Pilgram Marpeck: Infant Baptism, of any kind, is not Christian Baptism

As Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary prepares to host its conference celebrating the Anabaptist Movement on January 30-31, 2012, Jason G. Duesing presents his synthesis of Pilgram Marpeck’s (d. 1556) view of believer’s baptism in his five-part series, “Pilgram Marpeck’s Christian Baptism.”

Pilgram Marpeck recognizes that among those who practiced infant baptism there were two kinds. On one hand, there were the Roman Catholics who “practice idolatry when they vest their salvation in baptism.”[1] On the other hand, there were the Magisterial Reformers who “baptize, not out of faith, but out of uncertainty.”[2] Marpeck cuts plainly through them both by maintaining that “Scripture speaks only of one conscious, confessed, and acknowledged baptism based on faith. It does not speak of baptism of unconscious people.”[3]

Marpeck also uses this Scripture principle to denounce the claim that infant baptism was, indeed, a baptism based on the confession of faith of the parents. He states, “As has been stated often enough before now, we have no command to baptize anyone on the basis of a foreign confession and faith.”[4]

Furthermore, Marpeck sees no text that supports the belief that infant baptism was the New Testament equivalent to Old Testament circumcision. In response to the citations of 2 Cor 3:11 and Col 2:11, often used to support the circumcision view, Marpeck retorts,

Not one word from these two texts states that baptism can be directly compared with external circumcision. For our baptism into Christ is not commanded to be practiced solely in the flesh nor is it to be given without the Spirit. The Jews were commanded to circumcise servant and child, good and evil, if they desired to live among the children of Israel. Accordingly, since no other physical difference at that time separated them from the heathen, all young children had to be circumcised, whether they believed or not. Now, however, in the revealed kingdom of our Lord Jesus, there is no longer any “you must.” . . . Baptism without circumcision takes place through a recognized, unconcealed confession of faith in Christ.[5]

However, Marpeck goes further than simply saying that the practice of infant baptism has no biblical support. To stop there would only serve to deny the legitimacy of the exercise and render it benign. Marpeck sees infant baptism as inherently dangerous and therefore repeatedly seeks to draw attention to its malignant and debilitating nature.

At times, Marpeck mildly describes those baptized as infants as those “baptized contrary to Christ’s intention,” and “only with water without the Spirit.”[6] But at other times, Marpeck condemns the act as “false treachery” with regard to the fact that the one baptized is led to believe that he is a Christian.[7] In this spirit, Marpeck describes infant baptism as “a sacrifice to Molech,”[8] “the root of the Roman harlot,”[9] “the root of all kinds of nonsense,”[10] “the origin of godless of practices . . . in the holy church,”[11] and foundationally “an idol [where] everyone intend[s] their children to become saved, to be made into Christians.”[12]

For Marpeck, a church that practices infant baptism, of whatever kind, is a church that condones error, and this error is one that leads ultimately to the greater error of deceiving the unregenerate into believing that they are what they are not.

Even though Marpeck does decry infant baptism as the wrong means for infants and children to come to Christ, he does not fail to address other avenues of instruction for them and for the church. For example, Marpeck advocates the use of a type of “baby dedication.”

In his Confession, he describes an event whereby the children and parents should come before the gathered church for prayer and admonishment:

[T]he infants shall be named before a congregation and God shall duly be praised for them; thanks and blessing shall be given to His fatherly goodness that, through Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior, He has also had mercy on the innocent creatures and that, without discrimination, He has taken them in His hands and assured them of the kingdom of God. We rightfully owe him gratitude at all times for His goodness. In the liberty of the Spirit and Word of Christ, we should pray for everyone, and also for the child, that God would also in the future give us knowledge of His gracious will, etc. We admonish the parents to cleanse their conscience, and as much lies in them, with respect to the child, to do whatever is needed to raise the child up to the praise and glory of God, and to commit the child to God until it is clearly seen that God is working in him for faith or unfaith. Any other way is to be like thieves and murderers and to be ahead of Christ.[13]

In this scenario, neither infant nor parent is led to believe that the child is regenerate, but rather the child is put before the church for the purpose of giving thanks to God and the parents, likewise, are held accountable to lead their children to Christ.

In conjunction with this, in his Admonition of 1542, Marpeck argues for an “age of accountability” whereby he explains how the church is to refrain from accepting a child as a Christian until he has reached a certain age and has been tested:

In no case or in any sense will he be accepted by God until he is rational and comes to the age of accountability, until he has learned well the rules and orders which God commanded so that he will know what he is to do. Even then, he will have a year of testing before he may give his confession and, when the confession is accomplished and he has been consecrated into the order, he will neither recant nor again turn back.[14]

While one could spend much time inquiring as to the specifics of these alternative proposals for the church’s dealings with infants and children, it is clear that Marpeck had the best interests of the children who had yet to come to Christ in mind when he attacked the practice of infant baptism. This statement of the inadequacy of infant baptism provides Marpeck a platform for his articulation of what he terms Christian baptism.

[1] Ibid., 258.

[2] Ibid. Marpeck distinguishes clearly between the two groups and where he sees the Catholics’ practice as idolatrous, the Reformers, he says, are simply engaging in this practice “unnecessarily and in vain.” This distinction is helpful as it shows that even among earliest advocates of biblical baptism there was the ability to see the different nuances among those who advocate infant baptism. See also Martin Rothkegel, “Benes Optat, ‘On Baptism and the Lord’s Supper’: An Utraquist Reformer’s Opinion of Pilgram Marpeck’s Vermahnung,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 79 (July 2005):368-9.

[3] Ibid., 257.

[4] Ibid., 256.

[5] Ibid., 238-239.

[6] Pilgram Marpeck, “Confession of 1532,” in The Writings of Pilgram Marpeck, ed. William Klassen and Walter Klaassen (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1978), 111. Marpeck’s “Confession” is also found in John C. Wenger, “Pilgram Marpeck’s Confession of Faith, 1531,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review XII, no. 4 (Oct 1938), 167-202. and Pilgram Marpeck, “Pilgram Marpeck’s Confession of Faith, January 1532,” in Anabaptist Beginnings 1523-1533, ed. William R. Estep, Jr (Nieuwkoop: B. De Graff, 1976), 165-168.

[7] Ibid., 111.

[8] Ibid., 141. He states, “Here, without a command of God, there is nothing but a sacrifice to Molech, and apish copying, a serpent sign [Num 21:8; John 3:14] when no one has been bitten,–and a killing of reason and sin when as yet neither are present.”

[9] Ibid., 145.

[10] Marpeck, “The Admonition of 1542,” 214.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 213.

[13] Marpeck, “Confession of 1532,” 147.

[14] Marpeck, “The Admonition of 1542,” 217.