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A Further Thought on Baptism

The key issue that pedobaptists have with advocates of believers baptism is the way in which believers baptism ties the recpetion of baptism to the ability of the recipient to make a confession of faith and a commitment to a life of discipleship.  It is alleged that this requirement being placed on the baptized mitigates the gratuity of God’s grace.  However, all acknowedge that in the New Testament there is an integral link between faith and baptism.  There can be no administration of baptism without faith if it is to be true to the pattern of the New Testament and the early church.  Advocates of pedobaptism have typically responded that it is required that the parents of the infant being baptized do so on the basis of their faith and commitment to raise the child as a Christian.

So, in truth there is not really a difference between advocates of believers baptism and infant baptism as to the role of faith in baptism.  Both believe it is indispensible that the act of baptism be united with the act of faith.  Pedobaptists simply argue that the parent’s faith is sufficient grounds for the baptism of their children (thus, the children of unbelievers are not the subject of baptisms, for there is no way for baptism to be united with faith on that account).

The point I simply want to draw out is that neither pedobaptism nor believers baptism is more voluntaristic than the other.  Both require that the human response of faith is necessary for a valid baptism.  It is not that one insists on human response whereas the other is purely gift.  Both require that the gift of baptism be recieved in faith.  The question that pedobaptists have to answer is why and how it makes theological sense for the faith of parents to merit the baptism of their children who do not have faith.


  1. Hill wrote:

    Halden, I think you are forcing the account of the relationship between faith and baptism offered by advocate’s of Believer’s Baptism on to infant baptism. I could be wrong here, but I don’t understand the sacrament of baptism as being theologically contingent in an absolute way upon some sort of internal criterion of the parents. I don’t think the issue is whether one or the other form of baptism is more voluntaristic. I think the issue is that the meaning of “faith” is in general placed within a more voluntaristic context in the broad Anabaptist tradition. For this reason, I don’t think one can say that the “faith” required of the baptized as understood by proponents of believer’s baptism can simply be translocated to the parents of the infant without doing serious violence to a proper understanding of each of the phenomena.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I guess you’d have to spell out the difference for me between the meaning of “faith” for the different perspectives in question. I suppose the issue may turn on that. I would dispute that the Anabaptist view of faith is voluntaristic in a pejorative sense simply because it includes a universal call to discipleship and total commitment. To my mind such an understanding of faith isn’t so much Anabaptist as just, well, biblical.

    However, if the faith of the parents is not an absolute issue, would you say that it is permissible in principle for the children of non-Christians to be baptized? That seems pretty crazy to me. What are the proper qualifications for the subjects of baptism? Are there any? How do we enumerate them?

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 4:44 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    I’m not intending to use voluntaristic in a pejorative fashion. I’m also far from an expert on Anabaptist teaching, because I’ve just never found it particularly compelling. That’s just a personal admission on my part and the main reason I haven’t had much to say about the recent posts (although I still read your blog regularly and enjoy it). In this case, I just think that claiming that infant baptism and believer’s baptism are equally voluntaristic is a profound oversimplification. I can’t offer much more than that.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Well, I am glad you’re still reading, Hill. Hopefully there’ll be some posts that draw you in more in days to come. However, I would be interested in hearing about the different understandings of faith that inform the different views of baptism in your view.

    I suppose one point that is important is that the role of faith on the part of parents is more clearly pronounced in Lutheran and Reformed articulations of pedobaptism than I’ve noticed in Roman accounts. So there may be an important point of difference there that shouldn’t be brushed over, nor did I intend to do so.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 5:25 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden,

    Thanks for your response to my previous comment, I am glad to hear that your experience with believer’s baptism has been, on the whole more positive than mine. I’m also impressed with the way your church has made education about baptism a big deal. The parallel with confirmation is helpful as well.

    I’m wondering if your notion of faith here is unnecessarily individualized (which is another way of saying voluntaristic). Rather than look at the faith of the parents as a singular criteria for whether baptism is appropriate, we should talk about the importance of being baptized into “the faith” as in, into the community of faith. This doesn’t change the stipulation that the parents of the infant baptized be believers (or at least regular attenders), because the presence and participation of the family is indeed quite important. This is in line with Kim’s comment in the post in July (linked from your earlier post) that in the Anglican church it is actually the God-parents’ faith which is most important.

    Thus far you’ve assumed the biblical support is for a believer’s baptism. While I won’t pretend that a strong case can be made for paedo-baptism from the New Testament, neither is baptism presented as merely an individual event.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 6:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Jon wrote:

    The way I have understood the Lutheran position is that Baptism actually confers faith. Faith itself being a gift from God as per Ephesians 2:8.

