Wright and Infant Baptism

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.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in N.T. Wright, The Church, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Wright and Infant Baptism

  1. Pacman says:

    I just started reading your blog a few months ago and it has been a real blessing. This post was excellent. I am going to print it out right now.

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  4. Curious Presbyterian says:

    Alastair, can you please provide a scripture reference for your “clean” and “unclean” point?

  5. Al says:

    The biblical reference is 1 Corinthians 7:14. A few comments:

    1. The distinction is not merely one between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, but between ‘holy’ and ‘unclean’. ‘Holy’ is a stronger word than ‘clean’. To be holy is to ‘set apart’ for God’s special presence. To be ‘clean’ is not the same thing as to be ‘set apart’. The implication is that the child and the unbelieving spouse are set apart for Temple access. Of course, we enter the New Covenant Temple through Baptism.

    The idea that many Baptists put forward, that ‘holy’ refers to the general privilege of being in a Christian environment simply turns a blind eye to the weight that such language carries over from the OT. Paul is speaking of an objective change of status, not merely a possible exposure to things that might be of spiritual benefit.

    Note: To be ‘holy’ is not the same thing as to be ‘saved’. There were many sinful priests in the OT that were nonetheless ‘holy’.

    2. The word ‘now’ is interesting. The implication is that the children were once unclean and have since been cleansed, most likely by the conversion of their believing parent.

  6. Again, this post is beautifully written and a very concise and accurate explanation of this central plank of Wright’s theology.

  7. Todd Granger says:

    A masterful summary, Alistair.

    One disagreement and one amplification.

    As to the first, a “gathered church” ecclesiology is not necessarily at odds with the sort of thick ecclesiology that you suggest for Dr Wright. As you note, the problem is voluntarism, not gathering per se. The ekklesia is called out and gathered by God – not by themselves.

    As to the second, certainly the Apostle Paul suggests the connection between circumcision and baptism, but the connection between Jewish proselyte baptism and Christian baptism should also be pointed out, especially given the household baptisms that are liberally sprinkled through the Acts of the Apostles. Not thinking of membership in the covenant community of faith as in any way individual, it is likely that all members of a household in which the father and mother converted to Judaism received proselyte baptism, including infants (as well as adult slaves and servants, which raises the issue of corporatism directly with regards to adults instead of children).

  8. Al says:

    Todd,

    Thanks for your helpful comments. By ‘gathered church’ I was referring to the form of ecclesiology found in Baptist and Congregational settings, which is both nonconformist and voluntaristic.

    On your second point, my reason for not mentioning that was more due to the fact that, off the top of my head, I could not think of a place where Wright himself drew the connection. The circumcision-Baptism connection is probably stronger in Wright’s thought than it is in mine. I have long argued that too strong a parallel between the two risks undermining the challenge that Baptism and the Church pose to the family order of the old creation.

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  10. Great post, Al. I very much appreciate your work on Wright. You’ve helped me to clarify a number of things in my own mind.

    I was thinking, regarding household baptisms, that it might be helpful also to consider the historical practice of an entire nation following its leader to whatever faith he had been converted to. In that way we are all vassals of Jesus, and after we are baptized, our subjects need to be baptized as well. My four children, who are the subjects in my “kingdom”, are baptized for that reason.

    As you’ve said before, we need to learn to step outside of the individualism that is very much part of modern (and Baptist) thought.

  11. Steve Rives says:

    Baptist ecclesiology is not as easy to pin down as you suggest in this article. That is, Church as Colony does not hinge on the application of baptismal water to babies (an act we don’t actually see the New Covenant people doing in the Bible).

    I propose that your argument might be used against you by a paedo-communionist. If you don’t let babies take of the eschatological community meal (the Lord’s Supper), then you have picked one sacrament over the other (baptism over covenant meal) to permit children to participate in. So, it seems to me that Wright’s claims about the political character of the Church as a Colony of Christ stands in direct opposition to Presbyterian ecclesiology — if I follow your logic. All I did here is use your sentence and replace the word “Baptist” with “Presbyterian”.

    Every time the bread and wine pass before a covenant child — and that child is not allowed to eat with his covenant Lord — the church is saying the Colony of Christ does not include children. In fact, it becomes a weekly reminder to the child (following a high theology of the sacaraments).

    Ahhh, but Presbyterians don’t say that! You see, they don’t let the children take the Meal until such a ones are of a volitional (voluntary?) age. A person is allowed the Bread and Wine only after they themselves swear loyalty to the king. And so Presbyterians, like Baptists, can have a high view of the Colony of Christ. They both look for a voluntary age of confession.

