Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…


I’ve been slogging through the Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics and noting occassional gems.  As a whole, the Companion is quite good, though it obviously leans heavily toward the perspective of its editors.  One particularly interesting chapter, by David McCarthy, explores the practices of marriage, relationships, and sex in the modern world in contradistinction to the Church.  A central focus is marriage (from his Catholic theology a sacrament), which he argues is a means of grace.  As a means of grace, it bestows certain gifts as an objective reality, regardless of the fitness of those who recieve.

So it is, he says, with infant baptism:

Infant baptism makes clear that our relation to God and our active faith are always gifts.  It makes clear that we do not make ourselves or will ourselves to have faith.  Infant baptism makes clear that the presence of God in the world is mediated through the gathering of a people, who worship him and are called to be holy as God is holy. (Hauerwas and Wells, The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics [Oxford: Blackwell 2004 ], 284)

As a Methodist in the Bible Belt, it’s always good to think about why we practice infant baptism  because many of the folks around me think it nonsensical.  But the idea of faith as a pure gift – here the Wesleyan concept of prevenient grace is particularly helpful – gets us away from so much of the works righteousness/faith-as-personal-acheivement theology that permeates Protestantism.  Even as babies, God, through the work of His covenant community the Church, makes us Christians.  It is a gift that we spend a lifetime receiving.

Thanks be to God.

2 thoughts on “Oh That Pesky Infant Baptism…”

  1. God only gives that faith to children whose parents belong to certain traditions? I’m not hating, but I have reservations.

  2. It sounds elitist I suppose. Most of us in contemporary American society want God to be egalitarian, giving everything to everyone equally and at the same time. I’m not sure this is the case. Israel is God’s covenant community in a particular way; no other community can claim to be so “chosen”. The church is only God’s community by an extension of Israel’s covenant promises (Paul makes this clear in Romans 9-11).

    But God’s gifts are not without necessary human embodiment. How does God give faith to a child absent a community of faith? I’m not sure it happens that way. Faith is given, but as a seed, it must be nurtured, fed, and confirmed. Certainly Christ’s gift is for all (unless you are a hardcore Calvinist), but not all come to faith.

    As far as faith (presumably in Christ?) coming in and through other traditions? A tougher question. Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict has argued that other faiths can be “preparations for the gospel,” and can nurture a kind of fidelity that will only be fulfilled in, and is only fit for, Christ.

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