Chapter 5. Luther’s And Melancthon’s Defence of Infant Baptism
9 min read
9 min read
When the question of infant baptism was raised for the first time among the followers of Martin Luther, Melanchthon, as has been shown, was ready to admit the unscripturalness of the Roman Catholic practice. It was generally realized, however, that not he but Luther would be called upon to say the final word on this question as far as the church of Saxony was concerned. Luther, who lived at that time on the Wartburg, apparently hesitated for a short time, but on January 13, 1522, he wrote a letter to Melanchthon asserting that infant baptism must be considered the orthodox practice.
The basis on which Luther here defended infant baptism was the common usage, tradition, and the authority of the church, instead of the authority of the Scriptures which he had shortly before so earnestly defended. The unbiased student will be impressed with the weakness of his position. He asserts in this letter to Melanchthon that the church holds and has always held infant baptism to be permissible to deny this, he says, is to deny the church. That he speaks here of the Catholic Church does not permit of any doubt; the Lutheran Church had not yet been called into existence when he wrote these words. That the Roman Catholic Church approved of infant baptism he considered sufficient ground to accept it as valid. He based his argument here, as also Julius Kostlin, the well known authority on Luther’s theology, testifies, on tradition and the general usage. Luther concludes his argumentation for infant baptism in the said letter to Melanchthon with the remarkable sentence: “I have always expected that Satan would touch [us at] this sore; he did not desire to raise this evil dissension through the Papists, but through those who are of our own number.” These words indicate that he believed it probable that the Papists would attack him on the question of infant baptism; to all appearance he expected that they would assert this practice to be inconsistent with other doctrines of his system.
But had not Luther emphatically taught that faith is the necessary prerequisite for baptism? Did he recant this teaching or modify his views on this point? No, strange to say, he always insisted that the Scriptures teach the baptism of believers and nevertheless baptized the infants. He based his principal argument for infant baptism on the curious supposition that infants are believers. He held, if an infant had no faith, God would give him faith just before he received the sacrament of baptism; in consequence of the prayer of the church and through the power of the holy word, he said, faith was poured into the infant (eingegossen). Luther made the strange assertion that if an adult can have faith when his mind is occupied with worldly affairs or when he is asleep, an infant also can have faith. But Julius Kostlin, in his work on Luther’s Theology, says rightly that he fails to explain himself satisfactorily concerning the nature of the faith of infants.
This opinion of the faith of infants was zealously defended by Luther, Melanchthon and their friends as well as by the Lutheran theologians of later centuries. In his Refutation of Some Unchristian Articles which the Anabaptists hold, Melanchthon says: “That the Anabaptists say. The infants have no faith, is a human imagination.” But curiously enough, Melanchthon, in order to refute the supposed teaching of the Anabaptists that there may be faith where there is no knowledge of God’s word, says in the same book : “The holy Spirit does not work without the word of God, and we must know and lay hold on God through his word, as Paul says. Faith cometh by hearing, that is from preaching or from the outward word. This order God will follow and never set aside.”
This is the most fundamental article of our doctrine, that no sacrament can in itself, without faith, effect grace.” “Baptism should be administered to no one except he himself believe, and no one should be baptized except on his own faith.” “Now if we can not prove that infants believe for themselves and have faith, then my honest judgment and advice is straightway to cease, the sooner the better, and nevermore baptize an infant, that we may not mock and blaspheme the high majesty of God with such foolish and fraudulent work which would be nothing but empty show.
In his book On Anabaptism, to Two Pastors, Luther sets forth the strange argument that there is more certainty concerning the faith of infants, than of adults who profess to be believers. He quotes the last part of the sentence: “I said in my haste. All men are liars” (Psa. 116:11) in support of this argument. “Even if Saint Peter baptized someone,” he says, “nevertheless no one could know whether Saint Peter at that hour believed or doubted.” But since the Anabaptists did not accept the view that baptism possesses a miraculous, magic power, the act of baptism obviously would not be invalid if the one who administered it were not a Christian at heart. The vital point is that the applicant for baptism believes in Christ as his personal redeemer. Here Luther replies that no one can be sure of his own saving faith. “Believe we must, but we shall not and can not know with certainty.” Hence, says Luther, the applicant for baptism “is not sure of his faith.” His opinion of the uncertainty of faith was emphatically rejected by the (Lutheran) Pietists of a later period.
