Posted by: stpowen | July 23, 2010

Holy Infants?

A Closer Look at 1Corinthians 7:14

 Many Anglican or Presbyterian brothers have based their adherence to paedo-baptism to their understanding of 1Cor 7:14, which seems to them to indicate that the infant children of believers are ‘holy’ (NKJV) so as to be in some way in covenant with God. I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at this verse in context to see if it really will bear that interpretation (1).

1Cor 7:14.’For the unbelieving husband is sanctified (Gk. hagiazo) by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband : otherwise your children were unclean, but now they are holy’ (Gk. hagios). We may see at once that the ‘sanctification’ of the unbelieving spouse is the same as the ‘holiness’ of the children. The same word root is used, although the NKJV translates them differently.  Hagiazo is the verb;  hagios is an adjective.

Yet Calvin sees a massive difference between the spouse and the children. Writing (2) of the adults, he says:-

A believer (in the circumstances envisaged by the verse) may, with a pure conscience, live with an unbeliever…….[who] is sanctified, so as not to infect the believing party with his impurity. Meanwhile this sanctification is of no benefit to the unbelieving party; it only serves thus far, that the believing party is not contaminated by intercourse with him, and the marriage is not profaned.

Fair enough. I don’t think Baptists would have any problems with that. But when Calvin reaches the part of the verse dealing with children, there is a huge change in his tone:-

This passage is a noteworthy one, and based on the profoundest theology. For it shows that the children of believers are set apart from others by a certain exclusive privilege, so that they are regarded as holy in the Church.

According to Calvin, then, the sanctifying effect on the unbelieving husband or wife is an insignificant matter; ‘of no benefit’ as he puts it. But when the child comes into view, suddenly it is ‘the profoundest theology’! Surely this is nothing else but inconsistency and special pleading? He continues:-

‘…..There is a universal propagation both of sin and condemnation in the seed of Adam. All, therefore to a man, are included in this curse, whether they spring from believers or the ungodly, for not even believers beget children according to the flesh so that they are regenerated by the Spirit. Accordingly all are in the same natural condition, so that they are subject not only to sin but also to eternal death. But the fact that the apostle ascribes a special privilege to the children of believers here has its source in the blessing of the covenant, by whose intervention the curse of nature is destroyed, and also those who were by nature unclean are consecrated to God by His grace……….In view of the fact that the children of believers are made exempt from the common condition of mankind, in order to be set apart for the Lord, why should we keep them back from His sign [of the covenant]? If the Lord admits them to His Church by His word, why should we deny them the sign?

This is going even further than the church of Rome! Seemingly (3), Calvin is asserting that all the children envisaged in 1Cor 7:14 should be baptized because they are holy, the curse of nature (that is, presumably, the effects of original sin) having been removed because they were born of a believing parent. Is this what paedobaptists believe, that the children of believers are free from original sin just because they are connected by blood to a Christian? Surely not! Moreover, if Calvin’s claim for the children is true, why does the same not apply to the unbelieving husband?

James Bannerman (4) also wrote on this verse:-

The infants are to be accounted clean, or fit for the service of God and the fellowship of His church. The holiness of the one parent that is a member of the…, communicates a relative holiness to the infant, so that the child also is fitted to be a member of the church, and to be baptized……to translate the phrase into ecclesiastical language, the child is entitled to church membership because the parent is a church member.’

Leaving aside the temptation to adapt the question so often asked of Baptists; ‘How do you know that the parent is a true believer and what difference does it make if he/she isn’t?’, this quote is a totally unjustified deduction from a verse which says nothing whatsoever about baptism or church membership.  And how does it square with Psalm 51:5 or Romans 3:9ff? 

Before turning to look at the text in depth, I want to draw attention to a particular point in the writing of 1Corinthians. Paul writes to the whole church (1:2 ) and addresses them in the Second Person plural- “you”, occasionally joining himself to them by using the First person plural, “we” (eg.6:14; 8:4 ). However, when he writes specifically to a section of the church, he uses the Third Person; for example, 3:4; 4:1; 6:16; 7:36 etc. It is important to keep this in mind as we approach Chapter 7.

