Baptism in the Catholic tradition

The Catholic view is that infants must be baptized because it is a sacrament that is required for salvation. All humans are born with original sin and need to be saved by Jesus to avoid damnation for it. The act of Baptism, lowering into the water and then rising out of it symbolises death and resurrection.

Baptism is clearly commanded in the Bible:

Jesus said: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20).

“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit” (John 3:5).

The Catechism of the catholic church (1992) states that “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament”.

Baptism is thus considered a sacrament, which is an: “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church … the visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.” The effect of the sacraments are to strengthen, nourish and give expression to faith and come “ex opera operato”, meaning by the power of Christ. The Catechism says that baptism shows “the sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation”, meaning that we are saved by God’s grace, not because we have merited it.

According to Acts (16:15) and St Paul (1 Corinth 1:16), during the initial spread of early Christianity in the first century entire households were baptised because new Christians were adults being converted. However, by the second century many new Christians were those born to Christian parents, and there was clear reference to infant baptism as the standard practice by theologians like Irenaeus.

Augustine claims that although Baptism cannot remove the corruption of original sin in human nature, it can wash away original guilt, which is the guilt we bare for our sinful nature that condemns us to hell. Augustine calls Baptism the “sacrament of regeneration”.

Augustine also argues for infant baptism on the basis of it being apostolic tradition. It was not decided by a church council, so it must have come from the apostles. It was a practice of the early Church and therefore ought to be considered traditional.

Baptism in the Baptist tradition

Baptists form an important branch of Protestantism. One of their key defining features is holding to adult or “believer’s baptism”. This view follows from their theology, in particular the way they adhere to the centrality of the role of the bible, which is a classic protestant theological theme called sola scriptura.

Baptists do not believe that baptism and the eucharist are sacraments, instead they call them ‘ordinances’, meaning commands which have to be followed to be part of the church. The bible is clear that Jesus commanded baptism and holy communion, but Baptists reject the idea that there is biblical support for their being sacramental in the sense of having some kind of saving power. They do not believe that baptism has the power to wash away original sin and save us. Baptists believe that it is only through faith in Jesus that, by God’s grace, we can be saved. This is another classic protestant theological theme called sola fide.

There are different views amongst Baptists on the existence, nature and significance for salvation of original sin but they agree that baptism has no connection to it.

Baptists conclude that Baptism is symbolic, as an ‘outward sign’ which testifies to a believer’s faith in Jesus’ resurrection. They point to Romans 6:3: “don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life”

Baptists take this to mean that baptism symbolizes the power of faith in Christ in our salvation. They claim that therefore only total immersion of a person in water accurately captures this symbolic meaning of death, burial and resurrection.

Baptists believe that the life of Jesus as written in the bible is a role model for how we should act. Jesus was an adult when he was baptised, thus only adults should be baptized.

Faith in Jesus can only be symbolically expressed by someone who has some understanding of Jesus’ teachings and commands. Furthermore, Baptism involves an entering into full membership of a Baptist church, and as such Baptists believe it should only be done by someone who has a full understanding of what they are joining. To that end, adults preparing for baptism typically study the bible and the workings of the Baptist church.

Arguments and counter-arguments for infant baptism

Original sin necessitates infant baptism

Baptism of infants is traditionally thought to be required to wash away the guilt of original sin. If they die before the original sin is washed away, then their souls will be damned because they are dying in a state of sin. Baptism is more than symbolic.

Pelagius’ rejection of the doctrine of original sin. Pelagius argued that babies are not born corrupted with original sin and therefore do not need baptism. He recommended it for adults only as a symbolic act to draw them closer to Jesus.

Pelagius further argued that if we have original sin, we would be unable to avoid evil, surely making it unjust for God to punish us. If someone couldn’t help doing an action, we typically don’t view them as responsible and deserving of blame and punishment for it.

Pelagius also argued that the biblical passages where command moral behaviour would make no sense if we were corrupted by original sin and thus unable to obey.

Augustine responds to Pelagius that being punished for original sin is not unjust of God, since sin deserves punishment. Augustine further argues that we are able to follow God’s commands, if we are granted that power by God’s grace.

Conflict with omnibenevolence. This doesn’t seem like something a loving God would do.

