Musings on Baptism, part 1

(This is the first in a series of some various thoughts I have had on infant baptism. It has been a topic of much discussion in my journey to Anglicanism. These are not necessarily complete arguments, more like observations and reflections.)

Having come up in the Anabaptist heritage, one of the key features of their belief is, “no compulsion in religion.” For many, this meant that they were serious about not baptizing infants. Often one had to be 18 or older to be a candidate for baptism. This historically created some issues for nonresistant Anabaptist in WWI, who were seeking to avoid military service because while they may have been of age for the draft, they were not members of the church they claimed because they had not yet been baptized. (Or were just recently baptized, calling into question the sincerity of their conviction.)

The Anabaptist came by this “no compulsion” practice honestly. The radical reformation was not a pretty time in church history, especially if you are part of the movement. State churches were still the norm, though they had split into one of several flavors, Roman, Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican depending on your geography. As politics changed, so did church affiliations at times and these were rarely painless changes. Add to that these “fringe” groups of Anabaptists and Pietists and what is the state to do?

I freely admit I hated church history in seminary. This was motivated by a few factors I think. First, if you’re an Anabaptist, it’s not a good news story for most of the 2000 years of the church age. Second, growing up in the United States where the First Amendment has been the law of the land, the idea of religious intolerance was intrinsically foreign to me.

For their part, the Anabaptists decided that state churches were not faithful enough and they saw their practice of incorporating everyone as watering down discipleship. Granted, these critiques are not without their merit. However, given the opportunity, they sought to do the exact same thing. (The Puritans in New England come readily to mind.)

Anabaptists, of course, got their name because they were, at least in the first generation, truly, re-baptizers. Having been born in state-church controlled lands, they were baptized as infants. But, through personal Bible reading and reflection, they came to believe that infant baptism was not legitimate. Naturally enough, they wanted a legitimate baptism, so, as adults, they started baptizing each other.

These actions lead to some ugly persecution. The horrors that Christians have visited on each other through the ages make anyone cringe. Anabaptist didn’t want to perpetuate this cycle, so they sought to allow believers—including their children—to choose for themselves. This personal confession became a key hallmark of the movement, and eventually of evangelicalism as a whole. As a reaction to the historical realities they faced, it seemed a logical move. It certainly was an influence on our First Amendment. William Penn’s colony attracted a great deal of Anabaptist migrants from the continent with the promise of religious tolerance.

Concurrent with these shifts, the radical reformation had a serious impact—it wore down the state’s resolve to maintain true faith for her people. You can only burn so many heretics before you have to stop and ask yourself, “is this working?” Eventually, the pragmatist in the room started realizing that maybe they should work to uniting people with similar (Christian) beliefs but divergent practices (Catholics, the various reformed movements and the radical reform movements).

However, the second order effect of this new tolerance was, ultimately, the downgrading of the importance of religious faith. If it is no longer ‘important’ enough for the state to mandate and regulate, then, is it really that important?

This is certainly not the only factor at play to challenge the importance of faith during these centuries. The rise of empiricism also had huge consequences. But, unintentionally, the message was silently sent that “the state is no longer concerned with your soul.”

What does this have to do with infant baptism, other than it being a watershed issue for Anabaptists? We’ve allowed the same thinking to creep into our homes. The Anabaptist ideal of “no compulsion,” albeit unintentionally, downgraded the importance of faith.

States do not allow children born to her citizens to choose their citizenship. If you are legally born in America, you are a United States citizen, period. You can change your citizenship, but, by default, you are an American. Every other country follows similar practices. You come of age and gain rights to participate more and more in the state, most notably at age 18 in the United States, when you are eligible to vote and serve in the military.

Why would a church allow its children to be “free agents” until they decide to join? Most things that are important we give our children no choice over accepting. 2+2=4. (Deny this and you will be correctively trained.) George Washington was the first President. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. The list goes on and on. We willingly and cheerfully “indoctrinate” our children in all of these beliefs.

But these are facts, you say? Of course. Is not our religion factual as well? Do we believe our religion to be true? Then it is a fact, no? So why are we hesitant to raise our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord? I would submit that, in part, we have bought into the secular principle that the marginalizing of religion is good for the state. We’ve bought into the skeptics claim that there is no absolute truth. In short, we are communicating that our faith is not all that important. It may be helpful, we may enjoy it, but apparently, it is not essential.

