Baptism, latest musings

As some of you know, I’ve been working through the doctrine of baptism, off and on, for the last year or so. I’ve read all or parts of some of the most well-known treatments of the subject: Beasley-Murray’s Baptism in the New Testament (credobaptist), Jewett’s Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (credobaptist), Cullmann’s Baptism in the New Testament (paedobaptist), Wilson’s To a Thousand Generations (paedobaptist), Barth’s Church Dogmatics IV.4 (credobaptist), Ferguson’s Baptism in the Early Church (credobaptist), and the relevant portions of Calvin’s Institutes (paedobaptist) and Thielicke’s The Evangelical Faith (paedobaptist). As I’ve noted before, I’m most interested in the alternatives within a broader Reformed and evangelical soteriology.

With all that learning under my belt, you’d expect that I would have a fixed and certain position on the subject. I wish that were the case. I do have a much clearer understanding than previously. Most especially, I’ve come to see the importance of secondary results or consequences which arise from a church’s baptismal practice. For many people, these secondary consequences are the deciding factor in choosing between credobaptist and paedobaptist communions. So, what is the best illustration?

In a credobaptist church and family, the child is an object of evangelism. The parent considers his or her child as an object of evangelism in a very similar way that the same parent may consider an agnostic co-worker to be an object of evangelism. The child needs to be presented with the Gospel, repent, and receive Christ as Lord and Savior. So, usually between the ages of five and seven, Baptist parents will sit-down with their son or daughter and ask about his or her thoughts on Jesus. After the child accepts Christ, he or she will receive a public baptism before the whole congregation during the worship service. Thereafter, the child is considered a member of the body of Christ and, therefore, a member of the Church (universal) and the church (local).

In a Reformed paedobaptist church, the child is considered, or “presumed,” as a member of the body of Christ and the Church, or, at the least, as a member of the covenant. As such, the child may not be, as of yet, converted and made new (holy), but he or she is “federally holy.” The child is taught the Christian faith and exhorted toward continual faith in Christ, but he or she is not considered as an object of evangelism in the same way as the Baptist child. As a member of the covenant, the child would have to actively break covenant in order to be considered outside of Christ and his Church. [Side note: The current controversy over the “federal vision” is precisely on the question of how, or to what extent, the child is united with Christ at baptism.]

There are clear advantages and disadvantages to both positions, which makes the issue all the more difficult to resolve. To my mind, there is an undeniable and praiseworthy connection between Baptist baptismal practice and the effectiveness of Baptist evangelism. The Baptist puts in the forefront the necessity of conversion: “you must be born again” (John 3:7-8). As such, the child is ever-conscious of the need to trust in Christ, just as all others are in need of being brought to Christ. [Side note: This intense focus on the work of Christ has done much to keep the Baptist churches, on the whole, from adopting aberrant liberal or existential Christologies.] However, the emphasis on personal conversion is problematic, especially from a paedobaptist vantage point. The paedobaptist rightly criticizes the Baptist over-emphasis on the emotional life as an indicator of conversion. A particular experience becomes the litmus test for true faith, and invariably as a child matures and enters adulthood the experiences of childhood are questioned and tested against further developments in understanding. This psychological burden is largely bypassed by the (Reformed) paedobaptist emphasis on an objective covenant and the antecedent work of God on our behalf. Presbyterians don’t typically worry about whether they are saved or not, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing. It is a good thing insofar as a person’s feelings should not be made the measure of faith and obedience; it is a bad thing insofar as faith and obedience does require conversion and personal assent to the Gospel. The Baptist can tend to collapse the work of Christ into experience; the Presbyterian can tend to devalue experience and regeneration altogether.

So, these are the secondary consequences of baptismal practice; or, rather, baptismal practice is the consequence of a primary over-arching understanding of the covenants and faith. When the exegesis is not entirely persuasive in one direction or the other, these are the considerations that become the determining factor. Thus, the relative values ascribed to evangelism and experience (the credobaptist virtues/vices) or doctrinal excellence and catechesis (the paedobaptist virtues/vices) are of great importance in this debate.

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9 comments

  1. This is perceptive, Kevin. It certainly gets to the heart of one of my biggest hang-ups with paedobaptism. In many ways I’d love to be convinced, but I have a hard time getting over the historical records of groups that have a theology which legitimates the assumption of salvation on the basis of their parents.

    I’m fully aware of the dangers on the other side, having grown up Baptist, but I have a hard time with a form of Christianity that doesn’t require people consciously to acknowledge they are lost before recognizing them as saved.

    I tend to think there is a healthy division of labor in the Church that arises from what are genuine errors, but which errors lead to salutary emphases, etc. So I want both credobaptist and paedobaptist Christians, even though one of them is have to be wrong.

    • Glad to see someone else in the same boat. I really like your point about “division of labor.” I would like to see a Presbyterian acknowledge that they depend rather heavily on the “American evangelicalism” which they like to mock. Pick a Reformed seminary and you’ll find that half the professors and half the students are from free church backgrounds (e.g., Mike Horton and Scott Clark at WSC).

  2. Sam: I’m not sure any denomination “assumes salvation on the basis of [one’s] parents”. Also, why does one have to be wrong?

    • I think Sam’s criticism does apply, with qualifications, to the Reformed paedobaptist position, as distinct from Lutheran or Catholic paedobaptist positions.

  3. Jon,

    I was referring primarily to Kevin’s mention of the “secondary results” of the positions, which I take to be substantial. My experience with some paedobaptist traditions is that people can have no testimony, in the conversionist sense, and that be fine. I don’t believe such people are not Christians, but I think the theology that produces such a possibility can be, and has been, dangerous.

    As to why one must be wrong:

    The proposition “that children of believers should be baptized” is necessarily either true or false; paedobaptists think it’s true, credobaptists think it’s false. One of them is wrong.

  4. It can’t be a matter of choice as a result of the ambiguity of the Biblical texts and history? What do you think of the Methodist approach?

  5. How much have you read about baptism being a forward versus a backwards dunking, or being dunked 1 versus 3x? Surprisingly I am finding that to be a point of contention in some denominations (Brethren specifically).

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