Having a minority view on Baptism (That of a mixed approach accepting both paedo and credo approaches, albeit assuming a credo mode as normative) within my tradition means I spend a long time having to justify my position repeatedly to critics. What follows is a reflection on a recent criticism on paedobaptism being a prerequisite of Christendom.
Paedobaptism as the outworking of christian mission
One of the critiques of not adopting paedobaptism as espoused by the Church of England is that this undermines the baptism of a whole society. What one Anglican critic of my position described as “a rejection of Christendom as the outworking of Christian mission”. A more developed view of this is implied in TS Eliot’s description of a Christian society:
A Christian community is one in which there is a unified religious-social code of behaviour. It should not be necessary for the ordinary individual to be wholly conscious of what elements are distinctly religious and Christian, and what are merely social and identified with his religion by no logical implication. I am not requiring that the community should contain more ‘good Christians’ than one would expect to find under favourable conditions. The religious life of the people would be largely a matter of behaviour and conformity … The rulers, I have said, will, qua rulers, accept Christianity not simply as their own faith to guide their actions, but as the system under which they are to govern. The people will accept it as a matter of behaviour and habit. In the abstraction which I have erected, it is obvious that the tendency of the State is toward expediency that may become cynical manipulation, the tendency of the people toward intellectual lethargy and superstition. We need therefore what I have called ‘the Community of Christians’, by which I mean, not local groups, and not the Church in any one of its senses, unless we call it ‘the Church within the Church’. These will be the consciously and thoughtfully practising Christians, especially those of intellectual and spiritual superiority.TS Eliot, The Idea of A Christian Society: Lecture Three
If Christianity is the ‘system’ under which rulers govern it is taken as a given that their subjects will be Christians, if they are not baptised can they be called Christian? Ergo birth proximity baptism is predicated and promoted as a matter of ‘behaviour and habit’ to uphold the system which is organised to facilitate a society predicated on Christian principles and assumptions.
In this light paedobaptism is argued to be the baptism of Christendom, of Christian society. Even for many of the Reformers, who did not hold to Baptismal Regeneration, saw a necessity in retaining this. Zwingli in particular being an example of someone who embraced paedobaptism again, for this reason, after rejecting it:
In Zwingli’s view the church needed the strong arm of the state to become firmly established and to overcome all opposition. He was led to realize that some of the citizens of Zurich (possibly a majority) would follow other religious leaders, if the state did not prescribe the Zwinglian creed. Unless an exclusive state-church was established and the acceptance of other creeds made unlawful by the state, the (nominal) unity of the church would be lost.John Horsch, Infant Baptism. Chapter 6: Why Zwingli Defended Infant Baptism
Critics of infant baptism were treated, not just as critics of the methodology but as anarchists who threatened to erode the civil order. In the eyes of many these weren’t two separate but related issues but one and the same. Luther considered Anabaptists blasphemers who deserved to be killed, Reformed and Roman Catholics didn’t disagree. Non-conformists, even if they were paedobaptists themselves, often attracted a degree of the ire reserved for Anabaptists in places like Anglican England before changes in the 19th century. This included the Puritans, but also Catholics and even Jews because these people were outside the Covenant and Order of the established Church. The same can be said for those like Huguenots in places like France by the Catholics. Eliot again tacitly recognises this:
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.TS Eliot, After Strange Gods. Chapter 1
This, in part, explains the phyletism within much of Eastern Orthodoxy. It explains the relative lack of toleration for minorities and dissident creeds in Christendom’s history wherever it is found. The retreat of Christendom is in part a response to the rise of toleration for various minorities under the rubric of liberalism that emerged in response to growth of various competing creeds and confessions. Ergo, a Christian society would be a paedobaptist one, as part of a broader swathe of measures to ensure continued membership and censure its detractors and dissidents. To depart from strict paedobaptism is to depart from the very notion of Christendom.
