The Quick & Dirty Answer to Why Anglicans Baptize Infants (or – Are Anglicans Heretics?)
We believe God is the primary actor in the sacraments, not humans. This means that baptism is part of God’s initiative with us, and that children of Christian parents are “in” before they have to prove it. This is why Baptism is called a “sacrament of grace” not “a sacrament of my-decision-for-Jesus.” It’s first about God, and then about me. (Small but important note: the person being baptized never baptizes themselves! It is a sign not of what they have done, but about what God does). “The promise is to you and your seed … so be baptized …” (Acts 2:38-39)
Paul says that baptism is our new family ID card, just like circumcision was in the Old Testament. God says “you are in my family!” and stands ready to dump blessings on our children, let them taste the family food and culture, and in all these ways to arouse faith within our children. It isn’t a guarantee (nor was circumcision a guarantee for those who came through the Red Sea) – the family privileges are always received by faith. “You were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith” (Col 2:11-12).
Baptism has the same foundation for both children and adults! It rests on God’s choosing us, God’s shout-out: “I will be your God, and you will be my people!” Baptism does not create family members (nor does our faith). The Trinity creates family members, by already throwing open their love to us and beckoning us into their life. An adult enjoys these benefits by faith – and the child enjoys them by relationship to the parent (1 Cor 7:14), and one day due to his own faith. “I will make an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come” (Gen 17:7 – connect to Rom 4:11)
Anglicans are, in the words of one of our favorite Anglicans – C. S. Lewis – “dinosaurs” who are rare survivors of a distant age. With many thanks to American revivalism 200 years ago, baptism morphed from being a promise of what God has done to my-choice-for-God. (Note: if I hadn’t really chosen God truly the first time, I could get re-baptized to declare my new intentions to follow him). Anglicans are dinosaurs because we do not believe, as much of modernity does, that what I think (or translation: what I believe about God) is at the center of the action. We prefer to be relics of an older past that declares that what God has done has changed everything – and that baptism is a way that we participate in that (but don’t make it happen).
Baptism is our entry into our new family – the church. Rather than being an obligation that we fulfill, Church is the place where we are nurtured in the faith, given the family food, and come face to face with Jesus every week. Paul does much of his theology from baptism – reasoning from baptism that we are united with Christ and united with each other. “You have been baptized into one body, by one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
In the New Testament, whole families were baptized. One of the first Christian martyrs, Polycarp - a disciple of John, had been baptized as an infant. This practice, rooted in the very earliest days of the Church, continued for 1500 years through the Reformation, was affirmed by Calvin and Luther, and then suddenly was thrown into question. What happened? Did people start reading the Bible truly for the first time? Or had the cultural context changed?
Here’s why people began to throw out the baby with the bathwater …
Two great cultural shifts happened around the time of the Reformation:
A growing awareness in Western Civilization about the “individual” as opposed to a communal identity. This would become heightened in the Enlightenment, codified by Descartes (I think, therefore I AM), and result in our (post)modern obsession with individual freedom, authenticity, and self-identification. Like all cultural movements, there are pros and cons to these shifts. A pro would be a greater emphasis on personal appropriation of one’s faith, making it “one’s own.” A con would be a heightened introspection, an anguished conscience, a burden of zealous faith that is not ours to bear.
A second great shift:
The rise of extreme “radicals” who were all denounced by the great Reformers (Calvin, Luther, Cranmer), but whose legacy (ironically) lingers strongly among Protestants. For these radical revolutionaries, “real” religion was interior, dualistic (inner feeling vs. outer ritual / Spirit vs. institution, individual vs. communal, word vs. sacrament), and to be found most often outside the local church. They smashed stained glass windows (too distracting). They rioted and pulled down cathedrals (too hierarchical). They removed altars for communion (too dangerous) and replaced them with pulpits. They stopped baptizing infants (too wishy-washy). They joined “pure” churches. This purifying impulse was reactionary (and we know they had much evil to react against). But the unintentional consequence of this was that it left nothing but the autonomous individual, with their conscience, their faith, their private convictions at the center of faith. All that the church had discovered over 1500 years about how to guide people through all seasons of life was discarded for immediate experience. And while some of this was cleansing and healthy, it fit in nicely with Descartes and the Enlightenment’s program to exalt the individual and their inner thinking over everything else.
In America, this reactionary-purifying strain of Protestantism was exported from the Continent, bringing with it the pros and cons of the culture and times. Add to this two hundred years of American revivalism, with its anti-church tent-meetings and altar calls, you have a recipe for a new understanding of baptism as my decision for Jesus.
When I (Julie) look at the New Testament, I see something different. I see that baptism is not primarily about a person’s private faith, but entrance to a community (which will, of course, nurture and educate this faith). I see that baptism is not about what is happening “inside me” toward God, but that it is primarily about God’s momentum towards me. I see that baptism is not primarily a badge of my faith, but of God’s grace toward me which results in me being included into a new family. I see that children – and adults with mental disabilities – can be included in this family and that just like Israel in the Old Testament, grace meant that people were included from the outset in God’s giant mind-blowing plan for the world (and that, just like in the OT, they could “opt out” or be considered “disobedient” but the stance towards them was inclusion from the start).
So if baptism is not a sacrament of my decision-for-Jesus, but his decision-for-me (and my response of “yes!” to this grace), you might be worried: doesn’t this result in nominal Christians, some of whom have been baptized but don’t really “get it?” Yes, this is true. This pastoral problem has been alive and well since Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church. (TBH, this gives me some comfort). What I find interesting is that Paul didn’t stop baptizing people to make SURE they got it right. He didn’t un-baptize Corinthians who were getting it wrong. He didn’t re-(re)-baptize people who started getting it right once again. Their baptism had been based on the Father, Son, and Spirit – so you can’t add to that. Paul just called people to their baptism again, and again, and again.
Although this isn’t the main reason why we baptize infants, it is not unimportant that Paul looks at Baptism as the New Covenant ID form of circumcision. Baptism is our ID card – it is just like circumcision in the Old Testament, showing that we are now part of the covenant family with all the family benefits. Baptism doesn’t give us the family benefits, but it gives us the “title” or ID card to the benefits – so that if and when we believe, we inherit the blessings of the family. (Note that like in any family, becoming part of the family and receiving the blessings of the family are not necessarily or even normally simultaneous. Just like Abraham had faith first (Gen 15), and then received the “seal” of the blessings of faith later (Gen 17), this was reversed for Isaac who was circumcised & sealed (his ID card) at 8 days old, and thereby “holy” (1 Cor 7:14) in status – but he still needed to receive the family blessings by faith as he matured.) Baptism functions just like circumcision – God says “you are in my family!” and now begin to walk and receive the blessings of being my children, by faith. It is possible to receive the family ID card before the gift (as in the case of infants) or receive it after (in the case of adults). Either way, the inheritance comes through faith.
So if we are baptized, what are we to do?
Remember our baptism! Annually, Monthly, Weekly, Daily. And this is what we do at Trinity Church every time we walk into the church – we dip our hands in the pottery bowl (“font”) and say “I am God’s child!” And in the case of someone’s baptism, we all jump in the water as well to remember – remember – remember.