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No. 47: Do Baptists Talk to their Babies?

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 47
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
September, 1996

Protestants have always insisted that the sacraments bring no benefit without a response of faith, but this seems to undermine infant baptism, since infants do not appear to be able to exercise faith. Luther and Calvin held together their insistence on faith with infant baptism by claiming that infants can believe. Baptists see this as the Achilles’ heel of the paedobaptist position, an example of how far paedobaptists have to go to defend an untenable practice.

Is infant faith absurd? As I indicated more fully in my lectures on baptism at the 1996 Biblical Horizons summer conference, our questions about sacraments often result from confusions about two things: grace and symbols. Through much of church history, there has been a tendency (and sometimes more than a tendency) to conceive of grace as some kind of impersonal substance, energy, or power that God delivers to man. Sacraments thus become, as is said even by many Reformed, “channels” by which grace flows to believers. This is just an image, but imagery has a way of shaping theology for good or ill. To call the sacraments “channels” of grace reinforced the mistaken view that grace is an impersonal substance or power. Grace, however, is God’s attitude of favor to sinners, manifested in His personal approach to establish fellowship, to cut or renew a covenant, with His people. There are not four things involved in sacraments (God, grace, sacrament, us) but only three (the gracious God, sacraments, and us). The Jews marveled at the confidence of Peter and John, and saw that it was a result of personal acquaintance and fellowship with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Our transformation has the same cause: We are renewed by personal fellowship encounter with the Lord who has become life-giving Spirit.

And as regards symbols: Frequently, we think of symbols as an addition to real life, as enhancements of the “literal.” In the personalist framework sketched above, however, symbols have a much more basic function in human life. Personal relationships among human beings exist, under normal circumstances, only by means of signs and symbols. Symbols communicate and mediate information and personal presence. We get to know another person by talking (using linguistic signs) and by gestures (handshake, kiss, hug, facial expressions, etc.). The only way for a man’s infatuation with a woman to move out of imagination into a real relationship of love is for the man to make his love “public” by speaking, writing love letters, sending flowers, and so on. Symbolic acts such as these do not picture a relationship that already exists; without the symbols, the personal relationship will not exist at all.

Likewise, our personal relationship with God takes place through mutual use of symbols: God speaks to us in His word, which takes the form of printed symbols on a page or audible sounds that carry meaning. We respond with words of prayer and praise. God “gestures” to us through the water of baptism and by spreading His table; we respond by accepting His invitation and feasting in His presence. The history of sacramental theology can be told as a dialectic between treating sacraments as magical and treating them as “mere symbols.” A personalist framework cuts through the whole debate: Symbols have power, but the power is the power of establishing and maintaining personal, covenanted relationships.

(Despite real differences between language and other symbolic actions, there are fundamental similarities: both speech [or writing] and gestures are physical actions; both uttering significant sounds and performing significant gestures are symbolic in that meanings are encoded within or “inhere” the physical actions. In fact, it is difficult to think of a human physical action in which meaning does not inhere: A pat on the back is different from swatting a fly but swatting a fly says something; speaking is different from belching, but, depending on circumstances, belching can mean either “I enjoyed the meal” or “I’m a mannerless pig.” Generating and deploying symbols is an inescapable human process, an aspect of our being made in the image of the Father who eternally generates His Word, His Image [John 1:1; Hebrew 1:1-3].)

Given this background, we can return to the question of infant faith. Here, “faith” is the human response trust to God in a personal relationship. The question of infant faith is not: “Are infants capable of receiving this jolt of divine power?” The question is: “Can infants respond to other persons? Do infants have personal relations?” And the answer to this question is obviously yes. Infants quickly (even in utero) learn to respond to mother’s voice; infants quickly manifest “trust” of their parents; infants quickly distinguish strangers from members of the family. If infants can trust and distrust human persons, why can’t they trust in God? Behind the denial of infant faith is, apparently, an assumption that God is less available to an infant than other humans. But this is entirely wrong; for no human being is nearer than God. And it is wrong because God’s presence is mediated through His people. When parents say to their newborn, “Jesus loves you and will care for you,” they are speaking God’s promises.

Parents, moreover, establish relationships with their infants through symbols. We talk to our infants, and we show our love through gestures � hugs and kisses. If there is nothing irrational or absurd about humans’ establishing personal relation ship with infants through symbols, there is nothing irrational about God’s doing the same. As we establish loving and trusting relations with our infants through symbols, so God speaks to infants and establishes a relation with them through the “visible word” of baptism. Thus, the question “Should we baptize babies?” is of a piece with the question “Should we talk to babies?” Paedobaptism is neither more nor less odd and miraculous that talking to a newborn. In fact, that is just what paedobaptism is: God speaking in water to a newborn child.

Let me take this a further step. If the child cannot understand what a parent is saying, is it rational for the parent to speak to him or her? Baptist parents as well as others speak to their infants, and do not expect the child to understand or to talk back for many months. They see nothing irrational in this. They speak to their children, that is, they employ symbols, not because they think the infant understands all that is being said or because they expect an immediate response. They speak to their children so that the child will learn to understand and talk back. So too, we baptize babies not because they can fully understand what is happening to them, nor because we expect them to undergo some kind of immediate moral transformation. We baptize them, and consistently remind them of their baptism and its implications, so that they will come to understanding and mature faith.

The sociologically consistent Baptist should, it seems to me, follow the Peekabo Street theory of child training. Peekaboo Street was the American Olympic skier, whose parents, as I recall the story, were so very trendy and liberal that they did not want to “impose” an identity on their little girl, so they allowed her to choose her own name, with obvious results. Karl Barth, who loudly protested the “violence” of imposing a Christian identity on a child through infant baptism, would undoubtedly be pleased. In fact, the Streets were not so liberal after all, for in spite of themselves they apparently did teach Peekaboo to speak English, rather than giving her the freedom to choose a language or make one up on her own. Baptist parents, so far as I know, are not consistent either; they do impose a language and a name on their children, a language and a name that cannot be religiously neutral; they do, in spite of themselves, often treat their children as Christians, teaching them to sing “Jesus loves me” and to pray the Lord’s Prayer. And if they do all this, what reason remains for resisting the imposition of the covenant sign?