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More on the Voluntariness of the Church

According the free church tradition, only those who believe in Christ as Lord should be baptized into the church as members of his body. As such, for this tradition membership in the body of Christ is voluntary. It is not imposed, but rather is given to those who come to baptism out of a desire to follow Christ.

The majority tradition of the Christian faith labels this an unacceptable form of modern voluntarism, claiming that it places the priority on the self-determining autonomy of the human subject rather on the free grace of God. Now, clearly a whole discussion could be had about the nature of grace and how it draws human beings toward the church. Let us leave that aside for the moment.

If we cut through the fog generated by the scare word of “voluntarism,” it seems to me that there are only two possible construes of how baptism ought to go down. If the voluntary baptism of believers is illicit as the normative practice, what is the alternative? The only alternative to voluntary baptism is involuntary baptism, is it not?

Now, everyone agrees that voluntary baptism is acceptable and right. No on is opposed to converts being baptized upon profession of faith. The question, as I see it, must rest on what theological reasons  we have for baptizing those who do not believe in Christ and do not have the ability to consent or dissent from baptism? What theological reasons are there for involuntary baptism? That seems to me to be a reasonable question. I have yet to see, theologically, why involuntary baptism should be the norm of the church’s practice.


  1. Hill wrote:

    I’m not saying there isn’t a fascinating discussion to be had on this question, but what you are saying here is so full of rhetorical disingenuousness that I feel bad for responding. Do you not see how the very terms you are using to describe baptism beg the question? That you are importing the very language and distinctions, in order to make your point, that are in question?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    How so? That really isn’t my intention. I want to have the fascinating discussion, all of this is me continuing to think through the matter.

    Are you saying that the either/or between voluntary and involuntary is the problem? If so what is the third way that I’m not seeing?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    My point is that the distinction of voluntary/involuntary fails to comprehend what is going on from the perspective of infant baptisms best formulations, because it is, in some ways, being anachronistically foisted upon it, in precisely the way that people like O’Donovan describe. I’m not saying there aren’t good arguments to be made in favor of not baptizing infants, but you are not making them. You are just reproducing several well know logical fallacies.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I’m still not seeing the fallacy. . .

    I mean, is it really an anachronism to say that human action is either voluntary or involuntary? Like is that just out and out false?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    Sorry I’m being grumpy. My point is that the process of child-rearing cannot be meaningfully understood in terms of noncoercive/coercive or voluntary/involuntary, at least if we want to preserve the latter of either of those binaries as unequivocally bad. I don’t think the task is necessarily to provide a third way, but to ask if this sort of bifurcation is adequate, because it certainly isn’t necessary. If anything, infant baptism reflects the gratuity of our coming to know Christ through circumstances that are completely beyond our making and control. I just don’t know how one can deploy the voluntary/involuntary distinction with enough force to take out infant baptism without entering in to Pelagian territory, in which it’s not our material works, but our volitional works, that save us.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Yeah, I think it is out and out false.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Ok, I certainly agree that “the process of child-rearing cannot be meaningfully understood in terms of noncoercive/coercive or voluntary/involuntary.”

    I just don’t think baptism is a part of “child-rearing.” I don’t think we can naturalize the church that way.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Ok, so what form of human action is there that’s outside of this false parity then? I can’t think of what it might be.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    There are huge chunks of philosophy that would suggest there is no such thing as voluntary action, at least in the sense we mean it. I say that just to illustrate that one doesn’t have to look very far to find lots of other options in understanding human action. Assuming that “voluntary” is a meaningful predicate of human action, then yes, by the law of the excluded middle, every human action is either voluntary or involuntary. But this is essentially contentless. The question is whether or not voluntary is a meaningful predicate of human action. I don’t know if I could make a case either way, but I think the issue is sufficiently cloudy so as to render basing a theological argument on it, of this sort, at least really problematic.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    I just mean that the process of becoming who we are (even disciples of Christ) is not an issue of voluntary or involuntary.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Ok, we can leave it at that, then. See my most recent post and see what you think of that.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:47 am | Permalink
  12. adhunt wrote:

    Let me have a stab, as a parent who is going to have his daughters baptized.

    Does not my raising my daughters as Christians something that falls under your understanding of “involuntary” initiation into the Christian faith?