The Bible clearly requires infant baptism 

“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit” (John 3:5).

According to Acts (16:15) and St Paul (1 Corinth 1:16) entire households were baptised during the initial spread of early Christianity in the first century. This presumably involved infants but mostly included adults because new Christians were adults being converted who then required baptism. By the second century new Christians were increasingly those born to Christian parents, and there was clear reference to infant baptism as the standard practice by theologians like Irenaeus.

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, son and holy spirit” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This quote from Jesus is part of what is usually referred to as the ‘great commission’ where he gave his disciples a mission before he ascended to heaven. Jesus clearly indicates that all nations are to be baptised. Logically speaking, since infants are members of nations it seems to follow that Jesus is in favour of infants being baptised.

The liberal Christian response: challenging original sin. The liberal view of inspiration developed during the enlightenment period as a response to the emerging evidence that there were historical and scientific inaccuracies in the Bible. Liberals concluded from this that the Bible is not the perfect word of God but was merely written by human beings. It is at most a human record of divine events.

Taking a liberal approach to the bible allows a Christian to re-interpret the verses requiring baptism for salvation and even the verses that suggest we have original sin at all. For example, a liberal Christian might reason that original sin is something humans in ancient times would have believed in because of how brutal life was. It would make sense for ancient people to think human nature corrupt. We now know that people tend to behave morally better when life is prosperous and peaceful.

On this view, original sin does not exist, so babies are not in need of salvation. Adult baptism is also unnecessary but could at least have a symbolic use in affirming a Christian’s acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice.

However, the liberal approach to the Bible and rejection of original sin is seen by traditionalists as undermining key Christian beliefs and leading to the chaos of every person having their own subjective interpretation of the Bible.

Arguments and counter-arguments for adult baptism

The example of Jesus suggests adult baptism

Baptists & Anabaptists: the example of Jesus. Jesus never baptized children and was himself baptised as an adult, after he had gained understanding of the meaning and significance of baptism. Anabaptists argue that we should therefore baptize adults, to follow Jesus’ example. The life of Jesus is widely viewed as a model for Christians to follow, so surely adult baptism is what Jesus recommended by example.

Jesus is crucially different from us regarding baptism. However, there are good reasons why Jesus’ adult baptism was not meant to be an example for us to follow. Firstly when Jesus was born, the Christian doctrine of baptism did not yet exist. Furthermore, Jesus is often thought not to have been born with original sin. His mother was a virgin so he was not conceived in sin and thus did not inherit it. In that case, Jesus does not need saving from either original sin or original guilt like we do. Jesus was not in danger of being damned from birth so he did not need baptising from birth like we therefore do.

Furthermore, Zwingli also responded to the argument that we should follow Jesus’ example regarding baptism. He claimed that it assumed too close a connection between what Jesus did and what we should do. It would mean, for example, that women can’t participate in holy communion because Jesus invited no women to the last supper.

Baptism requires adult belief and discipleship

Some argue that Mark justifies adult baptism by seeming to link it to belief:

“He who believes and is baptised will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Only adults can truly believe therefore only adults should be baptised.

Jesus’ command to baptise in the great commission linked it to discipleship. Jesus also said that discipleship requires following him and self-sacrifice. Discipleship therefore seems to require an adult understanding of Jesus’ commands and the intention to follow them. Surely, we shouldn’t view Jesus’ command as applying to infants, then, but to adults.

Catholics argue that the parents and godparents of an infant can make the appropriate spiritual declaration to tread the path of discipleship on behalf of the infant. The parents and godparents are then charged with the task of raising the infant in faith, to make good on this declaration.

Arguably it is incoherent for a declaration to be taken on behalf of an infant who can’t understand it.

Baptism requires an adult understanding of God’s call

Barth claims that baptism is only a response to God’s call to salvation that merely testifies to what really saves them, their faith in Jesus. To have faith in Jesus and testify to it by following his command to be baptised requires adult conscious understanding.

Arguably the power of sacraments cannot be dependent on the person receiving it. God and his ways are actually a mystery; completely beyond our understanding, and therefore an adult understands them no better than an infant does. So, although adults do have more understanding in general, they don’t have more understanding of God and therefore understanding cannot be a requirement for baptism or any sacrament because human understanding isn’t what gives them their power.