Baptism and the New Creation in Christ

At Crossway, we have recently been working through the book of Colossians.  This epistle, overlooked sometimes in its importance in the canon, includes Paul’s famous adaption of what appears to be an early Christian confession of Christ’s deity (1:15-20), the implication of his work in making a new creation, and in 2:11-13 how the rite of baptism plays into this reality.  As the initiation rite into Christ, baptism’s relationship to this “new” creation is of course fundamentally important for the church.

This past week, Peter Leithart, a Presbyterian professor, has been publishing a series of essays at First Things, detailing an ongoing intra-paedobaptist scuffle over whether baptized children should be allowed to the communion table.  These essays appear to be pulled from an earlier article, now simply dished out in chunks.  This discussion impacts Crossway very little.  As a Baptist church the arguments and positions held by Presbyterians and paedobaptists are, by definition, estranged from our theological convictions.  While it is interesting to see how clear the answers are for Baptists (for of course those baptized should take of the Lord’s supper!) the questions concerning paedo-communion nevertheless are confusing in paedobaptist circles for reasons detailed by Leithart.  Leithart, who I have always found to be a very clear and helpful thinker, is at least consistent in desiring paedo-communion to be the adopted position of Reformed churches, precisely because they baptize their children.  If these children have been initiated into the new creation, they ought to get the rights (rites) of that new creation.  So far, so good.

But, as should be expected, because the discussion swirls around what inclusion in the covenant of our Lord actually means, baptism does get pulled in, and Baptists are found in the crosshairs.  I am not terribly concerned with arguing with Leithart in what follows; I have no hope that he will either read or interact with what I have to say.  I say this not to imply that he is a heartless anti-Baptist scrooge of some sort (although, if someone wants to photoshop a picture of this I will gladly incorporate it here!).  He is, frankly, too busy and too important to interact with every post that interacts with him.  I am, however, going to use his very important and probing questions to help us understand cred0- (or believer’s) baptism better, and to show how that form of baptism better represents the “new creation” reality in the Church.

Before moving on to what I disagree with, let us first be clear with what we are likely in agreement with Dr. Leithart on.1  First, his emphasis on the importance of the debate is spot on, and may be more broadly extended to our understanding of baptism as well:

The gospel is not directly at stake in the paedocommunion debate.  Opponents of paedocommunion honestly and sincerely proclaim the gospel of grace, and I am grateful to God that they do.  Still, the ecclesial and theological shape that the gospel takes correlates significantly with positions on paedocommunion, and the coherence between the gospel and the church’s practice is at the heart of this debate.  The stakes are not so high as they were when Luther protested indulgences and the myriad idolatries of the late medieval church.  But the stakes are high, very high.

Amen and amen.  Further Leithart states:

I am guided by an underlying assumption that the sacraments manifest the nature of the church.  For centuries, sacramental theology in the Reformed and in other traditions has focused narrowly on the effect of sacraments on individual recipients, and as a result, both the theology and practice of the sacraments have been horribly distorted.  We should, in addition and even primarily, consider sacraments in an ecclesial context.  The question should not only be what a particular rite does to me, but also what this ritual tells me about the community that celebrates it.

Italics Original

As anyone who has spent much time with me recently knows this has been at the forefront of my mind.  I shared thoughts like this recently at our community group, and will likely write a blog post about it in the near future.  To this, again, we should give a hearty and loud “amen!”

Where I disagree with Leithart, mostly, is in how the rite of baptism actually symbolizes the reality of “new creation” in Christ.  First, in how the church symbolizes the gospel through the rite of baptism, and secondly how the rite of baptism symbolizes, in turn, the new creation in Christ.

Leithart does not turn to Baptists or baptism immediately, but does so when he begins to speak of the nature of the gospel that the sacraments symbolize.  He rightfully argues that communion speaks about what kind of church we are.  A church that denies communion to different races “is lying about both the church and the Supper.”  He then states:

More pointedly: Paul says that the church is a community where the weakest and most unseemly are welcomed (1 Cor. 12:22-26).  Does the Baptist refusal to baptize infants give ritual expression to that kind of church, or does it instead imply that the church welcomes only the strong?

Leithart clarifies in a footnote that he is not questioning whether Baptists are merciful, but whether our practices rightly symbolize that mercy.  Again, such a question is not only important, but good.  Our practices should be questioned in this manner – doing so not only helps us think clearly through such issues, but provides another avenue of seeing God’s glory in his institution of the rite.  What shall the Baptist say?

There seems to be, for me, a confusion over the prescriptive vs. descriptive nature of baptism.  Baptism is not prescriptive, as Leithart might be taken to imply.  That is, we do not baptize people (or children) simply because in doing so we might emphasize an aspect of the gospel.  Does baptizing infants symbolize God’s care for the weak? Certainly it can. Baptism is better seen, I think, in a description of the weak and the poor that God saves.  Thus, in believer’s baptism, Baptist churches allow God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to define the manner of those who are “weakest and most unseemly.”  We do not need to do it for him.  Christ builds his church.