    Don’t respond too quickly. They have no choice or freedom in the matter at all, I will raise them Christians.

    btw-What do you make of ++Williams essay in Christian Theology on a similar aspect to this topic – I believe the essay is: “Making Signs” but I could be wrong.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    Just to throw this in… are we saying that children aren’t a part of the Church?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    I have no problem with raising our children in a Christian setting, teaching them the faith, etc.

    But none of that makes them Christians. In fact it is impossible for you to “raise them Christians.” We can raise our children within the environment of our faith, and within the community of the church, but that does not make followers of Jesus.

    Does that make sense? I have no problem with Christian parents “forcing” all sorts of things on their children. That’s just part of life. But baptism is decidedly not just part of normal human social life. It is the recognition that radical miracle of the Holy Spirit has occurred in a person’s life and that that person has now been reborn as a disciple of Jesus and a child of God.

    I’m not trying to be personal about this, just trying to be clear about my understanding of baptism. In my view baptism is a unique event that is decidedly different from the normal influences and practices every parent subjects their children to.

    Hope that at least clarifies things a bit.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  15. james wrote:

    I think this “naturalizing grace” is the issue. You have to work out the relationship with the “coercion” of biology, psychology, sociology. A child is converted to being a Christian long before they assent with the will to the content. Prevenient grace?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Depends on what we mean by “part” doesn’t it? They certainly are part of it in the sense that they experience its life by growing up around it. But does that make the a member of the church? A disciple? Clearly not.

    I suppose a major issue in this discussion is clarifying the relationship between baptism and active membership in the body of Christ.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:02 pm | Permalink
  17. John Porter wrote:

    Infant baptism didn’t become the norm of the Church until about the fourth century. And I’m trying to figure out what it means for a child to be a member of the Church beyond that that child’s parents are Christians – which seems to reduce membership in the Church to a demographic accident.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink
  18. adhunt wrote:

    I appreciate what you’re saying Halden, but I think you make too light the massive coersion involved in raising Christian children. So after an entire upbringing of coerced Christianity the “now adult” capable of “free choice” makes a massive “voluntary step” of taking baptism?

    Where is the line of “adult” and “free” in such a situation and how can it not be but completely arbitrary?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink
  19. james wrote:

    “But baptism is decidedly not just part of normal human social life. It is the recognition that radical miracle of the Holy Spirit has occurred in a person’s life and that that person has now been reborn as a disciple of Jesus and a child of God.”

    I don’t see how we can deny it is simply a normal anthropological/sociological religious rite. It is NOT a recognition of any radical miracle in an individual. How could we observe such a thing? They come forward all the time and never follow Christ. It is our communal rite of inclusion/affiliation.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    See my most recent post for more on this. I remain opposed to any sort of immanentization of the process of becoming Christian. We only become Christians because the Father draws us to Christ.

    My own family upbrining is a case in point. Out of all five of my siblings we have all ended up in utterly different places in terms of our faith, though all of us were raised in a Christian setting. To be sure social pressures are real and significant, but how people respond to them cannot be determined by some sort of calculus.

    Also, I do think there are forms of coercion in raising children that we should avoid rather than simply acknowledge.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink
  21. adhunt wrote:

    I just read your most recent post and I still disagree. I think your position leaves no room for nominal Christians to be “real disciples” of Christ and to be consistent, it seem most proper to ‘let children be’ until such point as one can ‘invite’ them to faith so as to make the response more complete.

    I also think it trascendentalizes the Body of Christ, so that the “drawing of the Father” is radically dislocated from the physical location of the Church, such that “being drawn by the Father” has nothing to do with the prior action of the Church.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    Why should we want people to be nominal Christians? Wait, what do you mean by that anyway?

    I certainly am not dislocating the work of God from the church, though I don’t think we can reductively identify the two without getting into big theological problems.

    But when did the action of “the church” come into this discussion to begin with? We were talking about parenting. The church is not the family.

    The real question is about what baptism means theologically and biblically, I’d say. I just don’t see much of a reason to think that its supposed to mean that baptism is how parents say that they’re going to raise their children in a Christian way.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  23. adhunt wrote:

    Rather than try to protract a nuanced (as if I am capable of such a thing) comment thread (as if such a thing exists), I’ll just pass for now. If get my Greek done I might try a response post.

