Infant Baptism

Infant Baptism August 6, 2004

No area of sacramental theology exposes assumptions concerning sacraments, and indeed concerning the Christian life, like the issue of infant baptism. Modern Christianity is plagued by an overly individualistic outlook, by the notion that religion is exclusively a matter of the heart, by a belief that religion is private, and by an insistence that religion must be chosen (else it is an act of tyranny). These features of modern Christianity are particularly evident in hesitancy about or rejection of the historic practice of infant baptism.

Here, as elsewhere, however, the issues are complicated by the ambivalent testimony of the tradition itself. It is not uncommon for theologians to consider adult baptism to be the ?norm?Eof baptism (Aidan Kavanaugh), and many of the liturgical practices surrounding baptism have been designed for adults rather than children. I wish to argue that infant baptism is a norm.

Before looking at infant baptism per se, we should examine what the Bible teaches about baptism in general. First, it is crucial, as I?ve emphasized, to think about baptism in terms of the OT categories that we examined in an earlier lecture.

Second, it is evident that the NT teaches that baptism is a saving ordinance, that it brings the baptized into union with Christ in His death and resurrection. Nearly every passages on baptism in the NT treats it as an ordinance that gives grace (Rom 6; 1 Cor 10; 12:12-13; Gal 3; Col 2; Tit 3:5; 1 Pet 3; Heb 10).

Third, how can we affirm what the NT says without falling into the errors of a) believing that the rite as a human act saves people or b) believing that everyone who is baptized is ?in?Ewithout any further demands being placed upon them. Three axioms guide our understanding of the theology of baptism:

1. ?Baptism?Ein the NT texts refers to the rite of water baptism. There are a few exceptions, but they are fairly obvious (Jesus talking about His death as a baptism, for instance). Note that the word ?baptism?Edoes not refer merely to the physical action of pouring, sprinkling, or immersion; it refers to the performance of a rite authorized by Jesus Christ, to which is attached the promise of God.
2. The body of Christ is the body of Christ. That is, the phrase ?body of Christ?Ein the NT refers to the church, and this church is not a mere sociological reality, but is the children of the Father, united to Christ by the Spirit. Baptism engrafts a person into the body of Christ ?Emeaning, into the church and also into the fellowship of the Trinity (since that?s what the church is).
3. Apostasy is possible. It is possible to be united to Jesus Christ, receive His Spirit, and then fall from that gracious condition and back into the world (John 15; 1 Cor 10; Heb 6; 2 Pet 2).

On this view, baptism always, always has the gracious intent and effect of bringing the baptized into union with Christ in his church. But baptism also places the demand on the believer that he should ?consider himself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus?Eand that he should ?not let sin reign in your mortal body?E(Rom 6). To be saved, the baptized must respond in faith to he promise and claim of baptism ?Enamely, the promise and claim that the baptized is no longer his own but belongs to Jesus. The baptized must trust that Jesus will save His children, and must submit to the leading and commands of Jesus.

Jesus made clear His views on childhood: Children are models of the proper attitude and faith of a Christian. We cannot enter the kingdom except as little children. God calls all the baptized to childlike openness, trust, and submissiveness. All baptisms are infant baptisms; all baptisms call the baptized to childhood. It is a call to childhood because it is a call to follow Jesus, the Eternal Child (von Balthasar), who is eternally begotten, and who lives His earthly life in constant dependence on, amazement toward, and thankfulness to, His Father.

Beyond that, let me unpack a theology of infant baptism by reference to Gal 3:27-28. First, Paul characterizes baptism as an adoption (v. 26-27). Through baptism, we are made Christ?s, and as we are Christ?s we are Abraham?s offspring. In baptism, infants are brought out of the dysfunctional family of Adam, where Sin and Death reign over slaves, into the family of Abraham, which is the family of God, where we are free sons. Abrahamson becomes the surname of every baptized child, and our identity becomes bound up with membership in this new family (just as our identity is bound up with the surname inherited from our parents; my kids are Leitharts, whether they want to be or not). Ultimately, our adoption is fulfilled in the resurrection from the dead; we mature toward that eternal childhood (Rom 8).

Second, as children of Abraham, we receive the inheritance promised to Abraham (v. 29). In Gal, that inheritance is the gift of the Spirit (3:1-5, 14). Baptized into the family of Abraham, children are heirs of the Spirit.

Third, as children of Abraham and heirs of the Spirit, we have a new Father, to whom we can cry out ?Abba?E(4:6).

Fourth, we not only have a new Father, but new brothers and sisters, who are made members of a unified family in Jesus (3:28). Through baptism, the Christian brotherhood receives the infant as a member of the family, as a fellow heir with all other members.

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