While in seminary I enrolled in a course on worship theology. As part of that course I wrote a paper about baptism. The paper is below. In the paper I write about the different views on baptism. Maybe this will be informative for you. Don’t hesitate to ask questions or have discussion.
This was a word document with footnotes and end notes. If the references don’t come through clearly enough, please let me know. God bless, Steve
Over the past two thousand years of church history people have talked, people have argued, people have divided, people have been thrown in prison and people have been killed all over the issue of the correct age, mode and meaning of baptism. Why? Why is this issue so controversial? Does the Scripture spell out the issue strong enough to make a case for one view or the other? Is one certain view completely unbiblical? That is exactly what the next few pages will be written about. The next few pages will give a brief examination of the major views on baptism. Furthermore, the next few pages will talk about the Biblical reasoning and the church history that developed these views. Lastly, I will switch from being objective to being subjective in that I will write about my personal view with supporting evidence.
Paedobaptism seems to be the dominant way of baptism throughout church history, especially early church history. Paedobaptism means to baptize as an infant. People or religious groups that subscribe to this view will base their belief off of certain Scriptures in the New Testament wherein the text says that the “whole household” was baptized (Acts 16:15, 33; 1Cor 1:16). Gentile converts into Judaism were called proselytes. They were baptized and scholars think the children were also baptized. Beasley-Murray writes in his book on Baptism in the New Testament: “A gentile, who did not observe the Levitical regulations concerning purity, was unclean as a matter of course, and so could not be admitted into Jewish communions without a tebilah, a ritual bath of purification.” Beasley-Murrah does not allow that to settle the issue. He goes on to write about this proselyte baptism as much more complicated. Even so, it is clear that there were certain rules of ritual washing that could have come over to the New Testament Christians. Beasley-Murrah writes later on in his book, “On these grounds it is maintained that the practice of baptizing whole households in the early church makes infant baptism as good as certain.” He further writes, “The role of the head of the house in ancient society had an importance beyond that which pertains in modern society and its application in this particular must be given due recognition. All important questions were decided by the head of the house and his decisions were binding on all…” So based off of that evidence many believe that the head of the house receives a new religion, then the rest of the household will follow. Jeschke seems to think that the New Testament model is of missionary baptism because the New Testament times were full of adult converts. Bridge and Phypers in their work write that the new Christians would have automatically had their children baptized into the covenant. So, that is one possible reason that paedobaptism became popular within the early church. The idea is also that in ancient Judaism whenever there was a covenant the covenant included the children as well. The idea is that baptism replaced the practice of circumcision. Another reason that many hold to this view is based off of Jesus’ invitations for the children to come to Him (Mark 10:13-16).
Even given the evidence above, we cannot know for certain when and why paedobaptism became prevalent in the church. Was it because in the Old Testament a covenant included the whole family? That is possible. Did it have anything to do with the proselyte’s ritual bath? That is possible as well. What we do know for certain is that paedobaptism was prominent within the church by the end of the third century. Origen, an influential teacher, was writing, “the church has received a tradition from the Apostles to give baptism even to little children.” So, no matter how the issues are debated it is fact that by the third century many were practicing paedobaptism. Further evidence is given by those who subscribe to this view by a quote from Polycarp. In AD 156 during persecution he said: “Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong: how then can I blaspheme my King who saved me”? So, many think that he is stating fact that he was baptized as an infant. Even if Polycarp was not baptized as an infant, the quote from Origen makes it pretty clear that infant baptism developed in the church pretty early.
Later on, in the fourth century, infant baptism became the standard norm of the church. It would stay this way for just over one thousand years. From about the time of Augustine (354-430) the idea became that baptism saves by itself (ex opera operato). This was about the time that the doctrine of original sin became a held belief as well. Years later, Martin Luther would even say that “in the act of baptism, faith is infused to the infant.” He based this off of Luke 1:40-44 when the text says “the babe leaped in her womb.”
