This month, 488 years ago, Felix Manz, a Swiss Anabaptist reformer became the first Protestant in history to be martyred at the hands of other Protestants. Manz was executed by drowning due to his having preached adult re-baptism. This ominous day, as we look back on it five centuries later, is a reminder of how unChrist-like Christians sometimes can be towards each other. Is the question of when baptism ought to be applied unimportant? No. Is the disagreement on this issue trivial and unimportant? No. Is the disagreement worth killing each other over? God forbid.
Though Christians aren’t in the habit of killing each other today over their doctrinal disagreements about baptism, disagreements do still exist and sometimes they can be occasions for lack of charity. Basically, there are three main views of baptism that one finds in Christian history. First, there is the view held by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans. This view was articulated by Augustine and other early church fathers, and it basically states that baptism is God’s means of imparting saving grace to people. Because infants are born in sin and are in need of redemption no less than adults are, the saving grace of baptism ought to be applied to them. Those who have been baptized are in a state of grace. The Eastern Orthodox, logically deducing that baptized infants are in every sense of the word true Christians, administer communion to baptized babies, while Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans generally delay communion until a later age.
Secondly, there is the view held by Presbyterians and Methodists. Like the groups mentioned above, Presbyterians and Methodists administer baptism to infants, but they do not believe the child is “saved” as a result. The standard Reformed explanation of baptism is that it serves the same purpose in the new covenant that circumcision served in the old covenant. Children are to marked with the “sign of the covenant” (baptism), but they must subsequently put faith in Christ. The baptism itself isn’t regenerative. This was the view articulated by John Calvin, as well as John Wesley.
The third view is held by Baptists, Pentecostals, and most non-denominational evangelicals. According to these groups, baptism is not a “means of grace”, but rather a symbol of faith. When a person is baptized, he or she is attesting outwardly to the faith he or she has previously placed in Christ. The value of baptism, therefore, is symbolic and serves primarily as a public testimony. It doesn’t “do” anything for the baptized person, nor does the person receive anything he or she didn’t already have before baptism. Because personal faith is a necessary prerequisite for baptism, baptism should never be applied to infants or those unable to make a personal profession.
There have been scholarly defenses written for each of these views over the years, and the question as to which view is correct is not one that can be hastily answered. Misconceptions about each of these views abound. Those who argue against infant baptism often cite the fact that the New Testament nowhere commands that infants be baptized. Those who argue for infant baptism often cite the fact that children were included in God’s covenant promises in the Old Testament and that their being included in the New Covenant was so obvious no command explicitly spelling it out was even needed.
What sometimes gets lost in the debate is the fact that God gave baptism to his church as a gift, a blessing. Ideally, it is something to savor and enjoy, not something to quarrel about. This examiner recalls sitting under the late Dr. Wynn Kenyon at Belhaven University a decade ago as he explained the varying levels of good and bad. Kenyon said that an wrong action done out of a wrong motive is a “bad, bad” action. A wrong action done out of a good motive is a “bad, good” action. A good action done out of a good motive is a “good, good” action, and a good action done out of a bad motive is a “good, bad” action. This may sound technical, but the point is that motives really do matter. Dr. Kenyon, himself a Presbyterian, said that if Baptists are right about baptism, Presbyterians are sinning by baptizing their infants. Conversely, he said if Presbyterians are right, Baptists are sinning in not baptizing their infants. Using Kenyon’s model, it is clear, though, that in the worst case scenario either Baptists or Presbyterians are committing a “bad, good” action; that is, doing something they ought not to do, but doing so with honest motives.
If Baptists delay baptizing their sons and daughters until they make a personal profession of faith because they believe this is what God would have them do, then God bless them. If Presbyterians baptize their sons and daughters as infants because they believe this is what God would have them do, then God bless them. Both sides are wanting to do what God has commanded, but they are not unanimous in their understanding of what God has commanded. This doesn’t make either side “bad”, nor should it be an occasion for breaking off fellowship. May God give his church more clarity on this issue. Meanwhile, let us live up to what we already have clarity on–“Love your neighbor as yourself”.