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Baptism – The Debate


The debate over baptism is who gets baptized, and it comes down to age.  The battle is waged between roughly two camps, the credobaptists and the paedobaptists.*

  • Credobaptists say that baptism must be preceded by a profession of faith by the believer.  This would mean that you must be old enough to understand and declare your faith in Jesus before you are baptized.
  • Paedobaptists believe that parents/guardians can bring their infants forward for baptism into the church.  This would presumably ensure their membership in the body even if they should not live to be old enough to understand and profess.

This is not one of those debates, like the one over evolution, that is a product of modern times.  It’s a debate that reaches well back into church history, exploding to prominence during the Reformation.

I’ll lay my cards on the table before proceeding any further.  I was baptized as an infant.  Although the entirety of my active faith has been spent in credobaptist churches, I have never felt the need to get re-baptized.†  I’ll probably allow any future children of mine to be baptized of their own volition, but I am secure in my belief that paedobaptism is at least as valid as the alternative.

I’ve got a rich tradition behind me.  Aside from the entire (?) history of the Catholic Church, such titans of the Reformation as Martin Luther and John Calvin remained avowed paedobaptists.  Luther went on to argue that paedobaptism was best because the child’s inability to initiate meant that it was all grace without any meddlesome human works.  I’ll grant that this has troublesome implications for a doctrine of free will…

The credos have a strong rational argument about confession, repentance, and rebirth being necessary preconditions for a legitimate baptism.  The … other side points to verses that suggest infant baptism as a practice in the earliest days of the church and to the revelatory authority of Church tradition that stretches back to the Pentecost.

Aside from the first principles, there’s an interesting cultural contrast between the camps with its own implications.‡  The credobaptist tradition tends to see children of the congregation as objects of evangelism, much like a non-believing adult.  The spiritual relationship between parent (and/or Sunday school teacher) and child is a persuasive effort to bring the child to a place of decision where he accepts Christ, is baptized, and enters the church as a proper member.  One of the benefits of this approach is that it keeps the church’s focus on the core truths of the Gospel message.  One of the weaknesses is that it risks turning faith into an emotional experience that a believer may ‘grow out of’ as interests and values and hormones change or that needs to be ‘reaffirmed’ every so often as the believer matures and doubts the validity of prior repentance/conversion/baptism experiences.

The paedobaptist tradition considers the child to be ‘federally holy’ at least until he is old enough to assume cognitive responsibility for his faith.  This thus allows the child to grow up in an atmosphere/assumption of faith that shapes the values and beliefs of the child around those of the kingdom.  The benefit is that faith in general (and baptism in particular) are ‘de-experientalized’ and less vulnerable to revision as the believer grows.  The downside is that these churches, by not having as driven a focus on internal evangelism and preaching the Gospel, are those that are more likely to stray from orthodoxy into liberalism or even apostasy.

Next week, a detour into an internal debate within the credo camp, which I hope will shed some light onto the issue writ large.  After that, I justify my continued confidence in the paedobaptist tradition.  Stay tuned.


* I trust you can handle the rest of this discussion like adults…

† This is a source of ongoing consternation for my wife, a committed credobaptist.  But it’s still a safer conversation for us than dinosaurs!

‡I’m indebted to Kevin Davis of After Existentialism, Light for this contrast.


From → [church], [ritual]

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