In Search of a Theology of Children image

In Search of a Theology of Children

Some readers with long memories have reminded me that as 2015 began, I said I wanted to consider a theology of children this year. My slightly flippant, guaranteed-to-annoy-everyone comment was that, while I am thoroughly persuaded that credobaptists have a better theology of baptism, it often seems that paedobaptists have a better theology of children. (This is an entirely ignorant position, by the way, and simply reflects the fact that I have come across more Presbyterians and Anglicans who write about this stuff than Baptists - although, of course, there may be something in that.) So I wanted to give some time to how Baptists have presented a theology of children, and what the key issues might be.

Enter Jonathan Leeman, stage right. A couple of months ago, in response to a question from a reader, he sketched a conversation with his daughter on the 9Marks website. It opens up the discussion about children in a very real-world context:

Daughter: Daddy, am I a Christian?

Me: If you’re repenting of your sins, and putting your trust in Jesus, then yes.

Daughter: I am.

Me: If you are, then praise God! Keep doing that, sweetheart!

Daughter: Can I get baptized?

Me: At some point, honey. Right now, while you’re young, let’s continue to learn and grow. We’ll think about this more when you are older. I want you stand on your own two feet as a follower of Jesus, and not just believe these things because I do. But I’m so glad you want to follow Jesus with me! This is the most important decision you’ll ever make. There’s no one better than him.

That’s a great example of what a consistent, thoughtful Baptist might say. It’s also a great example of the sort of answer that gets up Anglicans’ and Presbyterians’ noses.

Enter Mark Jones, stage left. His response to Jonathan the other day, at Reformation21, gave just the sort of pushback you might expect a Presbyterian to give (and exactly the sort of pushback that, if we’re honest, many credobaptists would admit to feeling unsettled by):

His words, “if you are” (the second time), are regrettable. “Since you are” - based on the judgment of charity - would be a more appropriate response to such a wonderful declaration by a child, in my view.

Does anyone else think the daughter might be really confused after this conversation as to whether she is a Christian or not? She believes she meets the conditions for being a Christian, but she is told she can’t be baptized. Why? Because the church refuses to formally affirm her (child-like) faith. In short, she has to “prove” herself.

Ouch. Raise the spectre of legalism, individualism and sowing seeds of doubt, to a child, of all people, and many credobaptists will scurry back into the woodwork, and admit that their praxis is either unworkable or downright nasty (or both). Having raised that challenge, Jones then explains that his children never ask him whether they are Christians, and goes on instead to outline his own questions and answers. They’re all worth thinking about:

1. When my children sin and ask for forgiveness from God, can I assure them that their sins are forgiven? [Presbyterians: “yes.” Baptists: “if ...”]
2. When I ask my children to obey me in the Lord should I get rid of the indicative-imperative model for Christian ethics? On what grounds do I ask my four-year old son to forgive his twin brother? [Presbyterians: “forgive as Christ has forgiven you.” Baptists: “if ...”]
3. Can my children sing Psalm 23 (esp. v. 6) or Be Thou My Vision (as they do) with the assurance that God is indeed their shepherd or their breastplate and sword for the fight? Can they sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” (”...little ones to him belong…”)? [Presbyterians: “yes.” Baptists: “if ...”]
4. When my children pray during family worship to their heavenly Father, what are the grounds for them praying such a prayer? Do they have any right to call God their “heavenly Father” (Rom. 8:15)? [Presbyterians: “yes.” Baptists: “if ...”]

So: Presbyterians are confident, reassuring, pastorally sensitive fathers, and Baptists can’t even teach their kids to pray the Lord’s prayer without what-iffing about it. Presbyterians are Lloyd George (“Do it now!”), and Baptists are Asquith (“Wait and see.”) Mark Jones has been much to winsome to put it like this, but that’s certainly the direction it is pointing. How can someone be a Baptist and a good parent at the same time?

Enter Tom Chantry, stage right. Rather than attempting a different answer to all of Jones’s questions, Chantry simply points out that (most) Presbyterians have exactly the same problem as (most) Baptists on this point. It’s just that their problem becomes apparent with respect to the Lord’s Supper, rather than baptism:

I know there is a theological answer to give, but our concern here seems to be to somehow avoid confusing the kids, so what’s the simple answer? “You’re a Christian, but you cannot come to the Christian feast”? “We’ve baptized you, but now we’re barring you from communion”? We Baptists have a word for that: “excommunication.” It seems a tad harsh, but then, we wouldn’t want to confuse the kids, so let’s use plain language.

The truth is, once we get past the rhetoric, any serious paedobaptist still has to work out how and when to answer the very questions which Jones assigns solely to the Baptists – questions like “Does this toddler really believe in Jesus, or would she also believe in fairies if her mother told her to?” and “How exactly do we say that this little boy is a ‘disciple,’ which Jesus told us involved taking up a cross’?” Sorry, folks, but your baptismal program is not a get-out-of-awkward-conversations-free card.

At least when I baptize someone, I immediately and automatically admit him to the Table. Like, you know, they did in the book of Acts.

None of these writers (Leeman, Jones and Chantry) are claiming that they have provided a comprehensive theology of children in these articles. To their credit, they are simply laying out what their theological framework implies about children, the sacraments and assurance, whether it sounds like the sort of thing you would actually say, or not. But it is an illuminating exchange nonetheless. Both paedo- and credobaptists distinguish between the faith commitment of a five year old and the faith commitment of a thirty-five year old, even though we all know that the five year old often perseveres in faith, and the thirty-five year old often doesn’t. For the paedobaptist, communion is delayed until (probably) the teenage years, at confirmation; for the credobaptist, it is baptism which is delayed; but both regard the full receipt and practice of the covenant signs as inappropriate for a young child. In that sense, Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians all have the same theological position when their child asks them Jonathan’s question, whether or not it’s what they actually say.

And if, having read all that, you’re wondering how I would respond if I was asked that by my six year old (which I haven’t been), it’s simple.

“Daddy, am I a Christian?”

“Ask your mother.”

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