Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Infant baptism - and the Old Testament

Infant baptism is seen as problematical for certain parts of the worldwide church on the basis that it seems to introduce a mechanical view of salvation that precludes the need for faith. The argument - probably massively oversimplified - is that when a child is baptized the inference seems to be that that child is then 'saved'. The power given to the church through the sacrament conveys all that is needed for that person's Christian life and from then on in all he or she has to do is attend church, receive the sacrament of Holy Communion on a regular basis, pray and try to lead a good life, accepting on trust the teachings of the Church about doctrine etc.. And even if those things are not done, because that child has the 'mark of Christ' on its life then that is sufficient to ensure that they will not be lost at the end. As I say that is a massive over-simplification of how infant baptism is viewed in certain quarters and although it is a bit of a parody of how sacramentalists view baptism, there is enough of an element of truth to make us stop and think a little about the case against infant baptism if that is implied by what is done.

In looking at this issue I want to step back as it were and try and look at the subject from a different angle. Although it is by no means universally recognised, infant baptism appears to have its roots in the Old Testament practice of circumcision which from the beginning included children, albeit male children. In Genesis 17 we find this:

"When Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and you will greatly increase your numbers." (verses 1-2) then later, "This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner - those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any circumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (verses 10-14)

There are a number of things in that passage that are worth thinking about:
1. Despite the fact that only male children were to be circumcised on the eighth day, from the very beginning children were included in the covenant. Although Abram was commended for his faith (Romans 4:9) yet, it seems, children who were too young to demonstrate faith in any way, were still included in the covenant. On what basis? On the basis of God's grace.
2. This grace was all encompassing and included those who were brought into Abram's household whether they were of his race or not, anticipating things to come - see Galatians 3:28 "There is neitherr Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female..."
3. One of the arguments - albeit from silence - for the baptism of infants is found in the New Testament references to 'household' baptisms (see 1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:33; etc). Isn't there a precedence for this here in Genesis. In fact the text actually makes a point of explaining what precisely can be found in a typical household of those days (and New Testament days) i.e. those born as well as bought (slaves).
4. Circumcision was about inclusion first (see Genesis 17:14 - last verse) and faith later.

As we move on through the Old Testament we find that circumcision is not enough in and of itself as God still calls his people to put their faith in him and demonstrate that faith through obedience. (See Deuteronomy 10:16 and the whole of Chapter 11) But even with the danger of that being ignored God still insists on including people first before they are old enough to have any say in whether they believe or not.

The question next is why. Why does He do that? One of the reasons we would want to ask that, I suspetc, is because we want things to be much more neat and tidy than that. Why does He not make it much more straightforward? For example why not just accept those those who believe and show in some obvious way that they are devout and worthy Jews and then have them circumcised when they have proved it. Why start with something that at the very least may possibly mislead folk into thinking that circumcision is enough in and of itself?

And that thinking, I believe, spills over into the thinking of those who insist on adult baptism only. It is much more neat and tidy and straightforward. A person comes along, shows signs that they are converted - they believe, read their bibles, come to church and demonstate that God has given them the gift of life - THEN baptize them as a sign of what God has done in bringing them through death and into life. They have died with Christ and been raised with Christ and baptism is a symbol of that change of status. Wouldn't that be much neater and tidier?

But God does not do neat and tidy or predictable. He refuses to be put into any kind of box no matter how pretty the package or the ribbons that bind it. God acts in and through and sometimes beyond the things He has shown us. Baptism, like circumcision is not tidy, its messy, but it's God being messy and seeking to include rather than exclude. It's as if He is saying "I want to include you in what I am doing in my saving work. If you want to abandon Me then that's your decision. But until you do I want you onboard, here, next to Me. How about it." As someone once put it: "With Anglicans (and other paedobaptists i.e. those who baptise infants) you are 'in' until you are 'out'. With baptists (and other anabaptists i.e. those who only baptise adults) you are 'out' until you are 'in'." Messy I know but still, I believe, God's way of doing things.


Book Bearer said...

So by your reckoning...are children saved when they are baptised or "are they just alongside God" ?

Also in Jeremiah

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time," declares the LORD.
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

Doesnt this imply that they will have knowledge first before the "new covenant"

Also was Circumcision a sign that they were a child of Abraham and not necessarily a believer?

Looking for God said...

Nope I am not saying they are saved or not saved. Basically i don't know. However God seems to include first and ask the big questions about faith later. As I said it's very untidy.

Also well before Jeremaih Deuteronomy warns that it is the circumcision of the heart that is important and yet still acknowledges the outer sign and the inclusion that is suggested by it.

Circumcision was about inclusion in the new people of God of which Abram (soon to be Abraham) was the founding father. However although his faith came before he was circumcised after him all who wished to belong to God's people had to be circumscised before they showed faith.

However I have to add that I am still working this through and the more questions I ask the more it feels like digging a hole in loose sand.

Book Bearer said...

I agree. I think it is going to be one things that just cant be nailed down. If it could then we wouldnt have baptists and Anglicans. We would have Christians! I think the arguments can be pursued on both sides and interpretations made of different passages. I think this is both one of the joys and one of the frustrating things about scripture!

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