A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, May 14, 2007

John Wesley on... #3 (Infant Baptism)

Wesley's understanding of infant baptism is multi-faceted as he addresses various aspects of the subject. As a priest in the Church of England, Wesley baptized children, and he makes a theological and biblical case for the practice.

Wesley supports the notion of baptismal regeneration. Since infants are born with original sin, baptism is not only appropriate when it comes to children, but necessary. Baptism is thus a cleansing sacrament. There is a tension that runs throughout Wesley's thought in reference to his view that baptism is regenerative in nature, while at the same time teaching the necessity of a conscious turning toward the new life that Christ offers. Thus, while baptism is more than symbol for Wesley (it is necessary to enter Christ's church), the act of repentance is also indispensable for salvation. Wesley does not seem to be concerned about this tension.

Wesley addresses those who reject infant baptism. He argues that infants and children are not only acceptable candidates, but that it can be demonstrated biblically. Like circumcision, baptism is a sign of the covenant in which children are included. In addition, Christ not only welcomes the children to come to him, but he rebukes his disciples for turning them away (Luke 18:15-16). To those who respond that Jesus' welcome of the children is not about baptism, Wesley responds that baptism is the way the risen Christ welcomes children into his church. Moreover, the Book of Acts is clear that entire households were baptized, which must have included children (Acts 16:31-34). While direct evidence for infant baptism is quite sparse in the first century, it is clearly practiced in the second, which is difficult to explain had it not been practiced in the early years of the church. To those who continue to remain skeptical, Wesley reminds them that nowhere does the New Testament explicitly forbid the practice.

Water is necessary for baptism, but the New Testament gives no specific mode of baptism. The traditional methods of pouring, sprinkling, and immersing (what Wesley calls "dipping") are all acceptable. Wesley is not persuaded by arguments that suggest the word "baptism" itself prescribes a particular mode.

Wesley's understanding of baptism is clearly sacramental. He places emphasis on the covenantal nature of baptism, and while he reflects upon the symbolic aspect of the practice, it is more than symbol; it is a means of grace.


Tom said...

Thank you for a clear and concise explanation. It is refreshing. Too often, Wesley's theology is lost in the muddle of ME and EUB traditions, or in a congregation's preference.

Allan R. Bevere said...


How true.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Allan, I greatly respect this interpretation of baptism, though I still hold to a believer's baptism. This could be correct and I like the infant baptism in the sense that it does indeed seem to be more sacramental (in the Evangelical Covenant denomination -Lutheran in its roots- pastors have to do either, strangely enough, while holding to their own position based on Scripture). In any case, I believe God accepts either as valid baptism. Thanks for helping me understand better more about John Wesley and his teaching!

Greg Hazelrig said...

I liked your post. Good explanation of Wesley and Baptism.

I was told by my Methodist History and Doctrine professor that Wesley actually preferred dunking, but that the others were "tolerated" by him.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I agree on the validity of both infant and believer's baptism.

Over the years I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the merely symbolic interpretation of the sacraments. It seems to me that it becomes problematic to separate the substance of something from its meaning. There are those who do that with such affirmations as the resurrection of Jesus and his miracles. The argument goes, as you know, that it doesn't matter whether Jesus actually walked on water, just as long as you get the point of what the Gospel writers are trying to say. Or, in like fashion, it doesn't matter whether Jesus bodily rose from the dead, as long as you get the point of the claim that Jesus is alive. Once such a move is made, such affirmations, I believe, become irrelevant.

It seems to me that we have a stake, therefore, in saying that baptism and Eucharist are in actuality a means of grace in some way. If we separate the substance of the practice from its meaning, we risk making the practices themselves irrelevant.

I'm just thinking out loud.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the insight. Dunking could have indeed been the preferred method for confessions of faith, as it more adequately signified repentance (i.e. drowning the old man of sin). It probably would not have been the best mode for infants.

Greg Hazelrig said...

Good point about infants.

Anonymous said...

I have been a United Methodist for 25 years. All the intellectual discussion aside, my main objection to infant baptism is that nobody ever seems to address the fact that Jesus was baptized as an adult. Wasn't He giving us an example to follow? The arguments defending infant baptism are plausible, but it appears to me that Wesley was grabbing for straws...anything he could find to support that which he was unwilling (or unable to face) giving up or questioning. It seems to me that Wesley went to great trouble to explain that which appears to be very simple. That is a red flag and smacks of rationalization to me.

I am also concerned that infant baptism commonly leads people into a nominal Christian faith-walk. If one never truly needs to stand up and declare one's faith publicly, it is very easy to continue on that path and never truly have a saving relationship with Jesus, which includes risk-taking for Him in the context of being obedient and all that entails. Standing up with a group of your peers at confirmation is easy and I know first hand how that is often more done as an intellectual assent rather than being an outworking of faith.

Bottom line for me is that I think Wesley sorely missed it on the subject of infant baptism. But I don't think anyone (including our beloved Wesley) has the full revelation; we all miss it here or there.

God bless you.

Nelson said...

Did Wesley believe that unbaptised infants were y damned? His "Treatise on Baptism" seems to imply it.