Posts Tagged ‘baptism’

To wrap up this discussion of baptism, I return to the set of problems that sent me on this exploration in the first place: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?

I have tried to show in Parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series that, in all likelihood, there was no single apostolic protocol for baptism and, if there was, it does not match any of the baptismal practices on offer within the Church today.  The most probable explanation for why our current evidence for earliest Christian baptismal practices is messy  and complicated is that the historical reality on the ground (or in the water, as it were) was messy and complicated.  InBaptismal font the apostolic period, the Church’s practice and understanding of baptism was evolving from being a Jewish ritual ablution to being a Christian sacrament.  That evolutionary process, like all such processes, probably gave birth to a multiplicity of theological and practical variations, only the “fittest” of which survived.

Now, this picture of baptism’s history seriously problematizes our tendency to want to treat our specific, preferred baptismal practices and theologies (whether we be paedo- or credo-baptists) as rigidly normative for everyone else.  Nobody, no not one, can boast of either an uncomplicated continuity nor a perfect symmatry between their baptismal practice and that of the apostolic generation.

Furthermore, to return to my evolutionary metaphor, as with species of flora and fauna, so also the ability to flourish that constitutes a tradition’s “fitness” for survival depends entirely upon the environment wherein that tradition finds itself.  Just as a species’ fitness for survival depends upon environmental conditions (e.g., climate, sustenance, mates [if needed], etc.), so, perhaps, it is with traditions like baptismal practices.  Perhaps there are environmental conditions to which churchesand individual Christians should adapt their baptismal practices.

For instance, it is (or at least used to be) recognized that the American “Bible-Belt” displays the phenomenon of so-called “cultural Christianity,” a sort of highly-popularized, lowest-common-denominator piety, typically marked out by a handful of seemingly arbitrarily selected dogmas (e.g., biblical literalism, a borderline-Docetic and thoroughly Caucasian Christology) and taboos (e.g., don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t swear, don’t date girls that do, etc.).  In such an environment, perhaps paedo-baptism could be a theological liability.  Perhaps paedo-baptism’s (supposed) proclivity for producing people who believe themselves to be proper Christians simply because a minister splashed some water over them once merely exacerbates the problems inherent in a context rife with “cultural Christianity.”  But, then again, perhaps it is not paedo-baptism per se that exacerbates the situation.

On the other hand, it is often observed that deepy engrained in American culture is a profoundly self-centered, self-motivated individualism that affects everything from how we dress to why we go to school to how we envision salvation.  This inveterate American individualism breeds narcissism both inside and outside the Church, undermines the edification of the community of the Church, the Body of Christ, and diverts resources that ought to go towards mercy, outreach and missions to instead go to endless building funds, sound-systems, and retreats.  Perhaps in this unhealthily individualistic context credo- or “believer’s” baptism, with it’s concomitant (over?) emphasis on my “testimony,” my “conversion,” my “decision,” and my new walk with the Lord, exacerbates the situation, inadvertantly diminishing the importance of the family and isolating Christians from both the living community and the historic Tradition of the Church.  But, then again, perhaps it is not credo-baptism per se that does this.

I do not presume to say which, if either, baptismal practice will best serve the circumstances wherein the Church currently finds herself.  But I would suggest that these sorts of practical, pastoral questions should probably Baptism-christplay a greater role in personal and communal deliberations on baptismal theology and practice.  However, these sorts of questions do not admit of cut-and-dried answers.  Whatever conclusions one reaches must be adhered to provisionally and humbly.  At any rate, bearing these things in mind allows Christians to maintain Paul’s prioritization of evangelism and unity over the particulars of baptism (see 1 Cor 1:10-17) and to exercise a sort of healthy ecumenical versatility as they decide where, how and with whom to worship and serve.

So to return to my initial questions: Should individual Christians be willing to compromise their baptismal preferences for the sake of fellowship with and the mission of local churches?  If so, how flexible can we legitimately be on these matters?  I’ve given my two-cents worth.  What do you think?


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To recap, in my last post I argued that earliest Christian baptism must be understood in the context of other Early Jewish washings in general and is best understood as a development of Jewish proselyte baptism in particular.  Thus, early Christians probably generally followed the normal Jewish baptismal protocol: When the head of a household converted, he and his whole household (wives, children, infants, and slaves) would all be baptized but children who were subsequently born into the household would not require the baptismal bath.  In short, neither modern-day Baptists nor modern-day paedo-baptists (e.g., Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, etc.) practice baptism precisely the way Christians did during the time of the apostles.  If that precis has left you completely disoriented and confused, read my argument in the last post before continuing with this one…or just stop reading altogether and go on about your business.

