“You’ve come a long way, baby.” These were the first words from the mouth of Dr. Jeffery Bingham as he began our second semester of Church history while I was a student in seminary. We have, as he repeatedly emphasized, come a long way from the time of Jesus and the time of the early church. And in the two thousand years between the world of the New Testament and our own, many traditions have come and gone and diverged into many different branches.
Given that our series is called Why Church?, it may be helpful to think through the ways in which our practices are embedded in a larger historical framework. More specifically, we might find ourselves wondering why so many churches practice so many different forms of baptism. After all, if I was so confident yesterday that baptism is a symbol for believers, why do some churches baptize babies?
Let’s do our best to give a brief survey of how baptism has been handled in church tradition:
- Baptism washes away original sin. We shouldn’t neglect the fact that many adults were baptized in the early church. But soon enough the church started baptizing babies. Why? Augustine, in roughly 400 AD, put forth an understanding that baptism was the means by which the “stain” of our original sin was removed. This interpretation stuck around for a very long time, and baptism (among several other practices) became known as a “sacrament” by which God’s divine grace was experienced. In 1517, the Church became split into what we now know as Protestant and Roman Catholic theology, a reformation that began with Martin Luther. Though many of us associate Luther with salvation by faith alone, Luther would agree with the Church’s position that baptism washes away the stain of original sin. The difference, however, was that Luther said that baptism only counted if and only if the child later grew up to express a faith of his own.
- Baptism provides entrance into the believing, covenant community. One of Luther’s contemporaries, Ulrich Zwingli, pushed beyond these beliefs. Zwingli thought that perhaps baptism should be seen as analogous to circumcision in the Old Testament. It wasn’t really about washing away sin, but more about being initiated into the believing community. Reformed theology would later weave this into their confessional documents. There is, in the reformed view, a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. In the Old Testament, the entrance into the covenant of grace was through circumcision. So, too, do believers today enter into the covenant of grace through baptism. Support may be found in 1 Corinthians 10:2 which speaks of being “baptized into Moses.” But when we examine this verse alongside the practices described in the book of Acts, it’s hard to see this practice supported by the earliest New Testament believers. I admit that I have a lot of respect for this view, and there are many that I count as friends who hold to this view. But as I was reading the explanation from Richard Pratt from Reformed Seminary in Orlando, I was struck by just how heavily he leaned on documents such as the Westminster Confession rather than the pages of Scripture. Don’t misunderstand, I respect Dr. Pratt immensely, but here is a case where I don’t know that Church tradition supersedes what I see as a clear practice in Scripture.
- Baptism confers salvation. Some emphasize the teachings of the New Testament that call for a life of radical obedience to the teachings of Christ. “Faith without works is dead,” James tells us (James 2:20). So, some say, baptism is necessary for salvation, because what good is faith without direct obedience? Positively, we have to admire the attempt to re-unify salvation with the practice of baptism. But negatively, we might object that this teaches a salvation based on performance rather than grace alone—the kind of “gospel” that Paul railed against in his letter to the Galatians in the strongest terms possible.
- Baptism identifies you with Christ and his Church. This, of course, is the view that I’ve been arguing for. In yesterday’s post, we looked through a handful of passages that illustrated that in the world of the New Testament, baptism was uniformly practiced (1) as an outward symbol of salvation, (2) only for believers, and (3) normally practiced by immersion.
But notice something about our diagram. The baptism of children is motivated by looking backward toward the past (symbolized by the backward arrow). To baptize a baby is to perform a ritual based on either the faith of the family or the tradition of the Church. To baptize an adult, however, is to look at the way the believer seeks to “play make-believe”—that is, to express what their faith looks like as they begin their journey with Christ.
We might therefore define baptism as an outward sign of personal faith. This seems to be the basic meaning Paul speaks of in Romans 6:
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)
Granted, burial practices weren’t the same in Paul’s day as they are in ours, so we probably shouldn’t stress the external symbolism too heavily. But the early church would very likely have understood the general idea of descent and ascent—burial and resurrection—that symbolizes the way that we die to ourselves and are raised to new life in Christ.
Baptism therefore symbolizes our own response to the gospel message:
- Baptism symbolizes our own repentance and choice to commit to following Jesus
- Baptism identifies us with Christ
- Baptism identifies us with Christ’s Church
UNDERSTANDING THE SYMBOL
The “classic” illustration of this is, of course, the wedding ring. If you wear a wedding ring, what does that mean to you? If you are married, does taking off your wedding ring alter your relationship with your husband or wife? (actually, if you do this on a business trip, it very well might…) Likewise, if you give your wedding ring to someone else, does it mean you’re now married to them?
The illustration is clear enough: a wedding ring is a powerful and important symbol of a new relationship and a new way of life. But, in the end, it is only a symbol.
Our obedience to Christ’s clear command to be baptized should therefore not be construed as a requirement of salvation. But we must likewise not neglect the history and significance to this symbolic exchange.
WHO SHOULD BE BAPTIZED?
Part of the reason I wanted to offer a cursory survey of the historical views of baptism is because I suspect that some of you have already been baptized in other Church traditions. Does this mean you should be baptized again?
Here’s what I would tell you. If you were baptized as an infant, then you have been (or rather, your family had been) perfectly obedient to your Church tradition. But I cannot agree with your Church tradition. If you are unpersuaded by our presentation of believer’s baptism, then I obviously can’t ask for a re-baptism. But if you are newly convinced that baptism is for believers, then by all means, we would welcome you to express your faith through public baptism.