Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Infant Baptism IV: What Happens When Infants Are Baptized?

In my previous posts on this topic I have attempted to set the practice of Nazarenes baptizing infant children within historical context. I then gave some of the reasons why we Wesleyan/Methodist Christians do baptize our young children. - This final post in my series on Infant Baptism has already generated some discussion in the comments section, and I have already given enough away in that section so that readers already have a pretty good idea where I am headed in this post.

Let me begin by identifying what seems to be the most common thoughts by Nazarene theologians (in writing) concerning what happens in infant Baptism. I will attempt to do that by looking to the two most recent Systematic Theologies produced by Nazarene theologians.

In A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill P. '94), Kenneth Grider says, "Even as God entered into a covenant with the male infant who was circumcised on his eighth day of life, God enters into a covenant to give special helps to an infant who is baptized. - This leads to the suggestion that infant baptism affirms the doctrine of prevenient grace - so important as a doctrine for Arminian-Wesleyanism" (503).

Ray Dunning, in Grace Faith and Holiness (Beacon Hill P. '88), says, "This may be interpreted as saying that baptism is the ordinary (a term Wesley insisted on) means by which the child appropriates prevenient grace, which would nonetheless by efficacious apart from baptism even as adults may be born again without the administering of water" (548, second group of italics mine). - (I would mention that Ray Dunning was my Theology professor at Trevecca Nazarene University. I hold him in high esteem and credit him with being the first to introduce me to a more classical Wesleyan Theology . . . though, at this point I have to say, I think he missed it.)

And, finally, the ritual for "The Baptism of Infants or Young Children" in the Manual (the Nazarene Book of Discipline) states clearly, "While we do not hold that baptism imparts the regenerating grace of God . . . Christian baptism signifies for this young child God's gracious acceptance on the basis of His prevenient grace in Christ and points forward to his (her) personal appropriation of the benefits of the Atonement when he (she) reaches the age of moral accountability and exercises conscious saving faith in Jesus Christ" (p 236).

Thus, it becomes clear that most Nazarenes seem to identify the Baptism of infants as a means of proclaiming that prevenient grace is at work in the child.

There are a couple of problems with this position, from my perspective. First, (except in the case of Dunning, above) this position removes Infant Baptism from the category of sacrament. A sacrament for Wesleyan Christians is an outward sign of an inward grace and a means whereby we receive the same. In the position espoused above the Baptism of infants is no longer a means whereby grace is received, but rather merely a means of proclamation . . . that prevenient grace is already at work in the child. (Dunning manages to escape this trap by identifying Baptism as "the ordinary . . . means by which the child appropriates prevenient grace," even though he goes on to say that it would nevertheless be efficacious without Baptism.)

In addition to the problem of stripping Infant Baptism from its "sacramental status" is the issue of what "prevenient grace" refers to. - Certainly, it refers to God's grace that "goes before" we can do anything. And, in as much as that is true, Infant Baptism does proclaim the prevenient nature (at least) of grace. However, when speaking of prevenient grace, one usually refers to that grace that extends to all humanity due to the Atonement of Christ, which is at work in every sinner's heart, seeking to awaken, convict, convert, and sanctify, and granting us the gracious ability to respond to the call of the gospel (cf. An Introduction to Wesleyan Theology. Greathouse/Dunning. Beacon Hill P. '89. p 60 & 72). In the case of infants, what is essentially being said in baptism (according to the view espoused above) is that our children are "covered by the atonement" until they reach an age of moral accountability. - Keep in mind, this is true whether we baptize them or not. Infant Baptism is seen as simply proclaiming that particular aspect of God's grace.

The problem is that while the practice of Infant Baptism is consistent with Wesley, and the doctrine of prevenient grace is consistent with Wesley, the combining of those two doctrines in the way that Nazarenes have (above) is completely foreign to Wesley (and the ancient Church). In fact, such a view seems to have only recently originated within the Wesleyan-holiness tradition (though there may be evidence of it in some earlier Methodist writings).

So what was Wesley's view? - Frankly, Wesley believed that infants who were faithfully baptized were then and there regenerate and "born again." Wesley does not identify Baptism as being the same thing as the new birth. And he recognizes that a person may be "born of water," and yet not "born of the Spirit" (Staples 184). And, one may experience being "born of the Spirit" by faith prior to Baptism, as seen in Acts. However, of infants Wesley says, ". . . all who are baptized in their infancy are at the same time born again . . ." (Wesley's Works 6:74).

