Why so Many Evangelicals Don’t Understand Infant Baptism

Why so Many Evangelicals Don’t Understand Infant Baptism November 21, 2019

Since the time of the Reformation, few theological topics have been debated more regularly and thoroughly than the question of pedobaptism. Though it primarily remains an intramural discussion among Evangelicals and the rest of Christendom, the dispute draws interest from all sorts of scholars, textual critics, and armchair theologians. Unlike other doctrines, it’s not one that can be determined by simply pointing to a proof text. Yet it often proves to be a rich study for all who undertake it. Though the doctrine of infant baptism offers complexity deep enough for the most learned of scholars to swim, it’s a gentle enough stream from which even the most casual of Christians can benefit and ponder.

Remarkably, some of the best arguments for and against the practice of infant baptism are made from positions of scriptural silence. That is, conclusions about what the bible teaches on the subject are inferred from what the text does not say, as opposed to what is explicitly written. For some Protestants, this may seem counter-intuitive. After all, wasn’t the Reformation’s fire fueled by a desire to remove extra biblical practices from the church’s doctrine and practice? This is true. Though, the bible is not completely silent on the issue of infant baptism. In fact, I would argue the volume of scriptural content supporting a pro-pedobaptism stance vastly outweighs that from the credo-only side. I earnestly believe that so much is overlooked because of near-sighted historical assumptions, limited hermeneutics, and ignorance within our own cultural biases.

Before going further, I should say clearly and without a hint of guile that I love and appreciate my baptistic brothers and sisters. As foundational of an issue as baptism is to Christianity, it remains an intramural debate. While I may disagree with the credobaptism-only position and will use this article (and some to follow) to convince the reader of the scriptural validity of covenant theology and pedobaptism, I am not suggesting any ill intent towards my Baptist friends or questioning their rightful inheritance to the Kingdom of God. I am also not trying to make light of the issue; I believe it to be very important. Nevertheless, it is not so important as to break fellowship. Some of my dearest friends are strongly baptistic, and I am eternally grateful for their friendship and partnership in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I look forward to the day when we will sit at the great wedding feast together.

To any that will read what follows with a critical eye, I welcome you. I do not expect that at the completion of this series you will instantly change your stance and baptize your entire household. However, I do hope to make some impression on you and those who readily discount infant baptism with little understanding of its doctrinal trusses. I sincerely hope you will consider what is presented with fresh eyes and perhaps, in time, acknowledge some credence to the validity of the doctrine and practice of pedobaptism.

Moving forward, my aim is not to provide exhaustive histories, comprehensive scriptural explanations, and detailed summaries for both sides of the debate. For as I’ve hinted, this topic has been written and discussed for centuries. There are volumes of relative content available (much better than mine) if the reader wishes to expand beyond my simple treatise. Rather, my intention is to provide a straightforward introduction to the practice and theology of pedobaptism, answer why it’s often overlooked by modern evangelicals, and defend it from scripture. My experience is that many Evangelicals do not rightly understand the theology behind infant baptism. I hear all too often that such practices are only lingering remnants of Roman Catholicism and “popery”. I can assure you that this is not the case. The practice of infant baptism within Protestantism is not a result of a failure to finish the Reformation; it is very scriptural. If I accomplish nothing else than to put that nonsense to rest, I will have done well.

I think much of the broad evangelical’s misunderstanding of pedobaptism stems not from Roman Catholicism, or even the Anabaptist influence of the Reformation, but instead, from the fallout from The Second Great Awakening. Riding the coattails of the western-focused Manifest Destiny, The Second Great Awakening yielded an incredible amount of church plants. So rapid was the haste and expansion, much oversight in doctrine and polity was sacrificed. Practically speaking, hierarchical church government models were strained and often proved ill effective at upholding doctrinal standards; they couldn’t keep up and lacked the benefit of modern communication. As one generation, largely by necessity, may have settled for a church life largely ungoverned, the next became fully conditioned. Hence, theology, doctrine, and evangelism changed. Although the gospel was not lost, the value of well-researched, confessional standards were minimized. Baptists, in particular, experienced a great disconnect from their confessional roots.

In the absence of denominational guides, we also saw an increase in the Solo Scriptura, autonomous church model. Notice, I said solo and not sola; there is a significant distinction here. The latter acknowledges the reality of spiritual authorities outside of the bible, although they remain in full submission to scripture – an ideal endorsed by most of the Reformers. The former ideal operates such that there are only the bible and personal interpretation. If you attend a Baptistic, bible church in the Midwestern United States there is a fair chance it operates with a Solo Scriptura mindset. Many of these churches find their theological roots not in the Reformation, but in the Second Great Awakening.

Despite its faults, I remain sympathetic to the Second Great Awakening movement and its effects. There were many pastors who labored for the gospel and glory of God, and modern evangelicals owe much to those who have labored before us here. Yet, like most movements, it was imperfect. Without the aid of mature ecclesiastical oversight, churches lacked identity and lost doctrine. Most importantly (regarding our primary topic of infant baptism) many churches forgot the value of covenant theology and replaced it with dispensational approaches to reading and interpreting scripture. It is no coincidence that The Second Great Awakening saw the blooming of emotionalism, revivals, Adventism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Restoration Movement.

Coupled with the rise of purely autonomous church polity was the evolution of American individualism. Many heading westwards were men looking for work or young families hoping for a fresh start. It was an entire generation built on a paradigm of being self-made. This individual-first cultural mindset permeates throughout our world today; perhaps you’ve heard of it by its common name: The American Dream. As useful as this ideal may be for industrialism and economy, I fear it’s proven a hindrance to churches and community-mindedness. Unlike our small, independent American family units, The Jewish family was expansive and interdependent. Whereas today such symbiotic living might be viewed as a weakness, it was commonplace for Israelites; everyone counted on everyone else to survive. As an example of contrast, consider the time when Jesus was left behind by his parents:

“Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple” (Luke 2:41-45, ESV).

Jesus’ parents went an entire day before becoming concerned that Jesus was missing. They assumed him to be safe and managed by their extended community. More than that, I think its also safe to assume Jesus was fed and taken care of in the 3 days he was missing. A community, drawn together by culture, faith, and a covenant sign looks out for their own. How different is this worldview model of parenting and community when compared to the American Evangelical Church culture today?

Why bring all of this up? Because I want the reader to see that many Evangelicals are unknowingly programmed and preconditioned to overlook some of the foundational pillars of why one holds to the practice pedobaptism. Namely, the importance of communal thinking, federal and familial headships, and covenantal theology. It has only taken 200 years for Americans to become staunchly individualistic and this greatly influences how we read the bible, raise our children, and understand covenant relationships. As dogmatic as our culture is about the individual, I would contend the Jewish and first-century Christians would be ten times as strict in the other direction. Remember, they had 2,000 years of generational programming!

Everyone comes to the bible with their own culture and worldview biases; it’s impossible not to. But we must also keep in mind that the New Testament was written by Jewish thinkers for a first-century audience. Consider Jesus, who often spoke parables relevant to the immediate listener. There have been times I’ve missed nuances in His parables because I lack a general knowledge of agricultural living – thank goodness for scholars and their commentaries!

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that when we come to topics like hermeneutics, covenants, and their signs there were assumptions made on the part of the New Testament authors on behalf of their first-century audience. Unraveling the dispensational hermeneutic that is so ingrained within Evangelical American Churches is where we must begin if we are to build a scriptural case for pedobaptism.

In my next post, I will begin building a scriptural foundation for Covenant Theology and the practice of infant baptism.

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