Thursday, August 26, 2010

Infant Baptism

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Infant Baptism:

Q: Why do some churches baptize only adults when others Baptize babies also? What reasons do churches give for baptizing babies?

All Christians agree that Baptism is an important part of Christianity. The New Testament speaks very highly of Baptism, and makes it very clear that God intends for Christians to be baptized. In the book of Acts, which tells the history of the first years of Christianity, one of the first things which occurs upon a person trusting Jesus is that they are baptized. The disagreement among Christians regarding whether babies and young children should be baptized arises because the Bible never says anything like “You must baptize babies.” or “You must not baptize babies.” As a result, the theological conclusions that a church makes regarding what Baptism is and does from the rest of the Bible inform their answer to the important question of whether or not to baptize babies.

The source of the different churches’ practices regarding Baptism can best be found in what these churches believe about Baptism. Since beliefs about Baptism differ so widely among the various denominations of Christians, their practices regarding Baptism differ accordingly. These differences include whether Baptism accomplishes something or only symbolizes something, whether the action is directed from man to God or from God to man, and whether or not humans are born sinful.

The primary question that determines whether a type of church baptizes babies or not is the question regarding the direction in which Baptism works. Namely, does God do something to a human in Baptism or does a human do something for God. Generally, if a church believes that God is the one doing the action and the person is the one being acted upon, then that church will baptize babies. If a church believes that the person is performing the action in Baptism, they will only baptize those who are capable of understanding and consenting to that action.

Churches that consider the direction of Baptism to be from the human toward God typically view Baptism as an act whereby a person pledges or demonstrates their commitment, obedience, and devotion to Jesus by the act of being Baptized. Churches with this belief have diverse definitions regarding who is capable of making this sort of pledge through Baptism. Some propose a numerical age of accountability, while others discern on an individual basis whether a child or youth is mature enough to do so. Churches which practice this type of Baptism often call it “Believers Baptism” and include Baptists, the Pentecostal and Anabaptist denominations, and many from Wesleyan or non-denominational traditions.

Although churches which consider the direction of Baptism to be from God toward humans tend to baptize babies, they offer different explanations of what God is doing through Baptism. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran theology all teach, although in somewhat different ways, that Baptism is an occasion on which God forgives the sins of the person being baptized and saves them from eternal punishment for those sins.

Some in this tradition point to the faith of the yet-unborn John the Baptizer in Luke Chapter 1 as he leaped in his mother’s womb upon his mother meeting Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, as evidence that children are capable of faith and, thus, suitable candidates for Baptism, as well as the Bible’s statement that he was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” They also note Jesus command to baptize “all nations” in Matthew 28:19 as well as the strong possibility that the “whole households” which were baptized in the Book of Acts included children.

Churches in John Calvin’s theological tradition would also hold that God is acting through Baptism, although not by forgiving sins, but rather by initiating them into a covenant relationship with God and incorporating them into His Church. Many in this tradition point to the Old Testament command concerning circumcision of babies as evidence that infants are suitable candidates for Baptism. Methodists also practice the Baptism of babies, but as a sign of God’s grace rather than a means of bestowing it upon them.

These theological differences are the cause of the varying positions practices among Christians regarding the baptism of infants and children. Like many areas of Church life, a church’s distinctive way of doing things is a result of the distinctive things that church believes.

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