Many people coming to Anglicanism stumble over infant baptism. They come for the beauty of the liturgy, the appreciation of both Word and Sacrament, of Scripture and Tradition. But for many, whether Baptist or not, infant baptism is a hang-up.
There are many good reasons for such worries and many good answers—including on this site (see here, here, and here). There are several issues at stake: the biblical and traditional precedents, the role of individual freedom versus coercion, beliefs about Church and state, etc.
In this post, I want to address one question in particular, though I suspect it gets to a core concern for most people. The question is:
Why do we baptize infants if they cannot make a mature profession of faith?
The short answer is: In the Anglican view, baptism does not depend on a profession of faith to be a valid baptism. The necessary condition is God’s grace, implemented through immersion in water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a valid baptism, even if the profession of faith is not yet present or if the profession of faith turns out to be hypocritical.
In other words, baptism and profession are distinct but not separate activities, and this is why the order in which they happen is less important. They are intrinsically related but have different orientations. The profession of faith is what we say to God (and to others). The sacrament of baptism is what God says to us. Typically, in an adult conversion, the order is: profession first, then sacrament. But it need not be that way. The sacrament may come first, followed by the profession (which is why confirmation is so important).
The question about baptism and profession of faith hit home for me recently while teaching these topics from the Anglican Catechism, To Be a Christian. After questions on the nature of sacraments in general, and of baptism in particular, the Catechism asks these two questions back-to-back:
- “What is required of you when you come to be baptized?” (Q. 128)
- “Why is it appropriate to baptize infants?” (Q. 129)
The answer to the first is straightforward: repentance and faith. “Repentance, in which I turn away from sin; and faith, in which I turn to Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord and trust the promises that God makes to me in this sacrament. (Psalm 51:3–6, 13–17; Mark 1:14–15; Acts 2:37–38)”
This answer is well and good, and I don’t think too many people would object. However, its particular wording, followed by the question about infant baptism, makes for an interesting pairing. If what is required is that I turn away from sin and that I turn to Christ in faith and the embrace of his promises, how then can I be baptized if I am an infant without the developed mental or spiritual faculties by which to make such decisions?
If one needs to repent from sin and turn to Christ before receiving baptism, how can an infant be baptized?
The Catechism seems to recognize this difficulty, which is why it uses the same language in the following question about infant baptism: “Why is it appropriate to baptize infants?” (Q. 129).
The answer: “Because it is a sign of God’s promise that they are embraced in the covenant community of Christ’s Church. Those who in faith and repentance present infants to be baptized vow to raise them in the knowledge and fear of the Lord, with the expectation that they will one day profess full Christian faith as their own. (Deuteronomy 6:6–9; Proverbs 22:6; Mark 2:3–5; Acts 2:39; 16:25–34)”
The question uses the same language of “faith and repentance” as required for baptism, but shifts the primary referent from the baptized to the parents and godparents. It is their faith and repentance that legitimates bringing the child to baptism, with the expectation and exhortation to raise the child so that they will one day “profess full Christian faith as their own.”
The Catechism is consistent in maintaining that faith and repentance, or we could say, “profession of faith,” are, in a sense, required for baptism, along with the vow to raise the child Christianly. (A related question, which I have addressed briefly here, is how the parents’ faith can “stand in,” as it were, for the child’s—a notion that cuts against American individualism.)
What is important to note is that, while for adult converts, profession goes before sacrament, with infant baptism, the parents’ profession precedes the sacrament, followed by the child’s profession.
To understand why the profession of faith can come before or after baptism, we need to see what a sacrament is before we can see how the two are related.
In Anglicanism, a sacrament is, according to the classic Augustinian definition of the Catechism, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (Q. 121).
A sacrament, then, is made up of two things: the outward and visible “sign” (in the case of baptism, a watery immersion in the triune name) and an inward and spiritual “grace” or “reality” (death to sin, new life through union with Christ’s death and resurrection).
The hard part for our culture—both Protestants and Catholics—is how to relate “sign” and “reality.” If, to overgeneralize, the Protestant temptation is to separate sign and reality, the Catholic temptation is to conflate sign and reality.
For the Great Tradition, on the other hand, a sign “shares in” or “communes with” the reality to which it points. The language of the sign “pointing to” the reality emphasizes the distinction between sign and reality—they’re not the same thing. The pointing says, “I am not the full thing.” At the same time, the sign shares or participates in the reality, which emphasizes that it is not completely separate. The language of “sharing” says, “I do have something of the full thing.” The sign gives you a real taste of the real thing, but there’s always a greater depth beyond our grasp. This is what theologian Hans Boersma has called a participatory or sacramental ontology.
For Anglicans, then, when we see or experience the sign of baptism, we are seeing “in” the visible material of water and actions of the priest a greater reality that transcends physical sight—the death of a child of Adam and the birth of a child of God.
It’s not that the water ritual on its own makes this reality happen (the Catholic temptation). But nor is it that the ritual tells of some other completely separate reality (the Protestant temptation). Rather, the water ritual both points to and makes present an ever-greater reality to which it points.
Clarifying the different understandings of sacrament hopefully gets at what bothers many Protestants about infant baptism. They’re worried that baptizing babies turns the ritual into a mechanical or magical performance, in which the sign itself is the reality. In short: they’re worried about the Catholic temptation. You perform the ritual and—poof!—you’ve got a saved baby. That’s not what’s happening in the Anglican sacramental understanding. The sign shares in the reality, but it’s not the reality itself.
Because of a worry about the Catholic temptation, many Protestants reject the idea that the sacrament “really” conveys grace at all. They avoid the language of sacrament, employing instead the language of “ordinance.” In this view, baptism doesn’t do anything to the recipient; it can only affirm or witness to something that’s already been done. The sign may be necessary, but not because it is intrinsically related to the reality; only because Jesus told (“ordained”) his followers to do so. In effect, the sign and reality have become separated. The sign can only point to but cannot share in the reality.
For this baptistic “ordinance” view, which epitomizes the Protestant temptation, baptism and profession are separate and distinct activities. They are both human responses to the work of God in converting the sinner, but baptism follows profession as a sign that points to a separate reality—namely, the profession. Baptism can only “point,” however; it has no “share” in the reality of salvation. It is, as it were, two steps removed. As I have heard it put before, “baptism is a profession of a profession.” A person is converted by God, then professes his or her faith, and then partakes in a ritual baptism, testifying to the prior profession.
For the Anglican view, baptism and profession relate differently to salvation. Baptism is a sign that points to and shares in the reality of salvation, while the profession of faith testifies that a person has agreed willingly to turn from sin and embrace Jesus in faith.
The collapse of a sacramental understanding of the world has made it hard for both Protestants and Catholics to understand how infant baptism makes sense. And this is yet another reason we need a comprehensive theological renewal of catechesis—a deep instruction in the Christian faith.
The challenge for catechesis, however, is not just that we don’t understand the historical or biblical teaching on, say, infant baptism. We need to be catechized into a world in which these practices make sense. We need a catechesis that introduces us into a fully Christian view of reality. People may come to Anglicanism stumbling over the sacrament of infant baptism, but the real hurdle is a sacramental understanding of reality.
Alex is a PhD student in historical theology and patristics at Baylor University in Waco, TX, where he is a member of Christ Church Waco. Before that, he received a MDiv from Regent College in Vancouver, BC. He is passionate about helping local churches equip the saints for the work of ministry and to grow deeper into life with God through the revitalization of catechesis. He lives in Texas with his wife Molly and their two young boys.