In his masterful theological commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner reflects on infant baptism, as part of his discussion of Jesus’ baptism by John in Matthew 3:13-17 (my text for this Sunday). As a Presbyterian, he, like me and my fellow Methodists, is part of a tradition that practices infant baptism. And like me, he was “converted” to the practice later in life: he didn’t grow up believing in it.
Was he Baptist? He doesn’t say. But I was. As I tell former Baptists who join my church: “Like you, I was baptized by immersion. So at least we’re saved!”
To Bruner’s credit, he gives good arguments on both sides and admits that he is “of two minds” on the subject. Truthfully, I am as well. But it’s not as if I’m more evangelical or evangelistic than my Reformation ancestors Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, and Wesley; I’m not more of a champion of “justification by faith alone” than they were. Yet each of them still believed in infant baptism. (It was those darn Anabaptists who were the weirdos!) For that reason alone, I’m willing to set aside my doubts and accept the consensual teaching of the universal church, which—as far as we can tell—practiced infant baptism (without controversy) from nearly the beginning.
Bruner marshals plenty of scripture from Old and New Testaments to support the practice (I might blog about this later), even as he acknowledges that the explicit order in the Book of Acts shows repentance and faith preceding baptism. (Like me, however, he believes that we can infer that infants—or at least children too young to “comprehend” the gospel—are baptized, for example, in Acts 16:14-15, 31-33.)
Regardless, he believes, along with me, that our view of baptism is a secondary matter; it need not affect our essential unity. And I’m not aware that it does—except among some “restorationists” of the Stone-Campbell tradition. (Some within the Churches of Christ, for example, wouldn’t recognize most Protestants, evangelical or otherwise, as authentically Christian—not to mention Catholics!)
For those of us who practice infant baptism, however, let’s face facts: It often seems to make no difference in the lives of people who were so baptized. There’s often little evidence of conversion in the person’s life, aside from the most nominal kind of faith. And plenty of people who were baptized as infants later reject the faith. What do we make of this?
I find these words of Bruner helpful (emphasis his):
Where faith is not sustained in the hearts of baptized children, the gifts really given by God in baptism are left unused in an unopened section of the human heart. The gifts can even be rejected, and apparently they are by most (see the important discussion of this sad fact of “most” in 1 Cor 10). And then there is only judgment, as John’s Fire Sermon makes clear—and makes clear to believers. But when the faith given in baptism is maintained and confirmed, when baptized persons turn to Christ in fresh decisions of faith, they find that Christ has always turned earlier to them, as early as their baptism.
The earliest delivery of the passion in our own lives occurs ordinarily in baptism. And for all we know (and Luther liked this view…; cf. Calvin’s only slightly different understanding…) a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism. (Therefore infant baptism can be believer baptism.) No one should laugh (Gen 17-18). “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14 RSV). Then the weekly invitations to re-receive the gifts previously given to the people of God at baptism happens again and again in the preached Word and Supper with their fresh gospel messages of faith and repentance.
Why did the Reformers, and especially Luther and Calvin, the great champions of justification by faith alone, so stubbornly fight for the retention of infant baptism for believers’ children? The Reformers knew that infant baptism celebrated and communicated the one reality that is more important than anything we do—the prevenient grace of God, of a God who does saving things for people before they can do saving things for themselves, even when they are very young. If appearances do not deceive, we seem as infants to be rather bewildered by what is going on when we are baptized. But God is superior to all appearances; inwardly God gives faith (or, in Calvin’s expression, “the seed of future faith and repentance”). This ambience in infant baptism is so much like the rest of the gospel that it helps us to believe that this seemingly common event is God’s way in the church of arriving in human lives. Infant baptism looks very much like the lowly feed-bin manger in which Jesus arrived. Infant baptism has been cherished in the historic church, I suspect, because it is shaped like the gospel.[†]
In this view, saving faith is really given to a child through baptism. God makes it possible for even an infant to receive it (“a divinely given infant faith can receive the gifts given then and there in baptism”). Therefore, we can be confident a baptized child will go to heaven, for example, if he or she dies before professing faith for himself or herself. But this same person can also later reject this same faith—and it’s hard to argue with Bruner that “most” will. (Wesley certainly wouldn’t!)
Bruner’s view, please note, is more congruent with the Wesleyan tradition, which doesn’t hold to eternal security; which believes that backsliding is possible.
Thoughts? Are Bruner’s words persuasive?
† Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 112-3.