History and Leeches

The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him. – Proverbs 18:17

leech-art-wikimedia-bosscheJust because a practice is historic doesn’t mean the position is. The practice may have been in place for years or centuries but the reason for that practice may be new. For example, Western medicine has historically used leeches as a form of treatment. Contemporary medicine is starting to use them again but for very different reasons. It is a similar thing with Protestant, Presbyterian infant baptism. The practice of infant baptism is documented from the 300s but the Presbyterian reason for doing it was first articulated during the 1500s.

So when I was looking at the Ligonier podcasts, I chaffed when I saw this:


Do you see what’s implied by the titles? The credo-baptism position is not historic but the paedo-baptist position is. Had they swapped the word “practice” for “position” the titles would be better.

I listened to the podcast and RC started out saying that we have to be very precise when we discuss it. He also said that since we don’t have an explicit command or prohibition to baptize infants in the New Testament, we need to be charitable and patient with each other on this. He even went on to say that there is no “identity” between circumcision and baptism. The rest of the podcast was him drawing parallels between the two.

I won’t get into a critique of his presentation on baptism except to say that I felt he made many misstatements and some broad assumptions in defending it. Rather, I’d like to stick to the point that his position on infant baptism is not much more historical than a baptist position. Also, I’m not sure John MacArthur is the best person to offer a Reformed Baptist position. Still, I’m sure he did a fine job.

After I came to embrace Reformed theology I heard RC present the history of infant baptism and I was nearly persuaded that it was a necessary implication of covenant theology. I had previously resisted covenant theology but it was the Bible that persuaded me that it was right. I fought but then surrendered. I thought I was facing the same thing with infant baptism. After listening to RC but before adopting that position, I read the 1689 London Baptist Confession and I think I read a pamphlet from some Reformed Baptist friends. When I weighed the two positions, I found that scripture won out over history but I was left with the question about the long history of infant baptism. Didn’t the Presbyterians win on that front?

After investigating, what I found was that the way most Presbyterians, including RC Sproul, justified the practice was new to the time of the Reformation. No one, from what I have found, used circumcision to justify baptizing infants until then. There is one place where Augustine mentions circumcision but he doesn’t us it as a basis for infant baptism, merely that it was a similar practice. Actually, in church history the reasons for infant baptism are very different. Some supposed that baptism removed original sin and since the infant mortality rate was so high you should baptize your baby so they don’t die and go to hell. Others believed that baptism removed original sin and so they would put off being baptized to a point as close to death as they could. That way it would be harder to commit a sin between being baptize and dying. There was a lot of variety on the issue.

I have some references for this stuff somewhere.¬†What I lack references for, actually I’m not sure there are references for it, is what I presume to be the reason infant baptism spread so widely throughout Christendom. The reason is because church and state mixed. To be German was to be Christian just as to be from Saudi Arabia was to be Muslim. It was a national identity thing. Sure, there were exceptions but generally geo-politically if you were of this tribe that was your identity. So of course you would baptize your babies, that was what Christians did and your babies were Christians too. Don’t press this too much, it is a generalization and of course there are exceptions. But think about the fights that broke out when the anabaptists showed up or when the Reformation took hold. The kings and princes and such were heavily involved as it was a threat to their sovereignty. Same thing with the Anglican church. Could Rome tell the British monarchy what to do?

All of that to say that the position of Presbyterians on infant baptism is as new as the Reformation and a historic Reformed Baptist position existed from at least 1644 when the first London Baptist Confession was written though clearly it would have had to have existed before that to be codified in 1644.

Print This Post Print This Post

One Comment

  • Just to be clear: This does not validate or invalidate either position on baptism, it is simply an attempt at some historical honesty on it.

Join the Discussion

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>