The Nature of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism
By: The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal


 


INTRODUCTION

This letter deals with the Sacrament of Holy Baptism: the nature of Baptism, how it may to be administered, and who may receive it. It was written to a friend who had asked the author these questions not in an attacking way, but as one Christian brother to another.

The author is a United Methodist Minister who is also anglo-catholic ("High-Church Anglican") in his theology and spirituality.

Further remarks on Baptism can be found elsewhere on this site.

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THE LETTER

My Dear Friend,

After much consideration regarding your letter to me on the subject of Holy Baptism, I’ve decided to share a bit of my musings with you.

When we are dealing with the subject of Baptism we are speaking about Sacramental Theology. While my doctorate was, indeed, in Sacramental Theology, my area of concentration was the Holy Eucharist, not Holy Baptism. Therefore, to say that Baptism is the field of my expertise would not be strictly correct. However, with regard to its nature as a Sacrament, and relative to the subject of Sacraments in general, it is true that I have engaged in much study on, and have written a number of papers regarding, the issue. What follows includes portions of various papers which I have cut-and-pasted and adapted to this response.

Without making extensive reference to the Theologians and Councils of the Church, and without resorting to specific Scriptural references, suffice it to say that a Methodist/Anglican/Catholic (let us call it "anglo-catholic") understanding of the sacraments differs markedly from the understanding which those in your theological family hold. A Sacramental understanding of Baptism and the Eucharist sees them as being “means of Grace” through which God works in the lives and souls of human beings to bring about His Holy Will. Strictly speaking, a Sacrament is something that God does FOR and WITHIN us and to which we have the responsibility of response. God is always viewed as the primary actor, and we are understood as being, at first, the passive recipients, and then subsequently the active respondents.

On the other hand, an Ordinance-based understanding of Baptism and the Eucharist focuses upon the Christian’s cognitive and willful act of obedience to our Lord’s commandment that we baptize and “Remember Him” in the Supper. God is not “present” in Ordinance Theology because neither Baptism nor the Supper are understood as being a “means of Grace.” The Christian doesn’t receive anything of a spiritual nature (and certainly not the Real Presence of Christ in His life-transforming Grace) by partaking of the Supper or receiving the water. The attention is upon what the believer is doing in the rite, not upon what God does. As such, Ordinance Theology is entirely dependent upon the capability of the receiver to both understand and participate in the rite involved, and it is this quality of Ordinance Theology--the focus upon the ability of the recipient and not upon the Presence of God--that has resulted in horrific misreadings of Paul’s directions regarding Holy Communion and the outright blasphemous demand that Christians must be “worthy” to partake. Granted, not all supporters of Ordinance Theology will fall into this trap, but it is a trap that is uniquely “ordinance” in nature.

The difference between a Sacramental understanding of Baptism and an Ordinance-based understanding MUST be recognized before the differences in interpretation of the Scriptural witness, and the subsequent Traditions of the Church, can be understood. In all honesty, it must also be recognized that neither approach is free from the oft' attacked “traditions of men.” Both have Scriptural warrants for their approach, and both rely upon a specific set of man-made hermeneutical devices and assumptions. I shall not name these here, since we can both probably do it in our sleep. Some of them, however, will become apparent in the following paragraphs.

INFANT BAPTISM:

It is true that the New Testament does not clearly mandate the baptism of infants; however, neither does it forbid their baptism. Thus, we must choose between two competing hermeneutical principles:

1. What Scripture does not command, the Church is forbidden to practice.
2. What the Scripture does not forbid, the Church is free to exercise.

Of course, unless one is willing to throw away all Church buildings and cease the use of all electronic devices for communicating the Gospel, etc., and return to the confines of New Testament practices, number 2 is the principle which should be adopted.

The polarization of these two positions, and the uncritical and inconsistent ways in which they are applied by both sides, has had unfortunate consequences for the development of our doctrines. Ulrich Zwingli, the reformer who was the first to articulate Ordinance Theology, was aware of the inconsistencies in his hermeneutical approach but stated unequivocally that such problems failed to concern him when “anti-Romanish issues were concerned.” Such attitudes fail to pass inspection when we consider the increased need for clear theological discourse ... and, yet, similar statements of disregard for honesty and consistency in our approach to the Scriptures can be frequently heard in the Fellowship Halls of AOL. Both sides in the debate need to honestly face the fact that on this issue (Infant Baptism) the New Testament is of less help than we might wish. The decision about who are proper candidates for Baptism depends upon a broad base of Biblical and Historical Theology, not upon a few carefully chosen passages of Scripture, nor upon an argument from pure silence. The Scriptures clearly do not prohibit the baptism of infants, and thus, at least at this level of argumentation, there does not exist any rationale for denying baptism to the infant children of Christian parents. The only rationale for denying baptism to such MUST be located within an ordinance-based understanding of the rite -- something which you have done better than I. Therefore, let me state the Sacramental approach to the question.

