Saturday, July 16, 2005

Thoughts on Infant Baptism from Stasiak and Searle 

Since I have found both authors so helpful on the subject, I thought that I would share some of the thoughts of Mark Searle (‘Infant Baptism Reconsidered’) and Kurt Stasiak (Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism) on infant Baptism with you all. Both authors are Roman Catholics and write in the light of the Roman Catholic post-conciliar debate on the initiation of infants. Kurt Stasiak explores the practice of infant Baptism through the lens of the NT teaching on the subject of adoption and our human experience of it (a taster of his approach can be found in this article. Adoption is ‘an act of extraordinary initiative and love’; adopted children are given something to which they have no title by birth. Adoption ‘delivers a child from an unfortunate or tragic situation and into an advantageous or favorable situation’; adoption is not an end in itself, but is designed to bring children into the fullness of a new life. It is the helplessness of the child that moves the parents to adopt, not anything that the child itself brings. Adoption identifies children with, and incorporates them into, a new family; all of this goes far beyond mere legal considerations. Adopted children gain new brothers, sisters and parents. Adoption is an ‘objective fact’ and is ‘ordinarily irrevocable, but the adopted child’s freedom of will always remains intact’; the adopted child remains free to reject all that adoption has given him. Even though adopted children may always have been aware of the fact of their adoption, their appreciation of and understanding of their adoption will deepen over the course of time. Nevertheless, they never become more or less adopted. Stasiak writes:—

The “point” of infant baptism—it is the point of adoption, of taking the initiative on behalf of another—is that neither God, nor Church, nor parents, keep the child “in limbo” until some future time when the child is able or willing to respond to the love already present and presented. Parents love their infants because of who they are now, not because of who they might eventually become. And if the precautions many parents today take even as the child is being “knit together in the mother’s womb” is any indication, they love their child “before now”: before the child from their flesh becomes their child in the world.

If it is possible for human parents to offer this generous love even before the birth of their child, must we not attribute it as well to the Father whose love everywhere and at all times seeks us out first? God loves the child as he or she is now: as child, as one whose “every action is already written in his book and whose every day is decreed before one of them [comes] into being.” God encounters the child as both of them are now: as loving Father, as little child. Although he writes of infants already baptized, Rahner’s observation that “a child too can be baptized” even though “underage and incapable of directing his life” would seem to proclaim the victory of God’s initiative over the limitations of human chronology: “God deals directly with [the infant]. And because He always forestalls our needs, the distance in time between His mighty life-giving Word and our living response to it is of no significance.”

It seems to me that many modern theologies leave infants and children in limbo. The child is viewed primarily as a potential adult. The idea that the infant as an infant has an important role to play in the life of the church seems alien to many. This is a point that Stasiak brings out powerfully in his book. Children are regarded as ‘neutral’, having neither faith nor unbelief. God, Medicine, and SufferingStanley Hauerwas observes (in God, Medicine, and Suffering) that one of our deepest problems with the suffering of children is that they are seen to be without a narrative that can make some sense of their lives in the face of the pointlessness of their deaths. This problem is rooted in our conviction that our narratives are our own creations. However, if we believe that by God’s grace we are brought into a narrative that is not of our own making (both as adults and as children) we will have resources that are more sufficient for coping in the face of tragic suffering and death. Infant Baptism teaches us that the story in terms of which we must interpret our lives is not, in the final analysis, our own personal story, but the story of Israel that climaxed in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Rather than focusing on Jesus coming into our lives, we must focus on our entering into His life (think about this next time you give your ‘testimony’!). Anti-paedobaptism is often founded on the radically modern, individualistic and voluntaristic notion that one should have no other story than the story you chose when you had no story (to paraphrase Hauerwas). Infant Baptism teaches us of a grace that we did not choose; the Reformers were not wrong to see within infant Baptism a powerful demonstration of the fact that God’s grace comes first. In our rush to narrate our own lives, infant Baptism stops us in our tracks, teaching us that God’s word of grace preceded the first word on our own tongues. As Stasiak puts it:—

Infant baptism confronts us with the priority of God’s word and work, and both the Pauline concept and the human experience of adoption emphasize the priority of this word and work that is so characteristic a feature of the baptism of an infant. Adoption speaks first of the initiative of another: “God sent his Son to make us sons,” to do for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves…. Conversion is the turning around of one’s life and the profession of one’s faith. But it is also standing still and remaining quiet long enough so that one may realize where one already is and where one already belongs, because one has already been claimed: claimed for the Father, claimed by the Father’s grace and love, claimed as a member of the Father’s family. For those adults baptized as infants, the grace of their continuing conversion as adults is their constant return to the grace first offered them in baptism, the grace to know who they are and whose they are: God’s children, God’s “once and future children.”