    I don’t think of “the family” as a thing but as an extension of the the Church; at least not a Christian family.

    And though I don’t think that reducing God’s action to being analagous to the Church’s action is proper, neither do I think examining Baptism “theologically and biblically” apart from the concrete life of the Church makes any sense (theologically or biblically!)

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Well, in light of Jesus’s statements in the gospels I don’t see how we can say that the family is “an extension of the church.”

    Also, I don’t see how anything I said cold be construed as calling for baptism to be understood “apart from the concrete life of the church.” I would never argue for anything like that.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  25. Hill wrote:

    Does this raise major problems for Christ’s description of children in the Gospels?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  26. Halden wrote:

    How would it? I don’t think Christ calls them disciples or baptizes them. And even if he did that wouldn’t pose a problem for me. I’m not opposed to baptizing children as long as they are believers.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  27. adhunt wrote:

    I don’t see how you can put a social contrivance as primary over the believers “belonging to Christ” Of course one belongs to Christ first, and only secondarily to a “family.” Belonging to Christ, ergo, part of the Church.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm | Permalink
  28. Hill wrote:

    “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?’”

    There is at least a disconnect with what you are saying and Christ’s attitude towards infants.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  29. Halden wrote:

    Wait are you saying that baptism is a mere social contrivance?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  30. adhunt wrote:

    this dismissal of any philosophical concern is so odd in a discussion like this concerning such abstractions as “volunteer,” “free,” “will” etc…

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:07 pm | Permalink
  31. adhunt wrote:

    the family

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    You’re stretching here, Hill. None of Jesus’s statements about children imply that we should baptize infants. Hospitality and recognition of how God works through the lives of children has no necessary connection to this question.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  33. Halden wrote:

    I guess I don’t understand what you’re trying to say here or how it bears on what we’re discussing.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  34. adhunt wrote:

    Exactly! You don’t get that you are considering doctrine in abstraction. You say you are thinking of the concrete life of the Church but you’re not. You’re considering Baptism, discipleship, commitment, child rearing, regeneration (or not), etc… with a steep disconnect to raising children and how this child raising needs to be taken into account in your contemplation on volunteerism.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  35. Halden wrote:

    No, I don’t understand what you’re saying because you’re communicating in short, perfunctory posts that are conceptually muddled and poorly worded.

    I am contemplating precisely what baptism, as a practice of the church is supposed to “say”, what it means as part of the church’s ongoing life and witness. You seem to be saying that its supposed to be a parental statement about the intention to “raise Children Christian.” I see no biblical or theological evidence for construing baptism in this way and you haven’t provided me with any.

    I’m not abstracting anything, merely making a theological inquiry about the proper configuration of the church’s practice of baptism and the role of children and parenting in the church. You are conflating the two in a crude and simplistic way and haven’t given me any theological rationale for why you are doing so.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  36. Halden wrote:

    On further reflection, what the hell? You presume to tell me that I’m not thinking of the concrete life of the church? How on earth would you know? As it happens I am part of a community that has very intentional careful baptismal practices that inform everything that I’m talking about here. This isn’t theory, this is reflection on the theological reality in which I live, a reality that takes parenting, child-rearing, and discipleship with the utmost seriousness.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  37. Hill wrote:

    To be fair, there is a sense in which intentional communities are quite theoretical. I think this is related to the point ad is making.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  38. adhunt wrote:


    Then it is a discussion of two different “concrete” Church situations, and you’re right – I’m sorry for making so many assumptions.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  39. adhunt wrote:


    At a fundamental level – and if in the end we disagree, and we most likely will, then that’s fine – I do not think that you take the philosophical or critical steps necessary to use “voluntary” etc… properly.

    For instance, when Hill above attempted a discussion as to the nature of free will you summarily dismissed him and his very valid points; what is this point where a child is adult enough to make a voluntary and presumably semi-free choice to commit herself to the faith via the Sacrament of baptism? How might we conceive of “freedom” or “voluntary?”

