The meaning of infant baptism

I’m actually rather disappointed in this video by Archbishop Justin Welby in which he attempts to explain what baptism, and particularly the baptism of Prince George, is all about.

I like Justin Welby and I think as a bishop he is incredibly focussed on the Good News of Jesus Christ, on prayer, on Christian witness, and on reconciliation.

So I find it a little disappointing that our Lord Jesus Christ barely gets a mention in this video about the meaning of baptism!

In the New Testament, by contrast, baptism is inextricably linked, not just to God, but to Jesus the Son of God. Jesus clearly identifies the meaning of baptism in Matthew 28:18-20:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Baptism in this passage clearly means becoming a disciple or follower of Jesus. The call of baptism, for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as parents bringing a child to the sacrament, is for them to be sure that they are following Jesus as their Lord, and committing themselves to raising their son George in ‘the School of Jesus’, so to speak.

But it is impossible for George to grow and learn in the School of Jesus without supernatural help. John’s Gospel therefore talks about ‘being born of water and the Spirit’, the miracle that God does by his grace, granting us the free gift of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do the things he calls us to do. This is one of the things that baptism signifies.

Baptism is not just about ‘belonging to God’. Surely every child born on earth belongs to God, in the sense that God is their Creator and God loves them! No, baptism is about being born again into the family of Jesus, and it is the beginning of a life of following Jesus in the context of his people, the Christian church.

In this respect, it is disappointing that Prince George will be baptized in ‘a private ceremony’. Most of us Anglican Christians have long since given up baptizing people in private ceremonies. We believe that if a person is being baptized into the people of Jesus, then the people of Jesus should be there to support them, to welcome them, and to witness the promises being made. I am sure the Archbishop believes this. Surely, in this day and age, it’s time for the Church of England to make it clear that, whether a baby is born to be King or not, he gets to be baptized in the same way as anyone else – at  public service, so that the people of Jesus can be present to welcome him into the School of Jesus.

I wish the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge well, and I hope that when their son is baptized tomorrow they will be sincere in the promises they make and in their desire to help him grow up as a follower of Jesus. But I wish that Archbishop Welby had taken the opportunity in this video to be clearer about what the Gospel of Jesus really is, and how baptism is connected to it, and I do wish that by his actions he would make it clearer that, whatever privilege a person may or may not have been born into, they receive the sacrament of baptism in the same way, and under the same circumstances (i.e. the corporate worship of a Christian congregation), as anyone else, and it confers on them a dignity greater than any royal dignity on earth – that of being a follower of Jesus Christ, born again of water and the Spirit.

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2 thoughts on “The meaning of infant baptism

  1. I think you are taking one passage of dubious authenticity and building your understanding of baptism upon it without reference to any other interpretation of baptism that can be found in the Bible. Baptism as an act of commitment to discipleship is a church redaction of the historical record. During the actual period of Christ’s ministry baptism would have been understood as a sacrament of personal repentance only. I think the Anglican Communion’s theology of baptism and confirmation is illogical and ineffective (mainly due to the usual age of the baptised). Infant baptism neither works as a sacrament of commitment or repentance. Therefore, I am not surprised that some evangelicals have virtually replaced both rituals with the non-sacramental being born again in the spirit. This reflects what appears to be going on at Christ’s baptism by John and connects repentance to new life and new commitment to God’s calling. I think the baptism of the catholic denominations, being the baptism of the Great Commission, is all about getting people tied to the institution of the churches and under the authority of their various hierarchies as soon as possible. The original and true baptism could not include any aspect of becoming a member of anything because Jesus believed that everyone was a member already whether they liked it or not.

  2. Tim Chesterton

    I have so many disagreements with this comment that I don’t know where to start!

    1. ‘I think you are taking one passage of dubious authenticity and building your understanding of baptism upon it without reference to any other interpretation of baptism that can be found in the Bible’. Actually if you will read my post a little more carefully you will see that I reference at least two of the New Testament images of baptism – discipleship (MAtthew 28:!8-20) and new birth (John 3).

    2. ‘Baptism as an act of commitment to discipleship is a church redaction of the historical record.’ That sort of categorical statement is not supported by the evidence. Yes, some scholars have proposed this but the conclusion is far from unanimous. As this conversation you were involved in on Derek Olsen’s site shows, the differing views are far more nuanced than your categorical statement would allow for.

    3. ‘During the actual period of Christ’s ministry baptism would have been understood as a sacrament of personal repentance only.’ Well, actually, during ‘the actual period of Christ’s ministry’ baptism is barely mentioned, so we have no evidence as to how it would have been understood, unless we assume that Jesus’ disciples took over John’s understanding of baptism lock, stock, and barrel. i suppose that is a possible conclusion, but once again, it’s nowhere near unanimous.

    4. ‘Infant baptism neither works as a sacrament of commitment or repentance.’ It does however, work as a sacrament of discipleship, of initiation into the School of Jesus. That’s why Matthew 28:18-20 is such a useful text to use for infant baptism.

    5. ‘I think the baptism of the catholic denominations, being the baptism of the Great Commission, is all about getting people tied to the institution of the churches and under the authority of their various hierarchies as soon as possible.’ Curious. I don’t see anything in the Great Commission about tying people to institutions and under the authority of hierarchies. I think you are reading your own phobias into the text here, Jonathan.

    6. ‘The original and true baptism could not include any aspect of becoming a member of anything because Jesus believed that everyone was a member already whether they liked it or not.’ Well, of course, we have absolutely no evidence as to what ‘Jesus believed’ other than what the authors of the New Testament tell us he believed. And the earliest New Testament references to baptism, in the writings of Paul, include the understanding of being baptized by one Spirit into one Body. So ‘the original and true baptism’ (I’m not quite sure how we decide what is original and true, given the limitations of our knowledge about the thoughts of Jesus as mentioned above) certainly did include ‘membership’ of something.

    I’ve got to run now as I have a very busy day in the parish today. I probably won’t be able to carry on this conversation before mid-day tomorrow at the earliest. I fear, though, that it is destined to go on for a long time, and that neither you nor I are open to changing our minds on the strength of any arguments either of us might present, so it might be simpler if I just gave you the last word and left it at that.

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