Over the past month or so, I have engaged in a number of different discussions on the topic of Baptism. Here are a few of my comments, taken from various places (mostly from the Wrightsaid list
) and dealing with a number of different dimensions of the debates about Baptism. As in my previous post, these are merely comments on the subject and should not be regarded as one whole treatment of Baptism. I have edited a number of my comments to make them more coherent and have also fleshed them out in various places. Much that I will say here covers ground that I have already covered many times elsewhere. If I had more time I would probably rephrase much that I have written below and edit much of it out. Much of it was written in a hurry and might need rethinking. Nevertheless, as I am lacking in both time and energy at the moment, I will post it all as it stands.
Baptism and Regeneration
One thing that has increasingly struck me in my own reading is that evangelicals and Reformed writers tend to blur regeneration and individual conversion. Whilst regeneration and conversion do bleed into each other in various ways, they should not be confused. Regeneration is not the same thing as conversion.
Whilst individuals have been ‘individually converted’ throughout the biblical narrative, regeneration is essentially a redemptive historical blessing. Regeneration is known ‘in Christ’. Being ‘in Christ’ was not a reality experienced within the OT narrative. Being ‘in Christ’ is also inseparable from being a member of the one body in Christ (Romans 12:5). We come into this body by water Baptism. Regeneration is not primarily something that occurs within our individual life stories; rather, regeneration involves our being initiated into the life of Christ — an event the results in our individual life stories being graciously re-narrated in terms of the greater Story they now inhabit.
Essentially the difference between these two positions is that one presents the new life of regeneration as something planted within and contained inside us and the other presents the new life of the Regeneration as something that we are implanted into and contained within. Regeneration, whilst it certainly expresses itself ‘inside’ us, is a reality that transcends mere individual religious experience.
The unbaptized individual who has been brought to faith at some time during his life story, needs to be knit into the larger cosmic redemptive historical story by being baptized. Baptism actually changes the status of the baptizand by incorporating him into Jesus Christ in whom redemptive history has been consummated. The unbaptized infant of a believing home should be thought of as a believer. However, the unbaptized child has yet to truly be incorporated into God’s covenant history. This takes place into Baptism. The baptized individual is also continually re-incorporated into God’s covenant history through covenant renewal liturgy.
The key passage that is usually taken to underlie the doctrine of regeneration is John 3. In John 3 the means by which we enter into the kingdom of God is by being ‘born again/from above’. The kingdom of God, however, is something that comes about through the ministry of Jesus Christ. For this reason I believe that it is important that we distinguish regeneration from God’s work of changing the heart.
John the Baptist, who was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, is often given as an example of regeneration. Nevertheless, it seems clear from Matthew 11:11 that John the Baptist was not within the kingdom of heaven. I believe that we should reject the idea the John the Baptist was ‘regenerated’ (in the biblical sense of the word) altogether.
In Matthew 11:11, John the Baptist is described as one who is among those 'born of women', but he was not, at least by implication, within the kingdom of heaven. I wonder whether, in this statement, Christ is drawing a contrast between natural generation (being 'born of women') and some presumed second birth of regeneration by which one enters into the eschatological kingdom of God.
I believe that the manner in which Reformed systematic theology has traditionally employed terms like ‘regeneration’ is exceedingly unhelpful. Whilst some people might successfully preserve a distinction between the systematic theological sense of the word and the biblical sense of the word, most people conflate the two and end up confused. There has also been the tendency to impose an alien scheme of reference onto the text of Scripture, as if Scripture needs to be freed from the fuzziness of narrative and translated into some set of neat and tidy timeless propositions.
As we have grown accustomed to resisting the language that God provides us with in his Word and have tried to operate in terms of a more precise language, we have become preoccupied with concerns which were probably never even on the Apostle Paul’s radar screen. Most Christians today are not conversant with the language of Scripture itself and so read the Bible in terms of pidginized ‘theologyspeak’.
Baptism and Assurance
One of the big problems that I see with the common Baptist way of administering Baptism is that it can fall into the trap of causing faith to turn in on itself. If the focus of Baptism is my personal faith, my heart change and my subjective experience, the danger is that of becoming trapped in doubt.
