Review: Why Do We Baptize Infants?
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
A Baptist can’t give three stars to a book, even a good one, arguing for infant baptism. But if all I were evaluating was clarity and brevity, Chapell might actually get four stars. His thesis is simple: “We baptize infants because we believe that the Bible teaches us to do so.” (5)
Chapell begins by explaining the “covenant of faith” (20) God made with Abraham and arguing for its continuing validity:
A key concept in the New Testament is that all of God’s people (Jew or Gentile—past or present) are blessed in accordance with the covenant (i.e., promise of blessing) that God made with Abraham…. The “everlasting covenant” that God made with Abraham (Gen. 17:7) continues to be in effect and continues to cover us. (7)
Just as Old Testament Jewish families were told to give their sons a sign of the covenant at birth—circumcision—New Testament Christian families are to baptize their children “as a seal … indicat[ing] the visible pledge of God that when the conditions of his covenant [are] met, the promised blessings [will] apply.” (15) So infant baptism does not eradicate original sin; the “ordinary condition remain[s] that these children must ultimately express their own faith in Christ in order to reap the full blessings of the covenant.” (14)
Chapell freely admits that “we who believe in infant baptism must confess that the lack of any specific example of infant baptism in the New Testament is a strong counterweight to our position.” (15) He argues, however, that the New Testament never abrogates the Old Testament practice of including children (in some diminished sense) in the covenant.
Chapell explains that individualistic Western Christians have a very different worldview from that of ancient Jews: we simply don’t assume as they did “the principle of representation by the head of the household.” (10) This biblical principle, he argues, is “foreign to our thought today…. Our lack of familiarity with this principle is one of the reasons why our individualistic culture finds it so difficult to accept the covenant-family principles and practices of Scripture.” (18)
And Chapell has some passages on his side: “When we read the New Testament accounts of baptism, every person identified as having a household present at his or her conversion also had the entire household baptized.” (17, emphasis original) He cites the Philippian jailer, Lydia, Stephanas, and probably Crispus (cf. Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:14).
Chapell does pay attention to the issue of mode—he argues from various New Testament passages that baptism “involves a ceremonial cleansing in which the amount of liquid may vary according to the nature of the occasion.” (21) Chapell’s point here is that there are difficulties in arguing that immersion is the only proper mode, so one should not go further and conclude that babies are inappropriate candidates for baptism simply because no mother would like her baby to be dunked. (“Moms and dads do not have to worry about drowning their newborns in order to honor God’s covenant.” )
Chapell very clearly communicates that infant baptism does not guarantee future salvation. “No sacrament automatically creates or transmits the grace of salvation…. No mere ritual will save anyone.” (24) So why baptize children? “Because God makes covenantal promises to believers and to their children. In baptism we honor God by marking out and acting on the promises that reflect his grace both in blessing parents who act in devotion to God and in blessing the child being devoted to him in covenantal faith…. In the sacrament of baptism, we as parents demonstrate our commitment to be faithful stewards of the precious gift of a child’s soul that God grants us to nurture for a season of life.” (24–25)
Chapell’s comments on raising children in the Christian community contained some newer thoughts for me, and they did hit home:
It is possible, even common, for the children of Christian parents never to know a day that they do not believe that Jesus is their Savior and Lord. Such covenantal growth of a child is, in fact, the normal Christian life that God intends for his people…. Of course there are exceptions. True faith remains a supernatural gift, but natural human instruments fulfilling their covenant obligations most frequently communicate it. (27, emphasis original)
There is no reason to presume that because children are not yet able to express mature faith, they must be treated as unbelievers. It is not hypocritical to take them to church, urge them to express joy that Jesus loves them, or allow them to pray at bedtime, or make other such expressions of childish faith. To the contrary, it would be unbiblical to treat our children as offspring of Satan, unloved by God, and enemies of the household of faith, until they express saving faith.” (28)
I won’t rehash all the classic Baptist reasons for rejecting Chapell’s argument; those can be found elsewhere. I’ll just make a few observations:
- Chapell left me a little unclear on what promises exactly God makes to covenant children. What benefits flow to baptized babies that kids in credobaptist churches (like mine) don’t get?
- However, his thoughts on how we treat children who have not yet made a profession of personal faith (and who, of course, have not yet had time to demonstrate mature faith and lasting spiritual growth), were sobering for me. Infant baptism appears to have a strength here, giving account theologically for something we all do but can’t justify. How many Christian parents carefully their kids to pray and then insist in a theological debate that God does not hear the prayers of unregenerated people? This is an issue I wish I had more clarity on myself, that I’ve been thinking about for a good while.
- The passages that mention families (and couches!) being baptized can all plausibly be used for either side of the debate. They don’t tend to decide it for anyone in my experience. What decides the issue for me—the reason I myself am a Baptist—is actually the precious New Covenant passage of Jeremiah 31. The covenant in which the church now partakes is one in which people will not have to exhort one another to “Know the Lord” (Jer. 31:34). Every member of the covenant already does. I don’t want to confuse my children by making them think they are automatically in any sense covenant members, and I don’t see Jeremiah 31 giving a third class of “potential covenant members.” You either know the Lord or you don’t. Neither does my position require, I think, that my kids make a memorable “decision for Christ” on a specific day. That may happen, or their experience of spiritual birth may appear (on the outside) to be more gradual. That, I think, was my experience (it’s a little hard to read this many years on).