Fundamentalists often criticize the
Catholic Church’s practice of baptizing infants. According to them,
baptism is for adults and older children, because it is to be
administered only after one has undergone a "born again" experience—that
is, after one has "accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and
Savior." At the instant of acceptance, when he is "born again," the
adult becomes a Christian, and his salvation is assured forever. Baptism
follows, though it has no actual salvific value. In fact, one who dies
before being baptized, but after "being saved," goes to heaven anyway.
As Fundamentalists see it, baptism is not a sacrament (in the true sense
of the word), but an ordinance. It does not in any way convey the grace
it symbolizes; rather, it is merely a public manifestation of the
person’s conversion. Since only an adult or older child can be
converted, baptism is inappropriate for infants or for children who have
not yet reached the age of reason (generally considered to be age
seven). Most Fundamentalists say that during the years before they reach
the age of reason infants and young children are automatically saved.
Only once a person reaches the age of reason does he need to "accept
Jesus" in order to reach heaven.
Since the New Testament era, the Catholic Church has always understood
baptism differently, teaching that it is a sacrament which accomplishes
several things, the first of which is the remission of sin, both
original sin and actual sin—only original sin in the case of infants and
young children, since they are incapable of actual sin; and both
original and actual sin in the case of older persons.
Peter explained what happens at baptism when he said, "Repent, and be
baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the
forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy
Spirit" (Acts 2:38). But he did not restrict this teaching to adults. He
added, "For the promise is to you and to your children and to all
that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him" (2:39).
We also read: "Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on
his name" (Acts 22:16). These commands are universal, not restricted to
adults. Further, these commands make clear the necessary connection
between baptism and salvation, a
connection explicitly stated in 1 Peter 3:21: "Baptism . . . now saves
you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for
a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Christ Calls All to Baptism
Although Fundamentalists are the most recent critics of infant baptism,
opposition to infant baptism is not a new phenomenon. In the Middle
Ages, some groups developed that rejected infant baptism, e.g., the
Waldenses and Catharists. Later, the Anabaptists ("re-baptizers") echoed
them, claiming that infants are incapable of being baptized validly. But
the historic Christian Church has always held that Christ’s law applies
to infants as well as adults, for Jesus said that no one can enter
heaven unless he has been born again of water and the Holy Spirit (John
3:5). His words can be taken to apply to anyone capable of belonging to
his kingdom. He asserted such even for children: "Let the children come
to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of
heaven" (Matt. 19:14).
More detail is given in Luke’s account of this event, which reads: "Now
they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and
when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to
him, saying, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for
to such belongs the kingdom of God’" (Luke 18:15–16).
Now Fundamentalists say this event does not apply to young children or
infants since it implies the children to which Christ was referring were
able to approach him on their own. (Older translations have, "Suffer the
little children to come unto me," which seems to suggest they could do
so under their own power.) Fundamentalists conclude the passage refers
only to children old enough to walk, and, presumably, capable of
sinning. But the text in Luke 18:15 says, "Now they were bringing even
infants to him" (Greek, Prosepheron de auto kai ta brepha).
The Greek word brepha means "infants"—children who are quite
unable to approach Christ on their own and who could not possibly make a
decision to "accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior." And that
is precisely the problem. Fundamentalists refuse to permit the baptism
of infants and young children, because they are not yet capable of
making such a conscious act. But notice what Jesus said: "to such as
these [referring to the infants and children who had been brought to him
by their mothers] belongs the kingdom of heaven." The Lord did not
require them to make a conscious decision. He says that they are
precisely the kind of people who can come to him and receive the
kingdom. So on what basis, Fundamentalists should be asked, can infants
and young children be excluded from the sacrament of baptism? If Jesus
said "let them come unto me," who are we to say "no," and withhold
baptism from them?
In Place of Circumcision
Furthermore, Paul notes that baptism has replaced circumcision (Col.
2:11–12). In that passage, he refers to baptism as "the circumcision of
Christ" and "the circumcision made without hands." Of course, usually
only infants were circumcised under the Old Law; circumcision of adults
was rare, since there were few converts to Judaism. If Paul meant to
exclude infants, he would not have chosen circumcision as a parallel for
This comparison between who could receive baptism and circumcision is an
appropriate one. In the Old Testament, if a man wanted to become a Jew,
he had to believe in the God of Israel and be circumcised. In the New
Testament, if one wants to become a Christian, one must believe in God
and Jesus and be baptized. In the Old Testament, those born into Jewish
households could be circumcised in anticipation of the Jewish faith in
which they would be raised. Thus in the New Testament, those born in
Christian households can be baptized in anticipation of the Christian
faith in which they will be raised. The pattern is the same: If one is
an adult, one must have faith before receiving the rite of membership;
if one is a child too young to have faith, one may be given the rite of
membership in the knowledge that one will be raised in the faith. This
is the basis of Paul’s reference to baptism as "the circumcision of
Christ"—that is, the Christian equivalent of circumcision.
Were Only Adults Baptized?
