Well, I’ve been sidetracked from the baptism issue by reading some Edward John Carnell, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite philosophers. Anyway, continuing…
I think it would be helpful to think through a possible defense of paedobaptism from Reformed perspective. I think the Reformed line is particularly interesting because of its relative novelty in the Christian tradition and its unique systematic-exegetical base. The Catholic line is pretty straightforward. Two beliefs form the foundation of the Catholic argument:
1. Baptism has an intrinsic efficacy for salvation. This, of course, is not to say that it operates apart from the merit of Christ or the agency of the Holy Spirit, but it is to say that the application of baptism, apart from a positive rejection of Christ, regenerates. Baptism effects the new creation of the moral self — release from bondage to sin/Devil and the sure promise of resurrection to eternal life with God. All that Christ received from the Father is the inheritance of the baptized.
2. Infants are subject to sin and the Devil. All humans are born “in Adam,” and thus subject to the curse of sin — condemnation and eternal death.
If you combine these two points, the need to baptize infants is sure to be accepted, and so it was. Everett Ferguson believes that the early Church only began to baptize infants in emergency situations (sickness and imminent death), and with high infant mortality rates, it just became normative to baptize infants in certain parts of the Church. Clerics had to account for this, many questioning or rejecting prescriptive paedobaptism, but not questioning its efficacy. Even Tertullian, who questioned paedobaptism, still believed it effected what it signified — salvation. It would not be until the 5th-6th centuries that baptismal liturgies reflected normative paedobaptism. Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin guaranteed the practice for the Western Church.
With the radical re-thinking of the doctrine of justification during the Reformation, baptism also had to be rethought. The Reformed had a harder time with the Catholic baptismal theology than the Lutherans. The Lutherans, to be sure, re-framed baptism within sola fide, many even supposing an infused faith into the infant, but the Reformed re-framed baptism within the doctrine of God, his election and covenant(s). Baptism, for the Reformed, thus acquires an objectivity not found in the Lutheran or Catholic schemes; it locates the baptized infant in the covenant of God, with promises conditioned on faith, but does not at the moment of baptism surely effect the salvation. In other words, baptism does not guarantee the chosen remnant within the broader covenantal community. If baptism did, then every baptized infant in the Reformed scheme is surely elect and surely saved for all time. The doctrine of perseverance of the saints is critical for understanding the Reformed apprehensiveness toward the Catholic and Lutheran baptismal theologies.
This difficulty is accounted for by many Reformed theologians through a strengthened view of covenantal graces. The infant brought into covenant with God receives the blessings (temporal, if not eternal) of the elect and can, in one sense, be called “saved.” They are brought from paganism and into the (visible) Church. The infants who are not elect, and who fall away, can thus fit nicely into the description of the apostate in Hebrews 6. They are “enlightened” and “made holy” in the covenantal sense, but not in the sense acquired by “effectual grace” (in the technical Reformed sense), received only by the elect.
This high view of covenantal grace is, in my view, the way Reformed theology should go about the issue. Indeed, I don’t see any other way without compromising fundamental Reformed commitments to Election and Eternal Security. Whether this best accords with scripture is another issue, but it at least gives baptism some sacramental efficacy (grace received) assumed in the early Church, if in a rather different way.