Musings on Baptism

Well, I guess this is an "-ing" as per the subtitle of my blog.  Not a rant, or a rave, though.  More a collection of thoughts.

First a bit about me – I was baptised as a baby in the anglican church, and later confirmed.  I’m now a member at a baptist church, which (thankfully) has an open membership – i.e. I can become a member because of my infant baptism and confirmation.  I could also have become a member by profession of faith, which I would gladly have made.  Had the church had a closed membership (only those baptised as adults by total immersion, and possibly only by total immersion in that particular church, could become members) then there would have been a different story.  I don’t know what the story would have been, though!

So my position is an interesting one: raised in one tradition and currently worshipping in another.  Unsurprisingly, I think that there are pros and cons to both infant and adult baptism.  Hence the ramblings below.

I think the first criticism that is usually levelled at infant baptism is that it is all to do with original sin, and specifically saving infants from their original sin should they die in infancy.  I don’t personally hold to the doctrine of original sin, or to Calvin’s doctrine of total depravity, so this in my mind is a valid criticism if the only reason to have a baby baptised is to save it from original sin.  Baptism should be about so much more than washing away of original sins (if, indeed, they exist).  I like Dave Tomlinson’s view of it in his model of a church without borders.  Essentially, his view is that baptism is a wonderful gift that can be given to all, regardless of what stage you’re at in your journey with Christ.  What greater gift to give than the gift of baptism as you are welcomed in to the church.

Another criticism raised against infant baptism followed by confirmation is that these things are simply rites of passage made without any true commitment to Christ.  I think that this view denies any sacramental aspect of baptism (which some people do).  By sacrament I don’t mean that baptism is a necessity for salvation, although what is a necessity for salvation and what "salvation" is are good questions.  (I hadn’t realised this post would raise quite so many questions when I started!)  What I mean by sacramental is that baptism is more than a mere symbol (Zwingli), just as the elements at the eucharist are more than mere symbols.  So, whilst a baby cannot make any meaningful commitment, his/her parents and godparents do.  The Holy Spirit acting through the child, parents, godparents etc (whether they are professing christians or not) is what is important here.

The same goes for confirmation.  I believe that even if the candidates or their family simply view confirmation as a rite of passage, then the Holy Spirit can act through them in surprising ways.  Perhaps that is why there is an emphasis on adequate preparation for confirmation – this is all part of the process of the Spirit working within you as you prepare to make the vows and affirmations at confirmation.  Just as an aside, I think we can assume from the biblical accounts of baptism that candidates were not extensively prepared for their baptisms.  In Acts chapter 2 we simply see that the three thousand people who accepted Peter’s preaching were baptised there and then, with no confirmation or baptismal classes: no preparation, we presume, apart from one sermon!

Just so you don’t think I’m simply an apologist for infant baptism, I do think there are arguments in favour of believers’ baptism as well.  I think separating the "initiation rite" of the christian church into two, baptism and confirmation, is a bit clunky and inelegant.  Why two rites, not one?  We are not in the habit of saying in the creed "we acknowledge one baptism and confirmation at a later date for the forgiveness of sins"!  Confirmation is undoubtedly a later addition to the rite of baptism.

I also think that for those who positively identify one moment in time with "becoming a christian", then believers’ baptism is much more appropriate.  I personally don’t really associate any particular moment with becoming a christian: I have been becoming a christian since I was born, I am still becoming a christian every day and shall I go on becoming a christian until the day I die.  The "becoming" is more important than the "become".  So when would have been the most appropriate time for me to have been baptised as a believer?  Pass!

I do think the picture that emerges from the gospels and the book of acts is that the initial converts to christianity were baptised as believers.  However, we are not told what, if anything, happened to the children of those baptised; probably not surprising in a world where children were seen as sub-human.  There is, of course, the story in Acts chapter 16 of the jailer and all his family/household being baptised.  Who, we are left wondering, were his family or household?

So, have I come to any conclusions on this?  Not really is the answer…  I am still left feeling that both systems have pros and cons.