Christendom after it’s ended
At first glance there is some merit to this. Karl Barth, in his criticism of Infant Baptism wrote:
The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.Karl Barth, Die christliche Lehre nach dem Heidelberger Katechismus, Lectures given at the University of Bonn, Summer Semester, 1947
Barth, as a critic, saw this link between Paedobaptism and Christendom. That if it was not enforced it wouldn’t endure over time. This was Zwingli’s fear. Even a cursory glance at the history of Confirmation will see that conversion rates from baptism and confirmation have always been genuinely poor in both sacerdotal and non-sacerdotal churches. In fact things are so bad today that the Church of England has abolished the requirement for confirmation in advance of receiving communion because it is either unwilling or unable to enact sanctions against its members who do not receive it. Whatever one thinks of this it reflects the reality that many of these Churches of Christendom face serious challenges now they no longer wield the proverbial rod of Church discipline to chide and maintain their flocks on this issue.
In retrospect, now Christendom is over, is it something we should be seeking to restore? Roman Catholic Integralists and those like them would certainly answer in the affirmative, yet to wind back the clock without otherwise changing anything seems inevitably doomed to fall into the same pitfalls that such endeavours experienced the first time round. The bigger question is what conditions would be required in order to make such a thing happen and prevent a repeat of history? I would love to live in a Christian society, but would I love to live somewhere like Russia today as a Protestant? No. Yet Christendom is in part an abdication of the confession of the individual for the confession of the society. It predicates what Sohrab Ahmari calls ‘to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.’ A noble goal. Yet if we genuinely believe in a Highest Good this isn’t just in ‘the public square’ but in ‘every public square’ we find ourselves and our kind in. Yet that Higher Good isn’t discerned by a believer but the institutions which govern Ahmari’s vision of society. This is ironic because Ahmari’s vision in his own context (the US) is a minority vision. A more moderate vision may instead see the corporate confession of a national body as a desire not to open ‘windows into men’s souls’. To avoid the splintering, exclusivist and fundamentalism that explicit confessionalism can lead to. Yet the state of the Anglican Church today, and its historic struggles with latitudinarianism, shows that perhaps this is not a sustainable approach either. Infact, the contemporary governance and architecture of the Church of England is as such to mean that recreating anything approximating the Reformed Church of England of the 16th century is impossible today. To dissent from that in favour of an older vision is an active, necessarily voluntary, choice.
Paedobaptist Christendom as an ideal
Given our society, our world, is operating in an increasingly connected technological age I genuinely believe the old models of Christendom are increasingly hard to realise today. The most prominent enduring example of something approximating the traditional model might be something like what we see in Russia, which is far from a glowing endorsement of the ideal although we shouldn’t see it as the singular expression of what is achievable under such a model. Yet I think there’s also legitimate questions to ask regarding how healthy any society can be under traditional models of Christendom. To borrow Ahmari’s language, does traditional conceptions of Christendom as a methodology genuinely order us, collectively, towards the ‘Highest Good’?
TS Eliot, in his Idea of a Christian Society, freely admits that the vast majority of Christians in his model of society are defined not so much by active belief but by habit and association. For me that isn’t ideal but is likely to be the historical norm. There is some virtue in that, and yet we must acknowledge the transience of such societies all the same.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
I cannot take Christian England into heaven, I can only take its English Christians. Yet by calling all Englishmen Christians do I exchange representation for reality in my own eyes and those of others? Did the English nation never collectively lead its people into sin thinking they were doing God’s work? Have people ever blasphemed God by the actions of Englishmen acting in the name of Christ? Have the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox nations not led people into sins thinking they were being good Christians by their actions? If we draw no distinction between a nation and the Gospel I think we can legitimately argue that there is cause for concern there.
Just as nations fade so do people. Just yesterday I experienced this personally when my brother was involved in a particular nasty car crash and for a time we did not know if he would live or die. I had never really contemplated the reality of my younger brother dying before then but once I did it filled me with dread. He isn’t a believer, he isn’t baptised. What if he dies outside of Christ? I had friends growing up who had died in this fashion.
