Why don't Presbyterians baptise all their kids (automatically and universally)?

Why do Presbyterians only baptise their infant children; why not all their children, such as their older kids? Though a few probably do, it's not common in my circles that when Christians become fully won over to infant baptism that they automatically go ahead and baptise their teen or adult children. It's a bit of a puzzle, because the Bible passages used to support the practice talk about children of believers, without restriction to age and without regard to faith.

Now please don't be offend by my question; that's not my intention! I ask it only because I believe it leads to the root of an issue with the paedobaptist position, which I want infant baptists to consider seriously. But in talking about a topic as potentially divisive as baptism, please know that I completely respect my brothers and sisters in Christ who are infant baptists. Most of my 'ministry' friends are infant baptists and I love them all so dearly. Anyone who knows me will know that I deeply love my Presbyterian family, as with my Anglican and Reformed comrades. So when you read this article image me with a big smile on my face and a gentle tone, even though I'm communicating perplexity in my words. After all, I also need to struggle not to take offence and get defensive with the infant baptist position; the Creeds say some pretty heavy things (e.g. "it is a great sin to contemn or neglect this ordinance!"). When I read John Calvin or the Westminster Confession of Faith on this particular topic, it is hard not not get edgy myself as I deal with not only the substance of what they're saying, but also the tone of their talk.

But back to my question: I guess we're so used to the practice of infant baptism that it's easy to overlook the fact that the passages that paedobaptists point to don't actually narrow in on infants or restrict our application to babies only. In fact the opposite is the case: the Scriptural basis for the practice focuses on all children (without qualification to age or faith), and in fact includes applicability to all household members belonging to a believer, regardless of age or belief.

I've been a happy member of a Presbyterian church in Hobart for 10 years now, and before that my wife and I were part of Sydney Anglicanism. In all that time I don't recall anyone asking this question at all, though I feel that it's a glaring issue with the traditional practice (based upon its own logic).

I most notice the inconsistency with the common practice when parents in a Presbyterian (or Reformed or Anglican) church who start a family and end up with kids of a range of ages, all before making up their minds about the teaching and practice of 'paedo-baptism' (Greek pais = child); then, since they've already got primary school aged kids, they automatically baptise their babies and really young kids only. I see it when parents converted into Presbyterianism, or Christians newly convinced by the reformed teaching on the practice of paedobaptism don't automatically baptise all their children, but only their infants.

I've been using the phrase "automatically baptise" to imply "independent of the child's faith". Some paedo (or 'covernant') baptists won't necessarily see any inconsistency with newcomers to the infant baptist view also baptising their older kids, because they don't take issue with older children being baptised under an 'covenant' baptist understanding, which is the basis for infant baptism. But not many would do it automatically. If their older child or teenager had confessed defiant unbelief or if this had been expressed through godless behaviour, they would almost appear to become believer/credo-baptists ('credo' = belief) at this point (in practice; apart from a difference in theological basis for our understanding of the new covenant and baptism).

This is a different form of the same inconsistency, since the basis for the infant or covenant baptist practice is passages in both the New Testament and the Old Testament that speak categorically or unconditionally about children and the promise: E.g. all Israelites were circumcised or faced the death penalty according to the Law; it was not dependent on their faith; Acts 2:39 under the infant baptist interpretation says that "the promise" is for "your children"--a promise that would by this logic apply to all Christian kids irrespective of whether they yet have faith (regardless of age), including infants or in later years.

So in principle, paedobaptists may not find it controversial to think about older and even adult children receiving baptism if their believing parents come to a covenant position on this; but in practice they would no longer do it automatically as they do for their infant children: they would instead assume that their children have 'opted out of the covenant' through unbelief, or are confirmed as 'remaining in' the covenant because of their active faith - and so only baptise their older children based upon their faith. But that's not how circumcision worked; that's not how the Old Testament (Abrahamic) covenant worked; and that's not how paedo/covenant baptism would be applied if we take the Scriptural basis and logic of the position literally, to it's end point. If we take it where it ultimately leads, the logical conclusion of the infant baptist basis is that all children of believers should be automatically and unconditionally baptised, just as all the children of Israel were circumcised regardless of age or faith.

