John Calvin was Wrong on Infant Baptism

Contemporary evangelicals continue to feel John Calvin’s theological influence.  This does not mean that some evangelicals do not have significant points of disagreement with parts of Calvin’s theology.  For instance, take Calvin’s teaching on infant baptism.  Baptists (and other credobaptists) vehemently disagree with Calvin (and other paedobaptists) on this point.  I encountered Calvin’s comments on Acts 8:12 in my sermon prep last week.

“But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12).

Calvin says,

Whereas baptism followed faith, it agreeth with Christ’s institution, as concerning strangers, (Mark xvi.47,) and those which were without.  For it was meet that they should be ingrafted into the body of the Church before they should receive the sign; but the Anabaptists are too foolish, whilst they endeavor to prove by these places that infants are not to be baptized.  Men and women could not be baptized without making confession of their faith; but they were admitted unto baptism upon this condition, that their families might be consecrated to God; for the covenant goeth thus: ‘I will be thy God, and the God of thy seed,’ (Gen. xvii.7.) (Calvin, Commentaries, 18:333; cf. 363).

Some brief observations from a Baptist:

  • The teaching of believing adults being baptized is sourced in Luke’s inspired writings, not Anabaptists.
  • The absence of explicit references to infants being baptized in the NT is sourced in the inspired authors and ultimately the Holy Spirit, not Anabaptists.
  • Calvin employs an OT covenant text to inform a NT church ordinance.   This is consistent with covenant theology but still a larger theological point of division.
  • Calvin affirms the practice of believer’s baptism for the first generation only.  Subsequent generations are “consecrated to God” by the baptized adult.  But why then does the infant truly need to be baptized?
  • Acts 8:12 would have been an ideal place for Luke to use terms that include children or infants, such as nepios or paidion.  Instead, he used “men” (andres) and “women” (gunaikes).

In short, it seems to me that John Calvin is speaking out of both sides of his mouth.  He is advocating for believer’s baptism on the one hand while undermining it by advocating infant baptism on the other.  Moreover, he identifies the rejection of infant baptism as “foolish” and attributes it to the Anabaptists.  The burden of proof rests on him and others who assert that infant baptism is a NT teaching when it is nowhere mentioned in the NT.  The good news is that John Calvin is quite clear on all of this now.

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4 thoughts on “John Calvin was Wrong on Infant Baptism

  1. Hey Doug,

    Good post. Yes, Calvin did seem to be unclear on this subject but I am not sure I would have done any better. When we look at Calvin’s overall contribution to the reformed tradition we should be grateful. I am a baptist but I am grateful for Calvin and others within the reformed faith for their work. Reformed baptists and paedobaptists do agree on one thing…baptism doesn’t save you or regenerate you. Only the work of the Triune God of Scripture can do that.

    Keep Writing,

    Travis (AnotherChristianBlog.org)

  2. Hi Travis,

    I wholeheartedly concur with you about Calvin’s immense contribution to the reformed tradition. Although, I do think you could have done better than he did on infant baptism. I say this because others did, e.g., Anabaptists. Having said this, I also agree with you that we are deeply indebted to Calvin for all the work he did as a reformer.

    Thanks for stopping by Travis!

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    Doug

  3. Why is the New Testament silent on Infant Baptism?

    Baptist/evangelical response:

    The reason there is no mention of infant baptism in the New Testament is because this practice is a Catholic invention that developed two to three centuries after the Apostles. The Bible states that sinners must believe and repent before being baptized. Infants do not have the mental maturity to believe or to make a decision to repent. If God had wanted infants to be baptized he would have specifically mentioned it in Scripture. Infant baptism is NOT scriptural.

    Lutheran response:

    When God made his covenant with Abraham, God included everyone in Abraham’s household in the covenant:

    1. Abraham, the head of the household.
    2. His wife.
    3. His children: teens, toddlers, and infants
    4. His servants and their wives and children.
    5. His slaves and their wives and children.

    Genesis records that it was not just Abraham who God required to be circumcised. His son, his male servants, and his male slaves were all circumcised; more than 300 men and boys.

    Did the act of circumcision save all these people and give them an automatic ticket into heaven? No. Just as in the New Covenant, it is not the sign that saves, it is God’s declaration that saves, received in faith. If these men and boys grew in faith in God, they would be saved. If they later rejected God by living a life of willful sin, they would perish.

    This pattern of including the children of believers in God’s covenant continued for several thousand years until Christ’s resurrection. There is no mention in the OT that the children of the Hebrews were left out of the covenant until they reached an Age of Accountability, at which time they were required to make a decision: Do I want to be a member of the covenant or not? And only if they made an affirmative decision were they then included into God’s covenant. Hebrew/Jewish infants and toddlers have ALWAYS been included in the covenant. There is zero evidence from the OT that says otherwise.

    Infants WERE part of the covenant. If a Hebrew infant died, he was considered “saved”.

    However, circumcision did NOT “save” the male Hebrew child. It was the responsibility of the Hebrew parents to bring up their child in the faith, so that when he was older “he would not depart from it”. The child was born a member of the covenant. Then, as he grew up, he would have the choice: do I want to continue placing my faith in God, or do I want to live in willful sin? If he chose to live by faith, he would be saved. If he chose to live a life of willful sin and never repented, and then died, he would perish.

    When Christ established the New Covenant, he said nothing explicit in the New Testament about the salvation of infants and small children; neither do the Apostles nor any of the writers of the New Testament. Isn’t that odd? If the new Covenant no longer automatically included the children of believers, why didn’t Christ, one of the Apostles, or one of the writers of the NT mention this profound change?

    Why is there no mention in the NT of any adult convert asking this question: “But what about my little children? Are you saying that I have to wait until my children grow up and make a decision for themselves, before I will know if they will be a part of the new faith? What happens if my child dies before he has the opportunity to make this decision?” But no, there is no record in Scripture that any of these questions are made by new converts to the new faith. Isn’t that really, really odd??? As a parent of small children, the FIRST question I would ask would be, “What about my little children?”

    But the New Testament is completely silent on the issue of the salvation or safety of the infants and toddlers of believers. Another interesting point is this: why is there no mention of any child of believers “accepting Christ” when he is an older child (8-12 years old) or as a teenager and then, being baptized? Not one single instance and the writing of the New Testament occurred over a period of 30 years, approximately thirty years after Christ’s death: So over a period of 60 years, not one example of a believer’s child being saved as a teenager and then receiving “Believers Baptism”. Why???

    So isn’t it quite likely that the reason God does not explicitly state in the NT that infants should be baptized, is because everyone in first century Palestine would know that infants and toddlers are included in a household conversion. That fact that Christ and the Apostles did NOT forbid infant baptism was understood to indicate that the pattern of household conversion had not changed: the infants and toddlers of believers are still included in this new and better covenant.

    Circumcision nor Baptism was considered a “Get-into-heaven-free” card. It was understood under both Covenants that the child must be raised in the faith, and that when he was older, he would need to decide for himself whether to continue in the faith and receive everlasting life, or choose a life of sin, breaking the covenant relationship with God, and forfeiting the gift of salvation.

    Which of these two belief systems seems to be most in harmony with Scripture and the writings of the Early Christians?

    • Where is the age of accountability spoke of in scripture? And salvation is of the Lord, not based on a decision. If I could decide to be Christian, then I could could decide later to not be a Christian. My physical birth was not a decision on my part and being spiritually born again wasn’t either.

      By the way I do agree that infant baptism is not supported in scripture.

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