    My point has been from the beginning that if I raised my daughters as Christians and they “decided” at *insert arbitrary age here* to be baptized, then that “choice” is no less coerced than the baptism of my infant children and their discipleship of no higher worth or reality than mine has been, having been a pastor’s kid.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  40. Halden wrote:

    Ok then.

    First, of course I haven’t provided a full philosophical treatment of the nature of volition here. It’s a blog. Moreover I didn’t “summarily dismiss” Hill in the comments above. When the philosophical question was broached, he said that he didn’t think he “could make a case either way” and so I didn’t see where there was to go from there on that question.

    However, we don’t have to iron out every complexity related to determinism and agency to see a couple fundamental things involved here. I think anyone can see that there is an obvious difference between imposing a rite such as baptism on an infant (think literally here of infans=unable to speak, to act) and baptizing someone who does have the ability to think and speak. Do you really think that being raised in a Christian family is SO utterly determinative and ironclad that there’s really no difference between an infant being baptized and a 16 year old? Regardless of how our situations and formation shapes us, the nature of free will, or whatever there is a patently obvious difference between the kind of agency exercised by a person willingly getting baptized and a baby being baptized.

    Regardless of how much a child has been influenced throughout their life, the fact that they can think and deliberate about whether or not be baptized is clearly very different from what happens to an infant who is never given that opportunity. In short, I don’t think your claim that someone who choses to be baptized is “no less coerced” than an infant who is baptized holds up to any reasonable scrutiny.

    Now I want to be clear that I wan’t trying to make any value judgments about how you’re planning on raising children. I would never presume to do that. In fact, the formation and discipleship of people who are baptized as infants may be an utterly healthy and good thing. I was by no means trying to denigrate that or the way in which people often come to own and live into their baptisms which they received as infants.

    What I am saying is that from my reading of Scripture, baptism is always inextricable from faith and commitment to discipleship on the part of the baptized. What baptism “means” is being reborn into a life of following Jesus. When infants are baptized, the baptism comes to mean something other than this by definition. I am simply unpersuaded to accept such a redefinition of baptism.

    I hope that clarifies the point. I’m not trying to be contentious or rude here, only clear. For me the crucial issue is what baptism “says.” I just don’t see how it “says” the right thing when applied to infants.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  41. Halden wrote:

    Also, Theophilus left a helpful comment on a related thread:

    I was questioning the degree to which those “influences and pressures” dictate human action. If their dictation is absolute, then there is no uncoerced action, and the sovereignty of God therefore results in double predestination. If you reject double predestination, you acknowledge that not all human choices are coerced, in spite of whatever positive or negative “influences and pressures” may be present. And by this, the spectre of childrearing as coercion ceases to negate the possibility of baptism involving the human will.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  42. james wrote:

    Doesn’t a person’s living like Jesus, before they know it’s Jesus they are being like, mean something or tell you something about their inclusion in Christ?

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  43. adhunt wrote:

    That clears things up for me. Thanks.

    And I wasn’t trying to imply you were making a valuation statement on the way I am raising my girls.

    I’m trying to get a feel for, what seems to be your assertion, that there is a raised awareness of what one is doing when committing to Baptism which makes for their witness and discipleship to be “more appropriate” or whatever when they make such a commitment at an “older” age.

    My reality was from the beginning a reality that was given to me. Both in the sense of being graced by God’s prior actions and in the sense that my father was a minister.

    There is a truly foundational way in which my ‘choice’ to be baptized around 12 was not at all my ‘choice.’ Neither do I think that at that point I understood baptism properly, nor the nature of the Sacraments, nor what my Christian commitment might entail, etc.. Indeed, since the growth in faith is just that, a growth, then I don’t find in a credo baptismal scheme, an account of growth. There seems to be a sense in which it admits of a “comprehension” before the “choice” to “respond” to God.

    But since that comprehension will always be partial, whether when one is 2yrs old, 12 yrs old, or 40 yrs old, then the degree to which our act of commitment are free is one only of degree and not of essence.

    Essentially, no matter what age, no matter how much catechesis, the Sacrament of Baptism admits of an ignorance and impotence.