    Using this premise, that the Holy Spirit confers faith upon the baptized–whether a person of eight days old or a person of eighty years old–then the link between faith and baptism is held in a more cause-and-effect kind of way. Faith being something given to us as an act of God’s grace through His “Means of Grace”, i.e. the Sacraments.

    Or, at least, this is how I’ve come to understand it based on what Lutherans have said and my own reading of the Lutheran Confessions, specifically Luther’s Larger Catechism.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 6:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Jon, I believe (though I’m not sure), that what you’ve described was Luther’s early position which he later nuanced with more emphasis on the faith of the parents. On the Lutheran view you’ve just described I don’t know why we don’t just go around baptizing infants wherever and whenever possible, if it actually confers faith. I find that close of an identification to be a bit problematic.

    Eric, I certainly don’t intend to individualize faith. In fact I presuppose that faith is ecclesially mediated. However, I’d have trouble giving an account of faith that did not include individual appropriation and confession.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  8. Drew wrote:

    For Calvin it was not just the faith of the parents but the faith of the parents in terms of the covenant they inherited from God as part of their baptism. It is thus this faith determined (I would say determined here) by the covenant that is then passed along to the child. It is in this way that Calvin makes the parallel argument between circumcision as covenant sign and infant baptism as covenant sign. So covenant is passed on to child and the faith of the parent represents by standing in for the child, but faith can only come from God.

    For Luther, I am not sure from what Jon says as well, that baptism literally confers faith, but I could be wrong since that would be a more Catholic understanding of sacrament.

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 8:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden,

    Faith without individual appropriation and confession is hardly faith at all, to be sure. In the ecclesial mediation of the faith, however, I suppose that I’m willing to allow a bit of lag-time between being baptized into the church’s faith as an infant, and the time when that faith is personally appropriated and confessed. Frederick’s comment on the last post would reflect my own experience of this as well.

    The example that has been in my head throughout today’s conversation is a fellow from the church that I grew up in, we can call him Wade. Wade’s family attended our church weekly and his parents were very active in the life of the church. He was baptized as an infant, as were his older sister and I. Confirmation in our church involves four years of “confirmation classes” — more or less the high school age sunday school, and then a particular service “Confirmation Sunday” in which all the youths to be confirmed stand before the church and say a few words about what faith means to them. (I zealously overworked my little sermonette—I remember being quite proud). Several years later Wade, on the other hand, had the courage to stand before the church and tell us that he wasn’t quite sure what he believed. His confession of faith was more or less agnostic. I’ve always respected him for being willing to say that honestly in front of our church, and I’ve always been glad that it was the sort of church where someone could say such a thing and still find room. But I’m also not sure that he should have been (if he was…I’m not sure) “confirmed” in the fullest sense of the word. In all likelihood Wade has left the church, I’m not sure, but i do hope (and I’ll remember to pray tonight) that his baptism bears fruit again.

    I don’t have a whole load of interpretation, just thought I’d share the story…

    Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  10. vassilip wrote:

    dear Halden

    unfortunately the last months i have not enough time for reading blogs and only few times i had the chance to have a quick look at your postings’ titles. so, i’m not well aware of your thoughts on Baptism, but nevertheless i would like to add some thoughts on that:

    it is a frequent question in my religious-cultural environment (that of the Eastern Orthodox Church) the relation of faith-will and Baptism, and a lot of funny ideas are around. but, what i always note is that the people (even the more informed about theological aspects among them) forget that there are two distinct ‘mysteries’ in one (at least in my Church): the Holy Baptism AND the Chrismation. (in our —often forgotten or miscarried— patristic tradition) the latter is that that really requires our accordance (will-faith); the former is the gift given once and for all by Son’s Incarnation (Theophany) as a medicine for our fallen nature, independently of our will. that is, WE NEED BAPTISM IN ORDER TO WILL GOD’s WILL, TO BELIEVE.
    i think, here lies the truly political (=ecclesiologigal) meaning of Baptism: it is the background for our free-will/personal cooperation in our salvation: the acceptance of His will, through Chrism, and the participation in His life, through Eucharist.

    i strongly believe that we cannot separate politics and metaphysics without falling in some sort of political or conceptual violence (the best example here is the bourgeois law), and in that case (the absolute case) we cannot separate the anthropological aspects of Incarnation from Ecclesiology. the fact that we live in a messianic state of anticipation of the final glory in His Father’s bosom says volumes about our state (our ability to believe and how to do —we must not forget that the Spirit calls in our hearts ‘Abba Father’), the role of the mysteries and the political meaning to be a Christian.

    thanks for your patience and forgive me


    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 3:01 am | Permalink
  11. Jon wrote:

    Something else that seems to need discussion is the nature of faith and what constitutes faith.