What anglo-catholics say regarding the baptism of infants can be summed up in a few short sentences (which I will probably expound upon far beyond my initial intent.) Based upon the New Testament evidence as a whole and upon the practice of the church in subsequent centuries, it is clear that children cannot be baptized until there exists a Christian community in which these children can be nurtured. To put it formally: The baptism of adults is the essential precondition upon which the baptism of infants may rest by providing a community in which faith may be nurtured until the child can confirm his/her baptism. Also, it must be asserted the Baptism of adults proclaims, most fully, what is still readily present and true relative to all baptisms, even that of infants: specifically, that it is God who is the primary actor in Baptism, NOT the one who receives it. From the Divine perspective, there is NO fundamental difference between an adult baptism and an infant baptism. In BOTH, God acts and humans respond. From the human perspective, however, the baptism of an adult completely reveals the totality of Baptism -- that is, God’s act of imparting Grace and our human response. The human response is commonly referred to as “confirmation,” for the Grace which God imparts is “confirmed” by our response of faith. With an adult, both God’s act and our response occurs at one moment in history. With an infant, it occurs at two different moments in history ... one is baptized and then, at a later point in time (following years of cognitive development and catechetical preparation) the child/young adult proclaims his/her faith. Until confirmation, however, baptism is NOT a “completed” act. God’s part is done, is sure, and is true. Our response is contingent, and until it comes through confirmation the baptism is not “completed.” The problem, however, is only a problem in so far as human dependence upon temporality is concerned. We seem, for some reason, to think that it MATTERS that a gulf of years separates an infant’s baptism from his confirmation. For God, this is not an issue because time is not a limiting factor to Him. Be it 12 seconds or 12 years, time is irrelevant with God; God simply acts and we respond. Period.

Since Baptism is understood as God’s act, not ours, the identity of the recipient -- adult or infant -- is not relevant. If it’s an adult, the ability to respond in faith is assumed, and REQUIRED, for the baptism to be completed. If it’s an infant, the ability to respond in faith is also assumed, and REQUIRED, for the baptism to be completed. The ONLY difference (from the human point of view) is that an adult can immediately confirm their baptism, while an infant must first grow old enough to make such a proclamation of faith. But, since it is God who is the principle actor in all Baptisms, and not a human being, such is not a problem.

The exclusion of infants from Baptism is a relatively recent development in the history of the church, dating to the Anabaptists in Germany and the English Separatists (Baptist) of the Reformation. References to infant baptism abound in the writings of the early church fathers. Indeed, possible references to infants being baptized can even be found in scripture (Acts 16:15, 1 Cor 1:16 just to name two), although such arguments, apart from further historical evidences, have never been totally convincing to me. The argument in favor of infant baptism from early Church practices can be strongly made, however.

Working backwards from the Second Council of Mileve in 416 AD, which anathematized all “who deny that new-born infants should be baptized immediately after birth,” we find that the Church tradition of infant baptism was already established at the time of St. Augustine, who successfully opposed the Pelagian denial of original sin by asserting that such a denial would undercut the importance of infant baptism. Hence, we can limit our search for early Patristic support to the pre-Augustinian period. St. Augustine himself stated the belief and practice of his and preceding periods rather clearly: “The infants are brought to church, and if they cannot go there on their own feet, they run with the feet of others ... Let no one among you, therefore, murmur strange doctrines. This the Church has always had, and this she has always held; this she received from the faith of the ancients; this she preserves tenaciously to the end.”

St. Cyprian, speaking on account of his fellow bishops at the Council of Carthage in 253 AD, said to Fidus: “No one agrees with you in your opinion as to what should be done, but we all, on the contrary, judge that to no one born of man was the mercy and the grace of God to be denied.” St. Augustine explains this utterance as follows: “The Blessed Cyprian, not forming any new decree, but maintaining the assured faith of the Church, in order to correct those who held that an infant should not be baptized before the eighth day, gives it as his own judgment and that of his fellow bishops, that a child can be validly baptized as soon as born.”

In the east, at about the same time, Origen said: “The Church hath received it as a tradition from the Apostles that infants, too, ought to be baptized.”

Long before either St. Cyprian or Origen, however, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (around 140 AD) wrote: “Christ came to save all through Himself -- all, I say, who through Him are born again in God: infants and little children and boys and young men and old men.”

