Credobaptism and Anglicanism

In a recent article for Mere Orthodoxy, Matthew Joss makes the case that the Anglican Church in North America should make ample room for so-called “credobaptists” (or just Baptists). In fact, he takes the argument a step further, arguing that in many ways, Anglicanism has made such room. In doing so, he has written, with much less felicity, a kind of Tract 90 for the inclusion of un-Anglican understandings of baptism within Anglicanism. His concern is that families who take this position and potential ordinands are at such odds with our practice of paedobaptism that they are not, and cannot be, in full communion with the ACNA. In responding to this article, I desire to not only argue for the status quo which Joss finds so objectionable, but that his spurious exploration of the Anglican Formularies is, well, precisely that – spurious.

First, allow me to say that as a parish priest, I have consistently taught those who feel themselves drawn to Anglicanism, but nevertheless have objections to our baptismal practices, and specifically those who have small children or are pregnant or newly married, that it is their duty to have their children baptized as soon as possible. It is their duty to do it, and my duty to teach it. This is, after all, the job of the poor parish priest, to constantly inform the often feeble consciences of his parishioners. As is the case of many doctrines, this very well might mean that they cannot in good conscience commune with us (although they are invited to). It may also mean that they find themselves unable to become members or be confirmed. And, on a similar basis, that they cannot in good conscience pursue ordination (and at this point, I would say that their persistent opposition to paedobaptism must be a barrier to that.) I will give my full case for infant baptism and the status quo at the end of this article, but it suffices to say that I believe parents who refuse to have their children baptized as soon as possible do them a serious disservice. Parishes that openly enable this refusal are complicit in this disservice.

The task for this article is to refute Joss’s assertions. He divides his comments into four parts:

  1. Credobaptism is consistent with the 39 Articles
  2. Credobaptism is consistent with the 2019 BCP
  3. Paedobaptism exclusivism is not consistent with the 39 Articles
  4. Since credobaptism is consistent with Anglican distinctives, and baptism exclusivism is not consistent, then baptism tolerance (i.e., dual-practice baptism) should be the Anglican position.

Let me preface my exploration of his thought by simply saying that when it comes to adults and indeed many children, credobaptism is indeed our practice. Settlement Anglicanism rightly provided for the baptism of “those of riper years” in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but at the same time made it clear that paedobaptism was to be the default position for Christian families.

“Credobaptism is consistent with the 39 Articles”

Joss makes the rather simple argument that credobaptists can find some quarter in Anglicanism on the simple basis that when it comes to the baptism of young children, there is no argument to be had. The credobaptist’s issue is simply with the baptism of infants, who cannot profess faith in Jesus. Joss here takes a mere possibility or perhaps an exception, and argues that it should be given a wider privilege and quarter. But, what he ignores is the wider understanding that the Articles in particular have with regard to Holy Baptism, an understanding that applies to all: infants, young children, adolescents, and adults.

And that understanding is explicit in Article XXVII:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.

Put simply, Anglicanism holds that baptism is, in fact, a sign of profession, but not only that: a sign, an instrument of regeneration and new-birth, which confers membership in the Church, the forgiveness of sin, and adoption by the Holy Spirit. The 1662 Catechism agrees with this, saying that the inward and spiritual grace of Holy Baptism is “A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness, for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.” The catechism goes on to state that what is required of persons to be baptized is repentance and faith. How is that not an explicitly credobaptist position? The answer lies in the concept of surety.

