Sunday, June 10, 2012

"What, Again?

It was at a presbytery retreat as several of us were sitting around conversing, when the subject came up.

It seems that an individual we all knew was troubled by the liturgical admonition that popped up here and there for her to “remember your baptism.” The reason why she considered this irritating was that, because she was a babe in arms at the time, of course she couldn’t remember her baptism. Furthermore, she never entered the doors of a church anywhere until she was a teenaged adult—those who took her for baptism never took her anywhere near a religious structure or anything resembling Christian education.

So when she finally ventured into a house of worship, it was under her own steam. The time came that she sought out the religious education she needed, went on to be a member, an elder, and, over the years, served on a whole bunch of committees and task groups in presbytery, synod and General Assembly.

But, she told others, she never felt she had been baptized, and someday needed to submit to the sacrament. “What, again?” is usually the response she gets. “You’ve already been baptized—and God acted in that baptism to claim your life, whether you were aware of it or not. We don’t do re-baptisms, and that’s final!” Etc.

It was a lively discussion as we pondered the plight of our friend.

The most obvious thing to us was that she was not the only person, in the church or outside, who was in that position. Many infants are baptized and never heard of again—unless they march themselves up to the building and turn the door knob to enter.

I know I have been lied to by numerous parents and guardians who promised in answering one or more questions to bring up their children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord”—and yet, they and their children were no-shows.

These folks were interested in “getting Johnny done” for some reasons other than theological. Maybe it was superstition or magic by which they wanted to clinch the deal for the child’s salvation. Or perhaps it was social pressure: this baptism thing was what everyone was doing, so we should too.

For whatever reason, it was not backed up by parental commitment to see that the child grew up in faith and was led to full discipleship. The result for our friend was that she had no “Christian childhood,” and started the journey, not at the beginning, but somewhere down the path. To her, it felt like she should be baptized as a believer rather than trading on a not-remembered, not-completed infant version.

Now, one might wryly respond to all this by saying that the baptism of our friend and others like her just didn’t “take.” Well, if you’re of the superstitious bent, maybe that works—but God doesn’t do things part way, so it was, from God’s point of view, a full baptism.

Yet, from the human perspective, the baptism was lacking since promises and commitments made by people were not kept. Of course, pastors and sessions aren’t very good at banging on doors and jingling phones to find out why, after “Johnny was done”, he hasn’t been around.

Infant baptism, from the standpoint of the one baptized, is a passive experience. The full meaning of it depends entirely on other people, parents, pastors, family, and who knows who else. Believer baptism, however, is very different—the one who is to be baptized makes the promises and is responsible to carry them out—this is a totally personal commitment, based on the individual’s past experience, not just future hopes.

So, back to our friend’s dilemma: Is there room in our Reformed understanding of the sacrament to accommodate a pastoral need like hers? Or, are we locked into the practice and preferences of the Reformers half a millennium ago? Could she present herself for baptism in order to make her own promises and commitments anew?

Today’s circumstances are not the same as five hundred years ago, obviously. Things change, among them liturgical and ecclesiastical practices. In Calvin’s day, for example, the Table was securely fenced, against children as well as heretics and other theological undesirables. Today children are fed at the Lord’s Table, nurtured and nourished with the rest of the family.

What if we thought about the unknown number of people, men and women, like our friend, who were claimed by God in baptism, but never really knew it? What might we do?

One thing is that we would not baptize infants and let them slip away so easily—sessions would more vigorously pursue families who have made baptismal commitments for their children to encourage and assist them in living up to their vows.

The other possibility is that we might welcome those who had no “Christian childhood,” no “nurture and admonition of the Lord,” and invite them to respond to God’s claim on their lives by affirming their faith and receiving the holy bath. In other words, we might “re-baptize” them. Although this would clearly be a departure from centuries of practice, it might be worth considering.

What do you think?


  1. You raise an interesting question, in response to which I have more questions than answers. Many if not most of us do not remember our baptism, and the liturgy of renewal of the baptismal covenant serves to remind us that God remembers. God is faithful. In a sense we are catapulted back in time to God's grace being claimed for us.

    In the Lord's Supper, Calvin believed that the sacrament's effectiveness in the lives of those who receive does not depend upon the worthiness of the minister officiating. Could the same be said regarding baptism? Namely that God's grace being poured out regardless of the parents wherewithal (or lack thereof) in keeping the promises they made?

    On the other hand, and from a pastoral perspective, it seems a person whose baptism was not lived out by being raised in faith might feel that her faith journey was just now beginning- that her faith was being affirmed rather than reaffirmed. Is there a middle ground where the reaffirmation is tangible using water? Do we really think God would be upset if the person were to be re-baptized?

  2. The basic problem lies in the way that we interpret the phrase, “Remember your Baptism.” It really means to remember what our baptism is all about. Luther was the one who said that every morning when you wash your face you should remember your baptism, that is, for me to make a recommitment to living the baptized life during this day. In other words, it has nothing to do with a recollection of the circumstances of the event when one was baptized. It has to do with living the baptized life.
    The Sacraments Study Group (appointed by the 2002 GA, reported to the 2006 GA), in their report, stressed “baptismal identity.” That report was sent to all congregations in 2006 as Invitation to Christ, Font and Table: A guide to Sacramental Practices, as a pastoral letter. The PCUSA web site has continued to provide resources for the implementation of these practices, emphasizing that we re-commit, that is remember to remember what it is like to live the baptized life, every Sunday at the Declaration of Pardon, with the lifting of the baptismal water from the font. “Live out our Baptism!!” is what that pardon conveys.
    For the person mentioned in your blog, the Sunday of the “Baptism of the Lord” (The Sunday between Jan. 7 and Jan 13, inclusive – BCW p 1037) should be introduced, using the “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant. The perfect service would be the Combined Order in the BCW, pp. 431-453, perhaps incorporating material from pp. 478-484. It is interesting that a complaint about these services is that they seem to some, as too much like “a rebaptism” with all that emphasis on water. This is a time for some real baptismal catechesis. And it is time for developing the expectation of celebrating Baptism and its Reaffirmation every year on this high Baptismal Sunday, and perhaps again as preparation for the Paschal Vigil. A sermon or two that utilize all the material provided in the Invitation to Christ would be in order. You probably have noted that the not-so-hypothetical person with which you begin your blog fits perfectly with the three “case studies” on p. 15 of Invitation to Christ.
    Yes, things have changed in five hundred years. Now the church is ready to listen to Luther and Calvin on the importance of sacraments, but at the level of living sacramentally. No, there should not be any consideration of “rebaptism.” Rather there should be a recapturing of the reformers’ emphasis on interpreting the sacraments not as mere events, but as the Bible indicates again and again, remembering baptisms’ meaning, that “we might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6, especially 6:3-4).
    And of course, at every Lord’s Day Service, at the Assurance of Pardon and again at the charge before the Benediction, we all re-commit ourselves to assist each other in the nurturing, admonishing, and encouraging one another in the walking in newness of life.
    Your person is just like a person who is adopted just before puberty, and is rebellious for several years, until, as a sophomore in high school, accepts the fact that she is a member of a loving family, and for all intents and purposes, she finally accepts her adoption and grows up as a loving, agreeable, productive, and leading family member and citizen.

    Arlo Duba


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