 So, picking up where we left off…

3. Thus, a sort of paedo-baptism was probably practiced from the very start of Christianity, although it likely was not the only early Christian approach to baptism nor does it exactly match the subsequent Christian practice of paedo-baptism. As I mentioned in a comment on the last post, there is perhaps some textual evidence of diversity in Christian baptismal practices in the apostolic period.  While most of the NT gives a pretty clear picture of baptism as a singular initiatory rite, in Hebrews 6:2 we find that part of the elementary word of Christ is “instruction about washings/baptisms (baptismw/n, plural!)” (compare with Heb 9:10). Some have noticed definite affinities between the focuses of Hebrews and some of the hot-topics of the Dead Sea Scrolls (angelology, Melchizedek, priestly concerns, etc.). Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the author and intended audience of Hebrews were Essene Christians! If that’s the case, perhaps we have evidence here of an early Christian community wherein members did, in fact, undergo multiple “baptisms,” as did members of the Qumran community and the Pharisees (Luke 11:38).

4. As there was probably no uniform baptismal practice, there was almost certainly no uniform theology of baptismal significance in early Christianity.  However, it needs to be noted that the NT’s language

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

ca. 4th-5th century, cruciform baptismal font

concerning baptism is disconcertingly high for many Evangelical Protestants who want baptism to be a symbol and nothing more.  For Paul it is precisely in our baptism, not our initial moment of faith, that we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection (e.g., Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27).  Nevertheless, for Paul, baptism, in some sense, takes a back-seat to the preaching of the gospel (1 Cor 1:17).

On the other hand, we read in 1 Peter 3:21-22, “Baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….”  Likewise, John’s reference to being “born of water and the Spirit” as a precondition of entry into the kingdom of God (3:5) is probably best understood as a reference to baptism.

I suspect that for churches that shared the Pauline belief that baptism united the believer with Christ and somehow transformed the believer’s heart (Rom 6:4, 17-18) it was only natural to connect baptism with the circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:29).  From there it is but a theological hop, skip and a jump to patterning Christian baptismal practice after the Jewish rite of circumcision and, ergo, baptizing children born to Christian parents.

That not all ancient churches would take this hop, skip and jump should be obvious.  Nevertheless, we have here the makings of an explanation for how Origen, writing in the early 3rd century, could assume paedo-baptism to be a practice passed down from the apostles and why Tertullian should feel the need to argue against the (apparently widespread) practice.  The fact that the practice was not explicitlyordained by any NT text helps to explain why in many cases the evidence from Christian children’s gravestones indicates that children were often baptized strictly in cases of emergency and why many in the 4th century, though Christians, postponed baptism until either ordination (e.g., Ambrose of Milan) or death (e.g., Gregory of Nazianzus, Constantine) seemed immanent.  The theological interconnection between the Spirit, baptism and circumcision helps explain why at least some of these baptismal procrastinators (e.g., Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus) would go on to exhort parents to baptize their children without delay. 

My point is that paedo-baptism as it came to be practiced within the ancient and medieval church was an understandable and probably legitimate development of apostolic baptismal practices and theologies, not that it was the only legitimate development of the apostolic practices and doctrine.  In short, the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the apostolic period begat the messiness of the baptismal practices and theologies of the patristic period, but, nevertheless, therein lay the seeds of what would eventually become the Church’s predominant practice: paedo-baptism.  Now, whether those seeds should have been allowed to germinate is another matter….

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The other week I was having coffee with a new-found friend from the Baptist church I have been attending recently.  Like myself, she is a closet paedo-baptist but, nevertheless, in order to join the church, she gladly submitted to undergoing “believer’s” (ana!)baptism.  For whatever reason this revelation set me to h’rumphing and shifting uneasily in my seat.  Of course, people who have been baptized as infants are frequently (re)baptized by Baptist churches.  That comes as no surprise.  What caught me off-guard, I think, was the realization that some folks who were being (re)baptized had not discounted their christening as illegitmate nor bought into the theology of credo- (or “believers'”) baptism.

As I’ve said before, The Summit is a vibrant, healthy, happening church, and so, in some ways, I suppose I should not be surprised that folks who resonate with the church’s ethos and mission but not necessarily with their baptismal theology, would submit to the latter in order to participate in the former.  And on further reflection, it seems to me that there is something profoundly right about subordinating one’s personal sacramental preferences to the interests of community and mission.

