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The Acts of the Apostles
by Jon Zens

Everyone admits that baptism is important in the Christian community one way or another. Jesus included baptism in the Great Commission, and there are examples of baptism in the Book of Acts. However, Christians differ radically concerning who should be baptized and how they should be baptized. At this time, we want to focus on aspects of the hermeneutics of infant baptizers [pedobaptists).

Don Fortner, a Baptist, states his starting point for any belief or practice:

“If we accept something as a point of doctrine, or as a religious practice, we must have some direct precept of Revelation, or some direct precedent in the Scriptures for it. Neither of these can be found for infant baptism. (“Who Should Be Baptized?,” 13th Street Baptist Church Bulletin, March, 1980)

Most pedobaptists, like B.B. Warfield, admit that “...there is no express command to baptize infants in the New Testament, no express record of the baptism of infants and no passages so stringently implying it that we must infer from them that infants were baptized.” (Quoted by Walt Chantry, “Baptism & Covenant Theology,” 1970, p. 2)

They also usually admit, as does Ned Stonehouse, that “baptism is regarded as the normal Christian practice following upon faith.” [1]

Lacking precept or example, and admitting that the examples of baptism in Acts are post-conversion, pedobaptists shift to other grounds. Infant baptism, we are asked to believe, is rooted in the Old Testament. B.B. Warfield: “The warrant for infant baptism is not to be sought in the New Testament , but in the Old Testament.” [2]

“The practice of infant baptism,” says a Presbyterian pastor, “rests squarely on an Old Testament foundation. Remove that foundation, and infant baptism collapses.” [3]

The Old Testament is the focus of appeal because children were included in the “covenant” in the former days. Hence, if children were included in the “church” of the Old Testament , “nothing short of an actual forbidding of it in the New Testament would warrant our omitting it now.” [4]

John Murray states, “Embedded in this covenantal action of God is the principle that the infant seed of believers are embraced with their parents in the covenant relation and provision. It is for that reason alone that we continue to baptize them.” [5]

A Presbyterian magazine echoes the same sentiment: “This is the basis of infant baptism: without this basis there is no justification for infant baptism; with this basis, there is no excuse for the neglect of the Covenantal Administration of infant baptism.” [6]

Another Presbyterian, Ray Sutton, takes issue with the demand for New Testament validation of infant baptism. “When He establishes a concept for thirty-nine books of the Bible — placement of the newborn child into the covenant — God expects us to know what to do with our children.” [7]

In the end, we are left with a hermeneutic of “silence,” where practice by inference from the Old Testament is acceptable.

“That the New Testament fails to give a specific injunction about tithing would no more do away with it than the New Testament*s failure to mention children*s relationship to the Covenant of Grace does away with that relationship.” [8]

Obviously, this viewpoint affects how “covenant children” are treated. The Christian Reformed Church*s “Form for the Baptism of Children” (1976) instructs parents “to teach our little ones that they have been set apart by baptism as God*s own children.” The Westminster Directory for Public Worship (1645) asserts “that children by baptism . . . are Christians, and federally holy before baptism, and therefore are they baptized.” A grown-up “covenant child” stated in his testimony, “Born ‘holy* (1 Corinthians 7:14) into a stable, Christian home. . .” [9]

Thus, while baptized children “are born in desperate need of the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ,” nevertheless “we are not to judge them as unbelievers unless there is positive evidence against them.” [10]

In the same vein, Louis Berkhof states, “As long as the children of the covenant do not reveal the contrary, we shall have to proceed on the assumption that they are in possession of the covenant life.” [11]

1 Corinthians 7:14 is one of the central proof-texts for infant baptism “Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” But Paul is addressing a situation where after marriage the husband or wife is converted. Is such a marriage valid? Are the children of such a union illegitimate? Paul*s answer is that the marriage is okay and that the children are “sanctioned,” or legitimate. Paul uses the same word in 1 Timothy 4:5, where food is said to be “sanctified.”

Where's the Punch?