Upon the assertion that infant baptism is acceptable because it is the usage of the Catholic Church, Luther enlarges further in his book On Anabaptism. He defends the view that the Roman Catholic Church, although it needed a reformation, was the true church of Christ and hence, he argues, it must have the true baptism. He ignores the fact that on this score there could be maintained many practices which he emphatically condemned. The baptism of infants, he declares, was generally practiced in the Christian church, and this was to him proof that “infant baptism must be right.” He continues:
You may say, this is no certain evidence that infant baptism is acceptable for there is no passage from the Scriptures. My answer is: It is true, there is not sufficient evidence from Scripture that you might be justified to begin infant baptism [had you lived] at the time of the early Christians after the apostolic period. But so much is evident that in our time no one may venture with a good conscience to reject or abandon infant baptism which has so long been practiced.” “For nothing should be discarded or changed which cannot be discarded or changed with clear Scripture.
The argument based on circumcision was also advanced by the Lutheran reformers. Melanchthon defended the opinion that circumcision was for the Old Covenant what baptism is for the New, and that both were necessary for the salvation of infants. He says further: “In the first place it was commanded in the Law that the young children should be circumcised on the eighth day.” He overlooks the fact that circumcision concerned only the male children. If baptism corresponds to circumcision and is necessary to save the infant, it would follow, as was pointed out by some of the Anabaptist writers, that the male children alone were included in God’s grace in Old Testament times, and further, the baptism of females would be unauthorized.
The Anabaptists did not admit that circumcision can be made the basis of an argument for infant baptism. They insisted on a difference in the nature of the Old and New Covenant. In Old Testament times the people of the Covenant were a nation; God made this covenant with all the descendants of Abraham by Isaac and Jacob. It was not left to the decision of each Israelite whether he would be included in this outward covenant; hence the males received the rite of circumcision in their infancy. In the Christian church the right of membership is not based on the natural birth. “That which is bom of the flesh is flesh.” A New Testament church is not a national organization; it is a body of believers.
Another reason set forth in the same work of Luther is contained in the following sentence: “If [infant] baptism is right and effective and saves the children, as we believe, and I discarded it, I should be guilty of [the damnation of] all children who [died in infancy and]] would be lost without baptism. This would be terrible and frightful.” “The truth is,” says Adolf Schlatter, “that not the belief in the faith of the infants or of the godfathers, but the fear that the infants would without baptism be condemned to hell, is responsible for the continued practice of infant baptism. But fear is not a valid foundation in this instance. Infant baptism in this shape is faithless and sinful, an after-effect of the superstitious disfiguration of the sacrament with which the mediaeval church was stained.”
The argument that infants are in danger of eternal damnation without baptism is based on the Roman Catholic view of the saving efficiency of the sacraments, which was at first discarded but finally re-adopted by Luther. In his Smaller Catechism he speaks of baptism as “a gracious water of life.” Melanchthon in his Instruction Against the Doctrine of the Anabaptists says on this point:
Since there is forgiveness of sin only where there is the Word and sacrament, it follows that salvation pertains only to those infants to whom the sacrament is administered. Therefore the enthusiasts, or Anabaptists, can never truthfully say that the infants to whom baptism is not administered are saved or obtain remission of sin. Say, ye Anabaptists, what passage, what ground or example of Scripture will you here set forth, to prove to us that there is forgiveness of sin without the Christian church? Here we must also say what kind of sin is remitted for the infants. I notice that the Fathers held that original sin is forgiven for them. Thus writes Augustine in many places This opinion I also will follow, since it is founded on Scripture.”
At a later date, probably in 1535, Melanchthon rewrote his Instruction, making many changes and additions. He says: “God has given the church authority to forgive sins and to dispense such forgiveness through the sacraments. It follows therefore that we owe it to the infants to impart unto them forgiveness through baptism.” In the same book he says further: “In the doctrine of the Anabaptists you find many abominable errors, falsehoods, and blasphemy against God. — Anabaptism is a terrible, wicked error and blasphemy against the divine name.”
