There is legitimate criticism of the practice of infant baptism within evangelical circles but I think that most of it is based on misunderstanding. I think what is happening is that most evangelicals think of baptism as a sign of conversion (take the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts as an example). Then they ask “how can a child experience such a conversion?” and they are right to ask this. Infant baptism just doesn’t make sense within this theological framework. But that’s just the problem. They are critiquing the practice within the wrong theological framework. We should understand the context before we deal with the practice.
Consider another view: perhaps baptism is in fact “more about the parent than the child” but not in the sense of a “Kodak moment” but in the sense of a covenant. And perhaps it’s more about the church as a whole than it is about the parent too. And perhaps it’s more about God than it is about the church. In baptism the true identity of the child is proclaimed, the child is accepted into the family of God, the church commits to raising said child into the church and the new humanity of the church, and thereafter the child’s life is about living and choosing his/her way into that identity. This is not unlike the pattern Jesus took, though I know there are some valid issues with his age. Jesus entered the water not as a sign of conversion but as a fulfillment of righteousness and God used that event to declare to the world Jesus’ true identity: beloved son of God. Remember the whole dove thing? It wasn’t as much what it meant to Jesus it was more about what it meant to God. Jesus’ identity is proclaimed and from there on his life is about living and choosing into that identity. Jesus went straight from baptism to wilderness where he showed his “commitment to step out of one way of life and into another,” where he chose God’s way rather than Satan’s.
Two definitions of baptism (both are sacramental):
- A sign of conversion. (Popular evangelical view)
- God’s, through the church, declaration of identity and the churches’ covenantal commitment to raising the child up into that identity, into the new humanity.
Both practices—infant and adult baptism—make sense when you understand them in their particular theological contexts, don’t they? You have to critique the whole theological construct before you critique the practice.
Churches that practice infant baptism usually also have “confirmation” which is the post-baptismal experience—learning what baptism was all about and what the true identity of humanity is in Christ.