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“Faith Alone” and infant baptism

Posted by Nathanael Szobody on

A friend recently sent me the following question: “Help me understand the relationship between infant baptism and faith alone. Does the pronouncement happen by proxy-by the believing parents?”

I have two answers. But first I would make an preliminary observation concerning sola fide. The term is intended to exclude the addition of any meritorious work in the scheme of salvation; it is “faith to the exclusion of everything else”. Strictly speaking, sola fide does not intend to exclude the possibilty that one might be saved who has neither works nor faith due to a limited cognitive ability (i.e., infancy or mental illness). “sola” implies a maximum requirement, not a minimum. Since New Testament Pauline theology is written to cognitive adults seeking to understand their new-found faith in regards to the jewish law, we need not take the statements in it concerning the necessity of faith to imply any exclusion of infants from salvation. Having said that, I will present the two answers that seem most immediately helpful.

First, the question reveals a certain assumption. It implies that the definition of faith relies on a cognitive motor. Hebrews 11:1 certainly establishes some fundamental aspects of faith, but I would not for a minute entertain it as an exhaustive definition (and it doesn’t seem to be intended as such). But even if the characteristics of “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” are necessary constitutive elements of faith, I still don’t see a problem. “Assurance” and “conviction” are difficult things to come by for adults. To really have them, it takes a rather child-like characteristic: trust. For this reason Jesus himself tells us we must be as a child to inherit the kingdom of heaven (and in saying so he was not distinguishing a cognitive child from and infant; the point is, you must be un-adult). You have to trust either evidence, a testimony, or a relationship in order to have assurance or conviction. As you likely can guess, I’m going to emphasize the third, without excluding the former two–especially testimony (for, among other reasons “how will they believe if they have not heard?”). While an infant arguably cannot understand, and therefore trust, a testimony or evidence, she certainly can trust a relationship, as is abundantly evident to parents.

Faith takes initiation on God’s part.The Holy Spirit must quicken for one to even believe. As Luther’s Small Catechism states concerning the third article of the Creed:

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints, the
forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in
Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel,
enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

The Spirit must “enlighten with his gifts”. His gifts are the various forms of his saving Word, communicated in scripture and the sacraments. In baptism, the gospel is “preached”, or rather “applied” in the name of the Trinity. As God’s testimony is more sure than the most beautiful of adult “testimonies” of faith, we believe that when he puts his name on that infant–his Name, in all in the largest sense of the gospel that it communicates–therein is the initiation of a relationship with that child. If indeed that is the case, the child is trusting, as it is in an infant’s nature to do, in God who has claimed her and placed his name upon her. No cognition is necessary for this most primordial form of trust; an infant trusts whomever is holding her. While we wouldn’t necessarily call this “faith” in its fullest sense, certainly it is faith in its most fundamental element: the trusting response to a relationship. We generally refer to it as the “seed of faith”. It is a relationship initiated.

We conceive of faith very organically. The seed of faith is not faith fully formed, it is not yet what it is called to be, just as an infant is not yet (nor will be before eternity) the person she is called to be. The seed of faith, which is the gospel Word administered in baptism, must be watered, nurtured, and eventually pruned, fertilized and supported. A seed of faith that remains a seed as a person grows to adulthood, cannot properly be called faith (the agricultural analogy works quite well on this point). In other words, infant baptism is no incantation. Negligence of its gift is a loss of its benefits. The planting and watering of the seed is indeed the responsibility of the parents.

This brings us to my second answer. No, I do not believe that infants have faith by the proxy of their parents. The idea that one person can have faith on behalf of another is foreign to scripture. What we believe is that the principle of the transmission of faith from parent to child is a constant between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. The Apostle paul goes to great lengths in Romans and Galatians to demonstrate that our faith is Abraham’s faith. The economy of salvation is not fundamentally different between the two covenants (we will leave the Mosaic Covenant aside at this point).

At this point we cannot avoid discussing circumcision. But first we must make a few distinctions. Baptism is not equivalent to circumcision, and yet they are closely related by the following articulation: circumcision is the type of which baptism is the reality. This principle is established with remarkable clarity in Colossians 2:11-12. Baptism is a “circumcision without human hands, the circumcision of Christ” i.e. a burial into his death in order to receive his life. In other words, where humans circumcised the flesh, God circumcises the heart in baptism. The picture is in circumcision; the reality is in baptism. We must keep in mind both the similarity in image, but the distinction of substance between these two rites. One is a sign of the promise, the other is the promised gift.

With this in mind, we observe that the sign of circumcision, anticipating baptism, was given to infant males. The sign indicates the will of God: he claims the children of his people, and transfers to them on the eighth day the promise he made to Abraham. The promise is not faith itself; it is the object of faith. As the child grows (male or female) he believes the promise signified in circumcision. The promise always was “spoken” to him in circumcision, but his faith applies his intellect in recognizing it as a promise for him. When the reality comes with Christ, delivered in his gift of baptism, how much more should that reality also be extended to the children, that, as they grow, their faith should recognize with thankfulness the gift of God?

This might offend our evangelical sensitivities insofar as we see faith as a condition for baptism, as the question intimates. The idea that faith is a prerequisite for baptism and must precede it sequentially is born of a certain repetition in Acts of the command “believe and be baptized” or “repent and be baptized”. The first occurrence of the latter formulation appears in Acts 2:38 as Peter tells the crowd “Repent and be baptized, very one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, anyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” This statement is masterfully crafted for a first-century jewish audience. First there’s baptism for repentance that John had taught (as well, presumably, as other ascetic groups like the Essenes), but Peter adds a salvific import to this baptism: “for the forgiveness of your sins”. However any good Jew is concerned not only for himself, but also that the promise of Abraham be applied to his descendants, beginning with his eight-day-old child. So Peter reassures them, showing that Christ is indeed the fulfillment of the Abrahamic hope: “The promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off…” (reminiscent of “a blessing for all nations”). In this statement alone is confirmed the fact that the transmission of faith from parent to child continues in the New Covenant as it did in the Abrahamic. The difference is that the promise which was signified in the sign of circumcision, is fulfilled with the gift of God’s very Name (= His presence, communion–the very Gospel hope) in baptism. The human response to this gift is faith–a faith whose seed is planted by God’s Word in baptism and nourished by the continual feeding of his Word as that child grows in her cognitive ability to respond.