Christian Nurture

By Horace Bushnell

Part I. The Doctrine.

Chapter 6


"And I baptized also the household of Stephanas."--1 Cotinthians, i. 16.

WE have traced the conditions under which infant baptism would almost certainly be developed. But we do not leave the question here. We have many and distinct evidences for the rite, which are abundantly decisive; some from the nature of the family state, some from the New Testament, and some from the subsequent history of the church. These I will now undertake to present in the briefest mianner possible. And

1. The organic unity of the family makes a ground for it, and sets it in terms of rational respect. The child that is born, is really not born, in the higher sense of that term, till he has breathed a long time. He does not live in his own will, but is in the will and life of his parents. To bring him forward into his own will and responsibility is the problem of years. He is in the matrix still of parental character, where all the graces, faiths, prayers, promises, of the parents are his also. He lives and breathes in them, and is of them, almost as truly as they are of themselves. What we call the house, is the organic life that grows him as a mind or agent, tempers him, works him into his habits, fashions him as by a precedent power, to be born and finally take dominion of himself. Why then should religion make no recognition of a fact so profoundly religious? Why not assume that the child is just where he is; in the faith of the house, to grow up there? It would even be a supposition against nature to suppose that he will not. It is very true that he may not, because the faith of the house is no faith, or so mixed with sense and passion as to have none of the true power. Still, when the discipleship is assumed to be made by faith, it must also be assumed that, being so made, it will have all the power of faith, shaping the parental life in the molds of that power, and just as certainly including or inclosing in those molds, there to be also shaped, the infant life of the offspring. The father and mother are not merely a man and a woman, but they are a man and woman having children; and accordingly it is the father and mother, that is, the man and woman and their children, that are to be baptized.

2. It is precisely this great fact of an organic unity that is taken hold of and consecrated, in the field of religion, by the Abrahamic and other family covenants. And the whole course of revelation, both in the Old and New Testament, is tinged by associations, and sprinkled over with expressions that recognize the religious unity of families, and the inclusion of the children with the parents All the promises run--"to you and to your children;" for Peter's language here is only an inspired transfer and reassertion of the Jewish family ideas at the earliest moment, in the field of Christianity itself. It recognizes the fact that Christianity is just what we know it to be, nothing but a continuation and fuller development of the old religion. It widens out the scope of the old religion, so as to include all nations, even as the prophets foretold; and raises all the rites and symbols into a higher spiritual sense, as they were appointed from the first to be raised. Taken all together, the old and the new constitute a perfect whole or system, and the process is neither more nor less than God's way of developing and authenticating a universal religion. In this universal religion, therefore, we are to look for the continuance onward of the old family character and the inclusive oneness of fathers with their children. The only difference will be that the oneness will be raised into a more spiritual and higher sense, just as every thing else was raised. The children are thus to be looked upon presumptively as believing in the faith, and regenerated in the regeneration of the fathers. And here again,

3. Circumcision comes to our aid, as another and distinct evidence. For it was given to be "a seal of the righteousness of faith," and the application of it, as a seal, to infant children, involves all the precise difficulties--neither more nor less--that are raised by the deniers of infant baptism. Let the point here made be accurately understood. The argument is not that infant baptism was directly substituted for circumcision. Of this there is no probable evidence. Such a substitution could not have been made without remark, discussion, oppositions of prejudice, and the raising of contentions that would have required distinct mention, many times over, in the apostolic history. But the argument is this: that the Jewish mind was so familiarized by custom with the notion of an inclusive religious unity in families, (partly by the rite of circumcision,) that Christian baptism, being the seal of faith, was naturally and by a kind of associational instinct, applied over to families in the same manner. Not to have made such an application would have required some authoritative interposition, some dike of positive hindrance, to turn aside the current of Jewish prepossessions. And if there had risen up, somewhere, a man of Baptist notions, to ask, where is the propriety of applying baptism, given as a rite for believers, to infants, who we certainly know are not old enough to believe? he could not even have begun to raise an impression by it. Was not circumcision given to Abraham to be the seal of faith? and has it not been applied from his time down to the present, in this way--applied to infant children eight days old? True it is the doctrine of Christ, "he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved," and our apostles too are saying, "if thou believest with all thy heart thou mayest." So we all say and think, as relating to adult persons; but do we not all know that what is given to the father includes the children, and that his faith is the faith of the house? Nothing, in short, is plainer than that every argument raised to convict infant baptism of absurdity, holds, in the same manner, as convicting circumcision of absurdity, and all the religious polity of the former ages. Every such argument, too, mocks the religious feeling and conviction of all these former ages, in a way of disrespect equally presumptuous.