We should feel neither theological embarrassment nor sacramental discomfort as we consider the “passivity” of our infants at their baptism—nor should we feign their participation by having adults answer “on their behalf,” as did the preconciliar rite. As the Church baptizes her infants, it is the adults who should be silent! It is the strong and the wise, the committed and the mature, the experienced and the competent, who should feel the loss for words. For in infant baptism—as in the initiation of our adults, the forgiving of our sins, and the anointing of our sick—it is God’s word that effects, transforms, reconciles, and comforts. In infant baptism we do sacramentally to and for the infant what God has done and continues to do for us throughout all the ages and stages of our once and future childhood: we offer grace as gift.

For many, Baptism is to be regarded as an overcoming of the ‘givenness’ of life, by means of our free choice as individuals. Infant Baptism proclaims something radically different: the givenness of the sinful world order is exchanged for a gracious ‘alternative givenness’ (to use Peter Leithart’s words). It is important that we appreciate the ‘givenness’ of life. None of us is conceived into a neutral state. God does not wait for the autonomous decision to rebel against Him on the part of the infants of the Amalekites before commanding Saul to slay them in 1 Samuel 15:3. The infants of the Amalekites are God’s enemies from the moment of their conception. On the other hand, the infants of the Israelites are considered quite differently. This principle does not end with the coming of the new covenant. The infants of unbelievers are still considered unclean and the infants of believers are considered to be ‘holy’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). The status of ‘holy’ goes far beyond the mere status of being ‘clean’. Those who are ‘holy’ (in this case the infants and unbelieving spouses of believers) are set apart for sanctuary service. As Baptism is the means by which we are invested for priestly sanctuary service infants ought to be baptized and unbelieving spouses of believers alerted to the claim that God has made on their lives. If they are willing to undergo Baptism we ought to baptize them immediately and then instruct them in the outworking of their new roles. Mark Searle brings out the fact that no one is neutral by describing faith as a ‘human universal’, something that is borne out by a number of passages in Scripture. He writes:—

James Fowler has proposed a view of faith which corresponds closely to the conciliar understanding of theological faith. In Fowler’s view, faith need not be necessarily thought of as an exclusively religious phenomenon. “Rather,” he suggests, “faith becomes the designation for a way of leaning into life. It points to a way of making sense of one’s existence. It denotes a way of giving order and coherence to the force-field of life. It speaks of the investment of life-grounding trust and life-orientating commitment.”

As he goes on to point out, this understanding of faith “means to imply that it is a human universal.” He traces its development through infancy and early childhood and argues that the development of faith of some kind, some sort of making sense of the world, some sense of what one may base one’s trust on and what makes life worthwhile, is an inevitable development in every child. Even before it becomes articulate—if indeed it ever becomes articulate about its faith, for this “leaning into life” is rarely brought to full consciousness—the child comes to faith. The question then is less one of whether a child can “have” faith than it is a question of the kind of faith it comes in fact to exercise in the first weeks and months of life. There is no need to have recourse to St. Thomas Aquinas’s distinction between habitus and actus, tailored as it is to a cognitive understanding of faith. With a precognitive understanding of faith, the child is seen, from the moment of its birth, to be enacting its developing faith as it encounters its human environment, experiences dependency and separation, shared meanings and ritual patterns, provision for its bodily needs, and a sense of its own social and sexual identity. Faith is a holistic, prerational sense of who we are and of the kind of world we live in, an integrated vision of how things are and what it all means. From a theological perspective, then, what is at issue in the celebration of the sacraments is not so much whether the candidates have faith, but of whether their faith is faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. For adults this means that evangelizing is a matter of uprooting false faith as well as a matter of communicating true faith, a realization that has enormous implications for the catechumenate. For the children of the Church, it means forming them in right faith from infancy. To wait until they attain the use of reason is already to wait too long and to leave their faith to chance.

