Credobaptism and Paedobaptism: A Mediating Position

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Adrian Warnock has been presenting an interview with Wayne Grudem in several parts. In part 7, Grudem presents an argument against the position my congregation takes on baptism, and I don't think the argument should ultimately be convincing, so I wanted to respond to it here.

Paedobaptists baptize their children as infants. They do this as an indication that they place their children in God's hands while dedicating themselves to raising this child to understand the Christian gospel and to train the child in godliness. Credobaptists think children should wait until they can express their commitment to Christ before being baptized, since baptism should be something only a conscious believer should undergo. I didn't know this, but Grudem says the Evangelical Free Church has been allowing people to do either, according to whichever view they agree with. (Peter Kirk notes in the comments that the Church of England allows both as well. Matthew Sims says the Free Presbyterian Church does as well, and PamBG says the British Methodists also do. I didn't know that for any of them.) Grudem has welcomed this position and encouraged others to take it. It turns out to be the same position my congregation has had since the late 70s, when they first formed. But Grudem now worries that the position cannot hold up and will ultimately implode because of its attempt to reconcile two views that cannot be reconciled. I disagree.

My congregation takes the view that neither view can so clearly be shown from scripture as to justify practicing only one of them. Parents are given the option of (1) baptizing their children as infants and then having a confirmation if that child turns out to become a faithful Christian upon reaching an age when such a thing can be discovered or (2) dedicating their children as infants, leaving baptism to be pursued at a later date when genuine commitment to Christ is clear enough. The content of infant baptism and infant dedication is pretty much the same thing, with minor enough differences that justify the difference in whether it is called baptism. The content of credobaptism and confirmation is also pretty much the same thing, with the difference being slight enough to justify a different name for it, but it's mostly a difference of what it's called.

Now Grudem's argument is as follows:

For people who hold to infant baptism, they have to be able to say that it’s OK for believing parents not to baptize their infant children, which seems to them to be disobeying a command of Scripture as they understand it. How can they really say this?

On the other side, those who hold to believer’s baptism (as I do) have to be willing to admit into church membership people who have been baptized as infants, and who did not, of course, make any profession of faith at the time they were baptized. But these people (such as myself) who think that genuine baptism has to follow a personal profession of faith are then put in position of saying that infant baptism is also a valid form of baptism. And that contradicts what they believe about the essential nature of baptism - that it is an outward sign of an inward spiritual change, so that the apostle Paul could say, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)

I'll take the first part first. People who hold to infant baptism do not have to believe that it's not ok for parents not to baptize their children. They might in fact believe (1) that it's not a sin not to baptize but rather see it as just a bad idea. On the other hand, they might believe (2) that it's a minor sin of the sort that shouldn't cause division but insist on not committing that sin themselves (and also to engage in dialogue on that issue with those who disagree as they would on any other). Finally, they could accept (3) that someone who dedicates their child but refuses to call it baptism has nonetheless baptized their child. A good friend of mine in my congregation who still considers himself really still a member of the PCA takes exactly this view. He thinks our dedications of our children amount to baptisms.

So there are three different potential views that avoid Grudem's problem. That means this shouldn't necessarily make this a barrier to allowing the church to be what it is, which is the gathering of believers regardless of these sorts of differences. (We don't see Paul allowing the divisions in I Corinthians allowing them to separate into congregations according to their different views. He rather assumes throughout the epistle that their differences should stand alongside each other in the same congregations.)

Now there are people who hold more extreme views on baptism, and they wouldn't end up in this sort of congregation, but a paedobaptist intending to hold the mediating position will try to argue that that view of infant baptism is wrong. That is in fact what the one elder in my congregation who is a paedobaptist argues. Neither position is so clear in scripture that anyone could seriously argue that it's a sin to do the one that happens to be wrong. The fact that people on both sides look at the same biblical passages in different ways and maintain orthodoxy in every other way while also existing in large numbers within evangelicalism seems to me to show that. I'm not prepared to argue to all paedobaptists that they must adopt this view, but all I need to show is that someone can accept paedobaptism along with this sort of view. Once you do that, you should be ok with getting along with others in your congregation who have a different view on this.