    If this is so, then the ignorance and impotence of a child seems no barrier to proper Christian witness if indeed we are always witnessing to God’s prior action.

    p.s. – I liked what Thomas just said in response to your recent post.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  44. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I would like to add, in response to an above commenter, that there was not a “normative” rite of baptism in the “early church” at all before the fourth century (except for the requisite components of the “Trinitarian formula” and water — though there were those also who “baptized” without water in early Jewish-Christian communities as well)! So, the argument that infant baptism was not practiced by the earlies Christians and that it cannot be called normative doesn’t actually say much. This is of course not to mention that in North Africa prior to the 4th century there is evidence of the practice (as early as at least the second century).

    As for a substantive reason for the baptism of infants (n.b. infants qua unbelievers — what I offer below would not be a defense of the baptism of unbelievers simpliciter, but only of infants as unbelievers):
    According to Augustine (and Aquinas later summed it up quite well), the faith of the community “makes up for what is lacking” in the infant, so that just as an infant contracts sin through Adam (again, this is Augustine), so does God’s grace in the sacrament remit such sin…he literally says that “little children believe through others” (this is from an anti-Pelagian text, but is essentially not about original sin but about the abundance of God’s grace over sin). This text is later cited by Aquinas in ST III, q. 68, a. 9 in defense of the worthiness of baptizing children (a very important exposition of what Augustine was getting at). It is of vital importance, however, to consider that this article from III q. 68 follows upon article 8 in which Aquinas says that the one who is “unwilling to renounce [her] unbelief” (a. 8, ad 4) is not to be admitted to the sacrament (faith is in this sense “necessary” to baptism). However, in his responsio, he also says that faith is no more necessary for the one being baptized than it is necessary for the minister to be righteous (a specifically anti-Donatist point here) — so long as the other conditions (viz. water and Trinitarian formula) are met — for, “the sacrament is not perfected by the righteousness of the minister or of the recipient of Baptism, but by the power of God.”

    I know this last point is the point you are attempting to make, Halden, that it is not a “voluntary” act of faith but the power of God by which the sacrament is perfected in the person (that is, that the Holy Spirit falls upon the water and the baptizand), but it is precisely this latter point by which Aquinas (and Augustine — and Cyprian — before him) argues that the infant may (and even should) be admitted to baptism. It is by God’s power that the sin of Adam is remitted for this little one. But, if it is a question of the lack of faith, he simply says, the “necessary” component of faith is accounted for by the faith of the community (and it should be noted here that not only in Aquinas’s time, but in many of the earliest rites, a “profession of faith” in baptism had to do with the public recitation of the creed — a catechumen would learn the creed but would pronounce it for the first time with the body in their baptism). Though the infant cannot repent, or make an affirmation of faith (learn or proclaim the creed), God by the power of the Holy Spirit — operating upon and with the believing community — can indeed do these things for this little one. This is an especially significant point given the significance of baptism not simply for the remission of sins, but also for an understanding of baptism as taking place within the context of covenant and promise (as is typical of all Protestant theological understandings of baptism — more below). As Aquinas says, “But the faith of one, indeed of the whole Church, profits the child through the operation of the Holy Spirit, who unites the Church together, and communicates the goods of one member to another” (ST III. q. 68, a. 9, ad 2). In other words, baptism is not simply about what takes place at the font…it is an act of the entire community, a “work of the people” [leitourgia] by the power of the Holy Spirit working God’s grace within them.

    This is a powerful view of God’s power and grace at work in the Christian community. Cyprian’s sentiment is something to be repeated often: “We think [baptism] is to be even more observed in respect of infants and newly-born persons, who on this very account deserve more from our help and from the divine mercy, that immediately, on the very beginning of their birth, lamenting and weeping, they do nothing else but entreating” (Epistle 64). The very cries of the newborn babies, in this view, are as prayers for God’s grace and mercy. Why should we refuse them? I am not so subtly referencing here Acts 10:23-48, where the Spirit falls upon the folks in the house of Cornelius, in the middle of Peter’s sermon — it simply says that the Spirit fell on “all who heard,” not all who believed — and all who were with Peter were astounded, so he said: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?” (v. 48)

