John Calvin’s View of Infant Baptism

7. Hence our Lord Jesus Christ, to give an example from which the world might learn that he had come to enlarge rather than to limit the grace of the Father, kindly takes the little children in his arms, and rebukes his disciples for attempting to prevent them from coming (Matt 19:13), because they were keeping those to whom the kingdom of heaven belonged away from him, through whom alone there is access to heaven.  But it will be asked, What resemblance is there between baptism and our Saviour embracing little children?  He is not said to have baptised, but to have received, embraced, and blessed them; and, therefore, if we would imitate his example, we must give infants the benefit of our prayers, not baptise them.  But let us attend to the act of our Saviour a little more carefully than these men do.  For we must not lightly overlook this fact, that our Saviour, in ordering little children to be brought to him, adds the reason, “of such is the kingdom of heaven”.  And he afterwards testifies his good-will by act, when he embraces them, and with prayer and benediction commends them to his Father.  If it is right that children should be brought to Christ, why should they not be admitted to baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ?  If the kingdom of heaven is theirs, why should they be denied the sign by which access, as it were, is opened to the Church, that being admitted into it they may be enrolled among the heirs of the heavenly kingdom?  How unjust were we to drive away those whom Christ invites to himself, to spoil those whom he adorns with his gifts, to exclude those whom he spontaneously admits.  But if we insist on discussing the difference between the Saviour’s act and baptism, in how much higher esteem shall we hold baptism (by which we testify that infants are included in the divine covenant), than the taking up, embracing, laying hands on children, and praying over them, acts by which Christ, when present, declares both that they are his, and are sanctified by him.  By the other cavils by which the objectors endeavour to evade this passage, they only betray their ignorance: they quibble that, because our Saviour says, “Suffer little children to come”, they must have been several years old, and fit to come.  But they are called by the Evangelists boephe chai paidia [given in Greek script], terms which denote infants still at their mothers’ breasts.  The term ‘come’ is used simply for ‘approach’.  See the quibbles which men are obliged to have recourse when they have hardened themselves against the truth!  There is nothing more solid in their allegation, that the kingdom of heaven is not assigned to children, but to those like children, since the expression is, ‘of such’, not ‘of themselves’.  If this is admitted, what will be the reason which our Saviour employs to show that they are not strangers to him from nonage [under age, immaturity]?  When he orders that little children shall be allowed to come to him, nothing is plainer than that mere infancy is meant.  Lest this should seem absurd, he adds, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven”.  But if infants must necessarily be comprehended, the expression, ‘of such’ clearly shows that infants themselves, and those like them, are intended.

8. Every one must now see that paedobaptism, which receives such strong support from Scripture, is by no means of human invention.  Nor is there anything plausible in the objection, that we nowhere read of even one infant having been baptised by the hands of the apostles.  For although this is not expressly narrated by the Evangelists, yet as they are not expressly excluded when mention is made of any baptised family (Acts 16:15, 32), what man of sense will argue from this that they were not baptised?  If such kinds of argument were good, it would be necessary, in like manner, to interdict women from the Lord’s Supper, since we do not read that they were ever admitted to it in the days of the apostles.  But here we are contented with the rule of faith.  For when we reflect on the nature of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, we easily judge who the persons are to whom the use of it is to be communicated.  The same we observe in the case of baptism.  For, attending to the end for which it was instituted, we clearly perceive that it is not less applicable to children than to those of more advanced years, and that, therefore, they cannot be deprived of it without manifest fraud to the will of its divine Author.  The assertion which they disseminate among the common people, that a long series of years elapsed after the resurrection of Christ, during which paedobaptism was unknown, is a shameful falsehood, since there is no writer, however ancient, who does not trace its origin to the days of the apostles.

