Should Babies Be Baptized?
The infant hardly looks like a sinner. Yet washing away sin is what this age-old rite is all about. The godfather thrice renounces Satan and his works. A priest then takes a small vessel and gently pours water upon the forehead of the child three times, saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
FOR nearly two millenniums infants have been baptized in a ceremony like this. Parents may describe it as a deeply moving experience. However, does the practice find its origin in God’s Word? Catholic theologians admit that it does not.—See the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 2, page 69.
Read the Bible book of Acts for yourself, and you will quickly see that among early Christians, baptism was for those capable of ‘hearing and receiving words’ with understanding and of ‘doing penance.’ (Acts 2:14, 22, 38, 41, Douay Version) Hardly things an infant could do! True, the Bible does speak of whole households, such as that of Cornelius, being baptized.* But even then, baptism was for those “hearing the word”—not for infants.—Acts 10:44-47.
A Tradition of God or of Men?
Unable to point to a Biblical precedent, the Vatican says, “The practice of baptizing infants is considered a rule of immemorial tradition.” But was this tradition laid down by Jesus Christ? No, for infant baptism did not catch on until quite some time after the death of the apostles. At the end of the second century, church father Tertullian argued, “Let [children] become Christians when they have become able to know Christ.”
The apostle Paul warned, however, that eventually there would come a time “when people will not tolerate sound doctrine.” (2 Timothy 4:3, The New American Bible) After the apostles died and were no longer able to ‘act as a restraint,’ unscriptural practices began to creep into Christian worship. (2 Thessalonians 2:6) Among them was infant baptism. But infant baptism did not become the rule until the fifth century. At that time a fierce debate took place that forever changed Christendom.
It started when a British monk named Pelagius made a trip to Rome. Appalled at the corruption he saw there among so-called Christians, the cleric set out to spur men on to “more moral effort.” Man could not blame his weaknesses on ‘original sin,’ said Pelagius. “Everything good and everything evil . . . is done by us, not born with us.” Pelagian doctrine quickly became the talk of Christendom.
But not for long. Church leaders viewed this abandonment of ‘original sin’ as heresy. And Pelagius unwittingly played right into their hands by favoring what was by then a popular custom—infant baptism. A bishop named Augustine saw this as a glaring inconsistency. ‘If infants must be baptized,’ argued Augustine, ‘what of those unbaptized?’ The seemingly logical conclusion was that such ones would suffer the fires of hell because they were unbaptized. This point apparently established, Augustine struck the fatal blow: Since unbaptized infants indeed suffered damnation, what else could account for this but ‘original sin’?
Pelagian doctrine collapsed. A church council at Carthage subsequently declared Pelagius’ teachings heresy. ‘Original sin’ became as much a part of Catholicism as the confessional. And the church was now steered in the course of promoting mass conversions—often forced—to save people from the ‘fires of hell.’ Infant baptism went from being a popular custom to an official instrument of salvation, an instrument Protestantism would inherit.
‘At the Border of Hell’
Augustine’s doctrine raised some embarrassingly difficult questions: How could a God of love cause innocent babies to suffer in hell? Would unbaptized babies receive the same punishment as hardened sinners? Coming up with answers has not been easy for theologians. Says Catholic priest Vincent Wilkin: “Some have committed unbaptized infants to the full fury of the flames of hell, others believed they were not consumed by the flames but merely heated to a temperature of real discomfort; others would make the discomfort the very tiniest possible in hell . . . Some would place them in a terrestrial paradise.”*
The most popular theory of all, though, has proved to be that the souls of unbaptized infants are housed in limbo. This word literally means “border” (such as the border, or hem, of a garment) and describes a region that supposedly stands on the borders of hell. For theologians, limbo is a very convenient notion. It at least modifies the horrifying specter of suffering infants.
But like any man-made theory, limbo has its problems. Why is it not mentioned in Scripture? Can babies get out of limbo? And why should innocent babies have to go there in the first place? Understandably, the church makes a point of saying that limbo “is not official Catholic teaching.”*—New Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Debate Heats Up Again
For centuries Catholics basically held to the Augustinian viewpoint and ‘limbo proofed’ their children by baptism. However, since the 1950’s there has been a dramatic revival of the infant-baptism debate. Catholic scholars have begun expressing serious doubts that the practice is Biblical. Others admit that they can accept neither Augustine’s hellfire notions nor limbo.
