At what age to baptize?

Within the divide of Christendom, there are those who believe that Baptism is the way we come into the body of Christ, and become born again.   That topic was covered here.   Along with the ancient Catholic and Orthodox churches, other Christian groups who profess this view would be Anglicans (Episcopalians), Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and the Church of Christ among others. Martin Luther – the original “faith alone” advocate – believed this as do the Lutheran churches today.  But he saw a change of this view in his lifetime, when the Anabaptists began to gain more influence.  They professed a “believer’s Baptism,” whereby a person must reach the “age of reason” and specifically request to be baptized.   In their view, Baptism becomes just a symbol of the salvation that has already occurred in the person when they came to faith in Christ; their entry into the body of Christ occurred when they came to faith.  So within these groups and their spiritual descendants, the practice of baptizing infants and young children into the faith that was in place since the beginning of the Church was set aside.  

When we turn to Scripture to resolve this and seek to find the answer about what age to baptize, the answer is short – nothing.  Scripture never speaks to the age at which someone should be baptized.  The primary argument used by these groups is that all the examples of Baptism that we find in Scripture are of people who have come to faith in Christ, and are then baptized, and there are no specific examples of infants or children being baptized.  Therefore, in their reasoning, we should limit Baptism to the examples given in Scripture.   People believe, and are baptized.   And since an infant or young child can’t yet believe, then they should not be baptized.

From the Catholic perspective, this is problematic for many reasons.  One concern would be that there are also no examples in the Bible of any children who grew up in a Christian home who reach this “age of reason” and come forth requesting to be baptized.  The only Baptisms that occur in Scripture are converts from either Judaism or paganism.   The concept of an “age of reason” is also not found in the New Testament.   There are no discussions about how to know if a child is ready for Baptism or what age should be considered to be an “age of reason.”   These are certainly questions that would have arisen within Christian communities and needed to be addressed IF Christian people were not baptizing their children.   But the Bible is silent on this.   And these are questions many faith groups who do not baptize infants struggle with today.   Just because a child professed a desire for Baptism does that mean they clearly understand what they are asking?  But we do not see this discussion or struggle within the lives of the early Christians in Scripture. 

I am reminded of a caller I once heard on Catholic radio.   She had, with her parents’ permission been taking her three year old niece to Mass with her.   Of course the child had witnessed the Sacrament of Baptism during the liturgy.  And while staying with her aunt and playing in the bathtub, the little girl look a toy, filled it with water, dumped it over her head and professed “I baptize ME in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”   Her aunt wondered if this was in any way a valid Baptism.   I believe the host answered correctly; the Church teaches that a person cannot baptize themselves.  But he also said we should never discount that this was not an encounter with Christ for her.   The sacrament of Baptism did not occur, but that does not mean it was an insignificant event. 

When Catholics look at Scripture, we see a few things that are noteworthy that pertain to infant Baptism.  One is St. Peter’s first profession of the Gospel on Pentecost when he calls people to repentance and Baptism in order to have their sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit.   “And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  (Acts 2:38-39) Here Catholics would believe that St. Peter recognizes the spiritual authority that parents have in the lives of their children, and that they can receive that promise on their behalf. 

And we do in fact see quite often in Scripture where entire households are baptized (Acts 18:8, Acts 16:29-34, Acts 16:14-15).   In some cases the passage will say that the person and all their household believed and were baptized.   But in the case of Lydia in Acts 16:14-15, the passage tells us that The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.”  

As Catholics we would look to the event of the Baptism of Lydia’s household upon her conversion and recognize the Biblical role of the authority of a parent, or head of a household.   We see multiple examples within Scripture where parents or heads of household seek healing from Christ for those children in their care.   We see the centurion reaching out to Christ for healing for his servant who is paralyzed (Matthew 8:5-13), the Canaanite woman whose daughter is possessed (Matthew 15:22-28), the official at Capernaum whose son is ill (John 4:46-53), Jairus the synagogue ruler whose daughter has died (Mark 5:22-42) and the man whose son had a “deaf and dumb spirit” (Mark 9:17-29).   All of these reached out to Christ on behalf of their servant or child.