I recently purchased two surety bonds for vehicles I purchased without proper titles. In the great State of Texas, as it is in many other states, the purchaser is required to obtain a surety bond. For $100, an insurance company made a guarantee on my behalf that if any claim was made upon these two vehicles, they would make the claimant whole (assuming the claim was valid). These bonds also certified that any liens on the vehicle were satisfied. After two years, I will receive a full and clear title to both of them. In essence the idea here is to use a financial instrument to establish clear responsibility in the face of several unknowns. This is precisely the language that Anglican doctrine surrounding Holy Baptism uses. The idea is that since an infant cannot promise their faith and repentance, others (the parents and godparents) will do it for them until such time as they can do it on their own. I have always taught godparents that since an infant cannot repent, they must do the child’s repenting on his or her behalf. This is extrapolated out to tithing and praying and attending the liturgy. When you consider it, this is the nature of parenting. If my four-year-old daughter breaks something at someone else’s house, it does little good to say to the child, “you must pay for the broken window.” No, I must do it. Why? Because the child is my responsibility. The way it works in nature as well as grace, is that as a child’s ability grows, so does their responsibility. Novel concept, I know. This does not happen all at once, but gradually, and I think all parents can attest that it happens differently for every child.

In short, we do not know what a child will grow up to be. God knows, however, and that is the point. A parent’s good intentions or example are insufficient to the work of growing a child into a believing, repenting Christian. Only God’s grace can truly do it, and this is precisely what we teach is given in Holy Baptism, not just to infants, but to all.

What Joss seems to not recognize is that Anglicanism is quite consistent in saying infant baptism is something of an exception to a general rule, but no less a sacrament, and baptism all the same.

“Credobaptism is consistent with the 2019 BCP”

Here, Joss argues for “dual-practice” baptism. That is a rather un-nuanced way of putting it. What he is arguing is that there should be, and is, a wide “diversity of opinions accepting both credo and infant baptism.” Yet, he notes that the rubrics of the 2019 BCP insist “The minister shall encourage parents not to defer the Baptism of their children” while giving a strange interpretation that this need not include infants, which is certainly news to me. I sat in, as an observer in my capacity as Chair of the Committee for Catechesis, on many of the committee meetings which drafted these liturgies. This was not in any way the intention of either the committee or the Bishops. The term “young children” absolutely includes infants. Of course it does.

While Joss rightly notes that it requires some savvy to know the difference between which children should make the baptismal promises for themselves and which cannot, what he is really arguing for is that both be normative practice (depending, of course, on the position of the parents). Yet, it is this insistence that in arguing that a credobaptist can in every way encourage parents not to defer the baptism of young children, which reveals the core concern which I have with the article, which is that Joss envisions a parish in which the Rector is a credobaptist who would presumably refuse to baptize infants. Thus, he envisions a whole parish committed to credo baptism, a parish of Baptist Anglicans.  To this, I must simply say that the contradiction inherent here cannot be countenanced, even as I know that it does, in some places, exist, to my dismay. To do so would overthrow the very core of Anglican practice since the end (and thanks be to God it did end) of the Commonwealth. I would argue the practice goes back to the apostolic era, as did the Church Fathers. The bottom line is that it is perfectly understandable that a parent might believe that they cannot, in good conscience, be a surety for their child, but wouldn’t this in turn mean that they are unwilling to keep the promises of Holy Baptism themselves?

“Paedobaptism exclusivism is not consistent with the 39 Articles”

Well, of course it isn’t. The Articles absolutely do not state that only infants ought be baptized. There are, in essence, two time-honored and non-contradictory ways to look at it. First is to think of infant baptism as the desired norm, which is to say that parents have no good reason to delay it, and that those who do delay should be encouraged otherwise. The second is to think of paedobaptism as a kind of dispensation from the general rule of credobaptism on the basis of professing, repenting parents and godparents acting as sureties. I remember the late great Patristics scholar William Harmless saying that it would be a great day for the Church when Christians, in thinking about baptism, visualized not an infant, but an adult who was, until recently, a pagan and drug addict. To this, I wholeheartedly agree. But, this is entirely different from continuing to hold fast to the ideal of Christian parents presenting their infant children for baptism. The former points to the Church as an evangelical body and to our God as an adopting God. The latter, however, points to the Church as a naturally multiplying body, with her own natural born children. Both are essential, but they are not in contradiction.