Similarly, credobaptists in such a setting need not take Grudem's view. He thinks of people who have been baptized as infants as not being baptized, and it is thus immoral for congregations to allow people to think they've been baptized when they haven't been. The same three positions are available here. Someone might think (1) that those baptized as infants have not really been baptized, but they think they have been and thus aren't doing anything immoral by not being genuinely baptized. Alternatively, one might think (2) that those who are baptized as infants and then never re-baptized later have not genuinely been baptized, and it is wrong not to be baptized genuinely, but it's not on the level of the kinds of sins that must be confronted in terms of church discipline or causing divisions. Finally, someone might think (3) those who are baptized as infants are not thereby baptized, but the confirmation is basically the equivalent of a baptism in terms of its content. You lose some of the imagery, but imagery is imagery. That's unfortunate but not a sin. That is in fact my position.

So there are several ways a credobaptist can get around Grudem's problem. Not every credobaptist will take this line, and Grudem himself seems not to want to say any of those things. Still, this shows that someone of either view (paedobaptism or credobaptism) can consistently hold to the position of the Evangelical Free Church, my own congregation, and anyone else who advocates accepting members who will take either position on baptism. The position itself does not necessarily implode, as Grudem thinks it does.

I must reiterate again that some people will not in good conscience be able to take part in such a congregation. I would insist to them that I think they misunderstand the biblical teachings on baptism. But my goal here is not to convince paedobaptists or credobaptists of the mediating position. It's to show that a congregation can hold such a position consistently as long as the paedobaptists and credobaptists in the congregation are willing to take the more moderating positions of those views that I've outlined. Therefore, Grudem's argument doesn't show the impossibility of such a situation lasting (and I think the continued existence of my own congregation for 28 years with no real difficulty is also testament to the potential longevity of a congregation holding this position).

13 Comments

Interesting post. I’m not sure I want to enter into a debate on the possibility/impossibility of a congregation existing with a mediating position. I would, however, take issue with your argument that paedobaptism and dedication are basically the same (I realize you say the “content” is the same but my objection still stands). Correct me if I am misrepresenting but I understanding that the thrust of a dedication is that the parents commit their children to God and promises teach them about God and His ways. As a paedobaptist, I brought my children to the font in order that they might receive the promises of God; the promise to raise my child in the fear of God is only secondary in the sacrament of baptism. God is the actor (by making promises) in paedobaptism whereas the parents are doing the acting in dedication.

I agree with you, Jeremy, and thank you for laying out these terms.

I myself have been baptised twice. I honor both baptisms, though that perhaps makes me unusual. I was credo-baptized to make the public confession as well as receive the sacrament (cleansing and regeneration) as an adult, yet I do not view my paedo-baptism as invalid.

I've also had all of my children baptised as infants, and did (along with my husband) so that they too could receive the sacrament. If, however, any of them should determine in the future that they wish to be baptised again, they will have our blessing. As they will should they decide that their paedo-baptism is sufficient. And they will baptise, or not, their own children with our blessing.

I have come across commentary critiquing a position such as mine, citing Ephesians 4:5 to suggest that it's impossible to be baptised twice. But I don't think that verse implies that the one baptism can only be received once. If it's possible for both paedo- and credo-baptism to be valid, why would one become in-valid for a person just because that person received both?

(I should also note that I was not motivated to be credo-baptised by any sense of wanting to "cover all my bases." My motivation was solely as stated above.)

Dave, a credobaptist can acknowledge what promises there are about raising godly children. There isn't much along those lines, and paedobaptists greatly exaggerate what there is. We should never assume that someone is going to turn out to be a believer, especially our children. That's just putting God to the test and dictating to him what he ought to do, as if our believing is some work we do to earn his favor and his response. We can trust that God will reward our efforts and hope in the non-biblical sense (i.e. without assurance). We can't assume, though. But a paedobaptist need not assume. Some are more careful about this than others.

There are proverbial sayings in scripture that are probably best summarized as saying the following: on the whole those who raise their children in a godly way will be more likely to end up with godly children than if they didn't raise them in such a manner. Like the rest of the proverbs, these aren't promises but guides to living and not exhaustive or absolute guides. There aren't many sayings in the book of Proverbs that are absolute. So if the paedobaptist view is taken that way, then I consider it demonstrably unbiblical. But more moderated forms seem to me to be easily held by credobaptists (and I don't think the more extreme form should be held even by paedobaptists, since it's not necessary and so easily shown to be a misuse of genre in scripture).

