Paedobaptism and Salvation

April 12, 2009

John the Baptist, detail of Grünewald's Isenheim atarpiece

John the Baptist, detail of Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece

Well, I’ve been sidetracked from the baptism issue by reading some Edward John Carnell, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite philosophers. Anyway, continuing…

I think it would be helpful to think through a possible defense of paedobaptism from Reformed perspective. I think the Reformed line is particularly interesting because of its relative novelty in the Christian tradition and its unique systematic-exegetical base. The Catholic line is pretty straightforward. Two beliefs form the foundation of the Catholic argument:

1. Baptism has an intrinsic efficacy for salvation. This, of course, is not to say that it operates apart from the merit of Christ or the agency of the Holy Spirit, but it is to say that the application of baptism, apart from a positive rejection of Christ, regenerates. Baptism effects the new creation of the moral self — release from bondage to sin/Devil and the sure promise of resurrection to eternal life with God. All that Christ received from the Father is the inheritance of the baptized.

2. Infants are subject to sin and the Devil. All humans are born “in Adam,” and thus subject to the curse of sin — condemnation and eternal death.

If you combine these two points, the need to baptize infants is sure to be accepted, and so it was. Everett Ferguson believes that the early Church only began to baptize infants in emergency situations (sickness and imminent death), and with high infant mortality rates, it just became normative to baptize infants in certain parts of the Church. Clerics had to account for this, many questioning or rejecting prescriptive paedobaptism, but not questioning its efficacy. Even Tertullian, who questioned paedobaptism, still believed it effected what it signified — salvation. It would not be until the 5th-6th centuries that baptismal liturgies reflected normative paedobaptism. Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin guaranteed the practice for the Western Church.

With the radical re-thinking of the doctrine of justification during the Reformation, baptism also had to be rethought. The Reformed had a harder time with the Catholic baptismal theology than the Lutherans. The Lutherans, to be sure, re-framed baptism within sola fide, many even supposing an infused faith into the infant, but the Reformed re-framed baptism within the doctrine of God, his election and covenant(s). Baptism, for the Reformed, thus acquires an objectivity not found in the Lutheran or Catholic schemes; it locates the baptized infant in the covenant of God, with promises conditioned on faith, but does not at the moment of baptism surely effect the salvation. In other words, baptism does not guarantee the chosen remnant within the broader covenantal community. If baptism did, then every baptized infant in the Reformed scheme is surely elect and surely saved for all time. The doctrine of perseverance of the saints is critical for understanding the Reformed apprehensiveness toward the Catholic and Lutheran baptismal theologies.

This difficulty is accounted for by many Reformed theologians through a strengthened view of covenantal graces. The infant brought into covenant with God receives the blessings (temporal, if not eternal) of the elect and can, in one sense, be called “saved.” They are brought from paganism and into the (visible) Church. The infants who are not elect, and who fall away, can thus fit nicely into the description of the apostate in Hebrews 6. They are “enlightened” and “made holy” in the covenantal sense, but not in the sense acquired by “effectual grace” (in the technical Reformed sense), received only by the elect.

This high view of covenantal grace is, in my view, the way Reformed theology should go about the issue. Indeed, I don’t see any other way without compromising fundamental Reformed commitments to Election and Eternal Security. Whether this best accords with scripture is another issue, but it at least gives baptism some sacramental efficacy (grace received) assumed in the early Church, if in a rather different way.

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11 Responses to “Paedobaptism and Salvation”

  1. Kevin,

    Happy Easter!

    Reading your post raises the following dilemma. Either the non-elect baptized infant receives infused grace at his baptism or he does not. If he does, then is this the Catholic equivalent of antecedent grace? But if he doesn’t, then how is the ‘grace’ he receives at his baptism anything other than a mere pseudo-opportunity of coming to faith, since all the treasures of the covenant are completely useless to him without infused grace, and therefore serve only to make him even more damnable? Wouldn’t it therefore be better for the non-elect *not* to be incorporated into the covenant community? And therefore, isn’t this so-called ‘grace’ (of being incorporated into the covenant community) actually a curse for the non-elect?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  2. Bryan,

    Easter blessings to you.