9.  It remains briefly to indicate what benefit redounds from the observance, both to believers who bring their children to the church to be baptised, and to the infants themselves, to whom the sacred water is applied, that no one may despise the ordinance as useless or superfluous: though any one who would think of ridiculing baptism under this pretence, would also ridicule the divine ordinance of circumcision: for what can they adduce to impugn the one, that may not be retorted against the other?  Thus the Lord punishes the arrogance of those who forthwith condemn whatever their carnal sense cannot comprehend.  But God furnishes us with other weapons to repress their stupidity.  His holy institution, from which we feel that our faith derives admirable consolation, deserves not to be called superfluous.  For the divine symbol communicated to the child, as with the impress of a seal, confirms the promise given to the godly parent, and declares that the Lord will be a God not to him only, but to his seed; not merely visiting him with his grace and goodness, but his posterity also to the thousandth generation.  When the infinite goodness of God is thus displayed, it, in the first place, furnishes most ample materials for proclaiming his glory, and fills pious breasts with no ordinary joy, urging them more strongly to love their affectionate Parent, when they see that, on their account, he extends his care to their posterity.  I am not moved by the objection that the promise ought to be sufficient to confirm the salvation of our children.  It has seemed otherwise to God, who, in seeing our weakness, has herein been pleased to condescend to it.  Let those, then, who embrace the promise of mercy to their children, consider it as their duty to offer them to the Church, to be sealed with the symbol of mercy, and animate themselves to surer confidence, on seeing with the bodily eye the covenant of the Lord engraven on the bodies of their children.  On the other hand, children derive some benefit from baptism, when, being ingrafted into the body of the Church, they are made an object of greater interest to the other members.  Then when they have grown up, they are thereby strongly urged to an earnest desire of serving God, who has received them as sons by the formal symbol of adoption, before, from nonage, they were able to recognise him as their Father.  In fine, we ought to stand greatly in awe of the denunciation, that God will take vengeance on every one who despises to impress the symbol of the covenant on his child (Gen 17:15), such contempt being a rejection, and, as it were, abjuration of the offered grace.

10.  Let us now discuss the arguments by which some furious madmen cease not to assail this holy ordinance of God.  And first, feeling themselves pressed beyond measure by the resemblance between baptism and circumcision, they contend that there is a wide difference between the then two signs, that the one has nothing in common with the other.  They maintain that the things meant are different, that the covenant is altogether different, and that the persons included under the name of children are different.  When they first proceed to the proof, they pretend that circumcision was a figure of mortification, not of baptism.  This we willingly concede to them, for it admirably supports our view, in support of which the only proof we use is, that baptism and circumcision are signs of mortification.  Hence we conclude that the one was substituted for the other, baptism representing to us the very thing which circumcision signified to the Jews.  In asserting a difference of covenant, with what barbarian audacity do they corrupt and destroy Scripture? And that not in one passage only, but so as not to leave any passage safe and entire.   The Jews they depict as so carnal as to resemble brutes more than men, representing the covenant which was made with them as reaching no farther than a temporary life, and the promises which were given to them as dwindling down into present and corporeal blessings.  If this dogma is received, what remains but that the Jewish nation was overloaded for a long time with divine kindness (just as pigs are gorged in their sty), that they might at last perish eternally?  Whenever we quote circumcision and the promises annexed to it, they answer that circumcision was a literal sign, and that its promises were carnal.

11.  Certainly, if circumcision was a literal sign, the same view must be taken of baptism, since, in the second chapter to the Colossians, the apostle makes the one to be not a whit more spiritual than the other.  For he says that in Christ we “are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ”.  In explanation of his sentiment he immediately adds, that we are “buried with him in baptism”.  What do these words mean, but just that the truth and completion of baptism is the truth and completion of circumcision, since they represent one thing?  For his object is to show that baptism is the same thing to Christians that circumcision formerly was to the Jews.  Now, since we have already clearly shown that the promises of both signs, and the mysteries which are represented by them, agree, we shall not dwell on the point longer at present. 

Calvin, John, “Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge” Vol 2, Book IV, Chapter XVI, 7-11, p. 533-536, 1962, James Clark and Co. Ltd., London W.C.1