Whilst waiting to hear news at the Hospital, with thoughts running through my head as they do, I could not help but wonder would we all be happier if he had been baptised as an infant and still an unbeliever in his current situation. In my worst moments I had visions of rushing to baptise my brother, somehow, before he died if the worst was due to happen despite him being an unbeliever. Yet in my more sober moments I had to wrestle with what I believed about the relationship between faith and baptism. Does baptism go in advance, cause, or follow faith and regeneration? Faith and regeneration are joined and culminate with baptism. Justin Martyr I think is very apropo on this:
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone.Justin Martyr, First Apology
Would baptising my brother have done any good? Even as a newborn? If he had been baptised as an infant it could have arguably been worse, since he’d then be an apostate. If he was baptised as an infant, and yet not an apostate despite his unbelief, then had he ever been a believer? Thankfully my brother will be ok. Yet if baptism saves, as John 3:3-6 teaches, that we are saved by the joining of water and spirit then does the act itself cause the spirit to be joined to the water? Or is the joining of the spirit abstracted from the time of water baptism itself, as the Reformed and now the Pentecostals teach? I’ve never found that particularly convincing despite quite lengthy exchanges with advocates and reading their formal argumentation. What would make a difference? The only thing I can name is conversion of his heart and will to trust in God and, as Justin Martyr taught, the subsequent desire to ‘obtain in the water the remission of sins’. Surely that, as a normative course, would do a better job at making ‘English Christians’ rather than seeking a ‘Christian England’. A Christian England should be an emergent property of English Christians.
Correlation and causation
TS Eliot is correct that habits form people, that we should seek conditions in which people are encouraged to live in a society according to the tenants of the Gospel, to seek a relationship with God. Yet in the act of trying to maintain cultural homogeneity via a series of practices of which paedobaptism is one I think that betrays the insecurities that Karl Barth picks up upon in his earlier quotation. I think we can be more confident in this regard.
We must also remember that the ubiquity of paedobaptism was not out of a desire for a Christian Society as an ends in and of itself but a changing understanding of what baptism meant. Historian Peter Cramer describes these changes in the 5th-6th century as:
[Baptism] is turned into a passive cleansing from original sin, an exorcism, instead of a personal conversion followed by an ethical journey.Peter Cramer, Baptism and Change in the Early Middle Ages
Yet many paedobaptist protestants would equally reject baptism as an ex opere operato ‘cleansing’ of original sin and exorcism. Although I’m happy to think of it in those terms precisely because I tend to see it as the fruit of a personal conversion as accounted in Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures:
If you persist in an evil purpose, the speaker is blameless, but you must not look for the grace: for the water will receive, but the Spirit will not accept you. If any one is conscious of his wound, let him take the salve; if any has fallen, let him arise. Let there be no Simon among you, no hypocrisy, no idle curiosity about the matter.Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Prologue
In this sense the conflation of Paedobaptism with Christian Societies is a post-facto apologia that only these forms of societies are sufficiently ‘thick’ enough to stand independently. Communities like the Amish, by way of example, aside from their pacifism, are not dependant on occupying a perennial minority position within a parent society and are currently doing better than anytime in their history thanks to soaring birth and retention rates. By one count retention rates are as high as 85-95%. They are even managing to recruit new members to their fold and their population is set to double every 60 years meaning their growth rate is almost as high as Rodney Starks estimation of early Church growth at 40% every decade in its earliest centuries.
Stark also actually uses Mormonism as a baseline for his rationale regarding early Church growth since they are an example of a contemporary religious movement able to maintain similar growth rates. They too incidentally only tend to administer their form of baptism after an age of accountability, around eight years of age. So a community like the Amish, whilst admittedly small minority, contains many of the same hallmarks of Christendom and Eliot’s ‘Idea of a Christian Society’ whilst not incorporating Paedobaptism. As one commentator states:
The point of this pretty tale is that exponential growth matters. Obviously, the Amish can’t continue doubling their numbers every generation forever. But if they keep it up for another century then there will be eight million of them. If they keep it up for two centuries, America will be a majority Amish nation. Even today, their numbers are big enough in some parts of the country for campaigners to go after their votes – as the existence of Amish PAC attests.Peter Franklin. Unherd, What the Amish and the Shakers can teach us about demographics
Defenders of traditional notions of paedobaptism also argue that alternatives to their position promote voluntarism, a buffering of the self in which all things are governed by consent. That it betrays a false vision of an atomised child detached of ascribed identities formed of relational bonds formed in time and space. The earlier example of the Amish cuts against this claim, yet in the current societal climate this accusation is like blaming a shoal of fish for being wet. The same can be said of nearly all Christian creeds in the West since the end of the 19th century since we are all largely free to choose or change our tradition or even abandon the faith altogether. This is particularly noticeable in the US wherein so many traditionalist mainliners themselves, in my experience, were not born into the tradition they now occupy. Even the paedobaptists in places like the UK and US are increasingly such by conviction – and not the full spectrum of society. Do the 1% of 18-24 years olds in the UK who confess Anglicanism do so by mere accident of birth or because they actively chose to adopt it or maintain what they inherited?
