In this paper I shall explore the Baptist understanding and practice of (believer’s) baptism in water (full immersion) by considering its historical context and the principles of practice that have been established. I will briefly consider the Baptist roots from the seventeenth century onwards and attempt to distinguish between principles of baptism and methodologies of baptism.
The Baptist view is that baptism is for believers only and that it is not dependent upon feelings, but is rather an act of obedience for believers – that is, adults and young people alike. Therefore, this paper, in the context of Baptist History and Baptist Principles will concern itself essentially with the baptism of believers.
Baptism is not regarded by Baptists as an optional extra, but as a necessary part of the discipleship process by virtue of the command of Christ, the example of Christ, and the practice of the early church. In drawing to a conclusion, I will reveal something of my own perspective within the wider debate.
DIPPING INTO BAPTISM
Cross says that: “It was in 1609 that John Smyth ‘reinstituted the baptism of conscious believers as the basis of the fellowship of a gathered church’,” although West cautions us that ‘we need to remind ourselves that John Smyth, Thomas Helwys and our earliest Baptist forefathers were not baptized by immersion but by water being poured over their heads.’ According to Brackney, “Both Puritans and Mennonites followed this practice.”
Some, like Hiscox, would say that “Neither pouring nor sprinkling water upon, not any other application of water to a person, is baptism, though it may be called such ever so often, and ever so earnestly”. Around 1633, immersion became the usual mode of baptism, rather than affusion or sprinkling. Why? White says that: “For immersion symbolizes perfectly, on the one hand, the burial and resurrection of the Lord we confess,” and, “At the same time, the burial and resurrection, in spirit and attitude, of the one baptized”.
Methodologies in believer’s baptism have also been long debated by Baptists, and issues of practice such as using salt or oil, black or white robe or no robe at all, baptised once or three times, (etc) simply “burdened mediæval polemics” according to Hiscox, but these issues may understandably not be of primary importance to us today. Around 1640, however, debate arose over ‘the correct mode or technique of baptism’ and such debate has been around ever since.
McBeth observed that “Despite their general agreement, baptism practices varied among Baptists”. So, too, did the issue of what baptism actually was in and of itself. Was believer’s baptism a ‘Sacramental rite which admits a candidate to the Christian Church’ (Cross), an ‘ordinance’, a ‘Sacrament of Grace’ (Robinson), a ‘divine-human event’ (Beasley-Murray), ‘part of the conversion process’ (Beaskey-Murray), simply a ‘rite’ (Spurgeon), ‘a real experience of Christ’ (White), ‘the scriptural, reasonable, original and authoritative method of initiation into the one body of Christ’ (White), or only ‘a sign admitting man (sic) to the Christian community’ (Zwingly)?
The Greek word baptizo (from which we get the English word baptise) means to immerse, to plunge into, to dip. There is a sense of violence about the word that is not usually communicated by the English word ‘dip’ but is well expressed by the term ‘to plunge into’. Immersion is seen as ‘the original Scriptural baptism’ (Hiscox) by Baptists and others, ‘while sprinkling and pouring are conceded substitutes’ used only in cases of illness or infirmity.
Beasley-Murray says that ‘One area where Baptists differ with each other is whether baptism is more than a mere sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence,’ but there are really plenty of other areas of difference and disagreement to choose from!
Brackney said that, ‘The debate over believer’s baptism continued well into the eighteenth century with stiff opposition from Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists’ over the issue of pedo-baptism. However, Baptists generally, as well as people like Jürgen Moltmann, agree that infant baptism ‘cannot be justified’ from Scripture, and we will therefore focus here on believer’s baptism; which is not the same as, and not to be confused with, adult baptism.
[The important differences are explored by Beasley-Murray. This differentiation is important, because some books confuse the two and thereby confuse further their readers. One such book uses the terms believer’s baptism and adult baptism interchangeably, and even refers on occasion to adult believer’s baptism. See Peake and Parsons, An Outline of Christianity.]
Moltmann, like Baptists, believes that “The order of the New Testament churches is: first faith, then baptism”. This is the order of events for believer’s baptism. There are, however, many elements to believer’s baptism and the conversion experience, and West says that “our difficulties begin when we try to define chronologically the influence and occurrence of each of the elements.’
