Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Infant Baptism, Pelagianism, Good and Evil

In a piece that reaches beyond the question of infant baptism into the deeper issues of sin and evil, Alan Wilson at the Guardian (the link may not work so go to to view the entire article) raises the following points (emphasis added):
"Christian life begins with baptism. The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) baptism liturgy used to fill Sunday afternoons up and down the land, and it's still worth trying to understand what Cranmer thought he was doing and the view of humanity that underlies his book."
So there is the answer to the age old question, "When does life begin?"

 "Cranmer required that baptism be administered freely, or to use a weasel word popularised in the 1960's, 'indiscriminately,' to babies...
...Cranmer's baptismal liturgy, above all, is a trenchant expression of western Augustinianism. It rejects utterly the Pelagianism that has fascinated the English since the fifth century. Pelagianism indicates how God ought to work if he had any common sense."
You have to love that definition of Pelagianism. It is a lot shorter than the description found at the Catholic Encyclopedia, but lacking in the needed clarity of Theopedia's which I include below:
"Pelagianism views humanity as basically good and morally unaffected by the Fall. It denies the imputation of Adam's sin, original sin, total depravity, and substitutionary atonement. It simultaneously views man as fundamentally good and in possession of libertarian free will."
Let's check out some excerpts from Cranmer's Baptismal liturgy from the 1549 BCP,
"DEARE beloved, forasmuche as all men bee conceyved and borne in sinne, and that no manne borne in synne, can entre into the kingdom of God (except he be regenerate, and borne anewe of water, and the holy ghost) I beseche you to call upon God the father through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteouse mercy he wil graunt to these children that thing, which by nature they cannot have, that is to saye, they may be baptised with the holy ghost, and receyved into Christes holy Church, and be made lyvely membres of the same...
Feminists, please bear with Cranmer and his talk of "men" and "manne."
¶ N. Receyve the signe of the holy Crosse, both in thy forehead, and in thy breste, in token that thou shalt not be ashamed to confesse thy fayth in Christe crucifyed, and manfully to fyght under his banner against synne, the worlde, and the devill, and to continewe his faythfull soldiour and servaunt unto thy lyfes ende. Amen...
Then let the priest lokyng upon the chyidren, saye. 
I COMMAUNDE thee, uncleane spirite, in the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost, that thou come out, and departe from these infantes, whom our Lord Jesus Christe hath vouchsaved, to call to his holy Baptisme, to be made membres of his body, and of his holy congregacion. Therfore thou cursed spirite, remembre thy sentence, remembre thy judgemente, remembre the daye to be at hande, wherin thou shalt burne in fyre everlasting, prepared for thee and thy Angels. And presume not hereafter to exercise any tyrannye towarde these infantes, whom Christe hathe bought with his precious bloud, and by this his holy Baptisme calleth to be of his flocke."
Cool language and wording. We have lost a lot over the centuries. That "manfully fyght" in particular, and whatever happened to that stuff about commanding the unclean spirit out of the child? Oh yeah, children are basically good,  innocent creatures.
Alan Wilson continues (please use a slightly British accent while reading the following),
"...Faith would be a call for everyone to pull their socks up and do their best, engendering a vague feeling that going to Church is somehow doing God a favour. The flip side of this tosh is that anyone who fails to set a good example and is caught should be pilloried with self-righteous indignation pour encourager les autres – another English carry-on that would not appeal to St Augustine. Pelagianism is a whole attitude to God and humanity. It lives not only in Church, but in tabloid newspapers and school league tables.
Augustine, by contrast, observes that all human beings experience a gap between aspiration and performance that goes beyond their capacity to pull their socks up. Salvation is a gift of grace, not a reward. People may dispute exactly what grace is and how they get it, but Augustine's bottom line is that Salvation is wrought by free grace not human endeavour. BCP baptism is as much about whether God believes in the baby as whether the baby believes in God, something we may confidently assert it can't. No moral effort, no certitude of belief, could rescue humanity. God "sees that we put not our trust in any thing that we do", not even good things..."
God is in charge during any baptism, infant, teen, or adult.
."..Augustine's anthropology insistently reminds us of our human fallibility, and the underlying possibility of evil that we sometimes shrug our shoulders and call "human nature." This is not just about fiddling expenses. It describes the catastrophic moral failures of the twentieth century – its holocausts, gulags and killing fields. The horror was usually perpetrated by honest zealots, with the highest of ideals, but with a simple inability to believe they could, as modern enlightened people, do anything truly evil."

As one reflects on how many of those involved in such horrors were once baptised themselves, it also reminds us how often we walk away from our baptism and fall right back into sin.

"People should be free as air to dispute the existence of God, as they have since the Book of Job. I find it disconcerting however, dangerous even, if people dispute the existence of evil, and the possibility of their own deeds being evil..."
I didn't know that the Book of Job caused that many issues with the question of God's existence. At any rate, if there is no evil, then there is no need for repentance, Baptism, or the cross.

I support infant baptism in part because we have the examples of Paul baptising entire households in Acts 16:14-15, again in Acts 16:33, and again in 1Corinthians 1:16. As far as one baptism is concerned, I also think that a literal daily re-baptism to wash away the sins of the previous day, while for some of us would be helpful, might not be needed once one acknowledges and gives thanks to God daily for our first baptism and for washing us in his blood. There are also the words we recite in the Nicene Creed, "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" to remind us of how the Church settled this matter long ago.  As long as I am ever mindful of that, I shouldn't have to dive into the baptismal pool or be sprinkled from the font for a second time.

The current BCP version of the Baptism offers us a chance to renew our vows during another's baptism. I am still left wondering if a literal re-dunking might be helpful for some as they recommit their lives to Christ. I don't think Cranmer would have wasted his type-setter's time and cost to add a liturgy for a second trip to the font to the BCP, but what if he had?

And what if he had a liturgical committee to help him with the BCP? Imagine the novelties they might have suggested.

Just think of all the innovations Anglicans missed out on for all those years.

We can fix that, and I'm afraid we will.


  1. Great post. I love how you quote Cranmer in his original vernacular. I think we lose something in translation to (post)modern drab Ameri-english.

    Raised a Baptist I have generally understood baptism as accompanying the hearing and believing of the gospel. But I have no objection to infant baptism (certainly not now, as a mere Anglican) for the same reasons you cite from Scripture. I'll leave it at that.

  2. Despite the intentions to update the language to make the liturgy more "accessible," we lose something with each revision.

  3. I like to use the Asperges during the reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant, sprinkling the congregation with holy water as they reclaim the Apostles' Creed and promises.

    As we have a font that the folks will pass on their way to Communion, I also invite them to touch the water and to cross themselves with it as a reminder of Baptism opening their way to the altar.

    We've lost so much of the overt language of exorcism that I try to call attention to it via the renunciations.

  4. Tim,

    We use a bowl in which some of the baptismal water is placed on a stand in the aisle, and people dip their fingers in that.

  5. Anonymous3:36 PM

    Nice post, though I'm not on board with infant baptism.

    As you probably know, we baptists are not Pelagian in our view, except where it comes to the concept of Free Will. Indeed, Grace is a gift, but one which requires acceptance. That is a gift may be rejected by the intended recipient.

    For us, baptism comes after an acknowledgment of one's sinful state and the need for Grace, following by repentance and the acceptance of God/Christ's blood atonement and resurrection.

    A small point, perhaps. I certainly don't question those of faith such as yourself who were baptized as infants, which distinguishes me from some of my co-denominationalists.