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My sister Megan, five years my junior, was, like me, raised in the Episcopal Church. We were both baptized very early. I was three years old. She was baptized two years later as an infant. Megan was and is a better person than I, having never indulged herself in teenage rebellion or thrown off the (albeit light Episcopalian) shackles of her childhood faith. There was a time when she committed herself as an adult to Christ, but it wasn’t so much a conversion as it was an affirmation of what she had been given. But then several years ago, Megan, now married with three children, decided to be rebaptized. Her husband is a Christian but not an Anglican, and together they decided to join a Baptist congregation that required her to be rebaptized to be a member in good standing.
The (Re-)Baptist Credo
The requirement is not unique or new. Rebaptism, as practiced today, can be traced back to the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and other strict separatist Christian sects are direct modern descendants of the Anabaptists who eschew not only infant baptism but also oaths, military service, and many modern conveniences in order to remain set apart from the world. Baptists, Pentecostals, some Wesleyans, and almost all independent non-denominational congregations, while not following the separationist route, have embraced the Anabaptist view of baptism, which is commonly called credobaptism or believers only baptism. For baptism to be valid it must, they argue, be preceded by a mature profession of faith in Jesus Christ.
The argument for believers only baptism rests on the following five lines of reasoning and evidence: 1
(1) There is no explicit instance of an infant being baptized in the New Testament.
(2) The uniform New Testament pattern is conversion followed by water baptism.
(3) The New Covenant promise revealed in Jeremiah 31 is that every New Covenant member will know the Lord. The church, therefore, should be a body of regenerate members. The members of the New Covenant are not professing believers and their children, but professing believers only. Since infants are incapable of belief and profession, they should not be baptized.
(4) Infant baptism was not the uniform practice of the fathers. Tertullian, writing in the second and third centuries, strongly objected to infant baptism.
(5) The Didache, written in the first century, gives instructions regarding baptism and communion2 but never mentions infant baptism, which suggests that it was not originally practiced in the church but sprang up after the apostolic era.3
We will return to these points below; but for now, it is important to admit that if the above lines of reasoning and evidence are correct and cumulatively entail believers only baptism, then rebaptizing those who have been baptized as infants is a gospel priority. “Rebaptism,” in that case, is a misnomer since the original baptism was invalid.
The Ancient Rejection of Rebaptism
The list of those Christian traditions that reject rebaptism is, nevertheless, long, and the history of this rejection ancient, far earlier than the Anabaptists. The question arose first in the aftermath of the great heresies of the fourth century. Significant numbers of baptized men and women who had formerly embraced heresies, such as Arianism, had repented and desired to be reconciled to the church. What should happen to them? Had their baptism been invalidated by their departure into heresy? What of those who were baptized by Arian ministers who, while they used the Trinitarian formula, did not hold an orthodox view of the Trinity? The first Council of Constantinople in 381, as Benjamin John points out,4 called for repentant heretics to be anointed with oil but, so long as the rite had been administered according to the traditional form5, not rebaptized.6 The Council of Constantinople almost exactly 300 years later in 680–681 rearticulated the same principle, adopting Canon 57 of the Council of Carthage (419):
Canon 57: For in coming to faith they thought the true Church to be their own and there they believed in Christ, and received the sacraments of the Trinity. And that all these sacraments are altogether true and holy and divine is most certain, and in them the whole hope of the soul is placed, although the presumptuous audacity of heretics, taking to itself the name of the truth, dares to administer them. They are but one after all, as the blessed Apostle tells us, saying: ‘One God, one faith, one baptism,’ and it is not lawful to reiterate what once only ought to be administered.7
The fathers of the Council affirm the principle — first articulated by Augustine of Hippo during the Donatist controversy — that baptism, as a sacrament, depends for its efficacy upon the promises of Christ and not the faithfulness of those who administer it. To rebaptize a person who has been baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit would call Jesus’ promise into question. Notably, while the Council denies that faithlessness on the part of the minister invalidates the sacrament, it also recognizes the central importance of the faith of the person who receives it. This also echoes Augustine’s understanding. Preaching about the sacrament of communion from John 6, Augustine famously said, “He that eats within, not without; who eats in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.”8 That is, apart from faith, the virtue and goodness of the sacrament cannot be received, but with faith, all that Jesus promised is provided.
