Pondering infant baptism, believer’s baptism, and the need for Christian unity in an increasingly divided world. The topic is trending on my buzzfeed (#not), so I figured I’d chime in.
As someone serving in a denomination that does not baptize infants, and as someone who at the end of the day remains basically convinced by the reasons for the position, I was compelled to rethink the issue the other day when I noticed in the Great Commission that Jesus commands his followers to “disciple all the nations,” rather than to “make disciples of all nations” (see reflection: “Make Disciples” Said Jesus Never; for a sermon that addresses the issue: Disciple Is A Verb) I think the wooden translation of Jesus’ command (to “disciple all the nations”) potentially supports an infant baptism position, because the participles “baptizing…and teaching…” aren’t modifying the object of discipleship but discipleship as such. In other words, the question is not What qualifies as a disciple? which leads to considerations of the individual and opens of up the question of agency that could be used to support believer’s baptism. Rather, the question is What qualifies as discipling? That frees the discussion, it seems to me, from questions of the agency of the one being baptized and focuses the matter on the agency of the Church as the baptizing community.
In other words, it is clear that the Church must baptize people as a means of discipling people, but we are not given any formal or contextual conditions for baptizing people. We are only given a theological condition (later particularized by Paul) that ensures we communicate the Name of the God into whose life the initiate is being baptized, in whose life the Church participates, because it is from that Name the children of God are given their own–as children (cf. Jn. 1:12). Baptism should thus be regarded a means of discipling, not a qualification of a disciple, and it’s essential meaning has to do with preserving and extending the (Trinitarian) Name of God from which the believing community and its members derive their name (re: identity): “baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:16-20).
But I can’t help but think that perhaps the lack of specificity is intended precisely to be suited to the task of discipling “all the nations” (Mt. 28:19). Remember, this is at the dawn of the Church, a people God envisages consisting of peoples from ‘every tribe, tongue, and nation’, whose universal message of salvation comes precisely through the particular Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel to all nations needs an initiation rite that is just as translatable as the Gospel to all languages: indeed, the Word of God testifies to the Gospel of our Hebrew Lord who spoke Aramaic, whose source documents are written in Greek and will eventually be translated into every language on earth.
In other words, God seems to have done everything possible to situate the Gospel within a variety of cultural forms (indeed, we have four books which share that ‘distinction’) and to preempt our tendency to divide over tertiary matters, defending just how “right” we are by proving just how “wrong” is everyone else. We have the Creeds and the Canon to delineate the people called the Church, and therein we have the most explicit and emphatic command to be a united people as such. But how often has God’s vision of ‘all tribes, all tongues, and all nations’ been shriveled up to many sad and disparate partisan visions of our own. How often have we exchanged harmony for homogeneity.
Could it be that Jesus was not too concerned about contextual forms so long as they were adapted to adequately communicate the internal theological meaning? Could it be that to take too rigid a position on this matter would be to take the only position that is definitively in error, because to do so would encourage disunity among those who have been baptized into the Name of the One True God, an implicit violation of the only explicit condition given with the command to baptize?
So perhaps we across denominational lines could do our best to embrace the communicative value of, especially, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the two fundamental sacraments St. Augustine referred to as “visible words,” which was based largely on the way Paul uses them: as embodied Gospel communication.
(He made even more explicit their theological meaning and thus too their value for transmitting that meaning: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life?” (Rom. 6:3-4). And again, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26). This should give pause to we who practice and promote believer’s baptism (guilty as charged). Especially we need to make it clear that we aren’t baptizing people because they have believed but precisely because they have not, precisely because we are acknowledging that we all are dead in our trespasses, but that the One who identifies with us in our death is the Same who empowers us to identify with his him in his Life. Maybe we’d do well to change the term to “unbeliever’s baptism.” I don’t know. I do know that every particular baptism is merely a participation in One baptism (Eph. 4:5), and in our culture it is unquestionable that believer’s baptism is typically conceived of along the thin contours of a parasitic individualism. And there could hardly be a more antithetical framework for communicating the theological meaning of baptism.)
At any rate, we just need to make sure that whatever contextual forms we adopt in the administration of the sacraments, we do our best to adapt those contextual forms to their theological content in our effort to communicate the Gospel faithfully. This can be done well or poorly no matter what the age or agency of those being initiated. Being on the “right side” of such issues too often provides us with the excuse to do the “right side” wrongly, or often at least carelessly and uncritically. How many services have you sat through in which sacraments seemed, quite literally, meaningless? Me too…
So we would all do well to consider with extreme care ways in which the baptism ceremony functions for the whole community as a “remember your baptism” ceremony: if every baptism is an identification with Christ’s death and resurrection, every baptism is in essence “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5) and is thus an opportunity to cultivate the corporate identity of the people of God as one Body with one Head, as well as the personal identity of believers as members of that One Body.[fn]
Imagine if the Church would begin thinking hard about understanding what we can learn from other positions across the ecclesial spectrum rather than thinking so hard about how to prove those other positions wrong. I’ll be continuing to reflect on what I can learn from the infant baptism tradition–it has been fruitful thus far.
Lord knows the world has enough examples of people forming an “us” by pointing a finger at a “them.” May it not be so of the people whose Lord was broken so that we who are broken could be made whole, the people who have been taught to pray, “Our Father…”
The Lord our God, the Lord is one. May his wholeness begin to restore our brokenness.
• This is especially worth our consideration in a culture that has turned the admirable political philosophy of pluralism into a destructive social doctrine, so that we are all expected to come together as one amorphous blob to celebrate diversity, but are no longer even allowed to define precisely how it is we are diverse–and therefore struggle to agree on what exactly it is about our diversity that is worth celebrating. And thus we end up with what reduces to the burdensome “freedom” to self-actualize, to create our own individual identities, to allow no one to assign us a “name” (re: identity), which of course is the devil’s grand scheme to dehumanize the human race, that species uniquely created in the image of the Triune God as a family, a people who can discover the identity of themselves and identity of God only in the eyes of the ‘other’. Indeed, if God himself is not an “island,” how should expect to become one on our own?