For AO1 you need to know:

  • The case for infant baptism by Augustine and Zwingli.
  • The case for believer’s baptism (including Karl Barth).

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • The extent to which both infant and adult baptism are just symbolic acts.
  • The criteria for expressing the commitment to be baptise

Augustine’s case for infant baptism

Augustine argued that infant baptism was justified by the Bible, apostolic tradition and the doctrine of original sin.

Original Sin. Augustine thought Baptism was required for salvation. Everyone has original sin because we were all seminally present in Adam and became “vitiated” by his sin when he disobeyed God.

Baptism cannot remove the corruption of original sin in human nature but 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”.

The saving power of Baptism is the work of God, not the work of humans.

Infant baptism works if others respond for the child since they themselves are not able to respond.

Baptised infants are “ingrafted into Christ’s body”, meaning the Church and community of believers.

Apostolic tradition. 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.

That infant baptism is part of the apostolic tradition forms part of Augustine’s case for original sin. it would be absurd to baptise an infant for sins it has committed, so the fact that the Church had traditionally baptised infants shows that it must have believed that all humans from birth are corrupted by original sin.

Scripture. Augustine pointed to the bible as justifying infant baptism. 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, presumably including infants. However, by the second century there was clear reference to infant baptism as the standard practice by theologians like Irenaeus.

“Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:  38-39.

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

Zwingli’s case for infant baptism

Zwingli was in favour of infant baptism for very different reasons to Augustine. He did not believe that original sin caused humans to be born in a state of sin and guilt. He accepted that concupiscence exists, corrupts our nature and is inherited, however he argued that a person cannot be in a state of sin until they have actually committed sinful acts.

“original sin, as it is in the descendants of Adam, is not properly sin … for it is not a transgression of the Law”. – Zwingli.

It is only when we break God’s law that we are damned. Zwingli points out that The Bible says Jacob was loved by God before he was born, so he cannot have been damned by original sin.

Zwingli points to 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 which he interprets as showing that children of one Christian parent are “holy” and thus do not have original guilt which needs washing away.

God must have complete sovereignty, which means total power over who and how he saves people. To make salvation necessarily dependent on baptism therefore limits God’s sovereignty because it suggests he cannot choose to save those who are unbaptised.

Zwingli concludes that baptism ‘cannot contribute in any way to the washing away of sin’, rather, it is just a sign and seal with God which enters us into the Christian covenant. Circumcision was a sign and seal of entry into the Jewish covenant and Zwingli argues that Christians should view baptism as playing that same role regarding the new expanded covenant created by Jesus.

Zwingli clams that babies are God’s children just as much as they are their human parents and God wants them to be in the covenant. He points to Genesis where it states that God’s first covenant was with Abraham and his descendants. God’s new covenant works the same in that the descendants of Christian parents should be part of it, meaning they should be baptised.

The case for believer’s baptism


No objections to infant baptism were made before the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Some reformers were called ‘Anabaptists’ – meaning ‘re’-‘baptise’. They point to Acts 8:12 “But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women”. This suggests that belief is required for baptism. Therefore, because infants cannot believe, they should not be baptised.

Anabaptists saw baptism as a person’s commitment to follow God’s commands and not sin.

Anabaptists point to 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.

Karl Barth

Barth argued against infant baptism and for believer’s baptism because he didn’t think baptism was necessary for salvation. He acknowledges that Jesus commanded baptism and therefore it should be done. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it is necessary for salvation.

As part of the reform protestant tradition, Barth thought we were only saved by faith in Christ. True salvation is received in the spirit by the role of God’s grace in converting people to faith in Christ. Human baptism is purely a human response to God’s saving grace. So, Baptism cannot be what saves us and is therefore not sacramental.

Barth instead viewed Baptism as a human testifying act, amounting to a response to God’s call to salvation. It shows a person’s faith in Jesus by following his command to baptize. Only an adult can have faith and show it by following commands. Infant baptism thus fails to fulfil a response to God’s call to salvation and ultimately creates a kind of spiritual ‘wound’ in an infant which then has to be cured when they grow up by finding and strengthening their faith to respond to God’s call to salvation.

Baptism is a human action which acknowledges the one true sacrament (faith in Jesus) as found in ‘the history of Jesus Christ’. Its power therefore rests in Christ alone. There is no power within baptism itself, or within the faith of one being baptised. Barth concludes that baptism seals that which has already happened, rather than initiates any divine activity. Baptism equips one to live the life of obedience to God.

Baptism is a human response to God’s grace based on obedience and so can only involve an adult who is beginning that life of obedience to God. There can be no sense of coercion as that would undermine obedience.

Therefore, infant baptism is coercive. It is deficient in the subjective sense that the baby baptised is neither able or willing to take the first step that baptism marks – beginning a life of obedience to God. Barth regarded infant baptism as ‘clouded baptism’, not going so far as to say it was invalid.

“Baptism without the willingness and readiness of the baptized is true, effectual and effective baptism, but it is not correct … it is necessarily clouded baptism. It is, however, a wound in the body of the Church and a weakness of the baptized, which can certainly be cured.” – Barth.

The criteria for Baptism & whether it is symbolic


Baptism is not just symbolic. Augustine argued that baptism is required for our salvation due to original sin/guilt, which makes it not just symbolic.

The criteria for baptism is infancy. Humans fit the criteria for baptism as soon as they are born because we are born with original sin. During baptism, other people should take the vows for infants on their behalf. This is “unquestionably” good for their dedication to God, since they cannot do it for themselves.

Response to Augustine: 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.


Baptism just symbolic. Barth argues that only faith in Jesus saves us, therefore Baptism does not save us. So, it is just a symbolic human act which only testifies to a person’s saving faith. Baptism is a human response to God’s call to salvation.

The criteria for baptism is adult understanding & commitment. The criteria required for baptism is an adult who is seeking to begin a life of obedience to God. There must be no coercion. An infant who cannot make this commitment is coerced. To have faith in Jesus and testify to it by following his command to be baptised requires adult conscious understanding.

Response to Barth: the Bible supports infant baptism

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

This quote from John clearly indicates that infant baptism is required for salvation, therefore it cannot be just symbolic and Barth must be wrong to think that the criteria for baptism are adult understanding & commitment.

“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 in Matthew 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.


Baptism not just symbolic. Although Zwingli didn’t think that baptism had anything to do with original sin, he still thought it was important because it brought a person into the Christian covenant. It is therefore not just symbolic.

The criteria for baptism is being an infant. Zwingli thinks that since we are all children of God and God wants us to be saved, he wants us to enter the covenant. Baptism is the sign and seal of joining the Christian covenant.

Luther argued that Zwingli’s view amounted to Pelagianism. If humans are born with original sin that will inevitably damn us, then unless we have the free will to resist that original sin, surely it is the original sin damns us.

Zwingli would respond that he accepts that we lack the free will to stop original sin leading to immoral acts. He insists however that although original sin inevitably leads to damnation, nonetheless intrinsically it is not damning and thus we are not damned until we commit immoral acts. Breaking God’s law damned us, so until we break the law we are not damned.

However, many theologians still think that Zwingli has contradicted himself. Zwingli accepts that we are born with original sin, but since a sinful being cannot enter heaven then they are damned even before doing any immoral acts.