baptism is a sacrament because it is a "tool" or "instrument" instituted by Jesus Christ to impart grace to its recipients. Infants are traditionally baptized on the eighth day, recalling the biblical injunction to circumcise on the eighth day. However, this is not mandatory. In many of these churches, the Sacred Mystery of Chrismation (Confirmation) is administered by the priest immediately after baptism, even of infants. Holy Communion, in the form of consecrated wine, is also given to infants after they are baptized.


Lutherans practice infant baptism because they believe that God mandates it. They adduce biblical passages such as 19, Mark 10:13-15, 16:16, John 3:3-7, Acts 2:38-39, and Ephesians 6:4 in support of their position. For them baptism is a "means of grace" through which God creates and strengthens "saving faith" as the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5) in which infants and adults are reborn (John 3:3-7): "baptismal regeneration." Since the creation of faith is exclusively God's work, it does not depend on the actions of the one baptized, whether infant or adult. Even though baptized infants cannot articulate that faith, Lutherans believe that it is present all the same. Because it is faith alone that receives these divine gifts, Lutherans confess that baptism "works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. In the special section on infant baptism in his Large Catechism Luther argues that infant baptism is God-pleasing because persons so baptized were reborn and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.


Methodists contend that infant baptism has spiritual value for the infant. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism maintained the Anglican view that baptism regenerates the infant. He listed several ways that infants benefit from baptism:

  • The guilt of Original Sin is removed.
  • They gain admission into the Church.
  • Their standing before God is changed from one under condemnation to a child of God.

However, Wesley's own views of infant baptism seem to shift over time as he put more and more emphasis on salvation by faith and new birth by faith alone. This has helped to fuel much debate within Methodism over just what infant baptism does, though almost all are agreed it should be continued.

Infant baptism is particularly illustrative of the Methodist doctrine of prevenient grace. The principle is that The Fall of Man ruined the human soul to such an extent that nobody wants a relationship with God. In order for humans to even want to be able to choose God must empower their will (so that they may choose Christ) which he does by means of prevenient grace. Thus God takes the very first step in salvation, preceding any human effort or decision. Methodists justify infant baptism by this principle of prevenient grace, often arguing that infant baptism is God's promise or declaration to the infant that calls that infant to (eventually) believe in God's promises (God's Word) for salvation. When the individual believes in Jesus they will profess their faith before the church, often using a ritual called confirmation in which the Holy Spirit is invoked with the laying on of hands. Methodists also use infant baptism symbolically, as an illustration of God approaching the helpless. They see the ceremony additionally as a celebration of God's prevenient grace.

Presbyterian and Continental Reformed churches

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians contend that baptism is not a mere symbol, but actually conveys grace. The grace it conveys, however, is not justifying grace. It may convey sanctifying grace or some other kind of grace. Baptism, according to this tradition, does not produce Christians, but it identifies the child as a member of the covenant community. Some adherents of the Federal Vision theology disagree, however, regarding instead a Christian as one who is a member of the covenant community. Yet all would agree that being a member of the covenant community does not guarantee salvation; though it does provide the child with many benefits, including that of one's particular congregation consenting to assist in the raising of that child in "the way he should go, [so that] when he is old he will not turn from it".

Presbyterian and many Reformed Christians see infant baptism as the New Testament form of circumcision in the Jewish covenant (Joshua 24:15). Circumcision did not create faith in the 8-day-old Jewish boy. It merely marked him as a member of God’s covenant people Israel. Likewise, baptism doesn’t create faith; it is a sign of membership in the covenant community.

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians consider children of professing Christians to be members of the visible Church (the covenant community). They do not necessarily consider them to be members of a particular church (a local congregation), nor of the universal Church (the set of all true believers). A profession of faith is required for the former, and true faith is required for the latter.

Paedobaptism versus credobaptism

The main question which separates paedobaptists and credobaptists is this:

Who should be baptized?

The paedobaptists answer is: adult believers and the children of believers.

The credobaptists answer is: only those who have professed faith (believers). The credobaptist argument is often characterized as "adults only", but this is not an accurate representation. Simply being an adult does not qualify one for baptism; one must come to saving faith and profess Christ as Lord and Savior. This could happen for some in the earliest stages of life and still be valid according to credobaptists.

