An Atheist ‘gets’ Baptism

regisdebray

No More Heredity

Another quote from Regis Debray’s God: An Itinerary, and then some comments.

He’s a staunch atheist so I really shouldn’t be enjoying this book. What a mind. He’s like James Jordan’s evil twin. He has some wonderful observations despite his lack of the unifying paradigm of faith to understand their true meanings. He alternately makes me want to scream and sing.

Debray mistakenly interprets the adjustments made by God in the economy of His people throughout history as the inventions of men, yet without the constraints of errant tradition, he often hits the nail on the head. All he says should be taken with a grain of salt, but he is consistently thought-provoking.

(pp. 178-179)

Was not the Almighty destined to conquer and dominate? Was He not always engaged in politics? Yes, but in overturning the relations of kinship, this God, who was no longer ethnic but elective, was no longer the administrator of a heritage but a pioneer of the unknown. We are all eligible—’without consideration of race, gender or income.’ The Only God of the chosen people (with plurality in its internal life) excluded. This one allowed for inclusion. That reversal was perhaps, in the itinerary of our civilisation, the baptism of the world as will and representation. The moment from which the West would be able to think of the social bond as something to be decided, not preserved. From which the institution of communal life would no longer be a matter of tribe—city, clan or family—but of choice, in the privacy of one’s own conscience (and, one day, the voting booth). The moment when, for each individual, the future ceased to be deduced from the past. When history became something to be invented ex nihilo.

Thereafter, nature would no longer dictate the law. Joseph did not choose the baptismal name of Jesus. One is a Jew by one’s mother, but one can be converted at any age, and without asking for the family’s advice. And the second birth, baptism, is superior to the first. As spirit is to flesh. With this God freed from the enclave, being-together was no longer founded on bonds of blood, since kinship by flesh was replaced by spiritual affiliation. ‘Whosoever loves father or mother more than me is not worhty of me’ (Matthew 10:37). A reversal of ‘natural’ hierarchies: family bonds, those of the law, unworthy of an individual, are to disappear in favour of the community of faith. Chains to be broken. We didn’t realise it, but Gide’s ‘Families-I-hate-you’ and Breton’s ‘Let-it-all-go’ are signed Jesus Christ: ‘Whosoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children … cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). The true fraternity will be the voluntary one, the ekklesia. One does not inherit; one is co-opted. ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’ says Jesus, pointing to his disciples. ‘For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Matthew 12:46-50). And Tertullian could affirm, quite justifiably, that Christians were the most free of men, since they alone could choose their Father—maybe against their human mother. Did not Jesus affect not to recognise his mother and brothers when they came to meet him?

The defenders of the sacred bonds of family would do well to take a second look before calling themselves ‘Christians.’ Neither Jesus nor John the Baptist founded a home of his own. And the Son of Man showed no particular respect for his mother: ‘Woman, what is there between you and me?’ (John 2:3) My ‘beloved mother’, an ideal that would actually be imposed only in the Middle Ages (along with the colour blue), was not his style—he who would form a family only with those who followed the will of God, voluntarily. For God’s design is accomplished through human action. Christianity ‘disconnected’ the family from the great sacred circuits by plugging every believer directly into a source of grace independent of his progenitors and compatriots. Your race and ancestors matter little to me provided that you believe in Christ. If you become a monk, you will forget the family name. If you become a priest it will be forgotten for you There are lineages of rabbis; there are no priestly lineages. That is the good news within the Good News: no more heredity.

Of course, actually despising one’s family or becoming a monk are extremes when understood within the body of Scripture. But the point remains. Baptism, as it is presented in the New Testament, does not have the “claim-staking” implications assigned to it by paedobaptists. The New Covenant is divorced from heredity. For all human intents and purposes (ie. despite the total sovereignty of God), one enters the Covenant by choice. That is the meaning of the kings of the world bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem. They are not coerced. They are drawn to the beauty of a Christ lifted up.

How, then, might we explain the “failure of the American Baptist culture”?:

…American culture or civilization has been, in the main, a Baptist modification of old catholic and Reformed culture. The New Christian Right, in its attempts to stem the tide of degeneracy in American life, is a Baptistic movement, and…finds itself in a condition of crisis, confusion, and indeed impotence.

…American Christianity must return to a full-orbed Biblical and Reformed theology, and set aside Baptistic individualism, if it is to have anything to say to modern problems-indeed, if it is to survive.

Most Christians who have wrestled with the question of infant baptism (or paedobaptism), over against professor’s baptism (the Baptist position), have noticed that each side seemingly has strong Biblical arguments for its case. For several centuries, theologians and preachers have hurled Bible texts and theological arguments back and forth, without convincing either side…

What, then, is the true character of the debate between Baptist and Calvinists, between independents and catholics? That character is presuppositional, rather than exegetical. [1]

The typological concerns I have with paedobaptism I have dealt with elsewhere here, [2] but this charge of credobaptism being the foundation for a destructive individualism is a potent point.

I agree with those who hold to the Federal Vision that the answer to this individualism is a better understanding of the New Covenant as a biblical covenant, with ethics and sanctions, and a desire to take baptism seriously as a boundary-marker around the camp of the faithful. But the aberrant “drafting” of unbelieving infants into the faithful ekklesia does not necessarily flow from this.

To forcibly join these “like poles” that repel (a community of the faithful that accepts the unconverted), they make mystical claims concerning “infant faith” that defy the Reformed definitions of that faith. Is an infant’s automatic trust in his human parents a substitute for faith in the heavenly Father? If so, how is this child any different from a pagan child? If not, what is the nature of this “grace” that is communicated by the water? Is the gospel of Christ ever seen to save “pre-faith” or by proxy in the New Testament?

