Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

sacraments (4)

Infant baptism

Why baptize infants? Is this just some unfortunately unreformed leftover of Roman Catholicism, as Baptists invariably claim? Or is it merely an empty symbol pointing toward a grace that is probably absent, as so many modern Reformed and Presbyterian folk apparently believe?

To a man, the early Reformed emphatically denied both suggestions. They believed that God included the children of believers in His covenant, and that the same salvific words of promise which He gave to the parents applied equally to their infant offspring. Even as God proffered a covenant to Abraham and his seed, the covenant of grace always includes the children of believers.

What about the requirement of faith? In the view of the early Reformed, this is not lost in the case of infant baptism either. All of the Reformers stressed the need for baptized persons to take ownership of their place in the covenant as they developed throughout life. But one’s place in the covenant was not dependent upon the natural physiological development necessary to articulate active faith in a recognizable way. Even so, many early Reformed theologians (such as Ursinus) asserted unapologetically the believers’ children did possess faith. Such faith was “potential faith,” rather than “actual faith.” (This terminology is now misleading, given current English usage of the language of “potential” and “actual,” the latter of which is frequently understood as synonymous with real. Ursinus and those like him, however, were using the terms in their original Latin sense, not to contrast what was “real” with what “might” happen, but to contrast faith as active - thus “actual” - and faith as present in pre-active potential.) To put it bluntly: believers’ children are also believers.

If such a claim is disputed, one must consider the implications of Jesus’ statement regarding covenant children in Matthew 19.14: “of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Since the kingdom of heaven in the gospels refers specifically to the new covenant which has now arrived (compare Mt. 11.11), and the new covenant is characterized by nothing more prominently than by faith, how could covenant children be such paragons of the kingdom if faith cannot be predicated of them?

The widespread assumption that the old covenant had to do with a people, and the new with individuals, is simply wrong. In the new covenant, as in the old, God deals with households. He is building a new society, not a loose volunteer organization of individuals.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

John Calvin: “Infant Baptism.” (An excerpt from The Institutes of the Christian Religion.)

Tim Gallant: “Saved in Childbearing: Paul’s Employment of a Biblical Theme.” Suggests that in 1 Timothy 2.15, Paul employs the seed-promise of Genesis 3.15 and applies it to the childbearing of Christian women. (This provides a theology of children which undergirds infant baptism, which is not argued for explicitly in the essay.)

Tim Gallant: “Why Infant Baptism? A Biblical Introduction.” Argues that infant baptism is rooted in the baptismal rites and baptismal events of the Old Testament, and that the newness of the new covenant reinforce, rather than contradict, the earlier biblical pattern.

Thomas Goodwin: “The Covenant Seed: That the Children of Believing Parents Are Included in the Covenant.” An argument from a well-known Puritan regarding the status of believers’ children.

Michael Scott Horton: “God’s Grandchildren: The Biblical Basis for Infant Baptism.”

Peter Leithart: “Do Baptists Talk to Their Babies?” Examines prevalent underlying assumptions, such as the primacy of the intellect, which ground opposition to infant baptism.

Peter Leithart: “Infant Baptism in History: An Unfinished Tragicomedy.” (In The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Gregg Strawbridge, ed. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003.)

Peter Leithart: “The Sociology of Infant Baptism.”

Rich Lusk: “Calvin and the Efficacy of Infant Baptism.”

Rich Lusk: “Paedobaptism and Baptismal Efficacy: Historic Trends and Current Controversies.” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 71-125.)

Hughes Oliphant Old: The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992.) An immensely important scholarly study examining the foundations of the early Reformed advocacy of infant baptism.

John Owen: “Of Infant Baptism.”

Robert Rayburn Jr: “The Presbyterian Doctrines of Covenant Children, Covenant Nurture, and Covenant Succession.” To a great extent, this is a summary of Schenck (see below).

Lewis Bevens Schenck: The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant: An Historical Study of the Significance of Infant Baptism in the Presbyterian Church. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003 [1940].)

Gregg Strawbridge, ed.: The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2004.) A contemporary collection of essays by Presbyterian and Reformed scholars, dealing with various aspects of the argument.

Zacharias Ursinus: “Infants Baptized as Believers.” An excerpt from Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (a catechism which he himself wrote). Ursinus teaches that the infant children of believers have the requisite faith to be baptized.

H. Westerink: A Sign of Faithfulness: Covenant and Baptism. (J. Mark Beach, trans. Neerlandia, AB: Inheritance, 1997). Defends a robust view of God’s relationship to the children of believers.


All children in their infancy are reckoned unto the covenant of their parents, by virtue of the law of their creation. For they are all made capable of eternal rewards and punishments, as hath been declared. But in their own persons they are not capable of doing good or evil. It is therefore contrary to the justice of God, and the law of the creation of human kind, wherein many die before they can discern between their right hand and their left, to deal with infants any otherwise but in and according to the covenant of their parents; and that he doth so, see Romans 5:14. Hence I argue, — Those who, by God’s appointment, and by virtue of the law of their creation, are, and must of necessity be, included in the covenant of their parents, have the same right with them unto the privileges of that covenant, no express exception being put in against them. This right it is in the power of none to deprive them of, unless they can change the law of their creation. Thus it is with the children of believers with respect unto the covenant of their parents, whence alone they are said to be holy, 1 Corinthians 7:14.

- John Owen, “Of Infant Baptism”

We find all the way through that the faith of the parents was profitably enjoyed by their children. In 1 Corinthians 10 the children also went through the Red Sea and participated in the faith of their parents. . . . At the time of the flood the children of the wicked perished with their parents. It was the same with Sodom and Gomorrah; the children suffered with their elders. Through the disobedience of their parents children were led off as captives to Babylon and then again children were delivered from Babylon because of the faith of their parents. For children are in the same covenant with their parents. It is just as in Psalm 115:14. The Lord blesses the parents with their children.

- Johannes Oecolampadius

Infants are renewed by the Spirit of God according to the capacity of their age, till that power which is concealed within them grows by degrees, and becomes fully manifest at the proper time.

- John Calvin 1542