The Case for Dual Baptism – Part 1

The Case for Dual Baptism – Part 1 August 17, 2011

Is there another option in the credobaptism (believer’s baptism) vs. paedobaptism (infant baptism) debate? Well, an alternative position is for churches to permit both views of baptism, credo and paedo, to be practiced side by side.[1] This policy of dual baptism is held by the Nazarene Church, American Evangelical Covenant Church, French Reformed Church, and Presbyterian Church (USA). As far as I know, most paedobaptist churches do not force congregants to baptize their children, but only refuse to re-baptize adults, so they are technically open to believer’s baptism. There are a number of reasons why this is a defensible and even desirable theological stance.

First, we should recognize that baptism in the New Testament is not “believer’s baptism,” but “convert’s baptism”.  George R. Beasley-Murray pointed out that baptism and conversion are “inseparable” and one demands the other, neither is one complete without the other. Yet he also notes that the child growing up in a Christian family is in a different position to a child coming from a pagan home. A Christian child lives in a converted home, not a pagan one.[2] Even if the children in converted “households” were not baptized, their conversion and baptism may have been regarded as being done by proxy through their parents. I know that this sounds strange to those accustomed to a free, libertarian, and individualist society, but the households of the ancient world were an extended family unit with a shared identity and sense of corporate personhood. What is more, neither Acts nor Paul shows a clear affirmation for the need to baptize second generation Christians whose parents were themselves baptized. It was not that these children were unbaptized, but the conversion-baptism ritual had already been undergone by their parents in their representative position as heads of the house. If we grant this conversion-initiation link, if we accept the representative significance of the paterfamilias in a family unit, then we should not ask if the early church baptized babies or not. Rather, we should ask instead if they ever thought to baptize the children of converts at all? I suspect that eventually this practice of proxy baptism for the children of converts was abandoned and the church diverged along two paths: believer’s baptism and infant baptism.[3]

Second, continuing on from my first point, I think this explains why it is that both believer’s baptism and infant baptism were practiced by Christian communities concurrently up to the third century. The fact that Tertullian and Gregory of Nazianzus opposed infant baptism proves the existence of both people who practiced it and people who questioned it. It appears that the early church had divergent opinions on the subject, yet this was never thought to be a threat to the unity and oneness of the church. There was a frank acceptance of a diversity of opinion on the matter.[4]

Third, one can acknowledge that there is much to learn from both paedobaptism and credobaptism. Paedobaptism warns against individualism and highlight that God deals with families not just individuals. Infant baptism showcases the prevenient nature of God’s grace and the operation of this grace in the believing community. Credobaptism warns against nominal belief and highlights the need for a personal experience of God. Believer’s baptism brings to the surface the vital importance of proclaiming the gospel to our children and teenagers to bring them to a point of personal faith.[5]

Fourth, another factor for us to consider is that baptism itself is a doctrine of secondary importance. Beyond the foundational Christian beliefs about repentance and faith, the author of Hebrews knows of a second tier of elementary Christian beliefs concerning “baptisms”. In a theological triage we could classify Christian beliefs into three categories: (1) Essential beliefs, things without which one cannot claim to be a Christian, such as belief in the gospel, Trinity, incarnation, return of Christ, inspiration of scripture. (2) Important beliefs, either significant for church order or doctrinally disputed areas, but not of salvific import, like church government, can women be preachers, covenant theology vs. dispensational theology, schemes of eschatology, Lord’s Supper, and Baptism. (3) Indifferent matters, concerning things which are a matter of conscience and conviction, including whether Christians should drink alcohol, home schooling vs. public schooling, and preferred Bible translation. If Baptism is a second order doctrine, then it should not be a barrier to unity and fellowship in churches that proclaim the gospel and profess Jesus as Lord.

Fifth, it seems to me that there is a deep need in the church to do something to acknowledge that a child has entered into the home of believing parents and to acknowledge a time when the child has made this faith their own. So credobaptists hold “infant dedications” to signify the entrance of the child into a believing home and to make a corporate promise by parents and parishioners to raise up the child in the instruction of the Lord. Then, later, should the child come to a decision of personal faith later in life, he or she would then be baptized. For paedobaptists, they baptize their children as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, and a later time when the child is older and wishes to formally make an affirmation of their baptismal promises, they get “confirmed” as a member of the church. Simply from a sociological view, it looks as if we need (1) some ritual or event to publicly show that this child has been brought into a believing family, to commit ourselves to raise this child “as” or “to be” a Christian, all in the context of the wider body of Christ; and (2) we also need some ritual or ceremony to show that his child has appropriated their parents faith and taken their own place in the community of the gospelized. The million dollar question is, where do you put the water? At the initiatory ritual or at the confirming ritual? I want to tentatively suggest that if you have a public initiation of the child into God’s family and if you have a public declaration of the child’s own faith later, then maybe where you put the water isn’t the most important part! That will dissatisfy most credobaptists and paedobaptists, but I find it gospelically satisfying.[6] Brad Harper and Paul Metzger hold to credobaptism, but go so far as to suggest that “a theology of unity supersede a particular theology of infant or believer baptism; thus, we honor the baptism of infants and do not feel it necessary for those baptized as infants to be rebaptized unless it is a matter of conscience”.[7]

[1] Anthony N. S. Lane, “Dual-Practice Baptism View,” in Baptism: Three Views, ed. D.F. Wright (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009), 139-71.

[2] Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 393-95.

[3] The idea of baptism by proxy, might explain why some in Corinth were performing baptisms on behalf of the dead (see 1 Cor 15:29).

[4] Lane, “Dual-Practice”, 154.

[5] Lane, “Dual-Practice”, 167-68.

[6] I should point out that this is not strictly possible in an ecclesiology that holds that the local church consists exclusively of the regenerate. I believe that the church in fact consists of an ecclesia mixta or a mix of the regenerate and unregenerate. That is because: (1) I’ve been in churches where they think that everyone who is a member is regenerate, but clearly everyone who was a member was not regenerate; and (2) The warning passages in Hebrew 6:4-6 and Jesus’ teaching about the wheat and weeds in Matt 13:34-30 only make sense if the church is a mixed community of authentic and inauthentic believers. Simon Magus “believed and was baptized,” qualifying for church membership, but in Christian tradition Simon Magus was regarded as the founder of Gnosticism (see Acts 8:12-24).

[7] Harper and Metzger, Evangelical Ecclesiology, 141.

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