It is clear from 7:1 that in this section of the letter, Paul is answering some questions that the Corinthians have written to him. In verses 1-9, he is answering then on the subject of marital relations in general and the advisability of marriage. In verse 10-11, he is addressing the married section of the church and therefore uses the Third Person. ‘A wife is not to depart from her husband’. In verse 12ff, he addresses those believers who have an unbelieving spouse, again using the Third Person. Clearly, there was a concern within the Corinthian church as to whether a marriage could continue when one partner had been converted and the other remained an unbeliever. One assumes that they had Old Testament Scriptures in mind like Exodus 34:15-16, Ezra 9 & 10 and Nehemiah 13:23-28.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Christians should not marry non-Christians, in the circumstances where a couple had married as unbelievers and one partner had become converted, Paul states that the Christian is not to instigate divorce proceedings, ‘For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.’ As we saw earlier, the Greek word for ‘sanctified’ is hagiazo. This is the very word and the same grammatical construction used in 1:2 to describe the church members at Corinth, save that they are,’sanctified in Christ Jesus’. However, in 7:14,although the same expression is used, Paul must have had something else in mind. Whatever ‘sanctified’ unbelievers might be, they are not those who are ‘called to be saints’, nor do they, ‘call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.’ By definition, they are still in their sins since they have not trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. There is no suggestion that they possess any spiritual benefits conferred by their unbelieving partners save perhaps that mentioned in 1Peter 3:1-2.

To understand the apostle’s teaching, it is necessary to bear in mind that the basic meaning of sanctification is to set apart or to be set apart for some special purpose. For example, in 1Tim 4:4-5, the word is used with reference to food: ’For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer’ (NASB). Obviously the food receives no special qualities from this sanctification which will lead to its salvation! It is made suitable for its purpose (being eaten!) by prayer and by God’s word that declares it to be so.

So all Paul is saying in the first part of 7:14 is that there is no need for a believer to separate himself from an unbelieving spouse. As Calvin says, the believing party is not contaminated by contact with the unbeliever, but there is certainly no salvific benefit for the non-Christian. Just a little further on (v16 ), Paul asks, ‘For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?’. She doesn’t!

Then Paul goes on to make a hypothetical argument. ’Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.’ The important thing to note is that Paul has switched from the Third Person to the Second Person. It would have been natural for him to continue in the Third Person and say, ‘Otherwise their children would be unclean’ but he doesn’t do that. The reason is that he is addressing the whole church at this particular point.

Paul’s argument is this; if one had perforce to separate physically from unbelievers to avoid contamination from them, then Corinthian parents would have to separate from their own children. ’That which is born of the flesh is flesh’ (John 3:6 ) and all children are born with the contamination of a sinful nature. What was true for the unbelieving spouse would also be true for all children until they were converted. But in fact, Paul is saying that, just as the believer in the marriage sanctifies an unbelieving spouse so as to be able to live together, so believing parents sanctify their children just so as to be able to bring them up in a Christian manner and, if God wills, to see them brought to faith.

I suggest that if the baptism of infants were taking place in Corinth, Paul would certainly not have written this way. If children of believers were already ‘sanctified’ by virtue of their birth (contra John 1:13 ), or if they really could be brought into the New Covenant by baptism, he would not have suggested that they might be ‘unclean.’ Therefore I conclude that infant baptism was not being practised in Corinth.


(1) The argument used here originated with the 19th Century American Baptist, John Dagg.  I have recast his work in my own words.

(2) The quotations are all from Calvin’s commentary on 1Corinthians.

(3) In fairness to Calvin, not all his other writings on baptism give quite the same impression, though some certainly do.

(4) Church of Christ by James Bannerman (T.T.Clark, 1868).


