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Household Baptisms

If you read this blog often, of if you know me (actually, I suppose that the only people who read this blog are those who know me), you know that I have only recently come to believe that God intends for Christians to baptize their infants. Before November 15, the date of my "conversion" on this matter, I was a committed Baptist for about a year. Before that, I wrestled with the arguments for and against infant baptism over the course of another year.

During the two years when I was agnostic on this, and then when I was a Baptist, I largely dismissed the relevancy of the household baptism accounts that we read in the book of Acts. Essentially, I considered that both sides were arguing from silence, because I processed the debate in terms of whether infants were actually present or not. So, I assumed that the paedobaptists were arguing, "Surely there must have been an infant at one of those household baptisms!" And, of course, there is no Bible verse that says, "And then they baptized all of so-and-so's household, which, by the way, included one infant." Because this is an argument from silence (which Baptists are quick to point out), I felt that the evidence from household baptisms was irrelevant at worst and inconclusive at best.

Only after I became a paedobaptist (which happened for different theological reasons) did I come to the realization that I had completely misunderstood the terms of the debate--in fact, I was shocked to find out that I had been dealing with a credobaptist caricature of the paedobaptist arguments from household baptisms. My error was that I did not understand that paedobaptists were arguing from the definition of the word "household."

When Luke wrote the book of Acts, he didn't just pick a word out at random to describe how the early church administered the sacrament of baptism. "Household" is a word with a long history among God's people. Specifically, God had told Abraham to circumcise all those who were born in his "house." Even in the New Testament, there is every reason to believe that one's "household" included that person's children (see 1 Tim. 3:4-5).

If Luke had intended to speak of baptism in a way to exclude the infants of believers, wouldn't it be counterproductive to use the word "household" in reference to those who were baptized? How could that not have caused incredible misunderstanding in the early church, since the natural understanding of "household baptism" would mean baptizing one's infants, since "household circumcision" had always meant circumcising one's infants?

More pertinently, why don't we read anything about such a misunderstanding--and about the apostles' correction of this misunderstanding!--in the book of Acts or in early church history documents?

Even if I don't completely understand the theology behind infant baptism (I'm still working through a lot of issues), I think that the mention of household baptisms in the book of Acts is the "smoking gun" that puts the weight of evidence largely on the side of paedobaptism. Far from being irrelevant or inconclusive, the accounts of household baptisms have become one of the biggest factors in my being a Presbyterian.

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I agree. This has been a strong point in my thinking, too. And it helps to hear you say how the argument sounded to you "before."

Well said and a good word, Jacob. I too have recognized that household baptisms tend to lean toward an infant-baptism understanding.

I'm a little hesitant about your point that, if there is a misunderstanding with the word, it would be in early church documents or in Acts. By this logic, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that Paul, with all of the times that he talked about the covenant in the NT, would link baptism as the explicit new sign of the Covenant?

Maybe not, just a thought. Your argument is otherwise well reasoned.

Good question, and I'll do my best to respond. Also, sorry for not responding sooner, but I knew that this was going to take some time to write clearly. I wanted to do your good question justice.

If you do a word search on the NT, you will actually find that no one anywhere refers to anything explicitly as the "sign of the new covenant." Still, it is abundantly clear that the apostles taught that, under Jesus Christ, Christians were members of a covenant, not just of a particular religious sect. Furthermore, Paul was adamant about the fact that the New Covenant was a continuation of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3).

Also, it is very clear that Paul taught that the meanings behind circumcision and baptism were the same, from Col. 2:11-12. In other words, Paul taught that both circumcision AND baptism were physical realities that pointed to the same spiritual reality (e.g., regeneration). So, God's people have practiced both circumcision and baptism to point to the fact that God has promised to spiritually circumcise and to spiritually baptize his people(which both mean the same thing).

I would argue that this is the essence of a covenant sign--a physical emblem that points to God's spiritual promise (which is the same thing under both the Old and the New Covenant). But, even if you aren't completely convinced of that definition of a covenant sign, let me get back to my original point in the post.

If people were operating under the assumption that Jesus was the fulfillment and the continuation of the Abrahamic covenant, AND if the disciples were advocating baptism while ending circumcision, AND if the spiritual meanings behind physical baptism and physical circumcision were the same, AND if the apostles were baptizing people by "households," certainly someone was going to think that infants should be baptized in the same way that infants were circumcised.

So here is my point: if someone was going to see infant baptism as a logical conclusion of everything that I've discussed above, AND if the correct practice of baptism was actually supposed to be limited to believers (as our Baptist brothers in Christ say), how could there have been no controversy in the early church? Further, getting back to your point, isn't the absence of explicit definition of New Covenant sign extremely strong evidence that there was no need to explicitly define the New Covenant sign?

Let me put it as simply as I can (I think I failed miserably at simplicity in the above):

Premise 1) Because of the sameness of covenant, the extreme similarity of baptism to circumcision, and the definition of household in the descriptions of how baptism was administered in the early church, it is almost completely certain that some of the Jewish people in the early church would baptize their infants.

Premise 2) The early church debated/fought about every controversy that came up (Acts 6:1, 10:9-16, 11:1-18, 15:1-35; Galatians; see also the records of 2000 years of church history).

Premise 3) There is no record whatsoever of any disagreement on whether or not infants should be baptized (that is, on the grounds that only professing believers should be baptized) until the 15th century.

Conclusion: There is no persuasive reason (the absence of an explicit biblical reference is not a persuasive reason) to believe that the early church did not baptize infants.

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