Our Problem With Infant Baptism

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CHURCHES WITH INFANT BAPTISM HAVE A PROBLEM!

I’m convinced that churches which practice infant baptism have a problem. And it’s not a problem they are usually aware of.

Let me be clear. I believe in infant baptism. I believe the church should practice it. I thrilled when I baptized my sons. It’s the precious sign of the covenant. So I’ve always loved it when I could baptize infants.

But there’s still a problem.

It seems to me that people who are baptized as adults find their baptism to be a very stirring and memorable moment. Especially those who are immersed. They can never erase that experience from their minds. They always go back to it for encouragement (or correction). It’s a forming and shaping experience permanently, more or less.

But I was baptized as an infant, and I was too young to know about it. I have no memory of it. Neither do my sons have any memory of their actual baptisms. I’ve told them. We have pictures of it. But their personal memory contains no page in the album called “my baptism”.

There’s the problem.

So how can an infant baptism shape the faith formation of someone who only knows second hand that it happened? I’m not suggesting that we do away with infant baptism. Never! But I wonder, how could we overcome this problem of a “distant event that I don’t remember.”

What can we do to make our baptisms more real, more memorable, more life-giving, and more faith-forming?

I’ll be leading a sectional at the Symposium on Worship in January, 2011, on “Remembering our Baptisms” and I’d love to get some help from you.

How can we overcome this problem? What do you think? What have you experienced?
What have you done? I’d love it if you’d let me know.

Howard Vanderwell

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Perhaps one small step would be to remind ourselves, and pastors remind their congregations, over and over again that we are baptized. (I fell far short of this when I was in parish ministry.) I love Martin's Luther's statement in his Larger Catechism (XIII, Part Fourth), "Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body."

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Pictures. Video. A candle. A wrapped present, like a book, that can be opened when they make a public profession of faith (like at age 5 or 8 or 11 or 16). A letter from someone in the congregation who was there at their baptism... that can be given to them later on. A constant reminder by the older folks of "I remember the day you were baptized... this is what it meant to me. I'm so glad that I was the one given the task of praying for you, encouraging you, maintaining contact with you for all these years..." Just some thoughts.

Here are some things we've done: We have repositioned the font so that it is visually in line with the table and the pulpit. (It might sound trivial, but the next week I received a comment from someone who said, "I noticed that it was there." That's a start!) We've also filled the font with water for professions of faith, and mentioned baptism at funerals. I also try to stand next to the font at appropriate points in the worship services.

However, in our zeal to remind believers of their baptismal identities, we should take care that we aren't trying to flatten out the topography by implying that everyone must have the same powerful sense that a few have. It is perfectly appropriate for baptism to be a different reality for the adult-baptized and the infant-baptized. One of the things that baptism signifies is regeneration and conversion (dying and rising). And so, many who were baptized as adults remember conversion as a sudden moment -- and their baptism is an equally acute memory. And many who were baptized as infants remember conversion as a gradual work of the Holy Spirit throughout their childhood -- and their baptism is but a photo in an album. (It is for this reason that I would suggest that it is not a problem at all if you cannot remember your infant baptisms -- neither can many of those baptized as infants remember their conversions.) There are, of course, many times when this kind of match doesn't occur -- the person baptized as an infant who has a powerful conversion experience in her late 20s, for example. But a diversity of conversion experiences is appropriately signed and sealed by God in a diversity of baptismal experiences, and our reminders of baptism should encourage different people to "remember baptism" in this diversity of ways.

Good questions, good responses.

I suppose "remember your baptism" is technically the wrong phrase.  Which perhaps points us in the right direction: it's "remember that you are baptized" and so we need reminders that do that.  Which I think Richard's and Nick's suggestions do.  (I also have led an ordination of new elders/deacons from the font, to set their present calling within their baptismal calling.  Also, I have promised to parishioners that if they come to me on the anniversary of their baptism day [or a reasonable facsimile], I will meet with them in the sanctuary and share the baptism promises with them again.  I've actually had a couple of people take me up on this - ha!)  All of this is where the language of "re-affirming" baptism comes in.  Someone else's baptism can be another occasion for "remembering that you are baptized."

Thanks, David.  I like the "remembering that" terminology. And I'm also pretty comfortable with "Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows" from SNC 240, although that treats only the "vow" part of it as our action, and doesn't round it all out with a proper recollection of God's actions in baptism.

I like meeting a few parishioners on the anniversary of their baptism and going over the promises again.  Could be very rich!
 

Howard

I'm part of our church's video team.  Wouldn't it be interesting to have video clips of members' baptism and/or profession of faith attached to their membership credentials - something they could take along with them wherever they go?  And suppose they had some of their children baptised and received a video clip of that occasion to pass along to their children?  And suppose that clip became part of the occasion for the profession of faith of those children?  Today's technology presents a whole new realm of "remembering" possibilities!

I know this article is rather dated, so perhaps the comments that come in this late will never even be read.  But as I see it, infant baptism isn't the problem, but rather believer's baptism, or the idea of infant baptism being the only form of baptism that is done in a church (is the problem).  Because baptism, say in a Baptist church, is considered a sign of one's faith by which they have taken hold of Christ.  It is more of a sign of an individual's action and a sign of when they themselves came to faith in Christ.  Whereas in the Reformed tradition, baptism is a sign of God's action.  It's really about God and not about me.  But in our egotistical society, we tend to put ourselves at front and center and want markers of what we have done, so believer's baptism does more to feed that kind of mentality; it draws attention to me.  So in our Reformed tradition we have to be careful not to feed such a mentality and emphasis. Salvation is about God, not about me.  More could be said, but seeing as this will likely never be read, I'll leave it at that. 

I read your post, Roger, and I'm glad you're keeping this interesting conversation alive! I agree that our society puts all the attention on us, and baptism is really about what God is doing, not what we are doing... But I don't think that alleviates the problem that Howard is describing. Memories shape us and help to form our faith, so I am deeply interested in helping my kids and our church find ways to acknowledge the meaning of baptism and remember and hold onto it in personal ways, faith shaping ways. Pointing to infant baptism as something GOD is doing is itself a hurdle that makes it different from infant dedication. Our ways of remembering our baptism should focus on that message of remembering God's work in our lives and God's faithfulness in our community and through the generations.