The Divided Waters

This baptism thing sure would be easier to figure out if God had just written precise instructions on this tablet...

Before I start my study on baptism, I wanted to post a roundup of different positions on baptism, along with some of my preliminary thoughts. I expect that some of these thoughts will change over the course of my study, but it will be good to look back and see where I started.

One thing I’ve noticed is that many people within my own tradition seem to break the baptism debate down to two sides: infant baptism versus believers’ baptism. However, the issue is far more complicated than that, with many nuanced positions held by various denominations and traditions. Here is a breakdown of some of the different aspects of baptism that must go into the consideration of the issue.

Water Baptism: Yes or No?

The first aspect is whether water baptism is practiced at all. Most Christians throughout history have practiced some form of water baptism (including Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, and most other denominations). However, some groups, such as Quakers and the Salvation Army, do not practice water baptism at all, believing that an outward sign adds nothing to the inward baptism of the Holy Spirit.

Who Gets Baptized?

Paedobaptists believe that baptism is the sign of God’s promise to believers and their children. Therefore, they administer water baptism to the infant children of believing parents. Adults converted to faith in Christ are baptized following a profession of faith. Paedobaptists include Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.

Credobaptists believe that baptism is the outward sign of an inward commitment, and should thus be administered only following a profession of faith from someone who has heard and believed the gospel. This group includes Baptists, Assemblies of God, and Churches of Christ.

Within the credobaptist position there are several varieties. Some congregations and denominations allow for the baptism of anyone who makes a verbal profession of faith, without any other criteria. Some impose an age limit (the age can vary widely), believing that young children are incapable of making a credible profession of faith. Others, such as Romanian Baptists, require converts to undergo a confirmation process of catechesis prior to baptism, allowing the local church to credibly vouch for salvation before administering baptism.

Dual Practice churches allow for both paedo- and credobaptist practice, taking a supportive stance of families who have convictions one way or the other. The Evangelical Free Church in America holds this position (though the vast majority of EFCA baptisms are to adults), as do many independent churches.

Baptismal Regeneration

Baptismal Regeneration is the belief that the Holy Spirit’s act of regeneration is conferred through the act of water baptism. In other words, a person is “saved” at the time of baptism. This belief is most common among paedobaptists, though not all paedobaptists believe this. Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists are among the denominations with this belief, though some (notably Methodists) believe that infant baptisms must be followed later by repentance and a profession of faith to confirm that spiritual regeneration has happened.

Presbyterians and most Reformed churches teach that baptism is a sign of God’s promise, but does not actually convey that promise (i.e. baptized babies are not “saved” yet). Conversion/regeneration happens at a later time. This position is known as covenantal paedobaptism.

Most credobaptists agree that baptism is a sign rather than the thing signified, but disagree about the timing. However, some credobaptists, including many Churches of Christ, believe in some sort of baptismal regeneration, holding that water baptism is essential to salvation, rather than “merely” an act of obedience.

Baptism of the Holy Spirit

Most paedo- and credobaptists believe that spiritual baptism happens when the Holy Spirit regenerates someone’s heart. This is the moment at which someone is initiated into the Body of Christ (i.e. the moment of conversion/salvation). Some paedobaptists believe this happens supernaturally through the act of water baptism (see above). Covenantal paedobaptists believe this spiritual baptism follows sometime after water baptism (and that some who are baptized as infants are never regenerated, remaining lost in their sin). Baptists believe that water baptism follows spiritual baptism.

Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God teach that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a separate event that follows conversion and water baptism, in which special spiritual blessing and power are given to some Christians. They believe that all Christians ought to pursue this special blessing, but that it is not necessary for salvation and will not be given to all Christians. They also believe that this special blessing is accompanied by signs, such as speaking in tongues.

Re-Baptism

Some denominations have a practice of “re-baptism”, in which some people receive water baptism on more than one occasion. There are two primary reasons for this practice. The first is a lack of belief in eternal security. Churches that teach that believers can lose their salvation often re-baptize those they see as returning to faith. This is a common practice in Churches of Christ.

