Saturday, August 31, 2013

Reforming Credobaptism

Credobaptists commonly wonder about the appropriate age for baptism. How old should a person be before he can be baptized? I would argue that any age is appropriate, provided that the recipient can willfully profess his faith in Christ meaningfully. In the case of a child, I would generally entrust the discernment of that profession to the child’s parents. I’m comfortable saying that parents can, in a sense, speak on behalf of their children in this regard, which seems to fit well with the numerous places in Scripture that speak of baptism as a household affair, and also with ancient tradition.1 Furthermore, on a basic practical level, parents certainly know their kids better than anyone else in the church does.

But suppose (as often happens) a baptized child grows up and decides that he was not truly born again when he first received baptism. Should he then be rebaptized? We really need not limit the question to children here, since people who were baptized in adulthood might express similar doubts about the sincerity of their faith at the time of their baptism. So should a person be rebaptized if he feels confident that he was not genuinely converted when he was first baptized?

The way we answer this question will depend in large part on how we understand the nature of baptism itself. On this point, I think a more God-centered view of the ordinance wouldnt hurt us. Credobaptists like to speak of baptism as a statement that the believer makes to the world, which is fine as far as it goes, so long as we dont forget that its even more so a statement that God makes.2 Baptism depicts the reception of the Holy Spirit, signifies the forgiveness of sins, represents the death and resurrection of Christ, marks out the confessor as a member of Christs body, and unites him covenantally to the church. These are things that happen regardless of whether the recipient is personally on his way to heaven. In other words, I understand baptism to be an objective sign, meaning that its legitimacy does not depend on the inner state of the recipient, but on the sure promises of God (Acts 2:38-39) and the authority that Christ gives to his church.

Of course, there will inevitably be plenty of false confessors who are not truly regenerate, but are nevertheless part of the vine, part of the household of God through baptism. Which is why Godhousehold is the place where judgment will begin (1 Pet. 4:17). These “Christians who are covenantally united to the church through baptism, but not truly regenerate, are the ones we read about in Hebrews: “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified" (Heb. 10:29). I take this as a reference to water baptism, or at least to a spiritual reality of which baptism is emblematic (being washed in the blood of Christ).

So our question was, should a person be rebaptized if he becomes confident that his true conversion occurred after his first baptism? I would answer in the negative. A second baptism couldnt accomplish anything that hasnt already taken place in the first one. Imagine a husband who says, I didnt truly love my wife when I went through the marriage ceremony, spoke my vows, put the ring on, and signed the papers. Therefore, Im not really married. Is this good reasoning? Of course not. Marriage vows are covenantally binding in an objective way. The man doesnt need to get married again; he simply needs to start being a faithful husband now.3

Baptismal vows should be understood in terms of the same kind of objectivity. So even if a person did not sincerely understand the gospel when he was baptized, and was not truly born again, his baptism was still meaningful and valid, and I would not feel the need to counsel him to be baptized again. I would simply encourage him to start living true to his baptism now. It wouldnt necessarily bother me if he did get rebaptized (any more than it bothers me when couples renew marriage vows), but there isnt any real need for it. In other words, contrary to the popular credobaptist notion, I dont think its necessary for a Christian to make sure that his baptism occurred on the right side of his conversion.

If all this is correct, then a couple of additional points can be made regarding child baptism. First, we probably need to do a better job of taking child baptisms seriously. I suspect that many see them as simply token, heart-warming ceremonies, and not real baptisms; which can lead to negligence in terms of discipleship, because the baptized child is not actually being seen and treated as a real Christian. But in fact, we ought to be constantly reminding these children of the importance of their baptism, and encouraging them to live true to the commitment they made to Jesus. At baptism, the children put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). As they mature in the faith, they grow into him.

Second, I also think we need to be more thankful for child baptisms than we often are. In the post-Acts Christian church, child baptism should be viewed as the normal practice; not as an ecclesiologically awkward situation to get nervous about. In our zeal to protect the ordinance, we end up looking a whole lot like the uppity disciples, turning away the little ones when Jesus insists on letting them come. Bryan Chapell has said that “it is possible, even common, for the children of Christian parents never to know a day that they do not believe that Jesus is their Savior and Lord,”4 and I think he’s right. When children are nurtured in a godly Christian home where God’s word is consistently taught, then theyre very likely to confess Christ early in life, which is something to celebrate.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile.


1. See, for example, the baptismal instructions of Hippolytus: “And first baptize the little ones; if they can speak for themselves, they shall do so; if not, their parents or other relatives shall speak for them.” (Apostolic Tradition, 21.4)

2. This principle is relevant also to the question of whether baptisms are valid when administered by church leaders who later deny the faith. If we maintain a God-centered view of the ordinance, then well have no trouble affirming that baptism is entirely meaningful even when performed by unfaithful ministers. Those who were baptized by such leaders need not seek rebaptism (assuming the context was not a heretical church).

3. Im borrowing this analogy from Doug Wilson, who has a far more developed objectivist (and paedobaptist) covenant theology, which you can read about in his book Reformed Is Not Enough: Recovering the Objectivity of the CovenantI havent read the book yet, so I dont know what all is in it.

4. Bryan Chapell, Why Do We Baptize Infants? (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006), 27.


Nathaniel Simmons said...

Joel, this is a fun post. Last year I read "Word, Water and Spirit," by Fesko. I am hoping to pick up Schreiner's "Believer's Baptism" soon. So take that as an admission to being less informed on the subject than I would like.

