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Food For Thought

April 20, 2008


No. 47: Do Baptists Talk to their Babies?

Protestants have always insisted that the sacraments bring no benefit without a response of faith, but this seems to undermine infant baptism, since infants do not appear to be able to exercise faith. Luther and Calvin held together their insistence on faith with infant baptism by claiming that infants can believe. Baptists see this as the Achilles’ heel of the paedobaptist position, an example of how far paedobaptists have to go to defend an untenable practice.

Is infant faith absurd? As I indicated more fully in my lectures on baptism at the 1996 Biblical Horizons summer conference, our questions about sacraments often result from confusions about two things: grace and symbols. Through much of church history, there has been a tendency (and sometimes more than a tendency) to conceive of grace as some kind of impersonal substance, energy, or power that God delivers to man. Sacraments thus become, as is said even by many Reformed, “channels” by which grace flows to believers. This is just an image, but imagery has a way of shaping theology for good or ill. To call the sacraments “channels” of grace reinforced the mistaken view that grace is an impersonal substance or power. Grace, however, is God’s attitude of favor to sinners, manifested in His personal approach to establish fellowship, to cut or renew a covenant, with His people. There are not four things involved in sacraments (God, grace, sacrament, us) but only three (the gracious God, sacraments, and us). The Jews marveled at the confidence of Peter and John, and saw that it was a result of personal acquaintance and fellowship with Jesus (Acts 4:13). Our transformation has the same cause: We are renewed by personal fellowship encounter with the Lord who has become life-giving Spirit.

And as regards symbols: Frequently, we think of symbols as an addition to real life, as enhancements of the “literal.” In the personalist framework sketched above, however, symbols have a much more basic function in human life. Personal relationships among human beings exist, under normal circumstances, only by means of signs and symbols. Symbols communicate and mediate information and personal presence. We get to know another person by talking (using linguistic signs) and by gestures (handshake, kiss, hug, facial expressions, etc.). The only way for a man’s infatuation with a woman to move out of imagination into a real relationship of love is for the man to make his love “public” by speaking, writing love letters, sending flowers, and so on. Symbolic acts such as these do not picture a relationship that already exists; without the symbols, the personal relationship will not exist at all.

Likewise, our personal relationship with God takes place through mutual use of symbols: God speaks to us in His word, which takes the form of printed symbols on a page or audible sounds that carry meaning. We respond with words of prayer and praise. God “gestures” to us through the water of baptism and by spreading His table; we respond by accepting His invitation and feasting in His presence. The history of sacramental theology can be told as a dialectic between treating sacraments as magical and treating them as “mere symbols.” A personalist framework cuts through the whole debate: Symbols have power, but the power is the power of establishing and maintaining personal, covenanted relationships.

(Despite real differences between language and other symbolic actions, there are fundamental similarities: both speech [or writing] and gestures are physical actions; both uttering significant sounds and performing significant gestures are symbolic in that meanings are encoded within or “inhere” the physical actions. In fact, it is difficult to think of a human physical action in which meaning does not inhere: A pat on the back is different from swatting a fly but swatting a fly says something; speaking is different from belching, but, depending on circumstances, belching can mean either “I enjoyed the meal” or “I’m a mannerless pig.” Generating and deploying symbols is an inescapable human process, an aspect of our being made in the image of the Father who eternally generates His Word, His Image [John 1:1; Hebrew 1:1-3].)

Given this background, we can return to the question of infant faith. Here, “faith” is the human response trust to God in a personal relationship. The question of infant faith is not: “Are infants capable of receiving this jolt of divine power?” The question is: “Can infants respond to other persons? Do infants have personal relations?” And the answer to this question is obviously yes. Infants quickly (even in utero) learn to respond to mother’s voice; infants quickly manifest “trust” of their parents; infants quickly distinguish strangers from members of the family. If infants can trust and distrust human persons, why can’t they trust in God? Behind the denial of infant faith is, apparently, an assumption that God is less available to an infant than other humans. But this is entirely wrong; for no human being is nearer than God. And it is wrong because God’s presence is mediated through His people. When parents say to their newborn, “Jesus loves you and will care for you,” they are speaking God’s promises.

