Infant vs Adult Baptism

Editor’s note:  This was undoubtedly written as a mental exercise when faced with members of his congregation that favored adult baptism over infant baptism and the problem of what to do about it.  He sent this note (which I did edit) to a number of individuals to get feedback.  The return correspondence didn’t completely support his conclusions and I am uncertain if that influenced his later thoughts on it. In any event, this reflects to some extent the time that it was written (probably late 1970s) as I believe that the Christian Reformed Church has since allowed at least local congregations to decide whether to allow children to partake in the Lord’s Supper. This is a good example of how he was ahead of his time and thought “outside the box”. 

The Christian Reformed Church, like many other churches, is committed to infant baptism.  However, there is NOT agreement as to its meaning.  One group says it is covenantal, like circumcision; the child belongs to the Christian community.  (I Cor 7:14)  Nothing is said as to the individual recipients’s salvation.  Romans says plainly that not all Old Testament covenant members were saved.  Others say that baptism is a symbol of salvation for adults and infants alike.  The problem with that is, what about the majority of baptized children who do not remain even church members upon reaching maturity?  Facts do not fit our wishes.  Our baptism forms are an attempt to say both views, and thus are self-contradicting.  Church order commentary is even more so.  Biggest compromise is rule regarding adopted children; baptism is optional!

Many calvinists do not believe in infant baptism.  And many Baptists believe that Christian’s children are covenantal, building Christian schools, etc.  And we have always recognized an accepted Triune baptism performed in any church, whether Catholic or Mormon, etc.  We insist that the mode of baptism is not important; while immersion may be preferable it may not always be practical.  As an aside, the large Eastern Orthodox church practices immersion of infants.

There are some members in our church that are being re-baptized (either mode) upon confirmation of faith or other occasion.  Synod, the CRC’s governing body, did not regard this as meriting discipline, but pastoral admonition, and the recipient should not be allowed to hold office in the church.  While Belgic Confession XXXIV says we “ought to baptized but once”, it may have in mind those who might want it repeated frequently, or those who say that their infant baptism was not valid.  Most Christian Reformed members re-baptized as adults regard it as a confirmation, re-affirmation, or personal validation of what their parents did in their behalf.  (Some denominations anoint with oil at “confirmation”.)  We recognize the difference between full and minor by means of admitting the former to the second sacrament, the Lord’s Supper.  (To speak of non-full members as “baptized” members is poor terminology;  ALL members are baptized!)  However, the propriety of limiting Communion to full members has been questioned; in the Old Testament EVERYBODY partook of the passover (which all agree has been replaced by the Lord’s Supper); some New Testament denominations allow children to participate.

To this point, I have stated the facts.  Now for a few observations:  First, any baptism should imply more for the recipient than merely belonging to the visible church.  A dedication ceremony would take care of that and recognize our children as special, deserving Christian nurture, etc.  But the very formula – “Into the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” means simply engrafting into Christ.  (One liturgical committee caught in a dilemma, sought to cut the Gordian knot by changing the formula to “in the name of”, which means simply baptizing by God’s authority, but leaving the meaning of the ceremony open.)  At one time in our short denomination history, parents who themselves were not full members could have their children baptized.  Meaning what it does (Mark 16:16) it would seem that those who cannot make a confession of their faith (children) cannot qualify for baptism.  Does the Bible give two grounds for baptism, or have two kinds, or have two meanings, one which applies to children, the other to adults?

Second, on the Indian Reservation (as well as in the Nigerian church) some covenantal children are not brought for baptism.  There may be a practical reason, e.g. the lack of ready availability of an ordained official.  Or is it confusion in their minds as to baptism’s meaning, which seems to mean something so much different in the adults’ experience from that of the unconscious child’s situation?  Regarding the converts’ children who ARE baptized as children, the fall-away rate is great; is it that THEY have a casual, presumptuous attitude toward their “easy” baptism?  Might not dedication in every case make the assumption of parental covenantal responsibilities more obvious, plus the recipients personal ones, later?

To clarify, by “dedication,” I mean an official, formal ceremony in divine worship at which parents affirm, as presently, their own personal salvation, conviction of the fact of our natural birth in sin thru Adam, of the necessity of rebirth in Christ who died to take away the sin of the world, and a solemn promise to regard their child as a member of the covenant, with all the rights and responsibilities that this favored condition involves for the parents as well as the children.

The question may be asked as to whether this difference of infant vs adult baptism is one that is tolerable within a body of believers who are completely agreed as to such “fundamentals” as the Inspiration of Scripture, Deity of the Lord Jesus, Justification by Faith, etc.  In fact, a person may have reservations about infant baptism and be completely committed to such specific creedal standards as the Five Points of Calvinism, which do not concern themselves with the former question.

If advocates of infant baptism should argue – properly enough – that there ought to be some symbol, ceremony sacrament to mark the minor members of the ‘family of God’, as circumcision did (for only male children in the Old Testament), the obvious answer would be to let them share in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  If this seems unthinkable, remember:  1. Baptism is a once-and-for-all sacrament, while the Lord’s Supper is repeated and can be withheld at any time; 2. While baptism is an individual matter and could well wait for personal decision, the Lord’s Supper is by very nature and name a communal, familial affair;  3. There isn’t a shred of Scripture argument against it;  4. To the contrary, Scripture would favor it on the score that the Lord’s Supper has certainly come in the place of the Passover, in which ALL children took part, almost from birth.  (By contrast, the claim that baptism has come in the place of circumcision is highly inferential and is, of course, the very question at issue, and the subject of differing opinions within the Reformed tradition as well as with those outside it.)

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