But is this type of intercession limited to physical healing? Not at all.   In Mark 2:1-5, we read the story about the friends who brought a paralyzed man to Jesus, and were willing to remove the roof and lower him down to Christ for healing.  Christ does provide physical healing for the man, but Scripture also tells us that when he saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  The man received not only physical healing but the forgiveness of his sins. He was incapable of coming to Christ on his own, but his sins were forgiven because of the faith of his friends who brought him to Christ.   Likewise, parents bring their children to Christ in Baptism to receive Christ and be born again because of their faith.  There is no real difference from the Catholic perspective.  And we remember Christ’s admonishment in Matthew 19:14 “Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’”

We also see a very interesting passage from St. Paul when he writes this to the Corinthians — For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.” (1 Corinthians 7:14) There are two interesting concepts professed here by St. Paul.   One is the idea that children don’t come into the world “clean.”  As Catholics we would recognize that is a consequence of original sin – we all inherit a fallen human nature.   The second concept is the faith of a parent can bring that child to holiness.  He gives no specifics as to how that is to occur; as Catholics we would understand that happens when a child is born again through Baptism.

St. Paul also gives us another insight into Baptism and children when he tells us in Colossians 2:11-12 “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.”  Along with adult converts to the faith, infants were circumcised in Judaism; it is how they entered the covenant family of God.  St. Paul’s correlation between Baptism and circumcision would indicate a similar intent for infants and he would have clarified if that had not been the case.   And in the earliest of Church writings, the only conflict we see about infant Baptism is not whether it should happen – it clearly was.   The question debated was whether infants should be required to wait eight days to be baptized as was the requirement for circumcision in the Old Covenant. The practice of requiring Baptism to be delayed until the eighth day was condemned by the Council of Carthage in 253.

So while Scripture never addresses this question, it does give us a great deal of insight.   But I would now like to speak to the consequences of a doctrine that denies infant baptism.  In his book “The Gospel According to Rome” by James McCarthy (an anti-Catholic work), he says this – “There is no question about whether those who decide to follow Jesus should be baptized.  The New Testament is clear:  Every Christian is to be baptized.  The question is whether infant baptism is the means of receiving justification.  More specifically:  can the sacrament of baptism just an infant.”   I would point out to Mr. McCarthy that per St. Paul, a believing parent’s child is “holy” instead of “unclean.”  (1 Corinthians 7:14).   So yes, it would appear that an infant can indeed by justified because of their parent’s faith. 

But let’s consider for a moment the consequence of his statement – “Every Christian is to be baptized.”  If true, and if infants or young children cannot be baptized until they reach some “age of reason,” this would mean that that Christianity is a religion that excludes children.   Unlike Judaism before it that embraced children into its covenant, Christianity would become a religion void of children.  Sure, you can have children in church, but they can’t rightly be called Christian.  Nor can they be considered members of the body of Christ as their intellect is not yet developed enough to qualify them for membership.  There is truly no differentiator between them and any other child, and none can claim Christ.  In this way of thinking, supernatural, saving faith is no longer a free gift from God.   Rather, a person must obtain some level of intellect so they can ask for this gift before it can be received.   The Catholic Church rightly rejects this way of thinking.

This way of thinking also ignores what Scripture teaches us about children.   Far from speaking to their lack of intellect, Christ tells us that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15).   Far from indicating their lack of intellect hinders them from being able to come to Christ, he tells us that our intellect can often be what hinders us – thus we need to learn to receive him as a child would.   In Matthew’s Gospel he prays, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.” (Matthew 11:25)  Mere fanciful words on the part of Christ?  Or truth that he is more easily known to a child by faith than anyone else?  He also quotes Psalm 8 in Matthews’ Gospel when he says “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise” (Matthew 21:16).

And then we have the story of John the Baptist, whom Elizabeth testified “leaped in her womb for joy” when he heard the voice of Mary who was carrying Christ into the world. (Luke 1:44)   Infants may not be able to communicate what they are thinking and feeling and experiencing, but that in no way means they have no reason or intellect.  And yes, it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.   And for two thousand years, the Catholic Church has welcomed them into the body of Christ under the Biblical authority given to their parents to bring them into the New Covenant of faith. “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. “  Mark 10:14.   And Christ was indignant that people would think he would have it any other way.

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