Of Water and the Spirit

Barefoot, I stepped down into the freezing water. My six-year-old daughter Caroline held on tightly to my hand as she followed me into the baptistry of our church. I’ve baptized dozens of people since I entered full time ministry eight years ago, but there’s something dramatically different about baptizing your own child. I’ve taken this plunge already with her five older siblings and I will probably take it again with her little sister in a year or two, but each experience is unique. This one particularly.

To start with Caroline has had a beautiful yet peculiar way of thinking and talking about God from a very early age. I can still remember one Sunday morning during our worship service for kids, I started describing God’s love and she said, “It’s like God has a million hearts in all of us.” At the time I had been studying Maximus the Confessor’s writings on a logocentric Christology, so her words were in perfect harmony with the seventh century master of theology. But there was another reason this baptism was unique.

Over the past few years my thoughts on baptism have been changing. I can still remember several years ago when my wife and I made the extremely difficult decision to start baptizing our kids at a younger age, when they might not be able to remember their baptism into adulthood. I kept wrestling with whether or not I was robbing them of an experience, the act of remembering, that has been so beneficial to me in my spiritual life. And part of what brought me peace was realizing that it was through the study of Martin Luther’s writings that I started the practice of remembering my baptism in prayer, and he was a firm advocate for baptizing infants!

Another part of my struggles revolved around growing up and serving in churches that practice believers baptism, and as I have gotten older and fallen in love with studying church history I see that many beliefs and practices regarding baptism were established in the early church but the belief and practice of baptizing very young children was and/or became predominant. Two of the most influential theologians in the east and west, Augustine and Origen, wrote that the baptism of very young children was a near universal practice in the church from the time of the apostles.

This is important for me because whether we are talking about baptizing infants or very young children, many parents wrestle with whether or not children need to have a full understanding of what they are doing before they are baptized. Some go so far as to wait until their children have a proper understanding of the seriousness and depth of their own sin, which is usually not possible until they are well into adolescence.

I currently planning on reading a few books on the topic to learn more about the development of historical beliefs and practices associated with baptism. The first work that has come highly recommended from several people I trust is Baptism in the Early Church by Everett Ferguson. I’m really excited about this one, partially because it comes from a scholar within my own tradition. But I am equally excited about another highly recommended, Alexander Schmemman’s On Water and the Spirit: A Liturgical Study of Baptism. These books come from the Protestant and Orthodox tradition, so I would love to supplement them with something from the Catholic church. If you have other recommendations or thoughts please mention them in the comment section below.

As my wife and I continue to wrestle with these difficult questions we’ve agreed to baptize our children when they show a continued interest in being baptized and after we’ve had a few conversations with them about what it means to be a part of God’s family. I hope that my daughter will be able to remember her experience, and even if she loses the sensory memories, my wife and I will always remind her of the beauty and innocence of her faith. And although she may forget the details, I will never forget the feeling of going to church on father’s day, walking down into the water with my little girl, and celebrating the love that God has for her and the love that she shows the world every day.

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