Tuesday, June 22, 2010

James McClendon on "the moral failure of infant baptism"

"Now where are we in the story? What of the moral status of today's baptism? In the Protestant and Catholic churches of the Constantinian compromise, baptism has become (usually) infant baptism, so that what was the decisive first step of discipleship has been narrowed to a religious mining-claim staked out on the territory of babes in arms. The great Anglican liturgist, Gregory Dix (1901-52), says that liturgically, infant baptism is 'always...an abnormality,' but theologically the 'abnormality' has found a host of defenders and defenses. Christian ethics, however, must acknowledge the moral failure of infant baptism: It is a rite neither responsive on the candidate's part (unless, as one hopes, later on) or responsible on the administrator's. Meanwhile, the churches of the baptist vision have widely responded to the same societal pressures that generated the Constantinian practice, making of the great death-and-resurrection remembering sign a pale cultural symbol, administered to every young child who displays religious feeling (often sincere), and who seeks (as would be normal in childhood's latency period) to emulate admired older persons and to rival other children of the church. So in many baptist churches baptism is still responsive, yet it often fails to be responsible. The recovery of New Testament baptism is surely the business of the whole church, but exactly because of the baptist vision it is in a special sense the unaccomplished business of the sharers of that vision; meanwhile, moral theology must have the courage to tell the truth about the radical sign both to Constantinians and to baptists. ...

"Perhaps a fresh beginning might be made if every church were to teach its people that New Testament baptism was neither a benign welcome to human existence, nor a rite of passage to adolescence, nor a viaticum offering safe conduct to an afterlife, but rather was the commissioning of those who by resurrection light took up the way of Jesus of Nazareth -- the way of the cross -- when they did in fact take it up! If the teaching church dared make that difference known, the learning church, that is, we ourselves, might ask with new meaning: 'What is to prevent my being baptized?' (Acts 8:36)."

--James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology: Volume 1 (2d ed.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 268-69


  1. Good and challenging quote. Of course, he was a Baptist himself, so i guess one could say that such a stance was only expected... still, a challenging and interesting quote.

  2. The unfortunate drowning victim of infant baptism was zeal and urgency. This was the fire which drove believers to communicate with others the same gospel message which led first century hearers to the obedience of that saving message. Infant baptism is just another moral failure by man in his efforts to improve on what the Holy Spirit has declared in scripture. A related component of this moral failure is the infant becomes a youth than an adult believing and claiming he is a Christian, but has yet to "get saved" to say nothing of the active versus the passive wording by the apostles of "being saved." The abysmal lack of Bible authenticity is unfathomable: How or where does a believer in such a fellowship nourished on the preaching and teaching of the Word come to reconcile or justify in scripture the notion of being a Christian, but not being saved? No wonder he lacks the fire of zeal and urgency to proclaim what he has never understood.