Sealed For Witness: Not Passivity But Submission


Paedobaptism’s Utter Failure to be Objective

My online acquaintance Alastair Roberts has written a piece on the “passivity” of the baptizand. I agree wholeheartedly with much of what he says. But like all paedobaptists, he sees only what supports his errant paradigm, and fails to comprehend the other half of the story.

(If the opinions expressed below seem uncharitable, please take them in the way we all take Paul’s condemnation of circumcision in Galatians, because I believe these rites are equivalent at a fundamental level.)

Yes indeed, Jesus was “passive” in His death. But why, oh why, is there no mention whatsoever of the crucial fact that Jesus willingly laid down that life. There is no mention of this because paedobaptism vanishes in a puff of logic. Still, Roberts does see half the story, so I will take the liberty filling in the blind spots in his otherwise helpful material. He writes:

Christians, even those who say much about ‘incarnational’ faith, can say surprisingly little about the way that God claims our bodies. Perhaps this is most striking in treatments of baptism, where the intensely bodily character of the rite would especially seem to invite comment. Even if the term ‘baptism’ were to be regarded as synecdochal for a rite that contains various other ritual elements, it is noteworthy that the core ritual from which the rite derives its name involves such direct action upon the body.

Agreed. My Federal Vision friends’ teaching is a good antidote to the gnosticism of modern Christianity. Baptism, communion, anointing of the sick and the washing of feet are all strikingly physical rites which offend modern sensibilities. But I would makes two points here: Firstly, if God claims our bodies, why are paedobaptists most often content with sprinkling a little water on the head, even when it comes to adults? Their arguments for this are ridiculous, and rate around the same level as Roman Catholic arguments for the divinity of Mary or the popery of Peter. Start with a tradition and defend it with all your might. But there is a more serious problem here, and that is the failure to identify what this bodily claim actually means. It is not merely that the baptizand is sealed for resurrection. The baptizand is sealed for resurrection via martyrdom. Baptism is not merely about claim. It is about legal witness, and this is where a baptism that is entirely “objective” hurtles off the biblical rails into the abyss.

The action of the ritual of baptism isn’t the act of the candidate, but of a minister of Jesus Christ, performed upon the candidate’s body. In contrast to the Lord’s Supper, where the communicant ‘takes’ and ‘eats’ in an actively bodily manner, the body of the baptismal candidate is passive in the act of baptism. While the body’s personal and purposeful activity and our bodily absorption of that which is external to us into our interiority are foregrounded in the Supper, it is the objectivity and exteriority of the body and self that are foregrounded in the rite that necessarily precedes it—baptism.

Full marks. But how did the baptizand get to the water? Was he carried as an uncomprehending infant? Was he dragged kicking and screaming, or under threat of ostracism, inquisition or even public execution? That is where an isolated “objectivity” leads, and it looks a lot like the Law of Moses and its errant counterpart in Medieval Christendom. Jesus’ baptism was nothing like His circumcision. Besides the fact that these rites involved totally different Fathers, the whole point of baptism was submission. How can this fundamental fact be so deliberately ignored by such educated people?

Because they are blind to all the actual instances of baptism in the Bible, and think that baptism instead looks like what they have seen in their churches, I have to use non-biblical analogies to explain my point. Knighthood is the best example I can think of. Is the rite of knighthood passive? Yes, it is. But what does that passivity mean? Well obviously, the person kneeling under the sword of the monarch is demonstrating willing submission to that sword, a symbolic form of death. These things are blindingly obvious in all the biblical instances of baptism, but once you relate it to heredity, it morphs into something else entirely, a rite which has no place under the New Covenant.

My body defies the distinction between subject and object: it is both the site of my interiority and subjectivity, yet also an object that exists in continuity with the world and as a part of nature that others can act upon. My body is the site of my consciousness, my sense of self, and my action, but before these come into being, my body receives meaning and identity from other sources. My ‘self’ is never simply my subjectivity: it is also my bodily objectivity and in this objectivity my body is the bearer of ‘given’ meanings that precede me, my subjectivity, my choices, and my actions.

