Although I was raised in a Catholic family, not all of the members of my family have remained Catholic. Let’s take my youngest sister, Maria. She left the Church years ago. Yesterday I visited her in her new home, and we briefly discussed why she left Catholicism. The main reason she left the Church is because she can’t accept the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. (This is a topic we will discuss in the next post.) Another reason she left the Church appears to be the idea of infant baptism.
In our discussion, Maria did not present any arguments against infant baptism that I had not already heard. The arguments tend to be these:
1) The Bible does not ever explicitly say that infants were, or should be, baptized. It only mentions believer’s baptism.
2) The Bible only mentions baptism by immersion.
3) There is no biblical evidence for original sin.
It is true that Scripture never explicitly mentions infant baptism, but Scripture does not explicitly mention a lot of things Protestants believe in. It never explicitly mentions sola scriptura (that the Bible alone is the authority on faith and morals). It never explicitly mentions the Trinity. What books should compose Scripture is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, either. So to say that Scripture never explicitly mentions infant baptism does not disprove the belief.
Scripture makes reference to “whole households” being baptized. In Acts 16:15, 33: 18:8 and 1 Cor. 1:16, we see these references. Is it unreasonable to believe that at least some of these households contained children who were baptized? Further, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 1252) tells us, there is explicit evidence in the Church Fathers for infant baptism dating to the second century.
Anyone who has read Genesis knows that God established circumcision as the rite of initiation for male Hebrew children into the Old Covenant. Eight days after birth, the male child would be taken to the local synagogue to be circumcised. The New Covenant with Jesus Christ is superior to the Old Covenant. This being so, why would infants be excluded from the New Covenant? Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to come to me”? (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 10:14)
There is a belief, too, among Protestants that baptism is for believers only. This is a mistaken view of baptism. Let’s see what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say on the subject:
“Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: ‘What do you ask of God’s Church?’ The response is: ‘Faith!’
“For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism. For this reason the Church celebrates each year at the Easter Vigil the renewal of baptismal promises. Preparation for Baptism leads only to the threshold of new life. Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.” (Nos. 1253-4)
Baptism is just the beginning of faith. It isn’t only for those who are old enough to understand. In fact, baptism gives us the grace we need to properly develop our faith. As I said, Protestants mistakenly believe that we choose Jesus in baptism. This simply isn’t the case. In baptism, Jesus chooses us. He was clear about this when He said, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mt. 22:14) Jesus was not talking about baptism here, but heaven. Yet Jesus also said that we must be “born again” of “water and the spirit” to make it to heaven. (Jn. 3:5) The point is that we are chosen by Christ first.
I would also point out that even if the Apostles did not celebrate infant baptism, this would not prove the practice wrong. As Jesus said, “He is God of the living, not of the dead.” (Mt. 12:26) The Church is organic. While the teachings of the Church may never change (because they are truth), customs can. It could be that it took the Church some time to develop the custom of baptizing infants. We see this kind of development with the celibacy of priests. So, to say that the Apostles did not baptize infants does not prove the practice wrong.
It is true that baptism by immersion is the only form of baptism mentioned explicitly in Scripture, but other forms may be assumed as legitimate if infant baptism is accepted. We have seen that there are reasons to believe that infants were baptized during the apostolic period. Even if they weren’t, the development of such a custom would require us to change the manner in which we baptize. You’re not going to submerge an infant. Baptism by submersion is a custom, and customs can (and sometimes do) change.
The main reason Catholics celebrate infant baptism is because of original sin. Protestants seem to have some special problems with original sin. They say that original sin would be unjust of God, because He does not punish children for the sins of their parents. This, however, shows a lack of proper understanding of original sin.
There are two different types of sin in Catholic theology. One is actual sin. This is described in the Baltimore Catechism as sin that “we ourselves commit”. Then there is original sin.
Original sin is not, properly speaking, sin. It isn’t some bad action performed by the individual. It is also not a punishment for children due to the sins of its parents. Instead, original sin is simply a lack of grace. When Adam and Eve sinned, they lost all the grace they had been given by God. Think of it in modern secular terms.
Let’s assume my father is rich, and he leaves all of his money to me when he dies. Before my father dies, however, he squanders his money. What is there for me to inherit? Nothing but the debt owed by my father. It is the same with original sin. We are born without grace, because there is no grace to inherit.
In fact, God warned Adam and Eve that death would be the result of disobedience. (Gn. 2:17) Ironically, however, God’s words in Genesis 2:17, are not simply a reference to physical death. In Hebrew what God literally said was that if Adam and Eve disobeyed Him they would “die die”. This means that they would not only experience a physical death, but a spiritual death. In other words, they would lose the graces God had given them. Since this occurred before Adam and Eve had children, all of their offspring (all humanity) is conceived without grace. We are conceived in original sin.
Want more Bible proof for original sin? Here are some other verses: Gn. 3:1; Psalm 51:5; Rom. 5:12-9, 20-1.
While I did not get into all of this with my sister, I did mention quite a bit of it. At the end, Maria asked me if we believe that unbaptized infants go to hell. The answer is an emphatic “no”! Although Jesus said that baptism was necessary for salvation, we must also remember that God is all-merciful. An infant that dies before it is baptized can not help that it was not baptized. God would not hold that against the infant. So what happens?
The Catholic Church does not say what happens, because the Church does not even know this. The decision is something that is left to God alone, and He has chosen not to reveal what that decision is. All we can say for sure is that an unbaptized infant will not go to hell. This would contradict the mercy of God.
There are two main theories among Catholics as to what happens to unbaptized infants that die. St. Thomas Aquinas said that unbaptized infants went to a place called “limbo for children”. It is a place where the infants are happy, but they do not experience the Beatific Vision.
Most Catholic theologians these days say that God-in His great mercy-somehow cleanses the infants, and allows them into heaven. This seems most likely to me, but we are free to believe as we wish on this point.
I feel as if the Catholic stance on infant baptism has been fairly well-explained here. Anyone seeking biblical evidence for infant baptism should be satisfied.
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity