Monday, March 22, 2010

On the Phrase "Remember Your Baptism" When Spoken by Paedobaptists

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that the people who most use the language of remembering one's baptism are those that baptize infants? I am aware of the substantive theological discussions and disagreements here, and no one is less interested in scoring cheap ecumenical points than I am. But this is undeniably curious, is it not? "Remember your baptism." "When your child is older, teach her to remember her baptism." "Whenever someone is baptized, we remember our own baptism." "Whenever the congregants pass the font, they will remember their own baptism."

I realize that, as someone on the outside, the practice, language, and theology of paedobaptism will naturally feel alien to me. But surely we can agree that it is a strange thing indeed for churches to ask their members to do the one thing they are unable to do vis-a-vis the singular foundational act of incorporation into the death and resurrection of the body of Christ? Again: I "get" that we can theologize memory corporately and spiritually and any number of other ways. But on the face of it, as it is heard and received in the pews and in the minds of ordinary believers, this has to be the very definition of a theological mixed message. It seems to me to be a bit like saying, "Remember your first step." Sure, we can fill in apparent or real content to that statement, but on the face of it, it just seems nonsensical and goofy.

My own suggestion, of course, would be to stop baptizing infants. Given that that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, how about finding new language to call forth the reality and power of baptism outside of the contingencies of memory? In other words, take the baby step of not asking adults to remember that which is intrinsically unrememberable.


  1. As a United Methodist pastor who baptizes infants and regularly tells his congregation to "remember their baptism" I am happy to respond to your question.

    It has to do with the biblical definition of "remember." The Israelites were often told to "remember that you were slaves in Egypt." This was generations after the Exodus. Obviously, we are not talking about memory in the modern sense of it, but memory in the sense of calling a past event into the present and being obedient to it. To remember means to enact and to obey. Or another way I describe it to my congregations is like this: "Remember not the moment of your baptism, but remember the meaning of your baptism" (that you have been claimed by God...)

    Hope this helps.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for the comment, and especially for the kind tone in comparison to my relatively sarcastic post. I understand the connections made to the Exodus, and I agree that there can be powerful theological moves made there. There are other factors in play for me, though:

    1) The very nature of baptism in comparison with the Exodus is precisely that future generations of Israelites couldn't be "re-delivered" through the Sea, whereas each new generation, and indeed each new person, is "re-delivered" in baptism. That is to say, Exodus cannot but be remembered non-personally and communally, while the nature of baptism is situated in the ongoing "memorable" life of the church in the present.

    2) Even given the connections to Exodus, I still wonder about how most congregants hear or receive the language of "remember your baptism." I'm just not confident that it hits home for what is often (not always) a cultural practice for families who have "always been" Methodist/Episcopalian/etc.

    3) Why not, even if the language of memory is not as misplaced as I claim, go about finding new language not tied to remembering? Why connect memory and baptism in the first place? It seems to me that, given the dangers articulated above, it might be beneficial to find new forms of speech.

    Thanks, in any case, for the thoughtful response.

  3. Brad, I agree that infant baptism should not be the practice of the church. However, as Jonathan points out, I think it is possible to give the imperative "remember your baptism" some sort of non-goofy sense in a paedobaptist context.

    That being said, the question still remains as to whether the sense that the imperative does make is adequate. The command to Israel to remember their liberation for Egypt is of course not an actual recollection of firsthand experiences, but a form of solidarity with one's history. However in paedobaptism it is precisely one's own first-hand history that one is called on to remember. Its not a call to be engrafted into a new story, but to remember the story of which you are in an immediate sense, already a part of. And thus the question of the coherence of the imperative seems to remain.

    Or to put it another way, if we want to take the imperative to remember our baptisms seriously, why should we seek to deny people the chance to remember it in the fullest sense possible? That is one reason (among many) why I, like you favor believers' baptism rather than baby baptism.

  4. Remember your baptism is just a short way of saying remember you are baptized, remember what it means. If it means nothing it functions as a law statement becasue you have denied the work of the Spirit. If it means something, it is gospel because the Spirit testifies to your salvation. The real fact is it matters less if we remember God than if He remembers us and His acts - one being baptism. If baptism is God's act, why would you deny it to children? But that is rehashing old debates. As non-sensical as baptizing babies sounds to you, not baptizing them sounds crazy to me. Like standing in the way of God's work intentionally.

  5. Brad,

    I have never thought of the call to remember our baptism as non-sensical or goofy until you pointed it out today. And I have to admit, on the surface it sounds strange!

    But as someone who was baptized at four months of age, "remembering" my baptism is a profound experience for me. Each time that I witness an infant's baptism ("witness" in the sense of "testify to"; we as the church promise to nurture one another and to hold our baptisms ever before us), I cry to realize that I am part of a community that promises to raise this child in the same way that another part of the universal church promised the same things for me. The church where I was baptized is 22 years and 3000 miles away, but that congregation (and my parents and godparents as sponsors) is witness to God's presence in my life before I could claim that for myself.

    This memory *is* communal.

    And for me, remembering an "event" that happened before I was able to form a cognitive memory adds to the mystery and wonder at God's grace in my life. I fall on my knees in memory of God's work (not my own) and the promise of the Holy Spirit in continually forming me as a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

    Thanks for opening this conversation. All I can offer is my own experience and hear you as you say that your experience leaves remembering paedo-baptism as "naturally alien." To that, I say that yes, baptism is by its nature as an encounter with God an alien experience---one that we cannot quite grasp the full implications of, no matter when our baptism occurs... so why should the remembrance be any different?


  6. Coming from Brad's tradition, I share his sentiments regarding the alien nature of infant baptism. At the heart of it, this conversation serves as a proxy for the debate over free-will. Perhaps what we could all agree on is that whether it is at 4 months or 40 years, our baptism must be something we submit in faith, which manifests itself through discipleship. In other words, our baptisms are only validated if our lives reflect a faith in God's work in ourselves and the world. Note, I am not saying that we MAKE our baptisms valid, but rather that they our valid because we follow Jesus, albeit imperfectly, in an effort to join with God's redemptive action amongst humanity. If faith is not present in our lives then our baptism, whether done as a baby or an adult, is nothing more than a glorified bath.