BAPTISM IN THE BIBLE
The use of water in rituals has generally held one of three meanings: bath (purifying), burial (destroying) or birth (life-giving). A search for words related to baptism in the Bible will reveal no Old Testament references whatsoever. Still, it does appear that the Jews practiced baptism and ceremonial washing throughout the pre-Christian era. Ron Moseley, Ph. D. writes, “Dr. Merrill Tenney, the editor of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, said ‘Baptism as a rite of immersion was not begun by Christians but was taken by them from Jewish and pagan forms….’” The pagan forms may have included baptismal practices from Zoastrianism, a Persian religion to which the Jews were exposed during their exile in Babylon.
Regarding Jewish forms of baptism, “Orthodox and Conservative Rabbis require both male and female conversion candidates to immerse themselves in a ritual bath called a mikveh. This ceremony is called tevillah.” Moseley notes, “Historically, we know that there were many ritual immersion baths (mikvaot) on the Temple Mount including one in the Chamber of Lepers situated in the northwest corner of the Court of Women (Mid. 2:5). Josephus, a Jewish historian, tells us that even during the years of war (66-73 A.D.) the laws of ritual immersion were strictly adhered to (Jos. Wars, 4:205). The Temple itself contained immersion baths in various places for the priests to use, even in the vaults beneath the court (Commentary to Tam. 26b; Tam. 1:1).”
The Gospel Accounts
It is into this setting that John the Baptizer appears in the opening account of each of the four Gospels. We can assemble a profile of the baptism of John by a quick survey of the various accounts. Matthew states, “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (3:1). Luke divulges the content of the Baptizer’s preaching: “And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (3:3). Mark reveals the overwhelming public response, saying “And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (1:5).
Though the act of baptism was not itself thought of as strange, John (the Gospel writer) does note that it aroused certain questions from the religious authorities. He writes, “They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” (1:21), revealing that the Jews expected a variety of appearances to be associated with the coming of the Messiah. Though he did not fit neatly into their expectations, we learn that the Baptizer had been supernaturally appointed to baptize (1:33), and had been given a sign so that he would recognize the Christ. This reveals that, even though John and Jesus were half-cousins, they must not have spent much post-womb time together (see Luke 1:36-44).
Besides calling for confession and repentance, we learn that John’s baptism was an incomplete baptism. The Gospel writers all include statements of another baptism that was to follow John’s: a baptism of “the Holy Spirit and of fire” (Matthew 3:11). Finally, we discern the purpose for which John had been sent to baptize. All four Gospel writers invoke the words of Isaiah the prophet regarding the Baptizer: “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said” (John 1:23). John’s role, then, was to help usher in the new and coming Kingdom of Heaven.
As the Gospels unfold, baptism continues to be a focal point. It is notable that after Jesus’ baptism, John continued to baptize even though Jesus’ disciples were also baptizing in the same general area (John 3). In this same chapter, Jesus makes an allusion to being born of “water and the spirit” (John 3:5) when explaining the new birth to Nicodemus. At the end of His earthly ministry, we hear Jesus’ command that baptism was to be administered in the name of the Triune God (Matthew 28:19). In his account, Mark connects belief and baptism to salvation (Mark 16:16). Finally, Jesus appropriates the term “baptism” when referring to the process of his coming passion (Mark 10:39; Luke 12:50).
One question plagues all who consider it: “Why was Jesus baptized?” The Baptizer, himself, protests at the thought of baptizing the Christ (Matthew 3:14), and Jesus’ rationale leaves much to speculation. He simply replies “Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Leonard VanderZee speculates that Christ’s purpose in being baptized was to identify with sinners. Others have wondered if Christ was exemplifying submission, humiliation or obedience. In this regard, Bridge and Phypers note “Jesus was not a sinner, but in order to save sinners according to the purpose of God, he had to take his place alongside sinners, becoming, to the causal observer at least, completely indistinguishable from them.”