    Real quick, it should also be noted that Luther’s view has to be taken into account here. He seems to have almost fundamentally misunderstood the real nature of “ex opere operato,” though his rejection of it seems to be a rejection of the medieval understanding of Augustine’s anti-Donatist formula, so he is somewhat justified…but, the point is that he rejects Aquinas on these grounds, when they nonetheless share real ground on their respective interpretations of the nature of baptism as well as the question of infant baptism (what he’s really after, all said and done, is Aquinas’s doctrine of justification). Nevertheless, baptism is about the joining of the promise of God’s Word with faith (in which case, baptism is totally a work of God by God’s Spirit who unites the Word, Jesus, to the believer; but, because it is God’s doing, this work can also come upon infants to great benefit — and again in Luther Augustine’s and Aquinas’s understanding of the faith of the community “making up” for the lack of faith in the infant reappears). But, this promise is realized in the context of God’s covenant: baptism is the sign of the covenant that God has made with humanity, and in this case it is a covenant that extends to all (infants are not somehow excluded from God’s covenantal grace because they have yet to reach the “age of reason”).

    I won’t get into all the other things being discussed in the comments above…but, I would simply add that Luther (and many others) have offered scriptural basis for the possibility of faith in children…and he states categorically contra the Anabaptists that they cannot seem to produce texts to the contrary.

    Please forgive the length…I…like baptism.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  45. Hill wrote:

    This was awesome!

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  46. adhunt wrote:

    btw if I ever sound like an ass and/or idiot it is because I am a self-admitted super amateur at theology. So the more exalted my rhetoric the more assured you can be that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink
  47. roger flyer wrote:

    this thread is why the ‘praxis’ of theology must thrive…

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  48. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for this, Dave. I appreciate the well-articulated presentation of this argument, and I respect it. It seems to me that it really turns on the question of whether or not it is indeed the case that the church is able to “make up for what is lacking” in the faith of an infant. As of now I’m not sure that such a notion makes sense, but nevertheless I thank you for helpfully stating the view.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  49. Theophilus wrote:

    For me, it is precisely the notion of the church being able to “make up for what is lacking” that is problematic with infant baptism. The prophecies of Jeremiah (31:27-30) and Ezekiel (18) of God’s judgment of individuals, rather than families, don’t mesh with the notion that the faith of the family of God can safely carry stowaways through God’s judgment. In fact, Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, with the incident of the man without wedding clothes, suggests that God’s other guests are not, in themselves, capable of sustaining the inclusion of freeloaders in the presence of God.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  50. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Halden, I think it might be better if I had said that in the profession of faith (the recitation of the creed), the Holy Spirit joins this body together in unity, and that simultaneously, although the child cannot “participate” in this profession, God by the power of the Holy Spirit joins the child to this body in a miraculous and wholly merciful way (so it might be more helpful if I were to say that God through the community makes up for what is lacking in the faith of the infant). So, the godparent(s)/sponsor(s) — really though, the whole body — brings this child before God and asks that God’s promise would fall also on this little one, for whom though faith does not yet have purchase, sin does, and that God’s grace in Jesus Christ which is victorious over sin might prevail even for this one as well (it seems to me that a more difficult question at hand might be that of “original sin” or the extent of sin in the infant, and baptism’s relation to sin — e.g., Is baptism only about the remission of sins? If not, what else does this act say with respect to the infant?).

    Another aspect of this that I forgot to include in my message above is with respect to how we talk about a “lack of faith.” What is wonderful about Luther is how he describes the “faith of a child [or "little one"]“…one who technically lacks the “maturity” (we might say) for an “intellectual apprehension of the known good.” Faith, says Luther, involves primarily (not secondarily) a firm trust, fiducia, and children, he goes on to say, display this trust so very innocently, whereas adults can duplicitously smuggle in doubt and self-perpetuation into their “trust.” I think this is very important and not to be overlooked. Faith, as God’s gift, is wholly gratuitous, and so it is not up to us to decide where God’s gracious trust will be manifest (and this is truly the only way to describe faith as a gift that is also truly the act of the person — otherwise, if faith is simply one “can” or “cannot” do, in a neutral fashion, competition is introduced between God and the world).