  1. Dear Martin,

    I found your commentary thought-provoking though I felt your extra-Biblical arguments as also your linguistic logic concerning hagios were unhelpful in understanding I Cor. 7:14. I cannot write at length due to work pressure in other venues but here are a few thoughts:

    a. We cannot place Anglicans and Presbyterians in the same boat regarding baptism as they have at least two different views of baptism the covenant and the church. You also forget that many Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists, Campbellites etc. share the view that you have put into different Anglican and Presbyterian shoes. You always make Aunt Sallies of Anglicans and Presbyterians in your argument. Is passing the buck here helpful? It shows that you are leaving your own denomination ‘at ease in Sion’ but an Amos or Hosiah would want to wake you up just as they would want to arouse any denomination. Besides, not all Anglicans and not all Presbyterians and not all Baptists believe as you think they do, so why generalise?

    b. Most of Calvin’s systematic works are compilations of other men’s works who had different ideas regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So too, a large number of commentaries were patched together from students’ notes who came from a wide variety of schools. This becomes plain, as you have seen, when analysing his works. However, you have especially mentioned Anglicans and Presbyterians, though these hold to different views of baptism to each other and to Calvin. So what was the point?

    Concerning Bannerman, of course, the form in which you have presented him makes him seem rather silly, but is this Bannerman ‘total’ and if it is, are you suggesting all Anglicans and Presbyterians would agree with him?

    c. If I understand you correctly, and I am not sure that I do because of my different training in Greek exegesis, you are arguing that hagios has only one meaning in your text applied both to the wife and mother and to children of both husband and wife. You then define the word which Bannerman understands as a relativised holiness, which you rejected, in the same relativised way for the wife and then apply it to the child. Why not use the word in its proper sense and apply it to both? After all, our Reformers taught us to accept the clear and obvious meaning of a text before ever daring to ‘relativise’ it. All that stops you doing this is Baptist bias and an effort to find evidence to support it. Shake of your Baptist burden and approach the text as a Christian scholar. You will be surprised what a difference it makes. Actually, you are approaching the text with the same confused rationalism of Calvin and Bannerman, which made me drop both gentlemen as mentors years ago.

    d. You will notice that Presbyterian writers use the same white-wash argument as you do with the play on persons which has nothing to do with the problem at hand, i.e. the meaning of hagios.

    e. Why do you say that ‘Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but now they are holy,’ is a hypothetical argument? Paul addressed the Corinthians directly, calling a spade a spade. He hit their problems bang on and addressed them directly in their direct need.

    f. Is it not rather a speculative jump from food offered to idols to the holiness of a child? This is the kind of clever ‘relativising’ that spoils theological debate. I lost you totally here.

    g. Your conclusion that if there had been children in the families baptised, Paul would not have written in this way, is contested by the bulk of Christianity who argue quite the opposite. Such remarks are neither contextually based nor show helpful logic. Besides, the arguments contradicting you are not even so much as mentioned. All you can plead in your article is that you have used ‘special pleading’ and the score is still 0-0. Let us trust that you will be given extra time, as Biblical truth is not merely a lucky eleven metre kick.
    Yours sincerely in Christ,


  2. Hello George,
    Thanks for your comments. I reply as follows:-

    a. The reason I cite Anglicans and Presbyterians in my posts on baptism is simply because they are the ones whose works I have read and with whom I have discussed the matter. I would happily refer to Methodists and others who may use 1Cor 7:14 in their arguments for paedobaptism, but I have not come across their writings. I also draw your attention to the fact that I wrote about ‘many’ Anglicans and Presbyterians not ‘all’ or even ‘most,’ so I plead not guilty to generalization.

    b. I picked two writers almost at random to illustrate my point. If you want, I can quote you Luther, J.A. or Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge or David Engelsma who all seem to argue from 1Cor 7:14 that the ‘holiness’ of the baptized infant exempts them in some way from the Fall. I think J. C. Ryle falls into this trap somewhere in his writings, but I’ve been unable to find the quote.

    c. You are right that I assume that the same basic word used in the same sentence will normally have the same meaning. Therefore it unlikely that the Holy Spirit will asign a different sanctification to the unconverted spouse and the unconverted infant. I therfore say that if the child is ‘clean,’ so is the unconverted spouse. If the child can be a church member, so can the spouse. But if the spouse is excluded from membership because of unbelief and unrepentance, so is the child. In a word, they both need to hear the Gospel, repent of their sins and trust in Christ before they can be accounted Christians and enter the church through baptism.

