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Baptism – Deferral*

04.14.2011

Before explaining why I retain my belief in the legitimacy of paedobaptism, I thought we’d examine an internal debate within the credobaptist school that sheds some light on the assumptions and principles in the debate writ large.  This internal debate is over the age at which it is appopriate to grant a new believer’s request to be baptized.

In my church, while the pastor and baptizees gather at the pool in the lobby, the video screens play taped interviews of some of the baptizees.  More often than I’d like to admit, it’s a little kid of five or six talking about how his sins have been washed away and how he’s looking forward to eternal life with Christ. 

Once, though, there was a girl who had to be younger than this, even, sitting with her dad, who was giving the interview on her behalf.   He told how they were taking shelter during a hurricane or tornado or such when he asked his terrified daughter if she wanted Jesus to be her ‘forever friend.’  When she nodded, he took that as confirmation of her desire to be saved, so he led her through a ‘repeat-after-me’ version of the sinner’s prayer.  Now here she was being baptized as a new believer.

I’ve had arguments with my wife about this, who was saved at the age of five and baptized at eleven, but I found the above story exceedingly creepy.†  I’m not suggesting that there aren’t young children with the maturity to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as Lord and savior, and I don’t mean to imply that the parents involved have any but the purest of motives for the welfare of their children, but this kind of story makes it appear more like we’re swooping in and telling kids to sign eternal contracts before they’re old enough to think for themselves.  At worst, we resemble toddler pageant parents, exploiting our children at the service of our own aspirations and insecurities.

This has led to a discussion amongst Credos.  I highly recommend that you peruse these articles, and then I’ll summarize and demonstrate how it relates to the larger paedo/credo disagreement.

Those who support baptizing believers regardless of age recoil at the inherent implication within the logic of deferral that professing faith is somehow insufficient for salvation, that there’s something more required that can only be supplied through maturation.  They indicate that since we can never know another believer’s heart (whether that person is five, fifteen, or 35), we cannot withhold the initial sacrament until we receive assurance of the believer’s regeneration.  Insead, they argue, we must be satisfied — at any age — with a credible profession of faith.  Lastly, they argue that deferring baptism until adulthood excessively individualizes faith and discounts the role that family and community play in shaping our identities and co-relating with Christ.

Those who have reservations about the baptism of children point to the fact that this is a recent innovation, that the average age of baptisms in the US only started to decline in the 20th century, and that by 1995, the only area of baptism growth was in the ‘under five’ age bracket.  As a result, we’ve seen a growing number of re-baptisms as believers get older, affirm their faith with maturity, and then consider the previous iteration as illegitimate.  Ultimately, those Credos inclined to defer baptism until a later age see baptizing a five-year-old as different than paedobaptism only by degree, undermining the credobaptist rationale.

I think  both are right.  I think the concerns about ‘faith-plus’ and our inability to truly know the heart of another as well as the concern about over-rationalizing and individualizing faith all make a compelling case against deferring baptism until some arbitrarily picked age of spiritual responsibility.  However, I agree with the supporters of deferral that baptizing children as young as five and six essentially negates the arguments for credobaptism over paedobaptism. 

In essence, then, I think that all the arguments from the first crew ultimately are arguments for the legitimacy of infant baptism.  Primarily, we can never truly know the heart of another believer at any age, and we should resist the cultural urge to individualize faith decisions and isolate our relationship with Christ from family and community influences. 

Next week, more on why paedobaptism satisfies the essential criteria of the sacrament.

————

* Incidentally, this is my 300th post on this blog.  It’s not the biggest or roundest number, but I happened to notice it this morning, and it gave me a pleasant surprise, since I’ve stuck with this blog more diligently and for longer than I probably would have expected.  I just hope you guys find it half as encouraging/fun/interesting as I do.

† I apologize if I offend anyone because I don’t say that to be mean or provocative.

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