The book of Acts, also written by the Gospel writer Luke, reveals the act of baptism to be both a sign and the means of repentance. He documents that Peter first administered Christian baptism during the Jewish Pentecost celebration. Peter had preached publicly, employing John the Baptizer’s words “repent and be baptized,” connecting baptism to the washing away of sins (2:38; 22:16). A cursory reading of the book of Acts reveals that baptism seems to be the first and most natural step after receiving forgiveness. It was withheld from no one who repented, regardless of race, status or gender.
Both Peter and Paul used baptism to interpret and apply an historical Theophony. Peter, in speaking of salvation, refers to the story of Noah, writing “. . . when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:20-21). In like manner, Paul speaks of baptism as an escape, this time from bondage, when he refers to Moses and the Egyptians at the Red Sea, stating “For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).
The Water-Spirit Connection
There are numerous references throughout the Epistles that may also refer to baptism. Words and phrases like “washing,” “cleansing,” “dying to self” etc. are often interpreted as having baptismal connotations. Since these references are a bit more open to interpretation, they have not been included in this general overview. The reader, however, will recall that John the Baptizer knew his baptism to be incomplete, stating that the Christ would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and with Fire” (Matthew 3:11). Examples of this connection between water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism are, therefore, too important to neglect herein.
In the story of his conversion experience, water and spirit are linked as Saul receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized (Acts 9:17, 18). Again, at the house of Cornelius, the family receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized (Acts 10:44,47). At Corinth, Paul stumbles upon a group of heretofore-unknown followers of Christ. They had repented and been baptized, but had not received the Holy Spirit. Paul then rebaptized them, and they immediately received the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5,6). The connection of Spirit and water is also evident in 1 Corinthians 12:13, which says “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Finally, Titus 3:5 also makes this water-Spirit connection, stating, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.”
In summary, the ritualistic use of water either refers to a bath (sanctifying), burial (destroying/redemption) or birth (salvation/life-giving). Biblical examples can be categorized as follows:
-A sign of repentance or ritual cleansing (Luke 3:3; 1 Cor. 6:11)
-Preparation for the Messiah (John 1:23)
-A sign of belief (Colossians 2:12)
-Death to self (Romans 6:3-4)
-An escape from bondage (1 Corinthians 10:1-6)
-Unites to the death of Christ (Romans 6:3-4)
-New birth (John 3:5-7)
-Entrance into the new covenant (Colossians 2:12)
-Initiation into the Christian Community (1 Corinthians 12:13)
BAPTISM THROUGHOUT HISTORY
The word baptize (baptizein) means to submerge a cloth into dye in order to change its color. This connotation, in addition to the numerous references to baptism as burial, tells us that immersion is the logical mode of baptism. Still, this was probably not practical in all circumstances. For example, if people who lived during biblical times did not live near a river, immersion would have presented a great difficulty. Additionally, a situation such as the one recorded in Acts 2, where 3,000 people were converted and baptized, would not likely have been possible using the mode of immersion. Two other modes of baptism developed either during or directly following the Apostolic era. A second mode of baptism is called “affusion,” and refers to the pouring of water over the head of the candidate, perhaps portraying the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that, as mentioned previously, was closely linked to water baptism. Affusion was usually performed with the candidate standing in water. The third baptismal mode is sprinkling, and probably looks to the sprinkling of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 12:24 and 1 Peter 1:2) for its proof text.
It has been mentioned that the ritualistic use of water usually falls into the categories of “bath, burial or birth.” An interesting way to discern how various Christians have understood the rite is to look at the design of their baptistry. Peoples who have understood baptism as a “bath” have generally constructed a rectangular baptistry, or have baptized in “living” i.e. running water.
A “burial” interpretation of baptism often found expression in either a cruciform or hexagon-shaped baptistry. The six-sided baptistry correlated to the 6th day, the day on which Christ was crucified.
The “birth” understanding of baptism produced either a round baptistry (probably representing the birth canal) or an octagonal design. The eight-sided baptistry drew a parallel to the 8th day, the day of resurrection, also known as the day of new creation.
