Saturday, April 19, 2008

Infant Baptism for (Wesleyan-Holiness) Dummies: Extending the Conversation

[1] The context for this post is Rev. Dr. Todd Stepp's fourth entry in a series of posts on infant baptism. If you really want to make sense of my thoughts here, please read his post and the comment thread, and heck, while you're at it read the first three posts, too. (part I, part II, part III). I was trying to formulate a response, which began to consist mostly of my working through a series of questions for my own edification, and as my entry grew and grew, I realized it would be in very bad form, blogospherically-speaking, for me to hi-jack his thread with my musings and pontifications. So, they shall henceforth constitute a new post here (where I can get away with it). These are really just some jumbled thoughts after reading his post - all of his posts, really - and reading some of the discussion already underway. So - seriously - if you don't take the time to get the context, this might not mean much. Or it still might - who knows? But as many of you know, I do always love a good back-and-forth about infant baptism, so here we go!

[2] First, let's all agree to stop dividing up grace. It's all grace. GRACE GRACE GRACE. I have honestly never seen the value in trying to make sense of the sheer madness and prodigality of God's grace by diagramming it into regenerating, justifying, sanctifying, etc...and I know that makes me a bad Nazarene, but I don't care. (Your thoughts? When we young whipper-snappers have our chance to rewrite the Manual, do you think we'll change all that stuff - if indeed it survives even that long?)

[3] Also, I think something needs to be said about original sin in any discussion of baptism, especially of the infant variety. If we follow many of the church fathers, perhaps St. Augustine most of all, we regard every child born as inheriting the guilt of Adam's Fall (the original sin). In this view, it is legitimate to say that in baptism, a child is "born again" or cleansed of any guilt of or responsibility for original sin. We all still, as children of Adam, suffer under the effects of the Fall - we get tired, hungry, ill, we will die one day - but we do not bear the "spiritual" weight of Adam's sin (if I can put it like that). So, a distinction must be drawn, then, between original sin (Adam's sin) and the carnal nature (or depravity or however you want to term it). That proneness to wander, that tendency toward self-sovereignty, is still with us, and it must be dealt with - it's ultimately either going to be God or Me on the throne. By the grace of God and the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit, I can be free from this love of self, and be filled with love for God and for my fellow creatures - this is what we call sanctification.

[4] Now, here's where things get murky for me...if we reject the notion that every generation since Adam has been held guilty - by God! - of Adam's original sin (because let's face it, that's not a God that any of us wants to believe in or worship - one who would damn us to hell just for being born an offspring of Adam!), then do we still have grounds for the idea that infants are "born again" in baptism? Is there not, as has been discussed, a grace already extended to us all, independent of any application of water? And if this new birth by water isn't "necessary" in the grand equation of our redemption to alleviate the guilt of original sin, well, why bother in the first instance? "Because Jesus said so," I know, I know - but that's why some evangelical denominations call baptism and the Lord's Supper not 'sacraments' but 'ordinances' - not because they "mean" anything or impart any grace in the life of the believer, but just because Jesus commanded us to "do this..." And I'm really not satisfied with that!

[5] So where does that leave us? I'm with Flannery O'Connor when it comes to the sacraments in general: "If it's just a symbol, then to hell with it." Either baptism (or indeed the Eucharist) is an essential part of God's redemptive process, or it isn't. If it isn't, well then, we might as well dispense with it altogether, save perhaps some nostalgia for a more primitive form of Christianity. But if it IS - wow...if the sacrament(s) truly are means whereby God imparts grace to a human life...well, shouldn't we want that grace, whatever it's "function," in whatever modality we might receive it, to be all over not only ourselves but even the youngest born into the Body of Christ?

[6] It seems to me that much of our problem stems from placing the emphasis on the individual's experience of baptism - what am I doing when I present myself for baptism? (i.e. public declaration of an inward transformation already effected, or whatever) - rather than on what God is doing in baptism (i.e. conveying His lavish grace on us). This preoccupation with the individual is why many in our denomination can't accept infant baptism: "you're taking away that child's choice about whether or not they want to be baptised! (me: you're darn right I am!)...they won't even remember it! (me: they will if we tell them about it) doesn't mean anything, because they can't understand it (me: God help us all if a condition of grace is our ability to comprehend it.)..." But in all these things, the emphasis is on the individual, not on God.

