Donatist, Anabaptist, and Presbyterian Confusion

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Infant Baptism Among Evangelicals

Baptism fresco on the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter, Via Labicana, Rome, Italy In the classes I’m teaching at a Presbyterian school, the discussions frequently turn to the question of infant baptism. The questions and comments are interesting, to say the least, and sometimes shocking. One pastor described how his church baptizes an adult whom they have already baptized as an infant. Another said that some parents don’t believe in either infant baptism or infant dedication, so the congregation “just prays” for the baby!

Credobaptists (believers’ baptism only, hereafter referred to as Baptists) and paedobaptists (believers’ and infants’ baptism, hereafter referred to as Reformed) differ right from their main presuppositions. Baptists see baptism as a profession and testimony of their own faith before the congregation, while the Reformed see it as a sign and seal of God’s promise to covenant children (Gen. 17:11) and of the washing away of sins of adult believers (Tit. 3:4-6).

For those who don’t understand why Reformed churches practice such a “Roman Catholic tradition” as infant baptism, here’s a summary of Reformed arguments for baptizing infants:

(1) Old Testament circumcision and New Testament water baptism are linked together as they are both visible signs and seals of God’s salvation blessings in the one covenant of grace (Col. 2:11-12). Since the sign of circumcision was applied to all the children of Israelites when they were eight days old, then the sign of water baptism must also be applied to all the infant children of the New Testament church.

Baptists argue, “Infants can’t profess faith.” But Abraham did not wait for Isaac to profess faith in Yahweh; he was circumcised on his eighth day of life. Again they protest, “We don’t know whether this baby will believe or not.” But Ishmael was circumcised when he was 13 years old, and we know later that he did not believe (Gal. 4:28-31). Also, countless Israelites with the sign of circumcision perished in the wilderness under God’s judgment for disobedience (Psa. 95:10-11). And there are many today who have been baptized as adults, but who later reject the faith.

This link with circumcision also precludes the common Baptist practice of re-baptism. Because Baptists regard infant baptism as a person’s testimony of his faith, and an infant is incapable of believing, they view infant baptism as invalid. This is what the 16th century radical Anabaptists (“re-baptizers”) taught. But the Reformers argued that circumcision, the sign of initiation into the Old Testament covenant community, was applied only once on eight-day-old males (indeed, it is medically impossible to be performed more than once on the same male!). In the same way, since baptism is the sign of initiation into the New Testament covenant community, it should only be a one-time rite of passage, not to be applied again and again.

Re-baptism has been around since the 3rd and 4th centuries. Donatus, a 4th century schismatic from Carthage in North Africa, also practiced re-baptism, teaching that baptisms were not valid if they were conferred by pastors who later denied their faith in the face of Roman persecution. Donatists admitted to their membership only those who were willing to be re-baptized. Their sect was condemned as a heresy by the Council of Arles in 314, and later, Augustine disputed against them. The bishop of Hippo argued that baptism is the work of Christ, notwithstanding the spiritual condition of the pastor performing the rite.

Early Christian painting of a baptism in the Saint Calixte Catacomb (ca. 3rd century)Is your child a Samson, a Samuel, a John, or a Jesus?
Being mainly stepchildren of Donatists, Anabaptists, and Arminians rather than heirs of the 16th century Protestant Reformers, most Christian parents today, not understanding what Biblical baptism is, opt to have their children “dedicated” in an infant dedication service. This is so because they don’t believe that an infant child of a believer can already be filled with the Holy Spirit at birth (Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:15) – that a person must be able to exercise his own free will to be saved. They therefore consider their children as unregenerate pagans when they are born, but then, inconsistently, raise them up as if they’re believers, teaching them to pray to God, to read the Bible, and to sing, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” After all, there must be some sort of a relationship between infant children, even if they’re pagans, and the church.

However, contrary to popular belief, infant dedication was not a universal practice, not in the Old Testament, and certainly not in the New Testament. What about Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptizer? In the case of Samson and John, they were “dedicated” (set apart) for special ministries in God’s redemptive plan as “Nazirites”: Samson will save Israel from the Philistines (Jgs. 13:3-5) and John will “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” as Christ’s forerunner (Luke 1:16). Samuel, on the other hand, was consecrated by his mother also as a Nazirite for a lifetime of Temple service (1 Sam. 1:11, 28).

But surely, don’t we have the best example of infant dedication in Jesus, when Mary brought him to the Temple when he was 41 days old (Luke 2:22-24)? No, this was no infant dedication! In the first place, Mary went to the Temple for her ceremonial purification rites following her son’s birth (Exod. 13:2, 12; Lev. 12:3-7). Secondly, Mary was fulfilling God’s command to all Jewish parents to make an offering for all firstborn sons in remembrance of the redemption from death of Israel’s firstborn sons through the blood of the Passover lamb (Exod. 12:11-14, 13:11-15), a foreshadow of what Jesus became to all believers (1 Cor. 5:7).