Christians outside of majority nations have always historically chosen the faith over the world, many of the greatest Early Church Fathers were Converts, Philosophers, and Theologians who lamented the persecution of Christians by the majority creed of the age. Many historians are now ready to admit that ubiquitous paedobaptism was a development rather than an apostolic precedent. This is a point I have written about previously, John Henry Newman himself admitted:
Now how are the modern sects, which protest against infant baptism, to be answered by Anglicans with this array of great names in their favour? By the later rule of the Church surely; by the dicta of some later Saints, as by St. Chrysostom; by one or two inferences from Scripture; by an argument founded on the absolute necessity of Baptism for salvation,—sufficient reasons certainly, but impotent to reverse the fact that neither in Dalmatia nor in Cappadocia, neither in Rome, nor in Africa, was it then imperative on Christian parents, as it is now, to give baptism to their young children. It was on retrospect and after the truths of the Creed had sunk into the Christian mind, that the authority of such men as St. Cyprian, St. Chrysostom, and St. Augustine brought round the orbis terrarum to the conclusion, which the infallible Church confirmed, that observance of the rite was the rule, and the non-observance the exception.An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine By John Henry Newman. Chapter 4. Instances in Illustration, Section 1. Instances Cursorily Noticed, Instance 3. Infant Baptism, Paragraph 7
Using Newman in this manner is often been met with outraged responses, but I have not heard an answer to what Newman is asking. I’ve no great love for him, but on this point I think he was correct, even if I disagree with his conclusions.
Within broader accusations of voluntarism is an accusation pertaining to a belief in some form of ‘tabula rasa’ in children that does not place God in the center of existence as an axiomatic reality. Something that unwittingly predicates and upholds ideas like atheism, secularism and liberalism that are now so ubiquitous in the Western world. This objection, to me, is an extension of the insecurity that Karl Barth talks about but into the spiritual realm. That unless people are effectively born and enter straight into the Church they would not join in the numbers they historically have. The growth of the Church in places historically hostile to it challenges this notion, both today outside of the West and in the earliest centuries of the Church itself. Communities like the Amish certainly have no vision of their children as ‘buffered’ entities and still center their societies around the existence of God as their prime mover. In these contexts children are the equivalent of catechumens who undergo rites of passage when appropriate conditions are met, this is the same pattern we see in many of the biographies of Fathers from the earliest centuries of the Church. Perhaps its our relative lack and alienation from ritualised rites of passage in the West make us unable to realise the reality of this.
Exclusivism and fundamentalism
Another accusation, assumed in this, is that of exclusivism. That overt confessionalism and a zealous desire for orthodoxy contains the seeds within it of fundamentalism and fanaticism. There is some merit in this, the desire to ‘open windows into men’s souls’ that I mentioned earlier. This is something my old vicar took to heart as a former member of the Brethern, and is a very popular subject within the Church of England to warn individuals of. Yet the Church of England itself is also a good example of the opposite danger of latitudinarianism. Any community, to endure, needs to able to sufficiently define itself but by overly doing so, or not doing so at all, can encounter a fatal error. Yet on the subject of Baptism I do not think it too bold to say that my own position is perhaps the only one that cannot be subject to this accusation. This is because it is a subject I do not think one can justify schism over even if I hold a contrary position to others on the question of mode or methodology. Infact exclusivist positions in either direction I think can be accused of forms of Donatism to varying degrees. Even amongst those who accept the validity of a variant baptism but refuse entry to the presbytery for people who espouse it as a practice. In my mind, as I’ve commented previously, there is not a great degree of difference between this and the progressively developed tension surrounding the dating of Easter over the centuries. Something to which the irenically minded historian Socrates of Constantinople wrote:
As we have touched the subject I deem it not unreasonable to say a few words concerning Easter. It appears to me that neither the ancients nor moderns who have affected to follow the Jews, have had any rational foundation for contending so obstinately about it. For they have not taken into consideration the fact that when Judaism was changed into Christianity, the obligation to observe the Mosaic law and the ceremonial types ceased. And the proof of the matter is plain; for no law of Christ permits Christians to imitate the Jews. On the contrary the apostle expressly forbids it; not only rejecting circumcision, but also deprecating contention about festival days. In his epistle to the Galatians he writes, ‘Tell me ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?’ And continuing his train of argument, he demonstrates that the Jews were in bondage as servants, but that those who have come to Christ are ‘called into the liberty of sons.’ Moreover he exhorts them in no way to regard ‘days, and months, and years.’ Again in his epistle to the Colossians he distinctly declares, that such observances are merely shadows: wherefore he says, ‘Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of any holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath-days; which are a shadow of things to come.’ The same truths are also confirmed by him in the epistle to the Hebrews in these words: ‘For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.’ Neither the apostles, therefore, nor the Gospels, have anywhere imposed the ‘yoke of servitude’ on those who have embraced the truth; but have left Easter and every other feast to be honored by the gratitude of the recipients of grace. Wherefore, inasmuch as men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labor: each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast: nor do the Gospels and apostles threaten us with any penalty, punishment, or curse for the neglect of it, as the Mosaic law does the Jews. It is merely for the sake of historical accuracy, and for the reproach of the Jews, because they polluted themselves with blood on their very feasts, that it is recorded in the Gospels that our Saviour suffered in the days of ‘unleavened bread.’ The aim of the apostles was not to appoint festival days, but to teach a righteous life and piety. And it seems to me that just as many other customs have been established in individual localities according to usage. So also the feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter. And that the observance originated not by legislation, but as a custom the facts themselves indicate.Socrates of Constantinople. Church History, Chapter 12: The Author’s Views respecting the Celebration of Easter, Baptism, Fasting, Marriage, the Eucharist, and Other Ecclesiastical Rites
Socrates’s whole chapter on the subject is worth reading and I think the principles he espouses are worth internalising. Such a position, when applied to timing of baptism I think reveals that it is those who insist on an exclusive mode, paedo or credo to be vulnerable to claims of being a schismatic and fundamentalist. Unless one considers those who do otherwise to be outside the Church I see no justification for not maintaining fellowship and communion.
In paedobaptism a prerequisite for Christendom?
In sum I do see Christendom as the outworking of Christian mission but I reject the potential anxieties that see paedobaptism and the associated sanctions in questioning it as a necessary part of it. We have evidence that it is not the apostolic mode, nor a functionally necessary one. Neither was Christendom the explanation for the eventual ubiquity of paedobaptism when it did arise. Neither do I see the expediency in favour of the historic violence of both Reformers and Roman Catholics against communities like the Anabaptists. As a Christian, and even someone who sees rebaptism as a wrongheaded practice, I can’t understand such actions as being outside the product of great sin.
There is an internal logic to the magisterial ecclesial development of baptism within sacredotal traditions, which cannot be afforded to Protestants who place primacy of our appeals to scripture. Whilst I certainly have my views, I have not tried to go into detail into the rationale here having done so elsewhere. Instead I have tried to expound on whether paedobaptism is a necessary ingredient for Christendom.
Perhaps paedobaptism is necessary for a type of Christendom, certainly the kind we generally think of when the term is used and have historically experienced in Europe. Yet I think that is a mode historically hard to maintain, or even return to today, and whilst it has its merits is not without its deficits. I think comparing the proportional state of Christianity in somewhere like the UK to the US is indicative of this. It certainly isn’t, however, the singular expression available. In this increasingly globalised world Christendom, if it does return, will be organised along different lines with credobaptist traditions playing a role more significant than any other time in history. Is this incidental? Or a symptom of an associated confessional outlook that might be latent to such traditions?
What is a requirement for Christendom, as TS Eliot explained at the outset, was stability and homogeneity. I quibble with Eliot’s vision of a top-down imposition of Christianity by a ruling evangelical elite, something he struggled to see realised and is not the reality in places where Christianity seems to be growing most throughout the world. Even if that might have been the case in Europe at times. Philip Jenkins, in his book ‘The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity’ argues: ‘the great political unknown of the coming decades, the most powerful international wild card, will be that mysterious non-Western ideology called Christianity.’ A Christianity that will likely look very different to what preceded it. We live in uncertain times, we might not see a Christendom for awhile as the stability seems to be lacking to facilitate it – but if it does arrive I wouldn’t be surprised if its Protestant, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t predicated on paedobaptism.