Parents, moreover, establish relationships with their infants through symbols. We talk to our infants, and we show our love through gestures � hugs and kisses. If there is nothing irrational or absurd about humans’ establishing personal relation ship with infants through symbols, there is nothing irrational about God’s doing the same. As we establish loving and trusting relations with our infants through symbols, so God speaks to infants and establishes a relation with them through the “visible word” of baptism. Thus, the question “Should we baptize babies?” is of a piece with the question “Should we talk to babies?” Paedobaptism is neither more nor less odd and miraculous that talking to a newborn. In fact, that is just what paedobaptism is: God speaking in water to a newborn child.

Let me take this a further step. If the child cannot understand what a parent is saying, is it rational for the parent to speak to him or her? Baptist parents as well as others speak to their infants, and do not expect the child to understand or to talk back for many months. They see nothing irrational in this. They speak to their children, that is, they employ symbols, not because they think the infant understands all that is being said or because they expect an immediate response. They speak to their children so that the child will learn to understand and talk back. So too, we baptize babies not because they can fully understand what is happening to them, nor because we expect them to undergo some kind of immediate moral transformation. We baptize them, and consistently remind them of their baptism and its implications, so that they will come to understanding and mature faith.

The sociologically consistent Baptist should, it seems to me, follow the Peekabo Street theory of child training. Peekaboo Street was the American Olympic skier, whose parents, as I recall the story, were so very trendy and liberal that they did not want to “impose” an identity on their little girl, so they allowed her to choose her own name, with obvious results. Karl Barth, who loudly protested the “violence” of imposing a Christian identity on a child through infant baptism, would undoubtedly be pleased. In fact, the Streets were not so liberal after all, for in spite of themselves they apparently did teach Peekaboo to speak English, rather than giving her the freedom to choose a language or make one up on her own. Baptist parents, so far as I know, are not consistent either; they do impose a language and a name on their children, a language and a name that cannot be religiously neutral; they do, in spite of themselves, often treat their children as Christians, teaching them to sing “Jesus loves me” and to pray the Lord’s Prayer. And if they do all this, what reason remains for resisting the imposition of the covenant sign?

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. John Super permalink
    May 5, 2008 11:59 am

    Brian,

    It seems to me that this way of reasoning and understanding is completely trap-door proof. Who can argue with this? I have never heard anyone argue against these points and I am not sure anyone could rationally do it.

    What would be a good argument against what Leithart is saying here? I guess some could say, “Show me the verses.”

    Have you encountered any arguments on this?

    John

  2. Glenn permalink
    May 6, 2008 2:52 am

    Before giving a baptist response to Leithart’s article, I just want to say. That I love all of you paedobaptist that may be out there reading Brian’s blog. I consider you brother’s in Christ, and I don’t in any way want to communicate a smug attitude. This response is in the earnest desire for dialogue.

    Having said that, I do believe that Leithart’s article leaves much to be desired.

    With reference to John’s comment above, “Show me the verses,” is a good argument, and in my opinion, always will be for the paedobaptist position. I understand the paedobaptist attempts at answering this demand, but they simply fall short in my opinion. In my attempts to consider the paedobaptist position, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the practice is based on logic and tradition more than exegesis.

    And here is an important point. Logic can be a means to many “trap-door proof” beliefs and practices. Leithart’s article is nothing more than an exercise in extra-biblical logic. I appreciate his attempt, but logic always spins around presuppositions and other commitments. In this case, his logic is only “trap-door proof” to those who would hold his commitments. It is by no means “trap-door proof” by virtue of its bare logic.

    Here’s what I mean. Reasoning from analogy or comparison is precarious. When it comes to theology, analogies and comparisons are good for illustrating doctrine, but they are not that good for proving doctrine. Only one thing is good for proving doctrine, that is biblical exegesis. Leithart’s argument is based on the comparison between talking to babies and baptizing them. As such, I think he illustrates several aspects of paedobaptist thinking. But he doesn’t prove anything, and this is my main point.

    Without going into all the standard baptist arguments and verses against paedobaptism, here are some problems I see directly with the logic of this article:

    Comparing talking to an infant with baptizing an infant is shaky ground. Okay, so both involve symbols, but there are significant differences.