Such a view does not mean that the child does not need to "own the faith" for his/herself when they are old enough to do so. They, like all of us, must do so. Neither does it mean that they cannot fall from grace (as in a kind of "once baptized, always saved" idea). It is also important to note that Wesley rejects a mechanical ex oper operato doctrine. Rather we are called to bring our children to the sacrament of Baptism with faith in Christ.

I am of the opinion that John Wesley's view is more consistent with that of the Church Fathers, and I am in full agreement with him on this point.

Now, how does a Nazarene maintain such a position? If I were a United Methodist, the answer would be simple: Wesley's Standard Sermons are a part of their doctrinal standards, and Wesley, there, espouses this position. But we Nazarenes do not have that standard listed in our Manual. - Nevertheless, I would maintain that such a view is not contrary to our Articles of Faith (though it certainly is not espoused there). I recall a very helpful conversation with a former professor of mine concerning the sacraments. I ask him how he reconciled his own views with the Manual's so very weak (sacramentally speaking) statements on The Lord's Supper. He replied that he believed our Manual statement . . . he believed "at least that much." - My views on infant Baptism, I think, fall into the same category.

It is true, however, that our ritual for infant Baptism seems to outright deny Wesley's position as even a possibility. In order to make it compatible one would have to invoke a technicality that says Baptism does not impart regenerating grace; God imparts regenerating grace through Baptism. But it must be admitted that the intent of the ritual is to rule out such a view.

I take solace in knowing that we are not bound by the rituals in our Manual, and thus not by doctrinal positions placed there which are absent from our Articles of Faith. This is illustrated in a number of ways. First, with the exception of the ritual for membership, the Manual does not require the use of our rituals. Second, it was the Manual Editing Committee that commissioned Dr. Jesse Middendorf (now General Superintendent) to write The Church Rituals Handbook, which our publishing house produced. And finally, if our rituals are not used at our General Assembly by certain of our own General Superintendents, it surely means that we are not require to use them.

Therefore, while I may be awfully lonely, I believe myself to still fall within Nazarene boundaries when espousing Wesley's view of infant Baptism.

One final clarifying note on adult baptisms: such a view of infant Baptism does not imply that every adult who is baptized is thereby "born again." In the case of adults, the call is still to exercise faith in Christ, to repent and to be baptized. Also, while it may be maintained that Baptism is not absolutely necessary for salvation (i.e., a person may be "born again" prior to being baptized), nevertheless it must also be recognized that it is a command of our Lord, and the New Testament knows nothing of "unbaptized Christians."


Peter said...


I am enjoying your posts about baptism. These are great -- thanks!

Your point about prevenient grace is spot on. As Wesley wrote, and as the BCP affirms Baptism is a sacrament of regeneration. It makes one a Christian.

Like those vestments!!

Katharine said...

I know very little of theology. What I do know is my children. Since their baptism we have noticed that they take special notice of the things of God. They talk about Jesus often, and ask lots of questions, and seem to care about what the right thing is to do.

Conversations with friends and looking back on my own life has caused me to do things a little differently then the way I remember being taught. I have not dwelled on my children's sinfulness or need for a savior and fretted that they haven't "accepted Christ" in that they have not prayed a sinners prayer.

My son has great faith, and he loves the Lord, and he knows when he sins he needs to repent. I believe he is walking with the Lord, and I would not be surprised if his baptism has something to do with that.

The sacraments as they were presented to me as a child were very confusing. Do this (baptism, or communion, etc) but remember that they don't really mean anything, they are only symbolic. But you had better do them with the right heart! None of it made any sense until I learned that something *happens* during the sacraments. Suddenly, doing them made sense. It doesn't make sense to command someone to do something that is meaningless. And it doesn't make sense to have someone do something only if they are worthy to do so if it is something meaningless.

Pastor Steven said...


I will have to say, that as far as Infant Baptism goes, I'm very much in favor of Baptizing infants. But when it comes to baptisal regeneration, even as it relates to infants. I'm very much on the fence, I believe that grace is imparted at the baptism of both adults and infants. I'm just not sure it is the grace of regeneration. I need to go back and read that section of Wesley's Works.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Steven

Eric said...

AMEN! Todd. Thank you for your response. It really hits the mark in my book. I wonder about your thoughts of the Ritual for the Baptism of Infants (in Middendorfs). Though they are worlds better than the Manual, I find them still greatly lacking...especially compared to the Adult Baptism ritual.