Although for over a thousand years the prominent belief was that infant baptism was salvation, most today do not believe this. The author does not think it is easy to tell where Calvin and Luther stands on whether or not baptism brought salvation to the infant. Pressed on what was the condition of a baptized child, Calvin fell back on the priority of grace: “God… sanctifies whom He pleases.” So, Calvin would go back to his doctrine of God’s grace, in which case baptism would not even matter. Calvin also said, “infant baptism is valid for two primary reasons: 1) God’s covenant includes the children of believers, and 2) Jesus urges believers to bring their children to Him.” Later on Wesley said, “’Lean no more on the staff of that broken reed, that ye were born again in baptism,” His emphasis was on the word ‘were.’ He did not say that there baptism was ineffective at the time but had become since.” Wesley clearly believed that the baptism was a special place of God’s grace that later on had to be acted upon. Wesley wrote: “baptism is necessary because it is one of the ordinances by which the grace of God is ordinarily conveyed.” Further, Wesley taught: “baptism is necessary, for it is, ‘in the ordinary way’, the only means of entering the church or into Heaven…’ this is the way to enter into covenant with God.” Wesley taught that the first benefit of baptism is washing away the guilt of original sin. Wesley argued that infants, too, are in need of baptism because of original sin. Wesley said that baptism alone was not enough to achieve a state of grace. So, Wesley was for infant baptism based off of original sin. Yet, he acknowledged that baptism was not equal to salvation. For as an adult got older they had to follow that up with faith.
As far as the mode of infant baptism is concerned, in the Church of England they would dip in water thrice. Calvin thought local custom should be followed for the mode of baptism, sprinkling in Geneva. Luther practiced immersion and highlighted forgiveness of sins with washing away. So, there are various ways. Just as a note, Sprinkling or aspersion. In the early centuries sprinkling was reserved for the sick or those too weak to receive public baptism by immersion or pouring. Sprinkling was not accepted in general usage until the thirteenth century.
Now, adult baptism is simply as it sounds. This is the practice where one is not baptized until they are old enough to have made a conscious decision to accept the Gospel. Adult baptism is the easiest to understand and accept. All of the explicit New Testament occurrences of baptism are believers. In Acts 2:39 the Scripture says that the promise of the Holy Spirit includes children. To baptize means to “immerse.” Based off of Romans 6 and Colossians 2 baptizing is symbolic of dying with Christ and rising again. According to the Didache, which was written sometime in the first century, they were fasting prior to baptism. They were also instructed to baptize in either running water, or by pouring water on the head. So, by this time in the early church it would seem that they were baptizing adults. There are no instructions in the Didache about baptizing infants. An infant could not fast before baptism.
Of three of the New Testament passages that mention a whole household being baptized, the baptist response is: “If the promise to Cornelius (Acts 10:14) suggests that his infant children received baptism along with him, we must also conclude that they spoke in tongues and extolled God (Acts 10:36-48). If the infant children were baptized with the Philippian Jailor they must have been brought from their beds in the wee hours of the night. (Acts 16:33). If Paul baptized infants in the household of Stephanas they must have been precocious because we later learn that the household of Stephanas ministered to the saints (1Cor 16:15)” This, of course, does not prove that there were not infant baptisms in the New Testament. This simply proves that it is not that “cut and dry.” Bridge and Phypers write, “Many people baptized in infancy will reject their faith. Keep baptism for Christians.” So, from this train of thought is the idea that baptism is for people who have made a conscious decision to accept the Gospel. When infants are baptized this allows many of these infants to grow up not believing the Gospel, yet being members of the church.
It seems that there is ample evidence of the early church baptizing infants, but there is also evidence of the early church baptizing adults. One source, the Didache, was listed earlier. Writing in the second or early third century, the church father, Tertullian wrote a very convincing argument against infant baptism. His argument was that many of these people grow up to reject the faith, or misrepresent the faith. He wanted people to accept Christ on their own. During his time period they needed authentic Christians. Persecution was heavy and one alleged Christian misrepresenting Christianity could harm the image of Christianity.
“Baptism for Justin[Martyr, died about A.D. 163], is the means whereby men and women are dedicated to God and made new through Christ. It is given to as many are persuaded and believe that the things are true which are taught by the church and undertake to be able to live accordingly. It is preceded by prayer and fasting by the candidates and congregation. Then they are brought where there is water and are born again, being washed in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is administered that the baptized may obtain remission of sins formerly committed. It is followed by prayers and the celebration of communion along with the assembled congregation.”
This view makes it clear that to him baptism was for believers. The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus between the second and third century church of Rome also shows that baptism was for believers. So, there is also ample evidence of this same argument within the early church. It was not until Augustine and his doctrine of original sin that it is almost without argument that baptism is for infants. The reasoning for that was because there was the fear that if an infant died unbaptized the infant would go to hell. Schmemann writes: “Baptism was understood as the means to assure the individual salvation of man’s soul.” So, it is clear that they thought of baptism as the way to salvation.