At first, though, conservative church leaders refused to budge. In 1951 Pope Pius XII made a speech to a group of midwives. Reaffirming the belief that “the state of grace at the moment of death is absolutely necessary for salvation,” he encouraged the midwives to perform the baptism rite themselves if it appeared likely that a newborn child was going to die. “Do not, then, fail in performing this charitable service,” he urged. Similarly, in 1958 the Vatican issued a stiff warning that “infants are to be baptized as soon as possible.”
Nevertheless, controversy erupted again following the famous Vatican II council. In a surprise move, the church tried to straddle conservative and liberal positions. ‘Baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation,’ said the council. Curiously, though, salvation was also possible for those “who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ.”*
As a follow-up, the church then revised the infant baptism rite. Among other things, priests now had the option of refusing baptism if the child’s parents failed to promise to raise him as a Catholic. Had the church finally moved away from Augustine’s doctrine? Some thought so and began to question the need for infant baptism.
Then the Vatican issued its “Instruction on Infant Baptism,” which stated: “The Church . . . knows no other way apart from baptism for ensuring children’s entry into eternal happiness.” Bishops were ordered to “bring back to the traditional practice those who . . . have departed from it.” But what of babies who die unbaptized? “The Church can only entrust them to God’s mercy.”
Infant Baptism and Your Child
Doubtless, many sincere Catholics are genuinely perplexed by all of this. Still, some may feel that, Catholic doctrine notwithstanding, baptism at least gives a child a good start religiously. But does it? One Catholic mother said: “I have two very young children, both baptized as infants, and I don’t see one shred of grace in them, quite the opposite really.”
Baptizing a small child does not help him develop in faith. In fact, it violates Jesus’ command: “Go therefore and make disciples [or, “make learners”] . . . baptizing them.” (Matthew 28:19) Baptism is meaningless unless one is old enough to be a disciple. True, there is an “immemorial tradition” for infant baptism. But did not Jesus condemn those who ‘made the word of God invalid because of their tradition’?—Matthew 15:6.
Consequently, the Bible encourages parents to train their children in spiritual matters “from infancy.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17) Jehovah’s Witnesses thus take seriously the Bible’s admonition to bring up their children “in the discipline and mental-regulating of Jehovah.” (Ephesians 6:4) Often this is done by carrying on a regular program of family Bible study. Such parents teach their children to attend and participate in Christian meetings. (Hebrews 10:24, 25) They encourage their youngsters to make “public declaration” of their faith. (Romans 10:10) In time, their children may be moved to make their own dedication to Jehovah God and to symbolize it by water baptism. This is Scriptural and is far more meaningful and satisfying than is watching a formalistic rite performed on an uncomprehending infant.
If a Christian’s child should die before baptism, parents need not fear that he burns in hell or lingers in limbo. The Bible teaches that the dead are unconscious. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Parents can thus take comfort in Jesus’ promise that “the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out” with the prospect of life in a restored Paradise. (John 5:28, 29; Luke 23:43) This Bible-based hope is of far more comfort than are changeable—and confusing—human traditions.
Augustine himself suggested that unbaptized infants “will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all.”
When an 18th-century church synod tried to declare limbo “a Pelagian fable,” Pope Pius VI issued a papal bull condemning the synod as heretical. Though short of fully endorsing limbo, the papal bull kept the theory alive.
Catholic theologian Tad Guzie called the new position of the church “a rather ludicrous sacramental schizophrenia in which water baptism is an essential first stage of salvation for infants, but the final stage of a larger process for anyone else.”
[Chart on page 7]
Highlights of the History of Infant Baptism
Date (C.E.) Event
c. 193 ․ Tertullian argues for adult baptism
253 ․ Council of Carthage declares that ‘babies
should be baptized immediately’
412-417 ․ Debate between Pelagius and Augustine
regarding ‘original sin’
417 ․ Council of Carthage condemns Pelagian view
as heresy. Infant baptism becomes a fixture
1201, 1208 ․ Pope Innocent III writes in favor of
1545-1563 ․ Council of Trent pronounces “anathema”
upon anyone denying infant baptism
1794 ․ Papal bull Auctorem Fidei condemns
Jansenist Synod, which called limbo a
1951 ․ Pope Pius XII stresses necessity of infant
baptism by encouraging midwives to
perform the rite in emergencies
1958 ․ Vatican decrees ‘infants are to be
baptized as soon as possible’
1963-1965 ․ Second Vatican Council decrees salvation
possible without baptism. Orders infant
baptism rite revised
1980 ․ Vatican reinforces custom of infant
baptism, saying it ‘knows no other way for
children to enter eternal happiness’