    If we mean by faith an ability to comprehend and apprehend the Mystery of the Gospel then to what level do we need to comprehend it to apprehend it? How important is the theological minutia involved? Can we ever say any of us fully comprehends that Mystery?

    Taking myself as an example, I can clearly remember the moment I “asked Jesus into my heart” at the age of three. I remember the gist of the conversation my parents had with me about death, heaven, hell and Jesus dying on the cross. Is it likely that I understood what any of it meant? Did I really grasp Christ’s death and resurrection or merely parrot my parent’s formula of faith? When I recall the event I also recall thinking that I asked Jesus “into my heart” because I thought I would avoid death–when my parents told me I would still die some day I then proceeded to “shoo” Jesus “out of my heart”.

    Without going into too much detail of the other stages of my life, I can still recall at age eight being unbearably afraid that I was not saved because I had not “meant it” when I had said the “sinner’s prayer”. So I said it again, and again, never certain if I ever “meant it”. Fears of my own damnation continued well into adolescence and my teenage years. Has there ever been a point where I “have faith” in the sense of being able to comprehend the Gospel.

    Or is confession a malleable, flexible concept. Not event so much as process. Life-as-Confession, maturing in Christ, growing in the Spirit, at no point really able to say “I get it”, because being finite, sinful, and rather dumb as we often are we most usually don’t “get it”.

    So, it may simply be my own experience of struggle over these things, but I’ve come to see things something along these lines:

    Baptism is the normative–but not exclusive–means by which God takes hold of an individual and binds that person to Christ. In being united to the Son, we are united to the Father and the Spirit as well, and thus we are brought into the Mystery of the Triune Life. If we are united to Christ, we share in all that properly belongs to Christ, and so we are called heirs and children of God and have the Spirit of Adoptions. It is here that our journey of faith begins, regardless of age, position, status, level of intellect, whatever have you. Perhaps the baptized are not able to articulate their faith, then again my ability to articulate my faith has been a continued process and I’m still learning exactly what my faith even is.

    Baptism is the inaugural moment whereby an individual life is brought into the corporate and communal Life of Christ, specifically manifest as the communal life of the Church as Body of Christ.

    I imagine we don’t go around dunking and/or sprinkling all babies is for the same reason we don’t go around throwing consecrated water balloons at “passers-by heathens” walking down the street yelling the words of invocation as we do so–as much fun as that might be. (Halden, can you say bbq and baptism brawl? Say yes, don’t resist this, it’s a good idea).


    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  12. Ben wrote:

    The last two comments bring to mind several questions about the sacrament of confirmation: what exactly is it, when should it be done etc.

    In the Eastern churches it is given simultaniously with baptism and immediately afterwards the Eucharist is also given.

    In the Western (Roman) church confirmation is done around age 16 or so and Eucharist usually around the age of 7.

    Me, personally, I think the Eastern model is the correct one and the Western one theologically unsound, (though I understand where it comes from– the bishop being the “spoke” of the local church, confirmation was reserved to him, and in some places the bishop was not able to make it out to the parish for many years.) In modern times I hear too much of Confirmation being some kind of “rite of passage to adulthood.”

    What is the Anabaptist stance on the practice? I was under the impression that the Anabaptists practice confirmation not at all, is this correct?

    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 12:25 pm | Permalink
  13. Thom Stark wrote:

    I haven’t read the above comments yet. So I’m responding to Halden’s actual post. I’m not sure how representative this is of orthodox Lutheranism, but I once had a long grueling discussion with a conservative Lutheran Seminary student who insisted that God gave faith to the infant through the waters of Baptism, because “faith comes by hearing the Word,” and the water functions (in some way I can’t remember) as the Word in baptism. So, even on this (typical?) Lutheran account, faith is necessary for baptism. It’s just that “faith” loses all meaning. It becomes a miraculous gift from God to an infant. My response, as Wittgensteinian, was that you have to be able to speak English before you can have faith.

    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  14. Thom Stark wrote:

    Of course, that wouldn’t apply to Japanese infants.

    Friday, January 11, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  15. freder1ck wrote:

    Wow! This is a great discussion.

    I want to acknowledge ericdarylmeyer and say that yes, I know what he describes.

    What Jon said was beautiful and I wouldn’t quibble with any of it. “Baptism is the normative– but not exclusive– means by which God takes hold of an individual and binds that person to Christ.” Benedict XVI has proclaimed that “The great explosion of the Resurrection has seized us in Baptism.”

