A Decision or a Response?

At our small group last week we had a very stimulating (for me, anyway) discussion about baptism. Most of us in the group are from Evangelical circles and so our understanding of baptism is rather slanted (see THIS post for some of my thoughts on that; see THIS post for a different approach to baptism).

At any rate, at one point we went off on a minor, though related, tangent regarding the starting point of discipleship. Many of us were convinced of the power of the “decision for Christ”. In order to follow Christ Jesus one must make a conscious decision to do so (baptism then is the outer symbol of this inner decision).

Over the last number of years, with the help of many others, I have come to be quite skeptical in the Evangelical “decision for Christ”.

For one, this seems to concede more than we ought to modern Western culture and how we understand knowledge. To know something means to do ones homework. To spend time pouring over the object of ones study. To study broadly and to weigh the evidence in the scales of Reason. This is how we often talk of and think about the “decision for Christ”. We gather all of the evidence, weigh it in the scales of Reason, and then decide. There are many reasons why this is problematic: it is anthropocentric, individualistic, and generally over-confident in humanities reasoning capacities.

On the other hand, what if we think of the starting point for discipleship not as a decision but as a response? This seems to be more faithful to the accounts we see in scripture. The gospel is not something which we can reason our way to, think about, and decide upon as autonomous individuals. Rather, the gospel is something which confronts us from a place where reason cannot go. Now, to be sure, part of being a human creature is to have rational capacity so our response to the gospel is not void of reason and thus illogical (although many might argue that!). However, to be confronted with the gospel is to be confronted with a narrative about the true nature of the world and of history which we could not access and gain insight into on our own. This sort of confrontation requires an unveiling, a revelation. Christ Jesus is this revelation who unveils the true nature of the world and it’s history.

Thus, I would argue that since this gospel comes to us from outside of ourselves it requires not a decision but a response. This may seem trivial but I am not simply playing linguistic games here, I assure you. The most fitting response to the gospel is faith, and faith is not something we decide upon as if it is just one possible option among others. Faith is a gift given to us, yet it is truly ours.

A “response” or a “decision”? These are two very different understandings from which we begin to understand faith and discipleship.

ps – To tie this back to baptism (which is what our group was talking about after all) the question then is raised, “when do you baptize?” If we understand the Christian life as beginning with an individual decision, then baptism is restricted to those individuals who have made that decision. If, however, we understand the Christian life as beginning with a response (and a communal one at that), then baptism is open to anyone who finds themselves a member of that confessing Body. Infants may be baptized because while they cannot make an individual decision for Christ they may very well find themselves a member of a family which is a member of a community of faith which is responding to the gospel and in this case baptism is not only a participation in the baptism of Christ Jesus but a sign of wonderful, life-giving grace!

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10 comments
  1. Beth said:

    JT.

    I like how you’ve articulated the decision/response differentiation. I think that it’s important to recognize God’s leading and moving throughout whatever our process/journey to Him looks like – I totally believe that we don’t find God independent of His Spirit working.

    However, I do think that there is still an element of “decision” involved – the very concept of “response” insinuates decision, a choice to act based on the external reality. Nor do I think that “making a decision” is synonymous with a rational & logical approach to faith. I know many people whose response to Jesus (either for or against) was born out of emotions or some sort of “experience” rather than a process of rational achievement.

    I also disagree that if I did accept this concept of response, that your defense of infant baptism follows out of it. Maybe I am missing something, but I don’t see how baptism is therefore available to anyone.

    (I’ve been sitting thinking on this a little longer, and this is where my thoughts get a little murky – I want to clarify that I am not fully anti-baby-baptism, but I really don’t understand this defense of it.)

    For me, the Thursday discussion was helpful in thinking of baptism as something more than mere symbolism. Although, I still feel unclear on what exactly it is… ๐Ÿ™‚

    • jt* said:

      Beth,

      Thanks for the response and further interaction on this. A few comments in response.

      I’m not against “decision” language in and of itself. The problem is, I think, how we’ve come to understand this in our Western culture since the 17th/18th century (the Enlightenment). The way we often speak of a “decision for Christ” at present involves what we can call the autonomous individual. This is an understanding of a human creature who is ultimately defined as rational, independent, and self-sufficient. Since we are part of modern Western culture, this understanding of personhood has influenced and shaped us. What I’m trying to argue, is that we need to fundamentally re-understand what a human person is or we’re in danger of getting faith and discipleship backwards. Briefly, what I would argue for would be a view of the human person who is *fundamentally* relational. We have a concept today of “relation”, but it is flawed because it understands relation as an occurrence between two autonomous individuals who come together. I want to argue for a concept of personhood that see’s relation as more fundamental than this, understanding relation as something which is fundamental to our humanity. In this view, there is no autonomous individual, there are only unique persons who are distinct from one another but not separate, in fact, our uniqueness and differentiation from one another comes *in relation*. That may be a bit convoluted, I’d be happy to try to clarify if it’s not that clear.