It is very true, as declared by the apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, that circumcision, seal of faith as it was, did not always have its meaning fulfilled; "for all are not Israel that are of Israel." Esau and Edom, his posterity, became, thus, an apostate race; and this, in a certain sense, by Providential appointment. But the scope of God's providential purpose, as every intelligent Christian ought to know, does not correspond with the scope of his grace or the measures of his gifts and promises. For the Providential plan takes in all the perversities of human action, while the grace-plan or promise corresponds with the aims and measures of God's paternal goodness. He means and offers, in other words, more than human perversity will take; gives a presumption of good, on his part, which he knows that human wrongs will not allow to be actualized. Then, as his Providential purposes and plan are graduated to what will actually be, not to what he means, wishes, and promises, it follows that the facts or issues of his Providential order do not answer to the scope of his gracious intention. And thus it comes to pass that, while he gives a seal of faith, which ought to be answered, by a result in which all are Israel that are of Israel, the fact is different. Had Israel ruled his house as he ought, had Rebekah been an honest woman, loving both her sons impartially, and seeking the true welfare of both--not conspiring with one to rob and cheat the other--Esau might have been a different man, and Edom might have been a family of Israel. In circumcision, as a seal of faith, God gave, on his part, the pledge and presumption that so it should be. But Edom was thrown off into apostasy by courses of human perversity that disappointed the seal. And the same is true of infant baptism in all those cases where the faith is narrowed, or denied, by parental misconduct. There is yet no falsity in the circumcision, or the baptism, because all which it signified was true; viz., that God, on his part, sought and meant and would have made actual, the whole promise of it. How often is adult baptism itself applied to such as have no faith at all; but this does not affect the inherent truth of the rite, and if they should live so as not to allow it any correspondence with fact, when applied to their children, does it any more affect the truth of it there? The rite measures God's intent and promise, and refuses to narrow itself by the perversity of the subjects. It says, "this child shall grow up in faith--give it baptism." Then if, by unbelief and graceless conduct in the parents, it grows up to be the stem of an Edomitish stock, it will not disappoint God's providential order and plan, and as little will it disprove God's promise and truth in the baptism. God is honored, and the rite is honored still. It is only the parental faith and life that are not.

4. It appears that Christian baptism was not a rite wholly new, but a reapplication of proselyte baptism. The custom had been, as the Gentile was an unclean person, to baptize him, as a token of cleansing, when he was received to be a Jew; and his family, of course, were baptized with him, to make the lustration complete. So Christ proposes baptism, as the token of that lustration, which is to purify such as become citizens in the kingdom of heaven. And the conversation of Christ with Nicodemus evidently supposes such a rite previously existing and familiarly known by him. This being true, all that he says of baptism, or the lustration by water and the Spirit, supposes a baptism also of children with their parents, according to the custom. The civil regeneration of the proselyte and his family by such ceremonies will be answered, in reapplying the rite, by the spiritual regeneration of the convert and his family. If infants were, in this case, to be excepted, or not baptized, the exception required to be expressly made; for otherwise, the very transfer of the rite to a spiritual use must, of itself, carry infant baptism with it. Thus Lightfoot says with great force, "the Baptists object--it is not commanded that infants should be baptized, therefore they should not be baptized. But I say it is not prohibited that infants should be baptized, therefore they should be baptized; for since the baptism of children was familiarly practiced in the admission of proselytes, there was no need that it should be confirmed by express precept, when baptism came to be an evangelical sacrament. For Christ took baptism as he found it, and the whole nation knew perfectly well that little children had always been baptized. On the contrary, if he had intended that the custom should be abolished, he would have expressly prohibited it." Wetstein also says, in the same manner--"I do not see how it could enter into their thoughts to expunge boys and infants from the list of disciples, or from baptism, unless they had been excluded by the express injunction of Christ, which we nowhere find."2

5. Christ comes very near to a specific and formal command of infant baptism, when we put together, side by side, what he says of baptism in the third chapter of John, and what he says concerning infants elsewhere. There he recognizes baptism as a token of one's entrance into the kingdom of God; elsewhere he says--suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of heaven. These terms, "kingdom of God," and "kingdom of heaven," denote, externally, the church; and the church is also presented under the figure of a school, as here of a kingdom, in all those cases where becoming "a disciple" or learner is spoken of. In this latter view or figure, baptism is conceived to be one's enrollment openly as a disciple; and what is more fit than that children should be learners--brought in by their parents to be learners with them--of the Christian grace? This, in fact, was the general significance of faith in those times; they were called believers who so recognized the truth of Christ's person that they were ready to become learners under him. And the Baptists themselves act on this same principle, never holding the necessity that baptism should actually follow faith. in the high and complete sense of spiritual conversion. Probably half their members, in the church, come into doubt, before they die, of the time when they were really born of the Spirit; and, in cases of open apostasy, where there is a recovery, and the disciple openly testifies that he was not before a truly converted person, he is not rebaptized. It is enough that, by his baptism, he has openly signified his wish to be a disciple in the school of Christ; where, if he has never learned before, it is only the more necessary that he be a true learner now; which if he become, tht great law, "he that believeth and is baptized," is sufficiently fulfilled. Just so with the child of a Christian parentage; whatever doubts may be entertained of his certainly growing up in the faith, there is a much better presumption that he will, if the parents are faithful, than there is, in the case of persons converted from the world, that they will prove to be true believers; and if he should not grow up in the faith, but afterwards becomes a Christian, there is just as much greater propriety in his baptism as an infant, and no more reason why he should be rebaptized, than there is in the case of apostate professors who become truly converted.