Roots of the disagreement

The two different answers to this question do not, by themselves, shed much light on the nature of the dispute between paedobaptists and credobaptists. To grasp the disagreement over infant baptism fully one needs to understand the roots of the disagreement.

Prior theological commitments

The disagreement about infant baptism is grounded in differing theological views at a more basic level. Christians disagree about infant baptism because they disagree about the nature of faith, the role of baptism, the means of salvation, the nature of grace, and the function of the sacraments. Pedobaptism and credobaptism are positions which bubble up from theological views at a more fundamental level of one’s theological system.

Fundamental theological questions

Christians answer the question Who should be baptized? differently because they give different answers to the more fundamental questions which lie beneath it. These more basic questions include:

  • Why do Christians baptize anyone at all (i.e. what is the point of baptism)?
  • Who are members of God’s covenant community or church?
  • What does baptism signify and/or symbolize?
  • Is baptism merely a symbol or is it a channel through which God conveys grace (i.e. spiritual power, unmerited favor, spiritual blessing)?
  • If baptism conveys grace, does it convey justifying grace (grace that makes one a Christian) or sanctifying grace (grace which makes one a better Christian)?

Different answers to fundamental theological questions

Credobaptists answer these foundational questions this way:

  • Baptism is a public profession of faith. It is a symbolic way of publicly telling the world one is a Christian.
  • Only those who have faith in Christ are members of God's covenant community (or church).
  • Baptism symbolizes that the individual has been washed and cleansed from his sin by the blood of Jesus.
  • Baptism is merely a symbol. It does not convey grace of any kind.
  • The baptized person has been symbolically buried with Christ in baptism and raised a new person to life eternal.

Some of these answers would be given also by paedobaptists. A sponsor or sponsors (godparents) give a public profession of faith on behalf of the child being baptized, who is expected to ratify later the profession made on his or her behalf; and paedobaptists have no doubt that by baptism a child is cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus and is symbolically buried with him and raised as a new person to life eternal. They do not accept that divine grace is not given in baptism, and they disagree that an explicit act of faith is necessary for being a member of the church.

Paedobaptists think that baptism is more than would be indicated by these answers alone. They typically give the following additional answers:

  • If baptism is a sign that a person is a member of God's covenant community, and if the children of believers are members of that community, it follows that the children of believers should receive the sign that they are members of God’s covenant community by being baptized, as an infant is entitled to a passport that indicates the child as a member of a particular country.
  • Believers and the children of believers become members of God's covenant community (or church) through baptism.
  • In the heart of a baptized child, faith as a gift or grace from God, as distinct from an act by the person, is made present.
  • Baptism is not merely a symbol. It has a real effect, conveying divine grace.

Arguments for infant baptism

Paedobaptists do not completely agree on the reasons for baptizing infants, and offer different reasons in support of the practice. Among the arguments made in support of the practice are:

Argument based on parallel with circumcision

Some supporters of infant baptism argue that circumcision is the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and should be received by all the members of his covenant. The children of members of Abraham's covenant are themselves members of Abraham's covenant. Christians are members of Abraham's covenant Therefore, the children of Christians are members of Abraham's covenant . Since baptism is the New Testament form of circumcision , the children of Christians should receive the sign of the covenant by being baptized.

Covenant theology

Presbyterian and Reformed Christians base their case for infant baptism on Covenant theology. Covenant theology is a broad interpretative framework used to understand the Bible. Reformed Baptists are Reformed yet, as their name suggests, adhere to Believers Baptism.

According to Covenant theology God makes two basic covenants, or agreements, with humans. The first one, the Covenant of Works is an agreement that bases man’s relationship with God on human obedience and morality. The covenant was made with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam broke this covenant so God replaced it with a second more durable covenant--- the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Grace is an agreement that bases man’s relationship with God on God’s grace and generosity. The Covenant of Works failed because it was based on human performance. The Covenant of Grace is durable because it is based on God’s performance.

All the covenants that God makes with humans after the Fall, (e.g. with Abraham, Moses, and David) are really just different forms of the Covenant of Grace. They may appear to be different but are fundamentally the same covenant. The underlying Covenant of Grace stays the same even though the external forms changes. Consequently, Covenant theologians see in Old Testament Israel the people of God (the church) before Christ was born. For the Covenant theologian, therefore, there is only one people of God - the church.