The tendency of the practice of believers’ Baptism is often to draw a person’s attention inward. It is stressed that the outward sign means nothing apart from the inward reality. When you are unsure if there is any ‘inward reality’ in your heart at all your Baptism can give you no strength. Faith can gradually become a work that you try to whip up, as when you most need to look outside of yourself to Christ your Baptism is pointing you to your own heart for assurance of your standing before God.
In my own experience, there were few things more liberating than the realization that Baptism was not fundamentally my work (or ‘act of obedience’), but God’s work of grace. In Baptism God graciously took me, apart from any worthiness of my own, and made me part of His family. In Baptism God made many great and precious promises to me. By Baptism I was born to the Church, who would feed and nourish my weak and faltering faith. In Baptism I was called to a life of loving devotion and service.
The idea of God doing such a thing through ‘external means of grace’ challenged my whole theology. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which had previously directed my attention into the murky darkness of my own heart (to check if I had the ‘inward reality’), now pointed me to the glorious promises of God and to God’s grace to me in particular. I was encouraged to later discover that Martin Luther agreed with my fears about believers’ Baptism turning faith into a work (the cultivation of a particular interior disposition).
I think that it is important to recognize that we are essentially passive in Baptism. Whilst Baptists stress that Baptism is our ‘act of obedience’, we don’t baptize ourselves — we are baptized.
Baptism as the Beginning of the Christian Life
Many Baptists see Baptism as fundamentally a powerful subjective experience. Consequently it is important that its meaning is understood as much as possible before undergoing it and the feelings are right whilst undergoing it. However, we must observe that Baptism should biblically take place at the very start of the Christian life, when we have little understanding of its full import. Most of the converts in the book of Acts were baptized immediately.
Vern Poythress made some very helpful statements on the subject of delayed Baptisms in Baptist circles (‘Indifferentism and Rigorism in the Church: With Implications for Baptizing Small Children’ in WTJ 59:1):—
Baptistic practice typically waits until children are quite a bit older. Why the delay occurs is not clear. Perhaps some baptists have simply not realized that baptism should mark the beginning of life in the Christian community. At times, however, there may be an underlying desire (perhaps not fully thought out) to have tested, mature, “adult” faith first. Such a desire is understandable, since mature faith ought indeed to be held out as a model and a goal. But we make a mistake if we confuse the goal with the minimum starting point. Such confusion is inconsistent with the whole nature of the Christian experience. Christian experience nearly always has small and stumbling beginnings. Moreover, delay in baptism is inconsistent with Christian love, which does not wait for mature proof before embracing brothers in love. It is inconsistent with Christ, who receives us when we come to him, not when we have proved ourselves mature.
Many Baptists were not baptized until many years after coming to faith for the first time. Especially in the case of young children, Baptism is generally delayed until their faith has been tested over a long period of time.
The whole idea of waiting for mature faith is hard to extricate from the whole Baptistic system. Another thing that one encounters occasionally are people who desire to be rebaptized (after already being baptized as adult believers) because they feel that they did not really know what it meant the first time. The richness of the subjective experience of Baptism necessitates a deep awareness of ‘what it really means’.
The ‘gathered church’ principle, which lies at the heart of much Baptist thinking, is endangered as soon as people are baptized immediately upon first profession of faith. Such an approach will, in the minds of most Baptists, issue in a morally ambiguous multitude, rather than a true church of Jesus Christ. The approach taken by Paul and Silas with regard to the Philippian jailor (Acts 16:33) would horrify most Baptists (it horrifies not a few paedobaptists too!). You don’t have that much time to check that someone’s faith is genuine within one evening, let alone properly catechize them! I think that we must admit that the Philippian jailor had a pretty limited apprehension of biblical truth when compared to the standard expected of most modern converts.
We need to appreciate that Baptist ecclesiology would have to take a very different shape if the biblical practice was adopted. Baptist theology tends to think of the efficacy of Baptism — as it is tied to the cognitio salutis
— as relative, to some degree, to the baptizand’s understanding of Baptism’s significance. Baptists can’t conceive of a Baptism being efficacious for one who is entirely unconscious of the act, its meaning, its purpose and its origin. Rapid Baptisms suggest that such an understanding is not so central after all.