The Nature of a Sacrament
The importance of faith for receiving the benefit of a sacrament brings back the question of those baptized in infancy, since many would argue that infants are incapable of the kind of faith required. If one was baptized without faith, does that invalidate the sacrament? Before dealing with that question, it is important to determine what a sacrament is. In the New Testament Jesus personally instituted the rites of baptism and communion and commanded that all Christians participate in them. Both rites include visible tokens or signs, water for baptism, and bread and wine for communion. These signs speak. They tell us about what is being signified. Bread, for example, is food, nourishment, a staple that enables even the poorest of people to live. When Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body” (Luke 22:19),9 He was telling us about the spiritual virtue of the sacrament. When you receive communion in faith, Jesus feeds you and sustains you with His body and becomes the staple of your life. Different Christian traditions debate whether the bread changes into something else or just how it is that we feed on Jesus’ body in the Eucharist. Anglicans, for example, believe that the bread remains bread but that feeding on the bread in faith, a person truly feeds on the body of Christ in a spiritual rather than material way. Roman Catholics, by contrast, believe that while the physical properties seem unchanged, the substance of the wafer becomes truly and substantially Jesus’ “body, blood, soul, and divinity.”10 But almost all would agree that in a sacrament there is an outward visible sign that points to an invisible and inward grace.
Jesus instituted the sacrament of baptism in Matthew 28:18–20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Baptism, as readers of the Gospels know, was not invented by Jesus. John the Baptist baptized Jesus three years before, and baptism had been used for some time by rabbis as a rite for gentiles converting to Judaism. But John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for Jews who came to John confessing their sins and who wanted to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into Jesus Himself and into His death and resurrection. Being baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is to be baptized into God’s own revelation of Himself as the Triune God. This is why all Christian traditions recognize baptism as the rite of initiation into the New Covenant church. Water, the outward visible sign of baptism, signifies cleansing/forgiveness, birth, salvation, death, and resurrection. It is, at its most simple level, a bath, cleansing the stain and corruption of sin. But it is also a sign of new birth. In many traditions, a newly baptized person is declared to be regenerate, born again.11 Israel was born anew as a free people under God when she passed through the waters of the Red Sea, which Paul refers to as her baptism (1 Corinthians 10:1–5). Likewise, the baptized person is brought out from the realm of slavery and death through the waters of baptism and born into the family of God, the church, through baptism. In some traditions, a person is lowered into the water and then raised up to depict the dying and rising to new life with Christ in the waters of baptism to which Paul refers in Romans 6:4. The water of baptism, to summarize, is the outward sign signifying the promises of inward and spiritual cleansing/forgiveness, regeneration, salvation, and union with Christ in His death and resurrection.
The Importance of Faith
But are all of these things truly conveyed in a spiritual sense to everyone who is baptized? That is a question hotly debated among Christian traditions. Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox would say yes. Credobaptists tend to think of baptism as not so much conveying but symbolizing what the person has already taken hold of at his or her conversion. Anglicans, at least those holding to the 39 Articles, and Lutherans believe that all these things are truly given at baptism but that they must be received by faith (which faith Lutherans believe is necessarily imparted to babies by baptism).
The importance of faith for the personal reception of a sacrament, as we have seen, goes back to the earliest centuries of the church, indeed to Scripture itself. Paul warns against partaking of the Eucharist unworthily, not recognizing the body (1 Corinthians 11:27–29), and, as credobaptists point out, faith and baptism are ubiquitously joined together throughout the Book of Acts. This might seem to lend weight to the contention that rebaptism is necessary if a person was originally baptized apart from faith, such as infants. If faith is necessary to receive a sacrament, then no sacrament was received where there was no faith. Lutherans, as noted, say that baptism imparts the faith that receives it. Credobaptists would point, in response, to those many adults who were baptized as infants and yet have never shown any signs of genuine justifying belief.
A Biblical Case?
