On Baptisms Pretended and Real

A recent baptismal service in our church made a profound impression on our four year old daughter Kaitrin. Much to our joy, she began asking questions about baptism on the way home from morning worship, and has brought the subject up more than once since then, giving us ample opportunity both to explain the nature of the sacrament to her and to tell her about her own baptism (which, in good Presbyterian fashion, she can't actually remember).

A few days after that service we were making our way through our local grocery story with Kaitrin and her younger sister standing in the shopping cart (in direct violation, I'm fairly sure, of guidelines for appropriate shopping cart use). As we paused midway down the cereal aisle, Kaitrin, true to form, took advantage of the situation to provide some random biographical information to several innocent bystanders. "I was baptized when I was a baby!" she shouted. Said bystanders seemed more or less pleased with this information, though it did elicit one or two dirty looks (whether due to disagreement with historic Christian practices or displeasure with noisy children I cannot say).

Kaitrin has also taken to playing "baptism" at home -- she assuming the role of the baptizer and her younger sister, dolls, and an assortment of stuffed animals serving as willing baptizands. While grateful for her persistent interest in the sacrament, I'm somewhat disconcerted by this development, and generally unsure how to respond. I don't wish to dampen her enthusiasm for the realities she encounters in divine worship, but do, of course, wish to impress upon her the gravity of baptism, not to mention the criteria for proper administration and reception of the same. Until sure of a better course, I've more or less decided to do nothing about the matter. Some other rite or ritual, ecclesiastical or otherwise, is certain to supplant her interest in baptism in the very near future and relieve me of responsibility for charting an intelligent response to her present preferred pastime.

In the meantime, I've been reading Marcia Colish's very interesting Faith, Force and Fiction in Medieval Baptism Debates (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2014) and have been intrigued to learn that a long tradition exists of persons pretending to administer and/or receive baptism (a practice technically known as "fictive baptism"). Equally intriguing is the fact that a long tradition exists of Christian theologians wrestling with the possibility that pretended baptisms might actually be real -- that is, valid, and perhaps even effective.

In the early church stories arose of pagan persons who pretended baptism as part of Roman plays enacted on stage in mockery of Christian beliefs. In other words, water was applied to individuals in the Triune name not in the interest of actually conferring the sacrament, but in ridicule of Christian faith and ritual. But, according to Christian legend, the actors undergoing baptism in mockery of Christian practice were on more than one occasion actually converted by the sacrament, and then immediately announced as much to their fellow-actors and audiences, and -- without fail -- were martyred either by the unimpressed crowds or civil authorities who happened to be in attendance. This apparently happened to one Ardalion in 293, one Gelasinus in 296, and one Porphyrius in 362.

Roman actors weren't the only ones engaging in pretended baptisms. The fourth-century historian Rufinus tells a story of the Alexandrian Bishop Alexander observing several young boys mimicking Christian baptism on the banks of the river Nile. Intrigued (and somewhat troubled) by the scene, Alexander had the boys brought to him and interrogated them regarding their play. When one boy among them who had assumed the role of "bishop" described to Alexander the words and rite he had employed in baptizing his friends, Alexander concluded that the baptisms administered were in fact valid, and that the baptized boys should subsequently be catechized. The young baptizer (who himself came under care of the church) was no other than Athanasius, the future (real) bishop of Alexandria who championed the cause of Nicene orthodoxy for much of the fourth century.

The stories of actors and children pretending -- whether innocently or not -- baptisms which, by one judgment or another, proved valid if not effective, figured significantly into later patristic and medieval conversations about the proper criteria for baptismal validity and efficacy. So Augustine, for example, reckoned that pretended baptisms were genuine and that recipients of such, even if genuine faith came later, should not be re-baptized, but denied that such baptisms were ultimately effective (as instruments for those spiritual realities which baptism signifies, such as the remission of sins) until the persons so baptized came to genuine faith and repentance (See Augustine's On baptism 1.12). This of course complemented Augustine's position on baptisms administered by profane or heretical persons -- such baptisms, according to Augustine, were likewise valid (but ineffectual unless or until the baptized joined himself to the true church). Thomas Aquinas took a slightly stricter view on these matters, arguing that proper intent to receive baptism was a criterion for baptism's validity (at least for those of sufficient age to intend), thereby raising doubts about the authenticity (and so, by implication, the purported efficacy) of at least those baptisms received by Roman actors.

I'm not sure whether our Protestant traditions have included much or any discussion about the validity of pretended baptisms. I suspect that, at least for those of Reformed persuasion, our peculiar sacramentology has somewhat reduced anxieties about whether such pretended rituals are valid or not. There's also the fact that we've drifted so far from the rather Augustinian criteria for baptismal validity established in our Reformed confessions (see for example WCF 27.3) that questions about the validity of pretended baptisms have become moot. So far as I can judge, few Reformed folk today actually believe that the right ritual (say, the application of water) coupled with the right words (of institution) and the faithful work of the Spirit actually make baptism -- wherever it be administered -- Christian and therefore valid as such. Contra Augustine, we've conflated the question of baptismal validity with that of baptismal efficacy, and even more so with that of the legitimacy of specific Christian communions, and so embraced stricter criteria for baptismal validity per se than those criteria adopted by our Reformed forefathers in the faith.

Regardless, I'm somewhat relieved that those baptisms recently performed by my daughter have failed to meet any historic Christian group's criteria for validity. Granted there's been some water thrown around, and the word "baptism" has been shouted frequently. But there has been nothing said, I'm happy to report, which even remotely resembles the words Christ bid his followers use to baptize disciples (Matt. 28.19). In fact, the "baptisms" my daughter has administered would seem to bear more affinity with that sacramental ritual famously performed by Nacho Libre than that performed by young Athanasius.