According to Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, this theological framework is important to the Biblical case for infant baptism because it provides a reason for thinking there is strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments. It provides a bridge linking the two Testaments together.

Covenant Theologians claim that the New Testament book of Hebrews demonstrates that much of Israel's worship has been replaced by the person and work of Christ. The result is that some important forms of worship in the Old Testament have New Testament equivalents. The Passover festival, for example, was replaced by the Lord's Supper (or Eucharist).

It is across the bridge of Covenant Theology that the sign of Abraham’s covenant, circumcision, walks into the New Testament. The sign of the Covenant changes its external form to reflect new spiritual realties. It was a bloody sign in the Old Testament but because Christ has shed his blood, it has been transformed into a bloodless sign, i.e. washing with water. Passover was a bloody form of Old Testament worship and also transitions into the New Testament in the bloodless form of bread and wine.

Covenant theologians point out that the external sign of the covenant in the Old Testament was circumcision. Circumcision was performed upon the male children of Israelites to signify their external membership in God's people, not as a guarantee of true faith; the Old Testament records many Israelites who turned from God and were punished, showing that their hearts were not truly set on serving God. So while all male Israelites had the sign of the covenant performed on them in a once off ceremony soon after birth, such a signifier was external only and not a true indicator of whether or not they would later exhibit true faith in Yahweh.

In the New Testament, circumcision is no longer seen as mandatory for God's people. However there is compelling evidence to suggest that the Old Testament circumcision rite has been replaced by baptism. For instance: "In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism." (Colossians 2:11-12a)

Some paedobaptists, then, think the analogy of baptism to circumcision correctly points to children, since the historic Israelite application of circumcision was to infants, not to adult converts, of which there were few. Covenant theology, then, identifies baptism less as a statement of faith than as an assumption of identity; that is to say that infant baptism is a sign of covenantal inclusion.

Corroborating evidence

Paedobaptists point to a number of passages in the New Testament which seem to corroborate the above argument.
Household baptisms
In the Old Testament, if the head of a household converted to Judaism, all the males in the house, even the infants, were circumcised. Paedobaptists argue this pattern continues into the New Testament. Reference is made, for example, to baptizing a person and their whole household – the households of Lydia, Crispus, and Stephanas are mentioned by name Acts 16:14-15, 18:8; 1 Cor 1:16

Paedobaptists challenge credobaptists on this point: Why would a whole household be baptized just because the head of the house had faith? Shouldn’t they baptize each member of the family as they come to individual faith? Household baptism implies that the rules for membership in Abraham's covenant have continued into the New Testament, the main difference is the sign of the covenant.

Credobaptists counter with verses such as John 4:53, Acts 16:34 and Acts 18:8 in which entire households are said to have "believed". As such, the paedobaptist assumption is that household baptisms mentioned in the Bible involved infants, presumably incapable of personal belief.

Original sin
Paedobaptists also point to Psalm 51, which reads, in part, "surely I was sinful from birth," as indication that infants are sinful (vid. original sin) and are thus in need of forgiveness that they too might have salvation.

Credobaptists would admit that infants are in need of salvation but paedobaptists push the point a step further by arguing that it makes no theological sense for infants to need salvation but for God to make no provision for them to be saved. Some Credobaptists who agree to the Psalm 51 interpretation, argue that even though infants are sinful they are not accountable, because of the "age of accountability". Although many theologians would argue that an "age of accountability" is nowhere mentioned in the Bible.

An alternative viewpoint of some credobaptists is that since all Christians are predestined to salvation (John 15:16, 1Cor 1:27, Eph 1:4, 1Pet 2:4), God will not allow His elect to die before receiving their need, even if they are in old age (Luke 2:25-35), an argument whose relation to baptism whether of infants or adults is unclear, unless it means that infants who die without coming to explicit belief and baptism are not among God's elect.

Peter's Speech
According to the Book of Acts in the New Testament, Peter declared in his sermon to the Jews that they should all be baptized. They and their children, and everyone whom God calls, no matter how far away.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39, NIV)

Arguments against infant baptism

Opponents of paedobaptism point out that Jesus himself was baptized at the age of 30. They also point to the two (out of five) Great Commission passages that speak of baptism. They see as giving exclusive instructions about who is to be baptized: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (verses 19-20, NKJV). They interpret this as referring to three successive stages, with baptism following on becoming a disciple (which is beyond the power of an infant), and instruction following on baptism, not preceding it. Pedobaptists point out that the passage is ambiguous enough to interpret that a person becomes a disciple directly through baptism, meaning children could be baptized.

