Jim the Anabaptist Fireman

This has shown up a couple of times recently on my Google+ with my saved Anabaptist search. The comments that go with it usually find it hilarious. I’m not sure I get the humour, but maybe that’s just because I think their presentation of Anabaptist theology is quite ignorant. I’m assuming it was done in an attempt at humour so I’m not holding it against them or anything, but it is clearly an adventure in missing the point if they are trying to say something theological with it.

Right from the definition of Anabaptist at the beginning, they refer to how they “falsely” understood baptism to be a choice of the human will. Who’s defining “falsely”? In this case, a Lutheran satirist, but Catholics and Orthodox would definitely agree. Reformed would be sympathetic, with a view closer to Anabaptists, although most at least early on had other reasons to think that infant baptism was ok.

Then the actual satire begins, and the Anabaptist fireman says that “you shouldn’t rescue people from a fire until they’re old enough to want to be rescued”. So baptism is equated to rescue from fire. This makes perfect sense in some theologies of baptism, definitely, as baptism in and of itself ensures you go to Heaven when you die, or at least is a big help in getting you to Heaven (i.e. that you avoid the fires of Hell when you die, which is the default because of original sin). And if you believe this underlying idea of baptism and of original sin, then it makes perfect sense to baptize infants. In fact, it would make even more sense to run around throwing water on everybody you can and saying whatever the necessary liturgical words are in your tradition: even if the recipient gets angry at you, you’ve saved their soul so it is obviously worth it. Interestingly we don’t see people doing that, but if you took this satire and its theological analogy literally (and I know it’s a satire so you aren’t supposed to completely), then this type of doing what you think saves people whether they want it or not is actually encouraged.

But the obvious problem is that baptism for the Anabaptist isn’t about the necessary rituals required to avoid Hell. Anabaptists believe that being a Christian means a radical following of Christ in every action of our lives, not that we had water sprinkled on our heads by a priest/pastor, whether as a child or adult. Baptism is a symbol, a public declaration, that we have made this commitment to Jesus, and this commitment is what frees us and saves us. Therefore, at a month old, you can’t have made that kind of commitment. It is not about choosing to be saved, but about choosing to commit their lives to the Kingdom of God. It’s actually the opposite of denying salvation to children. From our perspective, it is avoiding telling somebody they are saved when they aren’t. Many Anabaptists as well as other proponents of this view now would actually see it as a tragedy that so many people are being taught that they are saved because they were sprinkled with water, even if they haven’t cared in the slightest about Jesus before, during, or since. The early Anabaptists argued for this view from Scripture, and over the next five hundred years, especially after the work of John Wesley, many other evangelical denominations have come to agree with us, but many (the majority of Christians) still don’t, as evidenced in this video.

Of course there is also the element of free will involved here. The two branches of the Protestant Reformation – Lutheran and Reformed – agreed that humans had no free will. God had already decided who was saved and who wasn’t. Historically speaking, I think it is fair to say that this was largely motivated by a desire to take the power to save out of the hands of the Catholic Church which claimed to have it and was abusing it (before their own Reformation). To take the power away from the Catholic Church’s abusive monopoly on salvation, they said that there was no human action involved in the salvation process at all. They then kept baptism around as a ritual, though, citing other reasons, like that it was a replacement for circumcision as a mark of the new covenant (which similarly had no choice involved). They did call baptism and Eucharist sacraments, though, which means a way by which God’s grace is delivered, as opposed to the Anabaptists who stubbornly called (and still call) them ordinances which simply means something carried out in response to a command of Jesus.

With the Protestants, the Anabaptists agreed that salvation was a gift of God. Our works have nothing to do with it. Relevant to this question, for the Anabaptists, “works” include the ordinances of baptism and the Eucharist. But unlike most Protestants then and some today, they didn’t see accepting the gift as a work. On the contrary, they sided with the majority of their Catholic brothers and sisters who believed in the freedom of the human will to choose, saying that God offered this gift of saving grace to all but we could either accept that or reject it. Put these two theologies of free will and salvation by grace through faith together, and the view of baptism makes perfect sense. Baptism, as well as the Lord’s Supper, was taken as a declaration of this decision to accept God’s grace and to follow his teaching. But baptism was never a source of grace or salvation in itself, because that was only something that God could give. So this video is completely missing the point when it equates baptism with saving somebody from a fire.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.