    First, baptism is a one time event in a person’s life while talking to a baby occurs every day. If a parent was given only one opportunity to speak to his child in his child’s whole life, he just might wait until a time when the child was able to understand him. Okay, so this is an extreme example. Perhaps a more familiar illustration would be “the talk” about sex. Parents anticipate a certain point of personal and mental readiness for this talk. They do not give it to their 6 month old and then remind them of it for the rest of their lives. Rather, they give it to their 12 year old in the hopes that the utilization of an appropriate moment in a child’s life will properly lead to future dialogue that is built upon those basic understandings. Giving “the talk” to a child who is way too young is unwise and probably harmful. Of course, giving it to an infant is meaningless. But this is the whole point. Yes, a paedobaptist can tell a person that something happened to him when he was a baby, but the personal understanding and experience of that symbol is lacking, and certainly the faith in Christ and repentance from sin that the NT always directly associates with baptism is absent.

    Second, when a parent talks to his baby, he uses baby babble not mature speech. Baptism is mature speech. It is filled with meaning. In fact, baptism represents the deepest of truths. This is hardly comparable to “peek-a-bo” and “Da Da.” When a parent says “Da Da,” he is really mainly just communicating his presence and devotion to his infant. He knows that he is building trust and familiarity. These are the main things the parent really seeks to do. In other words, he really is just trying to communicate on the level of the infant’s personal ability to respond. But baptism is not intended to just communicate wetness or even presence and love. It is meant to communicate the gospel.

    Third, there is a significant difference in expecting an infant to respond to physical verbal signals and expecting him to respond to divine truth. I do not deny that God works secretly in the minds of infants and toddlers in ways that are completely mysterious to us. He gives people a basic instinct that he exists (Romans 1), and he ultimately controls a person’s disposition toward faith and obedience. But to understand the true and living God correctly, much less the “glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4) requires special revelation combined with internal regeneration. This means that the development of the mind is extremely important. Even if a person wants to argue that infants in Christian families are regenerate (which I would not do), he could never argue that he has received the special revelation of the Bible and the gospel. So my point is that it is completely understandable to expect that a parent’s babbles to his infant are significant because the parent is physically present right before the infant’s eyes while holding that infant baptism is not significant because God must be seen through special revelation.

    I also want to add that this article attacks a baptist straw-man when he characterizes baptists doctrine along side the parenting philosophy of Peekabo Street’s parents. As a baptist, I would never say that I don’t want to “impose” my faith on my two little girls. In fact, I absolutely want to impose it upon them. There is nothing inconsistent in this attempt. I am moving them toward a day of baptism. This goal requires conversation. I seek every day to teach them in age appropriate ways that the God of their Daddy is the only true God and that he must be worshiped. For my three year old, this involves teaching her about prayer, having her sit with me during church, memorizing Bible verses, a good ol’ baptist catechism for children, Bible stories, songs, teaching about sin, discipline combined with forgiveness, trying to explain that Jesus died and rose again, etc. For my one year old, it involves the first stages of discipline, the most fundamental words, prayer over her, etc. My desire to instill faith in my children must be tempered by the realities of age limitation. Therefore, my parenting seeks to be age appropriate. So I don’t believe that any sound baptist would say, “I don’t want to impose Christian identity on my children.” Of course, I also understand that true Christian faith must come through God’s working in the personal will of my girls. When the day comes that my daughters demonstrate a reception of the basics of special revelation and an earnest desire to personally embrace the gospel, I will rejoice to see them baptized. And they will rejoice too! This is nothing more than age-appropriate parenting.
    Which leads me to this final thought. A baptist could just as easily argue that paedobaptists are inconsistent because they don’t talk to their infants about mathematics or sex. In other words, the baptist would say that there are many understandings and experiences that every paedobaptist keeps from his children until they are ready personally and mentally. Of course, nobody stands over a crib with math flash-cards and James Dobson books, these things would never communicate what was intended. The baptist would argue that the act of baptism is no different in this respect. It is so filled with meaning that a child must be personally and mentally prepared to receive it.
    After saying all this, allow me to add that I’m sure someone could come back in here and spin my logic in some ways to argue against me, but this is exactly the point I made at the beginning of this post. Unless we build our theology upon Scripture and our ecclesiology upon the NT and our doctrine of baptism upon the examples of baptism in the Gospels and Acts, we can logic anywhere we want to go. In my judgment, the baptist position is built upon better biblical exegesis and upon clear NT evidence. Various parenting theories are beside the point. Therefore, I am not enamored by the predisposed logic of a paedobaptist article.