Further, I question whether the paedobaptist method of picturing this reality of the gospel is truly that effective.  Certainly, from one standpoint, Leithart is correct.  There are none in this world who are as weak as infants.  But, if we are to symbolize this in baptism, especially symbolizing who are weak in their ability to enter the new creation of Christ, why just baptize believers’ children?  Are not the weakest, both physically and socially, those who will not grow up in believing households?  Why not crop dust the children of the entire Middle East in baptismal water?  Those are the weakest, for almost all will rarely, if ever, come in contact with a Christian willing to share the gospel with them.

Of course, such a suggestion is non-sense.  But that is the point.  Baptism is not about prescriptively picturing the weakest, but descriptively picturing the weakest through God’s own power in bringing the weakest to faith.  Believer’s baptism simply recognizes this fact.  The church recognizes God’s declaration of who the “weak” are; she does not define it herself.

Leithart’s second question focused on Baptists comes in the nature of the new creation and the picture of it represented in the rite of baptism.  Leithart, wishing to demonstrate that the Baptist practice of baptism does not consistently display Christ’s work in making a new creation, writes:

Suppose that tomorrow morning we woke up to find every living man and woman, teenager and senior citizen, toddler and infant converted by the Spirit of God, so that we suddenly lived in a world where the human race on earth was made up only of eternally elect. Suppose too that we were given an incontestable sign that this miracle had occurred (a news broadcast from Fox News, for instance, or an announcement from Pat Robertson), so that there would be no doubt that the human race was thoroughly Christianized. Under these theoretical circumstances, would the church be coextensive with the now-converted human race? Should Baptists insist on remaining Baptist? The answer would be no. Even under these circumstances, there would be many converted infants and toddlers who could not make what Baptists normally recognize as a credible profession of faith.

Having read a good deal of Leithart, I’ll assume that his tongue was firmly planted in his cheek when he mentions that this miracle was attested by either Fox News or Pat Robertson.  But this is, in fact, the problem.  How would this “incontestable sign” come to us?  If Baptists thought that this sign has come down from Heaven, from the voice of God himself, born by the Spirit of Christ, then Leithart would certainly be right to think that we would baptize such people.  This would, however, make us no less Baptist.  The problem is with the phrase a “credible confession of faith.”

Why do we need this “credible confession?”  We need it because there is no “incontestable sign” of salvation, there is only the most credible sign offered, that of confession in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the personal knowledge of the work of Jesus Christ in the life of the confessor.  We need this because there is no other determining factor given to us indicating how the Spirit has worked in someone’s life.  The hypothetical situation Leithart envisions gives rise to such a counter scenario, where we are not reduced to needing a credible sign, but are instead given an “incontestable sign.”  Thus, we are still Baptist, for we would take God’s apparently incontestable sign as defining the elect.  This, however, is not the world we live in.  “This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every person who is born to a believer is from God” is vainly searched for in the Bible; but “This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” is readily at hand (1 John 4:2).  If we had an incontestable sign, we would not need confession.

More to the point, such a desire to demonstrate fully and consistently the new creation in the rites of the church, and thus the church itself, is futile.  No one thinks that baptism, of any sort, perfectly seals and symbolizes who is in and who is out of the new creation.  Might children who die as infants be saved?  It is possible to make the case that all are, although I am a little more agnostic on the question.  The point is that baptism, and thus the church herself, cannot render a full picture of what the makeup of the new kingdom looks like.  Neither, importantly, is that baptism’s purpose.  The point of baptism is not to picture new creation in general, but a specific new creation, an in-breaking of the new eschatological age in the one who believes and is affirmed by the church.  That is, the point of baptism is not to picture what the new creation is, but rather how the new creation works.  That is why believers are baptized by faith in Christ.  New creation works by belonging to Christ, the creator of the new creation, the new Adam, and it is by being in him, through faith, that one becomes part of the new creation.  As Paul says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, a new creation!” (2 Cor 5:17).

Baptism is not meant to picture the new creation fully, for no human action or entity can do this appropriately.  In this sense, the church is still firmly in the not-yet side of the “already/not-yet” tension.  What baptism can and does do, however, is picture how the new creation works: whom it is provided through, and how a sinner might be united with him in both his death and resurrection to new life.

It is here, actually, that I feel the tables are turned, for paedobaptists cannot symbolize by sprinkling the union with Christ.2  Certainly, immersion paints a more convincing and complete picture of being buried and raised in Christ, demonstrating not just our solidarity with him, but in some sense being plunged into him.  Perhaps Leithart is right in that paedobaptism somehow is more consistent in picturing new creation across the entire spectrum of humanity, but I doubt that this rightly accounts for baptism’s purpose, and, more importantly, it destroys the symbolic nature of how the new creation works: by faith, in Christ.

1All block quotations are taken from Leithart’s article, here.

2Even if infant immersion were practiced, there would still be problems with the symbol as no faith is actually present on behalf of the one being baptized.