On Baptism (Part I)

In this two-part article, I offer some reflections on baptism, beginning in this post with the Bible and history and wrapping up with some musings on covenant and sacrament in the next.

Baptism in the Acts of the Apostles

Last summer I led a Bible study on the Acts of the Apostles. While I had prior experience reading and studying Acts, nothing quite engages you with a biblical book like having to teach it to a group of people. One of the themes in Acts that we regularly encountered was the issue of baptism: how does Luke explain this Christ-instituted rite associated with the Way? Without delving too much into all the particulars of baptism in the early church, the varieties of baptism that Acts presents as valid stood out in our study. In contrast to many contemporary Christian doctrinal statements on how baptism ought to occur in a specific way at a particular time, Acts describes some basic parameters for baptism—the need for baptism in water in the name of God and the efficacious influence of the Holy Spirit (the so-called “baptism of water” and “baptism of the Spirit”)—and then seems to allow for what contemporary Christians think of as different forms of baptism.

To illustrate, consider the stories of Cornelius (Acts 10), the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16), and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8). In the Cornelius narrative, the Holy Spirit comes upon the household and then Peter has the Spirit-filled followers of Jesus baptized with water (Acts 10:44-48). In the case of the Philippian Jailer (and other “household” baptismal scenes like in Acts 10:44; 16:15; cx. 19:1-7), it seems as if water baptism occurs first and is then followed by the baptism of the Spirit (Acts 16:30-34). Finally, in the instance of the Ethiopian Eunuch, it appears that the baptisms of water and Spirit occur simultaneously (Acts 8:26-40).1 As Acts presents these stories, there does not seem to be only one acceptable order to baptism. What Acts deems most important is that followers of Jesus receive both baptisms.

Baptism Today

Today, nearly 2,000 years of theological reflection on baptism, combined with the explosion of different denominational doctrines, means that most expressions of baptismal theology are more rigorously defined than what we see in Acts. Contemporary Christians read Acts, coming to the text with the lenses of the baptismal theology they have grown up with, heard about, or researched. Thus, for example, liturgical churches (i.e., Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism) will point to instances of “household” conversion as normative, Pentecostals will emphasize the baptism of the Spirit, and other American Evangelicals will focus on baptism as a post-conversion and post-confession experience. The status quo on baptismal theology across Christendom is disjointed and, too often, divisive.

Approaching baptismal theology from such differing viewpoints presents numerous problems. First, this approach to baptism is not giving the Biblical text (specifically Acts) a reading on its own terms. Too often we read our theology back into the Biblical text, cherry-picking our favorite prooftexts and ignoring or explaining away the passages to which we do not subscribe. At least in part, this is a dangerous symptom of wider problems with how (post)modern Christians approach the Bible.

Second, too often Christians talk about our baptismal theology by defining what it is not. We don’t overemphasize the baptism of the Spirit like those pentecostals. We don’t baptize babies thinking it will save them like those papists. We don’t make baptism a meaningless ritual by making everyone do it. On and on we go, implicitly or explicitly focusing on what is wrong with other people’s theologies instead of delving down into what we believe and why that is so.

Third, contemporary Christians tend to make baptism about us and what we are doing instead of what God is doing. This is particularly true of American Evangelical theology, where an emphasis on conversion and personal decisions has led to the proliferation of the idea that baptism is our response to God’s work, “an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior”.2 Or, as is the case in some independent churches, baptism becomes entirely optional, an act that is traditional but by no means required or truly important. Even in more liturgical churches, the hubbub around the baptism of infants often makes what should be celebrations of God’s work another set of ceremonies or an opportunity to eat, drink, and be merry.

Finally, Christians often form their baptismal theologies out of their own life situations. This is not to say that experience should not inform faith—to the contrary, it must. Rather, the concern here is for when our experience with God becomes the norm for the experiences of others. It should come as no surprise, then, to see Christians who have had dramatic or miraculous conversion experiences focus on post-conversion baptism. Similarly, for people who grew up in (nominally) Christian homes but later found a strand of Christianity that resonates more strongly with them, it makes sense to adopt the baptismal theology of their new faith homes while rejecting the theology with which they were raised. With multigenerational Christian families, there is the reality that many people are not able to point to a “date and a time” when they “converted” or asked Christ into their hearts. Should we be surprised, then, when the moment of baptism, rather than an unspecified series of life events, becomes the focal point for when these multigenerational Christians entered the family of God?

Again, the point here is not that any of these differing ways of coming into the family of God are invalid, but rather that it seems problematic to explicitly connect one type of experience to one form of baptism. Should our baptismal theologies privilege one way of coming to faith over another? Must we convert and then be baptized? Must we baptize infants? Need we, who for whatever reason were never baptized as infants, but attend a church that typically baptizes infants, be baptized in secret? Should churches who only perform “believer’s baptism” following conversation regard infant baptism as illegitimate and require (re)baptism? Or perhaps we should all recognize that God works in people’s lives in different ways and forge our baptismal practices within the parameters of Acts: the need for both “baptism of water” and “baptism of the Spirit.”3

Tradition and Practice

Discerning the differences between rote ritual and living tradition is often difficult, especially since a practice may be “the way we do things” for one person and infused with spiritual significance and value for another. For those of us committed to discovering and living out the truth, it is important that we do not do things just because they have always been done that way.4 Similarly, truth is not beholden to popular opinion: right is right and wrong is wrong irrespective of how popular those statements might be. When it comes to thinking about baptism, the skepticism of American Evangelicals concerning infant baptism taps into this type of thinking: just because earlier Christians baptized infants does not mean that it is the right thing to do.

At the same time, however, history and popularity should at the very least alert us to the fact that baptismal thinking transcends the boundaries of how American Evangelicals think about it. That is, there are ways of understanding and experiencing baptism other than as a post-conversion outward sign of an inward change. If nothing else, the fact that most of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians practice infant baptism in multi-generational Christian families ought to make us speak humbly about our baptismal theology. As someone who firmly believes that the history of the Christian Church illuminates contemporary faith and offers a guide (albeit a fallible one) for how we should live as followers of Jesus, the reality that infant baptism was the standard practice for well over 1,000 years of Church life means that I must take that theological position seriously.5


(1) This is even more obvious in the Western-type extended versions of Acts.
(2) Southern Baptist Convention Statement of Faith.
(3) Here, of course, is the place to offer a “thief on the cross” theological corrective. What about those who cannot undergo both a baptism of water and baptism of the Spirit? Here I invoke the differences between normative theology—what we ought to do—and the mystery of God—who is able to overcome the shortcomings in our oughtness. The history of early Christianity seems especially relevant here: those following Christ who are able to be baptized make it a normative—and often immediate—response, while the salvific status of those who are unable to be baptized (the thief on the cross, various martyrs [often Romans enacting or watching persecution] who follow Christ and then die) is not called into question.
(4) Indeed, often evangelical churches rightly problematize churches which only practice infant baptism, to the extent that they seem beholden only to multigenerational Christian families and fail to encourage or celebrate the post-conversation baptisms of those who did not grow up in the church.
(5) Often at this juncture it will be suggested that, while it is true that the ancient church practiced infant baptism, this represented a shift away from (i.e., a corruption) of the New Testament church. Without delving into the various historiographical problems that this type of claim brings with it, this thinking also misrepresents the position of the Great Church, as elevating tradition above the “clear warrant” of scripture. In reality, the Church has appealed to both lived practice (the regula fide) and the New Testament itself for why the baptism of children is permissible.

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