Recently both of my boys have expressed an interest in being baptized. While it is exciting to see their developing faith and understanding, it has also raised all kinds of questions for me personally about the timing, meaning and significance of baptism. Let me explain.
I was raised Methodist and my parents had me baptized several months after birth at Alamo Heights Methodist in San Antonio. At 12, I made a profession of faith and became a member after completing the confirmation class that was offered at my home church in Jackson, TN.
As fate would have it, I married the son of a long line of Baptist preachers. Although he is not particular about most aspects of religion, he was attached to the idea of raising our children as Baptists. Since I can honestly claim to be a happy ecumenist who sees the value in different iterations of Christianity, I was not inclined to argue.
However, as my children are beginning to contemplate making a profession and being baptized, I find myself wondering, how old is old enough? Should they go through a confirmation kind of process to explore doctrine, or is it enough to accept their profession of love and devotion to Jesus? How do I explain to them what it means to participate in believers’ baptism when I have not? And for myself, what is the significance of my own infant baptism experience? Is it sufficient or should I contemplate being baptized again?
Research on Baptism
Probably not surprisingly to those who know I’m an academic, all of my questions have led me to research and study. In addition to reading multiple commentaries on both infant and believers’ baptism, I have also been pouring over their scriptural references to see if I agree with their conclusions. Here I will summarize what I’ve learned.
Based on the references to baptism as a concept and a practice in scripture, it is clear that there has been a range of accepted interpretations within the Church. Most of the earliest baptisms discussed in scripture were performed on adults who professed Christ. However, Peter and the other disciples also baptized entire households (which presumably contained children) in the book of Acts. Furthermore, there are people who received the Holy Spirit and then were baptized and also people who were baptized and promised the Spirit would come later (all from Acts).
Perhaps most compellingly for the infant baptism crowd (aka pedobaptists), Colossians 2 describes baptism as a correlate to circumcision for people who are part of the new covenant. Since circumcision was the sign of the covenant applied to children in the Old Testament, pedobaptists argue that baptism should be applied to children of families under the new covenant. Interestingly, pedobaptists are split over whether or not a child’s salvation is initiated by baptism or not.
Aside from the matter of timing and readiness, there is also disagreement about whether or not baptism is salvific or merely symbolic. The emphasis for those who see baptism as salvific is on the work that they believe God does (or starts doing) in the baptized person during baptism. Most of those who see baptism as symbolic emphasize the role of the individual in expressing faith as the point of salvation.
Baptists tend to emphasize the symbolic nature of baptism, particularly the fact that going down into the water and then coming back out mimics the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. However it seems to me that the most compelling Baptist argument for believers’ baptism is the concept of “soul freedom.” Soul freedom means that every individual has the right to choose what they believe and that no one can compel you to believe or believe on your behalf. For those who wholeheartedly embrace soul freedom, infant baptism is an impossibility because parents cannot make belief statements on their child’s behalf.
So where does this leave me? There are valid arguments from a variety of perspectives on the appropriate method and timing of baptism. I know that I believe it should be a declaration of faith (as found in biblical examples). Based on the example of Christ I believe it is the start of a journey of discipleship. I believe that Jesus responds to our faithfulness in baptism with his presence and the gift of the Spirit (see Colossians, Acts etc). I embrace the validity of the tradition I was born into and the one I’ve adopted. I don’t know if there is a correct age or mechanism (dipped or sprinkled) for baptism. We will continue to do our best to help our boys come to know Jesus more, and trust that when they are ready, they’ll know.