Infant Baptism – its origins

I mentioned Sunday that I would write a blog on this. But even as I do, I write it with a bit of fear and trembling. My goal here is not to show how we are right and someone else is wrong. I actually have many friends and people that I highly respect in the theological world that believe in infant baptism.  Rather, I just want to give a bit of a background on the origins of infant baptism. Furthermore, I am going to keep this short and idea oriented, rather than trying to give a lengthy expose on all the people and theological ideas involved in the movement.

From the New Testament, and early Christian writings, it is fairly clear that baptisms were performed on those who already believed and done by immersion in water. The Didache, a late first or early second century (less than 100 years after the time of Jesus) document that was used as an instruction manual for the church indicates that baptism was to be done in “living” (with a current) water, and if living water could not be found, it was OK to do baptism in other water, preferably water that is cold.  Only as a last resort would a church use pouring, if no other water was available.  In all cases, the church called for a period of fasting for the person to be baptized, something that could not be done by an infant.

Eventually, the early church shifted the form and people baptized.  As for the move to pouring and sprinkling, much of the Mid-East is arid, and often shortages of water necessitated baptism using lower amounts of water.  The move to baptizing infants developed as early forms of Christianity began to wrestle with two key issues.

The first was the growing understanding of the doctrine of original sin.  Original sin is the understanding that humans are born into sin, the stain of the sin of Adam deeply affects all people.  Paul stated, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned (Romans 5:12).”  In other words, every person is born into the world a sinner by nature and by choice.  But that original sin nature leaves all people in desperate need of grace and totally unable to gain acceptance of God on their own.  Original sin needs a solution, and that solution is faith in Jesus.  But what are we to do with original sin for those who cannot believe as yet?

This leads to the second issue, the struggle with how to answer parent’s greatest fear.  Before modern medicine, the infant mortality rate was high, and during times of plague it was often as high as 1 in 3 deaths in some places.  Parents want assurance that the baby they deeply love will be OK in eternity.  This is such an unbelievably valid issue, yet, the Bible does not give a direct answer to this question.  So, every Christian tradition has formulated some response to this very emotional issue.  In my tradition, we were taught the idea of “the age of accountability”, which basically said that a person was under God’s grace until they came to an age where they could believe on their own.  This sounds great, but it is not based on any clear teaching of the Bible.  LIkewise, the early church embraced the idea that baptism would wash away original sin, and therefore baptizing infants would protect them from the guilt associated with it.  Realize that not all who practice infant baptism do so for this reason, but this is the background of it.

So what is the answer to the question about children that do not survive?  As I said, this is such a tough issue because the Bible is not clear with an answer.  The Bible is primarily concerned with telling the story of God and His interaction with people.  There are some theological questions that it does not answer completely, and we are left to trust the character of God in these issues.  It does teach that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus (Acts 4:12), and that faith in Christ alone is the only response.  But there are two hints in Scripture that might help.  The first is in the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12).  David commits a horrible sin that involved adultery with Bathsheba.  The impending pregnancy led to a few other horrible decisions by David.  David eventually repented and threw himself at the mercy of God.  The result was that God took the life of the child.  As the baby was sick, David responded by laying on the floor, refusing to eat, and entering a deep depression.  When the baby died, David’s servants were afraid to speak to him out of fear that his depression would worsen.  Eventually they inform David, but he cleans himself up and eats a meal.  The servants don’t quite get it, and ask David why he was in this fasting and weeping while the child lived, but now that he has died, David arose and ate food.  David’s response, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me to me, that the child may live?’  But now he is dead.  Why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23)  The key here is that David seems to believe in the fact that he will be reunited with this son in eternity.

The second hint relates to the general character of God.  And that is where I believe this question must be answered, that we must trust God to be merciful, gracious, loving, and just.  Any time we try to create a neat tidy little theological system to answer this question, more than likely, that answer will not be based on Scripture.  But when we trust the goodness of God, we can be sure that He will do what is right.  I know this is difficult, because we want well defined answers to difficult questions, especially emotional ones.  Yet, like all questions of this nature, the answer lies in the work of Jesus Christ and the Gospel.  God bless.

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