Thursday, September 13, 2018

10 thoughts on baptism for baptists

1.  In the NT, baptism is not (part of) the answer to the question 'what should I do now that I have become a Christian?'  Rather, it is (part of) the answer to the question 'how do I become a Christian?'  See, for a paradigm, Acts 2 and the response to Peter's Pentecost sermon.  That means, amongst other things, that if we deny or delay baptism in a particular case because we are waiting to see more evidence of Christian living, we are very much expecting the cart to move without the horse.  It ain't right.

2.  When we use language like 'just symbolic', as if that could be opposed to something more 'real' and 'substantial', we fail to understand that all of human life is lived by means of symbols.  This is especially true of the Christian life, the substance and reality of which are not to be found in the individual believer, in the church, or indeed anywhere in all this earthly world, but are rather seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly places - which is to say, the reality and substance is Christ himself.

3.  We can't rebaptise people.  It's not on.  If you are really convinced that the baptism of an infant is not valid (on which, see below), we need to say that the person has not been baptised, and therefore this is their first, one and only, baptism.  "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins."

4.  When we frame baptism as the first step of obedience after conversion, rather than as a part of conversion, we are in danger of tying ourselves in knots over the validity of baptism in any particular case.  Suppose someone is baptised at 14 on profession of faith.  At 17, they have what they interpret as a conversion experience and request baptism, because their first baptism did not follow faith and was therefore not valid.  Should we baptise them (again)?  At 20, at University, they realise that they've only now really owned the faith for themselves rather than living in the shadow of their parents' faith.  Should their University church now baptise them (again)?  What if they backslide in the years following Uni, and return to the church sensing that this is their real conversion - another baptism?  I hope the answer in every case would be no!  But can our theology of baptism support this answer?

5.  If we distinguish between the validity of a sacrament and its ideal form, we can make some sense of this.  Ideally, baptism takes place at the point of repentance and faith; this is the pattern of Acts, and makes most sense of the incorporation-into-Christ-in-his-death imagery of baptism.  But where it happens years before or years after repentance/faith, it can still be a valid ordinance.  I'm not sure there is much more required for the validity of the sacrament than baptism into the Triune name, with the intention of teaching the baptised person to obey all that Christ commanded (Matt 28).  For this reason, I think we ought to accept infant baptism as valid albeit irregular baptism.

6.  A less individualistic view of baptism would help us.  Too often we make baptism a Pelagian ordinance: the reason we don't baptise babies is because everything is suspended on the choice of the individual!  There is some truth to this - we, I think rightly, ordinarily expect the baptised to understand what they are doing to some extent, and to desire baptism.  But this doesn't mean it is just down to the individual to decide whether they should be baptised, or down to the individual to decide whether their baptism was valid.  The church has a commission to baptise, and it is down to the church to decide if someone is ready for baptism, and to acknowledge the baptism of individuals.

7.  I think one of the reasons the apostle Paul regularly points people back to their baptism as constituting their identity is because baptism is an objective, tangible thing.  We are in danger of undermining this when we make baptism all about the individual's state of heart and mind.  Baptism is about Christ.  Therefore, the person baptised can look back at their baptism and see Christ at work.  Of course their faith is necessary, but this is exactly how they exercise faith in the present: to remember that they are baptised.  I think people baptised as infants can still be encouraged to exercise this sort of faith.

8.  Because baptism isn't primarily about the individual but about Christ, we shouldn't require people to deliver a testimony at their baptism.  Their entry to the water is testimony enough.

9.  Because baptism is into Christ, and therefore into his body, everyone who is baptised should be enrolled as a church member as a direct result.

10.  Nobody should be taking Holy Communion if they haven't been baptised.  Get born, then eat food.  This is the consensus of the Church from earliest times: "But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised into the name of the Lord."  If you think someone is ready to take Communion, they are ready to be baptised.  Do that first.


