The Protestant Church world, we all know, is divided upon the issue of the baptism of infants. In the churches of Reformed persuasion there is general agreement with respect to the baptism of infants as such, but hardly unanimity with respect to the grounds for this practice. There is general agreement with respect to the question whether infants should be baptized but not with respect to the reasons for this administration of the sacrament. What a tremendous difference, for example, between the Liberated conception of the baptism of infants and the conception of our Protestant Reformed Churches! The former base the baptism of infants upon a general promise (and the Rev. Kok, who deplores the leadership of a man broken in mind and in body, recommended the criticism by the late Prof. K. Schilder in which the late professor distinguished between “promise” and “prediction”—according to the Liberated the promise cannot be a prediction for the simple reason that it is conditional; hence, when, in baptism, the Lord gives each child the promise, this does not necessarily mean that that child will also receive the promised salvation inasmuch as that is dependent upon his embracing of the same through faith),whereas we maintain the particular and sovereignly unconditional promise and proceed from the fundamental Scriptural truth that all is not Israel that is called Israel. Other churches of the Protestant and Reformed Church world, however, such as the Baptists Churches and those who are Premillenarian in their conception, deny that baptism must be administered to the infants of believers. And there are also others who deny the sacrament of Baptism in its entirety, speak disdainfully of “water-baptism,” and claim that the Scriptures only speak of the “Spirit-baptism.”
The general references that are sometimes thought to be found in some of the early writings of the Church Fathers with respect to the baptism of infants are admittedly vague. Many of them have really no weight as proof that infant baptism was practiced by the early Church. This vagueness is clearly evident from writings of men, such as Iraneus and Clement of Alexandria. The former, for example, had written that Jesus was Redeemer in every stage of life and for every stage of life. Upon a statement of this kind a conclusion was based that this Apostolic Father believed in the baptism of infants. However, this statement of Iraneus does not necessarily teach that the Lord Jesus redeemed children by the water of baptism; neither can this passage prove anything against this usage or practice. The latter, Clement of Alexandria, had written that the fish on the signet ring of trusted with earthly substance is trusted with divine! Let them know how to ‘ask’ for salvation, that you may seem the Christians should remind us of the children drawn out of the water. And some have concluded from this passage that its writer advocated the baptism of children. However, this “proof” is hardly conclusive. The word “children” in this passage of Clement may simply refer to Christians, being used by this eminent Church Father to describe Christians from a certain point of view.
There are, however, some very definite references to the baptism of children in the writings of Tertullian, Origin, and Cyprian. Tertullian wrote a treatise on the subject of Baptism. Interesting, I am sure, is the following paragraph which we quote from this treatise, entitled: Of The Persons to Whom, And The Time When Baptism Is To Be Administered, and we quote: “But they whose office it is, to know that Baptism is not rashly to be administered. ‘Give to everyone who beggeth thee,’ has a reference of its own pertaining especially to almsgiving. On the contrary, this precept is rather to be looked at carefully: ‘Give not the holy thing to the dogs, nor cast your pearls before swine;’ and, ‘Lay not hands easily on any; share not other men’s sins.’ If Philip so ‘easily’ baptized the chamberlain, let us reflect that a manifest and conspicuous evidence that the Lord deemed him worthy had been interposed. The Spirit had enjoined Philip to proceed to that road: the eunuch himself, too, was not found idle, nor as one who was suddenly seized with an eager desire to be baptized; but after going up to the temple for prayer’s sake, being intently engaged on the divine Scripture, was thus suitably discovered—to whom God, had, unasked, sent an apostle, which one again, the Spirit bade adjoin himself to the chamberlain’s chariot. The Scripture which he was reading falls in opportunely with his faith: Philip, being requested, is taken to sit beside him; the Lord is pointed out; faith lingers not; water needs no waiting for; the work is completed, and the apostle snatched away. “But Paul too was in fact ‘speedily’ baptized:’’ for Simon, his host, speedily recognized him to be an ‘appointed vessel of election.” God’s approbation sends sure premonitory tokens before it; every “petition” may both deceive and be deceived. And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of the little children. For 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 disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, ‘Forbid them not to come unto me.’ 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. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the ‘remission of sin?’ More caution will be exercised in worldly matters; so that one who is not (at least) to have given ‘to him that asketh.’ For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred—in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom—until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.”—end of quote.
It is evident from this learned Church Father (who died either in 220 or 240 A.D.) that he opposed the baptism of infants. From his opposition it is very evident that the practice to baptize children must have been general in his day. His arguments against the baptism of children are especially five in number. They are: (1) the importance of baptism; (2) the consequent responsibility to the sponsors; (3) the innocence of infants; (4) the necessity of previous instruction; (5) the great responsibility involved for the recipient of baptism.
Looking at these grounds a little more closely, we may observe that they reflect the great importance which was ascribed to the sacrament of baptism during the days of the Church in its New Testament infancy. And please do not infer from this that we, in our day, seek to minimize this Scriptural truth. Tertullian, however, writes literally: “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.” I believe that the importance which was ascribed in those days to the sacrament of Baptism was to a large extent of a mystical nature. Another ground which this eminent Church leader advances for his opposition to the baptism of infants is their innocence. To quote him again: “Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the remission of sins? This reminds us of a phenomenon in the Church of God which is so common and yet impossible to understand except for personal and sentimental reasons. I refer to the argument of Tertullian that he was opposed to infant baptism because an innocent age needs no cleansing from sin. Now we know that this Church Father was certainly a strenuous advocate of original sin. And yet he speaks of the age of infants as the age of innocence. How often does it not happen that parents, although they profess to believe in original guilt and pollution, nevertheless view their children as being innocent? And I believe that the same error often characterizes us when speaking of our little children. How often did this reasoning not influence parents when children were taken from them in their infancy? They “believed,” then, that these children were saved and they based their “faith” upon their innocence. How could these parents come to any other conclusion than the salvation of their children whom the Lord removed in their infancy, especially when these children were viewed in the light of their innocence and purity? They had done no wrong. They were so innocent. This reasoning, we understand, can hardly be considered to be in harmony with the truth of Holy Writ. It is surely not in harmony with the Scriptural truth that our children are conceived and born in sins, are children of wrath by nature, and indeed worthy of everlasting death and condemnation. We must not say that our children are too pure and innocent to suffer everlasting condemnation; fact is, they are by nature children of disobedience and worthy of eternal punishment. The error, however, that our children are innocent also characterizes us from another viewpoint. It is sometimes so difficult for us, as parents, to see any wrong in our children. The fact that they are our children blinds us to the reality that our children, too, are conceived and born in sins and trespasses. We can easily see sins and shortcomings in other children. But it seems to be extremely difficult for us to recognize in our own children what we can so readily discern in others. And at times we will even go to the extreme of defending our children in their presence. We do well, however, to recognize the Scriptural truth that our children are conceived and born in sins, and that this Scriptural truth also applies to the children whom the Lord has given us. We must be constantly on the alert against any deviation from the truth of our original guilt and pollution. Tertullian certainly errs when he advocated the innocence of the child as a ground for his opposition to the baptism of infants.