All of this is not to say that Baptism should not be a rich subjective event. In many ways Baptism should be a rich subjective event. Nevertheless, it is not the feelings and knowledge of the baptizand that make Baptism meaningful. I often wondered about my own Baptism. Had I felt the right way? Had I emptied it of meaning by somehow not having the correct kind of faith? Realizing that it was not my subjective feelings and theological appreciation that made Baptism meaningful, but rather God’s Word and promise, was a massive step forward for me.
Baptism, Repentance and Faith
Baptists emphasize the importance of repentance and faith. I thoroughly agree with them: faith and repentance are vital. Paedobaptists do look for faith and repentance when baptizing. The infant baptized is baptized as a member of a believing and penitent community. Whilst the ‘efficacy’ or ‘validity’ of Baptism do not depend upon this belief and repentance (Baptism derives its validity from the Word of God), they are required for its proper administration. A child belonging to an unbelieving and impenitent community should not be baptized.
The requirement of faith and repentance is not at the heart of the differences between paedobaptists and Baptists. Faith and repentance are undoubtedly necessary prerequisites for Baptism, but all too often what we mean by faith and repentance differs somewhat from the biblical definitions of those terms. The biblical definitions of faith and repentance seem to be far broader than those which are common in evangelicalism.
It seems to me that the difference between Baptists and paedobaptists lie more between broad and narrow understandings of the meaning of repentance and faith. Generally, when Baptists speak of ‘repentance’ and ‘faith’ they are thinking in terms of independent choices on the part of individuals with relatively mature intellectual capabilities. Faith and repentance are essentially private dispositions of the heart and mind relative to God.
In Jesus' day, as Wright has observed, the meaning of such terms as 'repent' and 'believe' were far broader than we usually allow for in contemporary evangelicalism. Wright quotes Josephus’ challenge to a Jewish rebel leader: ‘Repent and believe in me’. Here ‘repent’ and ‘believe’ are not fundamentally private internal ‘heart realities’, but a call to abandon the rebellious cause and trust Josephus in adopting his agenda.
Modern evangelicalism, by thinking of repentance and faith in very individualistic, pietistic and rationalistic senses, has tended to screen out these meanings. Whilst we should be wary of going to the other extreme, we must recognize that, if the language of repentance and faith can be used in such a manner, we might have to rethink certain things.
If we allow certain more political senses of the words 'faith' and 'repentance' to enter our thinking we might be helped. The word 'faith' carries beneath it such senses as 'fidelity' and 'allegiance'. Christ, as the new Lord of the world, calls people to the 'obedience of faith'. 'Repentance' is, among other things, to be interpreted as the rejection of our own agendas for Christ's kingdom-agenda. 'Repentance' and 'faith', consequently, should not be thought of as mere 'private' heart-realities. Rather, 'faith' and 'repentance' carry a sense (among others) that is as open and public as the fact of one's national allegiances.
As an action associated with repentance and faith, Baptism is the surrender of a person to the authority of Jesus Christ and rejection of the authority of Satan. It is the turning away from an old world and its agenda (repentance) and the entrance into a new world and the submission to the agenda of the Lord Jesus Christ (faith). The old solidarities that we once were part of are cut and we are reconstituted in a new world order, shaped by new allegiances, loyalties and agendas.
Infants are not born disentangled from the loyalties, allegiances and agendas of the world as neutral and detached individuals. They stand in a particular relationship to authority figures such as parents and governments. In Baptism they are personally placed in a community which operates in terms of Jesus' kingdom agenda and pledges allegiance to Him.
An infant's life is shaped by the community in which they grow up. An infant who is a member of the believing community should be thought of as a believer — a Christian. Baptism serves to initiate the child in the Christian practices of faith and repentance. In his superb essay, The Sociology of Infant Baptism
, Peter Leithart argues that Baptist theology operates in terms of an implicit nature/grace dichotomy. For the Baptist, the ‘tracks’ of Christian nurture are ‘supplementary and additional to the tracks of original nurture’. For the paedobaptist, on the other hand, ‘the social and cultural nurture of the child is simultaneously his or her nurture in Christian character and faith’. ‘Religious life’ is not some second layer added to our ‘natural life’.
