In our previous article we were discussing the grounds which Tertullian advanced in support of his opposition to the baptism of infants. And we concluded the article by calling attention to the second ground for his rejection of this practice, namely that an innocent child needed no cleansing from sin. A third ground advanced by Tertullian concerns the consequent responsibility to the sponsors. “For,” we hear him say, “why is it necessary—if (baptism itself) is not so necessary—that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves by reason of mortality may fail to fulfill their promises and may be disappointed by the development of an evil dispositionin those for whom they stood?” We have no difficulty understanding the thrust of this argument. At the time of the administration of the sacrament of baptism we certainly take it upon ourselves, do we not, to instruct the child in all the knowledge of the Lord. Besides, do we not administer to the child the water of baptism which is a sign and seal of the righteousness which is by faith? But, does not this sacrament impose upon us a tremendous responsibility, yea a responsibility whose fulfillment we cannot guarantee? The parents themselves are mortal, subject to death. They may die and therefore not be able to fulfill their baptismal pledge. Besides, the possibility also exists of the development of an evil disposition in those “for whom they had stood.” In other words, the children themselves may resent the instruction given them and thereby render vain all our efforts to bring them up in the fear of the Lord. Of course, there is one fundamental element which Tertullian fails to see in this connection. When the sacrament of baptism is administered, the sacrament is not administered to the child merely by the parent but also by the Church, and it is indeed the Church which answers the baptismal questions and assumes responsibility as well as the actual parents of the child. This means, of course, that if the parent or parents should die, the Church would, of course, assume full responsibility for the instruction of the baptized child. For the rest, however, this argument of Tertullian is clear. Of course, this does not mean that we endorse this reasoning of the learned Church Father. We will return to this in due time.
The fifth ground which Tertullian advances for his opposition to the administration of baptism of infants consists of the necessity of previous instruction. He calls attention, in the passage we quoted from his writings, to the text: “Forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of God.” However, when commenting upon this Scripture he writes: “Let them ‘come’, then, while they are growing up; let them ‘come’ while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come: let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. More caution will be exercised in worldly matters: so that one who is not trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ‘ask’ for salvation, that you may seem (at least,) to have given ‘to him that asketh’. ” This fifth and final ground which is advanced by the eminent Church Father concerns the great responsibility involved in baptism for the recipient of the sacrament. In fact, for this last-mentioned reason he recommends even to grown-up persons (single persons, widows, etc.) to delay baptism until they are either married or have formed the firm resolution to lead a single life. This last observation of Tertullian, apart from its reference to infant baptism, is indeed worthy of note also for our present day. He advocates that baptism be deferred in connection with the unwedded. This contains surely for us the timely suggestion that young people defer their marriage until they have made confession of faith. It lies in the nature of the case that young people should marry in the cord and be spiritually able to assume all the spiritual obligations connected with married life. Tertullian, however, advises such to defer their baptism. And this advice is surely based upon the tremendous responsibility involved for the recipient of baptism. The sacrament certainly lays upon its recipient the calling to walk as having died and risen again in and with Christ Jesus. However, to receive this sacrament one must be able to fulfill these spiritual obligations.
This analysis and criticism of infant baptism by Tertullian is worthy of our attention. The similarity between his objections to the baptism of infants and the arguments of the Baptists today is indeed striking. In the first place, Tertullian’s appeal to holy writ is surely weak. His comments on the text: “Forbid them not to come unto me,” are surely far-fetched. The Savior does not say that these little, ones must not be forbidden to come unto Him after they have grown up and have learned to know the Christ, but that they, as little ones, must not be forbidden to come unto Him. Moreover, his comments on Luke 6:30 (“Give to every man that asketh of them; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again”) are surely vague and indecisive. Does this mean, for example, that my asking of the Lord is a condition or prerequisite for the Lord’s blessing of me? If so, I would never be blessed and no infant could possibly be saved. Besides, what about the prayers of the Church which are addressed to the living God in behalf of our children (according to election) upon the basis of that Scripture which assures us that the promise belongs to us and to our children? Is it possible that these prayers of the Church must be included in Luke 6:30 and Matt. 7:7? This same vagueness and indecisiveness also applies to the writer’s comments on Matt. 7:6: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” It must be quite evident that the Savior, speaking here of dogs and swine, refers to those who actually trample the things of God’s word and covenant underfoot. This text hardly refers to little infants. Besides, if the learned church father would conclude from this passage that baptism must not be administered to the infants, why did the Lord command in the Old Dispensation that circumcision be administered to all the male infants who were born in the sphere of the covenant?