Fundamentalists are reluctant to admit that the Bible nowhere says
baptism is to be restricted to adults, but when pressed, they will. They
just conclude that is what it should be taken as meaning, even if the
text does not explicitly support such a view. Naturally enough, the
people whose baptisms we read about in Scripture (and few are
individually identified) are adults, because they were converted as
adults. This makes sense, because Christianity was just beginning—there
were no "cradle Christians," people brought up from childhood in
Even in the books of the New Testament that were written later in the
first century, during the time when children were raised in the first
Christian homes, we never—not even once—find an example of a child
raised in a Christian home who is baptized only upon making a "decision
for Christ." Rather, it is always assumed that the children of Christian
homes are already Christians, that they have already been "baptized into
Christ" (Rom. 6:3). If infant baptism were not the rule, then we should
have references to the children of Christian parents joining the Church
only after they had come to the age of reason, and there are no such
records in the Bible.
Specific Biblical References?
But, one might ask, does the Bible ever say that infants or young
children can be baptized? The indications are clear. In the New
Testament we read that Lydia was converted by Paul’s preaching and that
"She was baptized, with her household" (Acts 16:15). The Philippian
jailer whom Paul and Silas had converted to the faith was baptized that
night along with his household. We are told that "the same hour of the
night . . . he was baptized, with all his family" (Acts 16:33). And in
his greetings to the Corinthians, Paul recalled that, "I did baptize
also the household of Stephanas" (1 Cor. 1:16).
In all these cases, whole households or families were baptized. This
means more than just the spouse; the children too were included. If the
text of Acts referred simply to the Philippian jailer and his wife, then
we would read that "he and his wife were baptized," but we do not. Thus
his children must have been baptized as well. The same applies to the
other cases of household baptism in Scripture.
Granted, we do not know the exact age of the children; they may have
been past the age of reason, rather than infants. Then again, they could
have been babes in arms. More probably, there were both younger and
older children. Certainly there were children younger than the age of
reason in some of the households that were baptized, especially if one
considers that society at this time had no reliable form of birth
control. Furthermore, given the New Testament pattern of household
baptism, if there were to be exceptions to this rule (such as infants),
they would be explicit.
Catholics From the First
The present Catholic attitude accords perfectly with early Christian
practices. Origen, for instance, wrote in the third century that
"according to the usage of the Church, baptism is given even to infants"
(Holilies on Leviticus, 8:3:11 [A.D. 244]). The Council of
Carthage, in 253, condemned the opinion that baptism should be withheld
from infants until the eighth day after birth. Later, Augustine taught,
"The custom of Mother Church in baptizing infants is certainly not to be
scorned . . . nor is it to be believed that its tradition is anything
except apostolic" (Literal Interpretation of Genesis 10:23:39
No Cry of "Invention!"
None of the Fathers or councils of the Church was claiming that the
practice was contrary to Scripture or tradition. They agreed that the
practice of baptizing infants was the customary and appropriate practice
since the days of the early Church; the only uncertainty seemed to be
when—exactly—an infant should be baptized. Further evidence that infant
baptism was the accepted practice in the early Church is the fact that
if infant baptism had been opposed to the religious practices of the
first believers, why do we have no record of early Christian writers
But Fundamentalists try to ignore the historical writings from the early
Church which clearly indicate the legitimacy of infant baptism. They
attempt to sidestep appeals to history by saying baptism requires faith
and, since children are incapable of having faith, they cannot be
baptized. It is true that Christ prescribed instruction and actual faith
for adult converts (Matt. 28:19–20), but his general law on the
necessity of baptism (John 3:5) puts no restriction on the subjects of
baptism. Although infants are included in the law he establishes,
requirements of that law that are impossible to meet because of their
age are not applicable to them. They cannot be expected to be instructed
and have faith when they are incapable of receiving instruction or
manifesting faith. The same was true of circumcision; faith in the Lord
was necessary for an adult convert to receive it, but it was not
necessary for the children of believers.
Furthermore, the Bible never says, "Faith in Christ is necessary for
salvation except for infants"; it simply says, "Faith in Christ is
necessary for salvation." Yet Fundamentalists must admit there is an
exception for infants unless they wish to condemn instantaneously all
infants to hell. Therefore, the Fundamentalist himself makes an
exception for infants regarding the necessity of faith for salvation. He
can thus scarcely criticize the Catholic for making the exact same
exception for baptism, especially if, as Catholics believe, baptism is
an instrument of salvation.
It becomes apparent, then, that the Fundamentalist position on infant
baptism is not really a consequence of the Bible’s strictures, but of
the demands of Fundamentalism’s idea of salvation. In reality, the Bible
indicates that infants are to be baptized, that they too are meant to
inherit the kingdom of heaven. Further, the witness of the earliest
Christian practices and writings must once and for all silence those who
criticize the Catholic Church’s teaching on infant baptism. The Catholic
Church is merely continuing the tradition established by the first
Christians, who heeded the words of Christ: "Let the children come to
me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God"
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004
“Infant Baptism” (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2004)