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John Calvin: Infant Baptism

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by Rev. Bryn MacPhail



The most significant controversy to centre upon the sacrament of baptism has arguably been the debate over whether it is legitimate to baptize infants or not(McGrath 443). In his most renowned work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin takes up this issue endeavouring to prove that infant baptism is a divine institution(Wendel 324). Calvin declares that "infants cannot be deprived of it[baptism] without open violation of the will of God"(Inst.4, 16, 8). He reasons this primarily through paralleling circumcision and baptism, asserting that Scripture testifies to the fact that baptism is for the Christians what circumcision was previously for the Jews(Inst.4, 16, 11). This essay will undertake the task of manifesting the coherence, profundity, and thoroughness of Calvin's reasoning, while illuminating the congruence of his arguments with Scripture.


Definitions of Baptism


Part of the problem in this dispute lies with the existence of so many different interpretations as to what baptism represents. Calvin defines baptism as,


"the sign of the initiation by which we are received into the society of the church, in order that, engrafted in Christ, we may be reckoned among God's children"(Inst.4, 15, 1).


J.I. Packer similarly defines baptism as the "union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection"(Packer 212). These two definitions stand in stark contrast to the ones put forth by Stanley Grenz. While acknowledging the different ways to define baptism, Grenz summarizes by stating that it is "a public affirmation of a person's conscious decision to place himself or herself under the lordship of Jesus"(Grenz 684 emphasis added). Grenz also interprets baptism as the "God-given means whereby we initially declare publicly our inward faith"(Grenz 689). He goes on to declare that "believer's baptism is obviously superior" on the grounds that infant baptism "simply cannot fulfill this function"(Grenz 689). He is in one sense quite correct. If baptism is all about a "conscious decision" then Calvin has indeed 'missed the boat' with his advocacy of infant baptism. However, if baptism has more to do with signifying the cleansing of sin and being "reckoned among God's children" then it does with a "conscious decision" then all should give careful attention to Calvin's assertion that infants of believer's must be baptized.


Infant Baptism in the Early Church


It is a matter of great debate as to whether the early church baptized infants(McGrath 443). Part of the difficulty arises because the New Testament contains no specific references to the baptism of infants(McGrath 443). While nowhere does the New Testament prescribe this practice, it does not explicitly forbid the baptizing of infants either. There are a number of passages which could be interpreted as condoning infant baptism, such as the references to the baptizing of entire households(Acts 10:24; 16:15; 16:31-34; 18:8; 1Cor.1:16). There is no consensus among scholars as to whether these households included infants or even young children. Alister McGrath believes they "would probably have included infants"(McGrath 443) while Grenz contests that the inclusion of infants in such baptisms, "while being possible, is remote"(Grenz 687).


Stanley Grenz asserts that it is likely that "the early church practiced believer's baptism exclusively"(Grenz 687). Calvin attacks the claim that many years passed after Christ's resurrection during which infant baptism was unknown. Calvin calls this claim "shamefully untruthful", noting that "there is no writer, however ancient, who does not regard its origin in the apostolic age as a certainty"(Inst.4, 16, 8). In his footnotes, Calvin cites Irenaeus, Origen, and Cyprian among some of the early advocates for infant baptism(Inst.4, 16, 8). It can be confidently said that by the second century the practice of baptizing infants had become "normal" if not "universal"(McGrath 443).


Believer's Infants Are A 'Holy Seed'


The case for baptizing infants rests primarily on the claim that "the transition from the 'old' to the 'new' form of God's covenant . . . did not affect the principle of family solidarity in the covenant community"(Packer 214). This is just an elaborate way of saying the Old Testament promise to bless to the thousandth generation(Ex.20:6) applies to the Church as well. Calvin plainly affirms that the promise is the same for both covenants(Inst.4, 16, 4). Both covenant promises receive God's fatherly favour of forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Calvin argues that circumcision was the token by which the Jews were "assured of adoption as the people and household of God"(Inst.4, 16, 4). Similarly, the people of the Church are consecrated to God through baptism, "to be reckoned as his people"(Inst.4, 16, 4).


Calvin reminds us that the children of the Jews were called a holy seed. They had been made heirs to the covenant and distinguished from the children of the impious. For the same reason, Calvin argues, the children of Christians are considered holy; and by the apostle's testimony they differ from the unclean seed of idolators(1Cor.7:14). It naturally follows then, that if infants share the covenant status with their parent, it is fitting "to give them a sign of that status and of their place in the covenant community"(Packer 215).


