Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Infant Baptism III: Why Wesleyans/Methodists Baptize Infants

In this post I do not intend to list all of the reasons why those of us in the Methodist tradition baptize infants. What I intend to do is briefly rehearse four of the reasons John Wesley gave. I find each of these to be strong arguments, but combined, I think them irrefutable arguments for infant Baptism (though I'm sure that my Baptist brothers and sister would disagree).

Prior to looking at these arguments, I want to make it clear that the Church of England affirmed the practice of infant baptism in its Articles of Religion, as well as in its rituals. So, too, Wesley not only followed the practice (having, of course, experienced it for himself in infancy), but passed the practice on to American Methodism through his Articles of Religion and the rituals of The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. The Church of the Nazarene, from its beginning, likewise retained the practice in its Articles of Faith and rituals as found in the Manual (our Book of Discipline).

In his "Treatise on Baptism," Wesley sets forth his reasons for retaining the catholic (i.e., universal) Christian practice of baptizing infants of Christian parents. For a thorough understanding of Wesley's thoughts on the matter, I commend his "Treatise" as found in the Jackson Edition of Wesley's Works vol. 10:188f. (Unless I've overlooked it, the Bicentennial/Oxford edition of the Works has not yet published a volume containing this "Treatise.")

The first compelling argument focuses on the covenant of God and the God given sign of the covenant. - It is clear from the Old Testament that the mark of the covenant was circumcision. All of the requirements of the Abrahamic covenant would seem to imply that infant children would be incapable of entering such a covenant. And yet, it is quite clear from Deut. 29:10-12 that "little ones" entered into covenant with God. Further, the mark of the covenant, viz., circumcision, was performed when the infant was only eight days old. Thus, it is clear that infant children of faithful Jews entered into the covenant with God through circumcision.

St. Paul identifies circumcision (the mark of the "old" covenant) and Baptism (the mark of the "new" covenant) in Col. 2:11-12. Baptism is now the sacrament of initiation into the covenant of God through Christ. Thus, there is in Scripture a continuity within the covenant before and after Christ, but through Christ, circumcision is replaced by Baptism. Wesley concludes "Infants are capable of entering into covenant with God. As they always were, so they still are, under the evangelical covenant. Therefore, they have a right to baptism, which is now the entering seal thereof" (10:195). - The continuity between the covenant mark of circumcision and Baptism is a strong argument for baptizing infant children of Christian parents.

The next argument I find compelling looks to Matthew 19:13-14 and Luke 18:15. There we see infant children being brought to Jesus. When the disciples tried to stop this from happening, Jesus rebuked His disciples. Jesus goes on to declare "it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." In fact, Jesus tells us "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." Thus, "infants are capable of coming to Christ [and ] of admission into the Church . . ." (10:195). - If Jesus makes the point that the kingdom belongs (uniquely) to these young children, and that we must enter the kingdom like them, then surely they should bear the kingdom mark in Baptism. Wesley concludes that infant children ought to be brought to Christ and admitted to the Church through the initiatory sacrament of Baptism.

The third and fourth compelling arguments focus on the tradition of the ancient Church. - Wesley argues that if the apostles baptized infants, then we must do the same. This proposal holds utmost strength, for me. - The problem is the New Testament does not give explicit proof that the apostles did baptize infants. However, Wesley is aware that the Jews baptized all infant children of proselytes. Since this was the practice, since Jesus and the apostles knew this practice, and since Jesus did not instruct the disciples otherwise (in addition to Jesus' clear teachings cited above), it seems very likely that the apostles would have baptized infant children of Christian converts. Further, the Scripture does record the instances of entire households being baptized. This is a term that would include any infants of that household. Finally, Wesley points to the words of St. Peter which, upon instructing the people to be baptized, declares "For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away . . ." (Acts 2:39 NRSV italics mine).

As an extension of the previous argument, Wesley's final compelling argument turns to the practice of the catholic (i.e., universal) Church. He argues that if the Baptism of infants was "the general practice of the Christian Church in all places and in all ages, then this must have been the practice of the Apostles, and, consequently, the mind of Christ" (10:197). Wesley goes on to list the Church Fathers as witnesses to the Church's practice of infant Baptism in all places and all times. Further he cites those Fathers who explicitly affirm that the practice was handed down by the holy apostles, themselves. And the Church has continued to baptize infant children of Christian parents to this day. (For more on this point, cf., my previous post.)

