Infant Baptism Optional?

By D. G. Hart and John Muether

Extracted from Ordained Servant (vol. 7, no. 4 [Oct. 1998], pp. 78-80)

Imagine that a young woman begins to attend your church, and after several months she expresses an interest in joining. She diligently attends the new member class, after which she meets with the Session and gives a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ. When asked if she had been baptized, however, she says that she hadn’t, and further, she is persuaded by her reading of the New Testament that baptism is not to be administered in the present age of the church. (As foreign as it may sound to Reformed ears, this form of ultra-dispensationalism gets an occasional airing on some of the Christian radio stations that Orthodox Presbyterians might regularly tune to.) What would your session do? Would it admit into membership someone who refused the sign of membership into the church?

Consider a less farfetched situation. Suppose a young couple inquires about membership. They have made a profession of faith and they are zealous about the doctrines of grace, only they do not believe that the New Testament instructs them to have their two young children baptized. Would your session admit into membership those who refused their children the sign of membership?

For many officers in the OPC, that is not a mere hypothetical question. For members of the Presbytery of the West Coast, it was an issue that provoked the presbytery to overture the General Assembly for advice in 1965. At the heart of the West Coast debate was an apparent clash of two Presbyterian principles: on the one hand, that the church is to receive members merely upon a credible profession of faith, and on the other, that the church is to include children of believers, who are to bear the covenant sign.

In arguing for receiving an anti-paedobaptist into the church, some in the West Coast Presbytery likened infant baptism to the doctrine of election. To be sure, OP churches have many members with inadequate understandings of election. Since belief in the five points of Calvinism is not a requirement for membership, why ought we to insist on infant baptism? In both cases, is the church not dealing with the same problem: a Christian who lacks a full grasp of the riches of God’s covenant mercy to his people? To demand such belief is to expect too much too soon of brothers and sisters who are young in the faith.

In defending the practice of admitting antipaedobaptists, one might be tempted to borrow these words from John Calvin: "How unjust shall we be, if we drive away from Christ those whom he invites to him; if we deprive them of the gifts with which he adorns them; if we exclude those whom he freely admits?" The difficulty with invoking these words, however, is that Calvin uses them in the context of depriving infants of the sacrament of baptism. So the argument for admission can be turned on its head: it is the non-baptizing parents who are excluding from the church those whom Jesus Christ, the head of the church, has claimed as his own.

The problem, as Robert Churchill saw it, was that more was at stake than an immature understanding of God’s grace. Beyond a manifestation of a weak and immature faith, antipaedobaptism was also a sinful practice which displeased God. Moreover, it was a dereliction of duty that involved the Session of the church. As Churchill argued in the pages of the Presbyterian Guardian, "To bring in the doctrine of election here is beside the point. For while we may be saved with limited knowledge, we are not saved in disobedience."

The title of Churchill’s article—"Infant Baptism Optional?"—echoed a previous question in American Presbyterianism: "Is infant baptism on the decline in the Presbyterian Church?" Long before debates in the OPC, Charles Hodge raised that question in an 1857 article in the Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, on the "Neglect of Infant Baptism." Studying Presbyterian membership statistics and baptism records for the first half of the nineteenth century, Hodge drew the startling conclusion that "more than two-thirds of the children of the church [have] been ‘cut off’ from the people of God by their parents’ sinful neglect, and by the church’s silent acquiescence therein." This "work of destruction" was prompting the church in "fast deserting" its tradition, threatening to render infant baptism a "dead letter" in American Presbyterianism. Among the causes, Hodge cited these: the rise of independency among Presbyterian congregations, the failure of churches to instruct [their] people in the duties of the Christian faith, a failure to recognize baptized children as members, and the widespread neglect of family worship in Presbyterian homes.

Hodge’s remedy was the strict and rigorous enforcement of the ordinance of infant baptism. Quoting the Westminster Confession, Hodge argued that "the church has no right to receive into full membership those who intend committing ‘the great sin of contemning or neglecting’ this holy sacrament." So he urged, "Let the Assembly insist that the Presbyteries under her care do require all members within their respective jurisdictions to conform to the requisitions of our Confession of Faith and the teachings of the word of God" (emphasis original).

But Hodge’s plea would go unheeded, not only in the Presbyterian Church, but also among his own family. His son, J. Aspinwall Hodge, a Presbyterian pastor in Hartford, Connecticut, argued in his What is Presbyterian Law? (1882): "Parents declining to present their children for baptism are not to be refused on account of scruples concerning infant baptism, yet in every such case the Session must judge of the expediency of admitting them."

As the OPC General Assembly discussed the West Coast overture, it established a study committee before which it placed this question: "Does the Constitution of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church permit church sessions to receive into communicant membership those who refuse to present their children for baptism on account of scruples concerning infant baptism?" When the committee returned the next year, its report contained the same tension and ambivalence that characterized the debate within the overturing Presbytery. It underscored the seriousness of infant baptism by denying that it entailed a nonessential truth!

The defect of the person not persuaded of this aspect of God’s revealed counsel is not concerned with what is peripheral but with what is basic in the Christian institution. And the person who resolutely refuses to present his or her children for baptism is rejecting the covenant promise and grace which God has certified to his people from Abraham’s day till now. It is this perspective that lends gravity to the offense.

But one member of the study committee urged that the church must not act with "undue severity and harshness" toward believers with these convictions: "Shall we allow such a believer to seek his fullest spiritual fellowship in a communion less faithful to the gospel than ours?"

In the end, the 33rd General Assembly sent the report to Sessions for study and passed a motion declaring "that the admission to membership of those who cannot in good conscience present their children for baptism is a matter for judgment by Sessions." In heeding the advice of the younger Hodge, the church’s location of the decision into the hands of the Sessions was, in the words of one member of the study committee, following the "genius of Presbyterianism."

On the other hand, does the General Assembly’s decision beg too many questions that are critical for Presbyterians? Will this practice create a variant on the "halfway covenant" of colonial Presbyterianism? Might it result in the decline that Charles Hodge warned, where laxity of practice will lead to errors of doctrine, such that "Presbyterianism will lose its power?" And what about Robert Churchill’s query: will infant baptism become optional in the OPC?

This brings us back to the examples with which we started. What difference is there between the two situations? The OPC study report would lead us to conclude that there is none: "It is not proper to make any differentiation in respect to meaning, intent, and obligation between adult baptism and infant baptism. There is one baptism."