Why Evangelicals Struggle With Infant Baptism; The Platonic Connection

In a previous article about infant baptism on Steadfast Lutherans, I covered one of the main reasons why Evangelicals struggle with infant baptism. In my previous article I assert that the reason for the struggle over infant baptism is due to it being the quintessential picture of divine monergism. Monergism, as you may know, is completely contrary to any and all free will theologies, thus the reason why infant baptism is so difficult for many Credobaptist Evangelicals to accept. Otherwise stated, in the previous article I showed that infant baptism is very offensive to credobaptist theology because it infringes upon, violates, and overthrows the doctrine of free will; it takes the child’s ‘choice’ in salvation away. To say that a baby is saved in infant baptism when no choice/decision has been made by the baby, comes across as extremely scandalous for theologies that embrace decision theology.

In this article I assert that there is another reason why Evangelicals tend to struggle with the Lutheran view of infant baptism and that reason has to do Evangelicalism's Platonic views over the sacraments. Yes, baptism as a means of grace is not only abrasive towards synergism, but abrasive towards Platonic thought permeating Evangelical theology as well. Platonism? Yes, Platonism.

Platonism comes from the Greek philosopher named Plato. Very simplistically, Plato saw our existence in two different spheres or realms. He held to the material realm and the transcendent realm of forms. To Plato the transcendental realm was right, true, and perfect, but the material realm was changing, flawed, and a mere shadow. Thus, Plato taught that it was the goal of a man to escape his evil and flawed body. According to Plato, the soul was good; material was bad.

We see one of the first influences of Platonic thought upon Christianity when reading the first epistle of John. In first John the Apostle John responds to first-century Gnostics who advocated that Jesus didn’t come in the flesh. Even a bit later on in the third-century the Old Roman Creed, which was used as the church’s baptismal confession, combated Gnosticism when it said that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and buried. Thus, it is evident from the Scriptures and our earliest confessions that Jesus had a body, for how could one be born, die, and be buried without one? Furthermore, keep in mind that Jesus currently has a resurrected body; He ascended bodily.

It is also important to note that the material world and our bodies are not evil as sects of Gnosticism contended, but fallen; remember that the earth and our bodies were created by God and He said that it was good. Yes, there is a separation between body and soul at our deaths, but we must not forget that at the great second advent of Christ we will be resurrected and given new bodies. Those that are in the grave will be put back together again when Christ comes. At the second coming, we will not be at a distance from our bodies .

While it is fairly evident to see the consequences of Platonic thought upon the nature of Christ and our anthropology, how does this Platonism impact our topic at hand?

Phillip Cary in his book, Outward Signs, argues that the influence of Platonic thought upon St. Augustine,  a 4th-5th Century A.D. church father, has resulted in Platonic tendencies being placed upon his theology and his teachings of the sacraments. In other words, Phillip Cary argues that St. Augustine was not able to see external things like the Word and sacraments as having power over the inner man. If matter is bad, always changing, flawed, and a mere copy of the perfect form, how can earthly and material things like baptism and communion impact the soul? For Augustine, who was very much a Christian Platonist, there was no room for the idea that sacraments were powerful and could impact the soul, for they were merely powerless signs signifying and expressing what lies within the soul.[1] This idea, which was promoted by Augustine and influenced by his Platonic thought, is relevant due to it being very prevalent in certain streams of contemporary American Evangelicalism. It seems as if the spirit of Platonism is alive and well.

All of this said, it now makes sense why infant baptism is very offensive towards decision theology, as well as Platonic inclinations. Infant baptism is the quintessential view of divine monergism and, according to a Lutheran understanding, it is also a powerful God ordained outward sign that confers salvation. Thus, when a Lutheran states that in infant baptism a baby is saved, it irritates all forms of synergism, as well as challenges the notion that baptism is just a powerless sign that signifies inner grace. Infant baptism professes divine monergism and professes that an external water-word confers grace/salvation. (See 1 Peter 3:21 & Acts 2:38)

In response to infant baptism though, many Evangelicals will attempt to guard these Platonic assumptions by resorting to spiritualizing texts that speak of baptism. In other words, it is argued that many passages in the Bible talking about the efficacy of baptism are not referring to physical baptisms, for that would mean that an external sign like baptism is powerful and confers salvation (i.e., Romans 6:1-11 & Titus 3:5). Alas, Platonic thought cannot allow the physical to exert influence over the spiritual. Thus, it is rationalized away that these texts are only talking about spiritualized baptisms.

In summary, why do many Evangelicals find it difficult to accept infant baptism? It is difficult for many to accept because it presents a difficulty for decision/free will theology as stated in my previous article on this subject and it also infringes upon a deeply embedded Platonic assumption.

Regardless of the possible blowback due to our Lutheran baptismal theology, may we graciously esteem our most excellent Baptism as our daily attire in which we walk constantly, that we may always be found in the faith, for infant baptism is not merely a powerless sign signifying inner grace, but a rich, powerful, and blessed gift from God that actually confers grace. It is rich life-giving water with the Word that works faith, delivers forgiveness of sins, rescues us from the jaws of death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation making us God’s own apart from any and all man-made contributions. In a very literally sense, via infant baptism, we do not wash ourselves but are wash by God.

Praise be to God that baptism is not empty, but it powerfully drowns and slays the old Adam and raises us anew. What a tremendous and powerful gift.

[1] Phillip Cary, Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augstine’s Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008), ix.

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Anonymous said…
Pastor Richardson,

Thank you for your thoughtful post. You have clearly articulated what was inside my head but I couldn't formulate clearly.

Keep up the great work!