The Household Baptisms Of The New Testament
by David Cason
I. Preliminary Considerations
If the great debate over who should be baptized could be distilled into one question, it would be this:
Should only those who personally profess gospel faith be baptized, or should the children of those professing believers be baptized as well?1
When an argument is made for the latter, paedobaptist2 view, an appeal is inevitably made to those instances in the New Testament when a “household” is said to have been baptized. Since all agree that every other recorded instance of baptism is that of a professing believer, the interpretation of these texts is crucial. Only in these “household” passages can the paedobaptist allege that the Scriptures record the actual baptism of the non-confessing child of a believer (or, put more carefully, the baptism of one party on the basis of another’s faith). A close exegetical examination of those passages is therefore desirable.3
If they evidence a difference from the other recorded New Testament baptisms, or exegetically connect with the Old Testament concept of household circumcision4 , much legitimate ground is gained in the argument for infant baptism. But, if the texts in question fail to yield such evidence, the argument for the practice of infant baptism will have been dealt a substantial blow.
Understanding the pivotal importance of these verses, it is worthwhile to consider briefly some simple interpretive principles which apply to the exposition of the Word. Scripture is the interpreter of Scripture. The clear passages of Scripture must be allowed to interpret the dark, and the complete passages to interpret the elliptical. There exist in Scripture both detailed and abbreviated accounts of these “household” baptisms. It is neither sound nor admissible for the paedobaptist to use the shorter accounts in such a way as to bring them into conflict with the fuller narratives.6 This implies, naturally, that the passages must be exegeted. It is entirely inadmissible, though common enough in practice, to merely reference such passages as conclusive proof texts, or to dismiss anti-paedobaptist arguments with a casual wave of the word “house” or “household,” without looking at what the verses actually record.7 With these ground rules in mind, we turn to the Scriptural narratives.
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1 This is a modern way of putting the question. It ought to be stated, Should only those who profess gospel faith be baptized, or should those subject to that professed believer’s household authority be baptized as well? But because this more accurate phrasing seriously damages the paedobaptist argument in the modern world, the question is rarely framed in this more logically (and biblically) consistent fashion.
2 paedobaptist – one who advocates infant baptism
3 And yet, it is this close exegetical examination which is almost never present in paedobaptist apologetic. For example, James Bannerman, in his crucial and exhaustive work on the Presbyterian view of the church, spends 26 pages giving what amounts to a purely theological argument for infant membership in the covenant. He disposes of the household baptism passages in less than two pages, never undertaking an actual exegesis of any. Despite the lack of careful analysis, he does not hesitate to cite the verses as absolute and final testimony in favor of infant baptism, with overstatement that borders on the fantastic. He writes, “…nothing more is necessary, in regard to the practice of the Primitive Church in the matter of infant baptism, than to refer to the frequent and almost constant mention of the Baptism of ‘households’ and ‘families,’ in which it is morally certain that there must have been infant members….Such expressions as these, interpreted in the light of the previous undoubted practice of the Jewish Church, can admit of only one meaning….Under the circumstances of the Apostolic Church, the repeated mention of household or family Baptism is itself decisive evidence of the practice by which infants were baptized.” (Bannerman, James, The Church of Christ, 2:92-93).
Samuel Miller is carried away in similar fashion, but for Miller, two pages is two too many. After merely adducing three “household” passages, and admitting that there is no proof of actual infant baptism in any of them, he nonetheless offers them as a kind of impregnable defense. Miller writes “Now, though we are not certain that there were young children in any of these families, it is highly probable there were. At any rate, the great principle of family baptism of receiving all the younger members of households on the faith of their domestic head, seems to be plainly and decisively established. This furnishes ground on which the advocate of infant baptism may stand with unwavering confidence.” (Miller, Samuel, Infant Baptism Scriptural and Reasonable). Miller also exemplifies the characteristic misstatement of the question described in footnote 1 above.
John Calvin, after a discussion marked most by the number and diversity of its ad personam attacks on those who question the doctrine of infant baptism, dispenses with all the household passages in a single sentence. He writes, “For although this is not expressly narrated by the Evangelists, yet as they are not expressly excluded when mention is made of any baptized family, (Acts 16:15, 32), what man of sense will argue from this that they were not baptized?” (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter 16.8).
4 E.g. Genesis 17:23
5 This is not a controversial doctrine. It is standard Reformation interpretive practice. The principle is so widely recognized that it was made a matter of confessional bond by the Puritan authors of the Westminster documents. “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of and Scripture (which is not manifold, but one) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:10).
6 Again, this is hardly an extreme notion. Every Calvinist regularly uses the “Scripture with Scripture” methodology when explaining the meaning of the word “world” in the various passages concerning the extent of the atonement. And no sound interpreter would say that the more limited narratives in the Gospel of Mark control the interpretation of the longer accounts given in Luke or Matthew.
7 This is the interpretive norm in paedobaptist treatments. See footnote 3 for some notable examples.
Disclaimer: I am not familiar with David Cason, therefore a link to this article does not mean that I endorse everything he believes or teaches concerning doctrine. However, linking to this article means that I believe he has rightly exegeted the “household baptism” texts over and against the paedobaptists interpretation of said text.