Many people wrestle with the relationship between the Word preached and the Word poured out in Baptism. How does this washing with water and the Word work? Is it necessary for a believing adult? Does it add anything to the faith that came from hearing the message? How does it affect the infant who can barely hold his head up?
Since the sixteenth century the practice of baptizing babies has been under attack. The Radical Reformers proclaimed it only an entrance rite, one’s initiation into the Church. The Reformed saw it as a seal of grace, but not necessarily a means of grace, that is, actually giving regeneration and forgiveness. John Calvin said that babies really received grace by virtue of being born to Christian parents, not from Baptism itself. It was an outward reminder of an inward grace. Something spiritual happens, but we’re not quite sure what.
The Lutheran Church believed and confessed that the Spirit uses Word and Sacraments to create and strengthen faith, and that faith receives the promised blessings: forgiveness, life, and salvation. This is true for both adult and infant. After all, Christ our Lord says to baptize “all nations,” and that “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” In addition, Peter preached on Pentecost that the “promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off.” Jesus affirmed Peter’s words by blessing babies and saying that the kingdom of God belongs to them. The proof, Luther said in the Large Catechism, is the abundance of baptized babies who turn out to be adult Christians.
Sadly, over the next centuries this got lost among Lutheran teachers and theologians. Dr. Scaer, revising earlier thesis work, takes us on a tour of some nineteenth and early twentieth century European Lutheran theologians and shows us how trust in the promise of God evaporated. He shows us a group of theologians who “supported infant baptism but denied infant faith” (vii).
How did this come about? Blame can be parceled out to historical criticism, because this view of Scripture led to most of the passages teaching about baptism to be ignored, denied, redefined, or considered silent and so of no help. Philosophy can be blamed, because a view of humanity as divided between a natural self and the rational consciousness led to a discussion of whether and when Baptism and the Word affect one or both. Failure to honor the witnesses and testimony of the past can be blamed, because most of these “Lutherans” chose to reject or reshape Luther’s view and claimed that the Lutheran Confessions were either wrong or silent on the issue. The theology of the Reformed and the Radical Reformation can be blamed, because these ideas won the day among Enlightenment thinkers (especially mediated through Schleiermacher) who turned more and more to rationalism and made reason, conscious decision, repentance and cognitive ability, the ability to be introspective, really the sine qua non of faith.
What did this lead to? These theologians grappled with the question of figuring out, since faith plays a role in receiving Baptism and its gifts, how we can justify this practice of baptizing babies “who are assumed by nearly all to be incapable of faith, or at least the mature faith of an adult” (1). The logic went this way (cf. 169):
- Baptism can’t create saving faith, or at least complete saving faith;
- Only the preached Word spoken to those at a certain cognitive level can do this;
- Infants and children aren’t at that level, so they can’t have complete faith;
- Since that’s the case, infant baptism leaves them with something missing, an incomplete salvation, which is made complete only in the hearing of the Word and through the public testimony of confirmation.
How did these theologians slash through the Gordian knot? They took a variety of routes.
- Baptism of infants became mostly an “initiation ceremony.” Since faith isn’t granted, the church extracts a solemn pledge from the parents that they will expose the child to the preached Word. Confirmation completes Baptism. The only ones immediately affected at an infant baptism were the parents, sponsors, and congregation. Some called this “disciples baptism.” It gets you into the place where the Word is preached and obligates parents to get you to that Word.
- The philosophical bifurcation of reason and nature led some to say Baptism starts things; it plants a seed, but only in the body, or natural part. We get some benefits of baptism (forgiveness, etc.), but not faith. Only the audible word spoken to rationally conscious adults produces faith.
- Some crassly said Baptism plus the preached Word later equals a complete salvation. Baptism creates new life, but the Word leads to a “personal appropriation of salvation” (88). In other words, you’re only an actual child of God later.
- Some took John Calvin’s route and said that the faith of the parents saves the child because they’ll be getting you to the preached Word. This is essentially an intuitu fidei view of Baptism, looking ahead to a faith you don’t have but one day will. Thus, Scaer concludes, “The real means of grace is being born of Christian parents and not Baptism” (121).
You can sense the problems. This attempt to sort out the relationship of preached Word and Baptism led them to say too much about one and too little about the other. It’s rightly said that faith comes from hearing the message, but it’s too much to say that the preached Word completes Baptism. It’s too little to say that Baptism only sparks something, puts one into a position to hear the Word geographically (the Church). It also ignores that the preached Word is connected to Baptism. We don’t silently pour water on children. We preach and pour.
What happens, Scaer says, is that this thinking creates a category between faith and unbelief (146). These theologians say Baptism does something, in some instances using the words “forgiveness,” “new life,” or “regeneration,” and yet they reject that infants have faith. What then do they have, and where do they go if “only” baptized when they die? This view fails to do justice to the Scriptures that say you either have faith or you don’t, as the parable of the virgins teaches in Matthew 25.
Two other problems emerge with this view of Baptism. It leads either to decision theology or enthusiasm (schwaermerei). The emphasis on reason, cognition, repentance, and introspection puts all the onus on the baptized to decide: “Grace received in Baptism becomes the permanent possession of salvation only when the baptized person affirms this grace, keeps it, and lets it become effective in himself. This can only happen at the age when he is able to make his own decision” (91).
Likewise, this quasi or almost-but-not-quite faith leads to some questions: if baptized infants don’t believe, yet have new life or are regenerate, then is it heaven or hell for them? And if it’s heaven, as some conclude, then that is apart from faith, which is their adamant position: infants can’t have faith (cf. 120). Also, at what point does the regeneration of Baptism become inadequate (93)? When does the preached Word become necessary for the child, or when can they begin to hear it? It’s Luther’s monstrous uncertainty all over again.
Philosophy, reason, historical criticism, assumptions about the abilities of the human brain, misunderstandings about faith, all these have, are, and will continue to wreak havoc on the doctrines of Scripture and our practices. Dr. Scaer has ably documented how the teachings of a broad part of the Lutheran Church degenerated over the course of the past centuries. It is a good warning to us.
Some final thoughts:
Might we make sure we’re properly communicating the role of confirmation and its relationship with Baptism? Have we ever accidently made it a completion, rather than a reaffirmation of our Baptismal faith?
Likewise, in our baptismal rites, while we rightly remind parents, sponsors, and congregation of their role in raising up this new believer, at the same time, we want to be clear that this is a new believer, fully in possession of the kingdom of God by God’s grace poured out generously in the washing of rebirth and renewal.
Finally, two criticisms of this volume. First, there were many footnotes from original texts left untranslated (Scaer wrote German or Latin). Much interesting material remains inaccessible for the non-German reader. Secondly, at times this book read like a revised thesis. Some unnecessary repetitions appeared. Some writing seemed clunky or in need of more polish, which is hard to do when you’re returning to a work years later. Also, as the introduction indicated, helpers and assistants carried out some of the editing and expansion, not the author himself. Perhaps this contributed. This occurred mostly in early chapters; it smoothed out over the course of the book and did not cause comprehension problems or lead to any questionable statements or theology.
All told, Dr. Scaer has given us a useful overview of how some of the problems with baptismal theology we still see around us found their way into the Lutheran Church, and perhaps even into our congregations’ conscious or subconscious mind.
David Scaer, Th.D., is a professor of Systematic Theology and New Testament at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana and editor of Concordia Theological Quarterly. He is an author for three volumes in the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series, as well as The Sermon on the Mount (2000), Discourses in Matthew (2004), and numerous other publications.
Infant Baptism, David Scaer, Concordia Publishing House, 2011, viii+210 pages