Having recently listened to a debate on infant baptism between James White and Gregg Strawbridge, I was revived in my frustration with Reformed theologians who continue to appeal the examples of household baptisms in defense of paedobaptism. When I was a Baptist there was always a hint of bemusement to my frustration since I didn’t have any investment in the view that the Reformed defend. Now as a Lutheran, however, it is no laughing matter to me. Naturally, when one finds that a view he holds dear is being defended on shaky ground, he will be stirred to greater concern. I don’t like to see something that is true being rejected as false because people aren’t doing it justice.
The biblical case for infant baptism is too great to build it on texts that are at best inconclusive if not altogether irrelevant.
Here are excerpts of the household baptism texts to which I refer:
And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (16:15).
And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God (Acts 16:32-34).
Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized (Acts 18:8).
I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else (1 Cor 1:16).
The significance of these texts for infant baptism usually revolves around the question of whether these households had infants in them. Baptists commonly argue that since we don’t know whether these households had infants in them we can’t be sure that infants were baptized. Meanwhile, Presbyterians often assert that given the number of household baptisms mentioned in Acts it is unlikely that none of them had at a least one infant. But even if we could somehow know with certainty that there were infants in these households (or even if we knew with the same certainty that there weren’t any infants) it wouldn’t make these texts any more useful for the debate over the recipient of baptism. Why not?
Imagine that you’re telling your friend what you did over the weekend and you mention that you and your family raced go-karts at some kind of family fun center. Suddenly your friend recalls that you have a newborn in your household. It is unlikely that you’ll have to explain to him that when you said that your family raced go-karts you were not saying that your newborn was among those who got behind the wheel. It goes without saying because it is common knowledge that infants can’t drive a go-kart. Similarly, if it is common knowledge in the NT that infants are not to be baptized, when Acts refers to whole households being baptized the reader will not need to wonder whether infants were among those baptized she will assume that the infants were not. Likewise, if it is common knowledge that infants are proper recipients of baptism, knowing that the households in Acts had no infants wouldn’t be a strike against infant baptism.
This does not mean that references to household baptisms exclude infants but simply that these texts are inconclusive for aiding us in the debate over the recipient of baptism.
Baptists sometimes point out that infants couldn’t have been included because of the references to the effect that the whole household rejoiced (Acts 16:32-34) or the whole household believed (Acts 18:8). Yet this argument runs up against the same problem as the Presbyterian argument. There’s no way to conclude that the ones who were baptized in the household are the same ones who rejoice. Perhaps infants were baptized but didn’t rejoice. Or (given the Baptist view of children) maybe the little ones got very excited for everyone else but were too young to believe themselves. We simply can’t say.
Gregg Strawbridge argues that his use of these texts in defense of infant baptism doesn’t require that there were infants in these households mentioned in Acts. The text says that the whole households were baptized. According to Strawbridge, this means that even if these households didn’t have infants, had there been infants in them they would’ve been baptized as well. This is, however, a miscarriage of exegesis. One can only say this if he knows and has shown that the Baptist view is false. Otherwise, one has to assume the legitimacy of infant baptism in order to say that “household baptism” would necessarily include infants had there been infants in the family.
I am amazed that many Presbyterians don’t interpret “all/whole/every” to be terms without exception when it comes to the question of the extent of the atonement, but do think these words are terms without exception when it comes to household baptisms. It is inconsistent. The parameters of the inclusion of “all” and other inclusive words is delimited according to the understanding of the speaker and the audience. So if it clear to the speaker and the audience that infants are not to be baptized, when it says the whole household is baptized it obviously doesn’t include infants.
But why call it a Presbyterian argument? Why haven’t I been speaking more generally of it as a paedobaptist argument? The reason is that the emphasis on households is a thoroughly Presbyterian fixation. As my friend, Richard Lucas, reminded me recently, there’s been a shift in conversation among Presbyterians toward speaking of baptism as oikobaptism (household baptism) and away from paedobaptism (infant/child baptism). According to many Presbyterians, baptism is God’s covenant with the household leader and not just with an individual. You will not hear this argument made commonly by other paedobaptists such as Lutherans, Anglicans, or Catholics. Undoubtedly, in first-century culture a man expected his wife, children and servants to believe as he did, but this fact does not overcome the Baptist view. The baptism of the household is still consistent with the claim that each individual must believe.
These texts do not offer enough data to support the claim that God makes a covenant with all in the household by virtue of making it with the head of the household. The debate concerning the proper recipient of baptism must take place elsewhere. Strawbridge’s view of the New Covenant assumes a near complete continuity with the Mosaic Covenant and this drives his reading of Acts. However, because Baptists employ a different understanding of the continuity of the covenants they are moved in a different direction on the household baptism texts. It is the continuity of the covenants where the debate really lies and this makes it a whole Bible issue which can only later affect how we read these texts in Acts.
So where does this leave us?
I find that there are at least three conclusions we should make about the household baptisms in Acts (and 1 Corinthians):
First, the household baptism texts do not supply enough information to draw a prescription for or against infant baptism.
Secondly, the household baptisms do not establish that God made a covenant with the households qua households. It is just as fitting with these texts to suppose that only those who had faith were the ones with whom God established a covenant, even if it was everyone in the household.
Third, this means then that we have to decide who is the proper recipient of baptism apart from these household baptism texts and then let that conclusion affect how we read the household texts without basing our defense of infant baptism or believer’s baptism on them.
It is my opinion that even if Presbyterians who lean heavily on the household baptism texts agreed with me, they should be (and probably would be) more inclined toward a Lutheran view of baptism than the Baptist view, but keep in mind that this is coming from a Lutheran.
You may be interested to know that I don’t just defy other views of baptism but that I also explain what I believe about baptism. So for a positive statement, see my paper “A Brief Articulation and Defense of the Lutheran View of Baptism”.