This is, at the core, my main objection to Joss’s line of reasoning. In arguing for a dual-practice Church, he is not, in fact, making the case for it. Anglicanism is already, for precisely the reasons he gives, a dual-practice body. The infants of professing Christians are baptized. Those who through chance or through change must be baptized later, are baptized with all the vigor of profession and repentance they can possibly have. Joss is instead, and I think mistakenly and unwittingly, privileging credobaptism beyond proper categories, and saying that it is, as he sees it, superior. That is simply not consonant with Anglican practice, or more broadly Catholic practice, in any way whatsoever. Anglicanism holds, if I may be bold, that paedobaptism and credobaptism are one thing. I must admit no small amount of pain in using the terms in the first place, but I have done so to make the point, not to detract from it.

Joss goes on to argue that as the baptism of infants is not explicit in Holy Scripture, it cannot be required, owing to Article VI. In a sense, I must agree, that yes, belief in the practice of infant baptism cannot be required as an article of salvation. But that is entirely different from relegating the practice to the category of adiaphora. Joss falls into the mistake of only having two doctrinal categories: things necessary to salvation, and everything else. While this is consistent with Baptist theology, it is not consistent with Anglican theology. Anglicanism, in saying that the baptism of infants is “to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ” does not say so as an article of salvation, but as simply what it is: a doctrine agreeable with Christ’s institution. That is to say that Christ’s institution of the Sacrament does not exclude the baptism of infants. Another way of putting it is that the baptism of infants is not baptism of a different kind, but baptism itself. Yet, is it not the case that credobaptists claim the practice is disagreeable with the institution of Christ? Is it not the case that they also seek not to retain it, but to abolish it? In arguing especially that strict credobaptists should be ordained, a question is begged: how on earth are these to retain paedobaptism? How are they to say, with the articles, that it is “most agreeable with the institution of Christ.”

In summation, I will say that Joss fails to recognize that Anglicanism solved this question in the 17th century, and in a highly satisfactory way. Putting all the pieces together, allow me to summarize:

  • The baptism of infants is to be retained.
  • However, the Church has no prerogative to force parents to have their children baptized or do so behind their backs.
  • Thus, the conscience of such parents is guarded, while at the same time, they are reminded of their duty to not oppose the access of their children to so great a grace.

Making a More Positive Case: a Brief Catechesis

For the last ten years, I have lived in Waco, Texas – the Rome of the baptist world, planting an ACNA parish. In that time, I have had the great privilege of instructing many Baptists in Anglican theology and teaching, including some rather famous ones. I can recall baptizing our sixth child on a hot August afternoon, by immersion no less. I swear I could hear the gasps as I very nearly killed this precious baby. For the next four Sundays, I humored that young congregation with an extended defense of the practice, often going well into the night. Here, I desire simply to make the case for infant baptism in the most winsome way possible as I did then.

The first thing that needs to be said is that all forms of Pelagianism ought be opposed and opposed roundly. What do I mean by this? I mean that we must oppose the idea that a human being, in and by his own power, without grace, can attain to salvation. Even the softer forms, such as semi-Pelagianism, must be dealt with and semi-Pelagianism is the sort which says, oh, ok, grace is surely necessary, but isn’t it ours to make the first contact? To ask, seek, and knock at the door? The answer we must give is just as was answered by the Church Fathers, that there would be no door, nor hand to knock at it, nor mind to ask, were it not for the grace of God. Grace must always be first. Grace, acting upon our nature, not to destroy, but to perfect, drawing us bit by bit, to be like Jesus.

And what is grace? Is it God looking the other way? Acting as though we were not so endangered by sin and death? Certainly not. Grace is rather a thing, a substance, not a habit of the mind in our mind or the mind of God, but an actual gift, a strengthening gift, a gift which bestows upon us something supernatural. Grace in the New Testament is spoken of as something in which we stand (Romans 5:2), something that increases (Romans 6:1), something Saint Paul constantly prays will be “with” the Church. Ancient Christians had no other way of thinking about anything. In metaphysical terms, the modern idea that ideas might not have actual substance was not yet even on the radar screen. And so, in describing the nature of Holy Baptism, the New Testament teaches, quite simply, that to be baptized is to be joined quite actually, to the death and resurrection of Jesus, to be made a member of his body. Read Romans, chapter six. How can anyone claim baptism to be a mere symbol after reading that? The new life of grace is initiated in Holy Baptism, by which we who were slaves are made free, by which we who were far off were brought near.

