The Roman Catholic Church, it is well known, does not accept the Scriptures as the final authority in matters of faith and practice; the church (the pope) is held to be a higher authority than the Scriptures, hence it is not inconsistent with the fundamental principles of this church to advocate doctrines that are not based on Scripture. The Protestant churches, on the other hand, are generally supposed to consider the Scriptures the sole rule of faith and practice and to reject that which is not founded on Scripture. Nevertheless it is generally known that Protestant denominations defend infant baptism, though this practice is never mentioned in Scripture and prominent historians of the said denominations agree in the testimony that the baptism of infants was foreign to the thought of the apostolic church and was first introduced more than a century after the founding of the church.
How, in the light of these facts, is it to be accounted for that Protestant denominations defend and practice infant baptism, or, to state the question in other words, why did the leading reformers of the sixteenth century, viz. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, not follow in the footsteps of the apostolic church on this important point? Why did they not discard the practice of baptizing the unconscious infants?
Martin Luther (in Germany) and Ulrich Zwingli (in Switzerland), in the first period of their labors as reformers, maintained opinions which are irreconcilable with their later defense of infant baptism.
The Lutheran reformers, in their first period, advocated the Voluntary Principle; they taught emphatically that the Scriptures are the only rightful authority in matters of faith and practice, and held that “the sacraments are signs and seals which do nothing of themselves.” After a few years of reformatory endeavors, however, Luther and his friends again accepted the doctrine of regeneration through baptism. They believed the unbaptized infants to be lost and hence could not dispense with infant baptism. But in view of the doctrine of justification by faith, for which they stood, they found it not easy to maintain the teaching that infants are saved through the rite of baptism. They resorted to unheard-of arguments for the baptism of infants. At the time when they again accepted the opinion of the saving efficacy of the ordinances, they also modified and changed their position on the Voluntary Principle and the authority of the Scriptures.
Ulrich Zwingli at first openly questioned the Roman Catholic usage of baptism, but after he came to realize that the practice of believers’ baptism would mean the organization of an independent church and the separation of church and state, in other words, when he recognized that faith-baptism would make an exclusive state-church impossible, he devoted much effort to the defense of infant baptism. Zwingli rejected the Roman Catholic view of the magic effect of the sacraments. He based his maintenance of the baptism of infants not so much on principle as on expediency.
The Lutheran Reformers Earlier Teaching on Baptism and Its Meaning
In the earlier years of his reformatory labors Luther often expressed himself in a way which can not be harmonized with his later teaching on the sacraments and their supposed magic effects. In his Sermon on Baptism, published in 1519, he gives this scriptural definition: “Baptism is an outward sign or watchword which distinguishes us from all unbaptized men and marks us a people of Christ, our leader, under whose banner we continually strive against sin.” In this sermon Luther describes baptism further as “a covenant or vow.” He says:
Therefore it is true that there is no higher better, greater vow than the vow of baptism, for nothing greater can be vowed than to shun all sin, to die to it” etc. “The sacrament or sign of baptism is quickly administered, as we see before our eyes; but the meaning, the spiritual baptism, the drowning of sin, continues while we live.” “In no other sense is man made pure in baptism, than that a beginning is made toward this end, and of this he has [in baptism] a sign and covenant and he is to become more and more pure.
The doctrine of regeneration through baptism is expressly denied in this sermon. Unless that which is symbolized in baptism is also carried out in practical life, says Luther, “there remains the old man, as formerly”.
In his famous book On the Babylonish Captivity of the Church (1520) Luther defends the view that faith saves without baptism, and somewhat later he says in a sermon: “Baptism is nothing more than an outward sign, instituted and commanded by Christ in order to bring to our mind the divine promise.”
In March, 1521, Luther wrote:
This is also the meaning of the words of Christ, Mark 16:16, ‘He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved.’ He maketh faith to precede baptism. For where faith is not in evidence, baptism availeth not, as he himself says afterwards: He that believeth not shall be condemned, although he may be baptized. For not baptism but faith [which is necessary] for baptism saves. Therefore we read Acts 8:37 that Saint Philip would not baptize the Eunuch before he had asked him whether he believed. And we see daily that in all the world, wherever baptism is performed, the infant, or the godfathers in his stead, is asked whether he believes, and on the faith and confession [of the godfathers] baptism is administered [to the infant].
