Fallacy Files #4: False Dichotomy in the Baptism Debate

The informal fallacy of false dichotomy (or false dilemma) is committed when two options are mistakenly or misleadingly presented as the only two possible or viable options. George W. Bush famously declared after 9/11, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Whatever the rhetorical merits of his statement, it was, strictly speaking, an example of false dichotomy. There was no obvious logical inconsistency in adopting a position that neither supported nor hindered the Bush administration’s anti-terror policies. (Bush’s statement echoed Jesus’ even more provocative claim, but I would argue that in Jesus’ case there was no false dichotomy. As analytic philosophers would say, with typical understatement, George W. Bush and Jesus are “relevantly different”.)

The fallacy of false dichotomy is often committed in debates over the proper subjects of Christian baptism. The question is asked: Should or shouldn’t the children of believers receive baptism? Posed in that way, the question presupposes that there are only two options: paedobaptism or credobaptism (believers’ baptism). But ethicists recognize that with respect to a particular activity A, there are always three possible options:

  1. A is obligatory (e.g., adoration of God is obligatory).
  2. A is forbidden (e.g., adultery is forbidden).
  3. A is permitted, that is, neither forbidden nor required (e.g., arm wrestling is permitted).

Applying this to the debate over infant baptism, we can see that there are three possible positions to take:

  1. The baptism of infants is required (paedobaptist view).
  2. The baptism of infants is forbidden (credobaptist view).
  3. The baptism of infants is permitted, that is, neither forbidden nor required (dual-practice view).

The third position is routinely overlooked in contemporary debates over baptism, but that’s unfortunate and unwarranted. Of course, the mere fact that a position is logically possible is no reason to accept it; but neither is its neglect a reason to reject it. I don’t hold the dual-practice view and I could raise a number of arguments against it, but it’s a historically respectable position (it was held by no less a scholar than David F. Wright, who argued that it was commonplace in the early church) and since it lies in the logical (or deontological!) space between paedobaptism and credobaptism, it can surely be no less compatible with Christian orthodoxy.

For this reason, I was pleased to see that all three positions will be represented in a forthcoming book, Baptism: Three Views, due to be published by IVP in September. (David Wright edited the book; it was one of his last projects before the Lord called him home.)

I’ve suggested that the baptism debate in general tends to illustrate the fallacy of false dichotomy. But can I point to any particular instance? Actually, yes. When the above book was mentioned on another blog recently, one commenter joked that the dual-practive view used to be called “refusing to take a stand”. Joking aside, the comment reflects a misconception of the dual-practice view and the baptism debate as a whole. Defenders of the dual-practice view don’t refuse to take a stand. On the contrary, they take their stand on the position that infant baptism is neither required (as paedobaptists hold) nor forbidden (as credobaptists hold). This is a coherent position in its own right. But whether it can be justified from Scripture is another matter altogether; it will be interesting to see what Anthony Lane has to say in its defense.

8 Responses to Fallacy Files #4: False Dichotomy in the Baptism Debate

  1. False dichotomies! They’re everywhere! :)

    Nice post — thanks!

  2. Excellent! Thanks for posting this most important discussion to help us work through this most important issue. On a similar note and if interested, see my Against Baptismal Regeneration.

  3. zaothanatoo

    “I don’t hold the dual-practice view and I could raise a number of arguments against it…”

    Would you be willing to elaborate a bit?

    • Okay, here’s one argument. If baptism is the sign of New Covenant membership (just as circumcision was the sign of Old Covenant membership) then the propriety of infant baptism depends on whether or not the children of believers are members of the covenant (by virtue of their parentage). If they are, the paedobaptists are right. If they aren’t, the credobaptists are right.

      But it seems that these are the only two options. Either one is or isn’t the member of a covenant. There’s no obvious third option. So once you grant that the debate turns on the issue of covenant membership, it’s hard to see how the dual-practice view can still find a seat at the table. There is a dichotomy, but it’s not a false one.

      I’m not sure how the dual-practice advocate would answer this point. My guess is he would argue that either (a) children of believers have an ambiguous status, neither wholly in nor wholly out of the New Covenant, or (b) Scripture doesn’t tell us one way or the other, in which case we’re free to act according to either supposition. Both of these responses strike me as problematic.

      Another option would be to deny the premise: baptism is not the sign of New Covenant membership after all. But I consider the arguments for this premise (employed by both paedobaptists and credobaptists) to be very strong.

  4. davidwperry

    Thank you for setting out the three options re infant baptism.

    I believe that the matter can be settled most surely through historical investigation. Until the Church became the establishment at the end of the fourth century one finds the following:
    1) First option: infant baptism was obligatory. There is no evidence that parents were obliged to have their infants baptised. In “The Development of Christian Doctrine” John Henry Newman recites a great roll call of saints who were baptised as adults (St Gregory Nazianzen, St Basil, St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Satyrus, St Jerome). He continues as follows. “Now how are the modern sects, which protest against infant baptism, to be answered by Anglicans with this array of great names in their favour? By the later rule of the Church surely; by the dicta of some later saints, as Chrysostom; by one or two inferences from scripture; by an argument founded on the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, – sufficient reasons certainly, but impotent to reverse the fact that neither in Dalmatia nor in Cappadocia, neither in Rome, nor in Africa, was it then imperative on Christian parents, as it is now, to give baptism to their young children.”
    2) Second option: infant baptism was forbidden. There is clear evidence for this on an a fortiori basis. I have in mind the sascetic groups such as the Encratites where only those pledged to celibacy were deemed worthy of baptism, i.e. ordinary lay Christians were not baptised and even more unthinkable would have been the baptism of infants.
    3) Third option: infant baptism is permitted. Evidence begins to accumulate of clinical baptism and this is the route whereby a number of infants and small children are baptised.

    What is clear is that until Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire the norn was baptism after considerable instruction in the faith, i.e. credo-baptism.

  5. davidwperry

    I think there is a fourth option. This is where it has simply not occurred to parents or church that newborn babies need baptising.

    This is exemplified in the Apology of Aristides (c. 125ad): “And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins.”

    There is no suggestion that newborn infants were baptised nor that there was any attempt at clinical baptism when they were dying in childhood. Instead the parents and the Christian community practised “giving thanks in all things”.

    • David,

      How is that a fourth option? The three options I identified in the post are logically exhaustive; there’s no room for a fourth option. Remember, this isn’t a historical question; it’s a doctrinal/ethical question. What is the ethical status of infant baptism?

      Moreover, since it’s not a historical question, the matter cannot be settled “most surely through historical investigation” (as you claim in your first comment) — at least, not for a Protestant committed to Sola Scriptura.

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