Monday, April 21, 2008

Baptism...and Regeneration? Or, Baptismal Regeneration?

On the whole, therefore, it is not only lawful and innocent, but meet, right, and our bounden duty, in conformity to the uninterrupted practice of the whole Church of Christ from the earliest ages, to consecrate our children to God by baptism, as the Jewish Church were commanded to do by circumcision.
-- John Wesley, Treatise on Baptism, Nov 11, 1756
It would be foolish of us, I think, to ignore Wesley's entreaty here. That baptism with water is an instituted sacrament of the Church, commanded and instituted by Christ himself in the Scriptures, and that the baptism of infants is certainly not denounced in the Scriptures (even allowing for Wesley's interpretation as above that it is commanded)...this all should be undeniable to us. And that we ignore this in the Church of the Nazarene, continually denying it by the deferral, or even at times complete omission of the Baptism of those infants who are dedicated, seems to at least indicate that we have fallen from the path of our specific tradition. Whether the particular, and I would say increasing, practice of dedication without Baptism (even later in one's life) is a fall from the larger catholic (small "c") tradition is, I think, simply irrefutable.

I do have some issues of course with some of Wesley's historical conclusions (as I expressed in comments on a couple of Rev. Todd Stepp's posts) -- particularly with his generalizing view on the "universal" nature of the practice of infant baptism in the early church. But, I think that we can continue to wrestle with Wesley on these issues without compromising agreement with his above sentiment. In other words, I think we can baptize our babies in faith -- on their behalf! -- that the Holy Spirit is truly falling upon this little one because though we continually find ourselves to be faithless, God is nonetheless and steadfastly faithful.

I think you are right, Brannon, to really focus in the issue on "regeneration" -- on just what kind of "new birth" happens in Baptism (and how that's related to the regeneration in the Spirit on which Wesley hangs so much). This seems to me to be the crux of the matter (and particularly how this also relates to original sin for Wesley -- recall that Wesley's longest, "systematic," theological treatise was on Original Sin). I'm not so certain that the "confusion" Pastor Steven has referenced isn't at least somewhat attributable to Wesley on exactly this point, though. I know I've harped in the past on here that we shouldn't just accept Wesley prima facie, and so I want to be very careful that I not either, on the one hand, blindly defer to Wesley's authority simply because he's...well, our spiritual forefather, or on the other hand, let that push me too far into a revisionist mode (and I'm certainly not accusing anyone else of this -- this is all for myself).

No doubt Wesley would want to distance himself from the dichotomy presented in the title to this post. He would want to say that the entire early Christian witness described baptism as a "regeneration," a "new birth"; so, Baptism and regeneration aren't to be strictly divided (and he certainly rejects this in the case of infants -- who were the prime recipients of Baptism in the Church of England in Wesley's day). Nevertheless, he would also reject that baptismal regeneration is "guaranteed" in the "outward" washing of Baptism. In the case of adult baptisms, Wesley will even go so far as to say, "But whatever be the case with infants, it is sure all of riper years who are baptized are not at the same time born again" ("The New Birth," my emphasis). But, as I read this, this seems to present an ambiguity in Wesley's thoughts on Baptism and regeneration -- perhaps even an aporia. I'm pretty convinced that the Pietist influence on Wesley -- particularly that of Philip Jacob Spener -- and specifically the need for a distinct "conversion experience" separate from Baptism -- is the real culprit of this ambiguity. Clearly, Wesley was wrestling with both (a) those who exhibited all sorts of sinfulness and wickedness after having been baptized; and (b) those who claimed there was no new birth but in Baptism (and this was a specific problem for Wesley precisely because of (a)).

As his thoughts on sanctification begin to develop -- which stressed more and more that sanctification was a process of regeneration, leading one from being but a "babe" in Christ to a "mature" adult (based on 1 John) -- he seems to have distanced himself more and more from the more "ecclesiastical" CoE definition of regeneration as the new birth by the Spirit, which takes place in Baptism (Gayle Carlton Felton doesn't buy this argument, but I am equally unconvinced by her counter-arguments that Wesley is completely consistent on these points). I would say this is a prime reason for his rejection of the Augustinian understanding of the efficacy of the sacrament as ex opere operato. I have already stressed my objections to Wesley's rejection of Augustine on this point over at Todd's site (I think in the comments to post number IV).

Now, I certainly understand why Wesley comes to such a conclusion: again, it is decidedly a result of backsliders who, though baptized, continued along paths of awful sinfulness and wickedness. In his sermon, "The Marks of the New Birth," Wesley makes this clear:
Say not then in your heart, 'I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.' Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners?...For ye are now dead in trespasses and sins. To say, then, that ye cannot be born again, that there is no new birth but in baptism, is to seal you all under damnation, to consign you to hell, without help, without hope.
Recall that Spener also believed that regeneration did in fact take place in Baptism, but that because of backsliding, a "second regeneration" (later to be called by nearly all Pietists, "conversion") was necessary (could this not also be a contributor to 19th century American Holiness interpretations of Wesley on the "Baptism in the Holy Spirit" as the so-called "second work of grace"?).

I really tend to think that Wesley holds to something very close to Spener here. But, I really must ask: Is it, first of all, Scripturally warranted to talk about two "new births" -- first in Baptism, and then some "second" experience (Bernard Holland will actually use the language of "a new atonement"!)? But, secondly, why even continue to baptize if there is another new birth required?