6. What is said in the New Testament of household baptism, or the baptizing of households, is positive proof that infants were baptized in the times of the apostles--baptized, that is, in and because of the supposed faith of the parents. The fact of such baptism is three times distinctly mentioned; in the case of "the household of Stephanas," of Lydia "and her household," and the jailor "and all his." In the first case, nothing is said of faith at all, though doubtless he was baptized as a believer. In the second, every thing turns on the personal faith of Lydia--"if ye have judged me to be faithful." In the third, it seems to be said, according to an English translation, that all the house believed--"he rejoiced, believing in God, with All his house." But the participle, believing, is singular and not plural in the original, and the phrase--"with all his house"--plainly belongs to the verb and not to the participle. Rigidly translated, the passage would read--"he rejoiced with all his house, himself believing."

It is often objected that, in all these three cases, for aught that appears, the households were made up of adult persons, who were baptized because they all believed. But the chance that this should be true of the only three households said to be baptized, and that there should be three households, as households were commonly made up in that time, in which there were no young children or infants, is not even one in a million, as computed by what is called the doctrine of chances. Besides, if it was a thing understood that infants were never to be baptized, it is important to observe that no such way of speaking could ever come into use. What Baptist could ever be induced, with his view of baptism, to say inclusively, and without some kind of qualification, that he had baptized the household of Richard or Mary? We need not stop, in this view, to ask whether certainly there were infants in any one of these households; the mode of speaking itself shows that baptism went by households, and that when the head was judged to be faithful, his baptism carried the presumptive faith and consequent baptism of all. Of this, too,

7. We have a distinct indication, in what is said of children, where but one of the parents believes. Thus Paul distinctly teaches, "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; else were your children unclean, but now are they holy." It is not meant here that the children are actually and inwardly holy persons, but that only having one Christian parent is enough to change their presumptive relations to God; enough to make them Christian children, as distinguished from the children of unbelievers. So strong is the conviction, even. in these apostolic times, of an organic unity sovereign over the faith and the religious affinities of children that, where but one parent believes, that faith carries presumptively the faith of the children with it And upon this grand fact of the religious economy, baptism was, from the first, and properly, applied to the children of them that believe. Hence, too--

8. It was that the children of believers were familiarly addressed with them as believers; as in the epistles of Paul to the Ephesians and Colossians. These epistles are formally inscribed to churches or Christian brotherhoods--"to the saints, which are at Ephesus, and to the faithful in Christ Jesus"--"to the saints and faithful brethren, which are at Colosse." And yet in both, the children are particularly addressed --"Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right"--"Children obey your parents in all things; for this is well pleasing unto the Lord." In this manner, children are formally included among the "faithful in Christ Jesus." The conception is that children are, of course, included in the religion of their parentage, grow up faithful with their faithful or believing parents. Or. the ground of this same presumption, they were properly baptized with them, or on their account. Again--

9. It is a point of consequence to notice that such as reject all these and similar evidences from the Scripture, on the ground that infant baptism can not be rightly practiced, because it is not directly and specifically appointed in the Scripture, do yet make nothing of their own argument in other observances familiarly accepted. Why infant baptism was not and should not be required to have been specifically commanded, I have shown already; how, for example, it was necessarily developed, as from a point distinctly referred to in Peter's first sermon, and how the very institution of baptism carried, of necessity, infant baptism with it, apart from any express mention. In the meantime, it will be found that the objectors themselves are admitting and practicing, without difficulty, observances that have comparatively no specific authority at all. At the sacrament of the Supper, they use leavened bread without scruple, when they know that it was not used by Christ himself, and was solemnly forbidden at the festival, he was there, in fact, reappointing for the Christian uses of his disciples in all future ages. Where then is the authority given for a change even in the element of the Holy Supper itself? The Christian Lord's day, too, accepted in the place of the Jewish Sabbath, and that even against a specific command of the decalogue--how readily, and with how little scruple, do they accept this Lord's day and let the ancient Sabbath go, when it is only by the faintest, most equivocal, or evanescent indications they can make out a shadow of authority for the change? "Direct proof! positive command! specific injunction!" they say, "without these, infant baptism has no right." Where then do they get their authority for these other observances; one of them never referred to in Scripture at all, and the other so doubtfully, that infant baptism has, in comparison, the clear evidence of day?

