Philo-Semitism has been and continues to be the default position of many North American evangelicals, thanks, no doubt, to the continued influence of dispensationalist theology. If you have lived in evangelical sub-culture long enough, you probably have Gentile friends who try to do the Messianic Jew thing, kippahs, tallits, shofars, and all. And even if this fashion has been eclipsed in recent years due to the resurgence of Calvinism, the fact that Calvin was one of the greatest OT interpreters means that our love for the Jewish people is going nowhere. (It’s an abstract love, to be sure. Most evangelicals have little contact with actual Jews.)
Still, I wonder if this love has gone far enough. What I have in mind in particular is the way in which Jewish identity gets handed on in the earthiest way from parents to children, along with what Christians can learn from this. It is not that Jewish identity is merely biological, as the Nazis and far too many contemporary people believe. No, Jewish identity is theological: a Jewish child is a part of the covenant people. To be sure, the halakhic criterion of matrilineal descent means that there is an element of biology involved, which, when pressed too far, might reduce identity to race. But the fact that converts are accepted — that mothers themselves might be converts — presses back towards a theological definition. One online commentator writes, then, that “Judaism is something we are proud to do, not something we are proud to be.”
The theological criterion of inclusion in the chosen people certainly differs between Jews and Christians, with the emphasis falling less on “doing” and more on “being:” being chosen by grace rather than race. But, no matter how one decides to solve the unsolvable relationship between grace and free will, covenant obligations still play a role for Christians. And here is my point of comparison with Judaism.
Parents, according to Deuteronomy 4:9, have an obligation to hand over the faith to their children, who are the chosen people’s most consistent source of adherents. Though their relationship is theologically asymmetrical, grace and race are tangled up in each other. This is true for the self-understanding of many contemporary Jews (who I am admittedly engaging impersonally through random websites), but, more importantly, it is true for the “canonical” Judaism of the Old Testament.
My point here is that under most circumstances the link between grace and race is obvious for Christians as well. But those of us influenced by revivalism can be tempted to forget that the winds of mass conversion, so wonderful because of their irregularity, are less consistent than the generational labor of child-rearing.
It is not as if evangelicals do not know this at some level. Same-sex marriage will continue to be unintelligible to them and to the majority of Christians because they tacitly know that biological generation is the foundation of the Church. Still, they need to be intentional about forming their kids in the stories of the Bible and in the doctrines and practices of the Church rather than crossing their fingers in the hopes that a smokin’ evangelist will pass through their city. If that sounds like a rather un-Anglican hope, disconnected as it is from our current denominational context, at least it is a hope in something. For Anglicans have been even more negligent in forming the next generation.
But let’s stay positive.
As an Anglican I would like to register a little apologetic argument for infant baptism (also referred to as “paedobaptism”) as a sign of the fundamentally generational character of the Church. What Anabaptist traditions and our own paedobaptist tradition have in common is the belief that human effort does not get you in the covenant community. Paedobaptists want their Anabaptist cousins to assure them that the personal faith that is a prior criterion for baptism is not just a conjured human emotion, while Anabaptists want some assurance from Paedobaptists that the human actions of priest, parents, and sponsors do not “effect” salvation. (One should note the similarity to objections against transubstantiation based on the distracting attempt to pinpoint when in time the Eucharistic elements effectively become Christ’s body and blood.)
I suggest the notion that the transforming power of a sacrament is something “efficiently” caused by human players (other than Christ) needs to be thrown out. That means talk of how baptism “saves” has to qualified. Baptism “saves,” as 1 Peter 3:21-22 says, not in the way God saves us (baptism isn’t a personal agent, after all; God is). Baptism saves insofar as it reveals the form of our salvation.
In normal language that means baptism is the pattern God has in mind for what salvation looks like when he decides to win it for us. Salvation looks like baptism, and baptism, according to Peter, looks like Noah and his whole family being saved in the Ark. Alternatively, according to Paul (1 Cor 10), baptism looks like the crossing of the Red Sea. And here we come back to things Jewish. The people of the Old Testament provide patterns that reveal to us our own salvation. Baptism equals crossing the Red Sea; it is a participation in that event.
So, on the one hand, against the Anabaptist objection that infant baptism cannot be effectively salvific because it does not guarantee visible moral results, paedobaptists might go “scholastic” and laboriously parse the various species of grace. On the other hand, they might prefer like me to offer a meditation on the pattern of the Exodus and what followed.
And what followed? The apostasy of that entire generation of the Israelites, as God struck them down for forty years in the wilderness. Despite carrying their infants through the divided waters of the Red Sea, this baptism did not guarantee entrance into the Promised Land. Ironically, however, and despite the Anabaptist argument, the only people young enough to enter would have been those infants.
Anabaptists know just as well as, say, Copts, Assyrians, and Armenians (to say nothing of Jews), how religion and generation (race) are entangled, and here I speak deliberately and ironically as an ethnic Mennonite. Because of this undeniable ethnic and cultural reality, if a Mennonite rightly wants to prioritize theological identity descriptions, then no double-standard can be held up against Jews, Copts, Assyrians, and Armenians, for whom grace and race are also mixed. Baptism for the paedobaptist, like the Jew, is a theological, not a biological, matter, and yet the two are entangled. This, I am arguing, is even the case for the Anabaptist.
Consider, would an Anabaptist leave their child on the far side of the quickly-closing Red Sea to wait for their consent to God’s deliverance? It is simply a statement of fact that, like the Jews and the latter Christian groups, they have not. Their children, too, have been formed in families of faith. Whether such formation comes before or after baptism is mere quibbling given the inseparability of water and catechesis.
Honesty ought to force us to admit — and here is my point — the inseparability of baptism and biological generation in the ordinary course of salvation history, a history in which missionary conversions are extraordinary. What Jesus has done by opening the covenant to the Gentiles is that, just like the Jews, he has co-opted our generative functions for his ecclesiological ends. This is how Christ’s body, the Church, is born through time, and this is a truth that, especially in the West where Gnosticism is rampant, we have a fortunate reminder of in the Jews whose attitude towards generation ought to be more consciously imitated, perhaps especially on Shabbat!
The featured image is “Tallit & Tefillin 1,” uploaded by Flickr user Anger Boy. It is licensed under Creative Commons.
Something I’ve often wondered about: circumcision is extraordinarily popular in the US, and especially among American Evangelicals, which causes me to speculate as to whether they think this is somehow salvific until such time as their sons walk themselves into the water.
I’ve never run across that view, but it is an interesting question as to why circumcision has become popular. If anything is a surrogate for infant baptism, it’s the baby dedication. The question is really whether anything is at stake for Anabaptists. Are children innocent and automatically bound for heaven up until an age of consent, at which point they fall with Adam? I question whether this makes any sense of our experience at all. Paedobaptists these days, on the other hand, are loath to admit anything hangs on infant either. Why would God send an infant to hell?
The second last sentence should read “infant baptism”.
Just this past weekend my wife and I had the privilege and opportunity of attending the baptism of a new grandchild. I can certainly see the manner in which infant baptism can be regarded as a Christian analogue for Jewish circumcision as a ritual incorporation of the child into the corporate fellowship of the congregation and church. “Baby dedications” in non-paedobaptistic churches have certainly begun to take on that sort of function over the years; I have often said that if I was still doing church work as a Baptist, I would do baby dedications that would have people in… Read more »