    In Christ,
    Glenn

  3. May 6, 2008 3:26 pm

    Glenn,

    Hey buddy. Did you read the article? It appears to me that you totally missed the point of the article… or maybe your responses aren’t making sense to me. First of all, the article is not meant as a defense of the paedobaptist position, its just an observation using a common, everyday example. I think this is what John was implying in his response, too. Obviously one could argue “where’s the scripture,” but in light of what was intended by this article, it seems to be an unneccessary question.

    Second, I think you also missed the point of the analogy that Leithart was attempting to make. To put it simply: Baptists have a hard time accepting infant faith, because they demand a mature response as proof, yet they don’t expect a mature response when they talk to their infants. I’m not sure Leithart is making a one to one connection, he’s just saying, “Why is it so hard to believe, you do it all the time.” As Joe would say, “Capish?”

    Third, as far as scripture goes, that goes without saying. If this was the only defense for paedobaptism, I wouldn’t be one. It’s not, though. In fact, I believe the paedobaptist position has much more scripture to support its position than the credo-position, which is why I am a paedobaptist (and John, too 🙂 )

    Fourth, I want to respond to your third point above. You said, “But to understand the true and living God correctly, much less the “glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4) requires special revelation combined with internal regeneration. This means that the development of the mind is extremely important. Even if a person wants to argue that infants in Christian families are regenerate (which I would not do), he could never argue that he has received the special revelation of the Bible and the gospel.” This is what Leithart is talking about in this article. You are predisposed to think that this is impossible – but why? Everything in Scripture is contrary to this line of thinking. I could understand if you were Arminian, but you’re not… yet you have a hard time excepting that God can regenerate anyone He chooses. Sure, a mature response is required of a mature person, no one denies this – this is the essense of the Christian walk. But saving faith – faith in Christ – is not about a mature response. Faith comes from God – as I know you believe – and it shows itself in various forms. The prime example Jesus gave was the faith of children… literally babies. Yes, the development of the mind is extremely important… but not for saving faith. If you believe this, then you believe that infants who die in infancy go to hell and mentally handicap people go to hell, too, for their is no salvation apart from faith.

    Fifth, piggybacking off of the last point, let me say this: Regeneration, as far as God’s eternal decree (election), is not our concern. We shouldn’t baptize our babies – or anyone for that matter – because we know that they are truly part of the elect. If we truly believe that Christ is building His kingdom through the church, then we look to the sign that He has given as the covenant marker – which is baptism. Anyone who is baptized in Christ’s name is a Christian – as far as we’re to be concerned. Once one is made a member of Christ’s church, then they are to mature in the faith. I think part of the problem that credo-baptist’s have is due to a faulty view of baptism. They view it as a response to Christ… as obedience. This is contrary to scripture, though. God is the One who baptizes – it is God’s initiative and our response comes afterward – as a Christian. And because we are to regard as Christian all who are baptized in Christ’s name, we are to assume that they are regenerated – regardless of God’s eternal decree – which is what the true paedobaptist does in regards to their children.

    Finally, in regards to your last point about raising your children, you said, “As a baptist, I would never say that I don’t want to “impose” my faith on my two little girls. In fact, I absolutely want to impose it upon them.” Well, that’s very similar to John Piper’s argument for wanting to accept all forms of Christian baptism into his church. It’s inconsistent with his baptist doctrine, but consistent with the Bible. Not to be smug about it, but Baptist’s are completely backwards in the way most of them raise their children. I’m thankful that you do raise Jenny and Bailey the way you do – I know ya’ll are great parents – but this sort of parenting only casts doubt in the majority of children… no wonder many young kids doubt their salvation. You teach them Jesus Loves Me, but doubt them when they say “I love Jesus.” “Well, you’re not quite old enough.” We want you to participate in the church… but wait, wait… not yet… you’re not a Christian yet… OK, you’re 8 or 9, NOW you can join the church.” This is completely unbiblical. Train your children IN the Lord. Children, obey your parents, IN the Lord.

