Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wesleyans and Infant Baptism (W)

Someone asked... here's a position piece edited from a previous post.
Before we say anything else, it is important to point out that Wesleyans do not think baptism saves you. We do not think that baptism keeps anyone from hell or protects them from the consequences of original sin.  If a person has faith, we believe it is possible to get into the kingdom of God even if you are never baptized.  We believe some Quakers and Salvation Army folk will be in the kingdom of God.  Similarly, we do not think that baptism guarantees in any way that a person is right with God.

So the question of infant baptism for Wesleyans is two-fold: what does baptism symbolize and what grace can baptism catalyze.  But given the previous paragraph, we simply do not argue over infant baptism.  It is not an issue for us as a tradition.  We have some who prefer infant baptism because of its symbolism, and we have some who prefer believer's baptism because of its symbolism.  But it would be silly for us to get too out of sorts about either because none of us believe that baptism saves you.

As far as grace is concerned, God can meet us most anywhere.  In a sense, believer's baptism is grace "after the fact."  You have already believed.  You have already received the Holy Spirit as God's seal of ownership, presumably.  You have already received the Spirit as a down payment guaranteeing eternal life.  What grace, then, is given by baptism at that time, since the cleansing of the Spirit has already taken place?  Perhaps empowerment or a strengthened assurance?

We thus understand and sympathize with those who think it is significant to be able to remember your baptism. In a Western, individualist culture, we understand the power of individual decision and the strength of being able to look back and hold on to a powerful memory in times of trouble and doubt.  We also understand why this position tends to see baptism more in symbolic than sacramental terms--it is after the fact.

The symbolism of infant baptism is also quite significant, but it focuses more on your sense of belonging to a community, a family that passed its faith on to you.  It is no wonder that this symbolism has resonated in cultures that are more group-oriented.  For Wesleyans who practice infant baptism, it is not an assurance of ultimate salvation.  It is laying a claim on the child's life for Christ.  It is binding the church and parents to do everything in their power to raise up the child in the way he or she should go.  Infant dedication does the same thing but it puts the child on the "outside" of the people of God, while infant baptism places them on the inside of the line (as in ancient Israel) and challenges the child never to leave.

There is some key theology at work here.  Wesleyans believe that God wants everyone to be a part of the kingdom of God.  We tend to believe that God gives everyone a chance to be saved, even those who have never heard.  Wesleyans call it "prevenient grace," the grace that comes to us before we even know it.  We do not believe God would condemn someone who was true to the "light they had" even if they did not know the name of Jesus.

So we do not believe that God will condemn young children who are not mature enough to understand.  Nor do we believe he will condemn those who are mentally challenged.  There are people whom God would never have condemned at any point of their entire life because they responded appropriately from the very first moment God made himself known to them.

It was thus completely in keeping with John Wesley's theology that he preferred infant baptism, and it is for this reason that Wesleyans can still baptize infants today.  It is laying a claim on them for God and saying, "You are in and we will do everything we can do to help you to stay in, even though it is ultimately your choice.  But we are challenging you to stay in rather than holding you symbolically 'out,' at arm's length, until you make a move."

What is the grace then that might be involved in infant baptism?  Perhaps it is a grace to keep you in and a grace on those around you to catalyze it?  There is a real sense in which the rise of believer's baptism corresponds to the rise of Western individualism.  We are not comfortable with the group dynamics of earlier times and often don't realize that the biblical world itself was similarly group oriented.

A whole host of clarifications to Paul's theology come into play here.  For example, justification by faith must be balanced out with the faithfulness of Christ and the far more prevalent sense of us being incorporated into his faith and his death.  Predestination and election language in Paul is primarily focused on us as a group rather than on us as individuals.  Paul can even say that an unbelieving spouse is sanctified by a believing one, including the children, even apart from the faith either of the spouse or the children themselves (1 Cor. 7).

The fact that the baptisms recorded in the New Testament are all adult baptisms doesn't settle the issue. In point of fact, the Bible never tells us an incident where someone is baptized as an adult who was in the church as a child. All the adult NT baptisms are people entering the church for the first time as an adult. The NT does mention more than once that whole households were baptized--we just don't know who was in them. On the whole, the group-embedded nature of the ancient world must make us reckon with the strong possibility any children in these families would have been baptized in keeping with the family decision of the parents.

A personal relationship with God and Christ is of course essential.  Every individual must confess Christ and appropriate his death if they understand the nature of things at all. But we must strongly suspect that such relationships were always embedded in the community of faith in New Testament times. In that sense they were personal, but not individual relationships with God and his Christ.

And of course infant baptism is not a Roman Catholic thing. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley all believed in and practiced infant baptism. Believer's baptism is really a result of Anabaptist influence on American Christianity in the last few hundred years, a minority voice that has really only flourished in America.

Wesleyans are free to practice baptism in any way other than one that believes the act of baptism itself saves us.  We are free to baptize infants, and we are free to baptize individuals when they come to conscious faith.  We are even free not to baptize at all, although the vast majority of us would agree that baptism is too powerful an act for us to miss out on.


John C. Gardner said...

This is very interesting. Would you post a commentary on how Wesleyans see the Eucharist? Is it purely symbolic or it there a real sense of efficacious grace attached to it?
John C. Gardner

JohnM said...

As one steeped in the Anabaptist (using the term broadly) view I acknowlege your point about us being in the minority and would say we therefore have more of an obligation to explain OUR position on baptism than the majority that practices infant baptism.

However, I'm glad "Someone asked.." because I'm interested in the answer also. After reading I do have a couple more questions.

1. Reading "infant baptism places them on the inside of the line" I wonder, is the Wesleyan view anything like the Calvinist understanding of of bringing the child into the covenant?

2. Since Wesleyans understand prevenient grace to extend to infants, in what sense does baptism place the infant on the inside, while the unbaptized, or the merely "dedicated" infant is on the outside? Does God regard the baptized infant differently, or is a matter of the church's understanding and acknowlegment?

Just curious and wishing to better understand. Thanks.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this one, too.

William H McVay said...

I Peter 3:21 "This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God 7 for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ"

From the first pope we are told clearly from this scripture that baptism is what saves us. John and Charles Wesley understood this as well, being the good anglican catholics that they were.
Gobbly gook theology such as this, as it exists within various protestant denominations such as the Wesleyan church, is one of the many many reasons as to why I converted to the one true church, the church that Jesus founded upon Peter, the Roman Catholic Church. Also, just a thought here for you to ponder...If baptism is not important as it pertains to one's salvation, then why was it the last words of Jesus before he ascended into heaven to go out and baptize and make disciples of the world????

Nelson said...

Did Wesley believe in the damnation of unbaptized infants? Reading his "Treatise on Baptism" he seems to imply it. Very

Gary said...

Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God's covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was "cut off" from God's promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

"Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

This covenant wasn't just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a "decision for God" when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time "decision for God" upon reaching an "Age of Accountability" in order to be saved.

Therefore, Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being "cut off" from God's promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

Christ said, "He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned."

It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.