Friday, November 20, 2009

Guest Post - On Baptism

Arlo Duba, Presbyterian minister and former professor of liturgy, submitted this response to my post on "The Incomplete Sacrament" (November 8). It was too long for a comment, so I'm posting it here.

There is only one baptism. The BCW (1993) got rid of "Confirmation" just as Calvin did. The BCW now has the "Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant" that is applicable at any age. It is repeatable. And it SHOULD be often repeated in the Christian life. Confirmation, as commonly understood, happens only once. Like a graduation. (That statement about the bats in the blog is misquoted. To get rid of bats, have them “confirmed,” and you will never see them again. They have completed the course) Reaffirmation is repeated as an individual becomes more and more immersed in the living of the baptismal life (pun intended). That reaffirmation is repeatable at age 5, 15, 25, 55, until death, when baptism is complete.

(We had a Baptist friend whose daughter became a believer at age 5, when she repented of a “sin” pointed out by her parents. She said she was sorry and said that she believed that Christ forgave her sin. She was immersed at five in a “believer’s baptism.” Her parents and their pastor agreed that she was a believer by that time. At first I laughed, but then I realized that there is more truth in that than is apparent. That should have been a “reaffirmation” that she had been living in a covenant family from birth. We can only hope that that necessarily immature “understanding” of God’s loving forgiveness developed and matured in coming years. It appears that in many persons such development stops at some point along the line.)

The early church had it correct. Baptism must be surrounded by catecheses. They spoke of "pre-baptismal" and "post-baptismal" catechesis. The blog is correct that the problem is this lacuna in the modern church's teaching. We need a focus on catechesis in the seminary, in the pulpit, in the Christian Education program of the denomination, in the local congregation, and as the blog says, in the home.

Just look at the vows the parents were asked to make at the baptism of their child at the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Not much sentimentality here. Note: 1. the stringency of the training of the parents before their child is baptized: Are you living out YOUR baptism? Are you living out the creed, praying regularly for expected (and with your other children)? etc. That was pre-baptismal. Then: 2. The gravity of the vows those parents made at the actual baptism of the child (just imagine insisting on those promises by parents in our congregations today: Do you promise to bring up your child in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, that is, to pray with your child/children daily, pray with them the great prayers of Christians, pray at your meals and teach them to pray throughout the day as you do? Pray with them the Lord’s Prayer. In all this, you are teaching them how to pray. Read the Bible with them and sing the Psalms with them until they are memorized. Interpret the creed for them. Govern them through your example, and by pointing out the Christian interpretation of life situations and life decisions. Add to that Luther’s admonition to remember and re-live your baptism every day and you are requesting of the parents some pretty heavy public affirmations. Third, Do you promise to be faithful in your attendance, with your children, in the post baptismal catechesis provided by the parish? Post baptismal catechesis was expressed by weekly catechetical teaching in the church, such as the continued Sunday evening services with sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism that was still followed in many Reformed churches until the middle of the Twentieth century. (For an introduction to this entire regimen, see H. S. Old's The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century, 1992, Chapter 8, “The; Baptismal Vows,” especially pp. 203-207).

The Zwingli quote in Old’s book, p. 205, should be reaffirmed again and again throughout life, not only at some indefinable “age of discretion,” a supposedly understandable concept apparently invented by Zwingli. However, the parameters of that phrase have never been agreed upon. As illustrated above with the five year old child, it is a moveable concept. A study by Baptists pointed out that the “age of discretion” and thus of baptism in their churches, varied by congregation. In some it was as early as nine or ten years, in others as late as eighteen or nineteen, and in most individual congregations there was little variation from this local societal norm.

