Five years ago, I believed that only people of a certain level of maturity ought to be baptized; only those who identified as Christians and were able to clear a minimum threshold of biblical knowledge, sincerity, and a capacity to articulate those things. Last summer, we baptized our one-year-old daughter, who couldn’t clear the minimum threshold of a complete sentence! What led to that shift? What leads us to change our theology? How should we explore, assess, and continue or correct those shifts when they begin to take place? Most of us have gone through points in our lives where we began to question the way we see things. This can be a very healthy process where we refine our thinking and our lives, leading to a more coherent faith and that aligns better with reality. It can also lead to a kind of rootless wandering, where our north star is our desire and our compass is constantly recalibrated by our context.
I want to use my experience in changing my mind as a kind of case study for how we might go about responding when the theological ground starts to shift under our feet; when contextual changes in our lives open up new possibilities or force us to look at our theology differently. Having a child was a major contextual change for me, but that happened within a larger history that I’m going to sketch, noting a few principles along the way. My goal here is not to present a complete argument for infant baptism – there are plenty of other places to find that! What I hope to do is explore how the conditions of our lives can lead us to change our minds.
Early Years: When Did I Become A Christian?
I was raised in a “believer baptism” tradition – which teaches that only people who have made a sincere, intentional decision to follow Jesus and embrace the Christian faith should be baptized. Baptism, in this view, was something that had to accompany mature faith, and though what constituted faith as “mature” varied anywhere from an elementary school age understanding to an adult level understanding, the principle was the same – you had to know what you were getting into, and it had to be subjectively meaningful for you. Baptism was presented as this wonderful experience where you proclaimed your faith in Jesus to the world – where you decided and expressed that you really meant it. Underneath this was the idea of a certain kind of faith being necessary to receive baptism – faith that was verifiable. The underlying concern was at least twofold: we want to make sure someone is really a Christian, and we don’t want to rob someone of the powerful experience of getting baptized when they really mean it. What I’ve presented is a mix of baptist theology and the on-the-ground reality I experienced growing up and which I see still today in “believers baptism” churches – so this isn’t meant to be a purely theological explanation of baptist doctrine. I was baptized when I was 9 – certainly a time when I sincerely expressed adherence to the faith. However, I am also told stories of accepting Jesus when I was younger, maybe 6 or so, and I remember vividly several other experiences of commitment to the faith that were even more sincere and developed – at 12, 15, and 19. Add to this that I cannot ever remember a time where I did not believe God was real or that Jesus was God, or where the Christian faith was not my assumed foundation for reality. This left a baptist boy wondering when I really “became” a Christian, and prompts to share my testimony at various times always began with the frustrating and head-scratching exercise of deciding which moment to pick as the real deal. What I want to point out here is how existential pressures, dissonances between our beliefs and our experiences, can lead to gaps in the correspondence of our beliefs to reality that we may find ourselves trying to reconcile later on. I was told that Christian faith had to have some defining point in time of true conversion, the point at which baptism happens, yet this singularity did not exist in my own life.
Growing Up: Foundational Theological Shifts
As an adult in college, I joined a more theologically robust baptistic church where things started to shift away from the focus on my own faith when it came to baptism and conversion. The emphasis moved onto what God had done in saving me – on the “object” of my faith (the person and work of Jesus), not the quality or sincerity of my faith (when did I really mean it and really decide). Yet this remained compatible with a believer’s baptism framework – for it was still necessary that faith be demonstrably present, even if focus was less on my self expression and evaluation of that faith. The sign is for those who have faith and are verified Christians, though the focus of the sign is on God’s sovereign gift of that faith and the great salvation he had accomplished. It’s important to recognize that larger, subterranean shifts – like the emphasis on the sovereignty of God in salvation being primary instead of my personal choice being primary – can sometimes set the stage for later changes in what we think and do, even if they seem to leave an area relatively unchanged in the present.
In seminary, things shifted again. Being in a Presbyterian seminary, I increasingly saw the biblical category of “covenant” as central to how the both Old and New Testaments present God’s relationship with human beings – that he binds himself to a people and that his plan to call a people is substantively the same as it moves from the Old to the New. I saw that all of the Bible is essentially telling the same story. God frees people by grace to serve him, forming a new community. Questions still remained, though, about where there were continuities and discontinuities between the Old and New – between what God did with the nation of Israel and what God is doing with the new and true Israel of Jesus and the people united to him, the church of Jew and Gentile. My professors, being in the tradition that baptizes babies of Christians as well as believers who come to faith outside of Christian homes, challenged some of my convictions. I remained skeptical about infant baptism, but what this did help me to realize is that I had assumptions about what it meant to baptize babies that weren’t true of all who did it. I grew up thinking that if you baptized babies, you thought that it magically got rid of sin, or that it “made” the baby a Christian by virtue of performing the ritual. In fact, many who baptized babies simply viewed baptism as an initiatory rite, like circumcision in the Old Covenant, which meant you belonged in the covenant community of the church and were set apart by virtue of being a child of Christians, raised in the faith. That didn’t mean that it wasn’t necessary for the child to have faith or to grow up into the full maturity of that faith, understanding Christianity and committing to follow Jesus day by day in due time. I still viewed infant baptism as unbiblical, since I believed that only people who could give evidence of faith should be baptized, but I no longer thought it merely a weird superstition held by “the Catholics.” I saw the reasoning behind a covenantal understanding of baptism, though was unconvinced. What was key in this stage was recognizing that people who hold to positions or practices different from our own aren’t necessarily gullible fools, nor are their reasons necessarily the ones we’ve been told. Knowing people with differences can challenge the complex supporting assumptions that bolster what we believe.
