baptism - the basics
The first time we read about baptism in the Bible is when we meet this strange guy named John the Baptizer. John understands himself not only to be a prophet (a view shared by many people of his day) but as the one who would prepare the way for the coming Kingdom of God. His preparation of others for the Kingdom consisted of preaching and baptizing (immersing) for the remission of sins. This type of baptizing was something completely new to the Jewish community. While the Jews had their ritual baths (mikveh), these were used to either prepare persons to go into the Temple for particular rituals or to insure that women were clean after menstruation. The idea of a onetime immersion for the forgiveness of sins was unheard of. Even so, thousands, including Jesus, were baptized by John.
The church took this idea of a onetime baptism and modified it immediately after Easter. The modifications were two-fold. The first modification was that the baptism would no longer be a preparation for the coming Kingdom. The disciples believed that since the resurrection initiated the in-breaking of God's Kingdom baptism would then be a sign of entry into that Kingdom. The second modification was that baptism was done either in name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The scriptures indicate that most of the initial baptizing done by the church was in the name of Jesus, and not the Trinity. The Trinitarian formula was a later addition.
With this as background we move to what we as Presbyterians believe about baptism. Our constitution (based on our confessional documents) tells us several things about baptism. We will look at them one at a time. Baptism signifies:
The faithfulness of God: this underlies all the other concepts about baptism. In other words baptism is reminder that God calls and claims us, rather than our calling and claiming God. It is God who acts first, last and always. The waters of baptism are the sign that God is faithful to God's claims.
The washing away of sin: remembering that there is nothing magical about baptism (it is not spiritual medicine that cures us from sinfulness) it is a reminder that God forgives our sins out of God's own grace, rather than us becoming good enough to be forgiven. The waters of baptism are a sign of God's freely given gracious forgiveness.
Rebirth: baptism reminds us that in Christ we have become new people by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even as infants we believe that Spirit is already making the children of believers, children of God in a new and unique way. The waters of baptism are a sign that we have been made spiritually new.
Putting on the fresh garment of Christ: one of the great Biblical images is that believers have been given new "Jesus" clothing. This new clothing means we have become Jesus people who are to live lives of love and compassion. The waters of baptism are a sign that we are now to live in a new way.
Being sealed in God's Spirit: a seal is a mark that the thing sealed belongs to the one whose seal is affixed (like a letter that is sealed with a wax seal). The waters of baptism are a sign that we have been sealed by the Spirit and thus belong to God.
Adoption into the covenant family of the church: baptism is administered by the church in the presence of the church family (we Presbyterians do no private baptisms) because baptism is the community claiming us, and not us seeking private membership. The waters of baptism are the sign of our incorporation into Christ's mystical body.
Resurrection and illumination in Christ: baptism symbolizes our "death" to the old life and our being "raised" to a new life through Christ. In addition because we are raised to a new life we become capable of understanding who Jesus is and what Jesus wants us to do (this is the illumination). The waters of baptism are the sign that we are new resurrection people.
baptism - why children?
Should I have my baby baptized or should I wait until they are older and allow them to make their own decision? That is a question that I have been frequently asked over my 26 years of ministry. It is asked because many of the people in the churches I have served (including many of you) were reared in traditions that did not practice infant baptism, but instead only allow believer's baptism (the technical term for which is credobaptism). This practice of only allowing believer's baptism is based on the claim that there is no scriptural warrant for infant baptism (the technical term for which is paedobaptism). With this ongoing disagreement what then ought our answer to the above question be?
My guess is that most of you reading this piece would argue for infant baptism. You would argue for infant baptism because it is the custom with which you have grown up. Churches as far ranging as Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic all practice infant baptism...even though I have heard many people speak of it as "christening" rather than baptism. The issue which confronts those of us who baptize infants is that there appear to be no specific references to infant baptism in scripture. The only direct stories of baptism seem to be about adults being baptized…and those baptisms by some sort of immersion. This lack of scriptural warrant can put us on the defensive when we are confronted by those who believe in credobaptism. Those who back credobaptism claim that baptism requires the ability of the one baptized to make a conscious choice to believe in and follow Jesus. We infant baptizers then need to ask, can we actually defend infant baptism as scripturally based?
The answer, I believe, is yes we can, though it is not as easily done as we might like. First we have to acknowledge that all specific instances of baptism in the New Testament are of adults. However, this makes a great deal of sense considering that the New Testament is the story of the first generation of believers. In other words the church was making adult Gentiles and Jews into Jesus followers.