Thus, Jesus’ “dedication” rite as a model for infant dedication services today raises some baffling issues: Why is the mother’s purification rite not included in the service? Why is there no offering for the redemption of the infant from death? Why are all children in the same family, not just the firstborn son, dedicated? Are those children (like Samson, Samuel, John, and Jesus) being consecrated by God for special, extra-biblical work in His (uncompleted!) redemptive plan? These issues are not intended to make fun of infant dedication, but they are real. They seem to be silly because infant dedication is nowhere taught in the New Testament. And none of these old covenant ceremonial rites are still in force in the new covenant because all the Law has been fulfilled by Christ (Matt. 5:17; Heb. 8:4-6).

Finally, in these four examples, the sign of circumcision was not replaced by the “dedication” service – all four children were previously circumcised on the eighth day; so also today’s “dedication” service does not replace water baptism.

(2) The New Testament pattern is very clear: when the head of the household believed, all the members of the household are baptized. Although the New Testament is silent on infant baptism, the silence is thunderous with numerous examples! It mentions five household (oikos) baptisms (Cornelius’, Acts 10:48; Lydia’s, Acts 16:15; the Philippian jailer’s, Acts 16:31-33; Crispus’, Acts 18:8; and Stephanus’, 1 Cor. 1:16). These five household baptisms are but examples to show us the Biblical pattern of salvation: when the head of household believed, baptism of the whole household followed.

In addition to these baptized households, there are numerous other examples of household salvation: Zacchaeus’, Luke 19:6-10; the official’s, John 4:53; the 3,000 believers on Pentecost Sunday who were told that the promise of salvation was “for you and for your children,” Acts 2:38-39; and Onesiphorus’, 2 Tim. 1:16. Following the Biblical pattern, these thousands of household salvation would have been followed by thousands of household baptisms. How absurd it is to assume that there was not even a single infant or small child in these thousands of households!

This is so because the New Testament household baptism is a continuation of the Old Testament oikos pattern. From Noah (Gen. 7:1; Heb. 11:7), to Abraham (Gen. 18:19), to Jacob (Gen. 47:12), to Israel (Exod. 1:1), and to Rahab (Jos. 6:25), God’s gracious covenant always emphasized household salvation, which included infants.

(3) The witness of church history from the early church to the 16th century Reformation is overwhelmingly in favor of infant baptism. Not a single early church father rejected infant baptism, except Tertullian in the 3rd century. He was not actually against infant baptism, but advocated postponing baptism until much later in life because of his superstitious view that baptism results in the forgiveness of sins. Thus, in his view, the later a person is baptized, the more assurance he has that his future sins will be forgiven. Before rejecting infant baptism as the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, pause for a moment to consider this: by the second century, infant baptism was the universal practice of the church, not just in isolated, corrupted churches! Only in the 16th century did a major sect, the radical heretical Anabaptists, reject infant baptism.

My baby: before a covenant member, now a pagan!?
It should be noted, further, that for the first 1,500 years of church history, no controversy over this issue arose until the Anabaptists came. Picture yourself as a first century Jewish parent who formerly strove to abide by the letter of the Mosaic Law, giving your children the sign of the covenant (circumcision) when they were eight days old. Through the apostles’ preaching, you came to faith in Christ, and you were given the sign of water baptism.

Now, you wanted your children to be baptized, but you were told that infants and young children are not to be baptized. What a shock! Your children were members of the old covenant community! But now they are not members of the new covenant community? Should I treat them then as pagans? Didn’t the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews say the new covenant is better than the old? Isn’t the new covenant more inclusive than the old, even including the Gentiles? Then you hear your other relatives, neighbors, friends – thousands of Jewish parents – having the same questions.

Circumcision as a sign of membership in the covenant community was an extremely important part of the Jewish faith. Why? Because it was God’s command to Abraham, to Moses, and to all their generations, and violation of this commandment incurred the penalty of death (Gen. 17:14)! Since the first converts to the Christian faith were Jews, they wanted even baptized Gentile converts to also be circumcised as a sign of their membership in the covenant community. This great debate in the early church was the main reason why the first Christian council assembled together in Jerusalem (Acts 15). And Paul dealt with the same issue against the Judaizers in the Galatian church (chs. 2, 5, 6), frequently arguing against Gentiles’ circumcision in his other letters (Rom. chs. 2-4, 15:8; 1 Cor. 7:18-19; Eph. 2:11; Phil. 3:3-5; Col. 2:11-13, 3:11; Tit. 1:10).

