Published in The Fraternal, Feb 1976
At present, the United Reformed Church and the Churches of Christ in England are discussing a scheme of union. One of the problems they have to face is that while the U.R.C. allows both believers’ and infant baptism (with the emphasis in practice on the latter), the Churches of Christ insist on believers’ baptism – in some ways, more strongly than most Baptist Churches. A committee representing both churches has made interesting suggestions on this point, which, I think, implicitly call for a more constructive response from Baptists than we have offered up till now in relation to discussions on unity.
If the proposals were followed, a united church would come into being in which not only would both infant and believers’ baptism be practised, but individuals might be allowed, however grudgingly, to be baptised both as infants and as believers. This suggestion is momentous, for it breaches the centuries-long taboo against baptising individuals more than once. It is momentous, too, because it opens up a future which would be generous compensation for such a sharp break with tradition.
This future concerns more than a uniting of existing church groupings, for the problem of baptism consists in more than the fact that it divides us and gives us badges of disunity. The problem of baptism is even more serious as an indicator of our present uncertainties over the meaning of Christian faith and the way in which individuals enter into its reality. Even if there were no Baptists, there would be a crisis for baptism amongst paedo-baptists: they too ask whether infants can be committed to faith in the way their baptismal rites suggest, but cannot always realise in practice. And no-one who knows Baptists can pretend that all is well on our side: anti-Sacramentalists, believing it is of the essence of faith not to be ritually embodied, are counted by advocates of Pauline sacramental realism who, in turn, cannot carry with them many who value baptism highly but only as an act of witness. Apart from the question of its divisive effect, our thinking and practice of baptism need reform if they are to build up Christians in the faith.
To manipulate baptisms merely to get unity would be unprincipled, trivialising. We must have reform, too. But we can get it only in a united church, which practises both forms of baptism, not merely allowing them but rejoicing in both, and conscientiously free to let Christians be baptised both as infants, and as believers.
This view, I know, will not command immediate agreement on all sides. What can be said in its support?
A church which practised both baptisms would have to distinguish clearly between them without denying either. This would set infant baptism free from the burden of what I call ‘biographical prediction’: that is, that the effects of baptism are articulated in the rite in terms of what he will be or will become as he grows up – that he will be a Christian, in some sense that he has renounced the devil and will be a good soldier of Jesus Christ. But many baptised infants do not turn out in such ways. Hence the forlorn attempt to restrict baptism to children of ‘Christian’ parents who will give them a ‘Christian’ upbringing. It must fail, for even if we could infallibly distinguish Christian from non-Christian parents, we have no grounds for believing that Christian upbringing infallibly makes children Christian.
The only way out is to acknowledge that the rite of infant baptism developed from rites and from preaching that had adult believers primarily in view, and that when it came to be applied mainly to infants, virtually no adjustments were made to its content, despite the fact that whatever may be the unity of God’s grace, there are serious human differences between an infant and a believer. As a result, descriptions of the adult believer were taken over and applied to the infant in relation to whom they can only have reality in the form of predictions. The historical development of the rite calls now for reform. If it were undertaken, infant baptism would become the Church’s joyful celebration of the ultimacy of God’s grace for this infant, and so for all, simply because they are his creatures, those for whom Christ died. Infant baptism would not be determined in an unprincipled way as a mere ancient adaptation and corruption of a believers’ baptist right, but it would become a telling of the Good News in its universality. What is it that the church can declare to and about every man, regardless of his faith or lack of it? That is the formative question in infant baptism, rightly understood. If the church dares to speak, only about and for its own members, the children are Christian parents, it proclaims that it does not believe that God is the God of all the Earth and of all men. Of course, there can be no question of forcing all infants to be baptised; the practical pastoral issue, however, is whether the church has the clarity of faith to be able to say something to all who come to it.
If a church practised both baptisms, infant baptism would no longer be loaded with all the meaning of believers’ baptism. It would be left with a meaning the Church and world cannot do without. This is not the place to attempt a full systematic account. It is enough to indicate the main line of development.
Infant baptism must respect the terrifying openness of the child’s being – there can be no biographical prediction, even of the most general kind. We know neither whether this child will be a plumber, a preacher or a popstar, nor whether he will be good or bad, happy or sad. The rite must leave his biography unwritten. It must in fact recognise that it is a splendid and, even more a terrifying fact about the child that his biography is not yet and cannot yet be written. What we have to say at this point concerns not the content but the context of the biography yet to be written. We declare the truth (which has all kinds of pastoral consequences but is true apart from them), that the context in which the openness of this child will be filled is nothing other than the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In the end, we declare, the only reader of this biography who will read it all, who can understand it all, and who has a right to decide about it – is God. The importance of the church’s being able to do this hardly needs argument. We live in a world where many other contexts for humanity have the plausibility of apparently unshakeable tyrants. Infant baptism in this context, is a basic act of hopeful defiance, an entry into the freedom of God.
We cannot pick out individual infants, but we know that a fair proportion of them are destined for hell on earth. Hell will fill the emptiness between their birth and death. It will crush them, maybe it will make explicit confession of faith and hope in God and goodness biographically impossible for them. “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?”. That question is not irrelevant to any act of infant baptism that respects clearly the awful reality of the child brought to the font. There it meets the ultimate answer, from the Risen One, who has the keys of death and hades, that is, who comes from beyond the biographical bounds of man and yet is one with us. Then we know that if we make our bed in hell, He, too, is there. Whatever the content, the context is the free grace of the living God. And because it does not depend on the content, this context is for all and determines all.