Lastly, it remains to glance at the evidences from church history, or the history of times subsequent to the age of the apostles. It has been the mood of Christian learning, in the generation past--for the learned men have moods and phases, not to say fashions, like others in the less thoughtful conditions--to make large concessions in the matter of baptism, both as regards the manner and the subjects. But a reaction is now begun, and it is my fixed conviction that it will not stop, till the encouragement heretofore given to the Baptist opinions is quite taken away.

It has never been questioned, however, that infant baptism, became the current practice of the church at a very early date. It is mentioned, incidentally and otherwise, in the writings of the earliest church fathers after the age of the apostles.

Thus it is testified by Justin Martyr, who was probably born before the death of the apostle John--"There are many of us, of both sexes, some sixty and some seventy years old, who were made disciples from their childhood." And the word made disciples is the same that Christ himself used when he said, "Go teach [i.e. disciple] all nations, baptizing," &c.; the same that was currently applied to baptized children afterwards.

Ireneus, born a few years later, writes--"Christ came to redeem all by himself; all who through him are regenerated unto God; infants and little children, and young men, and older persons. Hence, he passed through every age, and for the infants he became an infant, sanctifying infants; among the little children, he became a little child, sanctifying those who belong to this age; and at the same time, presenting them an example of well doing, and obedience; among the young men he became a young man, that he might set them an example, and sanctify them to the Lord." In the phrase, "regenerated to God," which is thus applied to infants, expressly named as distinguished from little children, he refers, it can not be doubted, to baptism; which, being the outward sign of such inward grace, was naturally and very commonly called regeneration. Infants plainly could be regenerated to God in no other sense; and therefore his language can not even be supposed to have any meaning, if this be rejected.

Tertullian follows, urging the delay of baptism, and, in fact, advocating the disuse of infant baptism altogether. But his appeal supposes the current practice of such baptism at the time, and in that way rather augments than diminishes the weight of historic evidence. And the more so that he urges the delay of baptism on grounds that are false and even superstitious, viz.: that baptism carries the forgiveness of sins, and should therefore be postponed to a later period, because the sins committed after baptism must otherwise be cleared by a more purgatorial method.

Origen, who was born near the close of the second century, or about a hundred years after the time of the apostles, testifies--"According to the usage of the church, baptism is given to infants." And again--"The church received an order from the apostles to baptize infants."

Somewhere in these first two centuries, the ancient writing called the "Shepherd," or the "Shepherd of Hermas," because it purports to have been written by a teacher of that name, declares the opinion that--"All infants are in honor with the Lord, and are esteemed first of all--the baptism of water is necessary to all" Who this Hermas was, and when he lived, is not ascertained, but he is supposed by many to be the very same person mentioned by Paul, Rom. xvi. 14. He is acknowledged by Neander, as one who "had great authority in the first centuries."

It is a remarkable evidence, too, that inscriptions are found on the monuments of children, considered by antiquarians to be of a very early age, probably of the first two or three centuries, in which they are called fideles, that is faithfuls; just as children are addressed by Paul among the "faithful brethren" of Ephesus and Colosse. The following is an example --(Buonarotti, 17 Fabretti, Cap. 4,) "A faithful among faithfuls, here lies Zosimus. He lived two years one month and twenty-five days." How far they carried the presumption of infant baptism, that children are to grow up in the grace of their parents, is here seen.

It signifies little, therefore, as respects this question, after the authorities cited, that the Bishops of the North African Church, in a council called by Cyprian, about the middle of the third century, decided that baptism should not of course be delayed for eight days, according to the law of circumcision, which many supposed to govern the rite.

So clear, in short, and decided was the authority of infant baptism, that Pelagius, a man of great learning, who had traveled in Britain, France, Italy, Africa Proper, Egypt, and Palestine, declared, in his controversy with Augustine, about the beginning of the fifth century, that "he had never heard of any impious heretic or sectary, who had denied infant baptism." "What," he also asked, "can be so impious as to hinder the baptism of infants?"

Augustine himself also testifies--"The whole church of Christ has constantly held that infants were baptized. Infant baptism the whole church practices. It was not instituted by councils, but was ever in use."

Infant baptism, therefore, is a fact of church history not to be fairly questioned. And accordingly the argument may be summed up thus: beginning at a point previous, we find customs and associations that would almost certainly be issued in such a rite of family religion; in the discourses of Christ and the apostolical writings we find that it actually was; and then we find the facts of church history correspondent. On the whole, while it may be admitted that baptism itself is a little more positively authenticated, it can not be denied that infant baptism is authenticated by all sufficient evidence.


[2] This subject of proselyte baptism has been spoken of also in the second Sermon, and need not be further dwelt upon here.