You neglected to mention another difference in content, which is that paedobaptists consider their children to be not just part of the covenant community but even part of the covenant, which is a covenant between God and those who follow Christ (and thus not something unbelieving children are in). I think the important content of baptizing children can be captured by treating your children as being in the covenant community without making the stronger claim. But it's beause of these differences, whih I think are slight differences in terms of church life, that I say the content is nearly the same rather than saying it's exactly the same.

Ephesians 4:5 isn't about one baptism per person. Maybe a case can be made from scripture for that, but it doesn't seem to me that a text about unity in Christ is the place to look for that. The parallel argument would be that since there's one Lord you can't serve Christ as your Lord more than once in your life and since there's one church/gathering you can't gather with other believers more than once in your life. I guess you could also say that since there's one word you can't hear or say the word of God more than once in your life.

Bonnie, are you a Lutheran? I'm sure if what I'm saying applies to Lutherans (although maybe it applies to Lutherans together doing this). Lutherans see baptism very differently from Prebyterians, Baptists, and the other positions I have in mind. If it involves cleansing and regeneration, then I think there's a lot of important content that Presbyterians and Baptists would not grant. I was thinking of Baptists and Presbyterians coming together on this. I think throwing Lutherans in would really change things. That might work as long as those issues aren't raised, but I think it would be a much more unstable position than the one my congregation takes. But maybe there could be congregations that did both if everyone there saw baptism as Lutherans do. I'd have to think about this more, though. Maybe the differences in interpreting baptism between Lutherans and the others doesn't constitute the sort of thing worthy of division. I do think the Catholic view does, and the Lutheran view is sort of halfway in between.

From your response I must not have been altogether clear. The promises which I believe my children received are that God will be a God unto them and that the covenant promises are theirs (not any kind of promise about my responsibility as a parent--I quite agree with what you say about proverbs being a general rule and not a promise per se).
I should also say that I don't equate baptism with election. While I do think that my children fully possess the covenant promises this is not to say that they might someday (God forbid) show themselves to be covenant-breakers. Thus there is a greater deal of similarity between a believers baptism and our practice of public profession of faith (by the way, if we receive unbelievers into the church these are baptized as adults though if they were baptized at birth they would simply make a public profession of faith).
I see a great deal of continuity between the way God worked in the OT and what we see in the NT. There whole households were circumcised (including children and foreign servants), and we see the same sort of thing going on with baptism in places like Acts 2:39 and 16:33. Infant baptism didn’t have to be prescribe because it was just assumed that God worked with families and communities and not just individuals.

Jeremy, I've been a member of an Evangelical Covenant church for about 15 years. The ECC recognizes "freedom in Christ" to choose either paedo- or credo-baptism. However, I grew up in the UCC, assented to the gospel through friends at InterVarsity during college, and since have attended many different churches (due to moving) including "open" Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Assemblies of God, and Lutheran Missouri Synod churches. Guess you could say that my influences have been many and varied :-)

That said, though, I think my theology would most closely line up with Lutheran. Although, I'm not really familiar with what they say about baptism!

Anyway, I sure would like to see unity (not necessarily agreement) on the issue of baptism (as well as other things) among all Christian denoms.

Forgot to mention -- I was credo-baptised in a Full Gospel church (that family members attended) because it had an immersion tank and the church(Ev. Covenant) I attended at the time didn't. My pastor attended the baptism but did not perform it.

Dave, I tend to think of covenant promises as conditional in the sense that if someone follows the terms of the covenant then God will be faithful to them. I think paedobaptists especially should think this way, given that there's no necessary connection between being in the covenant and being elect. I would argue that someone like me who does see exact overlap between those two categories should also see the promises as conditional but that anyone genuinely in the covenant will meet the hypothetical. It's just that we don't know who those people are for sure ahead of time, even with ourselves, which is why the language of Hebrews is so strong about such matters. But I think the important part of the content of this does occur with either view.

I'm not convinced that the OT-NT continuity is fully there on this issue. Women, for instance, weren't circumized, and the are baptized. The passages in Acts aren't clear to me. It may be that they speak of the whole household when most of the household was baptized. The Bible frequently speaks this way, as do we all. It's also not clear that the whole houshold didn't believe. I think the strongest piece of evidence against infant baptism is that the early church seems to have baptized in rivers, something I doubt they would have done with very young children. But again I don't think any of the arguments for either view are all that strong. Someone holding the alternative has a way to deal with each piece of evidence for the opposite side of the discussion.

Fair enough, Jeremy, and thanks for taking the time to respond.

