To Baptize or Not to Baptize

Or, how a Lutheran comes to commit casuistry.

Upon reading To Baptize or Not to Baptize: A Practical Guide for Clergy, more than one person has told me, “This is an excellent work of casuistry.” Not exactly the words to warm the heart of a Lutheran theologian. But they meant it as the sincerest of compliments.

And they’re right—in a sense. “Casuistry” is mostly a dirty word inside religious circles and out. It connotes the very worst of all legal and bureaucratic systems: reductionistic, narrow-minded, and inhuman. It binds the innocent in twisty cords of corruption and lets the wicked off the hook on a technicality.

But in fact “casuistry” shares a common Latin etymological root with “case,” as in “case study,” a time-honored strategy for moral discernment. At its best, casuistry is simply case studies, examining the wide and intriguing array of situations that we human beings get ourselves into, and thinking through the possible responses and options that arise as a result.

In that sense, To Baptize or Not to Baptize is chock full of casuistry, as it narrates forty-nine different baptismal situations calling for pastoral discernment. There may well be more—but even I was astounded at how many came up in the writing of this book!

The seeds of the case studies lie in my own Lutheran Confessions class way back when, but what spurred the writing of this particular book was my experience of ten-plus years teaching a seminar on Luther’s theology in Wittenberg every November for pastors from all over the world. My colleague Theodor Dieter and I would teach Luther’s baptismal theology and then test it with on some case studies, always sparking lively discussion.

As the years went on, participants would bring forth their own case studies—not a few totally unimaginable to me. I kept track and added them to my list as we went along. I also heard stories from other pastor friends and at some point finally realized that I had more than enough accumulated wisdom to share with a wider audience.

Over the same period of time I also started working on ecumenical dialogue between Lutherans and Pentecostals, with some forays into Evangelical territory. As a rule, these churches do not baptize infants, so I dug into understanding what lies at the root of the difference. My conclusion is that age is a red herring: the real dividing line is between understanding baptism primarily as God’s act upon a person and understanding baptism primarily as a person’s witness to God and world. The different underlying conviction about baptism leads to different judgments in practice about when to baptize and when not to baptize.

So what you’ll find in this book is, first, an account of baptismal theology. It starts with Scripture and develops the insights further with classic Lutheran sources, though any infant-baptizing churches will find this theology quite amenable to their own tradition. It also discusses in greater depth the infant baptism/believer’s baptism divide, with some proposals on how to manage though not ultimately resolve our differences.

The second section with case studies is divided into three parts. The first deals with validity questions, or what actually makes for a Christian baptism—the name, the water, and the intention to baptize as the church baptizes. The actual meaning of the last requirement is unfolded throughout the course of the book.

The second section presumes the validity of each potential baptism under discussion, but raises issues of the church’s integrity in proceeding to baptize: for example, when parents or godparents or even the baptismal candidates themselves are unbelievers, or in baptizing remotely by virtual means. In other words, these case studies ask whether the manner of or decision to baptize somehow contradicts the church’s teaching and beliefs around baptism.

The third and final section concerns itself with permission and safety. What to do when some authority other than the church interposes in a case of baptism—say, the state forbidding it? And what to do when baptism endangers someone’s safety—because family or society will retaliate, or health conditions make it potentially fatal? Such are the kinds of questions dealt with here.

Though a judgment is offered on all the case studies presented here, the purpose is not to create a binding and inflexible law. The goal is much bigger: to train the pastoral imagination on the grace and glory of baptism, and then put it to work in the living process of discernment in ministry.

The reason we have pastors at all is to know deeply the church’s teaching and to study carefully the real-life people that encounter that teaching—and then to render a judgment. This book helps pastors grow in the knowledge and confidence to render sound judgments that bring the gospel to bear on the people in their charge.

Case Studies included in this book:

1.0 Validity
1.01 In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier
1.02 In the name of Jesus
1.03 In a substance other than water
1.04 Quantity of water
1.05 Doesn’t know and can’t find out if ever baptized
1.06 Layperson during emergency
1.07 Layperson during non-emergency
1.08 Self-administered
1.09 Denominational double duty
1.10 Apostate or immoral baptizer
1.11 Convert from the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)
1.12 Convert from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)
1.13 Convert from the Jehovah’s Witnesses
1.14 Convert from Unitarian Universalism
1.15 Convert from Oneness Pentecostalism
1.16 Convert from the Church of Christ, Scientist
1.17 Syncretistic baptism
1.18 “The first time didn’t count”
1.19 After “debaptism”
1.20 Convert out of and back into Christianity

2.0 Integrity of Witness
2.01 Inactive or unbelieving parents request baptism for their child
2.02 Godparents uncatechized, indifferent, or unbelievers
2.03 Private baptism
2.04 Special-request baptizer
2.05 Family pressure
2.06 Baptism required for employment
2.07 Instant baptism
2.08 Stunt baptism
2.09 Novelty baptism
2.10 Virtual baptism
2.11 Destination baptism
2.12 Special water
2.13 Renewal of baptismal vows

3.0 Safety and Permission
3.01 Secret baptism
3.02 Adult forbidden baptism by the state
3.03 Suspected insincere request
3.04 Adult forbidden baptism by parents or spouse
3.05 Parents disagree over baptism of child
3.06 Child forbidden baptism by parents
3.07 Teen forbidden baptism by parents
3.08 Caregiver other than parents requests baptism for child
3.09 Refugee hoping to increase chances of asylum
3.10 Jew seeking political protection
3.11 Stillbirth, miscarriage, and at-risk pregnancy
3.12 Intellectually disabled person
3.13 Comatose or insentient person
3.14 Household or tribal baptism
3.15 Acute medical risk from human contact
3.16 Epidemic conditions