Leithart challenges the notion that religion always operates in terms of an ‘inside-out’ pattern. The ‘inside-out’ model maintains that religion starts in the human heart and then works outward. Leithart maintains that, although the inside-out model is not necessarily unbiblical, an ‘outside-in’ represents the ‘more basic movement’.
In cultural life generally, external discipline and teaching form intellectual, moral and practical habits, shaping personal character and identity. Infant baptism suggests that Christian nurture does not reject the “external” of cultural training in favor of purely internal transformation. Christ instead redeems the external.
The fact that Baptism is a rite involving external
washing with water demonstrates that Baptism follows an outside-in model. We are to ‘internalize’ the reality of Baptism over time.
Leithart uses this insight to criticize Karl Barth’s attack upon the practice of infant Baptism. Barth resists the practice because it is ‘violent’, imposing a religious identity upon a child from outside. Leithart observes Barth’s argument ‘rests on the wholly unargued assumption that religious identity is secondary to “natural” identity’. Once this assumption has been challenged, we can begin to appreciate that every child has their identity imposed on them from outside to some degree or other
. The tragedy of the human condition is not found in our lack of autonomous choice and the reality of ‘unchosen constraints and givens’; rather, the human tragedy is the nature of these ‘givens’ in Adam.
Baptism does not make us autonomous and loose us from all bonds of society in general. Rather, Baptism liberates us from the bonds of Adamic society and brings us to participate in and be formed by God’s new society.
Leithart argues that signs and symbols are not primarily to be regarded as ‘pointers’ to the real world. Signs and symbols are the means by which we act in the real world. We would be incapable of having relationships apart from signs and symbols. Rites and rituals change our status. However, for rites and rituals to have their desired effect they have to be continually reaffirmed in various ways. The president who has been inaugurated is deferred to and treated with respect. In a like manner the baptized infant must have their status continually reaffirmed. They are to be treated as Christians. This implies, among other things, paedocommunion.
If the infant is baptized and then treated as if he were a pagan or outsider, rather than a member of God’s house, he will grow up with uncertainty about his spiritual standing. The Church should raise baptized infants by continually reinforcing their status, by granting them the privileges and calling them to the responsibilities that are appropriate to members of the body of Christ. In a similar manner, sinful unfaithfulness to the story that Baptism has made us part of will lead to a loss of identity. This is one reason why we continually need to be reincorporated into the narrative as we renew covenant.
A faith that has external rites such as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as its heart can never be privatized and reduced to a merely ‘internal heart-faith’. The Christian faith has an inescapably public character. The Church is a culture and the infant is inculturated by means of such rituals as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The baptized infant is called to internalize the loyalty expressed in such practices over time. This basic loyalty should deepen and mature into knowledge, personal trust and dependence. However, from their Baptisms they are marked out as members of the faithful community, as those whose allegiance has been given to Jesus Christ and who are committed to His kingdom agenda.
The fact that the OT speaks of infants having faith from the womb (Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6) suggests to me that biblical faith and repentance have a far broader character than most modern evangelicals usually recognize.
Within our society people are challenged to stand on their own two feet and be independent of others. Popular morality teaches us that parents should not indoctrinate their children, but should permit their children to make ‘their own decisions’, independent of their parents. The problem, from my way of looking at things, is that no person is truly independent. Human beings are inescapably social creatures. I fear that Baptists have all too easily fallen prey to this error of modern society and idealized the traditionless, autonomous detached chooser. In contrast to this approach, I believe that the ideal is that of being fully knit into community. One’s identity is found in relationship with others; to the degree that you become autonomous and detached you lose your story and identity.
What Baptists really want is not so much faith and repentance as self-sufficient
, ‘stand-on-my-own-two-feet’ faith and repentance. They are looking for adult faith from children (not that adults ought to aspire to such faith detached from community). The irony is that, when the children grow up, they will be told to practice a ‘childlike’ faith.
The chief danger of this expectation is that it easily falls into a trap similar to that of what Bonhoeffer terms the ‘pious fellowship’. When mature and independent faith is elevated and weak and dependent faith is demeaned, people will become afraid to admit the weakness of their faith and their (God-appointed — Genesis 2:18) need to depend upon others. They fear admitting the weakness of their faith, because they do not believe that the church has any real place for the weak in faith. Consequently they pretend to be strong in faith, while they are inwardly consumed by doubts, doubts that would have been dealt with had the community been accepting of weak and dependent believers. When we fear confessing our sins to one another and do not want to admit to others that our weak faith needs bearing up, the devil will happily pick us off, one by one.