In my view, this common inconsistency in practice is very significant, because it calls into question the basis that paedobaptists give for their practice (which are passages that talk about all children of believers even while in practice they restrict the tradition to infant baptism). In other words, when you look at how infant baptists arrive at this belief, their own justification of the practice leads much further than what they actually do; you would expect them to conclude that all children of believers should be baptised. So why don't they follow the theology itself to its actual conclusion?

The quick and easy answer is that Presbyterians base their practice on their denomination's creedal tradition, which relies on the Westminster Confession of Faith:
Article 4 of Chapter 28 of the Westminster Confession states that:
"Not only those that do actually profess faith in and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one, or both, believing parents, are to be baptized,"
This Confession of Faith (which had an enormously significant influence on the development of Presbyterianism) was itself influenced by the historical development of the emergence and acceptance of infant baptism as the cultural norm, which was apparently established by the fifth and sixth centuries after Christ (See: Justin Tyler: Frequently Asked Questions on Baptism in the Early Church). The Westminster Confession of Faith, drawn up in 1646, restricts the practice to infants because that was the long established and normative practice already.

But my question here is not with the implications of this influence of culture and historical context on Presbyterianism; my question is with the theological basis used by the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is also shared by other paedobaptists within reformed traditions.

So to pin down the question a bit more precisely, how does the Westminster Confession of Faith justify from the Scriptures its prescribed baptism for "the infants of one, or both, believing parents" (Chapter 28, article 4); how does it avoid implicating all children into the practice - why doesn't it instruct that all kids of believers, regardless of age, are to be automatically baptised?

In support of article 4, the Confession provides the following proof texts: Genesis 17:7; Galatians 3:9; Colossians 2:11; Acts 2:38; Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 7:14; Mark 10:13 and Luke 18:15.

And all of these texts make reference to children and/or don't come with any condition dependent on age or faith; that is, each of the passages that the Westminster Confession gives in support of this article either speak unqualified and categorically about children or they talk about the practice of circumcision that applied not only to babies but to all permanent household members, including adults (e.g. slaves), and it was a law that applied automatically:
  • Genesis 17:7, God's covenant with Abraham was not made between God and him alone but also with his Seed (offspring) from each generation after him  (i.e. it is an everlasting covenant); it was God's promise to be not only his God but also the God of his Seed after him. And so they, as well as he, received the sign of circumcision as a testimony to this promise.
  • Galatians 3:9, this blessing of Abraham comes through Christ to us Gentiles too, an entails us receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit through faith
  • Colossians 2:11-12, provides the all Christian are circumcised in/by Christ who cut off the self ruled by the flesh when we were baptised into his death and raised with him through faith.
  • Acts 2:38, Peter commands everyone to repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sin and in order to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit; and states that this promise is for not only his listeners but also for their children (not just infants), as well as all those far off (whom the Lord will call).
  • Romans 4:11, Abraham had faith before he was circumcised, so is the father both of those who believe and have not been circumcised (i.e. Christian Gentiles) as well as those who have been circumcised but who also have the faith of Abraham (i.e. Christian Jews); we have already noted that for Jews the practice of circumcision applied to all males in the household, not only newly born babies, but adults as well (e.g. newly bought slaves; cf. Exodus 12:44). 
  • 1 Corinthians 7:14, teaches that the unbelieving spouse of a Christian is sanctified through their faith (i.e. sanctified/holy cannot = saved), and that their children (not only infants), are holy (i.e. to be received/acceptable - as in 1 Timothy 4:4-5 - Paul is taking care that they don't conclude from the seemingly 'unholy' union, aka 2 Corinthians 6:14, that the children must be rejected, cf. especially in view of the context of 2 Corinthians 6:17)
  • Mark 10:13 and Luke 18:15; the only verses in this list actually mentioning babies/infants are the gospel narratives describing people bringing babies to Jesus, who blesses them, which doesn't of course directly relate to baptism, much less provide an age restriction for baptising children. 
When Presbyterians work through this list of texts used to support the practice of infant baptism, do they notice that if anything these passages would lead to the practice of automatically baptising all children of believers, not just infants? In fact, they would lead even further still, because these texts don't only include children of believers, but also adult children of believers (as well will see shortly).