Parents who wait for their children to ‘make their own decision’ in favour of the life of faith fail to appreciate the potential tragic consequences of leaving their children outside the ‘givenness of grace’. Searle deals with the givenness of grace in the following quote:—

Sin cannot be reduced simply to individual, conscious, wilful acts. Similarly the redemptive gift of paschal faith, the Christlike way of “leaning into life,” is not necessarily anything which has to await our conscious decision or deliberate choice. It is rather something we discover to be already operative in us by the grace of God by the time we become aware of it.

This grace, this gift of faith, comes through hearing, through the Word of God addressed to the child. But the Word here is not the written Word, as yet unavailable to the infant, so much as the biblical dabar, mediated in this instance by the community of faith and especially the believing family. Thus it is not so much that baptism infuses faith into a child as that baptism is the deliberate and conscious insertion of the child into the environment of faith, which faith is the faith of the Church, which in turn is the faith of Christ himself.

When we appreciate the fact that the given character of our environment (graced or cursed) precedes choice on our part, we will be far better equipped to challenge voluntaristic notions. Oliver O’Donovan criticizes John Howard Yoder in The Desire of the Nations:—
The Desire of the NationsCertainly, a church defined by the faith it confesses will be free, for ‘coerced faith’ is a contradiction in terms. But does that make it appropriate to speak of a ‘voluntary society’, which usually connotes an association into which people contract optionally, i.e. not only without anyone forcing them to, but without any pressing need driving them to? A voluntary society is one that I could leave without incurring grave or irremediable loss, which might seem a strange thing for a Christian to think about the church. Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organised? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat?
Stasiak brings out the character of our real decision very well:—
If the argument is that people should decide for themselves whether they want to be baptized, I answer that the daily task of Christians baptized at whatever age is precisely that: to decide for themselves each and every day whether they want to live as baptized Christians are called to live. Children are not asked if they want to be adopted; they are adopted because they need to be and because they are loved—loved to the extent that a particular family wishes to bring them into the family as a full member.
The Church needs to focus more on developing an ‘ethos of conversion’ for all of her members than on seeking to obtain adult conversions for all who wish to be baptized. Are all infants suitable candidates for Baptism? No. How do we decide which children are appropriate candidates? We need to pay attention to whether they have been called by God. God makes claims upon us through others. As I have already pointed out, God declares that the children of believing parents are ‘holy’ — claimed for sanctuary use. Alexander Schmemann has some insights on this subject, as one would expect. God’s grace has already begun to claim the child long before the child was born. God claimed the marriage of the child’s parents. If that ‘one flesh’ union was graciously claimed by God, how much more the ‘one flesh’ union of the parents in their physical offspring! As Stasiak observes: ‘The commitment to Christian marriage is … the commitment to have one’s children baptized as infants.’ The infant child of believing parents receives a vocation from God as God makes claims upon its life through its parents. Children of Christian families do not inherit the adopted status of their parents (we are not born Christians; our identity as Christians comes in the rebirth of Baptism), but God does claim them through their parents. They are set apart for adoption. Believing parents can become the instruments by which God’s grace grasps their natural children and returns them to their keeping as Christian children (thus forming them into Christian parents). Furthermore, such infants are born into the givenness of the life of faith, by which their family’s life is powerfully shaped. They are already growing in a faithful response to God’s claim of grace. Infant children of believing families inherit a way of ‘leaning into life’, which serves as an initial response to the vocation that God has given them. In some sense then we can say that infant Baptism is a form of believers’ Baptism. Infant Baptism flows from the realization that neither the claims of God not the life of faith can be put on hold, leaving infants in a state of limbo until they attain to some age of mature decision. God claims infants as they are — as infants — and values them as such. The new humanity is not for mature adult believers alone. Furthermore, in their own way, infants already begin to faithfully respond to God as their Father as they are ‘cast upon [Him] from birth’ (Psalm 22:10) through His gracious adoption. Baptism is a part of their being brought into the fulfilment of the life of faith. Baptism is not primarily about my personal faith as an individual believer. It is about the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Baptism places me into a story that is far greater than my own, a story that was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. In Baptism I am buried with Him. When we appreciate that the narrative that underlies Baptism is not primarily my individual narrative, but the narrative of redemptive history, infant Baptism makes a whole lot more sense. Baptism is not my making of my own narrative by my act of decision. Rather, Baptism is the gracious retelling of my narrative in terms of God’s grace accomplished in Christ and the Faith that has finally come in Him.

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