Baptismal Practice in the Early Patristic Era
A brief review of early Church writings will provide a glimpse into the developing theology of baptism. The first and perhaps earliest document to be considered is the 1st century document The Didache, which purports to be “The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.” It states:
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before. (Chapter 7)
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs. (Chapter 9)
Items of note include the invocation of the Triune God, the allowance of affusion and the preparation of the baptismal candidate (whereas no preparation was present in the New Testament). Of special interest is the fact that baptism entitles one to participate in the act of Communion.
The mid-2nd century document, The First Apology of Justin Martyr refers to baptism in chapters 61 and 65 as the means whereby men and women are dedicated to God and made new through Christ. It is given to as many as are persuaded and believe that the things are true which the Church teaches, and who undertake to live accordingly. It is preceded by prayer and fasting by both the candidates and the congregation. The candidates are then “brought where there is water and are born again, being washed in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Justin explains:
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. (Chapter 65)
A significant development is the process in which a convert becomes a member of the Christian community. There are now, in the mid-2nd century, four stages through which converts must pass: 1) Seeker (energumens); 2) Hearer (illuminands); 3) Kneeler and Baptism; 4) Faithful (continuing). Only one-half century after the last Apostle died, the Church has developed a required path toward initiation and piety. The reasons for this are probably a combination of Man’s natural tendency to institutionalize, and the intense persecution the Church was enduring at the time.
At the beginning of the 3rd century, the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus reveals the practice of the church in Rome, where baptism had evolved into a 3-year initiation process. Herein are the pertinent writings:
On preparation for baptism: “Catechumens shall continue to hear the word for three years. But if a person is keen, and perseveres well in the matter, the time shall not be judged, but only his conduct…. When the teacher has finished giving instruction, let the catechumens pray by themselves, separated from the faithful…And when they have finished praying, they shall not give the Peace, for their kiss is not yet holy.”
“And when those who are to receive baptism are chosen, let their life be examined: have they lived good lives when they were catechumens? Have they honored the widows? Have they visited the sick? Have they done every kind of good work? And when those who brought them bear witness to each: ‘He has’, let them hear the gospel.”
“From the time that they were set apart, let hands be laid on them daily while they are exorcized. And when the day of their baptism approaches, the bishop shall exorcize each one of them, in order that he may know whether he is pure….”
“Those who are to be baptized should be instructed to bathe and wash themselves on the Thursday…Those who are to receive baptism shall fast on the Friday. On the Saturday those who are to receive baptism shall be gathered in one place at the bishop’s decision. They shall all be told to pray and kneel. And he shall lay his hand on them and exorcize all alien spirits…
“And they shall spend the whole night in vigil; they shall be read to and instructed. Those who are to be baptized shall not bring with them any other thing, except what each brings for the Eucharist. For it is suitable that he who has been made worthy should offer an offering then.
This baptism service was to eventually become the Easter Vigil, wherein candidates (catechumens) were baptized on Easter Sunday morning. The service began with prayer over the water at cockcrow. Candidates disrobed completely, including jewelry. Baptism was preceded by anointing with the oil of exorcism and prayer for the departure of spirits. A threefold baptism by immersion was then accompanied by interrogation and affirmation of belief in the clauses of the Apostles’ Creed. The newly initiated Christian was then clothed, followed by a further anointing with the oil of thanksgiving, and the laying-on of hands by the bishop. They were then able to participate in the kiss of peace, and in a triple communion (bread with three cups).
Baptismal Understanding in the Late Patristic Era
Baptismal practices during the Early Patristic era evolved in both the extent of baptismal preparation and in the actual administration of the rite itself. During the Late Patristic era, a third development had to do with what the various Church Fathers understood to be happening during the rite. Though the formal schism would not take place for another 700 years, differences in understandings began to separate themselves into West (which would become Roman Catholic) and East (which would become the Orthodox church).
In the West, Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) describes the process of baptism as a way for a living person to die and to rise again, stating, “the font is a kind of grave.” He writes:
To break the hold of the devil in this world as well, a means was found for making a living man die and a living man rise again…[in baptism] the heavenly sentence is thus served, without the loss of consciousness involved in death. Because you are immersed, the sentence, ‘You are dust and to dust you shall return’, is served. With the sentence served there is room for the gift and the heavenly remedy…the conditions of life did not permit us to be covered by the earth and then rise again from it….so it is that the font is a kind of grave.”
