Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Time to retire infant baptism?

There are a number of resolutions before General Convention that touch upon our rites of initiation and identity. These resolutions are not explicitly linked, and we must be careful not to mix up our fears and concerns (as Scott Gunn graciously reminded me). The resolutions about which I'm thinking are resolutions that are being discussed here and elsewhere in the blog world - Resolution C040 [these links are to PDF files of the resolution text] proposed by Eastern Oregon which would remove the canon stipulating that one must be a baptized Christian to receive Holy Communion, and resolutions A041, A042, A043, and A044 (discussed here yesterday) which would collectively remove the requirement that lay leaders (and, possibly, ordained leaders) should be confirmed.

The resolutions about confirmation have stimulated some wonderful conversation about the sacramental requirements for church leadership, the meaning of confirmation, the sufficiency of baptism for church membership. There has been more chat on facebook (of course). It's clear that we're as uncertain about confirmation as we have been for centuries. It's clear that we're changing our views about baptism over the past few decades. The whole thing got me thinking:

Perhaps it's time to consider scrapping infant baptism? 

In the Episcopal Church, we claim that baptism is "full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church." But given the current trajectory of our sacramental and ritual theology, for what reason should babies be given this initiation? If we only baptize people who are old enough to ask for it, then we don't actually need what confirmation has become: "mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism." (The language of the prayer book actually says that even those baptized as adults ought to receive the laying-on of hands from the bishop, but this doesn't in any way complete or fix or finish the work of baptism). We won't need to be concerned with whether lay leaders have demonstrated commitment and fidelity to the church they are leading. And perhaps, actually, dropping the confirmation requirement for leadership in the church based on the notion that baptism is all-sufficient is a way to open the door to Sydney-style Lay Presidency.

If we no longer require a person to be baptized before receiving communion, then our toddlers can come to the altar rail with no impediment. I suspect that many or most Episcopalians tend towards universalism, and certainly a comparison of the baptismal rites from 1928 and 1979 prayer books will reveal that we have stopped thinking of baptism as "fire insurance" or as a way to protect the infant from the fires of hell.

Tim Sean, on facebook, brought his Baptist roots to bear on the implications. He wrote
Having come for the Baptist denomination "adult" baptism isn't really the answer either. You end up shaping your whole ethos and community practice to ensure that children (and eventually young adults) voluntarily seek baptism, which then raises the entire conundrum of what is the minimal amount of understanding one needs before (an eight year old some, a twelve year old more, a seventeen year old, etc...)
It's a good point. I don't know that it would be such a bad thing to orient the church around helping people (of any age) towards and through the font. But what is the minimum necessary understanding of the faith required for baptism? Presiding Bishop Katherine encouraged us to be more quick to baptize, to provide "on-call baptism". And if we're going to offer communion to people regardless of baptism (and regardless of a minimum level of understanding), then there shouldn't be any intellectual barrier to the sacrments, surely? If they ask for the waters, they get the waters.

Now, to be absolutely clear, I personally don't think we should do this. I am too catholic in my religion to do away with a practice that is as old, at least, as St. Augustine. I am one of those Episcopalians who thinks that something does happen, both in confirmation and baptism. But neither is this post tongue-in-cheek. If our theology and practice are heading this direction, adapting and modifying our sacramental theology in such radical ways, then isn't this a logical next step?


  1. I began to write a reply to this. But then, unsurprisingly, it got too long. So, instead, I'm writing it as a blog post and I will put the link here in a bit.

    The short is, I'm all for doing away with infant baptism (which will be an incredibly difficult thing to do, given the emotional attachment folks have with it), as well as for pushing for more "spontaneous" baptism. I'd offer it every week, during the typical "announcement break" before the offertory (right after the confession/absolution), after which we get the candidate into some form of formation that would eventually lead to confirmation that year. For me, this is among the most overt scriptural notions. Baptism IS the sacrament for the unbaptized. And, as the Ethiopian Eunuch said, "here is water, what is there to hinder me from getting baptized?"

