In my article about children and baptism I commented that:
“… a few years back, there was a big fuss about something called “The Federal Vision.” It was strong among some Presbyterians and Anglicans. It was an attempt to recover a high view of baptism for paedo-baptist evangelicals. They wanted to say that baptism for babies was more than just getting the baby wet and more than a naming ceremony.”
One respondent on twitter wanted to point out that the choice for paedo-baptist evangelicals was not a binary one between the Federal Vision position and the confused “wet dedication” position. He was right of course, there is a long tradition going back to the Reformers of what he called a “strong” view of baptism. The point I was making in that statement was not that other views/approaches didn’t exist (note the use of the word ‘recover’) but rather that the Federal Visionist debate arose partly out of a concern that paedo-baptists had lost their way a little. Certainly, my experience up until about 10 years ago was that Anglican Evangelicals I encountered were generally uncertain about why they baptised babies – on the back foot as it were. Since then we have seen a more robust defence of the position among paedo-baptists -even a more, front foot, on the attack seeking to challenge the baptistic” position.
So, I wanted to use this article just to highlight some of the paedo-baptist positions I’ve encountered. I don’t claim that this is an exhaustive list – and if you are aware of other positions, please chip in.
- Babies are baptised because they belong to the church. They are part of the covenant people. This is about the external, objective position and the visible church. This may not be the same as their actual subjective heart response, required for regeneration and salvation. The visible church is not identical with the invisible church.
- Baptism is the outer sign of what happens in the heart. It primarily functions as a witness to others, it is as much for the church family as for the individual, it therefore does not matter whether the event aligns with conversion. In fact, normally baptism does not align with conversion, Baptists tend to wait some time after the heart event. The risk with baptism happening a whole after belief is that the focus is on the person’s response and it can even become a kind of ‘next step of obedience’. Baptising a baby better reflects the sense that it is God’s act of grace that saves us and that we are not able to contribute anything to it. Baptism them also as a statement of faith that the child will be saved when they respond to the Gospel.
- God’s promise in Acts 2 was to those present on that day and to their children. This is a genuine promise that the children of believers are within the covenant in the fullest sense of the word. They are part of the elect. We assume regeneration and so we treat them as belonging to Christ and teach and train them to grow in godliness. The baptised child who later rejects Christ is in effect guilty of apostacy. This is the kind of line that some associated with the Federal Vison approach have gone down. This has led to concerns that they were at risk of moving towards a Baptismal Regeneration position (something they are very clear in insisting that they do not agree with). Additionally, there have been questions about whether this means that essentially the child can lose their salvation and what that means for saving faith -are there different types of faith.
Unsurprisingly I disagree with all of these positions. In my understanding, the practice of believers’ baptism best reflects the Biblical command and practice. However, I think there are some helpful challenges to hear.
- Yes, baptism does tend to get separated from conversion -often by many years. I wonder if that is really acceptable and if we are being consistent with our understanding of it? Do we risk treating it as an after-thought. Baptism should not be just an excuse for a party with family guests or an evangelistic event although it is a great evangelistic opportunity and a cause for celebration.
- Does our approach to baptism emphasise properly God’s sovereign grace in rescuing us from the slavery of sin and bringing us from death to life.
- Have we carefully thought through the potential implications of distinguishing between the visible and the invisible church? The visible church being all those who identify as part of the church and may include non-Christians, the invisible church being all true believers both living and now with the Lord. This distinction may both protect us from pride and counting numbers and at the same time remind us that the Gospel has had greater fruit than we can see at any given time, It may also raise questions about how we discharge our duties as elders properly seeking to be careful in who we baptise and welcome into the church so as not to give false assurance but recognising at the same time our own fallibility. This means that we do take great care with baptism and membership interviews but also that when we see people wander away or have to exercise church discipline that we don’t’ descend into guilt and despondency at our failure to spot the warning signs back when the person was baptised.