It is a traditional practice in many liturgical churches such as our own to have a remembrance of baptism at the beginning of the year to symbolize a renewed dedication to the covenant made for many of us as infants and claimed by many through the process of confirmation and in the profession of faith. Often, in this part of the country where those of us who practice infant baptism are outnumbered by those who believe it is erroneous, we might be ill prepared to speak in defense of our practice. The season called to mind the questions I was asked to answer as part of my ordination examination I underwent in 2007. I hope what I said back then will be helpful to you in your own conversations with friends and neighbors who might wonder why you choose to baptize your children or claim the baptism given you when you were an infant. And if you really want to “load up,” on our understand of baptism in the United Methodist Church, there’s nothing like the General Conference Commissioned official statement.
What is your understanding of infant baptism and how does it relate to Confirmation? Use the quadrilateral [scripture, reason, tradition, experience] to support your position.
I understand infant baptism to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace of adoption by God and entry into the life of faith and discipleship found in the church. I believe it to be a sacrament “drawing in” (ἐλκύσω: John 6:44, John 12:32, John 21:10) the recipient into the body of Christ, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body….Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1Cor. 13: 11, 27) Regarding the baptism of infants in our Holy Scriptures, we find numerous references to God’s activity in the lives of those who are unaware and unable to communicate a profession of faith. Jeremiah speaks beautifully about God’s nurture of us before we are even born, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I consecrated you.” (Jer. 1:5) Though many of our denominational neighbors do not accept that infant baptism is “scriptural,” there is ample evidence that when early Christians came into the fold, their whole households were baptized. [Acts 11: 13-14, Acts 16: 15, Acts 16: 31-33, 1 Corinthians 1:16]
It is reasonable to believe that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom belongs” (Mark 10:14), he intended for his followers to take him seriously in every facet of faith life. Jesus lifted up the spiritual wakefulness of children too often for us to believe that God’s adoption isn’t conferred until an “age of accountability.” Secondly, the scriptures point to a correlation between circumcision and baptism. (Col 2: 11-12) If we make that connection, then it is quite logical to baptize infants since our Old Testament speaks of God’s covenant being conferred upon a child by the rite of circumcision at the age of 8 days. (Ge. 17: 12)
Infant baptism is also strongly asserted and defended in our tradition. By Water and the Spirit was a much needed study and proclamation of our traditional understanding of baptism. It continues to guide General Conferences since its publication in 1996 on matters of revising our statutes on membership and discipleship. The study reveals a twisting and turning evolution of our popular understanding of baptism, which won’t be recounted here. John Wesley adopted a highly sacramental value for infant baptism, accepting the scriptural understanding of its regenerative effect on humankind. However, his soteriological (how something relates to salvation) perspective was that it was neither “essential to nor sufficient for salvation.” [Mark Trotter, et al, By Water and the Spirit. (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1996), 4.] Wesley also insisted on a willing commitment to Christ for those who had become morally accountable for their own lives. While we typically refer to this act as “confirmation,” Wesley rejected the notion that the sacrament of baptism was somehow “split in two,” with the confirmation of our vows of Baptism completing the vows of baptism which were taken on our behalf at infancy. Instead of the ritual of confirmation bringing some “closure” to baptism, I instead believe that it “opens wider” the baptismal vows as newly recognized and claimed by the recipient. The profession of faith and laying on of hands that is the heart of this service is a public receiving of God’s continuing grace and commitment to the body of Christ.
My experience of baptizing infants and being baptized as an infant confirms for me the Spirit’s presence in this beautiful sacrament. I have a deep spiritual assurance in my participation in the Body of Christ, and have also witnessed the Spirit’s movement as I have read the beautiful liturgy and stirred the waters during the Thanksgiving over the water. I have felt blessed to be God’s channel of grace during infant baptisms and adult baptisms. I explained to our recent group of confirmands that when I touched their forehead with water and said “Remember your baptism, and be thankful,” I understood that they may not have a cognizant memory of being baptized (I don’t), but that their Spirit does remember, and that God’s grace works in and through us in ways we sometimes do not understand.