It is clear that I am not asking for a rewriting of infant baptism so that it is like Baptist services of “infant dedication“ (so-called). Such services are dominated by biographical predictions, except that they are cast in the form of prayers of hope. We safeguard ourselves against the falsification of the prediction – or we confess ourselves unable to say anything certain about any child on the basis of the Gospel. Whatever the value of the service for the parents in the church who take up the task of caring for the child, it says virtually nothing about the child in himself. That is why Baptists must confess that they have not solved the problem of what to do with infants in church, however justified their objections to traditional infant baptism. And what they lack is what a reformed infant baptism could supply: the concentration on the infant in the light of the Gospel of God. Hence the simple elements of baptism are quite appropriate here: the triune name of God is the ultimate context of the child’s existence, while water – water of life, of washing, even the water of the deeps, the hellish abyss of life through which we are saved – has a variety of meanings, which as always in baptism are controlled by the Gospel, the Name of God. But water has liturgical value, giving a concrete application to the child that is hard to replace in other ritual forms.
Infant baptism, understood in this way, would actualise important aspects of the Gospel, according to which the fundamental conditions of new life for all men are disclosed in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen and present in this world. But there are other elements, indispensable to and perhaps more prominent in New Testament baptism. In these, there is an individualising element, a focus on the sinner who repents, the believer who confesses, the disciple at the point of leaving all. If baptism in the former sense is rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ as the baptism of new creation, in the latter sense, it is rooted both in the baptism of Jesus as the beginning of his individual way of ministry and in the baptism of Christians who are to be disciples. Here the biographical element is essential – though even now not predictive. And it is impossible to do justice to this side of baptism without seeing that it involves the self-consciousness, the decision, the believing and obedience of someone old enough to understand, or to respond to preaching. Infant baptism proclaims the Gospel as a salvation of humanity; the baptism of believers is the proclamation of the gospel as a foundation of the church, of the company of those who have been chosen in grace so to know grace they are made one in the serving fellowship of God‘s grace in the world.
The two baptisms cannot be telescoped into one without loss of clarity. Each requires the other: not one being dominant in one church, the other in another church, but both together accepted in one church, practised happily and offered freely to all Christians.
What then, about the principle of ‘one baptism’? It is in no way infringed. Already we have no difficulty in accepting that many baptisms of different individuals are one baptism by virtue of the Trinitarian name and the water. We see that both input baptism and believers’ baptism are one. We can see unity in the events of baptism – confirmation – first communion, despite their being divided over time. We can see one baptism in the New Testament reports of many different baptisms and their varying interpretations – which as I have argued, cannot be brought to a simple unity in which all the meaning might be realised in one act. All this is to say that the unity of baptism does not depend, and has never depended, on a unity to be discovered in some feature of the event of baptism itself, or in interpretations which are part of the baptism, except the Name of God. Then why should it be made to depend on its being performed only once to each person? This would make sense only if each person was from beginning to end one simple thing, so the person’s being in Christ could be indicated adequately in one simple act. But persons exist at two quite different though not separated levels; at the unconscious, passive levels of infancy, and at the conscious, purposive, individualised and individualising level of adulthood. We are not one or the other: we become both and remain both, and we do not help ourselves by denying one or the other. Yet as churches, we make a claim for baptism as a complete initiatory rite – it suffices to make a man a Christian – only to refuse to administer it in a way that shows we have some understanding of the full scope of manhood. A united church with a reformed baptismal practice could do that.
No doubt it will be objected that to allow one person to be baptised twice is to open the door to neurotic persons to get themselves baptised every time they feel a special spiritual crisis. I think that would be pastorally undesirable, but I do not see it as an extreme sacramental solecism in any other way. In any case, good paedobaptist and baptist principles, which are the foundation of my argument here, are a sufficient defence against it. Baptism is not to be given at the whim of the recipient – regardless of the understanding of the Church. It is a shortcoming of the position of the United Reformed Church–Churches of Christ document that is sees the initiative for believers’ baptism as coming from individuals who want something extra, whereas it ought to come from a church which has the courage and insight to teach an offer what most fully can express the Gospel. The real safeguard (which follows from this first consideration in some ways), is that both baptisms which are in the one Baptism rest on and testify to the priority of God‘s grace and calling. Therefore a man should and can be told that his baptism as a believer into discipleship is never invalidated or cancelled by his failures, so that he needs to be baptised again. He knows still that he is baptised, and so he is enabled to evaluate his failure in the context of his being, and knowing that he is, within the grace of God. In the call to discipleship, which has come home to him he knows that grace is infinitely sufficient (infant baptism), but he knows it is no antinomian grace (believers’ baptism). In both cases, what he knows is God’s Grace that came to him as he is – as infant, and as hearer of the word of grace – and that the reality of what was there declared to be his state is not the result of his will or wish but of God’s.
To conclude. I’m well aware that baptism is not the only obstacle to unity, even from the side of baptists. I know, too, that my view will be hotly contested, which is one reason why it may not help unity discussions, for they depend on putting theological controversy to sleep if at all possible. But, on all sides, we admit that baptism is in a crisis, and with it, our preaching of the Gospel, our applying it concretely to individuals inside and outside the churches. Meantime, the bulk of theorising about the baptism is still trapped by our divisions into apologetic for either paedobaptism or believers’ baptism, although the baptismal crisis is plain to see on both sides of that divide. The theories do not overcome the crisis partly because they are developed within the terms laid down by the basic structures of the crisis. Thinking that will break out of the weary and inadequate denominational apologetic must presuppose a different kind of church – a united church freer for the fullness of the Gospel. And perhaps such speculations as these will contribute to the coming of such a church.