Now, Wesley has come up with some (fairly) good answers to these questions -- especially insofar as his account of Christian perfection, or sanctification, is a dynamic process (rather than a sort of "once-for-all" fix or something). First of all, as Brannon has already hinted, Wesley says that Baptism effects "the washing away of the guilt of original sin, by the application of the merits of Christ's death" (Treatise on Baptism, II.1). A very Augustinian answer. This applies equally to infants, Wesley says (holding to an Augustinian view of the "propagation" of original sin, over against the "imitation" view held by Pelagius and the Pelagians). But, Wesley's developing views on sanctification were already demonstrating that the washing away of the guilt of original sin is not at the same time the washing away or cancellation of "actual" sins. So, Wesley will say that infants still need the washing away of the guilt of original sin -- since they find themselves condemned under the Fall of Adam -- but because they not only can but most often will fall into all kinds of actual sins (and perhaps "long continued wickedness"), a regeneration -- akin to Pietist and Moravian "conversion" -- is necessary for their spiritual development once they become adults.

So, technically, Wesley would say, there are not two new births, but merely one, which takes place on what Melvin Dieter calls a "continuum" or process or development of sanctification (I would find this to be pretty tricky, though). And we continue to baptize because Baptism washes away the guilt of original sin (but also as a sign of the covenant/promise that God has made with us in his Son Jesus Christ, and the by the power of the Spirit). While I also have pretty big reservations along with Brannon as to the guilt incurred simply from being born (the implication of Augustine's propagation theory of original sin -- though I think it's still better than Pealgius' view to the contrary!) -- Wesley does have Scripture on his side here. And this is really strange to me. Wesley talks about Baptism as "regeneration" almost all across the board, but rarely does he use the actual pervasive New Testament language: the "remission of sins" (there is of course nothing about "original sin," and certainly nothing about the "guilt" incurred because of such original sin). So, to repeat Brannon's question in a somewhat different way: If Baptism is for the remission of sins, first of all, how can one properly describe infants as sinful and in need of the removal of such? (we have seen Wesley's answer -- even if an unsatisfying one); but, also, if one must "repent and believe," or "confess" one's sins in order to receive such remission, then how could infants be baptized, having neither the capacity for repentance or belief? Wesley's answer is simply that this didn't stop Jews from circumcising their infants! But, if the Baptism of adults hardly ever results, according to Wesley, in "new birth" (even though it does in infants -- but, note: it is almost always completely obliterated by the "age" of "actual sin" -- usually nine or ten), then what exactly is it for in infants? In other words, why would the baptismal covenant be so disparate between infants and adults? Is it not the same covenant?

I think I find myself here finally departing -- or at least taking one big step away from -- Wesley. The early Christian answer to that last question, How could infants be baptized without the faith necessary for repentance? is really quite simple -- and it is actually behind Wesley's own answer (though unwittingly, I think): the faith of the (god)parents/sponsors and the community literally stands in for, makes up for the lack of faith on the part of infants. This seems to be the way to answer how infants could be circumcised without repentance as well. But, this is a point I think that really has to be taken seriously. There is something about Baptism itself, the early Christians believed, that offers the grace of salvation to the one being baptized, that one was truly freed from the sinful situation one found oneself in (within the context of a "believing community" -- central to the early Christian rite was the learning and reciting of the Creed). The problem of backsliding doesn't take away from that gift, though. St. Paul faced a similar situation as Wesley when writing to the Romans (in rhetorical mode of course, as usual)...after describing in chapter 5 how grace has abounded all the more than sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he then asks, "What then shall we say? Shall we remain in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? For do you not know that all who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been buried with him in his death?" (sorry if I botched that -- it's from memory). Because Baptism in fact does engraft us into the very death of Christ so that we might "walk in the newness of life" of his resurrection, we should then live like it.

But, isn't this really just what Wesley wants to say about "regeneration," "new birth" (in the sense of a conversion experience)? If you were baptized, Wesley asks in "The New Birth," then why do you now live like this? But, see, Wesley thinks that because such "backsliding" has taken place, the baptismal regeneration has been washed away. Bernard Holland puts it in striking terms: "the baptismal covenant is so irretrievably broken by actual sin that it requires not renewal but complete remaking: and this remaking he looked for in adult regeneration." St. Paul says nothing of the sort, though. Paul tells us: because Baptism has initiated you into a new life (which is the rhythm of the Eucharist -- something Wesley omits from discussion of Baptism!), you should stop acting as though you have not been baptized. But, the grace granted by the Holy Spirit is not "irretrievably broken" because one falls back into sin. Paul is reminding us that Baptism initiates us into something, that we are completely dispossessed of our "old humanity [anthropos]" and given over to the new life of the body of Christ in the weekly rhythms of sending and gathering together at the table of the Lord's Supper. Infants are invited into this new life because the "unity" that takes place at the table is cosmic in nature, it appropriates the redemption of the entire creation, anticipating the great messianic feast to come. Thus, the faith of the church makes up for this little one, because remembering their own baptism in the consecration of the infant is a remembering of the extent and scope of God's grace, mercy, and hope and expectation. This is far too long. I gotta shut up now.

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