Acts of Baptism

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

As anyone even somewhat familiar with Christianity knows, various Christian denominations have different, specific approaches to baptism—that all important rite involving water and the Holy Spirit.

Depending on its theological commitments, a church may expect the person being baptized to be an adult (or, at least old enough to make a conscious decision to be baptized), to be fully immersed in water (rather than sprinkled or poured upon), to be triple immersed (rather than once), to have undergone rigorous catechesis prior to baptism, to manifest miraculous spiritual gifts (before or after), or to fulfill any number of other practices. It really depends on the church. I once spoke to someone who seemed to believe that the only true way to be baptized was to be triple immersed while wearing a white gown in the cool running water of the river near their church.

In principle, Christians taking Jesus’ command to baptize seriously should be celebrated; in practice, however, our obsession with making sure that everyone is baptized our way—the right way—poses some problems.

Some Problems with Right Way Obsession

In the first place, there is the problem of rebaptism. Many people enter a new church having already been baptized. Or at least, under the impression that they were already baptized. That is, until someone convinces them their previous baptism was invalid and they should be baptized the right way. While there are probably some circumstances where a serious discussion about rebaptism may be permissible, making rebaptism commonplace seems to oppose the very unity that the Apostle Paul calls the Church to in Ephesians 4:1-6.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. [Emphasis added]

Second, a focus on making sure that everyone has been baptized the right way potentially corrupts what baptism is. Romans 6:1-4 closely identifies the effects of baptism with the salvific work of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Orthodox Christians of all denominations confess that salvation comes through this work of Jesus and is granted to humanity by God’s grace. To then turn around and assume, as certain denominations do, that baptism must be undertaken in a highly specific manner undercuts that message of grace. It’s like saying, “Yes, Jesus graciously offers you life, but only if you do the right (baptismal) works to get there.”

Finally, a focus on making sure everyone has been baptized the right way tends to be utterly confusing for congregants. This is particularly true for those who are new to faith, on the fringes of belief, or in the process of changing churches. In some contexts, the emphasis on being baptized the right way can even lead people to question their relationship with God—or to doubt someone else’s relationship with God. Beyond the differences in how different denominations baptize, such confusion can lead people to question the value of baptism itself.

Right Way versus Big Tent

Although nothing apart from the Second Coming is likely to get Christians on the same page when it comes to baptismal practice, I think there is an approach to baptism that is scriptural and can help cut through some of the problems fostered by a right way approach to baptism. I call this perspective the big tent approach to Christian baptism.

The big tent approach to baptism recognizes the internal diversity of baptismal practices recorded within scripture and recognizes as valid differing contemporary baptismal practices when they conform to the diversity of these scriptural models. This approach fits best in a big tent approach to Christianity more generally; but it is also tenable in ecclesiastical contexts that work with the diversity of contemporary Christian instruction and practice.1 Indeed, many denominations already practice this kind of big tent thinking when it comes to baptism.

Acts of Baptism

The book of Acts serves as the best example of the big tent approach. Luke records about ten distinct narratives of baptism in Acts2 and, although there are clear theological parameters governing these baptisms, no two are precisely alike. Consider that:

  • Some baptisms occur “in the name of Jesus Christ” (8.5-13; 10.44-48; 19.1-5), others appear to be “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (8.36-38), and still others are silent on the matter of “in whom” people are baptized.
  • At least one baptism narrative is preceded by repentance of sin (2.37-41), another seems to make confession of faith central (8.36-38), another baptismal narrative is preceded by speaking tongues (10.44-48), and still others focus on the importance of belief (8.5-13; 16.13-15; 16.27-34).
  • Some water baptisms precede the baptism of the Holy Spirit (19.1-5), other times the Holy Spirit is poured out before water (9.17-19; 10.44-48), and many times water baptism is not explicitly connected to the baptism of the Spirit.
  • Finally, some passages record individual baptisms (8.36-38) while others use household language (10.44-48; 16.13-15; 16.27-34; 18.5-8) that, if nothing else, set the stage for infant baptism.

Clearly Acts records significant diversity of baptismal practice in the early church. Why then are contemporary Christians so committed to picking-and-choosing a handful of these examples (or other New Testament references to baptism) and interpreting them as the right way to baptize? A big tent approach better reflects the diversity of practice within the New Testament itself—as well as Christ’s prayer for unity among His followers.

