I have been asked on more than one occasion how Wright can hold to his high view of Baptism. What seems to make his view even less tolerable in many people’s eyes is the fact that he is strongly in favour of the practice of infant Baptism. In conversation with some people yesterday the suggestion was made that one can reject Wright’s position on infant Baptism and infant faith and retain the rest of his thought more or less intact. I am not so sure.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Wright only mentions the practice of infant Baptism on a couple of occasions in his writings and may not even have given the issue any focused study, I believe that infant Baptism is strongly implied by a number of different aspects of his thought. A denial of infant Baptism will always risk compromising Wright’s theological project on a number of levels. Whilst I am not suggesting that there is nothing that a convinced Baptist could consistently take from Wright’s project — far from it — I am concerned that Wright’s paedobaptist position is seen by many to be an Anglican appendage. It is not; it is closely related to much of what he has said about Jesus and Paul, even if he has not traced these implications himself in his writings. We should always be wary of identifying appendages in the thought of smart theologians. Generally they are just following theological instincts that we have just not become attuned to.
Within this post I want to briefly list some of the ways in which Wright’s theology might be seen to imply the existence of infant faith and the legitimacy of infant Baptism.
1. His definition of faith. Within Wright’s theology one sees an attempt to broaden our definition of faith. The Protestant tradition has all too easily fallen prey to definitions of faith that work in terms of a dichotomy between inner feeling and outer ritual or between sincerity and outward conformity. Modernism has also affected our definition of faith in a number of other ways. Modernism has sharp dichotomies between internal and external, private and public, individual and communal and religious and political. Christian faith comes to be defined as something that is internal, private, individual and religious as opposed to something external, public, communal and political.
Within the context of modernity it is the concept of the autonomous individual, who is the source of his own values and identity, which holds sway. Faith is understood in the light of this. Baptist thought is very modern in its philosophical impulses. The problem is that Paul did not share our dichotomies. As Wright has often observed, Paul’s gospel obliterates our tidy modern political/religious dichotomy.
Wright broadens the definition of faith. He moves beyond the faith as internal disposition versus works as external action approach. He moves our definition of faith more in the direction of faithfulness, loyalty, fealty and allegiance. One’s loyalties are often public, political and external realities. Infants are not immune from loyalties. Infants are born into settings where strong bonds of loyalty exist. Infants are implicated in the loyalties of their parents.
Evangelicals tend to operate in terms of a private heart faith that demands a greater degree of knowledge and rules out infants. However, loyalty is more of a public reality that needs to become integrated with heart loyalty as one matures over time. It seems to me that the first century Christian would have regarded the modern evangelical understanding of faith as very narrow. It does not include outward faithfulness, allegiance in a more political sense, it rules out the faith of infants and the faith of those who have a loyalty to Christ or to the Church with little or any knowledge to back it up (the sort of faith that most Christians prior to the Reformation had). Clearly the later form of faith is far from ideal, the faith of infants immature, and outward faithfulness and a more political allegiance often insufficient, but that does not mean that they are never genuine forms of faith, even of saving faith.
I don’t see why genuine Christian faith need involve a ‘personal relationship with Jesus Christ’. We can relate to people through others and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that God does just that. God regards the children of believers as ‘holy’ (i.e. set apart for divine use, not merely ‘clean’) and the children of unbelievers as ‘unclean’. God is a ‘family friend’, as it were. No infant is neutral.
We can also relate to Christ through His people. Saul persecuted Christ by persecuting His people. In Matthew 25 we see people declared righteous as they show a form of Christian faith by the way that they treat Christ’s people. They relate to Christ in His people, even though they do not know it. I believe that there are many who will be declared righteous on the last day, who knew little about Christ, but were loyal to His Church. The Nicene Creed, one of the basic declarations of Christian faith, has the Church itself as an object of faith, along with the Holy Trinity. Evangelicals, who focus on faith in Christ as distinct from His Church, do not do this enough justice. The infant relates to Christ through its Christian parent, which it relies upon for everything.
I see no reason to presume any knowledge on the part of the Christian infant in order to claim that they have a form of genuine faith. When Paul calls for allegiance to the world’s new Lord, Jesus the Messiah, he is not looking for a faith that is any less of a public reality than that which a new emperor would demand. Only when we have accepted the modernist religion/politics, public/private divide and placed Christian faith firmly on the private religion side of the equation will we have problems with the concept of household Baptism, for example. If the gospel really is as political as Wright is arguing household Baptism is the most natural thing in the world.
