Taginfant baptism

Infant Baptism and Individualism

A few weeks back, we attended the parish Communion service in the Bath Abbey.

Two children were baptized in the service.

Baptism services always get me thinking.

While I attend a church that practices only believer baptism, I think that infant baptism was practiced in the New Testament church and is therefore biblical.  I concede that the scriptural support of infant baptism is contestable, but what is incontestable is the practical superiority of infant baptism as a ritual that prepares us to resist modern idolatries.

The community dimension:

On two occasions in the service, once from the altar and once from the Victorian baptismal font by the entrance of the sanctuary, the officiant emphasized the community of believers that was at that moment gathered around the child.   This community is to be “the resources and support” to the parents of those about to be baptized.  The importance of the community and its relationship to the child about to be baptized is central to the ceremony.

All those assembled made a solemn promise to meaningfully participate in the raising of these children in the faith.  The parents did, of course, but godparents were commissioned as well, adding another layer to the community.  I found it fascinating that the godparents made the same promises as did the parents. They didn’t just consent, but acknowledged their inadequacy by saying,  “With the help of God we will.”

Interestingly, the vows made by the community were almost exactly the same as those made by the parents and godparents.   They promised to “welcome and uphold” those about to be baptized, to “pray for them” and “draw them by example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ.”  They too acknowledge their limitations by promising, “With the help of God we will.” So many people are committing to these children, and they just lay there oblivious to it all.

Imagine the impact of this ritual over the life of the Christian.  Every baptism service is a reminder of the same basic truths:

  • That every adult within the community has the responsibility in drawing the individual into the community.
  • That human effort alone is insufficient to draw the individual into the flock.
  • That the body of Christ, comes first– the eye is there for the body, not the body for the eye.
  • That this is all about Grace; I was welcomed into the family of God, and I could do nothing but drool.

Where churches practice believer’s baptism, a “baby dedication” replaces baptism to commemorate the inclusion of the child in the church community.  While the congregational will often make a promise, the focus of this, usually casual, event is on the commitment of the parents.  In the believer’s baptism, the role of the community is as a passive observer as the baptism is the result of the individual’s decision to follow Jesus.  As in modern culture, in the modern ceremony of baptism, the role of the larger community is diminished and that of the individual is expanded.

Through baptism, individuals are not choosing God, rather, God is building a people.
The God Dimension:

The Liturgy of Baptism we followed in Bath Abbey begins,  “In baptism the Lord is adding to our number those he is calling.”  The idea here is that through baptism, God is building a people.

The liturgy begins with the recognition that baptism is about what God is doing.  God is very active in baptism; he’s not just adding; he’s also calling, helping and giving.

The liturgy declares that faith is a gift. A gift needs a giver. God is the giver and the gift is underserved. All Christians believe this, but human helplessness is better illustrated a drooling baby than a 23-year-old who has finally decided to follow Jesus.

The hebdomadal dimension:

Baptismal Font in St. Gile’s Church, Sidbury

This is a rare word that means weekly.

When you enter the Bath Abbey or any Anglican church, you walk past the baptismal font.  It’s very large and it’s been there hundreds of years. The members of this church were likely baptized at this very font.  But even if they were not, every week when they gather to worship, they walk past this physical reminder of their own baptism–they are reminded again of the basic truths inherent in the service of baptism in the Church of England.

I might be an exception, but the presence of the font in every church I entered, reminded me of my own baptism into a community that in its largest sense, includes the Anglican worshipers in the churches I visited this summer.

I think that a weekly reminder of God’s grace and the community of faith might be a powerful corrective to the idolatry of individualism that so dominates our thinking in the modern church.

Obviously, my argument here will not convince any believer baptists to become baby baptizers, but regardless of who we baptize when (let’s put baby dedication into here as well), we need to be deliberate about emphasizing God’s actions and the important role of the community going forward.

A Case for Infant Baptism (2)

I want to move from the scriptural support for the practice of infant baptism to some that is worldview related.  Mixed with these are some personal, perhaps even sentimental, considerations as to why I remain a paedobaptist.

Believer baptism puts the offer of God’s promises with the acceptance of same; infant baptism separates the offer from the acceptance.

In my mind, separation has a couple of advantages.

For one thing, applying the sign of baptism on an infant emphasizes God’s promises, rather than the individuals reception of these promises. In infant baptism, God promises–He is the agent–and the little helpless human simply receives. Every time we witness this ceremony we see again this picture of Grace.  The individual is incapable of responding to God.  They can’t reject him, can’t say thank you. There is no way that we deserve or in any way can earn the blessings of God and unity with Christ as symbolized in baptism.  The very helplessness of the recipient reinforces this idea.