Conclusion

The New Testament consistently portrays baptism as an essential3 part of what it means to follow Jesus—as a matter of obedience to the command of Jesus (Matt. 28.18-20), as a sign of entrance into God’s new covenantal family (Gal. 3.27; Col. 2.12; 1 Cor. 12.13), and as a seemingly salvific act of God’s grace (1 Pet. 3.21; see also Mark 16.16). What the New Testament does not portray as essential is the precise method of baptism; to the contrary, a variety of specific practices seem to be affirmed. Accordingly, Christians should baptize new believers in a manner consistent with New Testament models and recognize as valid baptisms by other Christians that fit these big tent parameters.

God’s work through baptism is a gracious gift, one we should continue to celebrate, practice, and reflect upon. In the spirit of Christian unity, however, we should adopt a big tent approach to recognizing the validity of baptism at the hands of others. For scripture itself suggests that we make our acts of baptism a little less about us and a little more about the God who is at work in His people.


Notes

1 For instance, the increasingly common practice by many denominations to recognize the seminary degrees, communion practices, or theological perspectives of other denominations.

2 Depending on how you subdivide narratives.

3 Here, of course, we must draw the distinction between essential and required. If we take Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross seriously, then we cannot expect that no one who has not been baptized belongs to the family of God. Still, exceptional theology should not undermine normative theology. Accordingly, it’s appropriate to confirm the long-standing practice that every person who is able who follows Jesus should be baptized.

On Baptism (Part II)

This post continues my reflections on baptism, focusing on the covenantal and sacramental aspects of Christian baptism.

Covenantal Theology

Those beginning an exploration of historic baptismal theology will almost immediately run into the concept of covenantal theology. As commonly defined, a covenant is a formal agreement made between God and humans, typically one that only God is capable of upholding in its entirety. Christians of various stripes will interpret covenants and their implications differently, but, generally speaking, if God makes a covenant with his people, there are expectations that this agreement will remain important and in effect for a significant length of time. While there are numerous covenants established in the Old Testament, central to the Christian proclamation from earliest times is that Jesus has both established a New Covenant and done something to the Old. Now, the early church did not always agree on precisely what Jesus did to the Old Covenants. Some (like Marcion) thought Jesus did away with the Old in its entirety, while others (like the Judaizers and Ebionites) seem to have thought that the Old remained wholly in place. Yet the Great Church (from Acts 15 until today) took a nuanced middle way, albeit one which has been harder to clearly define, with some even arguing that Christ functionally did away with some portions of the Old and retained others.

In my thinking, the best way to think about the relationship between the Old and New Covenants is that Christ and his covenant expanded portions of the Old Covenants to a new people group—the nations (Gentiles)—while maintaining the Old Covenants for the Jewish People of God. While this is not the place to offer a complete explanation of how the Old and New Covenants interact, this viewpoint means that what God says and does in the Old Testament remain important, particularly his continual emphasis on setting apart (making Holy) his people and their commitment to living out his character. Even if the specifics of the old covenants are no longer required for those following Jesus, belonging to the covenant (i.e., being a child of God) remains important. Accordingly, the Christian Church has emphasized the sacraments—the visible manifestations of God’s grace—as a means of participating in the covenantal family of God and growing in holiness. Two of the earliest and clearest expressions of this transition come in Galatians 3 and Hebrews 8, where Christ’s work is contrasted to that which came before and participation in the covenant of Christ furthers the effects of the Old.

When it comes to thinking sacramentally, from the beginning baptism has held an important place in Christian practice. One need look no further than Jesus’ Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) to see that baptism plays a defining role in what it means to be a follower of Jesus. No doubt building upon Jesus’ command to baptize, in Romans 6:1-14 Paul argues that baptism into Christ equals baptism into the new covenant of life. Furthermore, 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 connect old to new, suggesting that Christian baptism into Christ was prefigured in the acts and covenants of old. As explained by the early Church, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the Old Covenant was circumcision, something that happened to Jewish males at eight days of age. According to the New Testament, the most visible sign of belonging to Yahweh under the New Covenant is now baptism.

