In this post I’d like to make an attempt to argue for infant baptism. Specifically, I want to counter some of the main evangelical arguments against that I outlined earlier in this post. Thus, the argument I want to make here consists of 3 main points: 1) A focus on the communal/relational nature of our faith, 2) grace, and 3) baptism as a real event.
1) Community over individual.
The evangelical community treats baptism as the public display of a decision made by a particular individual. To be baptized one must “own” their faith and make a cognitive “decision for Christ”. I would argue that the individualism so prevalent in this persuasion is rooted in Western (post) Enlightenment thinking wherein “the individual” became the preeminent being. Against this the Judeo-Christian faith is not an individualistic faith. While always personal it is never private. While we can really have a relationship with God this is a relationship that takes shape in a real community of believers rather than locked away in your bedroom with your bible (nothing against personal devotions here). Fundamentally as human beings we are not individuals. Our very being is constituted in relation (with God, others and the non-human creation). If then our very being is relational it is harmful to frame baptism with the individualism we inherit from the forefathers of Western thought.
I would argue instead that baptism is entrance into the people of God. While this is most evident in the NT we see it also has effect in the OT (i.e. 1 Cor 10:2). To be baptized is to be baptized into something. We descend in the water with Christ and in so doing participate in his death with him and with our brothers and sisters who have gone before us. When we come up out of the water we are raised with Christ and with those who have gone before us into the eschatological community which surrounds Jesus. As such, baptism is much like the eucharist in which we are consumed and become a Body.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ,” (Gal 3:26-28).
2) Grace over cognition.
The evangelical community makes the content of one’s baptism their “decision for Christ”. Thus, what becomes important (and must come prior to baptism) is a cognitive decision that is made for Jesus (believe and be baptized!). Yet, in contrast with this view I find myself sympathetic with Luther on the matter of baptism. Luther viewed infant baptism as pure grace. For here is a tiny helpless infant, she cannot make any sort of cognitive decision for Christ nor can she publicly proclaim her faith yet she is initiated into the people of God. She could do nothing to earn this. Grace.
The Meeting House is doing a series at the moment in conversation with various Christian traditions. The first talk in this series was in conversation with Anglicanism and featured a dialogue between Bruxy and John Bowen (a prof of mine from Wycliffe). Bowen asked the question, “What if we think of baptism as the way you register in the school of Jesus Christ?” So, perhaps you enter the school of Jesus at 13, 25, 60. Naturally, you are baptized. But suppose you raise your child in this school from day 1? Why not baptize them as well? This is the view that I have become convinced of myself. Baptism is not the medal you get for crossing the finish line and arriving at all the right conclusions about Jesus. Rather, baptism is the gate through which you enter into the people of God and journey with them to discover and be formed by the God revealed in Christ Jesus.
My friend Jason gave this as a counter argument to the “cognitive decision” that evangelicals argue must come before baptism: “A related test case might be the baptism of mentally challenged people who are unable of making adult decisions. Do we baptize people who are incapable of uniting their faith with the water? Or do we baptize them as a sign that God’s love overcomes even this weakness?”
Baptism is not earned by confessing the right thing. Rather, baptism is entrance into a community where we learn to confess the right thing. Grace.
3) Real over symbolic.
Thus, where evangelicals speak of baptism as a symbolic action that points to the inward (real) faith of a particular individual I would argue that baptism is a real event (not just a symbol) and a real sacrament of God’s grace in our lives whereby we actually are baptized with Christ into his death and resurrection and actually are raised to new life in the midst of a community of resurrection. Baptism is thus important. It’s not simply one possible option that a cognitive individual can add on to their faith like adding power windows to the base model of your new car. Baptism is not just another possible choice at the buffet of religious goods and services. Baptism is, rather, a real event with real bearing in the life of faith.
In closing and in relation to all 3 points above consider this. Christian parents do not bring their children up neutrally. They do not bring them up so that one day they may make a decision (at age 16, obviously) and become part of the Body, rather, they bring them up as part of the Body. Faith is not merely a decision, it is a habit that you learn and children are capable of learning the habit of faith long before they ever “make a decision”. Thus, Christian families should baptize their children as infants because they are being enrolled in the school of Jesus from Day 1.
John Bowen published a book on the life of the Catholic missionary Vincent Donovan (actually the book was a collection of Donovan’s missionary letters). In some of his letters Donovan recalls how he would meet a new tribe (he was somewhere in the African continent) and teach them the faith for a year. Then, at the end of the year he would ask them to be baptized. Of course, there was a problem. You see, that old gentleman over there, well, he slept through 3/4 of the classes and that young girl over there, well, she ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed. So everyone else could be baptized but not them. The chief of the tribe then approached Donovan and said something to the effect of, “Either you baptize us all or none of us will be baptized. We will help each other along.”
ps – While I agree with all of this in theory the real church community that we are part of does not practice infant baptism, unfortunately. Since that is our community it looks like little Charlotte will be unable to be baptized although I hope that in the future denominations that hold to “believers baptism” will recognize that this does not necessarily require a “decision for Christ” on behalf of the person being baptized. Charlotte, despite the fact that you are fed from a breast and constantly poo yourself, despite the fact that you can’t decide what you want to do for the day let alone decide to follow Jesus, God’s grace is extended to you anyways. You are a part of God’s people and no decision could earn that reality for you.