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Habitats of Infant Baptism David F Wright
Condensed from p254-265 of “Theology in the service of the church”, in honour of Thomas W Gillespie (Eerdmans, 2000) - an essay by David F Wright, professor of Patristic & Reformed Christianity, Edinburgh.

No factor damages flora and fauna as much as loss of habitat, and conservationists devote great energies to safeguarding and improving habitats.  In which habitats does infant baptism most naturally belong?  How have its habitats changed over time?  Have unsuitable habitats distorted or stunted its growth?  Would infant baptism perhaps not have been so widely rejected in some parts of the church if it had been more frequently observed growing to its proper dimensions in its native environment?  

Family and Parents.

We may regard the Christian family as an essential habitat - the essential microhabitat - of infant baptism, particularly as this is the basis of bestowing the sign of the covenant on babies.  It follows that if the Christian identity of the family or the integrity of the family itself is insecure, infant baptism will not thrive as it ought.  

Ministers have long been used to families in which only one parent believes.  But what of the swelling tides eroding the two-married-parents family in the modern world?  Vast aversion to marriage in decaying Christendom has made the family increasingly elusive, and social policy is frequently ambivalent on it, as Governments flinch from provoking charges of discrimination.  Infant baptism has declined steeply as a result, with a sense that “christening” is not for the unmarried mother or for living-together partners.  

Reflection on the habitat may suggest some guidelines in these dilemmas.  What if the overriding consideration of a baptism policy were the identification of a parental habitat in which the plant might take root and thrive?  A child-centred policy instead of a formalistic insistence on the standing of the parents?  Looking to the future instead of to the antecedents?  

In fact, might this help liberate infant baptism from false domestication?  Often reduced to a family event, infant baptism has in the past been smothered by its microhabitat to the detriment of its focus in gospel and church.  Can the church not be more imaginative in celebrating baptism of its members’ newborn?  Why not a church party?  Should the congregation select a godparent or baptismal guardian?  Is perhaps the disintegration of the family an opportunity for some recovery of the essentially ecclesial character of infant baptism?  

The Local Community.

The tenacious family, bidding to dictate the baptism of its latest progeny, feels threatening to the minister - how much more so the pressure of the wider community’s expectations.  Uniquely here, the popular attitudes to the church or “religion” impinge upon ministerial roles.  Any long-standing paedobaptist church feels this.  “Folk religion” stands at some remove from creed, and local traditions tell dark tales of the baby that is not properly “done”.  One family’s request reflects the generalised populist view of baby-baptism, and handling it with a restrictive approach can sour relations with the whole community.  

Is the wider catchment area of a church one of the habitats in which infant baptism is meant to grow successfully?  A history of routine infant baptisms hangs over this question, from the times when civil and ecclesial communities were virtually coterminous.  Yet the case is advanced today that in, for instance, a UPA parish, lone parents need all the support a church fellowship can provide, every opportunity to celebrate the good should be welcomed, and openly administered infant baptism witnesses to Jesus’ concern for the marginalised.  

These arguments carry emotive force, but when infant baptism is cultivated within this communal habitat, its identity as the sacrament of incorporation into Christ in his body is gravely imperiled.  Baptism is being made to serve other purposes, and the habitat leads to adulteration of the genetic strain.  

Similarly, one might ask what damage to baptism is done by planting it in the habitat of babyhood?  Treating the passivity of the babe as an illustration of God’s initiative; or talking of the waters of the womb being like the life-giving waters of God’s love; or comparing baptism with the breaking of the mother’s waters which releases the baby into the new wide world of God’s kingdom; all make believers’ baptism the exception instead of the norm.  

The dominical appointment of baptism gives us no authority to turn it into a thanksgiving for birth or a celebration of babyhood, or a pre-evangelistic opportunity, or a bridge with the unchurched, or any other such commendable objective.  Baptism must be for those who are being baptised by the one Spirit into the one body of Christ.

The Congregation.

One resort of those who defend the baptism of children whose parents cannot credibly be received as believing Christians is to shift the focus of faith to the congregation.  The congregation may be seen as “adopting” the family or child, or baptism may be seen as the setting out on a journey instead of the enlisting to be Christ’s soldiers and servants.  

 It is true that the congregation is the native habitat of baptism, apart from which it cannot truly thrive.  But it is a false step to imagine that the corporate faith of the church can do duty vicariously for the parents’ absent or uncertain faith.  Both habitats, of believing congregation and believing family, the one within the other, are necessary.  What emerges here is that these two habitats safeguard each other, serving to protect baptism as an apostolic ordinance.  

A critical test of a baptismal theology is that it can encompass both infant and believers’ baptism within a single understanding.  Baptism, the sign of the covenant, is appropriately given when there are grounds for believing that God is calling persons into his covenant people which is the body of Christ.  There are two kinds of grounds: for those able to speak for themselves, their faith, professed; for those not able, their birth to parents whose faith enables them to speak on their child’s behalf.  In the early church these were held more closely together than today: in the baptism of children jointly with their parents following the parents’ conversion, and in the way the adaptation of the liturgy to cater for infants preserved the requirement of faith professed.  The movement from parental faith to self-owned faith may be seamless in places where the two habitats mutually enrich each other.  

The family of faith and the congregation of faith: these then are the two key habitats for infant baptism’s flourishing.

 Abridger’s Note: Long papers do not reach their full potential in the habitat of a small magazine like Update!  We recommend the uncondensed article to our readers!

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