That variance seems to confirm the validity of the present Presbyterian position that the growth of faith should be according to the capability of the child, the teenager, the young adult, etc. It is constantly to be deepened and reaffirmed. That is what the “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant” is about as it is so beautifully set out in the Book of Common Worship (1993). Faith and perception are to grow, throughout life; understanding is to grow throughout life. Living “the Baptized Life’ should always be advancing. We are constantly to give up our “childish” (not fully mature) understandings, even in our most senior years. Put away childish things constantly. Let all things constantly be becoming new. We will not come to “maturity” until we die. Only then will our baptism be complete. Baptism is a Resurrection event, a looking forward to death transformed. In Baptism we die with Christ so that we may also rise with Christ, when we will know even as we are known.

In the spirit of this blog, I would ask: How are you doing personally with the living of the Baptized Life? How are you teaching this developmental concept in your congregation? How do you think your congregation would do with the demands laid upon the congregations in the sixteenth century churches of the Reformation? How can we improve the adoption of the serious demands of Baptism within our congregation? How familiar are we with the “Invitation to Christ” of the Presbyterian Church (USA)? See


  1. Arlo Duba has responded to my post on “The Incomplete Sacrament” with an interesting and informative essay. For most part, I find little there is to quibble over.

    Certainly there is only one baptism. My comment, “effectively we have two baptisms,” intended to say that even though there is one baptism for infants and adults, the effect is different in each. That is to say, the aftermath of the baptism of infants is handled differently from that of the baptism of adults. And one difference is the time lapse between the infant’s bath and his or her own personal affirmation of faith.

    That difference is significant, for it marks the difference in our polity between a “baptized member” and an “active member”. ("A baptized member of a particular church is a person who has received the Sacrament of Baptism. . .but who has not made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. . . ." "An active member of a particular church is a person who has made a profession of faith in Christ, has been baptized, has been received into membership of the church. . . ." See Form of Government G-5.0202.)

    Clearly the infant baptism awaits “completion” by personal profession of faith. What is more, the parental vows on behalf of the baptized child have less weight than the mature affirmation, and do not qualify the child for “active” membership including the right to vote and hold office.

    My point is that these differences, though not in the act of baptism itself, are results of the liturgical acts. Those results are significant and cast their shadows on the liturgical act of baptism in each case.

    Arlo suggests that the Book of Common Worship (1993), “got rid of ‘Confirmation’. . . . [but] now has the ‘Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant’ that is applicable at any age.” Two responses here: First, the change of terminology from “confirmation” to “reaffirmation” is semantics. Saying it does not make it so. Even if it did, I contend that the distinction is lost on many in the local church. Second, the Book of Common Worship (1993) is a model of liturgy presented to the church for its voluntary use. One line from the introduction makes this clear: “Local pastoral concerns will determine the appropriate way to use the texts and services.”(p.6) The book is not designed to dictate but to suggest, and leaves considerable latitude for varied practice. The services in the book point in the right direction, but do not guarantee proper practice. Furthermore, while the liturgy may not dictate, the polity does. Therefore, the notations above are, like it or not, controlling.

    In Arlo’s paragraphs about the sixteenth century reformers and their training of parents, and the parental catechesis parental example provides, he hammers home the important point both of us are making. The church today must regain that oversight and require that kind of personal accountability of parents bringing children for baptism. I go beyond that to say that without such a strong and disciplined approach, we would do better to stop baptizing children and devote our energy to nurturing everyone to believer baptism.

    Admittedly, I was provocative in the way I stated the issue. The provocation was successful in drawing forth Arlo Duba’s excellent response which has enriched the discussion and moved me to clarify and expand my perception of the issue.

  2. I am aware that T.F. Torrance met in Edinburgh with Karl Barth and his son Marcus to discuss the issue of 'baptism' in the Reformed Traditionm, when the great Scottish Theologian attempted to persuade the great Swiss Theologian about the efficacy of 'infant baptism'. Tom reported that Karl said his argument was not too bad. The kind of both/and + thinking that belongs to the dynamical kinetics of Torrance's argument about Einstein's physics/geometry integration as the whole in the parts and the parts in the whole, as compelled upon us with the Incarnation helped him immensely with Barth, who did not like baptism until the age of reason was reached.

    Jack McKenna '57


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