The Eastern understanding comes to us by way of Cyril, the 4th century Bishop of Jerusalem. He notes, “We are handing on to you a mystery, a hope of the Age to come. Guard the mystery from those who would waste this prize.” For Cyril and the East, baptism is not only a symbol of death and resurrection with Christ (taking place on Easter Sunday at a place believed to be the site of Christ’s tomb), but also carried an eschatological meaning. He writes “Christ is here in your midst . . .He is ready, O you who want to be baptized, to bring you by the Holy Spirit into the presence of the Father.” A further development in the East was the importance of chrismation (anointing) and renunciation of the Devil. Cyril writes:
“That tyrant of old pursued the ancient Jewish people as far as the seas, and here and now the devil, bold and shameless, the source of all evil, followed you up to the waters of salvation. Pharaoh was submerged in the sea, and the devil disappears in the waters of salvation.
Nonetheless, you are told to stretch out your hand, and to address the devil as if he were before you: I renounce you, Satan. I will tell you now, for you need to know, why you face westward. The west is the quarter from which darkness appears to us; now the devil is darkness, and wields his power in darkness. So we look to the west as a symbolic gesture, and renounce the leader of shadow and darkness.”
An overview of baptism during the Late Patristic era would be neither possible nor complete without the contribution of the great Augustine of Hippo (354-430). His doctrine of Original Sin unwittingly birthed the sacramental principle of Ex opere operato (“by the work being worked,” or “done in the doing”) and became the theological modis operandi throughout the entire Medieval period. The understanding that the outward action produces the fact of the inward change “developed quickly from about the time of Augustine, when the doctrine of original sin had become clearly formulated and widely accepted.” This continues to be the sacramental understanding of both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox.
Paedobaptism triggered the formulation of the doctrine of original sin. This term refers to the baptism of infants, and was an extant practice of the Patristic era. A short review is necessary in order to understand the circumstances of Augustine’s arrival at this doctrine and its subsequent results. Origen (circa 185), commenting on Romans 6:5-7 (dealing with the likeness of Christ’s death and resurrection) states “For this reason the Church received from the Apostles the tradition of baptizing children too.” However, Tertullian (circa 205), while acknowledging the existence of the practice, expresses doubts about the wisdom of infant baptism. He writes “It follows that deferment of baptism is more profitable, in accordance with each person’s character and attitude, and even age: and especially so as regards children. . . All who understand what a burden baptism is will have more fear of obtaining it than of its postponement. Faith unimpaired has not doubt of its salvation.” Still, within 30 years of Tertullian’s comments, infant baptism is the unquestioned rule for both the East and the West.
Augustine, then, inherited the custom of infant baptism as the standard practice, but wondered how it could be a baptism for repentance, since babies had not consciously sinned. His answer was to separate the conscious sin of adults from the inherited sin of Adam (see Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22), thus revealing two types of guilt; inherited sin and personal sin. Thus, thought Augustine, the sacrament of baptism, when bestowed upon an infant, cleanses the infant of their inherited sin, clearing their way to heaven. In a time of high infant-mortality, this must also have given great relief to grieving parents. Unwittingly, however, Baptismal Sanctification was born! Personal faith was taken out of the equation, leaving the ceremony itself to grant grace to the recipient. Infant baptism, then, found its rationalization in the doctrine of original sin after the fact. An unfortunate by-product of this doctrine was the concept of ex opere operato, where the sacraments could communicate grace apart from faith. Rather than starting with Scripture to form doctrine, Augustine, in this case, began with the accepted practice of infant baptism and then tried to proof text its existence. Though the Doctrine of Original Sin is widely accepted, ex opere operato is widely contested. This was not Augustine at his most Biblical.