The Great Commission passage speaks of believing: "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (verse 16, NKJV). This, they say, excludes infants, whom they see as incapable of believing.
Pedobaptists point out that the second clause mentions believing, but not baptism. Therefore, one could be baptized and still not be a believer. They argue that this may not exclude infant baptism, but rather corroborate it. In return, opposers declare that baptism is for those who already believe and are able to state their belief, which infants cannot do. In Peter's address to adults, "Repent and be baptized" , they see repentance as a prerequisite, and this requires a mature understanding of sin and a decision to turn away from sin. Some point to or as evidence that each individual must make a mature decision regarding baptism. See Believer's Baptism.

Some oppose baptism of children as incorporating them into the church without their own consent.

Denominations that do not accept infant baptism as valid generally require those who join them, after being baptized as infants elsewhere, to be "rebaptized", or rather to be baptized for the first time. They deny that they in fact rebaptize, saying that Christians are to be baptized only once, but as believers, and they reject the term "Anabaptist" (i.e. Rebaptizer) as a description of them.

Denominations and religious groups opposed to paedobaptism

Trinitarian Christian denominations that oppose infant baptism include Baptists, churches of Christ, Mennonites, Amish, Brethren, and most Pentecostal groups. Several non-Trinitarian religious groups also oppose infant baptism, including Apostolics, Christadelphians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Latter-day Saints. Quakers and the Salvation Army generally do not observe either baptism, in any form, or communion.

Religious groups that oppose infant baptism have sometimes been persecuted by paedobaptist churches. During the Reformation, anabaptists were persecuted by Protestant, Anglican, and Catholic regimes. The English government imposed restrictions on Baptists and Quakers in Britain and Ireland during the 17th century. The Russian Orthodox Church repressed Baptists prior to the 1917 revolution, and sought restrictions on Baptists and Pentecostals after being re-established after the fall of Communism.

B.R. White describes the motivations behind persecution of the anabaptists during the Reformation as follows:

Other Christians saw the baptism of each new-born baby into the secular parish community and close links between church and state as the divinely-ordained means of holding society together. Hence many other Christians saw the Anabaptists as subversive of all order. Consequently, from the earliest days, they were sharply persecuted and leaders were soon executed.


For Roman Catholics, Confirmation is a sacrament that "confirms" or "strengthens" (the original meaning of the word "confirm") the grace of Baptism, by conferring an increase and deepening of that grace.

For some other Christians the ceremony of Confirmation is a matter not of "being confirmed" but of "confirming" the baptismal vows taken on one's behalf when an infant. This is the essential significance of the Lutheran non-sacramental ceremony called in German "Konfirmation", but in English "affirmation of baptism" (see Confirmation).

In Eastern Christianity, including the Eastern Catholic Churches, the sacrament of Confirmation is conferred immediately after baptism, and there is obviously no renewal of baptismal promises. In the Latin-Rite (i.e. Western) Catholic Church, the sacrament is to be conferred at about the age of discretion (generally taken to be about 7), unless the Episcopal Conference has decided on a different age, or there is danger of death or, in the judgement of the minister, a grave reason suggests otherwise (canon 891 of the Code of Canon Law). The renewal of baptismal promises by those receiving the sacrament in the Western Catholic Church is incidental to the rite and not essentially different from the solemn renewal of their baptismal promises that is asked of all members of this Church each year at the Easter Vigil service. Only in French-speaking countries has there been a development of ceremonies, quite distinct from the sacrament of Confirmation, for young Catholics to profess their faith publicly, in line with their age.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer requires that all who are to be confirmed should first know and understand the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and be able to answer the other questions in the Church Catechism. Confirmation enables those who have been baptized as infants, when they are of age to do so, openly before the church, to take upon themselves and confirm the promises made on their behalf by their godparents.

See also


External links



Brunson, Hal. 2007 The Rickety Bridge and the Broken Mirror: Two Parables of Paedobaptism and One Parable of the Death of Jesus Christ. ISBN 0-595-43816-4

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