By Dr. Paul Owen
In the spirit of dialogue, Anglican Compass has published a thoughtful argument by Andrew Messmer (December 17, 2020) in favor of the acceptance of what some call “dual-practice” baptism—the tolerance of both infant baptism and believers-only baptism within a given ecclesiastical structure. He offers three arguments in favor of this adjustment: 1) Anglicans already allow a variety of views on numerous topics, suggesting a patience for diversity which might also be applicable here; 2) the Patristic evidence shows that the practice of infant baptism was not carried out in a uniform manner in the early centuries of the Church; and 3) there are precedents within the Christian tradition among prominent thinkers for the toleration of both views. What are we to make of Messmer’s suggestions?
First of all, we should always keep before us the principle of “one baptism for the remission of sins” derived from the Nicene Creed, and more importantly from St. Paul himself in Ephesians 4:5. For what the “dual-practice” view entails is not simply an allowance for a range of ages for the baptism of children—something which could indeed be open for discussion in light of the relatively vague language in our Prayer Book (when I refer to the Prayer Book in this piece I mean the 1928 Book of Common Prayer) and Articles of Religion. Article 27 simply says: “The Baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.” And the Prayer Book rubric advises without specifics that the people of the parish “defer not the Baptism of their Children.” Rather, what Messmer’s proposal would entail is the allowance for a diversity of theologies and practices within the structure of a single church. But how could a single church structure contain within itself some who view the baptismal practice of others within their own church as biblically illegitimate? After all, Messmer would have Anglicans to permit within her fold the theology of those who see the baptism of infants as no true baptism at all, and who believe in point of fact that those baptized as infants really ought to be baptized only upon the profession of their faith in accordance with New Testament teaching (as they understand it).
One suspects that such a toleration could only work if one viewed baptism as merely a matter of outward ceremony, and so not striking at the vitals of our Anglican religion. However, prior to the rise of the Puritan party within the Church of England in the late sixteenth century, it would be difficult to find any such relativizing of the sacraments as “merely” the performance of ceremonial externals within the Christian church. It was this sacramental novelty that allowed the Congregationalists of England to take such a lenient view of their “Baptist” offspring in the seventeenth century. In other words, this “dual-practice” view of baptism could only work if the preaching of the Word is seen as the true calling of the Church, with the sacraments then playing some sort of supplemental role annexed to the sermon. That might be a good description of evangelical Protestant religion, but it is not (and never could be) an apt description of the Anglican Way.
This is a point which bears more reflection. What is the logic of the believers-only baptismal position? It is not simply an argument about the New Testament references to baptism and whether or not infants could possibly be fitting recipients. It is really an argument about the nature of the sacraments themselves, and the role of the Christian Church more broadly. For at the heart of the believers-only baptism position is the claim that the sacraments do not confer grace, but only confirm the presence of the signified grace already possessed by faith. The grace which is proper to the sacraments can thus only be the nourishing of faith in God’s promises. For Baptists, the grace pointed to in baptism is already fully present in the heart of the believer, now to be more fully enjoyed by the sacramental sign of the Church (cf. 1689 Baptist Confession 29.1). So what is really at stake here is the question of whether or not the sacraments are ordained by Christ to confer the grace that is proclaimed in the Word of God. Hence, the debate strikes at the very heart of the Church’s spiritual life in Christ. In other words, is baptism really a sacrament, or is it only an ordinance? The toleration of believers-only baptism would entail the toleration of the marginalized role of the sacraments in the Church which has come to characterize evangelical Protestant religion. In other words it would involve a wholesale alteration of our sacramental theology, and our understanding of the role of the Church in the salvation of souls. And for Anglicans that would be a cost too high to pay for religious cooperation with those of Baptist persuasion.
In Anglican theology the sacraments are not only “signs” of grace—grace which we only possess if our faith is real and we belong to the number of God’s elect (the Baptist view)—but “effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us” (Article 25). We know God’s grace and good will toward us by the performance of the visible sign through the hands of Christ’s Church, which is why the baptismal liturgy instructs us after the washing of the child with the sanctified water: “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.” Our Prayer Book catechism very clearly tells us that a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof” (italics added). Anglicans believe that the outward sign of the sacrament assures us of the spiritual grace objectively given in its performance by the Church—as opposed to being received by faith alone and only confirmed in the heart of the believer.
When the wider implications of the believers-only position are kept in view, the potential appeal of Messmer’s proposal evaporates in light of its novelty. Yes, people in the early church received baptism at various ages for a variety of reasons; however, there is no evidence for the believers-only baptism position in any creed, rubric or ecclesiastical authority in the first millennium of Christian history. This is because no Christian of the first millennium held to the ecclesiology which undergirds the Baptist view of the sacraments. No matter how widespread the practice may have been in the first five centuries (a matter of debate), it does not seem to have occurred to anyone that infant baptism was illegitimate as a matter of principle. Tertullian (On Baptism, 18) does not see the baptism of infants as any more, or any less, legitimate than the baptism of the unmarried (whom he also advises to wait). Gregory of Nazianzus explicitly supports the baptism of infants who are “unconsciously sanctified” by the sacrament (Oration 40:28), though he sees wisdom in waiting until the child is around three or four years of age. The silence of the Didache, Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria cuts both ways, for all sides admit at least some infant baptisms were being performed in the second century, yet one finds no denunciations of the practice in these sources. Presumably they did not view it as a contested issue or one which required urgent guidance.
As for the voice of more recent authorities highlighted by Messmer, the wisdom and advice of Balthasar Hubmaier, John Tombes, John Bunyan, Karl Barth and the World Council of Churches will not carry much water in the traditional Anglican world. The toleration of the believers-only baptism position alongside the practice of infant baptism only makes sense in a setting where the sacraments can be pushed to the margins of religious practice as mere external ceremonies. This is the faith of the Congregational Puritans of the seventeenth century, who were highly tolerant of the “Baptist” movement emerging from their circles, so long as they agreed on the essentials of Calvinist orthodoxy. It is not a sacramental theology that could ever be acceptable to those who are committed to the biblical theology of the Prayer Book, the Articles of Religion, and the received Catholic tradition of the Anglican Way.
By way of conclusion, it might be worth pondering how we have reached a point where the inclusion of believers-only baptism could even be considered as a point for discussion within the Anglican world. Is there a danger posed in some sections of Anglicanism by the sort of doctrinal indifference which allows for high and low views of sacramental efficacy, strong and weak versions of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, casual worship or high liturgy according to cultural preference, varying musical styles, different assessments of the value of vestments and ecclesiastical “ornaments” of the catholic Church, and various opinions about the ordination of female clergy? Can the Anglican Church in the western world provide an effective and united witness when it is unable to speak in unison on the most basic issues of ecclesiastical life and policy? May God help his Church to grow into deeper unity of heart and mind for “the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).
Dr. Paul Owen is Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College, and a Lay Reader at All Saints Anglican Church in Mills River, NC.