Rationalizations for paedobaptism still abound. One perspective embraces the practice because it emphasizes the objective, prevenient fact of God’s grace, rather than the subjective response of the baptized. “If Christ has redeemed Mankind,” they might say, “then the only requirement is membership in the sinful race of humanity, which infants also possess.” A second explanation has to do with what is known as covenant theology. This interpretation does not separate the two testaments, but takes them as one continuous witness. Baptism, in this view, is a continuation of circumcision (Acts 2:39; Colossians 2:11-12), where God included Hebrew infants in the blessings of His covenant. Baptism, then, is a kind of invisible tattoo that God puts on the infant. Objections to this view include the fact that the candidate is missing both repentance and a profession of faith. VanderZee states “There are not two kinds of baptism, one for infants and one for adults, with different premises . . . If infant baptism cannot be supported on the same basis and with the same understanding as adult baptism, then it is unacceptable.” Paedobaptism is a very emotional issue, and has deep theological implications for both the Church and the individual.
Baptismal Understanding in the Reformation
Martin Luther’s understanding of the necessity of a personal faith led him to reject baptismal sanctification. Yet, he made allowance for infant baptism, because he believed it best expressed the true relationship of the sinner to God. He explains: “The sinner does not so much need to be washed as he needs to die, in order to be wholly renewed and made another creature, and to be conformed to the death and resurrection of Christ, with whom he dies and rises again through baptism.” He focused on the promise of God from Mark 16:16, which says “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” which he took as a guarantee from God Himself. Pfatteicher notes, “Luther taught us not just to remember our baptism but to glory in it.”
Though Luther (1483-1546) was the main Protest-ant, many thought he did not take his protest far enough. The Anabaptists were one such group who felt the Reformation to be incomplete. They rejected paedobaptism, insisting instead upon a regenerated church membership. Zwingli (1484-1531), though not always associated with the Anabaptists, considered the acts of baptism and communion to be ordinances, rather than sacraments. “Ordinance is an alternate word used by many Protestants (especially Baptists) signifying baptism and communion to be acts which are ordained by Christ and are to be done within the community of the Church. Though Protestants, even today, use the word sacrament in the sense of a vow of loyalty, they don’t mean that the acts convey grace apart from the faith of the individual. It is in this sense that R. S. Wallace defines a sacrament as a “religious rite or ceremony instituted or recognized by Jesus Christ.” John Hammett defines the meaning of baptism as “representing or symbolizing the identification, purification and incorporation of the believer into the Body of Christ.” Objections to Ordinance Theology have generally centered on the fact that the sacred actions depend too much upon the work of Man rather than the work of God.
Calvin (1509-1564) was a second generation Protestant who attempted to take a mediating position between Luther and the Anabaptists. He built his Sacramental Theology upon the prevenient grace of God, contending that God’s grace precedes both personal conversion and baptism. He states “A sacrament is an external sign by which the Lord seals on our consciences His promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in turn testify our piety towards Him, both before Himself, and before angels as well as men.” Calvin accepted the practice of paedobaptism because it put God in the correct position as the grace-giver. He explains “Infants of Christian parents are to be baptized for future repentance and faith, while unbaptized adults . . . are required to display signs of repentance and faith . . .”
John Wesley (1703-1791) believed in a personal, subjective experience of conversion and pardon. He, as an unconverted Anglican priest, believed in baptismal regeneration (ex opere operato), but after his conversion, he arrived at a completely original understanding of baptism, which also allowed for his acceptance of paedobaptism. He suggested that in baptism “infants are born again of the Holy Spirit and cleansed from inherited sin. But as a matter of observed fact, each then grows into a life of personal sin, forfeiting their eternal life. Each then needs to be regenerated a second time by adult conversion.” Wesley accepted Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, but with the caveat that one could lose their salvation, and must be regenerated once again through a subjective conversion experience.
Each tradition brings a unique perspective to the act of baptism. Similarities are few, but there are some to considered. Baptism has always been considered the individual’s initiation into the Body of Christ. It should therefore take place in the presence of the gathered believers, rather than in isolation. Additionally, in all times, baptism has represented bath, burial or birth, with the understanding of the rite often revealed in the design of the baptistry itself.