[7] What does God want? What is His dream for humanity? To save us; to fill us with His Spirit; to pour His love all over us; to have intimate and eternal communion with us. How does He accomplish this? Well, lots of ways, but there is certainly a biblical as well as a historical and theological basis for the belief that one sure-fire and time-honored way He accomplishes this is through water baptism (it was in Jesus' own baptism by John in the Jordan, after all, that God's Spirit in-dwelt him and kick-started his earthly ministry). So, do you think we should perhaps follow Jesus' own example and seek the outpouring of God's grace - even the outpouring of God's Spirit! - in water baptism? Absolutely. (We just might get more than we bargained for!)

[8] So maybe this distinction between the new birth "by water" and the new birth "by the Spirit" might be useful (I'm still wrestling through this one, so forgive me here...). Can an infant be reborn by the Spirit, or does there have to be some kind of personal "receptivity" for the Spirit's outpouring to be efficacious? I'm not sure. On one level, who among us is more "receptive" than an infant - they can't do ANYTHING for themselves. All they ARE is receptive, to whatever those who care for them wish to do! (There might be something to might also have a connection to Jesus' statement about how if you want to enter the Kingdom, you must do so like a child...) Now, on the other hand, if an infant CAN'T be reborn of the Spirit (so, of water: yes...but not of the Spirit), well then why did an Anglican priest say at my son's baptism 10 months ago, as he made the sign of the cross in oil on my son's forehead, "Andrew, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever"?? (Honestly, I don't know how you could get ANYTHING other than baptismal regeneration out of that!) Does my son still need to come to understand and accept for himself the grace that has been imparted to his life in baptism, and take for himself the vows that parents and godparents took on his behalf in his baptism? Absolutely! (and here insert plug for strong catechesis and the importance of some kind of public ritual for confirmation or the reaffirmation of baptismal vows - maybe then we can, for the love of God, stop re-baptizing people!) Do these words spoken in this sacramental rite mean that my son is powerless to reject the grace of God? Is this some kind of thinly veiled eternal security? Absolutely not. He retains his free will to put self back on the throne, just as we all do. But can I be confident and safely say that, by virtue of Andrew's baptism, God is already working in his young life in a special way - a way unique to those who have been subjected to infant baptism? Without a doubt. Just try and convince me otherwise.

[9] Maybe we could conceive of it like this (and I make no claim for whether this is helpful or not): when an infant is baptised, he is reborn of water...this is nothing less than salvation: justification, regeneration, and adoption all rolled into one (remember, "sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever"!). When that child matures to an age when he can on some level respond to the love of God - when he "accepts Jesus" - thus begins the process of sanctification, which might be described as "entire sanctification" when that individual experiences the new birth in (or baptism of, or filling with) the Spirit. Then, growth in grace toward a mature character, etc, etc.

[10] Now, when a child is not baptised in infancy, but grows to a point of maturity later in life (any time after that ambiguous "age of accountability" we're so fond of talking about), it is possible that this individual may have an encounter with Jesus and receive "salvation" (justification, regeneration and adoption), prior to being baptised. This moment of salvation, as when the baptised infant "accepts Jesus," also begins for this individual the process of sanctification , which may or may not lead to what the individual would describe as a "crisis moment" but WILL, we expect, reach a moment of receiving the new birth of the Spirit, and that sanctification process will reach an entirety or completeness never before known to that individual. [This paragraph has been edited for clarity.]

[11] It is possible that this, too, might occur prior to water baptism. But still the injunction stands that one must be born of water and the Spirit - and so we pray that this individual is part of a Christian Body that is faithful to administer water baptism to all who profess faith in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. Because let's face it - you can't argue with scripture, and scripture says "water and the Spirit" - so, in the end, if they remain unbaptised, the only way this "saved and sanctified" person is going to make it into the Kingdom is (and now we've come full-circle) by the grace of God alone.

[11] So is water baptism necessary to salvation? Well, no. But yes. I mean, yes it is necessary - absolutely necessary, for every single person. But then again, no: I really believe God will not condemn or turn away one who knows Jesus as savior and has been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, but who was unfortunate enough to have been part of a Christian Body who has not faithfully heeded Jesus' commission to "go and make disciples...baptising them"!!! Here I fault the church (not the big-C Church, the Church catholic, but the little-c church, the church in it's often messed-up, often broken locality - although Hauerwas and others might be quick to remind me that the only Church there is is the church in it's messed-up, broken locality), and we should give thanks for a gracious God, who loves and accepts us even when the Church blows it for us. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

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