And you might say, but certainly grace must have come before even this! And you’d be right! That grace, which Saint Augustine called “prevenient grace” – grace that goes before, is the very thing that leads us to this new life. Whether it was in placing us in a Christian family, or putting us in the company of Christian friends, or leading us into the very places and situations ripe for conversion, grace was always acting.

And this is the first argument I would make for the baptism of infants. What could be more expressive of this grace than it being given to a child who cannot now reason, who cannot now act – beyond crying, filling diapers, and eating at every hour? What could be more indicative of the free bestowal of grace, apart from any merit, than it being given to a child?

But, I can already hear the objections: what if it doesn’t work out? What if the child rebels? What if this sweet baby turns into a monster? Isn’t that the case with all of us? “There but for the grace of God go I…”

Let me put it in front of you for a moment, why my wife and I have had our children baptized as infants. First, it is out of the conviction that it is entirely consonant with the teaching of Holy Scripture, which itself places no barrier to it. It is not even mentioned as possible, for how could it be imagined to be impossible. I should note that there is paltry evidence of opposition to the practice in the ancient Church. The notable example is Tertullian, who questioned the practice, not on the grounds that the baptism of infants is ineffectual, but on the basis that the downside was the high possibility of hypocrisy. So steadfast were ancient Christians in holding to the doctrines of their forebears, it cannot be easily imagined how one doctrine might sneak in unnoticed. While it is true that Christians in the fourth and fifth centuries often delayed baptism, they did so in sheer terror that they might prove unworthy of it. But, at no point was deathbed baptism preferred by the Fathers. In fact, John Chrysostom tells his congregation that he, being a busy man, might not make it to the deathbed in time. He goes on to say that the time is now. It is thus consistent to say that I do not want any delay for my children in receiving the grace of God. Let it be done as soon as possible.

Now, the objection is also raised, but the infant cannot make a profession of faith. How can they be counted as Christians? Or – what if they never profess faith in Jesus? And I would say – it is always possible, not only for the infant, but for us! Who doesn’t know a former Christian who now denies the Lord? To get to the first objection, is an infant not human? Does a human nature require reason? What about those who have had devastating brain damage or developmental disorders? Are these not human? We make too much of reason. As inheritors of the Enlightenment, we mistake it as essential, when in truth, it is a wonderful gift, but not of the essence. And being human, the infant needs grace. We all do. If that child is ever to profess faith in Jesus, or repent, or undertake a brave witness, the child must have grace.

So that is the first thing: grace is necessary. And I want my children to have as much of it as possible. That is my responsibility.

Something must also be said about the nature of salvation, and that is, that it is vicarious. What does this word mean? First, it refers to the very essence of the Cross. If I were to be crucified, it would avail me nothing. I cannot die for my own sin, because I am diseased. In fact, my death is the end-game of the terminal disease we call sin. That is all there is. For me to have more than this, I must receive it in an exchange, a vicarious exchange. Just as the death and resurrection of Jesus is unique to him, in order to benefit from these acts, we must receive them. And in order to do that, there must be an exchange. The Scriptures refer to such exchanges as “covenants.” What is a covenant? The best way to describe it is as an exchange of persons. When I married my wife, she became mine and I became hers. Consequently, everything I own or owe became hers, and hers mine. We became one body, and although she is still her and I am still me, we became one. This is the nature of the covenant with Abraham: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Something like “everything I have is yours, everything you have is mine.” The language of Scripture surrounding baptism is the language of covenant: everything God has becomes ours, we are made members of the very Body of Christ, adopted into the very life of God. Indeed, the very nature of salvation consists in being made by grace what we are not by nature and that is partakers of the divine nature. First in Baptism and then in the Eucharist, you and I joined to the Body of Christ, and not in a virtual way – in a real way. Though hidden, behind a veil as it were, you and I become partakers in what is unseen.

