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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Why Are Baptist Church Covenants So Similar?

In the early 1600’s, there were questions posed to Anabaptist (Swiss and German) baptismal candidates which received the answer “I will.”  Also in the 1600’s, English separatists employed covenants, properly sealed by baptism.  “The oldest surviving covenant is probably that subscribed to in 1640 by the Broadmead Church in Bristol.”[1]  There was a standardization of covenants between the 1830s to the 1990s in the United States.[2] 

So why are Baptist church covenants so similar?  The 1833 covenant of the New Hampshire Baptist Convention become the gold standard of American Baptist church covenants.[3]  It was primarily revised by J. Newton Brown.  Brown was a prominent pastor of a Baptist church, worked as the editorial secretary for the American Baptist Publication Society, and also served as the editor of the Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1835).[4]  Along with his influence it was also widely distributed in publication in The Baptist Church Manual.  Brown’s covenant was later sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1927.[5]  The Baptist Sunday School Board (changed its name to LifeWay Christian Resources in 1998) printed and widely circulated Brown’s edition in their material.[6]  And so, the predominant Baptist church covenant is born.  


[1] DeWeese, Baptist Church Covenants, 29. 

[2] DeWeese, 60. 

[3] DeWeese, 61. 

[4] DeWeese, 63, 65. 

[5] DeWeese, 68. 

[6] The 1833 covenant of the New Hampshire Baptist Convention and Brown’s revised covenant can be found in DeWeese, Covenant 36 (p. 157-8) and Covenant 41 (p. 161-2), respectively.

You Might Be a Baptist If . . .

You might be a Baptist if . . .

  • You believe you are supposed to take a covered dish to heaven.
  • You have never sung the third verse of any hymn.
  • You clapped your hands in church last Sunday and felt guilty all week long.
  • You woke up craving fried chicken and thought you were called to preach.
  • You think that God’s presence is strongest on the back three pews.
  • Your definition of fellowship has something to do with food.
  • You honestly believe that the Apostle Paul spoke the King James Version.
  • You think Welch’s grape juice and crackers were served at the last supper.
  • You think “Victory in Jesus” is the national anthem.

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