I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.
Many of us live in doubt whether our Baptism is valid as we do not proclaim our faith. This gives us the impression that maybe our church practice is wrong. How can an infant affirm his or her faith? He or she is not aware of what he is getting into, so the baptism is a meaningless ritual is the common argument. This is a common rationale to persuade many believers in adult baptism as the first baptism is neither biblical nor true. Historically this argument comes to the fore, thanks to the 16th century radical group called ‘Anabaptists’ which means ones who had rebaptised. Their argument was that one has to affirm his faith before baptism. This strand of argument is adopted by many Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal Churches. I am not questioning their position. But I debate that their argument is not tenable. We need to analyse the given text and understand its symbols and significance. This section is called “ Warnings from Israel’s History”. According to Rev. Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla, the Principal of Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, Kottayam, Baptism is not a graduation of faith as is presupposed in the arguments of Believers’ (Adult) Baptism. He contends that Baptism is the initiation into the ‘Salvation History’ and Eucharist is the edification in the journey of Salvation History. He elucidates this with the support of the above text. Here we see Paul’s Hermeneutics at work which is allegorical. He symbolizes the cloud that guided the Israelites in the wilderness and the Reed sea that they walked through as a process of Baptism. They were being initiated and guided into the journey towards ‘The Promised Land’. Spiritual food here is alluded to be the manna that Yahweh fed his people with. The drinking from the rock that is Christologically alluded reminds of the incident of Moses striking the rock with the rod from which people in their Journey drank water from. The manna and the water symbolize the Eucharist which edifies us in our journey as being part of ‘The Salvation History’. Verse 5 strikes the ultimate warning that even though the Israelites were initiated into the journey towards ‘The Promised Land’, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.” Though many started their journey very few made it to the promises land. Verse 6 explicitly states that this occurred as a warning for us that we may not fall into the trap of being assured of completing our journey. Baptism initiates us into the faith community where faith is not an individual or personal matter but is formed in the context of a community. During our first communion we own our Baptism and faith and are edified with the salvific memory of the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Abraham Kuruvilla illustrates that being initiated in the education system at the nursery level is not a graduation but an initiation. One is not guaranteed to finish his education process. One needs to review and work at it. So let us be clear that Baptism and Eucharist are important landmarks in our faith journey, but it has to be regarded as Initiation and edification respectively.
Note- the above are reflections of our Principal, Rev. Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla, and it is brought to flesh with my limited comprehension about the subject.
On the basis of the above thesis let us look into the biblical and theological basis of infant baptism.
Biblical And Theological Grounds For Infant Baptism-
The major confusion of the Mar Thoma Christians is directly related to the validity of Infant Baptism. The lack of clarity on this subject and the illusion that it is not biblically based has caused major concerns for the Mar Thomites who are succumbed to believe that this particular practice is not biblical. This is a challenge and an opportunity to clear certain misconceptions regarding this topic. We will first consider this historically. In the time of the Apostles we have direct evidence that 3 distinct families or households received Baptism; that is the household of Stephanas, Lydia and the Phillipian Jailor. The term household signifies infants and children included as well. Even in Acts 2: 38-39, it signifies clearly Child Baptism. Origen mentions that the “ Church has an order from the Apostles to give baptism to the infants.” At the Council of Cathage, A.D. 251, the question was asked that whether it was not necessary to postpone baptism of infants until the fourth day , when it was decided that “no person should be hindered from receiving baptism, especially infants and those newly born.” The fourth Century Archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, wrote on the subject of “ Infant Baptism in the time of the Apostles.” This also shows that infant Baptism was uniformly practiced by the Early Church. W.F. Flemington in The New Testament Doctrine of Baptism argues that baptism of infants is a thoroughly legitimate development of New Testament teaching, a practice in full accord with the mind of Christ. J. Jeremias , the New Testament scholar says that Colossians 2: 11,12 shows that Paul considered Baptism equivalent to Circumcision that opened the way for Christian parents to baptize their children. The Old Testament says that circumcision was practiced on the 8th Day, which admitted the child into the Jewish Church. Nowhere in the Bible are children treated outside the scope of blessing. As we have seen that Baptism is the seal of faith. Romans 4:2 says, ‘ And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith, which he had yet being uncircumcised.’ So there is a connection of circumcision to be ‘ seal of faith’ and baptism that is called a seal of faith which are tied to respective covenants. As in Gen 17: 11,12 that says “Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me. Throughout the ages, every male among you, when he is eight days old, shall be circumcised…”. So this is a ‘seal of faith’ and ‘token of covenant’. Circumcision then like baptism now fulfilled a double purpose. It is the seal of the believer’s faith and also the sign of God’s covenant.
So who is included in this covenant? The answer is found in Acts 2: 39 “ the promise is unto you and your children.” Let me quote from Dr. Wall’s “ History of Infant Baptism”( vol 1., p. 3) as follows ‘It is evident that the custom before Jesus’ time was to baptize as well as circumcise any proselyte that came over to them from nations. This was based on their belief that rest all were impure and not worthy to enter into a Covenant without a washing or baptism from their uncleanness and this was called baptizing unto Moses. If any such proselyte , who came over to the Jewish religion, and was baptized into it, had any infant children then born to him, they also were baptized and circumcised. The child’s inability to declare his faith was never looked on as a bar against his reception into the covenant.”
Bernard Manning in his book, “Why Not Abandon the Church”, summarizes beautifully about baptism. He says “In Baptism the main thing is not what men do, but what God has done. It is a sign that Christ claims all men as his own and He has redeemed them to a new way of life. That is why we baptize children and infants. The water of baptism declares that they are entitled to God’s mercies to men in the passion of Christ. Your own baptism ought then to mean much to you. It ought to mean all the more because it happened before you knew anything about it. Christ redeemed you on the Calvary without any thought or action on your part. He did not wait for any sign or confirmation on your part. Similarly we baptize a child and declare to the world in a solemn manner what God does for us without our merit and even without our knowledge. In Baptism, more plainly perhaps than anywhere else, God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”
We have to realize that the objection to infant Baptism needs to be rooted to the cult group called the Anabaptists who gave importance to the profession of faith as an imperative for Baptism. This logic is reductionist and places the onus of faith on an individual. No faith is individual but it is a formation of the community that fosters faith. Infant baptism sets apart a child and he becomes part of the Body of Christ to be formed by the faith practices of the community and the God Parent is the representative of the community to ensure that the child is formed in faith. The family is the nucleus of this faith formation. So the corporate formation of faith has been given emphasis in infant Baptism.
As we have surveyed the theological basis of baptism and the rationale for infant baptism, we the ministers in formation need to engage deeply with the liturgical practices of baptism. I personally feel we need to pay a lot of attention in teaching this to the youths, sevika sanghams and prayer meetings in our parish assignments. I have observed the lack of clarity on this topic has made many of our church members vulnerable. We personally need to learn more about it to be convinced about our baptism and to relive and reaffirm the faith that was symbolized at our day of baptism. May God guide us.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church