Others who practice re-baptism do not believe that true believers can lose their salvation; rather, they believe that if someone’s baptism preceded conversion, it is not valid. Thus, these believers must be baptized again following a profession of faith as a sign of obedience. This is the dominant feature of Anabaptist theology (the word anabaptist literally means “re-baptize”), found in groups like the Mennonites and Amish which grew out of this tradition. This type of re-baptism is also common in Southern Baptist churches. In fact, a recent study showed that as many as 40% of baptisms in Southern Baptist churches are actually re-baptisms.

Mode of Baptism

There are three primary “modes” of water baptism. The first is known as Aspersion, or sprinkling. Proponents of this method believe that the Greek word baptizo can refer to a number of different ways of introducing the element of water, and draw from the common use of sprinkling in the Bible in cleansing rituals. This group includes Presbyterians and Lutherans.

Affusion is the act of pouring water over the one being baptized. This is the mode practiced by Catholics. Most paedobaptists use either aspersion or affusion to baptize infants.

Immersion/Submersion is the act of covering one’s body completely in water. This is meant to symbolically represent death and rebirth, as believers are figuratively raised from “death” to “life” as they emerge from the water. This is the most common method of baptism for credobaptists, though some traditions sprinkle or pour water on adult converts, and some (the Eastern Orthodox, for example) immerse babies. Some make a distinction between immersion and submersion, but most use the terms interchangeably. It is also common for churches to practice and/or accept more than one of the above practices.

My Current Position

I believe that water baptism ought to be practiced. I believe that water baptism is a symbolic act, separate from regeneration. I believe that spiritual baptism happens at the moment of conversion, and that while many Christians do not take full advantage of the power that is ours through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (we can and should pray for spiritual anointing!), the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not a separate event experienced by only some Christians.

I have a very hard time justifying the act of re-baptism (something I’ll get into more in my next post as I attempt to give a critique of my own position). I am fairly indifferent regarding the mode of baptism. I like the symbolism of immersion, but can also see the argument for sprinkling. I do not have the Greek understanding to judge between the various translations proposed for the word baptizo. I’ve read arguments from all sides, but to me this is the least important aspect of baptism. Perhaps I will be more strongly convinced during my study.

So far, this narrows my stance down to a couple different plausible positions. One is the position of my church, which is credobaptism that is available to anyone. Another is a variation on this, delaying baptism for those who have made a profession of faith, because of age restrictions or a confirmation process. The last is covenantal paedobaptism, which is certainly the least complicated! Of course, “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “right”.

On a practical level (if not a confessional level) I tend to put baptism under the category of Christian liberty. I have a charitable view toward families who feel convicted to baptize their infants and can do so without violating their conscience, so long as they have the understanding that their children must still be regenerated later in order to obtain salvation. I am also sympathetic to the position of the Romanian Baptists and others (such as Mark Dever) who delay baptism for various reasons, though I am still able to rejoice in the baptism of children (having been baptized as a child myself).

Might this position be a result of my having attending an Evangelical Free church for a brief but vital time in my own spiritual formation? The first time anyone ever intentionally discipled me, it was an EFCA elder. Though we never specifically talked about baptism, his influence on my life has been profound, and my current beliefs about baptism are probably related.

I apologize for the length of this post; it is one of the few entries on my blog that is primarily for my own benefit. I look forward to coming back to this post later on to see if and how my position changes after having put some serious study into the matter. If this is of benefit to others as well, so much the better!

Note: All the information in this post is admittedly un-scientific. I am no expert on the theology of other denominations, and at this point, what is written here is coming from my own limited understanding. If I have misrepresented any of these positions, I ask for correction. One of the primary reasons for studying baptism is to be able to accurately represent every position. This is my best effort to do so, but it is done with the realization that I may be wrong at points.

5 comments on “The Divided Waters

  1. Jason Cohoon says:

    I attended three churches of Christ in my early life, and we did not re-baptize apostates, repentance publically was considered sufficient. We only re-baptized if the person claimed they were not true believers at the time of their first baptism. I know there are lots of variations but I thought I’d share that for your studies.

  2. Which traditions have you found that are credobaptist yet sprinkle/pour adult converts?

    • John Gardner says:

      “Traditions” may not have been the best word there, as this position is pretty rare. Most local churches that sprinkle/pour adult converts also baptize babies. However, one of my favorite preachers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, abandoned paedobaptism early in his career and became an exclusive credobaptist, but would not become a Baptist because he did not believe in baptism by immersion. There have been others like him, but those are probably more isolated incidents than actual “traditions”.

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