Paedobaptist Perspectives: Paedo-Credo-Baptism and the Adoption Analogy

Last week I introduced a discussion I'd been having with two paedobaptist friends in the comment thread here. The aim in posting it here is to make it as easy as possible for readers to see the best arguments for paedobaptism, without having to get lost in a back-and-forth discussion that goes down a number of rabbit trails and blind alleys. This week, I'm summarising a fascinating argument by means of analogy from my friend Alastair Roberts. Even if, like me, you don't agree with him, this is a superbly clear way of framing things. He also ends up arguing for something I'd call paedo-credo-baptism, which should intrigue you if nothing else:

Baptism functions much like adoption. It can occur before or after our conscious awareness and choice, but either way it changes our status and identity, makes us participants of a new context and life, and comes with new responsibilities and privileges. Even though adoption often precedes any choice of the child, we rightly presume that, as they grow up, they will willingly identify with the life and family into which they have been brought. While an adoption always achieves something, even when it ‘fails’, its presumed and desired effect is that of the adopted child maturing happily in a new loving context, responding with gratitude to the grace of their adoptive parents. The long term outcome of the adoption is fairly important. The child needs to be subjected to the long term practices of formation and inclusion that constitute ‘family life’ or adoption is emptied of much of its significance, becoming a hollow formality. Baptism is much the same.

I believe that Paul would presume that anyone baptized would be subjected to the formative ministries and life of the Church in the years that followed. Just as we naturally presume that the adopted infant won’t grow up to disown their parents and siblings but will grow into deeper relationships within the family into which they have been brought, so the baptized infant is really included in the life of the body—yes, really buried with Christ!—but must live out of this new life if their baptism is to be of any use to them. Baptism in situations where people are not thereby brought into the life of the Church is a negation of the reality of baptism, much as adopting a homeless child and leaving it out on the streets.

Right. So: has a “baptised” infant put on Christ? Are they buried with Christ? Raised with Christ through faith? Well:

When Paul addresses the Church, he speaks of the realities that they have been given and made part of in terms of their proper reception, much as we do. When speaking generally about adoption, we don’t typically hedge our language to accommodate the cases where the child grows to reject their adoptive parents. In speaking of adoption, we appropriately assume that it will have its proper and desired effect and speak of it in such a manner. In the same way, Paul addresses the whole Church as the family chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, even though some will fall away, all receiving the Supper as partaking in the ‘cup of blessing’, even though some will drink judgment to themselves, and all the baptized as receiving the benefits of incorporation into the life of Christ, even though some will turn their back on this.

But if Paul uses “faith” in Colossians 2:12 in the same way, and with the same referent, as he does in Romans, then he must be speaking of individuals who have trusted in Christ for themselves, surely? In which case, Paul cannot be envisaging infants being baptised in this text, since the reference to faith would make no sense otherwise. Would it?

I don’t see the statement as clearly excluding infants. Returning to the analogy of adoption, imagine addressing a large family of adopted children of all ages, including infants: ‘you were taken out of your old painful situation and made to share in a new loving family life, through trust in the goodness of your new parents.’ Would such a statement exclude the infants in the group?

In the case of infants baptized into the Church, they are raised with Christ into the new life of the people of God through faith. This faith isn’t yet a private, internal, and individual, but it still is a real faith in which they share and which effectively makes them part of the Christian community and participants in its life. Christianity is less an ideology than a new life. Infants have a ‘primal trust’ that binds them to their parents and their lives.

As I have argued, the NT speaks in terms of participatory faith: our faith is Abrahamic and Christic. It also presents us with a sort of vicarious faith. Christ’s miracles were closely related to the faith of those who received them. However, the deliverances were often received on the basis of a third party’s faith. For instance, when Jesus sees the faith of the men lowering the paralytic through the roof, he declares the sins of the paralyzed man forgiven (Luke 5:20). While the faith of the paralyzed man may also be in view here, the faith of his friends is part of the picture too. Mark 5:22ff, Luke 9:38ff, and John 4:47ff provide further examples of faith exercised on behalf of another. Likewise, God perseveres with the Israelites for the sake of their fathers. God is a ‘family friend’ who, like us, doesn’t regard children as utterly detached from their parents.

The NT also speaks of a sort of indirect faith, a faith that may not involve the individual’s ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ in the self-conscious manner we tend to think of it, but which is nonetheless a genuine relationship. By relating to Christ’s brethren, people can be relating to Christ himself, as we see in Matthew 25. The child of believing parents is bound in primal trust to them, a bond that will develop into a more conscious and differentiated relationship with time. While they have not yet reached the stage of personal knowledge of Christ, they live in trust upon his faithful people. With this bigger picture of faith, I think that the infant children of believers can be seen to belong to the people of faith.

One of the fascinating things about this approach, in my view - alongside the adoption analogy, which is both creative and thought-provoking - is that Alastair is effectively arguing for paedo-credo-baptism. In recognising that faith is a necessary requirement for baptism, he is far closer to me (and all credobaptists) than I would have imagined; it is just that his understanding of what faith is, in this particular familial, covenantal and ecclesial context, is different to mine. As such, I feel that I can embrace much more of his perspective than David Gibson’s “not all in Christ are in Christ” approach, because our reading of the texts is actually very similar (although Alastair sees dia tes pisteos tes energeias tou theou in Col 2:12 as referring to God’s faithful working, rather than our faith in God’s working). I continue to disagree that this vicarious or indirect faith is how Paul actually conceived of what he was talking about, or is how he uses the word elsewhere, but I really appreciate the greater alignment we have on this point as a result of our conversation. Faith is required to baptise people, even if the way in which that faith operates, and the subjects of that faith, are understood differently by the two of us.

Also: you should probably follow Alastair’s blog, or Twitter feed, or both. He’s a smart guy, and a really creative thinker.

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