Many of our baptist friends and family didn’t understand why we chose to have our son Cosby baptized as an infant. At the time I didn’t offer much in the way of a response to their questions, we simply remained content with disagreement assuaged by our mutual love for the child. But several months ago a friend asked me to write something about the distinctives of baptist theology, a project I’m still working on. (If you’re reading this, Kevin, I still plan to get it to you long after you actually needed it—more now for my benefit than yours). One such baptist distinctive, of course, is “believer’s baptism”—baptists are one of relatively few Christian groups that do not baptize infants, and in the eighteenth century when they started re-baptizing adults who were baptized as infants and had later come to confess the faith, baptists were doing something radically new in Christian history. In order to explain this distinctive of baptist theology to a baptist, I first had to explain why almost all other Christians throughout Church history have baptized infants. So now, as we’re preparing to present our daughter Clover for baptism in a couple of weeks, I have something more to offer our baptist friends and family by way of explanation. I have no pretention that this brief post will convince any of my baptist friends or settle a four-hundred-year-old debate. But in hope that some of our friends will at least begin to understand why we have made this choice, this selection from my letter to Kevin:
Most Christians baptize infants because they think that, like other covenants in the Bible, baptism is about what God does. You’ll recall the story in Genesis 15 of God’s covenant with Abram. Once the animals had been ritually cut in half and their pieces laid on the ground opposite one another, Abram fell asleep. While he rested under a tree—unconscious, unable to make a decision, sleeping like a baby—the smoking firepot (a “theophony,” or physical representation of God on earth) passed between the animals. God had made the covenant with Abram, independent of Abram. Of course, as Paul points out in Romans 4, Abraham responded to the covenant in faith so that the covenant promise is realized through faith. (Actually some have argued that this would be better translated “faithfulness,” as in God’s faithfulness to the covenant promise he made and Abraham’s. So when we use the word “faith” try to keep in mind all three meanings at once: trust that God speaks truly when he makes his covenant promise, God’s faithfulness to the covenant promise, and our faithfulness to the covenant.) But this does not nullify the fact that God first made the convent independent of Abram’s ability to commit to be faithful to it, and even if Abraham had not had faith, “[God] remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).
The later theological way of getting at this is to talk about the three parts of a sacrament: the sign, the thing signified, and that which ties the sign to the thing signified. The sign in the sacrament of baptism is twofold, including both the baptismal water and a word of promise—“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” I declare you, in other words, marked with the Trinitarian name and thus a member of the covenant people with God. It is God’s promise to you! But that brings us, of course, to the question, “Who is this ‘I’?” Who does this preacher think he is making promises on behalf of God? It is this question to which the Roman Catholic doctrine of priesthood is an answer. When the Apostle Peter receives Christ’s “Power of the Keys”—whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mt 16:19)—the entire line of Popes and priests in Peter’s succession receive with him the power to bind man to God eternally. Martin Luther, of course, reads this as a promise made to all believers—the priesthood of all believers—so that when any believer offers the sacramental word of promise she speaks on behalf of Christ himself. That’s why Luther’s favorite pastoral aphorism is “Stop calling Christ a liar!” In baptism, Christ has promised to mark you with God’s name to make you a member of the covenant family—believe him! And that belief—that faith—ties the word of promise to the thing it signifies (but we’ll get to that in a bit). So, that’s the sign: as we go through the waters of baptism, Christ promises to mark us with God’s name and make us members of the covenant family.
The thing signified is the truth of that promise: union with Christ, membership in the covenant family. The sign is the words of the promise; the thing signified is the promise itself. That’s what a sacrament is—a promise that gives what it promises. Think about how this works in the sacrament of marriage. Again there’s a twofold sign: a ring and a word of promise. A wedding vow is not a marriage, but it is a sign that give what it promises. Two single people walk into a room, stand before God and make promises to one another and they walk out united together as one flesh. Indeed, the couple’s continued faithfulness to one another ties the sign to the thing signified, but the promises are made and the covenant sealed before faithfulness comes into the picture. No doubt you see the parallels with infant baptism. A promise is made but, more like the covenant with Abram than like a marriage, baptism is a promise made by Christ while the other party sleeps like a baby. And this promise gives what it promises—it’s unites the believer to Christ, makes her a member of the covenant family.
Finally, it is faith that ties the sign to the thing signified. So, no one believes that we are saved through baptism. We are saved, as Paul says, by God’s grace activated through faith (Eph 2:8). But faith is not, as it has so often been mistaken for, right belief about Christ (i.e. that he is fully God and fully man, that he died for sins and was raised from the dead). Faith is belief in Christ—trusting that he died for my sins. But that’s something I can only know through the word of promise. Of course, Holy Scripture is a word of promise, too, but it is about God’s intent and plan to save the world. The sacramental promise uses my own name. It’s what Luther calls “the pro me of the gospel”—it’s God’s promise to me. That’s why for Luther faith is literally faith in your baptism—faith in Christ’s word of promise. Believing in someone always means believing their word. And just like a couple’s faithfulness to one another ties the promises they made on their wedding day to the marital union which was promised, so what ties Christ’s baptismal word of promise to our union with Christ and membership in the covenant family is Christ’s faithfulness to that promise and ours. Again the threefold meaning of faith: trust that Christ keeps his promise, Christ’s faithfulness to the promise, and our faithful response to Christ promise.