Friday, December 28, 2007

Infant Baptism

A friend asked me to write down my thoughts on infant baptism. It's a difficult topic, as evident by the fact that there are so many Christians committed to the same high view of Scripture who disagree over it. It seems that those with a higher ecclesiology seem to be in favour of infant baptism, which suggests that the strongest arguments may well presuppose that the Church can decide on secondary issues. I'm going to try to ignore that argument and concentrate on some which are more traditionally evangelical in style (i.e. ignore all tradition since the Apostles). Even then, a lot of the classic arguments are rubbish. Overall, it's a tricky argument because it needs answers to other difficult questions.

Who should be baptised?

Baptism as such seems to start in the Bible with John the Baptist, but picks up on symbolism going a long way back. So in 1 Peter 3, Peter says that Noah being saved from the flood was a picture of baptism.

John the Baptist baptised people who wanted to change the way they were living (e.g. Mark 1:4-5). It didn't require a commitment to Jesus, because Jesus only really started his ministry once John was put into prison. In Acts 19:4, Paul links John's baptism to being told to follow Jesus, but not necessarily to follow Jesus.

Christians took baptism and used it differently – baptism was either in the name of Jesus (e.g. Acts 19:5) or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (e.g. Matthew 28:19), and was seen as being different to John's baptism (as seen in Acts 19). It was seen as linked with repentance and with forgiveness (e.g. Acts 2:38) and with union with Christ (Romans 6:3).

Baptism was seen as the first thing that happened to someone as a Christian – it was linked very closely to conversion. That means there were some examples where they baptised people who later turned out not to be Christians, for example Simon Magus in Acts 8:9ff. There doesn't seem to have been detailed examinations of belief before baptism.

1 Corinthians 10 gives a striking parallel with the Old Testament. Paul argues that the whole nation of Israel was baptised, though most of them didn't “keep going”.

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, ESV

Paul clearly saw parallels between those who had been baptised in the church in Corinth and those who were physical members of the covenant people of Israel.

Conclusion – baptism seems to have been used as an initiation into the Christian community. Sometimes people were baptised who didn't keep going as Christians. In other words, it seems sensible that we should say that Christians should be baptised, but to err on the side of baptising too many people rather than too few if we are to follow the pattern of the apostolic Church.

Who is a Christian?

Since the Reformation, the trend to try to define Christians by whether they believe a certain set of beliefs has been very strong. But it doesn't seem to be the way the Bible sees saving faith – the key question is not the intellectual content of the faith, but the object of the faith.

And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, "If I touch even his garments, I will be made well." And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, "Who touched my garments?" And his disciples said to him, "You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, 'Who touched me?'" And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease."
Mark 5:25-34, ESV

Biblically, I'd suggest that saving faith seems to have been trusting that Jesus could save and that no-one else could. It doesn't require any level of intellectual sophistication, though it will have more intellectual sophistication in some people than in others. The woman with bleeding thought that just touching Jesus could heal her in what we would call a superstitious way. The centurion in Matthew 8 recognised that Jesus could heal at a distance by just saying a word. Both had saving faith.

Saving faith isn't about believing precisely the right things or being able to articulate them – it's about looking to Jesus for rescue and not looking to anyone else.

Baptising Children

So then, should we baptise children?

The obvious answer is “yes, if they are Christians”.

Are children Christians? This where the arguments against infant baptism really get tied up, with the question of what the minimum age for a child to be considered a Christian is (let alone the pastoral question of the death of children before they reach that age). The most common (and consistent) view is that the right age for baptism is whenever the child can articulate a faith of their own and request baptism, though some impose arbitrary age limits. There are however significant difficulties with either position.

My parents are (and were) Christians. I was baptised as an infant. I consciously identified myself as a Christian from at least the age of 4. I could and did articulate a faith of my own and requested to be confirmed, and was confirmed. I very much suspect that in a baptist church except for one with an arbitrary age limit over 15, I'd have been baptised. But the first time I realised my sinfulness and need of salvation and repented and meant it, rather that saying what I knew was the right answer was when I was 15, after baptism and confirmation.

One of the standard baptist arguments is that “God has no grandchildren”, which is true. And so they wait until the children of Christians make their own confession of faith rather than baptising them as infants. Given that, they'd have baptised me before many people would say I became a Christian (but they'd only say that retrospectively), which is exactly what their policy tries to avoid. How many 6-year old children of committed Christian parents fail to identify themselves as Christians?

Conversely, if they impose an arbitrary age limit, they are consciously refusing to baptise those who are able to confess faith and who may well be Christians by anyone's definition. I certainly know adults who are Christians today, and who say that, as far as they remember, they have always been Christians. Given that the apostles clearly erred on the side of baptising too many people rather than too few, and that baptism followed as soon as possible after conversion, can that policy be right?

Summary – Two Arguments

I think the following points are all obvious, and between them they constitute two strong arguments for baptising the infant children of committed Christians:

First Argument

  • Committed Christians seek to raise their children to be Christians
  • Young children understand more than they can articulate
  • Young children trust their parents
  • While of course they have to decide later whether to continue in the faith, children of committed Christian parents are almost invariably professing Christians at age 6, and have at no stage prior to that professed to be not Christian.
  • The baptismal policy of the apostles was more likely to include too many people than too few, and to baptise early rather than late. There are no recorded cases of declining to baptise someone who was professing faith.

Therefore, it being clear that children of committed Christian parents trust Jesus (or think they trust Jesus) before they can profess it, and that they pretty much invariably profess faith early, it seems only sensible to baptise them at the earliest opportunity.

Second Argument

  • The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares/Weeds teaches that “the evil is always intermingled with the good” - that there are people visibly in the Church who are not “saved”, and that it will stay that way until the judgement.
  • While theologically, the significance of baptism is linked to inclusion in the group of those who are “saved”, practically it seems that baptism was rather inclusion into the visible Church (as seen from the example of Simon the Sorcerer).
  • Examining the apostolic practice of baptism, it is clear that both the Wheat and the Tares were baptised.
  • Infants of Christian couples are part of the visible Church

Hence they should be baptised.

Further considerations

I haven't discussed verses like 1 Corinthians 7:14, which says that the children of Christian couples are made holy by their parents. I think that actually works along the lines of my second argument.

There's also the question of rebaptism. If Simon had come back to faith, would the apostles have rebaptised him? My gut answer is “yes”; the policy of the C of E is “no”, and I think the usual Biblical argument for the “no” position – saying there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 5:4) doesn't work. In context that verse means that we should respect and accept the baptisms done by other Christian groups – I accept that people baptised by the Roman Catholics have been baptised and so on. It just isn't addressing the question of whether people who have been baptised, have backslidden to the point they were no longer part of the Church, and then come back to faith should be baptised again or not. On the other hand, the C of E is quite clear in its policy, and I'm happy to abide by that bit of church discipline.

The most important thing in all this, though, is for Christians to love one another, and respect that other Christians may disagree with us, that by and large they don't disagree because they're evil, but because they're genuinely trying to follow God and submit to the teaching of the Bible just as much as we are.

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