Why, then, is there no record in the New Testament nor in any other early church writing of a controversy that raged because Jewish parents protested the exclusion of their circumcised infant children from membership in the new covenant? The answer is because the early church continued applying the sign of membership in the covenant community, from circumcision in the Old Testament to baptism in the New Testament, to their infant children.

For further reading:

Clark, R. Scott. “A Contemporary Reformed Defense of Infant Baptism.”
Hyde, Danny. Jesus Loves the Little Children: Why We Baptize Infants. Grandville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2006.
Johnson, Dennis E. “Infant Baptism: How I Changed My Mind.”
Kinneer, Jack D. “Does Baptism Mean Immersion?”


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6 thoughts on “Donatist, Anabaptist, and Presbyterian Confusion”

  1. Pingback: Doctrine Unites! | Baptism of infants by pouring/sprinkling

  2. I’d go even further:

    From all these things it is clear that the denial of infant baptism is no trifling error, but a grievous heresy, in direct opposition to the word of God..which they have fabricated from various errors and blasphemies.

    Heidelberg commentary on Holy Baptism.

  3. I appreciate your good thoughts, Leonard. But before I discuss the relationship between circumcision and baptism, let me reinforce what you said about infant baptism as a “presumptive” doctrine. It’s not explicit in the NT (but prohibition of infant baptism is also not explicit), but the “presumptive” silence is deafening with:

    (1) innumerable household baptisms (the five that are mentioned are only examples); and

    (2) the evidence from early church history – infant baptism was universally practiced within a century after the apostles were gone, without even a hint of controversy. How could all the churches be universally wrong?

    Now, about circumcision and baptism. I agree with you that circumcision is “an issue of the heart, not of the flesh,” but not only in Paul, but also in the Old Testament: “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16); “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts” (Jeremiah 4:4a).

    This is the nature of a sacrament: it is an outward, visible sign and seal of an inward, invisible reality, the thing signified. In the case of water baptism, it is a visible, outward sign and seal of these invisible, inward realities:

    (1) the covenant of grace, including the promise of God and all spiritual blessings associated with it (Genesis 9:12-13; Genesis 17:1-14; Romans 4:11-13); and

    (2) the forgiveness of sins and participation in the life that is in Christ (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4-5; Romans 2:28-29; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4; Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Peter 3:21).

    From your comments, we probably agree up to this point. But hereinafter, we diverge. You concluded, “Colossians 2:11-12 refers to a non-physical circumcision, and derivatively, the baptism compared to it is likewise non-physical in nature.” However, the Reformed believe in sacramental union, while credobaptists (Baptists) do not. This is the connection between circumcision and baptism in those verses that you do not see because of Baptists’ simplistic understanding of Biblical texts.

    One of our pastors, Dr. Kim Riddlebarger, defines a sacramental union as:

    a spiritual bond, effected by God the Holy Spirit, and received by faith, so that by receiving the sign (bread, water, wine), the thing signified is also received (the promises of the covenant, the forgiveness of sins and participation in the resurrection life of Christ).

    He says, furthermore:

    This sacramental union enables us to state that “the close connection between the sign and the thing signified explains the use of what is generally called ‘sacramental language,’ in which the sign is put for the thing signified or vice-versa” [Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 618]. This is found in texts such as Genesis 17:11; Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 5:7; and 1 Corinthians 10:1-4. It is also clearly in view when our Lord calls the bread his body [“this is my body”] and the wine in the cup, his blood [“this is my blood of the covenant”], the blood of the new covenant (cf. Matthew 26:26-28). Those who deny that there is more in view than a mere sign, are forced to insert the words “this symbolizes” my body.

    The sacramental union between the “sign” and “the thing signified” is summarized in many of the Reformed confessions. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1643-46) Chapter 29 Article 5, states:

    The visible elements in this sacrament, when they are properly set apart for the uses ordained by Christ, have such a relationship to Christ crucified that they are sometimes called, truly, but only sacramentally, by the name of the things they represent, namely, the body and blood of Christ. This is true even though in substance and nature they still remain truly and only bread and wine, as they were before.

    Another, the Second Helvetic Confession (Bullinger, 1562-64) Chapter 19, affirms:

    Signs Take the Name of the Thing Signified. And as we learn out of the Word of God that these signs were instituted for another purpose than the usual use, therefore we teach that they now, in their holy use, take upon them the names of things signified, and are no longer called mere water, bread or wine, but also regeneration or the washing of water, and the body and blood of the Lord or symbols and sacraments of the Lord’s body and blood. Not that the symbols are changed into the things signified, or cease to be what they are in their own nature. For otherwise they would not be sacraments. If they were only the thing signified, they would not be signs.

