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Baptism, Voluntarism, and Politics

In my last few years of theological stumbling around, I’ve found myself becoming quite a bit more “ecumenical” than my younger evangelical self would once have been comfortable with.  And, of course any of you who know much about my interests, know that Hans Urs von Balthasar, and much of contemporary Catholic theology has become incredibly influential in my thinking. 

However, I still find myself to be, at the core, a free-church anabaptist.  At least of some sort.  Principally, I am an anabaptist in my beliefs about Christendom and specifically how the church must be an alternative culture in the midst of the nations in the world.  In this brief bit of theological rambling I want to look a bit at how our practice of baptism shapes and is shaped by how we undertstand the church in relationship to the world.

A comprehensive treatment of the logic of anabaptist baptism is found in Thomas Finger’s A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, which is a very thorough and balanced historical and theological study of anabaptism. Lee Camp’s account of baptism in Mere Discipleship also shows the logic of anabaptist baptism in a very accesible way.  It was primarily because of the conflation of baptism and citizenship under Christendom that the anabaptists insisted on viewing baptism as an initiatory act, entered into in faith whereby one’s allegiance is given to God and his people (the church) over against other social formations. The practice of infant baptism essentially inscribed all persons at birth into the church by virtue of the fact that they were part of a nation with which the church was conflated. That is why the anabaptists felt compelled to reject it — because of its enmeshment with the Constantinian settlement.

Now, are there ways of practicing infant baptism that are not Constantinian? I certainly think so. Nor do I dismiss the legitimacy of infant baptism out of hand (leaving aside for a moment the discussion of biblical warrant).  However, I think the connection between baptism and discipleship is eroded when infant baptism becomes the standard practice.

Today, proponents of infant baptism strongly draw a correlation between baptism and circumcision in ancient Israel.  And that connection is, of course undeniable, at least on one level.  Namely, they are both signs of being included in the covenant community.  But the crucial question is how one comes to be included in the church versus how a child came to be included in biblical Israel. For you this answer should be obvious. We enter into the church through God’s act of justification by grace through faith. If entry into the church is based on justification by faith, it seems at best theological awkward to confer baptism on infants where personal faith and discipleship cannot become a factor in their inclusion in the church (except through their parents as Luther argued, though I don’t think this holds much water).

It seems to me that infant baptism can undercut the distinctiveness of the church as an alternative social reality because it renders church membership a function of a different social reality, either through the family or through the state. If one’s identity as a member of a “Christian nation” or a “Christian family” is enough to place one inside the church, it seems to me that the distinctive nature of the church’s social reality as a community created de novo by the work of the Spirit which transcends nation and family ends up getting eclipsed.

Finally, while infant baptism does have a long history in the tradition, the tradition is not unambiguous about the practice of baptism. There were standard practices of delaying baptism until death because of different medieval theologies of the impossibility of postbaptismal sin. None of this serves to refute or support infant baptism, but I do think we need to acknowledge the variety in the tradition on this topic.

And if cultural realities are factors in how we are to rightly embody our sacramental practices, the real question before us is what mode of baptism captures the essence of what is being “said” (vera visibli) in baptism? To my mind anabaptist baptism and the clear imagery contained therein of passing from one life and one social reality to another most rightly “says” the truth about what baptism is.  In administering baptism to believers who committ their lives to following Christ we say that there is indeed a break between our “former way of life” and our new life in Christ.  Our citizenship is transferred from Babylon to Jerusalem.  And none can be born in Jerusalem, we must be reborn as children of the Jerusalem from above.  Only then is she our mother.

Believer’s baptism is not about some sort of voluntarism, in which we get baptized because we made a choice to join a voluntary association of individuals.  It is about recognizing that Christ’s call to discipleship requires full allegiance and committment from the one who emerges from the waters.  Believer’s baptism is, in my view the most inherently and rightly polictical mode of practicing this sacrament.  It presents what is at the center of the Christian faith, that in Christ we die and rise again with him into the realm of his Lordship, his Kingdom.  The life we rise to with him is precisely the life of following him, of continuing to traverse the road from Jerusalem to Golgatha.  Baptism is indeed our induction  into the community of faith, but most centrally it is the stripping off of one mode of life – life in the flesh – and the putting on of a new life – life in the Spirit.  These considerations, in my view lend credibility the the tradition of believer’s or disciples baptism.  The politics of baptism must never be forgotten.  In baptism we die to the powers of Babylon and are reborn into the cessation movement of the Lamb. 