The Meaning of Circumcision


Before the Lord commands Abraham to observe circumcision, He states that He will be God to him and his descendents(Gen.17:7,10). The Lord also asks of Abraham that he should walk before him in uprightness and innocence of heart(Gen.17:1). Moses more clearly explains the purpose of circumcision elsewhere, when he exhorts the Israelite people to circumcise the foreskin of their heart for the Lord(Deut.10:16; Inst.4, 16, 3).


These passages make it obvious to Calvin, that circumcision is the sign of mortification, and that Israel has been chosen as the people of God out of all the nations of the earth(Deut.10:15; Inst.4, 16, 3). As Abraham commands them[the people of Israel] to be circumcised, so Moses declares that they ought to be circumcised in heart, "explaining the true meaning of this carnal circumcision"(Deut. 30:6; Inst.4, 16, 3). Calvin concludes that "we have, therefore, a spiritual promise given to the patriarches in circumcision such as is given us in baptism, since it represented for them[the Jews] forgiveness of sins and mortification of the flesh"(Inst.4, 16, 3). Calvin argues that the symbols of the promise represent the same thing, "namely, regeneration"(Inst.4, 16, 4). For Calvin it appears "incontrovertible" that baptism has taken the place of circumcision "to fulfill the same office among us"(Inst.4, 16, 4).


Circumcision vs. Infant Baptism


Calvin's leading premise in his argumentation in favour infant baptism is that baptism is parallel to circumcision from the first covenant and the differences that exist between them exist in externals only(Inst.4, 16, 3). When comparing circumcision with baptism Calvin asserts that we must "diligently" consider what is common to both, and what they have apart from us. Calvin maintains that the covenant is common, and the reason for confirming the covenant is common, namely regeneration(Inst.4, 16, 6). According to Calvin, "only the manner of confirmation is different"(Inst.4, 16, 6). What was circumcision for them was replaced for us by baptism. The function of baptism is the same as the function of circumcision. It is,


"God's sign, communicated to a child as by an impressed seal, confirms the promise given to the pious parent, and declares it to be ratified that the Lord will be God not only to him but to his seed; and that he wills to manifest his goodness and grace not only to him but to his descendents even to the thousandth generation"(Ex.20:6; Inst.4, 16, 9).


Calvin is essentially saying that although "God's sign" has changed(circumcision to baptism) the promise remains the same. Therefore, any attempt to assail infant baptism must be viewed as an attack on the commandment of circumcision.


Differences Between Circumcision and Baptism Are Falsely Alleged


In Calvin's day there was a vocal minority called the "Anabaptists" who had a myriad of objections to the baptizing of infants. John Calvin, however, is rather convincing in his refutation of these objections.


Some Anabaptists in Calvin's day argued that circumcision could not be equated with infant baptism because circumcision was a literal sign and its promises were purely carnal(Inst.4, 16, 10). Calvin counters by claiming that if we regard circumcision as a literal sign, "we must estimate baptism to be the same"(Inst.4, 16, 11). Calvin bases this assertion on Colossians, chapter two, where Paul makes neither more spiritual than the other. Paul says that we were circumcised in Christ not by a circumcision made with hands, when we laid aside the body of sin which dwelt in our flesh. This he calls the "circumcision of Christ"(Col.2:11). Paul afterwards adds that in baptism we were "buried with Christ"(Col.2:12). Calvin sees this to mean nothing except that "the fulfillment and truth of baptism are also the truth and fulfillment of circumcision"(Inst.4, 16, 11). Calvin believes that the apostle Paul is demonstrating that baptism is for the Christians what circumcision previously was for the Jews.


One of the more reasonable and biblical objections to infant baptism is made by those who regard baptism as a sacrament of repentance and faith. These advocates of believer's baptism avow that baptism must be preceded by faith and repentance(Inst.4, 16, 23). These people argue that since this is not possible in the infancy stage, "we must guard against admitting infants into the fellowship of baptism"(Inst.4, 16, 20). Calvin refutes "these darts" by directing our attention to the testimonies of Scripture that show that circumcision was also a sign of repentance(Jer.4:4; 9:25; Deut.10:16; 30:6). If God communicated circumcision to infants as a sacrament of repentance and faith, as Calvin argues, it does not seem absurd if they are now made participants in baptism. Although infants, at the very moment they were circumcised, did not comprehend what the sign meant, "they were truly circumcised to the mortification of their corrupt and defiled nature"(Inst.4, 16, 20). Likewise, infants are baptized into "future repentance and faith" and "the seed of both lies hidden within them by the secret working of the Spirit"(Inst.4, 16, 20). To refuse infants baptism then, according to Calvin, is to "rage openly at GodÕs institution"(Inst.4, 16, 20).


