There is an interesting article up over at Gene Veith’s blog discussing sort of a strange trend among Southern Baptists. It seems that more and more Southern Baptist churches are baptizing children ages five years and younger. Anyone who knows anything about Baptist theology will almost instinctively get that “uh…what?” look on his face. I’m not a Southern Baptist so I don’t really have a dog in that fight. Rather I want to address something that Dr. Veith wrote in his article.
Quoting Dr. Veith “Baptists–who require faith as a precondition of baptism, rather than seeing baptism as a means of grace and the faith that receives it– have insisted that infants and young children cannot have faith. I have never understood that. Of course babies and toddlers can have faith. They have faith–which has to do with trust, a sense of dependency, and relationship and is never just intellectual knowledge–in their parents. Why not in their Heavenly Father?”
This is a common rejoinder leveled at Baptists by those who hold to a paedobaptist, sacramentally oriented theology; but there is a major problem with this argument. The reason the argument fails is that it relies on a misrepresentation of the position it seeks to critique and correct. Most of the readers of this blog will recognize this category of error as the straw man argument.
Specifically at issue is the characterization of Baptists as believing that faith is “just intellectual knowledge”. This canard needs to stop. While I certainly do not think that Dr. Veith is motivated by malice, it is clear that he, and the many others who have argued this way, has not thought this particular argument through. So unless I am wrong in the critique I am going to offer in this article, this argument needs to be shown the left foot of fellowship. To do any less than discard this argument would then become intentionally misleading and none of us want to be that.
I am unaware of any Baptist confession of faith, or Baptist theologian who defines faith as being mere intellectual apprehension of facts. The 1689 London Baptist Confession gives us a lovely explanation of faith:
“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word; by which also, and by the administration of baptism and the Lord’s supper, prayer, and other means appointed of God, it is increased and strengthened.
By this faith a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word for the authority of God himself, and also apprehendeth an excellency therein above all other writings and all things in the world, as it bears forth the glory of God in his attributes, the excellency of Christ in his nature and offices, and the power and fullness of the Holy Spirit in his workings and operations: and so is enabled to cast his soul upon the truth thus believed; and also acteth differently upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life and that which is to come; but the principal acts of saving faith have immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, and resting upon him alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
This faith, although it be different in degrees, and may be weak or strong, yet it is in the least degree of it different in the kind or nature of it, as is all other saving grace, from the faith and common grace of temporary believers; and therefore, though it may be many times assailed and weakened, yet it gets the victory, growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance through Christ, who is both the author and finisher of our faith.”
I want the reader to notice something about this. While this confessional fleshing out of the meaning of faith certainly assumes a knowledge of the facts of the gospel as being a necessary condition for faith, it cannot be reasonably maintained that it defines faith as nothing more than knowledge of the gospel. What’s the point?
Dr. Veith’s indictment of the particular Baptist objection “infants cannot have faith” rests on this faulty characterization of Baptist theology. Faith is trust, trust in someone we know, someone we have heard of. And what does scripture say?
“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Romans 10:13-17
You can say that an infant “trusts” his parents but it’s a non-starter because an infant knows about his parents. Biblical faith can legitimately be defined as simple trust in Christ. But who ever trusted in someone of whom they were unaware? That is the point of that particular objection to infant baptism. Baptists don’t draw a direct synonymy between mere knowledge and faith. They simply see, as Lutherans will happily acknowledge, that faith must have an object. It should be obvious that in order for someone or something to be an object of faith it must be known about.
So we can clearly see two things. First, the “we know infants can have faith in God because they trust their parents” argument is seen to be a faulty comparison. Faith isn’t simple knowledge (The demons believe and tremble), but knowledge is required. Infants know about their parents because they can see them, even if that knowledge is simple in nature. There is no reason to assume that infants know about Christ. Second, we see that this counter-argument aimed at the Baptist objection is merit-less because it relies on a false characterization of Baptist theology.
Would that people as well known and influential as Dr. Veith were a little more careful.