*** A recent Facebook discussion among pastors on my (Nazarene) district, has prompted me to re-post a four part series on Infant Baptism. This series was originally posted in 2008.***
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."