A couple of weeks ago I gave a brief presentation on the subject of Baptism in the link group in my halls. Given the fact that the question of Baptism has recently been an issue for intense discussion on the Boar’s Head Tavern (one of my favourite websites) I thought that I might as well post my thoughts on the subject. The vast majority of the following is not directly pertinent to the debate in hand, but you never know, someone might find it helpful. There is really hardly anything in the following that hasn’t been said many times before; it is extremely basic. You have been warned.
Before Christian Baptism
If we wish to understand the meaning of Christian Baptism we will do well to start with a study of its predecessors. The error that many Christians have made is that of studying Christian Baptism as if it were some altogether new rite in history, whose meaning was to be discovered in isolation from any of the rites that had preceded it. Christian Baptism isn’t a rite created ex nihilo. Rather, Christian Baptism is related to a number of previous rites. Its meaning is in large measure to be discovered within its difference from these previous rites (as Peter Leithart observes, Augustine’s argument for this position was an interesting proto-structuralist move on his part). Christian Baptism (to use an analogy of Leithart’s) is a conjugation of a verbal root that is shared with a number of OT rites.
The first time that we see baptism in the NT it is when we meet John the Baptist, baptizing in the Jordan in Mark 1. John baptizes for the forgiveness of sins in light of the coming kingdom. God is returning to dwell among His people and is forming a new Israel around Jesus the Messiah, who embodies His return. Significantly, John’s baptism takes place in the wilderness. By going into the wilderness the people recapitulate the entry into the land and confess their exile from God’s presence. The baptism of John offers amnesty for all who will pledge their allegiance to the returning king. John baptizes with water speaking of a greater baptism that is yet to come. Jesus will baptize the people of God with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
John’s baptism was not an entirely new thing. There were many types of ‘baptisms’ or ritual cleansings in the OT (see Hebrews 9:10), generally involving sprinkling with blood, not merely washing with water. There were also a number of salvation events through water in the OT that are related to NT baptism. Noah’s ark is an important example (1 Peter 3:20-21). The Red Sea crossing is also described as a ‘baptism’ (1 Corinthians 10:2). It was at this ‘baptism’ that Israel was separated from Egypt and became a new people, having the Holy Spirit put within them (Isaiah 63:11) and being led by God through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
One of the most significant forms of baptism in the OT was baptism for priesthood. Baptism for priesthood involved washing with water, putting on new clothes and being anointing with oil (Exodus 40:12-14). When John came baptizing his baptism would have been understood in the light of these previous baptisms and salvation events. Unless we have a firm grasp of this background we will miss much of the significance of John’s baptism and later Christian Baptism.
One of the important things to observe is the role that baptism played as part of a larger story of a people. Baptism was the means by which God formed His OT people. It was the means by which He established the postdiluvian creation. It was the means by which He created Israel as a separate nation. It was the means by which He purified His people and enabled them to re-enter His presence when they had been exiled. This dimension of Baptism as a means of community formation over the course of redemptive is one that needs to be far to the forefront of our minds if we are to understand the NT’s teaching on the subject.
The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan
Surprisingly, Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized in the Jordan. It seems to me that there were a number of reasons for this. In doing so he identified with His people, even in their sin. It is at this moment that Jesus became the leader of the new Israel that was being formed by John’s baptism. The baptism of Jesus by John was something more than the baptism that the rest of those baptized by John received. They received a baptism of cleansing and forgiveness; Jesus received a baptism of ordination. In His baptism Jesus was set apart for priesthood (at the age of 30 — Luke 3:21-23; cf. Numbers 4), He was anointed by the Holy Spirit for ministry and marked out as God’s beloved Son.
After His baptism Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where He faced temptation by the devil after forty days and nights of fasting. Jesus was the tip of God’s spear to take on the forces of darkness. Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at His baptism. Later His people were baptized by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus was bringing about a new exodus and the situation was comparable to that which existed in the first exodus. The story of the exodus began with Moses being taken out of the water and delivered from Pharaoh’s hands (Exodus 2:1-10). What has happened to the leader of the people then happens to the rest of the people as they are baptized into (brought into union with, made one with) their leader (1 Corinthians 10:2).
There is a further great and terrible baptism in Christ’s life — the baptism of His death (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). Baptism is a death to an old type of existence and a rebirth to a new form of existence. The Flood was a baptism: the old world perished and a new world took its place. The Red Sea crossing was a baptism: Israel ceased to be slaves of the Egyptians and became a new nation and heirs of the Promised Land. Jesus’ death was a baptism: He died to existence in the old dying creation and was raised again to life in the freedom of the Spirit and the new creation.
On the Day of Pentecost Jesus baptizes the Church with the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost the Church is anointed for its ministry in much the same way as Jesus Himself was anointed for His ministry by John the Baptist.
Christian baptism follows after the Day of Pentecost and differs from previous baptisms (even those performed by Christ and His disciples) in a number of respects. Christian baptism is baptism ‘into Christ’ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27). In the NT baptism is seen to form a new relationship between the baptized person and Christ. Baptism unites us to Christ, like marriage unites husband and wife as one flesh.
Baptism ‘plugs us into’ Christ. In baptism we become united with Christ and share in all that belongs to Him. In baptism we are united to Christ in His baptism. We are declared to be God’s beloved children and are set apart as priests in the new temple of the Church (see Ephesians 2:19-22). In baptism we are united to Christ in His death (Romans 6:3-6). His death becomes our death. We are delivered from the realm and rule of Satan and brought into the kingdom of God as free sons and heirs. In baptism we are united to Christ in His resurrection. We are given new life in the freedom of the Spirit. In baptism we are united to Christ in His ascension. Christ’s ascension is the Church’s Pentecost. Christ is placed above all rulers, principalities, powers and authorities (Ephesians 1:20-21) and all things are put into His hands. When we are baptized into Christ we come to share in His authority as His people and are authorized and empowered to act as His ambassadors and representatives.
It is important to recognize that Christian Baptism differs from previous baptisms because it ‘plugs us’ into a more developed stage of redemptive history. Rather than merely mirroring a transition that has already taken place in the life of the individual, Baptism accomplishes its own transition. Baptism brings us into relationship with Christ and with His people and makes us partakers of all that belongs to them. In so doing it knits us into a story that is bigger than our own. The modern tendency to understand the meaning of Baptism purely in terms of a person’s individual life story is deeply unhelpful.
Baptism is also baptism into the body of Christ. Unfortunately, modern understandings of baptism are generally very individualistic and lose sight of some of these essential dimensions of baptism. Baptism is the means by which God forms one new family, formed of people from all sorts of backgrounds, bound together by one Spirit. He is forming this people of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, rich and poor, north and south, east and west. All peoples are being gathered together and being made into one new nation. In the OT God established a world of separation and blood. In the NT God establishes a world of watery union. God is forming a new society in which water is thicker than blood.
Every baptism is different and special in its own way. Like a birth into a family changes the whole family, so each baptism transforms the Church. In baptism the baptized person receives every other person in the Church as brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers and the members of the Church receive the baptized person as brother or sister, daughter or son. Through baptism we become members of each other. There are few things more joyful than a baptism.
The Bible teaches that there is one Baptism (Ephesians 4:5). When we are baptized we are drawn into this one Baptism. This one Baptism began with Christ’s own baptism and with His crucifixion. It was poured out on the Church at Pentecost and continues to this day, overcoming all separations that lie in its way. It pours as an unstoppable torrent of grace over racial divides, national boundaries, divisions between the sexes, geographical distance, class and social divisions, differences in upbringing, wealth, status and power and transforms us into one new people.
What should my Baptism mean to me?
When I reflect upon my baptism, all that I have already said can seem quite distant and irrelevant. Perhaps I was baptized as an infant and cannot even remember the event. It should not be like this. Baptism is first and foremost an event in which we are given a new identity, new rights and privileges. The significance of our baptisms is not primarily to be sought in our feelings on the occasion, but in the significance of the event of baptism itself. When we are discouraged, tempted or fearful we ought to remind ourselves of our baptisms. Luther was said to have a plaque in his study which read ‘I have been baptized’. Luther used to drawn strength from this in times of despair. In our baptism God formally forgave us our sins, declared us to be His beloved children, making us full members of His family and heirs of His kingdom. He has declared Himself to be on our side.
We cannot, however, take the blessings that God gave us at our baptisms for granted. The new identity and relationships that we are brought into at baptism are things that must be lived out by faith. The document releasing a slave from his master is relatively meaningless if he continues to turn up for work every morning. God has set us free so that we might live as free people. God has declared us to be His children so that we might live as His children. Our baptisms are like gifts that must be opened up with joy and gratitude. If we leave the gift of our baptisms unopened we are in a worse position than those who have never been baptized at all. As we grow as Christians we ought to grow into a deeper appreciation of what God actually gave to us in our baptisms. We need to learn to think of ourselves differently and to live out our new identities.
Infant Baptism and Believers’ Baptism
The question of whether infants ought to be baptized is one that is a matter of considerable debate in the Church. Sadly the very waters of baptism that should unite us have been a cause for considerable division. Many Baptists find themselves unable in good conscience to recognize the validity of the baptisms of those baptized as infants, which accounts for a significant number of the members of the Church worldwide. They do not hold this position out of a desire for division, but out of a firm conviction that the Bible does not justify the baptism of infants.
They put forward a number of arguments for their position. The following is a representative selection:
1. Infants do not have faith. You must believe in order to be baptized (Mark 16:16; Acts 8:36-37). The baptism of someone who does not have faith is neither proper nor valid.
