Justifying baptism

I wrote this blog post on baptism nearly fifteen years ago.

That’s a long time. Reading the post is sort of weird. I don’t really recognize my own voice or fingerprints in that post, at least for the most part. There’s bits in there that still sound like me, but it might as well have been written by anyone.

But let’s not dwell on that more than we have to. I have enough grey in my beard already.

Let’s talk about what I was doing in that post, instead. I’m pretty clearly trying to apologize (in the sense of offer up an argument for) infant baptism, using covenants and continuity as my justifications.

But why am I doing that?

Well, I think there are at least a few things going on here. First, infant baptism is hard to support directly from scripture. The Anabaptist claim is simpler, more direct, and requires less framework-style theology. That’s not to say it’s not as laden with assumptions as infant baptism, but that the theology is simpler.

I think this is one of the reasons (though not the only one) why evangelicals in the Americas are overwhelmingly adult baptists. You don’t come to evangelicalism, let’s be honest here, for its deep doctrinal traditions. It’s the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” strain of Christianity. Simple is better.

Second, I was raised an infant baptist, and continue to prefer that tradition (though I belong to a church that is, at least nominally, Baptist).

Third, and most importantly, in that post I have ideological commitments that make it necessary for me to justify that preference or belief or doctrine or whatever you like to call it. My rhetorical goal in that post is to offer up a scriptural defence of infant baptism, but that rhetorical goal is driven by prior ideological commitments.

One of those commitments is, roughly, if the church does something it must be justified against the pages of scripture. This is the milieu I was raised in, a usually unspoken tenet. A sort of jacked-up sola scriptura. There were looser and stricter adherence to the tenet (FRC, if I recall correctly, would only sing Psalms, but URC would sing psalms and hymns), but the tenet itself was inviolable. The structure of the service had to be justified from scripture, etc, etc, etc.

It was exhausting.

It was also bullshit.

The problem was the test failed its own test. After all, if the church does something it must be justified is itself something that the church does, and cannot be justified. It’s just tradition rolled up in a carpet and snuck in the side door.

It provides intellectual cover, if you don’t look too hard, for the thus far but no further crowd, who view everything from the past as sacred and everything from the present and the future as an abomination.

Which, I mean, fine. You can keep the same church service from the 1940s or whatever. No one’s trying to make you change it, except maybe your kids. Just be honest about it and stop investing your sense of personal holiness in the way your parents and grandparents did church.

Because at the end of the day, this scriptural justification… you can’t do it. You can’t do it. You just can’t do it.

Infant baptists, adult baptists, whatever baptists can’t do it. There’s, at best, very little Biblical data to support your position. Your position comes from somewhere else. From your upbringing, your preferences, your intellectual orientation, your culture, your tradition, whatever.

Catholics and Anglicans and Orthodox all get this. They lean as much on tradition as they do on the Bible. This is, I think, the more honest approach. The corpus of stuff the church does is as much, and probably more, decided on by the church itself through time as it is directly plucked from the pages of scripture.

My current thinking is this: The church has, historically, decided on infant baptism for various reasons. Those reasons are not all great, because the historical church didn’t have access to the breadth and depth of scholarship we have now. But baptizing infants is a way of connecting with the traditions and practices of the church through time, at least for me. I think adopting the Anabaptist tradition does violence to those traditions, especially when it tacitly assumes that a) we have to justify our practices from the Bible and the Bible only, which, again, fails its own test, and b) that the best reading of the Bible is the most naive one.

The best we can say is you have to do it. The how and where and when? You and your community decide.

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