  1. Fred wrote:

    there’s been a parallel debate within Catholicism about the intentionality of the sacraments, often shifting confirmation to the teenage years to ensure an adult commitment from the candidate. Instead, there’s increased parental pressure that often battles teen cynicism and apathy. I prefer the Eastern Christian order of sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Communion for infants – emphasizing the asymmetrical movement of grace. The challenge then would be for the bishop to offer an education in living the reality of the sacraments, verifying the reality of the faith, discipleship, etc.

    A question for you, Halden. When your community celebrates a baptism, is everyone given an opportunity to renew their baptismal commitment?

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 8:46 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Well, not as such, though we offer times for people to renew their baptism committments at different points throughout the year. Sometimes we share memories of our baptisms during Pentecost or Easter and then proceed to reaffirm our commitment together.

    The thing is, we have baptisms pretty rarely because it is such an intentional process leading to it. I’ve only been to one in the last two years.

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 9:26 am | Permalink
  3. Bobby G. wrote:


    good post. I agree by and large with what you have communicated about “believers baptism”. You mention the socio/politico problems with padeo-baptism, and I agree, there of course is also the theological problems relative to continuity discontinuity concerns.

    thanks for sharing your thoughts here . . . I was pretty sure you were influenced pretty heavily and intentionally by the ana-baptist tradition. I’ll have to do more reading on that movement, thus far I’ve only read a few chapters (Ozment) on them as part of the radical reformation.

    In Christ

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  4. WTM wrote:


    Thanks for these reflections! You make a good case, and your final paragraph contrasting believer’s baptism with voluntarism is quite good.

    That said, I’m sorry that I must entirely disagree with your opinions concerning baptism and infant baptism in particular. In my opinion, infant baptism in no way undermines discipleship but actually provides quite an impetus for it.

    Of course, it would take quite a bit of time to explain this, and I hope to do my dissertation on the topic of infant baptism, so I won’t get into it too much here. :-)

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Well, I hope you post a pdf. of your disseration up whenever it may be completed! I’m sure it’ll be some interesting stuff.

    Baptism will also figure prominently into my Masters thesis, whenever that gets finished, so I’m sure we’ll have more to talk about on this at some point. :o)

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  6. WTM wrote:

    I’ll look forward to it!

    Perhaps you’ll make it out to Princeton for a Barth conference sometime in the next few years, and we can have a chat about these things.

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  7. Lewis wrote:

    Halden, Thanks for your thoughts on believer’s baptism. I am part of a tradition that practices such. I wonder if your view of baptism as changing allegiances is overstated in the case of a child who is raised in a disciple home. If they are raised being trained (discipled) in the way of the gospel could not their baptism be more like Christ’s…a confirming of their commitment to the way of the Father (fulfilling all righteousness)?

    I think that there is both continuity and confirmation for a child raised in faith, unless they walk away and return at a later time. I also like the pun about Luther’s viewpoint not holding much water!

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:


    Often I think that is the case. In my tradition we have been very reticient to baptize children that have grown up in the church until at least well into their teenage years, precisely so that the radical commitment associated with discipleship is central to the act of baptism.

    But, often, yes it is the case that believers baptism doesn’t rightly show the dynamic of changing one allegiance, and indeed one life for anthother. There is no perfect sacramental practice.

    Thursday, June 7, 2007 at 4:08 pm | Permalink
  9. kim fabricius wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    Thanks for this post, with which I am in basic agreement.

    Of course the faith dimension of baptism is crucial on any reading of the sacrament, though, with respect to believers’ baptism, you well and rightly avoid any association with voluntarism. And Lesslie Newbigin is surely correct that in our contemporary missionary context, believers’ baptism should surely be the norm.

    With respect to the role of faith in infant baptism, one could appeal, as David Congdon does in his most recent post (with reference to Thomas Torrance’s understanding of baptism, contra the late Karl Barth), to the mediatorial role of Christ. It is certainly stretching it to speak of an infant’s faith, to which Luther appealed after abandoning the centrality of the parents’ or sponsors’ faith (in traditional Anglicanism, by the way, it is the faith of the sponsors – i.e. the “godparents” – not the parents, which is essential). The faith of the church itself proivides a better basis for the practice of infant baptism. But, ultimately, it is indeed the vicarious faith of Christ himself, I believe, which is crucial to a credible theological rationale for paedobaptism. And it is here, if they are right, that some “new perspectives” on Paul scholars (especially Richard Hays) provide support with their reading of pistis Christou as a subjective genitive.

    However all this is the merest window dressing if it is not set firmly (a) in the ecclesial context of the whole church at Sunday worship (no family-only baptisms in a side chapel on a Saturday afternoon), including rubrics both for the re-affirmation of church members’ baptisms and for their responsibility for nurturing the child in Christian faith and practice; and (b) in the political context of the church as a confessional counter-culture.