As I've stated, each of these arguments provide a strong rational for the practice of infant Baptism, but, when combined, they seem to me to be irrefutable. There are, undoubtedly, other arguments employed by Wesleyan/Methodist Christians for baptizing our children, but these four I find more than sufficient to settle the question.

In my next post in this series, I will turn to the question of what I believe is going on in the baptism of our infant children.


Pastor Steven said...


Even with the strong support for infant baptism in the Wesleyan tradition. Many lay people as well as pastors in the CotN are not in support of baptizing infants. I wish that more people in the CotN saw infants baptism through the eyes of the church as it has been practiced for over 2000 years. I have been sharing with our church some of the very reason for infant baptism that you have here.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor steven

Brannon Hancock said...

Great post, Todd - I think your approach here is a good one: let's look at the current practice in the COTN; then let's look at Wesley and get on the same page about what we receive from our heritage; then let's have a discussion about why we might return to this practice.

I know this might be outside the parameters of what you set out to do in this post (i.e. just rehearsing Wesley's argument in that one Treatise), but I can't believe you didn't (or that Wesley doesn't) approach the subject of infant baptism in terms of prevenient grace! This, to me, is the clincher (and I apologize if you're saving the subject for another post - I might be jumping the gun here). I mean, prevenient grace is implied in some of the points you summarize: the idea that an infant may still enter into covenant with God (why? not because the infant can understand what this might mean or will it into effect, but because God's grace goes before our ability even to receive it!), and in Jesus' statement about none entering the Kingdom if not as a little child (again, how is this possible? Not because a child can understand or choose or accept the Kingdom according to their own will, but rather, because God welcomes them in prior to their ability to choose!). But you never mention the idea of prevenient grace by name, which makes me wonder if it enters into Wesley's rationale on infant baptism at all (I confess I am not as Wesley-literate as a Anglican-leaning Nazarene theologian perhaps ought to be!).

But as I say, this to me is the most compelling argument - we believe that baptism is not just a sign but a means of grace, and we believe that children, prior to the age of accountability (whatever that might mean), are covered by the prevenient grace of God. I am convinced that a much better pattern than the one we typically practice would be to baptize our babies, catechize our pre-teens (informally during elementary age, in Sunday School/Children's Church, etc, but then more intensely around say 5th/6th/7th grade, and then again, more informally build on this during youth group years), and then have a public ritual of confirmation or "affirmation of baptismal vows" at the end of that more intense catechetical process. This gives the young person, at an age when they can be taught, and understand, and articulate the essentials of the faith, and can publicly confess for themselves that they believe the faith their parents claimed for them in their infant baptism, and that they claim for themselves those vows taken on their behalf by their parents/godparents in their infancy.

It seems to me that one of our problems is a kind of gnosticism or anti-materialism as regards the sacraments - we call them "means of grace" but we don't really put much stock in the fact that God transmutes His grace to us through the material elements of the created order (bread, wine, water, oil, the laying on of human hands, etc). But that is, perhaps, another discussion altogether.

Todd Stepp said...

Brannon, "stay tuned." - I will address what you have brought up in my next post on what I believe is going on in infant baptism.

I will give this preview: I don't expect many (Nazarenes anyway) to agree with me (initially). I will affirm prevenient grace, but only in terms of "grace that goes before." I will step away from what most Nazarene theologians have said (i.e., those who have written about it) and what our ritual currently states, and I will stand firmly with Wesley and the historic Church.

I've probably given away too much, already!



Katharine said...

Shhh...Brannon...don't spoil it!

In the part that you have currently written, I find the baptizing of entire households to be the most compelling argument. But I look forward to hearing more about prevenient grace.

Hmm...Blogger does not recognize the word prevenient...suggests "inconvenient" as a suitable replacement. Blogger must be Calvinist. Ha! I kid.

Brannon Hancock said...

SORRY! I figured I might be jumping the gun.

