Frederick Buechner on Baptism

Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled. Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head. Dunking is a better symbol, however. Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human. Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful. You can breathe again.

Question: How about infant baptism? Shouldn’t you wait until the child grows up enough to know what’s going on?

Answer: If you don’t think there is as much of the less-than-human in an infant as there is in anybody else, you have lost touch with reality.

When it comes to the forgiving and transforming love of God, one wonders if the six-week-old screecher knows all that much less than the archbishop of Canterbury about what’s going on.  Source

Am I the only one who finds this piece from the otherwise very thoughtful and insightful Mr. Buechner a bit confusing?

He says dunking is a better symbolism than sprinkling in the mode of baptism debate, echoing thoughtfully Romans 6:3-4.  But when it comes to the question of infant baptism, I admit that I’m lost in all the aversions and that-it’s-obvious-from-observation-that-an-infant-needs-baptism appeal.

I need to find the solid ground of clarity on this one…

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21 Responses to Frederick Buechner on Baptism

  1. Simon says:

    Never mind infants, what about those who are mentally incapacitated and are unable to ever make a profession of faith. Are those not to be baptised either?

    It’s just my opinion, but I think the ana-baptist position is a reflection on how individualistic Protestantism became at a very early stage. To a near Eastern mind, of course baptizing and communing babies is normal because the family does everything together and should not be excluded in anything.

    It is also worth noting that the NT does not give a manual on baptism. It simply tells stories about people hearing the gospel and getting baptised. Now of course in the first generations of the Church a lot of adults were baptised – because there were no Christian families before them. The NT does not deal with the issue of baptism of the children of believing parents.

    On methodology of baptism, i am neither here nor there. All Orthodox baptise infants and adults who have not yet been baptised by triple immersion. The Western churches typically sprinkle, but immersion can be performed as well – particularly for adults who are not yet baptised.

    • TC Robinson says:

      Simon, forgive the Baptist in me. But I take my cue on baptism from what the Bible says about who makes up the New Covenant – baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit cannot be thus separated.

      Regarding the mentally incapacitated, they are in the hands of a loving and merciful God.

      Even those who baptize infants are still plagued by individualism. Only the Spirit can create true covenant community.

  2. David Beirne says:

    I take Buechner’s statement, “the six-week-old screecher knows all that much less than the archbishop of Canterbury about what’s going on,” to be untenable. It sounds spiritual and all, but I can’t take that statement seriously. And for the first part of his statement, it’s like he’s saying, “Baptism is real important, it doesn’t matter how you do it, but you should do this mode because it’s scriptural.” Confusing, ambiguous, sure. Another reason for me not to read Buechner. :0)

  3. Jon Hughes says:

    I was dunked as a new believer aged twenty-seven, despite being ‘christened’ as a baby – presumably for cultural reasons, as neither of my parents were believers by any biblical definition.

    1) Immersion is undoubtedly a more powerful symbol, although I have to admit that it would take some time to baptize the 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) in such a manner!

    2) I understand the arguments for infant baptism a lot more now that I am the father of two young children. There’s the niggling feeling that as believing parents we should be DOING this for our children. Additionally, they would have a better chance of getting into the best schools (Roman Catholic and Church of England faith schools) if we could produce a baptismal certificate with the application forms. But we’re Baptists, and I do in my heart of hearts believe that faith should precede baptism.

    In response to Simon, you can’t escape the fact that the decision to follow Christ has to be an individual one. Believer’s baptism better reflects this, hopefully without encouraging individualism, as we come into the Body of Christ. Infant baptism blurs things a bit too much in my thinking.

