VI. The Churh Well Lost (Continued)

D. Infant Baptism

[A young husband who normally feels no need at all for religion gets in a family way; the baby must be baptized.] So they notify the priest, the midwife arrives with the baby, a young lady holds the infant's bonnet coquettishly, several young men who also have no religion render the presumptive father the service of having, as godfathers, the Evangelical Christian religion, and assume obligation for the Christian upbringing of the child, while a silken priest with a graceful gesture sprinkles water three times on the dear little baby and dries his hands gracefully with the towel--And this they dare to present to God under the name of Christian baptism. Baptism--it was with this sacred ceremony the Savior of the world was consecrated for His life's work, and after him the disciples, men who had well reached the age of discretion and who then, dead to this life (therefore were immersed three times, signifying that they were baptized into communion with Christ's death), promised to be willing to live as sacrificed men in this world of falsehood and evil.1

That, as he did here, S.K. affirmed "the age of discretion" as the proper time for baptism, and that (oh, favor beyond all meed!) he should specify triple immersion as the proper mode--this is sufficient to endear S.K. to Dunker hearts for all time. But of course, there is more that must be said--particularly in light of such a deflating comment as that of the non-Dunker Walter Lowrie: "The many Baptist sects will welcome [S.K.'s] criticism of infant baptism (although in fact S.K. was not disposed to discard it)."2 But neither the "Baptist sects" nor S.K.'s opinion of infant baptism really can be put off with so brief a parenthesis.

Lowrie is correct in suggesting that, at the point where S.K. made his most extended analysis of infant baptism, in Postscript, he was not disposed to demand that is be discarded (to make Lowrie's wording a little more accurate). But Postscript is a rather early work (1845-1846), written before S.K. had faced up to the true extent of his alienation from the church. And given his reluctance to say anything which might suggest that the church could make everything right simply by introducing certain reforms (such as dropping infant baptism), it is little wonder that S.K., at that time, did not come out with a flat denunciation of infant baptism.

However, if due weight is attributed to the depth of his critique (even in 1846) and then to the statements he made after he had given up the church as a bad cause, the picture is somewhat different. One such later statement is that quoted as our epigraph. Another reads: "Infant baptism: it is easy to see that this is really connected with the knavish cunning with which mankind has tried to cheat God of Christianity by turning it into Epicureanism."3 And again: "Now everything is turned into twaddle by passing off an infant as a Christian."4 These are not the words of a proponent. Clearly, the burden of proof is not upon the Baptist sects but upon Lowrie to show that the later Kierkegaard did in fact (or even to show how he conscientiously could) favor the retention of infant baptism.

The point at issue goes far beyond determining the correct mode for the observance of a common Christian rite. The difference between infant and adult baptism is a radical one, involving opposed concepts of the church. It was a mark of insight that historically the matter was seen as decisive enough that certain sectarian groups--such as the Anabaptists, the Baptists, and the Dunkers--were labeled and identified on the basis of their baptismal practice. For the truth is that infant and adult baptism are two different rites, symbolizing two different actions, presupposing two different definitions of the parties involved. Either baptism is right and proper within the context of its own concept of the church; neither makes sense apart from that context.

From the churchly view, baptism is primarily an act of the church, the baptizer (rather than of the individual, the one being baptized). In this act the institution incorporates the person into itself in order that, during the course of his life, he may enjoy the blessings and graces which the institution (commissary) communicates. Because the church is the religious expression of the Christian community, because the child, clearly, is a member of that community, and because it is through his participation in this sacred institution that grace is mediated and he becomes a Christian--because this is the case, infancy obviously is the due and normal time for baptism. If the church is essentially an institution, infant baptism is manifestly correct.

However, according to the sectarian view, baptism is primarily an act of den Enkelte, the one being baptized (rather than an act of the church per se). In this act den Enkelte attests to the reality of his personal, immediate relationship to God, to the fact of what has already happened and is happening in his life, to the faith that is present in him. In this act, also, he covenants with God regarding the life of loyalty and obedience that he intends and desires to live, the road he intends to travel. And finally, he also covenants with his fellow Christians to be a constituent member of the caravan (not a subject of the institution). Because this is what is involved, it is clear that a person who has reached the age of discretion and responsibility is the only fit applicant for baptism. If the church is essentially a Gemeinde, only adult baptism is correct.