2. Infants do not have the capacity to commit themselves to the life of the community and so ought not to be baptized into it.
3. Baptizing infants creates nominal Christians and downplays the importance of personal faith in the life of the Church.
4. Baptizing infants imposes a religious identity upon them from outside. The infants should be allowed to make their own decision when they arrive at an age of independent judgment. Every person should choose Christ for him or herself.
5. Christians are made, not born. The fact that you are born into a Christian family does not make you a Christian.
6. The NT nowhere teaches that infants are to be baptized. As the NT is to be our authority for all doctrine and practice we must not baptize infants. Arguments for infant baptism are arguments from silence.
Those who baptize infants recognize the force of many of these objections, but are not persuaded by them. The following is one understanding (among many) of the practice of infant baptism.
The Baptist position starts with a particular understanding of the person. The Baptist position tends to see the person as an autonomous individual and the source of her own values and identity. This understanding of the person is far removed from non-Western and earlier understandings of the person. Within these other understandings the individual is understood in terms of their place within the community. For Baptists Christian faith is primarily seen in terms of the independence of adult faith. Once you take such a definition of faith to the NT you will find no justification for infant baptism. The problem here is that the definition of faith is far too narrow.
Our identities are not primarily of our own construction. We do not choose our families, our places of birth, our language, social status, etc. We are born into a set of relationships and allegiances, in which we have certain rights, privileges and duties. We must grow into roles that we never chose for ourselves. Just as sin cannot be reduced to individual, conscious and wilful acts, faith need not await our conscious decision or deliberate choice. The life of the Christian family is one of faith. This life is a shared life that the new born child becomes part of. As part of this shared life of faith, the child is to be accounted as a believer, even before they reach a stage of conscious decision.
The faith that the NT speaks of is not primarily a faith of individual adult believers. The faith by which we are saved is the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah. Our faith is one that anticipates, responds to or grows out of His faith. The baptizand is baptized in order that they might become a sharer in the faith of Christ. We are baptized into Christ and His death and grow out of His new humanity. In the NT faith is that which marks out the Christian community. However, this faith is not essentially the individual faith of individual believers, but a common participation in the faithfulness of the Messiah. Faith is primarily something that is ascribed to the community.
As individuals our lives grow out of communities. The modern world tends to present us as individuals who choose, as independent adults, to enter particular communities rather than others. However, this is not the usual pattern of events. We are not born neutral. We are ‘interdividuals’; belonging to community is natural, individuality is an achievement. The child who is born into a Christian family is a believer (not just someone who might believe at some later date). They are participants in a faithful community and, as such, are to be treated as believers. The child who is born into an unbelieving home is an unclean unbeliever and should be regarded as such. Such a way of thinking would be second nature to people within the first century, but it is very hard to wrap our modern minds around.
Within the OT we see that God treated His people this way. Circumcision was a ‘seal’ of the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:11), but Abraham’s sons received it as infants. They were accounted as members of the faithful people before they ever came to a decision for themselves. God is a family friend and as a family friend He looks at the children of His people differently. He regards them as ‘holy’, whilst He regards the children of unbelievers as ‘unclean’ (1 Corinthians 7:14). God does not look at people through the glasses of modern individualism. On a number of occasions within the NT we see whole households being baptized.
The Church exists in a relationship of faith towards and dependence upon God. When we are baptized we are brought into this relationship of faith and are called to grow in it. Those baptized as infants need to mature into adult faith.
Those who baptize infants often compare baptism to adoption. In adoption initiative is taken on behalf of someone else. God loves the infant children of Christian parents too much to leave them in limbo until they reach an age where they can make up their own mind. God wants them to be members of His household immediately. God claims them before they can ever claim Him. There are occasions when love insists that we take the initiative on behalf of someone else. In fact, infant baptists argue, this is the whole logic of the gospel: God takes the initiative on behalf of others who are powerless to do so.
In adoption someone is delivered from a tragic situation into a favourable situation. Baptism delivers us from the realm of Satan and brings us into God’s household as sons and daughters. Christian parents ought to have their infant children baptized because they want their children to have the privileges that come to members of God’s household. Adoption is an objective fact. The child is adopted, whatever he or she feels about it. However, God’s gift of adoption does not force us to respond appropriately and destroy our freedom.
Adoption is not an end in itself. The goal of adoption is for the adopted child to share fully in the life and love of its new family. The adopted child needs to grow into a deeper appreciation of what its adoption means and to a deeper commitment to the family that it has been made a member of. The adoption would be meaningless apart from this. Infant baptism must be followed by lifelong discipleship.
The focus for Baptists tends to be upon the action of the candidate for baptism. Baptism is something that we do as a means of expressing our faith towards God. For infant baptists the passivity of the person baptized is more prominent. Baptism is primarily God’s gracious action towards us, performed by His ministers. Only secondarily is it our response to Him.