  1. I wonder whether the popular Christianity Explored, Alpha... courses fall down at your first hurdle?

    1. Yes, I think so. The odd thing is that both those originate in Anglican circles. I don't know if it's because in those circles baptism is just assumed as a thing that has probably happened to everyone already? But yes, baptism certainly doesn't appear in association with conversion in most popular evangelistic presentations.

  2. As one of the "individual conscience baptists", thanks for food for thought. I share your view (5.) that we should allow for "real but not ideal" baptism of infants.
    Point 9. implies either the end of distinctively evangelical churches or a shift to decision making being held by an evangelical leadership team for a church with a broader membership. Which way would you see that developing?
    Practically, my current "it depends on conscience whether I baptise someone who was dunked in water as a child" enables me to hold together baptists and paedobaptists. Can we really fully engage baptists in a church where someone persistently desires believer's baptism but we say no because they were baptised as infants?

    1. On point 9, I lean towards the second position. So at CCC members are required to subscribe the Nicene Creed, whilst church officers are also expected to uphold the FIEC statements etc. It's a vulnerable position - if there were ever a majority of non-evangelical members they could get rid of the church officers - but I'm not sure there is any security in any form of church polity. Just have to rely on the word preached.

      I see the practical (and pastoral) difficulty with someone who really, really wants to receive believers' baptism but was christened as an infant. But you presumably wouldn't extend the right of conscience here infinitely (see 4, above), so at some point it will come into play. I agree it will be difficult to incorporate people who are absolutely convinced that infant baptism can never be valid. But isn't there already a difficulty where some church members can't regard others as validly baptised? I would be deeply uncomfortable sharing Holy Communion with unbaptised people, for example...

    2. I should say, not (re)baptising someone who was baptised is an infant is not CCC policy - it is my opinion. It hasn't yet come up. As and when it does, I will certainly discourage it and would not be willing to do the baptising, but we'd have to hash it out as elders before making a final call.

    3. Conscience can't extend indefinitely- I would not baptise someone who was baptised as an adult, even if they said they now believed and din't when they were baptised.

      But I would argue that the conscience position is a reasonable accommodation to the error in infant baptism. Baptism (like Lord's Supper) is a sign of grace received by faith. Infant baptism makes the faith vicarious. And so in order to be complete, it not only needs the addition of personal faith receiving the grace of Jesus, but also additional faith receiving the baptism given.

  3. I found this really interesting. As an atheist who grew up in a secular household but was christened, I've never been bothered by this and consider it essentially meaningless (in a religious sense). Unlike some people I know, I've never objected to others making that commitment and certainly wouldn't consider it made me a Christian (and whatever cultural connection to Christianity I have would stand with or without that). But this post made me think about whether I'd still consider it meaningless if I became a Christian - with the obvious caveat that in such a case I'd have clearly changed my mind about some important things, so any such conjectures are only speculation.

    I think in such a case I would consider it valid and be very reluctant to be baptised. I agree with your point 5 of infant baptism being valid but not ideal. If we grant that - and that therefore infant baptism has a sacramental nature - then that sacramental nature can depend only upon the commitment of those presenting, the genuine intentions of the church officiating and the current conscience of the individual (i.e. are they now a Christian). It clearly can't depend on the conscience of the infant, nor does the length of time between infant baptism and mature commitment to Christianity seem relevant. In my case, if I converted, all three of those components would be present(1), so it would seem a genuine, if non-ideal baptism. But I can see how others would reach a different conclusion.

    (1) At least if one accepts that non-believing parents can choose to allow Christian grandparents to make such a commitment, which I would accept, but others might differ.

    1. Iain, I'm sorry I missed your comment - really interesting to get a different perspective. As you say, you would have to change a lot about your thinking about the world to 'own' your baptism - one of the things that would change, of course, would be that you would accept the existence of a God whose relationship to human time is not direct, and that ultimately everything would depend on him and not on any disposition or intention regarding the sacrament.

      Maybe one day..?