Calvin on Infant Baptism

I recently finished reading an essay by Peter Lillback title “Calvin’s Covenantal Response to the Anabaptist View of Baptism” in the symposium The Failure of the American Baptist Culture. In this essay Lillback looks at Calvins’ response to the anabaptists of his day and breaks it down. Lillback pulls anywhere from 30 to 40 quotations from Calvin’s works and then gives a brief summary of each showing Calvin’s firm refutation of Credobaptism. The following quote was one that really resonated with me as I read it. In this quotation Calvin pushes the question to the anabaptist on how they understand Jesus’ loving embrace of the children in the Gospels. Calvin understands that the Church is Christ’s representative on earth and if Christ openly embraces children as heirs of the kingdom should not the church too? Here’s how Calvin puts it:

If it is right for infant to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the kingdom of heaven belongs to them why is the sign denied which, so to speak, opens them a door into the church, that adopted into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the kingdom of heaven? How unjust of us to drive away those whom Christ calls to himself! To deprive those whom he adorns with gifts! To shut out those whom he willingly receives! But if we wish to make an issue of the great difference between baptism and this act of Christ, how much more precious shall we ragard baptism, by which we attest that infants are contained within God’s covenant, than the receiving, embracing, laying on of hands, and prayer, by which Christ himself present declares both that they are his and are sanctified by him? (Institutes IV. 16. 7)

Calvin seems to be presenting two different approaches here. The first approach presents a one to one relationship between Christ’s reception of infants and children and the Gospel and infant baptism. The second approach sets a contrast between the two actions. It is this second approach that really impacted me. I could be reading the quotation wrong but Calvin seems to be saying that if we are to insist upon a difference between baptism and Christ’s acceptance of children in the Gospels would it not be appropriate to regard more highly the acts of Jesus’ acceptance of infants and children than our baptism of them? Christs’ acceptance of infants is so generous and so great in the way he embraces, prays for, and lays hands on them that the Church should not hold back any such blessings from them. His argument is one from greater (Christs’ acceptance and blessing) to lesser (the Church’s acceptance in baptism).

Food for thought.




  1. I never understood infant baptism. An infant can not even comprehend what it’s about.
    It’s not a Biblical idea. A good example of reform theology that many reform do not believe today.

    1. Hey! Thanks for the comment!

      I might recommend you look a little further into the subject. I was in your position about 2 years ago. I called myself a “reformed baptist” because I believed in reformed soteriology but didn’t buy into all the infant baptism stuff.

      I spent some time studying covenant theology and it has completely transformed the way I see and read the Bible and now I cannot see the baptist argument anywhere.

      In short the paedobaptism position sees infant baptism as fitting into the wider spectrum of Biblical redemption. The critique against the baptist approach is that it is entirely too individualistic and does not understand the Biblical principles of covenant and representation.

      Thanks again for reading and for your comment!

      Baptist brethren are welcome at this blog anytime, although I’m afraid I might drive you crazy 😉


  2. Thanks, Michael.
    Just to be totally, honest, I’m more of a Wesleyan and I’m also not a believer in the reformed view.
    Now, having said that, the Methodists also practice infant baptism. The real problem I have with a lot of these rituals, is that they often appear to be just that, empty rituals. But, they can be meaningful if the participants are sincere. Again, how can baby baptism be anything but symbolic? At the same time, we have baby dedications in some churches, and we did this with all our kids, so perhaps I am splitting hairs.

    1. Gotcha! I apologizing for assuming you were a “reformed” baptist. Thanks for the clarification.

      As to your remarks about baptism being symbolic I would completely agree with you. However, you seem to assume that for something to be symbolic necessarily means it can’t mean anything. I would argue with you on that point and express my conviction that symbolism is one of the key features to understanding the Bible and the world that God has made for us!

      I have found Biblical symbolism to be paramount in my understanding of baptism and the rest of the Bible. If your interested at all I would highly recommend the book “Through New Eyes” by James Jordan ( but be prepared to have your mind blown 😉

      I’ve also written a couple other posts about baptism if your interested:

      I’d love to hear you thoughts!


  3. Well, your post on Doug Wilson’s book helps me understand where you are coming from. Of course, I disagree with Doug on just about everything, lol. I love his son’s tilt-a-whirl book, even though I have some reservations of his view of of sovereignty.
    But, I digress. Of course, symbolism isn’t always empty.
    And I don’t think baby baptism is a bad thing per say. But you have to realize that many of the reformers like Luther saw it as absolutely essential. Which is just nonsense, IMO.

    1. Haha! I love Doug Wilson & I too really enjoy his son’s stuff! You should check out his newer book “Death by Living”, I liked it even more than “Notes”!

      I’m sure you do have reservations about the sovereignty issue 😉

      Also, when the reformers talk about the necessity of infant baptism they are usually talking about it being necessary to reformed theology. Calvin granted that an individual doesn’t have to be baptized to be “saved” but he stressed the importance of infant baptism at every level.

      The reason for the stressing has to do with covenant succession which is a whole other topic in general!

  4. Yes, I have the “Death by Living” book too and really like it.
    I might be an odd Armenian because I do tend towards some of Doug Wilson’s ideas on eschatology, while disagreeing with much of his theology.
    Nice talking to you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s