And, finally, archeological discoveries in the Roman catacombs have long-ago proven that infant baptism was common in the primitive Roman Churches. Two clear examples, among dozens of similar inscriptions, are all that we really need to support this claim. A man with the resounding Roman/Latin name of Murtius Verinus placed on the tomb of his children the inscription: “Verina received Baptism at the age of ten months, Florina at the age of twelve months.” The date of this tomb has been firmly established by radio-carbon dating of the children’s bones as being 105 AD +/- 4 years. Another tomb, not far away from this one, has the inscription: “Here rests Achillia, a newly-baptized infant; she was one year and five months old, died February 23rd....” and then follows the year of the reigning emperor, which dates her death to 91 AD. [see W. Wall, “History of Infant Baptism”, 2 Vols., London, 1900. and other related articles in various archeological journals from early this century.]

Since the Scriptures do not forbid infant baptism, and since the sacramental understanding of baptism does not recognize a distinction between adult and infant baptism (in both God is the actor), and since the traditions of the early church and the archeological evidence show clear signs of the practice of infant baptism as early as 91 AD, there is, in my opinion, no convincing argument against infant baptism. Of course, one who adheres to Ulrich Zwingli’s ordinanced-based theology will readily disagree, but such is expected. The purpose of the above was to show that extensive theological and historical consideration has been given to the question; also, I felt it important to assert that arguments against infant baptism from “strictly” scriptural mandates are impossible. All such attempts are simply theological arguments dependent upon a particular reading of the scriptural account. Such arguments can easily be made the other way. Indeed, powerful arguments for infant baptism can be easily made on the grounds of baptism being the “type” from which the shadow of circumcision in the Old Covenant was cast. Since infants were not restricted from circumcision, why should they be restricted from that towards which circumcision was pointing, namely baptism? Equally powerful is the fact that baptism, as a Jewish cleansing ritual during the days of Jesus, was not practiced to the exclusion of infants and children. Jewish children and infants were commonly baptized with their parents in the Essene communities. If such a practice were common in Jewish culture, and there is no prohibition in our records against its practice, then why should we assume that the apostles would stop doing what was common practice in baptism? Similar arguments will also be seen to be possible for the subject of the mode of baptism, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

MODE OF BAPTISM

The question of mode is also a Sacramental one. Put simply, if Baptism is God’s act, and not ours, then the mode of baptism is irrelevant. And, again, we have no scriptural mandates that baptism must be by immersion. Yes, we have many scriptural examples of baptism which were probably by immersion, but nowhere are directions given for how one is to be baptized. If one attempts to say “but we have examples of baptism by immersion in the scripture and, therefore, that is how it should be done today,” an anglo-catholic will respond in any or all the following ways:

1. New Testament Christians worshiped in homes, not in church buildings. If you are going to apply the immersion “only” argument this way, you should be fully consistent and divest yourself of all church buildings and only worship in homes. After all, the Scriptures provide no warrant for church buildings, and if it’s not expressly permitted by Scripture it cannot be practiced by the church, correct?

2. The original Lord’s supper was carried forth in a particular way in the Scriptural account. It occurred in an upper room, the disciples had eaten the Passover meal, it happened at night, and they ate in the reclining position. Now, Communion and Baptism are both Sacraments (or, if you prefer, Ordinances). If you require such a slavish adherence to the supposed New Testament method of baptism by immersion, why don’t you also require such a slavish adherence to the original form of the Lord’s Supper? Why not restrict it to only evening serves, in the upper room of someone’s home, received after the Passover meal, and taken in the reclining position? No “immersian-only” congregation is consistent in it’s requirements between the two ordinances, and such is a serious flaw in their argument for “immersion only.”

3. The patristic writers and the early church accepted the practice of effusion and/or aspersion. Tertullian described baptism as “a sprinkling with any kind of water.” St. Augustine declared that baptism has the power of forgiving sins even if the water “merely sprinkles the child ever so slightly.” St. Cyprian made clear assurances as to the truth and antiquity of effusion and aspersion (“pouring” and “sprinkling”) to a certain “Magnus” who professed to have serious difficulties accepting such a baptism. Baptism by effusion was regarded as equally valid with baptism by immersion even long before the time of St. Cyprian. The famous Didache (Doctrina XII Apostolorum), which dates to about 90-100 AD, says regarding effusion: “Baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, in running water; but if thou canst not in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, pour water three times on the head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

4. Scripture provides us with sufficient evidence that, at least in some instances, baptism was indeed performed by effusion or sprinkling.