The Biblical story ends before we reach the time when we have a second generation in which children might be baptized. However there are cryptic references to "the entire household" of a new believer being baptized (Acts 16:15; 16:31-33; I Corinthians 1:16). The implication of these texts is that when the head of a house became part of the new covenant community through baptism, so did everyone else in the household. While this is a strange concept to us, it would not have been a strange concept in the First Century. The household (children and servants) were always of the same faith as the head of the house. This would have made even more sense to Jews because Jewish boys were circumcised on the 8th day signifying that they were part of the chosen people. Baptism then became the "circumcision" or mark of entry into the new community for men, women, adults and infants.
Finally the practice of infant baptism has an ancient pedigree. Irenaeus (130-202), Origen (185-254) and Tertullian (155-230) all write about infant baptism as the practice of the church. Hippolytus of Rome (writing at about the same time) gives instructions for how infant baptism ought to be carried out.
We now return to our original question; should parents have their infants baptized or wait for the children to decide. The answer is…whichever the parent's chose. I say this because baptism, as we discussed last week, is a sign and seal of what God is doing in the lives of our children. Being or not being baptized will not change the actions of God. We believe (along with the Apostle Peter in Acts 2:39) that God is claiming our children as God's own regardless of baptism. Therefore parents ought to feel comfortable in choosing the practice which makes most Biblical and theological sense to them (and by the way, our Presbyterian rules allow for both).
Baptism - how often and by what means
I wanted to be rebaptized. I was 23 years old and wanted to be baptized in a manner that was meaningful to me. To explain this baptismal desire we need to take a short excursion back in time. I was baptized when I was five years old. My parents had waited until we were settled in Houston to have my brothers and I baptized. The pastor who baptized me was a huge man and I can still remember the water pouring out of his immense hands and running all over me. Even though we as a family were in church every time the doors opened I learned little and Jesus Christ had no real meaning for me. Beginning at age fourteen I turned my back on church and on God. God however was not done with me. While I was in the Peace Corps one of my co-workers re-introduced me to Jesus in a very non-threatening way. Through a series of God events I was called back to faith. Returning to the United States with a new found faith I wanted to mark it with rebaptism. The question was, would my Presbyterian pastor agree to do it?
My story is illustrative of the journeys of many prodigal sons (and daughters). We wander away, return and upon returning look for some way in which to mark our return to the fold. There are many denominations that gladly given in to this desire for rebaptism. In fact many denominations require rebaptism for entrance (Church of Christ and the Orthodox Church, as examples) while others require immersion baptism even if one were sprinkled as a child or an adult (almost all Baptist and Bible churches). There are even some churches that will only accept their own baptism (I have known a few people who have been baptized at least three times because of this requirement). All of this then raises the question (which ties in with my first question), how many times ought one to be baptized and by what means ought the baptism to be handled?
Let's begin with the question of how often one ought to be baptized. The answer for us Presbyterians is, once. In the letter to the church at Ephesus Paul (or someone writing for Paul) states, "4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
What we believe this points to is the Apostolic belief that there is only one church (though there are now many denominations) and one baptism into that church (though there are many ways to conduct that baptism). Therefore when someone is baptized into one church, they are baptized into the church universal. One example of this is that the Roman Catholic Church accepts Presbyterian baptisms and vice-versa. So when we baptize here at First Presbyterian Church we are baptizing for all churches. Thus there is only need for one baptism.
The second question, and one which divides the church universal, is in what manner ought baptism be carried out? The answer for us Presbyterians is, however you want (at least within reason). There are three possible ways in which to baptize; dry, sprinkle and immersion. Dry baptism is one in which there is no water actually used. This concept was a reaction against the belief that something magical actually happens when water is used in baptism. By not using water the emphasis is on God's actions. Sprinkling (which is the main way in which we Presbyterian baptize) is based on Old Testament references to God's sprinkling (pouring) clean water upon the people to purify them. Finally immersion is based upon Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordon River. While some people argue for one over the other both scripture and tradition never set an absolute rule. As early as CE 70 church documents allow for both immersion and sprinkling. While it is preferable to baptize with water, even dry baptism will do since there is no magic in the water.
Returning to my personal story, my pastor explained what we Presbyterians believe (one baptism) but left it up to me to decide. I chose not to be rebaptized believing that in that act when I was five God had claimed me for a lifetime and beyond…and so there was no need to be washed again.