Most certainly, but this only makes sense if we conflate “Christian baby” with “baby Christian.” Is baptism a social demarcation first, or an ethical/spiritual one? Is it actually transforming an infant into a “Christian” or is it just sacralizing the familial identity which the child already possesses? The real questions here are these: Is infant baptism the second birth? Is “Christian identity” just a souped up version of Jewish cultural identity? And is it remotely possible that, like the body, the rite of baptism defies the distinction between subject and object, just like a knighthood? These questions are not profound, yet they seem not to occur to people who only see what they expect to see. (It’s no accident that some autistic children draw photorealistic images of animals and people: they simply draw what they see, without any of the filters employed by normal children. I have a dash of autism, and I generally see things as they are, which is a sure fire means of annoying everybody, but especially paedobaptists.)

I am biologically related to other persons in a manner that entirely preceded and bypassed any decisions on my part. I am the bearer of resemblances and distinctive features that relate me to others and distinguish me from them. My body is the recipient of a particular genetic inheritance. I am called by a name I did not choose. My body is culturally located and assigned a place within social and cultural matrices of meaning and identity. My body is claimed by nature’s laws, which are powerfully operative within me, binding me to the physical and cosmic order beyond me. My male body, for instance, distinguishes me in a fundamental respect from—yet orders me towards relationship with—women, identifying me as a man, shaping and situating my sense of personhood. As part of the natural order, my body contains a life that ‘goes on without me.’ In all of these respects, the objectivity of my body means that I am ‘spoken’—by nature, culture, tradition, etc.—before I ever ‘speak’ as a subject: indeed, I could not speak were I not first spoken.

Certainly, but the faith through which we are “born of the Gospel” comes by hearing, by Word, not by baptism. Baptism is all about the response to that Word. If there is no response of any kind, then there is no Christian. The concern of circumcision was physical life and physical offspring. The concern of baptism is spiritual life, and not potential spiritual life. A paedobaptism is the Word returning void. Roberts, like Leithart, desperately wants to sacralize human birth, but human fathers are not the heavenly Father, which is why circumcision ended and baptism began, and why such childish, elementary rites were left behind. Baptism does not speak of the beginning of the earthly body, but of its end. It pictures the death of the saint, but more specifically the death of the saint, the “twice-born,” at the hands of the once-born. So why on earth are they baptizing the once-born? Because paedobaptism is a carnal rite. These are strong words, but any rite which promises salvation based upon familial, tribal, civic or cultural grounds is — technically speaking — an abomination. This is exactly why Paul got the knives out in his letter to the Galatians, to circumcise the hearts of those who had begun to rely on the circumcision of the flesh. Bap-cision is utterly opposed to the Gospel of Christ.

It is common in certain quarters to speak of baptism as our ‘act of obedience’ or the ‘expression of our faith’ and, in some respects, these claims aren’t entirely mistaken. Yet what they disguise is that, to the extent that baptism could be referred to as our ‘act of obedience’, it is the ‘action’ of passively submitting to the action of another; to the extent that it can be referred to as the ‘expression of our faith’, the faith ‘expressed’ is not primarily our subjective faith, but the Church’s one catholic and apostolic faith—faith in its communal and objective aspect. Baptism addresses itself directly to the objectivity of the body and seals us with a new identity. It speaks to the very foundations of our selves, to that which preceded the first sparks of our subjectivity (‘expression of faith’) and activity (‘act of obedience’). In salvation, God plucks us up by the roots.

Great to hear, at last, that baptism is not entirely objective. But do baptists really overlook the fact that baptism involves passivity? If they do it is because they understand this passivity as the voluntary, conscious submission of the baptizand. The claims of “passivity” here are the clever disguise, with the intention of sneaking infants into the gamut of those who qualify. An infant baptism involves no submission on the part of the baptizand.

Then follows an allusion to the idea that baptistic thinking is individualistic, like modernism, and that this somehow has led to the failure of modern American culture. Modernism is certainly individualistic, and this individualism, which includes the secret ballot, can be traced right back to the beginnings of Christianity. As Regis Debray has written, “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.” (See An Atheist Gets Baptism.)

But unlike modernism, baptism does not end with individualism. Repentance and conversion are indeed interior events, but the rite of baptism is what “adds” the believer to the Church. It is the act which takes the transformed individual and joins them to the Body. Modernism and paedobaptism have something in common: they are both missing the heart of the New Covenant, which is voluntary submission, a willing response to Jesus’ “Follow me.”

