The following is an excerpt from my The Baptized Body (Canon, 2007).
Protestants have always emphasized that salvation comes through faith, yet most Protestants have baptized babies. How can these two things hold together? Luther and Calvin held together their insistence on faith with infant baptism by claiming that infants can believe. Baptists see this as the Achilles’ heel of the paedobaptist position, an example of absurd lengths to which paedobaptists are willing to go in defending an untenable practice.
Is infant faith absurd?
“Faith” is the human response of trust toward God, a response of allegiance, in a personal relationship, and this has large consequences for our understanding of infant faith. The question of infant faith is not: “Are infants capable of receiving this jolt of divine power?” The question is: “Can infants respond to other persons? Do infants have personal relations?”
And the answer to this question is obviously yes. Infants quickly (even in utero) learn to respond to mother’s voice; infants quickly manifest “trust” of their parents; infants quickly distinguish strangers from members of the family. If infants can trust and distrust human persons, why can’t they trust in God? Behind the denial of infant faith is, apparently, an assumption that God is less available to an infant than other humans.
But this is entirely wrong; for no human being is nearer than God. And it is wrong because God’s presence is mediated through His people. When parents say to their newborn, “Jesus loves you and will care for you,” they are speaking God’s promises.
Parents, moreover, establish relationships with their infants through symbols. We talk to our infants, and we show our love through gestures – hugs and kisses. If there is nothing irrational or absurd about humans’ establishing a personal relationship with infants through symbols, there is nothing irrational about God’s doing the same.
As we establish loving and trusting relations with our infants through symbols, so God speaks to infants and establishes a relation with them through the “visible word” of baptism. Thus, the question “Should we baptize babies?” is of a piece with the question “Should we talk to babies?” Paedobaptism is neither more nor less odd and miraculous than talking to a newborn. In fact, that is just what paedobaptism is: God speaking in water to a newborn child.
If the child cannot understand what a parent is saying, is it rational for the parent to speak to him or her? Baptist parents as well as others speak to their infants, and do not expect the child to understand or to talk back for many months. They see nothing irrational in this. They speak to their children, that is, they employ symbols, not because they think the infant understands all that is being said or because they expect an immediate response. They speak to their children so that the child will learn to understand and talk back.
So too, we baptize infants, and consistently remind them of their baptism and its implications, so that they will come to understanding and mature faith. We name them so they will grow up to respond to that name; we speak to them so they will begin to speak back; we name them in baptism so that they will begin to live in and out of baptism.
The sociologically consistent Baptist should, it seems to me, allow children to name themselves. Otherwise, they are inevitably “imposing” an identity on their little boys and girls. Karl Barth, who loudly protested the “violence” of imposing a Christian identity on a child through infant baptism, would undoubtedly be pleased.
In fact, Baptists don’t do this, and in spite of themselves they impose a language on their children as well. They do, in spite of themselves, often treat their children as Christians, teaching them to sing “Jesus loves me” and to pray the Lord’s Prayer. And if they do all this, what reason remains for resisting the imposition of the covenant sign?