But what does Scripture say, if anything, about rebaptism? The only case of rebaptism recorded in Scripture is found in Acts 19:1–5:
Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Those who use this text to support rebaptism suggest that these disciples received John’s baptism before they had been told about Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. They had a belief in the Messiah to come but did not know about Jesus and His work. So when Paul tells them the full story about Jesus and they come to the fullness of faith, they are rebaptized. Therefore, a person who was baptized before coming to a full and mature understanding of and belief in the gospel should be rebaptized.12
The argument from Acts 19 works if John’s baptism and baptism as Jesus instituted it are substantially the same. Then we would have an example of Paul rebaptizing people who had already been baptized into Christ because their faith was insufficient. Paul, however, distinguishes the two baptisms. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and preparation for the Messiah. It was not a baptism into Christ but into a state of readiness for the Christ. It was, essentially, an Old Covenant baptism, not a New Covenant one. Since Acts 19 does not deal with people receiving two Christian baptisms, it should not be used in the contemporary debate as an example of rebaptism.
That leaves us without an explicit New Testament example of rebaptism and without any direct New Testament instructions regarding rebaptism, but not without hope. As noted above, if those who favor believers only baptism are correct that infant baptism is invalid, then the practice of rebaptism is a necessary consequence. But the reverse is also true. If infant baptism is valid, then rebaptism is not. In that case, rebaptism undermines the promises the New Testament attaches to the sacrament. Making a case for infant baptism is also making a case against rebaptism.
The Case for Infant Baptism
Such a case has been made by many theologians in many places over the course of much time. For the sake of brevity, I will provide only an overview of the various arguments for infant baptism by responding to the credobaptist position I summarized above. First, it is both unsurprising and insufficient as an objection that there is no explicit example of infant baptism in the New Testament or that the New Testament pattern is one of faith followed by baptism. These points are insufficient because they come close to turning a narrative into a proscription. There is no command to baptize infants and there is no command forbidding the practice. There is no law, only an apparent pattern. And the pattern is just that, apparent. The New Testament was written during the course of the evangelization of the first generation of New Covenant believers. Those who heard the gospel and believed were necessarily older children and adults. That being said, there are examples of whole households being baptized, beginning with Cornelius and his household in Acts 10.
In addition, the credobaptist argument does not take into adequate consideration the Jewish context of the first baptisms. The initiation rite for the Old Covenant is circumcision, which was performed on all Jewish baby boys on the eighth day after their birth. God instituted circumcision through Abraham in Genesis 17:7–14. He said, “I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (Genesis 17:7). In Acts 2, Peter proclaims Jesus’ resurrection to a crowd of devout Jews gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. They are cut to the heart and ask Peter, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter tells them they must repent and be baptized, and then he adds words that echo Genesis 17:7, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). To the Jews gathered there, the natural assumption would be that the New Covenant, like the Old Covenant, included infants and that just as infants were circumcised, so should they be baptized.
Furthermore, while Jeremiah 31 indicates that all members of the new Covenant will “know the Lord,” this doesn’t rule out infant members of the visible church. It is not impossible for infants to possess faith. If the Lutherans are correct and baptism itself conveys justifying faith to infants, then the objection is met and overcome. But for those of us who are not Lutheran, it is clear that the Lord is able to make Himself known to the human person regardless of his or her cognitive abilities. John the Baptist knew the Lord and was filled with the Holy Spirit while he was still in Elizabeth’s womb. Moreover, Jesus, rebuking His disciples for preventing parents who were hoping to have Him bless their infant children, said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:15–17). The parents were Jews, not gentiles or unbelievers. They brought their infants to Jesus believing that He was from God and that His blessing was a blessing from God. That’s important since it suggests that Jesus’ words apply specifically to infants of believing parents. Since Jesus declares that infants of parents who come to Him in faith make up the kingdom, who is to say then that they are incapable of knowing or being known by God, and how can we refuse them the sacramental sign of the kingdom to which they belong?
Revisiting the Fathers
Finally, while Tertullian objected to infant baptism in the third century and the Didache makes no mention of it, Tertullian seems to be challenging an already well-established practice, and the Didache, like the Book of Acts, was written during the first generation of the church and should not be expected to include instructions applicable to the second generation. Tertullian wrote:
According to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children. For why is it necessary— if (baptism itself) is not so necessary — that the sponsors likewise should be thrust into danger? Who both themselves, by reason of mortality, may fail to fulfil their promises, and may be disappointed by the development of an evil disposition, in those for whom they stood? The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ….If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.13
Tertullian’s mention of adult sponsors for infant baptismal candidates indicates an institutionalized and mature ecclesial practice, not a novel and strange one. Indeed, Irenaeus, writing decades earlier, seems to assume infant baptism, though he doesn’t mention it explicitly: “He came to save all through means of Himself — all, I say, who through Him are born again to God — infants, and children, and boys, and youths, and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age.”14
Tertullian, moreover, does not argue that infant baptism is invalid.15 Indeed, his argument rests on infant baptism being dangerously valid. He advocated waiting for Christian maturity to be baptized because he seems to have believed that if one falls away after baptism, there is no repentance or forgiveness: “If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay.”16 While we might disagree with Tertullian’s soteriology, he did not deny the efficacy of infant baptism.