So, in salvation, God plucks us up by the roots. But paedobaptism simply sacralizes the roots. It is not salvation. It is not anything at all. And it robs Christians of the rite which actually does join them to the Body. A “paedobaptized” Christian is in fact unbaptized. Paedobaptism is a forgery, a lie, a fraud of the worst kind, as ineffective and insignificant as a circumcision. It gets me riled up because circumcision got Paul riled up. Paedobaptism and circumcision are all about roots. Baptism is about spiritual fruits.

In Romans 6, Paul relates baptism to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, events through which Jesus was brought into a new life ‘by the glory of the Father’ (verse 4). We should notice that in these events it is Christ’s bodily objectivity—not his subjectivity or activity—which is most prominent and significant. Arguably the primary New Testament paradigms of baptism—death/resurrection and rebirth—both present the objectivity of the body at their heart. In baptism we are united together with Christ ‘in the likeness of his death’ (verse 5). In death activity ceases and the body is dispossessed of its subjectivity, surrendering the body to pure objectivity. Baptism corresponds to such surrender, a dispossession through which we are given a ‘new’ body, which provides the basis for a new mode of subjectivity and activity.

Nothing to disagree with here. It just makes me wonder how paedobaptists fail to see that subjectivity and objectivity are not opposed to each other, any more than Word and response are opposed to each other. Look at Jesus’s baptism! Paedobaptism is out of step with Reformed “Trinitarianism.”

The body’s objectivity, materiality, exteriority, and priority, and its embeddedness in the natural order, in tradition, society, and culture are simultaneously preconditions for, yet also resistance to, the freedom of my subjectivity and action. The body constantly alerts us to the givenness of the self, to the fact that I am neither autonomous nor self-defined, but that I receive my identity in large measure from without. My freedom to ‘speak’ my own self necessarily presupposes that self has always already been ‘spoken’. I must always express myself from the unchosen site of identity and meaning represented by my body.

But Christianity is not an “unchosen” identity. That was circumcision / uncircumcision. Again, see Regis Debray, linked above. Baptism is a public declaration of allegiance which makes all “unchosen” identities irrelevant, much like becoming a Communist. Nobody is born a Communist. Nobody is born a Christian. Anybody can become a Communist. Anybody can become a Christian. Allegiance transcends identity, which is why Paul refers to all those things as dung. Baptism is the act of “putting off” heredity. The claim from some paedobaptists that paedobaptism “puts off heredity” is laughable. They will be offended by this, but their myopia here is astounding. God did not replace the old exclusive order with a “new” exclusive order.

Once again, this reveals problems with some popular language about baptism. When we speak of baptism as expressive of the candidate’s ‘decision,’ we either implicitly resist the givenness of our selves, or we fail to address God’s salvation to the most basic dimension of our humanity. Insistence upon the reality of original sin is, in part, insistence that alienation from God is an aspect of our givenness in a fallen world, not merely a result of our subjectively chosen action. The waters of baptism run deeper than action, deeper than choice, and even deeper than consciousness and subjectivity. They declare a new givenness, that my body is now defined by its relation to Jesus Christ and his body.

Hang on, what happened to surrender? Is “Choose you this day…” not a call to make a decision? What about “Follow me?” While I believe that all faith is a gift, it is the response to such an exhortation that demonstrates that gift. Moreover, any “faith” that does not include some comprehension of sin, some degree of repentance, some level of trust in the unseen God, is a fantasy. Is salvation something that can happen to you without you being aware of it? Adam was created without being conscious of it, I presume much like a human birth. But his intended “second birth” was a moral, ethical decision, and only something which later involved his physical body. As usual, the paedobaptist has to argue their way to a presumed destination, the defence of a superstitious rite, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself. The first birth and the second are different kinds of gifts. The first is “being” (Genesis 1) followed by “knowing” (Genesis 2) and then “doing” (Genesis 3).

On “attaching” infants to the Body of Christ, I believe this is fiction. There is no rite required that somehow makes a person more susceptible to the Gospel, or gives them a “Christian identity” and special favour with God. Paedobaptism is the “name it and claim it of Reformed Theology. These notions are entirely carnal.

From the moment we are conceived until the moment we die, our bodies are situated in a vast web of social meaning and relations that define and identify us in various ways. When we die our bodies are disgorged from this symbolic order—or ‘law’—of society, falling back into the realm of dust (cf. Romans 7:2). Resurrection, in reclaiming bodies from the dust, results in persons who are freed from the bondage that the symbolic order of a sinful world entails. Baptism is a reality-filled promise, sealing us for such deliverance.