The sect baptizes Christians as a profession, attestation, and seal of their Christianity; and in that baptism the church is created. The church (the Gemeinde) originally came into being as Christians joined with one another, and it must ever continue to come into being as contemporary Christians join with one another anew. Even so, it is completely correct to call the church the body of Christ and to acclaim him as its creator, for it is, of course, his work that creates Christians in the first place, his call that brings them together, and his living lordship in their midst that imparts the quality of Gemeinschaft to their gathering.

The "church," on the other hand, baptizes potential Christians (actually, potential persons, who by that token are potential Christians) in order to set up the conditions through which the church, as a divinely pre-established repository, can administer the graces of correct doctrine and true sacraments which will make them Christians.

Just this striking is the difference between the infant baptism of the classic churchly tradition and the adult baptism of the classic sectarian tradition. It will become quite apparent that S.K.'s uneasiness over infant baptism arose from the fact that he held a sectarian "theology of baptism" which he could not reconcile with the churchly "mode of baptism."

The Brethren, of course, could be quoted at great length regarding baptism; this was the doctrine in which they were most conspicuously at odds both with the "church"men on their right and with the "spirituals" on their left and regarding which they therefore did the most writing and explaining. It will be sufficient here to note a few significant points. In the first place, baptism was essentially an act of obedience and an outward attestation of an inner process--no suggestion of baptismal regeneration was involved [see above].

In the second place, the delay of baptism until the age of discretion6 did not mean--as the sectaries were often accused--that their children were denied salvation. As an Annual Meeting minute put it) "The children of the faithful belong to the flock of Christ just as naturally as the lambs belong to the flock of sheep."7 And Mack Senior explained in more detail, using the analogy of circumcision, although in a way quite different from its traditional use as an argument for infant baptism. He pointed out that:

The circumcision of the Old Testament was demanded only of male infants on the eighth day. If then, a child died before that time, he would not have violated God's commandment. Doubtless many died before the eighth day, and they were certainly not rejected, as little as the female infants, who were not circumcised at all, and despite this were under the promise. Therefore, if a child dies without water baptism, that will not be disadvantageous for it, because this has not been commanded of the child. It has not yet experienced the "eighth day"--that is, the day on which it could have repented and believed in the Lord Jesus, and could have been baptized upon this, its faith.... The children are in a state of grace because of the merit of Jesus Christ, and they will be saved out of grace.8

Ultimately, then, there is no issue between the churchly and the sectarian views as to

  1. whether or not children can be saved;
  2. whether or not the church has a concern, responsibility, and ministry for children; or even>
  3. whether or not it is proper to have a ceremony symbolizing the church's adoption of the child.

The question is whether this sort of ceremony is what the New Testament intended as baptism. Thus the very serious-sounding charge made by Ian Henderson would bother a sectary not at all, nor would it need have bothered S.K. Henderson says: "A view of Christianity like Kierkegaard's which confessedly has little place for children seems hardly to be true to what we know of Jesus of Nazareth."9 Indeed, it would be quite accurate to carry this further and say that Christianity has no place for children. However, this is not at all to say that Jesus Christ has no place for children; any sectary would be eager to affirm that Christ's love and favor extends to them without condition. Nevertheless, it does seem true to what we know of Jesus of Nazareth to suggest that Christianity, i.e. the Christian faith, is accessible only to those who are capable of faith.

Thus the thing that the Brethren, and particularly S.K., resisted most was not so much the bare rite of infant baptism as the implication that the infant's being baptized does, at least in some sense and to some degree, make him a Christian. In this light, S.K.'s original position (as presented in Postscript) is seen to be consistent--if not quite realistic. He was willing to retain the rite if the implication about the infant's becoming a Christian were dropped. His later statements--made after he realized that his quarrel with the church was too deep to be resolved through compromises--would indicate that he then understood

  1. that the implication was an intrinsic and inevitable aspect of the rite itself, and
  2. that if the implication were dropped, the residual rite would bear little if any relationship to what the New Testament calls Christian baptism.

It is interesting to discover in an early, pseudonymous work such as Postscript an extensive and recurring discussion of infant baptism.10 Actually, the entire treatment is out of place, for it is hardly in character that a worldly philosopher Climacus should become so agitated concerning a churchly rite. But Obviously, S.K. had lost sight of his pseudonym, and at times it must he said that he lost sight of his readers as well. Thus we find a rare situation in Kierkegaardian literature. Right or wrong, S.K. almost always spoke with precision, forthrightness, and authority; he was perhaps the writer least inclined to hedge, to qualify, to muddle his ideas. And yet here, in his alternate denunciation and defense of infant baptism, the impression is given that he was as much feeling his own way as he was communicating solid convictions to his readers. Plainly, S.K. was deeply bothered about the doctrinal implications of infant baptism.