In other words, I don’t think baptismal practice is a hill to die on and for the following reasons: 1) I suspect that, historically speaking, the baptismal practices of Apostolic Christianity were most likely incongruous with the chief baptismal practices on offer today.  2) The practice and theology of baptism underwent processes of development from the time of Jesus through the Reformation and beyond, in response to various practical and theological stimuli.  3) Because of the character of baptism’s history, perhaps the most pressing questions for how churches should practice this sacrament are practical and pastoral in nature.

As for the historical questions, I have several thoughts:

1.  Early Christian Baptism probably arose out of Jewish ritual washings, the function of which was to provide ritual purity.  It is commonly believed that such washings were primarily associated with the Israelite cultus (see e.g., Ex 30:19-21; 40:12; Lev 6:27, etc.).  However, as Shaye Cohen has pointed out, the Torah’s regulations concerning ritual purity pertain not only to the Tabernacle but to the entire Israelite camp, i.e., to the entirety of Israel (Lev 13:46; Num 5:1-4).  Understood thus, the Pharisees insistence upon applying purity to the whole of Jewish existence seems not pedantic or supererogatory but altogether natural.   

Such washings were part of both initiation into and daily life in the Qumran community (see especially, The Community Rule [1 QS III.1-10]).  Washings were also part of the daily life of the Pharisees (e.g., Luke 11:38).  We know that Rabbinic Judaism practiced proselyte baptism, having Gentile proselytes be baptised as part of initiation into the people of God.  The function of such baptisms was to remove the uncleanness that Gentiles necessarily had on account of their pre-conversion diets (see Lev 11).

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

A mikvah bath at Herodian from ca. 1st century BCE

While, it is often dangerous to assume that practices and ideas of Rabbinic Judaism extend back into the Second Temple period, I think we are probably safe to think that proselyte baptism was commonly practiced by Jews of that time, particularly the Pharisees.  First, there is some textual evidence that this practice may extend as far back as the 2nd century BCE (namely, the Greek Version of the Testament of Levi 14:6 protests Jews using “unlawful purifications” to legitimate marriages to unclean Gentile women).  Furthermore, it is hard to imagine how Pharisees could initiate Gentiles into the Jewish community, into the “camp” without some sort of initiatory ablution (again, think Lev 11).

Thus, it is only natural to place Christian baptism on the map of Jewish ritual washings and more specifically to connect it with Jewish proselyte baptism.  But in addition to the initial plausibility of Christian Baptism arising from this matrix, there are a few other clues that seem to indicate that we’re on the right track in linking these practices.  First, the language of baptism is associated with Jewish ritual washings in a few NT texts.  For instance, Luke 11:38, “The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash (evbapti,sqh [aor. ind. pass of bapti,zw]) before dinner.”  In John 3:25-26, furthermore, it is precisely in the context of a discussion about purity that the subject of Jesus’ baptismal activity comes up. 

Second, there is an intriguing parallel between 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, where Paul says Israel was “baptised into Moses” via the Exodus and later rabbinic discussions of proselyte baptism that explain the practice by recourse to the Exodus (b Ker 9a).  Is it too much to suppose that both Paul and the Rabbis drew this point from a common background of Pharisaic baptismal theology?

2. Early Christian Baptism probably followed the patterns of Jewish proselyte baptism.  Jewish proselyte baptism was typically administered to whole households (wives, slaves, children and infants included) upon the conversion of the head of the household.  However, children who were subsequently born into these households were not baptised (e.g., b. Yeb 78a, ‘If a non-Israelite during her pregnancy becomes a proselyte, then her child does not need the baptismal bath.” etc.) because they were born into clean/pure families and had contracted no ritual impurity.  As for early Christian baptism, not only do we see the language of household baptism being used in the NT (Acts 16:30-34; 1 Cor 1:16) but we also see Paul using the language of ritual purity with respect to children born into mixed marriages (1 Cor 7:14).

However, I say “probably followed the patterns (plural) of Jewish proselyte baptism” because I suspect that there was a variety baptismal practices in early Judaism and, likely, a variety of baptismal practices in early Christianity.  I say this because the Mishnah witnesses an ongoing debate concerning baptismal practice into the Rabbinic period and also because there was diversity in baptismal practices amongst the churches of the 2nd and 3rd centuries (although, the fact remains that paedobaptism seems to have been an accepted practice across all three continents).

More coming soon…

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