Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism. Prior to that, I was a fairly ordinary credo-baptist. You can follow my progress from one state of confusion to another through my posts on the topic (Should infants be baptised?, Can infants be baptised?, John Stevens on baptism, Rethinking the local church: ecclesiology for spiritual reductionists, Anglican infant baptism: credo-paedo-baptism?, Paul Avis on the visibility of the Church, Peter Leithart on baptism). But I think I’ve thought enough now (I’m completely thunk as a consequence), and I’m fairly comfortable with my current position on the subject. At least provisionally. So, for now, I consider myself to be an ecclesiocredopaedobaptist.
Let’s break that up.
Baptism is an outward, visible, objective sign. As such, it is just as much for the benefit of everyone else as it is for the person being baptised. Baptism is, therefore, fundamentally about the church. Baptism is “the water rite of entry into the church”, as Peter Leithart puts it.
(This makes me somewhat uncomfortable with the position of many credo-baptist churches, in which whether or not someone is considered to have actually been baptised makes no practical difference to that person’s involvement in that church.)
The church, as a visible community, ought to consist of believers. All believers ought to be in the church, and all unbelievers ought not to be in the church. Thus, if someone wants to enter the church, through baptism, they ought to be a believer, and it is appropriate, prior to baptising them, to ask them to profess their faith.
(As such, I have a lot of sympathy with John Stevens, in his critique of infant baptism, and agree that baptism is a sign of fulfilment, not of promise, so it is not a simple equivalent to circumcision. This makes me uncomfortable with the approach of many paedo-baptist churches, in which baptism is offered to “believers and their children”, as though being an unbeliever is fine, so long as your parents are believers.)
But what if there is room for doubt about whether someone is a believer? Well, precisely because baptism is an outward, visible, objective sign, and precisely because baptism is something that is done to a person, not in any way something a person does (no one baptises themself), it is not strictly necessary for someone to be a believer in order to baptise them. In some cases it may be desirable to welcome someone into the church through baptism, even though there is some room for doubt about that person’s faith. So, for example, it is not always inappropriate to baptise someone who has a severe mental disability, or who is unable to speak or articulate themself clearly—someone who can’t give clear evidence of faith. If necessary, such a person can be brought for baptism by a sponsor, who will speak on their behalf.
This third point is the least fundamental, and follows from what I have already said. It is perfectly possible to baptise an infant (and hence I no longer think it is appropriate to [re-]baptise someone who underwent the rite of baptism as an infant—even though that is precisely what I went through in 2002!). And if a child is to be brought up and nurtured within the family of believers, it makes sense for that child to be welcomed into the family of believers through baptism. If the child is too young to profess their own faith, their parents (usually) would bring them for baptism, and speak on their behalf. (This seems to be what happens in Anglican infant baptism, which I’ve characterised as “credo-paedo-baptism”.)
(Note that I’m not justifying the baptism of infants by appealing to God’s promise to include children of believers within the covenant. I am not convinced by such claims—at least, not yet. But, having said that, it is worth noting that God often deals with families, communities and nations, not simply with isolated individuals.)
Phew! I think that’s about it for baptism. But my thinking in this area has led me to think more seriously about ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, and I suspect that will continue into 2014 and beyond…