This is a strange idea in our modern culture where the individual is supreme, but not so in the ancient world.   It is likely that the first century writers of the New Testament couldn’t conceive of believer baptism for they were community and family oriented, rather than individual oriented.  When they report that “households” (Acts 16:15 and again in verse 31) were baptized, they would likely be shocked that anyone could think that this didn’t involve children.  It wasn’t until the sixteenth century–the century in which the individual was born–that Christians began to question the legitimacy of infant baptism.

While, primarily emphasizing the actions of God, infant baptism also emphasises the nuclear family, biological or adoptive, and the church family. At an infant baptism, following the promises of God, the parents promise and the church body also make some heavy promises. The Bible is very clear that just because you are in the family, doesn’t mean that you will necessarily grow into the transformation for which circumcision is the sign, but God still has established family as the means by which God’s Word is to be taught and lived. This same principle is embodied in infant baptism.  From my position as the father, infant baptism was a daunting event. In it there is an awareness that this baptism is no guarantee that the child will receive the ultimate spiritual blessings for which it is a signifier. And that if the helpless child in your arms is to know about God’s promises, it is pretty much up to you communicate them. Standing there you become poignantly aware of the awesome responsibility that is yours to train and teach the child in your arms so that they become the individual who professes their acceptance of God’s promises.

When the parents have made their promises, the church body makes theirs–they accept the obligation to support the parents as they raise the child.  The ceremony of infant baptism emphasises the actions of God and his agents.

We are talking about two very important events in the life of a Christian–every Christian acknowledges the importance of doing something about the children of believers; every Church also recognizes the importance of the new Christian publically professing their faith in Christ. The questions is where do we put baptism? And what do we use to commemorate the other significant event?

When those who have been baptized as infants come to faith in Jesus Christ, they publically profess their faith. This is commemorated in many different ways, but this is how it went with my children. They attended a year long class where they were instructed in the foundational beliefs of the church and discipled in being a member of the Body of Christ. Then they were examined by the church leadership. During a church service, an individual who had been a significant mentor on their spiritual journey, introduced my child. She then offered their testimony, after which hands were laid on her by friends and family and she was blessed with prayer. The church service was followed by a time of fellowship with the church family and later, at home, with the extended family. This was a significant event, and it was treated at such.

Many (all?) churches that practice adult baptism alone, practice child dedication.Child dedication emphasizes primarily the actions of the parents who bring the child forward for dedication.  I have contended that infant baptism emphasize the actions of God at the baptism and believer baptism emphasizes the actions of the believer.  Those who espouse infant baptism would argue that the practice that acknowledges God as the primary agent is the preferred, and more Biblical, approach.

Who is speaking in baptism? God or the baptized? Or both? For the infant baptizers, it is clearly God–he speaks first and human beings receive (as opposed to, human beings are active and God responds to our obedience). In my tradition, the believer will have their chance to speak, but that won’t be until he or she becomes a beleiver.

In a culture where the individual is god, to baptize infants is counter-cultural.  We swim in the waters of individualism, and a ritual that focuses us on God’s action rather than our own, that focuses on the offer of Grace, rather than on our acceptance of it, is a ritual we ought to observe–if it’s scriptural.  I think that there is strong evidence infant baptism is scriptural.

I understand that there are some who do not.  This is an important issue, but it is not a foundational issue, so I can easily continue to worship in my wonderful credobaptist church.

 

The Case For Infant Baptism (1)

Lately, I’ve been having a lot conversations about baptism. Some of these have been with credobaptists who wonder about the scriptural justification for infant baptism. Some with those who were baptized as infants, but now attend a church that adheres to believer baptism, and are required to be re-baptized in order to be a member. This post is my explanation, to those who wonder, why some Christians insist that infant baptism is baptism.  This is a difficult task because, in the case of most protestant denominations who practice it, infant baptism has everything to do with “Covenantal Theology.”  This is more of an worldview, than just an interpretation of scripture, so to actually understand infant baptism, you really need to be looking through the lenses of Covenantal Theology.

Just a few terms: paedobaptists baptize children; credobaptists baptize believers.

I have no problem with credobaptism. No paedobaptist does; it is clear that the church in Acts baptized adults.  I go to a church that baptizes believers only.  It is an important issue, but it is not, as they say, a “Salvation issue.”

I believe that there is adequate historical and scriptural evidence that infant baptism was normative in the early church. I also think that baptism of infants is, today, a counter-cultural practice to which all Christians might consider returning.

The historical evidence points to infant baptism being practised in the early church. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) speaks to the universality of infant baptism saying it is  “held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.”  There is only a century separating John the Apostle and the Church Father Origin, who was certainly baptized as an infant in around 180 AD.  It is reasonable to assert that the practice of baptism as performed in the earliest days of the church, was imitated in the decades that followed; they did what they saw done. By itself, historical evidence like this is not an adequate reason to accept infant baptism, but it can be used as a support to scriptural evidence.