"I believe that grace is imparted at the baptism of both adults and infants. I'm just not sure it is the grace of regeneration"

Is the grace of regeneration different than the grace of justification, or sacntification, or prevenience? Or is there just grace working in our lives in a variety of ways?

Pastor Steven said...


Certainly grace is working in our lives in a variety of ways from prevenient grace to sanctifying grace. And of course grace is more than just something it is someone, Jesus Christ our Lord, a direct manifestation of the living God Himself. What I seek to know the truth about is, are infants born of water and the Spirit at the time of their baptism. Tod has given me a lot to think about.

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Steven

Brannon Hancock said...

MAN, there is a lot going on in Todd's post, and in these few comments already - I hardly know where to jump in...

actually, after much typing, I've decided to post my thoughts in a separate blog over on "Sanctifying Worship" - my "comment" was getting too lengthy for a comment thread, and I don't want to hi-jack this discussion. We'll simply extend the conversation a bit by letting it flow into another blog. It's all right here.

P.S. just to elaborate on Katherine's comment (which was wonderfully practical, and practically wonderful!): if we were EVER "worthy" to participate in the sacrament(s), it would no longer be a means of grace!

I really appreciate the wisdom and time and care with which you've put this series together, Todd, and I really appreciate the thoughts and the spirit of your commenters. You guys give me hope (and I hope we make Todd feel a little less lonely...).


Dave Belcher said...

[I tried posting this last night, but then lost the whole comment...I was so exasperated I gave up! Let's try again!]


I know this is actually Wesley's position, but I guess I'm just unconvinced: "It is also important to note that Wesley rejects a mechanical ex oper operato doctrine. Rather we are called to bring our children to the sacrament of Baptism with faith in Christ." That is to say, I'm not sure how ex opere operato is "mechanical"; in fact, from my understanding of Augustine, to say that the "efficacy" of the sacrament works "ex opere operato," is to say something very much like: we are called to come to the sacrament of Baptism "with faith in Christ," that is, that Christ is the one who administers this grace to us. The express emphasis on "intentionality" of the baptizand over against the Donatist emphasis on the "performance" of the minister ("ex opere operandi") allowed that one could be joined to Christ in the sacrament because no matter the moral state of the minister, Christ is still faithful to give the Holy Spirit who is the very bond of loving unity -- provided there is an intentionality (a faith made alive by caritas) on the part of the baptizand towards such unity (with Christ, and thus with the "catholic" church...or, with the catholic church and thus with the body of Christ). I think the added proviso at the end -- what is often left out of most accounts of the "Donatist controversy": Augustine's use of "intentionality" -- takes away from the mechanical...ness of it all.

I can understand that it might seem to Wesley that grace is simply "there"...that all we have to do is do this work, and by the work already worked, grace just kind of releases itself. But, that's not what Augustine ever intended by his use of "ex opere operato."

Not at all trying to be contrary! This just happened to be what I homed in on, and I really love this particular portion of our rich tradition (wrote my master's thesis on Baptism -- which makes me less an expert than simply obsessed with this stuff!). Thanks again for your wonderful reflections and inviting conversation. Peace.

Dave Belcher said...

I should clarify, in case there is question, that though the proviso of "intentionality" on the part of the baptizand (faith made alive by caritas) must come alongside the sacrament (one must "repent and believe"), the Spirit's giving of grace is certainly not dependent on that intentionality -- just as she is not dependent on the morality of the minister (and Augustine says this quite adamantly actually). The Spirit blows where she will. So, really, as in a lot of matters for Augustine, if the Spirit does not pour out grace, it is due neither to the depravity of the minister or the baptizand, but he will say retrospectively that we can say with some confidence that the baptizand simply was not elect (same kind of explanation follows from the premature death of an infant -- it is not because they were not baptized, but because they must not have been elect, according to Augustine). But it is also important to point out, for Augustine, though, that predestination is not a metaphysical system (as in say, Beza), but as a way of explaining what actually happens (Eugene TeSelle makes this point in his book on Augustine). Alright I'll shut up.

Rich Schmidt said...

I just wanted to say thanks for these 4 posts on infant baptism. As a Nazarene pastor in a church plant, we have folks with all sorts of backgrounds & beliefs when it comes to baptism. Seminary was nearly 10 years ago for me, so I needed the quick refresher course! Thanks!

Dave Belcher said...

Todd, Just wanted to let you know that I posted some reflections on Wesley's views on baptism and regeneration over at Sanctifying Worship (Sacramental Nazarenes). Peace.

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