Dipping into baptism 7: responses to infant baptism

Continuing our discussion of a good recent book on the contested waters of baptism is Baptism: Three Views, edited by the late David F Wright just before he died.

The three views are:

1. Believers’ Baptism View: Bruce A. Ware

2. Infant Baptism View: Sinclair B. Ferguson

3. Dual-Practice Baptism View: Anthony N. S. Lane

This post looks at two responses by Ware and Lane to Sinclair Ferguson’s case for infant baptism.

The central issue is a covenant theology of baptism which holds together the whole paedo-baptist position. Both Ware and Lane have a go at this. So let’s have a look:


– The historical evidence is sparse but the general picture is of believers’ baptism being the norm and gradually replaced over centuries with infant baptism, especially to secure the salvation of those who died in infancy.

– The NT pattern is of baptism of believers. There is an absence of NT examples of  baptism of infants and of any clear apostolic teaching that baptism had taken the place of circumcision.

Ferguson has said that baptism is ‘a sign and seal of the union with Christ and fellowship with the Father given by the Spirit and received by us through faith’ (p89). Ware agrees, but objects to this being applied to infants who cannot yet have faith. They cannot yet be united with Christ or have received the Spirit.

His problem here with the ‘covenant view’ is that it separates baptism and faith. Baptism in the NT is reflective of a spiritual reality, not something that may yet occur. Baptism does not function as a ‘promise’ of the gospel, it is a sign of the promise fulfilled in the life of the baptised person who has been united to Christ through faith in the Spirit.

And therefore, Ware argues, the idea that baptism functions in the same way as circumcision is deeply mistaken. The baptism – circumcision parallel is a spiritual one. Colossians 2:11-12 is obviously talking of a spiritual terms. That the believer is ‘marked’ as spiritually united with Christ through a circumcision made ‘without hands’. To see continuity of infants being circumcised and infants being baptism is to miss, and distort, the point.


Tony Lane offers telling criticism of the covenant theology underpinning infant baptism that says baptism has replaced circumcision:

1. Nowhere in the NT is baptism explicitly linked with the theme of new covenant. If this is the key founding principle for the whole infant-baptism position, it is telling that NT writers never make the link. There are plenty of places that they could easily have made a big deal of this – but choose not to.

Yet infant-baptists make this covenant theme a controlling paradigm for understanding baptism. The words ‘sign and seal’ are actually never explicitly linked with baptism in the NT. In Lane’s view, while certainly baptism is a new covenant rite, a covenantal framework is being imposed on baptism that is not found in the NT.

2. Neither is baptism ever portrayed as replacing circumcision. The only text [Col 2:11-12] that connects the two, does not (as Ware has said) talk of baptism replacing circumcision. Galatians is the ideal place for Paul to develop a replacement theology as part of an argument against circumcision of Christians. He fails to do so.

3. Yes both baptism and circumcision are initiatory rites into covenants – but it is not justified to build a whole superstructure of an infant-baptist covenant theology on such a weak foundation.

4. Lane finds much of infant-baptist theology ‘distant’ from the NT. He points out how Ferguson continually links baptism with the ‘Word’ and therefore how it speaks, ‘signifies’, ‘symbolizes’, ‘points to’ and ‘proclaims’ God’s grace. The trouble is the NT does not speak of baptism this way. Here’s the rub – ‘Because for the New Testament writers, the prime function of baptism is not to “portray grace” but (together with faith) to receive it.”

5. On infant baptism, Lane also questions the ‘continuity of the covenants’ that Ferguson bases his case on. The obvious differences between Old and New (The Old was with a nation, Israel; women are baptised) raise major question marks against any obvious circumcision – baptism continuity. However, Lane differs from Ware here in that he is willing to concede the possibility of infant baptism, even if it rests on a weak foundation and certainly cannot be ‘demanded’ by the evidence of the NT.

Couple of concluding comments of my own:

We have yet to come to Tony Lane’s dual practice view, but it’s interesting and surprising that he and Ware agree on so much regarding the significant holes in the infant-baptist position, yet Lane is happy to support a dual-practice position.

Personally, I find the criticisms of the infant-baptist position overwhelmingly persuasive. As David Wright said somewhere, it looks like ‘a rite in search of a theology’. Its proponents have done their best to construct the theology but when examined, it just won’t wash (‘scuse the pun).


3 thoughts on “Dipping into baptism 7: responses to infant baptism

  1. Maybe the” theological Pillars” have more sense than to thrash it out, as in my opinion it is not the be all and end all of how to be a proper christian

  2. Hey lads. Those comments do raise the question – how important is our practice of baptism for healthy church life?
    I think a lot of people agree that indiscriminate infant baptism has been a disaster. It does not live up to the theology of infant baptism and it gives the impression that a splash of water is a form of eternal life insurance.
    So while it’s an important topic, I agree with Kenny – what mode is used is not the be all and end all. I don’t think it is a gospel issue.

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