Todd, don't hesitate to break w/ what most "Nazarene theologians" have written or what our ritual states. Our ritual hardly agrees with itself, with it's own internal theo-logic. Our doctrine appears almost schizophrenic when you read our Article of Faith on Baptism alongside our rituals of Infant Dedication and Infant Baptism!

okay, looking fwd to the next installment. from now on I will resist the urge to "skip ahead" whenever you are doing a "series." :-)

Eric said...


My question does not relate completely to this post, but as a fellow blogger ( I know I never check older posts for comments.

Your discussion of the early fathers, specifically Tertullian, would seem to not only point to infant baptism as a norm in the early church, but also a theology of baptismal regeneration. This would seem to go hand in hand with the creedal statement of the Council of Nicea which affirms "one baptism for the remission (forgiveness) of sins. In the historical statement of the CotN that you cite, we affirm the ecumenical councils of the early church, including the creeds. I wonder your perspective on reconciling Nicea's baptismal regeration with our Article of Faith that squarely denounces it?

Todd Stepp said...


Actually, our Article of Faith doesn't denounce it, as such. The ritual for infant baptism "seems" to denounce it, and I would say that it was intended to denounce it (i.e. baptismal regeneration).

You'll have to stay tuned to get my take on it. (And I do expect to get an article posted early this week, though I'm supposed to have jury duty this week!)

As a side note, perhaps you are aware that Bresee's original article on Baptism, like Wesley's & the CoE before it, did use the full language of the creed. It was (unfortunately, and perhaps short-sightedly) given up at merger time.

I look forward to checking out your blog, as well, Eric.



Pastor Steven said...

Hi! All,

Even though I believe in Infant Baptism, I have wrestled with the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. To say that one is regenerated through baptism is to say that one is not truely born agian unless he or she is baptized and how we interpet the words of Christ when He says in John 3:5. . .unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. I will be interested to hear what Tod believes is happening in Infant Baptism.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Steven

Dave Belcher said...


First of all, thanks so much for these reflections -- the blog itself as well as this series of posts on infant baptism; it is always great to have another voice a part of this growing conversation.

On continutiy with circumcision: absolutely. In fact, there were so many Jewish converts to Christianity who believed infants should not be baptized until the eighth day after their birth, that eventually it had to be settled (council of carthage I believe) that infants could be baptized as soon as they are born (I think this speaks to the perception of the great continuity with circumcision, even if it seems to involve a kind of discontinuous break of sorts). On the other hand, I think we have to be careful not to associate proselyte ritual cleansing baths with "baptism." It is fair to assume that even if something like Baptism was being practiced in the intertestamental period, we don't really have evidence for it.

Though I'm with you on this, I'm at the same time a little leary of following Wesley's deductive reasoning: "He argues that if the Baptism of infants was 'the general practice of the Christian Church in all places and in all ages, then this must have been the practice of the Apostles, and, consequently, the mind of Christ' (10:197)." I think it all hinges on whether it can be agreed upon whether the baptism of infants in fact was "the general practice of the Christian Church in all places and in all ages." Historically, this certainly can't be verified. While evidence of its practice in specific locales can be evidenced throughout various of the Fathers' writings -- even in Tertullian's polemic against the practice -- I don't think it could be called a "general (or universal) practice" prior to the fourth century (and even then it is still talked about as a kind of "emergency" rite -- in fact, Aquinas will still follow Augustine as late as the thirteenth century in describing the practice in this way...and something significant that I think Wesley omits would be the strong link that Augustine makes with this practice to original sin and predestination...and this of course all grows out of the way in which he attempted to utilize, defend, and at times deflect arguments of Cyprian against both the Donatists and the Pelagians).

None of this is to disparage what you are saying at all -- both of my children were baptized as infants! -- but simply to call us to a more careful approach to the often very sticky historical matters (and recall that Wesley had his own sticky mess to deal with pressing him to rhetorically defend this practice -- and rhetoric can often lend toward obscurity).

I think you have offered us a good biblical and theological basis for the practice, nevertheless -- and the ground in history and tradition is certainly there even if it is yet not universal. Well, I've said far too much. Let me shut up. Thanks again for stimulating and necessary conversations on the living faith to which we all of us adhere. Peace.