Saturday, February 21, 2015

Debunking Baptismal Myths #3: Baptizing the Household

We’re looking in depth at a series of objections raised by one of our readers to the Protestant argument that one must be a believer to be baptized.

One such objection cites New Testament references to the baptism of entire households. Though there is no evidence at all to demonstrate that this involved anyone other than believing family members, it is suggested that this provides support for the practice of infant baptism.

So here we go:
“Acts 2:38 — Peter says to the multitude, ‘Repent and be baptized ...’ Protestants use this verse to prove one must be a believer (not an infant) to be baptized. But the Greek translation literally says, ‘If you repent, then each one who is a part of you and yours must each be baptized’ (‘Metanoesate kai bapistheto hekastos hymon’). This, contrary to what Protestants argue, actually proves that babies are baptized based on their parents’ faith. This is confirmed in the next verse.”

Checking the Greek

Okay, what about the Greek translation? Does it really support infant baptism?

It would appear not. Bible Hub lists 21 different English versions of the quoted Greek phrase, every one of which renders it as either “each of you” or “every one of you” rather than the longer and more contrived translation suggested above. Catholics may read all sorts of translations, but their official starting point is the Latin Vulgate (which is problematic for them in that it is itself a translation and puts the English reader at one extra remove from the original wording of scripture). Still, even the Douay-Rheims translation from Latin, commonly used by Catholic Bible scholars, renders this as “every one of you”, right along with every other translator I can find on the subject.

I’ve done some digging to see where the mistranslation above came from, but it has been sourced and quoted as authoritative on so many Catholic sites as to make its origin near-impossible to determine.

Amusingly, this error is most effectively debunked right here by a Catholic who maintains her belief in infant baptism notwithstanding her concession that this verse does not support it. She provides four other examples from the New Testament in which the identical Greek construction is translated as “each of you” or “every one of you”.

The only conceivable reason to retranslate a verse so consistently understood by so many scholars in precisely the same way is that theology has intruded into the translation process.

In short, the commentator (whoever he may be) cited by our reader is simply wrong.

Of course, regardless of what translation may be considered their standard, for Catholics the Church’s explanation of a passage always takes priority over that of a translator. So I wouldn’t consider text analysis the ace up my sleeve in a discussion with anyone who defers to a different spiritual authority. I’m just pointing out for the record that the Church’s explanation and textual scholarship are not in agreement here, and that some Catholics concede this.

For You and Your Children

Further, it is alleged that the words of the next verse (“the promise is for you and your children”) also support infant baptism. But what is the “promise” Peter refers to? Surely it is the promised gift of the Holy Spirit he mentions in verse 38. And who is the Holy Spirit promised to? Not merely to those who undergo baptism but to those who repent and are baptized.

This is consistent with Paul’s teaching to the Romans that there are two components to genuine salvation: the inward (belief) and the outward (confession of Christ as Lord). The latter cannot possibly be demonstrated more conclusively than in the public demonstration of obedience to Christ that is water baptism.

Peter is not suggesting here that children are somehow covered by the belief of their parents. In fact, his full statement is actually that “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself”. His subject is not family relationships and baptism; rather, he is declaring that the Holy Spirit is given to all genuine believers. Peter’s point is that the promise of the Holy Spirit is unrestricted by time or geography. The gift is for everyone willing to repent and make a public confession of faith.

The Whole Household

Still, our reader reiterates the point:
“Acts 10:47-48 — Peter baptized the entire house of Cornelius, which generally included infants and young children. There is not one word in Scripture about baptism being limited to adults.”
It is probably true that there is not one word in scripture about “adults” in relation to baptism, but that is a bit of a straw man. Repentance and belief, which consistently accompany baptism in scripture, require a measure of intellectual and spiritual understanding. But why would that disqualify children perceptive enough to repent and believe, no matter their age? Where Protestants (or at least most evangelicals) draw the line is at the false notion that one person’s faith or actions can save another or give rise to any eternal credit with God on their behalf.

The case of Cornelius and those who gathered at his house was exceptional: the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. These were the close friends and relatives of Cornelius that he had called together. Prior to Peter’s command to baptize them, they gave evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts by speaking in tongues and extolling God, just as happened at Pentecost among the Jews. This happened in the presence of witnesses, demonstrating that all present had genuinely believed. When people are “extolling God”, it seems to me sufficient proof of faith for baptism, and Peter unsurprisingly agreed.

The relevant portion of the verses cited above read as follows:
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
While this all took place in the home of Cornelius, we are not told that his “household” was baptized, let alone that infants and children were baptized. Rather, it is his “relatives and close friends” upon whom the Holy Spirit fell that were baptized, people who were clearly in a position to respond to the opportunity to believe. We do not know how old Cornelius was or whether he had infants in his house at all, but in any case the actual teaching of the passage is that those who “heard the word” and gave evidence of belief were baptized, not everybody under Cornelius’ roof.

Depending on an Assumption

The Catholic position on the baptism of infants depends not on the words of God, but on a convenient inference that contradicts both the teaching of Peter at Pentecost where he called for repentance, and the teaching he gave in the home of Cornelius that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”.

Moreover, it is an assumption that is not even realistic: looking down my own street, I have to go almost 10 houses to my right or three houses to my left to find a single household with even one infant. Even a society with a higher average birthrate than ours would surely have many households without infants.

There is no positive scriptural evidence for infant baptism. None. All is inference and assumption.

It would be comforting, in this unpredictable and sometimes scary world, to imagine that having my children sprinkled would provide them some sort of spiritual security, but this notion cannot be supported from the word of God. Each of us bears the responsibility for his or her own relationship with God.

A mere symbolic act cannot save.

1 comment :

  1. Wow, just WOW. This is better than #2

    "objections raised by one of our readers...." --- objections that you just obliterated with the very verses he erroneously used.

    "theology has intruded into the translation process." --- exactly right and their only response is to quote some unnamed commentator instead of letting words speak for themselves

    "at the false notion that one person’s faith or actions can save another or give rise to any eternal credit with God on their behalf." --- this is an example of the fundraising techniques they instituted such as the purgatory heresy. Not only can the action of donating $20, or more if possible, to a potential pedophilic priest provide an external credit to move a dead relative closer to being worthy of heaven, but they will take a perfectly simple scripture and pervert it to allow for this delusional teaching. It's truly sad the way they have used the sadness and doubt about the salvation of a loved one and developed a sick and twisted lottery system to finance their desire to own riches in the name of God.

    "A mere symbolic act cannot save." --- Amen, and it never could nor is it biblical.