Circumcision was not mystical. It was the “un-covering” of the head under the judgment of God. It was the firstborn of a new race naked and bloodied and shamed. It is flesh. It is birth.

Baptism is a “covering” of the body. It is the robe bought by this infant blood for a people drawn (not carried) to this demonstrated love. It is not mystical. It is an obedient response. It is Spirit. It is re-birth. Is a baptised infant born again?

Another factor that (to my mind) demonstrates the error of this practice is the teaching of the possibility of apostasy for those who were truly saved. If infant baptism joins infants to Christ in reality, then this emphasis is necesssary. But this means that when one apostatises, one is betraying not only Christ, but one’s heredity. [3] It was a vow “taken by proxy.” There are those who have been voluntarily “baptised” in bull’s blood to reverse their infant baptism. Their “apostasy” is by choice. It is the same choice as the Hellenised Jews who had their “irreversible” heredity reversed by getting their foreskins sewn back on.

Circumcision was inward looking. It was the priesthood looking to the central head of the Covenant who would be slain. The Gentiles were to look on, from outside this “Passover household”, and believe that these promises were also for them. [4]

Baptism is, in every respect, outward looking. It is not the blood presented in the dark behind closed doors, behind the veil. It is the resulting waters flowing out into the world. Infant baptism focusses us on the inside. Yes, we are to raise godly children, but the focus of the New Covenant is witness. The blood is now shed. The firstborn is redeemed. The emphasis is on grafting unbelievers into the Covenant people from outside, people who can testify. Jesus was silent as a lamb (circumcision) but they couldn’t silence Paul (baptism).

I believe Debray gets it right to a point. Baptism is individualistic. And so does the Federal Vision. Baptism is covenantal and its implications should be fully understood. But Christian baptism transcends heredity. It does not negate the power of a godly upbringing or family ties any more than an individual’s choice to follow Jesus negates his Covenant responsibilities as part of a new corporate community.

Baptism is not the past. It frees us from the past. Jesus has made all things new. As willing Covenant members, robed and enthroned, history has become something to be invented ex nihilo by the body of Christ.

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[1] Christianity and Civilisation No. 1 [PDF].
[2] Contrary to the view that infant baptism is based on a consistent understanding of redemptive history, it is clear to me that either a) confounding circumcision with baptism, or b) confounding baptism with some sort of hereditary “succession” or the effectual familial grace that Christian children enjoy, distorts the clear picture we are given throughout the Bible of death and resurrection, head and body, trunk and branches, Totus Christus. That is not something we want to mess with.
[3] As I read N. D. Wilson’s Dandelion Fire to my children, I am seeing this theology woven into the story as the boy Henry discovers the implications of his true “name.” Our theology should flow into our fiction (as it does for Stephanie Meyer) but for me this highlights the error of this practice. Henry seems to be coming to terms with something he doesn’t remember, something hereditary.
[4] See Looking in Faith.

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5 Responses to “An Atheist ‘gets’ Baptism”

  • Drew Says:

    I personally believe the Bible teaches that a believer can apostacize and yet remain saved, but you did hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that infant baptism undermines salvation sola fide. It mysticizes faith.

    I do wonder what specifically you think circumcision symbolized. I’ve kinda thought that it symbolized the same thing as baptism — the death of the flesh (or the death of the male Messiah’s flesh) — but I would be interested in your opinion.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Drew

    I agree with you on apostasy. The Father disciplines His true children and a tree is known by its fruits eventually. Even if someone does remain unrepentant, I believe they would still be under conviction. It’s the ones where the things of the Lord become to them like water off a duck’s back that make you wonder.

    Circumcision is the death of the male covenant head, ie. Adam, and also his offspring. It is death under the Law, and ironically, I believe, a symbolic forfeit of Covenant succession. The blood makes Covenant succession possible. Blood displayed allows the Lord’s judgment to pass over. It is the son under the knife of the Father, who is pleased to “bruise him.” The bloodline finished when Christ ascended and presented Himself as slain Lamb before the Father, the true Facebread. It is the bloody sacrifice on the altar.

    The fire is the Law of God, the full strength of the “sun” scorching the torn body. This is the cross.

    Baptism is the resurrection of the body. It is the warrior bride (a multitude of offspring) resurrected. As fragrant smoke, she ascends to stand on the crystal sea. Like Esther, she approaches the throne willingly and is received. She enters into the rest He has purchased.

    Some links below. The first one has a few links in it which are the best place to start to understand the typology:

    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/07/12/comparing-apples-with-apples/
    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/09/25/the-acid-test/
    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/09/28/protesting-the-draft/
    http://www.bullartistry.com.au/wp/2009/11/23/wrath-of-the-waters/

    Cheers,
    Mike

  • Caleb Land Says:

    This is an outstanding post. Doing some work on baptism myself right now…not sure my SBC friends will be fans. Have a good day.

  • Travis Finley Says:

    You and I are case-in-points that great minds do not think alike;)
    For all your brilliance, that you still do not see the beauty of paedobaptism blows my mind. However, I do agree with your question on the diff b/t a pagan kid and a baptised one. It is the one crucial question that Lusk’s book presupposed but did not defend and I think it has to be answered.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Travis

    Beautiful doesn’t equal biblical. But I can see your usual logic shining through – just as it did in your very logical comments on some of the verses partial preterists misuse. If the text defies tradition, we should not be afraid to fearlessly question tradition.