Like many current Anglicans, I grew up as a Baptist, a Southern Baptist in fact. I even went to a Baptist College on the campus of a Southern Baptist Seminary and got a wonderful foundational education in the Scriptures and Great Books. When I married an Anglican, we started attending Baptist churches but never found ourselves in a place where our hearts could rest in God. So, we attended Anglican churches in the Continuing Anglican Tradition, which are almost all very small (usually less than 20 people) and mostly elderly.
So, when we moved to Central Texas and found a lively Anglican Church in the ACNA, we were blown away by the vibrancy of the faith as lived in what I was coming to love as the liturgy and sacraments. In 2016, I fully accepted Anglicanism as the fullest expression of the primitive church of the apostles and patristics. Fr. Michael McKinnon’s Anglican Studies course on iTunes helped me understand this tradition more fully (though I have a lot to learn and love every minute).
My Hurdle: Infant Baptism
As a college professor, I’m used to learning, seeking out truth wherever I can find it since, as St. Augustine says (drawing on others such as Chrysostom) that “all truth is God’s truth”). As might be expected from a Baptist convert, infant baptism was a “hurdle” for me in terms of how to intellectually understand the practice in theological terms. Having a Biblical Studies degree meant I had heard all the reasons for and against infant baptism and never felt any were definitive.
It seems clear to me that adult (believer’s) baptism is normative in the New Testament. No absolute proof exists that the “households” in the NT would include the baptism of children, though their presence is likely. Even if it is a fulfillment of Covenantal circumcision, can we say that infants in a Gentile tradition should be required to undergo it? These are all concerns I had that seemed to “refute” the positions in favor of infant baptism. As I stacked up the “For” and “Against” columns in my research, there was always a Protestant Answer against the practice of infant baptism.
An Epiphany and an Atonement Argument
Once I started catechesis at the Anglican Church I attend, God had plans for me that finally helped me make sense of infant baptism in a way that fully embraced the faith and practice of early Christianity. While discussing infant baptism in the catechetical class, I had an epiphany, which I just had to talk to my wife (a lifelong Anglican) about afterward. We agreed that if Anglican priests would explain infant baptism with this idea (of my epiphany) in mind, many non-Anglican evangelicals would find it more understandable and perhaps even begin to let down barriers that keep them from embracing Anglicanism.
So, here is my epiphany to walk through the logic of infant baptism at its core. This argument goes deeper than the covenant application or age of accountability arguments. As a caveat, my intention here is not to provide a full dress apologia for infant baptism, but simply to discuss one logical component core to its acceptance.
To start with, let’s build a classic syllogism: a logical form that helps us “see” the steps (premises) of an argument leading to its conclusion. We won’t get bogged down in formal logical issues of validity vs. truth. I’ll explain each of the parts in the following paragraphs, but I think “seeing” the logic first will prepare readers for where we’re going. Let’s get started.
- Premise 1: The Atonement is a vicarious act imputing the “grace” of Christ on Christians.
- Premise 2: Infant baptism is an act of vicarious substitution of faith on the child.
- Conclusion: Infant Baptism is like the atonement in its vicarious nature.
There it is, in a nutshell (or syllogism at least). Let’s parse out some of the implications and possible objections to this view of infant baptism.
In formal logic, which uses such syllogisms to visually see the core of an argument, the structure (“form”) of the syllogism can meet certain patterns that render is “valid,” which simply means that the conclusion logically follows from the premises. “Truth,” however, is not necessary from validity; a syllogism can be valid, but not “true.” For such an argument to be valid and true (which logicians call “sound”), each premise must be true for the conclusion that follows also to be true.
As an example, here is a valid, but untrue syllogism:
- Premise 1 (“major” premise): All elephants have wings.
- Premise 2 (“minor” premise): Dumbo is an elephant.
- Conclusion: Therefore, Dumbo has wings.
As you can see, the major premise isn’t “true” to nature and the minor premise is a fictional character (whether or not we consider his ears as wings). However, notice that the conclusion absolutely follows (logically) from the two premises. Thus, it’s a valid syllogism; it’s just not true.
For the argument above about infant baptism to work, each premise has to be accepted; though it’s valid, it might not be true.
Premise 1: The Atonement is Vicarious
The first premise requires that we understand what the word “vicarious” means.
In this case, it typically means something like what Anglicans mean by a sacrament being a “sign” and not merely a “symbol.” A symbol points to the thing it symbolizes, standing in for it to bring out some important similarity; it is fundamentally a comparison. A sign actually “participates” in the thing it represents. In the sacraments, we participate in the reality of the Divine life that is expressed in the natural object/action (bread and wine, baptism in water).
For the Atonement to be vicarious then, means that Christ action in substituting his righteousness for our sin actually washes our sin away and God sees us through Christ’s righteousness (we call this justification). At the same time, this process is sacramental in that a participation takes place by both Christ and those receiving His gift of justification. Christ substitutes his righteousness for our unrighteousness and we participate in that sacrifice and salvation. He vicariously steps in our place and represents us to God (our Great High Priest from Hebrews 4:14-16).
Isaiah 53:4-6 is one of the central passage in the Old Testament for this point that on Christ was laid our sins, he has born our griefs and sorrows, pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.
Premise 2: Infant Baptism is Vicarious
The second premise builds on this idea by arguing that infant baptism is also a vicarious action. In fact, one might argue that all sacraments are vicarious actions of God that He graciously allows us to participate in, and in so doing graces us.
We must keep in mind that if Baptism is a sacrament, God is objectively doing something (bestowing grace) upon us. Thus, baptism is not the confession of faith required for salvation, it is God’s sign to the Church that the person being bapti