Since the Reformation much ink has flowed from the pens of writers discussing the pros and cons of infant baptism. The main argument has centered on what the Bible does or does not teach. This is a fallacious contention for the simple reason that the New Testament (NT) canon was not established for all practical purposes until well into the fifth century. Even after this there were those who still disputed the use of all twenty-seven books.
During those early centuries the Church fathers were arguing what should be included in the NT, let alone using it for sole authority in settling theological questions. Therefore the emerging Church presuming the guidance of the Holy Spirit, made its rules dealing with some pastoral problems apart from the NT as they were encountered. The Seventh Day Adventists who observe the Jewish Sabbath challenge we who observe the Christian Sunday to show them in the NT where permission has been granted to abandon the seventh day of rest. We cannot for the simple reason that the Church in Rome made this as a binding law in the mid second century to commemorate the first Easter on the “eight day of the week.” However while there are no explicit directions on baptizing children, there are implicit guidelines in the Scripture.
The first example of apostolic preaching in the NT is Peter’s Pentecost sermon. He is asked what one must do to be saved. “You must reform (repent: NIV) and be baptized each one of you in the name of Jesus Christ that your sins will be forgiven then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2: 37-38). This sermon is directed to adults as was true of all NT preaching. There is no explicit concern at this time for the spiritual welfare of children.
The letters of St. Paul written in the fifties apparently dealt with this problem for the time being. He writes that where one of two parents is a believer: “the children are holy,” (1 Cor. 7: 14). Obviously it follows where both parents are believers this would also be true.
On the other hand where unbelievers came into the Church there are NT texts dealing with baptism that can be interpreted to include children and even infants. The use of the “household formula” St. Paul writes (50’s): “I baptized the household of Stephanus…,” (1 Cor. 1: 16). In Acts where Lydia was Paul’s first convert in Europe it says: “She and her household was baptized,” (Acts 16: 15). When the jailor in Philippi became a believer “he and his whole household were baptized,” (Acts 16: 33). It is hard to believe that in these households there were no children below the age of moral accountability or no infants.
The scene of Jesus blessing the children is another text pointing to infant baptism (Mk. 10: 13-16) and parallels Mt. 19:13-15; Lk. 18: 15-17). “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them. It is to such as these that the kingdom belongs,” (10:14). The Lukan version is more specific. “They even brought babies to be touched by him…. Let the little children come to me. Don’t shut them out,” (Lk. 18: 15-16).
How did anyone come to Jesus? It was through baptism. We are united to the body of Christ. Paul says: “It was in one spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one spirit,” (1 Cor. 12: 13). Being added to the body of Christ, the Church, is a free gift from God. It is not through our own act or merits that saves us. Salvation comes through God’s grace. Thus infants as well as adults can be objects of God’s grace.
John’s Gospel written close to the end of the first century has these forbidding words in Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus: “I solemnly assure you that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being begotten of the water and the spirit,” (Jn. 3:5). This clearly refers to baptism.
In the writings of the Church Fathers, the Didache recognizes baptism by immersion and infusion (pouring). Irenaeus writing in the late second century says “He came to save all through himself. All through him who are reborn in God – infants, children, youths and old men.” How did Paul define being born again? “Through baptism into his death, we were buried with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too, might have a new life,” (Rom. 6:4).
By the time of Hippolytus of Rome in his Apostolic Tradition (ca AD 215) infant baptism was very much part of the life of the church. “At dawn a prayer shall be offered over the water. Let them remove their clothing. Baptize the children first, and if they can speak for themselves, let them do so. Otherwise let their parents or other relatives speak for them.
Next baptize the men, and last of all the women.”
Origen, an Eastern father, in his Com. on Romans writes (AD 244): “The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism, even to infants.” Why? Because sin is in them. “Behold I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me,” (Ps. 51:5). Augustine in response to the Pelagian heresy that denied the doctrine of original sin and also said it was possible for one to live without sin, emphasized the fact of human solidarity that goes back to Adam. The Church’s practice of infant baptism was the key point in his argument.
The Church came out of Jewish origins where circumcision was administered on the eighth day. Paul compares baptism to circumcision (Col. 2: 11-12).