Does Original Sin Necessitate Pædobaptism in the Reformed Tradition?

Why have the majority of believers in Christ throughout the history of the Church baptized their infants? Did the practice originate with St Augustine in the late fourth, early fifth century, in order to "wash away" original sin? Or was there a much larger purpose for the practice, one that, at least in nature, is as old as God's covenant with the Jewish people, taking the form during that period of infant circumcision?

In his disputation, On the Restoration of Man, the loci of this restoration for Arminius is initiated not by baptism but by God: "This matter contains in itself the outwardly-moving cause of His gracious mercy, but accidentally,1 through this circumstance -- that God delights in mercy; for ... in every other respect sin is per se and properly the external and meritorious cause of [God's] wrath and damnation."2 He confesses, however, that baptism is "the initial sacrament of the New Testament, by which the covenant-people of God are sprinkled with water, by a minister of the church, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; to signify and to testify the spiritual ablution which is effected by the blood and the Spirit of Christ."3

The Reformed teaching of pædo- or infant baptism should be understood in terms of "a covenant sign whereby the washing of water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit seals to those who receive it the promises of the gospel."4 This foundational understanding of the subject renders moot any discussion of the reality of original sin necessitating a doctrine and practice of infant baptism. Hence, even if one rejects the idea of original sin, that would not ipso facto dismantle the concept or the practical necessity of infant baptism.

Again, for Arminius, the primary end of baptism is "that it may be a confirmation and sealing of the communication of grace in Christ, according to the New Covenant, into which God the Father has entered with us in and on account of Christ." The secondary end is "that it may be the symbol of our initiation into the visible church, and an express mark of the obligation by which we have been bound to God the Father, and to Christ our Lord."5 The object of this baptism, admits Arminius, whether the direct object be adults or infants -- "provided the infants be born of parents who are themselves in the covenant, or if one of their parents be among the covenanted people of God" (cf. 1 Cor. 7:14) -- have the promise of atonement perpetually held out to them and, by the Holy Spirit, they are "ingrafted into the body of Christ."6

However, even though the practice and sacrament of pædobaptism is initiatory, and should never be repeated, he rejects the idea that actual grace is conferred to the initiate; baptism typifies, offers the promise of the gospel and seals the individual, but "grace cannot be immediately conferred by water."7 In Arminius' view, then, a person is forgiven of sins, justified, sanctified (made or counted holy and righteous) and, hence, saved by grace through faith and not by baptism. Michael Green explains:
To be sure, baptism [for most Anglicans, those in the Reformed tradition, including Arminius] is not invariably efficacious [as in other traditions]. It was not with Simon Magus (Acts 8:13, 21ff). It was not with many of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 10:1-6). It is not with many today if baptism has lost all relationship with actually beginning the Christian life and is treated as a charm or a social convenience. There are conditions to its efficacy, and these are repentance and faith on our side and the gift of the Holy Spirit on God's side.

Baptism is efficacious in bringing a person into the Christian church and into Christ, but it is not unconditionally efficacious. That is the clear teaching of the New Testament. And that is why it simply will not do either to invest with magical powers or to devalue this sacrament which Jesus left us to mark our initiation and assure us of our belonging. In moments when our faith sinks in the morasses of doubt, we can take heart. God has acted decisively (and physically) for us in Christ. We have been baptized into him, and we belong, however rotten we may feel at any given time.8
The question credal baptists (those who adhere to believers-only baptism) have historically asked is, Since, in the Reformed tradition, baptism is not rendered an instrument of "washing away" original sin; and since pædobaptism does not instrumentally cause regeneration, but only initiates a person into the Church and, thus, into relationship with Christ, having His gospel-promise sealed to him or her by the Spirit of God; then why baptize infants? Why not baptize only converts? One of the most basic and simple answers given historically is: Because this was God's design from the beginning of calling out a people for Himself: the children of believers were to receive a sign, a sacrament, granted to an infant prior to the infant's understanding of the significance of the sign. That tradition was not abrogated in the New Covenant.

Under the Old Covenant, God commanded His people grant their infants a sign of His covenant with them, that of circumcision. (That this sign was granted only to male infants in that patriarchal context is irrelevant under the New Covenant.) Therefore, when credal baptists complain that the infants being baptized under God's New Covenant cannot understand the sacrament and, hence, should not be deemed as proper candidates for receiving the sacrament, we must agree with Michael Green, who writes: "No argument can be produced against infant baptism which does not equally hold good against infant circumcision ... And the same God is the author of both Testaments. Had he changed his mind, would he not have told us?"9

Believers who reject pædobaptism often appeal to an "age of accountability" theory as an explanation for their opposition. Again, believers under the Old Covenant would, of necessity in obeying God's explicit command, be obliged to reject this theory as a reason for denying their progeny the sign of that covenant. Joachim Jeremias, in replying to credo-baptistic scholar Kurt Aland, offers evidence that, under the New Covenant, there was no age-limit in the first two centuries concerning infant baptism.

