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April 14, 2010

I read a well-written blog post that provides the biblical basis for the practice of infant baptism.   Those traditions that practice infant baptism (Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant…) do so on the basis of covenant relationship as the primary referent giving meaning to baptism.   The focal point of this practice (as with circumcision in the Old Covenant) is not the willful response of the individual to God’s grace, but rather the ritual way the individual is placed within the Covenant community as a participant in God’s saving work of grace.  The practice emphasizes God’s initiative in the work of salvation.  Believer’s baptism, by contrast, has often emphasized the individual initiative in responding to God.    

While there is a biblical basis for infant baptism, there is also a biblical basis for believer’s baptism.  Anabaptists have focused on passages such as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and Romans 10:9 as a basis for the practice of believer’s baptism.  Reading through Acts we are compelled to see that conversion and baptism go together.  Every account of individuals and households coming to repentance and faith is tied to the practice of baptism. 
Thus, I would see scripture and church history calling us to see baptism as the way we express our willingness to repent and receive the good news of the kingdom of God.  Sometimes (under the influence of revivalism) we have emphasized the importance of individual conversion as a prior work of grace to baptism.  Baptism is sometimes even viewed as having secondary importance.  This is not what we see in scripture.  Baptism is the main event in terms of our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:3-4).  Baptism is not an extracurricular activity which is secondary in importance to some inner conversion experience.  It is integral to the event and journey of salvation.
Infant baptism (and the covenantal theology it is predicated on) depends upon a vital life of faith within the household of the baby being baptized.  The early Anabaptists saw the absence of faith in the practice of baptism as an inherent flaw.  The early Anabaptists offered a prophetic challenge to the practice of state/church infant baptism which was not tied to an active faith.  Baptismal waters do not insure that faith will be cultivated in the context of home life and the church.  This is something that requires active participation.  The same is true of believer’s baptism!  In fact, if we are honest, we can observe that even those who are baptized in a believer’s church tradition are not immune from letting their faith grow cold. 
All that to say this.  I am not inclined to insist that only one view of baptism has merit.  I certainly would see value in a believer’s baptism model.  However, I would not discredit the validity of those who practice infant baptism.  For me, the deeper question is this.  Are both traditions mediating the grace of God in a way that calls individuals into their baptismal identity over the course of a lifetime of discipleship in the context of the body of Christ.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2010 9:53 am

    Well stated, Brian. Infant baptism was the final obstacle for deciding to join the Orthodox Church. The “point of no return” for me was when I learned that age restrictions on baptism are a fairly recent practice in church history.

    I think it’s interesting that Mennonites will baptize someone with developmental disabilities (who has the cognitive level of an infant) but not infants themselves. On the grand scale of it all, did I have the cognitive ability to understand the Kingdom of God and what I was doing, when I was baptized at 13? Or now?

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Keith Regehr permalink
    April 15, 2010 8:50 pm

    Brian, very interesting. We thought about this all long and hard when our kids were born while we were part of the Anglican Church of Canada. We took refuge in the Service of Blessing on the Birth of a Child. What has intrigued me over the years since then is the way that so-called “child-dedication” or “parent-dedication” services in Mennonite and other adult baptism churches actually use language of Christian initiation and welcome into the community. It is almost as if the need that infant baptism speaks to are going to leak into our practices regardless of our theology.

  3. Carolyn Mellinger permalink
    April 16, 2010 1:51 pm

    I appreciate having an understanding of and respecting the different baptismal practices among Christians. The practice of dedicating babies, their families and the church to encourage faith in the new one is a good “substitute” for the intentions of some infant baptisers.
    If salvation is assumed because one was baptised as an infant or an adult we have missed the significance of choosing to be a Christ follower. Although many of us are immature when we first make this choice, it is a beginning. Jesus indicated that we should be like a little child as we come to him. So that’s OK with me too.

  4. April 18, 2010 12:03 pm

    The “Covenantal Theology” approach to infant baptism is primarily Calvinist, I believe. I’m not very familiar with it, and the Orthodox Church never developed a specific theology of infant baptism, apart from baptism itself, because it was never seriously challenged.

    I think that the main difference is between those (like the Orthodox) who see baptism primarily as a work of God, and those who see it primarily as a human response. For the Orthodox it is something that God does to and for us. It begins with four exorcisms: this world is in the power of the Evil One (I John 5:19) and so we are all citizens of the kingdom of Satan by birth. We are literally born possessed, like children of slaves being born into slavery. But just as the children of slaves could be manumitted in infancy, so can we. And so the exorcisms release us from bondage to Satan. Only once we are released from the bondage can we face the West and say that we reject him, and turn, lirerally convert to the East, to say we accept Christ as King and God. In baptism we pass from the authority of darkness into the Kingdom of God’s beloved Son, just as the Israelites crossed the Red Sea from the Kingdom of Pharaoh into the Kingdom of God. And they didn’t leave their children behind on the shore to be picked up by Pharaoh’s pursuing army and taken back into slavery “because they are too young to understand it.”

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