    • Simon says:

      TC and Jon, What about the mentally disabled? TC seems to be saying that they shouldn’t be baptised. I wonder where one can deduce this from the Scriptures. Should they not partake of the Eucharist either? Do not children make up the New Covenant? Remember what Christ said about children? The Kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

      Of course we can’t escape the fact that following Christ is an individual decision ultimately. But one also can’t escape the fact that one is born into a Christian family, and who will be raised in the faith with the full benefits of membership of that community. People are free to renounce the faith of their family. Baptising of infants is the universally recognised practice of the Church. Whether you be Roman Catholic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox, Armenian, Anglican, Coptic, Syriac, Russian Orthodox and so on. All these disparate groups, some of whom are not in communion with each other, practice infant baptism. This tells me that the practice is Apostolic. It wasn’t really in contention until the Ana-baptists and the Radical Reformation. When the Bible is made the only authority for faith and practice, all kinds of readings are possible. I guess this is why it was the Magisterial reformers who persecuted the ana-baptists the hardest and actually had to enforce their view of Scripture on rest. The Radical Reformation ended going to America, which explains a lot about just how bizarre Christianity has become there.

      • Jon Hughes says:


        I like your passion for the subject. Was infant baptism really there from the beginning, or did it emerge at some point in the third century? (I’m not an expert here.)

        My problem with what you write above lies in my own experience. I *was* baptised as an infant, along with vast multitudes of others around the world from various Christian traditions as you say. In my case it was extremely nominal ‘Church of England’ on the part of parents who never attended church before or after. Time and time again this happens, and it is simply not borne of spiritual conviction. This is not judgementalism on my part, but observance of the facts. I’m not denying that in some cases there’s real conviction on the part of the parents, but can you deny that in many cases there isn’t? (Instead it is done for pragmatic, cultural reasons, and for convenience sake – and still today in places upholds an unhealthy Church/State relationship that is foreign to the New Testament itself.)

        Infant baptism blurs things.

        By the way, I take your point regarding the early Reformers. That’s why it amazes me that TC, John Piper and others hold the likes of Calvin in such high esteem, and join the crowd in reviling Michael Servetus who took an early stand for believer’s baptism and paid for it with his life. (It wasn’t just his views on the Trinity!)

      • TC Robinson says:

        Simon, I do not believe an unbaptized person should observe the Eucharist. I know other Baptists and evangels do, but this is my own conclusion on the matter.

        I know the longstanding practice of infant baptism throughout church history and in some of the mainline traditions you mentioned, but the question by Jon about the origin of infant baptism is worth exploring. Don’t you think?

        No conscientious person would overlook the aftermath of the Reformation. We have to take the good and the bad. History compels us to. How can argue about the Radical Reformation and some of what it has spawned?

  4. TC Robinson says:

    David: He left me reeling as well.

    Jon: Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:14 not only are unbelieving spouses sanctified but the children of believers as well. They are already sancfied by the faith of the believer, no need for infant baptism. This is James D.G. Dunn’s conclusion as well (see his The Theology of Paul the Apostle on this).

    Yes, Simon has a point, but infant baptism isn’t the answer.

  5. TC Robinson says:

    Jon, I hold up the likes of Calvin and Edwards because God tends to use broken and messed up people – even murderers and conspirators. I know you know this. Scripture abounds with these types.

    • Jon Hughes says:


      I take your point, but these “types” in Scripture are either to be found in the Old Testament (e.g. King David) or in the New prior to conversion (e.g. Saul of Tarsus). There’s no excuse post-Pentecost and post-conversion. Calvin was without excuse, and it’s amazing how his murderous intent toward Michael Servetus is glossed over by today’s Baptists.

      • TC Robinson says:

        Why no excuse post-Pentecost and post-conversion? Says who? What’s the basis? We know better? But we’re still human, so a Calvin is no surprise to me.

  6. Simon says:


    I have to say here that “re-baptisms” (literally ana-baptisms) are not biblically or theologically possible if baptism actually means anything at all. If we are baptised properly, then this is our dying and rising with Christ. You cannot, by definition, do this again. I don’t intend to take away anything from your Christian experience, but if we are to take baptisms seriously, it must be said.

