The Reformers' Defense of Infant Baptism

Reprinted with permission from Faith Pulpit (Apr-Jun, 2011).

Sola Gracia, Sola Fide. Sola Scriptura. These affirmations are held to be the guiding principles of the Reformers. However, one of my professors in graduate school, a Catholic scholar of the Reformation, openly questioned the Reformers’ commitment to the last of these principles: sola scriptura. At the time I quickly dismissed his query, considering the source of the objection. But later, as I studied the Reformation at another university, I began to rethink his idea, especially regarding infant baptism. I concluded it was important to revisit the 16th century baptismal controversy in order to understand how the Reformers justified infant baptism.

Baptists see the Reformers’ defense of infant baptism as a concession to a historical practice over the Word of God. Is that a correct assessment? Did the Reformers violate their own guiding principles in defending infant baptism?

The issue of infant baptism affected many other areas of doctrine in the Reformation, including the use of church discipline, the concern for the purity of the lives of church members, and especially the practice of allowing the unsaved into the membership of the Reformers’ churches. All of these issues in the Reformation have left tangible results in the contemporary church scene and deserve further investigation.1

This article will briefly explore how the Reformers defended infant baptism.2 The three major recognized Reformers are Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. I will add a lesser-known Reformer, Martin Bucer, who also was prominent in the controversy over infant baptism.

2876 reads

Baptism in History, Part 4: Historical Arguments for Believer's Baptism

Read Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Either we should baptize only believers or we should baptize believers and their babies. One of these must be right; the other must be wrong. One is old and apostolic; the other is newer. For the purpose of this paper, assume this much: The very early church practiced one teaching; the other developed later in the life of the church.

In the baptism debate, history seems unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, history is not clearly on either side of the debate. There were at least a few ancient Christians who seem to have practiced each baptismal system (or something near to it). And many old sources are vague enough that both sides claim them. Together, these mean that everyone comes away believing that they are in agreement with the vast majority of historical figures.

9857 reads

Baptism in History, Part 3

Baptism of AugustineRead Part 1 and Part 2

We have seen evidence that some in the very early church may have baptized believers only. And we have seen that in the second through fourth centuries there was a mixture of practices, with both infant and believer’s baptism. At the beginning of the fifth century something happened that caused infant baptism to become the widespread practice of the church. That something was a someone—Augustine. Perhaps no single person except Jesus and Paul had a more powerful influence on the teachings of the church than did Augustine. Everyone who sought to be orthodox throughout the Medieval and Reformation periods called himself Augustinian. Though I am not an authority on Augustine and I have not read all that he wrote on baptism, I want to note a few things that might give pause to the acceptance of his thinking on baptism.

In Confessions (A.D. 398) Augustine tells of his formative experiences with baptism.

3050 reads

Baptism in History, Part 2

Read Part 1.

The writings of the third and fourth centuries reveal varying teachings on baptism. These include baptismal regeneration, baptism as a replacement for circumcision, and baptism as a step of faith. The church accepts some of these arguments today. Others have been rejected. Conclusions some claim are apostolic but which are based on rejected propositions should be viewed with skepticism.

2913 reads

Baptism in History, Part 1

The very early tradition of the Christian church

An examination of baptism in the first few centuries of the church brings up many questions. The most important of these is, what did the Apostles teach in Scripture? But both paedobaptists1 and credobaptists can easily read Scripture in light of their own tradition. This series focuses on history. What was the very early tradition of the Christian church? Part 1 focuses on the period closely following the completion of Scripture. In this period, each writer has either first-hand or second-hand exposure to an Apostle. Part 2 will explore the next period: what was taught and practiced between the very early church era and Augustine? Part three will focus on Augustine: what was Augustine’s contribution to the doctrine of baptism?

Eusebius: “brought up” then baptized

What did those with close exposure to the Apostles teach? In The History of the Church, written in the 4th century, Eusebius relates this story:

8055 reads

Our Understanding and Practice of Baptism

BaptismWhat is to be our understanding and practice of baptism today? As I have endeavored to do in recent issues, we need to think separately of form and meaning. There is but one form of water immersion anywhere in Scripture, one person submerging another and raising that other one up out of the water. There are no specific words to be said at such a time. There are no restrictions as to where baptism might be done (in early Michigan, people chopped a hole in the ice for immersions).  There is no restriction as to who might be qualified to perform an immersion. It would seem that the form is completely undebatable, yet for the last ten centuries or so, there have been major differences.

The significance of the action of submerging and raising, as these surveys have shown, has differed with additional revelatory action by God. The immersions of John were a witness of the individual’s repentance for the remission of sins (Mark 1:4). Immersions by disciples of Jesus continued the personal testimony of the one immersed and added John’s identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. The teaching of water immersion was to declare one’s death to a sinful past and beginning of a new walk. Jesus later added the coming of His own physical death to the figure (Matt. 20:22-23).

455 reads