    In response to Halden’s question about the faith of an infant and also Thom Stark’s comment that “It’s just that ‘faith’ loses all meaning. It becomes a miraculous gift from God to an infant.” The faith required for baptism of an infant is the faith of the church. Of course the faith of the church is required for every baptism (in a concrete way, my current adult faith is not something purely individual, but bears the traces of my parents, teachers, friends). The individual’s faith before baptism is insufficient (see Jon and Eric Meyer above). In fact, the individual requesting baptism may be doing so for entirely the wrong reason – which can make folks get scrupulous. Traditionally, the tiniest seed (even if confused or misguided) suffices.

    If baptism is to be an objective encounter with grace and not merely a subjective or transactional contract that depends upon the personal merit of an individual (or even his parents!). The faith supplied by the church in baptism is that of the bride of Christ washed in His blood. And also, baptism confers anew on the recipient the fullness of faith, which as a theological virtue can only be generated by the Holy Spirit.


    PS. the greatest evidence of the power of baptism even in infants is the history of child saints and the living witness of Christians who have been grasped by “one faith, one Lord, one baptism” from infancy.

    Saturday, January 12, 2008 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  16. Thom Stark wrote:


    My question was specifically about Lutheran doctrine.

    I’m convinced that your account is unfortunately thoroughly derivative of a post-constantinian Christianity. I recently read a short book by Alan Kreider, “The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom,” and it helped me to straighten out in my own mind a lot of these issues. For instance, your argument that the church’s faith is necessary for baptism because the individual’s faith is insufficient, given the possibility that it is poorly motivated, is irrelevant in a pre-Constantinian context in which potential Christians are put through extensive testing and proving to ensure that they both understand the faith and possess it (i.e., live it) genuinely, prior to baptism. You say that, “Traditionally, the tiniest seed … suffices.” That certainly is a traditional approach to conversion. It’s a tradition that began within Christendom, after conversion to Christianity became politically advantageous.

    Your claim that “baptism confers anew on the recipient the fullness of faith, which as a theological virtue can only be generated by the Holy Spirit,” does no justice whatsoever to the use of pistis in the NT, in the broader Roman world (as “loyalty”), and in the early Christian centuries. Neither does it approach answering my question: How can one have faith if one doesn’t speak a language? Are we just reducing “faith” to a work of God?

    PS – There is evidence of child martyrs before there is evidence of infant baptism. “Evidence” is often just a rhetorical flourish for saying, “According to the way I see it…”

    Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  17. Hello all,

    Tangentially related—but funny (sort of). We were talking with my mother-in-law tonight and she told us the story of her first (of three …gasp!) baptisms:

    Apparently when she was born prematurely, some Catholic relative had a priest come and visit. This priest clandestinely took her out of the room and (coercively, I’m sure!) baptized her Catholic. The priest then revealed her new-found allegiance to the (somewhat surprised) family. So perhaps kidnapping-baptisms aren’t as rare as we’d think.

    I had to laugh at the story after some of the joking suggestions in that direction in the comments above… Thought I’d share.

    Oh, and for what it’s worth, she was subsequently baptized Episcopal as an infant and GARB Baptist at the “age of accountability” — so, she’s got her ecclesial bases covered.


    Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 8:18 pm | Permalink
  18. freder1ck wrote:


    Thanks for your response. I’ll leave you to your Lutheran doctrine, your etymologies, and your pre-constantinian speculations: I’m in over my head with regard to those. I’m just grateful that Christ seized me in baptism even as an infant.

    Sunday, January 13, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink
  19. Thom Stark wrote:


    I certainly didn’t mean to shut down the conversation. I apologize if I came across overly combative. I just felt that although you were doing a wonderful job describing what baptism means to you and your tradition, the issue, for me at least, is how we can know our traditions are faithful renarrations of the gospel. It seems to me the kind of thing you’re describing has continuity problems with the gospel, and I’m enthusiastically interested in being shown to be wrong if that’s not the case.

    By way of some small corrections: The Lutheran doctrine isn’t mine, and I’m not eager to be left with it. Word studies are not reducible to etymologies, and can be tremendously helpful in discussions like these, especially when the words in question belong to what we both consider to be the ultimate authoritative text. And there is very little that is “speculative” about the accounts I’ve read (primary and secondary sources) of the processes of conversion in the AnteNicene churches, so I’m not sure exactly what is meant by that charge.

    BTW: After having read all the comments, I realize that my original comment was entirely redundant. Figures.

    Monday, January 14, 2008 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  20. freder1ck wrote:


    Forgive me! I’m reigning in my own egospasms as much as anything (the narrative of Constantinianism is a non-starter for me: I have no great love of Constantine and see the freedom of the church from state as a consequence of the imperial history of the West: See H. Rahner’s Church and State).

    I’m humbled and a bit speechless (that’s hyperbole, ya know) at the quote Andy posted in the other thread. I’m going to be wrestling with it for a while.

    Monday, January 14, 2008 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

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