Sacramental Anthropology

So how does baptism work? Only through the grace of Christ (Rom. 3:22, 6:3-11; Eph. 2:8). Fundamentally, we confess with Saint Ambrose that baptism is a mystery rooted in the work of Christ: “See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from, if not from the cross of Christ, from his death. There is the whole mystery: he died for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.”1 If baptism is founded in the work of Christ, the ancient principle of ex opera operato serves as an important qualification about how we explain how baptism works. If baptism is a working apart from the worker, the act of baptism does not depend on the one performing the baptism nor does it depend on the person receiving baptism. That is, the effects of baptism depend not on the pastor or priest performing the ceremony, those in attendance, or even the one being baptized, but rather the one who has commanded and enacts the effects of baptism: God Himself. Gregory of Nazianzus summarizes this thinking well, writing:

“Baptism is God’s most beautiful and magnificent gift…. We call it gift, grace, anointing, enlightenment, garment of immortality, bath of rebirth, seal, and most precious gift. It is called gift because it is conferred on those who bring nothing of their own; grace since it is given even to the guilty; Baptism because sin is buried in the water; anointing for it is priestly and royal as are those who are anointed; enlightenment because it radiates light; clothing since it veils our shame; bath because it washes; and seal as it is our guard and the sign of God’s Lordship.”2

As a gift of grace, the effects of baptism rely not on our work or obedience, but on God’s benevolence. As Gregory says, we “bring nothing of our own.” Thus, a full understanding of baptism is not necessary for baptism to forgive sins, seal Christians, or mark us as members of God’s family. I have a friend who was baptized as a believer one year and then felt the need to be re-baptized the following year because they had a better understanding of their faith. This way of thinking overemphasizes our role in baptism at the expense of recognizing Christ’s work in our lives through baptism (and other forms of grace). Baptism transforms human beings because of the grace of God, not because of the purity of the one baptizing or the understanding of the one being baptized. From this theological vantage, we can straightforwardly see baptism as a mysterious grace which can rightly be bestowed on those who might not fully understand its meaning, be they children or disabled adults.3

Of course, baptism is not some magical event that makes people sinless or removes the need for daily repentance. However, baptism does serve as a means by which our sins are forgiven and formally signifies our place in the Gathering of the People of God. This is true for both infant baptism and believer’s baptism, as both may rightly be understood as the process through which we covenant with God in Christ. Baptism marks us as members of God’s family, a belonging that ultimately depends on God’s gift of grace, bestowed on us through the power of the Holy Spirit and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Can we reject our baptisms? Certainly, in much the same way that we may accept or reject every instance of God’s grace. The first movement of all faith belongs to God (both in terms of the grace to make decisions as well as the grace of baptism); it is only subsequent to his gifting that we may respond. But we are asked to respond. Whatever our stage in life, we are called to accept and inhabit the grace offered us by God, whether that entails lifestyle change, identity formation, or both. Baptism presumes life in a community, along with its attendant accountability, maturation, and Christian service. This is true of believer’s baptism as well as infant baptism: no baptized person may live on their own or cease to confess the truth of Christ’s coming into the world as their savior. For those baptized before their teen/young adult years, this means going through a process of confirmation (the affirmation and acceptance of responsibility for their faith), manifesting the baptism of the Spirit. Baptized one-year olds, ten-year olds, and forty-year olds alike should view baptism as the beginning of the process of life in Christ, not its completion, and continue learning to love God and love people accordingly.

Conclusion

By the power of the Holy Spirit and grace of God, baptism marks Christians as members of the Triune God’s covenant family, affects the forgiveness of sins in our lives, and serves as a sign and seal of our salvation (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-9; 1 Peter 3:18-21). Baptism should be extended to and recognized by all who belong to the family of God, whether by conversion or familial life, not just those with whom we stand in theological concord. For all followers of Christ, as Saint Irenaeus remarked, “Baptism is indeed the seal of eternal life.”4

O God, great Father, Lord and King!
Our children unto Thee we bring;
And strong in faith, and hope, and love,
We dare Thy steadfast Word to prove.

Thy covenant kindness did of old
Our fathers and their seed enfold;
That ancient promise standeth sure,
And shall while heaven and earth endure.

Look down upon us while we pray,
And visit us in grace today;
These little ones in mercy take
And make them Thine for Jesus’ sake.

While they the outward sign receive,
Wilt Thou Thy Holy Spirit give,
And keep and help them by Thy power
In every hard and trying hour.

Guide Thou their feet in holy ways:
Shine on them through the darkest days;
Uphold them till their life be past,
And bring them all to heaven at last.

~E. Embree Hoss

Many thanks to Joseph Prahlow, Samuel Prahlow, Benjamin Winter, and Nicholai Stuckwisch for their conversations and feedback with this article.