      So then, if we begin to understand human persons in this way then this fundamentally alters how we think of a “decision for Christ”. Decisions are no longer made by autonomous individuals who have weighed the evidence in the scales of reason for themselves and made their *own* decision for their *own* faith. If we want to use the language of “decision” (which I don’t think is helpful because of what it has come to mean) then we need to understand it as something that happens *in relation*. If we really want to talk about a “decision”, it should be the decision that the Father has made to reconcile the cosmos to himself in his Son through the power of the Spirit. The ultimate decision is the one which God has already made for humanity on the cross. Any decision of ours can only be a response to this decision.

      Re: infant baptism, I’m not arguing that in this case baptism “is therefore available to anyone”. What I’m trying to say is that if we want to reject the “decision for Christ” then we must also reject the understanding of baptism that necessarily goes along with it. So, we must also reject the understanding of baptism as an “outer testimony to an inner faith” (or however you want to word it). The question then is, well, what is baptism? I think the most fitting way to understand baptism in light of the scriptural narrative is as “entrance into the school of Jesus” (see post). Here’s what I mean by this. Paul is constantly arguing against circumcision in his letters. Yet, he understands that circumcision was the marker of God’s people. This was what distinguished them from the world. So, if Paul is arguing against circumcision does that mean he is now saying that God no longer has a people? No. For Paul, baptism replaces circumcision as the marker of God’s renewed people (including both Jews and Gentiles, in fact, there is no longer Jew or Gentile!). We are baptized by one Spirit to form one body (1 Cor. 12:13). But baptism isn’t what justifies the person just as circumcision didn’t justify the person. In Romans, Paul argues that Abraham was justified *before* he was circumcised (4:10). But circumcision was still a marker for the Jews. So too with baptism. Baptism does not justify but it connects a person through the one Spirit to the one body. This is why we should not rule out infant baptism. Baptism should be open to anyone as initiation into Christ’s Body (or as initiation into “the school of Jesus”). I was baptized at 17. Why? Because that’s when I entered the school of Jesus. My mother was baptized in her 40’s. Why? Because that’s when she entered the school of Jesus. How about little Charlotte? Should we not baptize her? If not, are we not excluding her from the school of Jesus? What if Christina and I, in the midst of a community of faith, want to say we are raising Charlotte in the school of Jesus from day 1? This then is when we should practice infant baptism. Not all the time, and not as some sort of eternal security (because there is no justification in baptism), but when people commit to raising their children in the school of Jesus from the very beginning. In this case, the infant may be baptized. I’m not saying we should just baptize infants left and right. I am saying we need to re-understand baptism though, and when we do, we can no longer a priori rule out infant baptism.

      WHEW! Sorry for being so long winded. Thoughts?

  2. PG said:

    JT

    I would suggest that your last paragraph is incongruous with the preceding arguments.
    I tend to agree that faith in Christ is more a response than a reasoned decision (although many do come through this approach). In either case, however, it’s an act of will: decide or respond. It’s still an individual response which I don’t think you can do on an infant’s behalf.

    PG

    • jt* said:

      Petropolis!

      The short response to your comment is this: I disagree that I’m being incongruous. I’m simply picking up an understanding of baptism that has been common to the church all through history but that we seem to be lacking in modern Evangelicalism. For the record, infant baptism was regular practice in church communities by the 3rd century (at the latest) and has been so to this day. I think there is something there that we’re missing in Evangelicalism and that our understanding of faith and baptism can only be enriched by. I’d like to see evangelicals thinking about this even if they still disagree. There’s lot’s of helpful stuff here that we can learn from.

      Re: your comment, “it’s still an individual response which I don’t think you can do on an infant’s behalf,” check out my response to Beth above and/or read this post (https://jonathanturtle.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/a-case-for-infant-baptism-part-2-baptism-as-entrance-into-the-school-of-jesus/) and let me know what you think.

      Peace, brother.

  3. Beth said:

    JT,

    These are my main thoughts:

    1. I like that you’re addressing our western culture’s tendency to bow at the idol of self, and fully agree that there is something fundamentally relational about humanity.

