Getting Over the Hurdle of Infant Baptism: An Atonement Argument
Like many current Anglicans, I grew up as a Baptist, a Southern Baptist in fact. I even went to a Baptist College on the campus of a Southern Baptist Seminary and got a wonderful foundational education in the Scriptures and Great Books. When I married an Anglican, we started attending Baptist churches but never found ourselves in a place where our hearts could rest in God. So, we attended Anglican churches in the Continuing Anglican Tradition, which are almost all very small (usually less than 20 people) and mostly elderly.
So, when we moved to Central Texas and found a lively Anglican Church in the ACNA, we were blown away by the vibrancy of the faith as lived in what I was coming to love as the liturgy and sacraments. In 2016, I fully accepted Anglicanism as the fullest expression of the primitive church of the apostles and patristics. Fr. Michael McKinnon’s Anglican Studies course on iTunes helped me understand this tradition more fully (though I have a lot to learn and love every minute).
My Hurdle: Infant Baptism
As a college professor, I’m used to learning, seeking out truth wherever I can find it since, as St. Augustine says (drawing on others such as Chrysostom) that “all truth is God’s truth”). As might be expected from a Baptist convert, infant baptism was a “hurdle” for me in terms of how to intellectually understand the practice in theological terms. Having a Biblical Studies degree meant I had heard all the reasons for and against infant baptism and never felt any were definitive.
It seems clear to me that adult (believer’s) baptism is normative in the New Testament. No absolute proof exists that the “households” in the NT would include the baptism of children, though their presence is likely. Even if it is a fulfillment of Covenantal circumcision, can we say that infants in a Gentile tradition should be required to undergo it? These are all concerns I had that seemed to “refute” the positions in favor of infant baptism. As I stacked up the “For” and “Against” columns in my research, there was always a Protestant Answer against the practice of infant baptism.
An Epiphany and an Atonement Argument
Once I started catechesis at the Anglican Church I attend, God had plans for me that finally helped me make sense of infant baptism in a way that fully embraced the faith and practice of early Christianity. While discussing infant baptism in the catechetical class, I had an epiphany, which I just had to talk to my wife (a lifelong Anglican) about afterward. We agreed that if Anglican priests would explain infant baptism with this idea (of my epiphany) in mind, many non-Anglican evangelicals would find it more understandable and perhaps even begin to let down barriers that keep them from embracing Anglicanism.
So, here is my epiphany to walk through the logic of infant baptism at its core. This argument goes deeper than the covenant application or age of accountability arguments. As a caveat, my intention here is not to provide a full dress apologia for infant baptism, but simply to discuss one logical component core to its acceptance.
To start with, let’s build a classic syllogism: a logical form that helps us “see” the steps (premises) of an argument leading to its conclusion. We won’t get bogged down in formal logical issues of validity vs. truth. I’ll explain each of the parts in the following paragraphs, but I think “seeing” the logic first will prepare readers for where we’re going. Let’s get started.
- Premise 1: The Atonement is a vicarious act imputing the “grace” of Christ on Christians.
- Premise 2: Infant baptism is an act of vicarious substitution of faith on the child.
- Conclusion: Infant Baptism is like the atonement in its vicarious nature.
There it is, in a nutshell (or syllogism at least). Let’s parse out some of the implications and possible objections to this view of infant baptism.
In formal logic, which uses such syllogisms to visually see the core of an argument, the structure (“form”) of the syllogism can meet certain patterns that render is “valid,” which simply means that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. “Truth,” however, is not necessary from validity; a syllogism can be valid, but not “true.” For such an argument to be valid and true (which logicians call “sound”), each premise must be true for the conclusion that follows also to be true.
As an example, here is a valid, but untrue syllogism:
- Premise 1 (“major” premise): All elephants have wings.
- Premise 2 (“minor” premise): Dumbo is an elephant.
- Conclusion: Therefore, Dumbo has wings.
As you can see, the major premise isn’t “true” to nature and the minor premise is a fictional character (whether or not we consider his ears as wings). However, notice that the conclusion absolutely follows (logically) from the two premises. Thus, it’s a valid syllogism; it’s just not true.
For the argument above about infant baptism to work, each premise has to be accepted; though it’s valid, it might not be true.
Premise 1: The Atonement is Vicarious
The first premise requires that we understand what the word “vicarious” means.
In this case, it typically means something like what Anglicans mean by a sacrament being a “sign” and not merely a “symbol.” A symbol points to the thing it symbolizes, standing in for it to bring out some important similarity; it is fundamentally a comparison. A sign actually “participates” in the thing it represents. In the sacraments, we participate in the reality of the Divine life that is expressed in the natural object/action (bread and wine, baptism in water).
For the Atonement to be vicarious then, means that Christ action in substituting his righteousness for our sin actually washes our sin away and God sees us through Christ’s righteousness (we call this justification). At the same time, this process is sacramental in that a participation takes place by both Christ and those receiving His gift of justification. Christ substitutes his righteousness for our unrighteousness and we participate in that sacrifice and salvation. He vicariously steps in our place and represents us to God (our Great High Priest from Hebrews 4:14-16).
Isaiah 53:4-6 is one of the central passage in the Old Testament for this point that on Christ was laid our sins, he has born our griefs and sorrows, pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.
Premise 2: Infant Baptism is Vicarious
The second premise builds on this idea by arguing that infant baptism is also a vicarious action. In fact, one might argue that all sacraments are vicarious actions of God that He graciously allows us to participate in, and in so doing graces us.
We must keep in mind that if Baptism is a sacrament, God is objectively doing something (bestowing grace) upon us. Thus, baptism is not the confession of faith required for salvation, it is God’s sign to the Church that the person being baptized is now a part of the covenantal community; it is a statement by God about the person who is baptized.