  2. Here's the article link:

  3. Hi Chris. The reason to baptize infants is to give them every gift we can to include them in the circle of God's love as we know it in Jesus. Baptism symbolizes participation in the life of Christ; we want our children to participate in that life as fully as possible at every stage. It sounds as if the discussion about requirements for admission to communion and positions of leadership has mistakenly forgotten the primary purpose of the sacraments and instead has focused entirely on their implications for polity and policy. At least that's what I'm inferring from your question, "given the current trajectory of our sacramental and ritual theology, for what reason should babies be given this initiation?"

  4. Baptists and evangelicals are absolutely correct...there is no SPECIFIC mention in the New Testament that the Apostles baptized infants. There are references to entire households being converted and baptized, but we orthodox cannot prove, just from Scripture, that these households had infants, and neither can Baptists and evangelicals prove, just from Scripture, that they did not.

    One interesting point that Baptists/evangelicals should note is that although there is no specific mention of infant baptism in the Bible...neither is there a prohibition of infant baptism in the Bible. Christians are commanded by Christ to go into all the world and preach the Gospel and to baptize all nations. No age restrictions are mentioned. If Christ had intended his followers to understand that infants could not be baptized in the New Covenant, in a household conversion process as was the practice of the Jews of Christ's day in converting Gentile households to the Covenant of Abraham, it is strange that no mention is made of this prohibition.

    So, the only real way to find out if Infant Baptism was practiced by the Apostles is to look at the writings of the early Christians, some of whom were disciples of the Apostles, such as Polycarp, and see what they said on this issue.

    And here is a key point: Infant Baptism makes absolutely no sense if you believe that sinners can and must make an informed, mature decision to believe in order to be saved. Infants cannot make informed, mature decisions, so if this is the correct Doctrine of Justification/Salvation, Infant Baptism is clearly false teaching. But the (arminian) Baptist/evangelical Doctrine of Justification/Salvation is unscriptural. Being forced to make a decision to obtain a gift, makes the gift no longer free. This is salvation by works!

    Baptism is a command of God. It is not a work of man. God says in plain, simple language, in multiple locations in the Bible, that he saves/forgives sins in Baptism. We orthodox Christians accept God's literal Word. We take our infants to be baptized because God says to do it. Our infants are not saved because we perform the act of bringing them to the baptismal font...they are saved by the power of God's Word pronounced at the time of the Baptism. Christians have believed this for 2,000 years!

    There is no evidence that any Christian in the early Church believed that sinners are saved by making a free will decision and then are baptized solely as a public profession of faith. None.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  5. "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23)

    The fact that children die shows that they are subject to the consequences of sin just like adults. If children are not held responsible by God for the Original Sin inherited from their Grandfather Adam, they would never die until they reach an Age of Accountability, when "their eyes are opened to the knowledge of Good and Evil".

    But the Bible never mentions an age of accountability. Instead, it teaches that "the whole world (is) held accountable to God" (Romans 3:19), Psalms 51:5, Eph. 2:3.

    Just because something doesn't seem fair, doesn't mean it is not true. As Paul says in Romans, who are we the created to question the Creator.

    All human beings, including infants, are born sinners and are in need of a Savior to redeem them from original sin and the penalty of that sin: death...both physical and spiritual.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  6. Is there any passage of Scripture that gives an age limit for baptism?

    Is there any passage of Scripture that states that repentance must occur BEFORE baptism?

    Aren't Baptists and evangelicals basing their doctrine of Baptism upon some pretty big assumptions, not on any clear Scripture that states that baptism is only an act of obedience/public profession of faith?

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

  7. Maybe the Baptism debate has been approached from the wrong direction. Instead of starting with our disagreements, let's start with what Baptists/evangelicals and orthodox Christians AGREE upon: All persons who believe and have faith in Christ as their Savior should follow his command and be baptized as soon as possible.

    So the next question is: Can an infant believe and have faith?

    If I can prove to you from Scripture that infants not only can but DO believe and have faith, would you accept infant baptism as Scriptural?