Shane Morris makes an audacious claim. He claims to know the hidden reason baptistic evangelicals refuse to baptize babies. He purports to confidently know the complicated inner workings and motivations of millions of people. Morris essentially instructs us to ignore what baptistic evangelicals have practiced in churches and argued in writing about baptism down through the ages. He wants us to ignore this rich history and simply allow him to explain the real reason.
In his recent article, “The Real Reason Evangelicals Don’t Baptist Babies,” Morris, who is not a baptistic evangelical, wants to let those of us who are baptistic evangelicals know what is really going on in our hearts when we deny infant baptism.
Here’s what Morris says he has found:
I don’t believe baptistic evangelicals really view their children as unregenerate pagans before their “credible profession of faith.” If they did, they wouldn’t teach them to say the Lord’s Prayer or to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” I think what’s really going on is a kind of alternative sacramentalism, where a dramatic conversion experience, rather than baptism, is the rite of Christian initiation.
As a Baptist father of five children who are all between the ages of seven and nine, allow me to give my personal testimony about what I really believe: my children are “by nature, children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3). Apart from the wonderful grace of God in Christ, my children would remain “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Their only hope is to put their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. If and when they do (and it may have already happened), they will be baptized as a public sign and witness of God’s sovereign grace to them in Christ.
Morris makes three crucial mistakes in his assessment of baptistic evangelicals:
1. He assumes that all baptistic evangelicals are the same.
Beneath Morris’ sweeping assumptions lies a very helpful critique of some revivalistic evangelicals. Morris is on point in seeing that American evangelicalism has been harmfully influenced by “revivals, rugged individualism, and a sacramental theology untethered from the church’s means of grace.” This Baptist shouts “Amen!” to this critique. However, I’m sure Morris would agree that harmful influences do not necessarily define a whole movement. Seeing that Morris is a Presbyterian, I assume he would not want to be associated with every harmful influence in the history of his tradition. Surely, he doesn’t want to lose the proverbial baby while throwing out the baptism water.
My point is simply this: every tradition has been marred by unhealthy influences. Some of my Baptist brothers and sisters are still in the grip of harmful forms of revivalistic individualism. However, many have recognized the dangers and returned to a more biblically-sound ecclesiology. Not every Baptist is the same, and it’s gratuitous to paint with such a broad brush.
2. He assumes that the theology of credo-baptism is a recent historical phenomenon.
American evangelical theology was indeed forged on the frontier, but credobaptism goes back a lot further. While I believe the baptism of believers only goes all the way back to the apostles, let’s at least acknowledge the re-awakening of Baptist theology in the early 1600s in England. Certainly, Morris would have to acknowledge that the reasons for this re-emergence of Baptist theology vary from the reasons he cites on the frontier.
Baptist theology has been around for a long time. It’s not a recent phenomenon. Frontier revivals did not invent the conviction that millions have held throughout the history of the church that the ordinance of baptism, in which a sinner is identified with Christ by faith, should be administered only to those who actually have, by faith, been identified with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.
3. He misunderstands what Baptists really believe about baptism.
Morris believes that baptistic evangelicals deny the validity of infant baptism because we believe that “you must have a conversion experience to be saved.” I’m not sure exactly what Morris is getting at here. He seems to imply at times in his article that children of believers do not need to be converted at all. For example, he writes, “Anyone who was raised in a Christian home and still believes in Jesus knows that there wasn’t a time when he or she transitioned from ‘unbelief’ to ‘belief.’ We were never ‘converted.’”
Is Morris critiquing “the conversion experience” or “conversion” itself? I’m not sure. Jesus said very clearly that conversion is needed for salvation: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Now when and how someone experiences this “new birth” varies greatly. I agree with Morris that some children will be raised in a Christian home and will not remember a time in their lives when faith was absent. But does this mean that conversion did not happen? Absolutely not! They were born in sin like the rest of mankind. It just means that God’s grace in Christ came to them at a very early age or perhaps in a more subtle, undetectable way. Presbyterian theologian, Geerhardus Vos, addressed this very issue and concluded, “Still, there too the essential elements of conversion are present” (Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Lexham Press, 2012-2016: 71).
Sadly, Morris appears to be so settled on his position about baptistic evangelicals and what really drives their position on baptism that he completely ignores the wealth of published works from baptistic authors that argue counter to his position. Stephen J. Wellum, for example, makes a covenantal argument for believer’s baptism in which he rightly argues that the discontinuities between the old covenant and the new covenant demand a change in the recipients of the sign of the covenant. I would recommend this article (PDF) as a good starting point to better understand what many Baptists really believe about baptism.
Baptistic evangelicals believe in believer’s baptism for all sorts of reasons that I’m not going to rehash here. However, to pin a whole tradition on one theological aberration while ignoring all of those other reasons seems condescending at best and downright arrogant at worst.