How does this pertain to the baptism of infants? First, in the simple way that baptism corresponds to other covenantal signs, such as circumcision, the rescue of Israel through the parting of waters, even the covenant with Noah after he and his family are saved through water. Our baptismal liturgy makes reference to these because there are those who are saved as members of a family, not as individuals. They escape death by membership in a greater body. Furthermore, the Scriptures reveal that whole households were baptized, such as that of Cornelius – not a contradiction to faith, but very much bound to it.

In the ancient baptismal liturgies, it was often asked of the candidate: “What do you ask of the Church?” And the answer was, simply: faith. It was at this time that the baptismal creed, from which we draw the Apostles’ Creed, was “handed to” the candidate. This is the very language of tradition, a handing over of the faith. In our day, we very much need to recover this idea of faith as a communal inheritance, not an individualized and personal gift. Which is to say that for infants, they are born into Christian homes not so that they may someday make up their minds, but so that they may grow up as Christians. In every age, the Church has grown as much, if not more so from procreation as from evangelism.

Lastly, something must be said about what it is that we receive in baptism. The 1662 Catechism asks a young person about to be confirmed: “What is your name?” Once the kid answers, another question is asked: “Who gave you this name?” And the answer is: “My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism, wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” This business of receiving a name at Baptism was quite literal. This was when you received a “christian name.” But it was more than that, it was to say that on the very day and very moment when a human being receives that principal identifier of themselves, their name, they also receive an identity much more meaningful – that of a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. Grab a bible concordance and look up baptism. If you have an app, search simply for B-A-P-T. You’ll find that this is the teaching of Holy Scripture. It is an identity which, if nurtured and guided, will result in personal profession. But before it is personal, it must be communal, common, shared. That is to say that baptism is itself a complete contradiction to individualism – and nothing shows us this more than taking a baby, a few days old, and baptizing that child in the sight of all, in full faith that God will do for that child what he cannot do for himself.


Fr. Lee M. Nelson, SSC

Father Lee Nelson is a priest of the Society of the Holy Cross and the Diocese of Fort Worth. For the last seven years, he has been engaged in planting Christ Church, Waco, a thriving and catholic parish that strives to excel in building up the Church. With his wife, Ela, they are raising seven children.


'Credobaptism and Anglicanism' have 4 comments

  1. March 26, 2024 @ 9:46 am Ben Jefferies

    Amen amen amen amen.
    Thank you for answering Joss’ misleading article.

    Reply

  2. March 27, 2024 @ 8:12 pm Wes Morgan

    Thank you reverend and I agree with your article. While I think it’s a good thing we have several streams (Anglo-Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical), we need theological guardrails.

    My question to is, would you say confirmation is the final conclusion of baptism? If one was baptized as an infant, I see confirmation as part of that sacrament of baptism as a means of, among other things, profess the faith and make the faith, as learned, as one’s own. I think our tradition of default pardobaptism, but with catechism and confirmation, solves the Sola Credobaptism objection against Anglicanism (and also Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, and Methodism).

    Also, if one believed in original sin, one should baptize one’s child quickly!

    Reply

  3. March 28, 2024 @ 9:12 am Michael Novotny

    Thank you for bringing clarity, Fr Lee. Keep writing!

    Reply

  4. April 2, 2024 @ 12:21 am Mack

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Cornelius_Gorham

    >”Phillpotts repudiated the judgment and threatened to excommunicate the archbishop of Canterbury and anyone who dared to institute Gorham. Fourteen prominent Anglicans, including Henry Edward Manning, requested that the Church of England repudiate the opinion that the Privy Council had expressed concerning baptism. As there was not any response from the Church apart from Phillpotts’ protestations, they quit the Church of England and joined the Catholic Church.”

    So we see that those that make a big deal of this issue are trouble makers.

    Reply


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