Later on with the reformation the views on baptism started to change. Conrad Grebel and others started to develop the idea of baptizing adults. This later led to the Baptist and other denominations that believe that baptism is for believers. Later John Bunyan came along and gave his view of why baptism is not to take the place of circumcision: Bunyan said that baptism was initiation and not new covenant equivalent to circumcision. Circumcision was a renewed heart and right spirit. (Romans 2:28, 29; Philippians 3:1-4). This is probably a very popular view today. Adult baptism has probably become the most popular form of baptism. There are 100,000 churches in USA with baptismals This section will end with the statement of Karl Barth. Karl Barth gave the most antipaeobaptism comments in 1943:
Barth in 1943: baptism “is in essence the representation of a man’s renewal through his participation by means of the power of the Holy Spirit in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” His conclusion was that only a mature person can respond to such an image. Baptism is cognitive, not causative. He argued the baptism of infants is necessarily “clouded baptism.” He thought it should be stopped but he didn’t think that those baptized as infants need rebaptized.
Adult baptism can and has been done in various ways. The Anabaptist simply poured water on the individual’s head. The drunkards would dunk the individual three times. Many churches, including the Baptist, simply dunk you backwards in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit and then bring you back up. This is symbolic of dying with Christ and rising again (Col 2). It is important to remember the Trinity in baptism. Torrance in his book talked about how much we neglect the Trinity in our worship services: “Bishop Lesslie Newbigin has commented “’The average Christian in this country hears the name of God, he or she does not think of the Trinity.” After many years of missionary work in India among Eastern religions, he returned to find that much worship in the west is in practice, if not in theory, Unitarian.”
At this point it is important to write a little bit more about what baptism signifies and why it is important. Torrance says: “The importance of baptism is not who or how but what it signifies.” On pages seventy through eighty Torrance goes into detail of what baptism signifies. Among them, baptism signifies what Christ did on the cross for us.
Now as I shift to share my view and why, allow me to share some of the Theologian Wayne Grudem’s response to the paedobaptist view. Grudem agrees that there are many similarities between circumcision and baptism. However, he says that “one became a Jew by being born of Jewish parents. Therefore, all Jewish males were circumcised. Circumcision was not restricted to people who had true inward spiritual life, but rather was given to all who lived among the people of Israel.” Grudem goes on to say that one becomes a member of the church by being born spiritually. Before one became a member of the Jewish community by being born in Israel and circumcised. Now we are born of the Spirit. Grudem also responds to the household baptism comments. In Acts 16:32 Paul spoke of the word of the Lord to the Philippian jailer and all that were in his house. Grudem’s thought is that if he spoke the Word of the Lord to all that were in his house, there is the assumption that they were old enough to believe. Also, the household of Stephanas, Grudem makes note of 1Cor 16:15 and how they ministered to the saints, so he thinks they were old enough to understand the Gospel.
I start with Grudem’s summarization because that is the position that I take. There could have been infant baptisms, and that would not hurt my faith. But I do not see enough evidence to say that they were infant baptisms. I believe that since the New Testament always shows baptism follow faith that is the way we should do things today. I see a problem in the Baptist church that baptism doesn’t follow faith soon enough. We make it such a celebration that it is postponed too long. I also see a problem in the Baptist church where people think they are saved because of baptism. That is dead wrong as well.
Too me, Baptism is symbolic of what Christ did on the cross for us. We are dead to our old way. We die with Christ in our baptism and rise with Him in our baptism (Romans 6; Col 2). Baptism is also a testimony that we are Christians. I have heard of stories where a Muslim converts to Christianity and at the baptism his family denies him. The baptism is a testimony. Lastly, baptism is symbolic of washing our sins away. I like Calvin’s writings on God’s grace. But, I do not agree that we baptize infants because of God’s grace. God’s prevenient grace is still active.
We live in a day where many people in Europe are baptized but have nothing to do with the church. We live in a day where Christianity is under attack and we need true Christians. In this case I make the argument that Tertullian made. Let them be Christians and then get baptized. But this should not divide the church. I want to close the paper with a quote from Bridge and Phypers: “God is at work by His Spirit on both sides of the baptismal divide.”
Beasley-Murray, George R. Baptism in the New Testament. Waynesboro, GA:Paternoster by arrangement with Macmillan & Company Ltd, digital edition 2005.
Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water that Divides: the Baptism Debate. Downers Grove, ILL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1977.
Dr. Stamps, WO515 course notes 01.14.2010
Enns, P. P. The Moody handbook of theology. Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press. 1997, c1989.
Grudem, Wayne. Bible Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999.
Jeschke, Marlin. Believer’s Baptism for Children of the Church. Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 1983.
Naglee, David Ingersoll. From Font to Faith, American University Studies. Series VII. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc, 1987.
Parris, John R. John Wesley’s Doctrine of the Sacraments. London: Epworth Press, 1963
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988.
Torrance, James B. Worship, Community & The Triune God of Grace. Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press, 1996.
White, James F. The Sacraments in Protestant Practice and Faith. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999.