Musings on Baptism, part 2

When considering whether or not baptism is efficacious for children below the “age of reason” we would do well to consider other similar cases. Should we baptize those who through physical or psychological impingement do not exercise a “normal adult” will? Those who are considered mentally retarded in some fashion, at some point, are declared to be unable to handle their own affairs because they cannot exercise their will at a sufficient level. Should these individuals, even if they express some degree of faith, be denied baptism, because we do not think them “true believers” because they lack mental acumen? What is the level of mental functioning necessary for baptism?

I would daresay that most would consider it cruel and unwarranted to forsake baptism to such individuals—even if they otherwise affirm the need for “believer’s” baptism. But this shows the incoherence in the position. If it is an issue of the will, of rational thought, then both the child and the child-like must both be excluded, or both must be admitted.

In fact, to call the one position “believer’s baptism” is to skew the argument in a certain direction. It takes as a priori that rational will is necessary for belief. The position would be more accurately termed “rational baptism.” Now some may counter that this shows “infant” baptism to be “irrational” and in one sense of the word, it is true—the rational intellect of the child receiving the sacrament is not engaged. That does not mean that it is an irrational act, per se.

Children engage in all sorts of behaviors and receive a multitude of actions performed unto them as they grow, mostly by their parents. We consider all of these “rational” in the colloquial definition of the word, namely, we can see a reason for them. A baby at the mother’s breast knows to suck in order to receive nourishment. We do not ascribe higher-order thought to this action; in fact most would lower it to the level of instinct. Yet, we see a reason for it—the child needs nourishment. In the same way, the parents will routinely change a baby’s diaper. The child may, on some occasions, even sleep through this procedure. Clearly, there is no thought given by the child to what is happening in this case. At other times the child clearly protests this disruption of what they were doing and the cold and suffering it imposes on them. However, the parents engage in this activity because they understand the benefits of performing it upon their offspring.

A good definition of what constitutes a Christian was related to me by Father Chip Edgar. He said, “A Christian is one who believes all he knows about Christ with all he knows about himself.” So, by this definition, a child who believes in Jesus because, “Daddy says so,” is a Christian if they are two or three years old. For a typical child of 15 or 16, this would not be seen as an acceptable answer.

So, for an infant to be called a Christian because their parents present them for baptism and make promises on their behalf—until the child is able to make them for themselves—seems a perfectly rational act. To insist that someone has to have some understanding before they are baptized raises many second-order questions. What must they understand? How do we know they understand it?

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Filed under Anabaptism, Baptism

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