    A Baptist can see a child as part of the larger covenant community without the child having a participation in the covenant waters. Likewise, a Presbyterian can see the child as part of the larger covenant community without the child having participation in the covenant meal.

    And imagine this: a group of Christians that gather to eat a meal, and the kids wath from afar while a subset of the Colony eats?! That is what happens each week in Presbyterian churches when the supper is taken in worship.

  12. Al says:

    Steve,

    I am a paedocommunionist, as is Wright (The Meal Jesus Gave Us, p.80-81). I am convinced that the Presbyterian practice of denying communion to infants is utterly devoid of biblical justification. I also believe that it undermines the God-given significance of Baptism and devalues the Church. As Wright puts it: ‘Baptism is the way into the family; the Eucharist is the family meal.’

    I know that some Baptists employ the language of the Church as colony. However, I also know that they employ it in a significantly different sense to that in which Wright employs it.

    I am also aware that Baptists can make statements that sound like an affirmation that children are in some sense part of the covenant community. However, after spending my life in Reformed Baptist circles and reading many Baptist theologians on the subject, I am convinced that something very different is meant here. I have discussed this matter with a number of Reformed Baptist pastors and I know where they stand and that there are great differences of understanding here.

    As for the Presbyterian denial of infant and young child communion, it is a serious inconsistency. The fact that so many see such a position as natural and self-evident and not just a little bit unusual probably has something to do with the fact that ‘watery semi-Baptist theology’ (as Wright has termed it) does not only affect Anglicans, but has also penetrated deeply in Presbyterian circles. Many of the Presbyterians that one encounters are little more than Baptists who happen to sprinkle their babies.

    It is high time that we went back to the early Church practice in this area.

  13. Steve Rives says:

    Al,

    This is my reply to your last reply: It’s good to hear that you take the logical line you take. I can appreciate that.

    And I think that the Reformed Baptist pastors I have met are woefully unequipped to actually engage this conversation. When they hear “Wright” they generally retreat to a defense of Luther. And when they think “Covenant” they tend to retreat to the 16th and 17th century formulations. The Reformed Baptists I know tend to read the Puritans, not Josephus!

    So I would agree with a lot of your criticism. However, I would love to hear you expound on this statement: “However, after spending my life in Reformed Baptist circles and reading many Baptist theologians on the subject, I am convinced that something very different is meant here.” I might agree, but I’d like to see this fleshed out, it would be instructive.

    The reason I am not a padobaptist is exactly because of the kind of exegesis N.T.Wright does in Romans 4! I was Presbyterian. But all the systematic-theological arguments that argue the covenants as including the genealogical principle face serious problems with Romans 4. And I came to that conclusion reading the now deceased OPC scholar Dr. Meredith Kline — it was his book on Baptism, By Oath Consigned, that made this happen for me. After that, I read N. T. Wright on Romans 4, and found him saying what I was concluding (only he says it 100x better than I ever could).

    Does that mean that children have no benefit by being born into Christian families? No! But I am talking redemptive-historical shifts, and the genealogical principle (i.e., the meaning of seed and children of Abraham, etc.), not the benefits of being in a Christian home.

    As for Colony of Heaven language, I am using that phrase as I got it theologically from Edmund Clowney, but then I am also using it historically as I was taught by my seminary professor when we looked at Philippi archaeologically and from the witting of Casscuis. Finally, I am using that phrase keeping a close eye on already-not-yet eschatologically as understood by N. T. Wright (where he also uses Roman History to explain what a colony was and is). His latest book, Surprised by Hope is really helpful here.

    Sadly, I think that some Baptist ministers might stop at the Clowney level (if they even know about him — he was a Presbyterian and few Baptists read him). But any critique of Baptists missing the point on Colony is only as good as the representative Baptists we interact with. Certainly there are plenty have more developed views (maybe even including me).

    Mostly, I am glad you are consistent with padeocommunion. I am completely befuddled and baffled by Presbyterians who are die-hard padeobaptists because of their systematic theology, yet who are simultaneously almost apathetic for the corollary of infant communion. Their apathy over the inconsistency says more than all their systematizing and all their arguments about covenant theology (usually being a brand of 16th century Westminster Covenant Theology).

    The best answer I have heard to date is when the Presbyterian will make a case for the once-only nature of baptism vs. the ongoing nature of communion. But that, to me, is backfilling. They had to come to an answer. The answer is forced, and does not flow from covenant history but from a defense of their position. It is artificial, at best, even as I always hold open the possibility that I am wrong!

    Steve

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