    Well, I’m typing at the library and my hour’s almost up… I look forward to interacting with you more. Take care.

  4. John Super permalink
    May 6, 2008 10:20 pm

    Hey Glenn.

    I’m not sure we’ve ever met, but it’s good to hear your comments. I appreciate the spirit of your response as well as your thoughtful words. You have obviously thought through this a lot (probably cause Brian keeps bringing it up 🙂

    Brian pretty much summed up my answer. The reason I said this line of reasoning is trap-door proof is that I can’t imagine someone arguing against what Leithart is saying. I mean, you do talk to your children. However, when I first encountered this line of reasoning, I was not particularly impressed with it as a way of arguing for infant baptism. Mostly because I know that baptists look for verses at the end of statements and he is speaking more holistically, more relationally, and about our common experience to emphasize a point. It would be more appropriate just to toss you a Bible. (Not that you don’t have one but that would communicate the point similar to the way Leithart is reasoning.) It would be a gesture in symbol that this kind of “logic” permeates the whole Bible, God’s covenant book to his people.

    So, we, like God, establish and maintain relationships through symbols; When we invite people into our home, when they sit down at our table for a meal, when we sign documents making someone legally a part of our family, when a minister says, “man and wife”, etc. All of these gestures in symbol (in word and deed) create or renew personal relationships. This is an undeniable fact of life because we bear God’s image.

    The inescapable fact is that you are communicating to your children all the time. They are not immune to or ignorant of your symbolic gestures. A child who cannot “remember the experience” of his/her baptism knows that they have been baptized. They know when they’re accepted into the family, if they can eat at the table, etc. They know through the symbols we use and the symbols God uses where they stand. If Jesus *really* loves them or not.

    The experience of God’s covenant relationship to his people has always been to their children’s children. That’s the way God promised it and that’s the way they’ve always lived. It was in their bones. You never see God’s faithful people withholding God’s love to their children, waiting till they can understand God’s symbols before they can participate in it. That is foreign to the Bible and seems more like a hang-over from revivalism. God’s promises is what we believe and act on, not our supposed ability to perceive the inner workings of our children’s hearts. That’s futile and I don’t see it biblically.

    And yes, infant baptism is a position that requires reasoning from Scripture. But so is the anti-paedobaptist position. Never in the whole Bible do you see faithful covenant people keeping God’s covenant signs and symbols from their children. God claims our children as HIS children (Ezek 16), since he gave them to us for the purpose of filling the earth with godly image bearers for his glory. And Jesus does not abolish God’s promises, he fulfills them!

    In Christ,
    John

  5. John Super permalink
    May 6, 2008 10:53 pm

    I would also like to throw this out: anyone who approaches the Bible, particularly the New Testament, with a presupposition that saving faith is impossible or improbable for an infant, or that believers’ infants do not have a place in the covenant, or its signs or symbols, has some explaining to do. They do not get this reasoning from the Bible. This is imported from outside the text and not coming from within it. To look at the covenantal transition that’s going on in the Gospels and Acts and try to make this the covenantal norm causes all kinds of problems with interpretation. And to somehow set against one another the promises of the Old Covenant with the fulfillment of the New is scary. Especially with regards to the promises made in the OT about believers’ children in the NC.

    John

  6. Glenn LaRue permalink
    May 7, 2008 4:11 pm

    Brian and John,

    Well, I wish I had a few hours to consider all these thoughts and to respond, but I have a Hebrew final tomorrow and a Greek final the next day. So right now is not a good time. I’ll try to get back to this discussion soon. I have much to say, but it sounds like it may just turn into a full debate over infant baptism which I am not really interested in tackling here. My main desire was to express that I believe Leithart’s logic in this article is susceptible to several points of criticism.

    Glenn

  7. May 7, 2008 8:06 pm

    Glenn,

    I want to try and deal more specifically with your points in regards to Leithart’s article because I think that we can have a pretty good discussion just based on that.

