George Hunsinger: Answer to a Question About Baptism


Recently I was so impressed with George Hunsinger’s “Are The Gospels Reliable? A Letter to a Young Inquirer,” which I saw on Ben Myers’ site, that I asked him if he had other such helpful catechetical resources.

Dr. Hunsinger, who teaches systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, is not only a first rank academic theologian, but a faithful Christian concerned with the catechesis of the faith at every level, witnessed to by his guiding  involvement in the most recent (1998) Presbyterian Catechism.

Years ago, he was my first advisor for what became my A Course in Basic Christianity, a project subtitled “Remedial Catechesis for Adults.”  I often call it “Everything you should have learned in confirmation, but probably didn’t because you had other things on your mind.”

As always he keeps ecumenical concerns in view.  Here he addresses a thoughtful letter on Christian baptism with the same clear and careful thinking that he brought to the earlier letter on the scriptures, and also to his most recent book on The Eucharist and Ecumenism (Cambridge, 2008).

I quote both the letter and his response  in full with his permission:

“Dear Dr. Hunsinger,

I’ve recently been stymied as to how to understand baptism theologically.  As a “good” Lutheran I’ve always understood baptism as a means of grace, through which the spirit both quickens and awakens faith in the baptized, with the old Adam drowned and the New Creation raised to New Life in Christ.

However, I’m currently in a course on the Radical Reformation, in which we’ve been reading the anabaptist, Balthasar Hubmaier, who argues for a different, though biblically defensible understanding, with Baptism a human response to grace already received, a profession of one’s desire to live according to “the Rule of Christ.”

These conflicting notions of baptism demanded further reflection, and so I turned to Barth’s IV/4, with only greater confusion ensuing.

All this is to say, I’m unsure of how to locate baptism in terms of justification. If Christ is the one in whom we are elected, if he is our justification, and the one in whom we are crucified and raised to New Creation, where do we locate baptism?

Is it simply the awakening of the believer, through faith, to our already present justification? Can we be said to play a role in this, perhaps passively, but a kind of consent to what has already been accomplished for our sake? At any rate, the issue seems to be an incredibly confusing one, and I’m unsure how to think about this. Any guidance you might provide would be appreciated.”

“Dear N,

I agree that this is a difficult and confusing question.  Furthermore, I don’t find Barth’s views in IV/4 to be entirely convincing.  In the end, his position seems more nearly Anabaptist than Reformed.

You might want to read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about baptism.  It at least takes adult baptism as the norm from which to understand infant baptism.  I think this is an advance over traditional Reformational views (e.g., Lutheran and Reformed).

Infant baptism complicates the matter enormously.  To make sense of it, I think we need a Christ-centered eschatology of participation.  On these grounds we can posit an objective participation in Christ that anticipates its fulfilment in subjective (conscious and active) participation at a later date.  We could then see the baptism of an infant as somehow being “proleptic.”  Baptism would be the means by which the infant is included, objectively, in Christ and his community by grace, but this grace would need to be fulfilled when the infant later responds to the Gospel with faith.  So there is an “already” here and a “not yet.”  In baptism the faith of the parents and the community would function vicariously for the infant until confirmation.

The grace of baptism would be the grace of participatio Christi.  This grace would precede conscious faith on the part of the baptized infant, and it would be fulfilled only when the infant affirms Christ by faith later in life.

This view would not quite amount to “baptismal regeneration.”  I don’t really know what to do with this idea.  I’d like to work something out that would not be church-dividing.  Perhaps we could use the same conceptual pattern that I have been suggesting here.  It would be a pattern of moving from precondition to fulfillment.  We could see baptism as an objective precondition for the justification and regeneration that will later be actualized, confirmed and fulfilled by faith.  What was once actual objectively becomes actual, in a new and essential form, subjectively.

Is baptism necessary for salvation?  Catholics think so.  Protestants often don’t.  I think we could probably resolve this one by asking, “necessary in what sense”?  “Absolutely” (simpliciter), or only “in a certain respect” (secundum quid)?  I think baptism could only be “necessary” in a certain respect.  It is always fitting and necessary unless certain obstacles intervene to prevent it (as sometimes happens).

I wrote an article about baptism about 10 years ago for the International Journal of Systematic Theology.  I would revise it along the above lines if I were to re-print it today.

With best regards,

Dr. Hunsinger”

One thought on “George Hunsinger: Answer to a Question About Baptism

  1. I think GH kicked your note to me for further response, but I don’t know if I added anything interesting. In any case, my dissertation on Barth and infant baptism is almost fully drafted…

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