Taking Baptism Seriously
Some six years ago, I began the process of becoming an ordained minister of word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. A few months before entering seminary, I was having lunch with a cousin who attends a Southern Baptist church. During the meal, I explained to him that in order to be ordained I would have to be approved at various stages by the candidacy committees associated with my home synod. Immediately, my cousin replied with an air of mock warning, “Make sure you know the right things to say about baptism!”
He went on to explain that he had two Baptist acquaintances who considered themselves sufficiently Lutheran to seek ordination in the ELCA. In both cases, the otherwise suitable candidates were unable to give their synodical committees an acceptable account of why they agreed with the ELCA’s practice of baptizing infants rather than the practice of “believer’s” (adult) baptism characteristic of most Baptist denominations. My cousin left me with words that have stayed with me ever since: “One thing about you Lutherans: you sure do take that infant baptism stuff pretty seriously!”
My cousin was quite right that we take infant baptism seriously; however, I have observed numerous times since that the Lutheran way of “taking something seriously” is often to call it into question. One might say that a sure mark that a given belief is of marginal importance to Lutherans is that it never has been the subject of controversy.
Indeed, the practice of infant baptism has in recent decades been “taken seriously” in precisely this sense. Lutheran pastors and theologians have grown increasingly dissatisfied with both the theology and the practice of infant baptism, and you don’t need to be a pastor or a theologian to understand why. Anyone who attends a parish long enough is bound to notice the disconcerting gulf between the rhetoric and reality of baptism. On the one hand, there are stirring words about vocation and incorporation into the Christian community that begin with the rite of baptism. On the other hand, there is a tacitly acknowledged reality that many of the families whose infants are receiving this rite have little intention of making church membership an important part of their newly baptized child’s life. As a tradition that affirms that baptism, like the sacrament of the altar, is an effective means of God’s grace, we Lutherans rightly may tell ourselves that the Spirit can be at work in both the rite and the aftermath of baptism in ways not entirely visible to onlookers. However, the reality is that a sizable number of those baptized as infants into Lutheran churches have, as adults, little or no real attachment to the church. While this separation from the church occasionally takes the form of a fierce rebellion (and is thus commendable at least for its honesty), more often than not it is closer to a “drift,” a gradual slide, often beginning shortly after confirmation, into a state of benevolent indifference to the institutional church or so-called “organized” religion.
The gap between the theological ideals that underpin the practice of infant baptism—the belief in the effectiveness of God’s grace, the testimony of the catholic tradition, and the nurturing presence of the community in the transition from infant to adult faith—and the sociological reality of this “mature” indifference to the church has been seized upon by theologians who insist that the church has entered into a period where it must extirpate from itself the last remaining vestiges of “Christendom.” These voices insist that the breakdown of the synthesis between Christianity and American cultural mores presents an opportunity for the church to reclaim its original (i.e. pre-Constantinian) status as a countercultural community. From this perspective, the issue of infant baptism rankles with especial force given that at the height of Christendom, particularly in European contexts, the rite of infant baptism become a sort of civil ceremony in which the established state church inducted the infant into civil life and thereby assured religious unity and conformity.
While the marriage between church and state was never (formally) consummated to that extent in the US context, most pastors would agree that, in our time, the practice of infant baptism is more often motivated by social custom and a desire for family-centered ritual than by the sober undertaking of a deeper commitment on the part of parents and sponsors. This state of affairs, goes the argument, cannot sustain a community marked by the call to mission in a time when the demands of that mission are becoming less and less identical with the functions of proper civic behavior.
In the wake of this longing for what Jürgen Moltmann has called “vocational baptism,” baptism as a subversive induction into a countercultural Christian community, two categories of proposals for revision have emerged. The less severe revisionists would urge, and indeed mandate, pastors to withhold infant baptismal rites in cases where there is no convincing promise on the part of families and/or baptismal sponsors to perform the tasks of catechesis and communal acculturation outlined in the language of the baptismal liturgy. The more radical proposals would have church bodies transition, either gradually or abruptly, from the practice of infant baptism to a stance more akin to the Anabaptist traditions in which infants are baptized rarely or not at all. Again, the goal of such a transition would be to reinvest the baptismal act with the sort of vocational gravity characteristic of the early Christian communities.
How to evaluate these calls for revision? Regarding the former, the impulse to withhold baptism in the absence of any demonstrable commitment to the infant’s ongoing incorporation into the church has a great deal to recommend it. Nothing about the baptismal rite suggests that its promises are pronounceable with any measure of liturgical honesty in the absence of such commitment. Only the most theologically dubious notions about the necessity of baptism for salvation in, say, the tragic case of an infant’s death could support the mentality that would advocate doing the act for its own sake regardless of whether the circumstances of its performance conform to the intention of the rite. Those entrusted to be “ministers” of the sacrament in the full sense of that term must claim the authority to delay or withhold the rite when the integrity of the sacrament (and indeed the community) is at stake.
To do away entirely with infant baptism in the name of church “vocation,” however, is to misconstrue the nature both of baptism and of Christian vocation; for indeed, the two are inextricably linked. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his defense of infant baptism, argued persuasively that baptism of infants is, for Lutherans, perhaps the single most powerful expression of the reality of being saved by grace through faith, apart from works—including the “work” of being “conscious” of one’s belief (see Glenn L. Borreson, “Bonhoeffer on Baptism,” Word & World, 1/1 , 20–31). As an act constituted in large degree by the expressed faith of the parents/sponsors, moreover, it is a marvelous enactment of the communal reality of the faith through which we are justified. Thus, the most common defense of the Lutheran practice of infant baptism is that it embodies our state of being before God’s justifying grace: we are purely receptive and as bereft of works or strategies as an infant.
However, when we think of baptism this way, we must avoid the temptation to imagine a state of qualitative rather than quantitative distance between the infant and we “active” adult Christians with all our finely honed capacities, learnings, and strategies for pursuing the ends that we deem worthy of our vocational consciousness. We imagine that to be possessors of “adult” faith and the vocational aptitudes that go with it is to have progressed past the state of the infant in the sponsor’s arms. The corrective to that temptation is to recognize that the blessed helplessness of the infant at the font speaks the truth, not only about justification, but also about mission and vocation. In the end, all our works as a church rest upon the initiative and grace of the God who honors the church by calling it to join in the redemption of creation.
In the end, “the right things to say about baptism” are also the right things to say about the church’s mission in all its expressions—parishes, hospitals, and indeed educational institutions committed to thinking deeply about the demands and promises of preparing Christians to pursue their individual and collective vocations. The right thing to say is to proclaim the grace that leaves us dependent upon God’s ongoing faithfulness in pursing the mission of salvation, not only when we are infants, but indeed throughout all the work of our vocational lives. To pursue the call to Christian vocational faithfulness is to affirm in word and deed the reality that the church lives, not upon its own self-chosen aims or strategies of vocation, but entirely upon a grace granted by God and a faith sustained by all the saints who “sponsor” our life together now as always. Such an affirmation of baptismal “vocation by grace alone” might well be one of the most profound contributions that Lutheran institutions can offer to a world in search of a faithfulness worth its faith.
Robert Saler is the Joseph Sittler Fellow and a doctoral candidate at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.