A few months ago a friend, who had been a Baptist and then became a Presbyterian, asked me for a short answer as to why and how I had changed my view of baptism (which had been the view that baptism was by immersion of believers only). The answer I gave him was “short” and thus will not satisfy those who want a full-blown explanation. But maybe the very shortness of my response will be useful to friends as well as casual readers of this site.
1. Ephesians 4 presented serious problems for my view of adult baptism only. If there is "one baptism" then how could I continue to insist that the immersion of adults was the only true Christian baptism? In effect, who was I to reject the baptism of other Christians who were convinced on the basis of good reason and sound judgment? This question deeply troubled me based upon my understanding of the church and the sacraments. I began to see the adult baptism only view as inherently sectarian, though I would not accuse all Baptists of being sectarians in practice.
2. The fact is that so long as I was a Baptist minister I had no "real" theology of children except to say that they were lost souls until some point when they came to confess faith in Christ. I now believe regeneration is not so obvious in real life experience and that faith can grow from a seed that the Spirit grants and then brings to life. This spiritual operation is a sovereign work of God and thus a work of true grace, not of free will or human effort. Luther, for example, argued that this in itself was a strong argument for infant baptism, namely that the child could do nothing but receive what was given to them by their parents and the church.
3. By not including children in the visible covenantal family we regard the Old Testament arrangement as merely preparatory and thus make the New Covenant less inclusive than the Old since children were no longer included in the family. But the New Covenant is better, greater, and more inclusive in scope. The New Covenant is truly new and it is an international missional fulfillment of the old. How could children be included in the lesser (older) arrangement and then be excluded from the better and newer one? This just didn't make sense to me when I asked the question this way. The famous Catholic philosopher Pascal rightly said, "Jesus Christ, whom both Testaments regard, the Old as its hope, the New
as its model, and both as their center." If this is true then the New Covenant must include all the promises of the old, with the focus clearly on Christ who is the center of both. God made promises to Abraham and his seed. I believe those promises are to me, in Christ, and to my seed. I am a spiritual heir of Abraham and we are all joint-heirs of God's promises in Christ, which are all yes and amen!
4. Finally, many texts began to appear to make new sense to me once I began to reject the polemics that I had always embraced. New exegesis resulted from asking the questions of this new theology, a theology which grew out of pastoral practice and love.
I never insist, of course, that anyone has to agree with my change of view regarding baptism. My own son remains an adult immersionist in his ministry as a church planter. My own granddaughter was baptized on profession of faith at age 10 and I rejoiced in the occasion. I obviously have not yet convinced my son on this matter even though you can see on "The ACT 3 Story" (the video on our site: www.act3online.com) that he has my spiritual DNA in most every way. Life and its ambiguities and differences make for real diversity which should make the pursuit of unity a great blessing, which for me this issue is all about in the end.
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When my husband and I started dating this was our one theological difference (he having grown up Catholic/Lutheran and thus used to infant baptism; me having grown up Baptist and non-denominational). But I’m much more comfortable with infant baptism now, so long as it’s not understood as salvational baptism.
John, as a UCC pastor, I’ve wrestled with this question for a while and had a few thoughts. I’ll present them by presenting where I stand.
I will perform infant baptisms based on your argument for catholicity (how can I reject the baptisms and theologies of millions of Christians over the years?)- as long as the parents are active members who can present some sort of reason why they feel it is best for their child’s faith and the community. For my own children (Lord willing), we will wait until they profess their faith (child-like faith included). The reason for this is my understanding of baptism as a formative symbol. I think ideally a person remembers their baptism, and what it symbolizes. I don’t concede the assumption of the article that baptism is only a matter of entrance into the Christian community. In fact, it seems to me to be a symbol primarily that points to the heart of our faith in Jesus. I don’t believe that just because someone isn’t baptized, they’re lost souls outside of God’s community. I think this misses the point of the ritual to assume it is solely an entrance ritual. The parents are merely waiting for a time when they feel the symbol will have a more significant formative effect on the child.
Perhaps some of this view comes from being a mainline lifer who has seen myriad baptized people who do not participate in the life of the Church at all. While the New Covenant is radically inclusive, one thing it does exclude is salvation based on birth or the faith of another. This seems to be the exclusion that non-infant baptists validly uphold.
In sum, I guess I want to suggest we guard the significance of this powerful symbol and apply it in a way that most helps our communities grasp the work of Christ to which baptism points.
Great post, as usual. I’m pretty hesitant about your #1, though. Ephesians 4 says that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” But that doesn’t mean that any faith is the One True Faith, or that any god is the One True God. Likewise, there is a possibility of baptisms which aren’t the One True Baptism (compared to, say, the incomplete “baptism of John,” Acts 18:25).
