Debating Baptism With Baptists

The differences separating Orthodoxy from the many Baptist churches are too numerous to address in a blog post—or perhaps even in a large door-stopper of a book.  Here I would like to examine but one of those differences—viz. the Baptist refusal to baptize infants and their insistence upon a personal confession of faith from the candidate before baptism.

This doctrine or policy is often called “anti-paedobaptism” (i.e. anti-child baptism, from the Greek word παιδίον/ paidion for “child”), or (less negatively) as “credo-baptism”, because as a condition for baptism the candidate must confess what he believes (from the Latin credo, “I believe”).  The Baptist churches are not alone in this understanding of baptism and this policy; it is also the policy of such groups as the Pentecostal churches, and many if not most Evangelical denominations.

Before debating the issue of whether or not infants may be baptized, we must first look at what is meant by “baptism”—i.e. what is accomplished by the ritual Christian immersion (for “baptism”—in Greek βάπτισμα/ baptisma—means “immersion” or “dipping”.)

Baptist groups are clear and adamant that the immersion (for them usually a single immersion, as opposed to the early church’s practice of a triple one) does not bestow spiritual realities such as the new birth, the remission of sins, or the gift of salvation and sonship.  Rather, the Baptist immersion is merely a sign of such realities, the realities themselves being received prior to baptism when the candidate first “asked Jesus into his heart”.

Thus, for example, the Nazarene churches (which allow for sprinkling instead of immersion, and even the baptism of young children) still insist that “baptism is…richly symbolic action, the celebration of baptism stirs our imaginations to perceive the work of God and the contours of the gospel more clearly…It is at once a sign of the washing away of sin, a sign of our union with Jesus’ death and resurrection, a sign of the promise of new birth in Christ, a sign of incorporation in the church, a sign of the promise of the Holy Spirit, and a sign of the covenant and kingdom of God. The celebration of baptism can highlight each of these aspects of the gospel” (from a Nazarene statement of faith, italics mine).  This lengthy statement sums up the symbolic nature of the sacrament—baptism is a sign of the saving realities already experienced, not the means of receiving them.

It is otherwise in the New Testament, the early church, and Orthodoxy.  The New Testament is clear that baptism is the means of receiving these saving realities.  Baptism regenerates; it bestows the remission of sins, and the gift of sonship and salvation.

debating-baptismThus the Lord said to Nicodemus that to enter the Kingdom of God one must be born again through water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5).  The water is clearly the water of baptism, given that the context refers to John and the Lord’s disciples baptizing (see v. 22f).   On the Day of Pentecost, when asked by the crowd how they could be saved, Peter replied, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).  When Paul wanted to convert, Ananias said to him, “Why do you wait?  Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His Name” (Acts 22:16).   Paul himself wrote that baptism meant being “buried with Him into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  He wrote that in baptism we “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27), and that God saved us “through a bath of rebirth” (Titus 3:5).  He writes that the Church has been “cleansed by the washing of the water in the Word” (Ephesians 5:26).  Not surprisingly therefore, Peter wrote that “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21)—not by the mere water alone, but because through this water the Church makes its sacramental appeal to God for a good conscience.

Thus according to the New Testament (and the later unanimous testimony of the Church Fathers) baptism is not just a sign, but an effectual and saving sign.  In the words of St. Peter, “baptism saves us” because it is through baptism that one enters the Body of Christ and becomes sacramentally united to the Saviour in His Church.  Why then do the Baptist churches insist that baptism does not save us, but salvation only comes as a result of the confession of personal faith so that baptism can be no more than a mere sign?  The historical answer, I suggest, is to be sought in the nominalism and laxity found in almost all State churches at the time of the Reformation.

At the time of the Reformation, all baptisms were administered to the infant children of Christian adults—regardless of the fervency or reality of the adults’ faith.  That is, one was considered to be a Christian by virtue of one’s infant baptism and one’s citizenship in the Christian state even apart from the quality of one’s personal faith.  Intellectual assent to the dogmas of the Church was assumed and universal (or at least widespread), but fervent commitment to Christ may or may not have accompanied such intellectual assent. The State and the Church were more or less co-terminus, so that to be (for example) an Englishman meant that one was also thereby a Christian.  Real faith (as opposed to mere intellectual assent), though assumed, was not always present.  (It was this state of affairs that inspired some fervent men and women to push further into a deeper commitment to Christ and become monastics.)

One can see at once the problematics with such a situation and the use of general—i.e. indiscriminate—baptism.  The clergy did not inquire about the fervent faith of the adults bringing children for baptism.  All such children brought to the font were baptized.  The solution, for some people at the time of the Reformation, was to insist that commitment to Christ accompany the request for baptism.  And this meant not a commitment to Christ on the part of the parents and sponsors who would raise the child (as in the early church), but a commitment on the part of the baptismal candidate himself.  In this model, baptism was only to be given to those who could speak for themselves and make a personal commitment to Christ.

It was good, I suggest, that baptism was no longer indiscriminately administered; what was less good was the focus upon the candidate alone to the exclusion of  the sponsors. This insistence privileged individualistic intellectual understanding and choice in a way that was at odds with the more corporate understanding of personhood and choice found in the Bible and the early church.

Admittedly this policy of credo-baptism need not in itself necessarily have entailed a denial of baptismal regeneration.  The Anabaptist policy was in theory still capable of retaining the ancient apostolic view of baptism as regenerative and saving.  But when coupled with the later revivalistic practice of coming to faith through saying a prayer, the meaning of baptism was downgraded from a saving sacrament to a merely symbolic sign.

What does all this mean for the present?  For many people there are only two models available:  one model in which all baptisms are those of infants (the “paedo-baptist”), and another model in which all baptisms are those of older children and adults (the “credo-baptist”).

Neither model corresponds to the one used by the early church, for in the early church most baptisms were those of adults, with a few baptisms administered to the infants of believing families.  We see this reflected in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, dated about 215 A.D. wherein Hippolytus says, “First baptize the small children.  And each one who is able to speak for themselves, let them speak.  But those not able to speak for themselves, let their parents or another one belonging to their family speak for them.  Afterward baptize the grown men, and finally, the women”.  It is clear that baptism was considered to be an adult rite of conversion—one which could nonetheless be administered even to small children.

In fact, the two models correspond to two different situations.  In the early church, most baptisms were those of adult converts because the Christians were a distinct and embattled minority within society.  At that time, the Church grew mostly through adult conversions, though of course some Christian couples presented their infants or young children for baptism as well.  Later, when most of society had been converted (with whatever thoroughness can be debated) all or most of the adults were already Christian and so the Church grew through the baptism of infants.  Thus the two models—the paedo-baptist and the credo-baptist—are not so much rival models addressing the same situation as they are different models for different situations and times.

I suggest that with the fall of Christendom and the rise of a robustly secular West we are returning to the situation that characterized the early church.  That is, increasingly the church will grow through converts, though of course those converts will present their children for baptism as well.  Thus most of our baptisms will be those of adults.  This is already the situation here at my parish of St. Herman’s, where almost all of our converts are received by baptism and we also baptize the children of our believing members.

The Baptist churches were right in deploring the use of indiscriminate baptism and wondering why the paedo-baptist churches so little resembled the early church in their baptismal practice.  It may (or may not) be a comfort to learn that we are fast returning to life in a secular society where, because of society’s rejection of the Christian faith, many of our baptisms will be those of converts, as they were in the early church.

Source: No Other Foundation

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