Jeremias underscores the fact that parents in the first century are never
urged to prepare their children for baptism by giving them instruction nor to be concerned about their baptismal teaching. If the children of Christian marriages had really not been baptized until they had received instruction ... and "when they had attained knowledge" [as affirmed by credo-baptists], some such admonition would be expected at least in some passage or other. But none can be found anywhere. [Cf. Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21; 1 Tim. 3:4, 12; Did. 4:9; Barn. 19:5; 1 Clem. 21:8; Polycarp to Philip. 4:2; Hermas to Vis. I, 3:1; II, 3:1.]10
In other words, because of the lack of even one reference to instruction regarding infant baptism, the logical deduction indicates that the practice was already so very well-established that instruction was entirely unnecessary.

Think on the matter this way: the Jewish people had been performing the sacrament of infant circumcision -- the sign of the old covenant -- since the days of Abraham, for nearly two thousand years. For St Paul, or any other New Covenant author, to grant instructions or admonitions on performing the sign of baptism -- the sign of the new covenant -- would have been gratuitous to a fault. What we do find within the pages of the Christian scriptures, however, are instructions and admonitions regarding the baptism of converts to the Christian faith. Yet the baptism of converts is performed neither for the "washing away" of original sin, nor for a mere witness to their faith in Christ, but is the sign or sacrament of their initiation into the Faith.

As an aside: We find evidence of the practice of pædobaptism in our early fathers, namely, Sts Polycarp (69-155) and Justin Martyr (100-165),11 as well as Irenæus of Lyons (130-202).12 Should someone complain that there are no explicit references in Scripture instructing us to baptize infants, those same individuals are forced to concede that there are no explicit references in Scripture instructing us to only baptize adult converts. Moreover, for adult-only baptism advocates, what age is considered "adult"? Given that a fourteen-year-old is capable of responding in faith, but he or she is not yet an adult, then the concept of adult-only baptism is in error.

Furthermore, given that some four-year-olds are capable of receiving Christ by faith, and yet would still need sufficient instruction in the faith as he or she matures, I see little difference between allowing such a one to be baptized and the baptizing of an infant, who will also need to be instructed in the faith by his or her parents or adult teachers as he or she matures. Also, until credo-baptists can provide us with evidence in Scripture for the practice of "baby dedication," then we need hear no more complaints regarding pædobaptism and alleged lack of scriptural warrant.

For the purpose of this post, however, may we not lose sight of the fact that, for the Reformed community, pædobaptism serves the purpose not of "washing away" original sin but of offering the infants of believers a sign of God's covenantal promises to all who by grace trust in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. What of unbaptized infants of unbelieving parents? Michael Green answers:
No, the unbaptized child is not disadvantaged: he simply lacks the mark of the covenant. That is all. His parents naturally cannot (and should not) desire for him what they will not accept for themselves. But that need not affect his destiny in this world or the next. He can come to a personal faith [by grace] and then enjoy the privilege and joy of experiencing baptism [later].13
In the Reformed and Anglican traditions, the liturgical language regarding baptism is often mistakenly believed by others to actually effect what is symbolized. "But it does not effect our justification, new birth, and a life full of the Spirit until and unless we ... claim personally what has been made over to us in the purposes of the generous heavenly Father."14 There are and have been traditions that maintain a very real notion that pædobaptism actually does effect what it symbolizes. Some of these traditions tie-in the concept of original sin needing to be "washed away" by the Spirit-anointed water of baptism.

For Arminius, those of the Reformed tradition and many within the Anglican tradition, pædobaptism secures the promise of God offered to the initiate, who is taken in as a child of the Church, nurtured by her for instruction in the Faith and, by grace through faith in Christ, will experientially receive all the spiritual benefits of being in Christ (Eph. 1:3) when those conditions are met.


1 Richard A. Muller explains the Latin reference to accidens (accident, accidentally) in Protestant scholastic theology as "an incidental property of a thing. Thus, an accident is a reality which is conjoined to a thing and which can be withdrawn from the thing without substantial alteration; or, in other words, an accident is a real property contingently predicated of a thing." See Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 19.

2 Jacob Arminius, "Seventy-Nine Private Disputations: Disputation XXXIII. On the Restoration of Man," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:378.

3 Ibid., 2:440.

4 Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press,1992), 21.

5 Arminius, 2:441.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 2:441-42. Michael Green agrees. Commenting on nominalism, and the indiscriminate baptizing of infants, such tends to be "more prevalent when those who practice it have an almost magical view of the sacrament and see its effect as ex opere operato [from the work worked: this describes the immediate efficacious nature that baptism effects other causes] rather than conditional on repentance and faith. See Baptism: Its Purpose, Practice, and Power (Tyrone: Paternoster, 2006), 64.

8 Ibid., 42-43.

9 Ibid., 58. Answering a Baptist critic who stated, "For an increasing number of Christians, taking norms from the Old Testament and willy-nilly building Christian teaching on them is suspect," Green aptly responds, "Fair enough, when the New Testament modifies the Old. But if the New Testament and Apostolic Fathers simply continue to operate as Christians in much the same way as the Old Testament laid down for Jews, maybe the good Lord intended no change!" (61-62) Perhaps such Baptists forget that St Paul, when insisting that Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), was referring to the Old Testament, for the New had not yet been completed, and he was still able to argue the case for the Gospel under the Old.

10 Joachim Jeremias, The Origins of Infant Baptism: A Further Study in Reply to Kurt Aland (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004), 55.

11 Ibid., 55-58.

12 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 59.

13 Green, 64.

14 Ibid., 65. 


Post a Comment


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.