So let’s relate this to baptism. The Anabaptist will say that a believer is the one who is eligible for baptism. For the sake of argument, I will sidestep the delineation of ‘infant’ and ‘believer.’ Let us just accept that there is some age that rational choice becomes possible. The sacramentalist will say that baptism does something. The typical Anabaptist will say that it is not salvific. Most everyone agrees that Jesus did command it.

Let’s look at how this plays out in the life of a child born in the church to believing parents. For the sacramentalist, the child is born, and at an early age (pre-rational) the child is baptized into the communion of the church. Details vary as to what exactly this means in terms of receiving the Eucharist, etc. But, the child is sealed with the symbol of the new covenant in baptism. The parents, (and often God parents,) in the child’s stead, make promises on behalf of the child and promise to raise the child to be one who internalizes those promises. At some future point, the child, after going through some sort of catechism, is eligible to be confirmed. That is, the church states that the parents have done their job, with the assistance of the church, to raise this child to internalize those baptismal promises.

Let’s go to the Anabaptist church. A child is born, and, at some point, there will usually be an “infant dedication,” where the parents “dedicate” the child to God and make promises to raise the child in the faith. Once the child crosses the age where they are deemed able to make rational decisions, then they are usually encouraged to seek baptism. Some sort of instruction generally takes place before the event. The “believer” is baptized and admitted into communion of the church. This may or may not include being admitted to the Eucharist, depending on the particular body in question.

Now I ask, from a pragmatic standpoint, what is the difference? Both scenarios include promises made for the child, both include the child embracing the faith as their own at a later date. A casual observer would say the only difference is when water is applied. This obviously side-steps the issue of what a sacrament is, which is not trivial. But it illustrates my point.

Faith is important to both families. Both would like to see their child grow up and share their faith. This much I think we can agree on. Do the different scenarios communicate anything different to the child, implicitly or explicitly?

Some of this will depend on the view of the sacrament of baptism that we espouse. But, the thing communicated by the Anabaptist doctrine is this: baptism isn’t that important. It doesn’t ‘do’ anything; it’s just this nice ritual we do because Jesus said to. It’s a spiritual placebo. But their practice runs counter to this. It seems very important, at least in terms of when it is done and to whom. Often, various groups have very strong ideas about the mode in which this baptism is administered. If one is not baptized, even as an adult, in the proper mode, then sometimes re-baptism is required to join a particular body. But it’s not a sacrament. (So why the big fuss?)

The sacramentalist scenario communicates that baptism is important, there is something that happens when it is rightly administered, and we cared enough about what it does to go ahead and do it on your behalf. It’s like the MMR shot. Sure, you should have a say-so in your health care, but if we wait until you’re 18 then ask you if you want the shot, you may have already had measles, mumps and rubella, and possibly died. Interestingly, sacramentalist don’t seem as hung up on mode. The liturgy is important, but the actual act of getting the recipient wet isn’t that crucial. Sprinkle, pour, immerse, just get them wet.

This relates back to the earlier musings about state religion. If the state is truly concerned about the souls of its citizens, it will exercise its power to see that they believe rightly. We’ve seen that this can cause all sorts of problems throughout history, but the motivation was a good one. If we think we have the truth, we should desire those we can influence to have it as well.

One of the problems is when the state makes something compulsory, it has limited means to achieve cooperation. Mostly, it has punitive actions, up to and including death, for non-cooperation. This can be powerful, but it is mostly a deterrent from deviation, rather than an incentive to embrace.

The family has an advantage. While it has a set of punitive measures at its disposal as well, it has much more powerful shaping features as well. Modeling, instructing, training—all of these are used, either deliberately or not, by every family unit.

If we believe our faith to be founded on truth, if we believe it has lasting, profound consequences, should we not use every means at our disposal to ensure our children understand, accept and internalize the faith? Even if we think there is a bit of spiritual efficacy in the sacrament, should we not apply it early to our children as a part of our desire to bring them up in the fear and admonition of the Lord?

Finally, the Anabaptist will generally state that baptism isn’t so much about the recipient, but that the act is a witness to others. If this is the case, then what difference does the age of the recipient make? Is not the family baptizing their infant also a witness? Does that not also evidence a belief in the command to be baptized?


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