2 thoughts on “Musings on Baptism

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a bit as well (again!) after we talked about the jailer “and his household”. I think my problem with infant baptism is it just seems so open to abuse. It’s not that I don’t want people in the church, it’s more that I see baptism as a very serious commitment and think most people just don’t take it seriously – same for the ensuing confirmation at about age 7-12. It’s precisely because I do view baptism as a very important sacrament that I think it should be left up to people who can make up their own minds about whether they want it. I also see it as being something which came about more so the church could govern people’s lives (by keeping records of births) than having anything to do with pastoral concern. This absolutely does not mean that I think Anglican priests don’t care about the families/babies they’re caring for and preparing for baptism – the impression I get is that very often the priest cares the most and the family the least.

    I think also, having not been brought up in a parish tradition, but in one which has a comparatively recent history of persecution and martyrdom, I see baptism as something costly. It’s a decision to go against cultural norms – dying to self and living in Christ, and for me this resonates not only with the Baptist history but with the very earliest history of the church, where choosing to publicly declare your faith in Christ was a commitment which could well cost you your life. So I suppose this is something of an ingrained (or grown-in) perspective for me, but it’s one which I think carries a particular message of the costliness and difficulty of being a Christian.

    I agree that most people brought up in a church environment don’t have a “moment” of coming to faith – I had a moment when I realised I wanted to be baptised to acknowledge my faith. I think that it doesn’t matter which in order to be baptised, but I do like the fact nobody forced anything on me. I feel very sorry for those who wish to NOT be Christian and have been baptised as children, and I can understand their wish to “unregister” as being as strong as mine was to “register”, if you see what I mean.

    One thing I do like is that fact that there are now Anglican rites of thanksgiving for the birth of a child, much like our own Dedication service. Of course parents want to give thanks to God for the safe arrival of their child, but I like the fact the parents and congregation promise to raise the child in faith, rather than making promises on behalf of the child, which I must admit always seems a bit odd to me (sorry).

    As an aside, one thing I’ve NEVER understood: Why, if a person is baptised into the Anglican church as an adult, must they also be confirmed?

  2. I think there’s a real difficulty with the misuse (abuse seems quite strong!) of baptism. I think people who aren’t christians do have their children baptised as infants, and possibly confirmed. However, a lot of non-christians also get married in church and have a christian funeral. Is this also misuse/abuse? I don’t know! (That seems to be my conclusion at the moment, doesn’t it) I think that if a person is only in church three times in their life (two of them alive), then the church has two very precious opportunities to speak to them.

    The record of births point is a valid one, but I think the move to infant baptism also reflects a stage where the church was growing faster by reproduction rather than conversion. In our post-christian culture, we’re probably now back to the church growing as fast, if not faster, by conversion than reproduction, so we’ve come full circle!

    It must be really weird to have been baptised (and even confirmed) and then decide that you don’t want to be a christian any more. I don’t really know what you can do in that situation.

    Now confirmation is really weird – good old wikipedia, though. It seems that the important part of the ceremony/rite/ordinance/sacrament (depending on your point of view) is not the repetition of the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and god-parents. Repetition of baptismal vows can be made in any context. I have been to many infant baptisms where members of the congregation who were themselves baptised reaffirmed their vows. Rather, the important aspect is the laying on of hands and praying for the Holy Spirit. This has as its basis Acts 8:14-17 apparently. However, I can’t remember the passage but there is a counter-example where the gift of the Holy Spirit was received before people were baptised with water. I remember Steve Cracknell preaching on these passages earlier this year.

    Speaking from my own experience of confirmation, I do think that an outpouring of the Spirit happened on that day. However, looking at the whole idea of a bishop having to preside at a confirmation in order for the Holy Spirit to be received seems slightly ridiculous to me now. I don’t think the person praying for you has to be anyone other than someone who wants to lay their hands on you, whether that be a friend, priest/minister/pastor, a bishop, cardinal, pope, whoever! They are not what is important, it is the action of God into you that is. Also, the temptation must be to say, well the Holy Spirit came upon me then, there’s no need to ask for it again, which seems a dangerous thing to do.

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