April 25, 2007

Infant Baptism

A post by a friend of mine in Melbourne added to an intense discussion in KCW the other day started me thinking. Chris (my Melbournian friend) made mention of the baptism of the infant daughter of another friend of ours, and how his thinking has begun to change regarding whether baptising infants is a good idea or not. He made some good points.

Infant baptism is one of those internal Christian debates over which many churches have split. I've tended to ignore the issue, mostly because it never affected me much. But Chris' article started me on another search; what is the purpose of baptism? Why do we do it?

There's always the biblical command to fall on; "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit ...". I think that's a fairly good reason to assume it's of some import, anyway. But ... why?? Jesus doesn't say "do it because of this," he just says to do it. And while most people tend not to care HOW it's done (though I've had the "immersion" vs "any other kind of baptism" debate before; it's sort of useless), more people care about the people to whom it is applied. In this case, why would we baptize an infant?

I know the old reasons, primarily that we baptize an infant (or anybody) to save their soul from eternal damnation. I think most of us would now agree that it's not really the ritual of baptism that saves us (or any other "deed") so much as it is the relationship we have with Jesus and the confession that He is Lord. But Chris' post started me thinking: he mentions faith as a communal venture, and in light of that, babies are also part of families, so why shouldn't they be baptized? Again, it's a question of, how do we look at baptism?

Every group has their initiation ritual: the frats have hazing, gangs have tattoos, the Jews have circumcision (I shiver to think of adult men converting, especially in the first century), the academics have the doctoral thesis defense, the aborigines have their walkabout ... every culture has something. Initiation rites are typically used for two reasons. The first is the individual. Having a physical reminder of her committment to the group or culture is important in times of committal stress; if a person doubts her committment, having that physical reminder makes her think back to the time she committed, ergo she thinks about WHY she committed, and this is usually enough to satiate any doubts she might have. Baptism is highly symbolic and as such is entirely appropriate for this instance; I have died to my sin, and am born again in Christ. This is probably why it's not much of an issue for me to debate "immersion" vs. any other sort; I prefer immersion, only because of its symbolic value. I wasn't immersed, by the way, I was sprinkled in true Presbyterian form. But the other forms are just as valid, mostly because it's the symbol, the physical reminder that's important.

The second use of an initiation rite is for the community, and this is where my class discussion comes in. We talked a lot about whether faith is an individual thing vs. a communal thing, and it seems that most tend to think of faith as an individual relationship with God, that lots of people who have that relationship are called a church. It's not necessarily about the relationships between them, in their minds.

Now, I used to agree with that position. I don't anymore, especially after reading through scripture again. We westerners are at a linguistic disadvantage; our verbs do not conjugate the "you all" form like most other languages. In lots of scripture, "you" is realy "you all", but we can't read that because it's not part of our culture. We are highly individualized. Yet the Jews were always addressed as a nation, and Jesus said "you all" in a lot of his commands as well. Don't get me wrong, faith is DEFINITELY - but only partly - an individual thing; you participate in your own destiny. But the community has responsibility for its members. We the church are a single body, not just a random collection of individuals. Our baptism is our common bond, yes, but more than that the world is to know us by our love for one another! I'd say that's pretty communal.

So where do babies come into this? I'm still not sure if this is right, but I'm thinking that infant baptism isn't really about the infant at all; it's about the parents. It gives them - and their community - a physical reminder that they are to care for this infant's spiritual well-being, a time to remember back and say "despite how hard it is to raise her, I made the committment to teach her the ways of Jesus." Does it have to be baptism? No, I'd reckon it's better to do the "dedication" ceremony instead; the baptism is, in my mind, a one-time thing (so it's special, easily remembered). An individual makes the decision to proclaim to the community "I am God's" in their baptism; why take that away from them by making it an infant ceremony? But likewise, it's not imperative; babies won't remember it anyway - but the community WILL (or at least, should).

As I say, it's stuff that I'm still sort of working out, especially in light of the fact that I'm going to be a father in about two months. It's not really a solidified opinion yet (or likely ever will be) so your thoughts are most welcome.


Brian J said...

You brought up some great points about baptism. I always found it strange that Jesus said to be baptized, but never really expanded on that.

"Our baptism is our common bond" Yes! When I was baptized the whole church went to the park, had a cookout, played volleyball, then toward evening about 15 of us were baptized (this was a planned baptism event). However, it was powerful becasue I said symboically to family, frinds, and my church that I have been buried and risen again with Christ. Thus, there was a sense of accountability, both on my part and my church. It does seem to be a communal event.

Also, I tend to think baby dedications as you have outlined, tend to be the route that follows Jesus' commands the closest. Its hard to say a baby becomes a JEsus follower at the point of baptism.

shawna said...

Don't forget there are two types of baptism, John's baptism which is through water and then the baptism of the holy spirit...see Acts 19:3-4

Chris said...

Brian - glad to hear from ya mate.

Shawna - I think that both types of baptism are symbols for two different things perhaps? I still don't see that scripture calls the actual physical acts to be "salvatory" in nature, though redemptive they might be because of the symbolism of reconciliation. John's baptism was of water to symbolize repentence, Jesus' was of the holy spirit and was to symbolize reconciliation with God.

I think.

shawna said...

Well, I do agree that baptism by water is symbolic - sort of a proclamation of an individuals salvation...but I don't know that I would call the baptism of the holy spirit symbolic. My belief on the issue (this is one of those issues that the religious world can't seem to agree on) is that when you become a Christian you are baptised by the holy spirit,not symbolically but actaully. The baptism itself is not a decision that the person makes, but more of a gift from God, as Jesus said "It is good that I am going away. Unless I go away the counselor will not come to you; but if I go I will send Him to you" John 16:7.

Christop said...

'Baptism' in baptism of the holy spiritis symbolic, in that it isn't literally a person being dunked under the water. That's not to say that it's not something real. It's just not literally a baptism.

With the 'you all' thing - I reckon more English should use the word 'yous' as a plural of 'you'. Where I grew up a lot of people use it (probably Greek influence, I think), but we were always told in school that it wasn't a word and that we weren't allowed to use it, even though I reckon it's a much needed word!

Chris said...

You're right Shawna, I'm thinking that the "holy spirit baptism" is probably more of an actual thing that happens ... to "baptize" literally means to "immerse." The debate usually centers around the symbolic water baptism that is practiced in the church; lots of churches say that it ISN'T a symbol, that it's what saves a person, but I don't think that's right. I'd say that the baptism in water is a symbol of being baptized by the holy spirit ... I think that's what I meant all along, but I didn't say it very well.

Chris - "yous" is "ya'll" here in Kentucky, which sort of explains how they seem to be more communally-minded than lots of northerners. We northern Americans have less idea of community life than the southerners do ... but we have better paved roads, so it all works out in the end ;)

samantha louise said...

Hey, this isn't really to do with your post... but thinking about baptisms made me think about salvation.. which made me think about YOU .. and me wanting to know YOUR story.

Could you please tell us your story?


Chris said...

well ... I mean, in some regard, you're already reading some of my story, but I think I know what you mean. I have a couple of posts already in the works, but give me a little while and maybe I'll put something up :)