So I don’t think Ephesians 4 proves it, but I do think that your other points do. Your #2 came in handy for me in explaining the nature of the sacraments as ex opere operatis this morning, and it’s pretty similar to some themes which St. Augustine talks about in On Baptism (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1408.htm), particularly Book I.
And your third point was excellent. I’ve heard of Baptism as the New Circumcision, the spiritual circumcision. St. Paul says as much in Colossians 2:11-12. And there’s no question that was done almost exclusively to children. But I’d never heard anyone go the next step, and point out that adult-only Baptism means young children could be part of Israel, but are incapable of being part of the fulfillment of Israel, the Church. I can’t say it any better than you did: “we thus make the New Covenant less inclusive than the Old since children were no longer included in the family. But the New Covenant is better, greater, and more inclusive in scope.” Which, of course, also cuts against the heavy emphasis on family in the NT.
Again, great post! Pax Christi,
John, great post. I have had a similar experience, and a new appreciation for the validity and value of infant baptism. We recently had a great discussion of this over at IM too. It might also be said that those who baptize infants do also practice the believer’s rite when an unbaptized person converts later in life. I especially like your thought that the New Covenant is MORE, not less inclusive than the Old Covenant. Blessings!
Years before I joined the Catholic Church I decided I believed in infant baptism, but I could never find anyone who would perform one for me. I read the argument somewhere that baptism was analogous to circumcision. When a child was circumcised on the eighth day after birth it had no input into that decision. The emphasis was on God’s requirement. That makes sense to me. But, obviously, everyone doesn’t agree. But I never could get with the “age of consent” thing.
Thanks, John. I’ve been wondering about your “conversion” to “paedo-baptism.” I remember 30 years ago when I (a CRC-raised young man) worshipped at Trinity Baptist. You spoke about being “Biblically baptized” before participating in the Lord’s Supper, and I was afraid that I was going to be barred from participation, but when I verbalized my concern, you were gracious enough to allow me to participate. I’m glad you weren’t as “dogmatic” even then as I first feared you were. :0 Now I’m the one whose more concerned about other aspects of your becoming a member of a church which practices infant baptism. Kind of ironic.
I don’t diagree with your position but I do find some of your vocabulary and your own position different in some important aspects from some others who may hold to believers baptism.
I find it strange that you describe believer’s baptism as “adult baptism” and then seem to suggest there is no room for children. Really?
All I can say is even though I agree with your overall position concerning infant baptism as acceptable (please hear that), I think people might ask why you equate believer’s baptism with adult baptism?
Nor would all believer’s baptism people exclude all other kinds of baptisms (even though I know for example this would be true of many people from my tradition’s background and Baptist background). I am simply saying that I don’t think a sectarian view of believer’s baptism has to go hand in hand.
I like the early church’s emphasis for example on baptism by immersion but they left the door open for other modes as well. Why not the same for some people who hold to believer’s baptism? I know you are talking from your own experience but I am simply stating that there is much outside your experience too.
I do love your heart for catholicity on this issue and I will say that the problem you list of sectarianism concerning this issue is a very real problem.
On the other hand, I think it would be clearer to refer to infants or very small children than simply ‘children.’ But in the end, great thoughts and thanks for proding greater theological thinking from us!
I find myself moving the other direction. I was raised in the mainline with infant baptism as part and parcel of that experience (and serve in it now), but only grudgingly accept my denominations practice of baptism. I see myself largely agreeing with John the UCC pastor – I can make peace with the practice if I believe the family intends to keep the vows faithfully. However, I have not baptized my own daughters and will wait until they openly profess for themselves, which of course I hope is sooner rather than later!
Hi, John: Thank you for this post; again, I have been made to think about what I really believe and not what my previous denomination instructed me to believe. I have been thinking about this issue for quite some time. My granddaughter has professed her faith in Christ, even though she is not being raised in a Christian home. She attends church regularly with friends and has expressed an interest in being baptized since she was 5; she is now almost 14. Her parents, my son and daughter-in-law, want her to wait until she is “old enough to make that decision on her own.” As I am her grandmother and the one she learned about the Christian faith from in the first place, I believe I should defer to her parents’ wishes. All of that to say this: She is pursuing Christianity and Christ on her own. I would like to see her baptized, but do not feel it is my place to go against her parents’ wishes. I see nothing wrong with infant baptism as long as the parents carry out their promises to raise the child in the faith. I also agree that infant baptism should not be carried out with the thought that it is salvational; I was raised in family where that was the view, and as far as I know I am the only Christian in our family. Thanks again for addressing this issue and for making me think again and some more once again. Laurie Miller