I’m researching the paedo- vs. believers-baptism question at the moment, and for various reasons, I’m reading a lengthy essay by Menno Simons on the subject. Menno Simons was a Dutch Anabaptist, and the man who bequeathed his name to the Mennonites. The Anabaptists were the predecessors of our own Baptists, and split from the Protestant Reformation because they believed that Protestant reform was not radical enough in rejecting non-Biblical practices. Their radicalism made them many powerful enemies, and Catholics and Protestants very quickly put them to the sword (and, ironically, drowned them) in the most horrific and abominable period of persecution.
To return to the subject, one of the chief targets of Anabaptist vitriol was infant baptism, and one of their most influential theologians was Menno Simons (many of his assumptions about baptism and arguments against infant baptism persist today largely unchanged). However, having thought about baptism for the last decade or so, and having moved from one camp to the other, I thought that I knew where either side was coming from. Menno Simons was able to surprise me.
The fights in baptism concern whether or not the sign stands for a profession of personal faith or for something else, and therefore whether or not someone who is not ‘of age’ (i.e. able to have faith and to make a profession) can be baptised. I had a eureka moment when I realised that the big (under-asked) question should really be whether the children of covenant believers are excluded from the covenant until they’re of age, or included. If the former, then they should not be baptised, and who knows what becomes of those who die before they’re of age? If the latter, then they should be baptised even though they can’t yet make a profession of personal faith, because baptism is at least a sign of the covenant.
Having just reached this insight, Menno Simons went and ruined it by saying something very strange. In fact, he repeats it a number of times. So for example:
“For Jesus’ sake, sin is not imputed to infants that are innocent, and incapable of understanding. Life is promised, not through any one ceremony, but out of pure grace, through the blood of the Lord… Again, Children are entitled to the kingdom of heaven, and are under the promise of the grace of God, through Christ; as has been said; and therefore we truly believe that they are blessed, holy and pure, acceptable to God; are under the covenant, and in his church, but by no means, through any external sign…” (from Concerning Baptism).
His view is that all children are provisionally saved and innocent of sin. His big gripes are that he doesn’t want anyone to say that baptism itself saves, because only Christ can save; and he doesn’t want baptism to be applied to infants, because Christ didn’t command it to be administered to them, but only seemed to include adults.
So, in the end, he agrees with Evangelical paedo-baptists that children are included within the covenant, and that the benefits of grace can be given to them; he just thinks that baptism symbolises personal obedience to Christ, and so can’t be given to babies.
That’s unusual enough, but in glorious 16th Century fashion, look at how radically he then polarises what need only be a minor disagreement:
“…we believe and teach that the baptism of believers is of God and his word, and infant baptism of the dragon and the beast… Since Christ has commanded that believers should be baptized, and not infants,” [although of course this is incorrect; Christ doesn’t command us not to baptise infants, he merely does not command us to baptise infants], “… all reasonable-minded men must admit, that infant baptism … is nothing less than a ceremony of anti-christ, open blasphemy, an enchanting sin, a molten calf; yea, abomination and idolatry.”
The 16th Century was crazy.
Postscript: Any baptist readers: What are your beliefs concerning the status of believers’ children in the covenant? Are children inside or outside the covenant until they’re able to have faith of their own? Have Menno’s beliefs on the subject persisted in baptistic circles?