    And along those lines…this sort of “lack of faith” often described with respect to children is not simply to be found in infants (who lack the formative capacities for either intellectual apprehension or the willing of the good) or in those who willfully persist in their unbelief; we have to ask serious questions here about those (adults and infants!) who have serious mental disabilities (not only those who suffer from down’s, but also from serious diseases such as schizophrenia or even alzheimer’s), and who are nevertheless brought by those who love them to the baptismal font. Are these any less “the faithful” [fidelibus]? On what grounds?

    Aquinas seems to be saying, well, infants (and let’s add these other others) “lack faith” in the sense that they cannot make a profession of faith — that is, they cannot recite the creed (which of course is not a mere recitation but is a way of throwing ourselves on God and God’s deliverance in Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit). All of this is to say, I think one could still talk about a “credo baptism” (though I would want to discuss what that might mean) that still allows for infants, mentally disabled, and others to be baptized without lessening the “rigor” of the sacrament.

    Well, I really need to shut up. Sorry for talking so much. Thanks for discussion on these difficult but fruitful questions.


    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  51. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Theophilus, to describe infants (or mentally disabled folks and others — see my comment below) as “freeloaders” is in my mind truly absurd.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:38 pm | Permalink
  52. Bobby Grow wrote:


    I just recently read about Luther’s view in Oberman’s book (Between God and the Devil); I think you nail it.

    But, when you say:

    I think one could still talk about a “credo baptism” (though I would want to discuss what that might mean) that still allows for infants, mentally disabled, and others to be baptized without lessening the “rigor” of the sacrament.

    Are you suggesting a Luther[an] perspective, wherein “credo” is framed by the “church’s faith;” and not the “individual’s” profession and testimony in the LORD? So that credo really is subsumed by proxy in the communion of the church.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:52 pm | Permalink
  53. Dave Belcher wrote:

    And just to be clear — I find “family” or “private” baptisms just as problematic as I’m sure you do. I have been trying for some time now to think through baptism theologically, and theologically I find nothing that indicates little ones are not to be brought to the font.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  54. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    Great discussion, not since that profound scene in Godfather 2 have I reflected on baptism this much. Thanks to youall. I don’t know much about the history of Christian baptism; how does it relate, if at all to Jewish mikvaot or ritual baptisms? Are there any affinities with circumcision? Does it matter who does the baptizing? Seems like many here come from different traditions, do you all accept each others baptisms? If so/not, why so/not? Is baptism crucial or determinative for inclusion in the/a church or the body of Christ? thanks so much for your consideration, obliged, Daniel.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  55. Halden wrote:

    Thanks for the further clarifications, Dave. I do see the cogency and power of this argument. However I don’t know that my concerns are alleviated. I am left wondering, if God makes up what is lacking on the part of an infant, why can we not assume that God does so on other sorts of potential recipients as well? Like the children of nonbelievers, or even of adult non-believers themselves? It seems the same sort of logic would at least make baptism of, well, anyone theologically licit, at least if taken to its logical conclusion.

    Saturday, September 12, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  56. Dave Belcher wrote:

    I am suggesting that one’s “faith” is not one’s own — that faith in fact as a human act is only ever that gifted hearty trust (by the Spirit) in God’s act of faithfulness in Jesus Christ (i.e., in God’s apocalyptic act in Jesus Christ). Insofar as God’s faithfulness is about the business of setting things right, and about right relationship, “faith” is what moves me to love my neighbor, to be joined to her in outgoing love…so, “my” faith is not “subsumed by proxy in the communion of the church,” but it is joined to it, and it is taken up with it in one voice.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 6:24 am | Permalink
  57. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Dainel, baptism has not been definitively linked with Jewish ritual baptisms — at most there have been folks like Nyssa or Origen or Clement who have described “types” of baptism in the OT, such as Naaman dunking himself seven times in the Jordan to get clean of leprosy. On the whole, however, Christian baptism is not essentially connected with the Jewish traditions of ritual bathing, etc (there has not been definitive evidence to suggest so, at least). Its relation to circumcision is a more difficult question I will not entertain here — though, it is not the same thing…it is a sign of the “new” covenant, yes, but, for instance, the Council of Carthage in 401 decided that a newborn did not need to wait eight days (as with circumcision) to be baptized, but could be baptized straightaway. It is a fairly ancient practice that if a priest or bishop (someone ordained) is not available to baptize, a lay member or deacon may baptize (and in the case of women, in one text, deaconesses would always do the baptizing — cause they got naked to get baptized in those days). Yes, we all accept one another’s baptisms: Protestants can be accepted into the RC church without having to be rebaptized (so long as they were baptized in water in the name of teh Father, Son, and Holy Spirit)…just laying on of (apostolic) hands is necessary; Anglicans will admit children (even infants!) to Eucharist by virtue of their baptism….so, in a very real sense, the fact that churches do not join together at the table together (the “sacrament of unity”) is truly an offense against our one baptism, especially given that all churches recognize one another’s baptisms. Hope this helps.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  58. I think if your definition of baptism is primarily a rite of inclusion/affiliation, you are talking about a different sort of baptism than Jesus commanded.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink
  59. james wrote:

    I guess I meant that Jesus (if he commanded it at all) didn’t command people to baptize in order to “recognize the radical miracle of the Holy Spirit that had occurred in a person’s life”. He commanded them to baptize people to mark them as disciples, or basically inclusion in the group of people who CLAIM to be disciples. It is therefore “just part of normal human social life” like any group’s initiatory rite.

    Any miracle going on in the baptismal act would be their affiliation with the body of Christ (which can be undone) quite apart from recognizing a prior miracle pre-baptism (which often appears dubious and thus un”recognized” in retrospect).

    The attempt to keep baptism super-natural or un-normal is used to exclude the natural family and works against what we normally see occurring.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink
  60. I haven’t read the source texts Dave is referencing here, so I am not sure how Augustine or Aquinas laid out their arguments, but the phrase “making up for what is lacking” suggests that the author was borrowing from Paul:

    “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.”
    1 Thessalonians 3:10

    At first glance, this appears to suggest that, perhaps, the faith of one person can be employed in some form of substitutionary role for the lack therof in another. However, this isn’t the only instance of Paul using this language, and such an interpretation becomes problematic:

    “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”
    -Colossians 1:24

    Is Paul suggesting here that somehow Christ’s death on the cross was somehow an insufficient atonement, and that he has some ability to make up for it? This really doesn’t make much sense, given that several lines earlier, he said:

    “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
    -1 Colossians 1:19-20

    I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader ;-) to piece together the argument, but what I think Paul is ‘making up for’ here on Jesus’ behalf is a physical, material presence. Now, if you go back and look at the Thessalonians verse, you’ll see that the same interpretation makes for a pleasingly parsimonious explanation of that usage as well.

    The point being, a congregation can happily provide a physical manifestation for God’s love and presence towards an infant, but I see no reason to believe that the faith of friends and family provisions an occasion to baptize one with no concept of sin or redemption.

    The modern church, at least a part of it, is struggling to extricate itself from a culture that has deified individual choice and freedom, and rightly so. Our individualist cultural assumptions are not a particularly good framework for interpreting scripture written by and for members of a communalist society. However, it seems that at times we are a bit over-eager to attribute the processes worked in individual biblical figures to communal decision making.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink
  61. Theophilus wrote:

    Sorry, the language of “freeloaders” and “stowaways” carries more baggage than was warranted. It was unfair of me to use language associated with ne’er-do-wells to describe those who are purportedly supported entirely by others, incapable of doing so on their own. I went on a nautical tangent when I picked those terms, and they were not adequately thought through.

    I still think the business of God judging individuals, and expelling from his gathering those who have not had met in themselves the requirements for fellowship with God, throws a wet blanket over the notion that the faith of others can make effective the baptism of infants. It’s the same reason I don’t like it when Mormons “baptize” the dead, or when Catholics use their indulgences to save others from Purgatory.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  62. I think we are operating on pretty different assumptions about what constitutes life in Christ. I’m not really sure how to respond. I basically disagree with everything you just said.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Permalink
  63. Daniel Imburgia wrote:

    yes and thanks Dave. I am only really familiar with RC traditions, (many evangelicals often don’t seem to have a lot of this stuff worked out definitively) But when it came to Reformed, and particularly Anabaptists (Halden?) I didn’t know if they would accept others who had only been baptized as infants, or if one would have to be re-baptized to join their community or whether it was up to the individual. A great discussion. obliged.

    Sunday, September 13, 2009 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

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