The year after seminary, we moved and found ourselves in a baptistic church, witnessing a series of baptisms one Sunday. What struck me about these baptisms was that, of the four people being baptized, three of which were probably over 50 years old, every single one was raised in a Christian home or in the church and explicitly mentioned how God was a part of their life from as early as they could remember. They noted how they had a relationship with Jesus as a child, and how they were thankful for the ways God had been at work for all these years, even through the times where they had wandered away from the church and from living the way God wanted them to. Having just come out of the seminary community largely populated by those who baptize babies, I was struck at that moment by how these people’s testimonies lined up far more with the conception that not all have a decisive conversion moment – indeed, for these 50+ year old Christians finally being baptized, God had brought them into his family and been with them from the moment they came into this world.
Fatherhood: Does My Child Belong?
What really set things in motion was the next historical development in my life – having our first baby. When we found out, what once was a hypothetical consideration for other peoples’ children now became an immediately pressing decision that I had to make for our own. Decision points, the move from the abstract idea to concrete reality, can be the forge in which change happens. When we meet reality, it can shine a clear and sometimes harsh light on how we’ve been thinking and living. It at least forces us to harden our convictions or change them, because our beliefs now touch directly on decisions we have to make and live with, decisions that have significance and consequences. Planning to be a father led me to study again, with greater depth and intensity, the issues around baptizing babies. Several podcasts, articles, Scripture passages, and a half a dozen books later, I emerged with a cautious conviction to baptize our child once she was born. I was nervous because I believed that, whatever decision I made, it was an important decision that had ramifications for the life of my child. But when she was born, I intuitively knew what every Christian parent knows: that this is my child, and because I belong to Christ and his church, this is God’s child. She belongs to the family, she is a part of our church. This is not a pagan unbeliever, waiting for conversion, but a member of the body.
And everyone knows this – why else would churches have “baby dedications,” what theologian J.I. Packer once cleverly called “dry baptism.” This is why parents who don’t baptize their babies still talk to their children like they are Christians, still pray with them, still teach them to love Jesus, still sing and speak over them the promises of God – the promises that Peter says in Acts 2:39 are “for you and for your children.” There is every bit as much reason to think that this child is a Christian as there is to believe that an adult who professes faith is. One might point to kids of Christians who fall away and seem to never return, but one can also point to Christians who profess as adults and do the same. In both cases, belonging to the people of God requires growth and perseverance in faith over a lifetime.
What this intuition also reflects is a deeper knowledge that we all have that God works through families. God designed families to be fundamentally formative – this is why Proverbs 22:6 can claim that if you start your kids on the right path, they won’t leave it when they get old. It’s also why fatherlessness and broken families are in many ways at the root of all kinds of pain and suffering in our communities. Our own english idioms know this – “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “Like father like son.” Proverbs and wisdom sayings aren’t absolute predictions, but they are deeply true to how God designed this world. This is no less the case when it comes to how God saves people, and why when fathers believe the Gospel in the book of Acts, their whole household is baptized. Families, not detached individuals, belong in the church. I knew this intuitively when I met my daughter, and I know this intuitively as I raise her to love and serve Jesus. All of my history – the experiences, the study, the shifting and settling of my assumptions and categories – led me to the moment where I changed my mind and baptized our child.
Growing Up: Foundational Theological Shifts
I hope that as I sketched this history, and tried to point out the ways our lives and contexts unsettle our views, that you’re noticing the possible ambiguity of the changes in my context – whether or not these changes lead in a good direction. Our lives take us in all kinds of directions, pressuring us, and it is by no means the case that change is an intrinsic good. For those who hold to a baptistic view, my historical sketch is simply a sad tale of how hanging out with Presbyterians too much messed up my baptismal theology! But these contextual changes in our lives – meeting new people, refining our beliefs, coming into contact with the reality that these beliefs actually deal with – make us reexamine what we think and do. This can lead to wonderful or terrible changes – and it’s tempting to feel a bit helpless the more we realize how our history and context forms even the perceived possibilities of belief and practice.
But we are not helpless, because we’ve been given essential tools to steer our course through these waters – the Word of God, the people of God, and the Spirit of God. We have a fixed reference point in scripture. This does not mean that we always read scripture well, and when we feel the pressures of context pulling and pushing us, that is an occasion to return to scripture and try to understand it better. For God’s people since the beginning, the absolute foundation for belief and practice has always been God’s words. When I felt the pressure of a child on the way, I turned back to the Word of God. But I didn’t do it alone – we were never meant to hear God’s words as isolated individuals, or to pretend that we’re the first ones to hear them and try to build our theology from scratch. Both the community here and now, and the community of our forefathers over thousands of years who have heard and reflected on scripture, captured in the traditions of the church, are vital guides for us as we try to understand and put into practice what we read. They’re also vital guardians and protectors when we’re tempted to jettison or neglect certain doctrines or practices that are no longer palatable to our context. This is why I read, studied, and had conversations with people I respected and who were in my life as I wrestled with this decision. And of course, in all of this we are utterly reliant on the work of the Holy Spirit, in his written words in Scripture, in his work in the people of God now and through time, and in the Spirit’s work to open our eyes and ears to see and hear. I brought the decision to God in prayer, asking him to help.
We will change our minds about what we believe and do, especially when we’re younger and having novel experiences and hearing new things. I’ve not met anyone that had their theology and practice calcified at birth. These need not be changes that flip our theological worlds upside down – in some cases that might be necessary, but in others it would be a mistake. What we need to do is accept these pressures as normal in the Christian life, and use the tools God gave us to walk through periods of questioning wisely and faithfully. Our emotions change, our lives change, and our culture changes, but “the Word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) Our task is to hold fast to that Word – cling to Jesus by listening carefully to what he says – in community and by the power of the Spirit.