In infant baptism, the “faith” of the parents and Church stand in for the faith of the infant until such a time as that person can take on full responsibility of his or her convening commitment in the Bride of Christ. Thus, God vicariously imputes the faith of the parents and local Church body onto the child for the purpose of the promise in the sacrament that in so doing, in so raising the child in the faith of the catholic Church, God bestows grace upon that child (Rom 5:6 and 1 Pet. 2:21).
Perhaps one might respond at this point that only Christ’s perfect action could complete our atonement, and thus we always must rely on that vicarious action, whereas children are expected to one day take on their faith as their own (confirmation), under their total responsibility, not relying on parental or church substitution.
While a legitimate objection, it comes from a confusion of the nature of “faith.” Faith is always imputed. God gives us our faith, we don’t own it or grow it on our own. Whether through the blessings of the sacraments or the suffering and sanctification of daily life, we live our faiths through Christ and the Church.
In this sense, adults don’t take on their own faith for themselves either. Instead, we embrace it fully within the nature of Christ; that is, we recognize we cannot have faith without Christ’s vicarious substitution and that we live that out within the context of the Bride of Christ (the Church).
Another way to think about this is in Charles Williams’ explanation of substitution. In He Came Down from Heaven (affiliate link), Williams says that “We are to love each other as he loved us, laying down our lives as he did, that this love may be perfected. We are to love each other, that is, by acts of substitution. We are to be substituted and to bear substitution. All life is to be vicarious–at least, all life in the kingdom of heaven is to be vicarious.”
Notice that all life is to be vicarious. Understanding life in a sacramental way, as Hans Boersma argues so effectively in Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (affiliate link), means recognizing the ways in which God is working and in which we participate in that working (thus sacramental). We enact this substitution for the infant, that he/she may grow in grace and that blessing never leaves the individual, even when an adult. We continue to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).
Conclusion: Infant Baptism is like the Atonement
Therefore, given these premises, we reach the conclusion that infant baptism is like the atonement in that it is substitutionary.
While Baptists (or other Protestant denominations that are not Anglican) might have rebuttals to many ways we conceive infant baptism, they would be hard-pressed to deny the vicarious nature of the atonement, and if we walk through the Incarnation as sacramental in its nature and effects, we can help others see the validity of viewing infant baptism as a similar action.
Certainly, there are other pieces of the puzzle to be explored for those moving to the Canterbury Trail, such as the nature of sacraments, but hopefully the vicarious nature of faith will not be one of them.
Granted, intellectual assent is only a part of what it means to be human and will never, ultimately, move anyone to action, as Aristotle taught us in his Rhetoric. They must come to live the power of the Holy Spirit and experience the grace of God in the sacraments to truly be at peace with infant baptism, that natural bath of water by which we are drawn into the Divine life, representing the death and resurrection of Christ into the new life of the believer.
Someone might object here that in Williams’ substitution, both parties must agree to the substitution; children cannot agree to it in the faith of baptism. One might also say that the Atonement must also be accepted on the part of the believer for it to be efficacious.
This is to return to the believer’s baptism central tenet and it is a strong objection. The point here has already been pressed, however, that in this instance, the faith (willing submission and intellectual assent) of the parents and local Church body vicariously stand-in for the infant’s assent. It’s not that the baptism itself “saves” the infant, but bestows vicarious grace upon the child in welcoming him or her into the covenant community until the time when he or she can take on that covenant personally.
The Atonement is the ultimate act of Charity (agape), which we could not merit or agree to God doing. We had no part in God choosing to die for us; only in accepting that gift. Furthermore, in loving God with all our heart, and mind, and soul, we then love our neighbors as ourselves and this leads to acts of Charity, which are not consented to on the part of those on whom we bestow those acts. We imitate Christ’s vicarious Charity in our lives, why not in our faith and in our families? As C.S. Lewis says in a letter to Dom Bede Griffith, OSB on June 27, 1949, “As there is certainly vicarious suffering is there not also vicarious faith?”
One final point that might appear in a discussion of infant baptism is that no New Testament text shows infant baptism taking place. We must be careful of how we construct our theology without consideration of anything outside our own minds. For there are lots of things not in the Bible that every church might do and not go against the letter or the spirit of the New Covenant. Having a piano, guitar, projector, or even how you distribute funds are not laid out in the Bible, for example.
The point here is that, naturally, the first generation of Christians would all be converts to the faith and thus adults, thus infant baptism would not naturally show up in the New Testament. Infant Baptism appears already in the second generation as a means of extending and fulfilling the covenant to the children of those adults converts. By the time of the fourth and fifth centuries, when the canon, creeds, and practices of the early church are firmly established, infant baptism is a normal practice.
Having traversed from a well-educated Baptist position in my own life to a sacramental embrace of the Christian tradition shown best in Anglicanism, this explanation, while primarily intellectual, is one that helped me and I think will help other evangelicals in a similar position.
God must ultimately be the one to move our hearts, but he, like Aslan, is already on the move and we are seeing the strong shift of many evangelicals out of the Protestant denominations who have severed much of their link to the primitive church. They are coming to the liturgy. They are coming to the history of our fellowship with the martyr, saints, and angels. We welcome them in and thank God for His graces.
Toby F. Coley completed his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Writing from Bowling Green State University (OH) in 2011 and now teaches courses in Rhetoric, Composition, and Literature at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas (view his work profile here). His current research explores the writings of C.S. Lewis. Toby is traveling the Canterbury trail in the Anglican fellowship of the biblical, catholic church with conviction and delight with his wife, Christina, and his five children.
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