When your argument proves more than you want it to…

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I’m going to try and start to wrap up my mini-series about baptism -which is more correctly about good Biblical exegesis.* Right back in my first article I said that putting the phrase “for you and your children” back into context “makes it clear that the promise is for those it is proclaimed to not for those who inherit it genetically.”

Now, I’m sure that most of my paedobaptist friends would want to say “but we don’t think that faith is inherited genetically.” And to make it clear, I believe them. In the same way, I don’t think that the majority of evangelical Anglicans would have any truck with the concept of baptismal generation. As evangelicals they are firmly convinced like me that salvation is through faith in Christ alone.  That’s why we can have fellowship, because despite our differences on secondary issues we agree on the fundamental issue of what the Gospel is.

What I’ve picked up over the years is that general speaking and particularly with Evangelical Anglicans the thinking tends to go something along the lines of

  • We know that salvation is through faith and repentance. It’s not something you can inherit second hand. You must be born again.
  • However we want to think about what to do with children – particularly when they are under what we would consider the age of responsibility.
  • Therefore we treat them as within the care of the church and so there are some benefits to that in terms of provision, teaching, well-being.
  • There may also be questions about what happens to a child if they sadly die before they have been able to profess faith. And many would take comfort in Abraham’s words that the judge of all the world will do right and entrust their children into God’s mercy.
  • The child does need to profess faith for themselves when they are ready and able. So in effect the baptism is split. There is a provisional promise in hope made by parents, godparents and congregation at the time of the baptism and this is completed by confirmation.

I can understand all of that. I don’t agree with it. I think it’s messy and problematic but it’s the basis on which some (though not all) Baptists will say that in the case of someone who has put their faith in Christ but sees their infant baptism as real then we might recognise it for the purpose of membership -rather like when the couple turn up with the baby to get married. The order of things has got messed up.

However, the arguments employed for paedo-baptism such as Acts 2:39 prove rather more than someone who thinks that would want to.  No, they don’t think that the promise is passed on genetically. But how then are we meant to understand “for your children” especially when baptism is restricted to the children of believers unless it means something completely different. We would take “for your children” to mean a genetic thing unless we had the context we have observed already in the surrounding verses and sentences and unless we had Deuteronomy 4:9 which says

“Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children”

This helps us to see ever so clearly that the reason the promise was for the children of those present at Pentecost was because they were expected to tell their children about the things they had seen and experienced, how they’d seen Jesus crucified, how they’d heard about his resurrection and how they’d been there when the Spirit came. They were to disciple their children. They were to tell them the Gospel. Now, in that context I can fully appreciate as well, the Presbyterian confidence that if Christian parents do their duty right, if they provide a loving home environment, if they teach their children the Scriptures and if their children consistently hear the Gospel then we can be optimistic that their kids will come to faith. That’s my testimony and that of many who have grown up in Christian homes including those of us from Baptistic backgrounds. The point is that understood in that way, the verse doesn’t give any grounds for baptising your child without the evidence of the promise being at work in them.

So if you seek to argue from the verse for infant baptism then it proves too much. It proves the genetic passing on of faith and redemption. If you avoid that problem by seeing the verse in context then it points us in a very different direction indeed.

Sadly, there is a particular reason why this is becoming more and more important.  There have been growing voices for a position that seems quite happy to push those conclusions. In other words there are people who put a genetic dimension to things and who do push towards a theology that sounds a lot like baptismal regeneration.  It’s particularly associated with Federal Vision theology though not necessarily exclusively.  It has two consequences. The first is that associated with a particular post-millenialist approach places the emphasis on large families, home schooling and a Christian political agenda so that the cause of Christ is advanced by family growth and culture wars as much as by Gospel proclamation and more importantly it risks giving people a false assurance.

It’s important then that when making arguments we are both alert to the context we are making them in, who else is making similar claims and where those arguments potentially lead.

* There is one more article after this on baptism, membership and the conscience clause

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