[Okay, I was going to leave it at that but I can't resist another comment]

It's interesting (I really mean that--I've never heard this from a credo-baptist) that you equate being in the covenant and being elect. What, then, do you make of Romans 9:1ff which says that Israel who possessed from God (1) the adoption, (2) the glory, (3) the covenants, (4) the law, (5) the service (?), (6) and the promises, BUT "not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel." I guess I see this a saying although they were part of the covenant people of God (after all, Esau received the sign of the covenant) some proved not to be elect.

I will admit that as a Calvinist there is something of an incongruity between our belief that God is sovereign over our election but on the other hand saying that a condition of our election is keeping our end of the covenant. In fact, if our salvation depends on our adherence to the covenant then I think we are in trouble! We usually say that someone who publicly professes their faith is "laying hold of the covenant promises." This is interesting from an OT perspective: God performed the mighty act of salvation and then gave them the terms of the covenant not the other way around . . .
Anyway, thanks for the good discussion.

This is one of the discontinuities. In the old covenant, the covenant was a covenant with the people of Israel and their descendants. Being in the covenant did not mean being saved. But the new covenant is not like that. It's written on the hearts of those who are in it. Some appear to be in it but don't have it written on their hearts. I would take them, then, to be members of the covenant community but not members of the covenant. They haven't made a covenant with God.

In both the old and new covenants, God initiates the covenant. In both, the terms come after someone is in the covenant. In the new, someone's turning out not to be faithful in the end is a sign that the person "was not of us" to begin with, in the words of John. In the old covenant, it would be put in terms of being part of Israel in one sense and yet not being part of it in another. The visible/invisible church distinction tries to capture that phenomenon in the new covenant. And yet I see no sciptural justification for seeing someone who is not elect as being in the church in any more sense than being among members of the church. Being in the church means being among those gathered around the throne of God in heaven. So I think this is a discontinuity between the two covenants, even if there's a lot of continuity in issues within the general vicinity.

I'll have to think some more on your distinction between being in the covenant community and being in the covenant.

I have not read the series with Grudem so I do not know if he was mistaken but Mr. Pierce seems to be mistaken on the position of the E Free church.

It is not the position of the E Free church that within a congregation individuals can choose the mode and meaning of baptism. However, freedom has been granted each congregation to govern their own affairs and as long as they stay within the 12 points of the SOF of 1950 or the 10 points of the 2008 SOF. Because the Association was formed by Swedish immigrants coming out of the Lutheran state church of Sweden, there were some that wanted to continue the practice of paedobaptism. There is still freedom within the Association for congregations to practice paedo (and even freedom to pratice the mediating position suggested here) but most E Free churches are strictly credobaptist.

If that's right, then they have the same position my own congregation's denomination has, which allows congregations to have the position that my congregation has but doesn't require either of the two mainstream positions or my congregation's more open policy. If so, then it's still laudable if not quite as laudable.

As I read his remark again, it was clear to me that he wasn't expressing himself well. I think the natural way to take what he said is that the EFree denomination allows pastors and individual families both to do what their conscience dictates, but I can see how he might have meant just pastors do that. The way he says it isn't remotely clear.

I'm a credo who likewise prefers that churches allow for both.

Regarding your list of rationales by which a credo could allow the membership of those only paedobaptized, I'm really not comfortable with (2) and (3), and only barely comfortable with (1).
But, there is a fourth way in which a credo may wind up in the same place: by choosing to regard paedobaptisms as "mistaken baptisms" rather than as "no baptisms." This is what I've decided to do. IMO, a paedobaptism takes the wrong form and is premature, but is a baptism nevertheless.

An illustration:
John walks into a gym, in order to apply for a membership. Sam, a new employee at the gym, has John fill out the appropriate paperwork and then issues him a membership card. Later that day, Sam turns in John's paperwork to his superior, telling his superior that he has already issued John a membership card. Sam's superior replies, "Sam, you aren't supposed to issue membership cards until I approve this paperwork."
"Oh, I didn't realize that-- sorry! Is John accepted into membership, though?"
"Yes, he's accepted; just follow protocol next time."
Sam questions further, "Should we revoke that premature membership card and issue him a new one, now that he's been approved?"
"No, that's not necessary. It should not have been issued before he was approved; but, he is approved now, and a card's a card."

That's how I view paedobaptisms, and that's why I don't think that rebaptisms are necessary (although I'm certainly not against them).

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