Baptism seals us for resurrection, but only via willing martyrdom (“martyr” being the Greek word for “witness”). That is the picture we are given in the Revelation. Jesus unseals the New Covenant scroll, and the saints are sealed as little scrolls, little books. They are living epistles, and their seals will be broken as they deliver their message, their testimony, in their deaths. Testimony is only possible for legal representatives, blameless sacrifices, so baptism is only for the regenerate believer. Baptism is indeed a step of obedience, a step onto the altar as a sacrificial lamb. The “passivity” which turns the world upside down is not the passivity of the infant but the refusal to retaliate of the witnesses who bring the testimony of Jesus. This is why paedobaptism is such an offence to the Gospel of Christ. It completely undermines the meaning of “Word,” the biblical definitions of “faith,” “Church,” “new birth,”, “regeneration,” and also the means of the conquest of the world.

Resurrection isn’t rescue from ‘givenness’ as such, but from a form of givenness in which we are alienated from God, from each other, from ourselves, and from the creation. Resurrection is not the basis for pure autonomy, but a release into a new liberating superabundant givenness. In baptism, God declares that, whatever human families or backgrounds we may come from, we are now claimed for his family, sealed for adoption.

Once again, if baptism frees us from the existing “web of social meaning,” why does paedobaptism simply give these a stamp of divinity? Besides the fact that the entire world is now “claimed” by Christ, why do paedobaptists refuse to understand the chasm of difference between the womb and the tomb?

Whatever human loyalties and identities our bodies embed us within, these are at most penultimate to the ownership that God now claims of us. However deeply we may feel our bodies weighed down with the bondage of a creation subjected to futility, that creation—and our bodies with it—will one day be released into our liberty as the resurrected children of God. In baptism, God declares that, whatever histories our bodies once belonged to or possessed, they now belong to the great scriptural History that baptism evokes and encapsulates. This story arrived at its telos in the threefold baptism of Christ: his baptism in the Jordan, the baptism of his death and resurrection, and his baptism of his Church at Pentecost.

Baptism as telos was the circumcision of heart, not flesh. Circumcision of flesh was to lead to circumcision of heart. Baptism begins with repentance. It is the hearing of the Gospel, nothing else, which cuts human hearts. Our hearts either respond with some kind of profession of faith, or with gnashing of teeth, with blessing or with cursing, with life or with death. If there is no response, there is no baptism. Every true baptizand desires baptism because God has given new life. If there is no new life, then that person is still in Adam.

The meaning of baptism is principally prospective, rather than retrospective. Baptism is a pledge and seal that anticipates future resurrection, adoption, and the redemption of our bodies. In baptism God publicly and visibly marks out our bodies for this coming deliverance. As we have been baptized in the likeness of Christ’s death, we believe that we will also share in the likeness of his resurrection. In baptism God declares a truth and a promise about my body. He declares that the objectivity of my self—the bodily ‘me’ that precedes and lies beneath all of my consciousness, self-knowing, acting, and deciding—is in his hands. In my very frailty and mortality, I can entrust myself to him, assured in his promise to raise me on that Last Day.1Alastair Roberts, Sealed for Resurrection: Baptism and the Objectivity of the Body.

Here is where the carnality of this theology is exposed. Jesus Christ rules all nations. In His death, He “circumcised” “all flesh,” the entire world, not some Judaistic concept of Christianity. All bodies are already His, just as all bodies came under judgment in the Great Flood. The division of flesh between Jew and Gentile, between “Abrahamic” bodies and non-Abrahamic bodies, is gone. Paedobaptism supposedly cuts off the old carnal body, but all it does is reassemble its parts on the altar as dead, bloody flesh. Pentecostal fire, the indwelling Spirit of God whose first sign is verbal profession, a legal testimony, incinerates the old body entirely and creates a new body of fragrant smoke, a memorial of good works before the throne of heaven. Jesus took circumcision, and all other carnal demarcations, into the grave. It is gnosticism to speak only of the Spirit, but it is Judaism to speak only of the body. A New Covenant saint is an individual burning with the Spirit whose flesh is not consumed, a burning bush from whom the voice of God speaks with authority. It is time to put away childish things and the sophistry required to maintain them.

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