Geoffrey Bromiley, an advocate of infant baptism, is at least honest in his assessment of the evidence for the practice: “[We are left with no] direct New Testament precept or precedent. . . .no definite ruling can be given in the matter of baptizing or not baptizing infants . . . .parents are not disobeying any clear cut command if they withhold baptism from their children. . . .since no direct mandate of infant baptism exists, no absolute rule of infant baptism should be imposed on a congregation.” [12]

The Politics of Infant Baptism

As with other doctrinal issues, we must remember that politics and not exegesis has often played a major role in church history. [13] This is certainly the case with infant baptism. With the fusion of church and state that developed since Constantine, infant baptism was a key means — a “sacrament” — to guarantee a monolithic, homogenous society.

From the perspective of bishop and magistrate, to question infant baptism was to challenge the very fabric that held society together. This accounts for why such vengeance was directed toward the Anabaptists by both Catholics and Protestants. Baptizing only those who confessed Christ would divide society into followers and non-followers, which “Christian nations” could not allow.

Observe the early statements of Zwingli and Luther:

Zwingli: “Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptize children, for I know it ought not to be done. . . . If however I were to terminate the practice, then I fear that I would lose my prebend [stipend]. . . . if we were to baptize as Christ instituted it then we would not baptize any person until he has reached the years of discretion, for I find it nowhere written that infant baptism is to be practiced.”

Luther: “There is not sufficient evidence from Scripture that one might justify the introduction of infant baptism at the time of the early Christians after the apostolic period. . . . But so much is evident, that no one may venture with a good conscience to reject or abandon infant baptism, which has for so long a time been practiced.” [14]

What About the Mode of Baptism?

Don Fortner dogmatically asserts: “How is baptism to be performed? If men were not prejudiced by human opinion and religious tradition this question would be redundant. The word “baptize” translated always means to immerse. Immersion is not a mode of baptism. Immersion is baptism, without it there is no baptism.” [15]

However, as we studied baptism as a church, it became our conviction that baptism could not be equated with immersion. One key example will suffice. In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist stated to the Pharisees, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In Acts 1:5, Jesus said, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days [Pentecost] you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Interpreting what occurred on the Day of Pentecost, Peter said, “. . . .exalted to God*s right hand, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:33)

When Cornelius* household was given the gift of the Spirit, the Jewish believers with Peter were astounded that “the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). Immediately after the Spirit was poured out, Peter reasoned “can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:47)

In recounting this incident, Peter again connects Acts 1:5 (and Matthew 3:11) with the pouring out of the Spirit: “. . . .then I remembered what the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 11:16)

We have here clear evidence that the “pouring out” of the Spirit was a “baptism.” The baptism of the Spirit was a “pouring out,” not an immersion. Baptism with water is connected in Acts 10:47-48 with the “gift of the Spirit.” Since the spiritual baptism was a pouring out, does this in any way inform the mode of water baptism?

As a church, we felt that the New Testament is clear on who should be baptized (disciples), and that the Scriptural evidence leans toward pouring as a mode, although immersion is certainly not improper. The New Testament places far more weight on the who, rather than the how of baptism.

Notes for “Hermeneutics of Baptism”

[1] “Repentance, Baptism, and the Gift 0f the Spirit,” Westminster Theological Journal, 13:1, 1950, pp. 1-18.

[2] Quoted by Chantry, “Baptism & Covenant Theology,” p. 2.

[3] Robert Vincent, Reflections, 5/22/79.

[4] B.B. Warfield, quoted by Chantry, p. 2.

[5] Christian Baptism, pp. 2, 71.

[6] The Protestant Review, Dec. 1972, p. 8.

[7] “The Hermeneutics of Baptism,” Geneva Papers, June, 1984.

[8] Raymond Zorn, Westminster Theological Journal, 37:2, 1975, p. 294.

[9] Newsletter, World Pres. Missions, Dec. ‘78.

[10] Robert Vincent, Reflections, 6/19/79.

[11] Systematic Theology, pp. 287, 288.

[12] Children of Promise, Eerdmans, 1979, pp. 105, 107, 109.

[13] Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, p. 87.

[14] Quoted by Leonard Verduin, The Reformers & Their Stepchildren, pp. 198, 199, 204.

[15] 13th Street Baptist Church Bulletin, March, 1980.


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