Sunday, June 15, 2014

When to baptize

In many theological traditions, baptism is thought to confer the remission of sins. If you accept that presupposition, it tugs in two opposing directions–both of which were in evidence in early church history. On the one hand, in an age of high infant morality, parents and priests would be motivated to baptize babies. That would guarantee their admission to heaven if they died before the age of discretion.

However, there's a catch. Since these same theological circles consider baptism to be a one-time rite, there'd be an opposing incentive to delay baptism for as long as possible. If baptism wipes the slate clean, but you only get to use that eraser once, then the inclination is to save it until you can get the most out of the rite. 

Hence, by linking baptism to forgiveness, you could argue for infant baptism or deathbed baptism. The extreme ends of the continuum. But you can't do both. How to choose?

This raises the question of whether confession and extreme unction developed to relieve the tension. Infant baptism would remit original sin while confession/absolution and last rites would remit postbaptismal sin. That would plug the gaps. 

Of course, there'd  still be the risk of committing mortal sin after your last confession, but dying before your next confession. So there's still the possibility of falling through the cracks. But given the mechanistic view of grace, combining infant baptism with confession/absolute and last rites is the best one can do within that framework. 


  1. Aren't you, in large part, assuming Roman Catholicism here? Terms like "mortal sin" and conflating things like infant baptism and infused grace keep things on the footing of Rome.

    Is that what you intended to address here or are you attempting to engage with Reformed protestantism as well?

    1. I'm describing a development in historical theology. I'm suggesting that confession/absolution and last rites might have been introduced as a harmonizing device to dampen opposing tendencies vis-à-vis baptism. I don't espouse confession/absolution or last rites, and I don't think baptism confers the remission of sin. I'm not endorsing these developments, or the theological presuppositions which drive them.

      Rather, if one begins with a false premise (baptism confers the remission of sin), then that generates competing tendencies (infant baptism v. deathbed baptism). That, in turn, invites ad hoc solutions to preserve the original premise but relieve the pressure (confession/absolution, last rites).

  2. So your main contention is that "baptism confers the remission of sin" is a false premise and is evidenced by the existence of confession/absolution and last rights? I seems like you aren't saying that the ad hoc solutions flow necessarily from the false premise, so I guess that recludes pointing out traditions where they hold the premise but not the ad hoc solutions.

    Still seems primarily an RCC problem since they are the ones with the laundry list of sacraments.

    What about arguments for infant baptism that don't rest weight on baptismal regeneration or the cleansing of sins? I noted a long while ago that you were Zwinglian on these topics, so I am attempting to chart more of the lay of your land.

    I asked this in another thread but never saw an answer, probably because it was busy in there: Have you ever leafed through Doug Wilson's To a Thousand Generations?

    I read the book as a credobaptist and it has influenced my thinking. I am bringing it up here because I have been following the analyses you post for a number of years. Given how fruitful many of the posts have been for me, I am curious to hear what you make of the form and content of his argument and where the weaknesses are.

    1. No, I didn't suggest the falsity of believing that baptism remits sin is evidenced by confession/absolution, and last rites. Rather, because believing that baptism remits sin leads to conflicting motives about the best time to undergo baptism (assuming that baptism is a one-time rite), I'm suggesting that confession/absolution, and last rites may have been introduced to maintain the (alleged) advantages of infant baptism without the alleged disadvantages. That would offset the problem of postbaptismal sin.

      I deny that baptism remits sin for reasons independent of the historical argument I'm charting. I don't view the sacraments as means of grace. I view the sacraments as enacted parables or object lessons which illustrate certain spiritual truths. Baptism symbolizes the remission of sins. A picturesque metaphor of sin as filth, which is washed away.

      In the other thread I already gave my argument (such as it is) for paedobaptism:

      No, I haven't read Wilson's book.

  3. Thanks for the further explanation.

    I hadn't seen that thread, so I'll take a look at it.

    Thanks! :^)

  4. = In an age of high infant mortality =

    For that matter, you could say a whole lot more. Anybody living during times of persecution, war, famine, etc. Christians living in grave danger physically would compel them to have baptism for their spiritual well being. The premise here is that being cleansed from original sin and reborn into the spirit are necessary for salvation.

    I am willing to go extreme. The future health of society could advance enough to make this option seem more reasonable. Somebody would say they never have to worry about death, at least not until some very old age.
    Well, I would answer, how young our lifespans are in this modern era compared to the days before Abraham.

    Anyway, I see no advantage in delaying baptism for an adult convert who is sufficiently taught Christianity and becomes convinced of the truth of the faith. Otherwise, one may be presuming on mercy and putting to the test.

    1. Since I deny the premise, I deny the conclusion.