Infant Baptism teaches us that we do not need to pretend to be strong to each other and that there are many who may even have to be carried to the time of their death, not having the strength to ‘stand on their own two feet’. The important thing is that we are members of a body, a body that ministers to those members that are weak within it. In the Christian community the weaker members are frequently the most necessary and valuable members. They play the prophetic role, as Peter Leithart has observed, of identifying our selfishness and calling us to sacrificial self-commitment.
Baptists undoubtedly believe that God has ordained the rite of Baptism and invested it with significance. Paedobaptists certainly believe that Baptism is performed by the agency of man. The difference generally (not always) comes when we come to the issue of efficacy. Most Baptists locate the efficacy of Baptism — if they are indeed willing to speak in terms of ‘efficacy’, a large number are not, e.g. Fred Malone, ‘The Baptism of Disciples Alone’, p.16fn71 — in the believer’s subjective knowledge of salvation (see, for example, Wayne Grudem). Baptism is efficacious as it strengthens our faith by giving us a clearer picture of what it means to be saved.
Such an efficacy is, of course, of little value to an infant. Baptists generally presume that some subjective awareness of what Baptism means on the part of the baptizand is necessary for the form of efficacy that they ascribe to the rite. The practice of infant Baptism points us to a form of efficacy that is far more than that of merely that of giving us a deeper subjective awareness of what our salvation is. Infant Baptism grants some form of objective efficacy to the rite of Baptism. Only a rite than objectively accomplishes something can be meaningfully applied to an infant.
Baptism is certainly administered by the agency of men. However, we must observe that these men are the ordained representatives of Jesus Christ. Baptism is administered by ministers of the Spirit. If you have been baptized by a minister of the Spirit, you should not go sharply separating water Baptism from Spirit Baptism.
Baptism by a minister of the Spirit makes us part of the body of Christ, whether we know what the body of Christ is or not. Baptism brings us into a new relationship with Jesus Christ, at whatever age we are baptized. Baptism brings us into the Church, which is the Temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Baptism makes us part of the ‘in Christ’ people and grants us access to eat at the Lord’s Table. Baptism makes us part of the new covenant people of God. In Baptism we die with Christ and are subsequently raised with Him. Baptism gives us both new privileges and new responsibilities. From the point of Baptism onwards we are defined in relation to these new privileges and responsibilities. The rite of Baptism brings about all of these things, irrespective of whether it is an infant or an adult who is being baptized.
Baptists generally hold that, once a person has been saved, God has ordained that he ought to be baptized. Baptism pictures the chief blessings of salvation that the believing individual has already received in his soul and thereby deepens the believer’s subjective apprehension of these blessings. Under this view, Baptism is like a re-enactment of a successful heart transplant, prescribed by the surgeon to illustrate what has taken place, with the baptizand playing the role of the patient. The baptizand is to take comfort from the re-enactment, believing that this is exactly what has taken place in his situation (his heart has been changed). He believes that the surgery has indeed taken place and been successful in his case. Taking part in the re-enactment both proclaims and brings to mind the supposed success of the operation, thereby deepening his conviction that the surgery was successful.
The position that I am advocating, however, views the Baptism as actually being the surgery and not just a re-enactment. The subject of the surgery can be unconscious in the process and the surgery can still be successful. This is the real thing, not just a worked example. By Baptism we are cut out from the old solidarities that we once belonged to and transplanted into a new body — the body of Christ. Baptism is the scalpel used by the Great Surgeon. We all trust that the person who has been transplanted into the body of Christ will grow as a living member and not need to be amputated (by excommunication) at some point in the future. Like any transplant, for the operation to be successful certain criteria generally have to be met. In the case of Baptism, for a successful transplant to take place, the baptizand has to be a part of the community of faith, either by personal profession in the case of an adult, or by belonging to faithful parents in the case of an infant.
