Tag Archives: infant baptism

Hermeneutical trump cards

In order to produce a ‘normative’ statement out of the New Testament it is practically inevitable that one will emphasize one part of the text at the expense of the rest. This functions, at both a scholarly and a popular level, by means of elevating certain parts of the theology of the New Testament…into a ‘canon within the canon’…. This is not to say that one should not operate with some sort of inner canon: all interpreters do, whether they admit it or not, in that all come to the text with some set of questions that begin the encounter. The question then is: what should we do with this starting-point? Should we use it simply as a way in to the material, remaining conscious of its implicit bias? Or will it be used as a Procrustean bed by which to measure, and condemn, the other bits that do not fit? (N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 21-22.)

Hermeneutics is not just a question of what we do with the text. It is also about recognizing what we each bring to the text or impose on the text.

One of my papers for my hermeneutics class last semester was on the subject of infant baptism. The assignment was to take an issue that has divided our church (or the church in general) and examine the hermeneutical questions and challenges of each position. What made this paper particularly interesting and useful was that we were not to take a side on the issue, not to argue for one or the other, but simply to present the respective arguments and then examine and critique the hermeneutical issues at hand.

I chose infant baptism because I grew up in a believer baptism setting. That is, the denominations in which I participated did not practice infant baptism, but only baptized adults (or individuals beyond a certain age) who have made a personal decision to follow Christ. The denomination of which we are now a member and in which I hope to be ordained practices both infant and believer baptism.  What this means is that the child of believing parents is not automatically baptized. Instead, parents choose whether they want their child baptized or simply dedicated so that they can choose to be baptized on their own when they are older. After writing this paper, this conscience-based position seems like the sensible thing. However, pastors in our denomination are required to do both. If the parents want their child baptized, the pastor has to be willing to administer it. So this paper was a useful exercise for me.

There are a number of issues at stake in this issue, but I won’t get into all of them now, but one hermeneutical issue in particular stood out to me: giving certain verses or passages precedence over others. Among the various arguments for or against this position, there is one significant place where both sides use the same passages to argue for opposing positions: the household baptisms in Acts. The text is technically silent on the presence of infants in these household baptisms. The believer’s baptism-only side (credobaptists) argues that since infants are not specifically mentioned, they must not have been included. The infant baptism side (paedobaptists) will say that while infants are not specifically mentioned in the text, a household would by definition and in all likelihood have included infants.  In this instance, both sides are using the silence of the text to argue for their position. In other words, the Bible itself nowhere else explicitly states whether there were or were not infants included in these household baptisms. The interpreter has to make a hermeneutical decision as to how to approach these texts and “outside” (that is, from other parts of scripture or theology) influences inevitably come into play.

Of course, both sides have ways of supporting their position by drawing on other Biblical texts which indirectly relate. The credobaptist, however, will say something like this: “Every instance of individual baptism in Acts is preceded by belief/decision, so it follows that the same happened in the household baptisms.”  This is where it gets interesting. Here’s how I put it in my paper:

The question must be asked…whether the cases of believer baptism and the cases of household baptism are to be understood in the same way.  Is it reasonable to set a pattern for baptism that runs straight through both individual baptisms and household baptisms? Should the clear cases of individual believer baptism be given hermeneutical precedence so [that] they define the parameters of the more ambiguous household baptism passages? The believer’s baptisms are clearly dealing with adults, so it is not clear how they apply to the baptism of infants…

We do this sort of thing all the time, of course.  We use the passages that support our current position to smother the passages that seem to suggest something else. We are not comfortable living with the tensions of scripture. We like everything to be smooth and unambiguous, so we either overpower contrary texts  with the texts that support our position or ignore the contrary texts altogether.

But there’s no good reason that I can see for doing this sort of thing.  This is an example of what Wright calls “a canon within the canon”. We give certain texts more heremeneutical power than others, and it’s usually the passages which support our current position.  It looks kind of like this:

Paedobaptist: I think the household baptisms may at the very least allow for the possibility of infant baptisms.

Credobaptist: Every instance of an individual getting baptized in Acts shows clear personal commitment to the way of Christ.  So, I don’t think so.

Somehow, we think that simply naming the supporting texts is enough to deal with the contrary texts. But there’s no real reason for this.  The same thing will happen with many other issues. Christian universalism is a subject that I keep returning to.  It seems to me that the “hell passages” have been given trump powers over passages which may hint at something else or beyond.  So the conversation may look like this:

Universalism: I think the New Testament certainly allows for the possibility for universal reconciliation. Take, for instance, Paul’s writing about Christ dying once for all and Christ being the new Adam who does the sin of the first Adam.

Exclusivism: Yeah, but the New Testament has all sorts of references to hell and judgement.  So, I don’t think so.

End of discussion. But this kind of trump move is hermeneutical dishonesty.

Infant baptism

I grew up in Baptist circles, where baptism is only for those who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ–“believer’s baptism” it is called.  Infant baptism is a no-no in that group–it is invalid, non-binding, what have you. I now belong to a denomination in which both infant baptism and believer’s baptism is practiced. If a parent decides they want to baptize their infant, our pastors will do so; if the parents would rather dedicate their infant (“dry baptism”, according to infant baptizers), that’s acceptable, too. I’m okay with this. I’ve never heard a convincing argument against infant-baptism, as the argument from silence (i.e. the Bible never explicitly mentions it) is always unconvincing, and for reasons given below.  I may have heard good arguments in favour of infant baptism, but I don’t remember them. So I choose to remain agnostic and let someone else make those decisions for me.  And I happen to find myself in a denomination which walks the middle ground: they do both.

