Baptism has been a point of contention among Christians for centuries. Who should be baptized? Should it be limited to those with a credible profession of faith? Or are children of believing parents proper canidates also? And how much water should or must be used? For some, full immersion is essential for authentic baptism. But since the early centuries of the Church, baptism has been administered through sprinkling and pouring as well. The line is typically drawn between paedobaptists (who sprinkle infants) and credobaptists (who immerse upon a credible profession of faith). Both groups have exchanged strong words more than a few times. Could there be a middle way?
New Testament scholar Mike Bird has written two thought-provoking posts with precisely this aim of finding a middle way (part 1, part 2). Bird helpfully points out that both credo and paedo baptism have roots in early Christian history, and that both have something to teach us. He also reminds us that it is very difficult to get a very clear picture of how children of believers were regarded when it came to baptism in the New Testament period. I particularly appreciate his language of “gospel baptism” as an effort to get beyond the standard debate and a call to various demoninations to recognize one another’s baptisms. I also appreciate Bird’s irenic tone and his desire to urge the Church towards unity with regard to our chief initiatory rite.
There is one point I’d like to press a little, and it is a point that Bird touched on briefly in the first post. Bird points out that paedobaptism helpfully points us to God’s prevening grace while credobaptism reminds us of the importance of a personal experience of God and warns us against nominal belief. The difference between paedos and credos is much deeper, though. Paedobaptists see baptism as primarily a sign of God’s gracious covenant while (if I understand correctly) credobaptists see baptism as primarily a badge or sign of personal faith. For the paedobaptist, baptism is something God does through his Church; for the credobaptist, baptism is something the person does. There is a fundamental difference here that could be spoken of in terms of the direction of the action. For the paedobaptist, God acts towards the baptized person; for the credobaptist, the baptized person acts in faith towards God. I’m not sure it is simply a matter of emphasis; it seems to me to be a fundamentally different view of baptism. I’m with Bird on searching for common ground and unity on this issue, and I’m curious how he would respond to this apparent point of contradiction in our common endeavor for middle way.
For the sake of clarity, let me add that when paedobaptists (like myself) baptize adults after they become believers, we are not actually practicing believer’s baptism. Our understanding of baptism does not change depending on the age the candidate. When I baptize an adult, I explain to them that this is a sign of God’s covenant bestowed on them out of his grace. It is, of course, recieved in faith, but it is not primarily a sign of faith. We are not both paedo and credobaptists. We are paedobaptists who understand that baptism is a sign of the covenant and rightly belongs to all who are participants in that covenant, whether they are our children or newly believing adult brothers and sisters.
What do you think? Is there a middle way in the baptism debate? Or is there a fundamental and irreconcilable contradiction?