(1) Ambrose, De sacr. 2.2.6.
(2) Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 40.3-4.
(3) Here an objection based in history might be offered: should we baptize “pagans” against their wills? It seems here that a distinction should be drawn between baptizing those who are not (yet) capable of independent reflection and willing and those who are capable but remain resistant. Without delving too deeply into the longstanding debates over the human capacity to make choices pertaining to salvation (i.e., the predestination-freewill debate), there is an important functional difference between passive acceptance and active rejection.
(4) Irenaeus, Dem ap. 3:62.32.

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. Continue reading

Montantism and the Authority of (Female) Confessor-Martyrs

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

Holy SpiritIn “The Role of Martyrdom and Persecution in Developing the Priestly Authority of Women in Early Christianity: A Case Study in Montanism,”[1] Frederick Klawiter contends that from its beginnings Montanism enabled women to rise to ministerial status through their roles as confessor-martyrs. After offering a broad overview of the New Prophecy and its divisive influence in second century Asia Minor, Klawiter considers why the movement came to be viewed as heretical, suggesting that New Prophecy placed too great an emphasis on martyrdom. This Klawiter connects with the rise of martyr-minsters in Rome (ca. 190 CE), whose integrity before God elevated them to the rank of presbyter. It was this elevated status that Montanists extended to confessors even after their release, as with Alexander and Themiso, who called themselves martyrs even after their release from captivity. Continue reading

The Christology Debate

Byzantine JesusThe Early Christian Church spent hundreds of years seeking a definitive answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?” The answer to this all-important question formed the basis for much of Christian theology and practice. Who is Jesus? Is He God? Is He Man? How does Jesus save us? These are the questions that early theologians had to wrestle with and answer in the first centuries of the Christian faith. Continue reading

Ephrem’s Scriptural Simplicity

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Ephrem the Syrian and early Syrian Christianity.

Ephrem the SyrianCentral to Ephrem’s scriptural presentation of Christ as beyond investigation (i.e., of the same order as the Father) is the relative simplicity of his arguments. Instead of constructing complex metaphysical arguments, Ephrem relies upon the re-presentation of narratives from the Old and New Testament’s to demonstrate Christ’s Sonship. In this post, I reflect upon the simplicity of Ephrem’s rewriting of scripture, as well as briefly consider the role of Tatian’s Diatessaron in his conception of Christ. Continue reading

The Early Church and the Trinity

This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday for many Christians, very often the day of the year when the Trinitarian nature of God and Christian theology are most clearly discussed. This post reflects on how the early Church grappled with the complexities of Trinitarian theology.

TrinityThe doctrine of the Trinity–espoused by the Cappadocian Fathers as “God is one object in Himself and three objects to Himself”–is commonly understood to be one of the more difficult concepts to grasp in Christian theology. Much of Early Church history revolved around debates concerning the Person of Jesus Christ and His relationship to the Father, and doctrine concerning the Holy Spirit was often not explicitly discussed. However by the time of the Cappadocian Fathers and Augustine, an explicit doctrine of the Trinity was emerging in Christendom (Kelly, 252). In her essay entitled “Why Three?” Sarah Coakley engages the Maurice Wiles’ perspective on the Trinity as espoused in his The Making of Christian Doctrine. Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Tertullian (Part I)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence on the development of the New Testament canon.

Tertullian of Cathage

Tertullian of Cathage

In comparison to all other extant ancient works, the writings of Tertullian of Carthage against Marcion remain the fullest and most precise rejection of Marcion’s theology. Tertullian composed as least six works against Marcion, including his Prescription against Heresies and Five Books against Marcion which are extant today.[37] In the Prescription against Heretics, Tertullian made a number of accusations concern Marcion’s use of scripture, canon, and authority, perhaps the most clear being that Marcion had induced a schism within Catholic church authority.[38] Writing somewhat generally, Tertullian wrote that Marcion introduced new material to the Christian faith,[39] formed a theology based on philosophical thought that moved beyond the teachings of Christ and the ‘rule of faith,’[40] twisted and distorted Christian scriptures,[41] and had moved Christian faith away from its Jewish and apostolic roots to a new theology.[42] Continue reading

Book Review: Ancient Christian Worship (McGowan)

Ancient Christian Worship (McGowan)There are few times in history so important and yet so obscure as the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, when the movement bearing his name transformed from a band of several dozen followers hiding in terror into an international community that would shape the subsequent history of the world. Despite the paucity of evidence from this period, historians and theologians alike continually return to the earliest years of the Jesus Movement, attempting to ascertain precisely who was doing what and how they were doing it. To help bring clarity to the all important aspect of Christian worship from this period comes Andrew B. McGowan’s masterful Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014). Continue reading