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Why we baptize our babies

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.

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Two Fights Over the Eucharist: Or, Why I Left the Baptist Church

Growing up, I was a member of a mid-sized Southern Baptist Church in West Virginia. My parents attended that church faithfully, and raised me to do likewise. I have joked that I was born on a Tuesday, was at the evening prayer meeting Wednesday and didn’t miss a church service since.  Some have asked me why I no longer identify as a Baptist.  This selection from a longer essay spells out part of my reasoning.

Like many Baptist churches, mine celebrated the Eucharist monthly, although, most Baptists tellingly prefer the less Catholic title: the Lord’s Supper. If you’ve ever been to a Baptist church, you know that standard protocol for the Lord’s Supper is that little plastic shot glasses of grape juice and some sort of crackers are passed out to congregants who then take the elements in sync. This method is in fact not accidental Baptist piety. While most of the Church believes the body of Christ to be present in one way or another in the Eucharist, for Baptists, Christ’s body exists on earth only in the gathered church, that is, “the body of Christ.” Christ is present in the elements, therefore, to the extent that they are received together by the gathered church.

In my church, the ushers were put in charge not only of serving the Lord’s Supper, but of preparing it. The ushers decided that this was too great a burden to be placed on them as often as once a month—in their defense, those little cups are hard to fill—so they proposed that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper only once a quarter. Of course, a committee was formed to do a cost-benefit-analysis and fights broke out in a few business meetings, but after all the dust settled, the ushers’ proposal won out and we limited our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper to once a quarter.

Only in retrospect did this strike me as odd. It was just part of my church experience, no different from people who are used to celebrating the Eucharist monthly, weekly, or even daily. After all, didn’t Jesus say “as often as you take of it”? I just never really thought much of it, until I went to college and began studying Church history.

Sitting in a little classroom at Eastern University, (interestingly, an American Baptist school), with Dr. Margaret Kim Peterson, I heard about another fight over the Eucharist. This time, in the ninth century, two monks with strikingly similar names, Radbertus and Ratramnus, living at the same monastery, Corbie, wrote two books by the same title, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini (The Body and Blood of the Lord), in which they laid out two opposing views of the Eucharist. Radbertus’ essay was a precursor to what Catholics later came to call transubstantiation. He said that the body and blood of Christ were literally present in the elements of the Eucharist. In fact, present isn’t the right word for Radbertus’ teaching. Rather, he maintained that the bread and wine were entirely abolished at consecration and that, though the appearance of the original elements remained, they were completely replaced by the body and blood of Christ. He then had to go to great pains to say that the post-resurrection body of Jesus was not restricted by the limitations of the spacio-temporal world, to show how it is possible that thousands of people all over the world eat of the same body and drink of the same blood at the same time every Sunday morning.

A few years later Ratramnus issued his response to Radbertus. In a style later followed by protestant reformer John Calvin, Ratramnus proposed that the body and blood of Christ were spiritually, as opposed to physically present in the Eucharistic elements. Preferring not to deal with some of the more philosophical questions in Radbertus’ essay, and seeking to make the faith reasonable to those learned in then modern science, Ratramnus substituted Radbertus’ supernatural Eucharistic theology with a more intellectually respectable version, without compromising the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. 

Now, what’s the point of all this theologizing? Did anyone win the battle? Not really—the Roman Catholic Church has officially adopted something similar to Radbertus’ view, under the title transubstantiation, but the debate continues in mainline protestant denominations today. Personally, I’m not sure how Christ makes himself present in the Eucharist. Radbertus and Ratramnus didn’t do much to clarify things for me either. What they did was call into question the legitimacy of the problems within my own religious tradition.

While my Baptist church was fighting over whether communing once a month was worth the work, Radbertus and Ratramnus were debating why, and in what way the Eucharist is central to the Christian life. In what way does Christ’s presence in these elements, they pondered, appear to us and nourish us in body and soul? I learned that what has historically been one of the most important elements of Christian faith and practice was all but lost from my own Christian experience.

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