The credobaptist arguments, while offered in good faith and often by Christian scholars of well-deserved acclaim, do not fit with the evidence derived from Scripture or from tradition and, therefore, while all Christian traditions must and should baptize adult converts, baptism should never be limited to them. This means, necessarily, that rebaptism is an invalid practice.
Finally, while there is no explicit reference to rebaptism in the New Testament, there is an inference from Old Testament practice that lends weight to the case against it. Baptism is the New Covenant rite of initiation succeeding and fulfilling the Old Covenant rite of circumcision. Paul draws a connection between the two in Colossians 2:9–12:
For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
The permanence of circumcision as an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace (indeed Moses called his people to have circumcised hearts, not just flesh) is evident. Circumcised infants who subsequently fell away into unbelief or sin were never re-circumcised. Instead, they brought their sacrifices to the altar in repentance and were forgiven. How much more powerful and permanent is the New Covenant sacrament of baptism? A person baptized as a baby who later comes to faith receives at that time all the promises given to him at his baptism. There is no need for a repetition of the sacrament because the word and promise of Christ stand forever.
The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.
- [This summary of the credobaptist argument was informed and inspired by the following excellent article: Seth Snyder, “Infant Baptism: A Treatise in Defense of Infant Baptism, Written in the Scholastic Style — Part II,” North American Anglican, July 17, 2023, https://northamanglican.com/infant-baptism-a-treatise-in-defense-of-infant-baptism-written-in-the-scholastic-style-part-ii/.
- The Didache 7, 9, New Advent, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0714.htm.
- Thank you to Dr. Denny Burk, who is Professor of Biblical Studies at Boyce College and an associate pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky, for checking the accuracy and fairness of my summary of the credobaptist argument and adding his own suggestions.
- I briefly follow the outline of the argument set forth here: Benjamin John, “Why I Don’t Support Re-Baptism,” Ancient Insights, February 4, 2021, https://ancientinsights.wordpress.com/2021/02/04/why-i-dont-support-re-baptism/.
- Arians apparently used the correct baptismal formula despite their heretical views on the Trinity and the divine nature of Christ. The Council declares that their false beliefs cannot invalidate the promise Jesus attached to the water of baptism and His words of institution.
- The Canons of the Council of Constantinople (381), Canon 7, Early Church Texts, https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/constantinople_canons.htm.
- Council of Carthage (A. D. 419), Canon 57, trans. Henry Percival, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 14, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1900), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3816.htm. See also John, “Why I Don’t Support Re-Baptism.”
- Augustine of Hippo, Tractate 26 (John 6:41–59), 12, trans. John Gibb, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7., ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701026.htm.
- Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
- Cal Christiansen, “How Can I Explain Transubstantiation?,” Northwest Catholic, September 29, 2016, https://nwcatholic.org/voices/cal-christiansen/how-can-i-explain-transubstantiation.
- For example, see The 1662 Book of Common Prayer: International Edition, ed. Samuel L. Bray and Drew Nathaniel Keane (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 286.
- For an example of this argument, see Paul Carter, “Rebaptism: Why Would You Be Baptized Again?,” Life, Hope, and Truth, 2023, https://lifehopeandtruth.com/change/baptism/rebaptism/.
- Tertullian, On Baptism, 18, trans. S. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0321.htm.
- Irenaeus’s use of regenerative language (“reborn” or “born again to God”) for infants strongly implies that infants are already receiving the sign of regeneration (baptism). The quote is from Irenaeus, Against All Heresies, 2:22:4, trans. Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103222.htm.
- For a fuller argument, see Joe Heschmeyer, “Does Tertullian Reject Infant Baptism?,” Shameless Popery, October 28, 2014, https://shamelesspopery.com/does-tertullian-reject-infant-baptism/.
- Tertullian, On Baptism, 18, trans. S. Thelwall.