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.