Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Explaining INFANT BAPTISM through the legal analogy of ESCROW

Lawyers use the word escrow often and many of us are not sure what they mean. Escrow is a noun (from escroe, a scroll) meaning a bond, deed or deposit gifted by one party to another and kept in the custody of a third party, taking effect and made available only when specified condition has been fulfilled (e.g., a person conveys a million dollars to another person and requires that before that person receives it he be 2 years of age).

Now to Baptism.

An adult who is baptized is one who is repenting of his sin and believing the Gospel of the Father concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. Without repentance and faith, a person is not a proper subject of Christian Baptism, which is the Sacrament of Regeneration (that is, being born into the family of God and made a child of God and inheritor of the kingdom of heaven of the age to come). An infant is baptized not because of his own repentance and faith but because those who stand with him and in his place (godparents) show repentance and faith and are intent on caring for the infant in God’s Name until he also shows repentance for sin and faith in the Lord Jesus, and thus personally and consciously embraces the reality and benefits of Regeneration.

Here is one way of explaining Infant Baptism by means of the analogy of escrow from the pen of Dr. H.C.G. Moule, Bishop of Durham (1899-1922), a brilliant scholar and a leading Evangelical Churchman of his time:
“Christian Baptism is an ordinance of the New Covenant. It is an ordinance of entrance into Covenant. It initiates the receiver of it into the new, better, and everlasting Covenant. It does this after the manner of a rite. It does it formally—ceremonially. It gives new birth, new life, forgiveness, the Spirit, grace and glory. But it gives as a deed gives—not as an electric wire gives. It gives a title. It conveys to the right recipient such possession as now after conveyance only demands his actual entering in and using to be complete.

There are legal documents called escrows. These are deeds of conveyance which speak in the present tense, and do a present act of gift and transfer, but they carry with them a condition to be fulfilled before the effect is actualized. Till than condition is fulfilled the present giving does not become actual possession. The receiver of the title-deed does not actually enter on the property given in it. He has it in title, but he has it not yet in act and use. He has something at once. He received a beneficial title, right and pledge, the possession of which conceivably at once entitles him to special care, attention, and privileges.

So Baptism, at once and literally, in the sense of title, makes an infant a member of the Church—a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the sense of title, he is at once regenerate. He receives at once in that respect the acceptance of an adopted child of God in Christ, and the new life, which is wrought in man by the Holy Ghost. But in the ordinary law of God’s working revealed in His Word, these precious things, in their possession, await the humble claim of repentance and faith. So the infant who in Sacramental title is born again, still needs to be born again. He is baptismally regenerated, but he needs subsequently to be actually regenerated by Faith and Repentance.”
This explanation proclaims that in the Sacrament God has freely given everything needful for both eternal salvation and sanctification to the Infant Child of Christian believers; it also assumes that (a) Godparents will do their holy work of making sure that the growing child is given Christian nurture and instruction; (b) the child is surrounded by the worship, prayer and means of grace of the Church of God; and (c) the maturing child, as a young person, will personally embrace the Gospel in repentance and faith and enjoy that which has been his by divine gift from the beginning. It also assumes that the baptized person would be most foolish to reject what is rightly his but in trust; yet it does actually allow for him to reject or not take up what is truly his by divine gift.

Advantages of this kind of explanation include (a) that the words of the Service of Infant Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer can be taken seriously and literally; (b) that Baptism of Infants as the work of God is made to appear reasonable and meaningful; (c) that the Service of Confirmation of young persons who have made the Faith their own, makes good sense, and (d) that a means of explanation is at hand to explain why some persons, baptized as infants, do not become practicing Christians—they choose not to take up the title and benefits.

Disadvantages include (a) some may find the concept of escrow odd or difficult to grasp; (b) the benefits for the “period of escrow” (from Baptism to conscious, personal faith) can be seen to be primarily external—the moral and spiritual influences of family, God-parents and church worship; and (c) there is, it appears, in this approach a very heavy and continued responsibility of the family, God-parents and church as to whether or not the child comes to personal faith; it seems to be too much dependent upon their constancy and faithfulness—in that their example may harm and hinder the baptized child (i.e., very much more responsibility than the third party in escrow!).

This explanation, with its strengths and weaknesses, was advanced by Dr. Moule because as a NT scholar and a faithful Bishop he knew that the Gospel of salvation calls for repentance and faith in the human being as a sinner, and so he had to find a way of keeping repentance and faith in the story and doctrine of Infant Baptism. And in this motivation he was surely right for without faith it is impossible to please God, the God of the covenant of grace.

Dr Moule’s approach may be preferred to the notion seemingly held by many of the existence of a personal, baptismal covenant wherein God makes over his covenanted blessings to the infant, who is then expected in due time to fulfill his terms of the covenant, which may take a long of short time. If he does not then the covenant is not operative and the blessings of the New Covenant are not made over to him. This idea of a covenant can be read in terms of a Senior partner and a junior partner in contractual arrangements, which is impossible to square with the Biblical presentation of the covenant of grace as being wholly established by God the Holy Trinity himself, with Christ Jesus, the Incarnate Son of the Father, wholly fulfilling the human side. The Baptismal Services in The Book of Common Prayer do not use the word covenant of the baptismal relation of God to the baptized and do not suggest a personalized covenant.


The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)

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