/ Covenant Theology / Richard Holdeman

Baptism and the Burden of Proof

Who bears the burden of proof in the argument over infant baptism? The New Testament (NT) neither explicitly commands the baptizing of infant children of believers nor forbids it. Sometimes what is NOT said speaks loudly to us. In this case, the absence of a direct command regarding infants and baptism strongly supports one position on this issue over the other.

Given that the people of God in the Old Testament (OT) had been putting the sign of the covenant (circumcision) on their infant children for nearly 2,000 years when Jesus arrived on the scene, it is logical to infer that NT believers, who were overwhelmingly Jewish, would have assumed that the NT sign of the covenant (baptism) would be applied to their children as well. The absence of any prohibitions on baptizing the children of believers or even any discussion of this as an issue in the churches to which Paul wrote suggests that this was NOT an issue in the early church. The only way it could be a non-issue is if there was no fundamental change in the way the sign was applied to the children of believers.

While there is no explicit command to baptize the infant children of believers, there are at least two occasions in which entire households were baptized when the head of the household was converted. Lydia believed (Acts 16:14), and her entire household was baptized (Acts 16:15). The Philippian jailor believed, and his entire household was baptized (Acts 16:33). The latter half of Acts 16:34 is most literally translated by the English Standard Version: “And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.” They all rejoiced and were baptized because the head of the household believed the gospel. Salvation had come to these families and the sign of that salvation was placed on all under the authority of the head of the household. No further explanation is needed since the pattern would have been obvious already.

When Peter preached at Pentecost, he labored to prove from the OT that Jesus was the promised Messiah. When his hearers came under conviction and cried out, Peter told them to repent and be baptized, saying, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39, NKJ). What was THE PROMISE to which Peter referred? We want more clarity, but, of course, a group of faithful Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost would have understood perfectly well. THE PROMISE was the covenant promise they had been given in Abraham. For example, God had said to Abraham, “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7, NKJ). The NT connects believers in Christ to this same promise, saying, “And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29, NKJ). Once again, the NT does not have to tell parents explicitly to apply the sign of the covenant to their children; it would have been obvious given the explicit connections to the OT covenant promise and its associated sign (see also Colossians 2:11-12).

In any argument it is incumbent on the side asserting a claim to support that claim with evidence. Support for infant baptism includes the explicit OT witness of including children in the covenant with its attendant sign, the actual practice of the OT people of God for nearly 2,000 years, NT passages that seem to assume the continuation of the OT pattern, and the striking absence of any explicit changes to the way children are to be treated in the NT church. It would seem, then, that those who think the NT suddenly takes away the sign of the covenant from the children of believers bear a substantial burden of proof. In this case, the lack of an explicit NT command forbidding the baptizing of covenant children amounts to a very meaningful silence.

Richard Holdeman

Richard Holdeman

Called to faith in 1987; to marry Amy in 1989; to coach college hockey in 1992; to have daughters in 1996; to teach at I.U. in 1997; to pastor the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church in 2005.

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