Further Saint Paul says, Rom. 10:8, to be saved it is necessary to believe from the heart. He does not say it is required to receive the sacraments, for without actually receiving the sacraments (if they are not despised) one may be saved through faith. And without faith no sacrament is of any avail. Without faith the sacraments are indeed condemning and detrimental. For this reason Paul writes, Rom. 4:3, that Abraham believed God or trusted him and this faith was accounted to him for righteousness or salvation, as was previously written in Gen. 15:6. And it was written that we should know that no other means will save and justify than alone faith without which no one may approach God, no one may obtain his grace.
Philip Melanchthon, the most prominent coworker with Martin Luther, in his Loci Communes or System of Christian Doctrine, of 1521, says:
The assertion that the sacraments of the New Testament have the virtue to justify the people, as they [the Roman Catholic theologians] say, is an obvious error; for faith alone justifies. — ‘What others speak of as sacraments, I name signs, or if you prefer, sacramental signs. — The signs do not justify, as Saint Paul says: ‘Circumcision availeth nothing.’ So also baptism availeth nothing and partaking of the holy, most reverend sacrament or participation of the table of the Lord availeth nothing, but they are testimonies and signs or seals and signets of the gracious, kind will of God toward us; through which signs your conscience is assured, if it have doubts concerning the grace and loving kindness of God.’ — The sacraments are signs of the divine promises which signs do nothing of themselves, but are a sort of mark, surety, or pledge by which we keep constantly in mind that the promises are effectual.
The Lutheran reformers of Nuremberg, Andreas Osiander, Dominicus Sleupner and Thomas Venatonus, advocated similar principles. Shortly before the beginning of the Anabaptist movement, namely in 1524, they published a book in which they defined the sacraments as “outward symbols which beautifully set forth the nature and character of evangelical doctrine.” On baptism they say: “He who consents to the death of the old man, has already in part mortified his old life. And if he comes to baptism with this conviction, it is as if he were buried. Now where such a mind is associated with baptism, much of the sinful desire has without doubt already ceased.” The authors of this book do not attempt to harmonize the practice of baptizing the infants with this view of baptism.
Perhaps at no other place the Lutherans favored the abolition of infaint baptism to greater extent than at Nordlingen in Swabia. Theobald Billican, the Lutheran reformer of this city, wrote in 1525 in a book defending the changes which had been recently introduced in the church: “We baptize infants and we also baptize adults. We comply with the wishes of those who do not desire to have their infants baptized, but we present them to Christ our Mediator and Redeemer by the laying on of hands and the prayer of the church. The Council of Carthage [in the fifth century] has decided that it shall be left to the liberty of every one whether or not he would have infants baptized. This is also our position.” This statement shows that the Lutherans of Nordlingen at that time did not defend the practice of infant baptism, but accepted its abandonment as orthodox. A similar position on the point in question was taken by the Lutheran preachers at Liegnitz in Silesia.
Very soon the Lutheran reformers encountered men who would not only omit infant baptism, but rejected it outright as unscriptural. These men drew the practical consequences of the teaching that “baptism is nothing more than an outward sign.” If it be correct, they said, that the purpose of the “signs” or ordinances is to strengthen the faith, then infants are not proper subjects for baptism and to baptize them on the faith of the church or of the godfathers is an unscriptural usage. Melanchthon frankly confessed that he was unable to meet the conclusions and arguments of these men. It seemed to him that their rejection of infant baptism was not unorthodox. On January 1, 1522, he wrote to Spalatin informing him that the men who had come to Wittenberg from Zwickau held that the baptism of infants is unscriptural and that the faith of the church will not suffice to make the infants proper subjects for baptism. Melanchthon continues his letter as follows:
These two opinions [namely that infant baptism is unjustifiable and that the faith of the church is no acceptable substitute for the faith of the one who is to be baptized] are verily not to be despised and will probably cause difficulty to people more learned than I, as well as to the masses. Well, I expected that the devil would touch us at a weak place. Augustine and many others of his time have disputed concerning infant baptism and have accomplished little, and he bases his argument [for infant baptism] upon original sin [which is to be effaced through baptism] and upon the general usage. Doctor Martin [Luther] knows quite well what this question really means. And, in short, this is a matter of anxiety (Sorge) to me, as it also has formerly been. — Not without cause, it seems to me, has this question of baptism moved me.