In these comparative illustrations there is an important dis-analogy that I am trying to preserve. Most baptistic evangelicals tend to see salvation as God’s putting new life into our heart — hence the heart transplant analogy. In this analogy we are the ones who receive the transplant. However, in my position, it is we
who are transplanted. We are placed as new members into the body that has the new life of Jesus Christ at its heart. Regeneration is not so much something that happens in our individual hearts as it is something that has been realized in redemptive history in the Person of Jesus Christ and is now known in His body.
Baptism places us into the body of Christ (i.e. the visible Church), like a transplanted organ. We are to be knit into His body and share in its life in the Spirit. The principle of life that operates the body of Christ is the faith of Jesus Christ, which is communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, through the various ministries that exist within the body. The infant who is made part of the body in Baptism is nurtured in the body and this life principle of faith should become increasingly internalized. Faith is not magically implanted into the heart of the baptized individual, but they are implanted into a living body that is animated by faith.
The baptizand is baptized to the end that they become living members of the body. Baptism is ‘efficacious’ in bringing about the transplant of the baptizand into the body of Christ. However, Baptism cannot ensure the long-term success of this transplant. Many of the worst men that Western society has produced were baptized men. Their Baptisms were thoroughly successful in transplanting them into the body of Christ. However, the life of the body never became theirs. In many cases this is simply because of unfaithfulness in the ministry of the body to the new member. A new organ may be transplanted into a living body, but without the other parts of the body accepting it and knitting it into the body by their varied ministries the transplant will eventually fail. In other cases the transplanted member itself proved to be diseased and, despite the concerted ministry of the body, the transplant failed.
Baptism is not an end in itself, but is just the beginning of a life-long process. If Baptism is not fulfilled it is of no lasting benefit to the baptized individual. They end up becoming doubly accursed.
Do I hold to baptismal regeneration? Yes. My form of baptismal regeneration, however, views ‘regeneration’ as essentially a redemptive-historical reality (brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) that is ‘external’ to us. Baptism does not magically monkey with our ‘inner’ soul. The whole internal/external dichotomy is deeply problematic and we need to expose its largely questionable Cartesian roots. Baptism plants us into the new realm brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are then to grow and develop within this realm, becoming conformed to its form of life. Its principles of existence should be increasingly internalized in us.
This form of baptismal regeneration does not hold that Baptism changes people’s hearts willy-nilly. Nor does it hold that no baptized person can fall away. Nor does it do away with the need for continual faith, maturing into faithfulness. Rich Lusk’s article
on the subject of baptismal regeneration is helpful to straighten out some common misconceptions.
Are people ‘in Christ’ prior to Baptism?
I firmly believe that the Church should only baptize those who already in some sense belong to her. There is a degree of tension to be preserved here. Nevertheless, I do believe that Baptism really ‘effects something’. I tend to frame the tension in terms of eschatology. The unbaptized individual does not yet properly share in the ‘eschatological life’ of the church (particularly known in the celebration of the Eucharist in which we taste of the powers of the age to come). The unbaptized but believing individual will certainly be vindicated by God at the end, but does not have that verdict declared over him in the present by anticipation. His salvation is something that he awaits as almost wholly future. In the eschatological life of the Church we have a greater foretaste of this salvation in the present, in union with Christ.
The OT saints were not ‘in Christ’, nor are the unbaptized. They were still looking forward to the future realization of their eschatological hope. We are ingrafted into Christ by Baptism, not by faith apart from God’s gift of Baptism, as Wright and many others have pointed out. It is ‘in Christ’ that we taste of the future (as it has been realized in Him) in the present. In terms of Sanders’ language of ‘getting in’ and ‘staying in’, one could say that unbaptized believers and children of believers are in a very real sense ‘in’ the people of God. However, the purpose of ‘getting in’ the covenant is that of ‘getting there
’ (i.e. to final vindication). The baptized individual has ‘got there’ in a sense that the unbaptized believer has not. Christ is the one who ‘got there’ and by being ingrafted into Him by Baptism we enter into a life which gives us a foretaste of our destination to a degree that in denied to the unbaptized.
Old Testament believers never entered the ‘in Christ’ realm that now exists in the Church. This realm is entered into through Baptism. We abide in this new realm by faith. Baptism marks the beginning of our ‘in Christ’ existence, even if we believed in Jesus many years before our baptisms.