I am currently studying for my ordination exams in ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. It’s a relatively new movement of Presbyterians, most of whom left PC(USA) due to latter denomination’s increasing leftward drift, bureaucracy, and in-fighting. I decided to pursue ordination with ECO because I found it to be a good fit for where I am theologically. It’s orthodox and evangelical, but not fundamentalist by any stretch. It welcomes thoughtful theology and celebrates the life of the mind. It is Reformed in its theology, yet allows for greater personal flexibility on how one affirms certain doctrines compared to other evangelical Presbyterian denominations.
One of the major things I have had to think through as I made the decision to pursue ordination as a Presbyterian is what I think about infant baptism. I grew up Baptist, which historically emerged as a movement within the broader Protestant Reformation in opposition to the practice of infant baptism. In the Baptist theology of baptism, only those who have reached the “age of accountability” and who have made a confession of faith are to be baptized by full immersion in water. The denomination I am pursuing ordination in, as part of the Reformed tradition, practices infant baptism and does so by sprinkling. This is a major shift in church practice from my Baptist heritage.
I want to explain why I have come to accept the Reformed position on infant baptism that my denomination holds. It should also be said that this is still a position that I hold very open-handedly. I do not say infants must be baptized, and I am still very sympathetic to the arguments against it (my theological hero, Karl Barth, argued against infant baptism and he was a Swiss Reformed pastor, after all). The position I have adopted is simply that infant baptism is a valid form of the sacrament of baptism.
When it comes to baptism, Baptists and Reformed people have two very different ideas about what is going on. The Reformed position is also very different from what Catholics believe is going on in the baptism of an infant, which from my experience, most Baptists do no distinguish between. Here is how these three streams understand what is going on in baptism:
Baptists Baptism is an free act that a believer who has reached the age of accountability and made a profession of faith engages in to symbolically show the congregation that he or she has put faith in Christ. The act represents the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and the believers symbolic death to sin and resurrection to a new way of life. The emphasis here is on the believer’s free declaration of his or her faith and the symbolism of the event. Baptism is regarded as an ordinance of the church, not a sacrament. The late Baptist theologian, Stanley Grenz defines ordinances as “signs of obedience” and notes that the “rites are basically human, and not divine acts” (Theology for the Community of God, 514).
Catholics Baptism represents the symbolic death and resurrection to new life of the Christian, but it is more than just a symbolic act of obedience. Something spiritual actually occurs in the act, hence the Catechism says baptism is, “the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit… and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.” For Catholics, baptism is the sacrament by which the stain of original sin is washed away, and for that reason, infants are also in need of baptism.
Reformed Reformed theology believes that baptism is a sacrament, which the Heidelberg Catechism defines as, “visible, holy signs and seals instituted by God in order that by their use he may the more fully disclose and seal to us the promise of the gospel, namely, that because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross he graciously grants us the forgiveness of sins and eternal life” (4.066). Reformed theology is careful to hold the importance of the physical action in tension with what God does by grace through faith, alone. The water alone does nothing to wash away sins, but is a sign and seal that Christ’s sacrifice has done all the necessary work. Infants are baptized, not because baptism washes away original sin, but because infants and children are included in the new covenant by grace. Because God’s grace calls all of us when we are incapable of turning to God of our own free will, baptism is administered to them. Just as circumcision in the Old Testament was done to infant boys as a sign of the covenant, baptism is a similar seal of the covenant.
I think most people with a Baptist theology of baptism aren’t aware of the technical distinctions between the Reformed practice of baptism and the Catholic one. The Reformed churches practice infant baptism without believing that the administration of the sacrament itself keeps an infant out of Hell or Purgatory (which Reformed folks don’t believe in). The Reformed view sees the practice as a sign and seal that is practiced in hope that God has called the child to be among the elect. It doesn’t wash away original sin, because only the death and resurrection of Christ can do that. The Catholic and Reformed practices of infant baptism are done for very different reasons.
The practice of infant baptism goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. While the Bible nowhere explicitly says infants were baptized, it also does not say they weren’t. Many post-biblical church theologians mention the baptism of infants in their writings, and while there was some diversity of opinion on its practice, it appears that it was more common than not. The objections to infant baptism did not arise until the 1600s when some factions of the Reformation sought to further purge their movements of anything that was not explicitly Biblically sanctioned. The followers of reformers such as Luther and Calvin preserved the historic practice, though the theology behind it was refined to be more in line with their understanding of Scripture and salvation by grace. The Anglican Church also retained this practice.
My understanding of both the theology behind the Reformed practice of infant baptism and its historical precedent in the church has brought me to the conclusion that it is a completely valid form of baptism. Again, I hold this position with an open hand; I regard it as an area of secondary level importance in the Christian life. The broadly Reformed perspective gives us space to do this, and I’m grateful for that.