One of the critiques often leveled at the Anabaptist churches is their alleged voluntarism. The practice of believers baptism and the rejection of infant baptism has often been critiqued on the basis of how it seemingly ties together the human activity of personal commitment to discipleship with God’s divine act of saving grace. In other words, it is alleged that refusing baptism to those who are unable to make a commitment to discipleship denies the gratuitousness of the grace of God and rather, in a Pelagian fashion makes the work of grace dependent upon our act of repentance.
To make a full argument against this characterization would be far more extensive than is possible here. However, I want to underscore two fundamental points that are often neglected by critics of Anabaptist baptism. First, the fundamental political reason why the Anabaptists rejected infant baptism was due to the way in which baptism in the context of medieval Christendom was basically coterminous with allegiance to the sovereign. It not longer signified a break from the world, an induction into a radically new form of life in the Spirit, but rather sanctified and fused the world of domination and violence with the church in a synthesis that was contrary to the gospel. As such, believers baptism, in addition to having stronger biblical support seemed the only way for the act of baptism to be reformed in a way that would enable it to “say” what baptism is supposed to proclaim.
Second, fundamental point that must be understood about the relationship between believers baptism and grace is rooted in the commitment of the Anabaptists to nonviolence. Fundamental to the Free Church ethos is firm devotion to the teachings of Christ on non-coerciveness and peacemaking. The reason that baptism is refused to those who are unable to make a profession of faith is because membership in the community of the cruciform Lord cannot be coerced. No one can be born into membership in the community of the Spirit, they must be reborn into it. To apply baptism to an infant does not yield an image the sovereignty of grace, but rather of grace as coercion. The reason that baptism is only offered to those capable of making a confession of faith is because of the conviction that the radical grace of God is ultimately nonviolent and non-coercive. God’s grace does not foist itself on us but rather woos us, drawing us to the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. The insistence on believers baptism, far from denying the gratuity of grace is rather a testimony to the non-coercive nature of the event of grace as one of gift and response. For adherents of believers baptism the gift of baptism can never be imposed, it can only be recieved. Properly understood, believers baptism is not voluntaristic in the least, but rather is a testament to the fact that grace of the triune God is not coercion, but liberation, new life, indeed the glorious creation of a new world.
For those who would critique the practice of believers baptism, I think these two points should be taken with much greater seriousness, and I have seen very little substantial engagement along these lines. The tradition of the Free Churches with their insistence on the baptism of believers constitutes an important challenge to the practice infant baptism which should at least be taken with seriousness by exponents of the mainline tradition.
Also, for those wanting to see some of my further thoughts on this issue, as well as some qualifications about infant baptism, see my earlier post on Baptism, Voluntarism, and Politics.