Definitions – Baptism

One of the most frustrating parts of my job, or ministry, is the fact that I deal primarily with words. Words, and the associated concept of language (the combination of words, grammar, tone, inflection) are a slippery thing. I grew up learning that many words have both denotation (how they are defined in an authority such as a dictionary) and a connotation (how they are actually used, which might be in a  very different sense from their denotation). It takes no great skill to know that the connotative meanings of words change every generation or so, but now even the denotative meanings of words are changing. It is getting to the point that I’m not really sure what I am talking about even when I use the words that I think I know what they mean.

Since this is a blog about all things theological, let us take a word about which probably everyone has an opinion concerning what it means: baptism. In the expansive world of Christianity there are essentially two broad understandings of baptism – one sees the word applying primarily to infants, and one sees the word applying exclusively to believers in Christ. For both groups the concept of faith is critical, for the one it is the faith of the church (and primarily the parents and god-parents), for the other it is the faith of the individual which is controlling. For the first group baptism marks the security of the individual until the point he or she can voluntarily assume an individual faith (confirmation), and is a removal of the effects of original sin; for the other it is the actual moment of the profession of individual faith, and is associated with the removal of actual sin. But beyond these stark differences between these very different understandings of baptism, there is also profound differences among those who profess to be adherents to believer’s baptism. (As I am not personally associated with a group that practices infant baptism, I will refrain from commenting on any real or perceived differences in that group.)

Some adherents of believer’s (adult) baptism hold that baptism is for the purpose of the forgiveness of sin; others believe that a person’s sins are forgiven at the moment of faith. Baptism in that case is simply a formality, a physical act that demonstrates one’s willingness to be a part of a specific church. Thus, even within the camp of “believer’s baptism” there is a huge gulf – one group believes it is absolutely necessary; the other group views it as a nice gesture, but one that is not to be considered critical. Let us proceed even further. Many within the “believer’s baptism” group hold that a candidate for baptism must be baptized at the specific moment (or as close to it as possible) that a decision to be baptized is reached; others believe that a period of preparation, or “catechism,” must be observed in order to fully prepare the candidate for the waters of baptism. This catechism can be days, weeks, months or even years in length.

The mode of baptism is fervently disputed: some will argue that baptism must be full immersion in water; some will argue that a candidate who enters a baptistery and has water poured over his or her head has been baptized; and obviously those who accept infant baptism will accept a few ounces of water gently poured over the head of the infant as proper baptism. And, not to be ignored, even the wording used in the event of baptism is debated. Must it be in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” or will the name of Jesus suffice? Does the name of God, Jesus, of the Holy Spirit have to be mentioned at all? If the trinitarian language is used, must there be three immersions (or effusions) or is one adequate? Who is authorized to baptize? Must the ceremony be “officiated” by a priest, pastor, minister, elder or deacon? Can a female perform baptisms? What if a baptism is performed by someone who is later found to be apostate – is the legitimacy of the baptism somehow connected to the faith (and orthodoxy) of the one who performs the baptism? If so, how far back do we have to go in order to establish the legitimacy of the one doing the baptism?

All of this preceding wandering through the hermeneutical wilderness was to illustrate one simple point: asking a person whether they have been baptized is a considerable effort in futility. Only if they say “no” has there been any clarity achieved. If the answer is “yes,” then were they baptized as an infant or as a believer? Were they baptized because they had some ecstatic feeling of “oneness” with Christ, or were they baptized because they felt the crushing weight of their sin, or were they baptized in simple obedience to Christ? Were they old enough to understand the meaning of sin, or of faith in Christ? Were they immersed, or dribbled on, or just sprayed on?

As I have stated elsewhere, beyond some very basic (and I believe, scriptural) stipulations, I tread very lightly when it comes to “evaluating” or “judging” someone’s baptism. I hold that a candidate for baptism must be old enough to be considered responsible for his or her actions (and I am personally hesitant to follow the practice of baptizing pre-teens). I also understand baptism to be a full immersion (we do not just throw some dirt on someone’s forehead to “bury” them), and I expect a candidate for baptism to be able to express repentance for a real separation from God, and an adult commitment to obey and become a disciple of Christ (I don’t think anyone fully understands those concepts when they are baptized, but there must be some fundamental understanding, otherwise all we are doing is getting someone wet.) These, I aver, are the only basic requirements for baptism found in the New Testament.

It’s all very simple, and at the same time terribly complicated. After all, it all boils down to how we define baptism, right?

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

2 thoughts on “Definitions – Baptism”

  1. Paul, It’s been a while. Thank you for your thoughts on baptism. Very to the point. I agree about treading lightly. But discussion is good to help facilitate growth. I appreciate your sensitivity to those who might disagree with you, yet you hold your firm ground. Nicely expressed. Have a blessed day! In Him, Ted

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