Why Infant Baptism is More Than It Seems

Today I had the first discussion of baptism that I’ve engaged in since reading Paul Jewett’s book, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, and it has inspired a sudden blog post. The summer quarter has been crazy, but I do hope to get back into regular blogging.

I thought I’d share just a brief snippet I’ve learned over the past couple months through this book, as well as my Medieval and Reformation Church History class:

Growing up I never realized that infant baptism was about more than infant baptism. It’s not just about whether or not you believe babies can have faith or whether or not you think that matters. It’s not just about dunking and sprinkling and confession and commitment and community. It’s actually all about the separation of church and state.

Before I met my fiance Jeremiah I had never heard of Zwingli, but Zwingli is now in fact my favorite Reformer. Zwingli, for those of you that don’t know, lived in Switzerland pre-Calvin and is essentially his predecessor by a couple decades. He began a Reformation there which originated independently of Luther’s (as far as we can tell), while Calvin was late enough to be influenced by both. Besides his weird freak-out over church organs (“They’re not in the Bible, so we should get rid of them”!), Zwingli was a pretty awesome guy who did a good job questioning the status quo–unlike Luther, who wanted to revise a few important doctrines but was too conservative to advocate for any major overhauls. Luther changed what he needed, but Zwingli more systematically analyzed what needed to change. He looked beyond ideas like “justification by faith” and moving into things like the Eucharist, church polity, and even the decorations of church buildings.

But there was one thing Zwingli couldn’t change. He couldn’t get rid of infant baptism. He actually briefly considered the issue… but ultimately, it just wouldn’t work. Why? Because we couldn’t have citizens. The church was so tied up with the state that there was no way to make life without infant baptism make any sense. Baptism was how a baby was officially made part of a community, part of the nation.

When the Anabaptists took things to the next level, insisting that believer baptism was the only biblical form, it wasn’t just a theological issue. It was also a political issue, a church/state issue. The Anabaptists insisted the church should be entirely separate from the state, anyway. In fact, they sometimes fancied themselves the only “real” Christians, since they were the only ones who understood the real New Testament Christians had to endure persecution. The Anabaptists varied widely in the degree of their radicalism (with some wanting to take over hearts by force, with others aligning themselves with pacifism), but basically all agreed on these two things: the church was never meant to be combined with the state (as it was under Constantine) and baptism was always meant to come after a profession of faith by an individual able to make such a decision for themselves.

I hate the alliance of Christianity with power, so the Anabaptists have definitely won extra sympathy from me for the church/state issue. It surprises me that we so rarely hear about this side of the issue in churches today. It makes sense, though, that infant baptism would set up a society in which everyone assumes lots of people are Christian and large portions of them don’t have any meaningful faith. It seems that to a large extent, that’s still where we are today, unfortunately.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Why Infant Baptism is More Than It Seems

  1. dave ruiz

    thanks-still need to understand the mix state and church .I do agree back then the entire community was one -like all catholic,you would be oddball if you believed differently.I do not mind authority or state “being ” christian ” . Can you really be neutral ,even as a state in regards to this? thanks

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