    Concerning nominal Christian affiliation: this does not detract from a proper Christian baptism in my opinion. If you later come to a more pious faith than that of your parents, then all the better. By the time of our generation, Western Europe and the UK had been Christian for many many centuries. It is entirely appropriate for parents to baptise their children in the State religion – even if they do so only nominally. Now this isn’t the ideal, but it still doesn’t detract from the validity of the sacrament.

    I have come to the belief that Church and State can’t be separated. That experiment happened in the US and it is now unraveling. The State, much like in ancient Byzantine, were defenders of Christian Orthodoxy against heresy. Of course, even where there is State Churches, tension can and should arise between the Church and State over the latter’s unjust actions. But the only way we avoid the sort of pluralistic maze we see in the West today is the Church-State cooperation. Otherwise the State religion become secularism – with “religious freedom”. The US Constitution does not work. It does not work for religious freedom, it does not work for guns, it just simply does not work. It has created the environment for religious fanaticism without any concern for the souls who get caught up in these cults. It provides absolutely no common basis for life. The US constitution has become the secular constitution of the West. Our common life in the Church, sanctioned by the State has been overturned. This is what happens when our philosophy insists that Church and State be separated. This is what happens when a mix of deists and Puritans get their hands on the New Jerusalem in the New World.

    • Jon Hughes says:


      It’s an interesting argument about Church and State. Many secularists in the West with an agenda seem to want to appeal to ‘separation of Church and State’ in order to make it mean freedom *from* religion rather than freedom *of* religion.

      As for baptism, my dying and rising with Christ did not precede faith. On that basis, I would consider my baptism as a *believer* as the valid one.

      • Jon Hughes says:

        Consider also that without faith it is impossible to please God. This would apply to parents in the case of infant baptism, or the believer in the case of believer’s baptism. I know for a fact that parents often baptise their children for reasons other than that borne of biblical conviction and faith. I’m not sure how the sacrament can be valid in God’s sight if there’s no accompaniment of faith – unless we’re willing to attribute some magical properties to the act itself. (I promise you, I’m not trying to be facetious.)

  7. Simon says:

    Jon, I think that even in circumstances where the motives for baptism may be dubious, the act of being baptised is itself an act of faith and a clear statement as to where your allegiance lies.

    The sacrament, I believe, is a saving act. Just as St Paul said that the Israelites were baptized at the Red Sea as they were escaping slavery in Egypt. It is a mystery, but nevertheless it contributes to our salvation. If this is a magical property, then I’m quite happy to affirm that.

    • Jon Hughes says:


      I just can’t see it that way. The N.T. does speak of baptism in salvific terms (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21). But it invariably followed immediately after profession of faith. What you describe above is an entirely different picture.

  8. Simon says:

    Jon, I don’t believe so. Remember in the Traditional Churches, including the Anglican Church, there is Confirmation (known as “Chrismation” in the East). Nevertheless, full participation in the Church is granted before Confirmation for all baptised members.

    I am still wondering about what would happen to the mentally disabled. Why should they be barred from full participation in the sacraments? You see, I believe they are able to know about faith. Not by reciting doctrines. They are able to know the love of God, by his grace. The same goes for children, even babies. The sacraments are sacred mysteries. I would want to emphasise this. God has given us these sacraments as ways that we can know him – Aristotelian logic is not a sacrament. Yet it appears, following Aquinas and the Reformers that this is the premier sacrament.

    • Jon Hughes says:


      I don’t believe I would prevent the mentally disabled from participating in the sacraments, once they’d come of age. I certainly wouldn’t prevent my own child from such.

  9. Simon says:

    If a mentally disabled person was not able to progress past the mental abilities of a toddler, would this still be the case? For Baptists, is Baptism a function of age, or being able to give a reasonable profession of faith? What would coming of age matter for a disabled person who has the mental capacity of a 5 year old?

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