    First, you talk about baptism as the one-time event. I think I already mentioned in the previous comment that the better analogy is God speaking to His children/ Parents speaking to their children. Certainly this includes baptism – as Leithart pointed out – but we would have to hash through our baptism differences to discuss this. Anyways, you then suggested that “the talk” was a better example of what you were talking about. The problem with that, though, is that “the talk” does require a certain degree of knowledge, understanding, maturity, etc… while baptism does not. Nothing in the Bible suggests that baptism requires some sort of mental ascension. This is why Leithart’s analogy is superior. Finally, in point one, you said “…and certainly the faith in Christ and repentance from sin that the NT always directly associates with baptism is absent.” I suppose any discussion on this point would necessarily lead us into the type of discussion you don’t want to get into, but since you said it first, let me say that 1) I would argue that the faith in Christ IS present, and 2) I would disagree that repentance from sin is always directly associated with baptism. I would argue that it is a necessary requirement for any Christian as they mature in the faith (on a daily basis), but repentance is not faith.

    Second, I think the insinuation that you’re making here about baptism is based on the typical revivalist mindset that John mentioned earlier. Baptism, to you, is still about the experience. It’s meaningless if you don’t understand it, or feel it, or even recall it (I didn’t use “remember” on purpose). It’s the same thing with regeneration. It is primarily an experience. Leithart’s presupposition (based in scripture, obviously) is that baptism is objective. We don’t need to “experience” it in order for it to work. When we are told to remember our baptisms, its not the recollection that is important, it’s the objective reality. I don’t even remember my baptism at 7 years old, but I do know that I was baptized and I know that it was effectual. You said, “It is meant to communicate the gospel.” I love this quote from Leithart in his book “Against Christianity”: “Baptism is not a “symbol” of someone becoming a disciple. Because Jesus designated it as such, this symbol IS his becoming a disciple. It is not a picture of a man being joined in covenant to Chirst; it IS a man being joined in covenant to Christ.”

    Third, I’ve already discussed a little bit of this point in my previous comment, but I did want to address a few blanket statements that you made that are either unfounded or that I disagree with. 1) “But to understand the true and living God correctly, much less the “glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4) requires special revelation combined with internal regeneration.” I’m not sure you can biblically prove this statement, Glenn. I think you are combining two separate things here that, while they do work together in a person’s life, are not one in the same. 2) “…he could never argue that he has received the special revelation of the Bible and the gospel.” Again, this is a blanket statement based on presupposition that many Christians from practically every mainline denomination apart from Baptist would have a problem with.

    Fourth, you said “I seek every day to teach them in age appropriate ways that the God of their Daddy is the only true God and that he must be worshiped.” The Bible tells you, though, that the God of their Daddy IS their God… it seems to be there is a big difference between the two.

    Finally, you closed by saying, “…Unless we build our theology upon Scripture and our ecclesiology upon the NT and our doctrine of baptism upon the examples of baptism in the Gospels and Acts, we can logic anywhere we want to go. In my judgment, the baptist position is built upon better biblical exegesis and upon clear NT evidence. Various parenting theories are beside the point. Therefore, I am not enamored by the predisposed logic of a paedobaptist article.” I just want to make the point again that this doesn’t come down to the “logical” paedobaptist position vs. the “biblical” credobaptist position like you inferred. I believe that the credobaptist position is only based on a few isolated scriptures and mostly tradition and logic, whereas the paedo position is based on a more holistic view of scripture.

    Peace

  8. John Super permalink
    May 8, 2008 8:31 am

    Glenn,

    The Lord be with you in your studies.

    When you get a chance to think through some of these things more, I think a good place to pick up the discussion is the assertion that our doctrine of baptism, ecclesiology, the nature of saving faith, and (by implication) the nature of God’s covenant ought to come from the NT alone. I think this may betray our ignorance of the Old Testament, and may be a product of our church culture in our time. I think you would have to agree that the OT is largely ignored in modern western christianity.

    Brian, maybe you can create a new post on why/how the OT is meaningful to NT Christianity and/or how baptism and ecclesiology in the OT formed the foundation of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching and actions.
    That would be cool!!!

    John

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