So completely did Melanchthon in later years forget his own former inability to defend infant baptism and his wavering attitude on this question, that in this and other instances he declared the Anabaptist deviation from the Lutheran creed to be blasphemy. On the supposition that heresy is blasphemy he opined that the Anabaptists, on account of their teaching on infant baptism and other doctrinal points, should be executed as blasphemers. Luther also, in later years, was of the opinion that Anabaptists could be rightfully put to death. And yet he did not deny that on the principal point of controversy they held an orthodox position in so far as they believed faith to be necessary prerequisite for baptism. He built his defence of infant baptism on the sophistical argument that infants have faith. The Anabaptists found themselves unable to concede to him this point and hence were subjected to the most cruel persecution.
A notable refutation of the belief that infants may have faith and are lost without baptism is contained in the Reply of the Hutterite Brethren to the Calumny of Colman Rorer, the Flacian Teacher, 1593. Colman Rorer, a minister of the Flacians (the most conservative wing of the Lutherans) defended this supposition against the Hutterite Anabaptists and accused them that they “wantonly rob the infants of eternal life” by refusing to baptize them. The Brethren wrote in reply to his attack:
You undertake to show that infants have faith in Christ, for the reason that Christ set a child in the midst of his disciples. This will never stand the test, the Gospel writer says: Jesus called a child and set it in their midst. Well now, call a child in the cradle a whole day, and see whether it will come. And your infants whom you baptize can neither stand nor walk. How does this accord? Like black and white. Say, what could you do to an unconscious infant that he be offended? — You ask, whether God can not give the infants faith, since it is the gift of God. Answer: He could also cause them to know the difference between good and evil, but he will not do it, and nevertheless he is Almighty God. Well, well, you say, how do you know that infants do not believe? Now let the holy apostle who was a chosen vessel of God give the answer. He says: ‘How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?’ Faith, says the apostle, is the confidence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Now, show us what sort of confidence have the infants in the cradle. What things do they hope for? What evidence have they of things not seen? O Egyptian darkness and blindness! What sort of faith our infants have, the same faith have also the infants of Jews and Turks. And is it any fault of theirs that you do not also baptize them?
You write, we wantonly rob the infants of eternal life. This you say contrary to the truth, as is your fashion. But know that God asks of little infants neither faith nor baptism; he will not damn the blessed dear innocents for they are not able to believe. If God has spared the great city of Nineveh for the children’s sake, there being in the city twelve times ten thousand who could not discern between their right hand and their left hand, why should he now, after Christ, our only Saviour and Redeemer, has died for the human family, not spare our innocent youth and exempt them from perdition? Which is greater, baptism or Christ who is the only mercy-seat and mediator? Who has baptized the thief on the cross? Nevertheless Paradise was promised him. Who now may be so impudent and presumptuous to damn the innocent infants because they are not baptized, though indeed Christ says ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven,’ and does not even allude to baptism? But you are the one who does that of which you accuse us, saying that we condemn others; for you condemn the infants except you give them infant baptism. But concerning us you say the untruth. This is to cast out Jesus Christ from his rightful place, to set human opinion on his stead and to decide on matters which God has reserved for his judgment.
“The poor innocent children who were not baptized with this baptism although they were baptized in the blood of the Lord and have the sure promise of the kingdom of God,” says Menno Simons, “are nevertheless considered lost and are buried without the [consecrated] graveyard. What infamy! What blindness!”
Besides Luther and Melanchthon the most notable literary antagonist of the Anabaptists among the Lutherans was Justus Menius, the reformer of Thuringia. To his first two books Luther wrote the prefaces. He says in the preface to the second book: “So overwhelmingly has Justus Menius refuted the Anabaptists’ heresy that (as I have said) even a cow, if she had reason, must say, it is the truth and can not be otherwise.” Menius’ arguments proved inefficient to convince the Anabaptists and their friends — a fact that is readily accounted for by those who have read his books. Professor Paul Tschackert says rightfully that the great uncertainty prevailed among the Lutherans and Zwinglians in the matter of the proper defence of infant baptism.