A couple of days ago I was having a conversation with someone in which “the sinner’s prayer” came up, and it suddenly dawned on me that the anti-infant-baptism position of the churches of my youth is rather inconsistent. As far as I recall, all the churches attended prior to joining our current denomination were non-sacramental.  That is, to them things like the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist, communion) or baptism have no efficacy, they are not “an outward sign of an inward grace”–Jesus is in no way present in the Lord’s Supper, but is simply remembered through it; baptism is not a means of grace, nor is it the path to membership in the body of Christ, but simply a public declaration of one’s faith (it is this declaration, rather than the baptism itself, which marks one’s joining the body of Christ).

Even during the communion service at my mom’s church this morning, while the pastor repeatedly asserted that Jesus is actually always with us, when we consumed the bread and juice, he declared that we remembered Jesus as we did so. That seemed strangely incongruous to me. Perhaps he meant that we remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but in using the term “remember” we do mean something that has happened, something in the past, rather than something in the present. Perhaps I digress.

For churches that see things like communion and baptism merely as symbolic acts with no intrinstic effect or deeper meaning, they seem to be remarkably adamant about who can be baptized and how they are  to be baptized. If it’s merely a symbolic act, what difference does the who and how really make?  The problem is probably precisely the fact that baptism is seen as non-sacramental. If it is a declaration and nothing more, how can an infant make such a declaration?

Still, there is the dry baptism–the baby dedication. Is it much different than an infant baptism?  I don’t know; I haven’t witnessed an infant baptism. I suspect, however, that the difference between a baptism and a dedication is mostly in how much water is used (some vs. none), though some of the wording might also be different.

And then there’s the classic Toddler Point of Conversion. If you grew up in a Christian family, you might be familiar with it.  It was quite common among my church-going peers to say something like, “I became a Christian when I was four years old.” (Age four really does seem like the magic year.) This inevitably means that they said “The Sinner’s Prayer” some time that year. The Sinner’s Prayer (for a four-year-old) in summary: you say you’re sorry for your sins and you ask Jesus to come into your heart so that you can go to heaven. I quite clearly remember my Point of Conversion, and from what I can recall and what my mom recounts, I did in  avery simplistic way understand what that prayer was all about. What that meant in my life immediately afterwards, I don’t know, but I suspect very strongly that it had less to do with me and more to do with the Spirit of Christ. But I digress again.

But is a four-year-old asking Jesus into his or her heart and thereby being declared “saved” much different than a baby being baptized and thereby being declared a member of the body of Christ? Ah, you say, but the four-year-old has made his or her own decision to follow Christthere’s the difference. To which I respond, firstly, has he or she really made his or her own decision? How informed can a four-year-old really be? And secondly, isn’t this business of making one’s own decision decidedly modern and individualistic? Sure, we must all choose at some point–but is it the personal decision what gives conversion its efficacy? What makes us think we can do this on our own anyway? What if the decision isn’t exclusively mine? What if I never really make a “decision for Christ” but merely find myself in and with him?

To that end, I like Lauren Winner’s community-oriented perspective on the question of baptism:

Sometimes people wonder how babies can be baptized; indeed, that very wondering is the genesis of the Baptist church. Baptists believe babies shouldn’t be baptized. They say there’s no scriptural precedent for it, that Jesus and John were both baptized as adults. Hannah, who’s a Baptist, often says that a baby can’t promise to do everything one promises in baptism. I have never found this a very persuasive argument. It strikes me as too individualistic. The very point is that no baptismal candidate, even an adult, can promise to do those things all by himself. The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf. It is for that reason that I love to see a baby baptized. When a baby is baptized, we cannot labor under the atomizing illusion that individuals in Christ can or should go this road alone. When a baby is baptized we are struck unavoidably with the fact that this is a community covenant, a community relationship, that these are communal promises. (Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God, 80)

“The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf.” I like that. We do the same thing when we dedicate a baby, of course, but we skip the water. I’m not sure why.

I wonder if all this “Jesus is your personal saviour” business, even if it is true, is undermining our sense of community, of being part of the body of Christ, of being inextricably linked to each other through Christ, that we are all in this together, not just a bunch of individually saved people who happen to meet together on Sunday mornings and occasionally mid-week.

It’s strange, now that I think about it, how we don’t like this idea of making a promise on somebody’s behalf, which is what both baptism and dedication are. We don’t like it because we think we should make all of our own choices–no one should make them for us, and if they do, they are invalid promises and I don’t have to honour them.

On behalf of someone. On behalf of people. Isn’t that precisely the story of Christ’s death and resurrection? Why are we so afraid, so resistant to this idea of doing things on behalf of others when this is precisely what Christians believe about the cross? Doesn’t this resistance move us away from the cross, even to the point of saying, No thanks, Jesus. You can’t do that on my behalf. You’re infringing on my right to choose for myself. Stay out of my business, thanks.

I don’t know.  There’s much more that could be said.  As I was writing this I began to realize that the theological rabbit hole goes deep and I’ve only skimmed the surface. But there you have it, for now.