    If that is ‘Baptist bias,’ then guilty as charged, M’Lud. But I don’t think it is.

    d. I don’t understand you. Presbyterians surely take the opposite view and say that the sanctification of the unbelieving spouse is of a different order to that of the infant, whereas Paul says that ‘ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’

    e. The reason that I think this is a hypothetical argument is because of the use of the words ‘epei ara’ translated ‘otherwise.’ These words are found in only one other place in the NT, in 1Cor 5:10: ‘Since then you would need to go out of the world.’ It seems that ‘epei ara’ is used when contrasting something impossible or ridiculous with what is actually the case. So in 1Cor 7:14, Paul is saying, ‘If believing wives had to separate from their unbeliving husbands because of uncleanliness, then all the mothers in Corinth would have to separate from their children when they are born for the same reason (which is ridiculous). Therefore neither is the case.

    f. All I am doing is trying to show the semantic range of ‘hagios.’ It doesn’t only mean ‘holy’ in the sense of ‘converted.’

    g. Obviously, I am aware that mine is very much a minority view, but that doesn’t make it wrong, otherwise Luther would never have started the Reformation! It is up to you to prove that it’s wrong, if you can.

  3. Thank you Martin for your reply.
    a. This point was to show that not only Anglicans and Presbyterians have different views on baptism but also such as Campbellites and Baptists who are perhaps even more split over the matter of baptism. You say you attack Anglicans and Presbyterians because you have read their books. Have you not read books by Baptists on their different opinions concerning baptism? A further point of mine is that you pass the buck from the Baptists to the Anglicans and Presbyterians, ignoring the fact that ‘many’ Baptists are just as confused.

    b. The point of this question was to enquire whether you think Anglicans and Presbyterians would agree with Calvin and Bannerman on the ordinances or not. You did not answer my question. My answer would be ‘very few’. Indeed, my experience is that the great number of Anglicans and Presbyterians I have fellowshipped with would be shocked to know what Calvin, for instance, taught concerning the ordinances. Remember, he told Beza that he would have no difficulty signing the Augsburg Confession.

    c. You missed my point here, too. If there are different basic meanings to hagios which you affirm and which I would deny, then the matter of giving both the mother and the child the same ‘wrong meaning’, as I believe you have done, does not help us in our discussion. Furthermore, what is your reason for presuming the child mentioned un-baptised? Paul speaks of holy children within the church. Would they not thus be baptised? Please do not say that they would be if they had reached the age of discretion as this would be dodging the issue. We are talking about those designated ‘holy’. not ‘discreet’. John baptised a generation of vipers but I have never met a Baptist who would claim that they were not set apart by God. Holiness is not a human attribute but a Godly status.

    d. This is new to me, as a quick consultation of Presbyterian views shows. However, you are bringing coals to Newcastle here as I reject ‘many’ of the many Presbyterian views on baptism and agree that baptism is for sinners.
    e. I read this as a plain matter of fact.
    f. I still cannot follow your original comparison here.

    g. Most Baptists do appear to be very lonely with their individual views of Baptism but as you say, this does not make any one wrong, but it does all the others if he is right. This seems hardly a ground on which to build a religion or name one’s church. What I cannot understand about Baptists is that they found a multitude of churches around the name, as if the sign were as important for them as the Signifier but most seem to disagree about what the name means. Of course, this occurs amongst others who call themselves Anglicans or Presbyterians or Lutherans etc. but I find that Baptists are far more split on baptism than are Anglicans and Presbyterians etc. because their churches are split even more. I find calling a church after the man Luther instead of Christ also shocking. By the way, Luther did not start the Reformation and it is his doctrine of the ordinances that left him at loggerheads with our Reformers. His doctrine of justification by faith is shared by us but Melanchthon soon changed it and now modern German Lutherans, at least, have officially rejected it in their joint statement with the Roman Catholics.

    Before I can even attempt to prove you wrong or right, I must know what you exactly believe. I am working on it. Our private correspondence has been a blessing to me as we begin to understand where each other stands. John Durie, Cromwell’s right-hand man in Europe, used to teach that correspondence (today we would call this communication) is the way to knowledge and knowledge, enlightened by the Spirit, is one of God’s divine ways of understanding Him who is Pansophia.

    God bless,


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