Friday, August 9, 2013

Baptismal Regeneration & Infant Baptism vs. Baptism as Testimony & Age of Accountability

In the last few days, a great deal of ink has been spilt and even more podcast time here and here has been dedicated to the Lutheran (i.e. the Biblical) position on baptism... particularly in Lutheran circles.

They have done a fantastic job defending infant baptism and baptismal regeneration from our critics using Biblical and patristic sources.  I have nothing to add for either of those approaches... and I have, over the years, tried both approaches with my Anabaptist friends and family with little success.  I have used the scriptural supports and the list of patristic quotes and even posted some of them on this blog before.

Most of the time, that approach is met with apathy and a glazed look.  It has been my experience that most Anabaptists don't put too much doctrinal thought into why they reject Baptismal Regeneration and are against Infant Baptism.  They think even less about the theological grounds for why they support Baptism as Testimony and the Age of Accountability.

Even if you prove your point from the Scriptures and the early church, they either tend to just "agree to disagree" or they acknowledge your point as some non-essential piece of trivia that has no impact on anything important.  Why?  I think it is because most of the modern Anabaptists I know fail take the ramifications of this debate seriously.  In fact, this theological debate coming from the Anabaptists is the first robust discussion that I have ever heard on the actual Scriptural merits of the differing practices.  So, while the Scripture and the early church fathers is the BEST approach, it is almost never my FIRST approach.

Most American Christians, mirroring the anti-intellectual culture they are in, put much more stock in experiential evidence than grammatical facts and historical evidence.  I have come to think that one must meet them where they live first with a few experiential arguments to move their hands off of their ears and then follow up with the dogmatic supports on the back end.

So here is my contribution to this web discussion:  the experience-based evidence and a harsh first-hand appraisal of what is at stake if the Anabaptists are right (which they aren't):

I grew up as an Arminian Anabaptist with most of that time spent in churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.  I was a child growing up under the "Age of Accountability".  It has given me a few first hand observations that I believe are helpful.

First, I had a difficult time "converting" to Christianity.  When I reached the vague "Age of Accountability" range, I could not really look back and recall a time when I did not consider myself a Christian.  In practice it is more of a rite of passage than a spiritual awakening because (contrary to the theory behind Age of Accountability) children who grow up in church GROW UP IN THE CHURCH.  You don't point to a four year old and tell their parents, "I can't wait until he becomes a Christian."  That's crazy... especially when he is singing "Jesus Loves Me This I Know... For the Bible Tells Me So."  Especially given that, in many churches, this is about as deep as the doctrinal teaching goes for Christians at any age.

By the time I reached my teens, it was very difficult for me to formulate my "conversion story" for witnessing to the lost.  Some how, "I have always been a Christian" was just not something that my Sunday School teachers were prepared to deal with.

Second, the way that many Anabaptists handle the Age of Accountability is not consistent with the dire situation that the teaching implies.  Looking back as an adult, why weren't the adult members of my church carefully watching me to discern the subjective time at which Almighty God was going to apply the guilt of my sins to my soul?  If the ability of human reason and guilt is what brings about the wrath of God for sin, why weren't my powers of reason rigorously tested?  Why was I just thrown into an age appropriate information class when I started to self-report a desire to take communion?

I would think that the parents of children approaching the Age of Accountability would lie awake at night praying for the ability to foresee the exact moment when their child's wretched soul was destined for hell... when my mental faculties and personal conscience matured enough to make me "responsible" for the evil that I was already doing.  I was certainly in fear of hell many years before anyone else seemed to be concerned about my eternal destination.

Third, there is the next gross inconsistency that I realized at a very young age.  If God can abide sin in children and not hold them accountable, why does he change the rules as you get older?  If He can overlook actual sin because kids "don't know what they are doing" or "didn't really mean it" or "didn't understand the eternal consequences"... well, then why doesn't He do that for lost adults who are in practically the same situation?

As an adult, I am not really that much more aware of the manifold ways in which I sin than I was before.  I am not really that much more empowered to halt my sinful condition.  I certainly don't "feel" more guilty than I did as a young boy... because I grew up wracked with personal guilt... guilt that my "testimonial" Baptism did not comfort.  When is this Age of Accountability really?  Is it 4?  Is it 5?  Is it 10?  Is it 13?  45?  No one knows.  It is different for each person... well that is a pretty subjective answer to base the fate of eternal souls on.  We are talking about hell here.

Fourth, I remember my pastor as a child saying the following phrase before each Baptism, "Baptism doesn't save a person.  It is an outward expression of an inward experience."  I must have heard that 100 times growing up.  Well, what is that Inward Experience?!?  How do I know if I had that for real?  Now I know that it was a summary of the misinterpretation of the 1 Peter 3:21-22 passage.

Taking their belief as fact for a second, how do I know that my inward appeal was good?  What if I was under the Age of Accountability when I made that appeal and didn't fully understand what I was doing?  Did that invalidate my inward experience?  Can a child still in the Age of Accountability make that appeal and convert?  What if he does it too early and thinks he is converted when he wasn't biologically ready to convert?  Does that still count?  What would have happened if I ran over the Age of Accountability by six months and died?  What would happen to me then?

You can see that this whole topic really tore me up as a child.  Second only to missing "The Rapture" it was the highest point of dread that I experienced.  The emotions are as raw today as they were when I was a child.  So, Biblical truth aside for a second, it is a deeply emotionally wounding practice for kids who care about their eternal destination... and parents who bother to take the doctrine seriously as if it has eternal ramifications.  How was all this questioning handled?  Well, I was told that I should love God and have faith in Him and not try to "just use Jesus as a fire escape".  Turn me back onto the Law.  That's nice... No wonder I left.  Okay.  My ranting is over.

The big problem with Age of Accountability from a practical stand point is that it simultaneously over-estimates and under-estimates children.  It over-estimates their ability to communicate their spiritual condition and needs because adults DO NOT know what kids are really thinking.  It under-estimates their capacity for guilt and reason because adults DO NOT know what kids are really thinking.

I would also point people to this other experience that I had that proves that children are often a lot more theologically savvy than adults give them credit.  It really illustrates the foolishness of the Age of Accountability.  Look at this old post about a young child's proclamation.

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