Dunn stated that “Whatever its precise background, baptism has been an integral part of Christianity from the first.” Indeed, it has. But, though baptism is certainly found in the New Testament, Bible language can be very perplexing, even in the most modern translations. This, according to White, is mainly because the Bible writers are struggling to put into words “things more easily felt than telt.” This is certainly true of baptism because, when “we try to define that experience precisely, ordinary words become inadequate”.
The Bible writers were putting into words thoughts about God which had not been put into words before, so it is hardly surprising that development of thought caused inconsistencies within the Biblical literature. In fact, we would be surprised if it didn’t. Baptists who want to be loyal to the New Testament nevertheless find unhappy divisions and very awkward problems when they discover that there is a great variety of differing understanding about believer’s baptism even within the Baptist denomination(s).
Some have questioned the authority for baptising people at all for, as Cross points out, “Many modern critics, indeed, have denied the institution of the Sacrament by Christ.” White has stated plainly that baptism cannot be a ‘mere rite’ that has no spiritual value, benefit, or power. Baptism for White is “A washing from us, by our own deliberate act, of all that belongs to the unchristian past; a resolute and public committal to a new manner and a new standard of life,” and that it is “The means of initiation into the Church, into the fellowship of those who already believe, into the body of Christ”. (Why, then, was Christ himself baptised?)
Cross insists that baptism “Must be preceded by faith … and repentance … and represents the believer’s union with Christ through which he participates in his death and resurrection … is cleansed from his sins … and incorporated into the body of Christ”. (Why, then, was Christ himself baptised?) White’s points are stated, but not all Baptists agree. It is also clear from the way in which baptism is practised in Baptist churches that the methodology often owes as much to tradition as it does to a received biblical understanding of baptism from Scripture.
It is clear that Baptists generally do not all agree about the details of the principles of baptism, and it is therefore no surprise that they don’t agree about the exact methodology of baptism either. Most Baptists, however, do agree about the rightness of believer’s baptism and that the practice of infant baptism is not justifiable from either Scripture or early church tradition.
Baptists may not agree on exactly what baptism in water is, but most Baptists agree that we should practise it. Words such as ‘Sacrament’ and ‘rite’ that are used by some Baptists to define baptism do not carry definitions that are clear and permanent enough for me to be comfortable enough to use them meaningfully.
My personal understanding of baptism convinces me that most Baptists do not take baptism seriously enough, and that our Baptist churches, for the most part, see baptism as a religious observance that is important to do, even if we can’t remember why. We may not admit that baptism is simply an irregular part of a service, but the place that we give to baptism betrays us. If baptism is but part of an order of service or an item on the program, then it has already been emptied of its power and meaning; though its spiritual significance remains, even if it is unseen and unknown.
For Lewis, the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion were not “Mere symbols of union, but means by which the Real Presence and the very life of Christ are chaneled to believing man”. Is that how Baptist churches view baptism? I believe that we ought to take very seriously the issue of burying the dead, for that is what baptism is, and that we should stop immediately the practice of burying those who are not dead yet. Let every Baptist church consider carefully its theology and practice of baptism, and see if we have not moved away from our roots. Baptism is death. Long live baptism!
Beasley-Murray, P, Baptist Basics – Believer’s Baptism, (Didcot, Baptist Union of Great Britain)
Beasley-Murray, P, Radical Believers, (Didcot, Baptist Union of Great Britain, 1992)
Brackney, W H, The Baptists, (Connecticut, Praeger, 1994)
Brown, C, (General Editor), New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (Carlisle, Paternoster, 1986)
Clement, A S, (Editor), Baptist Who Made History, (London, Carey Kingsgate Press, 1955)
Cross, F L, (Editor), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, (London, Oxford University Press, 1963)
Douglas, J D, (Organizing Editor), The New Bible Dictionary Second Edition, (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1982)
Hiscox, E T, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches, (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 1980)
McBeth, H L, The Baptist Heritage, (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1987)
Moltmann, J, The Church In The Power Of The Spirit, Second Edition, (London, SCM Press, 1992)
Payne, L, Real Presence, (Illinois, Cornerstone Books, 1979)
Peake and Parsons, An Outline of Christianity Vol 3 – The Rise of the Modern Churches, (London, Waverley Book Company, undated)
West, W M S, Baptist Principles, (London, Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, 1975)
White, R E O, Invitation to Baptism, (London, Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, 1962)