Scripture ought to be our guideline when trying to determine who to baptize. So the question is, What do the scriptures say?

Well, this is inconclusive. There can be clarity, but to achieve it, you have to read every verse regarding baptism from a particular perspective. If you read it with one perspective, one can convincingly argue that believer baptism is scriptural; if you read it from another, then infant baptism is the way to go. Proof of this is that both credo- and paedobaptists use exactly the same texts to support their views.

Those who baptize infants start with a covenantal perspective. God deals with his people using Covenants. The mark of the Old Covenant was circumcision, carried out long before a child could make any personal response to God. Abraham circumcised Isaac at eight days old (Genesis 21:4). Babies born into a believing home receive this sign of the covenant, and it is clear that the faith of the parents is sufficient for the whole household, including the children. Clearly, children were a part of the Old Testament people of God.

Circumcision was a sign–it pointed to something else–a transformation of the heart. In Deuteronomy 10:16 this is referred to as the “circumcision” of the heart. We also find this language in Jeremiah (4:4). In Ezekiel 36:24-27 it’s called a new heart, a heart of flesh as opposed to one of stone.

Importantly, outward circumcision did not guarantee the inward transformation.   In Jeremiah 9:25-26 it says, “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab–and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” The sign of circumcision was not simply a sign of belonging to a racial group, or even a particular religion–it was a sign of spiritual transformation. One which the recipient of the sign may or may not experience.

Paul sees circumcision in this way as well. In Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29, he emphasizes that what counts is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” He then comments on God’s first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom 4:11).  Paul reinforces the idea that physical circumcision is a sign for spiritual transformation. He also says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12).  Here we see that faith precedes the sign of the covenant, but once received, the faith of the adult is sufficient for the whole household, including children.

The general pattern of scripture shows important parallels between circumcision and baptism; both are a signs of the covenant of the righteousness we receive by faith, both symbolize the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith; both point to the cleansing and renewal of the heart, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus.   In the case of circumcision, God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises.  The New Testament doesn’t explicitly identify the recipients of the sign of the New Covenant.

Protestant denominations seem to agree that baptism is a sign of union with Christ, symbolizing righteousness in Christ and participation in his Death and Resurrection which can be receive only by faith.   Credobaptists argue that since baptism symbolizes grace received through faith, the recipient ought to have professed their faith before receiving the sign.   Paedobaptists say that, just like circumcision in the Old Covenant, baptism is not a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted, but a sign that it has been offered.

I believe this is the key difference between the two views, so let me say it again, for the sake of emphasis: Supporters of believer baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted by faith. Supporters of infant baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been offered and will be received only by faith.  You don’t need to accept either view, but you must conceded that both are reasonable readings of the supporting texts.

I think that many of the credobaptist objections to infant baptism are resolved when we allow the sign of baptism to stand as a sign of God’s covenant promises (which can only be received through faith) and not a sign of the acceptance of these promises. If this point is conceded, then we ought to be baptizing babies. The question now is whether or not it is to be conceded.

I think this point ought to be conceded and here’s why: there is no scriptural reason for children to be treated differently under the New Covenant than they were treated under the Old. The Israelite children were clearly considered part of the covenant community–they received the sign of circumcision. I think it is appropriate to assume the continuity between the two covenants unless there is explicit biblical reasons not to. If the children of Christians are to be considered outside of the New Covenant community, then we would expect this significant change to be explicitly expressed in the New Testament writings. All the other ways where the New diverges from the Old is explicitly articulated. Here’s the list:

  • circumcision is no longer a requirement
  • both Jews and Greeks must be baptized
  • no more animal sacrifices
  • dietary laws no longer apply
  • temple worship is replaced by the “Spiritual Temple”

The New Testament offers no shift in the relationship of children to the covenant, moving them from inside through the covenant sign of circumcision, to outside through exclusion from the covenant sign of baptism. If children were suddenly outside the covenant, a radical change in God’s way of dealing with his people, surely there would have been some discussion, if not a major controversy, that would have been recorded in the New Testament.

Indeed, what is remarkable about the New Covenant is that it became more inclusive. Where the Old Testament sign of circumcision was restricted to males and, in general, Jews. The New Testament covenant adds women and Greeks. It seems inconsistent that the sign of the New Covenant would become less inclusive in just this one way.

In conclusion, paedobaptists would say that every objection raised against the baptism of infants can be raised against circumcision. If these objections are invalid for circumcision, they are invalid for baptism.

There are other dimensions and arguments to infant baptism that I have not gone into because they, too, are not conclusive.

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