Anyway, it seems that your whole argument rests on these two sentences, "Baptism depicts the reception of the Holy Spirit, signifies the forgiveness of sins, represents the death and resurrection of Christ, marks out the confessor as a member of Christ’s body, and unites him covenantally to the church. These are things that happen regardless of whether the recipient is personally on his way to heaven."

The problem is that it is not clear that the baptism of an unregenerate person unites that person covenantally to the church, nor is it entirely clear what it means to be united covenantally to the church. You cite 1 Peter 4:17 as evidence of a covenantally united unregenerate person, but I am not sure I see the connection.

Another reason that I wanted to comment is because this topic seems to be very closely related to speech act theory. The theory claims that our speech does something. For instance, when the queen says "I christen this ship 'HMS so and so,' the ship actually has that name. The speech act objectively names the ship.

However, we also recognize that speech acts depend on certain "sincerity conditions" in order for them to be effectively carried out. So if I take a trip to England and try to rename a ship in the navy, it won't work. I am unable to meet certain sincerity conditions, the most important being the authority to rename the ship, so even though I say the same words as the Queen, they do not have the same effect.

This, in my understanding, is basically the same thing that many Baptists have claimed about Baptism. That is, certain "sincerity conditions" must exist for the baptism to take effect. That is, when the Baptizer preforms the speech act by saying "I now baptize you in the name...," we assume that this isn't just two children playing in the pool. We also assume that this isn't simply any two adults walking through a procedure. Instead we assume that certain things are true of both the baptizer and the baptized.

All this to say, we need to ask, what action does Baptism accomplish and what must be true for this action to be accomplished? You stated the actions that Baptism is accomplishing, but I think they need a little more explanation and defense. But even if we allow those, there certainly must be some conditions that, if not met, would render the Baptism illegitimate. I tend to think that the sincerity of the Baptizee might be one of those conditions.

Joel Griffis said...

Thanks for the comments, Natty.

I would classify my post as more of a position statement than a full defense. Your comments (which are good ones) afford me an opportunity to think through and flesh out more of the details, which I appreciate.

What does it mean to be covenantally united to the church? There are multiple ways we could describe this biblically. Being covenantally united to the church is to be grafted into the vine (John 15:5-6). It is to taste of the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and to share in the Holy Spirit (Heb. 6:4). It is to be sanctified, set apart from the world (Heb. 10:29). It is to escape the defilements of the world and to know the way of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:20-21). Simply put, it is to be a card-carrying member of the new covenant, having all of the real covenantal obligations that go along with that (think of the marriage analogy).

And I'm arguing that all of these things can be said of people who will ultimately spend eternity apart from God, people who are in truth unregenerate.

In fact, we could affirm that such people are actually *in* Christ in a real way, but that may cause confusion. After all, Paul said there was no condemnation for those who are in Christ! I would simply want to point out that there are different ways to be "in Christ." Take John 15:5-6 for example. Who is the vine? Jesus. What does it mean to be in the vine? It means to be in Jesus. But the text gives us the category of those who are in Jesus for a time, yet don't stay there. They fail to abide, and they're thrown out. They were in Christ, but not permanently.

Paul said that not all Israel is Israel, and it's been said by a certain presbyterian pastor in Moscow, ID that not all Christians are Christians either. The point is that there's a difference between a covenantal identity and a true identity. In the old covenant, there were covenant members who were faithful, and covenant members who were *not* faithful. The covenant community was a mixed bag, and I don't think we have sufficient evidence to claim that the new covenant community is different in this regard. At least not yet. To say otherwise is to effectively argue that there is no longer any such thing as a covenant breaker, which I think is hard to square with the overall tenor of the NT, as well as specific texts like Heb. 10:29.

Here someone might point out how Jeremiah prophesies that new covenant members will all know the Lord, from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:34). But I'm inclined to think that not every aspect of this prophecy has yet been realized. For example, we still believe in the importance of teachers, even though the same verse says that "no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother." So it's an inaugurated eschatology kind of question. Which parts are already and which are not yet? Honestly, I'd like to look at this some more.

Joel Griffis said...

1 Pet. 4:17 was evidence that judgment will take place at the household of God. Most naturally, judgment refers not to a mere examination of works, or a bestowing of various degrees of rewards, but to an actual separation of sheep from goats. The point is that God's household, in the here and now, is made up of both sheep and goats, those who will spend eternity with him and those who will not.

As for the part about speech-act, the reason that you can't name the ship is because, as you acknowledged, you don't have the authority to do so. But I would argue that the church *does* have real authority given to it by Christ. I'm admittedly unsure whether it's best to say that this authority is in the hands of church officials specifically, or to the church collectively. But either way, there is real authority involved in the initiatory ordinance of baptism. The church has the keys of the kingdom. What's bound on earth is bound in heaven.

As an aside, you mentioned that we assume certain things are true of both the baptizer and the baptizee. I agree, we do assume that both parties are regenerate, and we should require at least some level of reasonable confidence that both are actually believers. We shouldn't let Richard Dawkins or Lady Gaga perform baptisms, or recognize such baptisms as legitimate. But if the baptizer is assumed by the whole church to be regenerate, and yet denies the faith years later, what would you say to all the people who were baptized by him? And why? It seems like your logic leads to the conclusion that they all need rebaptism.