This very unrest fits perfectly the pattern through which sectarianism normally develops. Almost invariably it is in connection with infant baptism that the incipient sectary begins to feel acute dissatisfaction with the church--usually some considerable time before he realizes that it is actually a doctrine regarding the basic nature of the church itself that is at stake. It would not be amiss to date these passages as marking the onset of S.K.'s sectarian birth-pangs.

However, the position S.K. there developed at such length (and with a great deal of repetition) actually is very simple:

In times when people became Christians as adults, and were baptized in mature years, one might with some assurance speak as if Christianity had some significance for the baptized.... But when the rite of baptism is relegated to the second week after birth ... it is impossible to deny that membership in the visible Church constitutes a very doubtful proof that this member is really a Christian.11
That time, or existence in time, should be sufficient to decide an eternal happiness is in general so paradoxical that paganism cannot conceive its possibility. But that the whole matter should be decided in the course of five minutes, two weeks after birth, seems almost a little too much of the paradoxical.12

These statements (plus much more of the same) certainly constitute a very harsh indictment of infant baptism as it was customarily interpreted. Nevertheless, in Postscript, S.K. did not call for the abolition of infant baptism--although he did have difficulty in justifying its retention. Yet to that end he presented three arguments:13

  1. Infant baptism is defensible as "an anticipation of the possibility" that the child someday will become a Christian. But S.K. would have had to admit that the anticipation is only of a "possibility"--sheer possibility. According to S.K.'s thought it would be just as "possible" for one who was not baptized as an infant to become a Christian as for one who was. Indeed, the rite of baptism itself (apart from the child's later education) would not even affect the "probability"; it is just as probable that the unbaptized child of sectarian parents will become a Christian as that the baptized child of churchly parents will. S.K. made no attempt to relate his "anticipation of the possibility" to New Testament teachings regarding baptism; it would be a mistake to try.
  2. Infant baptism is defensible "as an attempt to prevent the dreadful laceration that the parents might have their blessedness attached to one thing, and the children not to the same." But this is about the most unKierkegaardian thing S.K. ever wrote. S.K. knew and stressed that the salvation of the Christian is based solely upon his personal appropriation of the Christian faith. The salvation of the infant--which the sectary would insist is nevertheless real--cannot be upon this same basis, for babies are incapable of the personal appropriation which is faith. Therefore, what S.K.'s suggestion amounts to is that, for the sake of people's feelings, the church should continue to live out and to symbolize something that is not quite true--and that is not like Søren Kierkegaard.
  3. Infant baptism is superior to adult baptism precisely because it is such an impossible symbol of becoming a Christian. S.K. did not word his argument quite this way, but it came to just this. When thoroughly analyzed, the position is seen to be strange indeed: that sacrament or symbol is best which is at the farthest remove from and bears the least possible connection to the inner experience it symbolizes. It must be recalled that Postscript comes from the period when S.K. still was promoting the idea of "hidden inwardness," i.e. that true Christianity is an entirely inward process that carries no external indicators whatsoever. Therefore, if one gets his baptism out of the way before it can possibly represent his becoming a Christian, then when he actually does become such he can do so in complete inwardness without the temptation to "sectarian externality" that an outward baptism would present.

Considerable confusion is evident here--which needed to be rejected along with the whole doctrine of hidden inwardness. The observation that adult baptism can be "a sectarian externality" signifying an inward reality which may not actually be present--this certainly is no argument in favor of infant baptism, which S.K. himself insisted customarily signified an inward reality which could not possibly be present. Indeed, the only logical conclusion to this hidden-inwardness line of reasoning is not the retention of infant baptism but the elimination of all baptism, all sacraments, all public worship, all organized religion--any external that implies the presence of Christian faith.

Taken all in all, S.K.'s "defense" of infant baptism sounds very much like that of a thinker who was already far gone into sectarianism but fighting desperately to resist his fate. Yet even if this defense were accepted uncritically and as fully valid, still the major thrust of S.K.'s discussion was expressed in some very sectarian-sounding statements made years after the Postscript struggle:

The notion of being a Christian because one is born of Christian parents is the fundamental delusion from which a multitude of others stem.14
The truth is, one cannot become a Christian as a child; that is just as impossible as for a child to beget children. Becoming a Christian presupposes (according to the New Testament) being fully a man, what one might call in a physical sense maturity of manhood--in order then to become a Christian by breaking with everything to which one naturally clings. Becoming a Christian presupposes (according to the New Testament) a personal consciousness of sin and of oneself as a sinner.15

Copyright (c) 1968