Saturday, July 7, 2012

Baptizing Infants: Thoughts from Peter Leithart

Of all the changes that Ronnie and I have gone through over the past few years, the acceptance of infant baptism has probably been the biggest--or, at least, the most difficult. And, it seems that when we speak to friends and acquaintances about our shift into Anglicanism, the practice of infant baptism is the biggest concern in their minds, as well. This is understandable. Baptists are called such because of their insistence on adult baptism and this is a position we championed for many years.

Currently, Ronnie is reading a very good book on the sacrament of baptism by Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology. Although there are other issues on which Leithart and I disagree, I found his section addressing the Baptist concerns surrounding infant baptism to be very helpful. I offer them here for my readers as "food for thought." For those who might dismiss our new convictions around paedobaptism as egregious heresy (something that would apply to the majority of the Church for most of Christians history!), I hope you'll ponder Leithart's words.

Protestants have always emphasized that salvation comes through faith, yet most Protestants have baptized babies. How can these two things hold together? Luther and Calvin held together their insistence on faith with infant baptism by claiming that infants can believe. Baptists see this as the Achilles' heel of the paedobaptist position, an example of absurd lengths to which paedobaptists are willing to go in defending an untenable practice.


Is infant faith absurd? "Faith" is the human response of trust toward God, a response of allegiance, in a personal relationship, and this has large consequences for our understanding of infant faith. The question of infant faith is not: "Are infants capable of receiving this jolt of divine power?" The question is: "Can infants respond to other persons? Do infants have personal relations?" And the answer to this question is obviously, yes. Infants quickly (even in utero) learn to respond to mother's voice; infants quickly manifest "trust" of their parents; infants quickly distinguish strangers from members of the family. If infants can trust and distrust human persons, why can't they trust in god? Behind the denial of infant faith is, apparently, an assumption that God is less available to an infant than other humans. But this is entirely wrong because God's presence is mediated through His people. When parents say to their newborn, "Jesus loves you and will care for you," they are speaking God's promises.


Parents, moreover, establish relationships with their infants through symbols. We talk to our infants, and we show our love through gestures such as hugs and kisses. If there is nothing irrational or absurd about humans establishing a personal relationship with infants through symbols, there is nothing irrational about God doing the same. As we establish loving and trusting relations with our infants through symbols, so God speaks to infants and establishes a relation with them through the "visible word" of baptism. Thus, the question "Should we baptize babies?" is of a piece with the question, "Should we talk to babies?" Paedobaptism is neither more nor less odd and miraculous than talking to a newborn. In fact, that is just what paedobaptism is: God speaking in water to a newborn child.


If the child cannot understand what a parent is saying, is it rational for the parent to speak to him or her? Baptist parents as well as others speak to their infants and do not expect the child to understand or to verbally respond for many months. They see nothing irrational in this. They speak to their children, that is, they employ symbols, not because they think the infant understands all that is being said or because they expect an immediate response. They speak to their child so the child will learn to understand and talk back. So too, we baptize infants and consistently remind them of their baptism and its implications so they will come to understanding and mature faith. We name them so they will grow up to respond to that name; we speak to them so they will begin to speak back; we name them in baptism so they will begin to live in and out of baptism.


The sociologically consistent Baptist should, it seems to me, allow children to name themselves. Otherwise, they are inevitably "imposing" an identity on their little boys and girls. Karl Barth, who loudly protested the "violence" of imposing a Christian identity on a child through infant baptism, would undoubtedly be pleased. In fact, Baptists don't do this, but they do impose a language on their children. They do, in spite of themselves, often treat their children as Christians, teaching them to sing "Jesus Loves Me" and to pray the Lord's Prayers. And if they do all this, what reason remains for resisting the imposition of the covenant sign?


-Peter Leithart, The Baptized Body (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2007), 9-11.

2 comments:

Blake said...

Infant baptism only became a common practice of the Church because power hungry Christians wanted to exercise power over other people. Infant baptism is a product of Christendom and Christendom-thinking. Baptists didn't start baptizing children until John Bunyan in the late 17th century. The first Baptist churches did not have children in their gatherings. The children would stay home while the parents went to service. The youngest members on the records of early Baptist churches was 20.

The issue is not imposition of identity. That is impossible to avoid as humans. The issue is the maturity and consciousness of the forethought put into one's response to what one is given. Baptism comes from counting the cost of discipleship and committing oneself to it despite that cost.

Gary said...

Maybe the Infant Baptism debate has been approached from the wrong direction. Instead of starting with our disagreements, let's start with what Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians AGREE upon: All persons who believe and have faith in Christ as their Savior should follow his command and be baptized as soon as possible. Agreed?

So the next question is: Can an infant believe and have faith?

Evangelical and Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ: If I can prove to you from Scripture that infants not only can but DO believe and have faith, would you accept infant baptism as Scriptural?

http://www.lutherwasnotbornagain.com/2013/09/the-bible-says-that-infants-can-have.html