    You are touching on some questions I have myself. Your question, I believe, is: For the Reformed, are there two types of grace given — ineffectual and effectual — such that, at baptism, grace is ineffectual, while, at faith, grace is effectual? You are using “infused grace” where I use “effectual grace,” but perhaps ineffectual grace can be infused and involve some level of sanctification without being “effectual” (=leading to repentance/faith and salvation). Anyway, I think this ineffectual vs. effectual distinction is what the Reformed are working with. As for why effectual grace is not always given to those in the covenant, I don’t know. I think you must insert responsibility into the scheme at this point, which some Reformed theologians are not willing to do, for obvious reasons. It all reduces to why effectual grace is given to some and not others, which requires some form of compatibilism. A person must be satisfied with Reformed compatibilism before they will be satisfied with Reformed covenantal baptism.

  3. kepha said

    I find the Lutheran attempts at incoporating sola fide within their understanding of regenerative baptism curious. It’s curious because from the Roman perspective, it seems to me quite okay with being content with salvation by grace alone.

  4. Yeah, I think the Lutheran position is strange as well; of course, I think all Lutheran sacramental theology is strange.

    As I understand the Lutherans, the motive behind “infant faith” is to highlight the connection between baptism and faith, not merely moral regeneration. The Lutherans were especially concerned about the moralizing of the Christian religion in the name of sacramental theology. For Lutherans, baptism brings a person into a positive and righteous relation with Christ, not by a removal of original sin, but by faith in His righteousness atoning for our sin. Faith is the subjective mode of being clothed in Christ, received at baptism. So, when the infant grows-up and comes to an awareness of their righteousness in Christ, they can be assured that it is a righteousness attained, not by sinlessness, but by faith.

  5. Cool site, love the info.

  6. Anon said

    I am trying to follow the narrative on your baptism thread, but it seems to hinge entirely on developments in the west. For the Greek speaking Church, infant baptism is/was normative as well – but your narrative breaks down. It also doesn’t account for the primitive practices of the Oriental (and even Indian) Christians, whose liturgies and practices pre-date most of the discussion and were even more deeply isolated from Augustinian thought. It seems to me that the universal practice of the churches was to allow infant baptism from some much, much earlier stage – theological justifications following practice rather than the reverse. A narrative that is so monocular in it’s focus on the west – really not a particularly representative view of Christianity in its early stage, a blind spot for Reformed thinking from the start – strikes me as almost irrelevant unless one is particularly focused on exclusively understanding western traditions, as opposed to Apostolic, Sub-Apostolic practice.

    • Kevin said

      Thanks for the comments. I responded to your comment on the Ferguson thread. All I will add here is: the question of why the infant is a proper subject for baptism is still answered by the East with reference toward the benefits of salvation and entry into the death/resurrection of Christ. I do not think that the differences between East and West are so radical as to put the East on better footing. Such differences (e.g., the “rationalism” of the West) are exaggerated, in my opinion, and is not helped by the majority of E. Orthodox bloggers.

  7. в конце концов: мне понравилось…

  8. Richard Kidd said

    I am a Lutheran pastor. Great discussion. We actually baptize both infants and adults. We just don’t re-baptize. If you were baptized in a Christian church(in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) then that is a valid baptism and we believe God’s grace is sufficient.(you are not being baptized a Lutheran but a Christian)
    I think infant baptism is a wonderful picture of God’s grace. We are not saved by a work or a decision but solely by God’s grace. Confirmation later confirms that the person is a child of God who trusts Jesus as Lord and Savior.
    Many non-liturgical non-Lutheran churches have baby dedications where they dedicate their child to God and later they make a decision to follow Jesus.
    I heard a Reformed Scholar joke that they had a dry baptism and a wet confirmation. Not too far off the mark. What Lutherans and Reformed share is the firm belief that salvation is solely a work of God and does not depend on a decision or work. However, Lutherans believe God uses means of grace such as the Word and Sacraments(baptism, Holy Communion) to save.

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