The important question that we must ask about infants is the object of their faith. It would be thoroughly inappropriate to baptize a newborn infant whose faith was not in Christ. However, there is no doubt that a child born into a faithful Christian family has genuine Christian faith. This faith may end up proving temporary, but it is still a real form of faith and the infant should not be held back from Baptism.
2. Opposition to gathered church mentality. Wright’s opposition to the gathered church mentality is another issue here. Baptists generally focus on the sort of faith that is mature, visible and obvious. Such faith is to be encouraged, but it is not the only form of faith. The rigorism of Baptist ecclesiology leads to the exclusion of many genuine believers. People like Wright are more prepared to recognize faith where it is found — even when ignorant, immature or compromised — and try to bring it to maturity and purer expression. Rigorism makes the Church into a closed sect, whereas the welcome of Jesus was far wider. In Wright’s mind establishing leaders in the Church that can exercise the authority of Scripture with power is far more important than a rigorism concerning the Church’s membership.
3. Challenging Caesar. Wright holds to a high ecclesiology. He believes that the Church is like the colony of a new empire. Baptists think in terms of a voluntaristic Church. They presume that a ‘voluntaristic’ Church is synonymous with a ‘faithful’ Church. However, Caesar isn’t really challenged by a ‘voluntaristic’ Church. A ‘voluntaristic’ Church is a sect, not a new society.
Oliver O’Donovan, an old friend of Wright, expresses this point very well in criticizing John Howard Yoder:
Finally, does the concept of the church as a voluntary society not commend itself chiefly because it fits late-modern expectations of how civil society will be organized? Is Yoder, in the name of non-conformity, not championing a great conformism, lining the church up with the sports clubs, friendly societies, colleges, symphony subscription-guilds, political parties and so on, just to prove that the church offers late-modern order no serious threat? [The Desire of the Nations, p.223f.]
It seems to me that Wright’s claims about the political character of the Church as a colony of Christ really stand in direct opposition to Baptist ecclesiology. Even the more communitarian understandings of Anabaptism fall short of Wright’s vision. The idea of the Church as a colony has a far thicker sense in Wright’s work than it ever can in the context of a Baptist ecclesiology.
4. Connection between circumcision and Baptism. This is a connection that Wright makes on a number of occasions in his works. Wright has also suggested that this is one of the arguments that he would use to support the practice of infant Baptism. Circumcision was a seal of the righteousness of faith, but yet it was perfectly appropriate to give it to infants, who were not considered as detached individuals, but as persons implicated in the faith of their parents.
5. Christ’s reconstitution of Israel and humanity. Wright strongly argues that Jesus sought to reconstitute Israel around Himself. The Church is formed through the waters of Baptism. A reconstitution of Israel and a new humanity that excludes infants is a mockery. Wright stresses the ‘peopleness’ of the Church. The Church is an outward and visible family solidarity analogous to Israel. Baptism strips off old solidarities and places us within a new one and changes our sets of allegiances. Baptism forms a new society. We are baptized into one new body. Baptism is like birth into the community of Christ’s faith where we gain a new family; it is not just an expression of our individual faith.
Baptists tend to downplay the significance of Israel in our understanding of the Church. There is a sharp discontinuity between the type of society that Israel was and the type of society that the Church is. Such a sharp discontinuity is very hard to maintain once one has accepted Wright’s reading of Jesus’ ministry. The Church is a reconstitution of Israel around the Messiah, not a different type of society altogether. Baptists can only really speak of the ‘Israelness’ of the Church at a highly metaphorical level.
6. Christ’s Ministry. Following on from the point above, it is worth noticing that Wright points out that miracles occur in the context of faith and also that they are part of the means whereby God reconstitutes His people. Two facts are interesting here: (1) on a number of occasions Jesus heals people on the account of the faith of their parents or masters (e.g. Mark 5:22ff.; Luke 9:38ff.; John 4:47ff.); (2) Children are often the beneficiaries of Christ’s healing (e.g. Mark 7:25ff.). This suggests that the reconstitution of the people of God around Christ is one that includes children and also that they are in some sense included in the faith of their parents.
It is also interesting that Jesus repeatedly speaks of children as the paradigm case of those who receive the kingdom. When we recognize that Jesus was reforming Israel around Himself, His blessing of infants, for example, becomes even more significant (it is worth observing how loaded the concept of blessing is in the gospel; it is no light thing). If we read the gospels through the framework presented by Wright such incidents cannot but be seen as significant.