Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mode of Baptism

As a Baptist I believe that baptism is for believers. In the Bible it comes after repentance ('Repent and be baptized, everyone of you'), and since infants can't repent, I think that paedo-baptism is a mistake. I was baptized as an infant, I am told, but I can't remember anything about it.

There are some who believe that a child becomes 'born again' through baptism. "This child is now regenerate" goes one form of words. But I cannot see how this could be so. Many who are baptized with such a ritual never give evidence of being regenerate. A whole tribe of Mafiosa has been 'done' in such away, yet turned out to be a murderous group of extortioners and crooks.

Similarly, such people have undertaken confirmation as if it, like baptism, were a ritual designed to get them to heaven rather than a life changing experience. So my first point is there is nothing magical about either ceremony. The water isn't holy; saying words over it doesn't impart a special purifying quality, even if it is done by someone who has hands laid upon him by someone who has hands laid upon him by someone ... who has had hands laid upon him by the Apostle Peter.

There used to be a tradition in neonatal units for the (usually Irish) midwife to rush off and sprinkle any newborn who looked a bit frail so that the child would not die unbaptized. Let me say that this is a cruel superstition. What does it say about the child who doesn't make it to the sink? How must such parents feel?

Some Christians of the Reformed tradition see infant baptism as a continuation of the Covenantal relationship of people within the family of God - as a replacement of the ritual of circumcision. Now, it is certainly good for children to be brought up within God's Family but nowhere in Scripture do I find circumcision being replaced by baptism. Moreover circumcision (at least in the Jewish tradition) is only for males on the eighth day of life). Both males and females are baptized and hardly ever on the eighth day.

I think it is increasingly accepted in evangelical circles that baptism is for believers. Many converts within the Church of England are now baptized as believers. This blog is not meant to be an exhaustive investigation into the Biblical basis of baptism but rather to talk about the mode of baptism.

Within the Greek Orthodox Church, while they practise infant baptism, they dunk the baby in whole, right up to his noggin. The English translators of the Bible when they came across the word for 'baptize' in the Greek original, instead of translating it, they simply transliterated it - Anglicizing the same word. Of course, this is not an option for the Greeks, as they know what the word means. It is a technical term from the dyeing industry. It means to dunk or dip in the dye so the piece of cloth is completely covered. Hence the ceremony in the Greek Orthodox Church. They would have no truck with simply sprinkling a few drops on the person's forehead. Again, whether 'dip' means 'totally immerse' is another matter, though to dye a piece of cloth leaving a small part of the cloth like the heel of Achilles out of the liquid would seem to defeat the purpose.

Evangelicals see the process of baptism as a symbol. Symbols have a power beyond an intellectual exercise. That is why the Old Testament Prophets often acted out their message. Think of Jeremiah or Ezekiel. When you take your driving test your examiner expects you to turn your head to use your mirrors and to check no one is coming from right or left. It is not good enough to protest that you made the requisite eye movements. He doesn't do this to deliberately fail you - he is looking to see if you have absorbed the ritual; do you have the body memory of safety? When I was batting at cricket I used to have a ritual after every ball of walking around the stumps. It looked like superstition, but it wasn't; it was a ritual to get me in the right position to face the next ball. It gave me a body memory of how I should settle. Baptism is a major body memory in every Baptist that reminds us that we have committed our lives to the Lord - and the symbolism has a meaning that rubs in our commitment.

So what is the symbolism? First, it is a good wash. We are acting out the fact that our sins have been washed away. We start with a clean slate; we have been washed in the waters of baptism. I think this must have been the meaning of the baptism of John the Baptist, which, of course, was how Jesus was baptized, even though we know that John thought it unseemly that he should baptize Jesus. Jesus himself needed no washing, so why was he baptized? Some have seen it as his priestly anointing.

A good example of washing as the meaning of the symbol comes from the baptism of Saul of Tarsus himself; the words of Ananias to Saul were (Acts 22.16): "Get up, be baptised and wash your sins way."

But many Baptists see another symbol. It comes from Romans 6:3-4: 'Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.' It is reinforced by Colossians 2:12: 'having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.' They see it as a symbol of our old life entering the grave and our new life rising from it. This could not have been the symbolism of John the Baptist, because at that time Christ had not risen from the dead.

To accept this symbolism is not straightforward, and many evangelicals see problems. Just put 'mode of baptism' into any search engine and you will come up with a myriad of opposing views. One of the most serious problems is that Jesus did not in fact go down into a grave, but his dead body was put into a tomb (probably horizontally). Our own methods of burial, which are quite different to those of First Century Palestine add to our appreciation of this symbolism, but what Paul was talking about was a spiritual union with Christ to defend against the heresy of antinomianism.

Of course, some evangelicals have abandoned all this symbolism completely. The Salvation Army, for example, has neither baptism nor Holy Communion but has adopted an entirely different symbolism that was potent for people living in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, but is probably very dated today.

I really don't think that this is a reason for Christians to fall out and I worry when individual churches make mode of baptism a rule for church membership or holding office. There are some with physical handicaps who could not undergo baptism by immersion, for example. Should their baptism by effusion be a reason for denying them office in a church?

Jesus submitted to the baptism of John, even though it was unnecessary for him. This should be our pattern. Should we be required to be baptized in a certain way to join a church or to hold office, we should humble ourselves and obey. There should be no question of someone saying, "I have already been baptized and I don't need to do it again." That displays an arrogance that is not appropriate in a follower of Christ. Remember the Apostle Paul said, "Everything is permissible—but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a Lutheran, I do disagree with you. Baptism can certainly be given to adults who understand they are saved, but it can also be given to infants who are God's creation.

I was baptized as an infant, and I have the papers to prove it. I also underwent confirmation as a teenager, and I remember it as the religious education I never got in government schools. I have been a believer all of my life, and it is important to me.

Disagreements such as the ritual of baptism (which does give comfort to the parents, which is not nothing) pales in the light of growing the Christian Church.