I guess we have to start with the doctrine of original sin. The term is used in different senses by different people, but regardless of the vocabulary you choose, the idea is that Adam’s sin in inherited, so that even infants are damned until baptized.
Original sin is often associated with Calvinism, but in fact the doctrine is much older than Calvin and is taught by the Catholic Church among many other non-Calvinistic churches. However, the Eastern Orthodox Churches reject the teaching, while still practicing infant baptism. The Orthodox did not formally separate from Roman Catholics until about 1001 AD, showing that original sin did not become accepted doctrine until long after infant baptism.
Infant baptism arises, not from the doctrine of original sin, but the fear that a child who dies young may be lost if not baptized. After all, until modern times — until the advent of antibiotics and modern medicine — the death rate for infants was very high. It’s easy to see why early Christians wanted the comfort of baptizing their children as infants.
The earliest uninspired Christian sources treat infants as saved. For example, Hermas writes (Similitudes IX.xxix.1; circa 135 AD),
Those who believed are such these: they are like innocent infants, in whose hearts no wickedness enters and who do not know what evil is but always remain in innocence.
(Translations are from Early Christians Speak by Everett Ferguson). According to the Epistle of Barnabas 6:11 (circa 130 AD),
Since he renewed us in the forgiveness of sins, he made us into another image, so as to have the soul of children, as if he were indeed refashioning us.
Thus, Second Century writers considered infants the model of innocence — a state to which the saved are restored. However, infant baptism developed fairly early, with Irenaeus making the earliest reference in Against Heresies II.xxii.4. Tertullian opposed the practice, but that means the practice was common enough to merit his condemnation. It’s not until Origen that anyone claimed that infant baptism is apostolic in origin.
By the time of Augustine, infant baptism was so well established that the practice could be used as a justification for original sin — why would we baptize infants but for inherited sin?
You have to realize that at the same time infant baptism was evolving, many were arguing that baptism should be delayed as long as possible — until someone was on his deathbed, to secure the maximum benefit of this special, one-time forgiveness of all sins. You see, over time, the church had begun to teach that forgiveness of certain sins was very difficult if not impossible after baptism. Therefore, the smart move was to delay baptism as long as possible.
It seems likely that deathbed baptisms ended when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. You had to be a Christian to be a citizen, making deathbed baptisms much less attractive. And as citizenship became combined with Christianity, infant baptism seemed more and more natural.
Ferguson argues from inscriptions found on the graves of infants that the real origin of infant baptism is not original sin — a doctrine that developed much later — but the premature deaths of children. Parents whose children became deathly ill prevailed on church official to baptize their children — just in case. And over time, the precaution became standard — but not until the Fifth Century.
Now, this bit of history argues very strongly that original sin is not an adequate justification for infant baptism. Indeed, the idea that we might be damned because of Adam’s sin has a definite air of artificiality — a post hoc rationalization — even though there are, as always, verses that might be cited in support of the doctrine.
And we have to visit those verses, because they bear strongly on the age of accountability question.
(Psa 51:5 ESV) 5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
(Rom 5:12-13 ESV) 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned– 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.
(1Co 15:22 ESV) 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
In Rom 5:12-13 and 1 Cor 15:22, Paul’s point is that all suffer physical death because of Adam — not that all are damned from birth. It’s obvious from the context. “Death” is not a euphemism for damnation in those passages.
Psa 51 is more problemmatic, but we have to consider the context and figurative nature of David’s declarations. Psalm 51 is David’s plea for forgiveness after Nathan charged him with adultery and murder. He wasn’t asking for forgiveness from Adam’s sin. He was, rather, very concerned with having his own sins forgiven, and so it would hardly make sense that David wants to declare that all men are sinners because of sin inherited from Adam. It just doesn’t fit the point of the psalm.
(Psa 51:1-4 ESV) Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
David’s plea for personal forgiveness for his own sins is quite clear.
(Psa 51:5 ESV) Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
It would hardly make sense for David to declare that he’d inherited sin. But he might well argue that he was born with a sinful nature: all men sin. After all, he seems to argue, I’ve always been a sinner, and yet you’ve forgiven me in the past — even giving me your Spirit. Please do so again.
That interpretation fits the flow of thought and David’s situation. The idea that he inherited sin from Adam would have nothing to do with his sin with Bathsheba.
There are, of course, proof texts that go the other way –
(Jam 4:17 ESV) 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
(Luk 12:47 ESV) 47 And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.
(John 9:41-1 ESV) 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.
(Psa 139:13-16 ESV) 13 For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. 14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
(Rom 7:9-11 ESV) 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
(Isa 7:16 ESV) 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.
(Mat 18:10 ESV) 10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”
(2Sa 12:22-23 ESV) 22 He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ 23 But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
We’ll come back to some of these verses in future posts. The final verse quoting David after the death of his son conceived with Bathsheba, strikes me as particularly convincing. And Ezekiel clearly repudiates any notion of inherited sin –
(Eze 18:1-20 ESV) The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.
5 “If a man is righteous and does what is just and right– 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of menstrual impurity, 7 does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully–he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord GOD.
10 “If he fathers a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who does any of these things 11 (though he himself did none of these things), who even eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes profit; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
14 “Now suppose this man fathers a son who sees all the sins that his father has done; he sees, and does not do likewise: 15 he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not oppress anyone, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or profit, obeys my rules, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.
19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.
This is very particular, detailed passage, argued in some depth. Ezekiel makes the same claim in chapter 28, speaking of the king of Tyre –
(Eze 28:15 ESV) 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.
Ezekiel says the king was blameless until he chose to be unrighteous.
In the next post, we’ll go deeper.