You may be raising your eyebrows at this assertion. Many have because it has been generally assumed by so many for so long that only immersion is supported in the New Testament witness. Such is not the case. The New Testament contains numerous accounts of people being baptized. No where, however, does it state -- plainly -- that each and every event was by immersion. The Gospel account is, indeed, clear that John the Baptist baptized in the river Jordan, and that Jesus, upon being baptized “went up straightaway out of the water.” [Matt. 3:16] That would suggest that John baptized by immersion, but it does *not* say that this is so. We are far more dependent upon depictions in the media and in the arts for our assumption that this was immersion than upon the Biblical witness. However, I do not actually argue that our Lord was not baptized by immersion. Rather, I simply want to point out that the Scriptures do not expressly say this. There are, however, other Scriptural accounts of baptism which, due to the circumstances, could have *hardly* been baptisms by immersion.

St. Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus. Ananias visited him in his house, told him that Jesus had sent him, “that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” Paul “received sight forthwith, and arose and was baptized.” (Acts 9:17-18 KJV) Evidently Ananias baptized him, and unless there was a pool or atrium in the house (not very likely, given the conditions under which Ananias probably lived) immersion was not an option. The implication of the Biblical witness was that Paul was baptized by sprinkling or by pouring water upon his head. But the record does not say this, just as it does not say that he was immersed.

Philip preached about Jesus to the Ethiopian eunuch. They came to water. “They went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.” (Acts 8:29-39) That record *sounds* like immersion, doesn’t it? But, be careful, it does not say so. All it says was that the two of them went into the water and the eunuch was baptized. It *doesn’t* say that Philip immersed him. However, it seems to me that this was probably what happened. Still, the important point to notice is that the Scriptures don’t SAY that this was what happened, they simply imply it.

The Philippian jailer was converted at midnight, and in the jail. “And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightaway.” Unless there was a pool in the jail the baptism could NOT have been by immersion. The baptism of Cornelius and his household by peter or those with him at Joppa (Acts 10:48), of Lydia and her family (Acts 16:15), of Stephanas and his family, were under circumstances and conditions which seem to make immersion highly unlikely and to make sprinkling or pouring desirable and reasonable.

Put simply: the New Testament records do NOT give *conclusive* proof for or against immersion, for or against sprinkling or pouring. It’s simply not there, and any *honest* exegetical approach must recognize this.

Quite often arguments in favor of “immersion only” are made based upon the meaning of the Greek word “baptizo.” This, of course, is the strongest argument for immersion “only” ... except that the root-verb formation (which is far more ancient than the ritual word “baptizo”) was “bapto,” and literally means simply “to dip” or “apply.” The sense of the root form, therefore, is NOT to submerge or immerse, but to “cover” as one might cover a garment with dye. Additionally, one of the standard vernacular uses of “baptizo” was “to wash,” and it was often found as a verbal synonym for “to cleanse,” and we can still see this vernacular usage in our theological references to sins being “washed away” by the waters of baptism. However, early in the Church the basic meaning of “baptizo” quickly came to be “immerse,” and this, in many respects, can be a literal and/or theological reality. By baptism we are truly “immersed” into Christ. And, this is proclaimed by ALL modes of baptism, be they fully reflective of the linguistic meaning of the word or not.

To the best of my ability to see, the only reason why the mode of baptism is of extraordinary importance to you is because of the importance you place upon the imagery of being buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:4; Col. 2:12). In my opinion you are absolutizing a theological analogy and, in so doing, ignoring the other theological images used in the Scriptures to describe the significance of Baptism. The *reality* of our death to sin through the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is *not* somehow actualized only by immersion, nor is it absent if baptism is by sprinkling or pouring. It is GOD’s act in baptism which is TRUE regardless of the mode of the human application of the water. By absolutizing this one image to the exclusion of the others, you do not do honest service to the other images of baptism in the Scriptural witness. For example, if these passages in Romans and Colossians are taken literally, why is not 1 Cor. 12:13 taken literally to mean that at Corinth baptism was administered by having the candidate drink a cup of water: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body ... and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:13)? Likewise, at Pentecost Peter spoke of baptism as being the pouring of the Spirit out upon all flesh. Certainly, baptism by pouring or sprinkling more fully reflects this Biblical theological image. St. Paul speaks of baptism in the figure of a burial and resurrection; St. Peter employs the image of pouring out of the Spirit. They are both right, and that which is symbolized by these two modes is the common experience of everyone who “feareth God and worketh righteousness.” I am persuaded that there is no genuine spiritual experience open to a Baptist in immersion that is not equally available and scriptural to a Methodist in pouring or sprinkling. Both modes of theological reflection, if not actual baptism, were used in New Testament times as both modes are used now, and we have no word in the New Testament that Jesus or Peter or Paul or any other in the apostolic period thought of one mode as being superior or inferior to the other mode.

I hope these pages help to further articulate where I stand on the issue.

Grace and Peace,

Greg+


© 1999, 2000, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved