Friday, November 24, 2006

Household Baptisms in the New Testament

In support of an 'infant Baptist' position, texts such as Acts 10; 16:15, 33; and 1 Cor. 1:16 are appealed to. The argument basically runs like this:

- A head of a household professes faith,
- The whole household is therefore Baptised,
- Households normally contain infants,
- It is likely that these particular baptised households contain infants,
- Therefore non-professing infants in these households were baptised,
- Therefore, we likewise should baptise non-professing infants of households where the head has professed faith.

I have numerous difficulties with this logic, I shall explain just two here.

First, this argument rests on the premise that some who were baptised were non-professing. I believe the biblical texts tell a different story.
Acts 10-11 - Cornelius and his household are commanded to be Baptised (10:48), however the whole household was told to be saved before the baptism (cf. 11:14)
Acts 16:33 - The Philippian Jailer and all his family were baptised (v.33). However, the word of the Lord was spoken to all who were in his household (v.32) implying all were able to understand it, and further, all rejoiced that the jailer believed in God, implying again a faith in what was spoken to them (v.34) They must hear the word, then respond to it. - as Piper says, this is just as plausible as assuming infants.
1. Cor. 1:16 - The household of Stephanas was Baptised (v.16). However, this household was a household of believers (1. Cor. 16:15).
Acts 16:15 - Here is the only example of a household baptism with a profession of household faith. However, isn't it an exegetical fallacy to apply silence logic from this one verse onto the other three which would seem to contradict this? Is it not more consistent to interpret this in light of every other household Baptisms which wouldn't contradict 16:15?

Second, this argument rests on the premise that there were infants within the households. There is simply no evidence for such an assumption. Further, if we submit to the scriptures above which seem to support household faith, then in order to be consistent, it would seem that an infant Baptist has to insist on the faith of the infant.

Other than these assumptive passages, there is no mention of infant baptism in the Bible, period. Its just not there. What there is in evidence is a very elaborate systematic argument with no 'obvious' working out of such in the apostolic church.

I believe therefore that the household argument as outlined at the top of this post is not a strong argument for the case of infant baptism. It is an argument from silence, an argument open to exegetical issue, and an argument which ignores household faith


Beckie said...

I know very little about this issue, let me say that at the start. Aren't there, however, other arguements for Infant Baptism - I keep hearing "covenant" being talked about? Correct me if i'm barking up a non-existant tree

Pete said...

Tim, as I read it Acts 11:14 doesn't bear the weight you put on it. It simply says that the message is one 'by which you will be saved, you and all your household'. This does not say that every single member of his household was told the gospel. I'm similarly unsure about 1 Cor 16:15.

The trouble is, arguments from silence are just that, arguments from silence. The point with the argument for paedobaptism is not that these are proof texts because of their silence. If the argument for paedobaptism rested on these texts then it would indeed be a flawed one. However, it does not.

I think it might be more accurate to describe the argument for paedobaptism as a biblico-theological/covenantal one rather than a systematic one (though no doubt systematics come into it). And anyway, what's wrong with an argument from systematic theology (unless you're against abstraction from the text, in which case you could end up not liking the doctrine of the trinity!)? And what's wrong with an elaborate argument? Who says everything the bible teaches has to be obvious and carry a proof-text (although I think that read in the light of biblical theology there are some 'proof texts' for infant baptisms anyway).

And arguments from silence cut both ways. There are no precedents of adult-baptism for believer's children in the bible either. But then again there are also no examples of women taking communion either.

Dave Williams said...

I agree that there are other arguments for paedo baptism and I look forward to Mr Gough discussing them. I assume he is dealing one point at a time.

On this point though I'm with Tim. I've seen some terrible arguments from silence in my time but that isn't happening here. Acts 11:14 promises that there will be a message and it will be the message that will bring saving faith to the household. It isn't silence but rather a sensible reading of a text that connects the message with hearing. Secondly Peter's conclusion to baptise comes in the light of the Holy Spirit coming on them. There is evidence of conversion and then baptism.

The important thing is that baptism is strongly associated with conversion.

Pete said...

Sure, that is one possible 'sensible reading' of the text. And, yet again, if the case for infant baptism rested on a certain reading of these texts then there'd be a problem. I for one would not hold to it.

Timothy Gough said...

Hi all.
Thank you for your helpful posts.
First - indeed yes there are many, and much better arguments for Infant Baptism, I feel the household one however isn't one of them. Hence the focus of the post is a re-addressing of the household texts in terms of their relative contexts.
Acts 14:11 - the point I'm making is salvation is linked to hearing the message, and this is pre-baptism. In this case, all who were saved through hearing were baptised. I think this holds more weight than suggesting that some in the household were saved and baptised without hearing.
Similarly with 1 Cor. 16, the household is said to be converts, and this I feel, holds as much weight as suggesting their Baptism to be pre-conversion.
Again to emphasis, I don't think that I suggest that I believe this to be the definitive argument for paedobaptism. I don't. This is simply an argument that I feel paedobaptists potentially place too much weight on.
However I do hear your concern with my reductionist labelling of the covenantal argument as simply 'systematic.' It is, of course, much more than that.
Finally, lack of proof-texts is not the issue; the issue is a total silence of infant baptism outside the household texts.
Thanx again

Timothy Gough said...

P.S. to quickly mention, I will post Baptism-thoughts on my blog, and respond to comments, however it will not turn into a systematic of my views arround Baptism...hense the focused nature of this post...I simply have too much else to work on at the moment, and not a fully developed view to overly join such a debate.

Pete said...

I think perhaps then you need to engage with more than the Acts contexts of household-baptism texts. The paedobaptist argument is not from the silence of those texts combined with the suggestion that households contain infants. Rather, the paedobaptism argument about the helpfulness of those texts for their case is from the structure of covenantal history and the complete absence of texts dispelling/even discussing the weight of expectation that 1st century jewish christian converts would've had regarding the inclusion of their children in the covenant. This gives greater weight (though not 'proof-text certainty') to an infant baptism-friendly reasing of some household texts.

So strong is this bible context that, the Acts texts aside, some might even argue that the biblico-theological/covenantal context demands that 'adult-confession baptists' provide the burden of proof for the exclusion of infants, rather than the other way round.

Dave Williams said...


How could anybody read a physical passing of the covenant after reading Romans?

Timothy Gough said...

That’s an interesting argument which rests upon heavily upon applying a covenantal biblical theology onto the text for it to work. Of course that may be genuine, but it makes me uncomfortable.

And of course this requires us to understand our exegesis of Acts in light of this particular reading of Biblical theology - again whereas this may be genuine, it doesn't deal with the issues I have raised; namely the faith that precedes Baptism which seems apparent from those texts.

My fear is applying a biblical theology to a series of texts rather than deriving it from the texts.

And I agree, the way paedobaptists use these texts is to provide support for this framework. My argument however is the exegesis of these verses don't provide the support for infant-baptism that is traditionally appealed to.


Pete said...

Fair enough, I think we are maybe talking about different arguments about the same texts. I would want to argue however that we read every text in the light of our systems of biblical and systematic theology, this is a fact we cannot ignore. The trick is to let the relationship between text and system be a spiral, so that text both informs and challenges system whilst being inevitably read with the system in mind (and indeed must do if we are to read the bible properly).

Dave, the truths of e.g. Romans 9-11 were true in the old covenant too. As is clear from the OT texts that Paul cites throughout Romans, including of course Abraham in Romans 4 who was saved by grace through faith and whose children are those of faith (Galatians 3). Unless you're a dispensationalist of course :) in which case, we need to talk :). There is a distinction it seems between election and covenant in both the old and new testaments. Even then, it is God's normal pattern to cast his sovereign electing grace along family lines, 'from believing parents to their posterity' (Thomas Goodwin). Hence believer's children are 'holy' (1Cor7), hence children are addressed as full church members in the Ephesians.

All of this stems from reading the new covenant of Jeremiah as a renewed covenant. Reformed theology has traditionally seen their being one covenant under differing administration throughout the bible. This therefore feeds into discussions of continuity and discontinuity between the covenants.

Anyway, I don't want to get into outlining arguments for infant baptism which fall out of the remit of Tim's original post, especially since he has specified the limited nature of this particular one.

Dave Williams said...

Hello Pete,

An interesting response to say the least! :)

Firstly Romans -I'm definitely not a dispensationalist. Indeed your response here knocks the whole even larger in the paedobaptist argument because your acknowledging that the Christians reading Paul would have realised that God's covenant was always about the spiritual not the physical. What good then was circumcision at all? It only ever symbolised your part of physical Israel. What you needed was spiritual circumcision. Is baptism then the antetype the spiritual equivalent of circumcision. We have no Biblical data to say it was. Rather Paul replaces it with circumcision of the heart. People now know that it is the spiritual lineage that matters.

As for 1 Corinthians 7. I have to say Calvin must have been having a really bad day there because his usual logic really lets him down on this his blindspot. The holy children are there in thr context of the sanctified unbelieving husband and wife. Calvin doesn't think that the spouse is made a Christian rather he thinks it legitimises the marriage act and stops it being unclean. Then suddenly he turns to the children and doesn't follow his argument through -although he doesn't explicitly make the children Christians here.

As for Ephesians -sure make children full members of the church, give them communion and when they turn out not to be Christians later on work out where that leaves the doctrine of predestination.

It seems to me that child baptism was that little failing in the reformation and one of the failings in the Methodist revivial that helps to explain why many reformed and revived denominations are now victims of liberalism or dead orthodoxy today.

Dave Williams said...

For clarification as someone who became a Christian very young -I do believe that children can be Christians and therefore part of the church. My point on Ephesians would be that if it refers to children as church members then it's beleiving children.

Ros said...

Okay, so I know this is slightly off the mainline, but if your concern is with the need for faith to precede baptism (as in the Acts accounts) then I think the bible does give us reason to suppose that infants can have such faith.

In Psalm 22:9, David speaks of having been made to trust in God while at his mother's breasts. This is the same language used earlier in the psalm for the trust of the fathers, and for David's adult trust in God. Now, infant faith is clearly not precisely the same as adult faith - lacking the element of knowledge. But that is not to say it isn't true or saving faith. There are a handful of other similar references that I can't put my finger on right now.

Ah, but you may say, the difference is the profession of faith. An infant cannot profess their faith. So? Are they to be excluded for lack of physical ability? Surely not.

But, we may say, their faith may not be proved genuine. Sure. But you may say exactly the same thing about adult baptisms.

And I think the point about households is not just that we assume that there were children around, but that the OT model of household worship included the children - indicated by their circumcision and their inclusion in the covenant meals. So whether or not there were actual infants in any of the households mentioned in the NT accounts doesn't really matter. I think the point is that if children were to be excluded, that sort of discontinuity would need to be made explicit, since the presumption, at least among Jewish believers, would have been to include them.

Ros said...

It seems to me that child baptism was that little failing in the reformation and one of the failings in the Methodist revivial that helps to explain why many reformed and revived denominations are now victims of liberalism or dead orthodoxy today.

Ooh, I only just noticed this little snippet. Wow. Broad and sweeping and harsh. I think you may need to give some more evidence and explain the logical links you're making here.

Bear in mind that I currently attend a PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) church which is the most reformed church I've ever been in, and it holds clearly and unashamedly to covenant theology and infant baptism.

Dave Williams said...
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Dave Williams said...
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Dave Williams said...

I think Psalm 22 is a bit risky as a building block for a child baptism argument. I'm convinced as I said that children can become Christians. I'm convinced that they can have a good understanding of sin, grace and the cross quite early. But Psalm 22 isn't dealing with that. The point is that from cradle to grave our security is dependent upon God

Dave Williams said...


Yes broad, sweeping but not harsh -I'm not saying that all paedo-baptists are liberal -simply that it is a weak doctrine and you can see the affect of a number of factors on denominations that are not where they were in terms of both doctrine and evangelistic zeal. Of course its not the only one and other denominations are not immune and have their own blindspots that need highlighting -I'd just say that PCA need to watch that one being "the most reformed" is no guarantee that your going to be an alive church next year or in ten years time

Also I guess I need to emphasise again and again and again for myself that I'm not excluding children from the church far from it I became a Christian aged 5, my sister aged 7. For the past 16 years I've been involved in teaching sunday school, and doing evangelistic youth work with children ranging from 18 months to 12 years old.

Pete said...

Well. So sorry Tim if this is a hijacking of your blog. Dave, please take these comments as they are meant (with brotherly affection as well as firm disagreement)

Dave, the fact that you described my comments as 'interesting' probably indicates that you haven't engaged with the best arguments for paedobaptism before now - my comments are but a weak attempt at a summary of elements of them. All of which is to encourage you to seek these arguments out and engage with them, especially if you are going to be in church leadership and responsible for bringing up part of the next generation of the family of God.

I think Colossians 2 does establish the link between circumcision and baptism. Even in your view Dave, baptism cannot be the spiritual equivalent of circumcision since baptism itself is a physical sign of something spiritual. Baptism and circumcision overlap significantly in what they are a sign and a seal of (baptism is an enlarged sign signifying more but not less than circumcision). Whilst this does not necessarily mean that everything from circumcision is carried over into baptism, it does suggest we ought to think of them as related in some way.

You didn't explain why Psalm 22 is dodgy basis for infant faith. we might also add John the Baptist in Luke 1.

You're not a dispensationalist I know, though the kind of distinction you are drawing between the old and the new covenant could lead there. what is the relation between the old and the new? is it as simple as 'physical vs. spiritual'?

I know Ros has already commented about your sweeping statement but a little more could be added. Actually I think the 'path' to liberalism is paved with arminianism doctrine not paedobaptism, and I have a feeling that church history suggests the same. Were I to be even more cheeky i'd suggest that baptistic theology is slanted towards arminianism :)

Timothy Gough said...

Wow. I have apparently started a war ;)
Just for my closing remarks on the subject...:

I am obviously not engaging with the covenantal issue at this level on this post - (as much as some of you would like me too ;) the focus -here- is a re-examining of household texts as they are commonly used in the debate), but watch this space I shall post on these issues after my dissertation is less of a disaster-station.

As an exegetical issue, I remain convinced that the level some paedobaptists take the household texts to is mistaken, and exegetically dubious. A way around this which retains a degree of consistency is of course Ros's argument for the regenerative faith of an infant...I do have issues with this, but that’s for another post.

Pete said: "Were I to be even more cheeky i'd suggest that baptistic theology is slanted towards arminianism :) " - Yes that would be exceptionally cheeky...don't go there - John Piper might throw something heavy at you.

Do enjoy the debate in search for truth with brotherly zeal....however do remember the original post is primarily focused on how household texts are I feel miss-used, rather than a holistic attack on paedobaptism...lets stay focused :)

Dave Williams said...


Sorry for being off subject again but just to respond quickly to Pete,

1. I agree that arminianism is a significant cause of the weaknesses I mentioned but not the only one -an assumption of the belief of others or the salvation of others expressed through either that root or the "kids are ok" is a significant problem. Perhaps on the other side blindspots have included things such as hightened individualism.

2. Covenant unity is in that we are all brought into the Covenant with Abraham and that happens through Christ's work on the Cross. We then have to understand the role of law in that.

I don't know if I've heard the "best arguments" for paedobaptism -however I've not met any new ones here. I guess we shouldn't get further off topic on Tim's blog though so if you fancy setting out the strongest arguments for it in your blog I'd be happy to discuss it further.

Comments received and given in brotherly affection!

Pete said...

Piper may well throw something heavy at me. However, I think Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Goodwin etc. may well have thrown all sorts of things at Dave for his far cheekier remark.

Anyway, thanks Tim, wise words in your comment above, and of course, in the realm of this blog you are king (under God). So I hereby withdraw and apologise for the cheekiness of my cheeky remark.

This debate re. the exegesis of household-texts hinges in someone's view of the appropraite interaction between exegesis and biblical theology. The main issue seems to be one of methodology, the level to which a certain reading of bible context can be brought into our reading of ambiguous texts.

Pete said...

Dave, thanks. Whilst I may well do that one day, I think others have done a far better job than me and of course they'd be the place to start rather than with me.

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