Swimming the Tiber 14: The Sacraments: Baptism (Part Two)

Last week, I talked about how the purpose and effect of baptism is to forgive sins and unite the believer to the Body of Christ (as opposed to merely signifying a declaration of faith on the part of a person old enough to make such a decision).

This week, I’m going to tackle the second point of contention: when to baptize somebody.

As a Baptist, I always had a ready answer to the question of infant baptism: “It’s not Scriptural!” Indeed, infant baptism is never mentioned explicitly in Scripture. All attempts to root the practice in Scripture are ultimately reliant on Tradition, rather that the text itself, to establish that interpretation. But to be fair, “believer’s baptism” for children at the age of reason is never mentioned in Scripture, either. At no point is the baptism of the children of believers ever mentioned, either as infants or as adolescents.

In fact, every instance of baptism in Scripture is the baptism of a convert.

So we must rely on some other principle of interpretation to determine when a person ought to be baptized. For the Baptist, this is an extrapolation of “believer’s baptism,” with the assumption that a five- or six- or seven- or eight-year-old child is capable of belief. (Looking back, I think that was not at all the reality for me; genuine faith may well be possible for some children, but it was so far beyond my comprehension then that you may as well have asked me to be baptized on account of understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, or the dual nature of Christ, or that that photons behave as both particles and waves, or that black holes are so massive that they generate enough gravity to prevent even light from escaping them. I’d have probably agreed to it because you made it sound like I should.)

But for the Catholic, there are a few things we rely on. First, we rely on the strength of Tradition. Certainly, infant baptism was the tradition of the early Church, because Church Fathers as early as St. Irenaeus defended it–and he would not likely have defended the practice in AD 190 if he had not been baptized as an infant himself 50-60 years before, probably by St. Polycarp. By that time, Polycarp was a bishop, but in his younger years he was a student of St. John (the Evangelist, who wrote five books of the New Testament, and was the beloved disciple of Jesus). Could the message of Christ have been so corrupted so quickly? Or is it more likely that St. John taught St. Polycarp to baptize the infant children of the faithful, who then taught it to St. Irenaeus, whose writings on that very subject we still have to this day?

As Catholics, we also rely on the purpose of baptism, which, as you may have now surmised, is why I have addressed these questions in reverse. That is, if the purpose of baptism was merely to signify a declaration of faith, then of course, we should wait until a child is old enough to declare his or her faith. (You may as well say that an infant or a child is capable of declaring their future career or whom they will marry, except that matters of faith are not so trivial as these things–which suggests we should wait even longer to be sure of a child’s faith.) But if, as I discussed last week, baptism is efficacious to forgive sins and unite someone with the Church, the act is independent of the chosen faith of the child, and it should not depend on their state of belief, but on whether or not their parents want them to be part of the Body of Christ.

I don’t know any Christian parent who does not want their children to be part of the Church. And if someone did not, could you really call them Christian?

This capacity of baptism to forgive sins and grant access to the sacraments of the Church also means that a child who has not been baptized remains subject to original sin, the old self, their sinful nature, almost to adolescence (or beyond, if something interferes with the development of their faith). And we live in a broken world where life is unexpectedly short. Does it make any kind of sense to leave our children enslaved to their own sins, knowing full well they may die at any moment, and be lost forever? Or, rather, should we intervene on their behalf, not hindering them, but letting them come to Christ (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)?

I have read an objection to this argument, saying that this vignette opposes infant baptism, because Jesus did not baptize the children, but only blessed them. But we know (John 4:1-2) that Jesus did not baptize anyone at all with water, but his disciples did, so why would he have baptized these children? But he blesses, he forgives sins, and, by his presence, people are healed. These are the extraordinary means of salvation, and, by design, we have access mainly to the ordinary means; that is to say, Jesus can forgive and heal by word and touch, but we obtain forgiveness through baptism and obedience.

And while there is no direct mention of infant baptism in Scripture, we do see whole households being baptized under the faith of their heads. Acts 16:13-15 tells the story of the conversion of Lydia and her household; Acts 18:8 of Crispus and his household; and 1 Corinthians 1:16 of Stephanas and his household. Now, of course, you may argue that these households might not have had infants or children at all, or that they might have been excluded from the baptism of their family–but the text doesn’t say that, either. As long as we’re arguing from silence (which is a terrible thing to do), the text makes no mention of anyone in Lydia’s household believing before their baptism, or of anyone in Stephanas’ household believing at all. The head of a household is responsible for the faith of that household; that’s why fathers have such weight of responsibility (see Ephesians 6:1-9; Colossians 3:18-25). Whether there are infants in each of these households is not relevant to the question; what’s important here is that those with responsibility to pass on the faith do so, and part of that is including one’s children in the Body of Christ (perhaps even the most important part, though certainly raising a child cannot be in the least discounted).

It is crucial to remember that baptism is the covenantal sign of our faith, as circumcision was before Christ. St. Paul makes this clear in his epistle to the Colossians:

In whom also [you] were circumcised1 with a circumcision not made by hand in the divestment of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried together with him in baptism, in which also [you] were assembled through the faith of the action of God, the [one] having roused him out of [the] dead; and you, being dead {in} the blunders and the uncircumcision2 of your flesh, [he] made you alive together with him, having forgiven for us all the blunders, having plastered over the [note] against us handwritten3 with doctrines, which [note] was opposed to us, and [he] has lifted it up out of [our] midst, having nailed it to the cross.

– Colossians 2:11-14

1 Lit. “cut around”; compare with circumcision, from Latin circum, around, and caedo, to cut.
2 Lit. “the foreskin”
3 Here means a note of debt, in this case a legal one (from “doctrines,” just following); on top of having this meaning, the word χειρόγραφον (handwritten) is wonderfully juxtaposed with ἀχειροποιήτῳ (not made by hand) above. Baptism is a spiritual and divine reality which “plasters over” the frail pages recording human sin.

We see again that it is baptism which buries us with Christ and raises us up with him, whereby also our sins are forgiven us. It joins us to God’s family through his Son. And circumcision was commanded for every male at least eight days old, not because those infants grasped what it meant to be united to the covenant of God, but because anyone who was not circumcised was “cut off from his people” as one who had broken God’s covenant (Exodus 17:14).

Before I close, I do want to address one final point about when to baptize someone: rebaptism. In many Protestant circles, and among Baptists especially, it is common practice to rebaptize someone who either was baptized outside of a Baptist church or who had lost their way and wanted to recommit themselves to God. According to Catholic teaching, this is inappropriate at best. Baptism is once for life. You can’t get baptized again, not really. And whenever a sacrament has the proper form, it is assumed to be valid until proved otherwise–so baptisms (and marriages, which I’ll get to later) performed outside the Church are presumed valid, so we don’t rebaptize. The second “baptism” would be a farce. Consider Ephesians 4:4-6, which teaches us that there is one baptism into the one Body of Christ (see also 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

The one exception to this is when the first “baptism” is done improperly (lacking the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as directed by Christ in Matthew 28). Compare this with Acts 19:1-7.

So you see how the Church understands baptism, and how I could go so far from what I believed before to what I believe now. I think that the proper perspective makes the Church’s teaching on baptism clear, but I spent a long time thinking that Catholics were not just wrong, but completely batty. It can be a hard change to make, but, looking back, I’m sure it was the right one.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the next of the seven sacraments: Confirmation.

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