    I have recently posted an infant baptismal sermon at Connexions which was implicitly preached on this theological basis.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Thanks, Kim. What kind of minister are you again? (i.e. what tradition)

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  11. Halden,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts so far.

    I have some thoughts on the infant baptism issue having grown up in a pretty cultish church that practiced an extreme form of believer’s baptism. I say that so you’ll know where I’m coming from.

    I think whatever our practice is, we need to recognize that children are in fact a part of the covenant community. There is a danger in trying to convert children by roughly the same process that we convert adults; children can in fact have a sincere faith from a very young age that comes to fruition in an adult choice to commit to the baptized life.

    I had a lot of emotional and spiritual scars leftover from my teenage years of wondering whether I was “ready” for baptism, then wondering if I was really a Christian, and then getting “re-baptized” because I thought I wasn’t.

    Often enough, I see that we children who grew up in church had to construct these dramatic narratives that matched up with the conversion stories of those who had gone many years into adulthood without Christ. I am convinced that is a harmful and dangerous thing for a teenager. Most of the time what we came up with simply wasn’t true.

    Healing came when I was able to look back at my life and see God having taken care of me, and having acknowledged my faith, from my childhood. I think because I felt really strongly that I had to understand the commitment of baptism, I missed the fact that none of us really understands exactly what we’re getting into. God and the Church help us to learn and live it anyway.

    So from what I’ve seen, infant baptism is a great way (though not the only way) for a church to recognize that children are in a meaningful way a part of the community, though their participation cannot be full or “adult” until they make the conscious choice to commit to that.

    On the other hand, the tradition I’m in doesn’t practice infant baptism, but any church I will raise my kids in will have to intentionally acknowledge children as meaningfully a part of the community, and welcome in people who were baptized as infants without insisting they get baptized again.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    I think whatever our practice is, we need to recognize that children are in fact a part of the covenant community. There is a danger in trying to convert children by roughly the same process that we convert adults; children can in fact have a sincere faith from a very young age that comes to fruition in an adult choice to commit to the baptized life.

    I absolutely agree with that statement.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  13. kim fabricius wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    Thanks for printing my comment; I didn’t realise until after I’d posted it that your original post is almost a month old!

    To answer your question, I’m a minister in the United Reformed Church in the UK, which is a union of Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Churches of Christ traditions (cf. the UCC in the US). The former two (of course) practiced paedobaptism, the latter did not. The URC therefore has what has been called a “two-track” policy. Both forms of baptism must be made available in the life of every church, but ministers who do not accept the theological case for paedobaptism do not have to preside at the rite (a colleague has to be called in).

    I myself do baptise infants, but theologically I have been hanging on by a thread throughout all of my almost 25-year ministry (I have what the late British historian A.J.P. Taylor would have called “a strong view weakly held”!), mainly out of respect for the (magisterial) Reformed tradition and ecumenical considerations (cf. George Hunsinger) – not to mention my monomania about grace, grace grace!

    By the way, there is a discussion (as you probably know!) on the later Barth’s views on water/Spirit baptism involving all the contemporary heavyweights (e.g. Moltmann, Jüngel, Webster, as well as Hunsinger) in Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions for North American Theology (2004) (especially pp. 186ff.).

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    I believe I’d do the same thing in your case, Kim. Is the URC union of denominations similar to the CSI, that Newbgin was involved in forming?

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  15. kim fabricius wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    Lesslie Newbigin was, of course, a Presbyterian who, after returning from India, was a minister in the URC (our only bishop!). He taught me briefly at Oxford (in’81 or ’82) – The Open Secret was an important text for me – and I became a devoted fan after The Other Side of 1984 and Foolish to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture (1986). The latter had just been published when I ran into Newbigin at an Assembly just after I’d written a piece in our national magazine on the centenary of Barth’s birthday in 1986. He signed my copy of his book and thanked me for my article. Newbign had chaired a commission of which Barth was a member preparing for the WCC Assembly in Evanston (and Barth spoke warmly about the “young Bishop”, “his spiritual discpline and his bearing and conduct”). Newbigin told me that though Barth threw the odd tantrum, he confirmed a point I had made in my article – that Barth had a great sense of humour.

    But to your question: the CSI includes not only Methodists but also Anglicans ,so it is an episcopal church, and so much broader than the URC All such similar schemes in the UK, including Wales, have failed, and always at the last and Anglican hurdle, the Anglo-Catholics rejecting even an episcopal united church containing Presbies and Wesleyans. The failures were, of course, a great disappointment to Newbigin.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

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