Calvin believes that infants, regarding baptism, have to be put in "another category"(Inst.4, 16, 23). Calvin reasons this from the fact that in ancient times anyone who joined in religious fellowship with Israel had to be taught the Lord's covenant and instructed in the law before he could be marked with circumcision(Inst.4, 16, 23). This was because he was of foreign nationality, with whom the covenant had been made.


Abraham and Isaac exemplify this difference between adults and children. Many opponents of infant baptism point to the fact that in the life of Abraham, the Lord does not command Abraham to be circumcised until after he shows faith in the promise(Inst.4, 16, 24). Calvin asks, "why, in Abraham's case does the sacrament follow faith, but in Isaac, his son, does it precede all understanding?"(Inst.4, 16, 24). Calvin answers by suggesting that it is because Abraham as a grown man was a stranger to the covenant, while his son had a "hereditary right" to the promise(Inst.4, 16, 24). Calvin asks "if the children of believers are partakers of the covenant without the help of understanding, there is no reason why they should be barred from the sign merely because they cannot swear to the provisions of the covenant"(Inst.4, 16, 24). Subsequently, those who embrace the Christian faith as adults are not allowed baptism unless they first have faith and repentance. On the other hand, Calvin declares that any infant who derives their origin from Christians, "have been born directly into the inheritance of the covenant" and therefore are expected to be received into baptism(Inst.4, 16, 24).


Children Should Also Have Life In Christ


Calvin stands opposed to those who would have children barred from baptism because of their age. These people claim that young children are unable to understand the mystery signified in baptism and are therefore considered as children of Adam until they reach an appropriate age for the second birth(Inst.4, 16, 17). Calvin vehemently contests that "God's truth everywhere opposes all these arguments"(Inst.4, 16, 17). Calvin accurately observes that if infants are regarded as the children of Adam, "they are left in death, since in Adam we can but die(Rom.5:12)"(Inst.4, 16, 17). On the contrary, Calvin points out, Christ commands that the children be brought to him(Matt.19:14). Calvin anticipates the objection "that infants do not perish though they are counted as children of Adam" and refutes it manifesting that Scripture declares that in Adam all die, and it follows that no hope of life remains except in Christ(1Cor.15:22; Inst.4, 16, 17). When we recall that Christ declares that he is life(John 11:25), we must acquiesce with Calvin when he asserts that "we must be engrafted into him in order to be freed from bondage to death"(Inst.4, 16, 17).


Calvin also anticipates the objection, "how are infants, unendowed with knowledge of good or evil, regenerated?"(Inst.4, 16, 17). Calvin's reply is that "God's work, though beyond our understanding, is still not annulled"(Inst.4, 16, 17). Calvin is cognizant of the fact that if infants are born sinners, as Scripture affirms(Eph.2:3; Ps.51:5), either they remain hateful to God, or they must be justified. While Calvin agrees that the water itself does not necessarily save, he reminds us that John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother's womb(Luke 1:15), and for Calvin this is "something he could do in others"(Inst.4, 16, 17).


When others object to infant baptism on the grounds that baptism is given for the forgiveness of sins, Calvin suggests that this "abundantly supports our view"(Inst.4, 16, 22). Calvin argues that since we are born sinners, we need forgiveness and pardon "from the time in our mother's womb"(Inst.4, 16, 22). Since God does not withhold from children the hope of mercy(Matt.19:14), Calvin argues that "they must not be deprived of the sign"(Inst.4, 16, 22).




In his two chapters on baptism, John Calvin is quite thorough in defining baptism and in defending infant baptism against the plethora of objections put forth by the Anabaptists. Calvin addresses almost every conceivable argument against infant baptism, leaving this author with the ability to mention only the most significant ones. As well as addressing the many objections, Calvin is diligent in utilizing every biblical text imaginable to articulate his own position.


Calvin's arguments are logical, and yet passionate, exemplifying his insatiable desire to proclaim the truth. This treatise is an essential tool for any Christian seeking to understand the significance of their infant baptism. It is equally as valuable for advocates of believer's baptism--to help them apprehend that their view is not the only coherent one that can be extrapolated from Scripture. Calvin's treatment of the doctrine of infant baptism is thorough, informative, and most importantly, faithful to the Word of God. It has been, continues to be, and will remain a valuable resource for educating the body of Christ on the sacrament of baptism.

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