Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Baptism (various interconnected thoughts)

I've been thinking about Baptism on and off for a while now. What follows is me 'thinking out loud' rather than making a case for some point or other. But please do comment anyway.

We tend not to think of it in these terms, but baptism is one of the most divisive issues in the church today. Evangelical Baptists and Evangelical Presbyterians (for example) often work quite happily together on various projects, missions, etc. and seem to get on fine, and then the issue of baptism comes up and all of a sudden one will strongly declare to the other that they are wrong. In my life I have been part of two Baptist churches for significant periods of time. The first used to have a 'mantra' regarding Baptism that really used to annoy me: "You do it your way, we'll do it His way..." My time in the second church led me to the point of realising that I, fundamentally, am not a Baptist.

The main issue facing me now is regarding my new baby, expected in about 9 weeks. I have two kids so far, we had them both baptised as infants. But now we attend a church (Almond Vineyard) which practices believers baptism and dedicates infants. But I don't really want to treat the third any different from the first two.

Interestingly enough, my wife's sister & brother-in-law have just faced the same issue the other way around: whilst attending a baptist church they had their first baby dedicated, but they now attend a Presbyterian church. They resolved this one by having a dedication 'service' in their home with the baby's uncle (a Baptist pastor) officiating. But I'm not sure I want to have a baptism service in my home...

What is baptism anyway?

Well, its one of the very few words in the new testament that the translators (for whatever reason) have never translated. The word we use is simply an anglicised form of the word βαπτίζω (baptizō). In the original Greek, this word does not have any particular spiritual significance, it simply means to immerse. A ship that is sunk has been 'baptizō', in order to pickle a vegetable you 'baptizō' it in vinegar, and so on. (NB there is a difference between 'baptizō' and 'baptō' which is used in the NT a few times and is generally translated 'dip', the difference seems to be that something which is 'baptizō' spends longer in the fluid, or possibly that some change takes place while in the fluid, e.g. when pickling). But obviously, over the centuries between the new testament times and the time when the bible was first translated into other languages, the secular Greek word 'baptizō' had become associated completely with the Christian ritual involving water, so no translation was ever required.

The problem with that is that we gain little understanding of what people thought of baptism in the early days of Christianity. Was it sacramental, essential, special, or simply a normal event?

John the baptizō, who I often think of as the last of the old testament prophets, had a clear message of repent and be baptised - which he did in the river. Apparently (thanks to an old sermon from Liquid Church) there was an old Jewish ritual of public immersion which people would do as part of their conversion to Judaism, but John's baptism was the first instance of someone baptising people, before you would immerse yourself. John's baptism therefore implies a bit of submission to someone or something which had been absent up until then. John's baptism was a baptism of repentance, a symbolic act to mark a change of heart. While there is no record of anyone being baptised multiple times, there is also no teaching which says that this was a once-for-all act. But it is clearly a symbol, not an act essential to salvation.

By the time of the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that baptism had become a Christian symbol. On believing in (receiving) Jesus, people were baptised as a sign of their new start. But not just individuals, there are several instances in Acts of one person coming to faith and having their entire household baptised (presumably including spouses, children and servants). So part of the act of a believer making a new start is to echo the words of Joshua (24v15) "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord", and the whole household makes a new start, kids and all.

Of course, what isn't in the bible is the story of someone who was baptised many years before presenting their newborn infant for baptism. Maybe baptism of infants is only 'OK' if it is done at the same time as baptism of the parent(s)?

There are some early Christian writings which give instructions on how to do baptism: "Concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water [i.e. running water, a river]. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit." Interestingly, as far as historians can tell (primarily on the basis of early Christian art), the baptised person generally stood in the water and had a vessel of water poured over them, rather than being dunked into the water as is favoured by most Baptist churches today. The early christian writings seem to endorse the 'three sprinkles' method frequently used when baptising infants, although apparently using a river is still preferable.

What is certain is that from a hundred years or so after the time of Christ until the 16th century, infant baptism was practiced throughout the entire church. Only at the time of the reformation was the practice questioned and then rejected by a subset of the reformers. Almost all of the 1st and 2nd century Christian writers mention infant baptism as being simply the way things were done. This wasn't an evolved ritual of the Church in the Middle Ages which had little connection to the way the early church behaved, this is clearly the way the early church behaved.

And of course, beyond that, there are plenty of theological arguments for infant baptism.

But what to do with our new baby? I still don't know. I'm in favour of infant baptism, but there are practicalities...

One final thought. The great commission in Matthew 28 reads thus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” The text probably does mean 'dunk them in water in the name of...' but when I read those words the other day I noticed that water is not mentioned and saw an alternative reading of those words, could it mean 'immerse the disciples in the name of...'? In other words is it Jesus himself that we are to be immersed in? Do we need to be up to our eyeballs in his Spirit and totally found in him... or am I taking it too far?

