Ruminations on Baptism

I am not a Baptist, but I struggled with infant baptism early in my ministry, partly because of Karl Barth’s influence, and partly because of my pain at the casual way it was often regarded in the culture Protestantism of much of New England Congregationalism, where I labored.

But it was the form used by my tradition and so I followed it. Over the years of pastoring I came to embrace it and love it. Nevertheless, I exercised a kind of tough-love discipline around it, requiring parents or sponsors to have a real church connection, and for this, let me say candidly, I sometimes experienced a different kind of pain (as Paul said, “I bear on my body the marks of Christ.”) I firmly believe there must be faith for there to be a baptism, whether it is the faith of the baptized (as in believer baptism) or the faith of the parents or sponsors. But try to explain to your loyal congregant grandparents that you won’t baptize their grandchild because the parents want nothing to do with the church or its faith, when all they want is a nice “Christening” with a party to follow.
I found the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (BEM) document from the World Council of Churches to be very useful in thinking about baptism. It speaks directly to variations of form and usage around baptism and tries to find ecumenical consensus where it exists, for example on the prohibition against re-baptism, and to raise issues for conversation where consensus does not.
And some of you will not be surprised to learn that I also have found P. T. Forsyth’s writings on Baptism, chiefly in his book, The Church and Sacraments, to be very useful in my ministry over the years.
Forsyth suggests that both forms (believer and infant) have their inherent emphasis and along with them certain temptations. In the case of believer baptism a temptation is to think it is about me, my faith, my experience, and in infant baptism, the temptation is to a kind of magic. He asks rhetorically,

“Would Christianity really be reformed if it abolished infant baptism? Can that now be hoped for? Is that the only way to keep the magic out? Would it not be burning the house to roast the pig? Would it not reduce the church to the permanent condition of a missionary Church only, amid a quite pagan society?”

For Forsyth, who proposes that both forms be offered and recognized, “What makes baptism real is God’s changeless will of salvation in Christ and the Church. It testifies chiefly to this, and not to a subjective attainment of confession, which might change. Sacraments are modes of the Gospel (not of our experience), and that is what the Gospel reveals.”
Writing about infant baptism he says,

“Baptism is incorporation, not into Christ, but into the body of Christ, with its moral, spiritual, social influence on the soul. The child is not given the Spirit, but placed where the Spirit moves. It must make much difference to a young soul whether it is taught to believe it is a member of Christ’s body, and takes its disciplines as a child of the house, or whether it is taught to regard itself as an outsider, spectator, and by-product of the Church’s grace.”

Now that I am a pew-sitter and not a celebrant I have witnessed several baptisms in a variety of churches and forms and I am moved each time by the power of this gracious sacrament, however it is administered.


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