    The Sacramental Union. Therefore the signs acquire the names of things because they are mystical signs of sacred things, and because the signs and the things signified are sacramentally joined together; joined together, I say, or united by a mystical signification, and by the purpose or will of him who instituted the sacraments. For the water, bread, and wine are not common, but holy signs. And he that instituted water in baptism did not institute it with the will and intention that the faithful should only be sprinkled by the water of baptism; and he who commanded the bread to be eaten and the wine to be drunk in the supper did not want the faithful to receive only bread and wine without any mystery as they eat bread in their homes; but that they should spiritually partake of the things signified, and by faith be truly cleansed from their sins, and partake of Christ.

    Hopefully, this clarifies even more the paedobaptistic position, which is caricatured and misunderstood by many Baptists. Thus, it’s not that “easy to shoot holes into the arguments for paedobaptism.” It would seem simple because of your simplistic understanding. The burden of proof lies on Baptists. Otherwise, I would have gone over to your camp, since I was Baptistic for many years, like some of my Westminster Seminary professors, before I understood what infant baptism was all about. (I was baptized as an infant in a Presbyterian church, but allowed myself to be re-baptized as an adult, and by immersion too!)

  4. Honestly, it is easy to shoot holes into the arguments for paedobaptism. There is, after all, no explicit (only presumptive) example of infants being baptized in the whole New Testament. In contrast, there are several undisputable examples of believers who definitely have the capacity to comprehend the facts about the gospel and therefore respond to it.

    Actually, the whole “dedication” rite is not something that we Baptists consider to be a “must,” since one can simply pray and thank God for the infant entrusted to the care of believing parents and commit to raise up the baby in the light of God’s Word. Colossians 2:11-12 does make a parallelism between baptism and circumcision but one must note certain things.

    Let us look at the text:

    In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12, ESV)

    First, the circumcision referred to here was made “without hands.” This is hardly the rite of physical circumcision, which involves the cutting of the foreskin of the male Jew when he is eight days old. Rather, it points to what this rite symbolizes: the inclusion of the person into the covenant community.

    Second, this circumcision is something which Paul says happened to Christians (and not Jews), so we do not see any pointing back to the Jewish infant circumcision in the text. This circumcision of the heart happened when the person was regenerated:

    And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14, ESV)

    Third, the rite of circumcision does not guarantee that the circumcised person is indeed part of the community in the whole (including spiritual) sense:

    For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (Romans 2:28-29, ESV)

    In contrast, baptism does demonstrate symbolically this reality. The book of Acts shows many examples where the call to repentance (and its other side, belief in Jesus Christ) is responded to by the act of baptism. Those who believed were baptized, according to Acts.

    Fourth, twice now do we see the “real” circumcision that matters” is an issue of the heart, not of the flesh. This is not an original Pauline terminology, but actually refers back to the call of Jeremiah to Israel:

    Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire,and burn with none to quench it because of the evil of your deeds. (Jeremiah 4:4)

    The language here definitely shows a strong call for repentance and transformation. THIS is the “circumcision” that, I believe, is paralleled with baptism in Colossians 2:11-12; one that is not performed outwardly but inwardly. Even the baptism referred in the epistle to Collose is not the rite of water baptism but the identification of the believer with the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

    This same identification is noted in Romans 6:3-4, which says:

    Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

    What is my point? Colossians 2:11-12 refers to a non-physical circumcision, and derivatively, the baptism compared to it is likewise non-physical in nature. Therefore, we cannot say that since Jews circumcised infants, we then should baptize infants. It does not follow.


    Leonard your Baptist friend

    PS. I am interested how Reformed Baptists, who also hold to Covenant Theology, answer this.

  5. Go ye therefore into all the world, etc. He that BELIEVE and is baptized shall be saved. A believer is to be baptized. Parents that are believers cannot determine the believing state of their babies that are not mature enough to express their beliefs.

    Revelation from God about a child’s salvation will be required to proceed with infant baptisms. Abraham had specific revelation about circumcision which included instructions to circumcise all the males under his control regardless of their faith or lack of faith in God. It is not the same as baptism.

    When we try to equate some of the shadow as being exactly as the real we get into trouble.

    Believers have a spiritual circumcision and that kind of circumcision does not apply to everyone because they are born in a believer’s family.

    It is the believer’s act of baptism that will be accepted before God not another believer’s act in his or her place.

    As for children of believers living a way of life that is required of believers, it should not be a strange thing. If you take away the knowledge of God, which is an important key of the kingdom of God, from anyone, you are hindering them from hearing faith in God, which is another key of the kingdom of God. Little babies must grow up and hear faith which comes by hearing the word of God. If parents try to bypass this with infant baptisms they are adding to grace their own works for the salvation of their babies.

    I hope these words will be given your prayerful consideration.

    The Lord bless and keep you.

    This article has blessed me by showing me some things that I did not know. I have not researched scriptures for my answers but have relied on what I know in my heart and mind. It may be a wise thing to check out what I say here for yourself in the Holy Bible.

    Thanks for writing.

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