Thanks for reading this far. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Here I am a died-in-the-wool Baptist leaving you a comment. I, too, squirm at the cliched Baptists who too often remark as you state. Then there's the irony that most Baptist (me!) believe that baptism's what happens after you get saved - and we're happy people get saved "right here and now" - but then make you go through six weeks of Baptismal Classes! Sigh. So it's OK to enter the Kingdom of God on a whim - as a snap reaction to hearing the Gospel - but, whoa, Baptism, hold on there, that takes a while! Hmm. Definitely a funny. No, I'm a literal "believe and [then] be baptised" kind of a guy, i.e. it's a chronological instruction and not a do-both-and-you-choose-which-order remark. Hence the Ethiopan Eunuch and Philip seems to me Classic Baptism Illustration A. And before Ye Prebysterian Folk refer me straight to that jailor guy and his family, I think, given Jesus's instruction, it's more likely in the absence of saying "how", that a Roman jailor was an older bloke with older kids/family and that they, too, had heard and believed. Why assume silence on modus operandii means "A-ha, see, the babies all gone done". Why not assume that the silence might've meant they were baptised by, say, pouring flour over their feet! OK, I digress. But you get my point: Jesus's says 2. follows 1., and I'm happy it probably did and that not specifically saying so doesn't mean it wasnae so. My conclusion: I can't get too uptight about modus operandii, what matters is that - however it's done (and, hey, why not do it in a very dry place!) - it's as an immediate, visible and public response to a live given to Jesus, and him sending his Spirit to live in a person. When not how. So how d'you baptise your kids? YOU probably don't (tho' you might); rather they choose to as an act of obedience when they're saved.....and a.s.a.p.! I guess that'll be Believers' Baptism then!

Ricky Carvel said...

Hi anonymous,

(Are you a new anonymous to this blog or one who has previously posted? You don't have to give a real name, but if you were to use a unique fake name, I'd know if you're new or not...)

Anyway, I have it on reasonably good authority that the 'believe and be baptised' type statements in the bible have no sense of chronology in them - it's just two things that you do with absolutely no textual reason for saying that either should happen first. Similarly in the great commission (which has them kind of the other way round), it doesn't say you make disciples by 'baptising and then teaching' but simply that baptising and teaching are the two elements required.

But of course, I assume, neither of us think that baptism is essential for salvation anyway. so when it happens is perhaps not as important issue as some folk think it might be.


Anonymous said...

.....actually I kinda' think the order is pretty clear cut. There doesn't appear to be anyone we know of who was baptised first and then did the "something" after. Be it JtB's baptism, or baptisms after Jesus's ministry. The only time you might assume it came first is - as noted - when nothing's said and people fill the vacuum with "Ah, you see, so-and-so getting baptised might not've been saved". That "logic" can sadly lead to all sorts of silliness. Nope, I tend to go with the more literal. Where we know, we know. In other words my Exhibit A again: Phil' clearly wanted the Ethiopian Chancellor of the Exchequer to hear, understand, commit and get that order. Even that Pro-Presbyterian jailor fellow didn't reverse the order as far as we know for sure. And Jesus's edict: "Believe and be baptised". Even your assertion "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them...." seems - and call me simplistic if you like - to be chronological. Step 1. Make'em disciples; Step 2. baptise'em. Don't, by implication, baptise'em and then hope they get saved. I'll finish with where we agree: baptism isn't essential to salvation. And as I noted, even as a Baptist, it's a tad of a distortion that the big "B" has been separated off and built up into a bigger jamboree than it probably should be. Believe and be baptised", not "Believe" - - pause while attending course - - "and [then] be baptised". So not essential, but, then neither're lots of other bits-and-pieces Jesus asks of us, nay things he'd like us to do, obey even. Not salvation deal-breakers perhaps but probably up there with some other stuff that might determine room size! :-) And, of course, no-one could be held guilty of disobeying Jesus if they hadn't - already - given their life over to him, promising they would obey don't you think!

Anonymous said...

I love the cartoon.
I might pinch it :-)
Here's my thoughts for today's news:

liturgy said...

Here's a suggestion about baptism in the name of a gender-neutral Trinity:

Ricky Carvel said...


Not sure I like that. I mean, I don't really want to have to learn Maori anyway, but aside from that, it is quite clear to me that Jesus, when incarnated as a man, was a man. Male. Calling him 'the child' seems unnecessary when it was quite clear that he was a 'son'. And the other thing that is quite clear is that Jesus referred to God the Father as 'Father' not 'Parent'. So the whole point is fairly meaningless.


liturgy said...

I think you are missing the point.
English, Greek, etc. make a distinction of gender for parents
that Maori in this case does not.
And that baptismal formula has been accepted since at least the time that the bible was first translation into Maori.
The saga continues:

Ricky Carvel said...

No. I get the point.

But, as far as I can see it, the only point of a non-Maori speaker doing baptism in the Maori language would be because they want to make God neuter in some way. But, for whatever reason, God chose to reveal himself as male, both as Father and as Son (surely he could have done Mother and Son or Father and Daughter or even Mother and Daughter if he had chosen to, but he didn't).

Still don't like it much.

liturgy said...

The point is: doing it in gender-neutral English, the Vatican has just announced, and many other denominations agree - will not be accepted as baptism.
Doing it in gender-neutral Maori is accepted by the Vatican and many other denominations.

Ricky Carvel said...

But, you see, for me it doesn't matter what the Vatican says.

Baptism is between you and God.

"A broken heart and a contrite spirit, he will not despise" (Psalm 51v17).

"And if I'm found wanting
When my case is heard
It'll be by the author
Not some interpreter of his words"
(The Proclaimers)

And I don't want to do it gender neutral anyway. God is my Father.