    However, I feel like you may have over-corrected by saying “there is no autonomous individual, there are only unique persons who are distinct from one another but not separate.” This, in my mind, borders on a buddhist perspective of self and other and the global connectivity of the spiritual world. It also seems problematic when we come to issues of personal responsibility and culpability.

    Can you illustrate this with a concrete example? I want to understand how this is a biblical idea, in your perspective.

    2. I don’t have much to say on the infant baptism front until your framework is more clear to me (since one flows from the other), except for this (which I am sure you’ve heard before, and am curious to know your response): you mention baptism replacing circumcision as a symbolic entrance into God’s people, and I completely agree. But wouldn’t you also agree that another key difference between the OT/NT concept of God’s people is how you enter into it? In the OT, you enter through physical birth into a Hebrew family (although there are exceptions), and circumcision occurs correspondingly. In the NT, you enter through a spiritual birth that is a distinctly separate event from your physical birth, and are accordingly baptized.

    Thoughts?

    • jt* said:

      Beth,

      I see your concern and it is a valid one. However, the view that I’m talking about differs from your concern in that humans *really are* distinct from one another. I would want to argue against the idea of a unity which robs humans of their particularity, so you’re right to note that as problematic. Essentially what I’m talking about is an understanding of human creatures as made in the image of a triune God. So, if we take the Trinity for example, there are three divine persons who in their unity are one God. These are not three autonomous persons as if the Father could exist on his own without the Son. That would be tri-theism, but we worship one God so we cannot go there. Yet, there *really are* three distinct and unique persons within the Godhead.

      I want to argue for an understanding of humans a created in the image of *this* God. Here, there is room for both particularity and unity. There is particularity and distinction amongst humans but there is no autonomy (as if one could exists apart from relation). At the same time, there is unity but not at the expense of particularity and distinction. This is, rather, a unity *in* distinction. It is a being *in* relation.

      Regarding baptism, I agree with you, I just don’t think this necessarily rules out infant baptism. If you agree that baptism is entrance into the Body, then by not baptizing infants who are apart of a Christian family are we not denying them membership in the Body? In this case, the parents would be members of Christ’s Body but not the child? I think this presents a problem if we’re going to understand baptism this way.

      Good discussion! I’m still processing all of this and interacting with you like this is helping me sort through some things, so thanks.

  4. Beth said:

    Thanks, JT!

    The explanation of unity in the image of God makes sense to me.

    But. I don’t understand how the decision/response idea flows out of that.

    As for baptism – I think that the parents’ commitment to raising the child in the school of Christ is paramount and incredibly powerful (I love baby dedications). But I think that in the same way that we would agree that faith shouldn’t be forced on a child, neither should baptism. At whatever point they say, “Hey, this is the thing for me. I want to be connected with Jesus not just through my parents but on my own,” then they can also decide to get baptized. Personally, I understood and wanted to take part in both baptism & communion before I was allowed to… based on my own experience, I would allow young children to do either, pretty much as soon as they can articulate why they want to.

    • jt* said:

      Hey Beth,

      Sorry it took me so long to respond. I got sidetracked and forgot.

      In short, if the idea of the autonomous individual is a myth (as I think we’ve agreed upon) then the idea of the autonomous individual decision must also be a myth and I think the way we have generally articulated the “decision for Christ” is just such a decision.

      I think the understanding of baptism which you articulate (“Hey, this is the thing for me”; “I want to be connected with Jesus…on my own” etc) ultimately flows out of this understanding of the human person. Further, to suggest that someone has be be able to “articulate why they want to” be baptized raises a whole host of problems. What about others who cannot articulate the faith, say, the mentally ill and handicapped, the elderly etc. How well would they have to be able to articulate why they want to be baptized? Would they need a certain IQ level? If baptism is how we are joined to the Body of Christ and you need to be able to articulate why you should be baptized then does this rule the mentally ill out of the church?

      Anyways, ciao!

  5. Beth said:

    Hey JT,

    To clarify: I said I understand your explanation of the centrality of human connectedness, but I wouldn’t say that I agree that “individual autonomy is a myth.” And I don’t understand how decision language is therefore obsolete; wouldn’t we agree that God makes decisions despite being the model you cite of unity/non-autonomy?

    As for the question of baptism for those who can’t articulate their faith – I’m not sure we’re understanding each other clearly, but I’m not sure where we’re missing the connections. So maybe we can save the rest of this convo for in-person?

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