However, the striking feature of Tertullian’s objection to infant baptism is its striking resemblance to the rejection of the baptism of infants by the Baptists of today. I am sure that we are all familiar with a fundamental objection of the Baptists against the administration of the sacrament to the seed of the Church. This fundamental objection can be briefly summarized as follows: the Baptist does not want the sacrament to lie. He will remind you of the Scripture that baptism is a sign and seal of the righteousness which is, by faith, and that whosoever believeth and is baptized (hence, baptism must follow upon the act of believing) shall be saved. This accounts for his refusal to baptize infants. Baptizing infants, the inevitable result will be that we will also baptize children who, when they come to years of discretion, will reveal themselves as profane and as haters of the Lord and of His covenant. It is not our purpose at this time to enter into a refutation of this argument of the Baptists, except to remark that his argument against infant baptism must be charged against the Lord when, in the Old Dispensation, He commanded all the male sons born within the sphere of the covenant to be circumcised. Circumcision was surely also a sign and seal of the righteousness which is by faith. Is this not principally the same objection which is lodged by Tertullian against the baptism of infants? He writes, does he not, that the children must come to Jesus while they are growing up and learning that they must become Christians, having become able to know the Christ. Moreover, he speaks of the danger in which the sponsors may involve themselves when they will find themselves unable to fulfill their baptismal pledge, either because of their own mortality or because of the children who will refuse to submit to their instruction. This is principally the same objection as that which is voiced by the Baptist. Tertullian declares that, baptizing infants, the danger may develop that parents will fall short of their baptismal pledge, either because of their own mortality or the refusal of the baptized to submit to their instruction. The implication is, of course, that the sacrament of baptism, as administered to these erring children, will fall short of its objective. Hence, to prevent his misfortune, it is the wiser and safer policy to wait with the administration of the sacrament until the person has revealed himself. This is also the thrust of what the learned writer records concerning Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The chamberlain had been prepared by the Spirit and was baptized only when he revealed his faith. Moreover, he writes that whereas caution is exercised with respect to worldly affairs, why should it not also be exercised in connection with Divine and spiritual matters? Hence, let them, we read, “know how to ask for salvation, that you may seem (at least) to have given to him that asketh.” In other words, Tertullian advocates that the sacrament of baptism be administered only to those who express their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in order that the parents may not fall into the danger of being unable to fulfill their baptismal vow or be disappointed because of the development of an evil disposition on the part of those who have been baptized. Then the administration of the sacrament will have been true and it will not have been administered in vain.
This reasoning of Tertullian is, we understand, an error. Apart from his weak attempt to engage the support of holy writ, this eminent writer should have realized that his argumentation suffers shipwreck upon the rock of God’s command in the Old Dispensation. It is simply a fact that the Lord commanded that all the male children could be circumcised the eighth day. And we know that the rite of circumcision had the same meaning as the sacrament of baptism. Hence, Tertullian argues, therefore, against the Old Testament institution. Secondly, however, Tertullian overlooks and completely fails to reckon with a very important truth: Reprobation. This failure, by the way, characterizes also the Synodicals and the Liberated of the present day. The Synodicals, although they would limit the covenant to the elect and declare that the promise is only for them, nevertheless would declare something for all the children of believers and therefore declare that the sacrament of baptism must be administered upon the ground of presumptive regeneration. The Liberated, on the other hand, declare that all the children are equally in the covenant, seek the essence of the covenant in the promise, and advocate that all the children are recipients of the promise in an equal sense of the word. Baptism is the sign and seal of the promise of God to and for every baptized child. And the Baptist would limit the administration of the sacrament only to believers. But, in all these conceptions, the truth is overlooked and ignored that what is true of the preaching of the word applies equally to the administration of the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of baptism never lies and this for the simple reason that the promise is intended for and given only to the elect. The purpose of this sacrament is two-fold, even as the purpose of the preaching of the word is two-fold: it is a savor of life unto life but also of death unto death. If, then, the result of our instruction is the hardening of some, we must remember that, in that case, our instruction did not fall short of its objective, but served the sovereign will and good pleasure of the Lord whose purposes never fail.