This is not just an issue for Presbyterians to do with this particular article in the Westminster Confession of Faith and the particular supporting texts that it provides; all of the arguments that Presbyterians and Reformed and Anglican theologians put forward for the practice of infant baptism should also apply to all children of believers. For example, J. Ligon Duncan, in Baptism and the Lord's Supper, explains the paedobaptist position:
"Paedobaptists ... believe that Christian believers and their children should be baptized. If we had to reduce our biblical argument for paedobaptism to one (albeit complex!) sentence, it would be something like this: God made promises to believers and their children in both the Old and Testaments, attached signs to those promises in both the Old and New Testaments, explicitly required the sign of initiation into his family (circumcision) to be applied to believers and their children in the Old Testament, and implicitly appointed the new-covenant sign of initiation (baptism) to be given to believers and their children in the New Testament."
Here, Duncan has provided the basis for the practice of baptising not only infants, but all children of all believers - even if they are young adults in the household: they should all get an infant-like baptism (a universal, indiscriminate one)!

If Presbyterians compare baptism to circumcision, do they realise that circumcision was not just for infants? Although children were circumcised as infants (on the eighth day = ASAP), adult slaves bought were also to be circumcised ASAP when they joined the Israel household; any child or slave who didn't get circumcised ASAP contrary to this requirement had to be circumcised later regardless of age and without consideration to their faith, or risk being cut off from God's people by sentence of death under the Law. See:
The example of Moses child born in Exodus 2:22 and notice the "long period" of Exodus 2:23 between the birth of the child in 2:22 and his circumcision in 4:25; and  
The example of the circumcision of the entire second generation of adult Israelites under Joshua after the death of Moses, Joshua 5:1-8: "And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed" (verse 8). 
Exodus 12:44-45: Any slave you have bought may eat [the Passover meal] after you have circumcised him, but a temporary resident or a hired worker may not eat it.
Did Presbyterians automatically baptise their adult slaves before the abolition of the slave trade in England by William Wilberforce, without first their conversion to faith? If not, why not? They also believed that baptism under the New Covenant is like circumcision under the Old.

If Presbyterians use Israel's covenant practice of circumcising babies as an analogy of what they see in the New Testament as similar but new covenant promises to Christian parents about their children, why stop with baptism of the infants of one or more believing parents, as the Westminster Confession (Chapter 28) does?

The parallel between Old Testament circumcision of Jewish babies and baptism of infants under the New Testament is based on verses such as Acts 2:38-39, which they see as containing similar promises as the Old to God's New people about their children:
Acts 2:38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
We have already made the point that if used consistently this would apply to all children; but doesn't Acts 2:38 also state that the promise is "for all who are far off" too?

If the practice of circumcision is analogous or 'instructive' to our practice of baptism (i.e. can be used to work out the applicability of baptism for children), and if Peter's command to "repent and be baptised every one of you" can be applied to children because the promise is not only "for you" but also "for your children and for all who are far off" - then surely, this would mean that Christians must do more than just baptise their infants; they must also:
  1. Baptise a grandchild for whom they are the guardian, despite the unbelief of the grandchild's parent; that is, their own unbelieving son or daughter (See this article by Gavin Orlund)
  2. Baptise an adult slave of their own household irrespective of their conversion (as per Exodus 12:44) (e.g. in the days prior to the abolition of the trade); and
  3. Baptise an adopted child regardless of how old they are when they receive custody, since unlike a fostered child, an adopted child is not akin to the "temporary" resident restriction on circumcision and the passover meal (See Exodus 12:45). 
  4. Baptise all their older children, despite their age and faith, even if they are adults (and didn't get baptised as babies, for whatever reason).
Just as every male in the household was circumcised, Presbyterians would baptise all of their household, not just their children, as did Abraham:
Genesis 17:27: ...Every male in Abraham’s household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.
So therefore:
  • Either the "promise" of Acts 2:39 universally applies to any person who is under a Christian's ownership and physical authority (i.e. any permanent resident of his household), regardless of age or faith -- meaning that the common practice of infant or covenant baptism is inconsistent with itself;
  • Or "the promise" of the Abrahamic covenant, which applied to his direct descendants, applied quite differently to them as does the promise of Acts 2:39 to Gentile believers under Christ's fulfilled Abrahamic covernant - meaning that the sign of that old covenant, circumcision, was quite a different practice with as many differences in applicability to the new sign, baptism, as the New Covenant in Christ is different to that old way which has now passed away.

Can I suggest that this last option (in the second dot point above) is the only possibility (the only option that is not inconsistent in practice with its basis or with the other Scriptures themselves).

This option is the subject of my next article, Why Kids are not in the New Covenant (Because neither are We!).


See also:

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